Motion capture — a technique wherein actors’ movements are captured in order to be replicated on the screen while replacing the physical performers — is one of the oldest cinematic techniques there is, finding its root in animation. Way back in 1915, animator Max Fleischer developed rotoscoping, an animation technique in which animators traced over live-action footage, essentially copying the actors’ every move painstakingly by hand and transforming it into a cartoon. This was used in films like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and Ralph Bakshi “The Lord of the Rings.”
Of course, the way we know motion capture today belongs to the digital world, wherein live-action actors wear special suits that translate their movements onto a digital system, which animators and VFX artists can then use to create entirely new creatures. Arguably the best-known use of motion capture in film is Gollum in “The Two Towers.” Before it, Lucas used the technology for “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” where Jar-Jar Binks became the first ever fully digital main character in a motion picture.
The technology is one of the best examples of the magic of digital filmmaking and cinema’s ability to transport us to new worlds and show us the impossible. It is understandable that Zemeckis, who became celebrated for his eye for visual effects in movies and his ability to marry old and new techniques, would become obsessed with this technology in the mid-’00s. But before “Polar Express” and “Beowulf” made us scared of the uncanny valley of motion capture, James Cameron and his team populated the Titanic with believable motion-captured digital actors.