Earlier this month, Electronic Arts released Command & Conquer Remastered Collection, a set that includes updated versions of Command & Conquer: Tiberian Dawn and Command & Conquer: Red Alert, along with various expansion packs and new features.
Just before its release, I spoke with producer Jim Vessella, a self-described “lifelong fan of C&C,” to dig into the specific challenge of taking full-motion video sequences from the mid-’90s and making them not look horrible in 2020.
So it sounds like one of the big challenges was getting these FMV cutscenes in Remastered. Can you start off by explaining why these cutscenes were so important to fans in the first place?
Jim Vessella: Yeah, the FMV cutscenes are really part of the DNA of the franchise. You know, they’ve been there from the beginning back in 1995. Westwood had found a way to develop an algorithm and compress these onto CDs back in the day and somehow get hours of video footage. And there [are] some great documentaries out there that talk about that journey from back in the ’90s. They’ve just been part of the franchise ever since. And even when we rebooted the franchise a bit in 2007 with C&C3, we went back to the FMVs as well and had a great cast and just everyone had a lot of fun and the fans really loved it.
And so, when thinking about remastering the old titles, it just would not have been the same if we weren’t able to reuse some of that old footage, and because the performances are so iconic — you know, Joe Kucan and his first performances as Kane, one of gaming’s most iconic villains. And so we needed to find a way to do it, but we didn’t really have any of the source material. And that’s what kicked off some of our archaeological journey on that front.
Do you have any insight into why they decided to do FMV cutscenes in the first place? Because it’s so not something that I would generally associate with an RTS.
Yeah. I think they wanted the world to feel really engrossing and they wanted to tell a story and make you feel like you were part of this global conflict that was happening in between GDI and the Brotherhood of Nod. And back then, as you’ll see in the graphics we’ve remastered, they were dealing with 320x200 resolutions with little sprites, and the possibility of telling a really elaborate story with [those] characters in those briefings and with just the basic graphics, I just don’t think would have cut it.
And so again, they were able to utilize the […] CD-ROM technology that was fairly new at that time and find a way to do these cutscenes. And it was a great way to bring the player directly into the game. Kind of have those characters speaking directly to you. And, you know, as a kid playing that, you really feel like you’re part of this; this war and that these commanders are recruiting you to their cause. And I think it was very powerful to bring you into the world and then expand it from there. And then the cutscenes got even more elaborate with some of the sequels. It was just a lot of fun to play, in my opinion.
Can you tell us about the process of discovering the FMV footage and what you had to work with when you started remastering this game?
Yeah, it’s quite the journey because when we started it, we literally had none of the source material and it had been rumored that for years, [it] had been lost to time, just between the Westwood acquisition back [the late] ’90s and then the closure of Westwood in the early 2000s.
All of the assets or just the FMV assets?
All the assets. Yeah, all the stuff from Westwood. A lot of the archiving wasn’t, I guess, as popular a thing back then. And so a lot of the Westwood assets had just been lost, including the source code. And there’s a whole different story about that and working with Petroglyph to try and recover some of the source code that we’re using for the game.
But on the FMV front, yeah. We had all assumed that they were all gone. And so we were just going to do our best with the original — they’re called the VQAs, which was the compression that they used for the old videos in the ‘90s, which is really low-key. But early in the project, I got pinged by some of our community members who’ve been integral […] and they were like, “Hey, do you remember this tweet that one of the EA people had sent out?” This was like seven years ago when Victory Games was shutting down. There had been this cache, this shelf of all these old Westwood Betacam tapes that were in this storage closet down at EA LA. And the tweet had indicated that they had all been thrown out — that like, hey, we’re shutting down Victory. We’re going to toss all this stuff in a dumpster, so long, C&C.
I was heartbroken when I remembered seeing that back in the day, and then being reminded of it. But I was like, I wonder if something happened to that stuff. Maybe it didn’t go to the dumpster. And so I reached out to an old colleague who was still down there at EA LA, and lo and behold, she said, “Actually, I remember that,” because she was the office administrator around that time. She’s like, “I intercepted all that stuff and I put it in this storage room down in the basement.” And I’m like, you’re kidding me. And so I flew down there. This was in the first week of 2019. And I found this old cache. I literally found it and it was this shelf with a couple hundred Betacam tapes, VHSs, audio tapes, all this stuff from Westwood that literally hadn’t been touched in probably the past 15 years. And so I was just going through it for four or five hours, sorting all this stuff. There’s pictures online of me sorting all these crazy tapes and I just found all this stuff that — some of it was related to the original C&C and Red Alert — that I was hoping we could utilize. And so I shipped it back up to San Francisco, where I work right now, and then had to go on this journey of, how do I digitize all this stuff? Because it was on these arcane formats. Some of it was standard Betacam, but some was [these] really weird formats that most places just didn’t support anymore.
So we found one vendor on the west coast, in Hollywood, who had done this for broadcast TV stations, to digitize some of these tapes. And I was so hopeful that it was going to be some of the original high-resolution footage that they actually filmed it on before they did all the compression to fit it on the CDs. And we got back the footage and unfortunately it was the same old [VQAs] that they had just copied onto these tapes for backup. So, we then confirmed that the original source assets just don’t exist anymore and had indeed just been lost to time.
At that point, did you put the tapes in the dumpster? [laughing]
No, no! I still have the tapes. They’re in my cubicle at work right now and they’re great. I mean, they’re historical artifacts, in my opinion. And there was a lot of crazy footage that we recovered. [...] So we actually found over four hours of B-roll footage that has never been seen before by anyone, from my understanding, outside of Westwood. That’s all the filming against the green screens. It’s all the takes that all the actors did, doing six or seven takes against the scene. […]
So just this crazy archive like you would find on a great collection of your favorite movie, and we’ve cut all that down. We’ve edited it and cut it up to title the different missions in the game. So now as you play through the Remastered Collection, when it comes out, every time you complete a mission, you’re gonna unlock a snippet of this B-roll footage or other cool archival stuff we found there. Frank Klepacki, our composer, found audio tracks and music tracks that he’d never released. So it’s just this great, we call it the bonus gallery where you can see all this footage. So the journey was not in vain. We found some fantastic stuff that we think the C&C community is going to love.
Can I ask what your favorite thing is that was on those tapes?
That is a great question. […] So earlier last year, the actor who played General Sheppard — so General Sheppard is your commander. In the first C&C game, he’s the first one that appears in the game. So for many C&C fans, he’s the first connection you ever have to C&C. He’s the GDI commander. The actor’s name is Eric Martin, and Eric tragically passed away last year. He came down with a disease and it went very fast and it was very sad. And a lot of members of the C&C community rallied around that, tried to help the family.
And it was right around that time that I was discovering the tapes and was digitizing them. And so there’s all this great footage of him doing all these takes and actually two different sessions, one when he was just rehearsing and then one when he was in his formal costume doing the actual final takes. And it was really just touching to see him do that role, because we were in touch with his family a bit throughout this process and his family mentioned how much he had loved the project and how much it had meant to him and to the fans over the past 25 years.
So seeing all that footage, and he was clearly so professional in his role and he took the role so seriously. And if he ever slipped on a line, he’d get really frustrated with himself. You could tell that he was very passionate about it and wanted to do a great job. And his legacy, hopefully, will live on for a long time with those tapes and with the footage and with the Remastered Collection. So it was really cool to see that and be able to bring that back to the forefront for a lot of C&C fans.
Do you get the impression that when the actors were working on it initially, they knew how special it would be and how, what a legacy the project would have?
Vessella: No, no, I don’t think any of them knew at all. I mean, it was a total experiment back then, and many of the people who performed the scenes for the original game were actually employees of Westwood. They were the artists, you know, the modeler. And so many of them were actually some of the main characters in the game. Like Seth, who’s actually your commander on the other side of Nod — that’s played by Eric Gooch, who was one of the artists. He’s also seen in a lot of the bonus gallery footage, on the set doing camera work and things like that.
And so I think they were just doing it to fill in and help out the project. And they found local weathermen to do some roles and they found other local actors, from what I understand and actually talking to many of them throughout the remastered process. Yeah, they never knew what they were getting into with it, and they’ve all been kind of humbled that the franchise has gone on for this long and that people still reach out to them and thank them for their contribution.
I’m curious about how the tapes or how the footage ended up in those arcane formats. Were they shot on those formats, or was it just part of the process of backing up the footage?
You know, I’m not actually sure. I could probably find that out, because again, we’re in touch with a lot of the crew that was on it back then. To my understanding, [...] they shot on the digital Betacam format for some of the games in the late ’90s. I’m not exactly sure what it was for the original games. But yeah, these backup tapes, they’re called D-2 tapes and they were […] hyper rare.
Never even heard of that format.
No, yeah. I had to do a lot of Googling to find out what the heck it was. But yeah, I don’t know exactly what they were, what they were shot on. But it was still early. I mean it was the best resolutions they had back then. It was less than DVD quality back then, to my understanding.
So you found the tapes, the tapes had cool B-roll, but not the high-quality footage. So how did you end up getting high-quality footage into Command & Conquer Remastered?
Yeah, so once we discovered that we didn’t have anything of the source material that would help us, we were back to square one with what we called the VQA videos, and these are literally the ones that are on the CDs of the original game. But we had one way to get a little better stuff, and that’s that we were able to pull the videos off of the PlayStation versions of the game, which had come out a few years later, and those had an underlying MPEG compression, so those were a little bit better. So we started to use those as a baseline. So that was good.
And then what happened is that as we were talking with the community about the situation — with our community council, who’s a group of some of those dedicated C&C players and fans in the world who’ve been working on us with the project since day one behind the scenes, their network had experimented with AI upscaling for some videos. I’m sure you’ve seen stuff like this online, of people trying to take old cinematics from various games and upscaling them to 4K and [putting] them through these processes. And the technology keeps getting better and better, every few months.
So some of these community members had already experimented with this, and so we all got in touch together with them and with Petroglyph and they started sharing some of their learnings around the experiments they used, some of the different programs that they’d used to try this. And so with that, Joe Bostic […] one of the co-creators of C&C, was one of the original programmers of C&C, and so he loves to nerd out on this stuff. He took it upon himself to really dive into this idea of AI upscaling the cinematics. So he started to experiment with a lot of the tips that he’d gotten from the community and was able to come up with a balance that we thought was really good, with a couple of goals in terms of bringing the frame rate, which had been at 15 frames per second back in the day, bringing that up to 30 frames so everything just looks more normal and smooth. Just increasing the base resolution of everything. And then, because we had Frank involved in the project, he was able to do an audio pass at all the cinematics and bring those up to modern standards with the best he could given, again, the source material. And so we had those three goals in mind and through that, we were able to get better quality than what had been back in the ’90s. I wouldn’t call it full HD or anything like that. But it’s definitely, in our opinion, better and we think will be the best representation that we could, with those old cinematics.
So it’s been a crazy journey with that as well. And it took just months and months and months to go through because there was just multiple hours of cinematics that we had to do this against, and each one had to be hand-calibrated with color and everything to make it look right.
Can you illuminate that process a little more? So I gather the AI is doing a lot of the work, but it also sounds like the people have to be very involved in that process. What is that process like?
Yeah, it’s something that the Petroglyph team could probably answer more technically. But from the feedback loop that I was involved in — Joe would kind of […] he compiles all these settings in terms of color correction and how strong to do the processing. And we’ll send over a test clip, and sometimes it’ll have too much artifacting in it if it’s set the wrong way, or sometimes, like, a strong red color would be in the background of a lot of the Nod briefings. That would just become way too blown out or something, and so we figured that wouldn’t work.
So for each scene, we had to figure out the right calibration of all those different metrics and then once we’re like, all right, that looks pretty good, then we could kick off the full conversion. And again, I’m not super technical about it all, but to my understanding, it takes each frame and tries to up-res it and smooth out the edges and all that. And then of course, it puts it all back together again. And so you get this result that looks like it’s just an improved version of the old video. And there’s definitely some quirks you’ll notice, like at certain times, if it’s a really fast-moving scene, sometimes it’ll kind of blur it together and it’s not perfect. Or if it’s doing really quick cuts between different characters, you might get a frame where it kind of has a blend of other characters. So it’s not perfect by any means. But you know, it’s the best that we could do with the 25-year-old footage that we are trying to work with.
It sounds like this was nerve-wracking for you, this process.
Yeah. I mean, as we talked about earlier there, the videos are so core to the DNA and again, we kicked off the project blind. We didn’t know what we were going to be able to do with it, if anything, and it would have been heartbreaking if we were not able to include all the content or find a way to make [the cinematics] better at all. It just really would have not done the remastered process justice and the fans, they really wanted it, you know?
We’ve been talking to them since day one and they’ve been asking the whole [time], what are you doing with the FMVs? What are you doing with the FMVs? And so we knew there was an expectation there of wanting to do something with them. And so, yeah, until we really got them through the pipe and got those first couple test shots, which again, just took a lot of — many months — to get to, I was super nervous about it, that we weren’t going to be able to do what we wanted to with them. But I think we found a happy medium there. And yeah, and I hope everyone appreciates the archaeological journey there, in terms of trying to do our best to bring the best forward.
I feel like this is the kind of story that maybe — it did happen to silent movies where they just threw them in the garbage — but this is the kind of story that today is so specific to video games. What can you say about the huge archiving problem in this medium? What can we do to better preserve the things we grew up with?
Yeah. I certainly hope it’s not [going to continue being a problem]. I mean, it might be too late for some of the projects from that era. You know, maybe there are other cool opportunities to get in touch with some of the old developers and see if they have anything saved off, and get them into a formal repository somewhere. But definitely going forward, I know this is something that EA takes very seriously now. We archive everything that we’re doing on all of our modern projects and, we plan to do the same with the Remastered Collection, everything that we’ve done on this process, make sure that that’s well kept for any sort of future use.
Another thing that we’ve done on this project, which could be an opportunity here is that we’re actually releasing the original Tiberian Dawn DLL file and Red Alert DLL file, and the corresponding source code under the GPL license, which is — I think we’re one of the first major RTS franchises to do that. And so we’re in a way, trying to give it back to the community who have been so passionate and devoted to keeping the franchise going with all types of great community projects. So for some of these older titles, that could also be an opportunity if we are able to find source code and things like that, to give [the games] back to the community and let them help preserve [them] in a way and help enhance [them] and make sure that they can stay compatible with ongoing system upgrades and platforms. And I think that’d be great to see more of the older games that I grew up with in the ’90s have a chance to live on in that form.