Kong captures actor

Effects add humanity to role

HOLLYWOOD — Three years ago, motion capture was being touted as the hot trend in digital visual effects. But the onscreen results have so far been a little, um, cold.

Motion capture was used prominently in “The Polar Express” and the last two “Lord of the Rings” but the mo-capped characters got a mixed reaction from viewers and critics.

But the latest in motion capture (a k a performance capture) promises to give actors a much bigger role in creating CGI characters, and to give those characters something approaching the subtlety and richness of the actor’s performance.

The few glimpses of “King Kong” available before screenings started suggest that, for the first time, it could make sense to talk about acting kudos for a motion-captured performance.

Advance buzz on “Kong” suggests that by using facial motion-capture, thesp Andy Serkis, helmer Peter Jackson and the team at Weta Digital in New Zealand have given Kong a personality like no CGI character before him.

“Kong” preemed this past week.

If the mo-cap work on Kong lives up to the tantalizing hints seen so far, it could presage a change in the kind of movies that get written and greenlit, just as the arrival of computer-generated visual effects did. More movie stars might become interested in the process, and CG characters may become a familiar part of dramatic fare, just as they are now in fantasy films.

Sony Pictures Imageworks visual effects supervisor Jay Redd likes to call performance capture “digital puppeteering.” In short, mo-cap is a way of making a three-dimensional map of an actor’s movements, then “re-targeting” those movements to a computer-generated image.

The actors perform on a special stage wearing spandex suits, with markers attached to specific points on their body and/or face. An array of cameras records a performer’s movements from many angles. Those images are combined to create a 3-D record of how those markers moved around.

Then the movements are given to well, almost anything: a hobbit gone bad in “Lord of the Rings” or a giant gorilla in “King Kong.”

In feature films, performance capture let Tom Hanks play multiple characters in “The Polar Express.”

Jackson and Weta Digital also used mo-cap to help animate Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Serkis provided Gollum’s voice and much of his body language, though animators also filled in. Animators also created Gollum’s facial expressions, using video of Serkis as a reference.

Early mo-cap was difficult and imprecise and put a lot of limitations on the actors. Only one actor could be captured at a time and the face and body had to be captured separately.

But the technology has improved.

For “King Kong,” Weta Digital was able to do detailed facial performance capture with Serkis to give Kong human facial expressions. That’s possible because human and gorilla faces are alike.

“A lot of the similarities are in the face and the eyes,” says Christian Rivers, animation director on “Kong.” Serkis went through two hours of makeup, having 135 tiny markers attached to different spots on his face.

“Gorillas have such a similar looking set of eyes and brows, you can look at those expressions and transpose your own interpretation onto them.”

The one part of Kong’s face where mo-cap didn’t work well was the muzzle, since that part of a gorilla’s face is shaped differently from a human’s.

Likewise, because a gorilla’s body and a human’s don’t exactly match, most of Kong’s body movements are done with keyframe animation. The animators used Serkis’ movements as a guide, but didn’t transfer most of them directly to Kong’s body.

But even that makes the result better, says Rivers.

“One of the challenges when you keyframe, animators have different sensibilities. What Peter discovered on Gollum was with Andy they got a consistency, and on ‘Kong’ that was something they wanted to explore.”

This isn’t just a matter of making a scarier monster. Jackson seems to have taken “King Kong” and made it into a romantic “Beauty and the Beast” tale, with Kong as the noble Beast who can never turn into a handsome prince.

The new Kong seems to have a wider, subtler and more human range of emotions than any previous CG character.

Certainly mo-cap is making it possible to do things on film that would have been impossible (or prohibitively expensive) before.

That effect has already been seen on Disney’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” which arrives in theaters Dec. 9, less than a week before “King Kong.”

On “Narnia,” Rhythm & Hues used mo-cap to create some of the mythical beasts, including the fauns and centaurs.

Bill Westenhofer, visual effects supervisor at Rhythm & Hues, says with more than 40 characters, each with its own fighting style, they could never have been able to create the battle sequences without motion capture.

“There was just too much. For each character you have to do upwards of 200 actions. It quickly turns into this huge volume of requirements and there’s no way for anyone to hand-animate that.”

But animators still play a part in making the whole thing work and that’s not likely to change.

“It’s always going to be an interpretation,” says SPI’s Redd. “Even the most detailed motion capture requires some interpretation. It still has to go through human hands.”