Motion capture performances are currently not eligible for an Academy Award, something director and actor Andy Serkis has gone on record to say should be changed.
His latest film is Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, the long-awaited CGI retelling of The Jungle Book, which uses motion capture techniques extensively.
The technology has come on leaps and bounds since its early origins in the 1970s, and now produces ferocious and strange creatures still uncannily recognizable as the human actors who animate them. Benedict Cumberbatch, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Naomie Harris and Tom Hollander are among the actors to lend both their voice and performance — right down to their facial expression — to the creation of an extremely lifelike jungle animal.
It can’t be long until the Academy changes its mind, but in the meantime, here is a list of our favorite 10 performances.
10. Willem Dafoe in John Carter (2012)
This veteran actor donned stilts and learned a fictional language to bring alien Tars Tarkas to life. He was joined by fellow extraterrestrials Samantha Morton and Thomas Haden Church, who all wore motion capture suits to shoot the live action film on location in the desert.
9. Karin Konoval in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
Most of the apes in the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy are either war-mongering or angst-ridden, so the gentle orangutan Maurice makes a lovely exception. Peaceful and curious with an irresistibly playful face, Maurice would rather bond with humans than overcome them. The actress behind him discusses her approach alongside fellow actor and ape impersonator Terry Notary in this video from last year’s New York Comic Con.
8. Bill Nighy in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)
Bill may look like a convict with a bad case of luminous chicken pox in this clip, but he was eventually transformed into Davy Jones, the fearsome, tentacle-faced sea captain that roams the seas looking for souls to join him as slaves on his ship. He was recorded on set, instead of during post-production, to get even more into character.
7. Ray Winstone as Beowulf (2007)
Director Robert Zemeckis‘s first CGI motion capture film The Polar Express suffered some harsh criticism of its “dead” looking characters, so he amped up the tech a few years later to deliver more photorealistic performances in this film. A star-studded supporting cast including Robin Wright, Angelina Jolie, Sir Anthony Hopkins, and John Malkovich all donned mo-cap jumpsuits, but it was Ray Winstone in the lead role who was most impressive. He looked markedly different on screen as the legendary warrior who must slay the hideous creature Grendel, but nonetheless delivered a performance every bit as compelling as his turns in The Proposition or The Departed.
6. Andy Serkis in King Kong (2005)
Moved from motion capture to performance capture with this movie, thanks to the 132 retro-reflective markers on Andy Serkis’s face. They were assigned to muscle groups, that would then directly drive the digital mask of King Kong, meaning cameras could capture his body movements, sounds and facial expressions at the same time. The resulting performance was admired the world over, with Serkis winning several film critic awards.
5. Alan Tudyk in I, Robot (2004)
Long before he was K-2SSO in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the Firefly star played Sonny, the robot at the heart of this movie starring Will Smith. An emotionless robot may seem like an easy role to play, but Alan’s performance gave him new depths. By the time Sonny is waiting for his impending doom, there were very few among us who didn’t shed a tear.
4. Zoe Saldana in Avatar (2009)
Zoe’s touching performance as Na’vi Neytiri was captured on a stage specially designed for this groundbreaking film, which saw director James Cameron aided by an incredible (and Oscar-winning) special effects team and cinematographer.
3. Mark Rylance in The BFG (2016)
Steven Spielberg and his Bridge of Spies star had plenty to live up to with this film, as generations of children’s imaginations had been sparked by Roald Dahl‘s Big Friendly Giant. They had nothing to fear, however, as every nuance in Mark’s performance is captured, bringing the character’s humor and sentimentality to life beautifully.
2. Benedict Cumberbatch in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
Benedict reportedly visited London Zoo and studied the reptiles in their natural habitat to inspire his performance as the legendary dragon Smaug. The process on set may not be very glamorous, with the Sherlock star crawling around the studio on all fours, covered in sensors and a black morph suit, but the results were staggering. Smaug was brought to life, albeit with Benedict’s distinctive mannerisms, and proved to be a highlight in the Hobbit franchise.
1. Andy Serkis in Lord of the Rings (2002)
There’s no doubt this Lord of the Rings star will be considered a driving force behind the recent take-up in motion capture technology. With characters such as King Kong, Caesar in Planet of the Apes, Captain Haddock in The Adventures of Tin Tin and Snoke in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, he has led the way in showing its potential – but it all started with Gollum.
Arguably the most colorful character in one of the most popular film franchise of all time, Gollum is known for his hideous appearance, grotesque voice (reportedly inspired by the sound of Serkis’s cat coughing up a hairball) and desperate search for the most precious object in the world: the ring. Until his first appearance in the first Lord of the Rings movie, motion capture had mostly been used in video games or music videos, like this 1996 one featuring a skeleton dancing like Michael Jackson. Andy’s performance changed that forever.
Which is your favorite motion capture performance?