Mapping Contemporary Cinema

Short guide to motion capture

Motion capture (also referred to as mo-cap or performance capture) is a common feature of contemporary film. The process of motion capture involves placing light reflective marks onto the body’s major points of articulation. This allows human actions to be recorded and digitally copied, with the reference points producing a computer-generated figure whose movement is based on that of an actor. This method, which has profound consequences for the work of the contemporary actor, allows animators to work with a template for physical action that seeks to bring authentic human movement to virtual characters.

Eadward Muybridge’s nineteenth century photographic studies of the body in motion set the foundation for motion capture. His frame-by-frame films of humans in motion, with titles such as “ascending and descending stairs” or “walking and turning around rapidly with a satchel in one hand, a cane in the other” (NMAH), influenced hand-drawn animators and are said to have contributed to Max Fleischer’s creation of the Rotoscope in 1915 (Fischer). Instead of drawing animated characters without any reference point beyond the artist’s imagination, Fleischer’s contraption projected images of human movement that could then be traced frame-by-frame, allowing for more fluid and human-like animations. This technique was used widely in critically acclaimed Walt Disney films, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Peter Pan (1953) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). As the technology advanced, rotoscoping eventually became available digitally, with the title: motion capture. Motion capture had many uses when it was first introduced, appearing simultaneously in biomechanics, medical science and the film industry. Each field believed in the power of motion capture and its potential to change the future and within the film business, its main use was to foster changes to animation.

The earliest feature film to use digital motion capture was the T-1000 cyborg in The Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991). While the technology was rudimentary and the actor could only be recorded in parts and then assembled digitally, the film won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects (Cook). This was an early but promising sign of advancement, though its further development was hindered by the low-quality graphics of Sinbad (2000)–the first animated feature film to be completely motion capture. In 2001, faith in motion capture was restored with the photo-realistic graphics of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Although this film, based on the popular video game, was a box office flop its impressive visuals caught the attention of many critics, with Roger Ebert noting that “I want to see more movies like this, and see how much further they can push the technology” (Ebert). Motonori Sakakibara, the co-director of the film, acknowledged the difficulties with early motion capture but, in light of the favourable critical reception, predicted that “Once people begin to think about how to use computer graphics outside of feature films and special effects next to live actors in feature films, I think there will be far more interesting things coming out” (qtd. in Lord). The need to continue developing motion capture was clear at this point, and much of this development resulted from the cross-fertilisation with motion capture video games, including Highlander: the Last of the Macleods (1995), Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (2007) and more recently L.A. Noire (2011), Beyond: Two Souls (2013) and Batman: Arkham Origins (2013). These games hot-housed motion capture and brought it to public attention, especially with the use of star driven roles. Beyond, for example, features Ellen Page and William Dafoe as motion capture actors in the game.

These pioneering works in motion capture led to two distinct approaches, one of which came to dominate. The first method created films entirely through motion capture, including Polar Express (2004), Monster House (2006), Beowulf (2007), A Christmas Carol (2009) and The Adventures of TinTin (2011), and the second method placed singular motion capture characters who are non-human in primarily live action films, including The Lord of the Rings franchise (2001-2014), King Kong (2005), Avatar (2009), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and The Avengers: The Age of Ultron (2015). The first method uses motion capture to create human-looking characters and filming takes place within the confines of a studio. The result is usually unnerving and uncanny – the characters are simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar to us, causing a sense of unsettlement: “those human characters in the film come across as downright […] well, creepy” (Clinton). While these forms of films impress critics and are commended for their use of technology, they are not as profitable as conventionally animated films such as Tangled (2010) and for this reason have not come to dominate.

The second method confirms Sakakibara’s prediction about using special effects next to live actors. Here, motion capture is used for the recording of movements only, using the actors as the basis for the creation of non-human, digital characters. This kind of motion capture can be seen in The Lord of the Rings franchise where Gollum (Andy Serkis) is a non-human character placed amongst real actors. Gollum’s believability as a fictional character beside human ones exceeded the current expectations of motion capture, providing an assuring example of its true potential. Any sense of unsettlement arises from the level of production design and narrative. Seeing the digital creation of Gollum amongst a real cast reinforces how far motion capture has come and its accelerated development in the last ten to fifteen years can be seen when Gollum is compared across the whole series from The Lord of the Rings (2001) to The Hobbit (2012). During the franchise’s eleven-year span, the visual effects company, Weta Digital, learnt to develop Gollum by returning to motion caption’s origins. They focused on the human body in movement as a way to develop character motion and digitally edited Gollum’s body in line with the human anatomy, so that Gollum presents recognisable human qualities. Joe Letteri of Weta notes that “we realised that what we really had to do was study the way muscles really work in the human body […] when a person was moving and therefore we wanted to see that when a character was moving”. The success of the second method of motion capture films is reflected in both the box office grosses of films in which it features and a plethora of similar uses to create anthropomorphic characters such as Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), The Hulk in Avengers (2012) and Ted in Ted (2012).

All these changes have a considerable impact on actors. Actor Andy Serkis has featured in an array of films which use motion capture, and specialises in non-human characters with performances such as Gollum, King Kong and Caesar. It is safe to say that Serkis’ name is synonymous with motion capture and his filmography indicates his dedication to working with the technology as if it is something to be mastered. Serkis has even been able to expand his career with motion capture by establishing his own studio, The Imaginarium, in 2011 with the help of producer, Jonathan Cavendish. The Imaginarium recognises the central role of motion capture to the contemporary film industry and the need to train actors to work with the technology. The studio’s first project will be Avengers: Age of Ultron (Vijay) and then Jungle Book: Origins (2017).

The heightened awareness of the work of motion capture actors has also affected traditional voice actors, who are now using physical performance to enhance their involvement with a character. Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance of Smaug in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug/The Battle of Five Armies (2013/2014) saw him lying on his stomach and crawling around a studio in order to imitate a dragon. With more actors submitting to motion capture, any lurking stigma around it is dissipating. However, the long standing question of whether motion capture can be deemed acting is still present, raising philosophical issues concerning the authorship of a performance when the movements are translated digitally. Director James Cameron, who has worked variously within this field, seems to firmly believe that the emotion of a performance is not lost within the process, noting that “Actors don’t do motion; they do emotion” (qtd. in Kyllo). In addition, Serkis has been similarly vocal, stating “I never approach a live action role any differently to a performance-captured role. The process of acting is absolutely identical” (qtd. in Izundu). Serkis has also argued that the transformation from actor to character is merely ‘digital makeup’ (Woerner) and that individual motion capture performances should qualify for acting awards. While credit to the actor is surely due, motion capture would not be what it is today without technological advances and creative technicians. It is insular for Serkis to assume that it is the actor who wholly creates the character, as the motion capture technology is equally important. In rebuttal of Serkis’ claim, Animation Supervisor, Randall William Cook, argues that a great deal of the creative work of motion capture takes place in post-production: “let me swear to you here that Gollum was not solely an Andy Serkis performance, with Andy’s every move, gesture and tic scrupulously reproduced in a new, digital character. Rather, Gollum was a synthesis, a collaborative performance delivered by both Andy and a team of highly-skilled animation artists” (qtd. in Amidi). It is important that we are even-handed in our acclaim for distinctive and original motion capture’s success, crediting both actor and post-production team.

Currently, motion capture’s future looks secure following the recent release and success of Paddington (2014), and especially the positive reviews of the film’s successful use of motion capture to create the eponymous bear. Vicon’s state of the art T40 optical camera system was used for researching Paddington Bear’s movements, its largest advantage being the camera’s ability to film in real-time. Gary Marshall, motion capture supervisor at Framestore stated that “Using the system gave the team instant feedback on what scenarios were working well in a shot, and also how the timing and performance of the different mocap performers vastly affected the character of the bear – ultimately advancing the character development of Paddington” (qtd. in Anon). While the majority of Paddington Bear was created through computer graphics, motion capture was still used for his facial expressions. The need for motion capture in pre-visualisation stages and facial referencing in post-editing offers yet another way in which this ever-popular process remains an integral innovative part of the contemporary film industry.


Amidi, Amid. “Lord of the Rings animation supervisor Randall William Cook speaks out on Andy Serkis.” Cartoon Brew, 13 May 2014. Web. 19 Mar. 2015.

Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film. W.W. Norton & Company, 2004. Print.

Clinton, Paul. “Review: Polar Express a creepy ride: technology brilliant, but where’s the heart and soul?.” CNN International, 10 Nov. 2004. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.

Ebert, Roger (2011), “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.” Roger Ebert, 11 Jul. 2001. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.

Fischer, Ron. “History and current state of motion capture.” Motion Capture Society. 2015. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.

Izundu, Chi Chi and Steven McIntosh. “Andy Serkis says special effects should win awards.” BBC Newsbeat, 12 Aug. 2011. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.

Kyllo, Blaine. “Performance capture injects emotion into virtual worlds.” CBC News. 7 Mar. 2011. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.

Letteri, Joe. “Creating Gollum.” Nature Video, 11 Dec. 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.

Lord, Shane. “An interview with Motonori Sakakibara – co-director of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within with assistance from Hiroshi Tanaka and Yumi Ozaki.” Michael DVD, N.D. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.

Anon. “Vicon’s motion capture bears fruit for new Paddington film.” Vicon, 20 Jan. 2015. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.

National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. “Freeze Frame, Eadward Muybridge’s photography of motion.” NMAH. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.

Vijay, Amar. “Andy Serkis Talks ‘The Avengers: Age Of Ultron.’” Empire Online, 24 Nov. 2014. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.

Woerner, Meredith. “Andy Serkis Build a New World for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”. 28 Mar. 2014. Web. 19 Mar. 2015.

Written by Charlotte Spencer (2015); Queen Mary, University of London

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Copyright © 2015 Charlotte Spencer/Mapping Contemporary Cinema

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