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Crossing Over Into Gaming

So, you've been reading the articles about how much work there is in gaming, but you don't know if your skills will cross over? Sylvia Edwards gives us an overview of the gaming production process and where its similarities and differences lie from more traditional animation fields.

If you are currently involved in animation for television series or feature production, it's a pretty sure bet that you've considered entering the world of animation for game production. Surely, there must be skills and knowledge that cross over from the world of animated series or animated feature production into the world of games. I've been looking into what similarities there are and how one goes about finding the right match.


A screenshot from the Blade Runner DVD, on which Anthony Zierhut served as storyboard artist. All Blade Runner images property of Electronic Arts, Inc. Brent Young (left) and Dina Benadon brought their individual areas of expertise to Super 78. Photo by Michael Rababy.

Basic Similarities

The elements common to games animation and other animation venues fall into the general areas of script, dialogue recording, character and background design, animation, color, camera or composite and render, editing and post production, including the addition of music and sound effects. The differences can occur in how these elements are created or, if created traditionally, how they are transformed into a digital format.

Scripts for games production are similar to traditional scripts, but have 3 - 5 versions of the same scene in order to include all the possible results of a game player's action. The result is that scripts can be upwards of 700 pages long. Each version of the scene must be voice recorded and storyboarded. The board artist is given color renderings of the background sets to use for blocking out character movements within the scene. If motion-capture is used for character movement, each version of the scene must be performed by the actor. The designs for digital material can start as drawings on paper or can be completely generated by computer. In either case a digitized version of the design is the desired end point. Animatics or leica reels are done, just as they are for most animated series and features as blueprints of the final picture. As the project progresses, finished elements replace the scenes on the temp reel. Temp reels generally come in two different formats: a CG temp or a paper temp (with the animatic shot over the live-action BG plate). The process of production differs for digital projects in the emphasis at the front end of production to nail down designs and create a library of reusable character animation and expressions in order to expedite the animation process. It takes approximately 18 months to complete a game. Of this, six months involves producing the cinematics for the game. Throughout the process, the client typically approves or gives notes on material on digital files or via a server.

edwardsgaming04.jpg A giant geisha looms over the city in the game Blade Runner, produced by Westwood Studios.

In live-action, the director has almost total control of the creative aspects of the project. By contrast, in animation for a series, the director is often only in charge of the timing of the animation and usually works under the guidance of a supervising director or producer who oversees all the creative aspects of the show. In games, the game designer is the visionary lead of the show, working closely with the senior producer who is the "hub" for all elements and who follows the direction of the game designer.

Many Paths Lead to Gaming

In my quest to find out more about animation for games, I approached a number of people who are transplants into the business of DVD game production to get their take on games and how producing them differs from their previous experiences in the entertainment industry. Ben Zev and Brian Johnson of B1 Media come from a background of advertising and graphic design. Following their interest in the creative process for all mediums led them down a path that resulted in their founding of B1 Media. They have received wide praise for their work on the many DVD menus they've created for such works as The Haunting for DreamWorks SKG and Psycho (1998) for Universal, among many others. B1 Media has also produced the animated game elements for several Disney DVD editions. Most recently, this included Beauty and the Beast: Platinum Edition and Monsters, Inc., both due for release in fall of 2002.

Dina Benadon and Brent Young of Super 78 come from the world of live-action production, but from separate divisions. For Benadon the road to games production started with commercial and music video production. She moved into the universe of computer graphics and working with theme parks in the production of "ride films" such as Race for Atlantis. Young came to California to pursue a career as a musician. He also developed into an accomplished editor while working at visual effects studio Rhythm and Hues, where he worked on many high profile projects, including Babe and the Polar Bear ad spots for Coca-Cola. It was at Rhythm and Hues that the two finally met and had the opportunity to work with a company then at the forefront of CG production. Their decision to leave Rhythm and Hues and launch Super 78 allowed them to apply what they each had learned over the course of their separate careers and to use their combined experiences to push them forward into new frontiers. Super 78 has been lauded for the animation created for video games such as Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega) and Pac-Man (Namco). They have created animation projects for clients such as LEGO and Ogilvy and Mather. They also recently produced the 2002 Interactive Game Show Awards.

My last interview subject was Anthony Zierhut who has worked on live-action/CG combo projects such as the upcoming Scooby-Doo movie and the Fat Albert movie. Zierhut was also one of the storyboard artists to work on the Blade Runner video game produced by Westwood Studios in Las Vegas, Nevada.

edwardsgaming05.jpg B1 partners Ben Zev (left) and Brian Johnson both came from the advertising and graphic design worlds before joining forces. Photos courtesy of B1 Media.

What drew each interviewee to games in the first place? B1 Media's Johnson: "I started at TV Art, working on DVD projects and doing TV art. Joining up with Ben for B1 was a chance to take things to the next level." Zev responded, "My start was in doing designs for show openings, ID packages, interactive Web designs and ultimately interactive gaming and DVD work. The earlier versions of games on DVD editions of movies were basically trivia games. These eventually evolved into interactive games like those for Mortal Kombat II, Dark City and Lost in Space. The shift toward the interactive offered B1 a terrific opportunity to grow." For Super 78, Young's interest in video games was the spearheading factor according to Benadon. "Brent was the one who was the game expert. He really liked them and wanted to get involved in the production of them. I supported the move. We started with doing the cinematics or cut scenes [animation used to explain the game or that plays between the action sequences of the game] and grew from there." Anthony Zierhut responded, "I came to games from a background of traditional animation from my college days. I've worked as a production illustrator, storyboard artist and production designer for live-action."

edwardsgaming07.jpgedwardsgaming08.jpg Super 78 worked on Pac-Man World 2 and Sonic the Hedgehog. All Pac-Man images: Super 78 for Namco; Sonic the Hedgehog image credit: Super 78 for Sega Dreamcast of America.

A Larger Role

The most appealing aspect of the games industry is the amount of creative input compared to traditional animation or live-action outlets. For my interviewees this was overwhelmingly the primary "plus" factor. Said Johnson, "Working on the creative side with the clients is the most exciting aspect for us. DVD is such an interactive medium, lots of push and pull." Zev agreed, "Creating the DVD games with the client is the most challenging because of the parameters of the medium. You're forced to think out of the box because of the constrictions. You've got to keep your mind open for other solutions in DVD to make sure that the game is as exciting as it would be in other mediums." Benadon and Young expressed similar feelings. Benadon said, "Compared to work with commercials we're much more involved in the creative process from the very beginning. We [Super 78] help the client to create the concept for the cinematics of the game and how best to proceed with the project. One example of this is how Brent came up with the idea for creating a 'history' for Pac-Man and developed the character of Sir Pac-a-Lot. The client was thrilled with the idea and using it in various ways." Young agreed that their active participation in creating is a key factor. He said, "We feel like an important part of the process, because of this early creative involvement." Zierhut too lists the amount of creative involvement as being the biggest magnet to games. "Working with Westwood Studios [on the Blade Runner DVD game cinematics] was such an enjoyable experience. I had more creative input and control of the action to be played out on the screen than with live-action."

edwardsgaming09.jpg B1 created this thieves' POV for the game Entrapment. © 20th Century Fox.

Folks migrating to gaming will not be in for a shock when entering the gaming world as far as technology is concerned. The equipment/software is much the same, with upgrades frequently introduced as artists hear about the latest and greatest tools. As Johnson stated, "We use Mac 3D, Mac PC, Maya, Lightwave and Electric Image. Our team is really into this. They're always on the lookout for changes and how useable software is for our needs here at B1." At Super 78 Benadon responded, "We use 3D Studio Max for animation generally. If a client wants a certain look or if control of costs is a big factor, we've found that Flash animation is a great solution." Young added, "Our animators come from digital and traditional backgrounds. They do a great job in keeping us aware of changes in software that will benefit the company."

edwardsgaming10.jpg Brent Young came up with a back story for characters in Pac-Man World 2.

A Different Focus

However, gaming does indeed have its differences from other production experiences. Apart from the increased amount of creative input, the biggest change is in the expanded need for time at the front end of the project. Benadon said, "It's important to be able to give your main creative efforts at this point. All the time and money spent here is invaluable to the success of the project." Young agreed, "The front end is where the important experimentation takes place." One of Zierhut's biggest surprises was the length of the scripts. "Of course I only had to deal with boarding my section of the script, but it was quite challenging. I had to work out 3 5 different courses of action for the same scene. I would board one version where the guy runs into the room and shoots at the other guy, a version where he runs in and fights the other guy and one where the two guys never see each other in the room." B1 Media's Johnson and Zev also felt that the time spent on the front of the picture was a different experience and one that they've handled in part by involving the entire team. Zev commented, "This up-front time is the most critical time on the project. Our entire team is made aware of the goals of the project. We brainstorm, do mock ups and determine if the ideas that surface are feasible or not." Johnson rejoined, "Our past experience has paid off in helping us determine early on if an idea can actually be done, start to completion, within the time and money constraints."

edwardsgaming11.jpg For the Blade Runner game, Anthony Zierhut recreates the unique retro-futuristic noir look of the original movie.

The future of animation in the games industry is wide open. The possibilities are endless as technology continues to develop and creatives embrace it and its possibilities. Zierhut states, "Have a look at the X-Men DVD and the sequence at the end with the Statue of Liberty. A program called Poser was used to do this. I think that this is the next level for storyboarding for games. Poser has the capacity to pre-visualize by moving 'mannequins' around in a 3D environment. The great thing is that it's a very intuitive program. You don't have to know anything about programming to use it." B1 Media is branching into other areas including broadcast, network IDs, bumpers and commercials. "Our future looks very bright," said Johnson. "There's always a need for design and our goal is to excel for our clients. We're working on a number of new titles for DVD. When DVDs can also play DVD ROMs and on the Internet, it will greatly broaden the scope of what can be accomplished." Zev offered, "The gaming world is advancing everyday. We like to think that we're helping to make that happen. We're hungry to do more." At Super 78 Young said, "For me the excitement comes from the fact that we can't see where the 'end' of the technology is. I read the trades and am constantly amazed at the latest creations." Benadon concurred, "The game industry is a 9.4 billion dollar industry that is still evolving. Video games remind me of the work I did on the 'ride films' and how our main focus was to immerse you in a world that is totally believable. Games still offer new challenges with new obstacles to overcome and that's exciting. I'm so happy to have this feeling of being on the frontier of this industry. The new ways of creating games will be what commercials were to people like Ridley Scott. He set up his own production company in order to practice filmmaking by making visually exciting commercials." Young concluded, "I totally agree. The next pool of creative talent will spring from the world of games."

edwardsgaming12.jpg On the left, a look at B1's design room. Photo courtesy of B1 Media. Right, a menu screen shot with players' choices listed from There's Something About Mary by B1 for Fox. © 20th Century Fox.

The crossover from traditional animation (such as for series or features) to digital animation requires research and a certain amount of updating knowledge and skills. Crossing over into the dynamic and growing arena of games animation requires even more. An understanding of the needs of the games format is a "must have" in order to carry out the production process in an effective manner. While the production process is very similar to traditional TV and feature animation, the interactive nature of the end result needs to be kept in mind throughout the process so that it is right on target!

Sylvia Edwards is a former school teacher who made a career leap into animation nine years ago. She has worked at Hanna-Barbera, HBO Animation, Nickelodeon and Disney. Ms. Edwards has worked on a number of animated TV series and video productions including: What-A-Cartoon!, Dexter's Laboratory, Cow & Chicken, Oh Yeah! Cartoons, ChalkZone, Dora the Explorer and Cinderella II Dreams Come True.