Cutscenes are an important tool for immersive storytelling in video games. Cinematic director of the rebooted Tomb Raider series David Hubert told us, how to create cutscenes that you don’t want to skip.
Note: You can find the original article published in Slovak on www.sector.sk.
David Hubert has been working in Eidos Montreal for 7 years, where he now leads the cinematic team as a cinematic and animation director. Before joining the videogame industry, he’s been working on several animated feature and vfx productions and contributed to the success of multiple blockbusters. During the Game Access conference in Brno, he took the stage to share his experience in creating immersive and emotional cinematics in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. We had the opportunity to talk to him about the steps his team has taken to create a cinematic experience in Tomb Raider and he gave us his thoughts on how to create cutscenes that players don’t want to skip.
Before joining Eidos Montreal, you worked at Dreamworks on various animated feature films. Why did you decide to make this transition into video game industry?
There are many answers to that. First of all, I was working in Los Angeles and there was a personal reason that it was time to come back home to Montreal. And Montreal is just booming with video games. So there was naturally an opportunity in video game [industry]. My background is - I was an animator and I had an opportunity to have a cinematic director position, which is something that I always liked, because I did a lot of photography myself, videos, music videos and all that on the side. So it was finally a way to kind of join those two passions - animation and storytelling on the side. And I felt after 12 years in the VFX and animation industry, that I needed a new challenge. It was at a time with the third generation of console that I felt that now video games have the technology to properly tell a story, because [of the] facial animation, the amount of data, the quality of the characters and all that. So I felt that animated features are great, but the evolution from a year to another is not the same as it used to be maybe 10 or 20 years ago, as in video games now [there] is just very rapid evolution. So I felt that I wanted to be a part of this big evolution of the gaming industry.
What's the difference between working on a feature film and a video game?
Yeah, there’s a lot of difference. Let's start just by the medium itself - the purpose of a video game is to be played, it's interactive, it’s not passive. A movie is passive; you know that the person will sit down for 2 hours and watch your movie. A video game - they want to play it. And when you take control from them to say, “Ok, now sit just down and we’re going to tell you a part of the story.” - it needs to be done properly, because otherwise, it can bring frustration to the player if there's too much of the cinematics.
The technology is completely different; in a movie you go through rendering and all that as [opposed to] video game - it's all real time. So there there’s a big advantage, but there is a big disadvantage as well. It’s in real time, which means that at any point it can be broken, so the chaos management in video game is much bigger than in feature production. In feature production it often feels like a relay-race, so everyone does this job and then it’s passed to the other department until it's finished. In video games it's more like a big marathon. Everyone kind of starts at some point, but we all need to finish exactly at the same point, so no one needs to be too far ahead or too far behind, because we need to finish at the same point.
In terms of production, in video games, the amount of data that needs to be created, is just insane, so the tools or production pipeline and all that is very different than in feature [films].
At the end of the day, both of them are entertainment, but yes, apart from production and all that, one is passive the other one is interactive, so that’s a big difference that we need to keep in mind.
Do you enjoy working on video games more than feature films or is it the same?
It’s very different. I mean, I went from an animator or supervising animator in feature animation to a cinematic director in a game, so already it's a big change of position, so this has a lot of effect.
As for the process itself, I would say that a game is probably more challenging because of all the technology that goes into it. In movies, if you have enough time and budget, you can do anything. In a game engine you want to run at least at 30 frames per second, so there's a finite amount of things that you can do; so sometimes those technological barriers can be a bit frustrating for creators, so you have to adapt to them.
But I would say it's a very different medium. For me the best of both worlds might be to jump from one to the other, take what I learned from one, apply to the other and do the same back and forth. I tend to become bored if I do the same thing for too many years.
Could you briefly describe the process of creating cutscenes for a game like Tomb Raider?
I did that in my presentation for 45 minutes, so I’ll try to summarize.
But basically there’s exposition and entertainment - what the players needs to know and what emotions and entertainment you want to bring to them. When there’s a point of the game that you need both - this is a moment that you create a cutscene. So what’s the idea of the cutscene? You want to make sure that you know exactly why the cutscene needs to be there, then you go through the screenwriting of the sequence, [there’s] a lot of iteration there and once you're happy with your script, you go through the storyboard phase, in which basically we put the story on paper to images, make videos of dolls that we call animatic that we integrate directly in the game, so very early process [animations] the player plays and at some point you have this very cheap 2D animation of the sequence. Then you go shoot with the actors, get the data; when we shoot with actors it’s a technology that we call performance capture - so we capture the body, the face and the voice, we bring this back, assemble all of this, then we have animators that finish the sequence - it's integrated in the game engine, then there's a lot of debug that goes [on] for a few weeks. We go through lighting, VFX, sound design, music and a few more iterations of debug to make sure that everything goes smoothly. And by the end if you did your job properly, the player will get to a point where it feels like the proper timing to have a little story told to him as we entertained.
In Eidos Montreal you've worked on Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and Tomb Raider, two games played from a different perspective. Does this change in camera affect your work?
For the cinematography director, it has an impact, yes. On Tomb Raider, very initially, it was Crystal Dynamics that rebooted the franchise. Both Crystal Dynamics and Eidos Montreal [were] working together, both [are] part of Square Enix. Very early on they made the decision of going with the cinematographic style that is closer to documentaries - that you always feel that a cameraman is there, and that was to give a sense of reality to it. As for Deus Ex, we did not have these guidelines, so we were more free in terms of cinematography, so we have long shots with just a pan or fixed shot. So I would say in terms of camera motion, framing, editing, those were two different guidelines. In Deus Ex, obviously being more of an RPG feeling to it, there's a lot of story a lot of mystery a lot of information - so there was a lot of exposition going from one character the other, so that kind of changed compared to Tomb Raider, which was much more action driven, so this obviously had an impact on the cinematography as well.
And obviously the setting - when you're in Deus Ex, you’re in a futuristic city like Golem City for instance, that you want to feel the oppression of the environment - you’re going to stay much closer to the character, to this psychological impact on the player. As in Tomb Raider sometimes, when you're in the forest, you want to open up; and so all of those various elements of what's the feeling you want the player to have, will have an impact on the editing, the lamps that are going to use, or the camera, the framing and all that.
When we compare Shadow of the Tomb Raider to the previous two games in the rebooted franchise, how have the cutscenes improved? What was different about the development?
So I would say the biggest Improvement was from the first reboot of the game to Rise of the Tomb Raider due to the new generation of consoles. So this was obviously a big gap. Now in terms of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, it was everything that we learned from Rise of the Tomb Raider - going from one generation of consoles to the other, we were doing the pipeline, doing the cinematic ourselves - because on the first game a part of it was outsourced - so it was more like, “Okay, now how can we take it a step further?” I would say we tried to reduce a little bit of the exposition and focus a little bit more on character performance, especially as working with Camilla Luddington - we had a great actress for Lara Croft - to try to get advantage of it. So I would say in terms of the quality of performances, we definitely needed to raise the bar. There were also more characters, more complex characters to explore, a different setting; there were animals in the jungle, so that’s another element that takes some time with animation and all that. The lighting technology changed, visually there was an upgrade. So I would say the big leap forward was between Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider; and then from Rise of the Tomb Raider to Shadow of the Tomb Raider, it was just trying to push everything a little [further] and we had more content to create as well.
There's definitely a lot more cutscenes in SotTR, but many players believed it was actually a downside. Some have criticized that there's too much dialogue and not enough action. How do you evaluate this kind of criticism, when you put all that hard work into those cutscenes and people just skip them?
First of all, this is a criticism that should be aimed at the narrative team, because for us - I'm not in charge of the decision of whether we have 200 pages of text or 2,000 - this is something I'm provided and this is what I have to work with. So I can understand this criticism. Doesn't mean I necessarily agree with it, but at the end of the day, it's more for the narrative team to attend to the question. [With] video game in general, it's extremely rare that the game doesn't receive any criticism, so at some point you have you get an attitude of, “Okay this is the best we've been able to do with the time we had and we hope that they are going to like it”. And it's very bipolar. In a movie I felt that most people kind of liked it or kind of didn’t like it; but in video games, people think it's a masterpiece and others think it's a waste of their time - it’s very very bipolar. So you try to learn from the criticism, keep it in mind for the the next game. But yeah, you do the best you can with the material you have and it's not easy, because especially - it’s true for a movie but even more true for a video game - you don't know what you don't know.
Is there any way you can change the players’ opinion and make them enjoy the cutscenes, when usually they skip them?
There was a question at the end of my my talk that often the players are frustrated and they'll just skip the cutscenes. Some people say, “What's the maximum length of a cutscene?” and for me, we did some cutscenes that were running 3 or 4 minutes that I personally felt were going really fast because they were very well executed in a sense that you would really get into the skin of Lara Croft and you were really into it. And there's other sequences that can be only 2 minutes long and they feel long, because it feels boring. So I would say there's not a perfect science, but if it's not entertaining enough; if it's not well executed; if the dialogue is a little bit boring; if you're staging and your cinematography doesn't provide an immersive experience; if your cinematic is not properly placed in the game to have a good pacing - all those factors can create a boring cinematic that people will just want to skip. So yeah, it really starts with the writing process and trying, “Okay what's the minimum you can do to sell this idea, to sell this moment?” And at the end of the day, some players will skip the cinematic no matter what, because they're interested in the shooter aspect or they're interested in the looting; others just want to solve puzzles - so there’s people that will skip the cinematic no matter what.
How do new technologies affect your work? For example, raytracing.
Well, to me, those are all polishing layers. Raytracing, obviously in terms of the visual esthetic, is one step closer to photo-realistic [graphics]. So it's just one more tool or one more layer of visual that you can have. So does it change our work? I would say, maybe for lighters it makes their work faster, because they don’t need to place that many lights to have a good look - with less lights they can have a better look. But in terms of storytelling, having raytracing for a better look on a boring story and boring performance, is not going to change much. So it's nice to have at the end, but it doesn't really change anything on the quality of the cutscene itself.
Do you think that AI could eventually fully replace motion capture in cinematics?
Well it’s already doing it right now. There’s a technology - I don’t know if we can really call it AI - but motion matching, which is basically replacing the traditional way of building an animation tree; you push forward - it’s this animation clip that’s gonna be played; you go to the side - well, it’s this one. Now you just upload hundreds of clips and it’s basically the computer AI that figures out, “Well, if I'm going to do this bit and the player does that, I'm going to go and take this little clip here and merge it with this one.” - it’s basically an AI that makes the decision. And now this is evolving to something that people might have different term [for], but we can call performance matching, which is basically, “Okay let's do the same thing but with performance.” So you would have various animation clips of, “Ok, this is and API behaviour; this is a sub behaviour; this is this.’ - so basically you teach this AI all those different emotions and then you record your voice and you have an artist say, “Okay here is API, here is sub” - and then you let the computer build the performance. Now, is that going to replace actors’ performance? I don't know. Right now we're using it mostly for conversation, debates. When you take a game like Deus Ex for instance - they are not cutscenes, you just go somewhere and you have a lot of back and forth in discussion - so we’re already using AI to help us produce that amount of data. For cinematics themselves...I don’t know. Probably, but I don't think it's going to be anytime soon. But yes, most probably AI 20 years from now will be able to create a very convincing performance in a sense that someone that sees a real performance and AI performance, might not be able to differentiate which one is AI and which one is the real one. But I think that’s really far in the future, it’s not in the next year.
How do you think the next generation of consoles will affect animation in games?
The new generation of consoles is basically bringing more power, which gives more possibilities. And you see the rise of the price of producing a video game that just skyrocketed, because if you have more power, you're going to use it. But if it means that now you can have ten thousand leaves per tree that are all floating - well, there’s people that need to take care of that. So at some point - and this is coming back to the AI - this is where computer and AI will come to help a little bit; because at some point we won't have enough artists or time or budget to take full advantage of all the power that’s going to be in our hands. In terms of procedural generated content - which means that you're in an open world and you get to a new city, and that's going to be in real-time procedurally [generated] and it's actually going to be visually pleasing - I think those are the kind of things that will be possible with the new power that we're going to have. So AI procedural thing is definitely something. Now, how is this going to be used? I've no idea, but that's the tool that will exists and will be available for all the game developers - even indie developers might be able to use it as well.
What's your opinion on cloud gaming services? Do you think that streaming could pave the way for interactive movie games?
I don't know how much it's really going to change the game. I think it will definitely allow more people to play the game, because you will just need a basic computer or TV or little device - you won't need a default console. So I think the biggest cultural influence it might have, is to provide any game to a wider variety of people. What does this mean for the game itself? I don't know, it's hard to predict. Usually when we make those kind of predictions, they're often wrong, because something totally different is going to happen. But this is something that I’ve heard that is coming soon for 10 years now. I'm pretty sure it's still going to come soon, but I'm very curious to see where that's going. I think it's going to have a pretty substantial effect, I just don’t know in what terms.
Thank you for the interview.