Gamers go for magic mix of clay and CG artistry

Digital and cel animation are such staples of video games and CD-ROMs that when a different approach appears, it really stands out. Such was the case with the “The Neverhood” from DreamWorks Interactive/Microsoft, the acclaimed computer puzzle game starring a stop-motion animated character called Klayman. In a marketplace where 3D-CG characters are proliferating, the naturally three-dimensional look of such puppet animation offers an intriguing alternative.

It’s such a ‘natural’ in fact, that BBC Worldwide Multimedia developed a PC CD-ROM called “The Wallace & Gromit Fun Pack,” utilizing footage from the Oscar-winning stop-motion films from Aardman Animations. Its release in the UK and Australia was so successful that Aardman is now actively collaborating with the BBC to create “The Wallace & Gromit Studio.”

Meanwhile, “The Neverhood” team is busy creating more Klayman adventures for the Sony Playstation game “Skull Monkeys,” so it appears that animated puppet games are here to stay.

“The look and feel of these kinds of 3D characters is very different from computer-generated characters, and you can tell the difference,” remarks Christine Webb, Development Manager for BBC Worldwide Multimedia. Webb, who’s overseeing “The Wallace & Gromit Studio” project, says “what’s so charming about this is that it’s faithful to the Wallace and Gromit characters. Aardman is generating material that the user will be able to manipulate, actually moving Wallace & Gromit around in different environments and giving them different expressions to create animated sequences. It’s a family entertainment title so it’s very straightforward, but what’s nice is that it is new stuff — it’s not just re-purposing already existing footage.”

A good marriage

While Aardman is capturing the new character animation digitally against blue screen, the London-based interactive firm I.E. is handling programming. Christine Webb observes that the collaboration represents “a ‘first’ for Aardman, and it’s a good marriage. They’re very open-minded about embracing new technologies.”

While Aardman entered the interactive world through animated films, games were always the primary passion of “The Neverhood” creators. Douglas TenNapel, who conceived the game, was previously acclaimed for “Earthworm Jim,” although “The Neverhood” represented his first foray into stop-motion animated games. He describes the experience as “our testing ground for the audience, in a way. It was looking like every game coming out HAD to be simulated 3D and that just left us cold. We call clay animation ‘real’ 3D. It’s much more personal, and hits people on a really different level. We get e-mails from people saying they cried during our game. I’d never seen that before.”

TenNapel admits that in producing ‘The Neverhood,’ “we were flying by the seat of our pants.” The 8-man team that created the game’s 50,000 frames of animation had to grapple with challenges that were unique to creating an immersive world with stop-motion. Unlike the small models typically used, “The Neverhood” required huge sets that the camera could move through freely to capture a continuous point of view. TenNapel notes that “you can’t build a set that’s one foot square because the camera can’t turn around in it.”

Despite the production’s daunting scale, TenNapel asserts that “the best creative stuff happens when serious limitations are imposed.”

Game animators can count among those limitations serious technical constraints on movement and color as well. TenNapel explains, for example, “that when you look at Klayman’s movements they seem intuitive and appropriate, but behind the scenes it’s a different story. Only a certain number of frames of his animation will fit in any given room — if he has to jump he can’t throw a switch because both those animations can’t fit, so that dictates that this room won’t have a switch in it.”

Confessing that he feels “like a magician telling the secrets to his tricks,” TenNapel says “it’s those kinds of limitations happening behind the scenes that you spend your whole game hiding!”

Because of “The Neverhood” projects, TenNapel notes that “our love for puppet animation has grown. We’ve even talked about doing marionette games.” But he stresses that his team intends to explore varied animation styles in the future “This is a business where you’re free to pioneer. The thing I love about it is that it makes you think on your feet and respond quickly. We’re at the point where filmmaking was in the 1920s.” While he adds with a laugh that “I can’t wait to make my ‘Citizen Kane,'” TenNapel thinks that game animation has a long way to go. “The side of us that are gamers says ‘We’ve got this nailed,’ but the side of us that are animators says ‘We’re not even close.’ “

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