Are We Done with Motion Capture Animation Yet?

While motion capture (“mocap”) has its uses, I don’t think that fully motion-captured animated features should be one of them. Do you agree?

Using mocap to enhance a performance is one thing, but basing an entire film on it is another. I’ll accept that mocap is needed to create characters that simply could not be brought to life through traditional make-up, such as Gollum in ‘The Lord of the Rings‘ or the Na’vi in ‘Avatar‘. However, when mocap is used for every performance in a supposedly photorealistic film – like Robert Zemeckis’ ‘The Polar Express‘ and ‘A Christmas Carol‘ – I think that’s a ridiculously bad-looking waste of time.

What happened to Robert Zemeckis? The guy used to direct amazing films, but then he got caught up in motion capture and hasn’t made a decent movie since. In 1997, Zemeckis co-founded the production company ImageMovers. Although the company started off making live-action films, it was eventually purchased by Disney, changed its name to ImageMovers Digital, and began making sub-par fully motion-captured movies like ‘The Polar Express’, ‘Monster House‘, ‘Beowulf‘, ‘A Christmas Carol’, and this year’s huge flop ‘Mars Needs Moms’.

ImageMovers was not the first company to use motion capture. In fact, we’d even seen better-looking mocap previously. Decent motion capture was used in ‘The Mummy‘, and great mocap for Gollum, both prior to ‘The Polar Express’.

Motion Capture 101: Place an actor in a wetsuit covered in digital trackers, paint trackers on his/her face, and have him/her act out a scene. A nearby computer captures the movements of the digital trackers. Animators take that information and recreate the performance with an animated character.

Zemeckis’ application of motion capture is used in an odd fashion. He captures the real-life performances, only to have them animated into realistic characters in a realistic environment. He’s basically making the same movie twice. In contrast, look at what ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Avatar’ used mocap for. Those movies captured performances and animated them for unreal, impossible, and fantastic characters. Zemeckis uses it to recreate something he’s already got right in front of the camera.

Zemeckis’ use of mocap gives the characters an odd look and distracting dead eyes. This can seriously creep out an audience. ‘Mars Needs Moms’ was such a bomb that it caused Disney to put the coup de grace on ImageMovers Digital. But just when it looked like zany all-mocap movies were gone for good, a trailer gets released for the Peter Jackson-produced, Steven Spielberg-directed mocap family film ‘The Adventures of Tintin’.

It turns out that while James Cameron was perfecting his motion capture technology during the filming ‘Avatar’, he invited Spielberg to visit the set to see his achievement. Spielberg liked what he saw and decided to use the same technology to fully mocap animate his latest adventure film.

What do you think? Considering that Spielberg is using Cameron’s tech, which is far superior to Zemeckis’, will ‘Tintin’ possibly keep motion capture features around for good?


  1. I think the idea here though is to create something that just sets outside of the realm of reality. We could argue that A Christmas Carol or The Polar Express could be done live-action, but it would have just been a completely different movie.

    Especially The Polar Express – having the motion capture gives it a sense of realizim, but the CG still gives it a feel of fantasy that could not be achieved in live-action. It also ment the graphics were more faithful to the original book.

    Beowulf was kinda odd for me. I actually didn’t know it was a mocap movie until I was about half-way through it, then it just kinda freaked me out. The over-realistic animation was freaky to me. In this, I would have been okay with CG for the monsters and the enviornments, but the overly-realistic humans was just too much.

    A Christmas Carol was fine for me – it was just cartoony enough, and I actually quite enjoyed it. Same with Monster House.

    I guess what I am saying is – I am okay with it as long as its somewhat cartoony and is used to enhance the story. Doing it as a replacement for real actors, as what Beowulf kinda was, that is just weird to me and makes it really hard to be drawn into the movie.

    Does that make sense?

  2. vihdeeohfieuhl

    I actually try to see past the mocap and focus on if the overall product is a success. Some of the films you mentioned, i.e., ‘Mars Needs Moms’, would have been drivel regardless of which type of animation or other technology was used to make it. However, some of the other films you mentioned were quality films in spite of the mocap technology. Furthermore, I don’t believe that the good films would have benefited from being made with a different type of animation. Bad films are simply bad. It doesn’t matter if they are live action, or made using traditional animation, 3D animation, or mocap. The same can be said about high quality films. If a film is good, it’s good regardless of which technology was used to make it. All of the ones you point out as being awful, weren’t awful because of their use of mocap. They’re awful because they are contrived, illogical, and pointless, and they lack a central theme that the audience can identify with.

  3. I think its perfect for movies like Beowulf, you can do almost anything you want with these characters yet have a real human element added for the acting and actions. It gives more life while letting the director/writer go with creating whatever characters they want to

    Another prime example is LA Noire on the consoles, one of the coolest games I’ve played in years the full mocap and facial animations for these characters is on a scale thats never been seen in video games, its great to actually see the actors, witness actual performances and use the dynamic of solving crimes and cases based on watching these performances, figuring out whether a person is lying is such a great dynamic in a game that I’ve never experienced before.

    So needless to say I’m all for this stuff, I loved Monster House (fantastic facial animations) and I would certainly have no problem with these types of movies continuing, Mars Needs Moms looked to blow no matter how it was made, just looked really stupid and obviously everyone else felt the same way, but that didnt have anything to do with the way it was made

  4. Jane Morgan

    The cost-benefit of motion capture is interesting. It saves time, saves money, and gives the artists tremendous freedom.

    It makes impossible movies possible.

    On the other hand, it’s still a young technology. It can’t save a weak screenplay. And, often, it lowers a film into the uncanny valley.

    The question is, is it better to have MC-CGI Beowulf, or no Beowulf?

    20 years ago, Terminator 2 introduced audiences to CGI, and today we have Avatar.

    Imagine what motion-capture CGI will be like in 2031.

    • vihdeeohfieuhl

      Mocap definitely doesn’t make impossible movies possible, but it certainly helps them to be made in a more cost effective manner. It also allows them to be made in much less time. Some films that are entirely in mocap simply wouldn’t have a reason for existing if they were made as live action films, or made with other animation technology.

      When you talk about how mocap can’t save a weak screenplay, you hit on my points. A film with a weak screenplay is going to be bad regardless of which technology is used to make it. If a film has a weak screenplay, no direction, and no creative influence, it is going to be a bad film whether or not it is made with mocap.

      The answer to your question about Beowulf is that it is better to have Beowulf just the way it is, than no Beowulf at all. I am with Chaz on this one. Beowulf is a shining example of a film that put mocap technology to use in an appropriate fashion. As a result we have a film that many cinema lovers were very pleased with.

      I’m not saying that it would have been impossible to make Beowulf without mocap, but it would have been much more expensive, and taken a lot more time to boot. Beowulf as a live action film simply wouldn’t have been efficient in any way, shape, or form. Beowulf as a traditionally animated film wouldn’t have been half as effective.

      Terminator 2 absolutely did not introduce audiences to CGI. CGI had been around for a long time before T2. T2 also had nothing to do with Avatar ultimately being made. Avatar and films of the like would have been made with or without T2. Films like Avatar being made are simply the result of the natural evolution of new technologies used in film.

      You can blame Avatar on T2 if you want, but there is a whole huge lot of films that introduced ground breaking CGI that contributed to Avatar being made. If you want to blame Avatar on T2 and other similar films, just don’t forget that many excellent films, such as The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, were also pioneered by T2 and these other films.

      Motion-capture might be unbelievable in 2031. I think that this alone is the most important reason why we are not, and should not be done with it yet. Mocap needs to be kept around and put to good use in proper circumstances. That is the only way we will ever find out just how far the technology can be taken, and what it might be able to contribute to the future of cinema.

    • “20 years ago, Terminator 2 introduced audiences to CGI, and today we have Avatar.”

      When you put it like that, your next line sounds like a threat. I’m tempted to find a “DO NOT WANT” macro.

  5. I have a hard time believing ‘Beowulf’ is an impossible film to make without Mocap. With the technology we have nowadays I think that it could have easily been done with real flesh and blood actors using CG elements, instead of making the whole thing Mocap. If we live in a world where we can make something as epic as ‘Lord of the Rings’ with real actors, awesome makeup, some CG, and some mocap (for Gollum) then I believe ‘Beowulf’ could’ve been done in a similar fashion.

    Truthfully with the filming techniques we have now and the technology that studios possess, I don’t think that there’s a movie out there that’s “impossible” to film without using mocap entirely.

    • I agree with you on Beowulf – This movie could easily have been done Live-Action with CG elements. This was the majority of my argument.

      However, the other movies mentioned, such as Polar Express and A Christmas Carol, just wouldn’t have felt right if it was live action, trditional animation or traditional CG.

      I think Mocap has a place, but it needs to be used in the right places. Polar Express, yes, Beowulf, no!

      • Polar Express is my go-to example of the horrors of mocap. The characters just look creepy and soulless. I also find the decision to have Tom Hanks play every role to be really annoying.

        • Disney’s ‘Christmas Carol’ is another mocap movie filled with soulless characters. It’s the eyes. Mocap can never create believable eyes.

          • vihdeeohfieuhl

            Mocap will be able to create realistic eyes one day. We’ve had a few examples where it came very close to doing so. The Na’vi in Avatar, and Clu in Tron: Legacy come to mind. I think that we need to keep things like this in mind.

            Think about how CGI used to look compared to how it looks now. Even though T2 was raved about for it’s fantasic CG, if you watch that movie now and compare it to what we have seen in the last few years, it looks downright mediocre.

            Once mocap can get the eyes and teeth correct, it will become the perfect “go to” technology for many different projects.

            That doesn’t mean that entire films need to be made using it, but I’m excited about the possibilities nonetheless.

          • William, in regards to believable, expressive eyes… yes. Hand-drawn animation is leaps and bounds ahead of Mocap in terms of expressive eyes.

      • vihdeeohfieuhl

        Couldn’t disagree more. Read my other post above. If you try to make Beowulf as a live action film, of course it could be done, but you’re not thinking of the expense, and the time that it would take. Besides, we’ve had many live action sword and sandal epics in the last decade plus. Did you really think many of them were any more effective than Beowulf? At least Beowulf was a refreshing change of pace when it comes to the typical vast sets, green screen created backgrounds, and other cliche’s of the genre.

        • Beowulf cost $150 million, and probably took about 3-4 years to make, as most animated features do. That’s no cheaper or more efficient than live action.

          As far as sword and sandal fantasy epics, we’ve got Game of Thrones on HBO right now, with production values up to par with any major Hollywood feature.

          Beowulf *could* have been done in live action. Honestly, I think that Zemeckis uses mocap as a crutch because animation allows him 100% control over every element on the screen at all times, which he never quite got in live action. He’s retreated from traditional filmmaking into the safe cocoon of his mocap studio.

          With that said, I kind of liked Beowulf. I find it intersting that most of the comments about it here seem mostly positive, when the general reaction to the movie on the internet was really negative.

          • vihdeeohfieuhl

            Outstanding points. I always automatically think of mocap making a film more cost efficient, and less time consuming, but I don’t know that Beowulf would have cost too much more to be made as a live action film.

            I agree with everything you say about Game of Thrones. It is currently my absolute favorite television show (Until Mad Men is back on).

            I also concur with everything you say about Zemeckis. I’ve never been a Zemeckis apologist. I will never defend any of his recent creative decisions. And I think it is a damn shame that he has essentially given up on genuine filmmaking.

            I was thinking the same thing about Beowulf. I thought that the general reaction to it was negative, but almost all of the posts about it today are highly positive.

          • Jane Morgan

            A lot of what makes filmmaking impossible are artists schedules, studio budgets, celebrity script changes, and the greenlight authority of marketing departments.

            We don’t know if Beowulf would have been made if Angelina Jolie wasn’t available for shooting when Zemeckis was in the mood to capture. For all we know, Zemeckis’s work life is planned around his wife’s vacations. And Jolie’s schedule is determined by the UN.

            Motion capture means you don’t have to fly celebrities to hundreds of locations. You can shoot faster, over fewer days, get a performance similar to live theater, and control the costumes, props, sets, lighting, and camera movements all in editing.

            The flexibility of this solves otherwise impossible live-action problems.

          • I’m sure that’s exactly the appeal of it for Zemeckis, Jane. But, you know, other filmmakers DO make it work. Zemeckis himself used to be able to. He’s sheltering himself from his own artform now, and he’s lost his cinematic voice in the process. Is there anything in Polar Express or Beowulf (which, again, I did sort of like) that’s identifiable as the work of the man who made Back to the Future or Roger Rabbit?

          • Jane Morgan

            For ‘Back To The Future’ and ‘Roger Rabbit’ we should give more credit to executive producer Kathleen Kennedy.

            For ‘Beowulf’ we should give more credit to screenwriter Roger Avary, and writer-producer Neil Gaiman.

            Zemeckis is more of an invisible director. If a movie of his stands out, good or bad, it’s usually because of other talent.

            With digital cameras, motion capture, and computer imagery, the art form is evolving faster now than it ever has in its 100-year history.

            A novelist can keep his voice through a lifetime of work, but cinema speaks with a collective voice, which is, in part, determined by the current level of technology.

            I don’t want 100% of films to go the way of motion capture, but I like the direction that big-budget holiday blockbusters are evolving.

            Who knows. Maybe someday Virtual A.I. Animation will allow a single filmmaker to make a billion dollar NC-17 movie all by himself in his parent’s basement in three weeks.

  6. vihdeeohfieuhl

    No we are not, and should not be done with mocap yet. More to come…

    I just entered a well thought out post, only to have the system give me an error and lose everything that I had typed up. If HDD saves these types of entries when an error comes up, I would love it if you could somehow restore my post. It was in reply to Jane.

    • I just checked the spam filter and trash folder, and I’m not finding it. We don’t have an error folder. I don’t think it ever made it through, sorry. I know how painful that can be.

      • vihdeeohfieuhl

        Thanks Josh. I hit submit and it went to a blank white page, with an error message that said something about entering a name. When I hit “back” to try it again, all was lost. I typed up my post again and submitted it, albeit in a much shorter, less constructed, and less fruitful manner. I did get it to go through though.

          • vihdeeohfieuhl

            I do that 99% of the time as well. It was funny because as soon as I hit submit, I was like, “Oh shit! The one time I don’t copy my post first…I know I’m going to get an error.” I probably brought it on with my negativity. Haha! I’m still bummed. I spent a great deal of time, and put a lot of thought and effort into it. It was 5 times better than my revision ended up being.

          • Facebook did that to me recently. I spent hours writing something, which actually did successfully post, but then mysteriously vanished a few minutes later for no reason at all. I was PISSED.

  7. Brian H

    Even though I really enjoyed Black Swan, there were several scenes where CG was used. For me this really affected the surrealism of the film. Especially whenever there was CG/digital blood and wounds, it really took me out of the film.

    Of course, I like Beowulf. Movies like Beowulf, A Scanner Darkly, Perfect Blue, and Spirited Away are all able to overcome this issue of CG causing a break in the narrative.

    Furthermore, I think that the issue of tying CG into live action is a big reason why so many movies are filmed with the green/blue tone. Look at movies like the Ring, the LOTR, the Matrix, and notice how the ever present green/blue tone helps to integrate the CG.

    The dead eye issue is of course noticeable and bothersome, but it is hardly unique to Zemeckis. I’m a huge fan of Heavy Rain, but it still has that issue. The results in LA Noire are amazing. And several people cite Avatar as their first realistic animated feature where the uncanny valley wasn’t an issue.

    Comparing the technical results in Avatar to Beowulf is somewhat like comparing the technical results of Metal Gear Solid 4 to GTA City. It isn’t just the difference in years, but an entire generation of tech in a field that develops quickly.

    To go along with Black Swan example, I’ll reference the Fountain. The chemical reactions used to create the spacescapes are nothing short of spectacular . The CG flowers in comparison are awful and really hurt the film at a critical moment.

    I enjoy movies that use miniatures and stop motion, and also movies like Alien where they used confections such as turned milk for the alien eggs.

    The point being that we should encourage a variety of effects and film techniques. Not simply say, it has to be like LOTR, or Avatar.

      • Brian H

        Spirited Away is an example of a movie that is not live action. Substantively, the hand drawn animation suits Miyazaki’s work so effectively its hard to imagine it any other way. Realistic and fantastic elements mix without a jarring transition.

        Of course if you think the relatively short history of mocap means that the uncanny valley effect is insurmountable, then hey you have your reasons.

  8. The title is an oxymoron. Motion capture is almost the opposite of animation. Motion capture directly captures the motion of the actors into the CG character. The animators do not create the animation at all. Sure, they may touch it up, but it’s not like Rotoscoping, where the animator completely creates the animation based on the actor’s actions, the actors actions are DIRECTLY translated into the computer, without the animator. The animator simply touches up that already finished animation so it doesn’t appear jerky or to fix any capture errors.

    There is a place for both motion capture and completely animator controlled animation. Motion capture works best when the setting is realistic, but the world is too fantastical to do in live action. Or, if the characters are alongside live action characters, such as in Avatar.

  9. Barsoom Bob

    He probably meant “Spririts Something” Final Fantasy movie. Spirited Away is Disney level + painted animation.

    • Final Fantasy: Spirits Within? Yeah, that makes sense. I think I am the only one in the world that really appreciated that movie. If you take it out of the Final Fantasy universe, it stands pretty well on its own.

  10. Brian H

    Even though the movies were released four years apart, a good example for comparison would be Angelina Jolie’s character in Beowulf and the mermaids in the newest Pirates movies.

    In the new pirates movie, the mermaids become CG monsters. When they are in monster mode swarming above the longboats, they look pretty dead-eyed and unquestionably CG. Which is a shame when considering that this is the best sequence in a big budget film. In contrast, Jolie’s character in Beowulf is able to transition from human looking to monster like without a jarring transition.

  11. that1guypictures

    I think there is good motion capture, and bad, just like with any other type of filmmaking. Gollum was near perfect, as was Avatar when it can to mo-cap. The ImageMovers films, on the other hand are not only poorly scripted, but the uncanny valley completely ruins them for me. I can’t stand them.

  12. Mike

    All of Zemeckis’ mocap movies have been unwatchable. I haven’t been able to get through any of them. The tech is a solution in search of a problem.