Faris, Hendricks play leads in 'Speed'

After 17 games, Electronic Arts’ “Need for Speed” isn’t showing signs of slowing down. But to freshen up its racing series and keep gamers interested, the company went Hollywood, developing a plot and hiring actors.

In a first for the franchise, Sean Faris (“Never Back Down”) and Christina Hendricks (“Mad Men”) play the lead roles in “Need for Speed: The Run,” which centers on a grueling race from San Francisco to New York City. The game hits store shelves Nov. 15.

Where previous installments revolved around realistic renderings of sports cars and races, EA wanted to add characters to “The Run,” developed by Black Box Studio, to give players a “reason why they’re racing the car,” said Jason DeLong, exec producer of the title.

“It’s a different direction. For the first time in the franchise, you actually see and control the driver.

“Obviously, the first priority is to have an amazing driving experience, but one of the things our

fans have told us is that motivation is also really important,” he said. “We wanted to work with Hollywood talent and tell a great story that serves as the punctuation mark to get the player engaged in the progression of the action.”

In the game, Faris plays a cocky wheelman for hire who gets in trouble with the mob and must win the dangerous cross-country race to survive. Hendricks is a manager of street racers and ponies up the money for Faris’ driver to compete for the $25 million prize and serves as his eyes and ears along the way.

Both thesps had never played a role in a vidgame before “The Run.”

“It’s been fantastic fun to do something so different and to show a different side of myself as well,” Hendricks said.

EA has a lot riding on “The Run.” Since 1994, the “Need for Speed” games have generated more than $100 million for the company, and with consoles boasting higher-end graphics, EA had been looking for new ways to keep the series running.

In addition to adding a storyline and actors, it’s also launching a new merchandise line that includes 50 pairs of limited edition Adidas-branded “Need for Speed: The Run” running shoes.”Our goal with ‘Need for Speed’ is to be more than just a videogame franchise, as we view ourselves as a leader in youth and automotive culture as well,” said EA senior marketing director Kevin Maher.

For “The Run,” EA turned to House of Moves, the motion capture house whose credits include “Tron: Legacy,” “Super 8″ and blockbuster games “Call of Duty: Black Ops” and “Gears of War 3.”

The company developed a new motion-capture technology called “electrooculagraphy,” initially developed for the medical industry, that tracks the electronic impulses around the eyes to give digital characters more of a soul by re-creating lifelike facial and eye movements.

For example, 90 sensors were placed on the actors’ faces, where 60 are normally used.

“Our innovative, all-new performance capture technology pushes the boundaries of character animation, allowing us to perfectly capture Christina and Sean’s likeness resulting in an engaging narrative experience coupled with top-notch racing,” DeLong said.

It’s the first time the technology has been used for a videogame, but because House of Moves also works for film productions, it’s only a matter of time before the tech is utilized for a tentpole.

Compared to most TV shows, which take eight 16-hour days to film, the story mode of “The Run” took four days for Faris and Hendricks to shoot. The sequences play out like mini-movies in between the racing action.

“You do three takes and you’re onto the next thing, Faris told Variety. “There are so many cameras all around capturing every possible angle; everything gets shot at the same time.” But the end result “is me,” he added. “It’s my body, my movements, the way I did it. It’s just a glossed-over me in animated form. My cousins are going to be playing me. I’m a videogame character. That’s awesome.”

Faris, who recently wrapped Dark Castle’s thriller “Stash House,” compared the experience to “being a 5-year-old playing in a sandbox or the playground with a sword or a gun.”

“You’re in a room surrounded by cameras and people. People say, ‘There’s a wall over here or a car over there’ and you’re just looking at an apple box. It’s all about using your imagination.”

Not new to performing stunts on sets like “Never Back Down” and “Freerunner,” Faris found making a videogame just as physical.

“Wherever you see the character running and jumping across building gaps, that was me running up a level of boxes stacked five or six feet high,” said Faris, who had never before worked on a videogame. “There was a lot of running, jumping, falling, twisting, turning, fighting — all has to be shot in one way or another. I was worn out at the end of each day.”

Faris already is eager to come back for the next “Need for Speed” sequel and continue racing, should EA invite him back.

“As soon as I got the phone call, I said, ‘Yes,” Faris said. “I’m an actor and as long as I get to work and feel good about the project, I’ll do it. It wasn’t one to pay the bills. This was one I was excited to do.”

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