Guest Blog: How To Make Hollywood Quality Mo-Cap On An Indie Budget

This week’s blog is a first, in that it features a guest writer, Nikolay Savov. I’ve been friends with Nik since we met at the National Film and Television School, and was always blown away by how he was already pulling off ambitious projects. After seeing his graduation game Falling Sky involved Mo-Cap I thought it’d be great to invite him to talk about his experiences, and whether it’s possible for low budget projects to use the technology.

What Is Mo-Cap?

Motion capture, or Mo-Cap as it's more commonly known, is when you digitally record people or objects' movement. It's used to capture complex patterns, such as facial expressions or movement, to help create 3D digital models that are used in gaming and filmmaking. Using special cameras, the object or person is scanned several dozen times per second in order to reproduce realistic movements in real time. 

Tell Us A Little About Falling Sky

Falling Sky is an NFTS graduation game being made by fellow student Jonathan Nielssen, as part of his MA in Games Design and Development. Set across a sprawling landscape of American suburbia, the story follows Daniel and his younger brother as they embark on a quest to solve the mystery of their mother’s disappearance.

It is a beautifully looking narrative driven type of game that is also very cinematic. Jonathan and I share a deep passion for this type of projects and from the beginning, we set as our goal to make such a game. For that purpose, we used Unreal Engine, and we wanted to use Mo-Cap to help bring to life the characters. We had previously collaborated on a project called ReTreat, where we’d used facial-capture technology and saw the tremendous benefit it’d had on the character animation, so for the graduation project we wanted to push ourselves one step further.

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Mo-Cap is a cutting-edge technology that audiences are more familiar with seeing in Hollywood blockbusters and Triple-A games. Can you talk us through some of the challenges you faced in trying to use this for a student project?

The biggest challenge was whether we could afford it. Firstly, we had to find a motion capture facility that was the right size for our project. Even a small facility will cost at least £2000-£3,000 per day, which gives you an idea how much the big studios must spend on a hanger filled with cameras… Generally speaking for those new to the technology, the more cameras a motion capture studio has within the space, the more accurate and free you are to use different ranges of motion. I think it’s important to ask yourself how much space you genuinely need. Everyone wants to be able to go down the pub with their friends and brag about using the biggest studios to film in, but in reality, if it doesn’t serve the project then you’re just wasting precious time and money you could have better spent elsewhere.

As a student project, we felt that our best approach was to get in touch with several industry leaders on the basis they might be willing to help out. Our first port of call was Centroid3D, who already had a good relationship with the NFTS.

At the time, Centroid3D were booked solid, but they recommended that we ask one of their overflow facilities at Amersham and Wycombe College. Simon Clayden and Neil Bedecker, who manage the facilities there were exceptionally supportive and offered to help us with the project. Admittedly, through our own naivety, we assumed that shooting the material was the hard part done and dusted. Next came the real challenge, processing the data. The sheer scale of data required for Mo-Cap and how you process it is in my mind the real hurdle each project has to overcome, especially on a budget. Once you’ve shot the material, you then need a team to process the data to ensure that it can be successfully implemented within the game engine. This meant taking all the captured data, checking for any anomalies, before finally making it Maya compatible. After the models had been completed in Maya we then put them into the Unreal Engine.

Talk Us Through What A Shoot Day Looks Like

Nik hard at work on set... 

Nik hard at work on set... 

We had a two day shoot, which meant we had to work around our actor’s availability, child employment working hours and Amersham and Wycombe College’s opening times. This meant we had effectively 5 to 6 hours each day of pure shooting time. Each day we started prepping from 7:30am to 5:30pm. A big component of shooting in Mo-Cap is ensuring that the cameras are correct set up and calibrated. If anything had been out of sync, then Jonathan would have had to manually synchronise each body and facial performance, which would have been a nightmare. Fortunately, we had Simon and Neil to guide us through it. Without them, we’d never have been able to achieve something of this scale so as a team we’re incredibly grateful that they were so generous with their support.

How Did you Approach Finding Actors For Falling Sky?

We had to treat the Mo-Cap shoot like any other fiction shoot. You’re not just looking for a great voice actor, but one who can bring a physical presence to the work. As a film producer, I was fairly confident about this side of things and used my previous connections to find our cast. We were fortunate in that we were able to attract a stellar cast of actors including, Stephane Cornicard and Christy Meyer, who are well known in the gaming world for their roles in Dragon Age, Horizon Zero Dawn and Dark Souls.

What Happened Next?

After the shoot itself, we spent a week with Amersham and Wycombe College checking through the data we captured. Simon and Neil worked with students from the college to process all the data. They all put their heart and soul into it, and I think it really shows in the demo that we have.

Since then, we’ve been hard at work prepping the game for EGX. Each graduation game at the NFTS is extremely lucky in that the school organise for the games to be showcased at EGX, the major industry gaming event each year. Our goal was to have a highly polished demo of early gameplay to help wet press and potential investor’s appetite for the full game.

What Was Your Biggest Learning Curve?

Both Jonathan and myself were aware that we had huge gaps in our knowledge as we’d never tried this before, so we spent a good few of weeks visiting Amersham and Wycombe College to talk through the requirements with Neil and Simon. All of that time spent planning and rehearsing for any problems that may occur, paid off in the end.

I think one of the main things I’ve taken away from our shoot is a new perspective on how Mo-Cap works. For example, on a film set you normally shoot 3 pages a day. In Mo-Cap we were shooting approximately 20! It was such a stark difference that Jonathan and I were both caught off-guard.  Obviously, the question of how complicated the movements and actions are has to be taken into account to give you a realistic sense of what can be achieved, but there’s a world of difference between the two. After the first day's shoot, we actually had to spend that night frantically writing more material as we’d shot so much on the first day!

If you’re at EGX this week make sure to come stop by the NFTS Games stand in Rezzed West section where all 8 graduation games will be on show.