When you were fighting orcs in Middle-earth: Shadow of War, you may not have noticed your sword-fodder was increasing and decreasing in size.
We don’t mean different orcs just being different sizes, which of course happened as well. We mean the actual, single orc you’re pummelling would inflate and shrink as you gave it what-for. It happened right under all our noses.
In a recent talk to fellow animators at the Game Developer’s Conference, we heard from art animation lead Camille Chu and art advanced animator John Piel about some of the challenges in synching up the animations of two models.
Just counting the combat animations between protagonist Talion and orcs, there were 1,200 animations that locked Talion and his prey into a synched sequence. If you count all the other beasts Talion can slay, that number goes up to 2,500.
These execution animations were a big part of the game, and the development team knew players would be expecting a variety of moves and weapons. It took two years to make them all.
That’s a lot of motion capture and debugging, when you consider all the different variables. What if Talion goes for the killing blow from behind, instead of from the side? What if the Orc is at a different altitude? What if Talion is mounted, or moving at speed? What if someone is on all fours?
To keep things a bit simpler, all the orcs in the game actually use Talion’s skeleton (most bipedal models do, if not all). They do, however, vary in size.
In the case of these complex, synchronised animations, it was necessary to make sure the two models align. Weapons clipping through each other would look ugly, as would hearing a “clang” when your sword never touched theirs. A big part of aligning those animations was making sure the models were the right size by the time they clash. Talion was a constant, but the orcs themselves came in all shapes, sizes, and cockney accents.
That meant changing the orc size mid-combat. This would happen multiple times in every fight. Often this would be somewhat masked by cinematic camera movements, but Monolith made sure there were never any camera cuts. Each fight was one continuous “take.”
According to John Piel, “The scale of the orc quickly changes to 110% of Talion during the animation and then drifts back.”
Having its own motion capture studio helped a lot with these challenges. It also helped that Monolith’s animators were also the actors — many of them had done some kind of martial arts and knew exactly what they wanted to capture.
That allowed Monolith to use the facility as needed, instead of booking expensive shoot days. When the operation scaled up to include contract workers to get that hefty haul of 2,500 animations done, they would record the movements and do a bit of cleaning before sending them out to be polished.
That was just one aspect of the combat — even running around the world was a complex cocktail of model movement.
“Even just a run animation could be blended with 8-12 other animations at any given point,” said Camille Chu.
While we didn’t think too fondly of certain aspects of the game (what did you do to Shelob?!?), this is one aspect that Monolith certainly nailed. It pulled a fast one on all Shadow of War players — little did we all know orcs were scaling up and down right before their eyes, multiple times every fight.