Ace Ruele, a Motion Capture Performer who worked on The Legend of Tarzan, talks to us about this pioneering craft, how he got involved and his thoughts on whether it should be considered a performance category in its own right when it comes to acting awards.
We have to start with The Legend of Tarzan. How did you get involved there and what was the role/work you did?
It's actually a cool story. I was in the gym one time and my friend said to me, "There's a big film looking for black men to play warriors from an African tribe," and that the pay was quite good. To cut a long story short, I got all the details, applied, and I ended up joining Mad Dog 2020 casting agency. I don't know if it was because I put down on my application that I am a trained dancer and actor, but instead of being a warrior, I was put forward to audition to be one of the background apes. It was a 2 or 3 day workshop/audition process and in the end I got the part. During filming, the movement director was so impressed with my performance that I was upgraded to a new contract and ended up playing the lions, the ape mother, 'Kala' and some scenes for the ape father, 'Kerchak'.
For the shoot itself, I was using arm extensions a lot, which are for helping to create the posture of apes as they have long arms. The director, David Yates, gave most of the direction rather than the AD. Even though my face wasn't being captured, he wanted every emotion on my face as well as my body language.
Motion capture itself is still a relatively new acting medium. How did you get into it?
Before doing Tarzan, I thought all animals and creatures were CGI. After realising they weren't, I decided to put my attention towards doing more work like Tarzan. It took me 2 years post-Tarzan before I got my first audition in motion capture (mocap), and another the year after that before I got my first job. The process of getting work in mocap isn't easy. After 2 years of emailing, I decided to join LinkedIn and added everyone from mocap studios, from animators to CEO's. It was the President of Imaginarium that replied back to me and put me on to their casting director, for who I then auditioned for Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier. I didn't get the role, but the director was very impressed by my work and a year later I was working on, Crisis on the Planets of the Apes VR, and I've been working ever since.
What skills as an actor translate to both traditional film acting and mocap performance?
Definitely physical performance, in other words physical theatre, as well as improvisation. In mocap, if you're in an empty studio there is no set design like there is in film. You have to use imagination which generates a lot of improvisation. First and foremost, motion capture is literally about capturing your motion, so having physical training in your background makes the work a lot easier because there are a lot of postures and moves you have to repeat and get right. Also, being familiar with the script is essential, because although your voice may not feature in the game, it is needed for reference and sometimes, you are not shown the script until you arrive on the day.
If you want to be an all round mocap artist, then you need acrobatic skills, combat skills and weapon skills. These skills are required in a lot of games, the better you are – the more you have to offer.
You mention video game work, can you tell us a bit more about the video work you’ve done there? Is the process any different to film?
I've worked on a few video games, but the only ones I can mention because they've been released are, Planets of the Apes VR and The Inpatient (an Until Dawn prequel). The process of acting in video games is somewhat different due to the game environment and layout, and some of the motions that have to be captured. For instance, you have to be wary that you might be doing a scene where you're in a corridor and if you don't remember the marks and step out of position, it basically means the character will be through the wall. There is also 'locomotion' which has to be done for every character in the game. This is how the player walks, jog, runs, turns left, turns right, turns, jogs left, jogs right etc. The thing about a player in a game, they walk different when on full health bar compared to low health bar, and we've got to do all the locomotions, which can make you a bit restless.
Despite how slow-burning the process can be, what are the most rewarding or challenging aspects of motion capture performance?
Most rewarding is doing a scene in 1 take or maybe 2 and of course seeing the end result once the production is out. Most challenging, probably is getting the work. A lot of the times, studios and production teams use the same people for the projects because unless you are doing face capture or its perspective skills needed (like a horse rider) they can use the same people for everything else. On set, the most challenging thing may be, again, not becoming restless when you're not needed, or the work doesn't require much from you physically, or you are repeating a scene or particular movements for characters in a video game.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned working in this medium so far?
That motion capture isn't for everybody and it requires much more effort than a regular film/TV set. I say this because, most of the time you only get rehearsals on the day and it's short. In a mocap studio there's no set design to create the realness of your performance, it's all through your imagination and every actor on a mocap set may have a different imagination – but it has to sync. Whether you're playing an old person or a monster, you're in the same outfit with dots all over you and there's no hair and make up to create the look, which of course helps. Also understanding your body is important and being able to be fluid in it. And depending on what type of production it is, especially video games. you are your own stunt person.
Which mocap performances by other actors have impressed you the most?
Andy Serkis. To me, he is the definition of a true actor. There are many actors who seem to play themselves in films, but Andy plays characters. It's not really about an individual performance per say, but how he transitions from playing an ape in Planets of the Apes, to playing Klaue in Black Panther is outstanding. The way he embodies these characters is amazing and inspirational. Toby Kebbell was also excellent as Koba in Planets of the apes.
Do you see motion capture performance as a separate discipline that should be recognised by award bodies, or do you think it should fall into traditional acting categories?
From the answer I gave about what I've learned from mocap, I believe full facial, sound and body capture acting should be awarded in it's own right. Just like you have different genre of films, you have different genre of acting. Not everyone can be a comedy actor and not everyone can be a motion capture actor.
I think mocap performance should have its own category. Though it may be hard to determine how much of their actions and movement are not CGI, the fact is, you work with a lot more restrictions as a mocap performer, i.e environment, costume, number of other actors. So regardless, it takes a lot of effort to convincingly perform when in a studio with just blocks and maybe 2 or 3 actors.
What advice would you give anyone looking to start a career in motion capture performance?
When it comes to mocap, I believe being a jack of all trades rather than a master of one, will get you out there a lot more. So being able to act, improvise, to have great movement and physical skills, being at a good level when it comes to combat and martial arts, I believe are essential to attain more work. Then you need to showcase these skills by creating content that is rare or unexpected. If studios use the same actors, then you need to show content that will make them want to work with you, because what you offer is rare. This is why I am constantly putting out content I know other actors are not, or rarely doing. That, along with persistence, will in time get you to the door from there. It's your work ethic and personality that will determine if the door is opened for you.
To me, to get work in any field as a performer, is to showcase content that is unique or rarely done, so people will have to go to you for that skill set. Prime example, I can bet that despite the amount of actors in the UK, less than 1 percent have their own pair of arm extensions. You have to either make them yourself, or get them from a special effect team, maybe at Imaginarium. If you do get them from special effects company, it may cost you £400, and that's even if they have the time to make it because they are very unlikely to be able to give you a set already made. So already, I know the content I create with those arm extensions is rare and unique. So it's about using your skills to create content, the kind that will make the company you want to work for knock at YOUR door when they already get thousands of people knocking theirs. so create content where they COME TO YOU.
You can follow Ace on Twitter: @AceRuele
To find out more about Ace and his work visit his website.