When Gareth Bale met tech: behind FIFA’s mocap might

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With the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One aiming to push gaming realism to unprecedented levels, Matt Hill looks behind the tech, talent and mammoth budgets fuelling EA’s first forays into the next generation…

[Originally published in edited form on T3.com]

“Mo money, mo mo-cap,” often appears to be the unofficial tagline of the incoming next-generation video-game consoles, the PlayStation 4 and particularly the Xbox One’s aspirations of lifelike graphical fidelity requiring not just Hollywood blockbuster budgets but their exhaustive technical processes, too.

Gaming giant EA is no stranger to spending big in these stakes, its in-house motion-capture studio a pioneer in virtual realism and its many sport franchises home to obsessive refiners of detail. But as the US firm prepared to unveil £85m-rated Spurs forward Gareth Bale as the UK cover star of its latest FIFA football sim instalment, it raised the bar even further.

It flew 5,000 miles to record one Welshman kicking a ball around for 60 minutes.

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This is clearly a whole new ball game, and FIFA 14 is the first in the series to utilise EA Sports’ new Ignite graphics engine developed especially for the Xbox One and PS4’s capabilities – with the back end’s data demands growing exponentially as a result.

So having explored EA Canada’s industry-leading Capture Lab in Vancouver earlier this year, INDUSTRIA headed to Audiomotion, the UK’s biggest motion-capture studio and creators of World War Z’s zombie hordes, for some extended time with the triple player of the year, FIFA 14 animation director Gareth Eaves and Capture Lab’s system specialist Mike Iguidez (pictured above with Bale).

The EA Sports team flew in for this whistlestop mo-cap session especially to film the Tottenham forward’s recognisable free-kicks, dribbles and celebrations. It marks the first time FIFA’s motion capturing has been done “properly” in the UK, Eaves tells us, and is a rare excursion overseas for Capture Lab. The process is usually carried out alongside the UFC, Fight Night and NBA series at EA Sports’ fully turfed Canadian HQ.

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After introductions, Bale suits up in a custom version of this season’s Capture Lab’ “mo-cap” collection. Every motion-capture suit is adorned with 76 specifically placed markers, which are rather disappointingly just rubber balls affixed with that reflective stuff you get on police jackets.

Rather cleverly, though, each outfit has one marker misplaced on purpose so the software can detect multiple people at once. Suits at EA’s motion-capture HQ are specially fitted by height and weight – and then kept in the world’s strangest cloakroom in wait for someone of similar proportions

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Out in the main recording area, the space is awash with the red glow of very expensive cameras. Vicon is the industry standard at the world’s motion-capture studios, each snapper costing up to £30,000 a pop. EA’s Capture Lab in Vancouver (pictured above) has 118 in total, while Bale was filmed by a still-not-too-shabby 58 at Audiomotion. Less than 10 years ago, seven was the norm; now the system can accommodate up to 200, capturing 3,000 markers at once.

Each mo-cap camera shoots in 2D, with its view of the markers calibrated by computer to the studios’ floor grid (in this case, 11×11). The flash of the camera is reflected on the markers, so their placement on key joints and weight-supporting areas enables the tech to read fluid body movements in real time. A raising of the arms in a T-shape is the equivalent of ‘cut’ for the besuited, as it resets the system.

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Capture Lab and Audiomotion both use Vicon’s Blade software, which is the tech that turns players from grey wetsuits to red and green wireframes. During Bale’s sessions, three 55″ monitors and eight 17″ monitors pumped out a mixture of live video, wireframe renders and real-time game-engine footage from a variety of angles, to the studio staff and those on set.

The session lasts around 60 minutes, but standard shoots typically run for 10 hours and on shifts, to keep intensity high. We can see why, as after an hour in the full catsuit and Peter Cech-style headgear, Bale is clutching the nearest fan in a personal chorus of “I’m boiling”. When we visited Capture Lab’s studio they had players from the MLS’s Vancouver Whitecaps and local university teams on rotation.

While the mo-cap system is smooth most of the time, a rather freakishly true representation of the on-pitch action, markers do have a tendency to move during such high-energy sporting demos. At one point, Bale’s ankle looks worryingly mangled on screen, twisting at a 90-degree angle from where it should be, before the rogue marker is spotted and contract-deal heart attacks averted.

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Bale’s mo-cap session focuses predominantly on celebrations, shift-and-shoots and his array of dipping free-kicks, which EA Sports tell us they’d struggled to replicate previously. It’s unsurprising to learn that the more mundane interactions such as warming up on the side are left to less famous folk.
In fact, they are able to film up to 10 “performers” at once back at ‘The Bridge’ (pictured above), the tech hub of EA Canada’s Capture Lab in Vancouver often spoken about in hallowed tones, which means it can handle full five-on-five NBA games recorded in real time. Data is transferred from here to the developers, where the virtual skeleton is tracked and attached to the in-game model. Once footage is shot, it can be within a game in three weeks.

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“Bale’s tricks are actually already in the game,” Eaves reveals, when we ask why the session is unusually late in the development process. “We had a go at replicating his moves before we knew we were going to get this. I think Bale can probably do a better impression of himself, though.”

Having experienced the tech ourselves, markering up for the most stylistically unglamorous 20 minutes of our career (“Nice suit,” deadpans the Spurs man), we can concur that a) motion capture is indeed very reflective of the “performer” and b) no amount of technology in the world can improve your skills (see video below). That’s why a multibillion-dollar company flies 5,000 miles to film one £85 million footballer for an hour, we guess.

FIFA 14 is out on PS3 and X360 on September 27, PS4 and Xbox One later this year; easports.com

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