Making the Halo 2 E3 Demo - Art
Thursday, July 17th, 2003, 2:08 PM
The ‘making of’ story continues this week with a peek at the art side of the Halo 2 E3 demo. As we’ve already learned from our earlier stories, Design and Cinematics (and Audio, according to Marty) are all critical to the game experience but it’s our team of uber-artists that give it personality and make it look and feel the way it should. I don’t know about you all but I still get giddy when I see those glorious explosions, shiny bump maps, detailed models and dynamic lighting!
This week mehve and I had the chance to sit down with a few of the guys from our art team and talk to them about creating the E3 demo. Marcus Lehto, Dave Dunn, Shiek Wang, John Butkus and Nathan Walpole all help shed a little light into the magic of making Halo 2 look fantastic.
Hi guys, can you briefly walk us through the process of creating the E3 demo?
Marcus : Creating something like the E3 demo takes a ton of collaboration and team work in order to bring all the necessary people, technology, content and time together. We began envisioning what we would want to show back in January when our first talks about the whole demo started. Starting with rough ideas, we turned that into a script. Then we had the whole script storyboarded out. We began the building of content later in March. This is when much of what we liked to call “the great collision” of art content and code started coming together.
Dave : This demo originated from an evil little script that Joseph put together with the level designers. Chris Lee was already working on the EarthCity level for the single player game so it made sense to use the assets we already had. At that point it became a game of trying to make every area the demo showed look as good as we could.
John : The animators receive both the script and it’s evil brother, the storyboards. From the storyboards, Nathan and I started blocking in the scenes for the E3 demo cutscenes. We would begin by creating a rough camera for the scene, then we put placeholder animations of the characters in the scene (nothing special, just a character in a single pose sliding around like Gumby). Once we have a rough cut of the scene, one of us would go over and bug Joe until he’d come over and give us the okay for final animation. After that, the time is spent making it look like it does in the final demo. As far as the in-game animations go, months were spent creating those and what is seen in the demo is only a taste of what’s to come.
Shiek : As for the 3d objects, it follows pretty much in the same fashion. Weapons, vehicles, objects, characters all had to change in accordance to the script. So, some of the models that were scheduled to be done later were moved up to fit in line with the demo. We would go through the storyboards and script to try and plan out all the objects that were needed and schedule it out to all artists. Pre-planning and scheduling after the script was finalized proved essential.
What were some of the challenges you faced in creating this demo?
Dave: Most of the challenges had to do with performance and time. Technically we were pushing the limits and we were always walking the fine line between our ideal art goals and our target gameplay experience goals.
Shiek : The biggest challenges revolved around an ever evolving game engine that continued to improve as we were creating assets so the target was always moving.
John : Yes, time was always a nagging concern. Keeping your mind sharp was another. There’s nothing like lime popsicles at 2:30am when your eyes are burning from staring at your monitors for so long and your hair is all crazy and you’re so tired you can actually feel yourself going insane. For young guys like us, it doesn’t really hurt us to function on 2 hours’ sleep…but after a few weeks it will wear you down a bit. (ed. note: Not to mention the toll that receiving constant beatings in Virtua Tennis will take...)
Nathan : There were a lot of technical unknowns. We had to get a dual weapons system working, a melee combo attack implemented and make boarding a vehicle a kickass experience. It was fun creating these elements. Another challenge was creatively handling in-game animation vs. cinematic animation. It was hard at times trying to juggle the two. As animators, needs arise from other team members to have game and cinematic animations delivered simultaneously.
What was the hardest/most difficult aspect of getting the demo finished?
Dave : Getting everything to look as good as we wanted while still maintaining a great gameplay experience. Also, maintaining a focus for the art amongst a large group of artists who were creating a wide variety of art content that had to all come together in one environment.
Marcus : To me, the biggest challenge was the giant heap of unknowns. We worked our butts off for E3, but we do that every time there’s a huge crunch. So, that was the same old thing again – wish the family farewell and head into the trenches with our guns ready. We had to pick a starting point and dive in and then continually reassess where we were and where we were headed as the technology evolved.
John : For me, the most difficult challenge was keeping up with the scope of the demo. But that was also the most enjoyable part of working on it. It makes it much easier to put in those 18 hour days and pour everything you have into making something everything it can be when you look around you and see everyone else doing the exact same thing. It wasn’t just one or two people who were here at midnight every night – it was everyone. Seeing that sort of dedication gives you your second wind at 1am so you can push for those extra two hours and fix those elite animations at the end of the demo.
Shiek : 'Finishing' by definition was difficult, because there was always something that needed attention and you get to the point where you just have to let it go. There were so many things in the demo that the artists thought needed more revision that I don't think there was any finished aspect besides the fact that you just can't work on it any longer.
Artistically, how did this process differ from the Halo 2 announce trailer?
Marcus : The announce trailer was completely scripted so it took place in a controlled environment. We took great care in making sure that every shot was compositionally sound. But, we only had to deal with the few elements in frame for each shot. E3 was way different. Taking on the responsibility of making sure every vantage point in a giant city looks beautiful is like playing God.
Dave : Well first off, New Mombasa is a fully functioning level as opposed to a segment of scripted cinematics. The real big difference between the two is the scale of the content. The E3 demo environment is probably larger than the original announce trailer environment by a factor of about 50. This means a whole lot more work by a whole lot more people.
Shiek : The Halo2 announcement trailer was like Dave said - way smaller in scope. But that meant it allowed us to focus on specific parts. We had complete control over what the camera would see so we could just focus on those aspects. For the demo we had no such luxury.
Nathan : This time around we had a great chance to show how badass the MC can be... C'mon people, I mean he drop kicked a surly Brute out of a Ghost...how cool is that?
One of the first things that people will notice is the overall improvement in the visual department as well as an increased complexity and detail in both the character models as well as the environments. Please talk a little about the new things you’re able to do with the Halo 2 versus what was done on Halo 1.
Shiek : By now everyone more or less knows that Halo2 is using bump mapping to its full capacity. The second noticeable difference is the lighting; it has drastically improved to the point where objects are able to shadow themselves. One of the things we've picked up on with our fans is that they love detail, and so do we. The artists love to put as much time and effort that is allowed to make something look like it's got history, wear and tear, complexity, and sense of design. Halo 2's engine allows us to create better objects in every way. Other things you just have to play and witness...
Nathan : Animation improvements we are aiming to implement for Halo 2 include a more robust moveset for the characters, better technical animation features, and heightening player control, AI experience, gameplay and story through animation and character performance. We are improving upon our animation system. With Halo 2 having new features like vehicle boarding, dual weapons, sprinting and melee combos, we had to look differently at what we needed to change from Halo to Halo 2. In addition to animation engine improvements, we improved our animation content pipeline as well with the introduction of new software and tools.
Explain a little about the visual style of some of the new elements- New Mombasa, new weapons, new vehicles, etc.. How did the overall design process work? How many concepts were created before selecting the final versions?
Shiek : The new elements followed the same design process as with all of the previous Halo elements. Since we have already established a style for all different races of the world it wasn't as difficult coming up with new items, as long as it fit the same mold. For example, human design is angular with subtle curves, but dirty and diffuse reflections. The Covenant would tend to be shinier, extremely reflective, with fresnel effects on most of their items and a cooler color tone. The process is traditional- start with game design requirements, concept it out, get it critiqued by many, rework it a couple of times, get it finalized with the key people, then start building. Many iterations of concepts were conceived before there was a final say between the artists, art director, and lead level designer. There is never a finite number of iterations, it's when we finally say “damn that's cool...let's do it” that the concept gets in the game. And one of the biggest things to keep in mind is that things will change to fit the game's requirements, so don't get too married to a concept.
Where does everyone get inspiration for the elements they create?
John : I draw inspiration from many things…mostly from everyday life. As far as the demo goes, I drew inspiration for the elites from a couple of things. This time around, I saw the elites as being a more primal, yet still a highly intelligent and capable species…so I took a pinch of velociraptor and a dash of Predator and came up with the mean son-of-a-bitch you see in the demo. He’s not just a predaraptor, no, there are other things that make up the elite, but those two were the main sources of inspiration for me.
Shiek : Everyone's got their little well of knowledge that they tend to fall back on. The artists all have a lot of reference books that are lying around to help them out when they're stuck. Anime/sci-fi movies/history/technology/art books/architecture/ancient civilizations are just a few that people have drawn inspirations from.
Nathan : Other than referencing the coolest creatures on this green earth and adding their motion traits to the various species within the Covenant, I gaze at my Iron Giant poster and Iron Giant figure atop my monitor. Iron Giant was possibly the best animated movie ever made.
Can you talk a little about the relationship between the art teams and the game design/programming teams?
Dave : It’s all one big happy, loving family. Well it’s more like a dysfunctional family that somehow always pulls it out in the end. Truth be told the environment artists work hand in hand with the level designers trying to create environments that the level designers feel they can make as fun as possible and that the artists feel they can make as visually interesting as possible. It’s a lot of give and take on both sides with everyone bringing as many interesting ideas as they can to the table. The programmers (or big brains as I like to call them) are just there to support us…just kidding! The programmers here are great. They consistently look at what we are trying to create and continually come up with ways to help us achieve as many cool things as we possibly can. They’re also there to tell us when we’re crazy and are trying to get the engine to do too much although they’re so proud it always kills them to have to say that to us.
Shiek : It's like this, we have one team...it's called the designprogrammableartandanimation team.
John : I don’t know – we don’t talk to them. All kidding aside, the animators have a close working relationship with both the design and programming team. Dave covered much of what I was going to say…always like him to steal my thunder.
Nathan : When an artist sneezes, they wipe our nose...wait, don't print that...I was just kidding!
It’s mind boggling to think about how practically everything the player sees is created by artists – from the textures of grass and walls to the actual rise and fall of the landscape, from bullets to giant ships, every fire, every rock, even particles of smoke. Was there anything in the visuals for the E3 demo that was not artist-created?
Dave : Well to be fair the content was all created by individual artists but it wouldn’t be possible without the great support from the programmers who understood what it was we were trying to do and supported us in that endeavor as well as the designers who worked with the artists to make sure that first and foremost the demo felt like something that would make people seeing it say, “Damn, I want to play that!”.
Shiek : The programmers do a heck of a job allowing the artists to bring to life what they can envision. Without them none of it would be possible, like that cool dynamic light at the end where he turns on the grenade. How are you supposed to do that if there is no programmer to back you up? A flashlight during the presentation?
What was your personal favorite aspect/moment in the E3 demo?
Nathan : Personally, my favorite part of the E3 demo was the vehicle boarding. I am REALLY REALLY looking forward to boarding in Halo 2.
The BRUTE dropping like a tank on the warthog and smacking the marines out was a thrill to animate...and the MC in his "drop-kick fury" made me lose my stuff...wow.
Dave : I really got a kick out of all the various text that Paul Russel included in the signs all over the city. Many of these contain references to inside Bungie humor, or to be more specific the environment pod humor. You gotta love the "Docks!"
John : My personal favorite part of the E3 demo was working on the elites and seeing them on the big screen in the Halo 2 booth at E3. They’re right around 57% cooler than before right now, but I fully expect to expand that number to somewhere in the neighborhood of 103% by the end of the project. But my favorite shot of the E3 demo is the scene I did of Master Chief getting up after he crashes the Ghost; I’m really happy with the way it turned out.
Shiek : The favorite part of the demo? I would have to say is the end where Master Chief lights up the grenade and it creates an awesome dynamic lighting onto his chest and body. That scene is just a great ending to everything that we've done. It feels like it solidifies all the work that came before. It's much like eating the best dessert you can imagine, after a feast suited for a king.
I bet folks don’t even think about who literally built the surface they walked on in Halo 1. For the Halo 2 demo, the entire staff was cramming in objects and elements. Just to give credit where credit is due, can we get a quick run down of what all each artist got to do?
- Chris Lee: visual design, layout, geometry creation and texturing of the environment
- Paul Russel: texture creation, geometry, uv-mapping of the environment
- Frank Cappezuto: object creation and texturing
- Ed Smith: concept art, sky matte painting
- Dave Dunn: visibility portalization, geometry and object manipulation
- Michael Wu: extra help and moral support
- John ‘Anim8rjb’ Butkus: Elites, MC, marines, ODST trooper, camera setup
- Nathan ‘bentllama’ Walpole: Brutes, MC, first-person animations, all character rigs, camera setup
- CJ “Stormingcow” Cowan: MC, camera setup, Phantoms
- Bill O’Brien: Grunts
- Marcus Lehto: overall art direction, modeler, animator, skies, environment, etc…
- Robt McLees: weapons, objects modeler
- Eric Arroyo: vehicles, objects, character modeler
- Shiek Wang: concept artist, objects modeler, effects
Thanks for your time guys! I for one can't wait to see the cool new environments and artsy stuff you're working on for the rest of the game. Stay tuned to Bungie.net for the last chapter in the "making of" story as we talk to the folks in the Engineering department and get their perspective. Coming soon to a PC near you...
Get the full story on the "making of the E3 demo" by catching up with these earlier chapters:
Check out Halo and Halo 2 concept art and character models in the Gallery section of Tru7h & Reconciliation.