When creating his ensemble-focused slasher game, The career, video game developer Supermassive Games decided to raise the bar for immersive and photorealistic visuals. This lofty goal required the company to expand its toolbox, and to that end, Supermassive enlisted Academy Award-winning VFX studio Digital Domain, leading to the invention of new facial animation technology. live.
“From the start, we were blown away by the ambition of Supermassive Games, and we knew our experience with feature films put us in a unique position to help,” says Aruna Inversin, creative director and visual effects supervisor for Digital. Domain. “We started with the same tools we use to create movies and episodes, and then adapted them for game development. Basically, we found a new, faster way to animate photorealistic digital characters.
The interactive horror and survival gameplay of The career is anchored by the performances of its cast, as well as Supermassive’s photorealistic digital depictions of that cast.
“It was important to us to make every move and reaction as realistic as possible, to create an immersive experience where players really feel the weight of their decisions and connect with the characters,” says Will Byles, game director for The career. “We wanted to get as close to the likeness of the actors as possible, both in terms of the very detailed scans and the intricacies and nuances of their performances. With its history of award-winning visual effects and pioneering digital human labor, Digital Domain was the best choice for this.
The careerThe cinematic dimensions of also come in the form of its “Movie Mode” – a feature that allows players to customize each character’s personality traits and actions, and watch the story unfold accordingly. Other visual settings evoke cinematic aesthetics, such as an 8mm-style “Indie Horror” Film Grain, a VHS-inspired “80s Horror” look, and a black-and-white “Classic Horror” filter.
Digital Domain began their work on the game’s photorealistic facial animation by performing a series of facial scans of each cast member. The company used these scans as templates and reference points to create distinct facial shapes and expressions that would bring the cast’s performances to life. The team then sent the collected data to artists at Supermassive, who were tasked with creating looks for the characters in the game.
For performance capture, the cast of The career reported to the Digital Domain stage in Los Angeles, where they performed their roles in full mocap suits and a facial capture rig. Each character was played individually or in small groups, performing multiple iterations of the game’s story to give the game a variety of disparate narratives. (These many storylines included an array of unique death scenes for each character.)
In total, the cast of The career underwent 42 days of motion capture to produce 32 hours of captured footage. After the digital characters and live performances were completed, their combined data was transmitted through Digital Domain’s Masquerade facial capture system.
Developed to create Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, Masquerade 2.0 has evolved from its initial use on feature films to help create face shapes for productions across all mediums. The tool analyzes live action footage and combines it with the individual and unique library of performers’ facial shapes, then blends it with a CG character. Using machine learning, he creates a photorealistic, CG version of a performance and animates it entirely.
In the case of The careerMasquerade 2.0 allowed every performance featured in the game to be enhanced with every facial movement, emotional reaction, and other nuances captured through ensemble work.
“Masquerade is an incredibly powerful system, but at the end of the day, it’s the performance that really matters. The career stand out,” says Paul Pianezza, senior producer at Digital Domain. “We wanted to make sure that our tools amplified what the cast brought, so that every performance down to the most subtle movement was as faithful to the live performance as possible.”
But for a game like The career which is built around interactivity, it was not enough to have cinematic-quality digital characters,” continues Pianezza. “You needed to be able to edit those numeric characters in real time and have those edited results instantly ready to use without the need for additional touch-ups from the artists. The only problem was that the tools Digital Domain needed didn’t exist… yet.
Implementing these tools first required Digital Domain to solve two challenges often encountered with facial capture: eye tracking and headset stabilization.
Digital Domain opted for an open-source eye-tracking solution called “Gaze ML”, which it modified over a three-year period. The team used machine learning to identify distinct properties of the actors’ eyes. From there, Gaze ML provided improved tracking accuracy, as well as improved digital eye appearance, especially when paired with a high frame rate front camera.
Focusing on the stabilization problem, Digital Domain has devised an entirely new approach to stabilizing front camera data. The team developed a technique that allowed them to analyze their capture footage and compensate for any shake, blur or jostle typically experienced when wearing face tracking equipment. The result: cast members were free to perform their roles with no restrictions on movement – including running and jumping – while wearing the required helmets.
Taking the process a step further, the digital domain team created what would become the crowning achievement of their work on The career: a new technology, Chatterbox. Powered by machine learning algorithms, Chatterbox analyzes performers’ unique facial expressions, while preserving the realistic qualities of their movements. The technology streamlines data to refine the best facial options available and allows digital characters to be uploaded and edited directly in a game engine.
When combined, Masquerade 2.0 and Chatterbox gave the Supermassive team access to the full library of facial expressions of every cast member from The career. With data running in Unreal Engine, the game’s developers could see its characters in detailed digital environments, allowing them to make necessary adjustments to performances that would stay true to each actor’s facial tics and mannerisms. (This approach also removed any potential need for costly rework from the equation.)
Ultimately, more than 250 million images of The career were rendered by Digital Domain, and only 27 of the 4,500 shots deemed “game-quality” required editing by the artists during post-production.
“Creating high-quality, photorealistic visual effects was once unique to feature films, but technology has evolved, and given our decades of history and continued success, we are in a unique position to bring visual effects professional quality on any screen,” said John Fragomeni, Global President of Digital Domain. “We have some of the best artists in the world, so there’s really no limit to where and how we use our tools.”
The career is available now in physical and digital formats for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S, and digitally on Windows PC via Steam.
Max Weinstein is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor. He is the editor of “Dread Central” and former editorial director of “MovieMaker”. His work has been featured in “Cineaste”, “Fangoria”, “Playboy”, “Vice” and “The Week”.