On the eve of the release of Steven Spielberg’s animated masterpiece, ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ (based on the Belgian comic by Herge) you can’t help but feel the need to look back at how we got here. With animated features dominating the box office and the art of Motion Capture technology getting better and better, the future of this medium looks sound - but where did it come from?
In 1937, Disney Studios brought us their opus, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’. The studios' maiden voyage into feature length animation almost bankrupted Walt Disney himself. He mortgaged his house to complete the project which ran up a bill of $1.4M; six times its budget. As it turned out, the gamble payed off, with the film becoming a huge success and changing the film industry for the better. Snow White pioneered the technology of rotoscoping; a technique that allows animators to trace over the top of live action footage - in essence, animating a real life physical performance. Post-'Snow White', rotoscoping was mainly used as an animators aid for studying and perfecting animal and human movements, although most recently rotoscoping was seen in director Richard Linklater’s 2006 film, ‘A Scanner Darkly’. While not quite a box office smash, the feat of becoming the first feature film to be entirely digitally rotoscoped is nothing to scoff at.
Yes, this technique eventually died off in place of more advanced technology, but it introduced the idea of capturing a real, live performance and transforming it to animation - which brings us to Motion Capture. We’ve all seen those pictures of actors in blue jumpsuits covered in ping-pong balls and dots all over their faces... that’s Motion Capture (sometimes referred to as Performance Capture), or “MoCap” as the insiders call it.
Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital in New Zealand currently dominates the technology, having made the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, ‘King Kong’ and ‘Avatar’. Perfected by Jackson in collaboration with the MoCap King, English actor Andy Serkis, it’s initiation into the industry was brought about another, the Godfather of MoCap, Robert Zemeckis. The director of ‘Back to the Future’ and ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ was the first to make a full length MoCap feature with 2004's ‘The Polar Express’, and has since made 2 more - ‘Beowulf’ (2007) and ‘A Christmas Carol’ (2009). While critically applauded for their technological wizardry at the time, it’s been said that Spielberg has finally achieved what Zemeckis has been trying to do for the past decade. But what about James Cameron and ‘Avatar’? He used what is known as Markerless Technologies (er... 'Avatar' actors did actually have markers on their face, but we’ll overlook that). Markerless Technologies allows animators to capture the facial nuances of a performer more accurately; from eye movement and muscle twitches, to the simple upturn of a mouth. This can been seen in the facial performances of the Na’vi. It’s this detail that allowed so many cinema-goers to empathise with the blue alien species so strongly.
From a performers point of view, Andy Serkis has turned Motion Capture into an art form. Donning the spandex for his performances as Gollum in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, ‘King King’, as Caesar in 2011’s ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ and now Captain Haddock in ‘The Adventures of Tintin’, he’s definitely Hollywood’s go-to MoCap guy. While many critics argued the legitimacy of a MoCap performance, others screamed for Serkis to receive at least an Oscar nomination if not a win for his turn as Gollum.
Though the jury is still out when it comes to the critical voices in the industry, those of us who actually buy the tickets have spoken and spoken loudly. With 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy and ‘Avatar’ ranked among the highest grossing films of all time, surely the soon-to-be 'Tintin' series will be setting new technological benchmarks.