The Human Side of Mocap
April 19, 2018

The Human Side of Mocap

Often we cover the technology behind motion capture. Indeed, we are focused on how human motion is applied to a synthetic character, whether for a video game, film, music video, or other project. But what about the actor and his/her experience with the technology? Here, we take a look at this piece of the motion-capture puzzle.

From watching superhero movies to starring in them, Nick Baric has been on quite the journey as a Hollywood stuntman. We caught up with him to chat about his time in the mocap world and where he thinks its future might lie.

Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you get into motion capture and stunts?
I remember the first action film I saw back in the 80s – Superman 2. And I was hooked from there. The seed for my love of action was planted at an early age. I was drawn to it, but the reality of working in Hollywood back then seemed like just a pipe dream. Then one day I came across an advert for a stunt training program. I thought this was my opportunity to pursue the thing I love. 

But soon after the program was done, I realized that the real work had just begun.
I started at the bottom and worked my way up, all the while going to acting school. Once I got all the experience in and kept up my training in martial arts and gymnastics, this led to me becoming the all-round performer I've become today. So 20 years later I'm a full-time stuntman, actor and motion capture performer extraordinaire.

Can you tell me more about your first motion capture project?
I’ll start by saying that it was the most tiring day of my life. It was a project called Medal Of Honor. It was strange at first because I had to wear this tight black leotard with all these tiny reflective balls. You get out onto the volume, which is a floor at the studio, and there are all these motion capture cameras to record your movements. It was just bizarre.

A bunch of more experienced friends were also on the project and they filled me in on how everything works. It took almost no time to adapt, because that's what we do as stunt performers. Some of the gameplay action we did included hand to hand combat, weapon skills and tactical maneuvers at various speeds. We also did gun hit reactions and explosion reactions from every single angle.

It just wipes you out after eight hours of doing it. Sometimes, it'll take us almost three days to recover. Especially with the physical sessions, but that's why we train hard – so we can be ready for the next one.

Have you noticed any big differences between stunts for motion capture versus live action?
Mocap and film are very similar, but also very different. We break down a script and rehearse battle sequences in the same way, but live action performance involves work outdoors – and the wardrobe can create limitations in how we move around. With mocap, it’s a bit more forgiving. The camera moves digitally to give actors extra space on stage and more safety surrounding stunts.

Also, we perform takes back-to-back in motion capture. We'll do so much repetitive work throughout the day that it can be physically demanding. But in live action, setup time is needed between each shot, so we make it through the day without being as tired. There are differences and similarities, but overall you've just got to enjoy the process.

What's been the most exciting project with Animatrik?
Tough question! I’ve worked with Animatrik on about seven projects and every single one has been amazing to me; I love them all. Each and every one had its own ‘cool’ factor that made the experience exciting, original and super fun. From all the stunts we perform to some of the creatures I've been, it's all been fantastic. I always look forward to every new Animatrik project, both for gameplay and cinematics. It's one big adventure after another.

Can you take us through an average day on the mocap set? 
I arrive at the studio about 30 mins prior to call time and meet all the people I’ll be working with that day – actors, stuntmen, the director and most of the Animatrik team. First, we'll grab a catered breakfast and discuss exactly what we'll be trying to accomplish on shoot.

Next, we suit up. We start with a few warm-up motions; mostly bending our neck and wrists to calibrate the range of motion. Once we’re in the system, we can begin the work... and then we play! We’ll perform a wide variety of scenes for gameplay, stunt action or cinematic cutscenes. We’ll shoot as much as we can back-to-back. It's always nice working mocap days.

What level of training do you need on set? Do you need more intensive training for longer sequences?
I haven’t had to do any intensive training ahead of time for a project... yet. As a performer, I consistently train in as many different skill sets as possible: martial arts, weapons, wire work, gymnastic training, sports and all types of outdoor recreation. But every single skill I possess needs to be adapted to the scripted action in any given scene, at any given time. One can’t be locked into a restrictive mindset with physical performing in film or motion capture. The only time we might rehearse any stunts ahead of time would be, for example, if there’s a high number of performers – that might require major choreography – or if the actors need training with a unique weapon. Other than that, we’re usually ready to go for immediate action and reaction. Stunt performers work on the fly, with a high level of energy. We’re ALWAYS ready.

Are there any limitations for you as a motion capture actor?
There's only one limitation in the motion capture world – your own imagination. You need to look beyond the empty mocap volume and really visualize the fictional environment. The more you’re ‘in’ the world, the better the ‘capture’ will be. Every mocap performer needs the ability to improvise on the fly.

Also, this job can be a little bit tough if you're not flexible. Performers can only bend out of shape so much when landing and reacting. Otherwise, I would say everything is achievable in mocap world, so long as you're creative enough.

What excites you about mocap in the future? Have you noticed any tech changing that you’re excited about?
Motion capture is looking more and more realistic. I can't imagine what the next level will be – technology evolves much too fast to predict nowadays. But you won't be able to tell the difference between reality and CGI eventually, which is both amazing and scary. I'm looking forward to consistently bringing a high level of creativity, diversity, and energy to every upcoming project. Here’s to the future.