When we play a great game, we know who to thank: the developers. But when we see a great game trailer, did you know that sometimes the developers had little or nothing to do with it?
Once a device used simply to market a video game, in recent years the humble video game trailer has evolved - like its silver screen sibling - into something more. Instead of being judged solely as a taste of a full, upcoming project, trailers are now seen as something which can themselves be considered art, and viewed - and appreciated - as something separate from the games they’re representing.
And with games as such big business these days, and with video fast replacing static screenshots as the principle means of advertising a title, the trailer has never been more important.
In many cases, then, you simply can’t trust a game developer to come up with one. There’s too much time and money at stake to risk blowing a first (or big) impression on millions of people. Many studios have enough trouble impacting us when they have 8-10 hours, let alone 120 seconds.
Enter, then, the trailer specialists: Blur Studio.
Blur is an animation house founded fifteen years ago, and based in Venice, California. With around 100 staff working as guns for hire, Blur has made a name for itself creating everything from advertising campaigns to small sequences in major motion pictures (they’re responsible for some of the space stuff in James Cameron’s Avatar, for example). But what we know them best for is their extensive, and amazing, work on video game trailers, cinematics and introductory sequences.
Go on and make a list of some of the best animated, cinematic trailers and introduction sequences you’ve seen for a video game in the last five years. Would you have listed, say, the intro to Dawn of War? I would have. Would you have listed the Old Republic’s “Jedi Temple” trailer, one of the most exciting Star Wars moments to ever take place outside a feature film? I would have.
Those, and many, many more, from games as diverse as Fable II to Halo Wars to Dragon Age to Warhammer Online, were the work of Blur Studio. Being such fans of their work, then, we thought we’d have a chat with Blur’s CG supervisor, Jerome Denjean, and find out just what goes into making the game industry’s own version of the short film.
“If the game we’re working on is near completion, we’ll usually use one the existing environments, add some modelling and texture detail, polish up the lighting and just concentrate on dramatic camera work”, Denjean tells Kotaku. “If the game is just starting up, as is sometimes the case, then Blur gets called to do an early teaser. That is when we’ll often turn to our excellent concept artists here to help develop rich environments and great characters to round out the overall designs.”
“Sometimes a publisher or developer will come to us with something very precise, like storyboards, character and environment models and we’ll work with them to deliver their vision. Brink was one of those instances. And on other occasions, clients will give us carte blanche and they’ll just say ‘Hey, we want you to do something amazing based on the universe we’re working on, but we’re really open to ideas.’
“Blur will then get immersed in their world, write a script, concept and model everything and come up with what we think would be exciting for viewers to see. We’re really set up to be able to do both and everything in between, but each time we’ll try our hardest to stay true to the universe that the video game has already created. It helps that everyone here at Blur loves games. The whole studio plays Quake everyday at 2pm. It’s great.”
Sounds like a lot of work, so how long would an average trailer take to complete? How about as much as some people would spend making the game itself.
“It really depends on the budget and the schedule given by our clients, who are usually the game developers and the publishers”, Denjean says. “On average, I’d say a regular three-minute trailer like Brink’s will take about three months and use between 40 and 50 people. The DC Universe Online cinematic we just finished stretched over about six months, and was touched by a total of 71 artists, from layout artists, concept designers to lighters and a team of FX folks.”
That’s a lot of people and a lot of work. Enough to maybe convince Blur to quit the freelance gig and, at least temporarily, sit down with a developer and publisher and work exclusively on a game from start to finish?
“Game cinematics are at the core of what Blur does every day, but working on the actual game itself is a very different animal” Denjean tells us. “Our job is more akin to feature film work, using linear storytelling techniques that are very far removed from what games tend to do in real time.”
Blur even occasionally step beyond simply putting other’s people work into motion, sometimes helping with the game’s design process. “We love it when we’re able to contribute some designs, character models or animation to a particular game, and it often happens. But it’s a very different job to develop the complex universes that our clients create with their games.”
With such time, money and manpower going into trailers that are rarely, if ever representative of the game they’re marketing, I asked if Blur is ever worried about setting gamers up for a fall? That such polished and exciting trailers will create a problem when people actually play the game, and find that it’s not as shiny or cinematic as a trailer had led them to believe?
“Not really, because I think people’s expectations and visual sensibilities have evolved over the years,” he said. “They are able to really see the differences between what Blur creates and the game. We like to see it as ‘an extra bit of coolness that would be very difficult to achieve for game companies pipelines,’ not a way to confuse people”.
“We really worry about making our cinematics consistent with the universe people will get to play, and we sometimes use the same models that will be put in the game. But our job is to tell a little story, design and develop fantastic characters and the environments and get people excited about the world they’ll get to play in. We’re actually more concerned about the quality of in-game graphics getting so much better year after year. It keeps us on our toes and forces us to always improve and surpass ourselves!”
While game trailers are Blur’s “core” at the moment, it’s not something the studio wants to be doing forever. The company’s long-term objective is to create full-length animated feature films. It’s well on its way to this goal, with Blur’s work on The Goon movie dropping jaws at this year’s Comic-Con.
Just because movies are in the studio’s future doesn’t mean games are in its past.
“We’ve been lucky enough to work on some fantastic universes along the years, and most of the games we’ve worked on would lend themselves well to feature length animated format,” the man in charge of what we could call the Pixar of video games says. “Blur is definitely ready for that type of challenge, and we think we are perfectly positioned between Hollywood and the game world.”