The Top 5 Motion-Capture Performances, And What to Learn from Them
Though they may seem easy to portray, CGI characters are very difficult to develop. Actors are often forced to play a non-human character while acting around a green screen, covered with white dots. Lacking the environment that most roles would allow, the actors who perform motion-capture face a very difficult challenge: make an abnormal character feel real, and do so under very strenuous circumstances. Fortunately, many actors have done fantastic work in this area of film, providing some of the best performances in recent memory and spawning several cultural icons. But what makes these roles so memorable? The answer is not traditionally impressive CGI, rather, it is impressive character.
#5: Andy Serkis: King Kong
Starting this list is the very master of motion capture himself: Andy Serkis. In my opinion, King Kong was in no way a perfect movie. Director Peter Jackson’s pacing was certainly lagging in the first act, some of the CGI was very questionable, and many of the supporting characters fell flat to me. However, it presented the best version of King Kong we have seen to date. Kong was no massive, violent monster, instead he felt surprisingly human, while also resembling the personality of a gorilla.
Although the romantic relationship between Kong and Ann has always been questionable in my mind, Jackson captured it here with surprising maturity, a task that was made far easier thanks to Serkis’s efforts. Kong had more of a loving fascination with Ann than a romantic crush, and Ann treated Kong as one would treat one’s pet, even though she was under his control. Serkis portrayed Kong’s emotions very well during his scenes with Ann, going from enjoyment when Ann played along with him, to rage when she rejected him, and to compassion when she fell into danger.
Key in Kong’s personality were his eyes, as they were the windows into his soul. They revealed how he felt in a very clear, yet subtle way, a true display of Weta’s talent and attention to detail. But when Ann came under attack, the eyes became filled with rage as the massive gorilla turned violent.
Kong’s fight against the dinosaurs is one of my favorite action scenes from Jackson, which is high praise considering he directed The Lord of the Rings. King Kong was not just about an emotional friendship between a big ape and a girl, it also featured some incredible action. Perhaps the most enthralling scene in the entire film was when Kong grabbed the Tyrannosaurus Rex by its mouth and slowly ripped his jaw apart.
Of course, Kong’s last stand in New York is also a memorable moment. Serkis plays the desperation and hopelessness of the situation very well as the fleet of airplanes fire at him from above. Ultimately Kong is no match for the barrage of bullets, something both the characters and the audience know immediately. At the moment of Kong’s death, as he bleakly falls to street, many might have had a sigh of relief knowing that even if Kong did not survive, Serkis would certainly be around in Hollywood for a while longer.
#4: Mark Ruffalo: The Hulk
Following two (at best) underwhelming films, no one expected the Hulk to be the breakout star of The Avengers, but that is exactly what happened. Ruffalo played a lighter side of Banner that Norton and Bana had neglected. However, what made the Hulk stick with us were his incredible action scenes. Not only did they capture both his rage and his strength, but they managed to display a more controlled side of the Hulk that few other renditions of the character have utilized. Seeing the Hulk fight against Ultron, and smash Loki to the ground, gave audiences a lighter side of the character.
And given that the Hulk is a green rage monster who only appears when a scientist becomes angry, it makes sense that he should not be explored with complete seriousness.
But when Banner loses control of the Hulk, the fun scenes of Hulk smashing Loki into the floor turn into dark, terrifying, and intense scenes. The first time we meet the Hulk, he is hunting Black Widow in the dark corridors of the Helicarrier. But even the scenes containing an unhinged Hulk still contain doses of humor, particularly the Hulkbuster fight in Age of Ultron.
Key in the character’s success was balance. The Hulk should neither be solemn, nor cheesy, he should strike something of a balance between the two extremes. Ruffalo’s Hulk has moments of sadness and regret when his inner monster causes harm, but he also has moments of pure action-driven spectacle, which is why his iteration was successful where others failed.
This in no way excuses the Black Widow romance in Age of Ultron, but I prefer to purge that relationship from my memory by rewatching the Hulkbuster fight.
#3: Andy Serkis: Caesar
A sharp contrast from an earlier role, but a welcome one all the same, Serkis once again showed his mastery of motion capture to audiences in Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Although the CGI used to create Caesar is undeniably fantastic, it is Serkis’s voice and movements that truly made the character feel real.
Unlike King Kong, this movie was about a hyper-intelligent ape sent on a path towards conquering the human race, which very well could and should have felt ridiculous, or at the very least highly fictional. Yet, despite the seemingly absurd plot, Caesar is often portrayed as more human than animal, a distinction which shows itself in the second film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Here, the apes are essentially human, lacking only the technology and physiology of a man. This characterization would not be possible if not for Andy Serkis.
Caesar may be a future revolutionary, but Serkis portrays him as a calm, focused, and honorable leader. In case it has not occurred to you, playing a CGI chimpanzee is difficult enough, but playing a CGI chimpanzee who is also a reserved legislator and commander is considerably harder. And against all odds, Serkis made Caesar feel real.
His voice is rough and deep, perfectly balancing the human and animalistic sides of the character. At times, he appears distinctly human, such as when he is seen riding a horse, and at other times he is a pure animal, as can be seen during the revolt in San Francisco.
And although I have already mentioned the CGI, I must restate that the visuals of this character, which are at the forefront, are absolutely spectacular. Caesar is a character that blurs the line between computer animation and reality, and since his character has a phenomenal performance behind it, he is one of the most memorable characters to appear in recent years.
#2: Andy Serkis: Gollum
This is the role that arguably made motion-capture a respected art form. Before Gollum, the very nature of a CGI character was considered by many to be either a gimmick, a joke, or an impossibility. To many, even if technology was possible, having a character exist as a special effect seemed meaningless. With the Jar Jar Binks being the most popular example of the dangers a CGI character could impose, many might have shuttered at the thought that one of Tolkien’s most damaged, interesting, and important creations would face similar fate.
But thanks to Andy Serkis’s fantastic performance, and the incredible CGI work, Gollum was not only saved from disaster: he lived up to the expectation established in the novels. Gollum, by nature, is a very difficult character to portray, as an actor and a writer most both understand the many aspects of the character. Gollum is damaged, hopeful, endearing, terrifying, evil, lustful, and loyal, as opposed to a character such as Frodo, who is largely portrayed as brave and resilient, the only cracks in his character being shown in his addiction to the ring. And even though Frodo shares the same lust towards the ring as Gollum, he never explicitly harmed anyone because of it.
Gollum, on the other hand, both attempted to serve Frodo, heal himself, kill Sam, betray Frodo, claim the ring, destroy his addiction, and playful swim. Clearly, Gollum is a far more difficult character to portray, yet Serkis did the character justice and then some.
Serkis was able to explore every side of Gollum, while still managing to present a consistent character. Gollum felt like a real person, despite his deformed appearance and high pitched voice. Through Serkis we could feel Gollum’s loneliness, we could pity him, while also despising him for how he betrayed Frodo and Sam. Gollum was so well conceived, that many argued the academy should have considered him for best actor, a swift departure from the likes of Jar Jar Binks.
#1: Benedict Cumberbatch: Smaug
This is a controversial choice for the top spot, but a deserving choice nonetheless. Benedict Cumberbatch may have been new to motion-capture, but despite his inexperience he delivered a fantastic performance. Smaug was everything he needed to be: massive, terrifying, and intelligent. Cumberbatch was critical to the intellectual side of the dragon, as his voice conveyed the methodical intelligence and egotistical nature of the character, as well as his epic size. Part of what made Smaug so menacing was that he could easily swat Bilbo and the dwarves at any moment, and he seemed to outthink Bilbo and the dwarves at every turn. The company never outplays him, not even in the climax of the film.
Smaug was no Godzilla, instead of bombastic and explosive, his first scene is an intense reveal which reveals his grandeur in a slow, yet terrifying way. As Bilbo explores the treasure hoard, the gold slowly gives way to an enormous creature that loops and twists inside Erebor. Cumberbatch, again, provided an important aspect to the character: Smaug’s reptilian movements, as the dragon interacts with the environment like a mixture of a snake and a lizard. His neck coils like a snake, yet the motion of his arms, tail, and legs resemble a gecko or iguana.
But what truly makes Smaug so visually impressive is the CGI work done by Weta Studios. Smaug appears as a real reptile: every scale looks detailed and fully realized, each spike formed on his snout appears incredibly genuine, and his overall design was pure genius. Though he moves like a reptile, Smaug’s body appears as a sort of cross between a dragon and a bat, which allowed The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug to present a creature which paid homage to Tolkien’s original sketches.
Not only was Smaug’s persona and design so well realized, but his assault on Lake Town in Battle of the Fire Armies captured the true power and ferocity of the character perfectly. Smaug burned down the settlement without hesitation, without mercy, and without opposition. The only thing that stops the dragon is his ego, as it keeps Smaug still enough for Bard to lodge a black arrow in his chest.
Gollum is certainly worthy of taking first place on this list, but Smaug amazed me in ways that Gollum never did. He was far more terrifying, both intellectually and physically, and though his character lacked the tragedy of Gollum, he was better crafted and presented.
What should we learn?
Two factors were consistent throughout every character on this list: they were visually astonishing and well written. The CGI characters played by men in motion capture suits all felt real, even though they clearly weren’t. How were characters who are so obviously, glaringly fictional feel more realistic than, say, a group of teenagers in a high school drama? The answer is simple, and can be applied to nearly all of fiction: a consistency is the bedrock of character. It does not matter how ridiculous the premise of a character is, or how simple, so long as they are consistent, they will feel real. Gollum felt like a tangible character because his eternal lust for the ring, which had been established time after time, was ultimately his downfall. Smaug felt like a tangible character because his ego, which had been established throughout The Hobbit films, was ultimately his downfall.
Every action a character takes must feel earned or logical. The CGI for Jar Jar Binks was not awful considering that he was revealed in 1999, but his dialogue and voice were so awful that audiences hated him all the same. Visual effects are never enough to make a film good if they are weighed down by terrible a terrible script and terrible performances.
If filmmakers could learn this simple lesson and apply it to every character they craft, the world of cinema would feel far more realistic.