Meet the Dancer Who Does Motion Capture for the "Avatar" Series

July 12, 2018

Since dancers are masters at the art of movement, Hollywood frequently turns to them for big motion capture projects. (Mumble’s happy feet in Happy Feet came courtesy of tap legend Savion Glover, for example.) Jenn Stafford, who’s danced with Cirque du Soleil and , is one such dancer: She’s taking her skills to the big screen in the form of motion capture for the Avatar sequels. We chatted with Stafford to find out how her dance training has helped her performance in motion capture, and the unique challenges these projects pose.

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How did you get involved in motion capture?

My boyfriend is an actor and a stuntman, and he convinced me to go to a stunt/movement audition. After two additional callbacks, a test shoot, and trial period, I finally found myself regularly working on set for Avatar. (That still feels strange to say!)

What’s it like doing motion capture as a dancer?

Doing motion capture is fun because it’s so different from your traditional dance project. Plus, seeing your moves on some awesome-looking animation is incredible.

How has your dancing helped you with motion capture?

My contemporary training and my experience with improvisation greatly assisted with my performance on set. The body awareness I’ve gained from my technical training and performance experiences helps me take direction from the animators and apply it quickly.

Are there certain styles of dance that are more applicable to motion capture?

There are many different kinds of motion capture jobs out there, which can involve many styles of dance. Being a lover of creature-like movement and character work, I’m happy that I get to work on this film. It incorporates a lot of the contemporary style that I enjoy.

How do you prepare for a motion-capture day on set?

Doing 10 shows a week at Cirque du Soleil trained me to be regimented about maintaining and warming up my body. I still like to do some kind of warm-up or work-out to begin my morning. As dancers and performers, it’s important to check in with your body each day.

Unlike most actors on the set I don’t have any elaborate costumes. I just have a formfitting motion capture suit with markers all over it, and instead of heavy make up and eyelashes, I have black dots on my face. I don’t have to worry about slicking my hair into a bun, either—I usually just braid it and put it under my helmet!

What are some challenges that come with doing motion capture as a dancer?

In the beginning, there were times where my movement was “too pretty.” I had to rethink the way I approached my work on set. I quickly learned that the versatility and adaptability I’d developed as a dancer would need to be applied to this project. In motion capture you can play multiple characters and so it’s important to find their individual style of movement in each scene.

Another challenge is the absence of music. Music has always had a large influence on my movement but in this project it’s not an essential element. But the Avatar team likes to make the process as realistic as possible, so they do include sound effects and wind whenever they’re involved in a scene.

Photo by Mai Sato Photography, courtesy Stafford

What’s been your favorite part about working on this project?

I’ve learned so much! It’s been filled with so many new experiences in such a short amount of time that I’ve had to grow and improve. I also love working with the Avatar team. Everyone’s so talented and creative—it’s truly inspiring.

What advice do you have for dancers who are interested in doing motion capture?

At 18, I thought I knew what having a career in dance and the arts meant. Fast-forward a couple of years and my perspective has completely changed. You never know where your life will lead. Go for what you’re passionate about, but always stay open to the new, weird, and sometimes strange opportunities! Motion capture is a huge art form that I’m so happy to be a part of.