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  • Writer's pictureChuck Johnson

5 things I love about Motion Capture

One of the great blessings of the career that I've had in Japan has been that I have not just been able to consistently work as an actor and at a stuntman at the same time; but also the fact that being out here has given me a chance to build a career as a motion capture artist as well. While your size, build, sex (or even species of animal ;) does not limit you to the kind of characters you can play in Motion Capture (or MoCap as those in the industry call it), how exactly your moves does. Given that people of different cultures or people of different statures move in different ways, for any serious role, it's always better to get a physically large person to play a physically large person, a westerner to play a westerner, or an older person to play an older person. Over a decade ago, being one of only a few westerners who was formally trained in both acting and stunts, I was hired to play western background soldiers for both Metal Gear Solid V: Phantom Pain and Ground Zeroes; and now, some ten years later, I've had the pleasure of working on 6 major video games as well as my first Netflix episodic. Below are the 5 things I love about doing MoCap. 1) Better pay When you think about working as an actor in Japan, the first thing that you need to know is that it is a non-union space. What that means is that the pay rates are all over the place. That being said, there is a certain logic as to how pay rates work out here. Basically, the larger the market that the product will have access to, the more competition it's going to get and naturally the bigger the budget will have to be for that project to compete or be impactful. While movies have traditionally been America's #1 cultural entertainment export, and dramas are now Korea's #1 entertainment export, video games, (along with Anime and Manga) are Japan's. That means that on average, the day rates for MoCap work are usually better than what you would get for films (which are only occasionally for the international market) or television dramas (which are almost exclusively for the domestic market). 2) A more professional working environment. As is often the case with any entertainment project, with better budgets comes a higher quality of professionals. It's not just that the pay is better; and that the food on set is better, with better pay comes higher standards of performance, and with that, higher expectations of anyone involved in the project. This means that the people you work with are usually more professional, and the directors are much more serious. That isn't to say that I haven't worked with great directors on films too; (one powerhouse film director I had the honor of working with was Kiyoshi Kurosawa on Wife of a Spy). My point is that on average the directors I've worked with in MoCap take the drama much more seriously, because on the world stage, the competition is a lot more fierce than the domestic one. Naturally, with the demands of a better director, you always get better actors to work alongside too. 3) You can play multiple people or even creatures Another great thing that I love about MoCap is the fact that as aforementioned, your age, race, sex or even species of animal doesn't limit the kind of character you can play; and in one project, if you are good enough, you can easily play multiple people or non human entities. When I was working on the game Left Alive, I was originally cast to play one only one character, but the director liked my acting so much that they asked me to play two more. Granted this means I had to develop three different kinds of walks, gestures, and mannerisms, but as an actor it was an experience like no other (with the possible exception of the great artists who got to work in Cloud Atlas). Beyond that, it also meant that if something was deemed too physical for one of the other actors I was working with, as a trained stunt person, I could easily step in double for them, even though they looked or were built nothing like me. Again, going back to MSGV, if you have played the game before, chances are you shot and killed me at some point because I think I played around 30% of the soldiers in that game over the course of a year of shooting. This would never be possible on a traditional film set, because you can only do background work so many times before the production can't hire you again because they can't take the risk of having someone recognize you from a previous scene. 4) It's in a controlled environment As much as I love Tokyo, and as much as I love acting, both the weather and the particulars of the location can be tricky to predict. Agents will usually try to tell you if it's going to be outdoors or indoors; but indoors doesn't automatically mean heated in the winter (think abandoned warehouse for example) and when a shoot is planned a month or more in advance, there is often little that can be done when the weather decides to wreck havoc on the day. (There are weather back-up days, but that's only for cases of extreme weather- and cold isn't counted as one of them). While sometimes you can really nail it and end up in a breath-taking place that you would otherwise never go to, at other times, things can be just the opposite; you are in a horribly cold, unheated building on the side of a mountain in February; fighting people in your in this E3 commercial I did a few years back:

MoCap however is thankfully always in a studio. In the winter it can still be cold, because they have to turn off the heaters while shooting so that distortions in the air don't cause interference with the infra-red cameras... but at least they can turn them back on between takes. Furthermore, even though the suits are quite thin, you are still fully covered so in the least you can put thermals and warm socks on underneath. 5) Safer stunts Another advantage of the performing in a controlled environment is that as a stunt performer, it's a lot easier as well. Performing on location always means variables that have to be taken into account; rain might mean a slippery floor, an old building might mean rusty nails or broken glass in places that you can't see or don't anticipate; the nature of the costumes might mean that you may not be able to pad up well; especially for women who's costumes are usually skin-tight- but also for men like in this amazing stair-fall stunt in Fight Club (2:04)

Having coordinated before, even as a coordinator trying to account for all of the variables of a given location, while giving the director what he wants, and still trying to keep your stunties safe, is stressful to say the least. In MoCap however, again, you are in a perfectly controlled environment; and while you can't really pad up the performer because you can't cover the motion tracking balls on the suits, you can pad up the environment as much as you like. As a performance genre, motion capture certainly isn't for everyone. In contrast with theatre, it lacks the excitement of performing in front of a live audience or the organically-evolving nature of living in a character's circumstances in real time from start to finish of the story. In contrast, while doing MoCap you usually only have a an avatar of what your character (and all the people they are talking to) actually looks like because they haven't been fully modeled out yet. You also only rough ideas as to what the environment the story is taking place in for the same reason. It feels a lot like when you are the doing non-stage, non-dress rehearsals; but that's the whole project. In contrast with film, it has these challenges, plus it lacks the distinction of you only playing your character. I've yet to work on a MoCap project where the main actors weren't also used for background characters (often on the same day) and some may find that insulting or in the least, distracting. Furthermore, even when you do the body and facial expression motion capture for a main character in a game, you don't actually get the credit for "being" that character; the voice actor does. Lastly, the suits certainly take getting used to, and if you are doing facial expression motion capture and not just body, you also have to act with a head apparatus on, and a camera and bright light attached to it shining in your face. Depending on where it attaches to the apparatus, it can also bounce whenever your mouth moves...which is very distracting when you are trying to play a dramatic scene. (As the one I'm wearing in the picture did). I've actually heard some seasoned film actors say "We should get paid more for doing this work." haha For me, however, being based here in Japan, and for the reasons above, Motion Capture work is fantastic. While that may not be the case in the states, where entertainment work is unionized and has better overall rates, for Japan, it's some of the best work you can get. It also has an added bonus of giving me the chance to work on projects that I know will be going international, so I know that people all over the world will be able to see and enjoy the work I've done. Personally, for myself, that's the point that matters the most.

Hope you all have a great time playing the games I'm in; and I'll see ya the next time you shoot someone in the head, argue with someone, throw them off a building, kick them in the face, or steal their magic amulet while they are asleep. Regardless of which side of the fence you are on in the game, I will probably be there with you...on both sides ;)


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