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Every Picture Tells A Story
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Every Picture Tells A Story

June 4, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Plastic to Pixels

The central task of any modeler, physical or virtual, is to give a static object or scene enough life that it can reach the audience emotionally without the kind of framing devices that other media have. Most of us deal with subjects that are basically anonymous: mass-produced vehicles, manufactured goods, generic architectural spaces.

Only a fraction of our work is devoted to unique capstone designs that are strong enough to capture the imagination based on design alone. For every Death Star or TIE Fighter there are miles of faceless corridors, inevitable period vehicles, and necessary but uninteresting bric-a-brac.

Thus every game modeler faces the same problem many times: How can I make my Sherman tank different from all the other 3D Shermans out there? How will my shipping container yard stand out from all the other container yards?

Even if I'm lucky enough to work on a strong, unique design, how can I anchor that design in physical reality for the players? Those questions would be equally familiar to earlier generations of model builders.

Real-world modelers and scenarists try to compel the audience by presenting objects or spaces as slices of living history, not static images. By now most game artists have learned the obvious truth that the world isn't factory fresh, and most modelers today add a dash of noise or a bit of wear as a matter of course.

The classic models of artists like Paine and Francois Verlinden, or the miniature work in the pre-CG era Star Wars films, take this principle several steps further. They are built around details that can turn an empty room or a simple object into something like a character with a past and a distinct personality.

Great models never let the viewer forget that every object or scene had a past that made it different from all the others of its kind. Whether it's a lucky pet name chalked on a tank turret, some jerry-rigged repairs on the Millennium Falcon, or just the litter of paperwork and coffee cups on a desk, classic modelers always remind the viewer that what they see is a moment in an ongoing story -- not just a tank, a spaceship, or an office.


Shep Paine's famous Monogram diorama series is a great example of how details can be chosen to create miniature narratives. The B-17 kit (see Figure 2) in particular, shows storytelling and modeling welded together into a single process. The diorama centers on a crashed bomber, a subject that could easily find a home in many game settings.

Figure 2: Shep Paine’s Monogram B-17 diorama is a study in the art of bringing backstory and personality to a static model. 

The execution, though, shows how the artist's careful thought has transformed a simple premise into a unique form. Rather than simply layering on scorch marks and gibs, Paine has imagined the entire crash sequence: flak over the target, a limping flight home, the failure of the plane's landing gear (see Figure 3), and a final skid off the runway into the muddy verge of the landing field.

Figure 3: The key to diorama is the artist’s thorough conception of the events leading up to the crash. Here the bent and twisted landing gear, the torn control surfaces and the scarred landing field all help convey a complete narrative in a single moment. 

That story drives the details of the final model. Everything, from the streaks of oil smoke on the wings to the way the propellers were bent back asymmetrically by the climactic belly flop, helps support the background story.

Instead of a forgettable icon that simply checks the "plane crash" checkbox, the imagined scene invites the viewer to envision the off-screen drama, as well as appreciate the final result. The viewer doesn't need to decipher the details of the story correctly to be affected by it.

The logic of the imagined events gives the whole model an artistic unity and authentic presence that a random collection of brownouts and debris could not.

An example of the same principle rendered in up-to-the-minute shader 3.0 glory, is the artwork in 2K's BioShock. The drowned city of Rapture abounds in wellchosen narrative details, even aside from the important set pieces, which are important to driving the game's complex interwoven stories. Many of the stories are played out in very literal ways for macabre effect, bodies hung from meathooks, stores looted, and so on.

But what really helps sell Rapture's unique feel are the hundreds of tiny stories scattered throughout the city. Even in out of the way corners, you'll find small stories that illustrate how or why the utopia failed: a barricaded spare room with a filthy mattress, a few bottles of booze, a couple of books; a policeman's office, buried under piles of paperwork from toppled book shelves; the wreckage of a garden party in Arcadia, complete with empty champagne bottles and an overturned tea table.

Perhaps the way the city itself is being destroyed by internecine warfare and the encroaching sea is the inspiration for the use of narrative details. Whatever the reason, the overall effect is compellingly immersive in ways few games can match.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

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