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No secret sauce: How Company 3 is bringing post-production technology born in film to video games

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Malte Wagener gives us the pitch.

He's spent over a decade in the video game industry, working "all sides," he tells us. He used to work at ESN, the company that develops the Battlelog tracking service and software for Electronic Arts' Battlefield and Medal of Honor games. When he was at Koch Media, he helped produce the cinematic announcement trailer for Deep Silver's original Dead Island.

A few years ago, Deluxe Entertainment Services Group, the nearly 100-year-old post-production company that has historically specialized in film work, recruited Wagener to work at its Company 3 subsidiary. With his help, Company 3 would leverage its near-century of post-production work and bring it to an emerging medium: video games.

"We try to position ourselves as a creative partner," Company 3's vice president of games tells Polygon in a recent interview. "Take Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 as an example, which we worked on last year. We worked with Treyarch not as a consulting party saying, 'Well you could do this better.' We worked with the developer essentially as an extension of their own team."

"We try to position ourselves as a creative partner."

Wagener believes that the video game industry is becoming more and more like the film industry, not just with visuals but with the stories games now tell, so the transition is natural. There's now a "need for content quality," he says, that will deliver immersive experiences in living rooms through consoles. As the industry has expanded into more immersive experiences like Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed series and Naughty Dog's Uncharted games, those within the industry have become aware of the benefits of post-production like those Deluxe has offered for decades.

That's where Company 3 comes in.

"If you look at the game development process in the past, it was pre-production, production and then shipping the game," he says. "Whereas if you look at the movie industry, there's pre-production, then there's a relatively short timeframe of production and then there's a relatively long period of post-production. The games industry hasn't really done that in the past ... because there was no time or there were no resources available to them or there was no expertise available to them."

Company 3 exists to provide that post-production pipeline for video games. The product is about increasing the "perceived visual quality" that viewers experience. It's subtle things like colors, how shadows are displayed and color compositions that Wagener says can deepen a player's emotional experience.

"I think people are starting to realize that technical quality doesn't equal perceived quality for gamers or moviegoers or whomever," he says.

Whether it's working on color grading for a game or visual effects, the first order of business is understanding what the developer's vision is. It begins with a meeting to expand Company 3's understanding.

"Let's say we color a game," he says. "We talk with the art director, with the creative director or with the game director (depending on who's responsible for the look of the game). Then we try to find out what it is they want to express, in general. What's the general tone of the game? Who are the hero characters? Who are the bad guys? Basically, the fundamental storyline of the game.

"We're not selling secret sauce. What we're providing is talent."

After recording portions of the game, Company 3 takes the footage back to its labs and color corrects it, just as it did when working on J.J. Abrams' Star Trek and Zack Snyder's 300.

"We output a LUT strip — essentially a lookup table — that the developer then can use to insert into their game. There's no proprietary or middleware going on."

"We're not selling secret sauce. What we're providing is talent."

That's Malte Wagener's pitch. Let the art director, creative director or game director do what they've always done. And with the addition of a century of experience from Deluxe, they can let Company 3 do what it's always done: make things look and feel better.

For Wagener, even if Company 3's work is in some ways intangible, it's all in service of an emotional experience.

"I think that's what games need to do more," he says. "They need to use the fundamental emotional place and the emotional values that people have in order to conceive but also deliver a story. That's something that you see games doing more and more. And I think that post-production in that part will play a huge role in the future to actually deliver that atmosphere, to deliver the emotional aspects of the game."