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To embody Wonderlands’ Tiny Tina, motion capture actor had to become a gremlin

Released in March 2022 (and finally available on Steam this week), Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands serves as a long-awaited successor to Borderlands 2: Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep. In a similar vein to that DLC, the larger story of Wonderlands takes place during a game of Bunkers & Badasses that is run by Tiny Tina as she sets up and guides player’s characters through the fantasy landscape.

And while Tiny Tina has been voiced by Ashly Burch (also known for her voice work as Aloy in the Horizon series and Chloe Price in Life is Strange) since her initial introduction in Borderlands 2, the fan-favorite character truly came to life in Wonderlands thanks to the art of motion capture.

Rachel Martin, senior motion capture technician at Gearbox Software, is the human behind Tina’s eclectic movements in Wonderlands. In a conversation with Martin, Digital Trends learned about her motion capture work, how she prepared for her role as Tiny Tina, and about the unique challenges that presented themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic for the motion capture team.

(Interview responses have been lightly edited for clarity.)

Becoming Tina

Martin initially started working in motion capture at Ubisoft Toronto in 2017, when she worked on the stage (where sensors, cameras, and the use of other technology are utilized to capture an actor’s movements and facial expressions) and helped to create the face motion capture pipeline for Watch Dogs Legion. Her work on the face motion capture pipeline and the detail she brings to Tiny Tina is unsurprising — Martin has a real love for bringing realism to the face through her work.

“What originally drew me towards motion capture was the ability to capture actors’ mannerisms and apply them to animation. I loved being able to capture realism within the face. Everyone has certain quirks or facial features that, when captured, give games more life.”

Tiny Tina looks straight ahead in Tiny Tina's Wonderlands.

Once at Gearbox, Martin was approached to perform the motion capture work needed for Tiny Tina. When asked about her initial reaction to being asked to perform the mocap work, Martin tells Digital Trends that she felt “a lot of nervous excitement and a lot of pressure.”

“I mean how could you not when you have to perform to live up to Ashly Burch’s incredible voice acting?” Martin says. “I myself do not have that much acting experience, but was lucky to have some one-on-one training with my boss Shane MacPherson [lead mocap and animation producer at Gearbox], who has been working with motion capture actors for years. It really helped ease that pressure. And after a bit of training, I could fit the Tiny Tina role.”

To help prepare for the role, Martin went back to replay Assault on Dragon Keep before getting started. “Being a huge Borderlands fan, I was already familiar with Tiny Tina, but I did replay the entire Borderlands 2: Assault on Dragon Keep to really get into the Dungeons and Dragon mindset,” Martin says. “I tried to mimic some of her mannerisms to really let loose and feel like Tina.”

Pandemic challenges

For many people, COVID-19 saw a shift in how work was done. And for Martin, the same occurred during her mocap work for Tiny Tina. Motion capture work is traditionally done on a set, but with the onset of the pandemic, safety considerations for the motion capture team working on Wonderlands came into play and adjustments to the overall process were made — including working from home.

“With motion capture, it’s about problem-solving and making things work. We moved from shooting on set with directors and staff for a time to using the XSENS remote motion capture suit,” Martin says. “This would allow us to shoot anywhere safely and have directors remote via Teams to direct the shoot. Thus, [this is] why most of the motion capture body capture videos are done in my home office and not the normal motion capture stage.”

After two years, I can finally say, I was privileged and asked to act as Tina Tina for Wonderlands. I did all the mocap for body and face with ADR over @ashly_burch incredible voice acting.

It's been like a dream to say hey that's my face! Happy Launch #TinyTinasWonderlands pic.twitter.com/s4LmSVXaBB

— 🌸Skelly🌸🧡💜🌸Year of FEMC P3P🌸@ FE3Hopes🌸 (@SkellyVee) March 25, 2022

“Before we were allowed to work on the stage itself, we would use an XSENS suit in our own homes and would record remotely,” Martin says. “That was an entirely new way of capturing body data that required a lot of testing.”

During this new approach to capturing data for Tiny Tina, Martin also performed ADR work for Burch’s voice lines — a process where audio is rerecorded in a quiet environment, often during postproduction.

“We also captured body and face separately to not have so much face-to-face interaction for safety. When recording facial motions, I had the pleasure of capturing in our onsite VO Booth and would record a 1-to-1 ADR to Ashly’s lines. I think trying to visually bring out Ashly’s voice was a standout moment for me.”

Gremlin mode

“We [the motion capture team] are seen as a support department in a lot of ways — as if you have an idea, we will problem solve and try to capture what you need. We have had ideas anywhere from swimming to recreating a plane crash to falling 30 feet,” Martin tells Digital Trends. “As a team, we create a safe set for our actors to play that scene and then apply that to our character rigs for animation. Motion capture really is the team that won’t tell you, ‘No, we can’t capture that’ — unless it is unsafe.”

With that creativity in mind, motion capture aims to bring characters like Tiny Tina to life in a detailed manner, be it through larger, involved actions or the little details such as placing a new NPC or boss down on the table for players to engage with in Wonderlands.

Tina has been a fan favorite for years, and I myself being a little bit of a gremlin in real life felt like I could live up to those expectations.

Tiny Tina is, quite literally, an explosive character — both in personality and through her in-game expertise in demolitions. With that notoriety among Borderlands fans in mind, I was very curious to see if Martin had anything particular that she wanted to bring to Tiny Tina’s movements during her motion capture work — whether she was working from her home office or on stage.

“Tina has been a fan favorite for years, and I myself being a little bit of a gremlin in real life felt like I could live up to those expectations,” Martin says. “I tried to recreate her fast movements, a lot of pointed fingers, and just overall loose limbs. She really has a carefree movement, which was just fun to recreate, much like her younger depiction in Borderlands 2. Plus, us both having our feet turn in made it easier on the animators.”

“The player only sees the upper-half of the body, so the body movements were incredibly important to translate to animation.”

Tiny Tina's full character model used in Tiny Tina's Wonderlands.

That attention to upper body movement and detail definitely shows in the final game, where Martin’s acting was translated into Tiny Tina’s wacky and gremlin-like DM-ing style that involves a lot of curveballs thrown to the player, hand gestures, and generally chaotic expressions.

And for Martin, her work is nowhere near done after working on the motion capture team for Wonderlands, which was her first major project with Gearbox. When asked if she had any upcoming projects, she couldn’t quite share any details just yet, but did say: “But I am so excited to be a part of it and can’t wait for everyone to see!”

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