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What do Star Wars Battlefront and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter have in common?

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

The first developer diary video for Star Wars Battlefront is only a few minutes long, but it gives a tantalizing hint at the level of graphical fidelity EA's DICE hope to achieve with the game. Behind it is a technology many are unfamiliar with, known as photogrammetry.

You would think that by this point in the franchise's history, whether you're making a collectible miniatures game or a triple-A shooter, there would be a ready assortment of digital assets to make a Star Wars game from. Need an X-wing? Here, take this one.

But obviously that's not the case.

Every time a new Star Wars property is made, teams have to start from scratch to rebuild the universe to fit inside their engines and move through their development pipelines. DICE is no different, but it seems that their methods are.

Apparently, the team at Lucasfilm opened up their vaults, allowing the artists at DICE to use high-resolution cameras to capture the real movie props from every angle. They're not using a 3D modeling program to build Darth Vader's lightsaber. They're actually taking photographs of the singular lightsaber Vader carried in the movies, and putting that in the game. Same goes for the Death Star and even R2-D2. And it's all thanks to photogrammetry.

So what is photogrammetry? In short, it's taking hundreds, perhaps thousands, of still images of a single object and feeding them into a piece of software, hitting a button, and having a 3D digital asset pop out.

It's certainly not new technology, but it was never applied to gaming at scale until last year's The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.

Take this excerpt from Polygon's feature on The Astronauts, the Warsaw, Poland based team behind the game:

The secret to his game's florid, realistic look is a unique technology called "photogrammetry." Poznanski doesn't just use photography as the basis for the art assets in the game. The game environments are literally made out of still pictures, hundreds of thousands of them.

The software he uses was originally designed for surveying strip mines from the air, taking dozens of aerial photographs and lacing them together to create a three-dimensional model of a quarry. In this way you can estimate how much stone has been removed over time, and make educated guesses on how much was still in the ground.

The technology has been used in the entertainment medium as well, most famously in the first Matrix movie. When Keanu Reeves was shown dodging bullets on a rooftop, the environment all around him was created using photogrammetry.

But to Poznanski's knowledge, photogrammetry has never been used at this scale in a video game before. The vast majority of the assets in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, from pipes and weapons to entire mountainsides, were created using the technique. ...

The rest of the team spends a good part of their time actually lowering the fidelity of the assets Poznanski makes. Photogrammetry provides 3D models that are too detailed to fit into even a modern video game engine.

The Astronauts turned their entire development pipeline over to photogrammetry, using a single piece of software to largely automate the creation of many assets in their game — including the landscapes. They say that it saved them years of work, and provided an incredibly lifelike product.

Many critics, armchair and professional alike, have poo-pood the Star Wars Battlefront trailer that EA released last week, but if the results of photogrammetry are anything like what we saw in Ethan Carter the final look of the game may not be too far off.

You can read our review of Ethan Carter here.

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