This was first in a series of behind-the-scenes articles published in 2003 during the development of Star Wars Galaxies, offering a peek at the motion capture--"mo-cap"--sessions. Motion capture gives in-game characters their lifelike movements.
Unfortunately, I no longer have the images that accompanied the original article.
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Mo-Cap Part 1: Bringing Games to Life

"That was a little twisted. Let's try it again."

A voice hidden behind a large black bank of controls says, "Ready," and after a moment, "Action!" Then-

Whack! Crack! Stomp! Swoosh!

I enter the large, rectangular room. It's a rather drab, gray and black place. Several dingy blue mats lay heaped against the left wall. Han Solo stands back there with the mats, blaster drawn. Boba Fett guards this door, just to the left, arms crossed. They're both made out of cardboard. Who knew Boba Fett was so short?

This is the motion capture studio on the campus of Sony Computer Entertainment America, located in San Diego. Right now, a group of Star Wars Galaxies designers and artists is in the process of capturing all the emotes, actions, and reactions a player character will make in the game.

Joe Shoopack, the character team lead, is here, stationed at a long folding-legged table, tapping the keys of a laptop. He wears his BYU ballcap and scrolls through a list of nearly 750 different animations. Over the next three days, he plans to get motion capture data for every single one of them.

"Next is parry high right," says Joe. His list is full of names like this: parry_high_left, parry_high_center. Many are much longer; the precise naming system is key to keeping everything clear and understandable. It also helps to ensure they cover all the animations they want to record.

Jake Rodgers, the art director, is here, perched in a tall director's chair, swinging a cane in front of him as he intently watches the moves of the figure at the center of the room.

"Idle one is breathing normally," he says. "Just standing. Really, don't do anything. You're calm. Then we'll do a version where you're kind of-" Jake begins panting, breathing heavily in an exaggerated fashion-"worn out from combat. We'll be able to blend between the two depending on how tired the character is."

The figure in the center of the room is Hiro Koda, a martial arts expert and stunt man with Action Specialists. Hiro is wearing a skintight flexible black body suit, and a snug stocking cap. Positioned all over his body, head, and shoes are marble-sized reflective balls. He nods.

"Action!" is yelled again, and he stands calmly until the take is complete.

"Same thing for idle two, only exhaustion from combat," says Jake.

Hiro doubles over, his hands on his knees, gasping for air.

"Not like you're going to throw up. But very winded. So you're breathing like-" Jake pants again.

Hiro gets it, and starts breathing like he's just completed a marathon. I feel winded just watching.

Jake laughs. "Don't hyperventilate."

This process will be repeated for each animation in Joe's list over the next few days. Some animations will be cut, but many new ones will be added. Despite the immense number of motion capture animations-the most in any single online game ever made thus far-the artists and technicians will move quickly through them thanks to their experience, and that of the talent hired to swing the lightsabers, dance seductively, use Force powers, breathe heavily, and execute the amazing multi-move combat combos.

I notice the last of these combos in Joe's list and my jaw drops. The staggering five-move combo is scheduled for later today.

Joe Shoopack has done motion capture (mo cap, for short) for a while, beginning when he worked for Blue Sky Software, through his work at Sony's 989 Studios, and now with Sony Online Entertainment. World Series Baseball, Total Control Football, and Game Day '99 PC are all titles on which he's done mo-cap data work. He's the perfect person from whom to learn how it all works.

It began months ago with that long list of animations, put together initially by Anthony Castoro and his team of designers. Back then it wasn't a list of around 750 animations. That list numbered literally in the thousands.

"We start off with a big list of every conceivable animation we want to do in the game," explains Joe. "It's far more than we could implement. We narrow that list and start removing anything that is lower impact, things that are duplicates of others. For example, lets say we have several different types of laugh, a belly laugh, a pointing laugh, and a cackling laugh. Some of those things are near visual duplicates than can be accomplished through text feedback variation from the user."

Many of the proposed animations are what the team refers to as "ambient" animations. These are all the fidgets, head turns, emotes and simple actions that characters will do when not engaging in more elaborate actions. There are over 200 of these, and though they may sound trivial in importance next to a lightsaber moves, they are the subtle touches that make a character live. This is an essential aspect of the game, says Joe. "A larger chunk is going to be devoted to these than in the past, because the social aspect of the game is really important."

That leaves 550 animations for the "other stuff." One might think, watching the many combat moves, that the other stuff will make the game mostly a fighting game, but Joe corrects that assumption.

"On Star Wars we wanted to capture the fighting, which is one of the cool things about the films. And though we're not making a fighting game-fighting is just one aspect of it-we want it to be cinematic enough that it will still convey Star Wars. So that's one of the reasons to add the flourishy combo moves. But it's definitely not going to be primarily a "twitch" fighting game where it's just punch, hit, kick, punch hit, kick."

Those flourishy combat moves are challenging to create, and require very skilled actors who can perform them with not just the precision necessary to re-create the "look" from the movies, but to perform them in such a way that they are believable. When you plan on creating 5-move combos, you can't afford any less than the best.

That's the next step in the motion capture process, finding and hiring the right talent. By now, the team has whittled the huge list down from several thousand animations to a manageable number. "I contacted several Hollywood and LA stunt associations," says Joe. "We requested tapes from everybody and reviewed them, picking the talent that was appropriate to the type of moves we're shooting. So, for all the combat and martial arts moves we got a stunt and martial arts expert. For the emotes, and some of the other standard game animations, we tried to get someone who has experience with motion capture. That's one reason Cosmo Hom is top of the list."

Cosmo Hom is a motion capture veteran, having done work on over 40 games. He is scheduled to perform the last day of the shoot, working on actions for ranged weapon and dance moves.

Wait, dance moves?

SWG is pulling out all the stops to make sure the game really feels like the movies, all the way down to dancing like Oola in Jabba's Palace in Return of the Jedi. Sabrina Fox, who also works for Sony Online Entertainment as an artist for EverQuest, will be performing the female dance moves. She and Cosmo have worked together before on Siphon Filter 1 and 2.

Of course, dancing won't be for females alone. Male characters will have their own smooth moves, which Cosmo will perform. But that's later in the week.

Today is all about combat.

"Hiring the right talent is pretty critical to getting a successful shoot," says Jake. "If you don't have somebody really good at martial arts, or someone who is even just so-so, it won't be enough."

Action Specialists, located in Valencia, California, does mostly movie stunt work. Mark Dirksei, president of Action Specialists, says that, right now, probably 10% of their work is motion capture for games, but the demand is growing as the needs of new games become more and more advanced. They've been doing game motion capture for six years.

Mark is on hand today to help with the complex combat moves. The move they're working on now isn't quite up to Mark's standards.

It involves a slash, a round kick, and a final, solid slash to the back. Mark has been playing the opponent for Hiro Koda. Hiro has worked as a stunt man and a coordinator on many movies, including Blade, Ghosts of Mars, and the forthcoming Time Machine, Blade 2, and Windtalkers.

"It looks too compressed," says Mark, referring to the final slash to his back. "I'll give you the flat of my back."

Everyone pauses a moment as they watch. Though the weapon Hiro is wielding is a wooden sword, it still looks formidable.

"Hit you?" asks Hiro.

"Well, pull the blow, but yeah."

Mark takes the blow, but even with Hiro pulling it, it looks like the hit smarts just a bit.

Throughout the session, Hiro slashes, twists, leaps, falls, and kicks often, but at the beginning and end of every move he has to return to a default stance. This is often a "T-pose," in which he stands straight, looking forward, chin up slightly, with both arms held out straight from his shoulders like the wings of a plane. This is very important to getting a clean capture. Several people edit the animation, and having these start and stop positions offers a helpful framework.

Not all of the actions need to start in the T-pose, however. As the team records a set of similar actions, a series of one-handed slashes, for example, Hiro can actually start in an action-ready state. When all the data is captured and the artists go back to Austin to start implementing them, these common states will allow them to blend between different actions smoothly.

"For example," says Joe, "standing_climbing_rope starts out in the basic stand and ends in a state where the model is hanging onto a rope. Climbing_rope begins and ends with the hanging-on-rope state. Climbing_rope_up_to_ledge begins in the hanging-on-rope state but ends in the basic stand again. This assists in blending between animations."

Brian Rausch, who directs the technical side of the process, heads the SCEA motion capture studio. The facility uses optical capturing technology to record animations, which is extremely accurate. Positioned around the perimeter of the room, hanging from the ceiling, are 16 high-resolution cameras. Another four cameras hang in a tighter square nearer the room's center. Brilliant red lights are attached to each camera. All are focused on the marked foot positions where Hiro stands.

What the cameras are watching are the small marble-sized reflectors attached to the Hiro's suit. Each of these is wrapped in a highly reflective white tape. "It's set to reflect at about a three degree angle," says Brian, "so it gives almost an exact reflection back to the cameras."

Despite all the fluorescent lighting and the flashes from our photographer's camera, none of these interferes with the data capture. "A filter in the camera is set to gather that particular color light," says Brian, indicating the bright red strobe rings around each camera. "That's how they're able to differentiate between the reflection of those lights and the fluorescent light's reflection."

Brian's monitor reveals a green grid that represents the floor of the room. At the center hangs a whorl of white dots, vaguely in the shape of a human.

"All those markers that are on the guy are reflecting data back at the cameras," explains Brian. "A tvd file is created, which is basically a 2D television data image. What I'll do over on this machine is process that, and actually turn it into three dimensional data. Then I go through and label the points. Right knee, right wrist and forearm, so on and so forth."

As the points are labeled, a framework of lines begins to form, until suddenly the whorl is now a definite human figure. Brian sets the image in motion, and suddenly the inanimate drops of reflected data spring into fluid life, leaping and kicking about the grid plain, striking at an invisible opponent with a long polearm.

"Okay, next is the five-move combo," announces Joe. I thank Brian quickly for the technical info and dash down from the control box to stand beside Jake Rodgers.

I'm not about to miss this.

"We rely on the expertise of the talent a lot when doing those combos. We can ask, What is a common three-move combo? And they offer solutions like, Well there's this, this, and maybe a sweep."

The five-move combo is requiring some extra choreography. Several practice runs leave Hiro in awkward positions by the third or fourth move. It all looks very deadly and quick, but reaching that last move requires extra maneuvering that drops the feel of the action from deadly to staged.

Jake studies each run intently as they work out just exactly how they're going to get five moves out of this. "I'm looking for the content of the motion," he explains. "I spent a lot of time with the designers of the game covering what they wanted to see, what they needed to happen from a system standpoint. So I need to know that the motion is going to solve the gameplay function."

Hiro begins another move, slashing, spinning, and slashing again. His and his trainer's wooden swords smack together. Hiro's in a low position, so he goes with a sweep. That's four...

But then he's too low, and the momentum of the action dissipates.

"Obviously, there's the concern of whether the move is interesting or dramatic enough, and consistent with this style," continues Jake. "We kind of know the type of moves that would make sense, but not necessarily what makes sense in that discipline. When we did three-move combos, for example, the talent said, 'we can do this and a sweep,' and we said, Is there one you can do with a kick? We suggest moves so it will look different. They said, 'yeah, we can do an arc kick, and a spin." So, they sort of invent the moves with our help. That's why having the guys with the martial arts experience is important. They are able to bring a lot more information to it."

Then, the team gets it.

Crack! Smack! Crack! Swish! "Hoouh!"

Five fluid moves, three slashes, a kick, and a final coup de grace with a reverse thrust of the sword to his enemy, and it's over....

For the first day anyway. During the next two days of the mo-cap shoot, the team will record a host of other moves, including ranged weapons, force powers, and, yes, dancing! Stay tuned for part two of the look behind Star Wars Galaxies motion capture next month!