How an NHL star becomes a video game actor

For its <i>NHL 2K9</i> game, 2K Sports uses dozens of motion-capture cameras to film Columbus Blue Jackets' Rick Nash to get realistic 3D video of his signature style.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
NHL star Rick Nash of the Columbus Blue Jackets gets ready to be filmed in a motion-capture session for the forthcoming 2K Sports video game NHL 2K9. The idea is that by placing specially reflective markers all over his body and his hockey stick, the technicians can capture fully 3D film of his motion as he skates on a floor of synthetic ice. Then, the data captured by the cameras can be incorporated into the video game so that Nash's skating appears as realistic as possible. Here, Nash prepares to have the markers on his suit calibrated with the 56 cameras in the 2K Sports studio in Novato, Calif., where the motion-capture session took place. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

NOVATO, Calif.--Over on one side of the synthetic hockey rink, the director yelled out, "Motion-capture ready?"

The technician answered, "Ready."

The director then shouted out, "Actor ready?"

NHL star Rick Nash, a left wing for the Columbus Blue Jackets answered back, "Ready."

Nash was on hand, even as the Stanley Cup Finals are still in progress, because he's the cover star for 2K Sports' forthcoming hockey video game, NHL 2K9. And he was here, in this small studio in a nondescript office park for an all-day motion-capture filming session for the game.

Nash takes a shot at the goal during the motion-capture session. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

The idea is that by filming several dozen of Nash's moves--shots, skating tricks, dekes, and more--with special motion-capture cameras, 2K Sports--a division of Grand Theft Auto publisher Take-Two Interactive--will be able to incorporate some of what it calls Nash's "signature" moves into the game.

That's why 2K Sports has set up 56 of the motion-capture cameras all around the studio, on the ceiling, and close to the floor. Together, they can take all the data they record and stitch it into a realistic representation of Nash's real-life movements.

"They all see in a 2D plane," said Tony Tominia, a motion-capture specialist for 2K Sports, referring to the cameras. "They send out light, and markers (on Nash) reflect back. Whatever is being reflected back is how it determines its space in 3D."

Tominia explained that the many markers he and his team attached to the special dark suit Nash was wearing are designed to help them capture the movement of the hockey star's joints.

"(We want to) get an idea of how human movement really happens," Tominia said, "to really see how the human body really works."

When I first arrived at this studio about 20 minutes north of San Francisco, Nash was skating around on the special synthetic ice-like surface in a red and white outfit. But he soon changed into the all-black outfit he would wear for the filming session and then several technicians gathered around him to put the markers all over his body and his hockey stick.

Prior to sending Nash out onto the "ice," 2K Sports senior product manager Mike Rhinehart had also put on skates and spent a few minutes gliding around waving a special wand.

A 2K Sports technician adds a reflective marker to the hockey stick that will be used by NHL star Rick Nash during the motion-capture filming session for the forthcoming video game NHL 2K9. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

The idea with that was that the 56 motion-capture--known as mo-cap--cameras would record the movement of the wand and calibrate the system into a cohesive 3D system.

Of course, computer systems being what they are, that process had a few kicks and starts.

"Hang on, Mike," one of the technicians yelled out as Rhinehart was skating around waving the wand. "The software just crashed."

Then, a little later, before much more progress could be made, the studio's fire alarm went off, deafening everyone with a horrid, blaring sound.

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Soon enough, however, they began to get Nash ready for his filming session, sticking the markers onto the tight black suit that, the hockey star said, "Doesn't leave much to the imagination."

Finally, Nash headed back out to the ice, but before he could begin skating, they had to calibrate the markers on his suit with the cameras.

So he skated to the center of the ice and for a few minutes had to pose in a series of stances so that the cameras could recognize all of his joints when he moved.

This step, one of the technicians explained to everyone, is sometimes known as the "chicken dance," and shows which markers are associated with which parts of the actor's body.

While the Thursday session was devoted to filming Nash for the next edition of 2K Sports' hockey game, the company also produces basketball and baseball games, and this studio is used several times a year for these mo-cap events. The company also does this kind of filming in other locations as well.

"We did about 75 days of (mo-cap) filming last year," said Dave Washburn, 2K Sports' motion-capture supervisor. "This year, we'll do between 90 and 95 days."

Washburn said that each day of shooting is followed by up to three days of production, and that explains why he has a full-time job.

But he also said that the Nash session would be a "breeze," since the hockey star would only be doing about 75 different moves, compared with many more for the company's other sports titles.

A look straight into one of the 56 motion-capture cameras that were used in the filming session. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

I asked Washburn what some of the challenges were for setting up a session like this, and he said that perhaps the biggest was finding the right combination of dark walls, a lit ceiling, and a light floor, all without blinding the "talent."

He said it's all an ever-evolving process.

"In our department, every single day, there's a better way," Washburn said. "I won't stop. Every day we fine tune...That's kind of my quest."

Finally, Nash was ready, and he began to skate around the ice with purpose.

On the director's cue, Nash headed to one corner of the ice and waited for the command to skate.

Then, again and again, Nash would launch into an explosive move, skating at high speed across the ice and firing away at a goal on the opposite side. There'd be a pause, during which everything seemed to slow down, and then they'd start again. It was quite the contrast in style: slow and methodical, and then a burst of explosive speed. Repeat. Over and over.

The idea was to have Nash run through several dozen of his moves so that the technicians could record them all and then, eventually, build them into the game. This way, when players face off in NHL 2K9, they'll get the most realistic movement possible out of Nash and the many other players presented in the game.

For his part, Nash, 23, said he had played many of the earlier versions of 2K Sports' hockey games and that the experience of being selected to be the cover star for the game was "every kid's dream."

I had overheard him say a couple of times during the filming that the plastic synthetic surface was making it hard for him to make the kinds of very sharp cuts he's used to making on real ice.

So I asked him if that limitation was going to be a problem when the video game's developers were putting it together.

But he said that out of the dozens of moves he regularly makes when skating, that was just one that wasn't working out, and that ultimately, almost everything he does when playing hockey will be in the game.

I also asked him how they'd decided which moves to incorporate into the game.

"I sat down with a dozen producers and testers," Nash said. "It's a video game, but we want those highlight reel goals. It's a video game, but (we can) find the perfect medium."

On June 10, Geek Gestalt hits the highways for Road Trip 2008. I'll start in Orlando, Fla., and visit many of the South's most interesting destinations. Stay tuned, and be sure to keep up, both now and during the trip, with what I'm doing on Twitter.