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Mocap mountain


Generally speaking, you'll find two kinds of note-takers at GDC. The journalist/blogger jotting down notes for articles to be written later, and the industry professional looking for design/dev insights that may be useful on a project down the road.

Most sessions at GDC appeal to one scribe or the other, but a few select presentations fill the room with every kind of scribbler, furiously mining a session for nuggets of gold. Naughty Dog's Amy Hennig and Josh Scherr's talk, "Behind the Scenes: Uncharted 2's Unique Cinematic Production Process" was easily the most scribbled session I attended at this year's event. Given my keen interest in acting and storytelling, I'm fairly certain I was Scribbloid Prime. (Okay, I took notes on my laptop, but pencil and paper jotting sounds so much more romantic.)

Amy Hennig (Creative Director) began the session with a question: "How do we nurture, capture, preserve, and enhance the authenticity of the performance?" She and Scherr (Cinematics Animation Lead) spent the next 60 minutes addressing that question.

"From day one we designed Uncharted 2 as a story-driven game," Hennig noted. Narrative games must  have unified storytelling, which means actors, performances, and story sequences can't be retrofitted or implemented as an afterthought. As development occurs, the team must be flexible enough to respond to changes that emerge through rehearsal and spontaneous ideas from actors.

"We allow actors to impact their character's personality," Hennig stated, and she showed photographs of the lead actors matched with the characters they played, each remarkably faithful. "Our mocap and VO actors are one and the same," and as proof she noted that 90% of audio used in the game came from the mocap recordings sessions. "In Drake's Fortune we used mocap audio as scratch; in Uncharted 2 we used it for real." Audio was captured via lavalier mics attached to the actors' foreheads.

Naughty Dog may be the only major studio to completely abandon storyboarding. "We've discovered storyboards are useless to our process," said Hennig. "We diagram scenes as top-down schematics, register set pieces on a stage, and map our scene layout to it." Mocap scenes where characters don't interact with terrain tend to feel disconnected, so actors are always put in physical situations that mirror their in-game situation.

Hennig showed photographs of mocked-up settings using apple boxes, make-shift platforms, and lots of gaffers tape. Actors are able to be physical with the set, which makes a big difference. "If an environment exists in the game, we duplicate its terrain on the recording set," Hennig explained, and she showed a video of Nolan North stumbling through an arrangement of boxes in his mocap suit, which later became an injured Drake moving through a train.

Hennig stressed the importance of working with actors from the beginning of the design process. "Write, craft, shoot, repeat." This process, repeated every few weeks, enables actors to feel more invested in their characters, and it means writers and animators grow more familiar with the actors, write better dialogue for them, and animate them more convincingly. This also means actors must memorize their lines, which is highly unusual in video game VO work.

"Acting is reacting," observed Hennig, so isolating actors from each other is a bad idea. Naughty Dog employs an experienced stage director to work creatively with the actors. Rehearsals always happen the day before recording. Table readings result in rewrites, blocking and rehearsal provoke more rewrites, and on-camera improv can produce unscripted moments like the "I'm last year's model" scene between Chloe, Elena, and Nate, which Hennig describes as "largely created by the actors."

Not an instant win
Lead Animator Josh Scherr picked up where Hennig left off, observing that "Mocap is not an instant win." Animating mocap is far more labor-intensive than most people realize. "We needed to produce 15 seconds of animation per animator, per week. That's a lot."

Uncharted 2 required 90 minutes of animation, 25 of which were animated in the last 10 weeks before gold master. It was a painful crunch that Scherr and others at Naughty Dog are reviewing in hopes of avoiding such a situation next time. In the end, outsourcing helped, and the studio worked in tandem with Sony San Diego who provided more animators. Near the end of development, a total of 37 animators were working on Uncharted 2.

Scherr offered several pointers for animating mocap performances. 1) Get the coverage you need. Every take is recorded on 4 cameras: 1 master for coverage and 3 closeup cameras. 2) Tone down physical actions. Actors wearing mocap gear tend to get VERY BIG. 3) Keep prop interactions simple. 4) Don't capture fingers or props. They're easier to handle with keyframing. 5) Don't do crazy stunts. Those will all be keyframed later anyway. 6) Avoid prop handoffs.

Naughty Dog made a pivotal decision not to capture facial animations. "We explored this, but didn't like the results," Scherr reported. The team chose keyframing instead, and Scherr believes it was the right decision. Emotional authenticity of performance is paramount. If a physical animation is a little off, people may notice. If a facial animation is off, everyone notices.

"A talented team of artists and animators are what make mocap data look like realistic performance," observed Scherr, and this involves mixing and matching mocap and audio takes to stitch together the best composite results. "We love our actors, but that doesn't mean we shy away from improving or even replacing what they've produced via mocap. Use the tools you've got."

Finally, Hennig offered a few thoughts on Naughty Dog's unorthodox methods. "Our approach is less structured because it gives us better results." Such an approach won't work for every project, but it suits what the studio is trying to accomplish with the Uncharted games. Hennig encouraged developers of narrative games to insist on authentic performances. "Get to know your actors and rehearse with them. Make cutscenes that people don't want to skip."

And FYI, in case you were wondering, Sully's signature cigar was a red Sharpie.