The YouTube star who became Kratos

Martial artist Eric Jacobus discusses his extraordinary journey into video games

Those familiar with last year’s hit PS4 exclusive God of War might know Christopher Judge as the voice and performance capture actor behind the game’s titular hero, but he wasn’t the one to swing the axe and defeat his foes.

That was left to stunt performer and martial arts extraordinaire Eric Jacobus, the YouTube star who became Kratos.

For those unfamiliar with Eric, he has spent the last 18 years working with his company The Stunt People, providing combat stunt work and choreography for independent films, as well as running a highly successful YouTube channel in his own name. On that channel he and his team would create highly kinetic short films, most notably Rope-a-dope parts 1 & 2 and Eric’s own Tekken IRL, where he would perform full movesets for each character.

It was these viral videos that led to Eric being cast as the combat motion actor not only for Kratos, but also Kratos’s nemesis Baldur, among others. Eric was later signed up for Mortal Kombat 11 as the performer for eight of the game’s characters.

While stunt work in film has always been at the forefront of The Stunt People, with his readily apparent love of video games, Eric has started a new business venture, seeking to use combined decades of martial arts talent to add accessible fight choreography assets to almost any level of game project through Super Alloy Interactive.

Eric hopes to bring his mix of tech background and professional stunt work to more studios seeking expertise in combat choreography.

VGC got a chance to ask Eric a few questions about where the business grew from, what he took away from working on God of War, and what Super Alloy Interactive might bring to future projects, gaming or otherwise.

First off, what prompted you to start looking into mocap work for games?

Eric: I had no idea that I could even get into motion capture at first. I was working on stunts, short films as well as a few feature ones, and the thought never even occurred to me until someone from 2K messaged me and asked our team (Stunt People) if we could do stunts for them.

While I couldn’t do it at first, when I made the move to become a full time stuntman, I called 2K back and ended up doing work for them on Mafia 3, essentially being a punching bag for the main character Lincoln. Even then, I was still uncertain as to the right route to keep that line of work going. I lived in the Bay Area, so I was outside the reach of LA-based motion-capture studios. I mean, we knew how to get stunt jobs, I knew all of the right people, but I didn’t know who to contact if I wanted a mocap job.

It wasn’t until Santa Monica Studio saw your YouTube videos that they actually first noticed you?

I’d done this thing in my garage called Tekken IRL where I copied all the movesets of the characters, also Street Fighter and Dead or Alive. At first I really just did it to keep in shape and do some extra content for my channel. It was kind of an extension of one of my older videos called the Kicktionary where I perform over 200 different kicks as a way to record them for posterity.

The Tekken IRL was an extension of that. When I started, I thought “why not just do all the moves in Tekken. It might be kind of fun to put them side by side.” Well that went viral. A good friend helped me get them on IGN, that went super viral and then that’s how the God of War team found me. They were looking for reference.

So it went from being just reference, to being Kratos, or one part at least.

Yeah. Back then, I discovered that animators spend a lot of time looking for reference footage. When they’re doing temporary movement or temp animations, they’re just hand-keying stuff to get it to work then they might motion capture it later. My understanding is that they were using my recorded movements initially and they were hand-keying some of them and they said “well why don’t we just hire the guy?”

That job came in at a pretty good time too because my partner and I had just had our first child and were having financial troubles keeping things afloat. But Santa Monica Studio called me in and at the time I didn’t even know what the game was. When they said, “you’re going to be a bearded man, protecting his son”, that couldn’t have been any better a role for me to play at that time.

Working on God of War, was there anything you took away from the experience that you felt you wanted to apply to your new company Super Alloy?

What I found in God of War was that with in-game motion-capture, it’s a totally different animal than cinematic. That type of capture is much more like film-making. But in-game motion-capture is where the pieces start to come together. As a stunt performer, you’re tasked with getting a very very precise movement, because the more precise you make it, the better the gameplay is.

They’d say “We don’t just want a regular axe attack like you’re chopping a tree down. It needs to come up at a certain angle, it needs to hit this certain pose, cross this certain hit-box”.

“Here in Las Vegas, the talent pool is insanely huge. They’re all working the Cirque Du Soleil live shows. They’re specialists to the bone… And they’re all interested in working in games.”

I found myself kind of looking at this skeleton in my head, much like a mocap skeleton. Every time there is an adjustment in the performance, a new layer was put on it in my mind. Animation works much like that, where you put an animation layer on top of something and then you bake it down. That’s what was kind of happening.

And so taking that, I realised that I can do this stuff pretty easily and quickly, getting through a whole nav-set in a couple of hours for some games. And so my business partners and I took that and said “Well why don’t we try and just be the providers of this stuff?”

What I kept understanding was that these animators were trying to almost pre-vis the game as they went along. Every so often, you’d need an animation to get the game working but you don’t have time to motion-capture it, so you have to hand-key it. And we thought, well why don’t we provide some prototyping animations for some companies, and for others provide some final ones? That was the kind of thinking behind the company.

How many actor/performers do you have at your disposal to help with varying scales of work clients might want?

Well really, the sky’s the limit. I’ve spent my whole career both networking and working with these really talented stunt guys. A lot of them are doing very well in Hollywood and yet the prospect of working on games is still desirable to them. Where I am right now, here in Las Vegas, the talent pool is insanely huge. They’re all working the Cirque Du Soleil live shows. They’re specialists to the bone. So if you needed an acrobat, or even a contortionist for example, I wouldn’t go anywhere but here. And they’re all interested in working in games.

We’re trying to imagine a contortionist being mocapped… is the world quite ready for that?

Yeah, it’s funny too because if you try and optically capture certain things like a contortionist, sometimes their body will cover up markers, right? It’s the same issue with grappling. When we were grappling in God of War, the markers would sometimes shift around or get hidden so you lose that data once that happens. But our system is all inertial. It’s an Xsens system so the data never gets covered as there’s no cameras. It’s all built into the suit.

While you’re currently focused on pre-vis mocap animation, are there any other areas that you’re looking to expand on, to provide more services?

We’ve been experimenting with live 3D pre-vis, or 3-vis as I call it, and the ability to pre-vis a scene using a virtual camera and a set that’s been created in Unreal, with us in mocap suits. With the Unreal software and these rendering engines having come so far, you can just shoot something live. You don’t have to render it out later, and that’s good enough for pre-vis.

And so we’re trying to make that pipeline as good as possible, implementing facial gestures, hand gestures and the like. Also integrating environmental destruction that’s live, to maybe demonstrate say breaking through a glass window for example. You just jump through a hole on the pads and in the Unreal engine you’re smashing through a window.

Shooting and editing a pre-vis like that, you can take it to the director, they look at it and say “well I don’t like that camera angle” or maybe it’s the edit. But it can all be changed. It’s just one virtual camera, but you can change it on the fly. The data is all in there. It allows for a totally iterative process.

“I would personally say that motion-capture is one of the only things separating AAA studios from independent ones at this point, technically speaking.”

Have you had interest from both AAA studios and independent developers?

We started out initially to try to push it to independent studios, to provide a very cost effective motion-capture model. We’re not quite sure they’re ready to go there yet. I would personally say that motion-capture is one of the only things separating AAA studios from independent ones at this point, technically speaking. I mean, what are the other tools do triple-A studios have that indie studios don’t? Everybody has Maya or Unity or Unreal. There’s only one thing separating them that I can think of right now, and that is motion capture.

Putting the human element into a game without having to hand-key everything. A lot of indie animators are very good at hand-keying, but right now we’re just seeing a lot more interest from the AAA world, and not much from the indie side. But with that said, with motion-capture costs continually going down, maybe it is just a matter of time until the water level rises up just high enough that indie games start using it.

The other thing that I noticed on that note is that sometimes indie developers are a little hesitant of tackling action. For example, how many indie films are action? It’s one of the least common genres. You may have gun-play type stuff, but when it comes to fighting and things like that, it’s hard. Understandably it’s dangerous, it requires expertise that often doesn’t really overlap with a technical person. But then that’s one of the things that we are trying to bring to the market, which is that we’re tech guys that understand action.

We’re stunt guys that understand tech. In my career doing this kind of work, I’ve noticed that the communication gap between tech and action is vast, so vast! Not many people are willing to bring the two together.

When I was doing God of War, the animators and directors would start off by trying to explain what they wanted, but then they could just tell me what was going on with the game engine, and then I could understand that and translate that into human movement. They’d say “yeah the issue right now is foot placement and it need to be here because of the hitbox”, and they’d explain it in game programming language, but then I’d just move or position my body a certain way and it’d fix that issue. I come from a tech background. My first job was in PHP and Visual Basic, so I get that kind of stuff.

And it would be a huge deal if any stunt performers that are interested in mocap to learn maybe something like Unity or Unreal, Mobu or Maya. Any of these 3D skills would be extremely useful for a stunt performer to start learning to give them a huge advantage in the market coming up.

Are there any closing thoughts you might have on the state of the industry and where you’d like to see things go from here?

We’re in this interesting time where games are overtaking film in popularity, and film is actually trying to find ways to integrate the tech in games to improve their workflow. I would encourage people interested in getting into stunts to start learning what’s going on on the other side of the fence with tech. And also, for tech people who are interested in doing action, take a boxing class! Take some gymnastics, so that you can understand what it’s like to direct a stunt performer.

I think that communication gap is going to be closed by necessity. And I’d hate to think that people are going to be left on the margins at work. So I keep pushing this message of ‘tech tech tech’, because when I was coming up as a stuntman, the thing that a lot of us realize is that we had to learn how to make film too. We had to have a grasp on editing and filmmaking, cinematography and even writing.

And that’s how you have a pre-vis industry, because you have stunt guys making short films that are pre-vis now. And stunt guys are now making movies, like John Wick. It was made by a stuntman, Chad Stahelski. Now he’s a director, not just a stuntman any more. When those worlds keep colliding and converging, well then yeah, maybe someday we’ll have a video-game made by a stuntman. Not pointing fingers, but I would like it to be us!