Motion capture twenty years ago seemed like an insane concept, but now it’s generally regarded as the most important film tool of the 21st Century. Thanks, in no small part, to Andy Serkis and his avocation of it. Now Serkis himself is at the forefront of the “He doesn’t have an Oscar?” arguments, following his intense turns in two Planet of the Apes movies.
With more movies using the motion capture art form – for one character or the entire cast – it’s widely becoming accepted this is no different to make up. From Star Wars to the MCU, we take a look at the steps that shaped the evolution of mo-cap.
Jar Jar Binks, Star Wars: Episode One – The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999)
Yes, everyone hates Jar Jar, he’s a vaguely racist stereotype, and played to hell by Ahmed Best. An unfunny supporting character like an Ewok without the kickable nature. But, Best’s performance was a clear precurser to what Serkis would later do. Bringing this fish man to life with fluid ability could never be done by someone in rigid make up, and despite it being a hateful pain in the neck, it lead to our new age of motion capture.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (Hironobu Sakaguchi, 2001)
The first film to be realized utilizing motion capture is considered by many to be a financial dud, but the cost was never really feasible (although Jim Cameron might disagree). Despite its ground breaking special effects, and it’s all star cast (Ming-Na Wen, Alec Baldwin, Donald Sutherland, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, James Woods), Final Fantasy was a risk, and one that sadly fell prey to the uncanny valley. If, however, we never had this, we would not have had Avatar.
Gollum, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers & The Return of the King (Peter Jackson, 2002/2003)
The first fully realized motion-capture creation to truly push the boundaries of the medium, Andy “Motion Capture Man” Serkis donned the silly pyjamas to give life to Tolkien’s monstrous crack-addict-looking monster. The real genius isn’t the mind boggling special effects, it’s how seamlessly they blend into the film and leave you in no doubt that what is happening is a real living person. That comes down to Serkis, and his passionate and desperate performance as Gollum, the breakout character of the movie. Gollum is to the film what the ring is to Gollum – precious.
The Polar Express/Beowulf/A Christmas Carol (Robert Zemeckis, 2004/2007/2009)
The man who threw out the rule book with visual effects movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the acting-mixed-with-archive-footage mayhem of Forrest Gump, took a detour from the world of reality following Cast Away and instead opted for an odd trilogy of mo-cap movies.
The first, a festive tale of a special train to the North Pole essentially stars Tom Hanks as everyone from the heroic child, to Father Christmas himself and the conductor for added measure. While his shouty, beefcake-inflected take on the ancient English poem stars Ray Winstone, Brendan Gleeson, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, Crispin Glover, Robin Wright, and John Malkovich in the epic fantasy adventure. The final being the Jim Carrey-tastic take on the Dickens classic with Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Robin Wright, and Bob Hoskins also there.
All of these films, while epic and interesting sadly fall prey to the dead eyed distance that plagues many of the mo-cap movies, but interesting and in Beowulf, some fun is to be had along the way.
Sonny, I, Robot (Alex Proyas, 2004)
Alan Tudyk’s flawless turn in the Will Smith auctioneer is the lynch-pin of the whole thing. While Smith unravels a conspiracy about new robots, it’s Sonny the robot who provides the learning curve of the film, perfectly playing a blank faced machine and revolutionary creation all at once. Tudyk is one of the best character actors working and his turn in this is one of the his finest to date, no wonder he’s back in mo-cap for Gareth Edwards next Star Wars movie.
Kong, King Kong (Peter Jackson, 2005)
The first ape to be played by Andy Serkis, the giant gorilla in Peter Jackson’s loving ode to his favorite movie is the most realistic the giant beast has ever appeared, not just an animal but a real character as passionate and compelling as Naomi Watts, Adrian Brody or a parred-down Jack Black. Despite a human cameo from Serkis (in great form), Kong stands out as his second foray into capture and proves no one takes the craft as seriously as he does. Rightly so the film was a box office hit, and Serkis shot to the top of people’s motion capture lists.
Davy Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest & At World’s End (Gore Verbinski, 2006/2007)
British thespian Bill Nighy is known for many things, his gaunt physique, his comic timing, his strange vocal inflections, his retracting fingers, but none of them are his blockbuster persona. In Gore Verbinski’s trilogy of escalatingly silly but enjoyable pirate romps, Nighy continually picked actors not known for their foray into the action genre (Johnny Depp, Kiera Knightly, Naomie Harris, Tom Hollander, Jonathan Pryce, Geoffrey Rush), but the strangest is Nighy’s squid faced baddie in the second and third films. The fact that Jones looks like Nighy all while being a monster is all the more impressive given that Nighy is by no means physically imposing in “real life”. His Scottish accent is also a little strange, but this is the man who thought the cure to a zombie bite is running it under a cold tap.
Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)
After sinking a ship and flooding the box office James Cameron went into hiding, he made two of the best sequels of all time, one of only two films about terrorism to be funny, and launched the careers of both Bill Paxton, and Lance Henriksen. So, his return to the screen with his science fiction epic, done on green screens, with eight foot tall blue cat aliens acting out the Pocahontas story was nothing if not a risk. But with the likes of Sigourney Weaver, Giovanni Ribisi and Stephen Lang giving caliber and the greatest visual effects known, Cameron managed a (forgive us) titanic feat, and bested his boat-sinking epic.
Caesar, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011)
Rupert Wyatt’s origin story of the planet that needs to be damned entirely to hell does away with all previous versions make up effects (the only redeeming thing about Tim Burton’s car crash), and has Serkis giving the best performance in a film (despite reliable support from James Franco, David Oyelowo, Tyler Labine, John Lithgow, Frieda Pinto, and Brian Cox) in a role that raised the question of should a motion capture performance be Oscar nominated? The answer, clearly, is yes, because there is something truly human about Caesar and it’s all from Serkis commitment.
Hulk, Avengers Assemble (Joss Whedon, 2012)
The first film involving the un-jolly green giant to use that great tech to make the monster something resembling a man. While Ang Lee’s was just angry Shrek, and Louis Leterrier’s was somewhat strange and zombie like, this one looks like Ruffalo and Whedon manages to make him have a personality and a life of his own. The effect and the performance of Ruffalo make the character one of the fan favorites and one of the funniest team members.
Smaug, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug & The Battle of the Five Armies (Peter Jackson, 2013/2014)
Everyone loves Dragons. Harry Potter had dragons, Kheleesi is always banging on about her dragons. Dragons are cinematic and cool. So, given the big part Tolkien’s fable of dwarves and hobbits has an important section about a big scaly beast and his castle of gold. Benedict Cumberbatch performed movements for Smaug and his face was used in a Gollum-like fashion to craft a great screen dragon, and his voice is as deep and resonant as you would hope.
Groot & Rocket, Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014)
On set Gunn’s brother Sean (who has a supporting role in the film) stood in for tiny raccoon Rocket, while there was no tree on set. But, using Sean Gunn, and scans of Vin Diesel’s face for Groot, both characters became the best of the film and the ones people loved the most. Despite the use of practical effects and make up (Karen Gillen, Michael Rooker, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista and Lee Pace all get colored up) the visual effects are all subservient to the narrative, and the voices, and motion capture work adds to the film.
Caesar, Koba and the apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2014)
Taking the film seriously, and the roles seriously, Serkis along with Judy Greer, Toby Kebbell and others give nuanced performances, despite it being all about monkeys fighting humans… and monkeys. Searches really is the MVP of the film, giving the film an entirely interesting angle like a political thriller first, and a science fiction action movie second. The third film is coming to us, and if this is time for Serkis to be given the much deserved Oscar nomination (and win?) that he has deserved for fifteen years.
Hulk & Ultron, Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015)
Despite a non-mo-cap role from Serkis (his one scene is one of the best of the film), Whedon does try his best to up his ground breaking feat of making the Hulk a real person, but having him interact more, carry emotional weight, interact with on set humans and look even more real. Alongside him is James Spader’s Ultron, made menacing by Spader’s physical performance, as Shakespearean as you would expect from The Blacklist actor and one of Marvel’s better movie villains. Stories of Elizabeth Olsen being mesmerised by Spader’s performance and forgetting his silly get up and the large red balls (to indicate Ultron’s eyes) make for an even better take on the motion capture use.
Maz Kanata & Supreme Leader Snoke, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams 2015)
We begin and end with Star Wars, last years most enjoyable film featured two great motion captured characters. One, Lupita Nyong’o’s world weary Maz Kanata, owner of a certain blue weapon was the stuff of kids dreams, like a cousin of Yoda, she feels like a real person and Nyong’o does a great job with movement and with voicing that you forget it’s that girl from 12 Years A Slave, here’s to her coming back. At the other end is Serkis again as big baddie Snoke, a strange Voldemort looking creature, again making use of Serkis’ amazingly rich voice and posing interesting questions about what or who he is, but both providing the best uses of the motion capture form that film has done so far.