Motion Capture – the very words can cause blood pressure to rise in Character Animators. There has been a longstanding argument over whether it is indeed animation or something altogether different. With the release of “Avatar”, the argument has shifted. No longer does Motion Capture seek to be in the league of animators. Now Motion Capture wants to be in the actor’s club – the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG).
First step - a name change. “Motion Capture” just sounds so… technical. No actor’s going to want to hang with a geek like that. But “Performance Capture” – now that’s a player!
And with this name change, MoCap (or is it PoCap?) has got the attention of SAG officials. A woman from SAG was on National Public Radio defending the idea of requiring the performers in the MoCap suits to join SAG. She described the MoCap work in “Avatar” as not just a guy in a special suit moving around – anyone could do that. What made them special was their ability to EMOTE – which is what an actor does.
By that logic, shouldn’t Character Animators be members of SAG as well and get those nice creamy residuals they deserve? FLIP asked some industry heavy hitters and got some heavy hitting answers.
Actors increasingly create performances through motion capture today. They wear silly mo-cap skin suits and perform for computers instead of cameras. The computer records their movements then applies the motion to a computer-generated character. It is similar to puppetry. The character on the screen is a puppet that the computer manipulates to mimic the actor’s original movements. Actors who create performances using motion capture are members of the Screen Actors Guild.
Animators also create performances, sometimes with paper and pencil, sometimes with a computer. In a CG animated film such as Pixar’s, the characters are essentially the same as in a motion capture movie, i.e., computer generated puppets. The difference is, they are not controlled by actors in stupid looking mo-cap suits, they are manipulated by animators in regular clothes. (Though some animators would love to wear a mo-cap suit to work if they had one, I’m sure.) To an audience the effect is the same. They experience an emotional story told with fantasy characters that come to life. If both the actor and animator’s efforts result in the same product on the screen, shouldn’t animators be allowed into SAG as actors? (And receive residuals? … Ahem. But I digress.) Both disciplines prepare for a performance in the same way. They study who the character is, how he moves and how he thinks. Both put themselves into the mindset of the character and construct a performance from that perspective. To perform a young, energetic character is quite different from playing an old, tired character although they might be played by the same person. (In animation a 60-year-old man can play a convincing 6-year-old girl. I doubt many actors could do the same.) Actors create their performance by acting it out in real time. Animators also act out performances, but to themselves. Then they position the character model for each frame to recreate their performance in painstaking detail. Both techniques result in a CG character coming to life. The method of execution is different but the preparation and the results are the same.
Skilled actors and animators also design performances to play to the camera. When a camera’s viewpoint changes, a performance may be adjusted to maximize the dramatic effect. In most mo-cap movies up to now, actors don’t know where the camera will be, the final shot is decided later by the director. This removes one tool from the actor’s toolbox and limits their performance. Animators work shot by shot so they always know what the camera sees and can refine their performance accordingly. (When shooting "Avatar", James Cameron addressed this issue. He recorded the mo-cap while holding a specially designed “camera” that was actually a monitor displaying a video game-like version of the finished shot, both characters and environment. This allowed him to set up shots in the normal fashion and informed the actors where to focus their performances. )
Another limitation with mo-cap is that the raw data is rarely accurate enough to be used directly. It must be adjusted by — guess who? — an animator. Animators hand tweak movements to create a more accurate representation of the actor’s performance. The animator also has the ability to change or completely redo an actor’s performance if the director desires. There have been cases where a mo-cap performance contains more of an animator’s work than the actor’s. You won’t hear much about this as the actor takes his bow in front the cameras. You will hear much about it from the animators who sit in front of a TV and watch the actor take his bow.
One factor the mo-cap actor has over the animator is that he is the only person who performs the character (disregarding stunt people, body doubles, etc.). He can take ownership of the performance himself. In animation a character is usually handled by several animators. They are often under the supervision of a single lead animator, but no one person can take full credit for the performance. Some supervising animators may disagree with me on this but to them I say: Oh yeah?
Now we come to the one pivotal difference between a mo-cap actor and animator, the vocal performance. The actor performs both the physical motions and voices the dialogue of the character. Animators work from a pre-recorded voice track performed by — guess who? — an actor. The animator essentially creates a pantomime performance that physically expresses the voice track. This is the crucial difference that prevents animators from receiving full actor credit. A vocal performance is one of the primary tools an actor has to build a character. Sometimes visuals are not even needed as old radio plays demonstrate. Scripts also are dialogue driven. A totally mute character is very rare. I know something about this, having animated the Magic Carpet in “Aladdin”. I was the supervising animator and I take full credit for all the carpet animation and I say to myself: Oh yeah? Well … I didn’t have to share the credit with a voice actor but there were several other animators that animated the carpet along with me.
Now about those residuals ….
Despite my dislike for mocap in general, there are examples of it being well used. I thought it worked quite well in “Avatar.” There were certain movements, especially by Neytiri, the Navi love-interest character, that showed some study had been done- some real attempts to make an original, unique character through action and movement, (which, by description, completely encapsulates what a character animator does.) Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” is another example of mocap used well, and, to a lesser degree, some characters in the Harry Potter films. All the positive examples I’m using for motion capture are fantasy characters, characters that don’t look exactly realistic. Their movements are realistic; they have weight and volume, and work in the world they’re designed for. The better ones even manage to emote. But they don’t try to replicate real people.
Unfortunately, there are actors (who shall remain nameless) that I don't enjoy watching anymore based on how badly they responded when "Beauty and the Beast" was nominated for an Oscar - all of their snide remarks when they got up on stage about "cartoons" taking over their jobs. They belittled us all. It was insulting, and I thought in very poor form. I think the reality was that they were completely ignorant of how an animated film was made - that the animators not only had to act, they had to draw that acting, as well! I argued that animators were more talented than ordinary actors simply because they had to do both! (Mind you, I was really ticked off by how "they" behaved on Oscar night!) But it was argued that the actors gave the animators a performance to "follow". But what about all the movement and action the voice talent doesn't do? They're standing in front of a mic - the animators have to supply the rest. And what about all the scenes where there is no dialogue? Nothing to follow at all there... and some of those are the most memorable, don't you think?
Now that the computer generation of films has come into it, the line is even more smudged. With films like “Avatar” - what is the difference between that and computer-generated films from Pixar, DreamWorks or Disney, etc.,..? A character design is created by a designer then manipulated by an actor.
The "animator follows the voice performance" will be one of the main arguments about SAG membership or award categories that would include animators. Another argument would be that one live actor carries a character all the way through a film, whereas a character can be and usually is divvied up on an "animated" film. That's a conundrum. However, in my opinion and experience as a director, animators are actors. There are some better than others, just as there are live action actors better than some others. Animators make choices about the tilt of a head, the look in an eye, the placement of a hand, paw, tentacle, etc.,..as well as a characters motivation to create an emotion - to create a reality, a world, that doesn't exist, but that entices people to temporarily enjoy and believe in it's existence. Everyone in the animation process contributes to that, but the animators - our actors - bring it to life.
As for MoCap - well, yes, mo-cap actors emote, but their performance can also be enhanced and or manipulated by the CGI animators. That leads to a whole mess of complications when it's time to give credit where credit is due. I think the whole confusion between what is real and what isn't real makes this a difficult call for the Screen Actors Guild and for academy voters.
I've talked to animators (even from WETA) who say despite all the Snake Oil salesmanship hype, MoCap STILL need key-frame animators to make the stuff legit. One from LOTR even said he was threatened with legal action if he went public that Gollum's mocap looked like crap until they re-keyed it all.
Top: Acting. Bottom: Chopped liver.
Another part of that certainly has to do with name recognition. It could be argued that part of the reason why actors "deserve" residuals is because their presence in a movie may add to the box office. The presence of the likes of Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, or Jim Carrey in a movie usually means more box office dough, but who in the general movie going public knows who Eric Goldberg, Glen Keane, Mark Henn, or Bruce Smith are? Heck, they didn't know who Frank and Ollie and Milt were until they were 80-something.
As for motion capture, don't get me started. I think there are certain uses for motion capture that can be effectively used for certain kinds of stories and styles. I think it can work best when the aim is not to try and duplicate reality or to try and match the appearance of a recognizable actor. I think adding caricature and exaggeration the way we were able to do in "Monster House" showed some potential for a hybrid approach to the use of the technology. We keyframed a lot of that movie, but we weren't constrained by having to try and make it look realistic. "Avatar" benefitted in a way by that principle, as their Na'vi characters had other-worldly features, therefore the "uncanny valley" effect was minimized. It was fantasy. But setting that topic aside for another time, what I hate about motion capture is the way the studios and directors sell it to the movie going public. They lie about how it's "just the actor" and the director's vision and there's no need to have these pesky "committee of animators" meddling with the "creative process." Ask anyone who KEYFRAMED 99% of Gollum on "Lord of the Rings" about that while they were doing documentaries about how Andy Serkis singlehandedly "animated" his performance in a rubber suit with ping-pong balls attached to it. Or check out the credits in "Avatar." What were all those "animators" doing?
I enjoyed watching “Avatar” as a cinematic experience. I have friends who worked on it and I know how much work it was. Sure, they had some advanced technology and cool rigs, and the modelers, riggers and developers certainly deserve a lot of credit for creating convincing performances. But it's frustrating to hear the directors and producers get on Larry King or Letterman and explain to the world that no animators were used in the making of this picture.
If anything, those declarations make a good case for animators to deserve even MORE credit (and therefore residuals) for animating outside of mo-cap. It would really be nice to be getting residuals on those '90's Disney features I worked on. That's one big pie with lots and lots of slices that I could certainly find a use for...
c.2010 Moore Studios