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In movies like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016), how do actors make eye contact with CGI characters?

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If you talk to actors that do a lot of CGI, the answer is "not very easily". (Ian McKellan famously almost quit filming The Hobbit because most of his work was acting solo, since they had to CGI in the hobbits later to make them short.)

However, there's a couple of techniques that pop up frequently in CGI-heavy movies:

  • The "tennis ball". Often an actual tennis ball, but not always. Some small prop will be held at what would be eye-level for a CGI character, and the actors play to that. Because the CGI is added in later, the FX team will just adjust their graphics so that the character shows up where the actor is actually looking, as much as they can. This technique is also used when actors need to maniuplate (touch, hold, pet, etc) CGI creatures, to give them something tangible to work with.

    Amelia Clarke and a tennis ball

  • Stand-ins. For CGI characters that are mostly human-sized and human-shaped, often times the actor doing the motion-capture will just act through the scenes (dressed in a motion-capture suit) and be digitally replaced later on with their character. This was done in your example, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, with live actors playing the turtles (click this still image for the video):

    TMNT motion capture

  • Sometimes they will combine the two techniques. In Age of Ultron for example, James Spader in motion capture gear plays Ultron throughout the movie, but early on the character becomes much bigger than a human. For those scenes, they positioned a set of red lights over Spader's head so the actors (in this scene, it's Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) would remember to look well above Spader's head when talking to Ultron (again, click for video):

    Ultron motion capture

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    More specific to the film noted in the question, they used stand-ins with special motion capture (MoCap) suits. youtube.com/watch?v=olgzEjidV8s – MattD Sep 12 '16 at 15:51
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    An interesting side note: In movies like The Lord of the RIngs films, there was also the problem of actors making eye contact when they were both on camera. Since many shots were done with forced perspective to give the illusion of actors being different sizes, they couldn't actually look at each other, but instead had to look where the other was going to appear to be in the shot. – John Sensebe Sep 12 '16 at 16:59
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    @JohnSensebe: Here is a nice example of the famous "moving forced perspective" shot with Gandalf and Frodo at the table and the camera moving around: youtu.be/QWMFpxkGO_s?t=1m43s . At 1:43 in the video, there is precisely the problem you allude to, when Sir Ian McKellan asks for a marker for where to look to at the beginning of the shot. This shot is even trickier because even though both Frodo and Gandalf doen't move in the shot, Sir Ian McKellan actually does move on the stage, so he has to constantly adjust his eyeline to appear to be looking stationary at Frodo. – Jörg W Mittag Sep 12 '16 at 20:10
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    For a pre-digital illustration of matching the eyelines of a animated character, the "beep the horn twice" scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit contains a moment where Roger flattens himself against a wall, becoming momentarily taller in the process. He does this because Bob Hoskins (Eddie Valiant) was looking too high. They simply animated Roger to match his eyeline. – John Sensebe Sep 12 '16 at 22:37
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    Ooh ooh, find the picture of Ultron in mocap suit. The scarlet witch and quicksilver actors are stating at a ball above spaders head. – cde Sep 13 '16 at 2:24
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For Avengers: Age of Ultron, they used a thing with three red dots on a stick to mark the eyes for the CGI Ultron character, actually played by James Spader. Actors would then have to look at these red dots while talking to Ultron.

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Well, how would you know if they were actually making eye-contact? They look at a spot in space, maybe there's a marked portion of a wall that they are supposed to look at, and then, with CGI, you can impose the image wherever you want, so regardless of where the actor is looking, you can move the image there.

Keep in mind, even without CGI, how do they make eye contact? What we perceive as eye-contact, as movie viewers, is the actor looking directly into the camera, not into the other actors' eyes. Other than that, we can only see that they are generally looking in the direction of the other actor, unless they are nose-to-nose.

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    Most people can tell by looking when another person is making eye contact with a third person. It's not just where the eyes are pointing, but other non-verbal communication cues like different patterns of eye movement and other tiny facial cues. Skilled public speakers, for example, can give the impression they're making eye contact with an entire room. Perhaps this is why films with CGI characters often feel a little 'off' even when the CGI itself is near-perfect. – user568458 Sep 12 '16 at 14:09
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    "Skilled public speakers can give the impression they are making eye contact with the entire room" - I suggest that statement directly refutes the idea the "most people can tell by looking when another person is making eye contact with a third person." Just my opinion. – PoloHoleSet Sep 12 '16 at 14:12
  • I think @user568458 is trying to describe good confront (of people), which includes the ability to make eye contact. However, just because your eyeballs aren't pointed in exactly the right spot at a particular second does not mean you don't have the ability to make eye contact. More to the point, it is possible to confront (comfortably face) an entire room of people, but not possible to have your eyeballs pointing at each of their faces at the same time. (This is a little off the point of CGI characters, though. I see what he/she is saying but I agree with this answer.) – Wildcard Sep 14 '16 at 1:36
  • Actually, I think it's noticeable when a person isn't focussing on what they appear to be looking in the direction of (because this is something that people are generally good at, even if not consciously). You can tell that the actor isn't quite looking at the right point in space, and with the intensity that you see them looking at real people (because we are used to seeing actors look at each other intensely). I noticed this with the CGI enhancements to Star Wars (the notorious Jabba insertion) and particularly with the Dexter Jettster scene in Attack of the Clones. It just doesn't work. – Kevin Teljeur Sep 15 '16 at 8:42
  • This reminds me of one of the early X-files episodes, where they didn't have the prop ready, so David Duchovney had to act without it. When they trapped "Flukeman" in the chamber, and he looked at it for the first time, he said he didn't want to act all freaked out, in case the eventual monster wasn't all that horrifying, so he was mostly non-responsive when looking down at the chamber. Of course, they wound up with a creature that was really, really nasty, so his non-reaction was pretty notable. – PoloHoleSet Sep 15 '16 at 14:40

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