Animators for games are riding a wave that has yet to crest. It is a thrilling, though slightly precarious, place to be. Coupled with the introduction of Microsoft's XBox, Nintendo's GameCube and Sony's PlayStation 2 (PS2) all within the past two years, game developers have released about 100 titles for all three platforms to date. Gaming industry analysts predict peak saturation in the console market by 2004 when they forecast there will be about 1,000 titles for those consoles. Animation quality will be a key factor in moving those games. The DVD market is swelling too and the supplemental material on these titles often relies heavily on animation. Immersive menus, games, original animations - all add to the quality of the DVD. Animators working on these games and DVD titles realize it is up to them to distinguish their projects from the pack. What follows are tales from a few risk takers.
For Pac Man game cinematics, Super 78 used 3DSMax 3.1 but upgraded to version 4.0 after the project ended.
SUPER 78 (www.super78.com), a boutique animation studio in Hollywood, created the animated cinematics for Pac Man Party and Pac Man World 2 for Namco and game developer Mass Media. The titles, for XBox and PS2 platforms, were released this spring.
The Risk? Switching from Discreet 3D Studio Max version 3.1 to version 4.0 in production midstream on Pac Man World 2.
"Our animator, Mike McReynolds, was the big risk taker - people are always afraid to move into an upgrade when they first start a project - and he explored all the tools. He was the guy who shared all the knowledge on all the really great improvements on Max4. It really helped us out, all through modeling and animating," says creative director Brent Young. "Usually I don't like to upgrade to a new release unless it's more of a 3.0 to 3.1 or 3.5. Going to a full new release like 4.0, it's kind of scary because you don't know what all the bugs are going to be - if all your [time-intensive] models and animations are going to translate."
There were more challenges. Though the spherical Pac Man looks like an easy model to build and animate, 3DS Max had trouble morphing between multiple objects with the same vertice/face count. The spherical shapes would mutate, says Young. So they tried Alias|Wavefront Maya, whose NURBS-based environment doesn't depend on vertice counts. However, building models in Maya and bringing them back to Max was a dismal failure. Ultimately, they stayed in Max and animated the spherical shapes with animated booleans, though even then the motion blur of the animated booleans still caused some models to explode. It was a random problem that the animators solved by rerendering certain frames.
Fun and games: Super 78 partners Brent Young and Dina Benadon.
TIP: Stay in one 3D package because you can experiment and think that it's going to work but in the long run you could be running into bigger problems, says Young.
In the end, Young praised 3DS Max v.4.0 for being much quicker because of a new built-in nonlinear animation tool which superseded the package's Character Studio or other plug-ins. Taking that risk, moving from one version to another, was worth it. The Super 78 studio spent three months creating more than five minutes of 3D CG, models and everything from conception through final compositing. Editing was done on Media 100s. 3DS Max ran on Dell workstations, and Adobe After Effects running on Dells and Mac G4s was used for compositing and effects.
PANDEMIC STUDIOS (www.pandemicstudios.com) in Santa Monica is creating animation for Star Wars: Clone Wars, a videogame for Nintendo GameCube that mirrors this summer's feature release. The game, expected to be released this fall, is a fast action combat game set in the Star Wars universe.
The Risk? Staying true to the game's original idea while the projected release date shrunk by six months. Also, there was always the risk of not satisfying the game's designers and programmers; everyone wanted a little something during the animation creation process. On Star Wars, the designers wanted to incorporate a Jedi combat mode which caused the animators to spend a lot of time solving a less-than-robust IK system on the game side. Animation cycles were simplified and, therefore, looked better. Designers wanted characters to run "just a bit faster" so animators had to make adjustments to avoid something too "cartoony." Programmers had their own needs like having the assets work consistently. For instance, animators had to create same-size doorways so soldiers' bounding boxes would fit through each one.
Big Idea created animation for the DVD videogame Penguins in Maya 3 running on HP Visualize workstations. Editing was via Avids.
In-house proprietary toolsets were used to edit missions and place assets in the game engine. Softimage|XSI 2.0 was used for 3D animation creation. Art director Carey Chico praised the software for its "fantastic polygonal modeler and texturing applications. The poly modeling tools in XSI emphasize the philosophy of a small, tight number of tools that, when combined, provide for an unlimited number of operations," he says. "Also, the subdivisional surface technologies allows us to model and texture in a lower resolution and then increase the resolution by pressing a key with the the textures remaining in place." Chico also plugged XSI's built-in feature "sub-projections" as a killer tool that aligned texture to a series of faces. This next-gen console game had high-detail bells and whistles. The vehicles animated while moving.
TIP: Chico has several. First, differentiate between model, skeleton and animation attributes to avoid exporting woes. Keep certain types of files separate from each other so small changes can be made to single files that won't affect the majority of files needed. For example, there's no reason to re-export the mesh and hierarchy structure if only the idle animation needs to be adjusted. Second, remember that animations will not be used in a linear way; most are looped. It's important to not draw attention to, say, a walk cycle by varying the weight shift inconsistently.
AngeL Studios (www.angelstudios. com) in San Diego and Carlsbad, CA, is a complete next-gen console game developer that does all its animations in-house. Established in 1984, they are technology veterans, heavy on designs for open game environments. According to the studio, it was the only US publisher to have two XBox and two PlayStation2 launch titles. Angel Studios developed and released Transworld Surf for XBox at Christmas; the PS2 version was released in April. Publisher is Infograms Atari.
Red Eye Studio used Vicon's Mcam optical system to capture movements for NBA Inside Drive '03. They used Kaydara Filmbox for realtime playback.
The risk? It's all about technology. Angel Studios has built into each contract a six-month prototype phase. Their theory is to prove the technology internally first, rather than reaching for milestones during the production phase.
For Transworld Surf, a surfing game based on the magazine, Angel Studios created not just waves but an ocean. At any given time, players can hit "jet ski" and they'll get a bird's-eye perspective on the ocean with six to seven waves rolling at the same time; they can pick the one they want to ride. The game features 10 real-world locations and 13 pro surfers. There are more than 800 custom animations, a couple hundred per surfer, some shared, some not. There are also animated creatures like sharks, sea lions, dolphins and birds. Game play offers the simulation of surfing plus the big arcade-style tricks. Modes include pro, free surf, king of the wave and multiplayer modes for games like shark tag.
"Workflow was a huge thing, having an intelligent rig to minimize the amount of time spent on animating was very important," says lead artist Joshua Bass.
Bass used Maya 4.0 on Windows 2000 custom boxes. Blend shapes, a standard function, allowed the artists to animate the hands without using a lot of skeletal information. However, including those blend shapes into the game and getting the game to recognize the blend shapes and draw it correctly was a challenge solved by proprietary code transitions, he says. That was a technique that was efficient in terms of frame rate. In-house software also allowed the animators to make expressions using multiple IK setups that switched per keyframe.
APC Studios (www.apcstudios.com) in Atlanta has completed work on a training CD-ROM for BellSouth Telecommunications that includes a series of interactive quizzes following the earlier "Got Game-themed" training video. APC's Holovision graphics and animation department designed the CD-ROM and its navigation. Programmer Brian Brown used Macromedia Director to develop the project, and designer Jonathan Staton used Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator to create backgrounds and graphics. 3D was created using 3D Studio Max. Webmaster Jeff Butler programmed a back-end Perl application to link the CD-ROM to BellSouth's internal database.
Bass notes a benefit of Maya 4 over version 3. "They didn't come up with some new feature that was going to open the door for somebody that needs some more eye candy, they went back and read their user groups and figured out the biggest thing they needed to do was to solve about 300 to 400 bugs. For the most part they just made things more functional," he says.
TIP: Be prepared for your animation needs to evolve. During the 18 months it takes to make a game, characters, the look, gameplay may change and animators can't afford to lose animation. Make sure you have a skeletal set-up that can be modified and evolve with the game without having to reanimate.
Red Eye Studio (www.redeye-studio. com) in Hoffman Estates, IL, 20 miles outside Chicago, is a primarily a motion capture studio whose main clients are videogame developers and publishers. The videogame developer High Voltage, dissatisfied with its mocap options, established Red Eye last year. However, since developers were leery of working with a competitor, Red Eye was soon separated as an independently run company and its client base has grown to many other major developers as well.
In March, Red Eye started shooting for NBA Inside Drive '03 for XBox, scheduled for a Christmas 2002 release. The developer is High Voltage, the publisher is Microsoft. Red Eye provided some mocap for the prior '02 title; this time it is the main mocap studio.
The risk? Just the ones that come with pushing the boundaries of the medium. Red Eye is using the new Vicon Mcam optical system, which has one million pixels/camera and captures 240 fps, offering unprecedented realism in image and motion (so much so that the studio is pushing into the sports science area and marketing its mocap service as an instructional service to sports teams and individual players). Red Eye's studio is 4,000 square feet, 30 feet high and its Vicon system offers 16 cameras. The studio is equipped to handle all its clients' formats. It uses Kaydara Filmbox for realtime playback. For 3D animation, it has 3D Studio Max, Maya, Softimage and NewTek LightWave. There will be more motion capture in the '03 title, which will feature not one but two NBA players and the addition of fans and a coach who were created from motion capture data. The action emphasis will be expanded from dunking to dribbling and street moves.
"Motion capture brings two benefits to videogame developers: One, it cuts production time of animators doing frame by frame significantly. Two, the real true motion of the character, that can't be duplicated via true animation," says Red Eye director of operations/business development Vince Guzman.
tip: Review that shot list with the developer and producer during pre-production. On his end, Guzman works feverishly behind the scenes to line up the necessary props for his many sports clients. For a hockey title, he scoured area hockey rinks to check out the ice and determine correct camera positions.
West LA's Max Ink Cafe (www.maxinkcafe.com) created seven game cinematics for The 3DO company for use in its new Dragon Rage PlayStation 2 game. The animated movies total 10 minutes and combine CG environments with matte paintings and digital video footage of an ocean, sunset and fire. A team of 35 artists spent 12 weeks producing the segments using Discreet 3DS Max, Character Studio, Right Hemisphere Deep Paint and Digimation plug-ins. Todd Sheridan Perry served as animation director and Duane Stinnett was CG supervisor.
Designing for DVDs
Big Idea Productions (www.bigidea. com or www. bigideafun.com ) in the Chicago area is the originator of the Veggietales and more recent Penguins franchise. Its VHS and DVD titles are animated, all of which is created in-house. The company goes outside to program the DVDs. The first three episodes of Penguins, for four to11 year olds, were released on DVD in May. Future episodes will be released on VHS and DVD simultaneously.
All the DVDs have the same concept. The main part is the half-hour 3D animated show. There is always a moral, since Big Idea's mission is to undo the damage that it believes mainstream media is doing to the family unit and society in general. Thus, each episode has a message that is reinforced in a DVD supplemental family activity, characters explaining how to talk about an issue like cheating or not complaining.
the tip: "One of the things that I find really boring in videos ... is text only. There are so many bonus features where it's a lame picture and 16 pages of text that's too small," says Steve Hullfish, the DVD producer for Big Idea. New to DVDs, Hullfish has brought his editing and television promotion experience to a new format. "I've been pushing the envelope as much as I can, but we don't want to put too much video on there because we wouldn't be able to keep the compression and the quality of the picture wouldn't be so good. But all of the Big Idea 2002 releases have 5.1 surround sound mixes, original mixes for DVD, plus subtitling and closed captioning."
The first Penguins DVD titles have many interesting bonus features. There is a maze similar to one found on a kids' menu in a restaurant that can be played with a remote control. The programmer figured out how to do 100 button pushes on a single page, even though DVDs are limited to 32, Hullfish says. There are hide and seek games that search for characters in a 3D environment, again with the remote. There is a director's track, geared for kids by having the characters respond to what's on screen. There may be recipes if the show featured food, like dust bunnies hidden under a bed. The DVD menus are fully animated. Overall, the lighting was adjusted to bring out the beauty in the scenes.
Animation for the VHS versions of shows was created in Maya 3, so the DVD animators continued work in that version rather than shifting to 4.0, which the company has since installed. Maya runs on HP Visualize workstations with dual gig processors. For rendering, they use Dell Precision 420s, SGI 540 and Intergraph workstations. All editing was done on Avids. Steve Fuller, design manager for 3D design, headed the animation team.