Rockstar Games is best known for the Grand Theft Auto series of video games and its sojourn through gritty and violent city streets. With Rockstar’s upcoming title, L.A. Noire, they’ll be exploring a locale that’s even more treacherous: the human face. Developed by Australia’s Team Bondi, L.A. Noire features cutting edge facial image-capturing technology that allows real world actors to express a wide range of subtle emotions that will be seen in the virtual world. Many previous titles have used such high resolution close-ups of characters, but typically only in “cut-scenes” – the video interludes between interactive portions of the game. In L.A. Noire they will be critical to how you play. The smallest ticks on fully rendered human faces will be important clues to the crimes you are trying to solve. You have to look at these actors and know whether or not they are lying. That sounds like one heck of a video game. Check out the trailer below, followed by a behind-the-scenes look at the rig used to capture these life-like expressions. Motion capture technology is getting better and better – give it a few years and the Uncanny Valley may be banished from video games forever.
In order to get the highest quality recordings of actors’ faces, Team Bondi developed a remarkable 32 camera system called Motionscan. Those cameras operate in pairs to capture the actor from every angle in a room full of intense white light so that no wrinkle is left unexplored. Gizmodo Australia had a chance to visit Team Bondi’s studios and see how the recording unfolds. This is an intense experience. Nine servers operating at 300 MB/s with a 45 TB buffer are required to handle all the digital processing, and the system can only be used for about 50 minutes of footage a day. Still, actors have logged in hours upon hours in this rig. According to Gizmodo AU, Aaron Staton who plays the main character in L.A. Noire and whom you may know from the TV show Madmen, has spent 80 hours in the Motionscan setup. You can watch Staton, John Noble (from Fringe), and many other US and Australian actors take their turns in the chair in the behind-the-scenes look of Team Bondi’s technology in the video below.
James Cameron and Avatar set the bar pretty high for realistic 3D animation using motion-captured human actors. Yet Team Bondi and Rockstar are producing some brilliant images with their Motionscan technology. I think it’s remarkable how fast the video game technology is approaching the blockbuster budgets of Hollywood movies. Let’s not forget that even cheaper and simpler 3D motion capture tech is waiting in the wings, and will likely be ready for some commercial applications in the near future. For computer animations and motion capture, the time it takes for a technology to move from cutting edge to mainstream to out-of-date seems to be shrinking. Moore’s Law is helping give the virtual world a new face lift every few years. At this rate I won’t be surprised when video games appear as beautiful and realistic as movies. L.A. Noire looks like it’s a good step in that direction. In the decade ahead we may see fully artificial characters, not just motion captures of actors, that appear lifelike enough to believe. Let’s hope at that point that we’re still perceptive enough to tell when they are lying.