Developer Diary: The Cinematic Experience

by on Mar.15, 2013, under cognition, developer diary

Chances are good you’ve had a conversation before. But have you ever thought about all the things you do during a conversation? You look at the other person, or sometimes look away. You smile, or nod, or frown and shake your head. Your brow narrows in slightly different ways when you’re upset or confused. You shift your weight. You blink. You react to the what the other person is saying, and they react to you. And then you talk, and you do all those things in addition to speaking. And all the while, the other person is doing those same things, but in their own way.

More complicated than you thought, isn’t it?

While animators make the movements that are seen in the game, putting those animations into the game falls to the Cinematic Artists. These folks have the distinguished, nit-picky, detailed-oriented task of putting together every sequence in the game. What’s a sequence? Everything! Any reaction the game makes beyond simple walking requires a sequence: talking to another character, looking at a specific item, picking something up, using an item, and so forth.

Let’s take a closer look at a brief sequence from Episode 1:

From changing camera angles to Erica crossing her arms to even the timing of Sully walking over in the background, every action, gesture, and audio line is pieced together by a cinematic artist. When John asks, “Do you want to good cop-bad cop him?”, he shrugs his shoulders, his eyebrows raise to indicate he’s asking a question. Erica says no, and shakes her head; at the same time, we see Sully approaching in the background. When we next see Sully, his arms are crossed, and Erica’s have shifted to being on her hips. Later, when Sully is talking about John, he points at him.

All of the gestures are a part of the body language of a conversation, and each one is specifically chosen and timed to make the conversation feel close to real life. Even the blinks and eye movements are specific! While these are most often assigned a routine animation that will have the character blink automatically, the place they’re looking is an assigned value. Notice how John looks in Sully’s direction when he joins the conversation–that shift in where John is looking and when is something the cinematic artist tells the game to do.

The camera angles, too, change to indicate who’s speaking, to show their reactions, to keep the pace of the conversation interesting, rather than relying on a single group camera for the entire time. These changing camera angles mimic the kind of camera work you would see in a movie — that’s why it’s called a “cinematic sequence.”

Just like we do for the animations, we have meetings where we review the cinematics each week, going through each and every sequence in the game, offering feedback to revise and perfect each of them. If I know that during a particular line of dialogue, Erica is meant to be acting aggressively, I’ll give that note to the cinematic artist so they can reflect this in her body language. If another person is hiding information, we may ask for them to be reluctant to make eye connect, something people often do in real life when they’re lying. Being a cinematic artist requires a LOT of attention to detail and putting up with the nit-pickiest feedback from the director you can imagine! And the end result adds to feeling of a character’s depth by giving what was a 3D model personality and physical character traits and quirks that the player recognizes and takes in just like they do in real-life conversations.

And sometimes, we find fun glitches like this!

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