The Art of VFX

May 11, 2007

Continuing where I left off last week, visual effects, or VFX, will play a very key part in helping deliver not only a complete gameplay experience, but a complete Star Wars experience in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. Whereas most developers can get away with a library of standard visual effects created specifically for their game, Star Wars games need to uphold a VFX lineage from the movies that has survived for 30 years! From the way the lightsaber glows and leaves motion-blurred trails to the blaster bolts that emanate from an E-11 stormtrooper blaster, there's a distinct visual quality that fans and gamers have come to expect. But even beyond those expectations the team here has the honor and great task of visualizing -- literally -- what the Force looks like unleashed. Fortunately, next-gen platforms like the Xbox 360 and the PLAYSTATION 3, with their superior processing power, will enable us to realize that vision. What it will hopefully amount to in the end is a palpable ambience that the audience can become immersed in.

Like anything, VFX start with an idea, and the germination of that idea usually begins with a game designer taking a moment of gameplay and creating a prototype. From there the process can go in a few directions, which usually involves the designer and an effects artist having a discussion. For example, the designer may request an effect from the VFX artist to promote an idea going on within the scene, which can be as simple as a door blowing apart, with both parties being on the same page. In another instance the designer may need to explain to the artist what the effect should look like, while at other times, which are most common, the designer will describe what is happening within the context of the game and the effects artist will take that information and create what they think the effect should look like. There are some occasions, however, when the designer is imagining a bigger effect, such as an unleashed Force power, and the extra step of involving a concept artist may come into play. From there the designer will work with the concept artist to envision what the effect should look like, and then that will be passed along to the effects artist to create.

One word you will see me use quite frequently as these entries continue is "iteration," so I might as well start here. As you can imagine the first time an effect is authored it's not going to be the effect that is shipped in the final game. The most basic effect, such as a blaster bolt, may go through one or two iterations, but a more prominent effect, like Force Push, could go through literally hundreds of iterations. The reason for constant iterations and revisions can be as simple as minor polish for an effect or as major as a complete rethinking about how a certain effect should look and feel.

As effects are created and iterated upon, more people on the team become involved in the process, especially for the larger, mind-blowing effects. Level designers, environment artists, the art director, the project lead, and the effects artist could all potentially weigh in on the look and feel of a particular effect. In some cases the FX artist and art director may agree on a particular direction, but the level designer and project lead may not feel the effect is as impactful as it needs to be. The effects artist will then have to go back and tweak the effect, and in some cases may have to start all over again from scratch.

As with most things on the project the effects artists need a capable tool to help them work their magic to create great effects. But when the team began working on Star Wars: The Force Unleashed they didn't have a very mature tool that could get us where we needed to go. The artists could create effects with very basic motion, but they had to spend quite a bit of time creating textures. Yet even with these limitations the artists were able to prototype how big an effect would be, what color it would look like, and how impactful it would feel in-game to give the idea of an explosion or shock wave. As the tool matured the effects artists were able to create even more motion and use more advanced shading techniques.

As I mentioned in my last entry, LucasArts and ILM are actively collaborating to co-develop tools that the team will use to create Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, and in the realm of visual effects is where LucasArts will benefit quite a bit from this collaboration. And at this point in our development this dual effort from both companies is really paying off and we are now just starting to see what we can truly accomplish. And I can say with quite a bit of certainty that you will see a few articles pertaining to this collaboration. Before signing off I want to say thanks to one of our FX artists, Tim Nice, for sitting down with me to talk about this incredibly complex process.

- Brett       

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