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GDC London: EA Talks  Harry Potter  Film/Game Influences

GDC London: EA Talks Harry Potter Film/Game Influences

October 3, 2006 | By Simon Carless, Jill Duffy

October 3, 2006 | By Simon Carless, Jill Duffy
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In another fascinating GDC London talk, lighting designer and Weta Digital/PDI Dreamworks veteran Wayne Stables of Electronic Arts' UK studio talked about 'Film Meets Games' with specific reference to the Harry Potter video games, and colleague Will Byles discussed emotion in film and games.

Kicking off the lecture, Stables first discussed his own background in CG in New Zealand and Australia, explaining that he joined Weta Digital when it was just "three people working out of the bottom floor of a flat", and eventually left after The Two Towers to join PDI Dreamworks in California, where he worked on Shrek 2, and learned "the absolute power of great art tools", before joining Electronic Arts in the UK more recently.

Games, CG Industry Colliding?

The engaging Stables, who is extremely enthusiastic about all aspects of the graphics industry, commented: "The game industry and the visual effects industry seem quite discrete" - but technology-wise, "they're much close than you think." In fact, when it comes to games, if you love computer-generated art, "it's an awesome time to be in this industry."

Stables interestingly commented that he "doesn't feel limited" that the Harry Potter or other EA games have to work in real-time, it's just "a lot more interesting" in terms of how the 60 frames per second game can be pulled off and still look great.

He then discussed the history of the Harry Potter game franchise, explaining that EA's Goblet Of Fire game started shifting the games toward the look of the film franchise, confirming: "From an art style, we're looking toward... the film" on Order Of The Phoenix.

Current-Gen, Next-Gen At Same Time?

The EA artist explained how they work things, given that EA's Order Of The Phoenix game is coming out on PlayStation 2 but also PS3, Wii, and Xbox 360 - a cross-generational game, which it's tricky to generate art for. He also revealed that the PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360 artwork are pretty much identical in terms of geometry. Why so?

There are plenty of extra graphic effects (bloom, other visual effects) added, but Stables commented that extra lighting, higher resolution textures, and suchlike are the only major difference. This makes it possible to build the SKUs simultaneously, and not have to recreate massive amounts of geometry.

So what makes next-gen look next-gen? Stables commented that "a strong textural base" is key - high resolution textures are especially important. He noted that the next title his team working on (presumably in the Harry Potter franchise) will be "solely on next-gen", and discusses some of the major differences for next-gen - finding excitement in HDR (high dynamic range lighting), which is "another thing where we can learn a lot from the visual effects industry".

He also referenced adaptive exposure, data compression, and particularly post processing ("blooms, atmospherics, and fogs") which can give lots more depth to the game, indicating the sophistication that next-gen art can actually bring.

The Importance Of Shaders

Stables then went on to discuss programmable shaders, expressing enthusiasm in the ability to change effects in real time, advocating one thing: "Start simple." For example, Gollum in the Lord Of The Rings movies started as a simple shader and only had multiple layers of shader built up over time. Even more so, for games, Stables notes: "Everything in the shaders [should] pay for itself" - there's no need to start with masses of overcomplicated shaders.

His conclusion focused on the need for "incredibly strong art tools", as video game development gets so much more complicated. He commented: "We shouldn't be fighting our machines to do them."

Stables ended by noting that Order Of The Phoenix pre-production focused on making tools reflect the final game as much as possible: When working with Maya, the artists needed to see 90 percent representation of what they were going to see in the final, says Stables. He adds that art tools need to be real-time responsive. If the artists cant see the results of their work instantly, he says, the tools are falling short.

Imagine Rembrandt, says Stables, painting and waiting for the response of each brush stroke. In other words, tools need to be assets, not detriments, which may be a fact that is sometimes swept under the carpet, as artists struggle to work around the handicaps that result from their tools.

Byles' Progress

Will Byles, also of Electronic Arts Europe, spoke about his career journey from being a general artist, to an entertainment artists working in CG, to being a game artist. He worked in theater and film as well before heading to Aardman Animation, the studio that created Wallace and Gromit. When he finally moved into games, after developing his art and animation skills elsewhere, he worked as an art director on the title Battlefield 2.

Film has developed its own language. Its really quite complex, but its language that we all understand, says Byles. In games, a language is still developing, though many rules already exist, such as the use of a heads up display or symbols such as red barrels or crates.

But when it comes to developing the language of emotions, says Byles, games need to function and develop independent of film because films have a limited way of projecting emotion. Where film relies on sympathy and empathy, what Byles calls second-hand emotions, games have the ability to let the player make choices, carry out actions, and directly experience the emotions that might result from these choices and actions.

The analogy between film production and video game development has slowly been maturing, and as more film professionals, like Stables and Byles, move into game development, whats borrowed, changed, and reinvented from film production will better fit the needs of forward-thinking games.

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