It’s an odd Oddworld

It's an odd Oddworld [Hosted by CGI Magazine]
Date: 7 August, 2001
Interviewer: Ben Wharton
Interviewee: Scott Easley


Ben Wharton speaks too Scott Easley, Oddworld Inhabitant’s senior animator about the Opening FMV sequence for the company’s up-coming X-Box title Munch’s Oddysee…

Ben Wharton: What was your experience/where were you working before you joined Oddworld?

Scott Easley: I worked for Sony ImageSoft in San Diego, on various video games — mainly sports-type ones. The games were fairly reliant on believable motion, so we had to be very aware of how a person moves when they walk, run or jump.

BW: What’s your relationship with Lorne Lanning [Oddworld’s President & Creative Director] in terms of his direction and your execution?

Scott Easley: Lorne is always the last say in the whole ‘look’ of the product, but after six years of working here, you get the flavor of what he’s looking for — plus he has allowed us all a lot of freedom to interpret the characters and breathe a little life of our own into the scenes.

You can have a couple of moments before you begin a scene, where Lorne expresses what the audience needs to understand from it, but he doesn’t bog you down with specifics of how the characters should move, what they should do, etc. He leaves it up to the animator to express sadness, anger, envy, whatever. It’s part of what keeps the characters fresh.

BW: How many animators worked on the opening sequence and just how was the Work divided up?

Scott Easley: We had three animators, counting myself, and the numbers have stayed pretty much there. The character animation initially goes to the person most familiar with that creature. Also, that character can retain a specific flavor throughout a series of clips with other characters in them. Ultimately, the work is divided so that we are all working on things at the same time. Some finish earlier, and help others. It’s constant triage.

BW: The sequence begins in water – did you use anything like seals or Dolphins as a reference for the movement of Munch and his friends?

Scott Easley:
Absolutely. We have an arsenal of reference here in the form of books and videotapes that could almost rival movie rental stores. To understand how creatures glide through water, you need to surround yourself with information about it, until you begin to see what makes them move as fluidly as they do — dolphins, squid, seals. There’s a very subtle push in the hips and shoulders of any aquatic animal, and the audience will either see and believe the character is really in water, or it will look like it’s suspended in space.
The need for research before you begin is crucial to believable animation.

BW: It’s incredibly realistic water when Munch breaks the surface – how was it achieved?

Scott Easley: We used a program called Tsunami from Arete. John Burk was the expert behind the use of that program — how ’bout them nice undulating waves and ripples in that scene? There is no animated transition between Munch in the water and Munch on The beach – was this a case of tempo or was discovering a way to get Munch out of the water and onto land without looking really awkward something you thought too tricky?

Actually, there is a clip where he does transition from swimming to hopping ashore, but it was edited out to keep the pace of the scene. Although the transition looked nice, it did nothing for the story, since people clearly make the transition of Munch in the water has simply gone onshore in the next clip.

BW: No creature appears to have a normal set of arms or legs in the sequence what’s your approach to creating ‘correct’ and yet character-ful gaits for the creatures?

Scott Easley: Keeping in mind that motion comes from shoulders and hips, allows the character’s limbs to be any size or shape without detracting from their overall movement. It is a good question, because people assume the limbs have a lot more power to the character than they really do.

For instance, a T-Rex has stunted arms, but is still a terrifying and swift creature.

BW: Hair and grass have made a big appearance in recent game CG work. Is it a fairly automated process to create and animate such large swathes of material or is it more delicate to give an appropriate ‘texture’ and weight to the motion?

Scott Easley: Ryan Ellis was the guru behind our patches and tufts of swaying green — the dozens of controls he uses for animating them are numbing. He actually printed all the controls’ names on paper and stuck it over his desk, and it comically scrolled all the way to the floor.

Since we have grass that in some clips is swaying gently in the breeze, or disturbed by overhead craft, or pushed aside by Munch, we have to animate and control it to fit into the scenes rather than seem like something ‘pasted-on’ as an afterthought.

BW: Birds always seem to appear in Oddworld movies – were the disturbed flock in the forest created with flocking algorithms or more by eye?

Scott Easley: The first pass was an algorithm, but so many changes and tweaks were made to give it a truly panicked feel that the birds’ paths were eventually all done by hand.

BW: Was anyone thinking of the night chase in E.T. when animating the man-trap sequence?

Scott Easley: It does have the feel of an innocent being besieged by frightening aliens, even though we are relating to a creature that is, by all rights, an alien itself. There is a bit of E.T., some Close Encounters, some X-Files, and I like to think a small sprinkle of Dance Fever.

Okay, I’m kidding about the Dance Fever thing.

BW: Has the switch from Alias Wavefront to Maya been a tricky one?

Scott Easley: Yes. But there were so many improvements in Maya, and the interface didn’t drastically change from Alias/Wavefront, so it was business as usual within a few weeks.

BW: There’s a great deal of dialogue in the R+D section of the sequence -how
much freedom did you have and how did you go about interpreting the voice track for the surgeon and his assistant?

Scott Easley: Our villains are all flawed — not scary to the bone, but they have kind of a bumbling quality about them that allows us to make them seem frightening one minute, and comical the next. Oddworld’s creatures all have a silly side, and a dark side as well.
Once you listen to the dialogue enough times, it just comes to you.

BW: Would you say dialogue based story-telling or purely visual story-telling (i.e. much of the opening, and a large part of the closing) is harder to achieve?

Scott Easley: Dialogue always spells it out for the audience, which means there isn’t enough time or some other constraint to say it in a cleverer way – but other times you may want to cut through the premise of the story with dialogue, so you can get right into the story itself.

Let’s remember some rather famous dialogue in the beginning of stories: “A long time ago, in a galaxy, far far away…”. Or maybe: “Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene…”

Dialogue isn’t always bad, if simply used to set the stage, which is what we did.

BW: What has Maya given you that you could never have done before (or done so easily)?

Scott Easley: The animation tools are very thorough, but I would have to say opening up the architecture of the program itself to allow MEL scripting and C Shell to do a lot of the more mundane tasks. I’m proud to say that as tragic as my programming is, I actually put together a script or two.

BW: Have you used any particular plus-ins and where were they applied?

Scott Easley: I tend to shy away from Plug-Ins, as my experience with them is limited right now.

I have a cool night-light at home. That’s something of a plug-in …

BW: Just how vital is correct character modeling in making your job as animator
as flexible as possible?

Scott Easley: Nothing is worse than doing a nice animation and having it expose bad modeling in a shoulder joint or hips of a character. The only solution is to re-do the animation so that it doesn’t expose flaws on the modeler’s side. This is maddening, and that’s why we take it so seriously to model the characters correctly the first time around.

BW: What is the advantage of using sculpture as your initial character design rather than direct digital modeling? Is there any time when it is less appropriate?

Scott Easley: It’s a time constraint, and in some cases a per character basis. We shouldn’t go through the tedium of having a clay sculpture built if the creature looks like a banana slug, but other creatures need to be scanned to get every detail of their faces, arms, etc. if you want them to look right.

The advantage of doing clay sculptures is obvious: the tangibility of changing whatever you need to is immediate. Then when you scan it, you know exactly what you’re getting.

BW: What have you learnt from previous FMV work on Abe’s Exoddus and Abe’s Oddysee that has informed your decisions on Munch?

Scott Easley: It’s always an evolution when you get into the characters — we know how Abe moves and talks, and it’s allowed us to interpret some of the other characters that are similar in build and size.

BW: What did you have the most fun doing/the most satisfaction doing?

Scott Easley: Some of the comic timing with the Vykkers’ bantering was a lot of fun.

BW: What was the toughest thing to pull off technically/emotionally/comedic-wise?

Scott Easley: To portray Munch; Alien, wet, monoped — as something to be empathized with.

BW: What do you think of the finished opening sequence – are you a happy bunny?

Scott Easley: I sit and eat my carrots in abject glee.

Ben Wharton’s feature on Munch’s Oddysee opening FMV sequence can be read in the September issue of CGI magazine.