If you’ve been paying attention to video games for any length of time, you’ll likely have seen behind-the-scenes footage of actors wearing black spandex suits covered in white dots acting out motions in cavernous spaces.
This is motion capture, a means for developers to source real-life data about how someone or something actually moves. If the actors also have white dots on their faces as well, those are recording their facial expressions and movements. This is performance capture.
Both are valuable technologies that give developers access to realistic motion and can certainly enhance how a game looks and behaves. We’ve caught up with developers from around the industry to find out more about how they implement this in their games.
There are several advantages to using motion or performance capture compared to more traditional hand animation. The most obvious of these is that capture allows developers to have access to an actual subject moving – they don’t need to imagine it and then try to convey that through animation work.
“So much goes into recreating the full spectrum of human movement,” explains Peter Clapperton, motion capture manager at Total War developer Creative Assembly. “You've got your initial motion that someone will set up. There'll be secondary motion and then there's tertiary motion. It just goes on and on. Every little wiggle of your finger, every single movement is captured through motion capture.
"An animator will do their best to recreate that by hand, but you can't always get that absolute true human definition all the way through. You could capture something in ten minutes, spend 20 minutes clearing that data up and have a reasonable animation that someone could give a first pass to. It could take one animator days to do something similar. That's the artistic side of it.
“Then there’s the economic side, which is that you can produce an awful lot of data in a very short amount of time. When we made Total War: Shogun 2, we basically had nine months to produce three and a half thousand animations, as well as something like 28 mini cutscenes for assassinations. It would have taken an army of animators to produce all the animations that we produced in that quantity in that amount of time.
Ayesha Khan, lead narrative designer at Dead Island 2 maker Dambuster Studios, adds: “The simplest thing is that when it comes to art and animation in games, you should be saving your concepting and creative time for the things that you need them for. Even the best animators are not going to be nearly as good at creating human motion from scratch as they are at translating motion capture data into something they can get in front of the player much, much more quickly.
"It always feels like mocap and perf cap are such a faff, but then you see that hand-style keyframe animation takes infinitely longer as far as I can tell. And the results feel less realistic. In a lot of ways, you should keep that effort for the stuff that you cannot or should not try to motion capture or performance capture – for the properly monstrous things, the properly unrealistic and imaginative stuff that games can do.”
This kind of realism is important to capture for sports games. That is why Steel City Interactive turned to the tech for the boxing title Undisputed.“We want to try to achieve a high level of realism in our characters, so the only choice for animation is motion capture,” the studio’s art director, Andy Turner, says. “We’re making a boxing game using photo-realistically rendered characters. If we were to employ traditional animation techniques there would be a disconnect between the way they look and the way they move. The only way for us to achieve realistic motion is by using motion capture.”
Though it does make certain aspects of game development easier, like any technological advantage, the sword cuts both ways. For one, motion and performance capture aren’t so easy when it comes to non-human characters.
“The only disadvantage I can really think of is when we look at things like our fantasy projects, where you've got creatures and so on,” Clapperton says. “It's possible to capture creatures. There are creature performers out there that specialise in that kind of thing, but a lot of it is about a specific feel or a specific style of character. You won't necessarily be able to have a human perform that. We really let the animators decide whether they would prefer to do something by hand or through motion capture based on obviously whatever has the best opportunity to get something into a game.”
Norik Imami, a senior 3D artist over at Waste Creative, adds: “Working with stylised characters that have unrealistic body proportions or anatomy structure can be challenging to capture and transfer the movements as accurately as you would on a character which has a more realistic humanoid body structure. In that particular case, you may be better off with hand animating instead, especially if you’re looking for a more cartoony feel in your animations overall.”
There’s also the matter of clearing up motion and performance capture data as there can be a degree of interference that will make the information inaccurate.
“A part of the process in working with motion capture is also the cleaning up of the data you are recording,” Imami explains. "In very rare cases, you will be presented with data which works off the bat for what you’re trying to achieve, but most of the time, you will have to jump in and clean up the noisy movements and various errors in the keyframed data as it will rarely be perfectly recorded directly from the suit.
“This is because the keyframed movements resemble a more ‘noisy’ animation in the raw recorded footage, and so you would have to clean this up and smooth it out manually in another 3D software such as Maya. A lot of the time, you are animating extra details on top of your data to try and get the best out of the recorded footage, such as exaggerating poses and speed, depending on what you’re trying to achieve. Additionally, some camera-based motion capture setups can be expensive or require specialised facilities, making it less accessible for some individuals or small studios.”
Using motion or performance capture also has the potential to impact other departments you might not expect. For example, narrative and writing teams on some projects need scripts to be finished earlier than usual.
“You have to have scripts ready for performance capture and motion capture much, much earlier than you need to have them ready for just straight voiceover recording sessions or anything that's not being recorded in any way – the stuff in the rest of the player facing text – text props and whatnot,” Khan says. “I have yet to find a studio that has the sort of whole pipeline and dependency tail perfectly worked out and the narrative, for example, nailed down early enough to be able to sort of ship off those scripts with confidence.”
Early in its existence as a technology, there were questions as to whether motion capture really made life easier for animators. As such, a lot of studios didn’t feel the need to invest in the tech. Creative Assembly, for example, used to hire a school gym over the summer holidays to capture all the data it needed for the projects it was working on. Cut to the present day and the Total War maker has its own motion capture facility near Haywards Heath in the UK.
“We've grown massively as a company,” Clapperton says. “When I first started there were between 50 and 60 people. We're now over 800 people and still growing. Alongside that you know we're taking on additional projects. I think we have six or seven projects currently on the go. So there's a lot of work to be done, plus we work across Sega as well.”
While having your own space for motion and performance capture requires huge sums of money, relying on rented space comes with its own set of pressures. For one, hiring out time in these locations can cost an awful lot of money.
“You have to be a fairly big studio to be able to justify having your own motion capture space,” Khan says. “If your studio is under 150 to 200 people, I'd be very surprised if you had anything like your own space. Most of the time people just rent them out. And they tend to therefore gravitate towards the big motion picture centres of the world – a space in LA, a space in London or Toronto and so on.”
She continues: “They are expensive a lot of the time. The spaces that we rent are meant for movies and therefore are much bigger than we need. They tend to be like vast, cavernous warehouses and unless it's the most epic of action games that has a long running sequence or something like that, most game motion capture can be done in a much smaller space. They tend to be expensive.”
These spaces are not only pricey but there’s always a great deal of pressure to get things right the first time. After all, there might not be more time later down the line to correct mistakes.
“There’s just a lot of pressure to get that during that one week or however long you have that space for,” Khan says. “That's why I've been the writer in the room – you get shipped out to shoots so that if any changes are needed, they can be done right on the fly, approved and there's no iteration turnaround feedback or approval time wasted in getting a script approved back in the studio or something, especially because you might be several time zones away.”
While a lot of companies rely on motion or performance capture spaces, there are cheaper options available. These include suits that make motion capture more affordable and accessible.
“I use the mocap Smartsuit, which is a non-camera-based setup and uses motion sensors built into the suit itself to track your movements,” Imami says. “As a result, I don’t need a lot of space to set it up and start recording. I can do it from the comfort of my own home, using the space in my living room. This makes motion capture more accessible and affordable for those who may not have access to larger studios or facilities.”
Steel City’s Turner adds: “When I first started the only option was to use optical systems which require a large space full of very expensive cameras. This is expensive and time-consuming and can need a lot of clean-up. Now with the advent of cheaper inertial systems, mocap can be performed in any space using a suit equipped with sensors.
“Today, we use a mocap suit which, is an inertial system. One of the big benefits of that is that we have a very quick turnaround from when a session is captured to when we can get it into the game and test. Another thing that’s been invaluable using our own equipment is that I can jump in the suit myself whenever we want to try something out that we aren’t sure will work. We can test an idea knowing that in a few hours, the data can be tried out in-game. This has really helped us develop new ways of capturing and implementing movement, styles and technical pipelines.
“Without the ability to do this in-house, we’d need to book out time with an external capture house which would be expensive and would limit our ability to R&D new ideas.”
Barclays (including its employees, Directors and agents) accepts no responsibility and shall have no liability in contract, tort or otherwise to any person in connection with this content or the use of or reliance on any information or data set out in this content unless it expressly agrees otherwise in writing. It does not constitute an offer to sell or buy any security, investment, financial product or service and does not constitute investment, professional, legal or tax advice, or a recommendation with respect to any securities or financial instruments.
The information, statements and opinions contained in this content are of a general nature only and do not take into account your individual circumstances including any laws, policies, procedures or practices you, or your employer or businesses may have or be subject to. Although the statements of fact on this page have been obtained from and are based upon sources that Barclays believes to be reliable, Barclays does not guarantee their accuracy or completeness.