There’s no bigger personality on the big-screen this spring than Deadpool, unless you count his sidekick Colossus that is. We talked with Academy Award winner Greg LaSalle, the pioneer behind the facial motion capture technology that brought the metallic marvel to life, to talk Colossus and some of the biggest films of our time.
What you do marries technology and creativity. When you were growing up, did you lean more on the technology side or were you more of a creative?
My father was a scientist and a cutting-edge tech lover, so I’ve always been involved with what’s new. We had the first Apple computers, the first calculators, and the newest TV technology. I’ve always fallen in love with that stuff. I was involved with music because my dad bought a piano, but loving technology like he did, he bought a player piano. I consider myself more creative because that’s what my training has always been and then I’ve learned the technology to further my creative process. It becomes something unique when you merge those things together.
Explain to me how the facial motion capture technology has evolved.
Motion capture has been mostly tiny markers on a person’s face. The problem is that there are only so many data points that fit and a person’s face has so much subtlety. We wanted to capture the entire surface of the face for film. What we do is really a fast 3D scan of the face. Now, we capture all the subtle movements, the eyebrows, the wrinkles on the forehead…all of the micro expressions people make. We’ve actually used this tech for training the TSA on micro expressions and how to notice little movements on the face that unconsciously happen when you’re not telling the truth or covering things up.
In the last few years, we’ve been able to develop this technology to now take the data set from our facial mapping and apply it to a computer-generated character that doesn’t look like the actor. Deadpool is the first time that a major character in a film is being portrayed in this way.
When Lord of the Rings came out, it really placed a spotlight on the motion capture technology. How is what you’re doing different and more advanced than that?
This new tech is different than the technology made famous by Andy Serkis’ work. When the reflective dots are on the actor’s face, there are 200-300 points that are captured for the performance. We have six or seven thousand data points with this facial mapping. This tech doesn’t pick up where the eyes of the actor are looking, but we have the video reference for them so the animators are only really adding where the character looks. This technology affords that and affords that it can be done quickly. Colossus was added in September, late in the process. We did a dozen or so takes of me [Colossus] saying the lines, you get the performance the way you wanted it and then you drop it into the film. It’s not necessary to go back and animate the character, save for pointing their eyes where they need to look and turning the head in the right direction.
So with Colossus, there was an actor on set wearing a motion capture suit, and animators created the Colossus character that’s seen on screen on top of where that actor was. Then, the motion capture of your face speaking the lines was placed onto/into Colossus’ face, a character that doesn’t have your face. That’s incredible. What’s it like seeing your performance captured on screen but it’s not your face or voice?
I remember my first reaction to seeing the shot of the Colossus character. His face is actually modeled after a stunt man in Vancouver but when I saw the first transfers of my facial motion capture on Colossus’ face, all of the sudden you see yourself in it. It’s your lip shape, it’s the way you talk, and the way the wrinkles around your eyes move when you blink. It’s freaky to see. You’re seeing an extension of yourself on something that doesn’t look like you…but it also kinda does.
In 2014, you starred in your first feature as an actor in Night at the Museum: Secrets of the Tomb, playing August Ceasar.
That was the first test to see if we could make the tech work. In that performance, there’s a lot less emotion conveyed. There’s not a lot of subtly in the character in Night at the Museum. In Colossus, it’s the opposite. There are some speeches he gives and his face is full-screen for some of it. You have to be able to tell in the full performance that it’s truthful. It’s not just in the words he says, but it has to convey the emotions of the character. He’s sitting there, trying to convince Deadpool with his whole heart to listen to what he’s saying and the number one goal is to make sure that character never pulls you out of what’s going on. You have to believe it from the second you see it.
With such an extensive body of work, I want to ask you about some specific films you’ve worked on and what sort of mark they left on you. The first are Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 1 & 2.
Harry Potter was great for a bunch of reasons, most had nothing to do with film. I got to go back and forth to London for two years to film and I had never read the books before. So I read a chapter of each of the last books while I was on the set. I read a chapter sitting in Dumbledore’s chair, a chapter in the Malfoy’s mansion, etc. That experience was unbelievable to me. To read the books while sitting on the set? How incredible. The other big thing was that it was a family working on those movies. The same people worked on the films together for almost ten years and they spent all of their time together. The actors had trailers but they never hung out in them. Everyone ate together and spent time together. It was the most amazing experience I’ve had on a set.
You worked on both The Avengers and Age of Ultron. Did the years between the films help in terms of technological advancement?
The Avengers and Age of Ultron were different. We got in early on The Avengers to work with Joss Whedon and Mark Ruffalo to come up with a way of getting Mark’s performance on The Hulk. In the movie, you will see features of Mark in Hulk but the technology wasn’t far enough along for the first one to really get his total performance into the character. In Ultron and even in Guardians of the Galaxy, it changed. When I worked with Josh Brolin on Thanos, he got me my first acting teacher, a fantastic teacher, who taught me so much about acting that I didn’t understand before. It was monumental for me.
In my opinion, two of your films raised the bar in terms of visual and technological achievement. With Gravity, you were a part of shaping what would become a visual masterpiece. How was that project unique to the other films you’ve worked on?
Gravity was very unique in that I worked with Alfonso Cuarón for two years on it before filming began. He was adamant about using technology that was completely transparent. It’s exciting to develop and modify what you do to fit that vision. His director of photography had a phenomenal idea to render it from the actor’s perspective and use walls of LED lights around them. Gravity was also unique in that our job was to put the actor’s face back on the CG version of them in the shots.
The innovation used on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button blew everyone away.
That’s near to my heart because it was the first film I got to work on. This film was opening up the doors for me to seeing how this industry worked and I really loved working with Brad Pitt and David Fincher. They have a unique method of working together, with back-and-forth chatter between lines that I’d never seen before. It was pretty cool to see and Brad and I got along great because we have a similar sense of humor. It was a lot of fun and we spent every day trying to make each other laugh.
You won a Technical Achievement Award at the 87th Academy Awards for the innovative design and development of the MOVA Facial Performance Capture system.
The Sci-Tech awards are different than the ceremony on TV. One reason is that you already know you’ve won before the evening begins, so there’s no pressure and everyone is having a blast. The second reason is that they give you all the wine you can drink all night long. When I got up there to accept my award, at that point, it doesn’t sink it that I had an Oscar. It’s more like when I see pictures and go ‘that actually happened.’ It’s a culmination of ten years worth of work. But believe it or not, seeing Colossus is just as exciting for me. As much as the award can mean something, and it does, having audiences love the way the work looks is more exciting.