Animation for games: thanks to more powerful tools, animators are creating more challenges for themselves and gamers – video game production companies are creating innovative games with new technologies
The world of videogames has changed over the past few years. Creatively they are much more interesting. Visually, they are much more captivating. New game titles have to be if there is any hope of capturing market share.
According to the NPD Group (www.npd.com), a leading market information company, in 2002 the videogame industry generated $10.3 billion. This was up from $9.4 billion in 2001. Hardware sales went down as console makers dramatically dropped their prices, so unit sales went up. More gamers are coming to the table and this study states, “the full power of the current generation of hardware is still unrealized.”
Animators of games have no choice but to push every button they can. This can lead to some challenges because, inevitably, these animators are using beta versions of software or using techniques like multi-character motion capture or scaling down high-resolution cinematics to low-resolution action heroes. There often is a little bleeding along the way.
What are some of the challenges facing animators who have recently worked on new-games? Read on…
COMPANY: Microids in Montreal
PROJECT: Syberia (in-house), 9/02 release. Syberia 2, 11/03 release; PC
A huge gamble for Microids (514-390-0333; its Web site www.microids is geared for its European users and market) — it invested $2.5 million US, the most for one of its projects ever — 2002’s Syberia has won accolades from all corners for its globe-trotting adventure tale depicted in the style of famous European comic-book writer Benoit Sokal, who collaborated on its development More than three dozen people worked on the project, including eight to 10 animators, in the Montreal development studio, which is now larger than its original Paris location, founded 16 years ago.
The story follows a New York lawyer who goes to Europe to buy a toy factory whose owner suddenly dies. She then must track all over the continent to find a long-lost brother, Its visuals fuse realism and comic-book styles.
CHALLENGE: Time and the plug-in learning curve.
“The main challenge is time, it’s always the same,” says lead animator Frederic Gagne. Of the two different animation types in the game, the action and full motion video cinematics, the latter had really high resolution characters which presented big rendering challenges.
For Syberia, Microids animators used optical motion capture at their own studio and at Kaydara, which is also based in Montreal. There were about 1,000 mocap shots. The data was taken into Discreet 3DS Max V.4.2 and Character Studio. Added to that were various plug-ins — Digimation shaghair for anything hair related, Digimation Stitch for clothing and Digimation AfterBurn for dust, smoke and explosions. The hardware was Pentium 4 1.6GB Dell, IBM, Mansoft boxes and clones. The operating system was Windows NT.
SOLUTION: The plug-in problem was solved by the next, more full-bodied Max V5, which Microids is using on Syberia 2. Unfortunately, that wasn’t available when production began on the first title two years ago.
The rendering farm was also enlarged and the animation team “worked on learning how to work with more layers. We could have the same quality of image with lighter results,” says Gagne. “We experiment and stay here late at night. We have a good relationship with Discreet and they come here to teach us things, but they cannot spend their whole life here and you have to go forward.”
COMPANY: Pandemic in Santa Monica
PROJECT: Four titles in production; PlayStation 2
Pandemic (www.pandemicstudios.com) is currently working on four titles in the US. Its animators use Softimage\XSI for modeling, texturing and animation, a single software solution that aids efficiency, says executive art director Carey Chico.
CHALLENGE: “The main challenges were trying to get a system that would be easy to work with, elegant to maintain and efficient to our pipeline,” says Chico.” The blending usually is the hardest part to resolve since there are many solutions to the problem.”
SOLUTION: A new proprietary animation system was used in three of the four titles currently in process.
“It works in conjunction with Softimage\XSI,” explains Chico. “Softimage comes to the table with an extensive nonlinear animation system which allows us a great deal of flexibility with both mocap and hand-made animations, We have the ability now to get motion capture onto our models and then animate on top of it in a nondestructive way. This provides us a quicker and easier way to generate looping animation from the mocap to best suit our characters in the games. With support for offset curves, we can actually animate on top of key-per-frame mocap data in-an easy way. This greatly affects our ability to produce top-notch mocap animation for our games.
“This system also works well with straight hand-created animation,” continues Chico. “With the clip system, we can combine animations together and blend the results very easily. In addition, we can select a portion of the body, such as the upper torso, and separate its-animation from the lower torso. This greatly reduces the amount of data that we bring into the console itself, allowing us to better conserve that memory. We can retain the run cycle for the lower torso while changing the position of the upper torso to allow the user to control the direction and facing of the character. Since most of our games now have third-person action combat modes, this greatly enhances the look and feel of the character.”
COMPANY: 3DO in Redwood City
PROJECT: The Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse (in-house), 12103 release; XBox, PlayStation 2, PC, GameCube.
This is the most ambitious project yet for 3DO (www.3do.com), a mid-sized developer/publisher of console and PC games for the past 10 years. Based on dark Biblical themes, gainers play a fallen archangel trying to stave off the four horsemen. This hyperrealistic title is for the hardcore gamer. It expects to receive an M rating.
A team of 50 have spent two years creating the cinematics and in-game play, on about 3,000 motions, 3DO is working with and at Motion Analysis Corp. (www.motion-analysis.com) in Santa Rosa, CA. Collaborators also include Stan Winston, the award-winning feature film character designer, and Simon Bisley, the renowned graphic designer from the comic book industry.
CHALLENGE: An industry standard, Discreet 3DS Max plug-in Bipeds, was retargeting the motion capture data so the animators couldn’t get the motion as accurately as they needed it. There was about 10 to 15 percent degradation, says art director Jason Kaehler. The limitations of the software’s hierarchy to add arms and legs was also hard, but livable.
SOLUTION: For more natural human motion in this game, and others currently in production, 3DO purchased eight Kaydara Motion-builder 4.0 licenses for character animation and motion capture. Motionbuilder is Kaydara’s 3D character animation software, previously named Filmbox. It provides seamless integration to all major 3D packages and is a powerful hub for game production pipelines.
To capture the data, 3D0 animators had used Motion Analysis’s proprietary optical mocap system with its new digital Eagle cameras and its extreme resolution.
“Max couldn’t do larger motion or a lot of blending,” says Kaehler. “This was the only package out there that worked for us.” The animators used Motionbuilder to edit and target mocap data for the character models of the four horsemen and other human characters; they relied on the software as a powerful motion editing and layering tool. Another step involved taking some of that retargeted capture data into Max4Bones (a Max alternative to Character Studio). The 3DO animators did continue to use Bipeds for keyframing, though for the creatures only, which was about 50 percent of the animation work.
COMPANY: Zombie Studios in Seattle
PROJECT: Shrapnel (in-house); no release date yet; XBox and PC
Game developer of 17 games over the past 10 years, Zombie (www.zombie.com) is working on this latest action title full of character animation, nearly all of it motion capture-based. Production began last fall.
CHALLENGE: “With animation on console platforms, it’s always a struggle to get as much into the limited RAM available,” says designer/producer Mark Long. “Animation files are large, so the tradeoff is often less animations or less frames of animations, diminishing the mocap variety or quality.”
SOLUTION: “We’ve addressed this problem by using a bone-based animation system [rather than morph targets], allowing us to drive more animations of higher quality. To simplify animation asset management, we decided to ball all characters on a single skeleton — both in-game and cinematic. This skeleton includes bones for facial and hand animations,” he says.
Tools include 3DS Max 5.1, Kaydara Motionbuilder, Maya, Unreal, LipSync and Karma. The basis of the game is the Unreal engine. Character animation is all recorded and edited in Kaydara Filmbox/Motion-builder, “a stand-alone animation package with incredible controls and capability to edit mocap and produce entirely new animations,” says Long. “We’re using third-generation Unreal technology which gives us a powerful and stable base of code to start with. Rather than creating technology we’re focusing on making the game.
COMPANY: Red Eye Studios in Hoffman Estates, IL
PROJECT: The Hunter series published by Vivendi Universal: 5/02 release. PS2 variant Hunter: The Reckoning — Wayward and XBox sequel Hunter: The Reckoning — Redeemer; fall ’03 release; XBox, PS2.
Hunter: The Reckoning is a “zombie killer free-for-all’ as studio director Chris Olsen calls it, “trying to raise the bar on in-game action and cinematic experience.” It does that through extensive stunt work and simultaneous motion capture of multiple subjects. Red Eye Studio (www.redeye-studio.com), a mocap, animation and special effects studio established in 2000, pushes this to try to get the most “human” experience into game. Hunter is animated in a hyper-realistic style. A team of six fulltime and four part-time mocap specialists worked on the title, rated M.
“We are always out to capture the best performance. Even though we use many technological tools to do this, we know that the best performances come from strongly motivated characters and human interaction. We treat our videogames like live action productions:’ he says. ‘lust about anyone can capture a walk cycle. But to create an emotionally charged scene, or character whose mood you can read through their walk, that takes experience. The motion capture process is simply the tools we use for recording our actors performance. You can’t just put some guy in a mocap suit and expect them to do everything you need. You have to be a top-notch problem solver.”
Since Olsen took over management of the studio last year; he has focused on innovative multi-character and stunt capture approaches to provide his clients with an even broader performance palette for their productions.
CHALLENGE: Working through beta tools, Red Eye is a beta site for most everything its animators use. For its motion capture projects, including its work on the Hunter series, Red Eye uses the Vicon Mcam mocap system with Vicon iQ software, Kaydara Filmbox/Motionbuilder; 3DS Max 5 with Character Studio, Softimage\XSI, Maya and NewTek LightWave. “We’re using these things six months before the public gets them:’ says Olsen.
SOLUTION: That challenge is all in a day’s work It’s the animators’ jobs to push those tools. Olsen is most concerned about getting the best performance from those guys in the mocap suits. To that end, Red Eye maintains aggressive partnerships with innovative motion technology companies like Vicon, Kaydara, Discreet and Softimage; and through the development of its own proprietary technology like the Red Skeleton utility. which is designed to help production companies incorporate mocap data into their existing animation pipelines The first public beta should be released this summer.
“Great performances are created through a thorough understanding of physics, motion and emotion. You can’t re-create the illusion of life without understanding the basics of motion:’ says Olsen, whose live-action background informs his game animation approach. “We’re also constantly on the lookout for the best realtime motion utilities available. in order to give our artists and technicians the most ‘intelligent’ tool set We want our directors to have as realtime a cinematic experience as possible when they shoot in our studio:’
COMPANY: Daz Productions in Provo, UT
PROJECT: Shadows of Winter (module for Dungeon Siege published by Gas Powered Games); developer is Electro Fiction; fall ’03 release; PC
Daz (www.daz3d.com) is a major source of 3D content for Curious Labs Poser. It specializes in providing high quality 3D models inexpensively, sold over the Internet. It is known for its huge library of clothing, character and morph packs. It can provide customized models if needed. There is a team of 25, both in-house and out.
Shadows of Winter is full of Daz animations, including its most versatile human 3D models available, main characters Michael and Victoria. Both of these models have been used widely in broadcast television, cable and film segments (48 Hours, Take 2: Living the Movies, Spiderman, Matrix).
The Michael and Victoria models have evolved through several generations, and are still constantly updated. lzware’s Mirai runs on a Windows PC and was used for sculpting the original mesh portions though the second- and third-generation Daz figures have been done increasingly with NewTek’s LightWave 7.5. Cyberware’s scanning facility gave the modelers an accurate template from which to start. The Michael and Victoria meshes are constantly being reworked to handle a more diverse base of morph targets.
CHALLENGE: The client, Electro Fiction, needed to complete their cinematic sequences with original lipsynced characters fast. The high resolution cinematics were created with unique characters based on detailed sketches. The trick was to get quickly made comparable 3D figures based off these sketches. Usually time is wasted on worrying about mesh flaws or UVW mapping errors. By using Daz figures, the team was free to focus on the actual animation and composition instead of the tedium of reworking flaws in the meshes.
SOLUTION: Daz is developing its own application, Daz/ Studio, which will replace Poser and LightWave for rendering and character animation. The first iteration will be designed to render scenes from Poser 4.PZ3 files and will also be able to modify those scenes once they are converted to the native Daz/Studio file format.
“There have been severe limitations in making production-quality work with low-end software, so we’ve always needed to port into another app to give a project that finished look,” says animation director Chad Smith. “There has never been good plug-ins to use as a bridge. Daz/Studio will become this bridge, allowing our high-rez figures to be used in several different apps, and stand on its own as well:’ It will be out this summer as a public beta program, initially free for the core application. Animation, import of third-party files and other features will follow soon after.
RELATED ARTICLE: DMA creates ‘special’ Church Lady animation
NEW YORK — DMA Animation (www.dma-animation.com) recently completed work on animations for the casino game Church Lady, based on the popular Saturday Night Live character. The studio created two minutes of animation for the project and its client Bally Gaming and Systems (a division of Alliance Gaming), which licensed the property from NBC and Broadway Video.
DMA’s Tony Cai served as animation director on the project, which features a multitude of elements, including animated backgrounds, SNL and Church Chat symbols, a canned ham, a halo, a blazing devil, stained glass and a church organ. Players who reach a higher level of the game are treated to a sophisticated animation of the Church Lady, who performs her trademark dance.
DMA set up a client Web site for reviewing character designs, pencil tests, storyboards and model sheets. Artwork was drawn by hand and scanned into Cambridge Animation’s Animo digital ink & paint tool. Character animation was composited with Adobe Photoshop backgrounds using After Effects. Three-dimensional elements were created using Alias/Wavefront Maya.
In addition to Caio, DMA credits include executive producer Samantha Berg, lead animator Bryan Cox, animator Kirsten Petersen, digital ink & paint artist Adam Burke and clean-up artist. Tim Shankweiler. The studio is also working on another SNL project for Bally based on the Wayne’s World characters.
Sony Computer Entertainment Europe (http://eu.scee.com/index.jhtml), in the UK, used Motionbuilder while creating character animation and mocap files for The Getaway. Using a full series of props and taking data from wireless gloves, the team at SCEE was able to capture motion for five actors and manipulate up to 25 characters in Motion builder simultaneously, in realtime, which allowed the producer to have a clear picture of how interaction was best played for this realistic game.
Power Puff Girls
HOLLYWOOD –While the Powerpuff Girls: Relish Rampage videogame, based on Cartoon Network’s popular series, gives players the chance to foil Mojo Jojo’s latest plot for domination of Towsville, it also gave the team at Hollywood’s Super 78 (www.super78.com) another chance to showcase its powers in creating high-quality animation.
Led by director Brent Young and executive producer Dina Benadon, Super 78’s team produced eight minutes of cinematics for San Jose’s BAM! Entertainment, a developer, publisher and marketer of interactive entertainment software, and LA-based creative production company 7ate9, for the new Pawerpuff Girls release. PlayStation2, XBox, PC and Nintendo GameCube versions hit the streets just in time for Christmas ’03.
Super 78 animated Townsville, the girls, the professors mutant pickles and other characters using Alias\Wavefront Maya V.4 on several dual-Athlon PCs. Compositing was done in Adobe After Effects V. 5.5 on a Mac G4 workstation. Editing was also done on the Mac using Apple’s Final Cut Pro.
Feedback from Super 78’s clients centered on their delight over the speed at which the animation was produced — an accolade lead animator Angie Jones shares with Maya. Also, the clients loved the way the 3D animation duplicated the 2D look of the original artwork, ultimately streamlining the production process.
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