Video games should credit mocap actors alongside the voice talent

By Kirk McKeand, Monday, 20 January 2020 12:59 GMT

“Do you want me to do it like the tactical way? Do you want me to do it the redneck way? Do you want me to just come in like an amateur?”

Noshir Dalal is standing in the motion capture studio for a video game and he’s being asked to storm a room. But he needs more context. Is he a trained professional who will be stacking up and checking corners, or is he the kind of guy who will bumrush the building while spraying rounds?

A mocap professional isn’t just someone who knows how to move, it’s someone who knows how to move with intent. It is someone who has studied how others move and can mimic those movements. It’s someone who understands how the mocap process translates into in-game animations, and how technical limitations are married to that process.

Dalal is one of the most prominent people in this profession. While he’s also known for VO (Sekiro) and full performance acting (Charles Smith, Red Dead Redemption 2), he’s also the guy you go to if you want someone who can handle a gun. When I speak to him, he’s working on seven games. “If Sony needs a gun guy, it’s often me, which is a good time,” he says. Trained in Shotokan karate, Isshin-ryu karate, Luohan kung fu, Shaolin kung fu, and “a little bit of capoeira here and there”, he could probably spin kick your head off as well.

As someone who works the full range of video game acting – voice over work, mocap, and full performance capture – he has a bird’s-eye view of the industry and all the different disciplines. But video games have a problem: mocap actors are not credited properly.

In a movie, stunt performers aside, the actors give a full performance. This is the same deal for games such as Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Last of Us, where actors play out their scenes as if it was a theatre production. In games, this isn’t always the case, however. Sometimes, the person who voices the character isn’t their body.

Tom Keegan, performance director for Wolfenstein: New Order, reminisces about working with Brian Bloom (B.J. Blazkowicz): “One of the last scenes in the game, the bit where he’s going to kill the bad guy, Deathshead, at the end. He just had the scene where he says goodbye to his loved ones and he gets on this elevator and he loads the gun – just the way he loaded this gun, the specific movements. He was very familiar with guns – the sense of determination, power, control, rage. It was just brilliant. I was so grateful that we had him, an actor who could physically carry that off in a realistic way.”

Originally the game’s creative director had another actor in mind for the role, but they never reached a deal. That’s when Keegan started pushing for Bloom, who was planned to play a smaller part in the MachineGames FPS. In the end, I couldn’t imagine anyone else as Blazkowicz, and much of that is down to his physical presence. Now imagine if Bloom had just done the movements, rather than full performance capture – body and voice. Would he have got the same credit?

“Unfortunately, right now, the way it tends to work is, at least in my experience, the motion capture actors for a major character end up getting listed under mocap credits, in a big chunk of names with no distinction or delineation,” Dalal explains. “Which is too bad, and I’m hoping that changes in the future. When you take some of these iconic characters, especially in video games where, what do they say? ‘Ninety-percent of communication is body language,’ or whatever it is? That’s a massive part of the storytelling.

“For example, if I’m doing a role where I’m doing the movement and action for it, and then the actor is doing the voice and they’ll capture his face as well for it. When I’m in there, I’m delivering a full performance. I’m saying the lines, even if I have to say them to myself, depending on if they’re recording audio or whatever. I’m going through every single emotion that that character has. Because if I don’t, my body will betray that I’m actually not there.”

Mocap professionals often have a technical knowledge that traditional actors might not bring to a role as well. When Dalal did motion capture for Marvel’s Spider-Man, he knew that he needed to exaggerate his movements for the part of Rhino or his arms would clip through his body. Rhino is a hulking character and Dalal was tasked with finding a way to make him move convincingly without making it look ridiculous and while still retaining his powerful, menacing gait. He also had to make sure the hefty character’s thighs didn’t rub together.

“The horn that he has is, I pictured it like a sidewinder missile, so his movement would be almost like a 2000lb shark coming at you, or a sidewinder missile winding its way at you, which allows him to kind of shift his weight from side to side and keep his legs from clipping while still looking scary,” Dalal remembers. “And discovering moments like that can create a movement that doesn’t make intuitive sense, like right off the top of your head, that can make a character look powerful.”

It’s insight like this that makes mocap specialists such a pivotal part of modern game development, as well as such a key ingredient of a character.

“Often you’ll have a performance director and you’ll have a technical director,” Dalal explains. “And the technical director is often in there being like, ‘We can’t do that. And you can’t actually move like that. And this is the restriction, and that is the restriction.’

“I think for some actors that can be a really frustrating experience. And it can be, when you’re just acting your heart out and it turns out you were too many steps over to the left and cut off the door of a closet, and that means if a player decided to enter that closet, you’ve now locked him in there. Things that feel ridiculous in the moment. But that technical director’s job is so hard, and [it’s up to the actor to get] a better understanding for what they’re looking for, and therefore what they need and what they don’t, and what’s going to cost money.

“If your character has hair and you do something that messes with it, that costs money. Soft fabrics or materials like paper and stuff – if I interact with that thing, that costs money. And a lot of these gigs, they don’t have the money to animate these little things. So getting an understanding for what you can tell a story with and what you can’t, what are props you can interact with and what are props that you should really leave as scenery, that takes time. But I think getting to know that stuff makes you a better storyteller in that medium.”

You often hear about actors in movies doing improv in a scene, collaborating with the scriptwriters and directors to get the best performance. In games, this collaborative process casts a much wider net. This is something Roger Clark (Arthur Morgan, Red Dead Redemption 2) experienced during the five years he spent working on Rockstar’s western, too.

“The biggest learning curve I think was learning that not only was I working side by side with the director every day, but also the animators,” Clark explains. “I learnt that they were just as integral to how my work was going to be portrayed as the director was, if not more-so. They understood the technical requirements needed, especially with that transition from cutscenes into in-game. They knew what pose I needed to hit in order for them to be able to blend between the two things seamlessly and make it look nice and tight for the player.

“At first I found it really difficult to try and understand this, but as the years went by I studied and worked a bit more so started to understand their needs a lot better and vice versa; they understood my needs and a trust was being built. I was very apprehensive at first thinking, ‘Here I am doing all this work and I know this animator might just change it all six months from now or even two years from now when they might not understand why I did that little thing’.”

At one point, Clark was asked to drink out of a moonshine jug. He had been studying the era prior to this, delving into his character as part of his preparation process, and he found that rednecks had a particular way of drinking from these massive receptacles. They’d wrap their thumb in the rope and put it in the hole, letting the jug rest on the thumb and allowing them to drink from it one-handed. For whatever reason, perhaps technical, this particular scene was replaced with someone drinking from the jug with two hands.

Even Dalal, who has more experience with mocap, sometimes runs up against things that he might not have considered. “You see stuff like that all the time, where, for example, the way a weapon is stowed realistically makes no sense. You know, an axe? I’m not going to hang it so it hangs blade down, where it can now scissor back and forth and might cut my knees off. And I would fight sometimes to try to sneak in moments to change that, and they’d be like, ‘No, no, no, it’s gotta be the reverse of that’.

“The reason they have to do that is because, if I stow the axe the proper way, the animation for putting that back and drawing that, it’s much more complicated, right? And I have to grudgingly be like, ‘Okay, this is mocap magic’. Sometimes that’s how it goes, and you’re not going to win all of those battles, but every now and then, if a moment is worth it for the storytelling beat, I think sometimes they’re willing to do the extra work to make that happen. And when that happens, that’s cool.”

halo 5 master chief

On set, there are a myriad of considerations people perhaps don’t realise when they think about mocap work. For example, if two actors are playing a scene and one is Halo’s Master Chief – a character who is over seven feet tall – the actor opposite them has to look above their co-star’s head while the Master Chief actor has to stare at their belly button during conversation. In an open-world game, if you see two people arguing through an apartment window, there’s a good chance that’s fully acted scene played out in the motion capture volume with two actors doing improv lines and actions.

Just recently, Dalal was brought on to a project to perform weapon reloads for a hero character. “I think we ended up doing something like six days of reloads with well over a dozen weapons,” Dalal tells me. “And I mean, every size of firearm you can think of. And I have to do it from every position you could imagine – completely flat out on your stomach, on your back, crouching this side of a wall, that side of a wall, standing, you know. Agitated, not agitated. And they were kind enough to give me kind of like a consultation bump, because they know that I’m bringing something, and I’m helping make that character look proficient.

“Capturing a reload that is fast, but still looks desperate, is hard. I had to differentiate between a character who was tactically very capable, and another character who was kind of like more home-grown. And those kinds of things, I mean, it was exhausting. In one hour, I did more reloads than I’ll do in an entire day at the range. And my fingers were literally bleeding every single day. By the time it was done, I was ripped to pieces.

“On rare occasions you’ll get someone who doesn’t really consider the physical toll of what you’re doing, and therefore will have you do the same brutal physical action 19, 20, 47 times while they figure out what they want. That can be really tough. And it’s almost never that they mean to break us down – they’re just not considering what they’re asking of us. Usually the mocap supervisor is good about speaking up for the performer, but it can be a hard path to tread.”

If you’ve seen The Irishman, Scorsese’s latest gangster flick on Netflix, you might have noticed what kind of dissonance it can create when the character doesn’t move like they should. CGI might have de-aged the actors, but they still move like they’re older men in certain scenes and it stands out, no matter how good the core performance is. That’s why, in video games, these specialists are brought in. But they should be credited as such. Why don’t these actors – because that’s what mocap is: acting – get credited alongside their voices for the characters they play, rather than being siphoned off into a technical role?

“As far as hurdles in the mocap industry, for sure I would love to see credit being given where credit is due,” Dalal admits. “I think that would be great. For example, Yuri Lowenthal, the actor who plays Peter Parker for Marvel’s Spider-Man, was so great about giving shout-outs to Ross and Seth, who were the two primary guys who did the work of Spider-Man in the suit. And you don’t always see that, you know? It’s not uncommon for an actor to take credit where maybe credit isn’t due. And I think people like Yuri are helping the average person understand that there’s a lot more going on. And that’s just who Yuri is, but that’s not the norm, and he’s an amazing example.”

“I do think this part of the industry is confusing for people outside of it,” Yuri Lowenthal tells me over email. “I don’t really know how to fix it, but I am still routinely told, ‘Yeah, but you only did the voice of Spider-Man,’ by people who don’t understand that I also did the performance capture for the character in the cinematics. I mean, I obviously had an amazing team of stunt doubles, in particular Ross Kohnstam and Seth Austin, who should be credited with at least half the performance because they really put the spider in the man. I’m too old to be flipping around… And then the animators who do all the work with the information we give them. Can we give them a third half of the credit?”

It’s a sentiment shared by everyone I’ve spoken to over the past few months, all of them agreeing that mocap is a vital part of a performance. All we need is for game studios to recognise this fact, too, by properly highlighting the work these actors do and crediting them alongside the voice and performance capture talent.

“I think the credit issue comes from a lot of people not considering mocap ‘acting’ because most motion capture for games is the process of recording thousands of individual moves for each character to cover every move that character is going to make,” mocap specialist and sword fighting extraordinaire Marta Svetek explains. “It’s also called a locomotion shoot or in-game mocap. Since these are a few seconds long, as opposed to full cinematic performance capture scenes, watching the actor work doesn’t necessarily read like traditional acting. But it very much is just acting. The way a character stands, turns, walks or generally moves is a huge part of the way we experience a character. If you think about it, we spend more time looking at the in-game animations than any other part of the animation work on the character.”

“It’d be great to see, when an actor is credited specifically for a character, the movement guys credited immediately below,” Dalal agrees. “Because it is a collaborative process. And frankly, the actors that we work with are super talented, but a lot of them can’t do it – especially the violence that we’re doing there. We’re talking about video games. They’re not games about peaceful negotiations.

“Those fights tell their own story, and that movement tells its own story. For example, watching Spider-Man take gnarly hits and get thrown across the room, and how his body aching is shown. And how he gets up, but he gets up anyway? That is telling a story where no voice is required at all. But I learn immediately, that is a hero. A hero isn’t a guy who is invulnerable and feels nothing and looks like a badass all the time. A hero is the guy who gets his butt kicked and still finds a way to stand up. There’s a lot of storytelling happening with no words being said, and the movers who do that, I wish that they got more props.”

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