Toby Kebbell knows his way away performance capture technology. As Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes he delivered a great performance as Koba, the revolutionary ape rising up against Caesar. But at the same time he had been around performance capture enough to understand that what he did on set while wearing pajamas covered in dots may not end up in the finished film.
“Some of the actors had worked on motion capture films before and it wasn’t that they had bad experiences but you could tell from comments they made that they had the sense that a motion capture performance was going to get changed by a lot of people down the line,” ILM’s Hal Hickle, animation supervisor on Duncan Jones’ Warcraft told me when I visited their San Francisco campus last month. “At the end of the process they wouldn’t recognize themselves in the performance anymore.”
That, said Hickle, was the result of a specific philosophical approach some FX houses have to CGI characters. “Some films treat the performances as a starting point, a jumping off point,” he explained. “Because the characters are CG they can change anything they want further down the road.”
That was not the approach Jones took on Warcraft, where half the lead characters are CGI-generated orcs. For Duncan Jones the performance was the thing, although the actors weren’t so sure that was how it would work out.
“We had to convince Toby that everything he did was going to be used,” said Warcraft’s visual FX supervisor, Jason Smith.
They did that early in the process. ILM worked quickly on a rough example of their new tech using footage of Robert Kazinsky, who plays Orgrim Doomhammer. It was really rough - no texture, no hair - but it proved to the actors that what they did on set would be seen on screen.
“Rob could see himself, and it was exciting for them to understand that they could take their kids to the movie and say, ‘Hey, that’s me as an orc!’, said Hickle. “He knew it wouldn’t get stomped on later."
“Duncan and all of us at ILM were on the same page about this, “he continued. “We wanted to treat the orc performances with the seriousness of how you treat performances on film. What you capture on film on the day is what you get. You can cut it differently later on, but your footage is your footage. We wanted to take the magic thing that happens on set between actors and protect it through the long technical and artistic process of transferring it to orcs.”
That means animators were still vital to the process. “We have this great technology for capturing the actors’ faces and putting them on creatures, but it still requires a lot of love from other artists,” said Hickle. “The artists I oversee are the animators and in addition to doing things that have to be completely animated, like wolves and griffons, they have to work on every orc shot. It’s not to modify them and make them completely new - our film was all about ensuring that what you see on the orc faces reflected what the actors were doing - but these mouths are different with the tusks. When we make an ‘ooo’ mouth, our lips are zipped together at the corners, but an orc can’t zip their lips together because of these tusks. So we had to figure out what an ‘ooo’ mouth looks like on an orc and give our animators the controls to create that.”
Other, smaller details needed to be massaged as well. “Orcs can look angrier than humans, so sometimes animators would have to go in an adjust that,” said Smith. “But it was always on top of the performance.”
For Hickle this has been an issue he has been considering since ILM brought Davey Jones to life in the Pirates of the Caribbean films.
“There’s a web of actions that connect the actor’s face to their body,” he said. “The actors minds are going places in the moment, all kinds of conscious and unconscious decisions are being made second to second, and that causes them to do all kinds of things with their bodies - shifting their way, moving their heads, facial tics - but they’re all interconnected, and if you treat them like blocks you can play with - ‘Let’s take the face from this performance and put it on the body from this performance, and let’s make him wave with his left hand instead of his right hand’ - the more you get into that the less authentic and real and true the performances get at the end of the process.They get watered down and disjointed in weird Frankenstein ways.”
That isn’t the case in Warcraft. The orcs are almost staggeringly real, and Duncan Jones was able to get close up performances from these creatures that are completely and truly soulful. And that performance you’re seeing is coming right from the actor.
“The percentage we’ve been throwing around here is staggering to me: it’s 95% that we’ve been able to use the capture,” said Smith. “It feels like a brand new thing… and it is a brand new thing. It requires a buy-in from the director, a dedication to getting those performances. We would ask Duncan sometimes, ‘Hey do you want us to move her mouth a little bit? There was a scene where she’s in the portal and she kind of yells and we worried that we should put something extra in there?’
“Duncan said, “Well, what did Anna (Galvin) do?” So we pulled up the performance and what she did was great. It’s about respecting the performance.”