A couple days ago, an article was linked in my twitter feed. While the headline, Show Don’t Tell, is a core mantra I and many animators live by, it was quickly apparent within a couple paragraphs that it was a mocap fluff piece. Now, as my first post on #AltDev shows, I am not against mocap and I really get a lot out of it when it is used properly. But as I read that article, I could see the role of the animators was being diminished or at best outright ignored. Then I got to the last page and couldn’t believe what was being said. “That whole scene… is about eye movements and expressions. That’s not something you can do without performance capture.”
Take that in for a moment.
Essentially, the chief creative ninja at Ninja Theory and designer of Enslaved, said that giving life to characters is not possible by anything other than mocap. Now, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt, since the finished product, Enslaved, obviously and expertly used animators to clean, augment and craft the final performance of each character. And surely he has seen a game or at least a film that has used keyframe or puppeteering that either made him feel emotionally connected to the character or at least made him believe they were feeling such an emotion. That quote MUST have been out of context or been said in a moment of amnesia. Certainly he has seen the amount of work the animators must do to wade through the visual mocap data, finding the best takes to clean, cut, add and push to create the final performance.
Originally, this entire post was going to be championing keyframe over mocap. A good old fashion rant, about the general lack of respect or misunderstanding of what animators do to make mocap performances work and the amount of keyframe that still goes on with the best mocap performances, was building up inside me. In fact, unable to control my rage and wait until this post to retort, I Brad) or even reach the ears of the people that are perpetrating the myths, but to anyone interested in the best practices of mocap cleanup he sure makes a great stump speech. Though his interview did force me to rethink about how I was going to say something of my own in this post.
So I stepped back and quickly noticed how this mindset of technology being the silver bullet for creating living, breathing characters is something that permeates all facets of this industry. Chris Hecker recently tweeted “Two different takes on ‘next gen’: The Last Guardian GDC Interview.” Just like that, Chris was showing, not telling, what many people in the industry feel. Personally, I think there are some great visual and cinematic elements going on in Unreal’s recent video, and it is obvious there are some top class artists working on it. But seeing anything from The Last Guardian instantly tugs at my soul in a way no cutting edge rendering tech can. Both employ great artists and great tech, but Guardian seems to have something more to say. Granted, one is a tech demo and the other is a game that has been in development for years. But regardless, there is more of a human element in The Last Guardian. (Which I’m pretty sure no bird/rat/cat creature was available for mocap, yet it certainly has eye movements and expressions that deeply connect with me. *Ahem*)
But even that topic, the idea of the human element vs the computer element doesn’t seem to scratch the core of what is really happening. The need to draw lines runs much deeper than that in this industry. The idea of us versus them is something that has fueled games since their inception. Having an art form that revolves around goals and competition will breed that I suppose. And while it can help to sell consoles, it is much more systemic than just marketing. Brenda Brathwaite’s recent rant at GDC talks about how every generation of game maker seems to decry the inherent evil of what is taking hold next. So again, I will let someone with far more experience and clout say what I would have just tried to say myself.
So where does that leave me? Mocap and keyframe is misunderstood and mislabeled. As is what is truely next gen. Hell, even what is a viable platform for games can’t be decided upon. Should I try to help find a definition that we can all stick to for these? Should I pick up the flag that I see as the most honest and help fly that higher than the others?
Probably wouldn’t do any good.
Film has been dealing with all of this longer than us, and you still get James Cameron saying in regards to Avatar that “the thing that people need to keep very strongly in mind is that this is not an animated film.” And he has Richard Baneham by his side to set him straight. The term art itself is debated ad nauseam, so what hope do we have of setting the record universally straight on what we do?
No, all I can do is speak honestly about what I know, and respect what I don’t know enough to say it is the people, not the technology, driving the success of the creation. That might not be as sexy, and probably won’t grab as many headlines or become the topic of blogs around the world the same as if I said something sensational about how we now have the BFG-9000 to slay any uncanny valley beast. But that’s fine, because what I will have is the chance to create something that will say everything that needs to be said. Because that is why I make games. I want to create an experience that says something to the person playing it. However or whatever they are playing it on. All the while respecting the the player’s abilities, and the abilities of everyone that developed it. I have an inherent belief that no matter how good the tech is, if you don’t have someone using it that connects to the player, it is worthless. But I don’t for a second under value the person who loves creating the tech and tools that they believe are what define this industry. Their work drives what my art is visually capable of. I just hope, in turn, they don’t undervalue what I do to take that tech and drive what the game is emotionally capable of. Being part of #AltDevBlogADay, surrounded mostly by programmers, I know I’m on the right path. I may not understand 99% of what is on this site, but I sure respect the hell out of everyone that posts here. And they haven’t kicked me out of the club yet.
So I’ll sign off in the same way I’ve spent much of this post. Allowing someone much wiser say what I’m already thinking, as well as getting out that last little bit of snark I have left.
“Stop fucking putting things in boxes.” – Richard Baneham