Cinematics: Searching for the Recipe for a Masterpiece
How to create a truly quality CG trailer
Take a thorough look into the mesmerizing world of cinematic trailers, from basic terminology to the classic production pipeline, from an overview of their evolution and their role in a game’s success to a tentative glimpse into their future — all this in the pursuit of a magic formula to create top-notch CG trailers. The following is a wise and concise concoction of thoughts and observations verbalized by Igor Klimovskiy, a VFX and Trailer Producer at Playsense, with 20+ years of combined experience in CGI production, gaming journalism and TV direction.
A Piece of History
Those who’ve been long into videogames must remember when Blizzard released the first Starcraft in 1998. It featured in-game scenes that were quite the breakthrough for that time. Frankly, all of Blizzard’s game trailers boasted this level of quality. Soon, other large companies started investing big money in producing great trailers, so in less than a decade, one couldn’t imagine an AAA game to be announced or released without an eye-catching cinematic. Add to that the rapid spread of fast internet that enabled us to watch all this online and in no time, cinematics evolved into an indispensable part of a game’s lifecycle, a tool allowing developers and publishers to communicate with players. They have definitely become something much bigger than just game ads.
Skimming through Terminology
There are a bunch of names for such videos out there, not to mention all sorts of classifications based on marketing campaign stages (teaser / announce or announcement / launch trailers), on their theme (feature / bestiary / in-game vehicles / environmental trailers) or other criteria, but we prefer to call them ‘CG trailers or ‘cinematics’.
As for the classification, they are broken down into three types depending on their content:
- Gameplay Trailers, as the name hints, are based on recorded gameplay. The most zealous creators of such videos even devise ad-hoc tools to capture gameplay, including imitations of rails, cranes and lenses. Any possible camera mounts to demonstrate the game as spectacularly as possible.
- Live Action Trailers can be shot without any VFX or, instead, can be stuffed with CG elements, be it characters, monsters, tanks, environment objects, you name it. There are also Live Action Trailers where people shot against a greenscreen are the only real objects.
- Cinematic Trailers are fully digital (or full CG) trailers. Technically, these are short, animated movies. And of all the types, this is the most time- and resource-consuming and, understandably, the most expensive one.
As this article will mainly focus on cinematics, to fully understand what they are, let’s watch the recently released cinematic trailer for the indie game GRIME, made by Playsense - https://playsense.agency/cases/grime.
Peeking into the Production Pipeline
The whole production process can be roughly divided into three stages:
- Pre-production (or a preparation stage)
- Production and
Any cinematic starts with an idea that’s meant to evolve into a story. However, simply telling a story is not enough for a trailer scriptwriter: they need to intertwine the game lore into it. More to it, a cool cinematic might not only tell a standalone story (serving as a kind of spin-off), but also develop particular storylines within the game. Some cinematics are created specifically to better present the game’s world (or universe). Additionally, when you need to introduce a new character to a MOBA game, a cinematic is the perfect tool to reveal their background. You can see Apex Legends use a similar approach, for example. By the way, such complex stories are usually written by a group of screenwriters, not just one. This method is reminiscent of the production process for a TV series. Once the idea is approved by everyone involved, you can proceed to the next stage.
A storyboard is created by the director, together with the artists (and sometimes with the camera operator), to visualize the story. The storyboard is an especially important thing that you may find handy even at the very end of production. But at the very beginning, it’s indispensable. It helps you enormously with creating a previs (short for “previsualization), it shows you the size of characters and locations (the latter benefits modelers so that they understand the level of quality and detail needed for each object).
- Sketches and Concept Art
These are created by a team of ad-hoc artists and, possibly, in parallel with the storyboard. This is as an important and vital stage as storyboarding since it defines the appearance of all the characters, locations, objects, as well as weather, time of day, light and atmosphere — everything to be featured in the trailer. Sometimes, the game’s world is partly devised by the concept artists involved in the game itself. Yet, the team dealing with the concept art trailer-wise never lack new challenges.
A storymatic is a storyboard that is put on the timeline of an editing program. At this stage you understand the preliminary duration of the trailer, can start editing it or even experiment with the music for it. Some people tend to also create an animatic, which is a storyboard literally animated in After Effects. But the majority move right to previs.
Also known as “previsualization”, previs is one of the most crucial steps in the entire process. In fact, this is when the dynamics (the movements of the cameras) of the soon-to-be-made trailer is set. By this time, all characters and locations are in 3D already. Of course, the models are not finalized, and some may be placeholders, but they can move and act. At this stage, we “lock” the editing and can move on to the next big stage.
A stage when key 3D scenes of the story are prepared. Some choose to develop the layout at the previous stage (mostly, to optimize and speed up production). Several locations may require several layouts. At the start of production, a layout of a town, with all its houses and streets, resembles a mosaic of various rectangles to be gradually replaced with final models.
- FX R&D
Simultaneously, the R&D process is launched for all FX or physical simulations (water, fire, smoke). Just imagine what challenge may be come up with a character “wearing” fur, having dreadlocks, or long curly hair! By the way, in their latest cartoons, Pixar has excelled at this art so much that they make a physically correct simulation on the character's woolen clothes (say, a sweater). And this is just one of their breakthroughs in this field. Back to R&D, it’s not just about FX: this process is applicable to animation rigging and other specific design tasks, too.
- Modeling and Texturing
These can be started immediately once the concept art is ready. Naturally, this is a time-consuming process when all content for production is created. Often the models or their elements are constantly being refined until the very end of production. Also, modeling is on the list of the potential production bottlenecks as at some point multiple models may be required at once.
- Creation of Character and Animation Rigs
Another crucial process as these rigs largely determine the visual aspect of characters’ behavior and movements and also take a great deal off the animators’ shoulders. All the sophisticated digital characters we admire so much boast great rigging, too. A notable example of this is everyone's favorite dragon, Smaug, from The Hobbit (who was mocapped by Benedict Cumberbatch).
These days, the production of cinematics involves both motion capture systems and traditional manual animation (predominantly created in Maya). Of course, mocap speeds up the process drastically, but you can’t completely do without manual work either as there is always something to be tweaked or changed. Animation can be edited and improved indefinitely, and that's why it also impedes production sometimes. After all, without animation, you can’t get down to either FX or render. And that’s not to mention the idle hours of the team’s working time.
- Lighting and Rendering
These are the almost final stages of production and quite important ones, too — after all, the way you arrange the light sources in the scene — namely, lighting — sets its aesthetics and mood. Basically, you can start working on lighting, or rather on look development, as soon as the first models are ready (look development will furnish you with key (or hero) shots that will later serve as references for the whole team). And of course, lighting artists should rely on the concept art.
- Finalizing Sound
This can be done right after the rendering’s done. At this point, all necessary visual elements are already there, and you can finalize the sound effects (a.k.a. SFX) as the editing, as you remember, was already approved at the previs stage.
Compositing can be regarded as both the last stage of production and the first stage of post-production. Compositors combine all visual elements (say, FX are usually rendered separately, as are other things, be it characters, cars, tanks or the environment). Aside from that, compositing artists deal with the footage, combine it with renders, as well as replace the greenscreen with the necessary backgrounds.
This stage includes much fewer processes as the bulk of the work is done (that doesn’t mean you can relax just yet though). There‘s still a few useful techniques to cover.
- Extra Optical Effects
These include lens flare or film grain. Adding the latter may make you wonder: why would one lay grain on an image? Doesn’t this effect spoil it? Yet, I must assure you: our eye finds it much more pleasing to behold a slightly flawed picture than an immaculate one. And grain (sort of digital analogue of film noise) is widely used to bring that pleasure to the viewer’s eyes.
- Color Correction
Color correction adds a special (or distinct) style to the trailer. But usually, the necessary palette is introduced at the rendering or compositing stages.
So, after adding motion design and/or captions (if needed), our cinematic is ready to go!
With certain reservations, this workflow applies to live action trailers, which in addition to the digital production includes the shooting part. Overall, this workflow is close to ideal. In reality, its steps and stages may vary depending on circumstances, such as updates, iterations and new requests.
What Makes a Cinematic Great?
This question may result in hours of fervent discussion, or it may be answered in just one line. But for many of us the answer will differ.
But at Playsense, we see two elements which are the most important to creating a cool trailer: first, it’s the story. It’s masterful, well-thought storytelling that compels us watch something over and over again. It’s a powerful story that holds our attention and keeps us thrilled. No matter its style (or even quality) — if the story is cool, we will buy into it. A black and white comic book simply drawn with a ballpoint pen can enthrall you more than a multimillion blockbuster. Storytelling is key for a cinematic just like gameplay is for a game.
The second core thing is visual aesthetics. It's not about technical execution (which is important, too) — with this regard, CGI productions have achieved quite impressive results. We saw the notorious quest for realism (or, more precisely, photorealism) that started 15 or 20 years ago come to fruition. We see software and render engines progressing constantly. We are witnessing the incredible progress shown by real-time engines in terms of the on-air rendering quality.
And these technological strides didn’t depreciate the efforts of digital artists: instead, they prompt new creativity and call for new forms and imagery: color combinations, inventions of new stylizations and styles, etc. and, eventually, boost the development of cool visual aesthetics.
One of the brightest contemporary directors who combines these two elements in their work is Alberto Mielgo (with Watch Dogs and Love, Death and Robots being good examples of the statement).
The Ingredients of a Cool CG Trailer
We've all seen fan-made trailers created by one person in a month or two, often using an engine plus publicly available bash models. Yes, some of these works are impressive but generally, cinematics have much more in common with the production of animated feature films. There you can only succeed by having a big team at your disposal. Therefore, such talents quickly receive offers from CG studios, later evolving into directors and/or camera operators and sometimes supervisors or art directors.
- The Team
Simply put, the most important thing in CG trailer production is the team. Without them, software is merely useless lines of code, and hardware is just hardware. And when we say team we mean not only CG artists, but everyone involved, both directly and indirectly. That includes writers, directors, artists, producers, project managers and system administrators who keep the entire hardware infrastructure in good working order. If the render farm fails, the efforts of many artists will be wasted. Likewise, the trailer will only prove a success on the premise that the writer and the director do their best. This work requires collaboration, and the result directly depends on how professional the team is and how well they interact and communicate.
Speaking about communication, our experience has shown that the Scrum/Agile methodology is very well suited for organizing the work of a CG team. Splitting it into micro teams of 7-8 people, stand-ups, sprints — all this favors the process.
- The Software Pipeline
Another vital thing is the software pipeline, and the choice of render engine, in particular. Most today’s studios prefer three programs: Maya for modeling, rigging and animation, Houdini for FX, simulations, layout and rendering, and Nuke for compositing. More ambiguity is seen with the choice of render engine: in recent years, along with classic CPU renders, such as Mantra, Arnold, RenderMan, GPU rendering (for example, Octane RedShift) has become more popular. When choosing rendering software, one needs to consider the tasks to be implemented on the project: after all, technically wise CPU rendering will provide you with a better picture. But who knows whether this will be true in two or three years.
- The Hardware
Hardware-wise, a lot has changed over the past decade. Previously, for professional CG tasks, you needed at least an average, or even better a top-end, workstation. Now that cloud solutions are available, almost any computer terminal is enough to deal with a remote powerful machine in the cloud. You can even use a tablet. Additionally, some companies, Scanline among them, use similar virtualization solutions within the corporate infrastructure.
Farm rendering has transformed similarly. Even 10 years ago, remote rendering was considered exotic. Today, it’s almost as familiar a service as, for example, Gmail. Maybe in 10 years we’ll be spared from spending money on expensive workstations. And more games, too, will move onto the cloud.
Cinematics are an art. And for the most part (exclusive of fan-made videos) this art is commercial, which means CG trailers need customers willing to pay for them.
- Lots of Toil
And, finally, the fifth secret ingredient. It’s hard work that permeates all stages of cinematic production. But traditionally, perfectionism is widely spread among artists, so toiling is their ‘modus vivendi’, you know.
- The Future of the Industry
A number of predictions made 10 years ago have fallen short of reality. The software hasn’t evolved into a “Jack of all trades” enabling us to do everything we need very quickly. Although, some decent attempts were made – hello, Blender.
Another worthy software is Katana, the darling of the creators of full-length animated movies. Why? Because it allows you to work not just with individual shots, but with entire sequences or scenes.
And one doesn’t need to be a prophet to foresee incredible prospects for game engines like Unreal and Unity. I hope that other engine manufacturers will rise soon to compete with them, and the fruits of their ‘arms race’ will at some point enable us to render in real-time images indistinguishable from reality. I believe this may come true in the next 20 years.
The enormous potential of VR is yet to be unlocked. What is the universal language of VR storytelling? How do you create a game in VR in terms of mechanics and gameplay? What's the best way to make a trailer in VR? Whoever answers these questions has a good chance of becoming a billionaire.
As for professional workstations, they are likely to move to the cloud in the next decade. At least, the overwhelming majority.
But even if our work tools allow us to instantly create content of any complexity, people will stay at the core. Because it’s people who fill things with meaning and cool stories.
Summing up, the gaming industry is growing at an incredible pace. For several years in a row, the industry's global revenue has been increasing by $15 billion annually, which means that we will see more new games, and therefore even more cool cinematics.