Performance Capture Lets Actors Live in the Moment

It’s not animation, but a new technology that empowers actors, creating intimacy and immediacy

Last Updated: March 5, 2010 @ 1:25 PM

In the moment. You’re on set and your inner monologue becomes clear, your rhythm settles to perfection and your character begins to speak in its own voice … CUT! The camera needs adjusting. The lighting isn’t right. The sound wasn’t clean. Loved it but need you to do it again so we can get it in close-up … Just do exactly what you did, again. Ugh.

An impulse was just about to manifest itself in the fundamental truth of the role, stopped dead for reasons of technology and technique.

What if you could stay in the moment? What if you could escape the distractions and interruptions? Enter performance capture (pcap), a new solution to an old problem.

Existing motion capture (mocap) technology is the ancestor of pcap, but of course acting is about more than just motion — acting is about emotion.

Truth is found in both the external and the internal, in both physicality and emotionality, so when an actor combines motion with emotion, then we have a performance.

Performance capture records everything, from the biggest gesture to the smallest facial expression, and it records in real time.

So a director need not cut in order to move the camera, or move the lights, or shoot a close-up. Free of cuts, an actor can live in the moment and follow wherever inspiration may lead. 

Living in the moment sounds good — but isn’t pcap really just a new form of animation?

An actor in pcap no more becomes an animation than an actor in a Pinocchio mask becomes a puppet.

An animation is but a digital puppet with many people pulling the strings. Pcap records a performance, one that can only come from an actor. Even the newest, most sophisticated animation is still but a puppet controlled by a group, a puppet without imagination, motivation or inspiration, a puppet with neither soul nor vulnerability.

Performance capture is not animation but a new way to empower actors, both classical and Method.

For the classical actor, pcap is a digital mask. From the time of Thespis, masks have empowered actors to express themselves, to become another person, to breathe life into a new character.

Masks unify ancient times with the modern era, evidenced in part by the fact that the Screen Actors Guild began as the Masquers Club and the SAG logo still proudly displays the mask of comedy with the mask of tragedy.

Masks of the past were made of wood or leather or linen; masks of the future are made of pixels and, since pixels are weightless, actors are freed in their physicality to quickly and easily become anyone or anything.

If the mask is digital, does it reduce the worth of the actor? If the mask is digital, does it reduce the quality of the acting?

For the Method actor, pcap is an intimate way to record emotion. On a pcap stage, only the actors are visible and so the director can stand three feet away, a partner with whom to improvise, to spontaneously explore the truth of action and reaction.

With its lack of cuts, with its intimacy between actor and director, pcap is very much like live theater, so this modern method is in harmony with the roots of acting.

Is an emotion less valuable if captured by digital rather than physical means? Does a truth become false simply because a new method is involved?

We live in a time of great evolutionary change in all facets of Hollywood, and evolution involves the development of some species alongside the extinction of others. Will this ongoing digital evolution ever cause actors to become obsolete?

Performance capture is not animation but a digital mask, an intimate way to record emotion. Even if you disagree with any or all of these statements, know that the human brain is so far beyond our understanding that we can’t even begin to replace it with a computer and that, as long as this is true, human characters will dominate computer animations, actors will dominate puppets.

From our own experience, we know that puppets have never replaced actors in the physical world, so there’s no reason to think that they will replace actors in the digital world.

Like all organic processes, did acting not evolve from the time of Thespis to the time of Shakespeare? Must it not continue to evolve from the time of the physical to the time of the digital?

Performance capture is not an ending but a beginning.

Meisner said that to act is to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances, and pcap enables new ways to find truth inside a new universe of imaginary circumstances.

All the world’s a stage — pcap offers new worlds with new stages, new ways to explore and new ways to exist.

Freed from the constraints of the physical, a brave new world unfolds before our eyes.


Chris Davison is a Los Angeles-based writer/director.