Motion capture for animation: the fascinating history behind the movies we know today

Written by

03 December 2020

One of the most memorable cinematic examples of motion capture – or mocap for short – is Andy Serkis’s portrayal of Sméagol ‘Gollum’ in the Lord of the Rings. But the revolutionary technique didn’t begin on the great adventure to Mordor and it certainly didn’t end there. In fact, mocap has been around since the 19th century, predating cinema. According to Goodbye Kansas’ podcast, Yellow Brick Road, motion capture may have even been a catalyst to the creation of cinema. 

It all started with a man on a horse

A man by the name of Eadweard Muybridge brought us what could be defined as one of the earliest examples of motion capture. Muybridge, a photographer, bridged the gap between still photography and recorded movement when he came up with a way to take photographs of a moving subject – a horse on a race track – in rapid succession. These images not only enabled viewers to analyze the horse’s movements and position, but actually created a video sequence of the horse’s motion, giving the world the first moving image.

Muybridge’s work may have laid the foundations not only for the motion capture we know today, but also for the birth of cinema, inspiring and influencing generations of others in the industry. 

Eadweard Muybridge horse motion

Motion capture for animation was brought to life with a clown

In 1915, animator Max Fleischer (known for shows like Betty Boop and Popeye), invented rotoscoping (a technique that could produce realistic movement of an animated character by using live-action film footage to paint over each frame).  He used footage of his brother, dressed in a clown costume, dancing on the roof, and then traced that footage, frame by frame, onto the animation of Koko the Clown. 

This would be the start of a new era of motion capture and animation, especially once it caught the eye of Walt Disney.

Enter Snow White – the first full-length cel-animated feature film – which used rotoscoping to bring the characters to life. Many of the recorded movements that were traced onto the animated characters in Snow White were reused on other Disney classics, which is why, if you look really carefully, you may see the same dance routine in a number of Disney animations. 

gif showing cindarella motion capture

 

The first motion capture suit is developed

A lot was going down in the world in the 1950s.  While America and the Soviet Union were embroiled in the Cold War, both on a mission to get to the moon first, animator Lee Harrison III was in the process of developing the world’s first mocap suit, which could record and animate an actor’s movements in real-time. Potentiometers attached to the bodysuit picked up any movements and translated them into rough animation on a monitor. Within two decades, animators had improved the bodysuits, lining them with active markers and using large cameras to track the movements, which produced digital animations that were far more detailed and accurate.

Sinbad: Beyond The Veil Of Mists was amongst the earliest animated films made exclusively with motion capture, using mocap suits that were able to translate movement into 3D animations.

 

Revolutionary characters in the history of motion capture

The development and evolution of motion capture for animation brought with it groundbreaking characters, such as the fully computer-generated Jar Jar Binks, played by Ahmed Best, in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, and, of course, the Lord of the Rings’ Gollum. 

Whilst Jar Jar Binks was one of the first main actor-driven, CG characters in a feature film, a few years later, Serkis’s Gollum made great strides into new mocap territory too, specifically with his appearance in the second Lord of The Rings Movie, “The Two Towers”. 

A technique that surpassed rotoscoping was used to bring this character to life, and that technique is the motion capture – or performance capture – we know today. For this evolved version of mocap to work, Andy Serkis had to be kitted out in a mocap suit, while special cameras recorded not only his crawling, hopping, and twitching movements, but also his wide-eyed and scowling facial expressions. 

The motion capture of Gollum in the second movie was so revolutionary because it was the first time they were able to shoot the mocap on location. Serkis was able to interact and respond to other actors in the scene instead of being filmed separately in a studio post the live-action filming.

Andy Serkis as Gollum

 

Waiting a decade for motion capture to catch up

The early 2000’s brought with it more developments in motion capture for movies, inspiring director Robert Zemeckis to use the newly evolved tech to create The Polar Express, one of the first movies ever made entirely with performance capture technology. Although this tech was used previously in Lord of The Rings and Star Wars, for example, it had never been used to create an entire film.

While this evolution of motion capture was taking place, and certainly breaking new grounds, filmmaker James Cameron, was patiently waiting because he believed the tech was still not where it needed to be in order to bring his vision of Avatar to life. You remember the visually mind-blowing world and characters of Avatar right? Well, Cameron felt that the mocap technology of the early 2000s was not going to do that world justice. And so he waited for the tech to catch up to his vision. By the time that it did, he had pioneered a “virtual camera” which enabled him to watch the CGI versions of the actors, as their performance was being captured, streamed live on a monitor, within the digital environment of Pandora. This took motion capture tech to a whole new level, beyond just the suits and the set, and earned Cameron three Academy Awards.

Avatar

 

The future of motion capture for animation

Following the success of Avatar, mocap has continued to evolve. Now there are many different kinds of motion capture for filmmakers to use, from marker-based systems that track physical markers on the actors, to markerless systems that use software that tracks an actors movement through identifying specific features on an actor (could be anything from their mouth to a piece of clothing).  Studios such as Centroid Motion Capture and Goodbye Kansas have an impressive portfolio of productions that have successfully used motion capture – from The Walking Dead (Goodbye Kansas), to Pacific Rim: Uprising (Centroid Motion Capture).

 

Pacific Rim mocap

But the future of motion capture is markerless, and with the presence of AI and quantum computing, that vision is becoming increasingly possible. This will mean fewer cameras required, greater flexibility in terms of the space that is used, and a much faster process. 

And, with the motion capture industry expected to be a $266 million industry by 2025, according to the Global Forecast on Research and Markets, the development of markerless mocap is very much on the near horizon.  But perhaps the future of mocap is arriving in other ways.

Lightweight mocap for fast 3D character animation

Motion Analysis has developed a lightweight suitless mocap system called the BaSix system, an innovative next-step in the realm of optical motion capture. The system enables users to select their animated character, equip the BaSix active markers, and then stream live animation data directly to their animation package, all under one minute. 

You might like: Everything you need to know about our BaSix mocap system