Breaking in the Digital Horses of Red Dead Redemption

Rockstar San Diego's art department director Josh Bass talks about the creation of your main mode of transportation in the upcoming Western-themed game.


The world of former outlaw John Marston in Rockstar's upcoming Red Dead Redemption is a large one, covering diverse landscapes, such as open deserts, dusty savannahs, sweeping hills, bustling towns, remote settlements, and much more. With the game set at the turn of the 20th century, automobiles are but unique curiosities. This means your trusty horse will be your main method of traversing the gameworld. And according to Rockstar San Diego, the same amount of thought went into creating the game's various steeds as its human protagonists. We chatted to art department director Josh Bass about the importance of horses to Red Dead Redemption, the adventures of motion capturing, and what technology had to be created to make these animals look and act as realistically as possible.

Horses for courses, so to speak.
Horses for courses, so to speak.

GameSpot AU: Obviously, the horse is your main mode of transport in the game. But how important are they to the overall gameplay experience?

Josh Bass: No portrayal of the American West is complete without horses and the people that rode them--it’s integral to the whole experience but something we were nervous about when we began work on the game as it has never been done that well before. In addition to being the primary mode of transport, horses remain one of the most iconic wild animals of the western plains. It became crucial to depict their appearance and movement as close to perfect as we could possibly manage.

Getting the horses to the level of realism we needed required a combination of research, heavily detailed motion capture, Rockstar’s own RAGE engine, Natural Motion’s Euphoria technology, and some highly advanced facial animation technology that we had previously only used on human characters. We think the horses of Red Dead Redemption are the most realistic, believable, and beautiful horses ever seen in a video game, as well as being a lot of fun to ride.

GS AU: How did you decide which specific type of horse breed to include?

JB: We tried to include a range of horses that captured the spirit of the West and that would also be recognizably different if you stumbled across them in the wild. In terms of modelling the horses in-game, our research team decided that the ideal horse to base our horses on was the Mustang--a feral horse that was historically connected to the Old West. The anatomy of the Mustang also gave us a good template to work from. We needed the horse’s dimensions and scale to appear realistic and visually appropriate to the rest of the game.

Next, we had to create a variety of horse breeds, with different coats and structure. We selected the Buckskin, Palomino, and Pinto but also more iconic breeds like Friesian and Appaloosa. To diversify each horse, very specific markings were also chosen--along with coat color, mane and tail--to create variety. We even concentrated on structure: crafting everything from diseased, malnourished horses with low stamina to beautiful and muscular black stallions with greater endurance.

Even the most minor details like each separate element of the horse’s tack, including the bridle, saddle, harness, and stirrups were researched and implemented. Look closely at the horses in the game, and you will notice that wild horses don’t have horseshoes, while the domesticated horses do. If you decide to lasso a wild horse and tame it, you will break and mount it bareback using only a bridle made from the player’s lasso.

There are also donkeys, of course, for moments when you feel appropriately humble.

Both horse and rider had to be mo-capped.
Both horse and rider had to be mo-capped.

GS AU: How about animation? Did you actually mo-cap a real horse?

JB: Yes we did, and it turned out to be an adventure of its own. The horse we used was a long-time Hollywood ‘stunt horse’ named Blanco. His owner was a proper old-time cowboy, and we were assured that Blanco had seen far more studio time than any of the staff on the shoot. It showed in the end results--Blanco turned out to be the consummate professional and skillfully performed every move necessary in order to get the shots and moves we needed. Blanco didn’t have to ride a treadmill, but we did have to glue positioning markers all over him in order to capture the movements correctly, which was definitely an unusual sight.

At first, we had to spend some time trying to determine where we needed to place the markers in order to capture the best data. Once we resolved that issue, we went straight into shooting, pausing after each take to replace the markers that had fallen off the horse during the take. After every take, we literally had to pick up a dozen markers off the floor and glue them back on, trying to figure out where they’d fallen from before we could continue.

Once we’d mo-capped the horse, work began on modelling the barrel and hindquarters of the horses, as this was the anatomical area we knew would be viewed most by players, given the third-person camera. We then shifted our focus to the specific types of movement: the various types of motion, or gaits, that horses use. Research came from live, image, and film studies, as well as a state-of-the-art motion capture recording, breaking movement down to five common states that translate best into in-game motion: idle, walk, trot, canter/lope, and gallop.

As the primary mode of transport in the game and one of the most significant animals in every aspect of Western iconography, the horses needed to move realistically in all contexts: domestic settings (such as bearing riders or pulling stagecoaches), as well as out in the wild, traversing more rugged terrain like rocks and mountains or climbing steep slopes.

Are you man enough to tame this stallion?
Are you man enough to tame this stallion?

The horses needed to feel graceful but also fluidly transition from small, slower steps to larger and more aggressive movements. In Red Dead Redemption, you can chase down a feral horse and attempt to break it by mounting the horse bareback and holding on to the mane. Such large, aggressive movements had to display strength, anger, and fear. These are wild animals and had to come across that way in game.

GS AU: Now, of course, horses in the game are meant to be ridden. What work did you do on animating how horses interact with humans?

JB: A huge part of creating a believable Western experience meant creating a natural interplay between horse and rider: Player movement needed to relate and react to standard horse gaits, as well as aggressive movements like rearing and bucking.

Capturing the horse and rider together was critical to the success of the shoot. We hired an actor who was also a professional stuntman and an expert horse rider for the session. He had never ridden our stunt horse Blanco before, but they formed a bond quickly. The owner gave the actor a few pointers and commands that Blanco would respond to and we went to work.

The shoot wasn’t without its issues. We were shooting in a sound stage and had to come up with our own set of gestures that we used to communicate with each other on set. 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. Several times, we accidentally commanded Blanco to rear while recording scenes that required something completely different. It made for some great and spontaneous shots, but our stuntman wasn’t too happy, as he had no idea when it was coming. He would be in the middle of a performance and suddenly Blanco would rear into the air, while the stunt man was doing everything he could just to hold on. Luckily for us, the footage was amazing. If our actor wasn’t so experienced on a horse, we probably would have captured footage of him flying off and earning a serious injury. Instead, we ended up simulating any of his ejection and impact scenes using the close integration of Natural Motion’s Euphoria physics system and our own proprietary RAGE physics engine.

GS AU: We’ve spotted some pretty good detail in horses in Redemption, even down to realistic-looking muscles. What was the process behind making these horses look real?

Rearing horses aren't always great in mo-cap sessions.
Rearing horses aren't always great in mo-cap sessions.

JB: We went to great lengths to craft animations for all human characters so that interactions like mounting and dismounting horses looked as fluid and natural as possible. We also animated the various permutations of using weapons on horseback. It all helps to integrate Marston and the horses into the world seamlessly. We made sure to create believable idle animation too. You will notice that Marston even tends to his horse, gently calming it with a pat on the neck or hindquarters.

The final piece of the puzzle involved taking the overall physique and detail of the animal to a level never seen in a game, and that required some lateral thinking. We came up with the idea of using the same facial technology we used to show animated “normal maps” (a way of realistically lighting bumps and dents on the faces of our human characters) to properly showcase the muscles of the horses in motion--specifically the hindquarters, muzzle, shoulders, and ribcage.

The results can be seen in the way the animal’s hindquarters contract and release as they gallop or flex to take the weight of both the horse and its rider when they rear up on their hind legs. Re-creating a horse’s skeletal and muscular systems was challenging and has taken us years to complete, but the end results are stunning, and made the efforts well worth it.

GS AU: Josh Bass, thanks for your time.

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