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Worlds Are Colliding!: The Convergence of Film and Games


December 12, 2005
 

Introduction

This year's final IGDA San Francisco/Bay Area Chapter meeting – held Tuesday, the sixth of December at the Sony Metreon's Action Theater in San Francisco - featured three representatives from Industrial Light + Magic and two from LucasArts. The assembled personages spent an hour discussing how, thanks to their new joint facility in San Francisco's Presidio district, they can share resources more easily than before.

The original announcement of the event explained the lecture as follows:

“The convergence of film and game production has been predicted for years, but progress has been slow... cultural, logistical, financial, and computational barriers have kept the two worlds apart. Everybody sees convergence, most want it, but few know what it really means and fewer still have actually tried it.

In 2003, developers at Lucas Arts and Industrial Light + Magic began an active but informal effort to share techniques and code. The collaboration gathered steam as the Lucas companies consolidated and then relocated as neighbors in a new facility in the Presidio in 2005. Developers are now "right down the hall" from each other, developing on the same code base, staffing projects with crew from both divisions, and tackling problems with the best techniques either side has to offer. It's not just about sharing assets... we're building a unified set of technology to produce both movies and games, and give both companies unique competitive advantages.

In this discussion, we'll talk about progress and challenges at the cutting edge of film/game convergence. Topics include: ILM tech headed for next-generation games, LucasArts' adaptation of ILM tools for game development, game tech's central role in next-gen visual effects production, and our new director's previz system, built from the ground-up to go beyond machinima and deeply integrate film and game concepts.”


A still from Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.

Pre-Viz Sharing?

Right up front, ILM's Steve Sullivan spilled the one essential detail of the night, explaining that, for about a year, ILM has been using LucasArts' game expertise to develop "pre-viz" sketches for its effects sequences. For those unfamiliar with the term, pre-visualization is a way for directors to "doodle" with complicated visual ideas using low-polygonal models on approximate digital sets. Weta Digital, for example, used pre-viz animations for most of the complicated scenes in Lord of the Rings. These animations were intercut with storyboards and model sequences to give Peter Jackson (and his backers) his first rough version of the movie, before any footage had even been shot.

The idea in Lucasworld is that the game division uses its tools to prototype the movie, and then ILM hands over its more sophisticated models, animation data, effects, and technology over to the game division when it's done.

To illustrate the kinds of resources that might be made available to LucasArts, Sullivan showed a (perhaps) twenty-minute string of effects segments from movies ILM has worked on over the past five years – amongst them The Day After Tomorrow, Van Helsing, Terminator 3, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Dreamcatcher, Pirates of the Caribbean, A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, and War of the Worlds. Indeed, almost all of the segments looked like cutscenes from a videogame.

Toward the end of the presentation, Sullivan showed some of the specific routines that ILM had been working on, including fabric and water simulation and a gummy flesh simulation involving frogs and an ogre from Van Helsing.


The LucasArts-developed Star Wars: Republic Commando.

The Importance Of Proximity

The last portion of the lecture was split unevenly between Chris Williams of LucasArts and an extended question-and-answer session. Williams pointed out that the most important element in anything we've seen is proximity. Without the physical contact between the two branches, none of this communication would be as feasible as it is for them now. That said, the two new Lucasfilm Animation divisions, in Singapore and the San Francisco Bay Area, are building shared asset databases for the benefit of all arms of the George Lucas empire.

One audience member mentioned the recent announcement of several open-source platforms, intended to provide independent game developers with vital development tools and resources, and asked if LucasArts would be inclined to release any of its tools to the public. Williams hemmed and hawed for a moment, then spoke about how LucasArts has been warming up to its fan community lately, and has even been including editors with its PC games.

Another person asked what this convergence meant for anyone seeking a job at LucasArts or ILM, and whether applicants would now need to know equally much of movies and videogames. The answer was rather to the contrary; although there is a core of staff who shift back and forth between film and games, there will always be some people who are more interested in and whose skills are more suited to one or the other.

Joint interviews are now typical, meaning collectively they're now looking for a broader range of skills. They don't expect all of those skills from any individual, though; indeed, between the two outfits they now have more room than before for unusual specializations.

Conclusion

One of the final questions asked what the implications of this discussion were, "for the rest of the industry who aren't LucasArts." For everyone else who doesn't happen to be so closely associated with a major effects studio, never mind being located in the same building, how might they apply this information? Where would they get the knowledge and expertise required?

Williams spoke broadly about the need to be aware of what's going on in the industry around you, before concluding that he "can't speculate as to where you'll get that knowledge," and that it certainly would be challenging if you weren't all in the same facility – meaning that, although interesting, this lecture was somewhat highly applicable to Lucasfilm's and LucasArts' special relationship.

And on that note, it was off to the pub for everyone.

_____________________________________________________


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