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Motion-capture secrets behind 'Planet of the Apes'

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Motion capture techniques have opened up a whole new world for filmmakers
  • Weta Digital is a digital effects company that brings computer-generated characters to life
  • CNN gets a look at the technology behind "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"

The Art of Movement is a monthly show that highlights the most significant innovations in science and technology that are helping shape our modern world.

(CNN) -- He's the face of motion-capture performance.

Whether it's as the nefarious and rather grotesque "Gollum," Tintin's beloved best friend and sidekick, the grouchy "Captain Haddock," or more recently the intellectually enhanced chimp ringleader "Caesar" from the "Planet of the Apes" franchise, Andy Serkis is synonymous with the groundbreaking movie technique.

Over the years countless fans and fellow actors -- including Serkis' "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" co-star James Franco -- have called for the motion-capture pioneer to receive an Oscar for bringing his characters to life. So far to no avail.

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Online devotees argue that Serkis' Oscar "snubs" come from the fact that the Academy Awards judges are wary of motion-capture performances. Whether or not that is true, not many truly understand how the British actor and other "mo-cap" performers achieve such sincerely emotional portrayals of computer-generated protagonists.

"I think our ability to have actors now on stage playing other creatures or on location on set has been fantastic both for the creatures they're portraying and, you know, perhaps the human characters they're playing off in the scene," explains Dan Barret, animation supervisor at Weta Digital, the New Zealand-based digital effects firm that worked on "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," "Tintin," "The Hobbit" and many other blockbusters.

"It's improved performances and opened up a whole lot of opportunities as far as how much work we can get through, how much motion we can get," says Barret. "Generating all of this stuff with key frames can take a long time. It's been a huge revolution."

Weta Digital has seen box office gold with the last five films they worked post-production on turning into blockbuster smash hits.
Weta Digital has helped produce box office gold with the last five films they created digital effects for turning into blockbuster smash hits.
Lauren Said-Moorhouse & Inez Torre/CNN

The motion-capture process begins with actors dressed in slimline, tight-fitting body suits adorned with over 50 strategically placed tracking markers, which allow computers to detect where various body parts are while following the precise movement of the performer.

Unlike traditional animated CGI, motion-capture technology is not a frame-by-frame process. It requires actors to perform in the distinctive body suits to provide a fluid model for animators to tweak and transform digitally. While "mo cap" performances offer a new level of authenticity, actors still need to use all their skills and training to enhance and make their performances more believable for cinemagoers.

And skilled motion-capture performances were key to creating realistic movement in "Dawn of Planet of the Apes," says Barret.

"Apes have a similar physique to humans and a similar weight. It certainly makes that motion a lot more believable. It's not that we couldn't do it ourselves as key-frame animators. It's just that kid of work takes a long time."

He adds: "(Motion capture) gives us a believable motion a lot quicker and gives us time to concentrate on what we consider more important things, like maybe facial performances and things like that."

Watch the full package to learn more about motion capture filmmaking.

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