Examining 10 Great Motion Capture Characters

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.


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.


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.


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.


Tin-Tin from The Adventures of Tin-Tin

When it was announced Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson were going to make a motion capture/CGI Tin-Tin movie, I was holding my fangirl breath with anticipation. This was one of my childhood heroes, and if they messed him up in anyway, I was going to be...well, angry on the internet. But this creative duo managed to bring my favorite adventurer to life without losing his spunk and excitement.

From the word go, Spielberg sets the scene just right for Tin-Tin, who has his signature red hairdo and his trusty dog Snowy by his side. The colorful imagery of artist Herge is all there and once you get used to the lead having real eyes as opposed to little black dots, it's hard to not fall for the classic comic character all over again. He retains his sense of justice, a heart bigger than most, and curiosity that sometimes get the best of him. With his all his charms, plus those of actor Jamie Bell, Tin-Tin can be enjoyed for generations young and young at heart for years to come.


Davy Jones from the Pirates of the Caribbean Movies

Though everyone likes to focus on the efforts of Johnny Depp in the Pirates franchise, I tend to believe that the unsung hero of the series is Davy Jones. With his creepy design and oily complexion, this is a cursed pirate you don't want to mess with. But when you learn of his history and ties to a certain other baddie of Pirates legend, Davy becomes quite the character to invest in.

Much of why Mr. Jones works is due to Bill Nighy's performance, who was, at the time, known more for his comedic roles. He nails both the spooky and tragic aspects of the character, while also adding some special touches (like that Scottish accent). Davy is also among the most intimidating of the Pirates villains, especially since his girlfriend is the spirit of the sea and all. Realized through Academy Award winning effects by ILM, Davy Jones one of the coolest additions to the Disney universe. And he didn't even have to put on guy liner to be cool!


Caesar from the Planet of the Apes Series

How can we not talk about Andy Serkis? Though it is hard to choose the best of his performances, I personally have a soft spot for the two times he played an ape. But while one character is more primal (and we'll get to him soon enough), Caesar from the Planet of the Apes series is appropriately Shakespearean. He fits into the legacy of Apes, while possibly being the best lead character within the whole series, which is a high bar considering the existence of Cornelius and Zira from the earlier films.

From his birth to his destiny as a war-torn leader, we've seen Caesar grow into a complex individual who carries the pains of both his community and loved ones on his shoulders. He's split down the middle within every action, but always hopes that no matter what he has to do, the outcome will make his fellow Apes have a better life. And with just a glance and a sigh, Serkis and WETA Digital prove they can work seamlessly together in making Caesar a character who feels truly real. And if I'm still questioning if he's a real ape some three movies later and not a perfectly executed digital creation, clearly these movies are doing something right.


Sonny from I, Robot 

Though is has vanished from the conversation almost entirely, I, Robot is one of the few recent-ish Will Smith films that deserves genuine praise. One of those reasons is not Smith, but another performance that often seems to get overlooked: Alan Tudyk as SonnyYes, before he played the sassy droid in Rogue One, Alan was known for giving motion capture life to another artificial intelligence with even more interesting things to say.

Sonny is one of those characters you don't know whether to run from or want to have dinner with. He's got quite an imagination, and though he says he isn't an artist, he draws a heck of a lot better than I ever could. Taking a bit of inspiration from Pinocchio (with a little bit of Moses thrown in there as well), Sonny is definitely a character worth analyzing and investing in. Sure, motion capture technology has grown since 2004, but when you look at Tudyk's dynamic performance, you can see the roots of more "sophisticated" mo-cap characters right here.


King Kong from King Kong

I told you we have two monkeys on this list and there's a reason this one is the King of the movie jungle. For decades, audiences have fallen in love with the "Eighth Wonder of the world," and for good reason – He's loyal, surprisingly soulful, and will rip a dinosaur's jaw off for you to prove his love. And though he might be stuck on an island with racially insensitive portrayals of various international tribal cultures, he still stands to both adults and children as a hero that we all wish could sweep us off our feet and onto the ice rink.

All jokes aside, this version of King Kong is astounding. Every big screen Kong is meant to wow viewers with their mighty presence on screen and the technical achievements that come along with the banana breath. But when the credits roll, you're supposed to feel for this god-like creation and in Peter Jackson's Kong, you feel more than ever. This is due, of course, to Andy Serkis and WETA pulling out all the stops. He creates both the most animalistic version of Kong in terms of movement, while also crafting a character who is more human than the actual humans on the screen.


Scrooge from A Christmas Carol 

Oh, were you expecting me to talk about that other Christmas themed motion capture movie? Sorry folks. Yeah, The Polar Express might stand as a cool stepping stone for the future of this tech, but something about those Tom Hanks performances creeps me in all the worst ways. But then what exactly makes this holiday-themed Robert Zemeckis motion capture film better than his first? Simple: it's Scrooge.

Like many of the characters on this list, the way you make a motion capture character truly stand out is by pairing the right actor to the right role and Jim Carrey is perfect as Charles Dickens' cruel miser. Not only is he is one of most criminally underrated actors out there, but he makes his Ebenezer stand out alongside the greats actors who have already played the character, including George C. Scott and Michael Cane. Carrey isn't afraid to go over-the-top in the right places. Sometimes, this leads to brilliance (like the Bob Cratchit scene near the end) or to not so much brilliance (his wacky comedic choices don't always fit). Yet with that exaggerated character design and the many moments that truly sing, this is Scrooge that needs more Christmas Turkey-sized compliments thrown his way.


Neytiri from Avatar

We can't make this list without mentioning Avatar and if I was going to pick one character the embodies the film as a whole, it would be Neytiri. Brought to life by Zoe Saldana (plus the talents of a great VFX crew), Neytiri is a girl that will always fight for the justice of her people and what she believes in. She's an intimidating warrior, but underneath that kick-butt exterior, she's got a heart pounding with pride and affection.

All of this comes across through Saldana's acting choices, and is enhanced by the digital magician's who make James Cameron's creations feel organic. From their believable skin and motions, the Na'avi feel real, and Neytiri is the best example of it. The scene where she is riding her banshee (along with when she is holding a human Jake in her arms) always makes me gasp with how real this blue cat alien could be. And I'm having those same reactions almost 10 years later. That is one heck of an achievement.