Is Motion Capture A Three-Legged Dog? Discuss

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Back before the dawn of time when I was in college, there was a neighborhood a few blocks off campus of rental duplexes mostly inhabited by college kids. A lot of them had dogs, and the dogs would pal around together, running up and down in a pack between the duplexes. One of those dogs was Sebastian.

Sebastian was a boxer, about knee-high, and even though he had that grumpy, furrow-browed face boxers have, he was actually a sweet-natured, everybody-pet-me thing. Although he was the tallest of the dogs, he always had trouble keeping up with the rest of the pack because poor Sebastian only had three legs, having lost one after being hit by a car (in that politically incorrect way college kids have, we nicknamed him “Tripod” – insensitive, but granted with affection, I assure you).

Sebastian, as his name suggests, was a male, and I don’t think you have to be a dog fancier to know that male dogs pee by lifting a rear leg. What non-fanciers may not know is that males tend to always lift the same leg. Sebastian’s wont, as I remember, was to stand on his left while he lifted his right. The car accident had cost Sebastian his left rear leg; the one he was used to standing on.

Here’s the thing:

Common sense tells us, OK, the dog loses his left leg, why doesn’t he just pee out that way and stand on his good leg?

But as watchers of America’s Funniest Home Videos know, dogs – having a brain the size of a walnut – don’t always have a lot of common sense.

Sebastian had been standing on his left and raising his right since he was a pup, and that little walnut brain had managed to program itself to think that’s the way it was supposed to be, come hell or high water or missing limb. So, Sebastian learned to balance himself on his two front legs so he could continue to lift the one rear leg he still had and pee out in the same direction he’d always had.

I remember me and some of the other guys often sitting on one of the duplex porches watching Sebastian go into his two-legged stance (this was years before cable – our entertainment threshold was pretty low), and one or another of us would invariably pronounce some variation of, “That’s impressive…but stupid.”

As I’m looking over the Sound on Sight Twitter debate about whether or not The Adventures of Tintin should be considered an animated film or not, I’m reminded of Sebastian as I consider the whole concept of motion capture technology.

It is impressive, and I don’t think it’s stupid, but I still get stuck on the question of: Why?

Don’t get me wrong. There have been things done with motion capture I doubt could have been pulled off any other way: Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films, say, or Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011 — Caesar may be the best thing about Rise; maybe the only good thing, depending on your tastes). And so on. It does have a unique value.

But when I look at entire films done in motion capture –like The Polar Express (2004), Beowulf (2007), and now Tin Tin – I’m a little bit at a loss. How much of a difference would there be in these movies if they were completely digitally-animated films rather than mostly animated films with motion capture performers in the leads?

I’ll give you Gollum and Caesar, but the knock on most motion capture human characters – and I have to go along with this –is they feel neither animated nor human, but a kind of doughy, plasticky hybrid.

In a more high-tech, more sophisticated way, what’s being done with motion capture (and I concede the problem may not be the technology but how it’s being applied) reminds me of what Ralph Bakshi tried to do with rotoscoping in movies like Wizards (1977), American Pop (1981), and his attempt at an animated The Lord of the Rings (1978).

In it way, rotoscoping was a primitive form of motion capture: animators would shoot live-action footage, than create animated figures over that footage. Bakshi used the technique as a way of producing animation on tight budgets. In Wizards, he built fantastic images atop his live-action figures. But in Lord, and especially in American Pop, Bakshi used rotoscoping to create more “realistic” animation, so real-worldly critics began to wonder why he was bothering to animate the films at all.

That was Bakshi’s three-legged dog: trying to make animation as much like real life as possible. It’s a bit paradoxical if you think about it – trying to take a medium to the point where you defeat the very magical qualities so unique about it.

And I’m wondering if at least some of the applications of motion capture aren’t the same thing. Do you want a real-feeling Tintin in something so clearly unreal as The Adventures of Tintin? Might not Beowulf have actually been more impressive if the B-man had, indeed, been a live-action man doing battle with Grendel?

Frankly, I don’t know. I’m torn between the ideas that maybe we just haven’t learned to use motion capture as well as we might…or that it’s a three-legged dog.

But looking at how adamantly people were tweeting about Tin Tin, I thought I’d open the question to all of you out there and see what you have to say.

So, gang, what is it? Is motion capture technology the next evolutionary step in animation? Or maybe it’s just a new tool in the toolbox, to be applied judiciously? Or is it “Impressive…but stupid?”



  1. Staindslaved says

    Motion Capture is fantastic in films like The Lord of the Rings, Avatar and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. In animation I do believe it is a three-legged dog (great story btw). I saw The Polar Express and Beowulf in theaters because I had been reading about this new real-d technology and needed to check it out. I had been saying since 2006 that 3-D was going to take the film world by storm and nobody would listen till Avatar come out. The best thing about animation is how characters and backgrounds can be artistically enhanced or stylishly exaggerated and its the biggest reason why we enjoy them beyond our childhood. All motion capture animation makes the characters look lifeless and it gives an odd china doll sense of soullessness even in the hands of people who know what they’re doing like Spielberg and Jackson. Perhaps in a few years a film will come out that will change my mind but I much prefer Disney, Pixar, Aardman or Hayao Miyazaki when it comes to animation.

  2. Michael Ryan says

    Hi Bill. Wow, I am a little impressed that my little Twitter tempest led you to write an article, but your stuff is always so good that I am grateful that it did.

    I agree with you and Jessi that motion capture as it was introduced by Robert Zemeckis in The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol is a real problem, falling into the uncanny valley and ultimately more creepy than charming, but there have been films that have used it well.

    Academy Award winning Happy Feet is the best example. It used the technology so well that many people (myself included) don’t even realize that is used motion capture. Monster House was also mentioned on Twitter, but I left it out of the article because Happy Feet was a better example. Of course one of the reasons that Monster House works is because the film is supposed to be creepy.

    The one place where I would disagree with you is The Adventures of Tintin. I view the film as a good example of motion capture done right. There is a lot of Chuck Jones in Tintin, both in the airplane sequence and the Morocco chase sequence. The use of cartoon physics, to me, justifies the use of motion capture and Spielberg smartly avoids the uncanny valley effect because all the character’s faces are animated. The closest to a real face is the villain’s which works on two levels: the villain is supposed to be creepy and while Daniel Craig did the motion capture, the villains face doesn’t look like Craig’s it looks like Spielberg’s, which works on all kinds of levels.

    To me (as I said in the debate) motion capture is a tool. Tools can be used well or they can be used badly. At the end of the day having a good brush is important, but nowhere near as important as knowing how to use the brush.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Nicely put, especially that part about how good my stuff is. No, but seriously, I agree with you in that where motion capture has been used to provide some sort of digital armature — as in HAPPY FEET — it seems to have done something that could only be done by motion capture. I think the point we’re all seeming to agree on is that when it’s used to make animated figures more human, not only do they not look particularly human, but why bother?

  3. Bill Mesce says

    To your point, Jessi, the understanding I’ve sometimes gotten is that motion capturing an actor’s performance is supposed to somehow make it more “real,” but it seems the more real the filmmaker tries to make it, the less real it seems.
    I had a thought similar to yours before I started writing this. TOY STORY 3 had me pulling out my hankie because somehow they managed to do in full animation what I’ve yet to see motion capture do.

  4. Jessi says

    If it’s a whole motion-capture so called “animated” film like “Tintin” I’d say it’s impressive…but stupid. If it’s Golloum or Cesar-like one character in a live-action movie it could be a tool in the toolbox, to be applied judiciously. For example, “Rango”, the biggest rival of “Tintin” in awards season, doesn’t lack in giving emotions of characters, realistic backgrounds and beauty of sceneries. It’s even better than “Tintin”. So is there need in wholy motion-capture films? My answer is “no”.

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