[EN]: Just over a week ago, I had the opportunity to ask a few questions to Stuart Aitken, the Creative Director and Joint Managing Director at Axis Animaiton, about the new episodes of season 1 in Halo 4: Spartan Ops. As the Director of this series, Stu shared with us a bit about himself and Axis Animation.
About Stuart & Axis Animation
Stuart, born and raised in central Scotland, was fascinated early in his life by visual arts and computer programming. Because of his devotion for art, he decided to attend the Glasgow School of Art where he saw and experienced for the first time how art meets technology by learning Adobe Photoshop and computer-aided design and drafting (CAD) software. With three of his colleagues, Aitken co-founded Axis Animation before the end of 1999. Nowadays, Axis is the main animation production company in Scotland.
Under his helm, he has supervised and directed many 3D animation projects for companies such as Sony (Killzone E3 2005 trailer, Killzone 2 intro, and Heavenly Sword cinematics), Crytek (Crysis trailer), MTV Asia (Codehunters short film), as well as Deep Silver (Dead Island: Riptide announcement trailer), among many others.
Stuart was inspired by the sci-fi style of art, film and literature of the 1970’s Artists of the Fantastic made famous by artists such as H. R. Giger (surrealist painter and sculptor known designing the Alien from the movie that bears its name), Enki Bilal (French comic book creator known for the Nikopol Trilogy: The Immortals’ Fete), Jean “Mobeius” Giraud (French comic book and sci-fi artist who worked on preliminary designs in films as Willow and Masters of the Universe, on Stan Lee’s Parable, and was also a friend of Hayao Miyazaki), Chris Foss (British sci-fi illustrator who worked on films such as Superman, Alien and Flash Gordon), and others.
About Halo 4: Spartan Ops Episodic Content
Stuart worked with Axis Animation Producer Debbie Ross and 343 Industries in the making of the Spartan Ops episodic content, focusing on the art direction, sound design, script development, casting and animation.
At what stage of the Halo 4 game development process did Axis Animation start working on the Spartan Ops animation? Was it something that 343 Industries had planned since the very beginning of the game?
From what Frank O’Conner has stated publicly, I would say yes. I think that doing something like Spartan Ops had been on 343’s radar right from the outset. When we were first approached to pitch (around the tale end of 2011), there was still a wide range of possible routes to take, but that got whittled down to the format we ended up going with fairly quickly.
We were brought on board officially around Jan/Feb 2012. At that point, a lot of the main single-player campaign stuff was in place (though still being refined) and there was an outline arc for what we would be doing on Spartan Ops which got then got refined over the next few months.
I’ve watched the “making of” video and the episodes as well. I am amazed by the graphics quality; it’s so real. What did it take to make the CGI series so life-like? How many people are involved in the animation process?
A lot of work!
We put a lot of emphasis on believable characters, so a lot of R&D went on in areas like facial rigging, animation and performance capture pipelines to make sure that the great work our actors were doing ended up on screen intact. We significantly evolved our facial rigging processes during development, using a quite complex, hybrid approach that was based on scans of actors or face models doing various ‘expressions’ (roughly 80 scans for each character) that were then used with more traditional weighted joints and other deformer’s and hooked into an ‘animation friendly’ control scheme that we could drive from reference cams built into the actors mocap head gear as well as allow our animation department to animate over the top of that as required. Giant Studios, where we did the motion capture, had a lot of experience capturing the reference video, since they had developed that pipeline for Avatar and we also worked with Cubic Motion in the UK who are acknowledged experts in deriving workable animation data from the video data who used our in-house rigs.
Basing all the main characters on real people certainly helped with that as well.
In a more general sense, we spent a great deal of effort working on detailed assets, shaders, lighting, etc., to bring the world to life and we try to ‘shoot’ each shot in a similar way to how a live action DOP would use the camera – so the camera work is also a key factor.
Overall, probably around 200 people worked on the episodes (including sub contractors for various aspects).
The Dead Island announcement trailer was fantastic. Are there any other projects, besides the Spartan Ops one, the company is currently working on?
Yes, but as usual we are under NDA and unfortunately I can’t necessarily reveal details on projects currently in production until they are released publicly. Cool stuff though, so keep an eye on our website for announcements!