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The team of metricminds allowed us to repost their article on the production process behind beautiful cinematics of Horizon Zero Dawn.
Cutscenes have always been a huge part of any big game title. While gamers’ feelings for them can range from love to hate, developers see their potential in what they can bring to the table in terms of moving the narrative forward. A general thought can be that most of the time, massive parts of the game’s story can be conveyed through simple dialog during gameplay, while Cutscenes may give the semblance of simply decorative elements.
Considering the sheer amount of Cutscenes in high profile RPG titles like Mass Effect, The Witcher and also blockbuster action titles like Halo, Assasins Creed, Call of Duty, Dying Light, Shadow of Mordor and Far Cry or even mid-sized “indie” games like Hellblade, one can clearly say that there is definitve need for Cutscenes as a filmic canvas to tell the story in a different – yet not interactive – way, besides high-class render intros and outros. While this is less about the actual awareness-span of a player being able to follow the story through massive lines of dialog, in-game Cutscenes can provide the essential information and narrative intent to the point, in a well-constructed and well-produced little movie format.
Cutscenes have their own language and add a highly visual level, using linear storytelling methods to serve major aspects of the game’s storyline. This way, they build upon the protagonist’s/antagonist’s character diamond in order to share their view of the game world they live in. And this doesn’t have to be broken up in simple measures like light and dark or good versus evil, but it can also vary in wider shades of gray with a broader emotional span.
Horizon Zero Dawn – Aloy’s Journey
With the launch of Guerrilla Games’ highly acclaimed action RPG title Horizon: Zero Dawn, the narrative’s creators take the player along a journey to shed some light into Aloy’s past and her reason of existence from childhood to adolescence. On this journey, Aloy’s quest to find out more about her past unravels the mysteries of the world and help her to gradually develop over time and thus also the Player. The great pillars of her adventure are told in major and minor Cutscenes to fill the void that simple dialog structures can only sporadically cover. This is simply due to the nature of how they are executed.
Dialogs cannot deliver as strong of a dramatic impulse that will drive the game and therefore the story. A cutscene can achieve this through well-produced and -executed visual storytelling and deliver a deliberate rhythm and beat. A feeling of responsibility, urgency, sadness, happiness or anger can be created through carefully crafting the dramatic arc in a linear manner as it doesn’t allow too much room for misinterpretation.
Aloy’s loss of Rost wouldn’t have been able to be told as strongly through gameplay or dialog. Its objectives were to lead to the climactic moment from the perspective of Aloy being weaker for the time being and being defeated by the villain Helis, who threatens her life before she is rescued by Rost, who in turn, fights against Helis and sacrifices his life for hers.
Each of these moments from the start until the end of the cutscene has been written, produced and delivered on the screen to let the player feel the loss of the only related person that stuck with Aloy through all of her life while being a shunned person. While Aloy’s tower of strength was gone so was the Player’s, leaving them partly alone in the threatening world of the game where both hit rock bottom. All of this build-up was constructed and culminated in the ending of that cutscene. This was one of several major and minor moments that happened throughout the game, which share the same reasonable approach to be delivered in a cutscene instead of gameplay.
metricminds is extremely proud to be part of this amazing journey, helping out on the majority of cutscene work for both the main game plus The Frozen Wilds DLC and several trailers since 2015. This essay will share some insights on how this kind of production can be made possible. The plethora of Cutscenes for a high-end production always needs an outstanding team of writers to bring the vast ideas of the protagonist, the challenges, the surrounding world and its history and development and the mood/atmosphere to paper and flesh it out the in a concise and cohesive manner. Narrative Director John Gonzalez (Fallout Las Vegas, Shadow of Mordor) and his writing team (The Frozen Wilds: Ben McCaw and more) were responsible for constructing the world from the internal game concept pitched by Art Director Jan Bart van Beek years before.
It’s important to honor the amount of work (hundreds of hours) that was needed to build the whole world from scratch before thinking about the actual cutscene creation process.While dissecting the drafts of gameplay scripts for each chapter, certain parts are highlighted to be considered as cutscene material. While some parts share the high-level ideas of a cutscene in a one or two-liner, others were more elaborated in terms of execution right from the start.
Over time, the amount of cutscene material gradually grows and requires a stakeholder for the coordination of the work. Making the process well-grounded, the vision of the cutscene execution needs to be manifested and therefore leverages the role of the Cutscene Director. Jonathan Kray has been working with Guerrilla Games on the Killzone franchise in the past and accepted the challenge of the newly founded endeavor. In a team effort, together with the Narrative, Art and Cutscene Director, Cutscene Producers and the Cutscene and Animation Teams, Guerrilla Games needed to sort out the cinematic language to lay out the foundation stone for the Horizon Cutscenes.
Over the months from pre-production to production, the list of Cutscenes for a project like Horizon: Zero Dawn grows exponentially and the amount has to be consolidated in order to estimate the required workload. In that period of time, outsourcing companies like metricminds are contacted to help out by scaling up the bandwidth, making the expected increase of production capacity feasible as well as adding additional skills and experience. Before starting on the Cutscenes, we handed in a test cutscene which was based on a scene draft. It described the action in two sentences and took place in one of the side-quests. For this particular Cutscene, we created the visual concept in form of a storyboard, shot motion capture on our own stage for all humanoid animations and animated a Greywolf in the scene from scratch. Our Lead Cinematic Artist directed the cutscene and executed it with the cutscene team at metricminds.
Delivering the cutscene example we could prove that we can produce the quality Guerrilla Games was looking for and set up and passed the production test by being able to work actively on our own, right from a script without more input or further involvement from the studio. In the end, after the review process was approved we were informed that the cutscene met expectations and was planned to be shipped with the game. From then on we couldn’t wait to start with the real production.
As described earlier, a good story and its script are key elements for a good Cutscene. But reality proves that the sheer amount of Cutscene–scripts are never equally at the same stage, signed–off or approved, which runs the risk of production being halted in mid-air for some time. In most cases, time is running out with the cutscene production happening around the end of a full game development production cycle and the clock is ticking until final delivery. Therefore, it’s always good to stay focused, prepared and most of the time proactive, which means to tackle the scene from the few lines or notes that are only available. The process makes it easier to judge progress from the outside.
For this, temporary voice–overs (temp VO) can really help to quickly breathe some life into a cutscene. Here at metricminds, we always stay focused on the best outcome with the highest efficiency in the given time. With the mocap stage right at our fingertips, we can always start right from the bat and develop the first look of Cutscenes, which will be iterated upon until the final script/storyboard arrives. With a final, approved script, the cutscene process on the Horizon Cutscenes started into the storyboarding step in order to visually lay out the major story beats and initial editing of the sequence. This gives everyone the opportunity to be on the same page.
After the internal approval at Guerrilla Games, we received the scripts and storyboards for the mocap shoot, along with an explanation by the Cinematic Director on how he likes to kick it off. In the process of shooting mocap, everyone needs to be prepared and on par with the scenes of the current shooting day. This means a lot of logistics and organization (rehearsals) before and also right after the shoot. One has to consider the actors playing the different parts, stunt crew (if necessary), the digital sets for the real-time feedback on the monitors on stage as well as virtual level pieces, which will be needed in real life (e.g. columns, chairs, tables, tokens and small items and especially weapons) in the correct size of their digital effigy. For Horizon’s Cutscenes, these have been mostly staffs and bows that were wielded by the actors.
The video below shows the number of real set props and constructions that were necessary for the last action cutscene of The Frozen Wilds cutscene:
Especially for this cutscene, the logistics of elements in the digital or real form needed accurate planning. One day before shooting, a test run (rehearsal) of all structures took place to confirm the set-up and flow of shooting and later design of the cutscene. The stunt crew had to make sure everything was set and ready to go on the following day. On the shoot itself, everything connected well and allowed us to run the mocap smoothly without further disturbances, which was the result of a huge team effort.
Motion Capture Shoot on 1st August 2017 at metricminds: Crew
After the mocap session, the marker data has to be post-processed, which means that most times, real people have to actually touch mocap data in order to achieve production quality. Technically inaccurate data needs to be polished and prepared for further use. The three steps for that are called labeling, cleaning and skeleton solving and will be applied to the marker set (the sum of all markers attached to an actor) of all actors included in a take. The proprietary motion capture software package that comes with the system is further customized in our production pipeline to fit our needs and those of any client.
In the labeling process, the marker names (previously assigned automatically by the software) need to be corrected as they can be unorganized and marker names can switch due to heavy interactions between two or more actors, e.g. while fighting on stage. In this case, the system cannot sort out which actor the particular markers belong to in real-time, so it has to be manually adjusted afterward. Next, the cleaning step includes the correction of unstable motion data on each marker to maintain their position and clear up any unresolved tracking inaccuracies, caused by different reasons. Either a marker fell off and needs to be reconstructed from other markers (redundant marker set, rigid bodies), or the marker was partially hidden for the optical system to completely compute their absolute position. Once the complete marker set for each actor is adjusted, the tracked motion can be transferred to the digital character. This step is called skeleton solving, which is based on a biomechanical understanding of the human body, its range of motion and it incorporates the individual sizes, proportions, and differences between the human body parts and their digital targets.
After all, motions are solved onto the digital character, the Scene Layout process can start. During this step, the characters and their animations are positioned in the digital set and all essential cameras will be created to frame the action of the scene. Different filmmaking techniques are used to set up the individual camera movements per shot and the editing of these shots connects them to become an appealing sequence, utilizing visual storytelling methods, and thus the first draft of the Cutscene. After review by the Cinematic Director and the project’s Stakeholders, it is an iterative process, applying any feedback to the cutscene, until everyone is happy with the final result. Making the shots longer or shorter, changing camera lenses and positions or further massaging of the editing all help to achieve the vision in the best possible way.
With the final approval of the Scene Layouts, the cameras, shots, and editing are locked so that animators can start modifying the animations and polish them up. Even adding new animations from scratch to flesh out the cutscene, even more, can increase the overall impact of the scene. As this was the last step of production for us on this project, we handed the Cutscenes over to the Guerrilla Games team. They took over those locked scenes and added their magic, like Cutscene Lighting, Visual Effects, among others, and handled the final integration into the Decima engine in which the Cutscenes are triggered and played back.
We here at metricminds are very grateful for having worked on an iconic franchise like Horizon: Zero Dawn and thank Guerrilla Games for their trust and the great journey from the main game to The Frozen Wilds DLC production. It was an amazing blast with such a strong heroic protagonist Aloy at your side.
Philip Weiss (Managing Director) and Christoph Schulte (Lead Cinematic Artist), metricminds
The article was originally published here.