Cinema is an ever-evolving landscape. Throughout its history, certain technological advances have opened countless doors for filmmakers. Technicolor brough colorized motion pictures, green screens opened new worlds, and motion capture opened the door for limitless characters. What is mocap and how does it work to create iconic characters? Let’s find out. 

What is motion capture

What does mocap mean?

Motion capture is one facet of VFX. What is mocap and how is it distinguished from other types of VFX? Let’s take a look at the motion capture definition. 

MOTION-CAPTURE DEFINITION

What is mocap?

Motion capture, also called “mocap,” is a technology-driven method of capturing an actor’s motion and physical performance so it may be translated to a CGI character. Mocap can track various types of motion such as facial expressions and body movements. Mocap can be used in animated films, but is most popular in creating CGI characters live-action movies. 

Famous motion capture technology characters:

  • Thanos — Avengers: Endgame
  • Smaug — The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
  • Caesar — Rise of the Planet of the Apes

What is mocap and how did it start?

History of motion capture

On the technology side, the history of motion capture can actually be traced back to the study of biomechanics. The technology was an effective way at studying how the human body moves and functions.

Creatively, mo-cap is also seen as a derivative of rotoscoping, the technique of tracing over motion pictures to create realistic animated motion. 

In early Disney films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, actors were recorded dancing and moving so that artists may easily sketch over the footage to create realistic, animated movement. 

What is mocap  •  Mocap animation

In the 1990s, mo-cap became an integral part of creating characters in video games. Video game creators used it to digitally capture an actor’s performance. 

Almost simultaneously, filmmakers began using mocap animation and pushing the technology further. In 2002, Peter Jackson revealed just how iconic CGI mo-cap characters can be when the world saw Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers played by the legendary Andy Serkis.

What is mocap  •  Andy serkis motion capture

What really pushed mocap animation forward and opened doors for CGI characters you see in cinema today was one of James Cameron’s best filmsAvatar. Previous to Avatar, motion capture performances had to be carried out in specific studios for technical reasons. 

To get mocap actors on set with other actors, new technology had to be created for Avatar. This allowed the film to capitalize on an actor’s interpretation and full emotional performances. 

Motion capture movie  •  Avatar

These days, mocap is a common tool for some of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters. Let’s take a look at the various components of mocap as it pertains to cinema today. 

Motion capture technology

Components of motion capture

Motion capture is technology driven. This technology, however, has evolved to support actor’s performances and create a better motion capture character. 

Mocap suit

The first component of motion capture is a mocap suit. A mocap suit captures the body movements of an actor. A mocap suit has various sensors (typically 15-20) that track gravitational pull and rotation to fully capture movement. 

All of this motion data is then digitally transmitted to a software to capture the motion in real time. Check out this high-tech mocap suit in action below. 

What is motion capture  •  VFX Artist + $20K Mocap Suit

Head mounted camera

One of the more astonishing parts of motion capture is its ability to capture the details in an actor’s face. Emotional details in the subtle ways an actor's lip quivers or eyes shift are all captured and translated to a CGI character. 

This has been an incredibly important part in creating iconic motion capture characters like Caesar from Planet of the Apes or Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. Check out how motion capture was used to create the details of Thanos in the video below. 

Facial motion capture  •  Avengers Infinity War — Making Thanos

Software

After shooting, the VFX team would use the motion capture data from an actor’s facial expressions and performance and add details to create a fully realized digital character. To achieve this, VFX teams utilize a software. Most commonly they are softwares made by Autodesk such as Autodesk MotionBuilder or 3DS Max.

Motion capture is not only a tool for filmmakers, it is a game-changer. It gives filmmakers limitless possibilities in the characters and brings them to life down to the very details. 

UP NEXT

Visual effects explained 

Motion capture revolutionized how filmmakers create characters, but it is only one aspect of VFX. If you’re curious about other types of VFX, check out our next article. We take a look at techniques like compositing, green screens, and some of the best VFX examples. 

Up Next: What is VFX? →
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