I’m heading up to our playtest lab when I hear a mechanical whine buzzing out from behind a black cloth curtain. This will be the first time I come in contact with Troy McFarland, Bungie’s Mocap Specialist. Poking my head into what’s lovingly been dubbed “Spandex Palace” on account of the snug black uniforms actors slip into while on set, I catch McFarland with a shock of hair falling across his brow. Hunched over a sizable length of plywood, he zips another screw into a slim metal support bracket.
With some quick investigative work I discover that this raw wooden construct is, for all intents and purposes, a ramp that leads into the cargo bay of a UNSC Pelican. It’s begun to sag in recent shoots as actors burdened with weighted props scramble again and again up the incline. McFarland noticed the bow and thought it best to drop in some reinforcements.
On the surface, it might seem a bit odd that the specialist in charge of our state-of-the-art motion capture studio routinely works with such low tech gear. I half expected to find McFarland manipulating digitized dream sequences and streams of dynamic data with futuristic flare. But after spending some time talking to McFarland about his past and present experiences, it became clear that his goal was to help the team turn in the best performance possible for the characters that populate Halo: Reach. Even if that means a stop to the local lumber yard for some hardware.
“My goal is to provide another tool for the Animation and Cinematics teams – those are the two teams I serve,” McFarland notes, “it’s really about helping them be creative and have another way to do what they need to do. The mocap data is really an under-painting for the final motions because the bar has really been set high for animation on Reach. In order to reach that high bar, mocap is one tool that helps our animators achieve that.”
In order to get the job done, McFarland brings a unique mix of education background, years of field work and apprenticeships, and a personal passion to the table.
“I started out in college as an Art Major, but I’ve always loved to figure things out. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an inventor, and my grandpa kept sketches of my inventions – stuff like an automatic planting machine. I loved his garden. It was practically the Garden of Eden for me.
I always loved to figure stuff out and I always liked to create. Later in life, while I was in college, I became the guy in the computer lab that helped everyone else out by sharing info freely with everyone. I became the de facto hub of information and realized that helping other people be creative was really important to me as well.”
“While I was still in college, I ended up getting an internship at Dynamix. The first game I worked on was Rama, which was sort of the Arthur C. Clarke version of Myst. The big internal joke was ‘Rama, Intergalactic Ramada Inn.’”
Spoiler Alert! Arthur C. Clarke’s 1972 seminal science fiction classic, “Rendezvous with Rama,” fittingly features cybernetic organisms that whir and maneuver about the interior of a technological wonder, systematically prepping it for an enigmatic journey. Fortunately, though he is technically adroit, McFarland isn’t so secretive about his own historical travels through space and time.
“I was cleaning up rendered outsourced material and they noticed that I had an eye for detail. I also had a bit of a video production background by that point having done a video internship covering non-linear editing in the lab, so I got to do some creative work at Dynamix. I did a lot of work in DeBabelizer and a lot of technical stuff.
It turned out that the person tasked with heading up the mocap work at Dynamix had been shoehorned into it. They had just recently installed the technology, so they had this system and the person running it had no experience using it. And she would have rather been doing technical writing, which is why she was hired in the first place. I helped her out and it was a whole lot of fun. After a while they approached me and asked, ‘do you want this position, you’re doing a great job.’
I was like, ‘hell yeah!’
Back then there were no schools to train people to do mocap. We had seven cams and there was no way to get video reference. We have well over twenty cams now in our studio, so the markers are smaller, and the data is a lot cleaner.”
Troy stops me here to make sure I note that some of what he’s about to disclose concerning the logistics of our motion capture studio might be best left out of the interview. Trade secrets are taken seriously at Bungie and motion capture is no exception. Instead of wasting time covering details that won’t ever see light of day, we decide to delve into some of the more public data points. I ask McFarland to talk about the history of his craft.
“Motion capture really originated from medical field. It was used for things like gait analysis.”
Here again Troy pauses. He’s caught sight of the VU on my recorder and asks me if the levels are set correctly. The digital needle is barely registering. Once he’s satisfied things are in good, working order, he sets his mind back to the task at hand. When he said helping people was important to him, he wasn’t kidding around.
Recording device nursed back to health, we dive back in.
“Portland Shriners Hospital for Children has a cool system,” he notes. “When I met them they were already doing analysis of children with walking disorders and they could take that information and provide it directly to a surgeon. Nine times out of ten the surgeon chose Botox to deaden certain muscles tissue while allowing other muscles to grow, but on rare occasions they would actually saw a bone, rotate it 80 degrees, and put it back into place. People went from not being able to walk to being able to rollerblade. That was really the beginning.”
But, of course, it wasn’t the end.
“The entertainment field took over mocap and suddenly all of the attention is given to Hollywood because they’ve got a big audience and a lot of marketing dollars. That made some people in the medical field a little upset, but the plus side is that whenever the entertainment industry figures out something new it rolls back over. So there’s this weird, ambivalent relationship between the two fields.”
Thinking this was the end of the historical look and the conclusion of McFarland’s own origin story, I start in on the questions designed to walk us through what it was like bringing his brand of motion capture to Bungie. He stopped me short. He wanted to look back for just another moment before we moved forward.
“Before we get onto that,” he interjects, “I just want to add one more thing about my background. There’s one project I’m really proud of. I’m so proud that I’m wearing a tee shirt about it right now.”
He sits back in his chair to show off the design. Sure enough, emblazoned on the front of his tee shirt is a heavily stylized bird of prey, a Blood Eagle.
“The first game I mocapped was Tribes. I’m so -blam!- proud of it. The entire move set was only something around one hundred and eighty motions. To compare, at Bungie we probably do about that many motions in one or two shoots and we do many, many shoots at Bungie. That’s how far we’ve grown as an industry.”
Unlike his previous experiences, when McFarland came aboard at Bungie motion capture had already been made a priority. After meeting the team and seeing what they’d been able to build on their own, he was pretty impressed.
“I actually got the chance to meet with the Bungie Tech Art team about a year before I had an interview and got hired. For not having any mocap background, Javi had already taken things really far. One of the noteworthy things he and the Cinematics team had accomplished, with some ingenious custom wiring wrangling from Steve Lopez, was the creation of the CineCam.”
When you watch the VGA Trailer, pay special attention to the moment the Falcon goes airborne and the camera pulls back and away. If it looks as if it’s being carried by embedded personnel on the ground, it’s because it is. The Cinecam is capable of mimicking those motions accurately because someone is literally holding a camera to get that shot, stepping backwards to avoid the wash from the Falcon in the scene.
“The Cinecam lets you do some mocap, clean your scene up, and put it all back into Motion Builder. From your monitor you can see the scene playing back, it can be looping if you need it to, and you can move the camera and get the perfect view using handheld or steady cam. However you wanna do it in the volume, it works.
It’s the same process that was used in the making of Avatar, except ours uses a cheaper monitor and a couple of pieces of wood leftover from one Kurt’s (Nellis) home projects. Less money, same results.”
This might be a good place to make mention that the recent ruckus in the press over accusations that Cameron had infused Avatar with some Halo-esque attributes have given us a good chuckle. We’ve always been quite clear – and it should be quite apparent to anyone paying any modicum of attention – that Halo was influenced, in part, by Cameron’s “Aliens.”
Either way, we figure if James Cameron is talking about you and your work, you must be doing something right.
McFarland isn’t interested in talking about the press, though. He’s still giving props to the groundwork laid before his arrival.
“It’s something that I’ve seen at other companies, but I’ve never seen it done in a two pass like that – just like Cameron is doing it. I saw it here first and then later on in the making of Avatar. A lot of these things spring up simultaneously.”
Clarification: We’re not saying Cameron swiped tech out from under us, right?
“Totally in parallel. I don’t know where CJ (Cowan) and Javi got the idea. It seems to me like a natural thing that sort of sprung up for cinematics support.”
Even though the team had already taken the technology to some new and interesting places, they recognized that injecting motion capture into Halo: Reach called for a dedicated expert.
“Javi was doing a lot of work and getting pulled in a bunch of different directions and the team realized it was going to take a full time position to really take on mocap.”
I think we can all guess who that guy is by now, right? And though the foundation was pretty solid, there were still a few kinks to work out before it would be ready for Reach.
“Originally, we were solving inside of the mocap system software, which is still a very new feature, and isn’t fine tuned yet. That was causing a lot of pops, some elbow problems, and the feet were sliding around a bit. Those are some of the difficulties that that have become indicative of mocap. Even though I don’t have the same level of animation expertise as our in-game animators, I have an experimental animation background and a lot of After Effects experience, so I know what good and bad motion looks like, particularly when it’s mocap related. So, I was a good fit here. To fix these problems, we switched the pipeline to include MotionBuilder, which although cumbersome in its mountain of mocap solving options, is very mature and delivers incredible data to the animators.”
Throughout the interview Troy seemed a little uncomfortable talking about his own skill set. With each new question I tossed his way that placed focus and emphasis on his work, he nimbly pivoted; deflecting credit where he felt it was most due, onto the team of animators he supports.
“My skills are totally eclipsed by the monumental skills our animators have. Many of the moves – I was talking to Roberta (Browne) about this earlier – are still completely key framed, often a character will have a little of both, and sometimes it’s mostly mocap. But no matter the technique, the bar is now the same. Whatever it takes to get there.
We try to give the best performance possible.”
One of the ways McFarland ensures that happens is by laying low during shoots. He’s comfortable running the show, but with industry veterans on the scene, he’s aware that too much influence on his part could sap some energy from the creative process.
“The way I help give the best performance possible is simply by staying out of the way, keeping my eyes on the screen, and making sure markers aren’t getting occluded or knocked around. I find if you have too many cooks it ruins the product. And we have some really good directors. Rick Lico is an incredible director for the animation team and CJ Cowan, Kurt, and Pat (Jandro) all weigh in with some great directing as well for cinematics. I try to stay out of the creative process. When I deliver something, I want to deliver what happened in the studio.
There are times in the studio where it’s like, ‘Hey, that’s really cool, but if you move your hand three centimeters to the right, I’ll be able to get that much cleaner.’ It’s a give and take.
When they do their shot list – and these guys really know how to bang out a shot list - what I get from them is a list of what’s going to happen in the studio. Then I prepare for that, and try to keep things loose so they can come up with new stuff on the fly, within reason. One thing that’s good to know in advance is what kind of props they need, so I have an excuse to use my welder, er I mean have time to make them. I love my job because I have all this variety and I get to make props.”
Aside from the mad props for the team that Troy deftly wove into his answers, as noted above there were also some literal props for us to talk about as well.
After all, the genesis for this piece was born out of the Pelican ramp I caught sight of him building. It turns out there’s plenty of need for tangible tools other than ramps as well.
“People have already seen Jorge in the previews. He’s got a really big gun. We built that huge gun. It weighs about forty pounds and it’s in the studio.
We designed it specifically to not block the markers. Originally it was one of the animator’s weed whackers, but we’ve made a couple of modifications. I used a sledgehammer head, a couple of legs weights, and some boards. I’m not kidding. There’s that kind of weird stuff we do in there.
So I get to do that. I get to build sets. I welded together a heavy duty wire-frame cube to be used for a bunch of stuff. I just built a ramp for the guys using a huge piece of plywood. In the past, they’d have to tilt it in the animation, and that’s cool, you can do that, but it takes a lot more time in post and if you want to get a lot of cool animation in you try to get it as close as possible in the studio.
So I get to do that stuff. I run the shoots.”
Troy stops here again to correct himself.
“It’s not that I run the shoots. The thing about Bungie is that it’s so teamwork oriented. That’s what’s great about this company’s culture. No matter who I work with it doesn’t feel like anyone’s ever telling anyone else what to do. It’s like, ‘Hey, how can we all make this better?’
I’ve never seen a culture like this before.”
But it’s not just internal sources that give Troy pause. He’s well aware that the bar’s been raised by other developers since Halo 3 hit the scene back in September of 2007.
“Everyone here sees that. We’ve been having animation lunches where we look at the competitor’s work and we think about how they implemented their animation. How did they do this or that intelligently and effectively? It’s been absolutely amazing to see that.
I think it’s a mixture of fast iteration, flexibility, and the realism bar being raised. There are so many things the human body does that people just don’t think about. Sometimes the actors nail it in the studio. Sometimes it’s just not quite there. Our animators and cinematics guys have to take it beyond that and make it hyper real. Mocap really is just another tool to get that job done. It’s the animators themselves that have to bring it up to that high bar. Internally, we say that they bring it up to a ‘heroic’ pose.”
“Another thing that we do really well here is that we have a fast iteration time. The turnaround time is really fast. I’ll do a shoot or a quick pick up half day shoot and the next day the guys are already getting moves and they’ll have all of their moves in two or three days depending on how difficult they are. You can’t do that with an out of house service. What’s great about that is that if they thought they got the move right and it doesn’t work – and we have ways to preview that in the studio – we can just hop right back in and shoot another one. I love to give people that kind of flexibility.
I do everything from troubleshooting new technologies and new solutions. Some of the things I get to work with will make it into Reach and some things will have to wait until our next project, but we’re always pushing the envelope. To have a job where I’m always solving problems creatively and helping others become more creative – how can you turn that down?
For example, the VGA trailer was an absolute joy to work on. We did the shoot, I handed the data off, and didn’t see it until several weeks later. When I saw the finished piece I got tears in my eyes. I’m like holy cow, we had a piece of flat bar metal with some wrap on one side for a knife and you see Emile sharpening his knife across his armor. It totally sells it.”
Noting that our time was coming to a close, I thought it would be prudent to get McFarland’s thoughts on Halo: Reach. He is, after all, doing quite a bit of work on the project. And while Troy’s job description clearly doesn’t require him to take on the role of pitchman, I didn’t want to let him get moving without asking him about what he was excited for fans to see in Halo: Reach. He smiles.
“When I interviewed, I respectfully but honestly mentioned some of the things that I was disappointed with in Halo 3. After I got the job, they coincidentally talked about animation in the State of the Studio Address. They showed where we were at with Reach and almost all of those things I had brought up in the interview had already been addressed. I was like this is so -blam!- cool.”
And the overall game itself?
“We have this team of characters and they all have their own personality, so it’s not just a generic motion for every Spartan anymore. This guy is very specifically Jorge. This is Kat. They have their own attitude and it’s great. It just sells the performance a little bit more. That’s what I’m looking forward to in Reach.
I’m just really looking forward to seeing how it all comes out.”