Motion Capture Filmmaking: Are Computer-Generated Actors the Future Of Hollywood?


Andy Serkis has enjoyed a strikingly unique acting career. A classically trained performer, Serkis is best known for breathing vibrant life into computer-generated ghouls and apes. His portrayal of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy helped launch his notoriety, while also highlighting the great potential for motion-capture filming — a technology which renders human performances into highly-detailed digital characters.

Rather than build on his successes and move towards more traditional roles, Serkis is choosing to double down on the motion-capture bet, launching his own specialty film studio – The Imaginarium. Serkis hopes to teach actors the craft of motion-capture performances, familiarizing them with the technology’s process. This is an investment in what Serkis believes to be the future of cinema, preparing a new generation of 'cyber-thespians.'

The movie industry has always adapted to the times — incorporating costumes, props, sets, technology, and locations to help bring imagination to life. The ever-increasing quality of computer-generated imagery (CGI) has helped engage audiences in a more immersive way. Steven Spielberg was once considered a pioneer for his use of an animatronic sharks in Jaws. Years later, he combined animatronic dinosaurs with innovative CGI for Jurassic Park.

Limited only by their imagination, animators and computer experts soon realized they could materialize any world for the big screen. The only limiting factor was that audiences often found computer rendered characters to look emotionally neutral, with “soulless” eyes and stiff movements. But motion capture places small sensory pins all over an actor’s body, including their various facial muscles, bringing every nuanced aspect of their movement into the animation. The result is a more fluid, expressive and “human” manifestation. Audiences are already getting used to seeing a film cast include, if not be dominated by, computer rendered characters.

To Serkis, this represents a new era of possibilities. An actor can be transformed into an alien, animal, demon or monster without having to utilize layers of make-up. They need only perform their role, and watch as the computer transforms them. Theoretically, this could allow one actor to play several roles — replacing a large cast with a few tech savvy performers. 

James Franco, who starred with Serkis in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, wrote about his awe for the technology's potential: "[Performance Capture] doesn’t mean that old-fashioned acting will go the way of silent film actors ... [it] actually allows actors to work opposite each other in more traditional ways, meaning that the actors get to interact with each other and look into each other's eyes."

The underlying skill required to bring these animations to life is still very much that of a talented actor. To that end, Fox Studios generated an aggressive campaign last year, pushing for Serkis' Oscar consideration for his performance of Caesar in the Planet of the Apes. This idea might seem laughable, but it was more than 80 years ago that Mickey Mouse won the first ever "non-human" Oscar.

Perhaps motion-capture is only a passing fad, and will simply be considered a skill any actor should know — alongside accents, stage combat or dance. But having worked in motion-capture for over a decade, Serkis believes it’s here to stay and worth investing in. Imaginarium Studios already has its own slate of films scheduled for production, including a motion capture rendition of Animal Farm. In his passion, we see a marriage between classic expressive acting and the endless possibilities of animation. As long as the boundaries and technology keep getting pushed forward, we may one day not be able to tell the difference between “real” and “make-believe.”