Issue: Volume: 22 Issue: 12 (December 1999)

BROADCAST: Out-of-Game Experience

By Karen Moltenbrey

For veteran animators at Pacific Data Images (PDI), creating a series of tel e vision commercials heralding the rollout of the Sega Dream cast gam ing console required some un characteristic moves. Not only did they recast previously created game characters for the spots, but they also created new back grounds and environments that made the char acters seem right at home.

Using actual game models from Sega and third-party developers, the artists created seven computer-animated commercials that feature dozens of 3D characters from popular video-game titles that interact seamlessly with one another. "You've never seen so many different characters from so many different game companies together in one place. It's hard to imagine Sonic Ad ven ture's hedgehog running past The House of the Dead 2's zombie, or NBA 2K's Allen Iver son seeking ad vice from Vir tual Fighter 3's Taka," says Curt Stewart, lead technical director.

In the "Old Days" broadcast commercial for the Sega Dreamcast, former quarterback Jim McMahon rants to Randy Moss about his Sega Genesis days. To achieve his Dreamcast-quality appearance for the spot, PDI animators gave him a face-lift, wrapping photo textures around the head of a generic player from the newly released NFL 2K game.

To depict Sega's "In the Box" ad campaign-whose concept is that everything occurs within the Dreamcast machine-the PDI animators created a virtual world where the game characters live, work, and help one another master their skills so they can outmaneuver and outthink their hu man opponents. This supports Sega's tag line of "It's Thinking," which refers to the artificial intelligence that enables the game-engine tech nology to respond to and "out smart" the player. (For details about the game console, see "Game Wars," pg. 46.) However, inserting the third-party characters and game environments into a whole new world required quite a bit of ingenuity by PDI.

According to PDI producer Denise Minter, the technical challenge was to retain the various game assets in their original format while blending them with the CG elements created by PDI. "Usually for spots like these, they will show about two seconds of game foot age, whereas we used the actual char acters and textures right from the games, not from the [introductory] full-motion videos. That's how good these models are. They really hold up, even for close-ups, and they're ex treme ly detailed-down to the players' tattoos, facial hair, and cornrows," she says. "It's a real breakthrough."

The first step in the process was acquiring the characters and environments from third-party developers, which proved difficult. Since PDI was under a nondisclosure agree ment, the team could not fully explain why the models were needed. Finally, after a lot of assurances that the imagery would not be altered, the animators began receiving the assets. In all, 55 characters and a handful of en vironments from several games made their television debut.

Because PDI used a proprietary animation tool set, the first step (which consumed half of the 12-week production period) required the research and development team to script code so the game characters could be pulled out of their native formats-such as Alias|Wavefront's (To ron to) PowerAnimator, Avid's (Montreal) Soft image, and Discreet's (Montreal) 3D Studio Max-and converted into the PDI tool set.

Using its proprietary tool set, PDI combined 3D characters from a variety of games, including NBA 2K, Virtual Fighter, and Sonic Adventure, into the "Daydream" TV commercial.

"The critical part of the conversion process was maintaining the look and move ment of the characters," notes Stew art. "When you work with finished elements that are not your own, they already have an established style that shouldn't be changed. This made it more challenging to blend some of the characters into our own or the other developers' environments."

To model the environments created at PDI, the group predominantly used Power Animator, Softimage, and Alias|Wavefront's Maya, while the remaining processes were completed with in-house tools, all running on SGI (Mountain View, CA) O2s on the desktop. For some of the commercials that required compositing live-action footage in to the CG, a proprietary in-house system was used for the basic shots, while Maya Composer and Discreet's Flame were employed when more extensive compositing was required.

The artists inserted full 3D game models and environments into the PDI-created spiral sequence at the beginning of the "Opening Day" commercial, even though close views of the game images appear for only seconds.

For some spots, the group had to provide lip sync to game characters that don't normally speak. To accomplish this, the PDI artists remodeled the characters' mouth shapes and used a simplified facial-blending system that was developed in-house. In "Old Days," a CG Jim McMahon, former Chicago Bears quarterback, rants to a CG Randy Moss of the Minnesota Vikings about the privileges of appearing in a Dreamcast game compared to his Sega Genesis days during the 1980s.

Because McMahon is not on the current game roster, the animators used a generic player from NFL 2K as a base model, and added textures from the game to create the Bears uniform. To make the generic player look like the colorful McMahon, Minter took digital pictures of the former player during the voice-over recording. The animators then wrapped those textures around the head model and added facial targets for the eye blinks and lip sync. Appearing in the background of the spot are several other game characters and NFL stars interacting at a PDI-created cantina.

Key to matching up all this different 3D imagery, says Minter, was creating the same type of imagery and lighting in the commercial that was used in the games. "We had a limit as to how far we could push the CG because everything had to look as though it belongs together," she explains. To achieve this continuity, the group chose as its highest order of graphic reference the game Shenmue, which features extremely organic imagery and moody, mysterious lighting, as opposed to plastic-like imagery and unnatural lighting. "We reviewed [the game] and said, that's how far we can push our lighting, motion blur, and facial animation," she notes. "But to nail the lighting so we could match a move or a look and translate that into another medium took a lot of work and a lot of lighting passes."

Often, size and scope became issues for the PDI artists, as two of the spots contained more than 40 of the 55 game "converts" and environments. "Most of the time, the job was really about size- we weren't talking about just bringing in one or two characters at a time," Stewart says.

For instance, in the beginning of the"Opening Day" spot, viewers experience a wild fall through the CG Sega spiral, where they pass by several game environments, plus a few created by PDI (such as the cantina background from "Old Days"), layered atop one another. This segment involved so much imagery, according to Minter, that if all the objects had been built to scale in the real world, the spiral would have been about two miles deep. But even so, the group did not cut corners, and instead used the full game models for the appropriate layers. "Even though you may only see each level for about five frames, if someone were to review it in slow motion," she says, "it would all be there."

In the "Opening Day" commercial, crowd control became a major issue, as the animation team converted more than 40 different game characters into PDI's software format.

With two of the commercials containing at least 40 characters, PDI also had to focus on crowd control, something the group mastered for its 1998 all-CG feature film Antz. To speed the rendering pro cess for all the geometry, an artist wrote a crowd system for PDI's proprietary renderer that lowered the resolution of models as they moved farther from the camera. "At one point, there were almost 2 million polygons floating around," Stewart says.

Nevertheless, some frames required about two hours to render in PDI's renderfarm of SGI Origins, although the goal was to keep each frame at less than one hour. "We understand that when you have hundreds of models in a crowd scene, your render times are going to be longer. So you try to be as economical as possible by hitting that shot as early as you can," Stewart says. "A few years ago, our renderer may not have handled millions of polygons, but today it can. Everything in general has gotten faster," which is how a commercial project of this caliber can be done.

In fact, Stewart likens the production process for the "In the Box" series to what is required for feature films-the only difference being length. To produce the 90 seconds of animation for the first three spots required a core team of about 40 animators and other professionals. "It was like work ing on a mini Antz, given the large num ber of unique characters," he says.

KEY TOOL PDI's proprietary tool set (