Best Motion-Capture Performances of All Time

Photo Credit: Warner Bros., Walt Disney Studios, Twentieth Century Fox
December 26th, 2013

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Best Motion-Capture Performances of All Time

In the early days of computer animation, characters often seemed stiff and alien, challenging the audience's suspension of disbelief and the willingness to accept them as real, living beings. Advancements in computer technology have significantly transformed this medium, however, and combining computer graphics with motion-capture performances has produced a number of remarkable performances over the years.



5. Alan Tudyk as Sonny in "I, Robot"

While the film earned mixed reviews because of its rather loose connection to the Asimov robot stories it was ostensibly based on, "I, Robot" featured a strong performance by Alan Tudyk as Sonny, a robot accused of murder in a society governed by laws that prevent robot misbehavior. The filmmakers used motion-capture technology to allow Tudyk to voice and act as the cybernetic fugitive; the resulting performance was surprisingly human. Sonny's obviously mechanical features made him distinct enough from the humans to make him a unique character, something that wouldn't have been possible using a man in a suit. While reviews of the film were mixed, many cited Tudyk's performance as one of the film's high points.



4. Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk in "The Avengers"

In two earlier installments, filmmakers portrayed the Hulk in his full green transformation using fully computer-generated graphics. While the performances were impressive for their times, they lacked the human spark that allowed audiences to connect with the characters. For 2012's "The Avengers," the studio opted to use motion-capture technology to allow Mark Ruffalo to imbue the green juggernaut with the actor's own movements and mannerisms. Ruffalo went through extensive training to portray the hero, combining human-like movements with actions and gestures more common in silverback gorillas. The result was the liveliest Hulk to grace the screen and a fan-favorite performance in a beloved movie. Ruffalo's performance revived the studio's interest in the character, bringing up the possibility of yet another try at a Hulk-centric film in the future.



3. Zoe Saldana as Neytiri in "Avatar"

James Cameron's epic science fiction film "Avatar" spared no expense, and extensive motion-capture work transformed a number of different actors into tall, willowy blue aliens for the film. Of particular note is Zoe Saldana's portrayal of Neytiri, the daughter of the Na'vi clan leader and the love interest of the hero Jake Sully. An evocative performance combined with state-of-the-art visual effects produced one of the most believable computer generated characters to appear on screen, helping draw audiences into the emotional core of the film and allowing them to connect with these strange creatures instead of the more villainous humans.



2. Bill Nighy as Davy Jones in "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest"

After the success of the first "Pirates" movie, filmmakers upped the ante by pitting the heroes against Davy Jones himself, the embodiment of the unforgiving sea. To play this elemental force of nature, they tapped veteran actor Bill Nighy, who provided a legendarily quirky performance for the computer-generated imagery artists to build upon. The character design gave Jones a squid-like appearance, with a horde of facial tentacles whose movement complemented his speech and actions. The resulting performance was memorable and creepy, and the unassuming British actor became one of the most menacing villains in modern film. He reprised the character in "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," even appearing as a human version of Jones in a dramatization of the villain's back story.



1. Andy Serkis as Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" films

No discussion of motion-capture performances is complete without mentioning Andy Serkis. When Peter Jackson began filming his adaptations of Tolkien's works, the question of how to handle the vile creature known as Gollum was central. Poorly done, Gollum would be a distraction and a disappointment, and much of the story hinged on making the character convincing as a pitiful wretch consumed by his desire for the One Ring. With the help of the innovative visual artists at Weta Digital, Jackson developed a motion-capture system that painted Serkis's movements and expressions onto the lifelike digital character, bringing him to life in a way that no other computer-generated process had ever achieved before thanks to a remarkably emotive performance. The film set off an intense debate over whether the character should be considered a special effect or an actor and helped redefine some fundamental notions about filmmaking.

Serkis's performance as Gollum delighted fans of "The Lord of the Rings" novels, and the actor reprised the character in Jackson's adaptation of "The Hobbit." In addition, he also worked with similar motion-capture technology to portray King Kong in the 2005 film and Caesar in 2011's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." Jackson continued to adapt motion-capture technology for use in Middle-Earth, employing it to enhance the performances of Manu Bennett as Azog the Defiler and Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug the dragon in his "The Hobbit" films.