Nowadays, where a Triple-AAA rarely leaves the development studio without having at least 13,000 animations (excluding cut-scenes), it seems only logical that the evolution of game animations leaves the sprites of the early days and the 3D-models of the not so early days behind and enters the universe of real-life actors.
This being said, we must not forget that Motion-Capturing for videogames is still a technology in development. While nearly all the big studios in the world are experimenting with it, no one would really claim having found the perfect solution for all kinds of games.
We didn’t really have to think twice when Ubisoft offered us a flight to Montreal, Canada, so that we could visit their mo-cap Studio and talk to actor Michael Mandor, who plays the character of Vaas in the upcoming Far Cry 3. I don’t want to get too corny here, but for someone who is usually only allowed to see almost-done games in nicely decorated booths it is kind of a special moment to enter the room where the actual magic in game development happens today.
Six years ago, Ubisoft opened this place for the development of a Rainbow Six title. Since then, they have intensified their use of the studio rapidly, and it held 160 days of shooting in 2011, with around 200 planned for 2012. Every Ubisoft production worldwide uses this place to put life into their characters. As the demand slowly exceeds the supply possibilities, Ubisoft is already planning a second studio.
Every mo-cap scene in an Ubisoft game starts on this small stage, 15 by 8 metres long, 4 metre high and with room for six to eight actors plus up to 60(!) cameras. This is not a place where classical actors would be expected to work, and during our conversation, Michael repeatedly underscores the differences between classical acting and videogame-development:
“In film and television when an actor walks in and does a scene,” he explains, “the scene is broken down. You have a master meeting close up, a close up and an extreme close up, and you have approximately 3 or 4 takes of every shot, of every camera angle and every lightning set-up. When you’re doing a video game like the Vaas scene we’re doing today, it’s just one take.”
Nevertheless, the Ubisoft staff is working hard to at least simulate an environment which feels familiar to the actors. The requisites may not look very similar to the objects they’re trying to represent, but we’re told that Ubisoft take great care in matching the dimensions like height and weight of the real objects. Still, it is a new challenge to actors like Michael:
“You really, really have to work from the inside out. I would say it’s not an obstacle, it’s a challenge. It’s good because it really forces you to get in there and to focus.”
But it’s not only the strange feeling of firing at your enemy with a small plastic toy, or acting as if you’re drowning when you’re actually just standing there in a skin-tight suit, that makes videogame acting so special to Michael:
“There’s a major difference between the film and television world, the theatre world and the video gaming world, because film and television has been around for 100 years or so. You feel people get very jaded on stuff. There’s like a routine. They know what they are doing, but in the video gaming world, every time I’m back in the studio, there’s a new technology.”
Far Cry 3 is the first title to benefit from a new capturing technology which records acting, voice and even facial expressions at the same time. During his shoots, Michael constantly has to look into a special infrared camera that recognises every twitch in his face. A newly developed tool then transfers the recorded data into facial animations which can be used by the game-engine.
BTW: Not only did Ubisoft show us their Mocap-Studio, but Michael and a colleague actually shot some material for the game during our visit. It was a great scene – very dramatic! We saw how Michael’s character Vaas… well, actually we’re not allowed to tell you about this. But believe me: Great scene!