What is mocap, anyway?

“What is mocap, anyway? And where the hell did it come from?” Such was the question I got recently from from a rightfully confused member of the Screen Actors Guild. He was about my grandfather’s age and definitely had his temperament. It’s not that he was resentful of the technology (in fact, he said he’s seen Avatar and loved it), he just didn’t understand it.

He’s not alone. Most people who haven’t worked with performance capture in some way don’t really know what it is. And as we all know, out of ignorance comes fear. Well, let me reassure you, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Performance capture is your friend. The skin tight Lycra body suit may not be, but there’s nothing terrifying about the technology itself. In fact, it’s one of the most freeing forms of acting I’ve encountered. No tripping over C-stands, dolly track, or electric cable. No losing your best take because another actor blocked your light. No hair in the gate, endless hours of lighting, no company moves, no cover sets due to inclement weather, and no losing the light. In fact, the only fear I had after half a dozen of these films was that I might forget how to conduct myself on a regular set.

So, to answer my new friend’s first question, performance capture is, in the most basic terms, actor driven animation. Some will argue that it isn’t truly animation. That it’s more of a performance that has make-up and wardrobe added digitally. I agree with both of those definitions. Depending on the nature of the project and who is at its helm, it can be either. The Polar Express, Monster House, Final Fantasy, Happy Feet, Beowulf, and the majority of video games definitely fall in to the animation camp. As will, upcoming features like Robert Zemeckis’ redo of Yellow Submarine.

But the lines start to get blurry when we examine characters like Gollum and Kong, and films such as Avatar, and even A Christmas Carol. In these cases, every nuance of the character was derived directly from each actor’s performance. In these situations a good case can be made for the digital make-up argument. And certainly these are the performances that have connected more with movie goers.

As for the “where the hell did it come from” question, I’ll address the origins and technical aspects of performance capture, and take a closer look at the equipment involved, in my next blog. Until next time!

Woody Schultz

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