Monday 26 December 2011

The Validity of Performance Capture Animation - What's the Actor and What's the Animator?

Motion/Performance Capture has always been a touchy subject, in terms of, how much of the final product is attributed to the actor's performance and how much is due to the actions and work of the animators. Each side has an opposing argument, animation buffs would argue that the role of the animator is the most important and that the performance is only outstanding due to being brilliantly illustrated and brought to life through detailed, animated characters. Whereas acting thespians would present the argument that animators only add the polish to it and that the powerful, raw performance and the emotion that endears the characters to us is the work of the individual actor or actress.

It's a touchy subject, and one that has been in the spotlight as of late - mainly since Avatar in 2009, but a lot more in the past few months as well - with two films in particular, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and The Adventures of Tintin. These two films have oppositional arguments; the Planet of the Apes prequel, Rise, is very much a live-action epic, yet, arguably the most important performance of it - in terms of the strength of the acting and the importance of the character to the plot and franchise - was that of Motion Capture veteran, Andy Serkis. Serkis, who rose to fame and public attention with his performances as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and as King Kong in Peter Jackson's remake, turned in an extremely powerful and brilliant performance - one of the best I've seen this year - as Caesar and has been in the awards limelight as of late. Due to his popularity and the strong performance, there has been a large push for Serkis to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor - I think he's more than deserving of a nomination, if not a win. The performance, more so than his work as Gollum, highlights his strengths as it captures his facial performance as well as his bodily movements (there's an interesting article here about his Oscar chances and the arguments for and against) - however, what, of what we saw in the film, should be attributed to Serkis? And what should be attributed to the animators?

Serkis says in the aforementioned article, of Performance Capture, and of Weta Digital (Peter Jackson's visual effects company) who carried out both the special effects on Rise and the animation in Tintin (which Jackson also produced):

“Weta is very loyal to the actor’s performance and are able to interpolate that through the translation process after the director and actors have shot the scene on set. They’re very conscious that when they apply the ‘digital makeup,’ it is to honor the actor’s performance; not to bend or enhance it.”

This seems to, not underplay the role of the animator, but, more highlight the work of the actor or actress instead. However, The Adventures of Tintin (also starring Serkis, as Captain Haddock, and involving Peter Jackson, as producer) plays to the opposite side, in its quest to be nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, it played up that, yes, they do use the performance of the actor or actress, but only as the basis for the still very complex and detailed character animation; highlighting the work of the animators over that of the actors or actresses.

Now, obviously the two cases aren't entirely comparable, but it still raises the question, who gets the credit for these films? Personally, I believe one can't work without the other; there's nothing wrong with traditional, frame-by-frame, animation, but if you're working with performance capture, the role of the actor is equally important as that of the animator, a weak character will come through if either the animation or the acting is weak. As a method of animation, I've never been all that fond of Mo-Cap, particularly because of the just plain creepy Uncanny Valley scenario, which takes you out of the moment, but if used right, it can result in sheer brilliance, as evident by all the films mentioned here. People just need to remember that, performance capture, like any film, animated or other wise, is a collaboration and a team effort.

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