Motion capture is one of the most revolutionary tricks in the computer animation trade. It began in the late '80s and early '90s and became a hallmark of CG animation, particularly in movies, perhaps most famously seen in Gollum from the Lord Of The Rings franchise.
Video games have been using motion capture for arguably longer, though. The first game to use an early form of motion capture was 1988's Vixen, as referenced by Graeme Mason in his article "Martech Games - The Personality People in" Retro Gamer issue 133. The process eventually grew from there. Now, even games previously known for expressive hand-drawn sprites, like Street Fighter, are using it. But what improvements did mo-cap bring to gaming to make it so widespread?SCREENRANT VIDEO OF THE DAY
10 Reduced Animation Workload
The most obvious benefit of motion capture is that it cuts down the workload for animators. In the past, animation had to be posed by hand. Even with keyframing, that takes a lot of time.
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But with motion capture, actors can model a variety of poses and cycles in much less time. These animations then can be edited to work on multiple characters. It takes much less time to make a full suite of animations than it used to.
9 More Complex Animation
This is another obvious benefit to the practice. A complex combo attack in a game like Street Fighter might take a long time to animate. There's a reason why sprite-based games fell out of favor. Drawing complex animations was much harder than doing them with keyframes.
Keyframes themselves began to fall out of favor. As technology got more advanced, games could render more stuff at a time. This meant a complex animation needed less time devoted to it so everything else could be equally pristine. So complex martial arts, stunts, and fight scenes became amplified with mo-cap.
8 Allows Actor Talent To Shine
Sometimes video games go out of their way to feature a celebrity. This might be a mere cameo a lot of the time, but sometimes they'll get a major role. Motion capture does a lot to help the actor's talent shine and audiences can tell the difference between emulating a style and the real thing.
Not that the actor needs to be a celebrity, though. Little touches in an actor's performance can go unseen in simple VO work. Having mo-cap means those essences are preserved but it also makes lip sync much easier.
7 Makes Animals Easier
If animating humans sounds difficult, animals are even more so. While mimicking the motions of a horse is a classic step in learning how to animate, it's still hard. Humans only really have an eye for themselves.
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Luckily, motion capture suits have been made for most domesticated mammals. Horses and dogs, especially, have become much more prominent since the advent of the practice. If a player is going to have an animal companion, they better act like one. This helps make the companion more recognizable and therefore more lovable.
6 Gave Fans Mortal Kombat's Silliest Character
Mortal Kombat was one of the first games to embrace realistic capture. It first digitized actors, but then switched to motion capture after a few installments. Given there already was a character who parodied special effects in Mortal Kombat's Johnny Cage, an acknowledgment of the trend was likely.
Mokap was a motion capture artist who apparently was recruited to fight in the omniversal tournament of the series. He first appeared as a secret character in Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance. He was summoned by Johnny as a coworker to work alongside him. He's made sporadic apperances since, but mostly serves as a joke about how silly video games can get.
5 More Photorealism
Game graphics are getting more and more realistic all the time. Even futuristic settings and obviously fantastical worlds employ realistic shading and physics. Realism has been a very big focus on games ever since their jump to 3D. Mocap played a big role in that.
Prior to motion capture, games just approximated the movements and appearances of a human. Motion capture, on the other hand, allows the appearance and motion to be scanned in. This isn't an approximation: it is a human. It absolutely demolished any uncanny valley and brought game realism to a new height.
4 Low Latency
This is one of the unexpected benefits of motion capture. Capturing from real people obviously means that the animation moved in real-time. This meant that the captured animation could be used as a basis for finding real-time. In order to avoid animation looking choppy or slow, motion capture set the tempo.
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Again, video games of the past didn't always have the speed of reality. Timing in a game is really important, and the latency and context provided by motion capture help the game nail it. It can also be a good way to tell if the game is running poorly when the perfectly timed animation is wrong.
It might seem weird to call motion capture accessible. In order to use it properly, one needs a complicated 3D animation setup and a large open space in which to perform. The setup itself is expensive, there's no argument there. What's done with the captured data afterward is where the real accessibility comes in.
There are tons of free and third-party software that accept motion capture data. This data can be easily modified and shared by the software, allowing for tons of customizability. While not everything is compatible with everything else, it has led to a rise in motion capture specialists. The field has a lot of customizability and variety in software choices that make it great to work with in modern games.
2 Allows For Realistic Weight
With motion capture, a swing can really feel like a real swing. There's a heft to it, and the knockback won't feel arbitrary. This might sound like it's another case of mo-cap improving realism, but this actually improves game feel. Mo-cap can easily be done with wires for unrealistic movements. What matters is that a punch has a windup and ending lag that feels like a punch.
Some of the most iconic fighting games of the '90s used mocap. This allowed realistic martial arts styles that really felt like they had the advantages and disadvantages of the forms they were copying. These early 3D fighters would contribute a lot to how 3D games in general would play. All great-feeling combat in modern games owes a lot to motion capture.
1 Made Facial Animation More Expressive
For the longest time, motion capture was for bodies only. The larger physical form was much easier to capture than the more minute changes of the face or even fingers. Gradually, though, facial capture technology improved to the point of near life-like accuracy. The games largely responsible for this are generally considered to be the works of Quantic Dream and LA Noire.
These games were proud of their facial technology and for good reason, considering improving faces would be a big part of the tech advancements in the PS3 era of gaming. Bodies had been realistic since motion capture was invented, but faces were the final frontier. As of 2022 they still aren't always perfect, but they look a lot more like people than they ever have. Being able to read the faces of NPCs for things like La Noire's lie detecting would have never been achieved without mo-cap.
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