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Why motion capture performances deserve an Oscar

Many classically trained actors are drawn to motion capture roles, which are increasingly complex and theatrical. Youtube

Why motion capture performances deserve an Oscar

Andy Serkis, one of the greatest actors of our generation, has called for motion captured performances to finally be eligible for nomination for the Academy awards.

Many will be unaware that movies using significant motion captured performance are currently deemed ineligible for Best Animation Feature nominations. Furthermore, motion captured roles in both animated and more “traditional” features have never been nominated in Best Actor categories.

In broad terms, motion capture (or MoCap) is a method of capturing the movement of objects or people in physical space. Actors wear Lycra and Velcro suits with markers, and cameras mounted on their faces, to help computers track their movements. This is then translated to the screen to create realistic characters that mimic human expressions and gestures

Andy Serkis in motion capture, behind the scenes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. LucasFilm

It’s often used as a tool to analyse movement in the health sciences, but has recently become more commonly used in the commercial film and gaming industries.

Andy Serkis’ role as Caesar in the revised Planet of the Apes series is acclaimed as one of the most notable performances on screen in recent years.

Yet Serkis and others committed to advancing the practice of motion captured performance are continuously snubbed by their peers, with this work often regarded as nothing more than “special effect”.

In 2012, Wired voted Serkis “King of MoCap” for his revised performances as Gollum in The Hobbit trilogy (2012-14). In the article, Serkis observed:

The acting community has worries about motion capture because they believe it’s some form of replacement for performance when in fact, it’s the opposite … Motion Capture is a tool that allows actors to transform themselves into many different characters. You’re not confined by physicality. You can play anything.

You would think this transformative work would be universally and critically applauded, but unfortunately this is not the case. And Serkis is of course not alone acting in features that rely heavily on motion capture.

Notable actors such as Jeff Bridges, Willem Defoe, Ellen Paige, Brad Pitt and Kevin Spacey are among those blurring the boundaries between performance on screen and in the MoCap studio.

Yet no motion captured performance has ever been nominated for an Academy Award. Avatar (2009) was nominated for nine Academy Awards, but none of them were for acting. Nearly 50% of the film was made using motion capture (as will the next series of Cameron’s Avatar films).

Early MoCap

The earliest forms of MoCap existed long before the digital age and can be attributed to two photographic pioneers: Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey.

Muybridge captured the first surviving optic/mechanic record of captured movement by setting up a dozen cameras in an array taking sequential photos triggered by the movement of a horse’s feet.

This iconic image was generated as a commission to settle a bet over whether a horse in a canter had all four feet off the ground at any one time.

In 1882 Etienne-Jules Marey met Muybridge in Paris and was inspired to invent a camera with a timed shutter, enabling him to capture multiple images onto a plate.

Marey used his recording device in conjunction with a special suit that allowed him to plot human movement, setting the scene for contemporary motion capture.

The Marey Suit, an 150-year old form of motion capture. Author provided

The art of acting to empty space

The mode of performance central to MoCap technology is called Performance Capture. The term is used to describe the total recording of a motion caption performance without cuts. While at first glance this seems like a relatively simple concept, it is inherently complex.

This form of acting is ultimately theatrical at its core; it allows an entire performance to be captured in one take. In a sense, this returns the methods of filmmaking to the stage.

Performing in a MoCap environment relies on the ability of the actor to create a character using imagination and movement. While this may not seem so extraordinary, the environments their performances will finally be placed within are not available to the actors while they are generating these characterisations.

Performing in this way is without question a unique craft, and in many ways the truest example of an actor’s ability to make the characters they control seem authentic.

This is why some of our greatest classically trained actors are drawn to, and excel in, the Motion Capture studio.

Anyone who has seen the behind-the-scenes footage of Benedict Cumberbatch bringing Smaug the dragon to life will attest to the extraordinary power of this mode of capturing performance – it is more than special effects, and demands the accolades of critical awards.

I’m not suggesting there need to be separate categories for motion captured performances, and I don’t believe Serkis is either.

But I do hope that Serkis’ call to arms to finally have this mode of performance recognised by the Academy will finally be heard once and for all.