Eliciting Emotions with Electronics

Last week I was watching the movie District 9 with some friends and I heard someone shout “Oh no! They’re going to hurt it!”. What she was referring to was a human soldier pointing a gun at the head of a small CGI alien child. Even though these characters were non-human computer renderings, they elicited an emotional response from the audience. The seamless integration of computer generated imagery with real world people furthers the suspension of disbelief of cinema allowing the viewer to emotionally invest themselves into the narrative.

Stephen Prince’s book, Digital Visual Effects in Cinema, touches on the process of creating a digital character, and the steps the animators need to go through to find the ideal emotive object. While the book focuses on Disney/Pixar and their creation of emotionally charged animated characters, I find more interest in the burgeoning field of motion capture. Motion capture allows for uber-realist  animated characters that have human emotion because they are directly animated from their human counterparts. While the process has been around since the 90’s, it came into popular usage in Films and Video Games at the dawn of the 21st century. Beginning with films such as The Polar Express and Beowulf, and culminating with Avatar in 2009, Motion capture has replaced other forms as CGI as the most efficient and effective model for bringing animated characters to life. This infographic concisely sums up the progression and different forms of CGI technologies applied to Film and Video games.

While computer animation is a largely technical field, motion capture focuses on the performance of the actors as well. Andy Serkis has become a household name through his many motion capture roles and for the establishment of the medium as a respected art. Serkis achieved international fame through his portrayal of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and then went on to his primate portrayals in King Kong and Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Above we see Serkis (on horseback to the right) playing Caesar in the 2014 film Dawn of the Planet of The Apes. In a cinematic landscape where many see CGI to interfere with the performance of actor (who often has to act to an invisible co-star), motion capture allows for more authentic performance driven cinematic achievements. This video shows the elaborate process the filmmakers and Serkis need to go through to translate the above image to the finished product. The technical supervisors in the video stress the importance of emotion in the effect production.

An important and innovative usage of motion capture in the realm of Video Games came from the groundbreaking L.A. Noire made by Rockstar. Set in LA in 1947, the game follows detective Cole Phelps as he investigates a series of murders and crimes. The revolutionary part of this game came from the interrogation scenes, in which extensive motion capture was done on the faces of actors to add extremely subtle facial tics that the player must interpret as truth or lies. You can see the Motionscan technology they use in this video. This game came out in 2011, Avatar was made in 2009, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014. Every year this technology is getting better and more realistic, allowing the user/audience to dive so deep into these fictional worlds. James Cameron refers to this process as “The Seduction of Reality”, and we’re getting closer to seeing reality in this medium.

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