Magazine article American Cinematographer

Kombat Cinematography

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Kombat Cinematography

Article excerpt

As with feature films, the reboot of a popular video-game franchise is a big deal. Thus, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, in partnership with NetherRealm Studios, made careful choices in reworking Mortal Kombat, taking the classic title back to its roots both visually and in terms of story.

In part, that meant returning to more graphic fighting and violence, but it also returned original characters, designs and an extended narrative to the game via a single-player story mode broken into 16 "chapters," interspersed with competitive game play. It's a narrative designed by Ed Boon, co-inventor of the original game, to determine the direction and performance of whatever characters a player is using at a given time. NetherRealm's creative team built those chapters on the foundation of a particular range of cinematography techniques, which were incorporated in the animation stage as storytelling devices, according to Dominic Cianciolo, NetherRealm's cinematic director on the project.

Cianciolo explains that the title of "cinematic director" put him in charge of directing the story chapters, editing them and serving as layout director of photography for them. Essentially, he was in charge of all camera-related aspects of the production outside of lighting. The game's environment unit handled lighting during creation of fight sequences specifically, setting lighting templates that Cianciolo's team followed while building the story mode.

Dave Pindara, the game's environment director, says the main priority for lighting was to simply provide players with clear visual definitions of the characters and all visual effects that might come into play during the fights. "By default, each character has a pre-defined rim light built into his materials, which helps to place him on top of the world [where the fighting arena is located]," says Pindara. "We then add a very small amount of bounce tinting representative of the unique arena, which has to work for all the characters. Our default lighting rig is adjusted to match the intensity and light direction of the environment."

In all other areas, Cianciolo made camera decisions for the narrative story, tapping his background in directing, cinematography, animation and previsualization work. He notes that the basic production pipeline for the game, which was produced over 17 months between September 2009 and early this year, was fairly straightforward for such a sophisticated video game. Body-movement data was collected through a traditional motion-capture shoot. All previsualized imagery was built in Autodesk's Maya animation software and edited in Adobe Premiere Pro, with Maya also used for special-effects animation. Additional body and hand animation was created using Autodesk's MotionBuilder.

Final material throughout the game was "shot" using a customized version of the Matinee tool (which NetherRealm dubbed "Cinema") of the Unreal 3 game engine, which essentially functions as a sophisticated non-linear editor that permits artists to assemble and edit animation, visual effects and props, and then shoot that edited data with virtual cameras. NetherRealm customized Matinee to include a user-friendly interface for setting up depth-of-field and to create more accurate visual representations of real-world depth-of-field effects. The company also added a "Post FX" tool to enable artists to do basic color corrections to imagery within Unreal.

Final scenes ended up in the game in two basic forms - either as scenes that run real time in the game engine at 60 fps to match the game's fighting sequences, or as pre-rendered movies that are separately placed on the game disc, running at 30 fps in order to fit the additional movie content on the disc.

As state-of-the-art as that process was, Cianciolo emphasizes that the nature of the camera movement in the computer was more sophisticated than a typical fighting-genre video game. "Story has always been the key element of Mortal Kombat," says Cianciolo. …

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