Be it horses or hockey players, Mario has probably had experience capturing it for video games. On the side, he’s an aspiring hip-hop artist with serious Mega Man 2 skills.
Abbie: So for people who aren’t familiar with the full spectrum of developer roles, can you explain what a Mocap Technician does?
Mario: I do motion capture, basically what everyone refers to as “the dots”. I connect the dots and apply the motions to the characters in the game. We start with a performer suited up in a MoCap suit. The suit looks something like a wet suit you would see a surfer wearing but it’s made of fabric that you can easily attach velcro to. We then attach MoCap markers to the suit, with velcro, in positions that make sense to “drive” a particular limbs’ (or bones’) motion. Each ball is a marker that’s covered in retro-reflective tape, and there are numerous cameras around the motion capture stage. Each one of those markers reflects back an infrared light that’s coming off of each camera and gets triangulated in 3D space. The result of these markers triangulated in 3d space form a “marker cloud”. You can easily see the form of the performer within this “cloud”. So we take those markers after they’ve been cleaned up in mocap software then we apply that to our characters rig (skeleton) which then drives the mesh in Maya, add a little bit of animation cleanup and from there we export it out of Maya and get it game ready. Then we pop it in the game like any other animation.
Abbie: How did you get started in mocap?
Mario: I started in mocap through an internship that I got straight out of school. I was actually looking for a more traditional type of animation internship and I was hoping to go into 2D animation at Nickelodeon or some other big name animation studio.
Abbie: What were you studying at the time?
Mario: Art and animation. It was a mix of both 2D traditional and 3D. We had this book at my college that was the internship list, it was 50-60 pages long but everything listed was very similar. Lots of 2D animation internships where the intern duties were to study in-betweens…a long list of hundreds of those. I thought “Sounds cool, but let me look at something else.”
Abbie: For the layperson, what are in-betweens?
Mario: 2D in-betweens are when you have a pose, a keyframe, maybe it’s a character running and he’s in a running pose then you have another keyframe, another pose, say he’s in a lying down pose, so the in-between is “get him from here to here” and normally it’s not such big extremes as standing to lying down. Normally it’s a standing pose to a standing crouch pose. They don’t want to give the in-betweeners too much freedom. It’s the grunt work of animation, basically, which is expected right out of school.
Abbie: Hey, with a lot of internships you’re just fetching coffee.
Mario: That was part of the duties on most of these, too. But I wanted to concentrate more on the actual industry aspect. So I ventured out of the internship book and researched more 3D animation places and I came across a motion capture studio. It seemed very similar to what I wanted to do but it wasn’t key-framing, it was capturing. But I thought it sounded cool, I’d seen it in all the behind-the-scenes footage from movies. So I went and met with the guys and at the time they had just finished this really cool commercial that Nike put out and it was called Nike Gridiron and they had Terrell Owens and Michael Vick. I had remembered seeing the commercial and they told me “We shot that here, we mocapped T.O. and Michael Vick” and right there I was hooked. I could do that.
Abbie: So how did you find yourself mocapping for video games?
Mario: Videogames were a big part of that studio. It was mostly video games and commercials at the time. So I worked on things like NHL 2K7 & 2K8, MLB2K8, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Sopranos, and even a Hannah Montana game.
Abbie: Did you mocap Hannah Montana?
Mario: We did not. We mocapped the game’s stand-in for her. A lot more now, you don’t work with the super-stars, you work with someone who is their size. It was actually a fun project.
Abbie: Have you ever mocapped anything strange or difficult?
Mario: Some of them more interesting than others…Early on we shot a concept piece for Playboy and we had these two strippers come in, they weren’t actually playmates but they had the talent to do the pole dancing. It was funny ‘cause here’s 6-8 nerdy guys behind computers and these two chicks dancing on poles out there. I don’t think it ever came out.
Abbie: Any animals?
Mario: Horses were kind of cool. It was hard because horses tend to knock stuff off their bodies with their tails like flies, so they would treat the mocap markers like flies. They’d shake their huge thighs or flinch and the mocap markers would go flying off. So we were constantly scrambling and reattaching them using animal safe glue. It turned out really cool but getting a horse to “T” pose is the hardest thing ever.
Abbie: So how did you end up work specifically for a game company?
Mario: I got a really good lead from a friend who I had worked with in mocap. At the time I was working on Sid The Science Kid over at the Jim Henson Company, and had just finished up R&D for the movie Avatar, which was a huge project. Then my coworker left to work at a game studio and she heard another game studio was hiring but she didn’t know much about them. I said I didn’t care, I’ll go meet them and do what I have to do. Turns out it was Infinity Ward. So I go there, I’m interviewing, and actually at the time I did not know who they were. I didn’t know any of their games or anything about them. But it seemed like an awesome interview, everyone was engaged and smiling. Then they ask, at the end of the interview if I had any questions for them and I said “What would I be working on?” The answer was “I think it’ll be pretty obvious what you’ll be working on…you’re here” and everyone chuckled and I still had no idea. This was at the beginning of Modern Warfare 2.
Mario: And the thing was, I had JUST finished playing COD4 and I didn’t make the association. I think I was so anxious to find a job and I wasn’t fitting in too much gaming at the time. I was just thinking “This is awesome, these people are great. I don’t even care what I’m working on…although maybe not another Hannah Montana game”
Abbie: You must have been so excited when you got home and put two and two together…
Mario: You have no idea.
Abbie: So had you been interested in games before? Was that a hobby you had since you were a kid?
Mario: I’ve always liked games since Atari, Pong and Pac-man but I’d say what really hooked me into games, early on, was Mega Man 2. One of my friends and I would stay up all night until the sun came up playing games and as soon as that game came out we would just beat it over and over, we wouldn’t trade controllers when we died, we’d just say “Beat the whole game, then hand me the controller.” We’d go back and forth, beat the whole game, trade, beat the whole game, trade…I actually got so good that I beat that whole damn game in one life.
Mario: More than once. My friend would always be so jealous that anytime he would die, he would completely start over.
Abbie: What are some of your other favorite games?
Mario: Megaman 2 is my top of all time, 2 is probably Call of Duty 4…after I found out what I would be working on next I played the hell out of it and got super addicted to it. And I’m really big on Puzzle Fighter. I love that game. I mastered it on Dreamcast.
Abbie: Haha, I worked so hard to unlock all the bonus content in that game. So what do you do in your spare time?
Mario: I’ve been making a lot of music lately. It’s been one of my passions since early on, before high school. A bunch of friends and I just used to record in somebody’s bedroom. We’d hang a microphone from the ceiling and put on an instrumental record and everyone would take their turn, we’d just put out tapes and give them to friends. We had a bit of local fame, we’d go to parties and people would ask us to rap for them. That was kinda cool. Now it’s gotten a little more serious to where I’ve been going to actual recording studios and getting original beats, which Grigsby [also an animator at Respawn] has supplied me with a few times and now we’re working on our own studio at his place. (You can check out Mario’s music here and here)
Abbie: That’s so cool!
Mario: Ha yeah, be on the lookout for some Respawn hip-hop music!
Abbie: Favorite artists or influencers?
Mario: One of my big inspirations, one of my favorite artists, is Twista. I really just like his wordplay. I like Eminem a lot and Mac Dre, who is an artist up in the Bay area. I like the clever type rappers. I can go on forever but a lot of these guys, I incorporate their ideas but not their style. It seems like a lot people these days are recycling what other people have said and it’s really noticeable.
Abbie: You see that across a lot of forms of media, really.
Mario: I think it’s always going to be that way, music has been around too long for that to not happen. At the same time, it’s really cool when you hear someone original that really stands out. I’m going for that and I think Grigsby has my back on that.
Abbie: Lastly, can you give some advice for someone who is interested in doing what you do?
Mario: Don’t let yourself be restrained. Don’t just follow a set of guidelines because your school or your friends or parents say “If you’re going to go to school for this, stay in these parameters.” Because there might be an opportunity right outside of that box and it might not be exactly what you were going for. Like in my case, I didn’t think I would ever be involved with mocap. I thought it was cool but if I hadn’t looked outside of that internship book, tried to go for it, I might not be involved in the industry at all. I would have kept trying, though. Also, one more thing, my school had a set amount of programs that they taught. I was looking into more and they didn’t offer those things so I took extra classes while going to college that had more a specialized focus on certain programs and packages.
Abbie: That’s a common thread I hear in these interviews.
Mario: You have to. Unless you’re just dead set and know exactly what you want to do and have the talent for it and maybe you know a person or two (that always helps). But it’s not easy for anyone, even when you have the talent. People that know people get ahead of you because they know someone and sometimes it’s being at the right place at the right time.