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The Case Against Motion Capture: Separating Effects and Animation
In 2009, James Cameron’s Avatar grossed over two billion dollars worldwide, surpassing Titanic (1997) as the highest-grossing film of all time. The movie’s unique use of special effects, specifically its use of new motion or “performance” capture technology, were lauded as the future of cinema. In recent years, motion capture has become an industry trend in major motion pictures. However, the practice has also been met with criticism, especially within the animation community. The central argument against the technology is that motion capture should not be considered a form of animation as it does not require the same type of skills or produce the same caliber of results as more traditional animation styles. Character animators use a meticulously planned and detailed series of poses to create the illusion of a living character whereas motion capture simply records the actions of an actor with a graphic style overlay added. Motion capture lacks the subtleties and innovation of traditional animation techniques. While it may reflect much of the talent of the actors it captures, it in no way matches the intricacies, craft, and feel of other forms of animation. This criticism is not to condemn the practice entirely, but to make a clear distinction between motion capture and more standard animation. Animator Gene Deitch describes motion capture as a useful “movie-making tool” to replace more dangerous or difficult stunts but stresses
that it should not be “perceived as a form of animation.” This is because films that use motion capture come closer to a form of special effects than fitting into the realm of straightforward animation. Motion capture cannot be considered animation because it does not fit any definition of animation. Steven Paul Leiva, producer of such animated films as Space Jam, makes a clear case which furthers this argument, stating that there is “no need for debate. Performance capture is not animation.” This is because by definition, motion capture does not fit into the core description of animation. Leiva gives several definitions for animation, each derived from leaders in the field, including “[to] bring to life, to breathe life into the lifeless, [to create] the illusion of life, and frame-by-frame filmmaking.” None of these definitions can be applied to performance capture, which captures and documents an actor’s performance in real time, and does not create the illusion of that motion through “frame-by-frame filmmaking.” Leiva describes “true animation” as an art form in which “life is created literally from scratch” contrasting with motion capture as “the embellished documentation of life preexisting.” This key contrast is illustrated in his definitions, which separate the character animation process from the motion capture process. While traditional animation is “created incrementally in a sequential series of poses” and presents “the illusion of a living character expressing a thought, action or emotion,” motion capture simply “document[s] a preexisting life...then overlay[s] an illustrative look.” This overlaying look is almost an afterthought in that the acting from the live action recording is used with a new design placed on top. As Leiva puts it, the “overlay is nothing but a special effect that incorporates production, character and costume design.” In traditional animation the design of characters and each frame of motion work hand in hand
throughout the entire process to create a more fluid outcome (as opposed to patching together a real performance with a computer generated character). This fluid outcome is an important one, and the lack of fluidity in motion capturegenerated films has been one of the main criticisms against the practice. Motion capture often creates a lifeless “uncanny valley” appearance in its characters, making them both aesthetically displeasing and difficult to relate to. Robert Zemeckis’ more recent motion capture films are good examples of this unintended effect, and were criticized for their characters’ looks. Gene Deitch describes the characters in Beowulf as stiff and states that “...even the real Angelina Jolie is made to look like a mannequin.” Similarly, a New York Times article describes The Polar Express, stating the film “had its detractors, who criticized the less-than-human feel of its characters.” There was even a reported case of inmates in a Florida jail who described forced viewings of the film as torture, which led to a lawsuit against the prison. Lastly, Zemeckis’ adaptation of A Christmas Carol was denounced for containing characters with the “cold, rubbery look of video-game avatars.” This type of criticism, containing lifeless of characters, would never be applied to a carefully designed character created in the traditional vein. Even the biggest proponents of motion capture make a clear distinction between the technology and traditional animation practices. When speaking about the film Avatar, director James Cameron stated that “...people need to keep very strongly in mind is that this is not an animated film. These actors did not just stand at a lectern and do a voice part, and then animators went off and created the entire physicality of their performance.” Cameron even emphasizes his disinterest in being an animator and sees the animators’ role in his films as secondary to the motion capture performance:
“I’m not interested in being an animator...That's what Pixar does. What I do is talk to actors...There may be a whole team of animators to make sure what we've done is preserved, but that's their problem. Their job is to use the actor's performance as an absolute template without variance for what comes out the other end.” Jon Landau, the producer of Avatar, describes the technology as a “replacement for prosthetics,” placing motion capture as a special effects tool, not as a substitute for animation. Steven Speilberg, when discussing his film The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, which implements motion capture, described the process as “digital makeup, not augmented animation...basically the actual performance of the actual actor, and what you're simply experiencing is makeup.” Cameron, Speilberg, and others all make similar statements about the technology. These are the leading filmmakers currently implementing motion capture in their films, and they all describe motion capture as a filmmaking tool which focuses heavily on an actors performance and emphasize this process as being separate from more traditional forms of animation. As Jerome Chen, visual effects supervisor of Beowulf describes it, motion capture is a process in which ﬁlmmakers are “recording motion and applying it to whatever [they] want later on, which in this case is essentially the human characters.” Besides the directors who implement the motion capture process themselves, the
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also shares the view that motion capture belongs in a separate category from straightforward animation, in this case when qualifying for an award. The Academy issued a press release which states “motion capture by itself is not an animation technique” and sets guidelines for speciﬁc amounts of animated running time to qualify as an animated ﬁlm. The press release also deﬁnes an animated ﬁlm as one in “which movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique.” This decision created
controversy within the animation community, with some siding with motion capture as animation and others agreeing that traditional animation and motion capture belong in separate categories. Animator Henry Selick responded to the controversy, making the point that animators
still have to do a great deal of additional work after the motion capture process is completed before the ﬁnal ﬁlm is ﬁnished. Selick described the process as a “hybrid” in which “animators have to work very, very hard with the motion-capture data.” Similarly, a New York Times article referred to motion capture as a “hybrid of live action and animation.” However, this does not change the fact that animators are still amending the captured performances of actors, which cannot compare to the total control from start to ﬁnish of traditional animated techniques. Motion capture uses most of its cues from the movements and expressions of actors, not animators. Steven Paul Leiva agrees with a separation between motion capture and animation, even
going as far to say that putting performance capture in the same category as animation could be detrimental to animation as an art from. Responding to the Academy controversy, Leiva stated, “to include a performance capture ﬁlm in the category of best animated picture would be a mistake...It can only diminish the true art of animation and further confuse the audience about what animation really is and, worse, delay...a true appreciation for this art form, which...has not been achieved.” Similarly, Gene Deitch sees motion capture as limiting to the creativity of animators, noting “...we can’t say that mocap will be the end of work for animators… only perhaps the end of creative animation.” This is essentially what is wrong with motion capture: it is limited to an actors performance whereas animation is limited to the imagination. As Emmy winning character designer Shannon Tindle describes it, “there are some things that an actor really isn't physically capable of.”
Advocates of the motion capture system claim that newer motion capture technology has
been developed which would reduce the stiff effect on its characters. However, current technologies of motion capture still lack the creative spark and unique feel of animation. Traditional animation is only limited to the imagination of the artist whereas characters created through motion capture are limited to what a real physical actor can do. When describing Mars Needs Moms, which uses the process, Robert Zemeckis called it the “most advanced digital performance-capture 3-D movie to this day.” However, he also stated that “designers rely heavily on the range of motion of an actor’s face.” Motion capture can replicate detail of an actor’s face. However, it is still a form of replication, a copy. Animation is a unique art form in that virtually anything can be expressed or exaggerated within it whereas motion capture simply mirrors what already exists in a mechanical way. Although Zemeckis’ newer system “reads every single pore and crease in the actor’s natural face,” it remains limited by just that, the range of a human face. This over-emphasis on “humanness” and gratuitous special effects is exactly what limits
motion capture when compared to traditional animation. The emphasis is on technology and detail. However, cramming detail within a frame doesn’t necessarily mean something is carefully designed in a balanced way. Motion capture is the ﬁlm world equivalent to tracing paper. The ﬁnal outcome might look as good as the original actor’s performance but it will never be true animation. This sort of gratuity brought upon ﬁlms by motion capture is often detrimental. For example, A Christmas Carol was criticized for its over-use of special effects as an “attempt to juice up the third act with action-movie thrills [that] is alien both to the spirit and logic of the story.” This furthers the case for a clear separation between motion capture and animation. After all, simply using special effects in a ﬁlm does not qualify it as animated. As Gene Deitch puts it, “just about any movie made today has some animation in it...special-effects animation we’re not
even supposed to notice.” Surely a live-action ﬁlm with a few digital explosions should not qualify as animated and a clear separation should be made. Ultimately, motion capture is more of a form of special effects than it is animation.
Motion capture is aiming for a type of physical realism, which does not equate with relatable or believable characters. Character designer Shannon Tindle furthers this claim, saying that it has been “proven that realism is not really appealing to an audience.” Tindle cites Kung Fu Panda and Up as ﬁlms that “were not realistic but had believable characters.” This type of design and writing, says Tindle, is essential. Without “appealing, believable design, [audiences are] not going to feel any connection to [the ﬁlm].” Overall, animation and motion capture are different in that animation requires more
intricate technical skill and produces more ﬂuid and creative results. Motion capture ﬁlms may have a lot of detail and special effects but this should not be a substitute for content. Films should ultimately be judged on their substance above technical process. Gene Deitch makes the case for this type of ﬁlm critique, asking of ﬁlms, “Do they tell a story worth telling, and do they tell it well? That’s really what movies are all about, isn’t it?” This is exactly what is lost in the buzz surrounding motion capture technology. It may be more convenient, but at the cost of a loss in craft and putting a limit on creativity. While motion capture can replicate an actor’s performance, as Deitch puts it, “We animators can animate absolutely anything we can imagine.”
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