May 16, 2018

A Brief History of Motion Capture

VFX

Matthew Naj

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A Brief History about Motion Capture

In the past 20 years, special effects in cinema have come a long way. While some purists want to see a return to the days of practical effects that included miniatures, animatronic models, and map paintings that were used to create fictional worlds such as Jurassic Park and Star Wars’ galaxy far, far away, the emergence of computer-generated effects has become the go-to for visual effects studios. CGI effects have allowed filmmakers to create engrossing worlds, though it is genuinely agreed upon that the best effects-laden films are comprised of a combination of CGI and practical effects, shown by the new Star Wars trilogy and its spin-offs. It’s with the previous prequel trilogy that the popularization of motion capture can be credited to, even if the character is one of the most infamously hated in cinematic history.

Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace introduced to mainstream audiences to the idea of motion captured characters in Jar Jar Binks. While the sidekick was one of the most maligned aspects of the film and has since been re-appraised by fans as possibly the secret villain of the whole trilogy, without Jar Jar you couldn’t progress to the more famous examples of this new technology.

After Jar Jar we come to a character, and the actor that brought him to life, that has come to define motion capture’s popularity: Andy Serkis’ portrayal of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. The trilogy’s director Peter Jackson is famous for his use of new technology in his movies, and the decision to bring Gollum to life in this way is one of the most popular creative choices present in this brilliant set of films. In addition to this, Serkis has become a pioneer in motion capture. In 2011 he founded the visual effects studio The Imaginarium Studios with producer Jonathan Cavendish. The studio’s mission statement is to create digital characters that audiences can invest in. This has certainly been a success thanks to Serkis’ high-profile work on the modern Planet of the Apes trilogy in which he plays the lead character, Caesar. The trilogy, which is comprised of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and War for the Planet of the Apes, has been critically and commercially successful, with Serkis’ performance as Caesar gaining notable praise and is considered one of recent cinema’s most popular characters.

Finally, we can’t talk about the success of motion captured characters without talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel has used the technology many times in its decade at the top of the cinematic pile, with a notable example being Mark Ruffalo’s performance as the Hulk, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn’s brother’s performance of Rocket Raccoon, and Josh Brolin as Avengers: Infinity War’s villain, Thanos. The MCU has used this technology to bring their vast world of superheroes, magicians, gods, and aliens to life. Mark Ruffalo and Benedict Cumberbatch (who also played The Hobbit trilogy’s dragon, Smaug) have been loud supporters of motion capture technology, saying that it provides a whole new dimension of performance for them as actors.

In just 19 short years motion capture went from the joke that brought Jar Jar to a horrible life, to the Hollywood standard in creating larger than life characters with many fans voicing the wish for a best mo-capped performance award to be added to the Academy Awards.

Image Credit: Lord of the rings Gollum backstage

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