The Art House
Axis Animation's Richard Lewis on trailers, cutscenes and creative partnerships
While the UK games industry is abuzz with discussion about whether or not companies should receive tax breaks, Axis Animation is in the interesting position of being able to see the effects of that policy on film - working as it does with the games, movie TV businesses.
Here, CEO Richard Scott explains why working on trailers and cutscenes is something best done in what he calls a "creative partnership" rather than a simple outsourcing project, why firms use CG in trailers when it's not representative of in-game footage, and how uneven playing fields don't just affect the UK.
Q: Let's start with a bit about the origins of Axis Animation.
Richard Scott: Well, we set up in 2000 - originally we were involved with working at another animation studio, and we moved to set up as a department within VIS Entertainment to explore animation and other IPs they were developing. From there we developed into our own business.
We then grew the team and moved to Glasgow - but our main reason for doing what we did was that we believed we could set up a high quality CGI animation studio in Scotland, of which at that time there were none.
We had our experience of working with videogame clients from our previous studio, and it was just a natural fit to make videogames a big part of what we did.
Q: What kinds of projects do you work on?
Richard Scott: Within the videogames industry they really fall into two camps. The first is some form of marketing or promotion, generally trailers - and those trailers might slot into other parts of the game, but ultimately we're there to work with either the publishers directly through their marketing departments, or the agencies that publishers are using, to create an exciting, dynamic, visceral piece of work that's going to raise people's eyebrows.
The second part of what we do is the more narrative cutscene elements within the games themselves. Traditionally that might involve pre-rendered CG work, but certainly in 2010 that started to get more involved in real-time cutscenes - working with development teams much more directly, in a different kind of relationship.
But in both of those areas we're looking to be a creative partner - not to be parachuted in at the last minute to solve a problem, but to be as involved as early as possible so we can add the value that makes that part of the game as strong as it can be.
Q: That's fair enough, although I'm sure some people will read that and conclude that being involved as early as possible is going to cost them more money...
Richard Scott: I think it's about relationships - most things in the creative business are. Being involved from the start doesn't always mean being paid from the start.
Q: Now you've got their attention...
Richard Scott: It's about being able to integrate with the team - whether that's an agency team or a development team - and get close to the ideas, story and characters behind the game. But also the people who you're going to be working with - a big part of our pitching process is doing a percentage of what you'd class as pre-production.
That gets our ideas fleshed out and pushed further, it shows the client that you understand their game or their strategy for the marketing - and it allows you to get those relationships going. If they react well to what you're presenting then there'll probably be a click between the teams - and that's what these things need.
Q: ...and quality doesn't come cheap?
Richard Scott: I think the challenge is always within a set of parameters that involve time and money, and pushing that as hard as you can. I've never met a client that doesn't want the best thing possible - and rightly so.
Q: How many pitches do you make in a year? It sounds like a pretty time-intensive project.
Richard Scott: We're pursuing certain types of projects and clients - we maybe do 20 projects in a year, not necessarily all videogame projects. We might pitch 50, maybe more. I'd be happy with a one in three strike rate.
But it is an intensive process - we normally spend one or two weeks on a project pitch, but we want to work on projects that we're excited and enthusiastic about, that's all part of it. If you can't build up the desire to do one or two weeks' worth of work on a job, then it's probably not going to be the greatest project in the world.
Q: How many staff do you employ?
Richard Scott: We normally have about 40 people in the Glasgow studio, with a mixture of full time and freelance. Predominantly most of those roles are on the creative and production sides; we have quite a small amount of support and operations roles.
Q: Where do you look for talent? Is it difficult to find the right skills?
Richard Scott: I think one of the thing that mirrors pretty closely with game development is that we find identifying and retaining talent is always a challenge in such a new industry. It's the same with visual effects and CG - finding good people and keeping them there is hard, and sometimes it's hard to persuade people to go to Glasgow, but sometimes people want to move on, out of London or wherever and go somewhere new.
We try and have a mix of bringing through recent graduates into the studio as well as looking for much more experienced people - and we look everywhere, whether that's the videogames industry, or the film and TV industries, because we're not exclusive to videogames so we can cast our net a bit wider.
We're also pretty international - I think last year we had 13 different nationalities working for us, so it's a necessity that we cast our net wide.
Q: Are there any differences that you find working with videogames partners, when compared with those in film?
Richard Scott: I think the process is the same, but sometimes the relationship is slightly different. I think the movie, TV or commercial guys are used to hiring experts to come in to do a specific job they need, and it's part of the production process. It's expected that's going to happen - production companies are there to bring the right people together in a jigsaw that's going to create the perfect picture.
But the videogames industry tends to be the flipside of that, where the guys on the publishing or development sides are trying to have as much resource under their own roof as possible - so you end up with a slightly different relationship. I'd be the same, I think - people want to look after their baby and make sure they only work with people that respect it, and are going to do the absolute best they can.
Q: That must make it more difficult - and potentially more frustrating - to deal with?
Richard Scott: I don't know if it's necessarily frustrating; maybe challenging would be a better way to put it. You need to be aware that somehow or other you've got to get inside the head of somebody that's worked with an idea for as long as two years, so you've got to try and get up to speed with the story, the characters and the people behind the creative side of the development. That's hard to do.
Q: Has it become easier in the past five years or so to persuade people as to the benefits of this 'creative partnership' idea?
Richard Scott: I think it has. For donkey's years in the games press people have been talking about the film production model, and while that's never realised itself in the same way that people make feature films, there's a perception that hiring the best people to do certain things is the way to go - and that's generated some of the more exciting partnerships for various things in games.
Maybe that's hiring excellent ad agencies to create daring TV commercials for the games, or whether it's working with illustrators or art directors that create unique visual styles for games that you've not seen before. But it's definitely easier, for sure.
Q: One of the big issues between games and films is the question of tax breaks - one industry receives them, one doesn't - so working with both, what's your view?
Richard Scott: It's a difficult one - everybody wants a level playing field, but I don't think there ever is a level playing field. If you take film in the UK, it's doing really well - Pinewood and the other studios are always busy, the visual effects industry is growing off the back of that, and there's a benefit, no doubt.
But at the same time you can look at various VFX companies in California, in Los Angeles, and they're actually closing because they can't compete with the UK. They're not on a level playing field - so I don't think you can ever have that.
The big thing for me is that if the games industry can get tax breaks, can we guarantee that it will make a difference to the UK's industry - and the jobs and companies that already exist there? That it's not just an opportunity for Big Corporation X to come in and set up a big studio just to get a very nice tax break.
From our point of view, the best thing would be that it gave benefits to the established companies - or those that were about to start up - and if it really benefits the UK then we'd see the impact of that.
We've expanded and gone more international with our client base because of what's been happening in the UK games industry - it's disappointing that there are a lot of companies that have gotten into trouble. From our point of view, to grow our business and sustain what we want to do in games we've had to look to the US and Europe for new clients and opportunities.
Q: Talking specifically about the work you do, how have trailers and marketing changed in the past five years? The notion of games and gamers has changed massively in that time.
Richard Scott: The biggest change for me is that I see a general expectation that games are competing with all other entertainment forms - not just other games. Films, DVDs, online or whatever. That's why you see the really big games create outstanding TV commercials - to make a big impact in the same way a feature film would.
The other thing that's changed is that content is being created for areas that you wouldn't necessarily expect. We worked with Under Siege, a PSN game that's going to be coming out - I wouldn't normally expect a PSN game to have a pretty heavy-hitting, high-end trailer, but the guys behind that game have decided that's a strategy that can pay off and raise the profile of their game.
As the types of games, and the delivery method of those games change, so does the marketing. Everybody needs to market their game, but it's a question of how that's done. I'm not saying everyone needs a kick-ass trailer, but there's definitely an opportunity.
Q: Some TV advertising is great, and it certainly boosts the perception of the importance of games - and no doubt it helps sales - but some ads are made up of CG footage rather than use anything in-game, and then have to plaster a sign all over it that says "Not representative of the game" or something similar. Why bother to undercut it like that, when games look so good these days?
Richard Scott: That's a long-standing debate that I've dipped in and out of. Consumers have an issue with CG trailers I think, being honest about it. Some people do - but when there's an awesome piece of CG that cuts through and really excites people, they have less of an issue with it. Game-players often want to see gameplay - that's what they'll part with their money for.
Q: Something that's more representative of what they're going to get, at least - if you watch a film trailer, while you might arguably end up with all the best bits of that film in a 30-second burst, at least you know they're clips taken directly from the film. So isn't there a danger of misrepresenting a game with a CG ad?
Richard Scott: I think there is, but it's only misrepresentation if you actually misrepresent it. The reason they have to put a legal disclaimer on there is so that they don't misrepresent the game. Does that undermine it? Not as a marketing tool - the question is, will it excite someone enough to go and find out more about that game... enough to part with their money.
You probably wouldn't make a trailer from RTS footage. And there's no in-game footage in the World of Warcraft trailer, and that looks incredible.
Q: So clearly it does work sometimes.
Richard Scott: It's dependent on what the content is, how you present it and what you're trying to say. For me it's about cut-through - you run the risk, if you only show in-game footage, of not being able to cut-through.
Q: Let's finish on the subject of cutscenes. I can show my age by reminiscing about the days when the cutscene at the end of the game was your reward for completion - but nowadays we're so advanced that it's possibly to blend it in at every turn, and there's a fine balance. How much of a challenge is getting that balance, so that the cutscenes don't get in the way?
Richard Scott: It depends on the type of game - but ultimately it depends on the quality of the story you're trying to tell. I don't want my team to be making cutscenes thinking people will just be skipping them, but we're not idiots - we're gamers ourselves, and we know that people will do that sometimes, especially if you're playing through a section again.
I think it's an overall challenge for the games industry, isn't it? To create compelling narratives - is that really what gamers want? Some people do, while others will only play for a bit and then put it down again.
The challenge for us is getting involved at the right time, and the development team bringing us in as a partner who can make that narrative stronger. Not all development teams have got the right people to create great narratives.
Q: And every game is different, whether it's pacing or genre... different things work better at different times.
Richard Scott: Some stuff gets criticised because it lasts too long and goes on for a very long time - that's where the balance is wrong. Something we try to get clients to think about is not making the cutscenes too expositional, so they're explaining the story - because that's not what feature films do. Good feature films aren't expositional, and that's where people's disconnects start happening I think; when it's just telling you to go here, get map X, then back to another place - that's not interesting to watch.
A lot of it is to do with sophistication of understanding what makes film watchable - not just the narrative, but camera work and editing and all those things, and applying it. That's where we come to the table - we have that understanding and expertise that might not exist within a development team.
If we can get involved early... we've done projects where we weren't brought it to comment on scripts, or comment on storyboarding - but we feel the need to do it, because we think it's going to make it better. We'd rather ruffle a few feathers by doing that, than not do it at all and the end product then isn't as strong as we think it should be.
Richard Scott is MD of Axis Animation. Interview by Phil Elliott.