Some people think non-interactive cutscenes have no place in videogames, that they're a "lazy" capitulation to older media. Axis Animations director Stuart Aitken says different. Speaking to OXM in our latest issue, on sale now, Aitken spoke out against the detractors, and discussed how the relationship between static and interactive entertainment may evolve next gen.
You may remember Axis as the outfit behind the CGI sequences in Halo 4's pioneering episodic Spartan Ops campaign. Working with 343 places Aitken and his comrades in a unique position - creatively involved with a studio central to the operations of a publisher that's expanding beyond videogames, into the bright, breezy waters of television programming and "interactive TV".
Does Aitken expect his line of work to change dramatically next generation? "Yes and no," he told me, explaining that while the technology may change, film-making techniques are relatively consistent across generations. Axis has, however, sunk a lot of cash into ensuring it can deliver cutscenes in-engine, as Aitken expects this to become the norm once the new Xbox hits shelves.
"To be honest we've been expecting everything to move to real-time engines for many years now (people said exactly the same thing around the time of the last 'next gen' console releases)," he went on, "and though its never really happened to the extent many suspected it would (so far) we have devoted significant resources to making sure we can do our thing in that environment as well.
"We worked with Crytek several years ago on some promo material for Crysis that was created using their tools and rendered within the CryEngine, and that was a real eye opener for us in terms of what the possibilities were. The gap between in-engine and pre-rendered is certainly becoming smaller, and most of the tools we need are now available in a real-time context - especially sophisticated lighting models and so on, so I certainly think that more of our output will be delivered to the end audience in a real-time context as opposed to pre-rendered movies."
"However," Aitken continued, "I'm not sure that really changes what we do so much - it's primarily an issue of having to pick up slightly different toolsets, aiming for a different end render target and, perhaps most significantly requires a much deeper level of resource and process collaboration between ourselves and the client - you have to meld the two separate pipelines together much more tightly so to speak, and that's the bit that requires most additional work and development."
"On the technical side its something we have been very much preparing for and we are actively pursuing (and landing) major cut scene work that will be rendered in-engine as opposed to pre-rendered."
Axis has produced CGI material for Street Fighter X Tekken, Aliens: Colonial Marines, Race Driver: GRID 2 and Age of Empires Online, but doesn't see itself as purely a games animation studio. "Ultimately Axis is an animation studio and not a games studio, even though we work closely with games developers for many of our projects - for us its a case of making sure we are aware of what clients and potential clients want from an animation partner and making sure we can provide that whatever it is.
"All the really fundamental skills required for us to provide value to clients - cinematography, editing, script writing, animation, visual story telling, performance direction, creative treatments, lighting, rigging, etc are the same ones that are important whether we get to use the render farm or work with a real time engine," Aitken explained. "It all depends on the specific context of the job at hand in terms of what is deemed appropriate."
That's not to say that crafting movie content for games is entirely the same as crafting movies in general, and experiments like Spartan Ops hold interesting potential. "I think the sort of thing we have done with 343 on Spartan Ops - where the episodes we have created are not really classic in-game cut-scenes, but instead exist as parallel pieces of work that combine with the game experience in a slightly different way - is a very interesting development and one that will be of interest to many who have franchises that warrant developing on multiple fronts."