What Do Motion Capture Actors Actually Do?

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Photo Source: Courtesy of 20th Century Fox – Pictured: Andy Serkis in War for the Planet of the Apes

Trends & Intelligence takes an analytical look at the forces that will shape the performance landscape. Today, we examine the huge advances in performance capture – and how the ability to drive a digital character is liberating actors who are finding more and more opportunities for this rapidly growing skill.

Later this month, actor and director Andy Serkis’ Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle debuts in cinemas before landing on Netflix a week later. As befits the man who almost single-handedly gave performance capture – the merger of acting with computer animation – artistic credibility, his film pushes the technique to new limits.

What’s more, he has attracted the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Peter Mullan to don motion-capture suits for the first time and have their performances translated on screen as Shere Khan, hyena Tabaqui, Bagheera, Kaa and lion chief Akela respectively. Serkis, of course, appears as Baloo.

According to Serkis, performance capture once lay somewhere between misunderstood and sneered at, yet it is rapidly moving beyond niche into the mainstream – and the wider acting fraternity should take note.

“The common misconception is that performance capture is about creating creatures – but in reality, the majority of work is playing another human being,” says Oliver Hollis-Leick, a classically trained actor from the prestigious Bristol Old Vic theatre school who has played dozens of performance-captured characters in movies including Iron Man 2, Stardust and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Actors are starting to see the liberating impact of being able to play literally anything via performance capture – different ethnicity or gender, for example.

“You can internalise a lot more,” Serkis told Backstage. “You’re not fighting layers of prosthetic makeup or artifice or anything covering you. You’re able to go very deep and the stillness is there to allow the audience to project into the character as well.”

Serkis underlines the vast potential on offer: “I will never see performance capture as a straitjacket…quite the opposite. I see actors or dancers being able to use performance capture as the most liberating tool. You are not just tied to a humanoid form. Now you can play anything.”

What is performance capture?

Performance capture – also known as motion capture – is a technology that maps actors’ movements and expressions onto CGI characters, bringing characters like King Kong, Gollum, and Caesar from Planet of the Apes on screen.

The technology has advanced over the 17 years since its breakthrough during the Lord of the Rings trilogy, from rudimentary capture of physical movement to sophisticated recording of human emotion. The data that results is used by teams of animators to add texture, colour and whole digital costumes.

While the terms are interchangeable, motion capture implies recording only the movement of head and body but no facial or finger data, whereas performance capture includes hands, fingers and face. Full performance capture further includes voice or recording a place marker for the VO artist to follow later – none of which detract from the performer’s need for authenticity and commitment.

“It’s been a relatively closed shop because few actors wanted to do it, maybe thinking it damaging for their career,” says Neil Newbon, who trained at the National Youth Theatre and has performed in dozens of games including Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier and Detroit: Become Human. “That’s been changing rapidly over the last five or six years. There are huge opportunities.”

New acting opportunities

That’s because the technology is no longer the preserve of mega-budget Hollywood blockbusters.

Imaginarium, Serkis’ Ealing-based studio, put an animated Ariel live on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage during the RSC’s production of The Tempest in 2016 and is now working on further theatrical projects. Imaginarium also co-produced Fungus the Bogeyman for Sky, using performance-capture workflows on a small-screen budget.

But it is in video games where the technique is flying – and the computer games industry has now overtaken movies in terms of revenue.

“It’s growing exponentially,” says Hollis-Leick. “Where an average movie is 90 minutes, the minimum average content required of a major game is six to eight hours. It all used to be animated with a voice-over, but mocap is now mandatory because of the expectation for photoreal characters.”

Recent video game release Red Dead Redemption used an incredible 500 individual actors as part of its performance capture process – which gives a clear idea of the field’s future potential.

Read: Breaking into the World of Video Game Voiceover

Getting skilled-up

“You don’t need to understand the technology,” stresses Hollis-Leick, who has taught performance capture for 17 years at the Mocap Vaults, a training school he founded.

A short familiarisation course can help. “Training helps in the same way training for the stage or screen helps. It is a different medium,” he says. “On stage you wouldn’t do a screen performance because the audience wouldn’t see or hear it. On film a theatrical performance would be much too big, grotesque.”

Performance capture is somewhere between film and stage – but with its own peculiarities.

Hollis-Leick adds: “In the same way on a film set you don’t need to know how a camera works or what its depth of field is and you only need to know how to stay in focus and maintain shot size, in performance capture all you need to understand is your movement in physical volume.”

It’s worth pausing here, since the concept of performing in three-dimensional space is arguably the most crucial aspect. The capture area or “volume” may be an empty space with marks on the floor. It may have a set built out of plastic scaffolding, or just crash-mats, chairs and boxes.
“In most cases it will not look like the environment your characters are in, so you need a healthy imagination to help locate yourself in the world of the scene,” says Grant.

That’s not to say that performance capture requires more of a physical commitment than conventional screen acting, because a screen performance still involves the whole body. However, what performance capture doesn’t like much is a performance that is completely internalised.

“This doesn’t mean everything has to be big – but for example, knowing how to release the body and connect to the breath is key,” says Grant.

“Because you could be playing many different characters on a single project (some video games require an actor play multiple roles) you are not relying on your likeness,” says Hollis-Leick. “Instead, you need to transform your physicality. There needs to be a noticeable ‘readable’ difference in your movement."

Newbon, who is also the lead tutor at the Mocap Academy, advises that performance capture training should be thought of as one might add dance or a martial-arts skills to your CV – yet most actors haven’t been exposed to it. “Some don’t even know what it is,” says Lyndall Grant, who trained as an actor before specialising in dramatic combat, movement and fight movement.

She set up Captivate, a UK and Australian performance capture school which is now embedded into the curriculum at the Victorian College of the Arts at the University of Melbourne.  

“Some roles in commercials, TV and film will cast from the actor’s performance first, and look at the previous performance capture experience second,” she says. “On the other hand, other projects will cast directly from show-reel footage of previous performance capture work, and will only look at actors who have worked in this field before.”

Practicalities

The most obvious aspect of mocap is having to wear skin-tight lycra suits dotted with balls, onto which the data is co-ordinated.

Grant tells her students to expect that no one will look great in the suit – so let go of any fears of self-image. Hollis-Leick agrees: “It can make you very self-conscious at first. It reveals more than you like.”

Newbon admits: “You look ridiculous, but at the same time it gives you a blank canvas to work in. When you get lost in the character and action it’s really wonderfully freeing.”

Grant’s tip: “Invest in skin-tight active wear to wear under the suit, which is short-sleeved/short-legged and wicks away sweat. The suits do get hot. And sweaty. Bring a full change of clothes.”

Facial capture can also involve head-mounted rigs “which are like stags butting antlers” if you’re not used to them, according to Hollis-Leick.

Working with animators

In general, the actor has little control over the character’s final appearance. “One of the benefits of using performance capture over traditional animation is giving the CG character the nuances of life, so an important thing we can do as actors is to provide this in our performance,” Grant says.

“However, it is important to acknowledge just how much work the technical and animation team put into creating the end result – quite often, the majority of the work,” she stresses.  “What we do have control over is giving them good quality data as a starting point. I think it’s important for an actor to understand the post-production pipeline, so that they can recognise how their actions affect the clean-up and animation work further down the track. In this way it can become a very strong collaboration. This is again something that is useful to embed into training.”

The reality is, good performance-capture acting likes full-body commitment, great imagination and great energy for performance, often while keeping in mind quite specific technical direction.

“This kind of craft will enhance an actor’s skill in any performance medium so training in performance capture will never go to waste,” Grant says.

Read: 1 Agent on the ‘Most Lucrative’ Voiceover Space

Pushing the boundaries

The technology continues to advance at the top end. One of the innovations Imaginarium has devised for Mowgli is a new muscle system to allow animators to more directly replicate facial shapes and expressions.

It is intended to finely balance the essence of an actor’s performance and the animator’s translation of that performance to create the final character.

This will also become apparent in Alita: Battle Angel, the new movie due in February produced by James Cameron and directed by Robert Rodriguez. Unlike previous films where the central performance-captured characters have been creatures, this features a human-like cyborg, animated by Lord of the Rings VFX specialist Weta Digital and played by actor Rosa Salazar.

Cameron is already advancing those techniques further in filming three Avatar sequels back to back. He’s making extensive use of performance capture and digital production to be able to direct the animated performances of the blue Na’vi and other aliens in realtime on set.

The technology is developing rapidly, so where the medium is heading and how performers may be expected to interact with it in the future is also constantly evolving.  

The future of acting?

There seems little doubt that performance capture is set to be a permanent feature of the acting landscape. And beyond this, it’s not a stretch to see it as the future of acting, or at least, a very big chunk of that future.

As the technology progresses, there are ethical questions that will need to be answered – particularly as we reach the stage where audiences cannot distinguish “real” performances from those animated from performance capture. Is it OK for men to play female roles? Or actors to play roles of different ethnicities? The fact that these are even issues that need considering demonstrates the power of performance capture, as do the sheer numbers of actors now required by – for example ­­­­– the gaming industry.

Which all adds up to a pretty compelling conclusion: Actors would do well to learn more about this exciting new form of acting.

Check out Backstage’s UK audition listings!

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