NOVATO, Calif.--Sports Illustrated magazine called Tim Lincecum "the freak," and for the motion capture specialists at 2K Sports, getting a good computer model of baseball star Tim Lincecum's unique, and violent, pitching motion presented a special challenge.
Last month, Lincecum, a diminutive 24-year-old whom you would never pick out of a lineup as a superstar ballplayer, won the National League Cy Young award, given to the league's best pitcher. The same day, the San Francisco Giant found out that he'd been chosen as the cover athlete for Major League Baseball 2K9, 2K's hit baseball video game.
Lincecum was on hand at 2K's motion capture facility, about 30 minutes north of San Francisco, for a day of performance: dozens of individual pitching and batting moves that the technicians would lead him through, one by methodical one, all to be used in the new game and all so that the Lincecum character would look and feel like the real deal.
For me, this was not entirely new territory. I came here last May to cover a very similar event, the motion-capturing of Rick Nash, the cover star of NHL 2K9, 2K's hockey game. In September, I also spent an afternoon at Industrial Light & Magic, watching the technicians there put my colleague Kara Tsuboi through the paces of the motion capture experience that Robert Downey Jr. went through while he was filming the blockbuster Iron Man.
So while the specifics of mo-capping a baseball pitcher like Lincecum differ in some ways from what's required for a hockey star like Nash or a movie character like Iron Man, much of what went on Tuesday was familiar ground.
As with the Nash and the Being Iron Man events, Tuesday's activities began with Lincecum donning a spandex suit and technicians placing a series of reflective markers all over his body. These, explained Johnathan Rivera, an associate producer for 2K Sports, are designed to capture and reflect the light from 56 mo-cap cameras spread throughout the facility so that the computers can record the minute movements of the actor--in this case, Lincecum--as he moves around. This is then translated into a 3D model of his skeletal structure that is used as the base for his in-game avatar.
At 2K Sports, everyone talks about the so-called "signature style" that they build for the real-life stars of their games. Essentially, said motion capture coordinator Steve Park, this means finding the stars' unique and specific motions and movements, ones that would be very familiar to their fans, and building them into the games so that when the fans play the Lincecum character, for example, they recognize his explosive pitching motion and can easily distinguish it from the more pedestrian motions practiced by dozens of other, less stellar, pitchers.
Park admitted that much of what he and his team were doing Tuesday was the same as what I'd seen them do for Nash. But he explained that mo-capping baseball plays does differ in some material ways.
For one, each of Lincecum's moves--and he would perform dozens of them--was a quick set piece that took just seconds and which covered a very small, specific piece of ground.
To be sure, Nash's movements were also set pieces, and lasted just seconds, but they tended to be more free-form, one technician told me.
So the mo-cap team had set up a short pitching mound covered in markers that were meant to be used by Lincecum for specific foot placements for his myriad moves.
"The foot placement is actually pretty important for us," Park said, "for getting the right blend pose."
The blend pose, Park explained, is what happens when the technicians take different recorded motions and blend them together to create a single, smooth move for the game. Because much of what baseball players do looks very similar, even when differing in one way or another, it's crucial, Park suggested, to be able to create smooth blend poses.
It was important that Lincecum's many moves be spot-on, so that the end of one move would look similar enough to the beginning of another--say his wind-up blending into his follow-through--that they could be combined in the game without any jerky transition.
Hockey moves, said Park, are much more free-form and free-flow, and while building an NHL game also requires accurate blend poses, he added that it was much more important when shooting a baseball player that the player hit his foot placements precisely.
That's because, Park continued, baseball motions are very segmented and specific, whether someone is pitching, catching, or swinging a bat.
For Park and his team, having Lincecum be the cover star also was challenging for another reason: while they've done baseball games for years, Lincecum was the first pitcher they've featured. And that meant figuring out how to capture the pitching motion, something that is more important with a player like the Giants star, who, despite being stellar as a college player, scared off many of the pro scouts who watched him play.
"The quickness of Lincecum's small body is what scared off most scouts," wrote Tom Verducci in Sports Illustrated last July, "that and what has become something of a trademark, a tilting of his head toward first base in the early phase of his delivery. The scouts equated his body speed with violence. That assessment, however, is akin to watching the Blue Angels air show team and not seeing the precision because of a fixation with the implicit danger. Lincecum generates outrageous rotational power (see video below)--the key element to velocity--only because his legs, hips, and torso work in such harmony."
Or, as the magazine reported, "The normal stride length for a pitcher is 77 percent to 87 percent of his height. Lincecum's stride is 129 percent, some 7.5 feet."
So for some of the mo-cap technicians, the best part of bringing in someone like Lincecum was the opportunity to be able to build a digital model of "The Freak" in motion, something that they see as a very cool piece of digital data.
All of which is to say that even if the mo-cap guys at 2K Sports had had experience with a pitcher, Lincecum would still have presented a singular experience for them.
That said, Park explained that, in fact, pitching is actually easier to mo-cap than hitting.
That's because batters have very distinctive stances that begin with "waggles," or nervous tics they express with their bats, as well as differing stances that can be wide or narrow, depending on the player.
And because Lincecum does take the occasional turn at bat, the mo-cap guys had to film him hitting as well.
I asked Park how many other major league players they bring in for the creation of their baseball game, and he said that, in fact, the number is very small.
"Part of the problem is that our development cycle is actually during the baseball season," Park said, adding that the players are contractually prohibited from doing the kind of extracurricular work that Lincecum was doing Tuesday during the season. "I don't know what our goal is...but it's always a challenge for every sport."
This means that while 2K Sports will bring in a Lincecum or a Nash as their cover athletes, in order to capture their signature styles, most of the players in the games are actually represented by actors, guys who have played their respective sports at probably a high amateur level, such as college, and who can be trusted to look like they know what they're doing.
Back at the 2K Sports mo-cap facility, Lincecum has taken the "mound," and is now warming up for his session.
Soon, he's ready, and after a brief introduction in which Park explains to the gathered crowd what, exactly, is going on, Lincecum begins his series of moves.
Right away, though, he's having a bit of a problem with some of the reflective markers they've put on his baseball glove, which keep flying off during his violent motion.
That's not a problem for the third shot, though, one in which Lincecum is supposed to stand idle on the mound.
He does that, standing totally still, until the director yells, "Cut."
Lincecum grins and asks if it was a good take.
As the crowd laughed, the director fired back, "More emotion."
But once Lincecum continues with actual pitching motions, he continues to have problems keeping the markers on his glove, meaning that after each shot, a couple of techs have to run out and put them back on.
Finally, he's done with his pitching moves, and now it's time for him to pick up his bat for the hitting shots (see video below).
The biggest laugh of all came when the director announced that Lincecum was going to hit a home run.
"He's going to hit a home run, which is the first time in his life he's ever done that, including Little League," said Johnathan Rivera, an associate producer for 2K Sports.
"Thanks," Lincecum said sarcastically.
After all the shooting was over, I asked Lincecum--who, by the way, is a big video game player and is currently spending his free time with Gears of War 2--what it was like to be featured in Major League Baseball 2K9.
"It's a one-of-a-kind experience for me," Lincecum said. "That's stuff that kids dream about all the time...You see yourself in the game, and you're like, 'That's me. That's me out there, except in video game form.'"