I have always been quite an active fella. Sure, my skills at a sport or a martial art were never up to scratch (I downright refused to play football during PE at school) but my preference was for the arts; drama and dance, something with a little more storytelling (though I struggle with contemporary dance as a means of storytelling… just the thought of it is making my skin crawl).

I have done drama in one form or another pretty much throughout my life, I know how to act. I am also a keen swing dancer, having taught the Lindy Hop and Charleston (social dances of the 1930’s and 40’s) for the past six years.

My wife and I dancing at a Swing Dance Weekend. Censored just to stick to the theme of the post.

My point is this: I know my body, I know how to move it, and I have great control over it.

Or at least I did.  Until I wrecked my knee.

At the start of December just gone, we had a Snow Day! Everyone was having fun, frolicking about in the freezing cold, throwing balls of crystallised water, and building men out of snow. And I did something stupid and popped my knee cap out of place.

Damn well hurt as well.

Image Censored due to icky swollen knee. In fact, censoring it makes it look worse that it was.

Unfortunately for me, this meant I couldn’t walk for two weeks whilst it healed. And four weeks later, after the joys of Christmas and the New Year, it still isn’t 100% – I struggle kneeling and running, and my knee grinds like grit in a gear when straighten it!

Sadly this meant that, as much as I would have loved to, I could not be the one in the MoCap suit when recording movements. No matter how well I could have performed the twisted walks of the monsters, the timings of the actions and reactions, no matter how much I would have enjoyed it all, my gosh-darn knee wouldn’t allow it.

Sad face.

Motion Capture Days

Being part of one of the smaller (but definitely expanding) games studios in the UK means we do not have a large Motion Capture studio to do what we want in. And for quick little projects like this one, there is no point renting out a studio and hiring actors.

However, we do have a boardroom, a portable inertia-based mocap suit, and an intern.

For the majority of this week I have been stuck in a boardroom no bigger than generously sized living room, with two sick guys. My Lead, DJ Jazzy McJizzle, was producing mucus like a Hagfish, and Calamity Joe (the intern), was streaming from every hole in is face. Mr McJizzle was the worse of the two, hands down, and had seen a good number of trips around the Sun than Calamity. And I hand a duff knee, so there was no way I was running around the room. Unfortunately that meant that the responsibility of acting EVERYTHING fell down to the intern.

Calamity Joe all suited up with our professional-grade rifle prop.

We had two 35 second animatics to capture, each with six characters performing similar typical soldier-style movements; running with guns aimed, crouching behind cover, deaths, jumps, all that sort of stuff. With only one mocap suit and just enough room to get a decent run cycle, we had to be pretty creative with how we were working. Luckily for us, the characters don’t really interact with each other (other than through a stream of bullets), so that was less of a problem, and we were able to separate some longer traversal shots into multiple takes, but keeping tract of which character is doing what and at what point was akin to playing chess against yourself. Playing every movement of one piece, then every movement of the next piece, then every movement of the… well, you get the idea. And for this reason, I was remarkably thankful I had taken the time to plan each take and each shot as carefully as I had.

We were using the Xsens MVN Link Motion Capture solution, which was really easy to set up, and a lot more stable than the MVN Awinda (which is completely wireless and glitchy A-F). The entire thing comes in a little carry case, and is basically a lycra suit fitted with inter-cabled inertia-based motion trackers that speak to your computer via a simple receiver. MVN Studio Pro, the software that allows you to record all of the data, is easy to use, and allows you to watch the data onscreen in real time. Magical.

MVN Censored
MVN Studio, Pro. Censored.

Because we were capturing the two storyboards I had worked on, I took control of the direction. For every take we recorded, I was speaking Calamity Joe through what was going on, what he needed to do, what role he needed to inhabit, what physical movement type he needed to portray. At times I was just talking to him directly throughout the take, trying to get the best out of him for timing, processing time and reaction. I was trying to inspire him to give a good performance, and though I would say our intern is no actor, I think he did a really good job. By the end of it, had come a long way in his performance.

On the first day, we set up in the morning, shot through til lunch. Had a break. Could not get up again. Motion Capture, both acting and directing, is fun, but damn it was tiring. Consider a bunch of guys who sit behind a desk all day every day being asked to be active all that time, to interact with each other in quite an intense way.

Now, as I said before, I taught a dance class one night a week for six years. Each night was two hours of me shouting at people and making them laugh, whilst hopefully getting them to understand certain elements of body mechanics and how certain movements can cause other movements, resulting in a dance move. After each class I would be buzzing, but after I would realise just how much of myself I had given. Let’s just say I slept well.

I also taught two two hour animation workshops at an industry week once, focusing on the mechanics of a single jump, how to watch reference, dissect movement and exaggerate that reference to create something that is both cartoony yet believable. Each class was filled with energy and excitement and humour, and after, when I could sit, I would realise how much of myself I had given. And I was shattered.

It was the same with Motion Capture. I was tired, I was drained. and I had to go back in there to do an afternoon session. Maybe I can only do that sort of stuff two hours at a time.

Never-the-less, three days in a small room with two sick guys later, and we were able to capture all of the takes we needed. the next step? To review those takes, find the ones that fit best, and to apply them to the characters.

Anyway, that’s next week’s story. It’s Friday night, and I have done my work for the week. Time to go home, crack open a beer and relax! 😀

Have a great weekend everybody!


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