Interview with Actor and Motion Capture Artist Greg LaSalleFebruary 12, 2016
An actor and veteran facial motion capture artist, Greg LaSalle is also a member of visual effects house Digital Domain. His most recent work will have audiences see him as the “face” of Colossus in the new Marvel movie Deadpool. Recently, we had a chance to talk to Greg about the world of facial motion capture, how it is affecting the movie industry and what we should expect to see with the technology moving forward.
At the start of your career you were heavily involved in music. Where did that interest come from and is music still a part of your life today?
Well the interest came from my parents, my father primarily. He loved technology and he loved music and so we had player pianos in the house and that’s where I fell in love with music and technology at the same time. I started taking piano lessons when I was a young kid, stopped and started up again and then ended up going to school for music and eventually going to Berkley School of Music for music synthesis technology. Now I’m lucky enough to have a Yamaha piano that is actually connected to a computer so I can record myself and play back what I recorded. It’s just a lot of fun, it’s my get away, my relaxation.
How did you transition from the music world to facial motion capture work?
I moved to the Bay area about fifteen years ago to work with a friend of mine who had a motion capture suit, primarily to capture how the body moves and one of those was an optical system where, you’ve probably seen pictures, you attach reflective markers along the body and during that time the camera resolution was getting better and people were starting to use those for facial motion capture, using small dots and gluing them to the face. My friends an inventor and he wanted to develop a new technology and he had some money so six or seven of us got together and we set out to develop a new motion capture system that would end up capturing the markers, which is small data for them, two to two hundred and fifty data points, we invented a system that actually captures the entire surface of the skin, so our data is set at around seven thousand data points, and that’s initially how I got involved.
When you first did get involved, do you initially treat this as a hobby or did you have an idea early on that there were bigger things ahead for this kind of work?
That’s a really good question. In the beginning we were just excited about trying to invent something to solve the problem that we knew needed to be solved, and that’s exciting in its own right. Then when the invention worked, it’s called MOVA, and we got our first movie, which was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, then we realized this is something that could really be used extensively in the film industry. Then I started getting more excited about movie making because I’ve always been a behind the scenes kind of guy, musical directing, writing, producing, that sort of stuff and so this worked right in line with that, right in the back end of filmmaking but I’ve always been afraid to be the guy out front and I’ve always been involved with acting so I kind of started to make that transition a few years ago after being able to work with some of the best actors and directors in the film industry. One of those actors actually turned me on to a phenomenal acting teacher, I started studying with her and things have progressed ever since.
Now is this a very specialized field or is it something that people are still not aware exists as a real profession?
I think they’re starting to become aware but it’s still relatively new. I think there’s an awareness for the type of motion capture that’s been done primarily by Andy Serkis, in the Lord of the Rings movies and the Planet of the Apes movies. This is kind of the next iteration of that where the actors performance is transferred mathematically at a very high resolution to the final character, so it minimizes the amount of animator intervention. Actually, for Colossus in Deadpool there is practically none because typically an animator has to play for high direction and head rotation in this type of motion capture but Colossus doesn’t really have eyes so it took a little bit of animator time on that. But this new technology is really new, the ability to transfer high resolution betas has really on been in existence for two years now and Colossus is really the first character that’s a pretty prominent character in a feature film, using this new transfer method.
How quickly does the technology change in this field and how much influence does Digital Domain have in these changes?
It’s hard to say if something is changing quickly or not. Nothing ever seems to change fast enough for what you wish you had at the time you needed to do something, you know what I mean? What’s really great about merging the technology, the existing technology with digital domain, was that their two pieces of the puzzle. One is acquiring the performance and then the second part is actually doing something with it. MOVA solved the problem of capturing the performance in an incredibly detailed way but applying that has been something that’s been slow to catch on and I think that’s more of a funding issue and timing because you get the green light to use a technology on a film and then you have to prove the technology is going to work one hundred percent, otherwise you can’t use that technology on a film. So Digital Domain put money behind it when there wasn’t films, so that we spent a year and a half developing this transfer technology which is called direct drive. The pairing of direct drive and MOVA together was incredibly powerful and creative tool now.
As far as Colossus was concerned in the new Deadpool movie did you run into any problems using the new technology?
Actually, I think it was pretty flawless. The fun part for me was being on both sides of it, being the actor to do the facial performance was really fun because I think I have a really good understanding of how the technology works. The only thing is in the past, a lot of times the performances had to be played bigger in order to transfer properly onto the final characters and that’s what we kind of assumed a little bit in the beginning and we realized after the first shots were being transferred to Colossus that it was too much, just play them exactly how you want them to be on the final character. That was really the only thing but it was a really great discovery, to know that the performance played exactly the same way in the final character. The actor is free to do what they need to do instead of worrying about what’s going to get translated.
What is it like working with actors on set when you’re doing the technology part of it? Do they realize and accept the importance of this to a film or is there some resistance to the high end technology?
I haven’t run across resistance in using the high end technology, especially if they understand what it is. A lot of times when there’s something new, people put it into perspective of what they already know, and in the case of this technology, some actors will say I’ve already been scanned and that’s not really what this is. Once they see what actually happens, and we have these great demos when I’m working with actors and directors so I can show them, once they see that the performance will actually come through the way it does they get very excited. A lot of times they know what they know and they haven’t seen the latest in technology development cycle and so they have these pre-conceived notions. So I spend a lot of time showing them exactly what’s going to happen and how it’s going to work, then they get incredibly excited about it.
So what do you think is the next step for this new technology?
You know, I haven’t really thought what is going to come next. We’ve been working so hard I haven’t had time. The big thing here is, right now with the current technology, you have to what we call ‘Frankenstein’ things together. The body motion capture is done the way it’s traditionally been done and then the face is captured separately in a rig that has twenty nine cameras. I think the next evolution is something we’re all looking at, is there a way to have a miniature camera system that can actually be worn on your head at the same time you’re doing the body capture, so there’s no ‘Franensteining’ the head to the body, I think that’s going to be the next big jump in technology.
When you are approached to participate in a movie, what is it that you look for that makes you say yes, I want to do this?
Well, the first thing is how exciting is the character and how challenging is it going to be. Part of the fun of doing this kind of work is that there could be things in the character, you can explore character traits that you wouldn’t normally play. For instance, I just finished shooting another movie and I play two different characters. One of which is a newborn infant baby, literally in the delivery room, the baby comes out and I do the facial performance for this baby, taking its first breath, getting spanked, opening its eyes for the first time, those are things that you just never get to do as an adult actor, so it’s really kind of cool. It’s incredibly challenging, like ok, how do I take my first breath, I certainly don’t remember being born, so you watch a lot of reference videos and you practice these things extensively until you think you have something believable but those challenges are really fun.
What is typical day like for you on set when you’re doing a movie?
Well it’s condensed, it’s very different than traditional acting in film because you’re not waiting for things to take place, like the camera to get set up or lights to be moved or explosions to be re-set. You get through a lot of stuff in one day and I think it’s more like theatre, instead of doing a bunch of individual shots you get to do the whole scene together and get it all out. So you stay in character longer, things can flow a lot better and so I think that makes it kind of exciting because you typically don’t get that opportunity when you’re on a set with a single camera, that kind of flow just isn’t there. So for instance with Colossus, we got though main parts of the movie in just one day which normally is just not possible.
I want to thank Greg for taking the time to speak with us.