Jacquie Kubin takes a look at how the dividing line between vfx technologies for movies and gaming is shrinking.
Once upon a time a good videogame was little more than blips on a screen. From the mid-80s Pong by Atari to 1991 and Carnack and Romeros revolutionary first person shooter, Doom, gaming was more about hand dexterity than eye candy.
But all that has changed.
In order to meet the consumers expectations for entertainment fare similar to that being produced by Hollywood, game developers are turning to bytes of software such as XSI by Softimage of Quebec, Canada.
This software that takes advantage of the powerful engines being provided by todays Xbox, PlayStation 2 and Nintendo gaming consoles, allowing game developers to create the consumer used software that is a video game.
The market has changed quite rapidly, said Gareth Morgan, product manager Interactive Media Tools, Softimage. Ten years ago every game developer was primarily a technology company, with wholly proprietary engines, forced to reinvent the wheel with each title. For content creation tool vendors, it was tough like trying to hit a moving target.
Today there are a series of established rendering platforms such as OpenGL and DirectX, and game engine platforms like Renderware, Quake, and Gamebryo, which gives us a more stable, mature target, which means its easier to create higher-level tools
Similarly, Softimage has evolved their focus to help serve a broad entertainment market that seeks high visual and production qualities in their film and gaming pastimes.
Yet there is a point where the parallel between movie and game diverges.
For example, the entertainment at the Cineplex is totally linear, moving from one scene to the next, creating a bit of film that is never changing.
The video game, however, offers an experience in which a whole world is created, and entered into a world that changes depending on whether the player decides to open a door, jump onto a box or decipher a code.
For software vendors such as Softimage, one challenge has been to create a tool that serves both sides of the game development team: the art centric that creates the visual look of the environments the props and characters and the programming teams that create the software that eventually spins in your PlayStation 2.
One of the challenges that we try to solve for game developers is the need to create an effect that may last only sixty seconds in a game but that has the same impact as an effect that could last 10 times that long on film, Morgan added.
Game developers also need to consider the types of environments, props, characters and architectures that will reside in their worlds. The process of creating a racing game, such as Grand Prix Challenge, differs greatly from the creation of a character-centric game.
For the racing game, the environment is filled with racecars within a fairly static environment. And while the cars may move dynamically, the architecture of the car is far simpler than the architecture of a character, which requires articulated bones, skin, gestures all characteristic that must be exported to the game engine to simulate a believable living breathing entity.
XSI is our flag ship product it can be used for polygon modeling, texturing and other effects to create characters, props and environments for games, Morgan suggested. We try to respond to demands on the software by artists doing more detailed work, building tools that allow them to create more, better art, in less time.
Its a tough time for game creators. While the overall budgets increase, much of the production-spend goes into marketing. Production schedules shorten while game consumers continues to demand more. So we have to be better.
Another one of the reasons game creation is going to become more demanding is that in the movies the goal is to get one shot often using a lot of smoke and mirrors. But that one shot only needs to work for that particular camera, or angle.
The game artist has to create an entire world that that the player can move around in, and while not every button, telephone or door is going to be functional the game environment offers the player choices so, in a sense, it is more of a live theater set that the player can walk around in
And it has to look as good as the Matrix films.
Ataris video game Enter The Matrix is leading the pack of movie-based video games as players break the rules of physics as they defy gravity and plunge headfirst into the games story with a story.
Adding to the games realism is the dedication of the movie directors, Larry and Andy Wachowski. The Wachowski brothers filmed sequences on the movie set specifically to be used in the video game, allowing players to journey to places not found in the film while being able to faithfully experience and explore environments seen on the movie screen.
The end result is a game that recreates the visually groundbreaking experience of the movie from the slow motion gunplay and aboveground martial arts that first amazed moviegoers to allowing players to enter the virtual world of the Matrix. Thus, the game serves as a perfect merging of theatrical and gaming genres.
Game companies are beginning to be a presence on film sets when they need to acquire assets, Morgan said. This is becoming more common as film companies see the benefit in a strong relationship between film and the interactive products. Interactive entertainment is now accepted as a mainstream entertainment medium that extends the product franchise, with presentation values that are increasingly similar in quality to film.
When it comes to special effects, the video game developer has the advantage of working in the completely controlled environment of the computer, where the cost to create a special effect for the video game is far less than that realized on the motion picture set, where time, and re-shooting scenes gone badly, equals large amounts of money.
I was watching a commercial for a new episode of ER and there was an explosion, said Jim Wallace, producer of Rise to Honor, from the Foster City, California offices of Sony Computer Entertainment of America (SCEA). And I thought to get that shot, the planets had to be perfectly aligned, the actors performance had to be perfect, the cameras had to be perfect a lot could go wrong.
Working on the video game we have a lot more room to make mistakes, re-capture action, or go back and do it again. And we can do it for a lot less money.
SCEA anticipates that Rise to Honor (streeting February 2004) will raise the watershed mark for broad entertainment products and video games by providing spectacular environments and character animations within an exciting story that virtually stars famed martial arts actor, Jet. Li.
Rise to Honor is a video game not based on a movie, but on a genre of movies the old school action Hong Kong martial arts films, continued Wallace. So we were working on developing the story when we were contacted by Jet Li whose movies we were already using as a resource.
Needless to say, the opportunity to work with him is something we never dreamed of.
The end result of working with Mr. Li was creating a story that, while being a video game, will delivery a movie quality experience to the gamer. In addition to paying homage to the Hong Kong martial arts films in look and environment, Wallaces team also developed a 360 degree martial arts fighting system that allowed Mr. Li as an actor, and as an on-screen character, to realistically fight multiple adversaries without having to change his orientation, or turn around, in much the same way as they do in the movies.
While technology allowed the video game team to create the fighting system it took a bit of Hollywood expertise, in the guise of noted movie fight choreographer Corey Yuen to create believable action sequences. Yuen, who has worked with Mr. Li in the past, has also provided his expertise in martial arts and action chorography/direction to films such as X-Men (2000), Bulletproof Monk (2003), Cradle 2 the Grave (2003) and Kiss of the Dragon (2001).
Corey Yuen was huge in the development of Rise to Honor, Wallace said. He was the guy able to bridge the gap between a system that a video game team creates and Jet Lis performance as an actor. He was able to get his arms around what we were capable of and this was turned around to fit Jets performance. It was really Coreys understanding of the fight system, which was something that was wholly new to him, that allowed us, and Jet Li, to adapt to moves as they are done in an actual movie.
The fight system worked using motion captures technology to accurately capture Jet Lis signature movements, a process that the actor found to be liberating.
Jet was really interested in the type of moves he could get across in a video game that he could never do in an action movie, Wallace said. And because unlike a movie set where things are precision timed using numerous actors, props, explosions that must all go off perfectly or be redone which takes not only significant time but also cost working in motion capture he could try things over and over.
Another benefit was being able to talk to the director, smile, crack a joke without having to re-film the sequence.
Beyond physical believability, what really makes a video game character come to life are facial expressions. The use of algorithmic computer programs to capture facial expressions is commonly used, however, for Rise to Honor, the animation team requested that they be allowed to individually animate each expression, creating a true to life facial quality and allowing for some of the best lip-synching in the industry, according to Wallace.
People are looking to be the hero in an action movie, or video game and the authenticity of that performance would not have gotten that across without the talents of Jet Li, Wallace said. Our goal was to insure that the character on screen is Jet Li, and to address that we made optimum use of both motion capture and voice performance; however, to marry the two together, it took the talents of some of the best animators in the industry.
After the software the story and the performance, the next element of any movie, or video game, is sound. For the video game, sound has multiple levels of complexity, as the course the game player takes requires different sound effects and dialogues.
Sound is very critical in that it brings the viewer, or player, into the story, said Bill Black, Bill Black Audio, from his Hollywood office. Dialogue tells you the story, the music tells you how you feel about the action and the sound effects create an audio illusion that lets your mind believe you are there.
Without those illusions, the game would not work.
Working on Shadow Ops: Red Mercury by Zombie Inc. for Atari, Black found himself confronted with new challenges including a story line that features five different languages. Black works with Pro Tools digital audio software when capturing sounds.
In addition to the voice over acting, we also needed to create sound effects that would work with the visually complex environments that the development team digitally captured, on location in places such as Croatia, Black added. In addition there is a lot of off screen sounds gun shots, wind, water that are used to enhance the visual effects of the game.
For Black, one of the biggest growths in the industry has been not in the quantity of sound being produced for a game, but in the quality.
In the early days, I got 8-bit, mono quality sound, Black said. Now I have the ability to record full-CD sound, using five speakers. So that has significantly changed how we can audibly enhance a video game.
As game development sophistication grows, allowing for the ability to create movie quality visual effects, environments, acting and sound for the at-home console, one can only wonder what the games of tomorrow might offer.
Jacquie Kubin, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist, enjoys writing about animation, pop-culture, electronic and edutainment mediums as well as music, travel and culinary features. She is a frequent contributor to the Washington Times and winner of the 1998 Certificate of Award granted by the Metropolitan Area Mass Media Committee of the American Assn. of University Women and 2002 HSMAI Golden Bell Award.