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Academy’s Focus On The “Digital Age”

Todd Wawrychick, A.M.P.A.S.


In 2002, director Peter Jackson introduced the world to Gollum, a grotesque and tortured creature pivotal to the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.  He also gave the viewing audience their first major dose of performance capture: the technical art of capturing an actor’s movements and developing an animated character that perfectly duplicates them.


In the past several years, performance capture (or motion capture – the terms are interchangeable) has been used in a wide range of movies, from “The Polar Express” to “King Kong,” from “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” to “Avatar.”  The Science and Technology Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently hosted “Acting in the Digital Age,” a panel that explored the technology behind performance captures and its affect on actors and story telling.


Academy governor, award winning animator and the evening’s host Bill Kroyer began the panel by reminding people that “technology marches on, but it usually adds, it doesn’t subtract.”   This fitting remark had unintentional relevance as panelist Andy Serkis participated live via skype due to his flight’s cancellation.  Serkis was the actor behind Gollum and several years later had a more advanced performance capture experience playing King Kong.   Serkis said the key to crafting a realistic performance is the actor’s approach.


“I really go for the role – I treat it no differently than a regular role,” said Serkis.  “It’s important to get to know the equipment before you can really let go.  You have to learn to calibrate your performance.  It’s all about telling stories.”


Paul Debevec, the head of the graphics laboratory at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, joined the panel to discuss “Light Stage,” a digital reflectance capture and facial rendering system.  Debevec worked with Digital Domain and Rick Baker Studio to develop a system that would accurately capture light movement.  


Because skin diffuses light, the Light Stage works with linear polarizers.  The linear polarizers capture the shine on the face from the light reflected off the face.  This technology was demonstrated in a test video called “Digital Emily,” where, working with Image Metrics, a completely fabricated face was matched to actress Emily O’Brien’s face with complete accuracy.


“Ten years back we were unsure if we could get a photo real face,” said Debevec in regards to the successful facial render that perfectly duplicated actress Emily’s face.  “You have to look at how people reflect light.”


Steve Preeg, character supervisor at Digital Domain, was joined by actor Peter Badalamenti II who provided the body movements of the young Benjamin Button who’s caught in an older man’s body.  Badalamenti had to learn actor Brad Pitt’s range of motion as well as the timing of his lines and head movements so that the motion of these two actors could be merged to look like one natural human. 


“My performance was that of David Fincher’s desire,” said Badalamenti.  “My head and eye motion had to be linked completely to Brad’s performance.”  


“Brad had to be exact with hitting his eye lines,” said Preeg.  “His head and body were not allowed to move; all his acting for those sequences had to be performed from the neck up.”


The “Avatar” panel rounded out the evening’s discussion.  Animation supervisor Richard Baneham, chief operating officer Jon Landau, and martial artist Garrett Warren were joined by actors Wes Studi, CCH Pounder, and Joel David Moore.  While Warren discussed elements that he built including rocking stages and flying barrels that allowed the actors to effectively perform the stunts required in the movie, and Baneham spoke of the importance of presenting elements that allowed the actors to provide emotional performances, the actors agreed that having theatrical training is an essential prerequisite to effective performance capture.


“It’s like going back to ‘black box theater,’” said Moore.  “In the small theater you have very little in the means of props and sets, and you really have to convenience the audience through your acting of where the play is taking place.” 


When asked if they would be willing to suit up in the performance capture gear for a sequel, the group responded in unison:




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