As the developer of triple AAA games such as Heavenly Sword, DmC: Devil May Cry and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Ninja Theory has been a pioneer of performance capture from the beginning. After 15 successful years of working with big publishers like Sony, Bandai Namco and Capcom, the company made the creative and business decision that its next game would be their first independent, self-published title.

The result was Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, a gripping action drama that takes performance capture and the single player action-adventure genre to a new level, without the budget of a major publisher behind it. 

“The ethos of Hellblade is that we wanted to make a game with creative freedom, but obviously to create a game independently, we had to self-fund it,” said Dominic Matthews, commercial director of Ninja Theory. “Previously we’ve had teams of 80 to 100 people working on our games. We’ve had the budget to fly out to LA or New Zealand and do a big shoot in a big studio, capture performances and then process all of that data into game. But doing that is incredibly expensive.

“The aim was always to create a Ninja Theory game, a game that really embodies what we’re all about,” Matthews continued. “Included in that is bringing characters to life, with performance capture underpinning it. But our budget just simply wouldn’t allow us to go abroad to shoot these things, or even to shoot it in a UK studio. It just wouldn’t have been possible.”

Custom-built capture

High-quality performance capture was incredibly important to Ninja Theory’s plans for Hellblade. “That’s when we reached out to Vicon,” says Matthews. “We explained our situation and said, it’s a small budget and we want to try to create an in-house mocap studio. The response from Vicon was ‘great, we would love to help you in doing that.’”

Vicon worked with Ninja Theory to create a studio using a dozen Bonita cameras. “The Vicon guys helped us set up and were on hand to support us,” explains Matthews. “But it was relatively straightforward: just get the cameras out of the box, get them set up, calibrate them, and take it for a spin.” 

“In the spirit of our DIY nature of putting this together, the cameras are attached to wardrobe poles from IKEA, while all the lighting that we have in our mocap space is actually ceiling tile lights from Amazon,” he adds. “We’ve managed to put together an entire mocap space for an absolute fraction of the cost of flying out somewhere – or the equivalent of what it would cost for four or five days in a UK studio.”

Ninja Theory’s headquarters in Cambridge, England can’t draw upon a resource like a studio space. Instead, it has one large boardroom.

“We had to convince people internally that we could use it for two purposes,” said Matthews. “We could shoot all of our cinematic scenes there, but still use it as a meeting room. But honestly, over time it’s just turned into a full-on mocap space! With the help of Vicon, we’ve been able to not only save a lot on costs but also give ourselves the flexibility to be able to go into our own boardroom and shoot whenever we like.”

No frills, but plenty of thrills

Once it was up and running, the development team – 20 people rather than the hundreds usually found on a typical AAA game – were able to explore the potential of on-site performance capture.

“Normally we would have a four-week shoot, and we’d need to do everything in that time,” says Matthews. “But we dotted shooting both the cinematic and in-game animations throughout the entire project.”

Vicon’s Blade software was used for capturing the motion, as well as initial tidying up and processing, relabeling and filling the data where needed. The pipeline moved into Autodesk MotionBuilder to construct the scenes, get them in the right location and do the first pass on polishing. Following that, Autodesk Maya was used to bring in the facial animation and carry out a final polishing. Audio also got involved at this stage, with Maya renders as a reference. This was all exported into Unreal Engine to get it triggered in-game, followed by adding lighting and effects.

The game is full of customized animations of specific situations and character motions developed to replace the typical in-game HUD that shows health indicators. 

“When Senua is injured, we wanted the players to understand that through the way she looks and moves,” said Matthews. “So we captured all of that. Our animators were able to use the Vicon rig to capture different movements, for instance, one day we concentrated on an injured walk and got an actress to try out some walk cycles. That just wouldn’t have been possible if we weren’t in-house. We had the flexibility to try things out. We would shoot something in the morning, and it would be in the game by the afternoon.” 

Even the actress used for Senua was in-house – Ninja Theory found that video editor, Melina Juergens, was excellent at playing the role. 

“So not only did we have the studio on hand 24/7, but we also had our actress in five days a week,” laughs Matthews. “She could take a break from making our trailers and development diaries, to try out different movements or scenes. We might say to Melina ‘in this scene, there are flames all around you, and you need to be coughing because of the smoke’. We had that ultimate flexibility to capture whenever we wanted, and to try things out.”

There is a section in the game where Senua is moving through waist-high water, and she’s having to move hanging bodies out of the way. “We ended up hanging all of our shoes from the ceiling so we could capture her wading through moving objects,” says Matthews. “You wouldn’t be able to do that easily in a mocap suit, and if you did, it would be very expensive.”

Other very subtle animations were created – things like Senua's breathing or having just a little bit of a limp, or tiredness in her walk.

“The whole game is a battle and a struggle, and we wanted it to feel like that,” Matthews explains. “The aim was to make players relate to and engage with Senua at a deep level, so the more realistic and nuanced we could be, the more likely a relationship would develop between player and character. A big chunk of that is down to the bespoke animation that we were able to capture.” 

Independent thinking

Matthews claims that the quality of the data captured in the boardroom studio has been as good as, if not better than, anything that Ninja Theory has used on any of its previous projects.

“There’s absolutely no compromise there,” he says. “The shooting volume that we’ve got is certainly comparable to any of our other games – we’ve not had to make any compromises, but we’ve saved a lot of money. 

“Our noble aim when we set out was, if we can make Hellblade work as an independent AAA model, it could prove something to the industry. Not only can we continue to make the games we want to make, that our fans want us to make, and make them successful, but other developers who find themselves in a similar situation to us can also do so. And players will get more diversity and creativity in their games too.”