Tronic & Marco Brambilla – Spec Ops Game Trailer + Q&A
Q&A with Jesse Seppi and Vivian Rosenthal of Tronic
From scouring through your previous work, this appears to be Tronic’s first game trailer project. What made you decide to take on this one in particular?
It is our first trailer, but not our first involvement with games. We were commissioned to direct and design a series of viral films for Gaia, one of the largest online virtual gaming sites, with over 18 million registered users. We based the look of our films on Gaia’s anime themed world, but brought a different approach to it by modeling everything in 3D but rendering the environments in a more photoreal style and the characters in a toon shaded look, to create a unique juxtaposition. Here’s a link to one of the films.
To answer the rest of your question….we decided to take on Spec Ops because we felt like we could really bring a different perspective to a game trailer. The game was going to be based in Dubai in the near future and so you can imagine that for two people who studied architecture as we had that this location was quite exciting given all the new construction that was happening at the time (early 2008). Ironically, life imitated art and vice versa, as it is prone to do, and so the deserted and lawless Dubai of the game trailer suddenly eerily echoed the real Dubai, which had seen nearly all construction grind to a halt as the economy collapsed. We were now seeing headlines in the NY Times of abandoned cars and empty luxury hotels. The paradise that was Dubai was no longer. The game is very prophetic in that way.
We knew that the project would involve a repurposing of urban and architectural spaces through a filmic lens, and that really interested us. To imagine a Dubai ravaged by epic sand storms and occupied by rogue ex militants seemed somehow, unfortunately plausible. Even if not completely accurate, by overlaying the gritty aesthetics of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars with the opulence and hyper accelerated urban development of places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi peaked our imagination, especially when global warming was tossed into the mix. The confluence of these separate yet relevant and relatable structures were really provoking.
How did this project come to Tronic? What was the brief?
Marco Brambilla approached us to work on the trailer with him. He was familiar with our aesthetic and approach to CG and felt that he wanted to work with a studio that was coming from a design perspective, not a post production perspective. Tronic is a trans-disciplinary directing, design and animation studio that is very much rooted in conceptual thinking. We all agreed that we wanted this trailer to feel filmic and emotionally charged, which is one of the reasons why a lot of the shots are in slow motion, a bit unusual for CG work. From what I can remember, the brief described the game play and this near future Dubai city, which had been ravaged by sandstorms and had been taken over by rogue miscreants.
What was the initial development process like?
We spent a lot of time up front developing the look of the characters and the concept art for the environments and capturing the feeling we all wanted to achieve. This was critical in terms of making sure we had an aesthetic that was consistent throughout the piece. After developing the working animatic Jesse oversaw a mocap shoot with Marco, which provided a good foundation for many shots, although we still ended up redoing and tweaking a huge amount of the mocap data. And then there was all the destruction. We literally were simultaneously building, designing and destroying skyscrapers to create this trailer. Unlike in the real world, where it is much harder to build something than to destroy it, in a CG environment (devoid of physical rules) it’s very complex to model destruction. The process of fracturing geometry and using a whole host of different dynamic procedures can be extremely time consuming and taxing on the machines. From a design standpoint you really need to understand the way buildings are put together in order to know how to destroy them in believable ways.
What was the overall timeline for the project?It took about 6 months. We would have liked to keep going….but production had to come to an end. As we all know, creative projects are never really finished. Unlike film which is a frozen moment in time, animation is a mutable shape shifting creature. You could theoretically change things forever with animation, which of course is a bit dangerous and very addictive. That being said, when dealing with some 40 plus shots and almost as many separate and distinct environments the ability to make decisions and press on becomes paramount.
What were the most challenging parts of this project?
Just about everything. It we listed all the challenges it would be a few pages long. But if we had to choose one….it was deciding to show a huge range of diversity in locations, characters and actions throughout the spot.
What kind of design process went into the characters and environments? How were these then integrated into 3D?
Tronic’s co-founder, Jesse Seppi, played an integral role in the design process. He was instrumental from the initial designs through the compositions of the shots to the animatic and final animation. The transition from the design process to 3D was fairly smooth, since Tronic was creating all the assets from scratch. Unlike some game trailers, where the characters and environments have already been designed and modeled for the game itself, this trailer was made before the game, which meant that we had the unique opportunity to design and model all the characters and environments alongside the game developers. This was a huge undertaking but one that really allowed us to shape the look of both the trailer and then the game, since everything we created was ultimately given to Take 2 to be incorporated into the game itself.
The Bjork track and sound design play a big part of this piece. Tell me more about the process and collaboration to tie the music and visuals together.
We wanted to underscore the poetic beauty found in destruction and we all felt that Bjork effortlessly captures that juxtaposition. We’d had worked with Q Department many times before and felt that they would be perfect to create the sound design and mix it with the Bjork track in a seamless way.
What software was used?
Our main software was 3D Studio Max with Final Render and Final Shaders. Fume FX in combination with After Burn and Krakatoa was used for all the sand and dust. And Zbrush was used extensively for the characters. Vu Extreme played a role in creating certain HDR skies atmospherics and vegetation. We also did a lot with soft and hard body dynamics.
Q&A with Marco Brambilla
Your main body of work is non-commercial. Do you have any personal requirements for the commercial projects you take on?
I have to be passionate about the material. In the case of Spec Ops, I was offered a tremendous amount of creative freedom to develop both the narrative for the video game and the trailer. The project was compelling since the trailer was more than just a promotional tool, it became the “visual bible” for the game itself.
How do the ideas and process behind your artwork inform your commercial work? Do you find that ideas and process from one influence the other or do you try to keep the two separate?
My artwork is deeply personal both in concept and execution, the greatest satisfaction is being able to apply the same process and integrity to a commercial assignment. Innovation in execution is becoming a more essential component to successful advertising, and what I learn in the commercial realm benefits my personal work – so I think it works in both directions for entirely different reasons.
What drew you to collaborate with Tronic?
When I saw Tronic’s work I immediately had the sense of confidence they would bring a new level of design sophistication and aesthetic integrity to the project. I had no interest in creating another variation on the usual video game trailer; the setting of post-apocalyptic Dubai needed to have a sense of architectural integrity to be believable.
What was your favorite part of this project?
I most enjoyed pre-visualizing the action sequences, when I set the images to the Bjork track it became magical for me.
Animated, Designed and Produced – Tronic Studio
Director – Marco Brambilla
Music – Bjork
Jesse Seppi – Lead 3D artist
Additional Stills from Spec Ops Trailer – provided by Tronic
interviews by Jake Sargeant