Gearing Up For War: A Moment with Cinematic Director Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell talks about his journey into cinematic storytelling and motion capture for the Gears of War franchise plus, see exciting behind the scenes shots from the Animatrik mocap stage...

Greg Mitchell talks about his journey into cinematic storytelling and motion capture for the Gears of War franchise plus, see exciting behind the scenes shots from the Animatrik mocap stage...

Cinematic Director Greg Mitchell joined Epic Games in 2006, just in time to help with the completion of the first Gears of War. And when Microsoft bought the franchise in 2014, Greg wasnt far behind in joining up with them to continue his work. Motion-capturing on Animatriks stage, Greg and his team are busy taking the franchise to new levels.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
Sure! I was born and raised in a small Texan town called Ennis. Growing up there was fine, but TV, movies, and video games were my escape to other worlds. Game programming was something I explored in my teens, but soon my interest turned to making 8mm short films showcasing toy tank battles, magicians, and clay dinosaurs. It was fun, and the creativity is what hooked me into pursuing it professionally.

I went on to study Television and Film Production in college and graduated from the University of North Texas in 1994. Soon after I landed my first paying TV job in Nashville and spent the next decade working mostly in motorsports television. I got to travel a lot, meet some really cool folks, and wear many hats in the production business, but never had a chance to really dive into narrative storytelling.

In the meantime, I played with 3D Graphics and animation on the side. A friend in the game business told me I should try for a job doing cinematic work. In 2006, I joined Epic Games and helped them finish the Cinematics for the first Gears of War. A year later I was handed the keys to the cinematic department (which was only me at the time) and Ive run with the Cinematic Director title ever since!

How did you start working with Microsoft?
In a funny way, I feel like Ive been working with them for a while. Microsoft has always published Gears of War, so there are some common folk who Ive seen over the years while working on the series. I spent nearly nine years at Epic mostly working on the Gears of War franchise, but I also got to work on other game titles such as Infinity Blade, Unreal Tournament, and Bulletstorm. Epic sold the Gears of War franchise to Microsoft in 2014. Rod Fergusson, Studio Head of The Coalition and long-time Producer, reached out to me and asked if I wanted to join them. It all came together in July of 2015 when I moved to Vancouver and became part of the Gears family once again.

What has it been like driving the cinematic vision of Gears of War? What does the role involve?
As a Director, theres always a desire to try something unique through character acting, camera composition/motion, editing style, and overall pace. But in the end, I find us coming back to a traditional narrative style. We could stylize the scenes to look completely different from the game, but that defeats the purpose. Cinematics play a big role in the single-player experience for Gears of War and should enhance the overall story, not distract from it. If there was a moment or scene that stood out and you remember it, then weve done our job. Its rewarding to know weve had several memorable cinematics throughout the franchise.

I oversee an internal cinematics team that ramps up to around 25 people along with additional resources offsite. Ill start by providing a vision through the storyboards and previz, then we head to Animatrik for a few days of capturing on their stage. All the data motion is then passed on to our talented team who drives it forward. My focus from then on is to make sure we stay on course making slight (or sometimes larger) adjustments as we go along. This includes collaborating with other game leads Art Director, Design Lead, Audio, Narrative to make sure were in alignment with the rest of the product. Its always exciting to see what weve created when were finished. Well have spent months working on this cinematic cake and that first bite out of the oven is always like Mmmmm..mmm! Thats good!

Is this the first project youve worked on involving motion capture?
For me, it was Mortal Kombat and Stranglehold at Midway Games in 2005. I was learning the ropes and working under Director Marty Stoltz at the time. He allowed me to tackle a few small scenes on my own, and thats where I cut my teeth on directing actors on a mocap stage.

What are the similarities and differences when working with mocap sets compared to traditional acting sets?
A set not only provides a backdrop for your scene, but also gives your actors an environment in which to play their roles. Its an interactive stage where we see characters doing normal everyday things as the story progresses sitting on furniture, opening doors, and picking up objects and handling them in their performance. Then again, what do we call a set anymore? Set extension and green screen backdrops seem to be commonplace now in TV and film. It offers the production team maximum flexibility with a green screen, but ultimately requires more from the actor to convince the audience theyre actually at the location.

Mocap sets are the most nondescript as youre usually in a huge open volume surrounded by hi-tech cameras, equipment, and barebone set pieces or props. Its like a black box theater that requires a lot from our cast. Storyboards and previz define the environment for the scene, creating a mental picture for the actors. They use their imagination to fill in and sell the presence of the set around them, the height of a creature theyre up against, or the depth of a canyon theyre just dangling above. Of course, none of this is really there, but they all do a stellar job of convincing us!

What has been the most challenging part of the project?
Making games is an organic process. I think someone said it best in that youre finding the fun while designing a game. Parts of the gameplay might evolve and this requires a script change to follow the modification, creating ripples in the story and cinematic production. We try to stay up to date on scripts, our storyboards, and previz as we head into a mocap session. Sometimes it requires us to do pick-ups or even reshoot entire scenes, but its a decision made with the studio leads knowing the risks will make a better game or cinematic in the process. Late stage changes are never easy, but we do our best to make smart decisions regarding them.

What was it like working with Animatrik?
I had the luxury of working for game studios that had their own stages. A day of mocap meant co-workers left their desks to come help out we didnt have a dedicated staff for motion capture. It makes for great energy as people are enthusiastic to help and excited to see what we do. Thats how I felt working with the entire crew at Animatrik its like family and they make us feel at home. Everyone knows when to get down to business, but theres still an overall fun atmosphere among the crew, the actors, and those of us from The Coalition. That kind of professionalism and comfort gives me added confidence for our shoot days, plus it puts a smile on my face because we have a lot of fun doing it!

How has Gears of War changed over the years?
Gears of War will always evolve. Our core gameplay as a cover-based shooter is a staple in the franchise, yet we look for ways to incorporate new weapons, melee combat, co-p player interaction, and additional multiplayer modes to the game. Our storyline spans 30+ years and with the release of Gears of War 4, we introduced our new main characters JD, Kait, and Del along with a new enemy called the Swarm an evolution of the Locust creatures from the first Gears of War trilogy. Additionally, the original Delta Squad Marcus, Dom, Cole, and Baird have all aged accordingly or unfortunately met their demise over time.

The franchise continues to grow through our eSports program, merchandise, comics, collectibles, and, of course, the dedicated fans numerous people have gotten custom tattoos because of their love for Gears! When you have something greatly admired by so many people, you cannot help but get excited to show them what is next.

What do you think the future holds for mocap and gaming?
I see the two growing together. People want to see realistically rendered humans on their game systems, and performance capture recording body motion, facial expression, and dialogue at the same time will help push those boundaries. There are already some incredible examples of live motion capture being rendered in real-time using game engine technology, and I think thats going to become commonplace soon (if not already). Of course, not everything is live. Animation will still be there to support content that cant always be captured, or that needs an extra bit of polish to get the details just right. So, I dont see any of this going away. Its just going to get better!

What advice would you give to a budding director?
A director has to own the vision. We can be very self-centered in guarding and protecting what we want to create, but its important to involve everyone working with you. Look, listen, pay attention, and take time to consider the thoughts, ideas and suggestions your crew have for you iteration can only make things better. Youll build trust and empower individuals to contribute their best when theyre involved. Sometimes an opportunity can be the best motivation for your crew!

Related links

Check out more of Animatriks projects
Motion capturing Gears of Wars

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