"We are just making what we think is cool."
In a sense, that could be all you need to know about Blizzard and its industry leading Cinematics team. Jeff Chamberlain, Cinematic Project Lead (who names his work as Director of the luscious video you've seen around Wrath of the Lich King as his favourite), cuts to the chase quite well in his description of what Blizzard aims to achieve with the video sequences we'll usually watch a few hundred times with our jaws on our laps.
"The aim for the department is to tell the story further for the game. At Blizzard we think that story is pretty important for the game to be fun. Our job is to take portions of the game that are more important, or very punctual in the story, and develop them further in a more theatrical style rather than in the gameplay."
Being their own client, Chamberlain finds the team is able to work in a much more flexible and organic way than an outsourced team could deliver, running with their passion for the story instead of a client's briefing document. So they really do get to 'make what they think is cool' with changes following the needs of the story.
"If it ends up not being cool then we'll make it better," says Chamberlain.
Putting the band together
When Chamberlain was first involved (during work on Diablo 2) the Blizzard Cinematics team was just a dozen strong. Back then everyone did a bit of everything, but with expansion came specialisation. Now its a gathering of over 100 artists. Modelers, animators, finishers (the lighting and compositing artists), plus a team of concept and storyboard artists, as well as the editors. Then there is a team of techs, managing the tools the team needs to get the job done. The cinematics team operates separately from the rest of the Blizzard production line, but the directors and leads come together to share content and concepts.
"If they have concepts for a character we need to use, we get it from them. And vice versa. If we need to develop a character before they're ready to then we'll start concepting it and make sure it fits their needs as well. Then we share all those assets and we start from day one and create the best cinematic we can."
The life of a Blizzard CGI shot
Organic has a nice ring to it, but you still need a good workflow to get a polished product out the door. Chamberlain gives us a run down on how a shot passes from artist to artist as it moves from the napkin to final frames.
"When we decide we're going to make a game, the leads of the different departments get together and make sure we generate a story that fits. As far as cinematics goes we really need to get story very early on in the process, so we make sure we can establish at least the portions of the story that our cinematics are going to tell."
Days and even months of meetings can follow as they hammer out the story, and then the labour of love begins. Storyboards become animated storyboards (thanks to a storyboard team who are also trained animators) complete with temporary music to help set the tone and get the pacing right. Then the animators and modeling team get involved, creating a rough 3D version of the final animation.
While the modeling team works on characters and environments, the animators work with very low polygon characters and as the models are refined and updated the animations are refined. This is also where production technicians get involved, supporting the more technical developments like hair and skeletal systems for the characters. And then the effects team kicks into gear.
"Lighting will start developing the look dev by creating HDR maps for the environment so we can light with nice high range imagery. They'll start doing lighting tests, depth of field tests per shot. Then as animation and modelling get more complete, we'll hand that off to effects and the finishing team and they'll start applying all these things they've been testing out. Often it's half way there and we have to refine it much more at that point."
From there it's just a case of lather, rinse, and repeat until a sexed up final output is ready for action.