In the game: Theater students breathe life into Raven software

February 13, 2007 By Brian Mattmiller

Photo of two men from Raven Software helping Carrie Coon prepare for a motion-capture session.

Tim Uttech (left) and David Peng of Raven Software Inc., a video-gaming company in Middleton, apply reflective markers to the body suit of action model Carrie Coon in preparation for a motion-capture session at the company on Feb. 7. Coon, a recent graduate of the master’s program in theater, is modeling a series of fight-action sequences for the character of an elite-force assassin being developed for a computer game. Photos: Jeff Miller

Clad head-to-toe in a skintight yellow and black body suit, with ping pong-ball-sized reflective markers attached to every moving part, actress Carrie Coon’s new on-screen character isn’t immediately obvious to observers.

But the black high heels are a nice hint.

In the studios of Raven Software Inc., Middleton’s fast-growing video gaming company, Coon is working through a wildly athletic motion capture regimen — with bullet-dodges, head-kicks, dive rolls and back flips — that will become the raw material for a new femme fatale: an elite-force assassin.

Coon, a recent graduate of UW–Madison’s master’s program in theater, begins each fight move in a “T” formation, with arms straight out. On black scaffolding around the performance space, an elaborate array of 24 infrared cameras is precisely angledto capture her every movement. After each move, she glides back into the “T” formation, giving the cameras a standard point of reference.

A computer monitor pinpoints the reflective monitors on her body suit, digitizing her exact movements.

On a nearby computer screen, Coon’s movements are collected from the markers and translated into a precise three-dimensional stick figure that replicates her motion. This will literally become the digital skeletal system for Raven’s dark new character, who ideally will move and behave in convincingly human ways.

What may be lost to some in this high-tech scenario is that it all hinges on talented actors. Raven’s need for a strong base of acting talent led to a unique partnership now in its second year between the company and the UW–Madison theater program. Raven auditions students and tries to find the right blend of acting finesse and physical skills that will translate well in their characters. The students get paid for the experience and get an unusual addition to their acting portfolio.

“The actors are vital,” says Robert Gee, project lead for Raven. “The technology is there and we keep upgrading it, but we’ve got to have the right actors showing the right qualities of behavior. When you’re animating by hand something that really requires the subtleties of human body language, it just looks wrong.”

Gee cannot reveal much about the new game in development, but he says Coon’s stiletto-heeled assassin will be one of the prominent characters. The Raven motion capture crew — or “mocap,” in industry shorthand — really likes what Coon brought to the part.

Photo of Carrie Coon spinning.

Carrie Coon performs a “bullet-dodging” roll as cameras capture her movements in an animation program.

“I said to Carrie, what I need from you is a sensual, strong, arrogant woman who knows that every man in the village would like to spend even one minute with her,” Gee says. “And she flaunts it because she’s cruel. She enjoys putting them down.”

Coon enjoyed getting into character.

“It’s a riot,” Coon says. “It’s a lot of fun to imagine yourself in a completely different way, as someone with superhuman qualities.”

For Tony Simotes, director of University Theatre, the partnership with Raven is a highly valuable outlet for his students. “This is a terrific project to showcase how a theater student and a theater department can interact with high technology and actually make an impact on the entertainment.

“This is a new kind of acting,” Simotes adds. “No longer can an actor just rely upon a life on stage. Computer technology is affecting what we do as artists.”

Simotes says the project is a great embodiment of the Wisconsin Idea. Not only does it provide a richer portfolio of experiences for students, it provides the talent to help an innovative company thrive. Raven is one of the most critically acclaimed gaming companies in the business, and has grown from five employees in 1990 to more than 150 today. Recent games such as “Marvel: Ultimate Alliance” and “X-Men II: Rise of the Apocalypse” are household names among gaming fans.

Photo of Tim Uttech monitoring the motion-capture session on the computer screen.

Tim Uttech monitors a computer which displays a stick-figure rendition of action model Carrie Coon preparing for a motion-capture session. Coon begins each fight move in a “T” formation, with arms straight out (pictured near right). On black scaffolding around the performance space, an elaborate array of 24 infrared cameras is precisely angledto capture her every movement. After each move, she glides back into the “T” formation, giving the cameras a standard point of reference.

“Motion-capture acting is cutting-edge,” says Simotes, likening it to the rise of bluescreen acting in recent decades. “We are so fortunate at the university to have a major player and innovator in the industry right here in town. We provide them with the talent and energy, and they have the technical know-how.”

The multitasking Coon, whose “night job” these days is the lead role in the Madison Repertory Theater’s production of “Anna Christie,” is committed to a career in acting and values having motion-capture acting on her resume. “We’ll see more of it, and it’s important for us to stay on top of the technology. The university has been opening a lot of doors for me, and I just keep walking into them.”

Coon has performed a number of roles for Raven in the past six months, including a “face scanning” in early February. A scanning light projector reads different parts of her face at different angles, then puts it all together, animating her facial features in 3-D. This will be the finishing touch for her elite-force character, who will not only move like Coon, it will look like her, too.

That should be good entertainment for friends and family back in her hometown of Akron, Ohio. “Maybe my grandmother will start getting into video games,” she quips.