Putting the Squeeze on Batman

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Putting the Squeeze on Batman

At Squeeze MOCAP, video games drive experimentation, but movies are catching up

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“In our eyes, motion capture is not just a technical solution that delivers data,” explains Julie Tighe, Executive Producer at Squeeze MOCAP. “It is a tool that serves our creativity. We try to integrate this artistic vision into our workflow, from preview to delivery of the final animations.”

Squeeze MOCAP evolved from Moov, growing from a niche indie into a large studio serving giants such as Ubisoft and Activision across projects spanning video games, film, TV and theme parks. Squeeze has also branched out beyond its role as a service provider to become the originator of IP such as Cracké, an animated children’s show that has been broadcast in upwards of 210 territories.

The studio’s recent headline project was capturing the gameplay segments for Gotham Knights, an AAA game set in the world of Batman.

While Squeeze works across a range of entertainment fields, video games stand out in terms of the sheer quantity of motion capture they require.

“The video games industry has always been a huge consumer of animation, much more than all the other forms of entertainment combined,” says Tighe. “In general, the volumes of animation needed for the movie or art industry are nothing compared to the ones needed by video games, and sessions look more like blitz productions.

“For example, we did a two-week-long session for a big blockbuster movie recently, where we spent almost four years with an average of seven days of shoot per month for Gotham Knights, and it was just for the gameplay part of the game!”

AAA problems demand AAA solutions

Gotham Knights presented a number of creative challenges for Squeeze, starting with the property itself. “When dealing with a very popular character, such as Batman, fans have very high expectations. They know how the character behaves, moves, talks, fights and deals with gravity, so we need to make sure our animations impersonate the character in the best way possible,” says Tighe.

“As Batman has been animated many times in the past, we need to make sure fans find the same great—if not better—experience when playing the character on a video games console. It puts a certain

amount of pressure on us when we work with such legendary characters, but it’s a very positive pressure!

“Depending on the desire of the game’s Creative or Art Director, we may want to give the character a fresh and new attitude or animation style, while remaining true to the brand’s signature. In these cases, the challenge is just as stimulating, but the rule remains the same: listen to our partner in this co-creation exercise. This is what makes the project successful and unique.”

Working on an AAA IP requires a world class technological foundation to work from. “Squeeze went with Vicon because they are the leader of the market and were the only one to propose high resolution cameras at that time (we’ve got 26 Vantage 16 cameras),” explains Tighe.

But Vicon’s software is at least as important as the hardware for Squeeze. “Software like Blade, and now Shōgun, has been a game-changer,” says Tighe. “Shōgun has had the perfect software evolution: a solid core, enhanced by its openness to scripting. That allows us to automate and batch process ridiculous amounts of data, obviously, but also to dig into all the possibilities in terms of pipeline design.

“I like the idea that more than 50 percent of the software is exclusively dedicated to my pipeline in particular, that I can play around with properties and tweaks to optimize everything to the max. Some would be happy to use the turnkey solutions offered by Vicon, which produce great quality in a few clicks, but I would say that rummaging through Vicon software became my specialty since Workstation 17 years ago! Then I logically continued on with IQ, Blade and now Shōgun.”

Nunchucks and quadrupeds

Shōgun enabled Squeeze to overcome a couple of interesting technical hurdles during the work on Gotham Knights.

“The first problem was knowing how to capture unusual props with 12 degrees of freedom, like the nunchucks which are a distinctive weapon of one of the main characters – something that won’t be missed!” says Tighe.

“We figured out a solution with a mix of a custom hierarchy within Vicon Shōgun as well as complex relationship constraints within Motion Builder. Those two pieces of software can produce outstanding results when put together.”

The second problem was capturing believable quadruped-style animations for one of the enemies in the game. “We had to use stilts for multiple performers on stage, and again a combination of a custom skeleton in Shōgun and a set of relationships within MotionBuilder. That was the only way to produce animations in real time for a character with extra long forelegs and inverted IK-style back legs,” Tighe says.

While solutions such as these might currently make games the more innovative field of motion capture in entertainment, the gap is closing. “There is still much more experimentation with video games, but we all know that the industries and the pipelines are merging in some ways,” says Tighe. “Virtual production is one of the best examples, with the introduction of game engines in the VFX pipeline creating a huge disruption in the way movies are made.”

Reaching the holy trinity of motion capture

Tighe sees even more transformative developments on the horizon, though. “The main changes will come from both real-time capture and AI,” Tighe explains. “If you have a close look over the last 20 years, the traditional motion capture pipeline has not evolved that much: we always have to calibrate a system, do a pass of cleaning of the data, solve it then retarget and polish.

“The major evolutions came from reducing the time spent on each task thanks to more sophisticated automatic tools, but each task has followed the same sequence. Vicon has proposed turnkey solutions, allowing big mocap providers as well as individual companies to reach a high level of quality with a minimum of effort.

“Today, we think the idea is to close the gap on some parts of the pipeline, improving the connectivity between Shōgun Live and game engines for example, making the capture software a true stakeholder in the engines’ configuration.

“As for AI, we think it could help a lot in the real-time reconstruction of data. We saw a paper just last month about how optical and inertial mocap could merge and help each other in their specificity. If you add AI to that (to recognize patterns of motion when there is too much occlusion, for example), we think you’d have the Holy Trinity of real-time motion capture.”