Tell us about your background.
Before joining Blur, I worked at a video game company in France, and before that, took on small web design jobs to get my foot in the door. When I started at Blur, I was a CG generalist doing a lot of modeling, environments and characters. After a year, I began supervising projects – from game cinematics, to VFX and commercials, and I’m now the Head of CG.
What’s an average day at the office like?
I try to make sure our departments run smoothly and that projects are up to Blur’s standards; I also mentor junior supervisors. My days are split between five to six projects. I interact with clients frequently to make sure we’re getting them what they want, but also address random studio management needs.
How do game cinematics play into Blur’s history?
Game cinematics and trailers are longer than the typical 30 second spot. One can tell a deeper story in this medium. Blur has always wanted to tell bigger stories with high end visuals, so the company developed a dominance in that niche. Now, of course, there is amazing competition in the game trailer space and we have to up our game constantly. But today we are telling even longer stories, with bigger projects, feature films and television, and all of this has roots in the commitment to game work we made long ago.
What are your latest cinematic projects?
Our most recent work includes a live-action and VFX spot for “Titanfall 2,” a pair of great shorts for “Star Wars: The Old Republic,” a Superbowl commercial for "Elder Scrolls" online and other work for major game franchises like “Halo” and “Destiny,” among others.
How do you create a standout cinematic?
We believe in the transformational power of stories and that people will remember what they felt more than what they saw. So we try to find that little piece of harmony that’s going to connect emotionally with an audience. There are many tools to do this, but characters are the most direct route to making something resonate. We try to make believable characters and choreograph all the minute details to ground them and make them feel realistic. Of course story is key, and doing high quality production – but sometimes all it takes is a great little character moment to pull you in and tap a tuning fork you will remember. As an institution, it takes a lot of management to make something truly standout. Take characters, for example, where we pay particular attention to modeling and facial animation. Recently, we had a movie makeup artist come in to give a talk about the art form because we realize that technical and artistic knowledge may not inform principles of classical facial beauty those artists know so well. While the makeup artists try to make the imperfect perfect, we do the opposite. So there is room for us to grow in how we portray believable characters. To make great work, this type of pushing and growing is necessary on a company level.
How do you approach cinematic storytelling?
The creation process usually begins with the director discussing the design and vision for the game’s universe with the client, identifying interesting elements as well as the mechanics to be emphasized. In some cases clients come to us with a script, and in others, we develop concepts and scripts that build on existing gameplay themes and characters. Once a script has been locked, we move on to layouts, storyboards and animatics. We like to previsualize everything, and as part of that process will generally direct a motion capture session. Our team then models all the assets, renders and does the final compositing in-house.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve encountered in creating cinematics?
At the start of each cinematic, we sit down, identify the biggest roadblock and begin strategizing. The “Star Wars: The Old Republic” trailer, for instance, called for a huge light saber fight sequence at night and in the rain. Achieving photoreal CG rain is quite difficult, so we added practical rain. Taking elements from a live-action shoot, we developed a bank of rain effects and composited them on top of our CG work; it turned out nicely. “Titanfall 2” was captured in live action, and the CG characters and elements had to blend seamlessly with the look of the shoot. There were four massive robots battling each other in a forest, and we had to make the forest look as realistic as the live action actors. We spent a lot of time getting the trees and leaves just right, as well as the character interaction with these elements. Having shot plates inside a forest ahead of time, we were able to mix photos of the environment with the CG elements.
On a typical cinematic, what’s the ratio of CG to practical effects?
We mostly work in CG, but we are starting to use more live action to achieve the next level of believability, especially for projects that demand photorealism. The “Star Wars: The Old Republic” cinematic was about 80 percent CG and 20 percent practical, and “Titanfall 2” was about half and half. We’re beginning to use more photographic elements and photogrammetry in our cinematic work. Photogrammetry is valuable in that it gives us very photo-real elements we can use to scatter throughout the set.
Tell us about your pipeline for cinematics.
We model mostly with Autodesk 3ds Max but some of our artists also use ZBrush and MARI. Once complete, assets are transferred to our animation pipeline. For rendering, we use 3ds Max and V-Ray, and our effects pipeline is based on 3ds Max and Houdini. Fusion and NUKE are key tools for compositing.
3ds Max has always been a huge part of our pipeline, largely because it’s so powerful, especially when coupled with plug-ins. Paired with V-Ray for rendering, it’s helped us create some really spectacular work. Our 3ds Max power users tend to be the lighters and environment modelers and effects team, who use the software with plug-ins and proprietary tools. Some of the plug-ins we use most include Forest Pack, which allows us to scatter blocks, vegetation, cars – you name it – in large volumes; it’s memory efficient so we can handle massive amounts of polygons. There’s also a complex layering system we’ve built on top of 3ds Max that helps us render light passes quickly. Our FX team also taps Fume FX, Thinking Particles and Ray Fire to create destruction and smoke effects, although they’ve been using more and more Houdini lately for this.
What do you love most about working on cinematics?
I like the creative freedom. We get a lot more input on the story and direction than most VFX projects where we have to match a set look. In a way, cinematics give our artists a greater voice.
Any advice for artists working on cinematics?
Remember to keep the spirit of the game at the heart of the work, study it, play it if possible, and have great reference material. Also, on an interpersonal level, it’s all about having a team-oriented attitude, being okay not knowing all the answers, being teachable, but also asserting your talent and instincts when appropriate.
Where do you turn for reference material?
It depends. Sometimes we’ll try to match an in-game effect, and add some detail to it. Other times we’ll scour the web, looking up explosions on YouTube or costume references on Pinterest; the Internet has made our jobs way easier because there’s a wealth of reference material available compared to 15 years ago. For larger magical non-realistic effects, we’ll work with a concept artist who paints frames to give us an idea of the look were aiming for. After iterations, we’ll review it with the director and client until we’re happy with it.