Emotion Capture: Anthony Tominia

His résumé as motion capture lead at 2K includes work on the company’s immensely popular sports titles, the terrifying first-person shooter series BioShock, and even the cerebral nation-building of Civilization 5.


The immersive nature of modern video games’ razor-sharp graphics and lifelike characters have reached a state where viewers must no longer struggle to suspend their disbelief. Today’s gamers are spellbound by alternate universes, synthetic sweat, and digital destruction. Nevertheless, for every strikingly realistic crossover from a favorite basketball star or ghastly swipe of a heinous villain, there stands a team of artists to breathe real life into the virtual characters.

Anthony Tominia is one such artist. He uses motion capture animation techniques to transfer live action movements of actors and athletes, translating them into on-screen character action. A Full Sail University graduate, Tominia occupies a dynamic position at 2K, where he juggles scripting cinematic cut scenes and shooting action-packed motion capture sequences with today’s finest sports stars and stuntmen. Tominia, like his colleagues, must also constantly work to keep up to date with the ever-evolving standards of today’s animation technology as studios transition into a new world of total acquisition motion capture.

Get In Media: What first piqued your interest in animation and motion capture?

Anthony Tominia: Storytelling. I found the Toon Boom 2D animation software one day while I was managing group homes for adults with developmental disabilities and I needed an outlet from all that stress. So, I started making really simple shorts. The program doesn’t require any real training, making it easy to get into because it is basically just drawing. At that point I just decided that I should try and make my stress reliever my job, and that’s when I signed up for Full Sail.

GIM: How did you get started in the gaming industry?
AT: I interned under Eileen Middleton, which was great because she never let you slack up on the pace. You know, you just graduate from school, and you think you will take a breather, but she never let that happen. She would always push me to animate more. I went straight from that position into Dimension X Design. This was a relatively easy transition; I had already proven to myself I could do it because of what I had gone through with the long and demanding hours in college. I actually find that to be true wherever I go now. Shortly after, I began motion capture work at 2K Games and the Jim Henson Company. From that point on, I would find myself coming in on weekends when it was not demanded, just because it felt weird for me not to be pushing hard.

GIM: What does the typical day in the life of the motion capture lead integrator at 2K consist of?
AT: The greatest thing about working in 2K mocap is that there is no typical day. On any day you could have a half-court set up with guys flying over the rim, slamming on each other, or a dude ripping line drives into a net. The very next day you could have [The Darkness character] Jackie Estacado getting shot in the chest. Then there are the complete opposite days. Days when you’re asked to take the data you just directed and label it, clean it, solve it, retarget it, and, in some cases, integrate all that animation into the game engine.

I’ve also had the great fortune to work on site at different developers and learn many production pipelines. Days spent in pre-production are known as the calm before the storm; these days are spent drawing storyboards, walking the volume, and editing the script. It’s a great job because you have to be able to switch pretty freely between left brain and right brain—to be able to feel the emotions of those characters, and then left brained enough to figure out how to make motion capture include emotion capture.

GIM: What are the stages in motion capture from calibration to implementation?
AT: It’s all about one performance, and that’s the performance of your talent. Our responsibility in motion capture is to deliver a performance as exacting to the talent as we can. Every step in between calibration to implementation is a step toward delivering that performance at it greatest degree. Cleaning, solving, retargeting efforts are all needed. Animation is absolutely needed to get the performance into its final state. That performance is then delivered in engine. Those steps are all predicated by pre-production, which can make the above so much easier.

GIM: Are there different approaches to cutscenes and gameplay motion capture?
AT: Sure. Gameplay days are full of locomotion and movement. We focus on moments of motion as opposed to emotion. We can go upwards of 400 shots a day. Cutscenes require quite a bit more development both creatively and technically. Creatively, you have to consider things like how best to choreograph a scene based on the volume limitations of your room and how to construct sets and props appropriately. Technically, you have to think about things like building or finding the appropriate tech to meet all video and audio needs of each animation team. You have to figure out ways to seamlessly integrate your production pipeline into that of a developer. Our constant challenge deals with retargeting characters of different scale.

GIM: Are there particular motion capture actors that you rely on? What athletes are you using for motion capture in the 2K Sports line?
AT: We hold casting sessions for our 2K Games brand. We try and cast unique talent for each of our main characters. The characters’ age, gender, character tics, and traits are all cast for. We do have pretty consistent stunt talent to step in for our actors when reality is being stretched. Our 2K Sports brand gets top-notch talent from all over. We have guys who watch all the various leagues and teams and bring in the best talent in the world. If you play good ball, they’ll find you.

Standout amateur talent comes to us the minute they are done with college ball—guys like [Philadelphia 76er] Evan Turner and [Phoenix Sun] Wesley Johnson. We also recruit from the best And1 has to offer: Grayson “The Professor” Boucher, or The Air Up There [Taurian J. Fontenette]. And of course, a couple of times a year we get to mingle with the pros—Shaq, Derek Jeter, Prince Fielder. Many times talent from other industries get in touch with us because they enjoy the game so much they want to be a part of it. Snoop Dogg and Justin Beiber are two recent ones who are now included in the game. One big shout-out to Adam Callan, who is a great baseball talent.

GIM: How many motion capture animations are being captured for characters?

AT: There are different needs for different projects. Projects like X-COM and BioShock have much different needs than NBA 2K. NBA drops in about 7000 animations a year. A game like Mafia 2 would never shoot the volume a sports game does in a year, but they will have longer and more complex cinematic scenes that take quite a while to prepare.

GIM: The increasing realism in video games is lending itself to a progressively more cinematic experience. What details are you looking for to ensure that the gamer is suspending their disbelief?
AT: First and foremost, the story has to be there. People have to want to care. Our developers can’t do great work without a story. Then they bring it to mocap and we have to do everything we can to make sure they have all the tools they need to tell that story. We capture every motion performed 120 times a second from 85 sources. It’s like Edward Muybridge’s dream world. That gives us the body performance. Simultaneously, we have to deliver audio and clear video recordings of the face and the body. Everything is delivered completely in-sync so that their story continues through our department as strong as ever. By creating such a tight and efficient total capture pipeline, we make sure we don’t miss a single detail of anything performed in our volume.

GIM: Conversely, are there motion capture techniques that translate to larger than life characters like the Big Daddies in BioShock? Or, is this a task left to hand animation?
AT: My wise boss says, “One minute spent in pre-production will save ten minutes in post,” and it’s true. If you can replicate the motion you are looking for on set, then you’ll get those big moves. Again, the pace in video games is so quick. Many times we capture things like the Big Daddies on set, to give the animator a base to work from. Hand animation, or key frame, is always essential due to scale issues, blends, or especially face animation. A smart, efficient animation team is essential to a game’s success. We just hope to get them there faster.

GIM: How has the technical side of animating games changed since you began? What’s on the horizon for the future of making games?
AT: Well, the Kinect is one. That thing’s a game changer, man. It makes motion capture a lot more exciting. And it’s bringing that excitement home where anybody can experience it as a medium to tell their story or communicate their message. I would say total performance capture is another. Motion Capture has evolved pretty quickly during my time in the workplace. We have put in a lot of hard work as a team to make our studio a complete acquisition studio. The days of body talent performing to prerecorded audio are gone. We are capturing game-quality audio simultaneous to capture, making that performance feel that much more cohesive.

GIM: What advice would you offer to prospective animators looking to break into the industry?
AT: Work your tail off. There are hundreds of kids, probably more, and they all want the job you want or have. Every day you have to improve your skillset and raise the bar, because everyday more kids are graduating and coming after the same job. Software never stops developing and advancing. If you are not taking time out for your day to stay on top of what is new, a new grad will come along and swipe your job. Also, work smarter and think technically. Ask yourself, “What tools do I need to make my jobs better?” The game industry moves quickly and you always have to work organized and smart. So many animators just put their head down and animate, not realizing how much easier their job would be if they took a second to think of a better pipeline, a better tool, or better way.

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