In a small, white — almost blindingly white — room in Culver City, actor Aaron Staton finished Day 82 of production with a massive 2,200-page script. Instead of costars he was surrounded by 32 cameras and his wardrobe was nothing more than an orange T-shirt spangled with small green balls.
The actor best known for his role as Ken Cosgrove on “Mad Men” has done much of his performances for his starring role in the video game L.A. Noire in this exact spot in this exact outfit. Since he was first cast in late 2009 as police Det. Cole Phelps, Staton has been the primary test subject for new technology called MotionScan from start-up company Depth Analysis.
With the cameras capturing his every glance, twitch and nod and enough light bathing him to make shadows impossible, Staton is giving a performance that will be transformed, via a bank of computers, into arguably the most lifelike ever seen in a video game. Cole Phelps is more than just Staton’s voice or his motion-captured movements, a transformation video-game players have seen many times before. He’s a character portrayed by Staton, who’s as much an actor in this setting as he would be in front of a television or movie camera.
We think this brings a whole new level of humanity to gaming,” said Oliver Bao, the head of research for Depth Analysis. Bao has been working on the technology since 2005, when it was first tested in a shed in his native Australia with two cameras.
Created in conjunction with Team Bondi, the development studio making L.A. Noire for Grand Theft Auto publisher Rockstar games, the MotionScan technology is designed to translate human performance into animated characters, be they in a game, movie or television show. The approach is not dissimilar in spirit to the “emotion-capture” philosophy used by filmmaker James Cameron for “Avatar” although the actual gear and process are markedly different. L.A. Noire, a six-years-in-the-making game set in 1940s Los Angeles, will be its first public showing when it’s released this spring.
With his hair perfectly parted and his face made up, Staton delivered lines and was being directed just as if he were on a Hollywood set — except that he was only acting from the neck up. As he reads line like “LAPD! Out of the car, lady!” Team Bondi creative director Brendan McNamara, in the next room, gave instructions (“Make it a little more urgent…”) via a headset.
By the next day, McNamara and his team could be able to see Staton’s eerily similar digital avatar speaking the same lines with the exact same facial movements. The face is then matched to body movements based on motion-capture sessions done by Staton and a cast of about 400 late last year.
The texture of the acting is like soundstage work done in Hollywood for decades but there are reminders that this is a tricky new technological endeavor. When a visitor meandered into the recording room, Bao’s anxiety level spiked – the slightest bump to one of the cameras, it turns out, requires a precise recalibration that can take hours.
And as Staton acted, McNamara has to issue an occasional reminder that isn’t usually heard on a set: “Aaron, we have to do it again. Your hands are blocking your head now.”
– Ben Fritz
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