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Gaming goes hollywood

Motion capture blurs line between video games, films.

By Stephen HumphriesCorrespondent / October 8, 2009

Just Cause Productions is a film and video-game motion-capture company in Los Angeles that is trying to bring a more cinematic feel to video games.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

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Los Angeles

Reuben Langdon has a most unusual profession: He’s a human marionette.

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Drop by Mr. Langdon’s office in Marina Del Ray, Calif., and chances are you’ll find him dangling in a suspension of stunt wires. Don’t be surprised if he’s wielding a toy sword.

Part acrobat, part martial artist, Langdon is one of the world’s top motion-capture actors. For years, video-game- makers have filmed the performer’s choreographed actions in a suit dotted with sensors and then mapped them on a computer to create iconic characters such as Ken in “Street Fighter IV” and Dante in “Devil May Cry.” The latter, which Langdon also voices, even has its own buff action figure. “They did model the six-pack after my six-pack,” jokes the actor.

Now it’s Langdon’s turn to pull the strings. The versatile thespian is not only crossing over into cinema – he was hired as a performance-capture actor for James Cameron’s upcoming “Avatar” – but his production company, Just Cause, is employing cutting-edge cameras used in 3-D movies to bring a more cinematic feel to video games.

“What Just Cause is doing is really a sign of the times in the cross integration of interactive entertainment in gaming with big-budget movies,” says Scott Lowe, gear editor at IGN.com, a website devoted to multimedia and gaming. “Both mediums seem to be benefiting from that kind of cross integration.”

Avatar,” a 3-D space opera set on a planet straight off a Yes album cover, is Cameron’s ambitious attempt to smudge the line between live action and realistic animation by adapting video-game technology. To that end, Cameron affixed a camera to each actor’s head so that animators could capture each minute detail of an expression, right down to a tongue twitch.

“We actually had a head rig on ‘Devil May Cry,’ where we put a camera right in front of the actor’s face,” says Langdon, who played the lead character of the Capcom-produced game. “It just captures the best data.”

In turn, Langdon has borrowed an innovation used in “Avatar” called the iKam, a virtual camera that allows for “real-time capture.”

Previously, directors have had to wait until postproduction to view what the performance capture looks like in the animated world. The virtual camera allows on-set filmmakers to peer into a computer-generated 3-D environment during filming to see how the actors interact with their animated surroundings.

“You are able to take this device – which looks like a cross between a steering wheel, a PlayStation controller, and an iPhone – and ... look into the screen into the game world,” en­thuses Chris Kramer, senior director of communications and community at Capcom, the Japanese gaming company behind franchises such as “Street Fighter” and “Resident Evil.” “It’s like holding a portal into an alternate dimension in your hands.”

As such, the cameraman is able to move around performers to create a more cinematic effect in video-game “cut scenes” (between-action interludes for exposition and dialogue). By contrast, other games look as if they were clinically filmed by cameras sliding along smooth rails.

“All the cut scenes were done in real time, but all those cut scenes have a rendered look,” says Langdon, whose chiseled cheekbones are curtained by center-parted blond hair.