The Art of The Background: Shapes and Lines
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The Art of The Background: Shapes and Lines
14 March, 2017
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Erick Pangilinan talked during a very interesting panel at GDC, about the important backgrounds that shape our perception of cinematic stories in games. 

This is the third time GDC hosts the Art Direction Bootcamp. This event usually consists of lectures and seminars from some of the most outstanding artists in their field. It’s an incredible opportunity for game developers to look behind the scenes and figure out how some of the most beautiful games of our generation are being created.

This year, one of the most exciting sessions for the 80.lv team was a talk called “Cinematic Environment Production for Uncharted 4”. It was presented by Naughty Dog art director Erick Pangilinan and environment art lead Christian Nakata. If you’ve been following Uncharted 4 art dumps, you must have seen the work of these amazing people. During their talk they’ve discussed the way environment is used in cut scenes and how Naughty Dog manages to produce these unique spaces. Here are some outtakes from just a first part of the talk by Erick Pangilinan. Sorry for the pictures. You kind of need to click them to see the whole thing.

The Story in The Background

In a cinematic clip, environment is one of the elements that helps to tell the story. The other element is the character. Characters usually get most of the screen time, best shaders, best lighting, while the environment stays somewhere in the background. However, this is not entirely true. Even when the environment is blurred out and is hidden in shadow, it’s being used to tell a story.

A lot of things need to be considered while making cinematic environments. When you’re trying to tell a visual story, the environment and characters go hand in hand. It’s all a mater of composition, camera, lighting, motion.

Environment can tell a lot of stories, you just have to know how to read them. Every element of the environment has to have a function, meaning and function to push the story forward. Let’ look at some of the examples, to understand the function of the environment a little better. There are going to be a lot of spoilers, so if you still haven’t finished the game – stop reading and go finish it! 

In this scene Nate has been caught lying to Elena. Nate told her, that he was on a salvaging job in Malaysia, but instead she finds him in a motel in Madagascar, planning a dangerous treasure hunt with Sully and some other man, she had never seen before. No wonder she’s really pissed off. Drake and his friends are in an awkward position and Drake is trying to talk his way out of it.

The camera swings back and forth during the emotional exchange between Elena and Drake. Naughty Dog wanted to show the contract between these two shots. This is the done with the help of the environment, which helps to enhance the meaning of the scene.

Position of The Camera

Where you put the characters in the scene can influence the way you perceive their emotional state in the story. Spacing can mean a lot. Here we see Elena being closer to the wall, gaining more stability. Drake is standing further from the wall and further from his companions, showing separation and distance. The environment enforces Elena’s dominant position.

Shapes and Lines

Shapes and lines are also powerful tools, which can enhance the whole production. Notice behind Elena there’s a lot of straight angular lines: the maps on the wall, the map on the table, the sharp edges on the picture frame. Straight lines usually relate to being direct, aggressive and strong. Curvy lines are used to show something soft, passive and organic. And behind Drake you’l see round shapes on the wall and deeper background.

Not only is this scene interesting and dynamic, but the shapes and lines also add to the intensity of the mood. So why are there square shapes behind Sam?

These two supporting characters Sam and Sully are symbolical. Sam represents the side of Drake that misses adventure and adrenalin of treasure hunting. Sully represents Drake’s conscience, the side that makes him to stay with Elena and give up danger. Lines and shapes are used here to show the contrast between these two characters. Sally for example is framed in round shapes to really emphasise his mood. Sully is like a father figure to Nate and he knows better to advise him. It all works in combination with the animation, dialogue and other elements of the scene.

Another interesting thing we want to point out is how Naughty Dog uses lines and shapes to show the relational groupings of the characters. The artists added an insert to the wall. At first it was done to break up the space and accentuate the feeling of depth. In this framing the insert conveniently grouped Sully and Nate together, representing their closeness and affinity. But this framing in the insert also pushes Sam outside. And the cabinet door is used to separate Sam, to show that he’s an outsider. A simple shape represents his as having different goals and motives as the rest of the team.

Simple lines and shapes are used to tell an unspoken story of Drake’s personal struggle between his conscience and desires.

This is just one example from the session. It’s currently available at GDC Vault and we highly advise watching it. What fascinates us in this project is the amount of detail an thought that goes into every piece of visual information we see on the screen. And this is why art direction is so important for any game title. Without it, your game will be lacking meaning. The meaning and thought which turn great video games into the works of art.

The second part of the talk, featuring Christian Nakata, will be published a little later. Stay tuned. Special thanks to Andrew Maximov and Keith Self Ballard for arranging this amazing meeting.

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