Crash Course
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 4 (April 2004)

Crash Course

After leaping his way to video-game stardom through six successful action games, Crash Bandicoot—the popular spiky-haired marsupial—is expanding his range as a character, appearing for the first time ever in full-motion video (FMV) throughout his latest game release, Crash Nitro Kart.

Recognizing that FMV sequences have become the new norm in state-of-the-art video games, Universal Interactive Studios felt that it had no choice but to ensure that this seventh title in the game series would be the first to contain cinematics. Aside from meeting soaring consumer expectations, the cinematics also provided Universal with the opportunity to reinvent the Crash Bandicoot characters into more versatile, fully developed personalities, thereby laying the groundwork for the expansion of the Crash franchise into television and other pre-rendered media.

In Crash Nitro Kart, the mischievous marsupial finds himself kidnapped by the ruthless Emperor Velo, who then forces Crash to race inside a gigantic galactic coliseum. While the overall story line reads like a typical Crash title—heavy on action and light on narrative—the FMV is able to weave thicker plot threads than was previously possible through in-game animation alone. "Therefore, when creating this FMV, we approached it more like a movie than a game in terms of story and character development," says Christopher Winters, CEO of Red Eye Studios (RES).
The artists at Red Eye Studios created a high-resolution storybook world awash in bold, saturated colors for the Crash Nitro Kart cinematics.

In addition to this monumental departure in structure, the cinematics also signify an upgrade in the graphics, with 360 scenes featuring highly expressive animation for 27 Crash characters, including Crash's sister Coco and his archenemies Dr. Neo Cortex, Dr. N. Gin, Tiny Tiger, and the villainous Krunk.

On the road to accomplishing these enhancements, the creation of Crash's FMV became a case study in the challenges developers confront while transitioning game art to cinematic art. Chief among them was the delicate balancing act of enhancing characters and environments without losing their consistency with the in-game imagery. In fact, adapting low-res game art for the higher resolution and frame rate of full-motion video has become an almost perfunctory phase in next-generation video-game production. And yet, developers have had to master this fine art, as feature film-quality cinematics become a standard in gaming, thanks to ever-increasing hardware power.

"The high production values that studios are lavishing on cinematics right now will be the norm for the next generation of console and PC game development, forcing game animators to be as good as their feature-film counterparts," predicts RES president Theodore Bialek.
The full-motion video crowd shots were created using 1200 pre-rendered animation frames. Mapped to cards that were programmed to always face the camera, the frames were updated based on the card's rotation angle. Additionally, each card's map was

And, because of the demands of the medium, game artists will continue to have less time to complete a project than film animators. In the case of Crash Nitro Kart, RES's eight artists had a mere four months to re-image the game universe in the FMV and deliver more than 32 minutes of elaborate, pre-rendered cinematics. More challenging yet, the actual animation phase had to be completed in 15 weeks, which breaks down to almost five shots a day, or 15 seconds of animation per day for each artist. In essence, creating cinematics is similar to producing a series of short films albeit in the narrowest of time frames.

Although the game characters were already built for the in-game portion of Crash Nitro Kart, they could not be ported directly into the cinematics because of their lower resolution for optimal real-time interactivity. Furthermore, RES decided to forego the advantages of adding onto the already-built, in-game Discreet 3ds max models, which were outfitted with full IK setups, morph targets, and UV texture maps by the game's developer, Vicarious Visions. Instead, the RES artists worked from concept sketches provided by Vicarious, using Alias Systems' Maya—with which they were more familiar—to enhance the detail of 27 character models, including Crash (see "Character Recognition," pg. 34).
Crash demonstrates some of the facial expressions created by the RES team.

Employing Maya's Split Polygon tool and the Sculpt Surfaces tool to manipulate the geometry like clay, the artists surfaced highly detailed polygonal meshes to meet the higher resolution requirements. For character features that lacked the geometric complexity for capturing the details of the conceptual artwork—such as Krunk's feathers—the artists subdivided the edges or assigned greater texture density. "It can be tricky sometimes, when you're looking at a low-poly, in-game model, trying to decide which sharp edges should remain as part of the character's style and which were meant to be smooth curves," says animator Ethan McCaughey. "With some characters, like Crash, it's fairly straightforward, but with other, more angular characters like Tiny or N. Gin, it's more difficult to determine because of their shape."

Each FMV model was bound to a scalable base skeleton that utilized a series of MEL scripts to form a complex, multi-level IK rig that easily could be modified to suit that character's unique proportions. RES's animators then exploited all of Maya's advanced rigging tools to craft finely calibrated cartoon performances, and underpinning all of them were Maya's Set Driven Keys. These allowed the artists to create a library of movements for any part of the character's body, and operate any of those movements through a single, slider-controlled tool.

To achieve an ideal degree of exaggerated realism, RES used the Set Driven Keys to connect joint rotations for carefully sculpting blend shapes that simulated the behavior of the overlying flesh. For weighting less complex areas of the body, the artists relied on Maya's Paint Weights tool, which provided them with a large palette of brushes for literally painting the degree of influence exerted by the underlying skeleton onto the geometry.

In addition, the group applied automated secondary character animation, including belly wobble and feather flutter, using Maya's Jiggle deformer. Other tools that charged the characters' movements with the flair and fluidity of feature-film animation were Maya's Wire and Wrinkle deformers, which were used for the furrowing and creasing of the characters' skin and clothing, and Maya's Spline IK, which was used primarily for animating their stylized hair and tails.
For all the characters, including Dr. Neo Cortex, the artists modeled 25 facial blend shapes for the mouth, cheeks, eyes, and brows that could be blended to achieve a wide range of performances.

However, due to the wide variation in the facial proportions of the cartoon characters, the artists forewent the interchangeable bone structure typically used to create faces, and instead modeled 25 blend shapes for each character. Along with the eight phonemes required for lip synching, these blend shapes included a set of standard expressions for the mouth, cheeks, eyes, and brows that could be combined to achieve an almost limitless range in a character's performance.

With their newfound ability to convey expression through the characters' facial animation and body articulation, the RES artists were tasked with forming the personalities of the Crash Nitro Kart game cast via the FMV. For the first time in a Crash title, each character's personality had to be fleshed out, and all their behaviors, mannerisms, traits, and speech habits had to be carefully calculated to define their individuality. Interpret-ing the storyboards, the animators drew upon their conception of the characters to supply the likely motivations and behaviors for their actions.

"We had certain rules for how each character would carry itself by default," notes animator Thomas Happ. "N. Gin, for example, would always default to twitchy, side-to-side glances, while Tiny would often scratch his head in confusion. There were a lot of scenes where the characters are just standing around listening to Emperor Velo talk, and we had to invent ways to personalize their mannerisms and create a uniquely 'thinking character.'"

Once defined, the animators accentuated and differentiated the attitudes of the characters by providing them with contrasting actions. According to animator Keliu Zhu, one of the greatest challenges of working at such a frenetic pace was to maintain a consistency in a personality when several animators were assigned to the same character.

Once their personalities were established, the characters had to perform within the 3D environment—here, an illustrative, storybook world containing detailed sets permeated with bold, deeply saturated colors. To achieve these textures for both the characters and the environments, the team used Maya, as well as Adobe's Photoshop and Corel's Painter. Seeking the soft, highlighted appearance of cartoon rendering, artists used shaders to create a rim effect on the characters' skin, then tempered it by adjusting the luminance of the surface. This forced more light to stretch across the illuminated areas without losing the warmth of the shader.

While many of the sets and props in the cinematics were adapted from in-game counterparts, the artists re-created the majority of these objects from scratch in order to add surrealism to the imagery.

According to compositor Orde Stevanoski, rebuilding the sets was crucial to the lighting and shading phase, "where colors were used to evoke a feeling or to define the temperament of a character." To imbue the sets with this sense of surrealism, the art team used an array of light sources, including volume lights for the indoor environments, and dome and pre-baked light maps for the exterior environments.
To illuminate the game's environments, including the coliseum set, the RES team employed a number of Maya directional lights, as shown in this screen shot.

Once the cinematic scenes were created and edited together, the group rendered the myriad layers with 2D motion blur in Maya at a resolution of 640x360 (the letterbox TV aspect ratio). To manage the rendering, RES used Virtual Vertex's Muster, a stand-alone distributed network rendering system. To composite the imagery, the group used eyeon Software's Digital Fusion, adding shadows and depth of field before completing the final editing within Adobe's After Effects and Premiere.

Completed well in advance of the four-month deadline, the cinematics surpassed Universal's expectations, setting the stage for what appears to be Crash's eventual realization as a TV property. And other game franchises are likely to follow, as developers continue exploring a title's story potential through its FMV.

A secondary consequence of this FMV trend is the unification of the film and gaming worlds, which is prompting a convergence in the skill set and production tools of these two groups. "You can see this in the number of FMV artists now making the transition to the film industry," says Bialek. "At the other end of the spectrum, we are starting to witness [Pixar] Renderman shader writers from the film industry making the transition into the real-time game arena. Because the mediums are so similar and the tools also have equalized in affordability, the skills for both jobs are closer now than they've ever been before."

And expect this line to blur even more, as many large film-effects studios continue replacing their expensive SGI Irix- and Sun Solaris-based boxes with cheaper Linux-based workstations running the same software as the game companies. Soon, the powerful new game consoles will roll out, further minimizing the difference between game and film art. "Game artists will have to rely more heavily on the same production methods and techniques their counterparts in the film industry have used for creating realism and successfully telling a story," concludes Bialek. "And, though it is reasonable to assume that film will always be a step ahead of FMV, and FMV will likewise be one step ahead of in-game graphics, each step is getting smaller."
Through the game's cinematics, the artists were able to form personalities for the game cast, both old and new, including the villain Krunk.

Martin McEachern, a contributing editor forComputer Graphics World, can be reached at

Alias Systems
eyeon Software
Virtual Vertex

Game developers take the popular character Crash Bandicoot back to its early roots

One of computer gaming's most endearing characters, the mischievous mutated wombat Crash Bandicoot has starred in a number of titles running on all the major gaming platforms, including the original Sony PlayStation and, more recently, Nintendo's GameBoy Advance. Highly recognizable with its exaggerated nose and large mouth, Crash's overall design, however, was slightly different in each title.

Aware that the character's appearance had been inconsistent since its 1996 debut on the PS1, Vicarious Visions (Troy, NY) decided to bring Crash back to its roots when it developed the seventh title in the franchise, Crash Nitro Kart. "Our idea was to explore the original vision for the character," says Karthik Bala, CEO and chief creative officer at Vicarious.

The original Crash Bandicoot character was a low-polygonal model created for the Sony PlayStation One console.

That vision developed in the mid-1990s, when designers Charles Zembillas and Joe Pearson teamed with the newly formed Naughty Dog to bring Crash to life in the original game for Universal Interactive Studios, which still retains the Crash property rights. Enjoying the success reaped from Crash, Naughty Dog produced three subsequent titles for the PS1—though without Pearson, whom Zembillas credits for being largely responsible for the original look of the character—before focusing its attention on other subjects, including the now-popular Jak and Daxter. This opened the door for Traveler's Tales, which produced the fifth and six titles—including The Wrath of Cortex, the first Crash game for the PS2—but now without Zembillas onboard.

When Vicarious Visions was selected by Universal to create Nitro Kart, "we were looking at Crash and trying to decide where he needed to go from a design perspective," Bala says. "We had a lot of ideas and tracked down Charles and Joe for guidance."

According to Bala, both designers had created fabulous illustrations for Crash and the game worlds years before, but the final imagery had to be scaled down because the PS1 couldn't perform the required real-time rendering. Then, when Crash finally did migrate to the current consoles, the new developers faced the challenge of evolving the character and the franchise visually while retaining its cartoon-like charm.

The new Crash was redesigned to resemble the early game models, yet move closer to the artists' original vision.

"Crash just didn't look like Crash anymore, and the worlds just didn't have the same style or signature elements," says Bala, "though they were more detailed because of the new platform capabilities."

To resolve this appearance issue, Vicarious Visions took a step back to the drawing board, reviewing a number of original development sketches from Zembillas's archives. Then, the Vicarious team redesigned the main characters by incorporating details from the concept art and adding girth to the characters while retaining the unusual angular, top-heavy, skewed geometry and asymmetry of the objects within the worlds. "We had to avoid the tendency artists have of making objects round instead of angular when there are more polygons available," notes Bala.

With only one year to produce the game, the artists at Vicarious focused on reworking Crash and his nemesis, Dr. Neo Cortex, whereas Zembillas designed new characters and Pearson designed new worlds that moved the title forward. Then, modelers at Vicarious turned those concepts into compelling 3D in-game characters using Discreet's 3ds max.
In the previous title in the series, Wrath of Cortex, Crash sported a slightly different appearance than he does in Nitro Kart, including a smaller nose and thinner eyebrows.

Now, in this latest title, Crash sports a slightly larger nose, fuller eyebrows, and a far more textured body compared to the version in the last two games. With additional bones and complex morph targets, Crash once again became more expressive in his movement.

Because of the camera viewpoint employed in this first-person racing game, the in-game Crash character is shown only from the back. However, he and the others are shown from all angles in the numerous pre-rendered game cinematics (see "Crash Course," pg. 30).

"Crash is slimmer and more appealing now," says Zembillas. "There's also more emphasis on his eyes, and you can see the craftiness in his personality. That's Crash to me, and he's alive again in Nitro Kart."

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior technical editor at Computer Graphics World.