Mediating the Human in Facial Performance Capture

Efforts to create a photorealistic digital human have been aided by performance capture, a set of techniques that record the facial and bodily movements of a human performer and apply them to a digital character. By involving an actor – oftentimes a well-known actor in a highly publicized role – performance capture places the efforts of a human performer at the center of digital character construction, rather than the work of programmers and digital effects artists. However, performance capture is a compromise between an ideal process that would seamlessly transfer a human performance to a digital character and a technological solution that crafts a performance solely out of the ones and zeroes of a computer. This essay explores the outcomes of this representational binary in performance capture-based digital characters of the last two decades. In examples ranging from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (Gore Verbinski, 2006) to Gemini Man (Ang Lee, 2019), I examine how the contradiction between capture and simulation played out in the specific production processes of visual effects-heavy films. With a special focus on digital de-aging, I demonstrate how, over time, filmmakers acknowledged the importance of human facial performance and developed more advanced technologies to capture it. But filmmakers also learned that they could never fully capture these ephemeral moments and miniscule movements. Instead, they relied on the other end of the spectrum – the simulation programs at their disposal – to fabricate the appearance of human-like idiosyncrasies purely in their digital programs. Ultimately, I explore how this dual process reflects competing visions of human interiority and the role of the face in expressing it. 

Mediating the Human in Facial Performance Capture,Faces on Screen: New Approaches, edited by Alice Maurice (Edinburgh University Press, 2022), 239–255.