The Brute Captain stamps his heavy foot into the hard-pan and spins, his hulking flesh and armor moving with a curious agility and grace that produces an almost comedic, but completely combat-effective pirouette. The Warthog misses by a thin margin, ripping past the Brute's position and leaving it angered, seething, but otherwise unscathed.
Brake lights flash as the Warthog’s chassis tilts, its rugged tires digging shallow scars into the sand. The driver has already shifted in his seat, bracing his body while the Warthog fishtails to make another pass.
The Brute Captain is ready this time. His composure regained -- if you can call it that. He drops into a low, combat ready stance, his bulk hunched over his center of gravity, greedy eyes focused on the mass of metal hurtling toward him. He lifts a Brute Shot to the ready and sends a concussive volley of explosive rounds into the path of his oncoming foe.
Words can only ask so much of our imagination. If well-wrought, they can only hope to conspire and create the hint of kinetic energy to fuel the mind's engines, but they cannot breathe life into characters -- at least not in a video game. That task often falls on the animator.
In layman’s terms, animation might be described as the stitching together of a series of static, motionless moments in order to create a certain sense of movement. It’s almost a kind of magic trick -- the viewer’s eye fooled into believing that it is seeing something dynamic. And like any magic trick, what you see on first glance seldom reveals what is really unfolding behind the proverbial curtain.
really going on is part science and simulation and part artful manipulation, and no matter how it’s ultimately described, the goal is far from illusive -- for Bungie’s titles the animation team transforms digital models with unseen skeletal structures into characters who turn in believable human, and inhuman, performances.
They often begin with something as simple as a sketch -- a basic pencil and paper illustration. Bill O’ Brien, Senior Animator at Bungie, steps us through a slice of the process.
A Covenant Drone laying the smack down.
“Everyone on the Animation Team works very differently. I still find my poses using a mirror or a camera, turning my own movements into key poses and sketches. I’m the guy that will do little animated flip books.”
Bill came on board just as the first Halo was coming in hot. Right before launch. He’s got a wild look about him. He’s a touch – energetic
“I’ve done my tours of duty, doing a little bit of everything” he notes.
One gets the impression that he’s loved nearly every second of it. During the course of our brief interview, Bill leaps out of his chair several times to show off the process he uses to envision a specific character’s set of poses. He hunkers down into his own combat stance, swinging his arm forward as if bracing himself against the onslaught of an oncoming attacker. He, at the risk of a very ham-fisted play on words, is quite the animated fellow.
Traditionally, the ideas that swirl about an animator’s head are first laid down as hand drawn sketches, like the one seen above, during a title's Pre-Production phase. Each character’s key frames are illustrated so that poses and lines can be explored and so the animation team can gain a sense of how each character should or shouldn’t move.
“Pre-Production is really an info gathering process,” Bill offers. “The more you put into Pre-Production, the more you’ll have ready to go when you’re under the gun.”
In one particular case while working on Halo 3, O’Brien wanted to imagine what it might look like for a Covenant Drone -- a Bugger -- to fly into frame, latch onto an unsuspecting UNSC Marine, and spirit him away to some nefarious, and certainly painful, end. Ready, latch, lift, and carry.
In this case O’Brien has added commentary to further flesh out the details, using iconic figures and easily understood concepts to translate a clearer mental image of how the animation might unfold.
“Spider-Man,” O’Brien says, remarking on the corresponding pose and notes. He doesn’t have to say much more. I know the classic pose well enough: legs bent and lifted, torso impossibly arched. It’s a simple reference that adds a wealth of easily and instantly understandable information to the movement sequence.
This initial sketch serves as the basis of the work to come. From this staging ground, the animator can better visualize what the final sequence could look like in 3D space. Note the lines in the sketch used to designate the dimensional axes. Using these conceptual key frame sketches, animators can then mock up traditional 3D models -- assets that much better approximate the in-game assets that will eventually “act out” the script.
Click on the image to see this sequence in motion.
“It took me a little while to get into 3D,” Bill says, “but now that I’ve moved over, I really like it.”
Though this representation still offers only a crude approximation of the quality needed to flesh out the finished product, it is a clear leap ahead of a hand-drawn sketch in terms of approximating the final product. Using rough character models also allows the animator to see a time-line of his animation sequence without having to fiddle and tweak with a fully rendered composition, which can save time and money as the project moves inexorably toward ship.
“Pre-production is the most fun stage,” Bill says, “Someone might say, ‘Pick any character you want. Work on anything you can improve.’”
Bill, as you might have guessed, took a liking to the Bugger.
“The Drone was my character,” he says, “I was told that it would spend eighty percent of the time on the ground -- that it would only take to the air when under fire.”
Those assumptions are formed by a collaborative effort between the Art team, animators, and the engineers that ultimately fit the character and its finalized move set into the finished product. Regardless of how many animations went into one particular action or another, the ultimate goal for Bill and the team is to make sure they fit into a fun title. If that meant that the Drone needed to take to the skies, so be it.
“For every one thing that works, there are twenty examples of something that didn’t.”
As O’Brien tells it, Shiek
, Bungie Artist Extraordinaire and resident Tomfoolery Expert, came to Bill with a new idea for a Brute armor permutation. What if the Gold Brute had a deployable shield that would fan out from his gauntlets to protect him from enemy fire? Obviously this concept never saw the light of day (until now), but Bill wasn’t fazed by the cut. It informed him how a heavily encumbered Brute might move in the field and it spun him over to another interesting idea.
Click on the image to see this sequence in motion.
“The Brute for Halo 3 was really my first attempt at adding a new style of evade animation,” O’Brien says as he stands up from the table and shoves his chair aside to show it off in person. He's surprisingly agile.
“We always had our characters like the Elites either diving or rolling,” he notes as he lands from an impromptu and impressively lofty leap into the air, his own knees bending to absorb the impact upon returning to solid ground, “but the Brute seemed too heavy to jump and not quite athletic enough to roll.”
His solution? A spin. Of course, he had some selling to do.
“Designers like to have the enemy characters always pointing their weapon toward the player.” Bill says, “It’s tough to work within the restrictions of a system that already works a certain way, and has to react at specific times. It makes it too easy to do the same thing again and again.”
In the final animation, the Brute’s weapon is pointed away from its target for twenty frames.
“Something like two thirds of a second,” Bill says with a grin.
From concept character art, to animation, to engineering, and back, it’s a completely collaborative process, with every discipline building and feeding off of each other. Sometimes, as with the Brute's fan-like shield, that means sacrifice. In O’Brien’s case, it seems it’s brought about a sense of pride and ownership.
“You get to influence how a character behaves,” he says, “and some of them have over two-thousand animations. You just have to sell it -- how this character should move, how he reacts.”
O’Brien is seated back in his chair now. It appears the portion of the interview I’ll be able to write about is winding down. O’Brien picks back up on a conversation we'd gotten into on the way up to the conference room and talks a little bit more about where he sees video game animation going in the near future. He’s clearly excited. I set my pen and pad down and just listen.
He drops some details about the new motion capture equipment and software setup the team has been working with for Halo: Reach, and about how he’s been thoroughly enjoying the process of blending the new technology with tried and true animation techniques.
It’s not as simple as capturing the data points and importing them straight into the engine, he says. It doesn’t work that way. In fact, he thinks it might be a good idea to let me get a look at their setup in action sometime, maybe see how the process unfolds and get eyes on some of the finished work the Reach animators have been putting together.
Instead of articulating my complete agreement with O’Brien’s freshly hatched plan with mere words, I nod my head and smile. I hope it was a convincing performance on my part. I can’t wait to see what O'Brien and the rest of the animation team have been working on.