Meta4orce Exclusive Part Three: Animation and Interactive team interviews

Meta4orce

In the third and final part of my exclusive series of interviews with the team behind the new BBC interactive sci-fi series Meta4orce, I speak to the Animation and Interactive team.

Jonathan Melville: Can you tell me a bit about your backgrounds?

John Denton (Creative Director): I’ve been working in the digital design field throughout my career, and the last 7 years of that has been here at Bloc.

Ron Ganbar (Animation Supervisor): I’ve been working in post production since 1996, on everything from commercials to feature films. Over the last couple of years I’ve worked on some high-end feature films such as Sunshine and Elizabeth – the Golden Age and also on animation shorts.

What has it been like working on the series? Is there a buzz surrounding it?

Ron Ganbar (Animation Supervisor): It’s been a lot of hard work! I knew that Alex Norris (who I worked with many times before) was starting to work on this exciting BBC Two series and I was booked to head up the animation team.

It was a daunting task as the time frame and budget we had were both tight, but we found a way of tackling the script and since then it was challenge after challenge, but I’m extremely happy with the results. Alex kept pushing us and we kept delivering as much as we could.

John Denton (Creative Director): Meta4orce has been a very different experience for us here at Bloc. We have had to work very closely with both the writer and the director in order to make sure the interactive experience is intrinsically interwoven with the story.

In terms of buzz – absolutely! We were all super-chuffed to get this job. I almost think if we’d known too much about what we were actually planning to achieve we might have all bricked it from the start as it turned to be a gargantuan task. Sometimes it really is better to just not know!

How did the animators decide on the look of the series?

Ron Ganbar (Animation Supervisor): We had a very good secret weapon on our side – Bloc’s ace art director/illustrator Tom Jennings. He came up with the overall look of the series and our job was to bring that style to life.

Alex Norris (Director/Producer/Editor): Looking at the range of skills and software we could make use of we quickly decided on a mixture of 3D environments and 2D characters. The challenge then was to mesh the two together convincingly. We had to do a lot of work on the lighting and texturing of each scene to make the two elements work together, and the result is a very distinctive, rich visual style.

The world that we’ve created feels much more realistic and believable than it would do in a standard 2D cartoon. But it also retains the look and feel of a graphic novel, as opposed to something like the 3D cut scenes that you now get as standard in any game.

With those cut scenes you’re just seeing computers do their stuff – it doesn’t feel like there’s any life behind them. With Meta4orce it still feels like a human being created and illustrated these characters and I think they’re all the more engaging as a result.

Kevin Richter (3D Artist): We had to try various things before we settled on something we were happy with and that worked well in the production pipeline. One of the 3D areas that had to be figured out was the look of the water – we went through various different procedures and combinations of elements and colours before settling on the water we have now.

How traditional is the animation used here?

Ron Ganbar (Animation Supervisor): The animation style we developed for this show is far from traditional. We wanted to leave a lot of room for the editing process, something that is rarely done in animation.

We essentially treated it like a live action show where you go and shoot something from a few different angles and shot sizes and then you get it all together in the edit – making full use of all the possibilities. We found ways of manipulating the software we used and the rigs we built to enable us to do this.

The opening sequence with Big Ben submerged in water is very striking – how long did it take to plan the sequence?

Ron Ganbar (Animation Supervisor): That sequence took a while – easily over a month. After all, we needed to build the whole of central London and submerge it in water – including finding the right look for the water and adding all those cars moving around in the end. A lot of love was put into this shot!!

Kevin Richter (3D Artist): The storyboards for this sequence were one of the very first things I saw of the production, so it was always going to be one of the most important elements – especially as it’s the grand opening shot of the entire series.

The basic idea was there from the beginning, with the camera pulling back and revealing flooded London, but what we had to figure out was how much to show, what we could show, how much had to be modelled and, most importantly, how good the shot would look.

The London we ended up with for the series was basically built up around this opening shot. If I factor in the building of all the elements, setting up the shot and then animating the camera move and the vehicle movements, it was more than a month’s work to create that shot.

Are the animated characters looks based on the actors?

Alex Norris (Director/Producer/Editor): No – they’d been fully illustrated before the actors had even been cast. They are, however, very loosely based on some famous faces – but we’ll leave it up to you to try and work out who’s who.

What is the typical turnaround time for an episode?

Alex Norris (Director/Producer/Editor): The first episode took almost three months to complete. This was basically the ‘pilot’ for us, where we worked everything out and decided on the look and sound of the whole project. Once we had everything set up we were then able to complete the other episodes in roughly a month each – although the speedboat chase in episode three gave us some very, very late nights.

Ron Ganbar (Animation Supervisor): Roughly a month per episode. Working on films it often takes that long to do one shot – we had to be quick!

Have you learnt any lessons while making the series?

Alex Norris (Director/Producer/Editor): You have to learn to be very, very patient working with animation. It’s a VERY slow process. Like watching paint dry – and often the wrong paint!!

But it’s also magic – at some point these drawings come to life and are suddenly believable as characters with attitudes and emotions. It’s a very rewarding process seeing it all come together. You just need some serious mood suppressants to get you through the early stages!!

Ron Ganbar (Animation Supervisor): Anything can be done!

John Denton (Creative Director): Next time around I think we would plan it so that some of the gameplay elements actually replace certain sequences in the animation, rather than sitting on top of them – but obviously this show has to work on-air as well as online.

How long do the games take to create?

John Denton (Creative Director): Pulling out eight high quality webgames in the timeframe we’ve had has been a huge challenge. Also, because we’ve been keen to make this a product with very ambitious production values we’ve made all the games fairly high-end in terms of tech.

Out of the final eight, five of those games were produced with Papervision 3D engines. The others all feature physics modelling and stacks of cool effects. We all play games and have been sure to make the games play at least as well as they look, if not better!

How do you test the games?

John Denton (Creative Director): Playtesting. It’s the only way. Basic engines are tested out to see if the core experience is likely to be any fun at all and from there the game gets it’s first build. Once there is a basic game in place it’s mainly about balancing and re-balancing to make sure that the experience is an appropriate challenge for the target audience.

In this case we were lucky as the target demographic is pretty game-savvy, so things like the adoption of 3D gameplay worlds was not a concern.

Iain Lobb (Interactive Developer): Balancing the games, so that they’re accessible – but not too easy – was one of the hardest challenges of this project. When we produce a mini-game for a videogames publisher, we can make some decent assumptions about the level of “game literacy” of the audience.

With this project it’s much harder, because you’re going to have a mix of hardcore gamers and people who never play videogames, and everything in between.

What are your plans and hopes for the future of Meta4orce?

Iain Lobb (Interactive Developer): I’d love to see this project go viral, and be seen by a large audience online. I think it deserves it.

Thanks to Alex Norris, John Denton, Ron Ganbar, Kevin Richter and Iain Lobb for taking the time to answer these questions!

Part One of my interview is with series writer Peter Milligan

Part Two is with series Executive Producer Rick Palmer and director Alex Norris

For more information on Meta4orce and to watch – and live! – the series, visit the official BBC website. Watch the Meta4orce trailer on YouTube:

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