Scramble Suits and Other Postmortem Disguises: Erasing the Human in Performance Capture Technologies

Alison Reed

University of California, Santa Barbara

I. Racialized and Gendered Spaces of Surveillance

From stereotypically “street smart” aliens to sexy anthropomorphized animals, specters of race and gender haunt questions of the nonhuman performing body. Taking as my starting point the “nonhuman” as a fundamentally racialized and gendered category in a field of inquiry that often displaces the politics of representation altogether, this article explores discourses of realism and authenticity in performance capture technologies. I define performance capture loosely to include its earliest iteration, rotoscoping, as well as more traditionally understood motion capture procedures, combined with the latest in facial and audio animation. In whatever form, performance capture manipulates recorded live-action footage in post-production processes that animate facial, bodily, and vocal performance. Computer software, technicians, and artists render a scene with varying degrees of attention to a real-world referent. Some performance capture uses reflective markers to capture movement via multiply positioned cameras, while other companies such as Image Metrics popularized a form of recording, storing, and analyzing motion data without markers. Given the historical precedent of these technologies in the militarization and surveillance of space, it would be disingenuous to understand performance capture apart from its thoroughly racialized and gendered context of controlling and disciplining unruly bodies perceived as threats to the nation.

Understanding the inextricability of performance capture from surveillance technologies helps unpack the film on which I want to focus here: Richard Linklater’s 2006 adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s dystopian sci-fi novel A Scanner Darkly. But first I look to the cultural implications of cutting-edge technologies of performance in everything from Quantic Dream’s video game demos to Hollywood blockbusters such as James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), which are simultaneously obsessed with the alternative and fantastical realities technology enables and thoroughly racialized and gendered preoccupations with the “photoreal.” This article ultimately interrogates the ways in which technologies of performance often assume white mobility and raced immobility. My point is not to make a conservative condemnation of technology but rather to reemphasize the material in a field of inquiry often obsessed with moving beyond the limitations of the body.

Celebrations of performance capture technology as such tend to ignore the real-world creative labor of artists, animators, and actors required for a lifelike output. While the chairperson of Image Metrics, Andy Wood, dubbed performance capture technology “soul transference,” this seems a generous description of a tool that systematically transfers an actor’s motions onto a 3D rig or computer animation model in order to produce a more stylized, more objectified human or nonhuman form – sometimes without crediting the flesh-and-blood actor’s performance. [1] Of course, there are notable exceptions, such as the star-driven cast of Linklater’s film, and Andy Serkis’s critical acclaim for his motion capture work as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001–2003) and the Hobbit prequels (2012–2014). Serkis received accolades for his work despite the entertainment industry’s standard of not recognizing motion capture as “real” acting. Despite these and other coups for actors specializing in performance capture, the politics of crediting actors in these animated roles disproportionately represents able-bodied young white men, another industry standard reflected in a cursory look at film and TV casting statistics from the Screen Actors Guild. [2] People who do not fall into that category must battle typecasting as stereotypical representatives of the overdetermined way their body signifies.

For example, the majority of actors cast to play the overtly racialized “indigenous” Na’vi tribe in Avatar were People of Color, problematically figuring the racialized body as carrying a more “authentic” gestural repertoire, including overembodied physicality in the form of hunting, gathering – and basketball. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the hypermasculinity of the Black male athlete in cinema and video games, and the consequent need to police and contain his body; David Leonard, for example, critiques this phenomenon extensively. [3] In Avatar, we see yet another familiar narrative of the white male savior figure who comes to know himself only by exploiting the radical “otherness” of a population imagined as closer to nature. This overplayed desire for a return to a simpler time unimpeded by the corrupting effects of modernity gains new force in a techno-culture mediated at every level by the screen. The computerized figure of difference is paradoxically made possible by and seen as the salve for a constantly hyper-mediated reality. Even in promotional materials for the film, the Woman of Color represents new technology while the white man is recast as the index of humanity. Animation in this instance mirrors the OED definition as the “action or process of imparting life, vitality, or (as a sign of life) motion” onto an inert object. [4] The actor is imagined as the extinct caricature of difference and exoticized sexual object enlivened by a postproduction process. It seems easier to render dynamic subjects whose race and gender have been historically overdetermined into the animated frame than those for whom questions of subjectivity and universality have been taken for granted. The souls of white folk again and again come to know themselves through the fetishization of difference while evacuating the agency and labor that makes possible their appropriative power. Performance capture racializes and genders the cyborgian categories of human, machine, and animal that propel us into the dangerous post- of posthumanism.

II. Producing Realism with Race and Gender

In “Cinema at Its Source,” Alice Maurice lays the groundwork for understanding the ways in which raced figures have historically performed aesthetic labor in technologies of the cinema, circumscribing the limits of the real. Race, gender expression, sexual orientation, class status, and social location govern the degree of legitimacy a certain identity carries with it. In the case of cinematic realism in the early talkies, “Blackness” stood in for and ultimately guaranteed so-called authenticity. Maurice describes a “sensory wire-crossing” of color and sound, which enacts a slippage between race and technology by suturing the Black body to the apparatus in order to increase its production of reality. [5] Performance capture updates this logic for the twenty-first century. Since performance capture technologies are equally invested in realistic representation, discourses of authenticity still circulate within the entertainment industry even as it often claims colorblind casting. While Maurice argues that African American performers in the early talkies made up for what the technology lacked by synching a film’s sound and image, contemporary advances in audio and motion mapping nonetheless still figure racialized “otherness” as an easy marker of “authenticity” in technologies obsessed with realism.

Elsewhere, Amanda Phillips and I have noted the paucity of white men featured in facial animation demos as animated models. [6] Instead, they abound as explicators, puppeteers, and innovators of these new technologies. A recent Cubic Motion audio demo syncs a CG animated head of a Black man to audio of a speech by John F. Kennedy. This tech demo, never simply demonstrating software system advances, turns on a racist irony. While People of Color have historically organized and led radical decolonial, civil rights, and social justice movements, the U.S. imaginary recasts the heroes as white, from JFK to Abraham Lincoln to Harriet Beecher Stowe. This irony must intentionally forget the Black freedom struggle in order to picture a Black man uttering these famous words of white liberalism. Here, the animated Black man’s difference is absolute as he is otherwise imagined as without agency.

III. Postmortem Media

Vivian C. Sobchack’s “The Postmorbid Condition” addresses an era of superviolence oversaturated with scenes of gratuitous gore. [7] Desensitization to violence paradoxically provides an antidote to the U.S. government’s opaque rhetoric of fear, which threatens ensuing violence at home in order to commit it abroad. What I call “postmortem media” also rehearses a paradoxical logic that contains the threat of the so-called other. The postmortem situates itself in a post-identity politics space of the posthuman, but anxiously enacts fantasies of embodied difference at every turn in order to contain and displace power structures that proliferate markers of difference as significant categories of analysis. Lisa Nakamura explores the prevalence of “identity tourism” in contemporary transmedia consumerism, which enables multiple forms of embodiment in digital worlds through the blurred boundary between player and avatar, literalizing the cannibalistic metaphor of cultural appropriation through easy access to a multicultural fantasy that at its core whitewashes difference in its safe containment of particular forms of societally sanctioned, exoticized, and commoditized “otherness.” [8] In evoking postmortem media as a lens through which to view performance capture technologies, I want to hold in tension the notion of the posthuman as “the postmortem,” always asking who is slayed symbolically in the name of moving beyond supposedly essentialist or limited concepts of identity or the human as such.

The postmortem operates according to two key mechanisms: displacement and containment. The former, displacement, avoids charges of racist caricature by relocating the site of neo-minstrel performance to nonhuman or white bodies. In the case of Avatar for instance, it’s not blackface if it’s blue. The latter, containment, takes racialized and gendered forms. It may thwart the threat of racist stereotypes of hyper-aggressiveness and criminality by restricting affective and gestural possibilities for People of Color in performance capture technologies. Alternatively, it may simultaneously police, parody, and pacify feminists through the hyperviolent femme fatale figure typified by Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s digitized mother in Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf (2007).

IV. Through the Looking Glass

Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, produced entirely using a digital rotoscoping method, takes as a central formal and thematic concern the question of surveillance in a dizzying world in which hegemony capitalizes on the drug user even as it builds a rhetoric of pathology around addition. The corporate-sponsored culture of addiction highlighted in the film critiques the underlying logics of global racial capitalism. The plotline is not so much political allegory as eerie mirror held to contemporary reality. Interestingly, though, both the film and the novel displace the centrality of race to the exploitation of a disposable labor force, focusing on the Substance D epidemic over racial injustice. The story is familiar: a plutocratic government justifies wars abroad, or more specifically, as one agent indicates, “down there,” with the sensationalized War on Drug Terrorists, when in fact the deadly drug addiction that claims more than 20% of the entire population is being harvested and distributed by New Path, the very rehabilitation facility meant to resuscitate the drug’s victims.

The surveillance camera frames our entry point into multiple scenes, reminding us of our embeddedness in what Foucault calls a “disciplinary society,” one typified by the internalized surveillance structure of the eighteenth-century Panopticon. [9] The film’s formal flattening of the animated subject by rendering the entire filmic world in digital rotoscoping highlights the ubiquity of surveillance technologies in disciplinary social control. Yet the panoptic gaze, combined with the psychic splitting induced by Substance D, renders subjects not so much self-policing as wholly unaware of themselves as recorded objects. Instead of anxiously performing the role of good citizen-subject, they feel constantly under the pressure of a more coercive form of power, which threatens to materialize itself as violence at any moment. One scene features the paranoid Freck, played by Rory Cochrane, fantasizing an Anaheim cop blowing his brains out on the premise of “probable cause.” In fact, this fear points to the fact that the Foucauldian transition from top-down to bottom-up mechanisms of power coexists with brutal forms of state-sanctioned violence and police terror, moments the film renders in clear detail. [10]

Played by Keanu Reeves, the two identities of the protagonist become increasingly disparate yet inseparable as the film develops. On one hand there’s Bob Arctor, a disillusioned man battling his addiction to Substance D after a breakdown that precipitates his disavowal of stifling heteronormativity. On the other there’s Fred, Arctor’s undercover name when he serves as a narcotics agent. As Fred, Arctor wears the “scramble suit” of Philip K. Dick’s imagination to disguise himself from his strung-out friends – Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.), Luckman (Woody Harrelson), and his love interest and drug dealer Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder) – who are central targets of the investigation, along with Arctor himself. As Fred explains to his corporate audience during a public relations appearance, he must wear his scramble suit when he’s on duty as an undercover agent in order to avoid the kinds of aversion to which he could otherwise subject the public. Comprised of a half million shifting representational fragments of men and women “in every variant,” the wearer becomes – in the Brown Bear Lodge Host’s words – a “vague blur” and the “ultimate everyman.” As a grotesque literalization of multicultural fantasies of assimilative difference, the scramble suit enables escape from one’s identity by inhabiting the trappings of multiple embodied personas.

In taking up the operation of surveillance and power in A Scanner Darkly, I foreground its reliance on techno-Orientalism, which Greta Niu defines as a “practice of ascribing, erasing, and/or disavowing relationships between technology and Asian peoples and subjects.” [11] Pervasive in the cyberpunk genre, Asia is figured as a marker of emergent technologies. It is no coincidence that Reeves, a mixed-race Asian American, stars in not only the Matrix films but also A Scanner Darkly. Our first encounter with the scramble suit, which cannot be detected by the latest in voice and facial recognition technologies, is mediated through his racialized body, demonstrating the techno-Orientalist instrumentalization of Asianness. The “scramble suit” also understands the ways in which governmental and societal forces criminalize and regulate certain bodies. Its spectacular unreadability evades the regularity with which the gaze of the surveillance camera and law enforcement locates and contains threats. At the same time, then, the decidedly multicultural, multigendered, multiracial composite of bodies that constellates the scramble suit contrasts the whiteness of other characters in the film, with the exception of Reeves, whose Asianness apparently makes him a perfect fit for technological possibilities.

In Our Biometric Future, Kelly Gates traces the coexistence of automated facial expression analysis with the state’s thoroughly racialized regulatory and classificatory mechanisms. [12] In a post 9/11 economy of hyper-surveillance, no evocation of the terrorist or the so-called “illegal alien” is race-free. In the filmic world of A Scanner Darkly, the visual cover and voice-altering effects of the scramble suit allow Fred to work in service of his unknown enemy while not recognizing his superior Hank, also dressed in a scramble suit, as his love interest, Donna. The racial indeterminacy and gender cross-dressing possibilities of the suit make visible the ways in which even a non-identity can easily become one: I argue that the scramble suit wearer is ultimately read as male despite its shape-shifting properties due to its repertoire of gestures and voice timber, not to mention normative gender assumptions about the pantsuit in general. In a postproduction demo for the film in which a team of animators describe the scramble suit, the identities that comprise its constant metamorphosis rehearse a multicultural celebration of difference that highlights a Black man and non-normative white Punk rocker who can be read as queer. This fetishization of non-normativity is funneled into the Orientalist techno-body of Arctor and the duplicitous sexualized image of Donna, both of whom sport the suit in their alter-egos of Fred and Hank. The scramble suit fetishizes and consolidates the film’s “otherness” as the other-within that threatens the bodily boundaries necessary for the self’s coherence.

V. Containing the Threat of Dissolution

As Substance D increasingly severs Arctor’s left and right hemispheres, creating confusion and cross-chatter between the two, he cannot separate his own experience from the screens through which he monitors himself and his friends at the police department. In one of the film’s final scenes, he peers vaguely into the space of his own rundown suburban home – the symbol of his forsaking heteronormativity and the capitalist pursuit of dull complacency for the queer pleasures of the unknown. Fred watches himself as Arctor the night before: after a tense, sexless exchange with Donna, who we will soon learn is in fact going undercover as Hank in a guerrilla effort to discover the truth about the New Path rehabilitation center, we find Arctor in bed with a woman named Connie who receives Substance D from Arctor in exchange for sex. This repetition of the same scene now filtered through the gaze of the surveillance camera collapses both real world and virtual experience into an indecipherable code mediated not only by the camera but the haze of Arctor’s mind on Substance D. During both scenes we see the junkie momentarily transform into Donna, in what could either be fantasy or some kind of scramble suit reality. The mechanics of misogyny in this scene are familiar. Her uncovered breasts exposed in bed while passively sleeping, the ultimate interchangeability of the female figure here is further reinforced by her bodily fragmentation across a series of screens. The fetishized dissection of her body into a mosaic of smooth surfaces contains her threat. It is Donna who drove Arctor to finding a sexual outlet elsewhere due to her apparent prudeness – which could in fact be a cover for the limits of her willingness to exploit Arctor in her plot to uncover New Path as drug rehab and producer –and it is Donna who appears over and against the template of woman as automaton, a lifeless recording. The Connie/Donna confusion speaks to the slippery nature of female identity in the film, mirrored in the malleability of the scramble suit. Both the fantasized notion of woman and the scramble suit are artful disguises, either futuristic or old as time.

VI. Gendered Race and the Interface

My critique of the exploitation of Asianness and Womanness in the film, as typified by the scramble suit wearing Arctor/Fred and Donna/Hank, to render a world in which surveillance technology and drug culture make humans lose touch with their humanity, is not a simple foray into the fraught territory of identity politics but an analysis of the ways in which any gesture toward the post- seems always to reinscribe the very categories it disavows. Taking humanity for granted and turning to posthumanity imposes a normative framework and universalizing gesture on the category of the human as such, which deliberately elides uneven access in the social and political sphere. Just as bell hooks critiqued postmodernism for celebrating the margins when people materially at the margins were coming to the center for the first time, I think we must remain critical of the posthuman in our contemporary situation within post-race, post-gender, and post-feminist ideologies where race, gender, and indeed identity as such become bad words at worst or at the very least dull ideas. [13]

Postmortem media defines the centrality of inscribing racialized and gendered distinctions between the human and nonhuman in performance capture technologies. Discourses surrounding the object and animating the object cannot be untangled from violent histories of institutions and social practices. The nonhuman often follows a simple line of flight from talking about the material and symbolic weight of power on subjects to denying the objectification of certain bodies over and against others. Katherine Hayles reminds us that the posthuman, too, is a social construction that attempts to relegate the human to mere biology as if in taking on technology one sheds one’s epidermal layer. [14] In its use of interpolated rotoscoping, A Scanner Darkly materializes that dark fantasy with a shifting skin that escapes interpellation. But in avoiding the defining gaze, self-definition slips into nothingness, suggesting that sight and sound are not only mechanisms of surveillance and policing but also tools for self-determination, exposing a double bind: to feign not knowing risks losing all that could help one understand, but to know risks hopelessness in the wake of seemingly totalizing power structures.

Where to go from here? I agree with Beth Coleman that we cannot romanticize a return to a world of “pure” communication unmediated by technology. [15] Media is not “new” and relationality has never been unmediated by technologies of power. Instead, we must look within technologies of communication to negotiate more complex, less prescriptive, modes of negotiating the screens that filter our quotidian existence. In the film’s last shot of Reeves’s character looking up into the sky from his agricultural labor, the harvest of which formerly kept him mentally imprisoned, A Scanner Darkly seems to offer us a vision of self-introspection that holds in balance one’s implication within a society that speaks us into being but also a subjectivity that exists in the gaps and ruptures of that power. Even so, the overwhelming smallness this long shot renders Keeves within his environment makes his subjectivity seem powerless to change society. He can only glimpse it, speaking to an earlier monologue in which he reflects: “What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me, into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly, because I can’t any longer see into myself. I see only murk. I hope for everyone’s sake the scanners do better.” [16] There is no knowing apart from that which we find reflected in our environment, from the eyes of a lover to the technological apparatus of the surveillance camera, yet each screen provides a lens through which to glean ourselves, even though that knowing exposes us to a force that speaks through but never wholly occupies us.


1. Sharon Waxman, “Cyberface: New Technology That Captures the Soul,” New York Times, October 15, 2006,™l?_r=2&oref=slogin&.
2. “Latest Casting Data Follows Historical Trends and Continues to Exclude People with Disabilities,” Screen Actors Guild official website, accessed April 1, 2013,
3. David Leonard, “Performing Blackness: Virtual Sports and Becoming the Other in an Era of White Supremacy,” in re:skin, eds. Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 321–38.
4. Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edn. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
5. Alice Maurice, “Cinema at Its Source: Synchronizing Race and Sound in the Early Talkies,” Camera Obscura 17, no. 1 (2002): 32.
6. Amanda Phillips and Alison Reed, “Additive Race: Colorblind Discourses of Realism in Performance Capture Technologies,” Digital Creativity, special issue, “Performance Art and Digital Media,” ed. Michael Nitsche (forthcoming, 2013).
7. Vivian Sobchack, “The Postmorbid Condition,” in Signs of Life in the USA: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, eds. Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006), 372–7.
8. Lisa Nakamura, Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet (New York: Routledge, 2002).
9. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1977), 193.
10. Many scholars have complicated the racialized implications of Foucault’s theory with feminist and queer theoretical knowledges. See Wendy Hesford, Spectacular Rhetorics: Human Rights Visions, Recognitions, Feminisms (Durham: Duke UP, 2011), 17. See also Jasbir K. Puar and Amit S. Rai, “Monster, Terrorist, Fag: The War on Terrorism and the Production of Docile Patriots,” Social Text 20 no. 3 72 (Fall 2002): 117–48, doi: 10.1215/01642472-20-3_72-117.
11. Greta Aiya Niu, “Techno-Orientalism, Nanotechnology, Posthumans, and Post-Posthumans in Neal Stephenson’s and Linda Nagata’s Science Fiction,” MELUS 33, no. 4 (2008): 74.
12. Kelly Gates, Our Biometric Future: Facial Recognition Technology and the Culture of Surveillance (New York: NYU Press, 2011).
13. bell hooks, “Postmodern Blackness,” in Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (Boston: South End, 1990), 23–31.
14. N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1999).
15. Beth Coleman, “Everything is Animated: Pervasive Media and the Networked Subject,” Body & Society 18, no. 1 (2012): 79–98.
16. A Scanner Darkly, directed by Richard Linklater (Paramount Pictures, 2006).


Alison Reed is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research interests lie at the intersection of performance studies, queer theory, and critical race and ethnic studies. She currently serves as Graduate Fellow of the Antiracism Inc. program housed within the American Cultures & Global Contexts Center at UCSB. She also co-organizes “Bodies in Space,” an annual guerrilla-style performance conference under the auspices of the Hemispheric South/s Research Initiative. Her creative and academic work has been published in several journals including Jura Gentium Cinema, Margaret Atwood Studies, Women & Performance, and So to Speak