Process: Psyop’s Prequels for Dishonored

Bethesda’s Dishonored (developed by Arkane Studios) was one of the mostly hotly anticipated games of the year. Thanks to nearly three years of pre-production, the game is set in the richly detailed (if comparatively compact) world of Dunwall, a whaling town that’s crumbled into chaos.

Working with agency Rokkan and Bethesda, Psyop created three prequels, “The Tales of Dunwall,” to help promote the game prior to launch. Each video contributes to the backstory of the game, but the visual style was intentionally a departure from the look of the game. Each frame has a painterly, illustrative style full of the kind of details you can only get from hand-wrought work.

We caught up with Psyop’s Jon Saunders, Creative Director for the project, to get some insight into the process behind the work.

Where did this job come from?

We feel very fortunate to have been approached by Rokkan and Bethesda to help create these webisodes. From the onset, the creatives we worked with, Charles Bae and Regi Jacob, were very collaborative and extremely cool to work with. It became one of the best creative partnerships I have yet to be a part of.

What was the brief like? Was the story already worked out?

The initial brief came when the whole project was still very much up in the air in regards to visual look and direction. There was no story yet, just the idea. Charles and Regi wanted a back story for the game that was reminiscent of a fairy tale or folklore for the world of Dunwall.

Our first thought was to use the “Dishonored” game as a jumping off point for the visuals, but everyone involved decided the films should have their own unique style. We started collecting a lot of references; we looked at black and white ink and oil based illustrations because we really wanted the films to feel like illustrations in motion. It was important that we include the imperfections of being drawn by a human hand as we felt this hit on both the idea of the folk lore, but also on the dark mood of the films. The work of Egon Schiele was an important reference to us was — the way he distorted his characters had a big influence on our work.

References for the look came from fine art, illustrations and pop culture.

So how did you get started? What were the first steps?

In the beginning, we were only a team of three. After the scripts were nailed down, myself, our technical director Borja Pena and designer Sam Ballardini sat down and hammered out very loose storyboards for all three episodes. We worked with storyboard artist, Robin Nishio, who created some great finalized storyboards for us and brought a lot of fresh ideas to the mix. Next we went straight into a boardomatic — this would help us get a good grip on the pacing and overall flow of the whole story.

The way we went about this turned out to be great for our production – Charles and Regi were able to work from our boardomatics and get the general feeling in a tight, narrative sense. Timing wise, we ultimately ended up moving pieces around and lengthening shots up until the last week! In the end we probably added a good 20 seconds to each animation between little holds and bits of action that we felt needed extra time. (*We also thought they would be “easy” holds. Cut to us animating every frame!)

Style frames

That sounds time-consuming. How did you guys handle the animation?

We realized very early on that we wouldn’t be able to stay true to our styleframes if we recreated them in CG. And all the hand animation that we ended up doing gave us an opportunity to mess around with something we hand’t tried before.

Early animation test. (Illustration from an un-attributed source.)

For the animation, we ended up relying heavily on repainting each frame in Photoshop. We worked at 8fps; the three animations together were around six minutes long, which resulted in us basically creating nearly 3,000 styleframes for the whole project.

What was the animation pipeline?

Our animation pipeline can be broken into two general sections; characters and background.

Our character animation began by blocking them out in simple silhouette forms, all within Photoshop. By doing this we were able to refine out characters’ acting and timing. Once we felt we were in a good place with the silhouettes we hand painted in all the details of the character trying to match our frames the best we could.

The background animation process skipped the silhouette stage for the most part. We took the backgrounds from our styleframes and animated the lights, shadows and other details right on top. These were then broken up in After Effects and given depth through camera moves utilizing 2.5D space and volumetric lighting.

An early run cycle test

How long did all this take?

The whole process from start to finish was about 4 months long. Sam Ballardini and I had about one month to design all three movies which left 3 months of crazy animation.


Rokkan Creative Director: Charles Bae
Script: Rokkan/Bethesda

Psyop Director: Jon Saunders
Lead Technical Director: Borja Pena
Executive Producer: Lucia Grillo
Producer: Ryan Mack
Assistant Producer: Delaney O’Brien
Designers: Jon Saunders Sam Ballardini
Storyboard Artist: Robin Nishio
Illustration / Animation: Jon Saunders Borja Pena Sam Ballardini
Marika Cowen Blake Patrick Angelica Alzona Lizzie Akana Stephanie Davidson Stephanie Russell
3D Modeling: Sue Jang Dave Chen Oliver Castle Bryan Eck
Rigging: Zed Bennit
3D Animators: Ryan Moran David Barosin Michael Shin
Compositing: Borja Pena Helen Park Jason Conradt Danny Kamhaji

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About the author

Elliot Blanchard

Elliot Kealoha Blanchard runs Invisible Light Network, a Brooklyn design studio covering everything from broadcast to interactive and experience projects. He also directs short films, and his previous work has appeared in film festivals around the world.


Dylan Huby-Corbett

This was a very interesting article.I am very interested in the workflow if animation. Such a cool art style with all the hand painted characters and manorisms.


Glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks for checking it out and commenting, Dylan!

Katherine M. Klein

Wow..! I am blown away by the process of the animation…simply amazing!
As a novice animator myself (always hungry to learn about different or unique animation styles), I was completely drawn into the world of Dunwall, and it’s history, when I first saw this on YouTube. These men are astonishing..! And the amount of work they fleshed out in a mere 3 months…just these three men…amazing!! I can only dream to accomplish such a thing completely solo… TT^TT

Thank you for posting the article/interview! I’ve learned a lot from it. :)

naomi c.

There were more than three people on this project, but it was still a tiny team relative to the huge amount of work that was required!

Also, as someone who is proud of the many accomplishments that my fellow ladies have made in this industry, I feel it is prudent to mention that Sam Ballardini = Samantha Ballardini :)

Katherine M. Klein

Oh God, i misread this article, again! It’s a horrible habit of mine…what’s worse is that I have new glasses. :o
Thank you kindly for clearing that up. :)

Oh my..! I didn’t know that! Thank you for enlightening me..! :D
I really need to look people up, too, before making more silly mistaken comments like this.. xD Thank you kindly!!

Justin Cone

Just added full credits!


Great article!

An interesting insight into an amazing animation.


Thanks for the interview and the background. Inspiring work and great read. Congratulations to all involved.


Love this , comes at the right time especially since im in my wacom phase ! Great work

Xavier Peypoch

I loved the animation, the art style, the story. It was masterfully done. Congrats and thanks for the article.

Tiffanie Mang

I love the style of your animation!! I am studying animation at USC and currently thinking of how what style to do my animation thesis, so reading about the workflow of your pieces was really helpful.

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