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Talking Shop: Technical Supervisor for Motion Capture

We chat with House of Moves' DJ Hauck about the craft of motion capture

Every Wednesday and Friday, GamesIndustry International sits down with another member of the industry to talk about what they do. Today, we're talking to House of Moves technical supervisor DJ Hauck. He joined House of Moves in 1999 as a motion editor and was promoted to technical supervisor a year later. Hauck then left the company to become a senior technical animator and motion capture technology lead for Sony Pictures Imageworks, where he implemented the motion capture system and pipeline for films like The Polar Express, Monster House, and Beowulf. In 2007, he co-founded Digital Concepts Group, a consulting firm for high-end motion capture. He later returned to House of Moves after its purchase by Vicon, taking up the technical supervisor position again with expanded responsibilities.

If motion capture is an art, Hauck is the craftsman who makes sure the artists have the best tools possible.

"The technical supervisor is responsible for overseeing the development of the tools and standards used to process data and animation across the entire studio," said Hauck when asked about his job title. "Basically, I'm responsible for making sure we have the best tools to get the highest quality animation to our clients as fast as possible."

The House of Moves studio is located in Los Angeles, featuring a 70 foot by 40 foot main motion capture stage. The studio is stocked with the latest in camera technology and is fully-equipped to deal with stunt and wire work. House of Moves also has a professional sound stage to record audio and motion capture at the same time. Hauck describes the studio as "basically a big warehouse that's been converted into stages, with offices at the front and upstairs." Within that space the team has worked on some of the biggest AAA titles, including Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Gears of War 3, Uncharted 2, and God of War III.

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Motion capture isn't a simple shoot-and-save process and Hauck said the typical workflow is split into three different sections: pre-production, production and post-production.

"First, we start with pre-production: learning about the client's needs and preparing the pipeline," he explained. "For example, a hero running through a scene might sound simple, but does the hero need facial animation? Is there going to be stunt work? Is the scene actually a rooftop where he's dodging obstacles and climbing over the environment? Is the character for a game engine, pre-rendered cinema, commercial spot, or feature film? What animation software will the client be using? These are the kinds of things we learn in pre-production that form the basis of everything we'll do on the project."

"Then we move onto production, which is the actual mocap part, capturing the actors on stage. The talent are marker-ed up with body markers, maybe additional face markers, and our Electrooculogram (EOG) eye capture technology. We record their performances in primitive environments we setup to match the CG environments."

"Finally, in post-production we are processing the raw mocap, applying it to the characters and adding additional animation," he added. "Sometimes we deliver that in a standard file format like Maya or FBX. Other times we take the assets all the way into the game engine or even light and render scenes for pre-rendered cinematics."

"Getting a single punch is actually pretty easy, but getting the right punch, and making sure the data is accurately portrayed on the character is what takes time."

In theory, motion capture should be easy: set up the scene you need, do a few takes, and work with the best take. Despite that perception, Hauck explained that capturing simple actions requires a great deal of thought when you're doing mocap.

"Getting a single punch is actually pretty easy, but getting the right punch, and making sure the data is accurately portrayed on the character is what takes time," he said. "First, you need someone who really knows how to do the right punch. Maybe your character is a boxer or a superhero. Bob from accounting probably isn't a professional boxer or stuntman, so his punch will look very different."

"Mocap is a very precise measurement recording system, so getting the right talent to do the action is always important. Then the motion needs to be applied to that character. Rarely are the actor and character's bodies exactly the same size and proportions. So the process of putting that action onto the character requires both technical and aesthetic choices to make sure it works and feels correct.

Hauck said that the studio does 100 to 200 takes in the average day for "in-game and navigational" motions, but that number gets dramatically smaller for full performance scenes. The interaction between the director and the actors is more creative in nature and requires more time to get right, leading to 10 to 20 scene takes on a good day. It's also important for the studio to get takes right on the day of filming.

"It is really important to get the scene right on the day. We can add a lot of things with animation, but if the actor doesn't say the line right, or the environment changed and he needs to walk through a different set, it's a lot of work, which often compromises the quality and feel of the motion," Hauck told us.

House of Moves' sound stage.

A good spread of motion capture work requires the use of props and set pieces, giving the actors something physical to interact with. The studio builds a number of these sets using apple boxes and speed rails, which are ubiquitous in film and theater.

"The important things are to give the actors the information about where they are in the space and the items they need to touch. Maybe the platform only needs to be 5 feet up, or is it really 10 feet? Then we bring in the stunt crew and use the wire rig. We setup a lot of simplified sets with apple boxes and speed rail, too. Our stage manager and his team do some pretty awesome work. He actually constructed a car with working doors, adjustable seats, a steering wheel, and a hood for the talent to slide across out of mostly speed rail and apple boxes. He's the Picasso of speed rail," stated Hauck.

Prior to the rise of motion capture, keyframe-only animation done by hand was the primary way 3D animators worked. While House of Moves does a great deal of motion capture, it also has an animation team available that's well-versed in keyframe animation. Hauck said the studio's work is generally somewhere in-between the two camps.

"It's all about the right tool for the job. At House of Moves we do mocap, keyframe-only animation, and a lot of variations in-between," he said. "When mocap first started getting used in entertainment there were some people who wrongly claimed that this would get rid of animators or make animation cheap, and that was wrong. The technology was young, but moreover the creative range of the animation medium is too broad for just one tool. You could never mocap Bugs Bunny and make it look like it should. On the other hand, if you need a soldier for a simulation game, why not get all the subtleties of motion from the real world?"

"The creative range of the animation medium is too broad for just one tool. You could never mocap Bugs Bunny and make it look like it should."

Hauck has been in the motion capture and animation industry since 1999. After graduating with a degree in Industrial Design, he moved to Los Angeles to create props and animatronics for film special effects studios. At the time, there was a "big shift" from practical effects to digital effects, and Hauck had the chance to start with motion capture. Over his long career, the scale of his work has grown dramatically as his tools have gotten faster and more sophisticated.

"Completely by chance, I meet someone through a friend at a barbecue who worked at a motion capture studio. I'd never heard of mocap, but I understood the basics of 3D animation, so I applied for a job. I got it, and 14 years later I'm still doing it," he said.

"The basic concepts remain the same, but the scale of everything has changed. The cameras and computers are faster, so now we have more actors with more markers working in larger volumes, often in real-time. Full performance didn't exist when I started, but now it's over 80 percent of the work we do. The data quality is higher, but we also process much higher quantities of data through years of tools development."

For aspiring developers who want to pursue the technical side of motion capture, Hauck said that a number of different disciplines feed into the work. Understanding the common ground between the real world and digital spaces is key to becoming a useful member of the industry.

"I don't know what I would do if I had to start over from the beginning, but my path seemed to work out well," he told us. "When I started there certainly wasn't specific training you could do. My background is in industrial design, which definitely helps a lot because mocap is a multi-faceted discipline. You need to understand both the real and virtual world, and how they merge. Aside from 3D courses, the most helpful elements of what I do come from what I learned about photography, mechanical design, human anatomy, and computer programming."

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Mike Williams avatar
Mike Williams: M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.
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