How motion capture firms are driving the push for realism

How motion capture firms are driving the push for realism
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

September 19th 2016 at 3:28PM

Dimensional Imaging’s Colin Urquhart discusses the impact video games are having on the world of mo-cap

Motion capture is now almost ubiquitous in games development with nearly every 3D action title making use of real actors.

As little as five years ago, the technology was purely the realm of triple-A blockbusters but now even mobile developers are able to make use of it – and Dimensional Imaging founder Colin Urquhart (pictured) only expects this to increase.

“The demand for mo-cap is definitely going to increase over the next few years,” he says. “All of the major publishers currently appear to be investing heavily in motion capture systems and commissioning new motion capture stages. Games projects are also requiring better and better acting talent and direction to meet the demand for high-quality mo-cap.”

He adds that the reason for this growing demand is the games sector’s continued desire for hyper-realistic animation. As the fidelity of motion capture improves, not using the technology in games becomes more obvious. The result is increased use of the most advanced mo-cap tools available.

“The need for a believable level of realism, particularly in facial animation, is something developers consistently strive for,” says Urquhart.  “The increasing use of helmet-mounted camera systems for facial performance capture has been a big development – and for full performance capture when combined with traditional optical motion capture for body motion capture. Capturing the face and body simultaneously enables an actor to freely ‘perform’ a scene.

“The use of HMCs for full performance capture was pioneered on movie projects such as Avatar and Mars Needs Moms, but is now becoming widespread for use on video game projects. People see how effective this technology is in movies and as a result want – or indeed expect – the same effect in a video game.”

This is by no means a one-way street. As much as video game technology has taken inspiration from Hollywood, our industry’s pioneering experience with virtual reality is turning heads in the film-making business and beyond – and, as a result, the need for games-based mo-cap tech in rising.

“For a truly immersive experience, combining mo-cap with VR is something more and more companies will undoubtedly do in the future,” Urquhart explains. “With tools such as VR apps being released, this technology will only become more and more accessible to everyone and not just gamers.”

The quality of acting performance is becoming increasingly apparent in video games, and therefore more important.

The rising quality of video game characters produced by motion and facial capture has enabled developers to put famous faces directly in their games, ranging from Kevin Spacey and Kit Harrington in Call of Duty to the star-studded cast of Quantum Break. But this doesn’t just help sell those titles to audiences – it sells video games as an industry to the rest of the entertainment world.

“Talking about facial and body mo-cap and the skills required for this contributes greatly in terms of raising awareness of what the technology can do,” says Urquhart.

“It enables these actors to reach a huge video games audience, so I think more and more famous faces will start to expand their acting and performance skills into the games sector.

“The increasing fidelity of capture and realism of graphics in video games means that the quality of acting performance – and direction – is becoming increasingly apparent in video games and therefore more and more important. Video games are also becoming a more respected medium for movie and television actors.”

Of course, advances in technology can push previous iterations of the process out of practice, but Urquhart argues this is for the better. The detail picked up by today’s head-mounted cameras means the original method of facial capture is all but irrelevant when making a blockbuster game now.

“The use of traditional optical motion capture systems with large camera stand-off and retro-reflective markers has almost completely disappeared for facial motion capture,” he says. “It has been found that this approach becomes impractical when much over 100 markers are required on the face.

“Not everything is changing, of course. The use of large arrays of motion capture cameras with large camera stand-off and retro-respective markers for body motion capture has not changed significantly over the past five years.”

People see how effective this technology is in movies and as a result want – or indeed expect – the same effect in a video game.

Crucially, it’s vital for the mo-cap industry to spread the word that its tools are no longer only accessible to larger studios with the biggest budgets. Countless mo-cap providers now offer more affordable – though perhaps more simplistic – bundles. And Urquhart believes the technology still has several advances to make that will see game characters become even more realistic.

“It’s easier for developers to incorporate motion capture into their projects than it ever was previously,” he says Urquhart. “Mo-cap used to be a tool used exclusively by big studios or developers with a huge budget – this is not the case anymore.

“We expect the fidelity of motion capture, particularly of facial motion capture, to continue increasing over the next few years – especially by using techniques such as surface capture instead of maker-based or facial feature based approaches.”