The Pitfalls of Motion Capture

Special effects have come a long way in the past 30 years.  They’ve evolved from practical elements rotoscoped together to digital effects that stitched together with the power of computer editing.  The increasing power and speed of computers means that computers are able to create complex worlds that take up terabytes of data like James Cameron’s “Avatar” and allow for photorealistic digital characters like the apes in the upcoming “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”

Unfortunately, these digital effects come with their own pitfalls.  Facial motion capture has seen increasing use to capture actor performances for digital characters.  Films like “Avatar” have met with massive success for their complex special effects and motion capture driven digital characters while other films, such as “Mars Needs Moms,” and “Beowulf,” have left the audience feeling uncomfortable with the extremely realistic, but slightly off performances of the digital characters.  The discomfort of seeing almost, but not quite right, representations of ourselves is known as the Uncanny Valley.  It’s the result of our brains recognizing the digital creations as being human because they look and act like us, but also recognizing that something is not quite right and are treated with suspicion.  Special Effects companies are turning towards digital creations over practical effects because of the freedom they allow the film makers and because they are cheaper than traditional special effects, especially for particularly complex shots and makeup.

This problem hasn’t really been noticeable until recently when special effects were able to accurately simulate clothing, skin lighting, musculature and other aspects necessary to create a simulated person.  These simulations allow for a simulated person to look right, but there are still issues giving the same spirit and soul to a digital character that exist in the actors driving and interacting with them.  Thankfully, this problem only really exists when films try to represent humans up close.  While Clu2 was a technological success in creating a younger Jeff Bridges in “Tron: Legacy,” it didn’t always make us believe that Bridges had lost 20 years of aging even though Clu2’s acting was directly by Jeff Bridges through motion capture.  Sometimes it was the smile, but most of the issues seemed to center around mouth movement.  Clu2’s face felt plastic in certain scenes and detracted from the effect.  This problem stems from the audience seeing the real Jeff Bridges act and speak in live roles.  Our familiarity with him means that any small mistakes made by the animators in final touch-up will signal to the audience that the digital Clu2 is not the real Jeff Bridges and will create suspicion in the audience.

This problem doesn’t appear in characters whose image doesn’t represent a known personality or human shape.  We believe the characters such as Gollum and the Na’vi because they resemble humans, but there are enough differences in their appearance when compared to humans that our minds do not try to compare them.  This means that motion capture technology is a boon for particularly fantastic characters that can still be powered by capturing human movement.  Films can use motion capture successfully when the characters do not represent familiar personalities or shapes.

The CGI animated Appleseed series from Japan is an excellent example of motion capture driven films that work.  The aesthetic for the movie relies on 2d Anime and Manga.  The motion capture powered film’s central characters while traditional CG animation methods powered the background characters.  This created an interesting effect where the background characters seemed wooden when in the same scene with the central characters.  It proved that the motion capture technology created far more realistic animation than the traditional hand-animated process.  The Appleseed series also proved that mixing and matching the processes does not work well because of the differences in quality.

The experiments in creating CGI characters will continue with the upcoming release of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” when we will see motion capture driven Apes interacting with live action humans.  While Apes are not human, their forms are familiar enough to people that we may once again enter the realm of the Uncanny Valley as they become more human throughout the course of the film.

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