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The story behind Red Dead Redemption’s horse motion capture

Hold your horses — breakin’ in that mo-cap is no trot in the park

Red Dead Redemption 2 - Arthur’s horse rearing up in the forest as the sun shines behind them Rockstar Games
Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

Horses have always been a big part of the Red Dead series, something definitely expected of a game set in the Wild West, and the original Red Dead Redemption boasted some of the most realistic horse mechanics of the time. But one of the trickier parts of incorporating horses into a video game is capturing the minute details of their movements. While game studios routinely performance capture humans to snag particularly detailed movements, motion capturing animals in the same way involves extra challenges.

Capturing basic human movement doesn’t require a huge amount of space. In order to accurately capture a horse’s gallop, however, studios need a lot more area for them to roam around. Additionally, while horses are often domesticated and trained to follow orders, motion-capture gear isn’t designed for horses’ sweat and movements and often falls off. Most games involving horses also have to take into account the fact that horses with riders move differently than horses without, meaning two versions of each movement must be captured.

Game development studios sometimes outsource the motion capture of animals to animation studios specifically dedicated to motion capture, since those locations have the space and equipment necessary. The team behind 2010’s Red Dead Redemption worked with motion capture supervisor Richard Widgery of Kinetic Impulse. In a 2010 interview with GameSpot, Red Dead art director Josh Bass revealed some of the behind-the-scenes details of the process.

According to Bass, the team hired a Hollywood stunt-horse named Blanco, who was well-used to studio life.

“It showed in the end results,” said Bass. “Blanco turned out to be the consummate professional and skillfully performed every move necessary in order to get the shots and moves we needed.”

The first hurdle (ha) was figuring out where, exactly, the positioning markers should be placed to most effectively capture the movement. Even after figuring the positioning out, another challenge emerged: The markers didn’t exactly stick to the horse, and after every take, the team had to pause and re-stick the markers back on, trying to figure out where exactly they had fallen from.

The team also hired a professional motion capture performer and stunt rider (Brendan Wayne, incidentally the grandson of the great John Wayne) to capture the movements of horse and rider. That session brought up a whole other set of issues. Since they were shooting on a sound stage, they had to come up with a series of hand gestures to communicate across the area.

“Unbeknownst to us, one of the gestures we were using was also the same command that made Blanco rear, turning our accommodating stunt horse into a horse at its most intimidating and also a nightmare if the rider happened to be mounted at the time,” said Bass.

This meant that, at times, the stunt rider was ejected into the air with little warning, something that could’ve proved serious if the rider were not so skilled. Instead, the team ended up simulating the footage of the ejection and impact in the game’s physics engine.

Bass said that the focus on animation was the horses’ barrel and hindquarters, because of the game’s third-person camera. Additionally, in order to make the horses as realistic-looking as possible, the team used the same technology usually meant for faces on specific areas of the horse’s muscles, such as the muzzle, hindquarters, shoulders and ribcage.

In the end, all the motion capture and detailed animation made for some fine fillies, stunning stallions, magnificent mares, captivating colts and heralded horses.

Red Dead Redemption 2 will revamp the franchise’s horses and create an even more realistic relationship with your equine companion. They’ll giddy up into action next week.