It was George Lucas who once said: “A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” At Bungie, we agree that the eye-popping cinematics that punctuate our games should transport the player to places filled with meaningful events. A new member of our team understands this cinematic balancing act very well, having walked that tight-rope with Lucas himself, as well as a whole list of Hollywood heavy-weights. Let’s invite him to relive the finer moments of his career, and see what led him to us…
Who are you, and what do you do at Bungie?
I’m Matthew Ward, Senior Cinematics Designer on Bungie’s next project. I’m part of the team responsible for creating the cinematic beats between gameplay. In our little world, we know that the only reason anyone is playing the game is to get to the next cinematic!
You assume too much, Sir. I play for the chance to vent my rage in a socially-acceptable vector, but this isn’t about me. This interview is yours, so let’s learn more about your little world. Would you begin by telling us what we might find you doing when you’re not creating virtual cinema?
When I find time for it, I’m usually shooting something with a camera – everything from portraits to little short films. I’m also a big wine-o. I love the stuff, and I love continuing to learn about it. I even make my own wine with some friends down in Sonoma, and we’ve even won a few awards for it. Most of all, I love spending as much time as possible with my kids. It’s fun experiencing everything in life all over again - so many simplicities to remind us of what we forget to enjoy. They give me a good excuse to do “childish” stuff; like playing with trains and Legos, doing arts and crafts, and watching animated films over and over again.
Let’s experience your childhood again in the service of this interview. Think back to when you were a young lad. Did you used to dream about telling stories through the moving image?
I always dreamed of being a Disney Animator when I was young. It was in college when I realized I was more of a filmmaker. I liked organizing teams working on everything to do with telling a story through a camera lens. Soon after, I found myself wanting to be a filmmaker. My industry experience has had me doing so ever since being hired out of school. Several years ago, I ended up working for Walt Disney Pictures’ Imagemovers Digital, animating previsualizations and final camerawork. So, I guess you can say I reached my goal of being a Disney Animator.
Is that what you were doing when we found you? Did you come to Bungie direct from the magical world of Disney?
Right before working here, I was the Director of Photography on an upcoming animated film being produced by the Weinstein Company called “Escape From Planet Earth.” It was my first full-DP gig - a result of nearly fifteen years of working with directors like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, The Wachowskis, and Robert Zemeckis. I provided them with shot design, previsualizaton, and layout for their films. Prepping to shoot an entire film was great training. It’s been a key component of my contributions here at Bungie, as we’re trying to bring more of that 35mm big-screen feature-film presence to our cinematics.
There are some rather large names on your resume. Who else have you shared a set with that we might know?
I spent most of my career working with Robert Zemeckis on his motion-capture films, and consider myself an understudy to his filming techniques. I’ve presented pre-viz cinematography techniques to Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise, and Tom Hanks to name a few. As for sharing a set, I’ve directed music videos for artists including Glen Phillips (of Toad the Wet Sprocket) and the band CAKE.
You mentioned that you were hired for you first gig right out of High School. Does that mean that you’re a student of the set? Or did you seek some formal education in tandem with your early work?
I attended the Savannah College of Art and Design and focused my studies in Computer Animation and Film. The college was great at tearing us down with critiques and pushing us harder and harder to produce better work. They encouraged us all to critique each other, and even our professors. I’ve brought that tradition with me nearly everywhere I’ve worked, though some places welcome it more than others. I critique myself harder than anyone else, and offer thoughts to my colleagues as well. Luckily, at Bungie we thrive on open critiques and learn a lot from each other in the process. Sure enough, our work gets better and better because of it.
You speak the truth. An artist who can’t handle criticism won’t last long at Bungie. How did you convince us to submit you to the most dreaded critique of all: the Bungie interview loop?
After finishing the film I was shooting in Vancouver, some friends here at Bungie heard I was looking for my next gig and invited me down to meet some people. Although I had some inside influence, it wasn’t only up to them if I was going to fit the bill. I had to provide a cinematic test showing my shooting methods and my skills for animation. My interview alone lasted nearly 8 hours with over 10 people! I guess when they tallied the vote, I was offered the job.
That sounds about right. Each of us has had to go that distance. What was the hardest mile for you?
Avoiding the basket of FREE FOOD (Snickers, Twix, chocolate covered pretzels, Doritos, gum, etc.) on the interview table. I think it was another part of the overall interview – testing to see if I could resist pigging out during some question/answer time.
Love of snacks never hurt anyone’s chances of fitting in around here. Now that you’ve joined the crowd, what’s your favorite thing about the work you’re doing with us?
So far, (I’ve only been here a short stint), the coolest thing has been seeing our work pipe into the game engine and come to life in its full glory. When we lay out most of our work, we’re using a hodge-podge of grey-shaded and low-res textured models, low-res rigs, and temp lighting. When we’ve nailed a scene, we spit it out and watch it with the quality turned up to ELEVEN. It’s the result of many departments’ hard work in tools, design, and planning finally coming all together. It’s the pay-off we’re always excited to see and share.
Aside from the professional motivators, what’s something that Bungie does to keep you happy on a visceral personal level?
Currently, it’s our free-lunch program. For the first 6-months of any new hire’s employment, anyone can take them out to lunch on the house. And it’s not just free food that’s appealing, but it’s a great opportunity to meet people you normally wouldn’t ever meet in the studio because your departments don’t interact. It takes the “stranger” effect out of the equation and makes the studio much more an overall team than just a crowd of unknown faces. I’ve been eating a lot of free food lately with some amazingly talented people.
I’ll be sure to exploit you for a free meal before you expire, much as I’m exploiting you right now to the delight of our community. All of this exploitation must be somehow worthwhile, since you keep coming in to work every day. Can you describe for us your finest moment since you joined the team?
On my first day, I was invited to flesh out our camera and lens kits to provide us with a look that was worthy of a big-budget feature. My task was to help our team design shots and tell our stories within the cinematic style they were looking for. To test it out, I reshot one of our cinematics to demonstrate where we could improve upon our pacing and look. It took some great trust from our 3D story lead to drop that in my lap on day one, and the team has complimented the cameras and lens kit several times since. I believe we’re pushing some great drama, tension, and action within the frame of our compositions.
It sounds like you are a man who is squarely on his game. Do you think Bungie will be a place where you can improve your skills as a creator of dramatic imagery? How will you go about enhancing your mastery of the cinematic arts?
I continue to shoot at home, when I can. I continue to challenge myself at work, learning and doing new things. I play games about 1% of the time the average employee here plays. I’ve started playing the Halo series at home from the very beginning, for the first time. Sure, I feel like I’m gonna puke after 10 minutes (I’m one of the few fortunate souls struck with motion sickness from video games), but I’m fighting through, building up my thumb-eye coordination, if anything else.
Awww, I love noobs. It’s fun experiencing everything in games all over again - so many simplicities to remind us of what we forget to enjoy. What would you tell the gaming veterans who are reading these words? If they wanted to follow your path, what should they know?
The best advice I could best give is to explore all aspects of the creative mind. Art, cinema, theater, light, acting, reading, conversing, music, philosophy, espresso, etc. If there’s no reason behind the action of a game, no story to bind it all together, and nothing pretty to look at while doing so… you’re just at home on a couch, staring at a blank canvas. We’re all here because we love making that blank canvas come to life and sharing it with others.
It certainly sounds like we’re lucky to have you. Before I return you to the set, please sort these ingredients based on their importance to you role: Talent, Work Ethic, and Experience. Feel free to couch your answer in a delicious metaphor if it makes things easier to explain.
Experience, Work Ethic, Talent. If I were a cake-baker, I imagine it would go something like this:
I have a lot of Experience baking cakes. I still knock it out of the park most of the time, but occasionally I try something new and learn from it, good or bad. The next time, I bake it right, or even better than before. Work Ethic comes to play in the fact that I LOVE baking cake and I enjoy doing it for 8 hours a day, sometimes even more. And when I’m not baking a cake, I’m THINKING about baking a cake. Talent is why you love my cakes. I’ve got a knack for what makes them good, and it’s usually a result of my experience and work ethic combined.
And with that, we release a very valuable cook back to our kitchen. Matthew may have traveled some unexpected routes to the land of game development, but his story proves that you never know what skills will become crucial in this ever-changing environment. Our Breaking In
archive is shaping up to be a museum where all of those skills are on display. If you don’t fancy yourself a filmmaker, you may yet find an exhibit that speaks to you.