I don’t want to spoil the story

Insider: How does the 2D animatic evolve into 3D footage?

Chris Thunig: Once we have the animatic in a place where we like it, we start blocking things out in 3D and layering in sound. Animators and artists start with simple skeletons and rough backgrounds to flesh out the space. The first 3D animatic is often called the ‘slap comp’ and from it we get a sense for how the cinematic is evolving into 3D space.

The slap comp goes out to many teams for feedback, and another round of iteration begins in which we start layering in more features, piece by piece. Details begin to emerge through rendering and painting, and eventually we start doing very subtle things, like supporting facial animations with muscle movement. These later stages can be very time consuming, which is why the earlier rounds of feedback are so vital. It’s important to start building all the meticulous details on top of a foundation that works.

How do you go about bringing specific characters to life? Where do all the details come from?

Chris Thunig: We use lots of real world reference. Early in the process various members of the team will act out the cinematic scenes on camera. This process works a lot like shooting live action, where actors take cues from directors and we get tons of takes. We even use props, as things like football shoulder pads can give actors a sense for the weight and bulk of angelic armor. People tend to move differently with costumes on, and you see this in their gestures and body language. All this footage goes to the artists

and animators to use as reference. When it comes time to create and animate the characters for the cinematic it’s a matter of getting the software to live up to the artistry. To aid the process we will sometimes look for reference to realize even seemingly trivial things. I remember we found a Blizzard employee with a haircut similar to Leah’s and we put her in front of a fan so the artists could study how her hair moves in the wind. Long render hours and many iterations later we head into the final polishing stage where a lot of tweaking and detailing takes place, and we try and give it that extra push that makes it a Blizzard-quality piece.

Nick Carpenter: We have a fairly standard process in place. It starts when the game teams and the story leads meet to discuss everyone’s basic expectations, as well as the main themes and motifs of the game. We often go into this meeting knowing the major ‘tent poles’ of the storyline, and can start building out the other story details from there. In the case of Diablo III, we knew how the game would begin — with the falling star crashing into the cathedral at New Tristram — and we also knew how the game would eventually

end [but we won’t talk about that just yet]. So we began by setting up the story with the intro and outro in mind, and those early meetings were really about creating themiddle of the story which would connect the two end points. Chris Thunig: Even after the initial story has taken shape, creating the cinematics remains a very fluid process. Good ideas can come from anywhere at any time, even very late in production, so we’re always on the lookout for ways to tweak things for the better. I don’t want to spoil the story, so I won’t go into too much detail, but I will say that we revisited the Act IV cinematic when the animators had some ideas about the way in which one of the characters performed a certain action, and how it needed a greater sense of defiance and heroism. We all agreed and decided to make changes to the action, even though we had progressed far into production at that point.

Once you have a rough idea of the story, how do you set about turning that idea into a cinematic?

Nick Carpenter: In addition to storyboarding all our ideas, we also focus a lot of time on the ‘animatics’ — moving 2D storyboards that give a sense of timing and pacing. We also like to score our animatics with music from other movies to enhance the sense of the mood at atmosphere that we’re ultimately aiming for. As Blizzard gets bigger, it becomes more and more important to avoid what we call the ‘grand reveal,’ which is keeping your work to yourself until it’s almost 100% done. By that point, it’s far too late to incorporate feedback, and there’s always plenty of valuable feedback. A much better approach comes from building rough versions of the footage early and sharing with as many teams as possible as soon as possible. Animatics are very effective in that regard. We can build them quickly and still convey a lot of the elements and emotions we hope to capture in the final footage. 

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