Rockstar Resets The Bar With Its Upcoming Crime Thriller

Posted on November 11, 2010

Rockstar just released the first trailer for its upcoming title L.A. Noire, which we revealed back in our March cover story. If you missed seeing it before, we’re running the feature here in its entirety. Check it out to learn more about the setting, characters, and the mind-boggling technology that developer Team Bondi is putting to use.


No word better describes Rockstar Games. In the nine years since the release of its open-world crime epic Grand Theft Auto III, which stands among the most influential and successful games ever released, the company has used its GTA war chest in pursuit of games that few other companies in the industry would even attempt. From the brutal, violent stealth of the controversial Manhunt to the charming comic mischief of Bully, Rockstar continually digs deep into the history of pop culture and film for inspirations beyond the usual fantasy, military, and sci-fi clichés that fuel much of the industry’s output.

Despite courting controversy both outside the industry and within, it’s hard to argue with the results. The company’s games have exhibited enormous scope and unparalleled production values. When Rockstar offers you a chance to get a behind-the-scenes look into what they call their most ambitious title to date, you say yes.

Though L.A. Noire’s existence has been known for several years, facts about this title have been as hard to find as clues to the seedy murders that L.A. Noire’s protagonist, Cole Phelps, unravels throughout the course of the game. After seeing the game and the development process in action, it’s clear why the publisher has been so secretive. Team Bondi, the studio behind L.A. Noire, has set the bar almost impossibly high with this game. It’s not only creating the largest, most detailed open-world game to date, it’s attempting to resurrect the long-lost Los Angeles of the 1940s while adding an engaging new adventure-style investigation system to the familiar drive-and-shoot gameplay model. Oh, and along the way the company is pioneering some groundbreaking new technology that it hopes will forever change the way video games are made.

Filming Noir

Walking into a nondescript building in Los Angeles, I’m introduced to Team Bondi’s game director Brendan McNamara, who is wearing a headset microphone and quietly overseeing a buzzing scene that more resembles a Hollywood film production than a game studio. The soft-spoken Australian seems fairly relaxed considering his team is entering crunch time on his first major project since he shipped the PS2 gangster hit The Getaway in 2002. Numerous Rockstar and Team Bondi staffers are scuttling around, shuffling between the various rooms in the spartan warehouse facility.

In one room, Australian actress Erika Heynatz (famous as the original host of Australia’s Next Top Model) is sitting down for hair and makeup in a room filled with mirrors and hair dryers. Her hair is meticulously coifed into tight, elaborate buns and covered with a hairnet in the classic ‘40s style.

After some introductions, McNamara takes us to the heart of the operation: a soundproofed white room that feels like a lost set from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Heynatz sits in a chair as makeup artists make last minute adjustments to her hair and cosmetics. Surrounding her is complex scaffolding equipped with 32 stereo-matched cameras and assorted microphones that will capture her image from every possible angle.

Once up and running, the actor interacts with the director through a monitor posted directly in front of her head, getting the crucial line prompts and feedback on the performance. Once completed, every detail of the performance – dialogue, expression, eye movement, even makeup details like black eyes or burns – are directly pipelined into the game with no involvement from animators. In this way, L.A. Noire represents a total break with conventional game development and animation. Instead of recording dialogue, animating, and performing motion capture as separate steps of the process, Team Bondi (using technology developed by its sister company Depth Analysis) is capturing human performances just as a filmmaker would – except instead of generating movie footage, they come away with fully animated 3D models.

It’s a tremendously advanced process – Depth Analysis’ Oliver Bao, head of research and development, reveals that the company’s Australian facility is equipped to store 200 terabytes of capture data – but one that allows them to work more quickly than with traditional hand-animation techniques. “That’s the great thing about this system, there’s very little human interaction,” Bao observes. “Traditionally, one minute of facial animation could take a couple of animators a month. The idea is that we can mass-produce. We can produce about 20 minutes of final footage a day, and it’s seamless  – I don’t even have character artists or animators working with me.”

For McNamara, it’s perhaps the most crucial aspect of L.A. Noire, because the game features an unprecedented volume of spoken lines, encompassing a script of around 2,000 pages. To put it in perspective, the average hour-long television show has about 50 pages, and a longer feature film’s script would be 200 (approximately one page per minute of running time). With these new tools, Team Bondi can produce results that are both faster and vastly improved over games of the past.
“We hadn’t had really good results with motion capture, using facial markers and all that,” McNamara recalls. “I’d been doing some research in the U.K. for a number of years on how you could do capture without markers. What we wanted to do was capture the exterior of people instead of the bones. What we have here is the final end of that process, where you put an actor in the chair and as we record it’s instantly turned into 3D. We think it’s pretty significant. The great thing about that is we think that the whole uncanny valley thing is out the window, because you can see people in the game and literally lip-read what they say.”

Seeing side-by-side comparisons of the actors with their in-game likenesses, it’s clear McNamara’s technical team (staffed mostly by Team Bondi’s sister company Depth Analysis) is treading new ground in terms of facial animation in games. At first, it’s almost eerie. From hair to the slightest raise of an eyebrow, the facial models are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. “The actors are weirded out at first – everyone’s used to seeing themselves in 2D,” McNamara reveals.
Since the physical performance and dialogue reading are done at the same time, lip synching problems are non-existent, allowing the player to finally react to the characters as real actors in a way that even games like Uncharted 2 or Mass Effect haven’t achieved.

“Even the [games] I look at now that are great, there’s something about [the characters] that makes me think of a goldfish,” McNamara comments. “You have a million years of evolution that tells you how to read faces, so you just have to see one thing and it throws you off. With this game, it’s a line in the sand – before and after. That’s what it feels like to me. We used to do that; now we do this. In the end, we want you to interact with this and you don’t even ask the question ‘Is this real or not?’”

Go to Source (Game Informer)

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Categories: Game News, Game Secrets

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