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Tech Focus: L.A. Noire's MotionScan Animation

Depth Analysis discuss L.A. Noire's astonishing facial animation tech

A monster hit worldwide, Team Bondi's L.A. Noire has garnered plaudits for its innovative new motion capture techniques, which represents a colossal leap forward in the fidelity of in-game acting. The developers took over 400 actors into its Los Angeles studio, digitising every aspect of their performance via a ring of 32 cameras, turning that data into beautifully animated 3D models which are then integrated into the game.

The result is simply remarkable. The actors in L.A. Noire are so realistically rendered that facial recognition tools from the likes of Picasa can be used to identify the performer from screenshots alone, while the animation is so authentic that lip-readers have been able to easily follow the dialogue without subtitles. MotionScan is another great example of how innovative developers are taking their tech to the next level without the need for a new generation of gaming hardware.

Part of the success of the L.A. Noire motion capture tech is down to the creation of a sister studio, Depth Analysis, who are continually improving and refining MotionScan, while offering the technology to partners throughout the gaming and motion picture businesses - and beyond.

In this interview, Digital Foundry discusses MotionScan with Head of Depth Analysis R&D, Oliver Bao and head of communications, Jennie Kong.

Digital FoundryDepth Analysis seems to have evolved in concert with Team Bondi and the production of L.A. Noire. Was it always your intent to incorporate MotionScan into L.A. Noire right from the earliest beginnings of the game's production? I'm envisaging a set-up similar to Peter Jackson developing WETA alongside his film production company.
Jennie Kong

Depth Analysis was born alongside Team Bondi studio when L.A. Noire was conceived. It was apparent from the very beginning to the team that if the game was to potently hold its own as a true detective game, where interrogation of the game's suspects was key, then a new capture technology would be instrumental.

Team Bondi had worked with existing mocap systems back in 2004 and in understanding the limitations of each, we knew that it would have been a stretch to achieve the high degree of subtlety needed for the type of game we envisioned to make. We needed a technology to reproduce performance as realistically as possible. So yes, it was always our intent to create MotionScan from the beginning, though the shape and scope of it evolved with the game. In many ways, L.A. Noire influenced the technology, and MotionScan influenced some of the game too. I guess the rest is history.

It was always our intent to create MotionScan from the beginning, though the shape and scope of it evolved with the game.

Digital FoundryTo what extent did the development work for L.A. Noire help to define and improve the feature-set of MotionScan?
Jennie Kong

There were a few minor things that we worked on. A couple of examples include: idle loops (animation loops of a character in some emotional state), blending between animations, skinning to allow head movements, texture transfer between frames, etc.

L.A. Noire lead actor Aaron Staton takes his place in the MotionScan hotseat. In addition to capturing his performance, the Depth Analysis tech also tracks the location of three spheres attached to his clothing - these allow the developers to more easily place the head on the game's body model.
Digital FoundryAcross the development of MotionScan, you've moved from six to 26 to 32 cameras. What were the technological demands that prompted this increase in raw data? What do 32 cameras give you that 26 don't?
Oliver Bao

I would say redundancy mainly; should four cameras not capture properly during the shoot we are still able to use the take. Having the extra samples also allow us to reconstruct a better 3D surface in general and allow us remove reconstruction noise a little more easily.

Digital FoundryThere's been a lot of discussion about the "uncanny valley". You did a lot of testing across a number of years before the production capture of L.A. Noire began. In what ways did you need to refine and alter the tech to get a basic look that seemed "right"?
Jennie Kong

Once we had the foundation of the MotionScan rig up and running, the team worked on a number of tests with the goal of making it looks as realistic as possible. Our focus then turned to ensuring that we could render cost-effectively for a video game console. When we had refined the technology and capture rig to achieve the most realistic presentation; we laid a lot of importance in getting the right "look" by fine-tuning it to match what the current gen consoles could do or else it wouldn't blend in with the rest of the game world.

Digital FoundryLet's talk about the process and tech used in acquiring the raw data. What type and spec of camera do you use, and why choose this model specifically?
Oliver Bao

We chose Camera-Link machine vision cameras with 1600x1200 at 30fps back in 2005/2006. These were the best we could get back then within our price range with each model calibrated for colour and gain at factory already - that is, all units are identical in image quality. With facial performance, we didn't really need high frame rates (60fps or above), and two megapixels was the highest resolution we could get. Machine vision cameras are of small form factor, robust, work under controlled environments (also cheaper) and often used in remote sensing or monitoring.

Digital FoundryDo you work with lossless streams from the camera, or do you use something like the RED wavelet codec to keep the data rate manageable?
Oliver Bao

We work with lossless streams from the camera. We do perform lossless compression (around 2:1) on capture machines before written to HDD.

Richard Leadbetter avatar

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.