If you haven’t seen any making-of footage from the cinematic, psychological horror game Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, then you’re missing a treat. Much of the behind-the-scenes videos surrounding Hellblade centred on how Ninja Theory, a team of just 20, worked to push the performance capture for the game further for the industry. A studio that has never shyed away from mocap for games like DmC and Enslaved, Hellblade is perhaps the most ambitious game for the company yet when it comes to performance capture.
At GDC 2016, Ninja Theory used live mocap to demo Hellblade in just a few weeks. This June, Ninja Theory took the tech even further by doing a live Q&A session with the voice and mocap actress answering questions on Facebook Live as main character Senua. For the Cambridge-based studio, creating an AAA game was no easy feat – especially as it would be the first time that Ninja Theory would be working on performance capture in-house.
With the help of Vicon, the makers of leading mocap cameras, software and systems, Ninja Theory was able to set up Vicon’s Bonita cameras in one single meeting room and turn it into in a makeshift motion capture studio.
We caught up with Steven Manship, Cinematics Lead at Ninja Theory and Tim Doubleday, VFX Product Manager at Vicon after the release of Hellblade to find out how they worked together to make the performance capture of Ninja Theory’s first independent AAA release a reality.
3D Artist: How has Vicon technology been used in performance capture for Hellblade?
Steven Manship: For Hellblade we used Vicon’s Bonita camera range and installed them in the main meeting room in our studio. Combined with Vicon’s Blade software, the setup was used to capture all the body data for our performance capture shoots. In other words, every cinematic scene in the game was captured in this way but also, for the first time in one of our games, most of the in-game animations as well.
Tim Doubleday: Working in partnership with Ninja Theory, Vicon helped to define the full performance pipeline at a price point that fitted within the studios budget.
3DA: What makes this different for Hellblade compared to previous solutions for Ninja Theory games like DMC and Enslaved?
SM: This is the first time we’ve brought the performance capture in-house and captured and processed all the data ourselves, instead of using an external mocap studio. The differences have been huge in terms of cost and how we were able to structure the project. Rather than booking an external space for a few weeks and needing to fit everything into that period we’ve been able to have an internal space constantly available. It’s enabled us to be a lot more fluid and flexible in our development and it removed a lot of limitations in the creation of new content. Even towards the end of the project, if we needed something new we could quickly suit up, capture it, and have it in game within a day or two. The quality of the data is as good as any we’ve received from elsewhere.
For the amount of time we used the mocap space and as a small, independent project, hiring an external mocap studio wouldn’t have been cost efficient. That being said, external studios still have their place in a production and we’re certainly not saying we’d never use them again.
Although our capture space for Hellblade was similar in size to what we worked with on Enslaved and the system could just about handle three actors and a camera man, Hellblade was limited to one actor and its design and themes enabled us to use a smaller space effectively. For a larger production requiring more space, more actors, and more captured data, the services of an external partner can be very valuable. In fact, on Hellblade we did shoot with the Imaginarium for a day or two for some combat and stunt work – our low ceilings meant we couldn’t swing the swords properly without causing damage. Overall, with good planning a very large proportion of work (if not all of it) could be captured with a setup like ours.
3DA: How and why has Ninja Theory embraced mocap so much for its games?
SM: Performance capture is one of the pillars of our company, embraced with Heavenly Sword and continuing to be pushed and developed with all our projects. Our games are largely story driven and there’s nothing else like mocap for getting the high quality output we require and getting the actor’s performance transferred into the game as accurately as possible. It’s always been a vital part of our cinematic pipeline. Hellblade is the first project with which we’ve expanded our use of mocap to include in-game animations, which was essential on this low budget title for speed of production, quality, and to add a higher level of realism to the character throughout the game.
There is a time-lapse on social media of the creation of an in-house mocap space at Ninja Theory. How did this come about and how long did it take to set up?
Steven: The in-house mocap space came about purely from the needs of the project and the budget. As I’ve already mentioned, performance capture is a fundamental part of the studio and would be a driving part in creating Senua’s story, but we didn’t have the budget to shoot the quantity of work we would need off site. We were convinced that with the right set up we could get the results we needed in house for a more acceptable cost, and with that in mind we reached out to Vicon. With only a few site visits we had the whole suite up and running in a surprisingly short period of time, with Vicon helping with the positioning and tuning of the cameras to get the most out of our space. We ended up with a capture space of around 4x6m, which was plenty for our requirements.
I’d say in a matter of a day or two we had a working room, then with trial and error over the course of a couple of weeks we made adjustments and improved the space. We swapped out borrowed camera tripods for wardrobe poles which gave us more space and stability for a tiny cost. We got some cheap, tiled mats for the floor to help with audio and some sound proof curtains to cover the windows, so that we could record good quality VO in the space. It didn’t take long at all to get to grips with the software or hardware and we were very pleasantly surprised with the level of quality of the data we got straight away. Obviously, the data is the most important part and once we saw what we could get out of it we were sure we’d made the right decision. I certainly can’t see how we could have made Hellblade without the setup Vicon helped us create.
3DA: Tim, how is Vicon’s Cara Lite going to impact on performance capture in the games industry?
TD: Cara Lite is the only commercially available system to offer a wireless stereo head mounted camera solution. Whether games companies require a single or stereo system, Cara Lite offers a low cost, production proven pipeline that syncs with the full body optical system.
This allows games Studios of all sizes to capture face and full body together, adding an extra level of believability and emotion to their games. If the studio wants to process the data in house, Cara Lite works with Dynamixyz and Faceware pipelines.
If they are looking to outsource the data, Cara Lite also works with Cubic Motion’s facial capture pipeline.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is available now on PS4 and PC.