Aping Film
Issue: Volume: 29 Issue: 3 (March 2006)

Aping Film

As King Kong made a much-hyped swing into theaters this winter, he made an equally anticipated entrance onto the gaming scene. Released on all the major game platforms, Peter Jackson’s King Kong is the first in a new breed of video games produced under the stewardship of heavyweight film directors. With Hollywood directing the interactive action, game developers are hoping to break down the creative barrier that has, in recent years, stymied progress in the gaming arts.

For the King Kong game, movie director Peter Jackson conceived the title as a sister companion to the film that would not only embody the narrative of the feature-and all its major action set pieces-but expand on its universe as well. To realize his vision, Jackson turned to Ubisoft game designer Michael Ancel, whose previous title, Beyond Good & Evil, impressed the director with its charming characters, imaginative story, and cinematic visuals. Their venture resulted in a massive, $10 million collaboration between Jackson’s Weta Digital studio (which produced the effects for the movie as well as for the Oscar-winning The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and Ubisoft’s studios in Montreal and Montpellier, France. Ubisoft incorporated much of Weta’s conceptual artwork directly into the game engine as background imagery, while Weta’s creature and environmental maps served as reference for Ubisoft’s in-game texture mapping. Meanwhile, Jackson provided creative direction for the story, the gameplay, the visuals, and the look and movements of the creatures.

“Gamemaking is similar to filmmaking: You are focusing on the story,” says Jackson. “The parallel development of the game and the film enabled us to look at key scenes from both the cinematic and interactive perspectives, and offer viewers the best of both worlds.”

Representing a new breed of video game, Peter Jackson’s King Kong is one of the first interactive titles conceived by an A-list movie director. Working with developer Ubisoft, Jackson provided creative direction for the game.

The player begins the game in first-person mode, playing Jack Driscoll as he escapes the tribal fortress with his friends and flees into the jungle in search of actress Ann Darrow, who’s been abducted by the giant ape. Along the way, Driscoll must race across creaking rope bridges, enter dank caves, and escape on river rafts, all the while defending Ann and his friends from humongous millipedes, Velociraptors, and ferocious T. rexes, using 1933-style guns, spears, and tusks, or by employing such diversionary tactics as igniting grass fires.

For the rest of the game, the player controls the hulking frame of Kong in third-person mode. Whether he’s bounding across the jungle floor or the streets of New York on his knuckles and feet, or swinging through chasms and tall gullies while clinging to vine-covered cliff walls or the sides of buildings, Kong’s simian movements-supervised by Jackson-are as explosive and realistic as they are in the film. Jackson and the gamemakers chose the dual perspectives so that the player would experience both helplessness and ultimate power, the two primary visceral emotions engendered by the film.

To help capture Jackson’s cinematic polish, Ubisoft jettisoned such gaming conventions as life meters and ammunition icons. In fact, so close was the collaboration between the filmmakers and Ubisoft that no conceptual art was produced for the game. Instead, Ubisoft relied solely on Weta’s conceptual art and digital assets to guide the look, tone, and color palette of the game. Ubisoft used Weta’s conceptual art to re-create the geography of Skull Island in meticulous detail, including the mist-blanketed jungle and the tribal fortress on the peninsula where Ann is held for sacrifice to Kong. The developer also used footage from the film-for example, the characters running away from the dinosaurs-which was matched to in-game animations.

According to Ubisoft producer Xavier Poix, developing a movie-based video game that’s scheduled to launch concurrently with the film was fraught with challenges, particularly since the game’s development (which typically spans two years) usually occurs well in advance of the film’s production, and sometimes, its preproduction. To meet this challenge, Ubisoft met with Jackson and the Weta team more than a year before the film’s preproduction commenced, to discuss the emotional intentions for the film.

“The game was pretty far along by the time principal photography began,” says Poix. “In fact, the first time Jackson saw a 3D King Kong was when we brought him one of the first builds of the game, which was months before Andy Serkis donned his infamous Kong motion-capture suit.” (For details on the making of the King Kong film, see “Long Live the King,” January 2006, pg. 16.)

The filmmakers and gamemakers worked closely on the interactive title. To that end, Ubisoft used Weta’s conceptual art and digital assets to determine the look and feel of the imagery.

Once film production had begun, members of Ubisoft’s Montpellier crew made the trek to New Zealand five times to study the movie sets. “We discussed everything-duplicating camera angles, making sure the sense of scale was achieved accurately, maintaining a consistent look between the film and game versions of the various creatures,” says Poix. “The close collaboration also enabled us to develop parts ofthe game that aren’t included in the movie, such as new areas of Skull Island, exclusive creatures, and an unlockable alternate ending. These additional elements could not have been achieved without us having open access to the movie throughout all phases of preproduction, production, and postproduction.”

To create the final in-game Kong model, Weta provided Ubisoft with a digital version comprising approximately three million polygons. To make the mesh game-ready, the Montpellier crew refined the model using the studio’s proprietary Jade game editor, the same engine used for Beyond Good & Evil. Because the gorilla is seen so closely throughout the game, the artists crafted the model in only one level of detail to avoid storing unnecessary geometry. Using the Jade editor, the riggers built Kong’s skeleton with 30 bones for the basic articulation and 10 additional bones for twisting various body parts, particularly the forearm.

Also within Jade, the artists created Kong’s facial animation using a mixture of bones and morph targets depicting such expressions as anger, sadness, happiness, and surprise. Although Weta supplied Ubisoft with Kong’s motion-captured animations, the data proved far too memory-intensive, and the movements far too specific, to be incorporated directly into the game engine. Therefore, the team crafted all of Kong’s animations by hand after receiving instruction from Serkis.

“The hardest part of animating Kong lied in maintaining credibility throughout his multiple modes of locomotion-from knuckle-walking, to propelling himself on his hind legs, to swinging and climbing,” says Poix. “In animating Kong, we worked hard to capture the mixture of ferocity and vulnerability desired by Jackson. Also, we wanted to avoid undermining the audience’s preconceptions about how the iconic character moved about.”

Animators were challenged by the range of Kong’s motions (knunckle-walking, swinging, climbing) as well as the gorilla’s emotions (which ran the gamut from ferocity to vulnerability).

For texturing Kong, the artists referenced Weta’s concept art as well as images of actual gorillas. In total, the beast uses six textures: 256x256 (4 bit) for the skin, 128x256 (8 bit) for the face, 64x128 (8 bit) for the inside of the mouth, 32x32 (4 bit) for eyes, and 128x128 (4 bit) and 64x64 (4 bit) for the fur. Montpellier’s in-house fur shader allowed artists to control such attributes as the color, length, and density of the fur. “Balancing the length and density of the fur was the key to achieving a soft, furry coat that would render efficiently and not hinder the frame rate,” says lead programmer Jean Francois Provost.

While the Montpellier group developed these textures for the PlayStation 2 iteration (the lead version of the game), their teammates in Montreal enhanced the surfaces for the more-powerful Xbox 360 title, which boasts higher-resolution (512x512, or 32-bit) textures. The next-gen console version also supports higher-resolution geometry, normal mapping, dynamic lighting and shadows, and better water effects. For instance, the T. rexes in the Xbox 360 version use five texture passes, including the original pass, a tessellation pass, and a final pass to increase the dinosaurs’ volume and the definition of their reptilian hide.

To make the title more cinematic, Ubisoft forwent a number of typical gaming conventions, such as life and ammo meters, which tend to obstruct the images on the screen.

For the human characters, the artists worked from photographic references within Jade to produce models in three levels of detail. To differentiate the natives as much as possible, the team created three geometric variations and then scaled them further to enhance their individuality. To rig the natives, the team modified the bone lengths of a base skeleton, which contained approximately 35 bones. For the main characters, the Ubisoft group used two types of skeletons: one for the men and another for Ann. Along with additional bones to handle more complex twisting in the wrists, arms, and elbows, these models are also capable of facial animation, accomplished with morph targets and gaze-tracking through AI-controlled inverse kinematics.

The Montpellier effects team also created the heavy mist that permeates the game’s jungle setting. It thickens the bright sunlight pouring through the canopy, casting dappled light over the foliage and adding a sense of heaviness and humidity to the air. The artists created the mist and the fog using a sprite generator within Jade. To create the complex lighting, they lit most objects vertex by vertex, and relied on real-time omni lights for illuminating the characters when they were in close proximity to fire, moonlight, or other dynamic light sources.

“Our primary concern in lighting the jungle was to create simple and readable images. Jackson wanted to create an immersive environment,” says art director Florent Sacre. “Therefore, we didn’t want to overdo the lighting and risk losing the depth and scope of the jungle. We did only what was needed to make the world in the game believable.”

In another sequence of the game, Driscoll and his friends float down a river on rafts that are suddenly besieged by T. rexes. Basic water simulation was accomplished by the Jade engine. The artists created more complex water effects by applying the same texture maps used for Kong’s fur onto successive layers of alpha maps. Jade’s sprite generator also produced the game’s smoke and fire, which were controlled with axis constraints.

Working from photo references within Ubisoft’s Jade software, the artists re-created the game’s human characters, including Ann.

To create the leaves, grass, and other foliage, the group used Sprite Mapper 2 (SPM2), a proprietary sprite generator within Jade that’s especially dedicated to the PS2 and similar to that used for the fog and mist. With SPM2, Ubisoft was able to create and apply any number of sprites to either a zone or a vertex, and modify them by adding noise or changing their size, form, or density. “I personally made every texture before we went to New Zealand,” says Sacre. “I trotted around Montpellier with my camera, and I selected interesting organic and inorganic surfaces that would constitute kits of textures. The majority of the photographs we took in New Zealand weren’t inserted into the actual game, but rather, used as reference for refining the textures created in Montpellier. I painted the textures to resemble Weta’s environments, the temples, or the stone wall, preserving the graphic style of the game and avoiding ‘pseudo-realism.’”

Whether hiking around cliff-hugging trails, passing through thick jungle patches, or basking in the god rays streaming through the air holes in the caves, gamers playing the Xbox 360 version will notice a crispness in the shadows and a brilliance in the lighting that is unmatched on other systems, thanks to a combination of highly detailed normal maps and dynamic lighting.

Released on all the major platforms, the game’s effects, like those in this scene, are most apparent in the Xbox 360 version.

Also, the artists enhanced the lushness of the jungle in the Xbox 360 title using up to six textures for the diverse foliage: a base texture, a moss texture, a shadow texture, a specular map, a normal map, and a detailed normal map that accentuated the gnarled and knotted look of the tree bark and the cragginess of the rocks. To create wet skin and wet fur, the Jade engine dynamically altered the specular map to increase the shininess of the textures according to the wetness of the surface. The team also employed cube maps on the water pools to further enhance the lighting and reflections.

Peter Jackson’s King Kong heralds an impending flood of games either created by A-list directors or inspired by their films. A game version of The Warriors has already hit store shelves, followed soon by video game versions of The Godfather, Dirty Harry, and Taxi Driver. Meanwhile, director John Singleton is currently producing Fear and Respect, starring Snoop Dogg, while John Woo is developing a video game sequel to his film Hard Boiled, titled Stranglehold. Also, Electronic Arts continues to adapt such James Bond classics as the upcoming From Russia with Love, starring Sean Connery.

Perhaps the biggest recruitment to the video game world, however, may be Steven Spielberg, who recently signed a much-publicized, long-term agreement with EA to develop three franchise properties bearing his signature style of storytelling. Throughout his career, that style has been characterized by a tight control over the audience’s point of view.

Another unique creative force that will soon invade the gaming world is that of David Cronenberg, director of last year’s highly acclaimed A History of Violence. His as-yet unnamed game project will be developed with Toronto’s Trapeze Animation Studios. Cronenberg once referred to each of his films as a “self-contained biosphere,” a description that more aptly encapsulates the essence of an interactive world.

If directors such as Jackson, Spielberg, and Cronenberg can inject the gaming medium with the same revitalizing energy and innovative vision they unleashed on the film world, the future of the interactive experience may soon take some new, unexpected and exciting directions.

Martin McEachern, a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World, can be reached at martin@globility.com.