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GDC Europe: Ninja Theory And The Essentials Of Performance Capture

Tameem Antoniades, co-founder of the DmC and Enslaved developer, explained the method and theory of performance capture, the technique he uses to tell stories in the company's games.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

August 16, 2011

5 Min Read

Tameem Antoniades, co-founder of the DmC and Enslaved developer, explained the method and theory of performance capture, the technique he uses to tell stories in the company's games. "Performance capture is differentiated from motion capture," he said, as it captures not just physical performances, but an actor's "body and their voice and their face simultaneously." Heavenly Sword was captured at Weta Digital (Lord of the Rings) in New Zealand, Enslaved was captured at House of Moves in LA, and now he's working with Giant Studios, which worked on Avatar. Antoniades gave advice to writers starting to come up with a story for games: start simple. "It's the way that seems to work for me," he said. He showed off a document created by writer Alex Garland, who worked on Enslaved (he's also the screenwriter behind the film 28 Days Later.) It was nine pages, and told the story simply, outlining each of the principle characters with a single paragraph. "If you achieve that much you're on your way," Antoniades said. He also related the best advice he got from Philippa Boyens, writer of the Lord of the Rings films: "Where you make a story good is not on the first draft. It's on the revisions." When it comes to dialogue, Garland was "quite adamant that every line, every single thing, you had to be able to describe it... What's he thinking, why's he saying it." "The cast is equally important" as the script, said Antoniades. "After we've cast, we've made the characters look more like them, and that gets closer to the truth." And casting is important to pay very close attention to. "If you don't find the right person you'll put off the shoot... You'll be fighting so much if you get the wrong person." The solution? "The importance of rehearsals can't be overstated," he said. Do a table read a month or more before shooting. "Sit there quietly and take notes.. What you'll find is the people you've cast for a role aren't suited for a role, but they may be suited for another role so you swap people around... And occasionally you find that one person doesn't fit and they're not right for it and you have to be prepared... If your gut says that, you just let them go," said Antoniades. This is also "your best opportunity to rewrite the script." Follow that up with private meetings with the actors to see how they relate to their characters, and then bring the actors in groups to test the chemistry. Do a standing read-through, in the manner of a play. "Take notes and see if anything starts to sag, if there are lulls or highs," said Antoniades. "It relates very closely to gameplay,... If there's a lull in the story, there's a good chance your gameplay will lull as well." "Actors are very insecure, and when they wear a skintight [motion capture] suit they can clam up," he advised -- so before shooting, do a practice day to let them get into their roles. "Let them move, and express, and loosen up. It's quite a liberating experience I think, and it's very important to do that before you start shooting so they know it's going to be okay." When it comes to shooting, don't take breaks. "Do it one big shoot and keep the energy going," he said. You can also lose actors to other projects if you take a break. "Everything you shoot in the first day will have to be redone because the actors aren't into character yet," he warned. Also make sure to record audio on set, he said. "We tried to record it afterwards but it just didn't sound the same. You lost the magic, lost the spontaneity." You also have to make sure to capture the motion of the cameras that film the action, he said, "all as part of the same setup. Cameras are one of the key ways in which you tell stories." "The way we did it works best for us [was] using actual cameras... You see the actual actors' performances and then later back at the office, the motion-captured movements of the cameras are put into the scene, and they [the developers] try to match it exactly." "Never interrupt a take," said Antoniades. All communication has to be fed to the director, who exclusively interfaces with the actors. Now that he is directing his own projects, Antoniades prefers to watch on a screen rather than watch the actors peform, "because you are trying to capture performance to camera, not watching a live performance." Have someone take notes on the director's reaction to takes -- good or bad -- and send those to the editor, so they can use them as a basis to compile the best takes. "I'm notoriously anti-documentation in general but I have to admit that storyboards do come in useful from time to time," said Antoniades. "A couple of times I got tripped up by the sheer complexity of a scene and I wished I'd had a prepared storyboard." He does create them on the fly, sometimes, on a whiteboard immediately before shooting. The actors should be allowed to improvise in dramatic scenes, however. "I feel very strongly that you should not storyboard drama... These things you should allow to happen." Ninja Theory shoots about seven takes of each scene. One to block the scene, one for actor staging, another for camera staging, and three for performance. Then an alternate take is shot to capture small, unusual details or attempt improvisational camera use. "The camera guys film anything other than the performances; it helps the editor a lot." "And if you do it right -- if you can capture the details and nuances -- you don't have to rely too much on dialogue," he said. "Editing is where it all comes together into an actual story. Editing is the storytelling finale," said Antoniades. "What you have in the edit has to make sense, has to be good. Let people watch it." "In games, especially, storytelling isn't considered the most important thing, rightly, in many cases. But if you are doing a story-based game, everything has to support the story, and if you are creating living breathing characters... One of the most important thing is creating a story that has an emotional impact." Storytelling, said Antoniades, is "how we understand the world."

About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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