From Roach in Witcher 3 to Epona in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, horse companions are special and iconic parts of some video games. But they’re usually animated by artists because using motion capture to record a horses movements is a pain in the ass.
We know, because Animatrik—an animation studio that’s worked on video games and movies—is doing mocap on horses for use in an upcoming video game project it can’t disclose. Animatrik has been doing motion capture and effects work for more than a decade, but it’s never worked with horses.
That doesn’t mean its a stranger to wildlife. “We’ve done wolves in the past,” Brett Ineson, Animatrik’s president, told me over the phone. The wolves required special spandex suits and, at first, they didn’t like them. “It takes weeks to get a wolf to wear a suit…the funny thing is that, once they get used to the suit, they get very protective of the suit and they won’t give it back. They’re very possessive.”
For this new project, Animatrik wanted something different. The video game studio wanted detailed horse animations. Other animation studios have motion captured horses before and the process typically involves a suit, like with the wolves, and a trip to the motion capture studio.
A horse expert on the Animatrik team thought she had a better way of getting detailed horse animations by bringing the studio to the horses.
“I've been an equestrian dressage rider since I was 10, years old,” Sara Cameron, Animatrik post-production supervisor, told me over the phone. “So we were able to kind of take my knowledge and Anatomy of horses and really create a good marker set to capture all the muscles and the bones links and everything.”
Animatrik partnered with a stable of seasoned Hollywood horses—you can see their previous work in the Warcraft movie—and brought reels of equestrian tape. The idea was to use the tape to create more precise points of capture on the horse’s body. “We were concerned that their muscles slide around under this suit, and it's not going to be directly on the skin. So we're losing some motion there,” Cameron said.
The team found a reel of black equestrian tape specially designed for horses. “I tested the markers on my Rottweiler and got her to run around the studio,” Cameron said. “The tape didn’t bother her, which is important: the animal’s safety and comfort is our first concern. But, as we discovered through shooting, dogs don’t sweat through their skin the way horses do.”
The heat of the day made shooting difficult. Despite promises that the tape would stick to horses despite sweat, it kept falling off. “It was peeling off so we were like constantly having to reapply the tape and make sure it stayed,” Cameron said.
The horseshoe pattern on the tape was cute, but also detrimental to motion capture. “That drove us nuts,” Cameron said. “We tried to get one without horseshoes because our reference markers get lost in it…but we had to have such a large quantity of the tape that that’s what the company had to give us in that quantity.”
Despite the heat and the peeling tape, Animatrik persisted. The team rigged up several horses and placed 44 drill-mounted cameras in the rafters and on a rented boom lift to capture the horses’ movements. It’s a similar set up to how the Wachowskis filmed bullet time in The Matrix.
That created another problem. “A barn isn’t stable like a concrete and steel building,” Ineson said. “When the wind picks up, the barn will actually move and change the shape on you. When your cameras are mounted on the wall of the barn, your volume is going to change shape on you as well.”
Cameron and Ineson told me they learned a lot from the experience. Next time, they’ll make sure the horses have been bathed before applying tape. “Super, super bathed,” Cameron said. “They’re supposed to be oil free…but I don’t feel they were quite clean enough.”
Ineson said that next time, they’d probably just use suits like they did with the wolves. Which is a shame. The world can always use more photographs of horses covered in horseshoe tape.