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To ship Star Wars Battlefront, developers had to build their own AT-AT ... foot

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How a couple of digital cameras helped make one of last year's most beautiful games

Star Wars Battlefront key art no text

According to the artists at DICE, the secret to the amazing graphical fidelity seen in DICE's Star Wars Battlefront was a digital capture process known as photogrammetry. The team used hundreds of thousands of digital pictures of real-life objects, including the original props from the LucasFilm vault, to produce the assets in the game. But was it really more efficient and more effective to use digital cameras in place of traditional modeling techniques?

Two members of the game's art team say emphatically yes.

At an hour-long presentation at the Game Developers Conference yesterday Kenneth Brown, a DICE technical art director, was joined onstage by Andrew Hamilton, lead environment artist for Battlefront. The pair went into painstaking detail about their process for capturing digital still photographs, and the pipeline they used for turning those files into in-game assets using software such as Adobe Photoshop and AgiSoft Photoscan.

DICE's own leadership was dubious of the technology, they said, but eventually doubled down on the technique because of its speed and quality of the assets being produced. The models they were producing were of such high quality that the majority of the texture resolution had to be thrown away, effectively left on the cutting room floor.

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When polled, DICE staff said it took half as long to produce game-ready assets using photogrammetry versus traditional methods.

To keep the teams engaged throughout the process, the artists at DICE weren't simply responsible for a single type of asset. There was no tree guy churning away on fake redwoods, and there was no rock girl slaving away at the canyon floors of Tatooine. Instead, artists formed small teams that were responsible for entire maps.

There was a Hoth, an Endor team, a Tatooine team and a Sullust team. Each set of artists was responsible for determining which assets they needed, capturing still images of those assets in the field, and then processing those images into a kit of pre-textured, pre-lit objects that could be used by level designers to build a map. The art teams followed their assets all the way through the process of making the game, not leaving their side until Battlefront was ready to ship.

Photogrammetry also allowed the teams to use unconventional methods to acquire the shapes and patterns they needed to make the game feel authentic.

One example referenced was the need for an authentic footprint shape to mark the path of an advancing AT-AT. Instead of lugging a giant prop to Iceland, the team instead went to the hardware store, bought odds and ends off the shelf and cobbled together their own miniature foot.

They spread out a few dozen cups of baking flour in a large tray, slapped down their home-made AT-AT foot, took some pictures and went on with their day while the Agisoft software did its thing.

Of course, some tasks were more tedious than others. The Endor team, for instance, needed lots of foliage to cover the forest floor, but photogrammetry isn't very good at picking out the details from objects like grass or ferns. So, for simple ground clutter the team placed debris from Muir woods artfully on top of bits of blue cardboard to take pictures. Those images were then overlaid onto textures of dirt.

Ferns were a bit harder. Artists first had to disassemble plants, taking pictures of individual leaves and stems, and then reassemble them on the computer.

Next on the team's shopping list is a small fleet of drones, which they plan to use the next time they need to go into the field to capture entire hillsides all in one pass.