CGSociety and Ballistic Publishing are pleased to announce that Neil Eskuri has joined the EXPOSÉ 5 Advisory Board.  Eskuri brings a wealth of industry experience to the team.  He has worked on movies with MetroLight Studios, Rhythm & Hues and Sony Pictures Imageworks for 17 years, pulling credits and awards for work done for blockbusters like ‘Total Recall’ and ‘Last Action Hero’, as Visual Effects Supervisor.

    Neil was later hired by Disney Feature Animation for the new ‘Fantasia – 2000’ as Animator and CG Supervisor before moving on to be the Digital Supervisor for ‘Dinosaur’ and ‘Treasure Planet’.  Neil Eskuri is now Senior Art Director at Electronic Arts. In his spare time, he is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences - AMPAS.
    Neil came to Electronic Arts as Senior Art Director for ‘Need for Speed - Underground 2’, ‘SSX - On Tour’, and currently ‘Need for Speed – Carbon’. Neil Eskuri is on tour through the Asia Pacific with Autodesk when we catch up. He is clearly excited about the ‘Need For Speed: Carbon’ project. Passionate about how far the EA team has come to develop such an exciting product. It hadn’t always been that way though. “Games were the farthest thing from my mind,” he espouses, “but I thought I'd check it out anyway since some of the recent games I'd seen were promising. When I flew up to EA for a weekend tour, I was surprised with the operation and what they were looking to do. I realized that the confluence between motion pictures and games wasn't far off the horizon that completely turned me around. When I got home, it was everything my wife and I talked about. So, in less that two months, I was working on my first game.”
    Creatively the biggest adjustment for Eskuri was the balancing act between what EA wanted to do and what can actually fit into the game. With the advent of the next generation platforms, there is also a scramble to see what the new technology can or cannot do. “The two rules of thumb are good game-play and a good look, although good game-play will almost always trump look,” explains Eskuri. “Each year the appetite grows for the visuals as well as game-play and it's difficult for the technology to feed that appetite or squeeze new ideas into existing platforms. Things have to run at 30 or 60FPS and you are always compromising on the initial vision with reality. To a degree, it's the same in movies, but in games everything is so much more inter-dependent. Keeping a 512 texture on an object or character to make it look better could bring the frame rate noticeably down.  That's not something you'd worry too much about in movies.”
    There was an immense amount of research and concept work required for constructing the Casino areas, the city, and the suburban streets that made up  'Need For Speed: 'Carbon'. 

    Atmospherics, lighting, and the many, many props. “We went through a couple of ideas for the game and locations,” explains Neil. “We had an idea for a large world with more open highway between cities which would take the player through deserts and mountains on long epic races.  Four of us went on a 2,500km road trip through Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California taking pictures of the different cities, landscapes, road textures, lights, buildings, trees, plants, benches, bus stops, fencing, you name it.”

    Thousands of pictures were taken. “Since it was a night game,” Neil continues, “we drove all through the day, then we’d get there and get a couple hours sleep, then get up and spend the night taking photographs of literally everything. Everything from the casinos, to the old casinos, to park benches, road textures. One of the funniest things I remember is of our ‘road texture’ guy. He would take his camera out and just poke it right out over the road and take a photo of the road surface. Of course, people would be driving past, giving him the strangest looks. We would spend at least a couple weeks driving at a time, gathering images, to use for reference and concept art.”
    When the crew got back and started putting the world together, it occurred to them that maybe this isn't the culture of street racing. So they had to crank their concept in reverse and look at it all from another angle.

    The feeling was we were moving away from what made NFS: Carbon such a great game — Speed in an urban culture. “With that, we shifted gears and decided to keep the game within a cityscape,” explains Eskuri. “Our research trip was still beneficial since we stopped in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, which gave us a lot of useful reference and because we kept the game in the southwest United States, the overall flavor of the reference was good.”

    Eskuri wanted to maintain a southwest flavor in the art direction so they also took a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico to get a bit more of that influence than just the California feel.  “With all of that, we drew up a map that would encompass each of those feelings.  There's a bit of Santa Fe, San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco in the game and kept it within a sizable, but regional city. I say regions because that is so much of the game-play - taking over regions of the map to ultimately control the entire city, so the design of the city supports game-play.”

    After a bit of work, they had a good deal of concept work for each region to make them all feel a bit different and support the idea of the different car classes. The muscle car region was to be more working class. With that in mind, the team used an industrial feel with dock yards, factories, and train yards with a flatter terrain. The exotic region was more up-scale, Beverly Hills, Malibu Beach with the steep terrain and tight turns. The tuner region was more city center with the taller buildings and historic neighborhoods combining a blend of the rolling terrain and flat long roads.

    Once you worked through those areas you move to the Casino region which favors no particular car class and the art direction was a blend of all regions to parallel that idea; glitzy, with some residential and industry. “Ironically,” Neil adds, “the idea of the canyon racing came late in the process but fit well with what we were already doing. Southern California has a lot of great canyons near the cities that are perfect for canyon racing.  Carbon Canyon near L.A. being one. This worked wonderfully from our road trip because we went through a lot of canyons in Utah, Arizona, and California which gave us a good amount of reference for the many canyons we were going to create.”

    With all the platforms on which the game was going to be produced for, it was decided to keep the time of day at night to simplify multiple lighting scenarios. The art direction was to keep things as dark as possible and use lighting to help guide the player's eye down the tracks. Neil uses the term 'Jewels of Color' to highlight the buildings and environment with color to contrast the darker areas. They also tried to use the car's headlights to light up the road so the player would have a better sense of nighttime and speed. 

    As the different platform requirements were complex and the timeframe to produce the game was very tight, the EA team on NFS:Carbon was pretty big.  The number was 170+ for the entire project. Neil Eskuri focused mostly on the worlds, FMV/NIS, animation and cars and had a great support team.  Each of those areas had specialists. “Within worlds we have people who specialize on the road splines and side terrain to make good exciting drives,” he explains. “Also, there were those who focus on the creation of the cities and environments. For the FMV and NIS, just organizing the stage shoot was a speciality.  Of course, animation is a focus for the NIS characters and police along with the in-game character cut-aways. The camera presentation also had a specialist that involved the coordination of several groups. Since the cars are the main stars in a driving game we have a whole department focused strictly on the creation of the 50+ cars in the game.”
    It's a collaborative effort to keep all the departments working together, particularly with releasing the game on two new platforms. NFS:Carbon was an interesting project in that it was released on just about every platform; from PSP to PC, even Wii. What you might push on the X360 can't be done on PS2 without blowing the frame rate. Neil worked with producers and department leads in an effort to combine the best ideas to support the vision of the game. The AutoSculpt idea came from the car group and they put together a prototype very early to sell the idea. The prototype was created in 3ds Max and was very precise in what they wanted to do.  What they put in the game is pretty much what the prototype was back in December.

    “One of the biggest parts of my job is to try and keep a consistent feel to the project across all areas and attempt to incorporate new ideas,” explains Eskuri. “I work with producers and designers to develop the initial concepts and vision then carry that vision out by working with the other department leads. Production is often a very circuitous route. What you think was a good idea may not work out the way you thought and adjustments need to be made.  We definitely had our share of adjustments, but one needs to be flexible.”
    Neil insights that ‘telling the story’ won’t ever really change, but in games, the story hasn’t risen to be as important as the feel of game-play. Movies and TV are much more passive and require a tighter story structure to keep the viewer’s interest. “Interactive Entertainment has you involved with the environment so you're thinking more about your next immediate move,” he describes. “In the games I've worked on, we've had to tell the story in very short, compact bits to keep the player interested without them buttoning through the story bites. There's precious little opportunity for character development. It's a bit like a commercial; tell as much information as concisely as possible in the shortest amount of time.

    The research going on not only in movie studios, but game studios, is inspiring. How to make better characters, better EFX, environments, faster machines, better user interface with artist and equipment. I'm very positive on the health of the industry. For games, it's a bit different because of the transition between current generation and next Generation platforms. There's such a huge user base for current generation and most of the energy is focused on the next generation. Financially, this causes things to flatten out a bit, but I feel that will change once more games are published for the NextGen platforms and we figure out how to use the architecture better.”
    Electronic Arts
    EXPOSÉ 5 Advisory Board
    EXPOSÉ 5 Submissions


blog comments powered by Disqus