Performance capture: It’s the wave of the future. This fascinating computer technology allows ordinary human actors to transform themselves into creatures or otherworldly characters that, just 15 years ago, would have been impossible to imagine. Performance capture is related to motion capture, in which actors wear specially designed suits that record actions and movements. This information is then utilized to animate a digital character. For performance capture, facial and finger movements, as well as subtle expressions, are recorded.

The results can be amazingly realistic and relatable, thanks to the skillful actors portraying these imaginary creations. Unlike most characters created entirely from CGI, performance capture allows the actor to inject a dollop of humanity and real emotion into their performance. Which is trickier than it looks, since most motion capture performances take place in an isolated green room, with the actor having to imagine the scene he or she is taking part in.

With the latest film to utilize performance capture technology, Peter Jackson’s much-anticipated The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, hitting theaters today, MM thought it a perfect time to take a look back at our six favorite performances achieved through this ever-evolving technology.

Andy Serkis (Gollum) in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003); The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
directed by Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson’s epic Lord of the Rings films featured many amazing, groundbreaking CGI effects, but none more so than the devious Gollum, voiced and performed by Andy Serkis. It’s hard to watch the trilogy and not believe Gollum is an actual living, breathing creature. While he doesn’t have the most noble intentions (mainly, possessing his ever-precious magical ring at all costs), it’s hard not to feel a certain amount of sympathy for this lonely, mentally unstable creature—a true credit to Serkis’ nuanced, emotional performance. While the film’s technical team received much Oscar love, some say Serkis should’ve received a nomination himself. Now, Serkis may get another chance at Oscar gold for portraying Gollum in The Lord of the Rings prequel, The Hobbit. Set 60 years before the trilogy’s events, the film features a key encounter between Bilbo Baggins and a (relatively) youthful Gollum, in which they play a game of riddles in his underground lair and we learn the origins of the pivotal magical ring storyline that will become the focus of the Lord films. Once again, there has been Oscar talk for Serkis’ intense performance, though hopefully this time a nomination will be in the cards (which would, in fact, mark the first ever Academy Award acting nomination for performance capture).

Bill Nighy (Davy Jones) in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End (2006, 2007)
directed by Gore Verbinski

With his squid-like features, Davy Jones won’t be winning a beauty contest any time soon, though he makes for a perfect villain for the second and third movies in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. As the captain of the Flying Dutchman (based upon a ghost ship of nautical lore), Davy Jones roams the seas as a tyrant, forcing his crew to serve 100 years aboard his ship. Needless to say, Davy ultimately gets his just desserts. This uniquely original, highly detailed character received much praise, with Entertainment Weekly naming Davy the second most convincing computer-generated character in cinema history. Thanks in part to the stunning work done to bring Davy Jones to life, Dead Man’s Chest won the 2007 Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

Crispin Glover (Grendel) in Beowulf (2007)
directed by Robert Zemeckis

Much like Gollum, the troll-like Grendel (played by the ever-eccentric Crispin Glover) is something of a tragic monster—he’s an abhorred creature who doesn’t quite realize his own destructiveness. Inspired by the classic Old English epic poem, Zemeckis’ Beowulf is an ambitious fantasy adventure created entirely through the motion capture process Zemeckis had previously utilized in The Polar Express. With its epic battle scenes between brave warrior Beowulf (Ray Winstone) and Grendel and his mother (Angelina Jolie), the film provides much action for adrenaline buffs, though it also manages to conjure up a fair amount of sympathy for the ugly and destructive—yet naïve and vulnerable—Grendel.
Jim Carrey (Ebenezer Scrooge) in A Christmas Carol (2009)
directed by Robert Zemeckis

Zemeckis returned to the world of performance capture for this faithful adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic story. As the grouchy miser Scrooge, Carrey—transformed into a rail-thin, pointy-nosed old man—gives a surprisingly restrained performance. In addition to playing the younger versions of Scrooge, Carrey also plays the three ghosts who come to visit him during one fateful Christmas Eve. The result is a true acting tour de force, as well as one of the creepiest versions of the story yet brought to the big screen.

Zoe Saldana (Neytiri) in Avatar (2009)
directed by James Cameron

With its groundbreaking motion capture work, otherworldly yet photo-realistic environments and breathtaking 3-D effects, the blockbuster phenomenon Avatar allowed viewers to visit the eye-popping world of Pandora. Yet, for all its impressive CGI enhancements, the film wouldn’t work nearly as well without the performance of Zoe Saldana as Neytiri, a Pandora native desperate to save her soon-to-be-colonized planet. Despite appearing as a tall blue alien, Saldana delivers a passionate, human performance that provides Avatar with a beating heart to go along with the fancy effects.

Andy Serkis (Caesar) in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
directed by Rupert Wyatt

When the Performance Capture Lifetime Achievement Award is eventually doled out at a future Oscar ceremony (come on, you know it’ll happen), Andy Serkis has a very good chance of nabbing the trophy. In addition to playing Gollum, Serkis utilized performance capture in The Adventures of Tintin, and has also proven surprisingly adept at playing apes, first as the giant, misunderstood title character in Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake, and then as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. As a highly intelligent chimpanzee who leads an ape uprising in San Francisco, Serkis successfully conveys the pain and disorientation (all achieved with hardly a word) of poor Caesar, who faces an identity crisis when he realizes he behaves as neither an ordinary monkey nor a human.

Have a favorite performance capture character or movie not discussed above? Let us know in the comments!