Examining 10 Great Motion Capture Characters

War for the Planet of the Apes Caesar Andy Serkis

Motion capture is quite the filmmaking tool these days. It takes us to new and extraordinary worlds of fantasy and adventure, introducing us to characters we thought the world of movies could never allow us to meet. So in celebration of War for the Planet of the Apeslet’s explore some incredible protagonists and antagonists who proved how amazing mo-cap can be. From beasts to aliens to even regular humans, this tech allows actors to become just about anything.

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Tars Tarkas from John Carter 

I love Andrew Stanton’s John Carter more than many critics and audiences did. I had been waiting since I was a little kid to see a proper live-action rendition of this Edgar Rice Burroughs classic novel and Disney did not disappoint. One of the reasons for their successes they achieved (though not at the box office) was a very specific and special character: Tars Tarkas, John’s closest alien buddy.

Played by the always amazing Willem Dafoe, Tars is a guy who just is a bit lost in translation. He means well in his actions, and just wants to do what is best for his people, but ends up being a misfit in the process. So when he meets John Carter (aka Virginia), he has an instant connection to him based on their pasts and how they stand out among the crowd. Their chemistry is enchanting, and with the artists of Double Negative working their movie magic (along with Dafoe’s electric performance) to create a lovable, multi-armed green best friend that deserves a lot more love.

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The Maestro in Michael Jackson’s Ghosts 

This may be a short film (or a longform music video), but it’s one that should be mentioned for its history and spectacle. That’s right, Michael Jackson was one of the first people to use motion capture in his work. While Ghosts (directed by the late Stan Winston and co-written by Stephen King) isn’t widely remembered, it’s a fascinating footnote for its technical achievements alone.

Sure, the music featured throughout this Haunted Mansion meets Frankenstein video is pretty forgettable compared to Jackson’s other hits, but it actually has a entertaining story (even if it is quite obviously a reflection of Jackson’s personal life). Essentially, a group of townspeople storm the mansion of a Maestro dressed in Rococo era garb. The kids think of him as a cool ghost, while the rest of the adults think he’s just a weirdo. Suddenly, there are dancing ghouls, and at one point, a skeleton version of Jackson appears, brought to life by motion capture. The sequence is still pretty cool 20 years later, and though the music might be a bit stuck in the past, this under-appreciated Jackson flick can be admired for its visual audacity.

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Smaug from the Hobbit Series

When writing about motion capture characters, it is impossible not to discuss Smaug. He’s been terrifying the-ever-loving-heck out of readers for generations and translating that power and intensity to the big screen must have been a challenge for Peter Jackson and the artists at WETA Digital. But they achieved some real movie magic and this mighty dragon is one of the highlights of the otherwise disappointing Hobbit movies.

With his bright yellow eyes and radiant color, Smaug isn’t the traditional looking bad guy. We’ve seen CGI dragons before, like Draco from Dragonheart, but it is amazing to see a digital dragon of this scope and brought to life with such a nuanced performance. And though much of that is due to the work of Tolkien taking over our imaginations, the final product is a collaborative effort from both WETA and the nerd acting prince himself, Bennedict Cumberbatch. They get the perfect ratio of intrigue and terror to make Smaug the villain we know and love. Though the animated Hobbit has a pretty good dragon, nothing will ever top this interpretation.

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