Actor and martial artist Jet Li recently revealed in an interview (translation here) the real reason he turned down the role of Seraph in The Matrix trilogy: he was concerned over how Warner Bros. might use his motion capture performance in the future.

Here are Li’s full comments on why he turned down the role:

“It was a commercial struggle for me. I realized the Americans wanted me to film for three months but be with the crew for nine. And for six months, they wanted to record and copy all my moves into a digital library. By the end of the recording, the right to these moves would go to them. I was thinking: I’ve been training my entire life. And we martial artists could only grow older. Yet they could own [my moves] as an intellectual property forever. So I said I couldn’t do that.”

Li smartly understood that his physical performance was his “intellectual property” and that the filmmakers wanted to digitally capture and record his IP, opening up the potential that his moves could be re-used in the future without his permission.

His concerns are a legitimate – and largely undiscussed – issue for both actors and digital animators. What actors and animators often create nowadays aren’t simply performances, but they are endlessly duplicable performances that reduce the artist’s own value in the marketplace. The question becomes then – what is a fair compensation for creating a lifetime library of content for a studio?

It’s also worth pointing out that the technology has advanced greatly since the time of The Matrix films. Today, actors don’t just perform motion capture, but also provide full body and facial scans for films, giving the studio even more data to play around with.

These questions likely won’t be addressed until actors and digital animators are forced to do so – in other words, the day when a studio misuses performance capture data without an actor’s permission for a subsequent film project. It’s not a matter of if that’ll happen, only when.

Jet Li is set to play the role of the Emperor in Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of Mulan.


Amid Amidi

Amid Amidi is Cartoon Brew's Publisher and Editor-at-large.