Lights! Camera! Interaction!

Lights! Camera! Interaction!
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

March 19th 2010 at 1:59PM

As CG movies set new records at the box office, could it be that films are becoming more like games?

Since the days of the laser disk and titles like Dragon’s Lair, the industry and public have been spoon-feeding one another the notion that in a near future developers will be creating games that are increasingly like ‘interactive movies’.

It’s always been a vaguely nonsensical forecast thanks to the entertainment sector’s own uncanny valley. After all, games are works of interactive entertainment, while films satisfy an audience that is entirely passive; one will never really be like the other.

The recent arrival of Heavy Rain has done much to reignite interest in the concept of dynamic narrative and the player as storyteller, but more zealous observers are noticing a very different paradigm shift in the relationship that Hollywood shares with Silicon Valley.

Could it be that films are becoming more like games? To answer this question, it’s important to find a case study that perfectly demonstrates the crossover between developing games and creating films, and Avatar makes for the ideal example.

The Avatar movie, which is the most successful cinema release of all time in terms of box office takings, was accompanied by its own game, developed by Ubisoft Montreal. Both are built using a great deal of related technology, both support viewing in stereoscopic 3D, and both had acclaimed director James Cameron involved.

A TWO-WAY STREET
Speaking to those involved on both sides of the fence that separates Avatar’s game programmers and level designers from the film’s cinematographers and clapper loaders, it’s clear that the technological overlap is significant.

“It’s been maybe 10 years I’ve been working in the video game industry, and this is the first real time that I can see that there is a huge willing from people as successful as James Cameron and Ubisoft to make something this great together,” reveals Ubisoft Montreal’s own animation project manager Xavier Rang.

“That means the sharing of assets and sharing the way we are working with the tools. That approach is the future of the video game industry.”

Meanwhile, Nolan Murtha, digital effects supervisor at James Cameron’s movie production studio Lightstorm Entertainment, reveals how much interest the director of Titanic showed in the development of the Avatar game.

“I haven’t heard of asset sharing where the people who are actually creating the movie are sharing assets with the people who are creating the video game to this level,” he said.

“I really don’t know of any directors who have played such a large role in, I wouldn’t say creating the game, but in guiding the game. Jim [James Cameron] just let the designers develop what they thought was a good game with a good story, but he still directed, and provided input and was available for questions and concerns when those kind of things came up.

“That allowed Avatar the game to be much more unified with the movie. It allowed the game to be much more than a carbon copy, and allowed for the expansion of the universe.”

Any reader who has spent even a small amount of time in the games industry would be within their rights to dispute such claims as overenthusiastic marketing speak. They are certainly the kind of claims we’ve heard before, but it really does seem that the Avatar game and film shared a remarkable synergy throughout their conception, and the relationship between the two grants us a glimpse at how much time studios in the development sector might be set to spend with our celluloid cousins.

Games-makers working on film tie-ins have long had access to concept art, early script drafts and other preview assets, but now it looks like studios can start to expect that process to reverse. Hollywood is coming, and it seems to want our tech.

HE WHO SHARES WINS
“We took the sharing very far,” insists Rang. “So far in fact, that in Montreal where the game was made we created what we called ‘The Bunker’.”

The Bunker was Ubisoft’s solution to the security issues that needed to be in place to allow a special internal network linked with James Cameron’s own network. The closely guarded set-up enabled the Montreal team to receive all kinds of assets, from models and reference charts to videos and concept art.

“We really got everything,” enthuses Rang. “That meant that we didn’t have to spend too long testing how things worked. Normally when you are concepting this kind of thing you have to do a lot of research, and a lot goes back and forth between technical teams to see how it looks and how it works. But with Avatar all the work had been done, and after I had realised this the question was ‘with the tools available to the games industry, how do I recreate that?”

It’s a tough question to answer, but Rang wasn’t alone in pondering what could be learned from his new colleagues in a parallel sector, and some of Ubisoft’s assets even made it into Lightstorm’s capable hands. Over on the film set, there’s a sentiment that much can be learned from games.

“It’s interesting to consider that games are becoming more like films,” suggests Murtha, “but I think it’s much more reasonable to say the films will become more similar to games than games will become similar to films. I think that filmmakers need to watch the expansion of the universes that are currently available in games – especially the sand box games like Grand Theft Auto and MMOs like World of Warcraft.

“The way players don’t have to follow the narration and can create their own lives within the game; a movie can’t give someone an experience like that. Sure, it’s a different experience, and people can have very profound reaction to films, but games offer hundreds of hours of playing time while a movie provides two-and-a-half to three hours of playing time. Filmmakers can learn a huge amount from those worlds.”

CAMERA OBSCURA
Murtha’s comments present and interesting perspective from the other side of the creative divide between building content for passive viewing and conceiving works of interactivity, but thus-far they are purely academic. Still, there is a more practical way films are learning from game developers.

Much of the Avatar movie’s content, which is prominently presented in graphical form, is based on that now long-standing industry stalwart motion capture, but no longer is that where game and film technology rub shoulders most vigorously.

When filming Avatar’s motion capture scenes in a sprawling facility draped with cameras and computers, Cameron armed himself with what was named the ‘virtual camera’. 

Effectively an augmented reality viewer, the virtual camera was fitted with a screen at its rear. Pointing the camera around the aesthetically blank set Cameron could see in his viewer a real-time, reasonably hi-res version of how the final movie would look, giving the director of a CG work live feedback for the first time ever.

And the tech underpinning Cameron’s magic box? A system based on game engines. In fact, it’s a gadget Murthra can only explain in gameplay terms, and he tells Develop it outputs “something like an Xbox 360 version of the movie.

According to the Lightstorm employee, Cameron is fascinated by game engines, and the opportunity real-time technology designed for development studios can offer the games industry.

“There’s so many ways games are becoming like films,” says Murtha. “Especially true in the real-time virtual production pipelines that are going to be cropping up throughout different filmmaking areas. I think utilising a lot of the game engine technologies such as transparency maps, sprites, full visual effects and a number of very processor inexpensive tricks are really going to enhance directors’ ability interact with CG content.

“Traditionally directors have had to wait months and months to see what’s going to be on the green screen, and they’ve been struggling with that problem for years. It’s actually really detracted from and swayed some of our more creative and best directors, some of whom have previously avoided the CG medium because the tools aren’t there that are in place for makng live action films.

“They want to have control, and merging video game technology with filmmaking technology is allowing these directors to come in and control the CG elements of their films like never before.”

Exciting stuff, but from where Murtha’s standing it seems like only those working behind the silver screen are set to gain from the increasing overlap of film and game technology. Time to return to Rang, who takes a more balanced view, that sees games and films approaching each other with an equal velocity.

“I certainly agree that movies and films are moving closer in that way,” confesses Rang. “Today everybody can access the technology to create games, and create some really great first and third person-shooters and such. Now everybody can do that, things like narrative and storyline are becoming more important than ever. Interaction with narrative, like that which we find in Avatar, is part of the next step.”

HIRE AND HIGHER
It doesn’t seem that Rang is the only Ubisoft staffer that recognises that what films and games share can become a more significant two-way relationship. In fact, according to the animation project manager’s suggestions, there’s more that developers can take from Hollywood’s studio plots than inspiration and technology.

“We want to bring more people to us from the movie industry, such as storyboarders and scriptwriters, just to be sure that we can tell a really story. We need to move on from checkpoints and missions to something that is far more complex narrative.”

So far everything sounds just rosy, but to ignore one glaring discrepancy between games and films is to turn a blind eye to a major gulf between the mediums.

A glance at any CG movie running alongside its gaming counterpart makes one thing absolutely clear. Graphically, films look far superior to games.

By definition games must hand the reigns to the player, but in doing so they make a huge aesthetic sacrifice, and when they carry the brand of a groundbreaking CG film, it puts an immense pressure on the developer to release a good looking game.

“There’s a pressure there, but that pressure is really important,” insists Rang.

“We know that we don’t have the same tools as the movie industry, and we know there’s a certain quality we can’t match at the end. That pressure makes us find a way to give an intention, and to take all of the resource we can to deliver the highest quality we can with the tools we have. After that there is only the fact that we have to accept that we won’t match what we can create today with the CG quality.”

“That’s true,” interjects Murtha, as a brilliantly sereal debate begins that sees the two men defending each others’ industry. “But despite that sacrifice the game really provides a role that the audience can play, and in that regard it leads the film. Obviously the graphics and the computer-generated content in Avatar are definitely groundbreaking, and certainly it’s the best that there has ever been.

“You can certainly be immersed in the movie, especially when watching in 3D, but in the video game, even without the same aesthetic and the same detail, you are involved and affect changes. That’s important. Our film audiences can’t affect changes, but the game audience can be part of the universe, and view it from a more insider’s perspective rather than just being a passive audience member.”

THE TWILIGHT ZONE

Of course, there’s one area where filmmakers and developers occupy a far more familiar footing. While 3D in movie theatres has existed for decades, the new stereoscopic revolution is one that both industries are still testing the water of.

It just so happens that Avatar is the poster child of the huge financial and technological investment in revitalising the concept of viewing in 3D, and both game and film can be seen in the next dimension. But how important is stereoscopic display to the professionals who have spent so much time with it?

“For me there are many layers of immersion, and we try to provide as many as we can in a game,” reveals Rang.

“To provide this extra experience, letting players enjoy the game on a good TV with 3D technology, adds another layer of immersion. However, without 3D you can still feel the game. 3D of that kind is important, but it’s just another layer, and it’s not the only way to enjoy it.

“I agree,” says Murtha quickly. “From a filmmaking perspective it’s a very similar situation. I don’t think a movie can rely on whether it’s in 3D or whether it’s a traditional 2D film. I think that using 3D technology to help tell the story, just in the way you use visual effects to tell a story, you need to make sure its about using the technology to help tell the story rather than making the film or story about the visual effects.”

Tentative words then, from the men at the zenith of a new direction for entertainment. Clearly Rang and Murtha respect the considered approach needed to harness the potential of 3D.

The arrival of 3D’s new coming couldn’t happen at a better time for the synergy of game development and filmmaking. Importantly, an intensified approach to technology and staff sharing will be essential if the stereoscopic dream is to become a reality. Working together towards that goal might become the means to a far greater end that sees the creation of games and films overlap in a mutually beneficial way that will far outweigh the hackneyed potential interactive movie.