Back in the mid-'90s, before WETA and Andy Serkis gifted Gollum unto the universe, TJ Storm was attending a directing class when one of his fellow students propositioned him about working on a new technology called motion capture. Naturally, Storm, a highly decorated dancer and martial artist who was trying to break into the movie biz, had questions.
"I'm like, 'Yeah, what is it?'" Storm remembered in a recent conversation with SYFY WIRE. "He's like, 'Oh, you just put on a suit and you capture images.' I'm like, 'I don't know what that means, but sure, I'll try it out!'"
Turned out Storm had all the right moves, and that contact ended up casting him as a motion capture performer in a video game. Now, all these years later, he's been in at least 100 video games — from Quake Arena to Call of Duty to Halo — and appeared in many of our favorite films and television shows as well, including stints as Groot and Rocket Raccoon in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Avengers: Infinity War, Colossus in Deadpool, Godzilla in Legendary's 2014 film, and the Predator in The Predator, among many others.
Along the way, Storm's gotten a firsthand view at how motion capture technology has changed not just video games, but also the digitally remastered face of modern moviemaking itself.
"It's a real blast to bring this technology into its next level, and get to evolve along with it," Storm reflected. "It used to be that the suits were really thick and weren't made for this, and the markers — the little shiny things that are on the suit — they used to be made of a hard material, and when you landed on them, oh, they punched into your body, it wasn't very comfortable. Now they're made to fit, and the markers are soft."
At its core, though, the technology is reliant upon the actor "creating characters and telling stories," he said. But every character has its own unique set of challenges.
"Every character is totally different, and they work on a whole bunch of different levels… emotionally, motivationally, even the mask is different. Colossus is a 7-foot-tall Russian, and even that little bit, the fact that he's Russian, that cultural shift changes the way he might hold himself, or the way he might react to things," he said. "Whereas Godzilla is a 400-foot-tall, 90,000-metric-ton radioactive lizard. So you have to move your mask very very slowly, to simulate the massive size of such a creature that traverses from water to earth through a city, breaking through buildings."
"The postures change from creature to creature. The center of movement of changes, the sheer mass, or the body type," he explained. "Some things are ectomorphs, slim, thin-boned, light-built people, where other creatures, like Colossus, or Godzilla, or the Predator even, are endomorphs. They're heavily muscled, thick-boned, powerfully built creatures, and you have to be able to shift up or shift down, depending on what kind of character and what you're trying to portray. If it becomes very specific to that creature, then I've done my job."
To excel at such work, Storm has relied heavily upon his dancing and martial arts backgrounds, which help him flow, move, and play.
"Growing up with both of those things solidified my movements," he offered. "It was not planned. The good thing was, I had a strong center, I had a strong stance, a strong set of balance techniques, and from there, I could build everything else that I use today."
And as far as researching a character goes, especially in the genre titles, it helps that Storm is a lifelong geek, who has grown up loving comics, D&D, and many of the characters he's had a chance to play. But when asked what his biggest geek-out moment has been in the motion capture business, he hearkens back to the very first movie he remembers seeing, Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster. "I thought it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen in my entire life, it was the very first movie I saw. So to turn around and get a chance to play the King of the Monsters is pretty freakin' cool."
Interestingly, like many other top-secret motion cap jobs, Storm didn't realize he was playing Godzilla until the day of the shoot, when a friend of his called him into a warehouse to "talk about some movement stuff." Storm thought he would be doing some mo-cap coaching, since he runs The Mind's Eye Tribe: Action Actor's Academy, which teaches people the ins and outs of the motion capture game.
"I ended up in a warehouse with some cameras, and there are just three guys standing there, and [his friend] turned to us, and he's like, 'You're MUTO number one, you're MUTO number two,' and he faced me and he goes, 'And you're Godzilla.' And I'm like, 'Whaaaaaattt?!'"
It's not easy getting into character the day you find out you're playing it, but that's why directors, special effects supervisors, and animators hire people like Storm.
"Our specialty is zeroing on exactly what they need, and having the physical capacity to bring those characters to life no matter what it might be," he said. "The further it gets away from a basic human form, the more skill and technique you need to bring that character to life without breaking the model."
On another surprising day at the studio, Storm found out he'd be portraying Iron Man in Captain America: Civil War, and fighting Cap himself. "Now they had shot the majority of the principal photography, but they didn't like the way some of the action turned out, some of the special effects shots, so we shot a huge portion of that fight, and re-shot parts of it so they could get it just the way they liked it. They like to tweak things," says Storm. "So I was Iron Man, man! And I've done the same for Groot [both Baby and Teenage]. And I've done the same for Rocket Raccoon. So I've gotten to be awesome characters, and it's been an absolute blast."
You know, just another day at the office.