By Ann Fisher
Issue: October 1, 2005


"I think game trailers are really mimicking the feature trailers these days; in the feel, the tone, the title graphics. The videogame industry is pushing into that territory to make everything feel like a feature," says Brent Young, creative director of Super 78, the Hollywood-based animation shop that recently helped create Disney's "The Chronicles of Narnia" game trailer.

Expectations for game trailers are huge, as are the challenges in creating them. The visual look is certainly critical. Mandates range from offering unique styles to producing "mini-movies" to setting the tone of a game not yet developed. The timetable is usually strange. Three weeks to animate, from scratch, a 1:30-to-2-minute trailer? Get used to it. The budget is frequently stretched. Manipulating the assets is always fun; if any are available they may only be low polygon models that must be transformed into high-end visual extravaganzas. Sometimes animators simply cut game-play footage together.

What's the difference between feature film and game trailers?

"Unlike movie trailer production, where you are given a finished or close-to-finished movie, we receive an unfinished game build, and we have to play the game," explains Rich Flier, VP/marketing, interactive entertainment for Creative Domain. "We have to master the game and understand every nuance within it so we can make it look beautiful. Unlike with a film trailer, here you're almost creating your own film. We actually become the directors. We sculpt the moment. We get to go into this virtual environment and create whatever we can imagine.

"When you make a film trailer, you are supplied with assets from the studio," explains Flier. "This is not the case with game trailers production. We actually have to 'capture' the footage for the trailer, and it's becoming more complex. In the past you would just hook up your game systems to a Digi Beta deck and record your gameplay. With next-gen systems it's not that easy. They're high def, they're outputting at 720p native [XBox 360 does] and we're one of the few shops around the country, let alone Southern California, who is certified by Microsoft to do game capture and editing of footage. That's a big deal. But it's very complicated. You need specialized equipment, including a scan converter and full HD editing gear, plus you really need an engineer to figure this out. It's not just plug in your XBox into a deck anymore."

Creative Domain provided the trailer "Kingdom Come" for ActiVision's Gun. "When it comes to the game trailer, you're constantly trying to find the moments to showcase the beauty and uniqueness of the game," says Rich Flier.
Adds Brain Zoo president/CEO Mohammed Davoudian, "It's guerrilla're just being thrown into it, there's not a lot of preproduction, there's not a lot of time to figure things out, so you're figuring things out as you're going, on the fly."

The animators, and one game developer, interviewed for this article have created game trailers for some big-name titles: John Woo's Stranglehold, Gun, Chronicles of Narnia, Dungeon Lords and Darkwatch. Several are award winners and were shown at E3 in Los Angeles this past summer. To check out a good cross section, visit

In the meantime, check out the following mini-movies that give game players a hint of what's to come:



(, Hollywood

GAME TRAILER: 2:30 "Kingdom Come" for Activision's Gun. The game release date is November '05. The game is for all platforms

Tigar Hare created a one-minute open from scratch for Electronic Arts' Medal of Honor.
CHALLENGE: "We're making these trailers well before the game is even close to completion, so we have to employ every trick in the book - from the theatrical world or the animation world - to make these things look better than they really are," says Rich Flier. In many cases, Creative Domain often starts doing trailers when the game is in the alpha stage (when developers are still testing the features).

SOLUTION: "We created, from scratch, a :30 lone cowboy being chased by a posse," says Flier. "We actually took the models from the game. It was about 10 evil villains in their T poses [created in 3DS Max] - plain characters with low-rez textures - and the hero from the game, Cole. We went up to the California desert, after we storyboarded it and shot all the sequences in HD. Then we went into 3DS Max and animated all the characters to do what we wanted them to do, and then composited them into these real-world video environments. We up-rezed the characters - they're super high quality characters composited into an HD environment - and the effect is stunning, real... you're not sure if it's a videogame or if it's real at first, and that segues into the game play sequence of the trailer," says Flier.

The team motion captured that sequence and applied the mocap data to the characters. They did it at the local House of Moves studio. 3DS Max was used for the 3D animation, including camera moves, while 2d3's Boujou was used for motion tracking with the live action camera plates. Hardware was a mixture of Dell and custom-made boxes.

For the :50 trailer for Dungeon Lords, Brain Zoo paid special attention to the characters' face, hair and cloth movement in extreme environments, says Mohammad Davoudian.
Flier reports that there is much more flexibility in the video production world than with videogames. "The videogame consoles can't handle the high polygon models that we can in video production," he says. "The sky is the limit for us. We take their models and make them look better."

So how does Creative Domain create something different?

"When it comes to the game trailer, you're constantly trying to find the moments to showcase the beauty and uniqueness of the game," says Flier. "Some of these game builds have camera control built in, and that allows us to do anything that can be done in the real world and more. You can position the camera and make the moment, but sometimes we don't have that luxury and we need to 'break the camera.' We can push the camera into angles that actually break through the environment, and you never know what you are going to get. Technically it's a bug, but sometimes it looks great and you get some incredibly-cool angles, and every game's different."


(, Dallas.

GAME TRAILER: 1:30 trailer for Fail Safe Creative's John Woo's Stranglehold, which will run on XBox 360 and PlayStation3. The game is to be released in fall '06. The trailer pays homage to the film director's style with his classic moves (see Face/Off) and characters.

Super 78's challenge for The Chronicles of Narnia was incorporating action into the trailer to match the game's story. They used 3DS Max and Combustion.
CHALLENGE: "There were a whole bunch of characters that we had to do in a very short amount of time," says senior creative director Greg Punchatz. "Ordinarily, you have to create a whole bunch of morph targets, which creates the expressions for their faces. In this case, there was not time to model 10 different heads and all the shapes individually for them." All of the trailers assets were created from scratch.

SOLUTION: "We came up with sort of a disguise kit," he explains. "What we can do is change the basic shape of the face while still retaining all the expressions from the initial base head. Then we can add things like wigs and mustaches, and change their skin coloration, while still retaining all the facial expressions created for the original characters."

A combination of shape animation and mixer tools in Softimage|XSI were used. "One thing that's very unique about getting XSI shapes to work is you can change the point number of the geometry after the fact so I can add details to something and still retain my shapes."

Alias Maya was used for elements and effects, such as sparks, dust, smoke, at the end of the pipeline. Proprietary tools were used for rendering. The 2D elements were created with Adobe Photoshop, and all was composited with Eyeon Digital Fusion 4.0. "This was the first project with Digital Fusion, and we're very happy with it," says technical director Ludo Michaud. "Even though this was a full-CG product, we still separated everything in layers and put them back at compositing time. Internally, we have our own render management tool with proprietary software and Creative Hue plug-ins to help us out creating those layers. Everything goes into layers in the 2D side. We do have to treat those layers in the 3D side so we had tools to help us do that really fast."

Additional software was Omega's BodyPaint 3D and Pixelogic's Zbrush for character design, faces and modeling. Hardware was mainly Boxx workstations running Windows XP and 2000.


(, Van Nuys, CA.

GAME TRAILER: A :50 trailer of the same name for Dreamcatcher Interactive's Dungeon Lords for PC. The game's release date was July '05.

CHALLENGE: "You have a very short period of time, not only to create the piece from start to finish, but to make it visually stunning, to make it fast paced, exciting and memorable. I don't mean in terms of what little of a story you can tell, but visually and also in terms of colors and texture and essentially your visual style," says Brain Zoo president/CEO Mohammad Davoudian. "For each trailer you do, you have to do something that's visually unique to that product. And that doesn't necessarily mean that goes along with what the game looks like, it just means that it has to look different than every other game trailer that's out there."

He says the big challenge on Dungeon Lords was a three-week turnaround. "This was a very compressed time scale," he says. "We had no luxury whatsoever. Sometimes clients will come to us with storyboards ... for Dungeon Lords we had nothing. They just said, 'Here's a brief synopsis,' which I think was about four or five sentences long, 'we want you to do the visuals.'"

The result was a trailer about wizards fighting with a stylized visual stamp of saturated colors focusing on the two main characters. Special attention was paid to the characters' face, hair and cloth movement in extreme environments.

SOLUTION: "Right off we did some storyboards but realized it was going to take too long, so we just dove right into the animation," describes Davoudian. "The way we worked out our process was the same skeletal structure that was used to do the animatics, was the same skeletal structure that was being used to attach our final models to. So what was happening was when the animators were animating the animatic, that skeleton was being referenced," he says. "It's not as if they've imported it into the environment, it's just looking at a different file than they are able to animate. What that allowed us to do is the guys who were building the real model were updating that model [daily], and when the animators would come in the next morning they'd have the latest model applied to the skeleton."

Brain Zoo animators used Maya for 3D, and Adobe After Effects for 2D, all on Dell machines. About 70 to 80 percent of the studio's work is game-related.


(, Hollywood.

GAME TRAILER: :30 of animated elements to "Ant Farm" for Disney's The Chronicles of Narnia for PS2, XBox, GameCube, PC and handheld. The game's release date is December '05.

CHALLENGE: "The challenge for us was to incorporate action into The Chronicles of Narnia two-minute trailer," says director Brent Young. "Unlike a Lord of the Rings [for which Super 78 provided game cinematics] where action is predominate throughout the story and the game, the challenge with Narnia was to create that feel. With the end user [the player], being the same for both, it was our job to build a little more action and toughness into these characters. To do this, we created the large battle scene at the end where the kids were fighting minotaurs and other evil creatures of Narnia." The trailer premiered at E3.

"The initial challenge was definitely Disney," says Young. "They were trying to keep all the imagery and assets secret because they hadn't launched the feature trailer; they were hesitant to give us any artwork. They started to release assets to us slowly and we got the ball rolling, but it was multiple layers of people to go through for the approval stages."

SOLUTION: "They gave us some scene files that were already in the early stages," he says. "We had to translate those character models, which weren't final models, so we were replacing those models as we went along."

The animators used 3DS Max on Boxx dual P4 workstations running Windows XP Pro, as well as Autodesk Combustion on both Mac OS X dual 2GB G5s and Boxx systems. Final Cut Pro on G5s was used for editing. "Character models came to us in XSI but we translated them using Deep Explorer, a little application that translates the meshes, and then we had to re-rig all the characters. We used Character Studio for that," he says.

Young is partnered in Super 78 with executive producer Dina Benadon. Both left Rhythm & Hues in 1997 to start this studio, which focuses on theme park and game projects.


(, Carlsbad, CA.

GAME TRAILER: 1:00 "High Moon" trailer for High Moon Studios' Darkwatch game for XBox and PS2. The game was released in August '05. The trailer was a joint effort between High Moon Studios and Brain Zoo Studios. Capcom is the game's North American publisher.

CHALLENGE: 1) Market timing - getting the trailer out there at just the right time. That can cause a time crunch, which will affect the budget. 2) Multi-purpose goals - tell a story, show people the visual style of the game, excite people.

"A teaser trailer is done early on in the development of the game, maybe a few months after take about two years to make," says executive producer Emmanuel Valdez. "You want to make an announcement and get people jazzed about it. That's where the first teaser trailer comes in. For Darkwatch we've done a series of them. We did a teaser that was really a spruced-up, high-rez trailer and we didn't have the game to show yet. That was all done pre-render and with high-rez assets. For big events like E3 or GDC or SIGGRAPH, sometimes companies prepare another trailer just so they're sure the games are on other peoples' radar. Maybe weeks before a release, a trailer may, and should, include a lot of game-play footage because this is what they're buying.

"When we did the 'High Moon' teaser trailer, at the time we just nailed down the visual style - it's such a unique premise, it's basically cowboys versus vampires - we had to just nail it, right then and there. The game's a first-person shooter so thematically we want to show a lot of action, and usually when you show a lot of action, it's kind of hard to tell a story."

He point out that it's pretty bloody too. "But that's why it wasn't shown on TV, it was heavily violent, and that was one challenge: how much gore do we want to show? The teaser trailer actually shows a lot of the different things you can do in the game - he can jump extremely high, he rains bullets from above. That's the biggest challenge, we have to throw that interactive bit in there."

SOLUTION: "There were some exaggerations on the style, we went a little more over the top maybe on the teaser trailer than what you can do in the game," says Valdez.

High Moon worked with Brain Zoo, an animation studio, to create the trailer. High Moon shot motion capture in-house, editing the data with Alias' MotionBuilder. Their own animators used Maya for modeling and texture mapping, building the characters' environments and traditional keyframe animation. They ran it on a Dell PC. Brain Zoo took all those assets and the High Moon storyboards and assembled the shots. Their animators did all of the rendering and lighting, and added effects like particles, cloth and hair. They used the same tools. Brain Zoo also generated high-resolution models of the characters in the trailer, including main character Jericho Cross and his undead adversaries.


(, Sherman Oaks, CA.

GAME TRAILER: 1:00 opening cinematic for Electronic Arts' Medal of Honor game, available for PS2, XBox and GameCube. The game was released this past spring. Much of this cinematic was used for the trailer/commercial, which EA created internally. Tigar Hare also created an additional four minutes of cinematics used in the game.

CHALLENGE: "Sometimes we've been given zero assets," reports creative director Dave Hare. "We have to totally recreate everything and, a lot of the time, depending on how far along the game is developed, they'll take our creations and say, 'We're going to use this as reference for the game." In some fashion, you're one of the developers of the game."

Hare says that sometimes they do what's called a visual ID, or visual target, before the game's really been started. "In that type of scenario, you're doing a lot more preproduction, more concepts and designs. On the other side of things, the last few games we've done for EA have been games that are in their second or third version, so the assets have already been created. Now you're just trying to get them to the right format and add a level of detail that's still being faithful to the game, but adding a higher realism level."

For Medal of Honor, EA gave Tigar Hare animators four weeks for the cinematics - the one-minute open was the focus. The WWII game opens with soldiers on a boat attacking a harbor. The quick timetable was a challenge.

SOLUTION: "We couldn't do motion capture sequences of people hitting handrails and falling off or getting shot and falling back three feet, it's just too difficult or unsafe to capture. So we were able to use Natural Motion's Endorphin to create 20 separate animations for the cinematics. It is a great new piece of technology we were able to introduce into our pipeline," says Hare. "Think of it as virtual stunt doubles, where you can create forces and environments that these characters react with and you can also control the character. It helped us get that opening cinematic to a level in much quicker time than we otherwise would've been able."

3DS Max is the animation studio's main platform running on custom-built dual AMD Opteron machines with 3D Labs Wildcat Realizm 800 graphics card.

Tigar Hare created a lot of the environments from scratch; the characters were already created. "They wanted this one to have a very similar look for the characters of the game; they didn't want to up-rez too much except for the main character and the faces. So we wanted to offer something to the project, but we were under the limitations of up-rezing the characters, so we really tried to work on our color and lighting - very realistic and a lot of depth - to polish it."

That work was done in 3DS Max and through compositing software Digital Fusion.

Game cinematics account for more than 50 percent of Tigar Hare's business.

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