Motion Capture aka Performance Capture; A glimpse at the Past

Motion capture technology which is relatively new to us all seems to be a more frequent occurrence than it has been in the past. The technology that can be dated as back to the 1970 is said to have started as a photogrammetric analysis tool in biomechanics. (Photogrammetry is the science of extracting information out of an object via recording its outer appearance and converting it onto images; so to say it the most simplest of laymen terms). Developments and discoveries in technology have seen this technology evolve in the field of sports, medicine and now it is here in entertainment.

Motion capture today is defined as a capturing of a live performance that is later rendered and created in a 3D representation. Motion Capture will record the actor/actresses movements and then later with the use of computer software’s integrated with a visual appearance.

Sinbad beyond the veil of mists (2000) is the first movie that was successfully done using the motion capture technology, however my emphasis is not on motion capture, my emphasis is on the latest enhancement in motion capture, now more widely known as performance capture. Whilst motions capture focus on the basic movements of the actor, performance capture gets more intimate with the actor. It captures the face, the fingers, and the most intricate of facial expressions. Thus performance capture is 99% the raw talent of the actor which is later modified with an outer layer to accommodate the visual requirement in a production.

How it works

(Whilst this technology is used on both actors and actresses, for the benefit of this piece I will here on use the word only actor, however I am implying both genders.)

I will draw you a picture.     

Imagine yourself in a room; you are fitted with a performance capture suit. The performance capture suit is a wet suit fitted with dozens of sensors at carefully calculated points; including you face. You have cameras focused at you in every angle plus a camera that is fitted via a head band to your forehead that is focused on your face. Each sensor in your body in sensitive light that is recorded by the cameras and fed into a computer, and every single movement you make are shown on the computer in a skeletal form initially. You would in other words look like a join the dots drawing from your coloring book when you were 5.

Lights! Roll Camera! Action!

You now simply act. Once you’re done, the software team will edit your image as per the requirement of the production and you can look like “Gollum from Lord of the Rings”, “A Navi from AVATAR” ,”Scrooge from A CHRISTMAS CAROL” or “Caesar from RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES”.

Are you guessing where I am going with this?

Andy Serkis

If you are not a movie enthusiast, this name may mean nothing to you. Let me try a different approach. Do you recall GOLLUM (The Lord of the Rings), KING KONG & CAESAR (Rise of the planet of the apes)? Most certainly you do! That my learned reader is none other than Andy Serkis 100%!  Seems quite unjust that we recall the character but not the actor merely since it’s not his face on screen? Is he any less an actor than Elijah Wood or James Franco? Keep the answer to yourself and consider the next.

Although Andy Serkis’ work has been recognized in many forms, the Holy Grail to any actor is the Oscars. Like the World cup to a Sportsman or the Olympics to an athlete the Oscars is to an actor. The chances of recognition at the Oscars although is possible is highly unlikely if the past is of any means an indicator.

There is a common opinion that Andy Serkis is the VOICE of Gollum or Caesar. However once you understand that complexity in performance capture you are shown that it is actually the raw actor under coats and layers of digital make up. Makeup is common and is used on every actor , however in this case it’s done with great precision you are unable to see the actor at all. It is understood that it is highly unlikely that a performance captured actor may be nominated for an Oscar amongst the others, since it’s not the norm. However does that mean a separate class would be introduced? If that is so how many more would contest in that category? Highly unlikely again! So would this mean that since there is not many in the field of performance capture at present that we should not acknowledge or give a chance to those who already are?

It’s been a decade since The Lord of the Rings; it’s been a decade since the Andy Serkis played Gollum and whispered my precious!!!!! He deserves a chance; he deserves a shot at a title. I am hoping he gets one!

Andy Serkis – Take a bow! In my heart and in the hearts of most of your fans, you are one of a kind and you are a winner………..



a.      A brief history of motion capture for computer character animation – Dr. David J Sturman

b.      Photogrammetry – A practical Guide  – Rory Stan Bridge

c.       Understanding motion capture for computer animation – Alberto Menache

d.      Wikipedia