Gearing Up for War: A Moment with Cinematic Director Gregg Mitchell
Staff Writer By: Grammatik
We sat down with Greg Mitchell to talk about his journey into cinematic storytelling and motion capture for Microsoft's popular Gears of War franchise - plus, see some exciting behind the scenes shots from the Animatrik mocap stage.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
Sure! I was born and raised in a small Texas 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 I've run with the Cinematic Director title ever since!
How did you start working with Microsoft?
In a funny way, I feel like I've been working with them for a while. Microsoft has always published Gears of War, so there are some common folks who I've seen over the years while working on the series. I spent nearly 9 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, there's 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 we've done our job. It's rewarding to know we've 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. I'll 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 we're in alignment with the rest of the product. It's always exciting to see what we've created when we're finished. We'll have spent months working on this 'cinematic cake' and that first bite out of the oven is always like "Mmmmm..mmm! That's good!"
Is this the first project you've 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 that's 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. It's 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 they're actually at the location.
Mocap 'sets' are the most nondescript as you're usually in a huge open volume surrounded by hi-tech cameras, equipment, and barebone set pieces or props. It's 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 they're up against, or the depth of a canyon they're 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 'you're 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 do pick-ups or even reshoot entire scenes, but it's 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 didn't 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. That's how I felt working with the entire crew at Animatrik - it's like family and they make us feel at home. Everyone knows when to get down to business, but there's still an overall fun atmosphere among the crew, the actors, and those of us from The Coalition. That kind 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-op 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 that's going to become a commonplace soon (if not already). Of course, not everything is live. Animation will still be there to support content that can't always be captured, or that needs an extra bit of polish to get the details just right. So, I don't see any of this going away. It's 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 it's 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. You'll build trust and empower individuals to contribute their best when they're involved. Sometimes an opportunity can be the best motivation for your crew!