Film f/x artists sharpen latest vidgame releases

EA bows games based on 'Bond,' 'Harry Potter'

If the vidgames hitting store shelves are beginning to resemble pricey Hollywood productions, it’s not a coincidence. The gaming biz’s biggest publishers are relying more on traditional entertainment talent to boost the mass-market and adult appeal of their titles.

Companies such as Electronic Arts have already hired pro screenwriters to spearhead the plots of its James Bond games “Agent Under Fire” and “NightFire,” as well as “Harry Potter” and “Medal of Honor” games.

Now company head-hunters are going one step further, shelling out the cash to hire away artists from heavyweight f/x and animation facilities such as Industrial Light & Magic, Pixar Animation Studios, Pacific Data Images and Sony Pictures Imageworks to make their titles more cinematic.

And their work is beginning to show.

Nowhere was it more present than at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, the vidgame industry’s annual confab in Los Angeles, where the most high-profile games boasted elaborate animated sequences of action or drama with detailed characters that play in between levels of the game and help move along plot. The work appearing in titles such as “James Bond 007: Nightfire” and “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” both from EA, rivals that of any Saturday morning TV toon or current features.

Elsewhere, TV spots for EA’s “Medal of Honor: Frontline” show off the game’s World War II carnage in stunning animated sequences that mimic Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.”

Organizers of the Animation Theater at Siggraph this year have been impressed enough to include sequences from Capcom’s “Biohazard” and Nvidia’s “Wolf Man” in the presentation.

“Game companies are doing truly amazing work,” says John McIntosh, head of the Computer Animation Festival for Siggraph 2002. “They’ve come a long way.”

Blame that on technology.

The newest gaming consoles — Sony’s PlayStation 2, Microsoft’s Xbox and Nintendo’s Gamecube — are considered small, powerful computers (with some featuring built-in hard drives) that can play extensive animated sequences off of DVDs and can quickly process impressive animation in real time as gamers play.

A difference in quality still exists between the animation that plays during interstitials and game play, but that’s expected to change dramatically with the addition of more experienced animators who are expected to take advantage of technical capabilities of the machines they’re programming.

But also credit the influx of f/x artists and animators from the film biz, who are being lured by the chance to play with new technologies, and higher salaries, fat bonuses and stock options in highly profitable companies.

The larger creative leeway is also an added incentive.

Where many f/x artists are relegated to serving as work-for-hires at facilities, usually reporting to visual f/x supervisors, vidgame companies are giving them the chance to actually contribute their ideas and develop the final product.

“Working in a gaming studio is more like working in feature animation than in post on a live-action feature,” said Henry LaBounta, visual f/x supervisor for PDI on “Minority Report,” at a Visual Effects Society Festival last month in San Rafael, Calif.

Said LaBounta, who is now creating cinematic sequences for EA games, “The goal is still creating compelling characters, and we have a lot to learn from features in that regard.”

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