Learn how the man behind RoboCop's special effects helped create the look of id Software's most terrifying monsters
In 1992, a small group of developers at id Software in Mesquite, Texas were embarking on their latest first-person shooter. It was to be called Doom and id hoped the gameplay and graphics featuring hordes of demons from Hell would surpass the studio’s already well-received FPS, Wolfenstein 3D.
But there was a problem.
The upgraded graphics for the invading demons of Doom were going to be too complicated and time-consuming to be drawn by hand as had been done for Wolfenstein – remember, this was still in the very early days of 3D modelled characters.
Instead, id looked to hand-sculpt clay models of the demons that could then be manipulated into different poses, photographed from multiple angles, digitised, colorised and incorporated into the game as sprites.
When that clay modelling process also proved too cumbersome for one of the key demons, the team were in a bind. They wanted more intricate designs and the the ability to produce cleaner stop-motion movement into their practical creature models. A solution arrived via the artist hired to design the iconic Doom package art and logo, Don Ivan Punchatz. He thought he might know someone who could help – his son Greg.
Doom was how I had imagined a game always should be, walking around in three dimensions and battling creatures. It was really incredible to see.
At the time, Greg Punchatz had a fledgling career in practical, make-up and animatronics special effects. Already he’d contributed to films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, RoboCop and its sequels, and Coming to America. These were projects where Punchatz learnt from the likes of Rob Bottin, Phil Tippett and Rick Baker, some of the greatest special effects artists in the industry.
“My dad told the guys at id, ‘My son does this this stuff for a living, you might want to give him a call!’” Punchatz tells us.
After hearing from id Software artist Kevin Cloud, Punchatz visited the company to see the work in progress on Doom: “Frankly, I was blown away. This is how I had imagined a game always should be, walking around in three dimensions and battling creatures. It was really incredible to see.”
Punchatz was immediately brought on to craft a stop-motion model of Doom’s final boss, the Spider Mastermind. It was a hideous brain-shaped creature on mechanical arachnid-like legs.
‘Scary but over-the-top’ was Punchatz’s brief. He and a small team referenced id sketches and then fashioned a maquette out of an underlying steel armature, foam latex and a collection of somewhat rudimentary bits and pieces.
“It was what I like to call a little bit rubber band and chewing gum effects,” suggests Punchatz. “The spider creature was made out of parts I had literally just found at hardware and hobby stores, pieces of Tupperware and PVC pipes. The main body started out as a sculpture, then a plaster mold was pulled from that. Then we made the armature to fit that mold, and then foam latex was injected inside the mould and put into an oven.”
Seeing Spider Mastermind in the game was cool but in some ways it was disappointing because they only had 256 colours at the time and the sprite resolution sucked a lot of the details out of the designs.
Punchatz would send Polaroids of his progress to id, who, he says, largely let him do his own thing. He eventually provided the finished Spider Mastermind, along with a rotating table that the model could be firmly fastened onto to facilitate scanning.
The ‘scanning’, however, was also fairly rudimentary. Unlike today where multiple cameras might capture an object to produce a 3D model via photogrammetry, the id team relied on individual frame grabs of a live feed from video camera pointed at the model and connected to a NeXT computer.
A program called Fuzzy Pumper Palette Shop then down-res’d the 24-bit colour still to a 256 colour VGA graphic, which was later cleaned up in a different paint program. The final Mastermind and other characters were then realised in sprite form by id artists.
“You’ve got to remember this was before 3D character animation had really taken off,” reinforces Punchatz. “You needed $60,000 computers to do that kind of work, and this was right before Jurassic Park had even come out, so very few people had done much character animation for video games in 3D.
"Everything was still created with sprites at the time, but instead of just drawing them, it was a lot easier to make a model, photograph it in one position from 360 degrees, change the position, photograph it from 360 degrees, change the position and so on.”
Very few people had done character animation for 3D video games. You needed $60,000 computers to do that kind of work, and this was right before Jurassic Park had even come out.
When Punchatz first saw the Spider Mastermind incorporated into Doom when it was released in late 1993, he was conflicted with the results.
“It was cool but in some ways it was disappointing because they only had 256 colours at the time and the sprite resolution sucked a lot of the details out of the designs," he recalls. "I had to deliver these really detailed models and I was hoping they were going to look a little bit more like they did when they left my studio. But at the same time it was really amazing to be involved with something that successful.”
Indeed, Doom rocketed to enormous popularity on the basis of its shareware release and innovative and immersive gameplay – reportedly the game was installed on more computers than any Microsoft operating system.
Its success led to Punchatz being recruited to provide models and stop-motion maquettes for the Arch-Vile, Mancubus, Revenant and Pinky demons in further Doom instalments Doom II: Hell on Earth, Final Doom and Doom 64.
These new demons offered Punchatz opportunity to be even more creative. Whereas the Spider Mastermind had only simple articulation, each new model grew in complexity.
“Mastermind’s legs pretty much only just moved, and his arms moved, but his mouth didn’t move,” says Punchatz. “As we went along, the other maquettes become full ball and socket armatures, so they had a full range of motion. In some ways, these stop-motion maquettes are easier to get right than they would be in CG. You don’t have to worry about how your skin is weighted on stop-motion model because it just sticks to the metal armature.”
We made Pinky and the other Doom 64 characters as hard rigid models sculpted in clay. They were designed to be broken apart so they could be digitised more easily.
Generating video game characters via scanned maquettes was a mainstay in the industry for several years. Punchatz continued to advance his art, and contributed to such games as the cancelled Electronic Arts fighter Savage Heroes that was to make use of stop-motion figures for its animal characters.
“As the games evolved and the game companies had more money to spend, so did my toolset and crew,” adds Punchatz. “For the second Doom game, I bought a drill press and I started machining parts myself. When Savage Heroes came to me, I decided to buy a mill and a lathe and we just figured out how to make armatures. I literally bought a mill without any idea how to use it – I just knew I needed one to do stop-motion armatures better to give the characters more range of motion.”
Then by the time Doom 64 came along, id’s scanning process had moved from video frame grabs to the use of an articulated arm scriber that could plot points on a maquette to form a digitised 3D model.
“We made Pinky and the other Doom 64 characters as hard rigid models sculpted in clay,” explains Punchatz. “They were designed to be broken apart so they could be digitised more easily.”
But by this stage, there had been a massive wave of innovation in CG animation and Punchatz realised that his days of making monsters with practical effects were numbered.
“That’s when I saw the writing on the wall,” he says. “If I wanted to keep making monsters and doing cool stuff I was going to have to pick up a mouse and a keyboard and figure out what this whole computer revolution was about.”
To be part of something that has left a long-lasting impression on the world is kind of crazy – people find out that I worked on Doom and it’s like I played on the Beatles’ White Album.
While completing a make-up effects gig with Dallas-based animation studio Janimation, Punchatz heard the company was after its first full-time CG artist.
“They liked what I did in creature effects, but I didn’t know how to do it in the computer. They just rolled the dice on me and sent me off for a week’s worth of computer animation training.”
Punchatz is now a partner and senior creative director at Janimation, working on commercials, game cinematics and trailers and film work.
Of course, a new incarnation of Doom from id Software and Bethesda Softworks is releasing in May with much anticipation. Punchatz says he is looking forward to the release – despite the fact it brings up one small regret about his past Doom experience.
“At one stage id offered me points on the backend to take $500 off the price of one of the characters and I turned that down," he says. "It’s a painful lesson. But to be part of something that has left a long-lasting impression on the world is kind of crazy – people find out that I worked on Doom and it’s like I played on the Beatles’ White Album.”