Thursday, 29 March 2007

Less is more - except when it isn't

Machinima is a very cartoony art form. However much we improve the graphics - and let's face it, modern game engines have pretty awesomely realistic characters - everything's hugely exaggerated. If we want to show a character being sad, or angry, their performance in a game is usually as melodramatic and hammy as something out of Victorian vaudeville. Or silent movies, come to that. It's not even first year drama school acting.

I'd like Moviestorm to deliver much more subtle performance. You can say so much with a nod, a slight flick of the eye, or a tiny body movement. I'm not just thinking of Sergio Leone movies here (though I will confess that Leone is a bit of an influence on me). I'm thinking of real drama. Many years ago, Michael Caine gave a masterclass for the BBC on how to do a section of Educating Rita. It was fascinating - with just a few minor facial movements, he turned a good performance into a superb one. (I really wish they'd show that again - it was a classic bit of television.) As a result, we have a load of little body animations in, which don't seem to do much, but which should add up to a lot when it comes to characterisation. As Caine pointed out, there's a world of difference between acting for the theatre and acting for the camera. In the theatre, the guy in the back of the circle has to be able to see what you're doing: in a film, they stick a camera in your face and capture every tiny little movement. You don't need to be histrionic to be emotional.

On the other hand, unless you're right up close, all these little animations are meaningless. Tiny little facial twitches don't show up in long shot, so you do need a range of more melodramatic gestures. This kinda makes sense when you think back to my opening para here: games tend not to use close-ups, so they only have the big hammy gestures you can recognise at a distance. Which means we need to have the big exaggerated gestures too... you just have to make sure that you don't use them when you're in close-up.

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Humans vs the Machine

User interface design meetings are a sure way to raise the temperature in Moviestorm Mansions. There's no right way to do anything - it all comes down to personal taste. What's obvious to one person is incomprehensible or stupid to another; what I find ugly, someone else (usually the artist!) really likes the look of; and everyone works in a different way, so they have different expectations of how Moviestorm should behave - something I do a lot and want to have on-screen is irrelevant to someone else.

And then there's the whole issue of functionality vs ease of use. Obviously, the more functionality you make readily available, the more powerful the tool is. However, if you add loads of buttons and widgets, you risk making everything look far too cluttered and complicated. On the other hand, if you hide all that functionality away, you don't know it's there and it's not just a mouse-click away. Easy to use and powerful - that's headache material!

Compromises, compromises ...

twak (right) is stealing Eddz' (left) pixels. again.

Thinking about sounds...

I've spent a lot of the last few weeks listening to movies. It's easy to forget that movies are as much about sound as they are about the visuals. Obviously you expect things that happen on-screen to make some sort of noise - you expect guns to go bang, slamming doors to make a big crash, and so on - so I've been working out which of our animations need sound. Actually, it isn't as simple as it seems. Soundscapes in movies are completely artificial, and vary rarely reflect the actual on-set sound. If everything made a sound that actually does make a sound in real life, you'd end up with a real mess. What you have to do is to ensure that things which are interesting or significant make a sound, and unimportant things don't. This, of course, varies from movie to movie. In Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, there's a fantastic scene where the only sound is the rustle of a silk kimono; most of the time, you don't hear most of the clothing noises. Sometimes you want chairs to squeak when you sit on them, at other times, you need them to be silent so you don't cover up the dialogue. It's quite an art choosing which sounds you're going to carry through from the footage to the soundtrack.

One issue we've been thinking about is whether we should supply noises for characters such as coughs, sniffs, sobs, and so on. You could do them as a "say" and record the sound yourself, and as a result, the voice tone will always match; if you've got a character with a deep bass voice, you don't want a high-pitched cough, which is a risk you run with pre-generated human sounds. On the other hand, it does mean you have to record all the sounds, try to make the sound match with the animation, and the lip synch gets confused. We're going to try getting a few sample sounds in, see how well they work when combined with different people's voices, see what feedback we get from users, and get some more if it seems like a sensible way to go.

However, where sound really comes into its own is where it adds things to the film that aren't on the screen. You can use sound just to add atmosphere, or you can use a sound to portray an event that you can't (or don't want to) show on screen. As a simple example, you have a scene set in a house. You then hear a car crash outside, and the characters rush out to see what's happening. And there's the old low-budget standby: film a scene with a few extras in, choose your character angles nicely, add some crowd sounds, and it feels like you have a much bigger cast. As a result, I've been choosing a load of "generally useful sounds" that we can just add in to movies to cover some of the things we can't quite do yet.

I'm also planning to commission some cartoon-type sound effects, boings, and the like, because you never know when they're going to be useful. A silly sound can turn an otherwise straightforward animation or facial expression into a priceless comedy moment. I'm also thinking we should have a few music clips: nothing too long, just little moments, such as the signature tune for a games show (think Millionaire), or a classic "spooky moment" and the like.

Anyway, given that little lot, you should be able to create interesting sounds for your movies: Moviestorm will have dialogue, ambient noise, sound created automatically by the animations, various sound effects you can add in at will, and of course you can add your own music tracks or sound effects.

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Broom broom!

We've got the new cars. They're looking awsome :) I pimped up my hillbilly mobile! Oooh, and a sunday times article has been written about us...

Monday, 5 March 2007


We've been experimenting with colours in the new interface, and have come to the conclusion that the user should be able to define their own colours. Above is a screenshot of the start-up screen in a soft blue colour, but you can change that to whatever you like.

Sunday, 4 March 2007

From the office party! Wii sports + project + beer = endless amusement

a new office to go with the offog

The only casualty of moving the new furtniture into the office was one table and Tom's pride.... But we now have an office that is distinctly more office like!