We talk with animation studios that produce cutscenes for games such as Darksiders 2, Tomb Raider, and many others.
The suburb of Silverwater in Sydney, Australia, is home to a few things: a high-security prison that houses some of the state's most notorious criminals, a children's playground right next door, one of the country's very first Costco supermarkets, and a Krispy Kreme donut shop. While often ignored by locals who aren't interested in bulk-buying glazed treats, something in Silverwater has caught the eye of some of the biggest game developers in the world.
Tucked away in a warehouse that sits among other warehouses - past the Costco, the donuts, and the prisoners - is Plastic Wax. From the outside, its warehouse façade is non-descript. On the inside, there's a studio of animators crafting the cutscenes and trailers for some of the most talked about video games. And it's in demand.
Plastic Wax is among a half dozen or so animation studios around the world that create some of the most crucial elements in video games. As a growing number of game developers shift their focus to improving the design, programming, and engineering of their games, more and more marketing trailers and in-game animations are being handed over to external studios that have made this their art. This isn't a case of outsourced jobs going to random studios - these are the animators who have made it their business to bring video game characters and universes to life.
It's not just a movie
A good trailer can be the difference between whether a game is the talk of the internet or goes completely unnoticed. It can determine the number of pre-orders a game receives or whether anyone even cares.
On the day that Polygon meets with Plastic Wax in Silverwater, Darksiders 2 - a game for which the studio created all the trailers and 55 minutes of cutscenes - has finally gone on sale. There's a sense of calm in the studio, as though everyone has breathed a collective sigh of relief. THQ's Vigil Games may have made the game, but scattered throughout the action fantasy epic is almost an hour of Plastic Wax's mini movies - painstakingly crafted scenes that connect one part of the game to another while telling a story and expanding on the characters, the universe, and its lore.
"Cutscenes and trailers are so important to the game," says Plastic Wax's studio manager, Matt Dignam. "[Developers] don't just throw a game at any studio with the blind faith that they'll get something done. There's often a screening process. They want to make sure you understand their game, that you really get it.
"[DEVELOPERS] DON'T JUST THROW A GAME AT ANY STUDIO WITH THE BLIND FAITH THAT THEY'LL GET SOMETHING DONE. THERE'S OFTEN A SCREENING PROCESS."
"A developer might cast a net to a few studios and get us to create a two-to-three second animation to see if we get it."
Dignam says that studios that get the jobs can't just be good animators - they need to understand the demands that come with creating animation for games. They need to understand the game's look, style, gameplay, mood, and character motion. They need to get the game's atmosphere, the lore, and the story. As cutscenes tend to drop in the middle of gameplay, the animators need to know its flow, its characters and its universe so well that they can create entire scenes that can be inserted into a game without it ever being jarring.
"I'll give you some of the basics right off," says Ian Fenton, associate creative director of Goldtooth Creative, a studio that has created animations and trailers for Prototype 2,Sleeping Dogs, Need for Speed, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
"Game scripts are often 500-1,000 pages long. Most film scripts are 100-120 pages long, which roughly translates to a page a minute. In the game industry that script is the entire game flow. It's not only the cutscenes; it's the actual scripting from one level to the next. And that script is continually revised - they're constantly changing the game flow and testing to make sure things work, to make sure the right story points are covered."And as these 1,000 page documents are revised, animation studios have to be agile enough to respond and make sure they are always on the same figurative page as the developers.
"GAME SCRIPTS ARE OFTEN 500-1,000 PAGES LONG. MOST FILM SCRIPTS ARE 100-120 PAGES LONG."
"We've done projects where we've done up to 135 minutes of cutscenes, and it's quite a daunting task," Fenton says. "You're never covering a complete story. It's not like you're starting from the very beginning of the game and going to the end of the game - it's not like a film script where there are three acts: a beginning, middle, and end, so to speak.
"We're doing moments and beats in between the major game flow, so the biggest thing for us is to identify the beats and figure out what we need to accomplish in these mini scenes."
What needs to be accomplished is also no small task. When game engines were primitive and in-game graphics were restricted by technology, cutscenes and trailers were often an opportunity for developers to inject a hit of something with a higher resolution and greater fidelity to kickstart the player's imagination. They often expanded on the game's story, were a chance for players to hear their character's voices - especially where there was no in-game dialogue - and to see their character's faces up-close. As technology has improved, visual fidelity is less of an issue, but the purpose of cutscenes remain the same: they expand on the story and convey the emotions, motivations, and attitudes of the characters that aren't necessarily expressed through the gameplay.
Know it like the back of your hand
Warhammer 40k: Space Marine
In order to get their cutscenes and trailers right, animation studios need to be a sponge to information. For games like Warhammer 40k: Space Marine - games that are rich in lore and have their own online wikis - Dignam says a studio like Plastic Wax will absorb as much of that information as they can. They'll read the scripts, look at the storyboards, and study as much of the game's art as possible. If the game is a sequel, they'll make sure they play its predecessor. They'll try to understand how a character will move and how it holds its weapons, its posture and its swagger. Normally, a game development studio will have already been working on the game for upwards of two years before they approach an animation studio, so it is up to the animators to speed-learn everything that the developers have crafted.
"There's definitely been a lot of production challenges, but I think Death [the main character from Darksiders 2] is a good example of a character we had to work really hard to get right," Dignam says.
"[VIGIL AND THQ] WANTED TO DO A LOT OF CLOSE-UPS ... BECAUSE A LOT OF DEATH'S EMOTIONS ARE CONVEYED PURELY THROUGH THE EYES."
"We were very focused on Death's mask. There was lots of talk about where the cuts - he's got these two big cuts coming down over the eye cavities that insinuate a brow - should be. There was a lot of talk about exactly where the indentations would be and what angle they were going to sit in relation to the nose and chin. That section of the mask was looked at in much more detail than, say, the thickness of the ankles and wrists.
"[Vigil and THQ] wanted to do a lot of close-ups of that area because a lot of Death's emotions are conveyed purely through the eyes, so we had to make sure that we had it 110%."
The studio also had to consider the nuances in the character's muscles, how he moves, how he reacts. If one small thing is off and players at home notice an inconsistency between what happens in a cutscene and what happens in the gameplay - even if they cannot pinpoint exactly what it is - it can be potentially be off-putting.
"It could be as simple as how a character sits in a chair, how he holds his sword - does he hold it with two hands or one hand," Dignam says. If the sword is heavy he'd hold it with two. It comes down to little details like that, especially if it's a character that's defined in the game.
"In something like Civilization for example, there were parts with historical elements where we had to create a guy who was shooting a musket, so we had to research how a musket was held, how it was loaded and reloaded, how it was fired, and how the smoke looks compared to a modern rifle."
Dane Maddams, Plastic Wax's production manager, says that when the studio was working on Saints Row: The Third, it had to create a cinematic of a bullet flying through a champagne bottle. The camera would then capture the champagne glass shattering in slow motion.
"How often in everyday life do you see a bullet hitting a champagne bottle?" Maddams asks. "That was a very specific situation that we had to try and get a reference for because we didn't have a gun or a champagne bottle, so we had to recreate a situation where liquid is flying out as best as we could. We had to try and get real physics and apply it to the CG world, and it was tricky, because if you get one little thing wrong - it could be the level of bubbles or the way the glass shatters - it won't look right."
"OUR STANCE IS TO WORK TOGETHER WITH THE GAME DEVELOPMENT TEAM IN ORDER TO PRODUCE WHAT EACH CHARACTER IS BURDENED WITH."
Over at Visual Works, a Japanese studio that is one of the most highly regarded in the world - having worked on almost every Final Fantasy game and having had a hand in most of Square Enix's and Eidos' games - the studio's general manager, Kazuyuki Ikumori, says that the team discusses every character's specs and backgrounds in great detail to identify who they are and what motivates them.
"Our stance is to work together with the game development team in order to produce what each character is burdened with," he says. "What Visual Works often does is work with the developers to take a character and develop his or her looks together. As we do that, we are able to produce a character with a breath of life."
Actors and Actresses
Karl Stewart is the global brand director of Crystal Dynamics, the studio behind the newly rebooted Tomb Raider. He says that cutscenes and trailers for games pose specific challenges for actors that don't tend to exist in the film world.
"The difference you'll find between a movie trailer and a video game trailer is we are very long-term, [marketing] campaign based," he says. "What I mean by that is when you look at the first ever Tomb Raider trailer we put out, it was all about setting the foundation for who the character is. So she's Lara Croft, she's embarking on a new journey, the ship that she's on gets hit by a massive storm, and she gets shipwrecked and there's an epic turn of how everything falls apart and she ends up on her own.
"In that trailer, we're trying to set the story and foundation for the rest of the campaign."
As that campaign unfolds over the months in the lead-up to the game's release, new trailers address different aspects of the game. Having introduced the character in the first trailer, a second trailer can then focus on the dangers she faces, her relationships with the characters she's stranded with, and her growth and transformation. Stewart says that in a movie, a trailer tries to sell the viewer the start, middle, and finish. He says both kinds of trailers want viewers to find the mystery, hit the high point, and come back out with a question and curiosity, but a video game might want to do this in chunks and not give too much away.
When it comes to cutscenes, there's the added challenge of motion capture actors and actresses having to play a role that they haven't had a chance to grow into.
"It's really complex and it's been really complex for years because you're bringing a crew of talented actors and actresses into an environment, putting on motion capture suits, and then saying to them: 'You're this far into the game, this is your emotion, here's what you're trying to communicate, and here's how you're going to interact with each other," Stewart says.
"Now, when you're making a movie, it might be filmed out of order, but you're there from start to finish. You're understanding the development of the character, you're growing into the character, you're becoming that person.
"The trouble you have when directing cinematics for a video game is that you're bringing a cast and crew into a room and saying 'right now, this particular situation has just happened,' and then they're going to act that out. And then you're saying the next situation is actually two hours later. 'Here's what happened.'"
Stewart says that in video games, the majority of the action is performed by the player - the player is the one who experiences what the character goes through - not the actor or actress. So the motion capture actors and actresses need to get into a certain frame of mind and act out a part of a game that they had no involvement in.
Then there's the issue of finding the right motion capture actors who not only look like the game character, but can move like the game character. Ian Fenton from Goldtooth Creative says that development teams will often do monstrous motion capture sessions over five, 10, or even 20 days where they bring in the main character and have him or her perform every kind of movement, from a walk cycle to picking up objects to holding a gun out in front of them. They create an enormous library that external animation studios sometimes have access to. In the case of Prototype 2, Goldtooth Creative had access to the actor who did the motion capture of the game's main character, Joseph Heller, so they were able to capture what they needed without worrying about whether the actor could get into character.
"WHEN YOU'RE MAKING A MOVIE, IT MIGHT BE FILMED OUT OF ORDER, BUT YOU'RE THERE FROM START TO FINISH."
In the case of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the studio wasn't as lucky.
"For Deus Ex, we did all the cutscenes, which was about 40 minutes worth, and we did the game trailers and the CG trailer for them in collaboration with Visual Works," Fenton says. "With that project, we didn't have access to the motion capture actor, so what we did on that occasion was the internal director for the project went to Japan and had a big meeting with their creative guys on their side.
"The final result of that was our director was very proportionally and physically similar to the game's lead character, Adam Jensen, so he put on the suit and he did it all himself."
It's a fine art
In a scene in Crystal Dynamics' Tomb Raider, Lara Croft ducks into a cabin to avoid scavengers. The camera moves into a close-up of her face, and the player can hear a man outside calling out for her. The camera focuses on her eyes; it focuses on her breathing. As the man walks past the door, we see her chest rise as she takes a deep breath and holds it. When he leaves, she finally breathes out.
"Now, sometimes people over animate," says Karl Stewart. "They might have her head twitch left and right and get all panicky. Instead, we focused on her eyes and her chest moving up and down as she breathes. They're very, very subtle animations that help bring the scene to life without trying to overcomplicate and overdo it."
"SOMETIMES PEOPLE OVER ANIMATE. THEY MIGHT HAVE HER HEAD TWITCH LEFT AND RIGHT AND GET ALL PANICKY."
It's the subtleties that some of the world's best animation studios have mastered, and it's why the same names keep appearing. Visual Works is one of the biggest studios of its kind in Japan, Goldtooth Creative has worked on everything from EA Sports titles to Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil, Plastic Wax has done work on Mafia 2, Borderlands, and the original BioShock, and then there's Axis Animation in the UK - best known for its emotive and somewhat controversial Dead Island trailer - and Blur Studio, which has credits including Injustice: Gods Among Us, Dishonored, Far Cry 3, and Batman: Arkham City.
"Personally, my attitude towards a good trailer is one that brings the viewer emotionally into an environment and experience and achieves the marketing objectives of the project," Fenton says.
When asked to choose a trailer that he believes meets his personal criteria, Fenton chooses the very first BioShock trailer as an example that ticks all the boxes: fantastic CG execution, an engaging and literal interpretation of what actions the player will be doing, and excellent characterization of the antagonist and the characters the player will meet along the way.
"I think the Deus Ex trailer we did is another one of my favorites in that it sets an emotional tone to the game, and it also sets out what you will be doing in the game at the same time.
"Another one that I really enjoyed - but the success of it is quite debatable and it's a big topic of discussion in the game industry - is the Dead Island trailer. It wasn't very reflective of the game experience and that opinion comes from the people who bought the game, but the actual creative of the trailer was brilliant. It did one thing and it did it very well. It left an emotional impact on the viewer, and I think that trailer did that completely successfully."
As the games industry moves towards the next generation of consoles, greater demands are being placed on the quality of CG animations, trailers, and in-game cinematics. And as more and more game studios look to having external studios handle their CG and trailers, the animators are poised and ready. After all, this is their art.
THQ, Plastic Wax, Eidos, Square Enix, Goldtooth Creative, 2K, Activision