How the L.A. Noire makers re-created the city of 1947


I’m on the city’s surface streets, heading from downtown to Hollywood. Only a few cars share the road. I don’t bother to pull onto the 101. Because it’s not there.

No, this isn’t 3 a.m., or the apocalypse. It’s L.A. Noire, the latest interactive world from Rockstar Games.

In a dark suite at the Roosevelt Hotel, I’m test-driving this single-player detective thriller set in 1947 Los Angeles. Launching May 17, the graphic procedural takes place before Miranda rights and DNA testing. Before the city was slashed by 10-lane expressways. It’s a chance — albeit digitally — to experience the city as most of us never have.

And after years of work, including months of research in L.A., Rockstar and Australia-based Team Bondi, who jointly developed L.A. Noire, are set to unveil a digital Los Angeles so dense and cinematic it was the first video game to be accepted at the Tribeca Film Festival.

“Everyone’s talking about it. I know architects and historians dying to get their hands on it,” says Kim Cooper, a student of Los Angeles history and, with her husband Richard Schave, the proprietor of Esotouric, which offers noir-themed bus tours of Los Angeles and was asked by Rockstar to conduct a special tour for people brought in to Los Angeles to try out the game before its release.

Noir L.A. conjures a cast of characters ranging from Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe to Bugsy Siegel to Elizabeth Short ( a.k.a. the Black Dahlia). Cooper calls 1947 “a turnkey year, when Los Angeles gives way to the L.A. of today.” She should know — Cooper and Nathan Marsak curate a blog called the 1947project, a painstaking assemblage of period news stories, then and now photos, and urban reportage.

The blog offers the type of detail Team Bondi used to re-create a three-dimensional L.A., a vice-ridden playground complex enough to hold 40 to 60 hours of gaming.

The standard for the production design was high. The game uses MotionScan, a new technology that captures an actor’s smallest facial movements. “We had to have a truly immersive world,” says Team Bondi production designer Simon Wood. “We didn’t want these amazingly subtle faces in an environment that didn’t match. We knew the game had to be a time machine.”

Assembling an accurate virtual city became a massive scavenger hunt. Wood and his team started at the Huntington Library, digitally stitching together scanned Works Progress Administration maps from the 1930s to create a sprawling cityscape, with commercial and residential zones distinguished by color. They overlaid topographical information from the U.S. Geological Survey to delineate elevations.

After that, the team crossed town to raid UCLA’s Spence Air Photos collection — an aerial history of L.A. inadvertently created by Robert Spence, hired by the city’s rich to lean out of a biplane with a 46-pound camera and photograph their mansions. But Spence didn’t just document upscale real estate: His 50 years in the sky captured the filming of Cecil B. DeMille’s “Ben-Hur,” the rise of downtown’s skyscrapers and more. “It was better than satellite photography,” Wood says. “Like the CIA, we analyzed hot spots. Where the quiet streets were. How many vehicles were on the road. The angle of the sun at different times of the day. Trolley car routes.”

Wood, art director Chee Kin Chan and lead artist Ben Brudenell then donned white gloves to sort through UCLA’s exhaustive news photo archive. “One photo of a diner tells you so much,” Wood says. “What the men were wearing. How they served coffee. What the specials were that day. If the counter is 18 feet long, then you can estimate the dimensions of the diner. The cliché is a picture paints a thousand words. Well, we used 180,000 photos.”

But can pixels capture that sharp cocktail of postwar malaise, German Expressionist influence, sexual anxiety and smog?

Cooper, Schave and Marsak mull over the question in a wood-paneled room at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, where Chandler himself played bridge.

The noir city wasn’t just a metaphor. A fog of manufacturing chemicals and soot from incinerated trash choked downtown in a permanent cloud. Marsak recalls a story about a particularly toxic influx: “A group of Western Union secretaries went out to lunch one day. There was so much burning soot in the air, their nylons melted.”

Wood chased that kind of authenticity with obsessive fervor. He and director Brendan McNamara talked to Los Angeles Police Department veterans about old interrogation techniques (leather gloves are involved). They assembled hundreds of period props at Sunset Studios and photographed them meticulously. They walked the 120,000 square feet of period clothing racks at Western Costume Co. to find the right hats and suits. “You can’t imagine how tiny these clothes are. People were quite slight then. Rhett Butler’s suit from ‘Gone With the Wind’ would fit a 15-year-old boy today.”

Western Costume didn’t have period firemen’s clothing, so Team Bondi went to the source, the L.A. Fire Department’s small museum. Wood tried on an old uniform: “It was unbelievably heavy. The inside was charred. The smell of fires from 50 years ago was still there.”

In a few cases, Wood acknowledges, L.A. Noire takes some license. Most of the palm trees in L.A. are imported; in 1947, many of them stood about 3 feet tall. “But when Chee Kin put them in the game like that, they just looked ridiculous,” Wood says. “So we made them taller. Sometimes you have to art direct past the reference.”

Rockstar has stayed on top by breaking the rules. Before the success of Red Dead Redemption, the consensus was that gamers would never play a period western — the weapons weren’t cool enough. But L.A. Noire is even more of an anomaly. Will it lure “Law & Order” junkies who’ve never spent $60 on a PlayStation game? Will younger players find the game’s meditative pacing too slow? Will L.A. Noire come close to matching Grand Theft Auto IV’s first five days gross of $500 million?

Wood feels there’s an irresistible pull to 1947. “There’s a real romance to the time, as well as incredible violence. Doctors told you to smoke. Everybody danced. There was a formality to things.” The production designer confesses he unwinds by cruising his own (re-)creation: “I go to Pershing Square and watch the secretaries eating lunch. Or I just drive. It’s so relaxing. And if you’re in a bad mood, you can go find some murder cases.”