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The art of the game – Screen animators tapped to make video games more compelling

With US$10 billion in consumer dollars up for grabs each year, producing video games is a high-stakes business in which studios are under a lot of pressure to push the boundaries of size, scope, graphics, interactivity and narrative each time out. The good news is that cheaper hardware and software means consoles and game engines can handle a lot more high-quality CGI these days. And the even better news is that game developers are looking to partner with animation specialists from the film and TV industry to infuse their titles with top-notch style and stories.
October 1, 2004

With US$10 billion in consumer dollars up for grabs each year, producing video games is a high-stakes business in which studios are under a lot of pressure to push the boundaries of size, scope, graphics, interactivity and narrative each time out. The good news is that cheaper hardware and software means consoles and game engines can handle a lot more high-quality CGI these days. And the even better news is that game developers are looking to partner with animation specialists from the film and TV industry to infuse their titles with top-notch style and stories.

IDT COO John Hyde says the media conglom’s subsidiary companies are looking to do a significant amount of work in this field over the next two to three years. Vancouver, Canada’s Mainframe Entertainment has been sourcing animation work from video game clients since 2002, working on titles including Shiny Entertainment’s Enter the Matrix and Vivendi Universal’s The Hulk. Toronto, Canada’s DKP Effects is in the midst of helping a toy manufacturer develop two games. And Film Roman is eager to get in on the action. Hyde, who pulls double duty as CEO of the studio behind The Simpsons, says he’s talked with at least three game companies over the last year about how to increase the impact of in-game cut scenes or cinematics (opening and closing mini-movies and transitional animation between levels and in-game environments).

The end goal is immersive framing sequences that make players feel like they’re part of the story because consumer research says that’s what distinguishes a good game from a great game. Jeff Lujan, a senior product manager at Namco, believes animation companies attract a talent base that has advanced CGI rendering expertise as well as a solid grounding in basic filmmaking techniques like conceptual art and narrative and character development.

It was this inherent storytelling and characterization ability that the San Jose, California-based gameco was after when it hired Phoenix, Arizona’s Don Bluth Films to work on two games – 2003′s I-Ninja and a Pac-Man 25th anniversary title that will roll out in Q4 2005. For I-Ninja, Don Bluth’s staff worked closely with Namco and game developer Blitz Studio to create a character bible that defined the personalities and motives of the game’s cast. For example, staying true to the physical characteristics of a lizard-like opponent might bring into play some specific behavioral traits, psychological motivations, natural environments and player challenges.

But there’s also the straight-up CGI know-how to consider. A lot of animators at software studios are experts at technical rather than artistic rendering, says Mainframe director of TV and DTV Jenn Twiner-McCarron, who produced segments for Matrix. So built-in mini-shops like Mainframe’s special effects department, which specializes in animating tricky stuff like smoke and explosions, can really help them up the ante and create some mind-blowing graphic sequences.

Though gamecos are increasingly turning to animation studios for help with story and script development, the bulk of work that they send over to the TV and film side still consists of CGI animation on a work-for-hire basis. Depending on the level of quality, rates can range from US$300,000 to US$500,000 for a five-minute sequence of animation, although scenes can be produced for much less once the initial setup work is done. Animators usually work on really short segments running between 10 and 45 seconds, and the turnaround timelines tend to be tighter. Game projects usually work on a two- to six-month schedule, while a typical DTV will take 12 to 15 months to complete.

Some cineractive sequences can be complicated to produce because they have to be rendered in real time within the game; depending on what path the player chooses, the game engine has to come up with those images instantaneously. Because there’s so much more information to store, this often means using lower resolution and fewer polygons (the lines that make up graphic elements).

Namco’s Lujan says video games also tell stories in a unique way because narrative is driven by the player rather than the director, and this isn’t always easy for animators to grasp. This learning curve aside, Namco plans to continue working with TV and film animators, particularly as the hardware cycle matures and new consoles hit in 2005/2006.

Manchester-based production company Cosgrove Hall has also taken on game service work as another steady revenue stream, and over the past two years, the studio has produced cinematics for games including Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto 3 and Red Dead Revolver. Producer Owen Ballhatchet says Cosgrove would like to pick up more video game projects, as well as working with its gaming partners to come up with original concepts for TV series.

Cosgrove is currently in development on a new CGI and live-action show called Code Warriors, which is designed to be a series and game that both feed off the same backstory. Slated for completion in early 2006, the project stars the world’s best kid gamers and hackers, who’ve been recruited by a secret organization to save the world from an impending attack in cyberspace. Cosgrove is in negotiations with several developers to collaborate on the game side. ‘Obviously people have a lot of success with exploiting existing properties and IP as computer games,’ says Ballhatchet. ‘But I think for the marriage to work perfectly, you really want to think of the two right from genesis. Otherwise, there’s always going to be a separation.’

Henson pioneers real-time CGI animation

Live animation may seem like a contradiction in terms, but the Jim Henson Company is making it a reality by crossing its animatronics know-how with CGI. Since the early ’90s, the company has been working on hooking up the control system it uses to operate its animatronic puppets to a digital character. But until very recently, the processing speed of graphics cards and chips was too slow to support what essentially amounts to a CGI puppet delivering a performance in real time. Unlike motion capture, these characters are already fully rendered and controlled by puppeteers trained to make them move in a life-like way.

Henson is currently using its Digital Performance System on several TV and film projects (see ‘Oien Perez to feed Henson’s performance-puppet machine’ on page 149), but it’s also taking the tech for a spin in the gaming world. The studio recently completed facial and character art for Spark Unlimited’s Call of Duty: The Finest Hour, as well as cinematics, cut scenes and gameplay animation on three other titles due out in 2006.

Henson’s producer of new media, Bret Nelson, says being able to direct real-time animation on-site saves an enormous amount of time. But it also lets the director spot mistakes and flaws in scenes and reshoot them while the set’s still hot, rather than sending teams of animators back to the drawing board after the fact. Spark, meanwhile, loved that they could add digital characters to what would normally have been just a voiceover, without going over budget. It would traditionally have taken about six months to do the lip synch and facial expressions, says Nelson, but it was accomplished in eight workdays using DPS.

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