Acting for Motion Capture Workshop with Ben Bishop

27 April, 2021

When you think about being an actor, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Stage productions? Television? Of course, these are both a massive part of our industry, but as with any career choice, there are countless other acting mediums that you may not even consider.

by Charley Morgan, ICTheatre Graduate

On Sunday 18th April, a group of prospective students for our Acting for the 21st Century pathway got to explore one of these other mediums, in a Motion Capture workshop with Ben Bishop. Ben has worked in the industry for the past 20 years, exploring motion capture for the last six. His most recent credits include the performance capture of gorilla Ivan in Disney’s ‘The One and Only Ivan’, as well as working on films such as ‘The Jungle Book’ and ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’. In three hours, Ben’s workshop focused on the use of body and physicality for motion and performance capture, as well as how to get out of your head and focus on the task at hand when executing this kind of work.

Ben began the workshop by getting the actors to move around the space and interact as gorillas – not the easiest of tasks in a room full of strangers. But Ben kept bringing them back to the work –

“focus on the use of your body and the task at hand, and that will help bring you out of your head and into the room. There’s no better place to start than feeling stupid and vulnerable – that’s how we all feel!”

From this gorilla exploration, the group worked through several activities together – interacting with each other as gorillas, using fruit as focus points, exploring different group dynamics. The group soon warmed up to working together and looking silly in front of each other. One student even commented,

“Once everyone is in it together, it feels really good, and you forget what you’re doing!”

The class then focused on animal studies – if you were to liken yourself to an animal, what would that animal be? This was for the actors to explore what they have within themselves that they can bring to the work. Afterwards, Ben explained why:

“Animals are the furthest things from ourselves, but also the closest. Some people – like myself – are made to play gorillas and bears. Others cats. It’s about attuning to what you have to offer”.

All of this work was a simple starting point to motion capture, but an effective one – throughout the class, you could see the students opening up and settling into the environment. ICTheatre always strives for this kind of work ethic and atmosphere, so Ben was a perfect tutor for the student’s workshop.

Speaking to Ben after, it was easy to see how this large but gentle personality has worked so successfully within our industry. After discussing the workshop, we got to speak about his career in motion and performance capture. Having not had any experience in the motion capture world myself, I had to ask ‘What’s it like working on a set as a non-speaking gorilla?’ and the answer was very simple;

“You play the emotion. You don’t have to talk, or have lines – people are very concerned about lines, but in this work, it’s not about lines. Physically and vocally you find your way through – and it’s quite liberating.”

On set for ‘The One and Only Ivan’, Ben worked alongside the actors, performing the gorilla’s movements, being the actor’s point of focus, and reacting to their lines to invoke a truer performance for all involved. Motion capture artists have worked like this for years, but it is only recently they have started receiving recognition for their work.

Working in motion capture has given Ben some brilliant opportunities to learn from, as both an actor and a human being. While discussing these opportunities, he shared an incredible anecdote of when he got to meet a silverback gorilla as research for his role as Ivan.

“This gorilla came out – and I’m a big guy – and he did nothing. I’ve never felt more vulnerable in my life. What I learned from that is stillness, and how much power there is within. Being still, looking somebody straight in the eyes. Because he just sat there and looked at me and looked at me. But if one of the nurses came forwards to talk to me, he would just go, and I would have to talk to the nurse without looking at her in the eyes. Because as far as he was concerned everyone within that area was his pack, and I could be a threat. It was quite a life-changing experience to feel so vulnerable and so powerless, and yet know I had to play that character. So how do I bring that strength? By doing exactly that. Looking everyone on that team in the eyes until they feel uncomfortable because I’m never going to feel uncomfortable by that kind of looking.”

Before we finished, I asked Ben for the advice he’d give to young actors preparing to enter this industry. The first was in regards to surviving our industry.

“Remain hungry, without being desperate. The sooner you can get used to feeling uncomfortable, the sooner you can get used to feeling vulnerable, the sooner you can get used to feeling out of control, the less pressure you put on each job. So that when you do get a job, it’s not the best thing in the world, and you can just go and do the best you can. And if you haven’t got a job, it’s not the worst thing in the world either. You can survive.”

My final question, ‘If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?’ and Ben was very quick to come back with the answer

“Listen. Very simply, just listen. I’ve talked myself out of jobs, through getting too comfortable too quickly. So in auditions, keep your mouth shut, do a really good job, and respond when you’re asked. Leave knowing you did the best you could then put the rest out of your mind.”

Interested in joining workshops like this one? Tap here to see what’s coming up – Join the #ICTheatreMovement!

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Institute for Contemporary Theatre