The 10 best motion capture animated characters
Motion capture is already a vital tool in the repertoire of many filmmakers looking to represent creatures, robots, monsters and aliens. Andy Serkis, arguably the face of mocap, has even co-founded The Imaginarium, a production company and digital performance-capture studio dedicated to the invention of believable, emotionally engaging digital characters using performance capture technology.
It’s a discipline set to go from strength to strength thanks to the relationship between motion capture actors and animators. But do you know who was in the mocap suit behind your favourite CGI characters? Let’s run through the best motion capture characters to find out.
10. King Kong from King Kong (2005) – Portrayed by Andy Serkis
As you might expect from a list on mocap characters, Serkis is going to pop up a few times. We love Kong’s raw, primal rage, interspersed with the more sensitive, human moments around Ann.
For me, it was really the first time I was able to relate to the big fella. Thanks to the outstanding motion capture performance, I saw his fear and his weakness in a more recognisable way.
9. Tars Tarkas from John Carter (2012) – Portrayed by Willem Dafoe
I’ll forgive you for not knowing this one. John Carter, a Disney movie based on the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, was a bit of a flop commercially. Despite this, Tars Tarkas, the 9-foot tall martian warlord is a fantastic example of motion capture acting from Willem Dafoe.
Not only did Dafoe have to strap into the tight, uncomfortable mocap suit for John Carter, he had to learn some of his lines in an alien language and do it all whilst on 2-foot high stilts. He manages to pull off an impressive, regal performance, one that reportedly gave him a new appreciation for motion capture actors, saying: “I think unless you’re a performer you don’t know what a performer contributes to motion capture.”
8. Chappie from Chappie (2015) – Portrayed by Sharlto Copley
Usually describing a character as ‘robotic’ is a bit of a jab at the actor’s performance – not here. The titular Chappie is a police robot who undergoes reprogramming, allowing him to re-evaluate his position as a violent tool of the state. He ends up as a pimped-out gangster robot, showing a bit of originality in character design that I was a massive fan of.
Chappie’s creation required a bit more animation elbow grease than some of the other characters on this list because Copley’s performance was used “strictly as a motion reference, with all animation done by hand,” according to Chris Harvey, the movie’s vfx supervisor. “There was no actual data capturing. It was traditional keyframe animation that matched his performance.” This makes Chappie’s dynamic motion even more impressive, well done chaps.
7. Maz Kanata from Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) – Portrayed by Lupita Nyong’o
Ancient pirate, smuggler and interstellar publican: Maz Kantana is brought to life by Nyong’o in Episode VII. She’s wise, stocky and above all else, a bit of a badass. This is confirmed during the hologram sequence in The Last Jedi when she’s dishing out some blaster-fuelled frontier justice amid an apparent “union dispute” at her tavern.
Nyong’o’s fantastic motion capture performance in The Force Awakens paved the way for another great CGI role, as she co-starred in Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book (2016) voicing Raksha, the mother wolf who adopts Mowgli.
6. Paul from Paul (2011) – Portrayed by Seth Rogen
This science fiction comedy from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost stars Seth Rogen as a little grey dude from outer space. As two UFO hunters, the movie follows Pegg and Frost as they fulfill their dreams of meeting an extra-terrestrial, only for Paul to defy expectations by being as mundane as possible.
When interviewed about his performance capture for Paul, Rogen said: “Honestly, in the motion-capture stuff, I kinda thought it would be funny if [Paul] just moved as much like me as possible. I tried to make it extra-casual. I tried to kind of make it that he was a little drunk and stoned all the time.”
5. Smaug from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) – Portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch
Smaug is a big ol’ dragon, sitting on an even bigger stack of gold. He’s one of those characters thats like the Jaegers from Pacific Rim, Godzilla, or a Star Destroyer; so huge and intimidating that you feel uncomfortable just looking at them.
Benedict Cumberbatch spent his days of motion capture for Smaug crawling about on his belly in a skin-tight mocap suit, screaming into a series of cameras. Whatever he was doing, it worked. Unlike a brainless monster fuelled by instinct alone, what makes Smaug so terrifying is that he’s intelligent, scheming, greedy and cruel.
4. Sonny from I, Robot (2004) – Portrayed by Alan Tudyk
I, Robot stars Will Smith as a curmudgeonly, anti-robot police officer in a vision of the future where humanity is reliant on an army of assistant robots.
Tudyk does a bang-up job with his performance of Sonny, a robot who defies Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics when he murders a human and becomes a bit of a robo-messiah.
3. Neytiri from Avatar (2009) – Portrayed by Zoe Saldana
James Cameron went a bit mocap crazy for Avatar. Still, even with so many blue people running all over the place, Zoe Saldana’s performance of Neytiri, the native Na’vi of the exploited planet Pandora, really steals the show.
She’s tough, sensitive, proud and curious – Saldana’s display of emotional range was the broadest and most convincing of any motion-captured character we’d ever seen.
2. Ceasar from Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) – Portrayed by Andy Serkis
This chimp is the first of the new wave of intelligent primates from the reboot of this sci-fi classic. Serkis is under the mesh giving some of his most convincing performances yet.
The visually apparent character progression (evolution, if you will) is fascinating to behold as the behaviour of Caesar undergoes it’s transition throughout the series: a true testament to Serkis and the animation team behind his creation.
1. Gollum/Smeagol from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) – Portrayed by Andy Serkis
As the earliest example of a mocap character on this list and one whose prominence in the trilogy is huge, Gollum tops our list of the best motion capture characters. He’s the first character that pops to mind, and emblematic of the entire motion capture process.
Gollum and Smeagol are a convincingly eerie mixture of malicious, frenzied obsession and pathetic addiction. Gollum is the role that not only demonstrated Serkis’ range and ability, but set the baseline for what would be expected from a motion capture performance.
I can’t wait to see how many more incredible character we’ll be treated to in the coming years as the technology and animation techniques behind motion capture continue to develop.
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