Art Director Joel Emslie explains the techniques and goals of Infinity Ward’s art team in the production of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.
At the start of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s development over two years ago, Joel Emslie was reminiscing:
I’d seen Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered and it had given me ‘all the feels’ again. Despite the jump in visual fidelity of that title, Infinity Ward wanted the next Modern Warfare to be different, with a much bigger jump in graphical quality. They loved Remastered, but the goal, from the inception of Modern Warfare, was to make a visceral, real-looking game. That prospect became a reality one day at Infinity Ward: I was walking past an office, and someone was screwing around with photogrammetry.
If you wonder what photogrammetry is this technique uses photographs to make comparative and accurate measurements, usually in order to precisely show a location, scene, or object. Today, this results in the ability to construct highly-detailed 3D models.
Joel describes it
take a thousand different photos of a particular room from different angles, feed it into a magic computer, and it’ll spit out a mesh [that looks real]. Like a 3D version of a room, exact to the micron.
Teams began to fan out to find examples of a wide variety of objects they could photograph:
We started going out and collecting data, around the [neighborhoods near the Infinity Ward] office at first. Joel was particularly keen on detritus, rubble, and other scenery he knew would be needed for the game. In particular, he remembers taking “images of some bad-ass looking garbage on [State Route] 118. During this formative period, Infinity Ward created a team of people that educated [themselves], and learned, and understood photogrammetry techniques to try and push the effort. We even tried designing our own devices, like poles, to take shots from all kinds of different angles. We got really good at it.
A lot of work has been put into the details it seems. with focusing on the small nuances in objects. Using more focus on items on how they appear and look when standing near it. With all of this visual data, the art teams began to construct environments using the new game engine, which was already well into production, before upping the quality of the graphics considerably using a tiling technique, adding additional detail for times when you’re close to an object (like a rotting red leather sofa, a crumbling wall, or the brickwork of a London townhouse).
You get really close to walls, and when you see things up close, [you’re seeing] this detailed tiling technique where you can really notice the detail. You’re probably familiar with 16 or 32 pixels per inch; this will be 64 pixels per inch; almost as real as it gets.
Crumpled corpses are another way to increase the seamless believability of the environments. Joel tells us; I like to get a bit experimental. So they started to drop in “meat bags.” These bodies were “actually one of our in-house devs: There was a casting call one day, [asking] ‘who wants to get dressed up as a dead corpse and lay in the scanner’? It actually doesn’t take a long time to scan, it’s just a camera snap, and 160-200 cameras go off at once. It takes one shot, which then takes six hours to process.
When you pose a character, you don’t fully get the nuance of the skin, or gravity, essentially the realistic effects of gravity and physics at work. It seemed that scanning developer-shaped meat bags allowed the team to drape and position expired remains with a new level of believability.
Now the team goes anywhere and scans anything they need. One example is an entire Russian tank. This is… fully scanned, we got underneath it, I’ve no idea how. I guess they lifted it up and scanned it. But it makes for a smoking hot prop. When you see these things rolling around, it’s just completely convincing.
As the scope of the possible ways to use photogrammetry grew, Joel tells that the team started getting super-creative, and when heard about people using drones to scan the environment. We’d go out to an area to get a good example of an expanded environment, and we’d pop a drone up, and we would sweep coastlines, we would sweep deserts, mountains, and forests, and we would bring all this data back.
Even the most convincing townhouse, rebel stronghold, or mountain hideaway wouldn’t be worth painstakingly crafting together if the AI inhabitants weren’t rendered to the same quality. Joel and the art teams worked tirelessly to ensure believability across the board.
Putting it all together, and seeing our characters in the environment, we did a massive amount of [work] on our shaders and on our materials to make sure that… this was a challenge. If we have an environment that’s as real [as a photograph], everything else has to be photographically real too. If you put in a made-up character in a realistic environment, they look completely inappropriate; it looks awful. We really had to work hard on that. How hard?
We turned ourselves into a traditional Hollywood model shop.
Source: Activision Nordics Press Release