This piece was originally published on Gizmodo Australia
It’s pretty common knowledge that a large number of cinematic trailers are made by external CG studios hired by developers to produce something incredible – you’ve probably heard of Blur, for example. What might surprise you is process behind these trailers, the technology involved or even that a handful of these AAA trailers are being made here in Sydney, Australia. I’m a Producer at Sydney-based CG studio Plastic Wax. Around for the last 20 years, Plastic Wax is the team behind CG in The Hunger Games 2, Gears of War, Fallout, Bioshock, Borderlands and more. Most recently, you might’ve seen our LEGO The Force Awakens trailer.
There’s a lot of mystery around exactly what a CG studio does, so I’m sitting down with my coworkers at Plastic Wax to get an inside look at the process from start to finish. I’ll be looking into the people and the passion behind each element, and the technology and software that makes it possible. To narrow it down I’ll focus mainly on what goes into the making of a cinematic trailer, but it’s important to note that most CG studios produce a vast variety of content, including the in-engine animation you experience while you’re playing the game.
Every project comes to a studio in a different form. Executive Vice President of Plastic Wax Dane Maddams remembers, “We’ve had cinematics that have been a scribble on a napkin. Transformers, for instance. I was in the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood and one of the key directors for Activision had a rough idea that he approached me with and said, ‘What do you think of this?” That napkin scribble became this, by the way. No big deal. Other projects will obviously be a lot more realised, with some clients providing full storyboards and assets from day one. This initial stage is when all the juicy concept art and sketches are created to lay out the story and feel for the project. Once the storyboard is finalised and the client is happy, it’s time to start bringing it to life.
Here’s the part every cosplayer in the room cares about – building characters. There’s no one piece of magical software that characters are modelled in, in fact different programs are used for pretty much every imaginable aspect of how a character looks. Hair, pores on skin, cloth, body types and more, all require project-specific software and plug-ins (some completely custom programmed from studio to studio) to get the best result possible. In the very beginning, however, our Lead Modeller Dean Wood explains the two key software-driven paths to character creation.
3D sculpting tool Z-Brush is used for creating more stylised, cartoony characters like LEGO, whereas Marvellous Designer is used for more realism. Marvellous is a particularly interesting program to watch in play due to the amount of detail and authenticity that it can simulate. Dean explains, “You’ll put in a character, which is just a naked base body, and build it as if you were a seamstress. You apply the cloth, then the stitching and lining where it should be and the computer will simulate the elements as if it were a physical object.” It’s basically like a super crazy high-tech version of making dresses for paper dolls. Whatever you do, do not tell the modelling department I said that.
Surprisingly, creating a setting for a CG cinematic trailer is probably the stage that most closely resembles physical filmmaking. Like when building a film set, camera angles are decided ahead of time and the environment is only created within the scope of what can be seen in the shot. Anything out of shot either doesn’t exist, or is extremely low detail. This is where software like World Machine becomes extremely useful. World Machine does what’s called procedural terrain generation – effectively simulating nature and allowing artists to make changes, add detail and adjust to their needs. Imagine the terrain editor in The Sims, then pretend you didn’t spend 100 hours of your life creating a tropical oasis your Sims to live and mysteriously die in.
How the characters move and interact with their surroundings falls to the animation team. Contrary to the popular perception, Lead Animator Wes Adams explains “Animating isn’t really about moving things around and meticulously calculating things. It really is acting, and acting is entertaining people and making them feel something.” Most animation sequences in cinematic trailers are short, maybe 30 seconds, so it’s vital that a studio’s animators are able to make it crystal clear exactly what a character is doing and expressing. Facial expressions, posing and actions all have to be perfectly executed to avoid the cinematic having the plot clarity of Halle Berry Catwoman.
A popular approach to creating realistic animation sequences is of course motion capture. At Plastic Wax, we have a motion capture facility that comprises of 24 Vicon MX40 cameras – if that doesn’t mean anything to you, basically these cameras are able to capture a super high-fidelity image of the nuances of a mocap performance. Everything down to a microsecond of hesitation shows up in mocap. As someone with all of the grace and co-ordination of a drunk baby this terrifies me so clearly, finding the right talent for mocap performances is vital. Dane Maddams explains the kind of diverse talent required, “In the instance of Lara Croft, we hired an Olympic gymnast to execute flips and jumps. For our work on Dawn of War we had special forces agents help us map out exact strategy and movements given the circumstance. For Stalker, we used Bullmastiffs and horses for some of the wild animals.” I eagerly await the day we need to mocap a character eating pizza.
By this stage you’re probably picking up that the production pipeline for creating a cinematic trailer is kind of like an assembly line building a car. Each department is specifically engineered and placed in the pipeline to be the most time-efficient and produce the highest quality performance. The lighting department’s position in the pipeline is carefully selected, as playing with light around a 3D model makes it easy to identify imperfections. Lighting Lead Ben observes “Lighting brings everyone’s work together and that’s where you see the flaws. If the animation or the models or the textures don’t look good, we see it in lighting.” Following up lighting, the rendering and VFX teams come into play to add effects like smoke and explosions before the compositing team bring all of it together in a Rocky montage-esque fashion in the final hours.
The approval process is a unique experience for an external CG studio. Throughout the many stages of production, every element of a cinematic needs to be approved by both the client and the studio Art Director. Effectively capturing the look and feel of the game and ensuring the highest technical and artistic calibre while telling a compelling story is a lot of boxes to tick in one short trailer. Commenting on the importance of having consistently high standards across the board in every stage of development, Plastic Wax Art Director Tyrone Maddams explains, “The core of a cinematic is to be moved, to be wowed, we can only show you in a very short timeframe what a game is about so the goal is for the viewer to have more questions than answers. There’s so much out there, but what stands out above it all is quality in storytelling.”
With the Art Director’s final seal of approval, the cinematic is ready for release. Launching a trailer can be one of the most impactful stages building up to game’s launch. With the hype-machine in overdrive, the levels of social media engagement and media coverage seen by these trailers are astronomical. Although the size of the audience is humbling, Tyrone Maddams comments that the real point of pride lies within the games themselves. “The reward is just being allowed to work on these titles. When I was 10, I played Fallout, the isometric turn-based one. My father purchased a 486 (With 33mhz) pc for my brothers and I, and i watched them play. I never in a million years imagined that I’d one day be working on it. Similar to my experiences as a child playing LEGO, and now our opportunity to infuse the world into Star Wars, Just being able to tell these stories is amazing.” That being said, it also doesn’t hurt when John Boyega tweets about your trailer.
Looking to the future, the power and possibilities of cinematic content only grow as technology like VR and AR evolve into new storytelling mediums, imagery increases in resolution and software becomes more powerful and accessible. Dane Maddams observes that as consumer technology advances, CG studios have remained relevant. “We’ve always heard, ‘Hey, the Playstation 3 is coming out, you guys are gonna be obsolete!’ But the reality is that storytelling is critical to every platform.” With the revenue for the games industry surpassing film, television and music, it’s also hard to deny the thirst for rich, engaging content. The future for cinematic content only continues to grow brighter as technology and software advances, and the audience for video games expands and diversifies.
Ally McLean | Producer