How EA brings your FIFA 14 players to photo-realistic life
20th Mar 2013 | 12:45
Pushing our games out of the uncanny valley
It's likely you won't have heard of Nigel Nunn, but if you've played a video game recently there's a very good chance that you have seen his work.
Nunn heads up The Capture Lab which does most of EA's facial capture. TechRadar caught up with him while he was at Premier League side Everton's training groung taking the pictures of players that may well end up in FIFA 14.
From the progress in hauling computer game avatars out of the uncanny valley to why wrinkles are a good thing, Nunn explained to us how he uses a system of 18 cameras to get high resolution imagery. The very same imagery that begins the process of putting Wayne Rooney's pugilist mug into the games that millions play.
"Faces have been a big area of focus for a couple of years now in gaming," said Nunn, who believes his chosen occupation is "super interesting" and pretty new.
Of course, given the thousands of faces that exist in a game like FIFA, a percentage of them are still done from pictures, but Nunn's work has honed the process of converting reality into gaming faces which, if not actually photorealistic, certainly capture the essence of the players.
"The first reason for actually going around the clubs and doing this is time," he explained. "There's a huge time saving in just being able to take their pictures in our system which is all set up as we want it. This means there's not a whole lot of handling of the files.
There's also the matter of accuracy; "We do occasionally need to go in and tweak our cameras but doing it this way means we know scale and proportion and nobody has to touch anything, whereas if we do it from pictures then it's pure interpretation."
Nunn freely admits that with the very nature of gaming consoles and the sheer amount of data required for accuracy, the final product does not always end up looking precisely like the person that has been photographed.
"There's a couple of stages beyond ours," he said. "Our stage captures and processed everything and is based on really high resolution images.
"What we produce is far too high quality to fit on a disc so at some point there is compression and tweaking of the faces so that they can be animated."
We asked Nunn why some players come out looking more realistic than others, even when they have gone through the same process.
"It's hard to say. They get exactly the same treatment, but the end result isn't quite as perfect, although it's tough to say in the process where that happens. It could just be skin type, and certain features certainly come out better.
"It's funny, but coaches always come out looking amazing - wrinkles are definitely a good thing!
Yes, older men with a bit of stubble come out looking perfectly realistic, but a young girl came out terribly and we had to go in and fix a few things."
With the current consoles coming to the end of their lives and the Xbox 720 and PS4 now coming to the fore, attention is very much focused on the future, and TechRadar asked if the next generation would begin to pave the way for more detail and more photorealism.
"I think so," said Nunn. "I think with the technology that's out there now there's no reason not to base something off real life. 3D models in both games and movies are more versatile.
Nunn's process means that EA is already preparing for this change: "What we capture is high quality, we do the same process as is done for movies that don't have the same issues and limitations as we do in gaming. The raw quality of what we capture is excellent its amazing and we will always have that. We've always got these great raw images."
If the face fits
The uncanny valley is the name of the slight wrongness that humans quickly pick up on when they see computer generated humans - from an avatar in a game right the way through to the immensely complicated and expensively created Clu character in Tron: Legacy.
Nunn fully believes that 3D modelling can eventually crack this problem, although he explains that he's not sure yet what the "something magic" that they need to capture is.
It's weird," he said. "It's funny how the first 80 per cent is easy but its the last 20 per cent that we haven't got quite right.
"We need to make little tweaks to get that last little bit. We've already taken huge leaps in basic quality and 80 per cent on the surface looks beautiful
" But we're talking about that tiny little something that the mind can tell means something is not right here - whether that's in the eyes or facial movement or whatever."
Getting back to the world of FIFA, and TechRadar asks Nunn about the reaction of the players to being photographed in such detail.
"There are a lot of players that are huge fans of the game," he answered. "It's always quite surprising how many of these [Premier League] footballers are complete FIFA addicts! There's a lot of trash talking between them about the game when we are taking the photos. Even those that don't play have a nephew or cousin that plays and they want to be a part of that - it certainly makes things a lot easier."
TechRadar asked about players that were not so keen, but Nunn said that people completely refusing to go through the process were rare.
"Theres always someone who would prefer not to, but they are generally easy to convince. Normally when they see their teammates go through the process they are happier to go through with it.
The face scanning is not done on an annual basis, although Nunn explains that changing hairstyles are dealt with by creating bald models of the player and then adding the hair on afterwards.
"Once we've captured them once that's generally it - unless someone decides to get plastic surgery! We do take the opportunity to do people more than once if they are in the right place, we've just done Joey Barton for the second time because he moved clubs.
"It only takes three minutes to do the photos and then it's up to someone else if they want to use the updated pictures."
And what about the players that ask for subtle changes in post production, like a few extra inches of height or a slightly smaller nose...
"We get those requests all the time!" Nunn said. "A lot of players turn up and, when they see the amount of cameras, disappear off to do their hair and have a shower before they will let us process them."
Frankly, if you pointed 18 cameras at TechRadar, you'd have us scurrying for the nearest mirror, so you won't find us suggesting that footballers are vain.