Reverse-engineering 'The Godfather' for gaming

Electronic Arts artists had to watch the old film over and over to capture characters' look and feel. Video: Trailer of 'Godfather,' the game Image: Progeny of 'Godfather'

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
4 min read
"The Godfather" is one of those films that a lot of people watch over and over and over again. But Jenny Ryu may well have seen the Oscar-winning picture more than even any of its rabid fans.

As the lead character designer on Electronic Arts' "The Godfather" game, Ryu was in charge of creating the dozens of characters that appear in the adaptation. And along the way, she had to watch the film day in and day out for nearly a year.

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Video: Trailer of 'Godfather,' the game
EA replicates look and feel of original mob flick.

That's because, unlike with many films that are made into video games, "The Godfather" is so old--it came out in 1972--that its producers at Paramount Pictures couldn't give Ryu and her team the high-resolution digital assets they needed as references from which to animate about 60 characters including the Marlon Brando, James Caan and Robert Duvall look-alikes for the game.

And thus, Ryu had to create the animations manually, a process that required her to sit in front of a TV watching "The Godfather" scene by scene, again and again, until she had a feel, not only for how the characters looked, but how they moved and for the expressions they made.

"I needed to watch the movies a lot of times," Ryu said. "I needed to find out the characters' characteristics, shapes, expressions and...sense of mood. That's a real challenge to me--but the good thing, because I watch a lot of the movie, I can get the right sense of the characteristics."

"The Godfather" is expected to hit store shelves on March 21.

Some segments of the film industry may recognize Ryu's experience, because in many cases it's necessary for animators to craft characters' images and movements by hand from reference material. Though much animation and effects work is done using motion capture--a process where animation is created from base footage of actors wearing special outfits studded with reflectors--some production houses can't use such a process.

For example, said Jeff Paul, an animation instructor at the Art Institute of California, San Francisco, animation studios like Pixar Animation Studios or PDI work manually.

"If it's a movie like any of the Pixar movies, or 'Shrek' or something like that, then that's all hand animated," Paul said. "Motion capture works very well if you've got human characters with human proportions. But if you exaggerate the proportions, motion capture breaks down."

At the same time, he said, some films are likely to use both motion capture and manual processes. He pointed to a film like "Spider Man" in which some shots were done by hand while others were based on footage of lead actor Tobey Maguire in a "mo-cap suit (being) recorded while he leaped around doing all his Spider Man stuff."

In the digital era of games, however, Ryu's process of watching "The Godfather" repeatedly is rare because most film-based games are put together side by side with the movie production.

"If you're producing a (movie) game right now, they probably have the motion capture actors working right along with the movie production," Paul said. "So I think (EA's 'Godfather' process) is unusual because you have so many video games being produced in conjunction with the movies they're from."

Still, he said, there are other old films being turned into games these days, such as 1979's "The Warriors," which was adapted last year by Rockstar Games.

In any case, Ryu said, though Paramount Pictures wasn't able to give her team the digital assets she would have liked, they did help in some ways.

For example, she explained, she and the "Godfather" game's art director and two other lead artists visited the studio for three days to research movie references. Paramount also gave her team more than 20 boxes with film assets, as well as black-and-white and color prints and slides that she was able to scan.

"They were really useful references for characters, and background, as well," Ryu said. "But (they're) 3D characters, so I decided to keep watching and watching 'Godfather.'"

Practically speaking, she explained, that meant examining the film scene by scene, looking closely for the little details, like the peculiar way Brando looked throughout the film as though he had stuffed his cheeks with cotton balls.

Of course, creating the characters by hand doesn't mean Ryu or her colleagues were sketching by hand.

Instead, she said, as she compiled a list in her head of character elements she wanted to include, she would work on her computer, creating 3D models and textures.

"Texture is really important, because it has all kinds of lighting and mood and shadows," Ryu said. "The computer is a really good tool, so I don't need to use pen and pencil in my sketchbooks."

Ultimately, she said, each of the 60 characters from the film that she imported into the game required about a week of watching the film and animating on the computer. Thus, that meant spending about a year glued to her television and computer just trying to create the characters.

But while Ryu was the one sitting directly in front of the film day after day, she was by no means the only one for whom "The Godfather" served as an all-encompassing background to life.

She explained that during the making of the game, the film was playing 24 hours a day on monitors located in EA's studio.

Still, while Ryu may well have watched the movie more times than anyone else on Earth, she isn't dreaming its dialogue every night.

"When I watched the movie to make characters, I usually turned the volume down," she said. "At EA, it's all cubicles and desks."