Visual effects have long been the province of engineers and technicians, but with digital characters coming to the fore, actors are more and more a part of the vfx process.
The change arguably began with Andy Serkis’ unforgettable turn as Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and accelerated through several recent vfx Oscar winners: “King Kong,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Avatar.”
2011 saw the relationship between acting and effects deepen. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” put Serkis’ performance capture role as Caesar, a genetically enhanced chimpanzee, at the center of the drama. “Real Steel” captured performers movements two different ways to bring its robots to life. “Captain America: The First Avenger” offered up the striking “Skinny Steve” effect, which shrank burly Chris Evans down to the proverbial 98-pound weakling.
Serkis says that while performance capture has become very good at recording an actor’s performance on the set, it has an advantage over photography: “Nothing is locked.”
“All the emotional indications of that performance are information for the animators to use and also to interpret,” says Serkis. “Every frame is animated. The actors indicate an emotional moment and the animators and the director can either exaggerate that moment or play the moment more subtly. It’s such a brilliantly malleable medium.”
In his original turn as Gollum, before facial capture technology, Serkis worked closely with the animators at Weta Digital, re-performing scenes so they had good reference footage of his face.
“It’s become much more of a transparent process,” he says. “You’re just being that role now, but I suppose in the early days it required a slightly wider, broader engagement with the character and being the guardian of that character’s emotional journey.”
That doesn’t mean thesps have given up that guardian role. On “Captain America” Lola Visual Effects offered the choice of creating “Skinny Steve” with either “Benjamin Button” style head replacement or a more difficult process: digitally shrinking Evans. Helmer Joe Johnston and Evans agreed the shrinking process was best.
“Chris could identify the subtleties in his body performance so he was always driving us to use the shrinking technique,” explains vfx producer Thomas Nittmann of Lola. “The way he walked down a platform, he wanted it to be him.”
When there was no choice but to use a body double, they did face replacement. Evans himself came to record his facial performance, and that was grafted onto a slender double.
On “Real Steel,” Digital Domain had a different challenge: making the robots, which were animated with performance capture, look properly mechanical.
Erik Nash, visual effects supervisor on the pick, says “a lot of the subtle human nuance, which is one of the reasons to do motion capture, we had to filter out so that the robots looked like robots, not like people.”
Boxers and stunt men did the robot boxing scenes in performance capture suits, with one performer assigned to each robot. That gave it a unique personality and movement style. Those scenes were shot three months before principal photography started.
When the robots had to interact with live actors, DD used Image-Based Capture where they shoot the scene with several reference cameras. Performers played the scenes standing on painters’ stilts to raise themselves up to the proper height and give the actors the correct eyeline. When Hugh Jackman shadowboxes with the robot Adam outside a motel, performer Eddie Davenport rehearsed with Jackman, then shot the scene wearing stilts. Afterward animators needed only make small tweaks to their timing.
Nash recounts “It was remarkable to see because they were so well rehearsed and so dead in sync. We knew as we shot it the sequence was going to be terrific. Hugh could go through the punch sequence as fast as he wanted and Eddie was right with him.”
Thesps join f/x party | Longtime teams keep work fresh | Randy’s Rules for top sound | Sound editing: Always make dramatic sense | Sound Mixing: Making it all feel real | Digital tools add quality, cut costs