Motion Capture as a Plot Device
Issue: October-November-December 2022

Motion Capture as a Plot Device

Why film tech will always be in the service of storytelling.

While the technology itself has roots in biomechanics research from the 1970s and 80s, today motion capture is more commonly associated with Hollywood blockbusters and AAA games. Motion capture was first made popular by the iconic performances of Andy Serkis as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) and Ahmed Best as Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999) – the first fully computer-generated character with a major role in a live-action film. Mocap has evolved leaps and bounds since the early noughties.

Bridging the gap between technology and performance

While mocap is synonymous with actors wearing onesies decorated with pom poms, at its high end is a combination of sophisticated software and hardware. At the heart: it is data. 

Typically, an actor will don a suit that’s equipped with a variety of sensors. Externally, motion-tracking cameras record everything from full body movements — such as running, dancing, and stunts — to more nuanced, almost undetectable, movements like subtle facial twitches. This data is then processed by the post-production team using dedicated software. 

Motion capture is a predominantly technology-led process that enables storytellers to push creative boundaries. However, its use should always be intentional; technology cannot replace creative direction, nor should it ever try. Technology is a facilitator of storytelling, not a driver. Successful implementation of mocap in films requires an understanding of the craft that goes beyond pure technical expertise.

An intrinsic trust between motion capture service providers and creative teams is key. While the essence of motion capture is data, that data then becomes the foundation for the entire post-production process. Award-winning director Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium, Chappie) has shared that “As a director, the worst thing you could ever hear is something like: the data screwed up. Sorry, we lost the take.”

Not only will the reliability of the motion capture studio and the quality of the data set the tone for the rest of the production pipeline, but the studio facilities often prompt the creative team to explore aesthetic or narrative options that they haven’t considered before.

Turning back time

As sensors have become more…well…sensitive, cameras more sophisticated, and editing software more powerful, motion and performance capture took their place as essential tools in the arsenal of filmmakers all over the world, from indie productions to the biggest franchises. This in turn allowed actors to lend not only their voices but also their physicality to CG characters in ways that simply weren’t possible before.

While the look of a digitally rendered character depends entirely on the post-production team, actors can now contribute much more than just their voices. Technology enables them to lend their mannerisms and facial expressions via motion capture. They truly embody that character, and it's their unique physical — and vocal — expression that will be translated to the CG counterpart.

This newfound creative freedom doesn’t solely apply to fantastical creatures like Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013). In fact, it also enables Hollywood to turn back the wheels of time by de-aging or even resurrecting actors. De-aging was first used as a central plot device in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) by David Fincher, in which Brad Pitt ages in reverse. In 2019, the same technology was used to create a younger version of Will Smith’s character in Ang Lee’s Gemini Man. And in Martin Scorcese’s The Irishman (2019), de-aging was used to enable the Hollywood A-list cast to act as younger versions of themselves, so they could bring their skills to recreate an age in which they themselves grew up. 

De-aging not only enables storytellers to create more effective flashback scenes but can be used to ensure continuity in a franchise. Spiderman: No Way Home (2021) has done this effectively, with both Alfred Molina and Willem Dafoe aging down to appear exactly as they did in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy from the early 2000s. Most recently, The Matrix Awakens (2021) demo in Unreal Engine 5 showed how far the capabilities of the technology have come, whether that be de-aging or the creation of digital doubles. The Matrix Awakens was more than a great experiment — it signposted a whole new realm of possibilities for filmmakers everywhere.

And while this digital Fountain of Youth signals exciting times for Hollywood, it works best when the technology is used with clear intention and a creative vision that necessitates it, rather than opting for de-aging just because it’s available. Directors must consider what plot device the technology serves.

Ultimately, motion capture and related technologies can be incredible tools for filmmakers — removing the limits on creativity and opening up new horizons in what’s achievable. However, technology cannot replace the art of storytelling. Instead, technology should always be used in the service of creativity rather than the other way around — always prioritizing the artistic direction of films. 

Brett Ineson is the President of Animatrik Film Design 

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