Oddworld Inhabitants

Oddworld Inhabitants [Hosted by CGI Magazine]
Date: 7 August, 2001
Interviewer: Ben Wharton
Interviewee: Lorne Lanning

Source: http://web.archive.org/web/20011020020302/365animation.com/interviews/oddworld1.shtml

Ben Wharton talks to Lorne Lanning, President and Creative Director of Oddworld Inhabitants about his work and attitude to FMV sequences in the up-coming X-box title Munch’s Oddysee…

Ben Wharton: Where were you before Oddworld, and what kind of work were you involved with?

Lorne Lanning: Rhythm & Hues in Hollywood. We were doing visual effects and computer animation for films, television, commercials, theme parks, etc.

BW: Briefly, what’s the history of Oddworld Inhabitants?

Lorne Lanning: Founded by Sherry McKenna and myself in late 1994. Released Abe’s Oddysee on PSX
and PC in 1997. Released Abe’s Exoddus in 1998 on PSX and PC. Will be releasing
Munch’s Oddysee in Nov. 2001.

BW: What is the Oddworld Quintology and where does Munch’s Oddysee fit in?

Lorne Lanning: The Oddworld Quintology is a series of five stories that together form one huge
epic. Abe’s Oddysee was the first, and introduced Abe as our first hero. Munch’s
Oddysee is the second and introduces our second hero, Munch. As the Oddworld
Quintology unfolds, each new Oddysee experience will introduce a new hero character
that will team up with the previous heroes from the previous Oddysee’s… in
efforts to overcome the unconscious industrial forces that threaten them all.

BW: With quite exceptional FMV work already created for Abe’s Exoddus and Abe’s Oddysee, was kind of challenges did you set yourself for Munch?

Lorne Lanning: We wanted greater clarity of detail in the databases and also in the animations. We wanted our lip sync to be much tighter. We were also going from half NTSC res and 15fps (PSX movie playback standard) to full D1 DVD quality at 30fpson the new 128bit hardware. Basically, we wanted to up the bar on our previous standard.

Ultimately, there are a lot of things we didn’t achieve that we wanted to, but this
is what happens when your story comes first and the visuals come second. But we’ve
got lots of games to come so we’ll just keep making improvements with each effort.

BW: Describe the opening sequence’s plot.

Lorne Lanning: Munch is the sole survivor of his species. The rest of his kind has been hunted to virtual extinction. He’s lonely and doesn’t really understand what’s happened, so he’s trying to find the rest of his family. While searching for them he’s ultimately tricked into a nasty trap. When he awakes, he finds himself as a lab ratliving within the horrific, yet highly profitable (!) Vykkers Pharmaceutical Research Lab.

BW: What kind of creature is Munch?

Lorne Lanning: He’s a Gabbit. Gabbits are an aquatic species that hop like a bird on land but
swim like dolphins in water. He’s got one leg, two arms, and a sonar port embedded
in his skull… compliments of Vykkers scientists.

BW: How much of the script and blocking was worked out before work begun?

Lorne Lanning: The scripts start from the treatments that I originally wrote as motion pictures.
We then work them out to what fits within our budget, our time, our gameplay needs,
etc. They usually wind up changing quite a bit in settings and circumstances
through this process, but the core ideas and inspiration always remain in tact.

BW: Did anything change significantly in the sequence over its creation and if so why?

Lorne Lanning: Sure, things change. Nearly always because of time and money. It’s really easy to write a script that will eventually cost $100 million to produce. It’s a lot harder making sure it can be paid for. So, usually it’s all about scaling back and doing so as cleverly as possible. But that’s also why we’re still real excited about the feature films that we intend to make someday. We know that the game stories haven’t even scratched the surface of what the film stories will ultimately reveal. They’re much more epic and dark in nature. So far, with the games, it’s like we’ve been making the comic book versions of these motion picture stories. The features will share similar themes and core concepts as the games, but when fans see them it will be orders of magnitude above what they would have expected.

BW: Lighting and design have always been one of your greatest strengths – can you describe the approach and emotional tone you were after in the start of the opening sequence where we find Munch Swimming?

Lorne Lanning: The water scenes were designed to be very stark and empty, as this point in the
story is about us trying to convey the strong sense of loneliness that Munch is
feeling. This is also why it’s very monochromatic in color. We also needed to
capture the notion that Munch is very small and vulnerable within a vast and
largely unknown world around him.

The thick atmosphere helps to portray this sense of foggy perspective, where things could easily be close by but we might not be able to see them. The idea was to create a subtle sense of uneasiness for the audience, even though they might not notice it as they’re being swept along with Munch’s monologue. We also wanted a feeling of fresh water, not salt water, so it’s all in the deep greens. Where as salt would be bluer.

BW: What were the greatest hurdles to over come in the sequence?

Lorne Lanning: Our biggest hurdles were trying to get what we wanted from Renderman. Eventually we just left it behind as it’s great at some things and nearly impossible for others. So we just went with the Maya Renderer, which has its own problematic issues, but at least we were able to get more of what we were after. Animating believable caustic effects was not easy, nor was the particles in the water easy to completely control the way we needed, but ultimately it came together. Proper character deformation is always an issue that takes time.

BW: What would you describe your role as when in comes to producing the FMVs for Oddworld? Director/Producer/Writer/Voice Talent?

Lorne Lanning: you could tack on Visual Effects Supervisor but take away Producer. But of course there is help on every front. It’s a big team effort.

BW: Do you animate yourself?

Lorne Lanning: Not any longer. Too busy and the tools keep changing to frequently to try to stay current. I haven’t animated since we’ve founded Oddworld.

BW: Munch doesn’t look a whole lot like Abe but the surgeons DO have a wiff
of the Gluckon about them – were you concerned to keep character design very familiar?

Lorne Lanning: We were concerned about keeping the characters looking like they came from Oddworld, and yet also looking very different from one another. Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is keep consistency of our universe but create lots of diversity within it. It’s a tricky thing to achieve, but I believe we’re doing pretty well on that front. Some character designs come along quite quickly, like the Interns, and even the Vykkers. But others, like Munch himself, oh man did I put Farzad (Sr. Production Designer) through the ringer with that one. He did literally hundreds of iterations before we got the final Munch design.

BW: How did the character’s body design and emotional temperament come about?

Lorne Lanning: His mindset had to be innocent, but not stupid. He needed to look a bit pathetic, yet be able to warm our hearts. He was definitely going to be a strange looking character that some might think looked a bit like a monster, so we needed to offset his strangeness with more endearing qualities. He would need to hop in this helpless and cute sort of way, but then be very dynamic and graceful in water. The motion of tweety birds hopping was always attractive, as was the motions of dolphins. He was young for his species, so we needed large eyes. His voice would need to make us want to cry, but his ideologies would make us want to question pull his character into question. But when you consider what he’s gone through, you should feel compassionate to his extreme deeds. You then look at these goals and start putting pencil to paper.

BW: You’ve voiced many of your game characters in the past, has this continued with Munch, and if so, why?

Lorne Lanning:
Yes, it’s continued. Largely because we go through so many iterations that we need to have in-house flexibility to re-record whenever the need arises. I have a phobia of the idea of using Hollywood talent. You can already hear the agent, “Oh, sorry. You’re lead characters voice is on vacation in the Bahamas. Oh, and by the way, he/she wants twenty times the money for those new takes you need, but you can’t get them till next month.” Screw that, we’ll just do the voices ourselves.

Occasionally we get other people in the studio to do voices, but we wish we had more people who could pull them off. Our philosophy was a little more like Jim Hensons. We do the voices in house. Eventually this might have to change… but hopefully we’ll be able to expand our internal voice talent the way that he did.

BW: Munch hardly has any lip-sync in the opening sequence – it’s all voice-over or telepathy speak. Any particular reason?

Lorne Lanning: He’s alone and so we’re focused on telling the audience what he’s thinking. If he were actually talking, then he would be talking to the audience, which would blow the idea that he’s threatened in his own world. It would be like saying, “hey, look at me, I’m on stage.” We don’t want that connection. It would kill the believability while making it harder for us to empathize with his state of being.

BW: Were the other characters voiced by you or as in Exoddus, were they voiced by the animators themselves?

Lorne Lanning: I believe that in the opening movie they’re all voiced by myself. However, we do have three other people in the studio who are doing voices for other parts of the movies. They’re doing a really good job. Two of them are animators.

BW: Does giving an animator the ability to voice their own character add something to that performance?

Lorne Lanning: I think this only happened once with Scott. It was with the Brew Master in Abe’s
Exoddus. It worked out quite well. I would love to see it happen more often with
more of the animators. It’s got to have positive effects in the process.

BW: When blocking and editing the sequence – or any of your sequences for that matter – were music and effects in your mind?

Lorne Lanning: Always. Audio is 50% of the image.

BW: Do you ever use temp soundtracks to help create a temporary mood /ambiance to help make directorial decisions?

Lorne Lanning: As often as possible. It’s a great way to do things if you can’t get the music you want soon enough. It also helps to identify a mood, which really helps the animators and CG crew to understand more of the feeling that we’re after.

BW: There are very few BIG camera moves or odd camera angles in the opening – are you a proponent of making virtual cameras as “unvirtual” as possible.

Lorne Lanning:
Yes. In general, I try to keep people from designing or implementing unnatural camera moves when doing CG. The reason is that we’re trying to get people to see past the fact that it’s CG, and instead to look at it as though it’s a believable story. To do this, you want to take out that snafu BS that usually comes with CG.

You want it to feel more gritty, like the real world and the way real cameras behave. Nothing blows a shot faster than a wild camera that instantly tells you you’re watching CG. Just as bad lighting can kill it for the viewer.

BW: i.e. only do moves that a real camera could achieve if it were in that real environment?

Lorne Lanning: Right

BW: The opening sequence is a LONG one – were you ever concerned that the length might be something which players might not want to have to deal with and jump to the start of the game instead?

Lorne Lanning: Always this is a concern. We already cut it back from being more than 3 minutes longer than it already is. However, people love great stories that are told well.

When we first started making games, the people that we had who came from the game industry always said, “nobody watches the movies in games, so why bother.” To which the answer was, “That’s because so far nearly all game movies have been poorly written and executed.” But the audience is always willing to watch a good story told well, but you’ve got to hook them in first. Of course, someone bought a game and that’s what they’re expecting, so you’ve got to use good judgment and timing.

BW: In Abe’s Oddysee and Abe’s Exoddus you were incredibly concerned with continuity between 3D FMV sequences and 2D gameplay. Now that you are creating gameplay in 3D is the relationship/transition an easier one?

Lorne Lanning: It was actually easier before because the backgrounds were bit maps. Today it’s all real-time 3D databases. Which means we can’t always know where the camera is going to be, we have different data sets, etc. But in the end the match is very close, at least close enough. It helps when all of the texture maps and animations of the characters are virtually the same.

BW: What function do you believe FMV sequences should perform within a gaming context?

Lorne Lanning: They should heighten the story. They should draw us into the characters and their dilemmas. They should be able to establish to a much greater degree… who the characters really are and how they feel. They should enforce a sense of believability that game technology hasn’t been able to achieve yet. (Though some game companies claim that it has and every time we hear this it always makes us a little embarrassed that we’re in an industry that doesn’t know the difference.)

BW: Do you think it’s possible for FMV sequences to NOT pull someone out of the gaming mindset?

Lorne Lanning: It all depends on how it’s done. You can screw up anything if you do it poorly.

BW: Would you agree that the use of humor in your FMV sequences (and therefore your games) has become broader while the darkness so apparent in Abe’s Oddysee has become more fleeting?

Lorne Lanning: The humor has become broader, but it’s important to us not to lose the dark nature. In the end, the entire Quintology is a pretty dark epic. There is no way this will change. It will continue to get deeper and deeper into the corruption and chaos that results from an unconscious consumer driven civilization. It’s definitely not part of Oddworld’s destiny to be humorous without the dark ironic undertones. However, when you are constrained by time and budget, the vehicle of humor can communicate some things more quickly and help to make a shorter snippet of video feel more entertaining. Though I greatly look forward to the day when we have more time to portray the darker elements in more prolonged pieces of epic scale footage.

BW: You’re still in the throws of Munch production, but what do you feel about the FMV for the opening? Have you achieved the right mix of story, character, humor and intrigue that you were looking for?

Lorne Lanning: We always wish that our sense of scale was larger. We always want to have hundreds of characters and vehicles in the FMVs, etc. But it’s not always feasible to do so. It comes back to the same thing. Time and money. We are in circumstances were we need to create 20 minutes of footage to fill in the FMV elements of the story.

That’s 20 minutes of near feature film quality for a budget that film companies would laugh at. Because it’s so low. Yet, we need to communicate the characters and their issues within this time and it needs to be solid and it needs to be done with a small team. Solid lighting, solid animation, solid writing, production design, etc. So the sense of scale that we dream of usually gets pulled back so that the characters plights can run front and center stage. In time, when we get more successful and get more established, we’ll be more grand in our sets and staging. In the meantime, we’ve got to work with what’s reasonable to produce.

Beyond the compromises of what’s ideal, we feel we’ve been very successful in achieving what we needed to achieve. The characters come through, the message comes through, it looks distinctively Oddworld and not like anybody else’s universe, and it has it’s own unique sense of style, sound design, dialogue, irony, and beauty. We’ve raised the bar from our previous FMVs and we’re very pleased with how well it’s come together.

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