When the world got to know Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers back in 2002, we were all in awe at how actor Andy Serkis and director Peter Jackson used performance capture technology to bring this virtual character to life.
This in turn broadened the storytelling tapestry beyond what we thought was possible.
Performance capture technology picks up on the actor’s facial expressions and body movements via dots placed strategically on the actor’s face and body. Multiple cameras (including one focused on the face alone) capture the actor’s performance, allowing his or her movements to be translated as capture data into a computer, which goes through a software that then realises the data into an animated character of whatever form and shape the story requires … with subtle nuances and all.
Such is Serkis’ work that a whole generation probably can’t see Gollum, King Kong and Caesar (of The Planet Of The Apes films) as anything other than what Serkis and company have made them to be. This has led to a high demand in the services of performance capture … and Serkis is the leader in this industry.
Last year, the actor was involved in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which also featured other actors in performance capture capacity) and next year, Serkis reprises his role as Caesar in War For The Planet Of The Apes.
It makes sense then that in 2011, Serkis and producer Jonathan Cavendish founded The Imaginarium Studios in London, which carries the slogan “The home of next generation storytelling” on its official website.
It is described as Europe’s leading performance capture studio and production company, specialising in the usage of this technology to tell stories in film, television, music, videogames and live events.
Now, that technology is available to storytellers in the Asia Pacific region. The Imaginarium Studios announced in March its partnership with Rhizophora Ventures (a company under Khazanah Nasional that also owns Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios) in launching performance capture studios in the Asia Pacific region.
The Imaginarium Studios Asia Pacific (IMS-AP) is located at Pinewood Studios in Johor, and has already started operation with a core team based there.
In an e-mail interview, Tony Orsten, CEO of The Imaginarium Studios, said the Asia Pacific studios will offer creative and technical expertise, as well as studio space to regional and international clients who want to venture into performance capture technology.
“We will produce and develop our own material across a range of genres, including film, gaming, television and live events. The Imaginarium Studios Asia Pacific will also offer its services and studios on a consultancy basis.”
He further explained what makes this region, particularly Malaysia, a lucrative business option: “The Asia Pacific region demonstrates exciting growth potential within the creative industries.
“Establishing a base alongside the existing Pinewood Iskandar development in Malaysia will help create a central hub of production excellence, from where we can support the Australasian and Asian production industries.”
Training had been under way since March – the Malaysian technical staff, comprising lead animators, were sent to the Imaginarium’s base in Ealing Studios, London, to learn the skills needed in sorting capture data and mastering the performance capture technology.
“It’s been a really exciting process,” shared Orsten. “We have a fantastic new Malaysian team, who share our passion for storytelling and who all have excellent technical expertise.
“From early May, we have been sending some of our London-based technicians out to Johor to continue training on site in Malaysia.”
In a separate interview, Nicholas Collins, a consultant with IMS-AP – who manages the business side of the company in Malaysia – said that the long-term plan for IMS-AP is to transform into a fully-functional specialised studio.
“We want to develop stories, ideas and actors, either for global audience or regional audience.
“That’s how we’re thinking for long-term – a production house, primarily related around the performance capture, and to have the studio here run independently from the UK,” Collins explained.
But first, Collins admitted, there are a couple of roadblocks to get through.
The most obvious one is to promote the advantages of performance capture in storytelling. Also, there is the question of whether filmmakers in this region will turn to performance capture technology for the projects.
While Collins agreed that, at the moment, performance capture is not relevant in Malaysia’s film industry as most local films don’t require this facility, he said it also depends on the type of movies that will be made from now on.
“If there is a need to have a character who is really different from a human form, a filmmaker can turn to performance capture,” he stated.
“Right now, there is a market for it in Australia and New Zealand. Hong Kong movies could be using performance capture technology, as well as Japanese films. The idea is to be part of the growth, we can go in as co-producer or just as a contractor.”
According to Collins, this technology is an asset not only in films but in video games, and on TV.
Orsten expanded on the technology’s varied usage: “Our production portfolio spans a range of budgets and genres – not just films – but also television, live events, music videos, video games and digital applications.
“For example, we recently produced Coldplay’s music video for their hit single Adventure Of A Lifetime, and we are also working with the Royal Shakespeare Company on their upcoming production of The Tempest, where we are creating a real-time digital avatar of the character Ariel live on stage.”
Besides educating content developers on why a project may benefit from performance capture technology, it’s equally important to teach talents on how to use body language for a certain story, become comfortable in wearing the special suit and acting in an empty environment, as well other skills needed to be actors of high-calibre in this field.
In other words, we have to have an Andy Serkis in this region.
When asked how they are looking to find such a person, Orsten said: “IMS-AP has already started discussions with a couple of arts and theatre groups in Malaysia, with the aim of creating a roster of performers for us to meet and educate on capture work.
“Long term, of course, we would like to start classes with colleges in the region too.”
Besides providing this modern storytelling tool, what the presence of The Imaginarium Studios in this region means is the creation of high-level job opportunities for Malaysian technical artists and producers.
“This fits with the other creative industries infrastructure already based and operating in Johor,” said Orsten.
The ultimate hope, Collins concluded, is to enhance storytelling format: “What The Imaginarium Studios does in Britain, we want to do in Asia, and we can do it at a reasonable cost.
“We really want to take our technology and creativity a step further than anyone else, to stretch that boundary in how we tell stories. Having that in the heart of Asia, gives our storytellers an advantage.”
For more information, go to www.imaginariumuk.com