Motion Capture and Movie Future

Something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot recently is the current state and possible future of motion capture performances. We’re already seeing a wide range of incredibly detailed and realistic computer-generated creatures performed and inhabited by actors in movies like the “of the Planet of the Apes”-series, the recent “The Hobbit” films, or this summer’s “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Technology is also being used to render human likenesses, to alter an actor’s physique (Chris Evans in “Captain America: The First Avenger”), make him appear like his much younger self (Jeff Bridges in “TRON: Legacy”), or even raise the dead (Paul Walker in the upcoming “Furious 7”).

In the past these things haven’t always been entirely convincing (I wish Patrick Stewart had shot me with amnesia bullets so I wouldn’t have to remember his CGI face, somehow seeming to float an inch above where it should be, in that “Wolverine” prequel), but no doubt there has been progress, and if the last few decades have taught us anything it’s that computers will continue to get better and faster and cheaper. I am convinced that there will even come a day when you can watch a movie from ten years ago, look at the computer-generated effects, and say, yeah, that looks alright.

Over the last few years – and definitely in the wake of the untimely deaths of franchise-attached actors Paul Walker and Philip Seymour Hoffman – studios have been taking precautionary steps to insure that audiences will still get to pay for see their favorite characters on screen even after they’ve… become unavailable. Stepping onto that platform and having a thousand points of light scan and digitize your face and body (mostly face, I’m guessing) is probably as much part of an A-lister’s contractual obligations by now as a promotional appearance on The View.

I think in the coming years and decades we will see more and more examples of performers donning MoCap-suits not only to be transformed into animals (maybe in Jon Favreau’s “Jungle Book”?) or fantastical creatures, but ‘regular’ human beings, too. From younger versions of themselves to likenesses of people who have died or never even lived. Anything goes.

Instead of trying to predict any specific movies or performances, I thought it would be a fun exercise to look at cinema’s (and some of TV’s) history and imagine how it might have looked if advanced imaging and capturing had been around and affordable. (I am not actually saying any of these movies would have been better this way or need to be ‘fixed’ or anything. Nor do I think that in the future every single movie should use this technology.)

Fun fact: I am not a professional photo illustrator.

Fun fact: I am not a professional photo illustrator.

  • Nothing against Robert DeNiro, but what if, instead of getting another actor to play young Vito Corleone in “The Godfather: Part II,” Marlon Brando could have reprised the role himself? Using a 3D-model of Brando made when he was 29 and shooting “On the Waterfront,” the actor could have offered a seamless experience of Don Corleone arriving in America and ascending to godfather-ranks.
  • You don’t always need your characters to appear to be 20 years younger. Sometimes it’s enough for them to just stay the same age they were when you started filming. There are plenty of examples of long-running movie or TV series that feature characters that don’t age or age much slower than their human counterparts. Legolas, Bilbo, and a bunch of others in “The Lord of the Rings.” Spock in “Star Trek,” Data in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Angel in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel.” Every one of these franchises reached a point where the actors had visibly aged in ways their characters shouldn’t have. Make-up artists are already doing everything they can to reverse these immortals’ aging progress, so a little digital make-up would be a welcome solution. Even Walt from “Lost” fits this category, and he probably wouldn’t have to be written out of the show if his young appearance could have been kept. (And if the CGI isn’t convincing the studios could always use the same voodoo that’s keeping Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine from aging in the “X-Men”-franchise.)
  • One genre that could benefit the most from this is the biopic, which frequently faces the problem of either the actors, the subjects, or both to be too familiar to audiences as to suspend their disbelief and accept the person on the screen as the real-life figure. Sure, a Philip Seymour Hoffman or a Daniel Day-Lewis can pull it off, but sometimes you’re stuck with Leonard DiCaprio in a J. Edgar Hoover Halloween mask. Maybe recreating Hoover’s likeness from old film and photographs wouldn’t have saved “J. Edgar,” but the possibilities in this field are endless. Working from paintings, woodcarvings, photographs, film and video material, all the presidents from Washington to Obama could be faithfully portrayed. Hitler and Anne Frank, Mozart and Salieri, the Boleyns. Busts of Caesar and Cleopatra are practically begging to be scanned and brought to life once more.

It’s a fun thought exercise, anyway. I don’t expect computers to take away all the acting jobs anytime soon, but I’m confident that ten years from now digitally enhanced performances will be a lot more accepted and commonplace, even outside of sci-fi and fantasy movies.

Or we’ll just have a ton of dead celebrities selling whiskey and shit.

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