Welcome to the Gollum factory: behind the scenes of Imaginarium Studios

Launched in 2011, Imaginarium Studios has already provided motion capture services for movies such as Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in which founder Andy Serkis played Caesar

The brainchild of Gollum actor Andy Serkis and Jonathan Cavendish, Imaginarium Studios are masters of motion capture, aka performance capture. This is a technique that involves filming a real-life actor and turning their movements into a CGI character (read a technical explanation of how it's done in this article).

Based in central London, the studio opened its doors in 2011 and has already provided performance capture services for Hollywood movies such as Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It's also developing its own film and television projects, games and other digital applications.

As he prepared before his talk at Zed, we caught up with Imaginarium's Andy Morley to learn more about this exciting and evolving discipline...

How optical facial capture is used to create a fully rendered CG character. (Photo: The Imaginarium)

Q: What are the biggest misconceptions people have about performance capture?

"People often confuse performance capture with voice acting - particularly because its primary application in film so far has been to create animated or CG creatures. Many do not understand that the actor is responsible for the whole performance: motion, voice and expression.

"The increasing use of performance capture in various areas is beginning to dispel this myth and open up understanding to the real potential of what can be done, and how much an actor's performance dictates the final result."

Q: Is performance capture primarily a technical or creative challenge?

"At The Imaginarium our technical and creative teams go hand in hand, and every challenge we face, we figure out together. We have specialists on both sides; with a wealth of experience from film, TV and video games, and we pool our knowledge to find a solution for our clients, and our own projects.

"In the sense that performance capture itself is an evolving technology, most of the challenges surrounding capture can be seen as technical. But due to the importance of acting and performance involved, the creative side is just as important."

Head Mounted Camera designed by The Imaginarium using Vicon and Standard Deviation products. (Photo: The Imaginarium)

Q: What sets Imaginarium apart?

"One thing that set us apart is that the creative driving force of the company is Andy Serkis, with his wealth of experience contributing to every aspect of the company.

"Also, the company produces its own content, using the very same technologies we offer out as a service. So we're able to both provide services to other companies and to our own IP content, which puts The Imaginarium in a unique position."

Q: Is the demand for performance capture stable or expanding?

"Performance capture is becoming more popular due to an expanding range of creative content that is being produced, both for our clients, and for the internal content being created here at IMS.

"Recently we have been involved in high end TV commercial projects, music videos, Previs and Pitchvis work, alongside the soon to be released Xbox One game called 'Ryse', by Crytek. As the quality and capabilities of performance capture increase, so will the areas of use."

Wire work and stunt shoot (Photo: The Imaginarium)

Q: What's the best way to get a job in performance capture?

"This completely depends on the area you'd like to get involved in. much like any film set or company there are many different roles - from the studio team, to visual effects, development and production.

"In terms of the technical side there are some fantastic courses around the UK which involve performance capture- a lot of our technical team came from computer animation and special effects courses where this was part of their training. And much like everyone else in the industry there’s the route in of becoming a runner and working your way up!

"Our company works as a team on all of our projects and the most important training comes from the tests we do here, and the challenges we can face."

Q: How did you get involved yourself?

"I've been working in VFX since leaving Bournemouth University in 1996, and have pretty much worked in every area of work (film, TV, games), all around the world. When I heard about this exciting company in west London, with Andy Serkis at the helm, I jumped at the chance to join. At that time I did not have a whole lot of experience with performance capture, and so it was good to join the team."

Andy Serkis wearing the Standard Deviation HMC. (Photo: The Imaginarium and Standard Deviation)

Q: What are you working on at the moment?

"We're developing a number of projects at The Imaginarium - at the moment we're in pre-production on a remake of Animal Farm, with Andy Serkis directing. That's what I'm personally focused on: the pre-production stage of that movie.

"We've also optioned a novel called The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon, so in the early stages of discussion for that project.

"We're also working on new ideas incorporating various art forms with performance capture and constantly aiming to engage with new audiences in the film, TV, games, theatre, dance and interactive world, whilst upholding our emphasis on next-generation storytelling.

Delivered in conjunction with ZED!

This content was produced in collaboration with HP & Intel as part of ZED - a Pop-Up Studio for the Creative Community held in Soho, London. For more information about ZED and any future events see here.