Capturing the magic motion of movies

Nov 28, 2018, 05:44 IST | Mayank Shekhar

Motion-capture could reinvent cinema altogether, if it hasn't already

Capturing the magic motion of movies
Serkis has directed the motion-capture marvel, Mowgli, which releases on December 7

Mayank ShekharActor-filmmaker Kamal Haasan, who rarely gets his observations about cinema wrong, once gave a mantra to a writer acquaintance of mine, who aspires to make a film. He said, "Bear in mind that movies have to be magic first." This goes right to the origins of the medium itself, or how crowds initially responded to the Lumiere Brothers' invention, almost running for cover, as they first experienced a train charging at them from a screen! Over the years, as Hollywood wholly organised itself into a capital-intensive industry, making movies the most Right Wing of all arts, aimed at heightening possibilities of magic—creating monsters, creatures, super-heroes, recreating the past, imagining the future of humans, exploring space, balletic action, and realistic violence—the only thing that changed was that merely the spectacle was no longer enough.

A story had to be told, too. And emotions expressed, and felt. Else, people would simply get bored. I could well be in the minority of one, but even as a kid, growing up, I felt animation to be too kiddish! No knock on Pixar films (which happened later), especially. But there is a cartoonish quality to the quick chatter in a cartoon talkie—recreated straight from the strip—that one could find hard to emotionally relate to if you're already used to fine human performances. Did Hollywood identify this as a problem-solving area worth scientifically investing in? In 2011, Stephen Spielberg as director, and Peter Jackson as producer, certainly did, as they rolled out The Adventures Of Tintin (2011), widely acknowledged then as a breakthrough of sorts in live-action, performance/motion-capture filmmaking.

Actor Andy Serkis played Captain Haddock in Tintin. This is only befitting. For nearly two decades now, more than simply an actor, Serkis has been the indisputable pioneer in motion-picture technology—a deep engagement, I suspect, that would have begun with him playing Gollum in Jackson's The Lord Of The Rings trilogy (2001-03), where the motion-capture only vastly improved by the third part. Serkis similarly played, along with a computer-generated image, King Kong in King Kong (2005), Caesar in the Planet Of The Apes reboot trilogy (2011-17), Supreme Leader Snoke in the Star Wars sequel trilogy (2015, '17). Serkis has just directed the motion-capture marvel, Mowgli (that drops on Netflix on December 7), through his London-based motion-capture production company.

He also plays Baloo in the film. Using Mowgli as an opportunity, I met Serkis this week mainly to ask how performance/motion-capture essentially works. To cut a long, painstaking story short—involving teams of animators, motion-editors, key-framing, data-processing, rotoscoping; basically hundreds sweating it out over four-and-half years to match every human move before the camera, to animals brought to life on the computer screen—Serkis gave me the example of the image of a tiger, and Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Shere Khan in Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book adaptation. He said, "We morphed his face to a tiger's. Along a long timeline, we hit a sweet spot, where you could see both Benedict and Shere Khan.

This is how we continued with all characters." For an actor, this is altogether another world from voicing in animation films, where even lip-syncing doesn't completely match, let alone infusing real, human smiles, frowns, and subtlest expressions. The shooting though is a two-part process. The first takes place at a "motion-capture stage" with A-list stars—also Christian Bale (as Bagheera), Cate Blanchett (as Kaa), and others in Mowgli's case—acting with "no sets, no jungle; but appropriate props built, and levels created. The idea is to simply focus on the performances."

Bale tells me, "You have multiple cameras on your head, pointed to your face. You perform (the entire script) with fellow actors as you otherwise would. There is no limitation on movement, only a spatial awareness of the head being five times its size, so if you're not careful, you could just hit it against a table." Mowgli (Rohan Chand), unlike other main characters, is human, of course. He shoots first with professional stars, and thereafter with motion-capture actors, who are dressed to reprise animals, on actual sets, and real-life locations. The two sets of performances by A-listers and motion-capture professionals is then worked on by animators to create what becomes the final film that I saw from a back-row before the big screen, and might prefer to catch closer to the eye, to appreciate what they've really achieved. A fair way to imagine the future of motion-capture could be to sense how one can easily bring back dead people on screen, with no one being able to tell the difference.

Bale says, "I did a film recently, which required four hours of prosthetics and make-up, and great deal of waiting for transformation. I can't help but wonder if motion-capture will become so advanced that either it works in tandem with make-up and prosthetics, or one absolutely dominates the other." Can totally see that happening for big-budget movies, given the pace of its advancement over the past decade. Either way, cinema, as pure magic, remains that unique sanctuary where the best of art, science, technology, and commerce, continue to seamlessly converge.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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