In a makeshift changing room filled with Disney Infinity figures, I strip down to my boxers and pull on a two-part Lycra suit. It feels tight, and the top half shimmies up toward my waistline as soon as I stretch or stand up straight. How anyone is able to act in this thing is a mystery to me. Sheepishly, I gather my belongings and trot back to the motion capture studio that sits at the end of Ninja Theory's offices in Cambridge, England. Inside, a couple of engineers scurry about, prepping cameras and cables.
For years, movie and video game studios have used mocap to bring digital characters to life. From detective Cole Phelps in L.A. Noire to the powerful Caesar in Planet of the Apes, the technology has delivered some truly moving, actor-driven performances. Normally, however, motion capture scenes are processed by an animator hours, days or weeks after they've been captured on set. It's a time-consuming process, and one that involves some guesswork. In a sparse, lifeless room, directors are forced to imagine how a take will look in the final sequence.
Not so with Ninja Theory. The video game developer has a unique setup that allows Chief Creative Director Tameem Antoniades and his team to preview scenes in real time. Pre-visualisation, or pre-vis, has existed before in the industry, but it's typically limited to body tracking. Full-character modelling is rare, especially at the kind of fidelity Ninja Theory is shooting for with its next game, Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice.
On a wet, dreary August afternoon, I prepare for my first motion capture performance. An engineer says hello and starts sticking various balls to my suit, covering important joints and muscles. I then slip my shoes inside some special wraps, kept in place with bright pink tape, and grab a peaked cap that can monitor my basic head position. I look and feel ridiculous. In the corner, behind a bank of PCs, another member of the team asks me to stand in a "T" position, arms stretched out wide. It's time to see what my body is capable of.
The next 10 minutes is a short aerobic workout. I'm asked to spin my arms in a circular motion before rotating my hips and lunging like an Olympic weightlifter. These exercises, I'm told, help the system to understand my body's full range of motion. Then, on a wall-mounted monitor, I see my character appear. First it's just a bevy of dots floating in space, then a blue, jellylike figure with no discernible features. Finally a strange, nightmarish warrior appears with bulging muscles and an animal-skull helmet. Branches poke out the back of his head, adding extra height to an already imposing figure.
Melina Juergens, the actress behind Hellblade's lead character, Senua, enters the room in another mocap suit. Her setup is a little different from mine, given she has a full digital double in the game. A circular, plastic arm wraps around the front of her face, similar to orthodontic headgear, with an LED light strip and cameras fitted on the inside. Senua soon pops into the scene, a powerful Celtic warrior covered in cuts and symbolic blue body paint. We are standing on a beach, with a huge tree behind us covered in flames and hanging bodies. It's a dark, sinister scene, but my first reaction is to dance around like a drunkard at a jamboree.
The Viking warrior matches my movements, and for a moment, I'm lost in the magic. I spend the next half hour with Juergens dancing, pretend fighting and playing the most surreal game of red hands. All the while I'm looking over my shoulder at a wall-mounted monitor, marveling at how the scene is able to render my movements with zero perceivable lag. Antoniades seems to be enjoying the moment too. He glides around the room with a two-handed camera grip that's also fitted with motion-tracking balls. There's nothing inside the cradle, however -- it's merely a prop to move the perspective, or virtual "camera," inside the world of Hellblade.