The rapid evolution of motion capture technology (mocap) throughout the last decade has revolutionized video games, and EA Capture's team has been playing an active role in its development.
Located in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, EA's state-of-the-art mocap facility is one of the largest and best equipped in the world. The studio has well over 100 cameras deployed to capture motion and has over 200 video game titles to its credit.
EA Capture Pre-Production Manager Blair Leckie takes you behind the scenes and tells you what the studio is all about …
Can you explain your role at EA Capture?
I’m the acting Pre-Production Manager for EA’s Capture department. EA Capture records human movement and likeness and uses this data to bring digital characters to life in-game. On top of this, the studio is constantly driving to create better and more efficient ways for these assets to be acquired and processed.
How did you make your way into the motion capture field?
I started my career in motion capture without any intent to do so; I started at EA six years ago, coming from the entertainment industry where I worked as a freelance contractor in theater/film/TV. While in that industry, I was approached by an acquaintance to help manage the studio’s productions. The gig was a really good fit since many of the production processes were standard between both industries.
How big is the mocap team and what are the different types of jobs involved?
The motion capture team consists of 22 employees in four different groups: Pre-Production, Capture, Post Production and R&D. The skill sets that make up the team are varied: software engineers, production supervisors, development directors, technical artists, animators, motion capture technicians, production coordinators, and modelers.
Can you tell us about the mocap technology and its impact on today’s games?
Motion capture technology and the methods of applying motion in a game are varied, ranging from optical to inertia-based systems. Optical systems utilize data captured from reflective markers attached to a performer to triangulate the 3D position of a subject between one or more cameras calibrated to provide overlapping projections. Inertial Motion Capture technology is based on miniature inertial sensors, which use gyroscopes, accelerometers and magnetometers to measure rotational degree of freedom. 3D scanning is the process of acquiring the geometry and textures of a subject to create an exact digitized version of that talent.
The vast majority of games produced today utilize the combination of motion capture and 3D scanning to create the foundation for all the character movements and character image that we see on screen. These combined help bring characters to life creating visually compelling and believable characters.
How does a typical mocap session run and what does it take to create a motion capture masterpiece?
The success of each shoot, like any production, starts well before we even go to camera. In pre-production, we partner with the content creators or game team to understand the project, goals and vision that we’re going to help the production achieve. Based on this planning we begin to break down and organize where, what and how these components need to be captured while at the same time finding the perfect assembly of performers that generate the look, sound and motion for the title. Generally, we aren’t ready for camera until 3-4 months after pre-production begins.
A general shoot day starts with stage and cast prep, consisting of stage calibration and fitting the performers into the motion capture suits along with applying the 60+ reflective markers to each subject. My job on shoot day is to worry about the minute details that can drastically affect the productivity of a shoot. These range from wrangling and coordinating cast and crew to elevating and troubleshooting the capture issues that arise during a session.
The real magic in what we do happens in post-production, where we track, solve, retarget and assemble the animation that we’ve worked hard to acquire. The post-production process can take weeks to months to complete depending on the type and complexity we’re dealing with. Ultimately, the game teams will take the data that we have acquired and work it into the final product that ships to retailers.
Is motion capture mostly used in sports games?
No, motion capture is used in almost every title today like FIFA, Madden, Dead Space, Battlefield, Tennis and SSX.
Are sessions always held indoors? Can you capture a person’s movements in a more natural environment?
Typically most sessions are run inside; it offers an environment that we can control which benefits the many aspects that come together to execute a successful shoot. The biggest factor being light; optical motion capture data systems generally don’t like white light. It brings what we call “noise” to the data. “Noise” equals bad data. Regularly capturing multi-person moves (with 10 or more simultaneous performers); stunts, rigging, and wirework; cinematic sequences; and simultaneous face-and-body “performance” capture; EA Capture’s studio has a clear-span ceiling over 30-feet high, and can accommodate 150’ run lanes.
However, having said all this, not all motion capture is acquired using an optical system. An inertial system does allow for capture in almost any environment, on location or outside the studio, for example.
Have you met any celebrities in your job?
Yes! We’re a fortunate bunch in that we have the opportunity to work with some of the world’s greatest actors and athletes. Some that are most memorable to me are Sugar Ray Leonard, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Jeff Bridges, Ryan Kessler, Carmelo Anthony, and Glenn Morshower!
What achievements are you most proud of in your career so far at EA?
Everything we do here we’re proud of--I mean that with as much sincerity as I’ve got. We have an exceptional job that provides us with the continual opportunity to support EA in developing some of the most compelling titles on the market. Most of the technology and equipment that we use to get assets in game aren’t available on the market. We have to invent, create and develop these instruments using our own ingenuity and innovation. The teams here continue to inspire and impress me on a daily basis with the accomplishments that they achieve. Amazing, absolutely amazing.
Recent wins for the team have come in the development of the FaceForward capture system and the Virtual Director’s Camera, both developed in-house. FaceForward is 4D likeness capture that acquires an ear-to-ear scan of a performer’s face at 60 frames per second. The other crowning achievement which EA now owns patent on, the Director Camera (aka D-Cam) is an innovative new technology that allows content creators the freedom to manipulate a tangible camera that will drive their in-game cameras. Using proprietary technology, a virtual scene can be displayed through the Director Camera viewport. The motions from the Director Camera are then used to drive the in-game camera.
Any words of advice for young talent wanting to work in the motion capture industry?
My message to anyone regardless of industry is be honest with yourself, do what you love to do, work hard and never compromise. Don’t let people tell you that it can’t be done, find a way to overcome the obstacle or work around it.
Watch EA Capture's demo reel for a look at part of the FaceForward capture session for Battlefield 3, a recent attack dog shoot, the Dcam and more!