Actor Donavon Stinson On The Evolution, Difficulties, And Joys Of Motion Capture [Exclusive Interview]

Motion capture technology is a thing that I imagine is constantly evolving at a pretty fast rate. Have you noticed a shift in the way filmmakers have approached it over the years?

Yeah. It’s always, always evolving. I think that in the last ten years, the Vicon systems, a lot of the camera systems that a lot of the studios work, the head rigs, the HMCs that actors are using now. I remember “The Lord of the Rings,” we did the “Two Towers” game and “Return of the King” around the time that the movie was coming out, which was really cool because we saw the mouth of Sauron before anyone else. We were like, “Oh my God, look at that.” So again, Kimani and a couple other actors, we’d play a lot of different characters. Like I did Gollum and Legolas and Gandalf, and Kimani would do Aragorn and a little bit different humanized characters and trolls, orcs — a lot of orcs.

We went on to a different one called “The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age.” That was the very first time that we had ever used facial capture. That was at EA. Back then, they used to put markers. Now they just do dots, they just use a makeup so it’s just black dots all over your face. Back then, dude, they used to glue little tiny markers, and I mean everywhere, because back then, it wasn’t evolved the way it is today, the cameras and such. So you needed a lot of markers. It would be all around your eyebrows, and they’d stick out. They were on your eyelashes and your lips and your nose. If you just even slightly wiped your face, the markers would go flying off and then you’d have to stop and they’d have to glue them back on. 

So going from those kind of markers specifically for facial capture to where it is now — we just worked on a project that I can’t talk about. They can do my markers on my face in five minutes and then you do your face rom and then you’re done and you’re ready to go, obviously with your suit and everything on. So it’s changed a lot. It’s easier for us actors, I think it’s a lot less intrusive, if you will.

The marker technology’s changed. When we started out again doing “Heavy Gear” and all those cartoons and stuff and even at EA, the markers were like ping pong balls. “SNL” is always making fun of motion capture or what it shows and it’s a guy in a green suit with ping pong balls. But they were quite big like that. And they were hard as rocks, and we were doing crazy stunts back then. We were doing fight scenes, sometimes eight hours a day choreographing a fight scene, working stuff out, doing stunts, launching off stuff, landing on it. I looked like I had polka dots all over me sometimes, I just had cupping from head to toe. And then eventually the tech changed, the markers changed, the suits changed.

We used to wear rugby helmets back then for our head rigs and stuff, or just for the head markers — so they’re super sweaty and hot, very uncomfortable, especially if you’re doing stunt-heavy days. And now, if we’re doing non-performance capture stuff, it’s just a pair of glasses. Back then, they were pushing the tech. Having three or four people in the space, in the volume, was uncalled for and it would sometimes crash. And now, I work for Beyond Studios, which is a local motion capture studio here, and [they] can get up to 10 dudes now — a lot of them can. I think most can get up to 10. EA can do the same thing and Ubisoft and so on.

So it has changed a lot. The cameras, obviously, you can’t wear anything reflective in the volume like your Nikes or whatever. But I remember the first time we saw real-time, I think it was “The Lord of the Rings” where they had a camera in the space and then we were looking at ourselves on the actual monitors. And back then, it wasn’t so much detailed. Now we did a game that just was released that had finished gameplay, and then your model is placed right in there. It’s so fast now. It’s so streamlined, it’s so easy to say, “Okay, this guy’s a troll. He’s a giant, massive troll. Boom, put the model onto the skeleton, you’re good to go. He’s right there.”

So that stuff is amazing, especially for actors to be able to see who you’re playing. Because a lot of the times when you would come in, you’d have your character bio that you would see usually drawn in pre-production or whatever and you’d have the description of what the character is and then pictures of what he is, and then that’s it. But now with real-time being able to see the model on your skeleton, so then I can talk to the director and say like, “Okay. He’s got a big belly, he’s kind of big and then he’s got a belt on him or whatever. So I can’t really lean over and do this. I can’t hunch over.” So you can see where your limitations are as far as an actor and what you can do. It’s changed dramatically.

Every actor wants to do motion capture now. It’s now considered to be another acting form, whereas before it was kind of like, I was like Gollum. “My precious.” Nobody knows that I’m doing this, and I can take all the jobs.

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