At TGC 2009, we got a look behind the scenes at how Epic's cinematic design philosophy changed from Gears of War to Gears of War 2. (Hint: Hiring professional actors to do motion capture works really well.)
When the time came for the Epic team to begin work on Gears of War 2, they had one guideline to follow: "Bigger, Better, More Badass" - sure, it sounds like an advertising tagline, but the game's Senior Associate Producer, Tanya Jensen, said that rather, it was a theme that Epic tried to stick to internally. With a goal of shipping Gears 2 two years after completing the first game - but still improving on all fronts - the company was asking itself to do more, in less time, with the same amount of people. This conundrum was shared across all fields of production, but particularly concerning Epic's cinematics team.
Or, rather, that's a misnomer: There isn't an Epic cinematics team per se. As a fairly small developer (110 in-house employees at the Cary, NC studio at last count), the people who worked on the cinematic sequences in Gears of War 2 also worked on other parts of the project.
Epic's cinematic philosophy changed from the first Gears of War to the sequel, and they showed clips from the two games to illustrate the changes - it was immediately obvious, once you knew what you were looking for. With Gears 1, the idea was to be "in the trenches" with the COG soldiers. To do that, the team went for a handheld camera effect, even going so far to motion-cap the camera itself. In the Gears of War clip, the camera pans around Marcus Fenix like, well, someone walking around him holding a camera - there aren't any cuts.
For Gears 2, though, they wanted to raise the notch a bit in terms of cinematic storytelling and scope. That meant going for more traditional cinema techniques - moving from handheld reality-show camerawork to Hollywood camerawork. In the clip from Gears 2, there were camera cuts as the focus and scope of the scene changed.
Most gamers rarely think about what motion-capture brings to a cinematic; I know I barely ever gave it more than a passing thought. But one of the things the panelists most heavily emphasized in terms of what changed between the first and second Gears was ... well, improvements to the capture process.
Chief among those was hiring actual actors to play the parts of Marcus Fenix and his comrades-in-arms. As actors who have a greater understanding of body language and movement, Epic was able to work with them in terms of building characters: How would Marcus and Dom move, for instance? The actors also were given the scripts to memorize before shooting, so that they could read the lines while they acted out the scene - of course, they weren't the final voices. If you've ever seen clips of Star Wars before they add in James Earl Jones' voice for Darth Vader, it was similarly disconcerting to watch.
Even blocking out the scenes in reality - crude props to represent helicopters and the like - helps add to the immersion of the final product. As an example, Cinematic Engineer Grayson Edge told an anecdote about how, when filming the motion capture, they told the actors that they would be standing on the edge of a chasm. During the scene, the actor playing Dom kept looking over into the "chasm," which made for a more believable physical presence in the end.
It was also pretty nifty how they filmed the actual mo-cap sessions with the final product in mind: They played footage of the actors in their black bodysuits with the white bulbs acting out a scene, right next to the final in-game cutscene ... and impressively enough, it was almost a literal 1:1 progression, with the same camera angles and pans in the live-action as there were in-game.
However, production isn't easy. Small changes can complicate everything in a cascading effect: If an animator decides that a running animation doesn't work in a scene so changes it to a walk, the camera is now moving too fast and must be slowed down. But maybe the slower camera reveals parts of the level that hadn't been revealed before, and are unfinished. The graphical effects for dust being kicked up by the character's steps needs to be rebalanced, as does the audio - running sounds different than walking, after all.
Best to make these mistakes early on, says Jensen. Screwing up in the beginning is cheap to fix. If you have to make a mistake - and mistakes will be made... thanks to this cascading effect, it'll be a lot worse if it happens further down the line. If someone works on something for six weeks - whether it's coding, modeling, or cinematic work - and then it gets scrapped, that's six weeks down the drain.
So yeah. Studios, take note - hire actors to do your motion capture. It pays off.