Mo Money or Mo Cap

by Steve Bowler on April 20, 2008 · 7 comments

in art,nitpicking

It's a lot like keyframing people.

A friend of mine interviewed awhile back for a position as a major recent 3rd Person Shooter’s Lead Animator position, and he recently told me about how surprised he was that their pipeline for putting animations into the game consisted entirely of keyframed animations. While this might seem odd to you, as a game designer/developer, I find the decision quite off-putting, as the game consisted entirely of humans shooting at each other in a realistic environment. What this game’s animation pipeline called for wasn’t nine keyframe animators working full time around the clock for two years.

What it needed was motion capture.

I wasn’t all that surprised to hear that their animators were resistant to it, to be honest. A lot of animators are pretty scared of their craft being automated, and I can certainly understand and identify with that. But too often people are afraid of new tools that can wind up reaping better results for an entire game team or game company, in less time. I’m a family man now, and I like to spend time with them, you know, away from work, so I’m all for software that makes my life at work easier so I can spend some time living life at home. I’ve seen mocap save a project when used properly, and I’ve seen quite a few animator purist conversions to mocap since I’ve been working in the games industry for the past seven years.

But unfortunately Motion Capture is too often looked upon by animators as some sort of wicked evil crutch. Maybe they think it’ll “take their craft away,” or that it “won’t be as good” as keyframing. I’ve heard just about every excuse, but the bottom line is that the game in question (assuming they’re even looking at mocap means it has humans in it) could probably have been animated with half the animators in half the time. The studio could have made a one time investment in a motion capture system (okay, an investment every three to five years or so if they get some good stuff), and rolled the other 4-5 animators onto a second project. Instead they had nine animators (NINE) work redonkulous hours slaving away on their craft which would have looked better if they’d just mocap’d it in the first place.

More to the point, if you’re animating humans, you might want to consider using motion capture from humans. I guarantee you if genuine human movement is what you seek, you will get better results from genuine human movement than stylized human movement. If the animators are worth their salt (and not all out of shape), they can even get in the motion suit and perform the moves. I’ve done it, and it’s a lot like animating in real time. I’ve seen traditional keyframe animators get up from their desks and act out scenes to better understand how to animate them, so it only follows that they might want to try capturing that performance in a bodysuit, no?

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are certainly edge cases which just can’t be mocap’d. I’m downloading the Iron Man demo right now and I’m guessing that it’s going to be 100% keyframed. I can’t say I blame them; getting power armor is hard enough to come by these days, and then trying to get a large enough capture volume to handle it is even harder. Also, the little shiny markers don’t stick to anything that’s not made of velcro so well, and I don’t think Stark Industries makes a velcro finish version. But for crying out loud, running around on foot with a gun out is prime mocap material.

I will no doubt get flamed from animators for this saying “but you don’t know what you’re talking about!” or some other nonsense, so try and look at it this way guys: Would you motion capture someone for a Mario game? No? Then why are you keyframing paramilitary humans in a photo realistic war-torn 3rdPS?