Motion capture - or 'mo-cap' - is an often unsung process, but a rather bizarre and amazing one. Actors are filmed in an empty room, dressed in strange 'ping-pong-ball' suits, and then, as if by magic, they transform into characters in a video game world.
The process, which is actually rather more complex than just described, vastly decreases the load on already over-worked animation teams, but also brings all-new creative possibilities to games. Digital Spy decided to go behind the scenes at two major capture studios - who are working on upcoming titles Total War: Rome 2 and Splinter Cell: Blacklist - to see what makes this process tick.
Founded in Horsham, East Sussex, in 1987, The Creative Assembly has built a significant pedigree in strategy games with titles such as Shogun: Total War, Rome and Viking: Battle for Asgard.
The Creative Assembly's motion capture studio in Horsham, East Sussex, UK.
The developer, which was acquired in 2005 by SEGA, first started using motion capture around a decade ago. At that time, the company had just basic software and around eight cameras. It rented a school gym during the summer holidays, but after that became too limiting, moved to an empty marketing room at its base in Horsham, East Sussex. That operation has now expanded into a dedicated 24/7 facility.
Situated inside a small warehouse previously owned by a brewery in Horsham, the studio holds a 46-camera bespoke set-up that can turn around animations in a matter of hours. It is the biggest developer-owned studio in the UK, and the team think it is the biggest in Europe. Only dedicated mo-cap companies, such as Andy Serkis's The Imaginarium in London with its 80 to 120 camera set-ups, are bigger.
For the purposes of this feature, we went through the mo-cap process, and our body actions will feature in Total War: Rome II, the PC strategy game coming out next year. The process involves donning a skin-tight black suit and cap, and then having velcro balls (that look slightly like superfluous nipples) stuck all around your body, marking key points on the skeleton.
The mounted cameras are calibrated to pick up these receivers and then map a digital skeleton on screen. The hardware/software set-up then tracks your movements doing 'normal' human actions, such as clashing shields, dodging arrows or stabbing a bag of wood chips with a sword while someone pretends to die.
When not roping in journalists, The Creative Assembly will use "whoever is willing to get dressed up in a suit" for mo-cap, but will also employ proper actors for cut scenes and fight specialists for combat. Up to five people can be captured at one time, but it mostly involves groups of three to four. The actions are live-streamed up on a big screen so people can see themselves in rendered form.
"It's funky man, I love it," says Pete Clapperton, who manages the studio for The Creative Assembly, with child-like enthusiasm.
Digital Spy reporter Andrew Laughlin tries on the 'ping pong'-coated motion capture suit.
Clapperton, who freely admits that the studio is his "baby", explains that the chief benefit of mo-cap is that the human actions can be captured and cleaned up in a much shorter time than a real animator could produce similar results.
For strategy games featuring hundreds of soldiers on screen at any one time, the process is pretty much essential. Clapperton's small team produced around 3,000 mo-cap animations in just nine months for Shogun: Total War, and created 4,500 for the original Rome: Total War game in a similar time.
There is an around two-hour turnaround on movements, and they recently delivered 45 takes to Gearbox Software for Aliens: Colonial Marines in a single day, which were all cleaned and ready to be 'skinned' - involving graphics being placed on top. According to Clapperton, the hardest thing to capture is not fighting, but actually a cuddle between two characters as their 'balls' merge into one.
Clapperton joined The Creative Assembly as a tester, but later moved into the animation team and was put in charge of building the nascent mo-cap operation. Asked why other UK studios don't invest in a similar operation, he said that it is about the balance between accessibility and cost. Creating such an operation is a big investment, but The Creative Assembly judged that having mo-cap on tap, so to speak, was critical to the business.
With a background in animation, it is understandable that Clapperton was at first very sceptical about mo-cap. It takes the skill of an animator to truly craft a piece of art, but shooting on a camera could be construed as cheating. However, he now believes that is missing the point.
"The big dilemma with motion capture is whether it is cheating," he said. "Some people questions whether it is really art, and I can understand that. But I think that there is not much point in that argument anymore. We need to shoot thousands of animations for our games. We are business and need to get things done."
The Creative Assembly's motion capture studio in use.
Elsewhere, David Footman, the cinematic director on Ubisoft's Splinter Cell: Blacklist, discussed with us how motion capture can actually increase the artistic integrity of video games rather than lessen it.
Footman started working in 'performance capture', as he calls it, around ten years ago; first at Electronic Arts, where he worked on Need for Speed and the first two Dead Space games, before joining Ubisoft two years ago. The French publisher asked him to work on the latest Splinter Cell game, but also set up the firm's new mo-cap base in Toronto, Canada.
Footman describes the new studio, based on the west side of Toronto, as being like a "gentrified old warehouse" with lots of wood and high ceilings. When the base started only 25 people worked there, but it has now grown to around 200 and the plan is to increase headcount to around 700 eventually.
The Toronto motion capture stage features "everything you would ever need to author animations on a game". It has 80 mounted cameras along with wireless helmet cameras, as well as a dedicated sound stage and a high-load beam to allow for stunt work.
Footman has developed a process he calls 'actor-friendly animation', which adopts the principles of film and television to ensure game studios "get as much out of actors' performances as possible".
Ubisoft's state-of-the-art performance capture studio in Toronto, Canada.
Footman, who has a background in film, says one of the big issues about mo-cap in the "old days" was that studios were "hostile places" for actors. They would come in to a big empty space, possibly knowing next to nothing about the character they were playing, and then have to conjure a performance. Instead, he has put in place a workflow that involves the actors doing proper preparations before their performance, so they can get a feel for the character.
"With performance capture, there is even more need to do read-throughs and rehearsals. Because it's kind of a weird thing acting in your underwear with loads of balls all over you," he said. "It's not the greatest place to be when you are acting. You don't have all the stimuli that actors are trained to have. We need to provide that stimuli. Put a camera in, show them the sets. These things make it more truthful in the performance."
Splinter Cell: Blacklist will feature almost two hours of cinematics, an "insane" amount of content that only really a role-playing game can match. This covers cut scenes, animations, and other story-based sequences from the script. Such content would take animators years to complete, but Footman claims he can film 12 to 13 pages a day, which is "more than a TV show would do".
Actors performing the 'T pose' before performing their scenes.
Volume aside, the key for Footman with Ubisoft's studio is that it can capture "face, body, voice" at the same time, putting the footage much closer to reality. Recently, the studio captured 11 actors at once, simultaneously moving and talking, just like a TV show.
"If you capture face, body and voice separately, it is really hard to put in dialogue," he said. "If you look at realistic television now, such as The Wire, actors are talking over each other; it's sloppy, it's messy, but that is what everyone is shooting for. We have a fabulous centre in Toronto where were are capturing everything.
"We can capture face, body, voice; all at the same time. We can do overlapping dialogue, it's dynamic, it's action-orientated, it's nothing to do with talking heads. It's all about movement and orientation towards gameplay. I think that is the difference that we are going to see in our cinematics on other Splinter Cell games."
Recording a scene at Ubisoft's capture studio in Toronto, Canada.
Adopting this approach also means that Footman can gun for "high-calibre actors", as the set-up means scenes can be done in just a few days to account for busy schedules. He places 'virtual cameras' all about the stage to give actors feedback and create a range of different shots, such as wides and head shots. All this material goes into the 'solve edit', constituting the master and the "bits and pieces" from retakes.
The team then spends as long as possible in the edit suite working with the footage to get the best take, and then hand it to production to drop into animation programmes, such as Motion Builder or Maya. Essentially, this means that mo-cap shapes the look and feel of the end product much more than ever before.
Another big advantage of owning your own studio is that mistakes can be fixed quickly and cheaply. As the mo-cap stage is just a "minute" from Footman's desk, he is able to see when a scene has gone wrong and then just "run down, get a suit on and fix it within a day".
This negates the need to spend $10,000 to $15,000 on arranging another shoot, and also allows the studio to be more explorative and creative with its scenes. They can "just try something new, take some risks and then go down and fix it later".
A more complex scene in action.
Asked whether all this is cost effective, he replies: "If you talk to my producer then he would probably say no, because he is looking at all the big numbers. But I think that it is more cost effective in the end, as we are doing a lot of cinematics, and not just cut scenes, as some of them will be in gameplay. We are telling the story at all different levels. We are making a movie within a game."
In a strange sense, movies and games are going in opposite directions. Films are increasingly using CGI to bring their wild fantasies to life, while games studios are increasingly turning to real actors and filming practices to inject greater realism into their products. Done right, motion capture essentially provides the middle ground between the two mediums, where real human performance meets the almost limitless possibility of animation. It's funky, man, and we love it.
Disclaimer: As the writer of this article, Andrew Laughlin, will be making an appearance in Total War: Rome 2, he will not be reviewing the final product for Digital Spy.
Total War: Rome 2 and Splinter Cell: Blacklist will be available in 2013.