Going Through The Motions


Why do movie and game companies cover spandex clad actors in tiny white ping-pong balls and ask them to strike poses on gym mats? This is a complex question. Earlier this week, our Art Director Tramell Isaac and Sr. Animator Ryan Palser embarked on a posture-ready pilgrimage to sunny San Diego to shoot Boss Key’s very first mo-cap session. A lot of pre-production work goes into planning and executing successful sessions, so afterward I took a few minutes to chat with Ryan about the experience and get his thoughts on the mo-cap process.

BKP: So Ryan, big question first: what is mo-cap and why do game studios use this process? 
RYAN: Mo-cap (motion capture) is the process of capturing an actors real life performances so they can be used in game.  The great thing about mo-cap is that it’s an excellent starting point for quickly getting motion and character performances into the game much faster than you can generate the same volume of content using pure keyframe animation.  
As you can see, the studio is outfitted with the latest motion capture technology with enough room for the actors to run around as if in a first-person shooter.
BKP: As Boss Key’s most senior animator, what expertise do you bring to the table when directing a mo-cap shoot? 
RYAN: I’ve had fairly extensive experience in the past working on a mo-cap stage with both the Guitar Hero and Call of Duty franchises.  I’ve been involved with more shoots than I can count from support roles all the way through directing so I’m very comfortable on the stage.  It’s important to approach directing mo-cap with the design of your animation system in mind when you’re shooting motions for core movement.  You want to make sure what you shoot will work with the system you want to use it with.  It’s equally important to know how to get the performance you want out of your actors. When you’re shooting a lot, and by a lot I mean many hundreds of very physical motions, you don’t want to have to get three or four takes of each.  You’ll burn out your actor really fast doing that and the quality of the data with drop as the day goes on.
Ryan directing our motion capture actor.
BKP: In the pictures we see both male and female mo-cap actors – can you confirm that there WILL be women in the game? 
RYAN: Yes? (…looks over at Cliff to see if I’m allowed to say that…)
Well, looking at this, we’re sure you can imagine the type of weapons we’ll have in Project BlueStreak…
BKP: Why is it important to represent both genders appropriately? 
RYAN: For me it just makes the game more interesting.  What’s the point of limiting your characters to just male, or one body type or ethnicity for that matter.  The world is full of many different types of people.  I think having a very diverse set of characters makes the world we want to create much more intriguing.
BKP: Couldn’t you just use one guy for all character models in the game and just “fake” the gender in the game?
RYAN: We could.  There are many games that do just that.  It certainly saves on development resources to just share most of the male assets.  We don’t want that inclusion to be a secondary thought though.  Female characters deserve to be featured with their own unique sets of animation and sounds.
BKP: What’s the most difficult aspect of the mo-cap process? 
RYAN: Trying to visualize the movement from the actor on the character you’re going to be using it on when they look vastly different.  It actually takes a lot of imagination to see it.  And obviously getting the captured data at the mo-cap studio and transferring it to the game.
Because it’s all about motion and movement, often mo-cap actors will be running, jumping, feigning death and more for hours on end.
BKP: What’s the easiest? 
RYAN: Usually comes with lunch.
BKP: I imagine that you need to come to the table with a lot of ideas for the actors to perform – do they ever “get into character” and improvise? 
RYAN: Absolutely.  You really need to come prepared to a shoot with many different versions of any given scenario.  Likewise you also need to be able to think on your feet quickly.  A lot of times we’ll just role the cameras and we’ll shout of different ideas for the actor to try out.  And just like you said a good actor will be able to improvise and bring their own take on the character to the table.  With their fresh view, they often come up with stuff that hadn’t even crossed your mind.  I find some of the best stuff comes out of these back and forth takes where we are both just throwing out ideas.
Yeah, even the session directors need to get kicked around a little bit.


BKP: Go ahead – spill some beans. What was the best thing you guys recorded during this session? 
RYAN: There was one take when we were doing sets of melee kicks and I told the actor not to hold back and hit the bag as hard as he could.  I was holding said bag.  Well, he hit the bag a little high, above where my arm was holding it, and it kicked back and almost took my head off.  The reference footage from that was pretty hilarious.
We can’t tell if this is the actor doing a pose or if he’s giving us a genuine thumbs up. That rocket launcher though…
BKP: Will Boss Key be doing any more sessions in the future? 
RYAN: I think it’s certainly possible.  It’s hard to know at this point what our future needs will be down the line.  We got enough data to hold us over for quite awhile from this shoot.
Tramell is in the zone.
BKP: Anything else you want people to know about mo-cap or the trip in general before we wrap this up? 
RYAN: I couldn’t get Tramell to don the spandex.  I tried.
Thanks Ryan, and thank you to all the mo-cap actors that are helping bring our game to life. We will have a special video highlighting the trip in the next Boss Room live stream, so follow us at Twitch to get notified when we’re live. You can also follow Ryan @ryanpalser and Tramell @ps_tray on Twitter. Hit them up if you have any questions and stay locked to the site for more about the game!