Interview: Axis reveals the secrets of the amazing Grey Goo game trailer

Axis MD Richard Scott reveals how the mysterious trailer and cutscenes were created for the new RTS game from Six Foot, Petroglyph & Grey Box

Glasgow CGI studio Axis and director Dana Dorian have created an epic new trailer for Six Foot and Petroglyph’s realtime strategy game Grey Goo, which is published by Grey Box.

The Axis team, with director Dana Dorian at the helm, worked with Six Foot on bringing out the best in the games cutscene sequences, collaborating on the scripts and providing all the necessary creative pre-production support from casting to storyboards to animatics.

The cutscene sequences saw Axis complete over twenty two minutes of story animation, building a range of characters, sets and vehicles as well as defining a style using a series of techniques that ensured engaging story development at the highest production values.

“It was our collaboration with Six Foot on the cutscene sequences and the great relationship that we struck up together that led to the creation of the trailer,” said Axis Director Dana Dorian. “With a number of the required characters already built, voices cast and animation techniques honed we knew we could put our creative efforts into producing an epic action packed trailer that would put the new game firmly on the map.”

“My idea for the trailer was to introduce each of the games three races, never describing any of them as the hero or villain,” said Dorian. “The voice over was juxtaposed at key points with the visuals as the viewer is teased as to who the mysterious voice is. This is then subverted at the end of the trailer when we reveal the voice to be the least likely of candidates, the Goo, a gelatinous mass of nanotechnology consuming everything in its path.”

"With the characters and many elements in the world already created for the cutscenes we were in the great position of being able to craft a trailer with many of the assets in existence," explained Axis MD Richard Scott. "So this allowed us to think big on the trailer and come up with some epic ideas."

We asked Richard to bring us deeper into the Goo and reveal the creative process behind the work at Axis.

Michael Burns: Talking about the cutscenes first, how do you approach a project like this?

Richard Scott: On this project we had the distinct pleasure of being involved very early in the process. We were talking with the team at Six Foot before the scripts had even been written. This allowed our team, including director Dana Dorian, to really get in there when the creative ideas were evolving.

We were working alongside the writer and the creative team at Six Foot giving script notes and feedback and really collaborating at a deep level. We then took the project into pre-production going through the storyboarding and pre-viz process, again in close collaboration with the client.

Our pre-production process is pretty standard, Adobe Photoshop for boarding, concept art and colour script, Adobe Premiere for editing 2D animatics and Maya for pre-viz. We have a nice XML based tool that allows edits to be passed back and forward between Premiere and Maya which speeds up the editorial process and keeps frame ranges and edits in check.

Michael Burns: What composed your main modelling, texturing and rendering pipeline?

Richard Scott: Modelling is handled with Modo, Mari and ZBrush and texturing is done with Photoshop. The Grey Goo project also went through our standard lighting and rendering workflow, which involves Side Effects Houdini and its renderer Mantra.

We have built our own shading tools within Houdini and Mantra that allow us to do many things in a procedural way. This includes things like dirt and damage to rough edges, hair and fur and of course our own skin shader.

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Michael Burns: Did you have game assets to work with? If so, what form were they in?

Richard Scott: We didn’t have game assets to work with. Grey Goo is an RTS so the assets are built for a very different purpose compared to those that are built for a first person or third person title.

What we did have access to however were the 3D ‘sketches’ done by the very talented team at Weta Workshop. Six Foot had engaged Weta Workshop in the design process before we joined the project and as part of their workflow some of the character design is explored in ZBrush and the Weta team provided us with those models, which was an incredible place to start.

Michael Burns: What other new assets did you create?

Richard Scott: All of the environments were created from scratch. We had to develop and design some of the environment elements, for example the interior to the Beta command centre. We also used a lot of matte painting work on the environments, in some cases projecting those on to 3D geometry.

The focus of the cutscenes was very much on the characters so this is where we put most of our 3D effort.

The human characters were built from scratch and we were involved in the casting process, taking care of the 3D heads scans and applying our proprietary facial rigging solution to get the best performances possible.

Michael Burns: How did you develop the creature animation?

Richard Scott: The Beta characters were one of the big areas that Weta Workshop had done a lot of work on and we picked up the creation of these characters, developing the final look.

Again we wanted to get really great performances from these characters. They are a proud, spacefaring culture who now want to defend their society; they are passionate and expressive but have alien features, so animation is challenging.

The beta characters were performance captured but our animation team massaged and added to that initial data in a big way making sure the characters felt authentic and bringing a real subtlety to their movement.

We especially focussed on how they use their four arms to allow them to be expressive, but also handle objects and use their other arms in that same expressive way.

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Michael Burns: What was the development process with the trailer?

Richard Scott: With the characters and many elements in the world already created for the cutscenes we were in the great position of being able to craft a trailer with many of the assets in existence. So this allowed us to think big on the trailer and come up with some epic ideas.

Dana and some of our other creative team started writing up short synopses for possible routes we could take the trailer. Just trying to establish potential approaches and styles of storytelling.

Once we had feedback from Six Foot we then took two or three of those ideas and developed them into full blown written treatments with moodboards and concept art. However we didn’t nail it first time and some of these ideas were scrapped or heavily edited into new ones.

Dana then came up with the premise of voicing the trailer from a single point of view, but not revealing who was delivering the story until towards the end. From here he started to layer on visuals giving a snapshot into each faction’s world and juxtaposed that with the unrecognisable imagery of the inside of the Goo.

Michael Burns: What extra work was needed to  develop the trailer? What was the biggest additional element or asset that you had to create for this?

Richard Scott: The trailer uses assets from the cutscenes but all of the animation, environments and FX work are completely unique.

The biggest challenge was definitely the huge battle scenes which involved crowd work and heavy FX, as well as fluid based simulations for the Goo destruction.

Michael Burns: What brought the whole trailer together?

Richard Scott: Everything was brought together in Blackmagic Design’s Fusion compositing software.

Michael Burns: Was music composed specially for the trailer?

Richard Scott: The music and sound work were done by our long term audio partners Savalas.

Savalas composer Giles Lamb, who we have worked with on many scores including the now famous Dead Island, created the music and was working with very early cuts of the animatic before pulling it all together with the final picture.

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“We wanted the battle sequence to deliver on three key things – scale, tactics and drama,” said Axis Executive Producer Debbie Ross. “Each of those are not only important to the success of the trailer, they are cornerstones of the games brand too.”

“Attention to detail was massively important across the whole trailer, from the insects floating in the jungle air to the way the Strider units form out of the Goo itself, everything is in there to add authenticity and bring this fantastic world to life.”

“Axis’ work consistently delivers a quality of spectacle while also accomplishing an authenticity that goes beyond photorealism,” said Josh Maida, VP of Games at Six Foot. “We were able to trust them with not only creating a trailer that delivered on our marketing messages, but also an entry point into the world of our game. They are more than a CGI Studio. They are storytellers.”