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Resurrecting 'Guitar Hero' through live rock and robots

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Guitar Hero Live is trying to pull off one of the most difficult acts in rock and roll: the return to relevance. Not just a reunion tour feeding off nostalgic fans looking to recapture the good, old days of 2005, but a bona fide resurrection. After a five-year hiatus for the series, FreeStyleGames has taken over. It hopes to bring the rock star simulator back to the prominence that made Guitar Hero 3 the first game to break $1 billion in sales. Its first step: redesigning the iconic guitar, trading its five primary-colored buttons for six black and white keys that mimic actual chord fingerings, but that's not its primary gambit. Chasing the rock star fantasy that the old games sold even further, this fall's Guitar Hero Live places you on a real stage with a real band and audience, all filmed from a first-person perspective.

Gone are the bulbous cartoon people that rocked out in the background of Guitar Hero and its sequels. Replacing them are actors playing the band around you, roadies and the massive crowds filling the outdoor festivals and arenas where you play songs like Fall Out Boy's "My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark." Play well and the audience adores you. Miss a bunch of notes in a row and the crowd will turn against you faster than a Slayer riff. The transition is instantaneous while you're playing, which makes the process of capturing the game's fictional concerts on film all the more impressive.

"It was interesting bringing what we knew about video games into a world about films," explained Jamie Jackson, creative director on Guitar Hero Live. During my hands-on session with the game, Jackson seemed genuinely pleased with his studio's foray into a different creative medium. "Just getting a tent, getting the extras from the tent to the stage -- that was a chore. And getting them to act how you wanted was even more interesting. I'd come on stage and say to them, 'All right, this song is going to be on; this is the band; this is how you feel about the band: Go crazy. That was easy. That was funny."

How do you get a bunch of people at an imaginary concert to behave as you want them to? Conjure up the same emotions that some of the best rock songs do. "We came up with this concept of asking, 'Who's ever broken up with somebody?'" said Jackson. "There's three stages to a breakup, right? The first one is denial. So it starts with the song as it goes wrong; I want you to be in denial. The second stage of a break up is kind of tears of sadness, right? So we want you to be more emotional; we don't mind if you cry a little bit. Then the third part of breaking up with somebody is that complete abject anger, and hatred. So at the end of the song, throw whatever you've got at them. And it worked!"

Unfortunately, the live-action concert feels too manufactured when watching another person play.

Unfortunately, the live-action concert feels too manufactured when watching another person play. It falls prey to the same shortcomings all fake concerts do, in that it can't help but feel staged when everyone in the crowd is acting the same way. Where are all the people staring at their phones? Where are the couples making out? The effect is far more thorough when you're actually playing the game. When you're the one holding the controller, focused on hitting your notes, the illusion is impressively convincing. The seamlessness of the transitions buries the fact that it must have been profoundly difficult to capture the very different audience vibes without making it seem abrupt. FreeStyleGames' secret to capturing alternate versions of identical shots: robot arms.

Jackson and FreeStyle drew from an unlikely source of inspiration for Guitar Hero Live's style. Peter Jackson's The Hobbit managed to nail the effect of having Ian McKellen's Gandalf look enormous next to Martin Freeman's Bilbo Baggins by filming them simultaneously on identical sets that were different sizes. While Bilbo's in his normal-sized hobbit hole, Gandalf's in a cramped version where he has to bend low. Cameras mounted on robotic arms, meanwhile, capture identically framed images in both so it seems like the actors are right next to each other; different perspective seamlessly intertwined. "I thought: mind-blowing, now this is fucking cool," said Jackson of his learning about Peter Jackson's technique. "We took from it those motion cameras where we can do that same pass every single time. We can do a positive take; we can do a negative take; we could then have them running and switch between them, which means the frame is exactly the same."

Rather than a live cameraman on stage dodging actors playing instruments and capturing every shot live, FreeStyle had someone frame every shot and then leave the rest to a robot cameraman. The robot would then capture the exact same frames -- crowd at peak excitement, crowd wondering why the guitar player is messing up, incensed crowd, etc. -- one after another. After each version was shot, they switched between shots on the fly to create the complete concert experience.

"A cameraman is an invaluable asset because they just know how to frame, and they know how to move, and they know how to keep things smooth; and we had a great cameraman do all of that for us," said Jackson. "Then we take that camera data and then give it to our physical camera, Priscilla. She didn't need feeding; she didn't need a break; and she'd do the same shot time after time."

Of course there are risks that come with using the robot arm.

"Priscilla, she doesn't stop very quickly. She'll hit you in the face -- she can take your face right off -- so we also marked out the danger zone on stage," said Jackson. "We told the band members, 'Do not stand in this area. She will take your face off.' It allowed us to do so many things apart from just having a positive and negative reaction from the band and the crowd."

Priscilla may have been dangerous, but she's worth it. Guitar Hero Live still feels like a concert. Even though there are only a few hundred actors in the crowd, a robotic camera capturing the same space over and over again can make them look like thousands of people.

Priscilla may have been dangerous, but she's worth it.

"There was only about between [200] to 400 people in the crowd," Jackson admitted. "But once we'd done the passage with the band on stage, we cleared them off, and moved all the crowd back. We changed their clothes, swapped them around, shot another pass, moved them back again and shot another pass. By the end of that, we turned four hundred people into several thousand real people. Then actually we started to fill in with 3D, CG."

Impressive effect or not, the jury's out on whether these live performances will make the world fall back in love with Guitar Hero 10 years after the original's debut. That will be borne out later this year when Guitar Hero Live comes out on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U and a plethora of still unconfirmed mobile devices.

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