Modern motion-capture systems are the product of a century of tinkering, innovation and computational advances. Mocap was born a lifetime before Gollum hit the big screen in The Lord of the Rings, and ages before the Cold War, Vietnam War or World War II. It was 1915, in the midst of the First World War, when animator Max Fleischer developed a technique called rotoscoping and laid the foundation for today’s cutting-edge mocap technology.
Rotoscoping was a primitive and time-consuming process, but it was a necessary starting point for the industry. In the rotoscope method, animators stood at a glass-topped desk and traced over a projected live-action film frame-by-frame, copying actors’ or animals’ actions directly onto a hand-drawn world. The technique produced fluid, lifelike movements that animators couldn’t achieve on their own.
The first full-length American film to use rotoscoping was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which debuted in 1939, and Disney used the technique in subsequent films, including Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty and Peter Pan. Though actual mocap systems were still decades away, rotoscoping was precisely the proof of concept the field needed clearly, it paid off to mimic real people’s actions as closely as possible in animated spaces.
Two decades later, the United States was caught in the Cold War, racing the Soviet Union to the moon, and animator Lee Harrison III was experimenting with analog circuits and cathode ray tubes. In 1959, Harrison lined a bodysuit with potentiometers (adjustable resistors) and was able to record and animate an actor’s movements, in real time, on a CRT. This was a rudimentary rig the animated actor was essentially a glowing stick figure but it marked the first instance of real-time motion capture.