How an indie game does ruthlessly efficient motion capture.
In the middle of 2015, we here at iNK Stories went cross country to spend a week in Los Angeles to shoot motion capture for 1979 Revolution: Black Friday. Almost exactly a year later, with the game finally released, we’d like to look back and offer up some insight and reflection on one of the most important production processes of the game.
Unfortunately motion capture is often prohibitively expensive for independent developers who instead pull animations from existing libraries to save time and cut corners - which often sacrifices good, consistent keyframe animation. Being a narrative driven game, we knew that motion capture would be our best option to create animation that felt real and blended with actors voicing roles in the game. Even with a good deal on a motion capture space, our indie budget meant it was going to take an incredible amount of planning, organization, and determination to pull this off.
The stage we shot at, House of Moves, was equipped with over 70 tracking cameras capturing motion in a full 360 degree axis. This gives the area a 3D view for tracking and recording the movements of the actors that we can work with. The actors dress in those funny-looking spandex suits you’ve probably seen in behind-the-scenes features of films. These tight outfits also require the actors to wear specific markers that provided a base for accurately capturing movement. These markers or "joints", map out motion into 3D models which can be saved as files, to be later used in animation.
In the above photo you can see a thin pink line making a square around the carpet. This marks the "volume area" of the motion capture - the safe area to be in for the cameras to capture the animation from the suits, which makes up a surface area of about 120 square feet. For larger sequences (people running/walk and talks/massive environments) you have to think creatively to break them down into individual segments that will comfortably fit into that box to be stiched together later on.
Climbing Everest Without A Coat
I'll say it again - motion capture is usually a nightmare for independent game companies. On top of being costly it usually involves a crew of many people and requires a stable of actors, neither of which we had the capabilities to do as an independent game. But we did have one thing going for us, we were really, really efficient.
We had an amazing cast of actors that we’d secured to be a part of the project, really the absolute best cast of Iranian-American actors you could find anywhere. And they were absolute professionals, even in crazy circumstances like the ones we found ourselves in.
We had a budget to shoot motion-capture for a total of four days. I’ll let that sink in for a moment, four days… That means we were shooting a feature length script (150+ pages - with branching cinematics) in the time that a movie would normally shoot maybe 10 pages. On a great day of motion-capture you may expect to get about eight pages shot. We were planning on doing 35 pages a day.
Figuring out how to squeeze in all those scenes
Our greatest aid in achieving this crazy goal was the best tool in any production’s kit - rehearsals. Like most other things, our version of rehearsals was an accelerated process (consisting of two days) where Navid Khonsari, the co-founder of iNK Stories and director of 1979 Revolution: Black Friday was able to read through the script with the actors and then block the scenes out in a physical walkthrough on the motion-capture stage.
This was a fundamentally important step of the shooting process. It allowed us to work on the very same stage we would be shooting later that week without the stress and anxiety of the cameras rolling, it let the actors build a comfort and camaraderie with the material, it let us work out the knots in the staging of the scenes to build a better foundation.
Talking it out
So by the end of the second day of rehearsal, we had walked through the entire game. The actors were given a pile of pages to take over the weekend and finish memorizing while we labored over production scheduling to maximize our efficiency during the four days of shooting.
I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t still anxiety after rehearsals. We had walked through everything in theory - but anyone who has worked in the creative pipeline knows that Murphy’s Law, which says that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, is a very real thing during shooting. And so, the night before the shooting began, we did our own internal iNK walkthrough of the next four days and how we would each be assist one-another in the best way possible. Above everything else, the creative process is a collaborative process, and we were so lucky to have great people supporting us that we knew we could count on if anything or everything went wrong.
Quiet on Set
And so on Monday, after a restless weekend of prep we woke up at 6am (yay, LA traffic…) and headed onto the freeway towards the motion capture studio. A couple of the actors were already there getting changed into their motion-capture suits that would allow us to capture both the physicality of their performance and the audio of their performance at the same time.
Over the next four days, I don’t know if Navid ate, slept, or even sat down for that matter. He was literally a fountain of energy for the actors and everyone on the crew to follow through the fray. There were times we were shooting scenes that were seven or eight minutes long without cutting (the nature of motion-capture can feel like theater at times because you’re not changing camera angles, that all comes later) - we were worried it would be too much for the actors to memorize (given they had 150 pages to keep between their ears) but they were flawless. It was insane.
There were issues/crisis moments that we knew would happen - technical glitches of the motion-capture software, airplanes flying overhead that ruined sound in some takes (LAX airport was just a few streets away), or even racing against the clock to frantically find the perfect size stick that could double as Hajj’s cattle prod in the prop room - but because we were so well prepared, we powered through all these obstacles and walked out on day four with everything we needed (stunt fight scenes included!)
The Final Product
Into Fresh Air
To this day, I still somewhat can’t believe how efficient we were. With a cast of eleven actors, we captured scenes ranging from family dinners at home, to crowded protests and violent riots, to cramped darkrooms and covert headquarters. There was no ego involved whatsoever, everyone fed into the collective energy of the production and vowed to do everything they could to make it a success - and that is why we were successful. Everyone was so selfless and generous with their time, effort, and performances that we knew (even if we were a bit sleep deprived at the time) that we had something really special.
We walked out of the studio, and into the early evening sunset of Los Angeles on the fourth day feeling a little dazed, and with a sense of profound accomplishment. We knew we’d done something that had really never been done before at such a small scale & timeline such as ours - yet we’d still accomplished everything we set out to do. We had so much fantastic animation - cinematics, background characters, crowds, fight scenes, and more.
And still, we were only getting started with the pipeline of making the game.
You can find 1979 Revolution: Black Friday on Steam and on the Apple AppStore