How Rockstar Put Me Into L.A. Noire

by Dan Ryckert on Jan 11, 2011 at 03:00 AM

As Matt Helgeson and I flew out to California last January for our L.A. Noire cover story, he informed me that we'd be visiting a motion capture studio at some point during the trip. I've always enjoyed watching behind-the-scenes featurettes from games and films that demonstrate this process, so I was excited by the news. Little did I know that "visiting a motion capture studio" would turn into me being fully captured in 3D and inserted as a character in L.A. Noire.

We drove up to the unassuming Century City building in the middle of the week, greeted by a man asking "So which of you is getting put in the chair?" It had been mentioned to me that I might be doing some motion capture work, so Matt and I assumed it would be of the "put on a spandex suit and get covered in glowing markers" variety. After Matt let them know it would be me in the chair, they informed me that I'd need to shave my beard. This confused me as I had no idea why my facial hair would interfere with a skeletal motion capture process (at this point in time, we weren't aware of the new technology that Rockstar has revealed in recent months).

It quickly became apparent what I had unknowingly signed up for. Team Bondi's tech affords them the luxury of recording actors with 32 highly precise cameras in a soundproof white room, which then creates an amazingly realistic in-game model of whoever is in the chair. They explained what the plan was for me...I'd be captured with the cameras, allowing my exact likeness to be used for a journalist character in the game. I'd be receiving a full 1940s makeover at the hands of Hollywood stylists, then it was time to get in the chair and record dialogue while the cameras captured every subtle motion of my face.

They seemed surprised at my immediate agreement to shave my beard and cut my hair, but they wouldn't be getting any argument from me if it meant I got to be in Rockstar's next title. I shaved my beard and sat down in the makeup room, ready to start the process. Next to me was Mad Men's Aaron Staton, who plays Detective Cole Phelps in the game. We talked about Call of Duty and Borderlands as the stylist put copious amounts of gel, glue, and even paint in my hair. I was surprised at just how in-depth the process was, requiring repeated trips to the hair dryer and many staffers analyzing my hair placement to ensure it was just right for the game. After a couple of hours, I was ready to get in the chair.

This new capture process requires no facial markers whatsoever, so I was simply outfitted with an orange shirt and a clip-on microphone. A green ball was affixed near my neckline, which served as an anchor point for attaching my head to my in-game body. They buckled me into the chair and pointed out the X mark that I'd need to keep my eyes trained on. Once I was adequately prepared, the door shut behind me and I was alone in an almost eerie soundproof room that looked like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey (only with 32 cameras pointed directly at my face and a roomful of people on the other side of the wall monitoring my every move).

Before I did my lines, they needed a couple of idle animations for my character. I made neutral, "thinking," and angry facial expressions that I had to hold for a few seconds so they could capture my blinking. Once that was done, it was time to try out my entirely untested acting chops. A computer monitor in front of me acted as a teleprompter of sorts, but it was mostly for memorization as I had to keep my eyes on the X whenever I delivered my lines. Luckily, it didn't require a great deal of emotion or acting ability for most of my dialogue. Most of it was short bits like "Hey, there's that dirty cop they've been talking about on the radio" or "What'd I miss?". The latter line is for when my character approaches a crime scene, and it wasn't the only one that was situation-specific. Slam into me as I'm driving and my character belts out "You better be insured!". If you're trying to avoid being seen and I spot you, my character says "Check it out, this guy thinks he's The Shadow!". My longest line was tied to a specific event in the story - "Twelve city blocks go up in smoke and it just takes one cop to bring it down? You ask me, Detective Cole Phelps just got lucky."

Once my motions and dialogue were recorded, the door opened up behind me and I was let out of the chair. A few hours is all it took to fully prepare and capture my head, resulting in an uncanny likeness of me roaming the streets of 1947 Los Angeles. You'll be able to see, shoot, or run over my character when the game releases this spring.

Note: Because of my involvement with the game, I will not be involved with our L.A. Noire review