An essay that I actually enjoyed writing. Shock horror!
This is a research document that evolved from a speech I did analysing Team Fortress 2's fancy new art style. The essay discusses Illustrative Rendering and various bits and pieces about it's history and artistic application in contemporary mediums.
I'm particularly fond of this essay, and apparently so is my lecturer, so I thought it worthy of sharing.
For a clever video that basically says the same thing, click here for the video, or here for the lecture online.
3D Rendering in the Uncanny Valley
“So will photo-real games be well crafted marvels of technology, or feats of economic hubris infused with mediocre gameplay?” (Haywood, 2005).
3D graphics history and the Uncanny Valley
“Since the beginning, computer games have always been one of the most demanding applications and driving force for computer graphics hardware. This evolved from simple 2D pixel sprites in early games back in the 80s to nowadays 3D photorealistic environments with a believable atmosphere and correct physical simulations,” (Masuch, Rober 2004). Research relating to photorealism in rendering from institutions presenting at Siggraph has found that “Computer graphics is concerned with the production of images in order to convey visual information. Historically, research in computer graphics has focused primarily on the problem of producing images which are indistinguishable from photographs,” (Markosian et al 1997). The realisation of the potential of realistic rendering began with the short film Tony de Peltrie in 1985 (Hall 2009). This was the first publicised animation of a human character with shaded polygons filling in the space between 3D vector lines (Mosley 2009). Prior to this, computer generated animation was limited to drawing mathematically calculated splines between vectors (Lasseter 1987).
The year 2001 saw a new standard set in raising the bar of photorealistic rendering. Although widely disregarded for absolute realism, the film Final Fantasy: Spirits Within, produced by Square Enix, was a key turning point in defining a higher standard of CG realism (Naugle 2007). Due to the lack of subtle acting qualities within the animation techniques that we expect from humans, the film fell into the “uncanny valley”, a phenomenon discovered through robotics research and development. Because of this, Final Fantasy: Spirits Within did not receive a unanimously positive reception, and did not make a profit from it’s exorbitant budget (Long 2003).
The uncanny valley phenomenon that attributed the audience’s negative reaction to the almost realistic characters, is a prominent point of discussion previously in development of human-like robots. The phenomenon was first theorised in 1970, when Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori discovered that making robots that are clearly non-human with human features make them more endearing to people. He discovered, however, this can only be taken so far, and if a robot looks very close to human, but not quite perfect, then we react badly to it (Mori 1970).
Something that is obviously non-human with some human characteristics gives an audience a feeling of familiarity that they can relate to. The human characteristics are subconsciously emphasised by the contrasting association of the non-human elements of the robot. When a robot is not completely distinguishable as non-human, however, there is an opposite reaction. Slight imperfections in artificial skin texture and other human attributes that we are so accustomed to seeing in people every day, creates a negative reaction and repulsion in most people.
This phenomenon has become relevant to computer generated media with the fast development of new technologies. Final Fantasy: Spirits Within is the first of several movies that have been released that have been said to have fallen into the uncanny valley (Mangan 2007). This was most prominent in the 2004 Warner Brothers film The Polar Express. According to many critics, the film relied too heavily on motion capture technology that did not capture the fine subtle movements of the human actors (Metacritic, 2009). This is still an issue in photorealistic 3D cinema to this day, the most recent film to suffer this effect being Beowulf (2007) from Warner Brothers and Paramount Pictures (Gallagher 2007).
Illustrative Rendering in video games
A number of months prior to the release of Final Fantasy: Spirits Within introducing the uncanny valley phenomenon to the process of creating the next high benchmark in realism in computer graphics, there was another related turning point when the first video game which employed an illustrative rendering technique was released (Fielder 2000). Fear Effect for the Sony Playstation was released by Kronos Studios in late 2000, featuring a unique flat shading technique, reflective of the visual origins of their concept in japanese anime (Perry 2004). Ever since the release of the first 3D graphics oriented consoles, the Sony Playstation and the Sega Saturn in 1995 (SCE 2009), 3D graphics in games have followed suit, aspiring towards a receding horizon of believably imitating reality (Good Game 2009). Fear Effect broke this trend of 3D graphics rendering techniques aspiring to imitate reality.
“After a series of tests with different type of modeling and texture mapping techniques, we concluded that the strong graphic look of anime contrasted nicely against the streaming backgrounds” - Kronos President Stanley Liu.
Previously, there have been many video games that featured graphics imitating 2D artistic styles and cartoon characterisations, but Fear Effect was the first to achieve this through 3D rendering techniques. Wacky Races for the Dreamcast, released earlier in 2000 was one such game. While it had 3D graphics and used a black outline technique to emulate it’s saturday morning cartoon predecessor, it relied on traditional rendering technologies (AbsoluteAstronomy.com 2009).
Stylising character designs was a common technique employed by many developers to prevent realistic designs from falling apart in early 3D games. Naughty Dog is a perfect example of this, relating to their game franchises Crash Bandicoot (1996) and Jak and Daxter (2001). Limited by the hardware capabilities of Sony’s original Playstation, Crash Bandicoot was designed as a very anthropomorphised bandicoot in a cartoony style. This style provided a level of familiarity that pleased its audience without imitating reality beyond the hardware’s capabilities (Naughty Dog 1996). With the release of the Playstation 2 in 2000, there was a larger scope of graphical possibilities, and thus Naughty Dog’s Playstation 2 franchise Jak and Daxter featured stylised humans (Naughty Dog 2001). Realising the hardware potential for producing realistic graphics wasn’t yet fully realised, Naughty Dog maintained a cartoon-esque art direction (Van Leuveren 2009).
“...you were really limited by the expressions in your characters faces back then, so you had to go with these big eyes and these big heads and these very iconic characters. Even on the PlayStation 2 we kind of took a step towards realism by saying well we're not really an animal anymore now we're an elf, it's kind of human but it's still very cartoony.” - Evan Wells, Co-President of Naughty Dog.
The point at which the uncanny valley phenomenon applies to computer games has become increasingly prominent in the last decade, starting with the development of titles for the 7th generation of video game consoles(Sakazaki 2007). In an interview discussing the release of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted: Drakes Fortune (2007) for Playstation 3, Evan Wells commented on the advances of photorealistic 3D rendering in games.
“Now with the PlayStation 3, all of those things that we were hoping we could do one day and all of those things we were on the cusp of being able to do now there is enough power to do all that and we really felt we could tell that story and get you involved with those characters, so that's why we've gone more realistic.” - Evan Wells, Co-President of Naughty Dog.
Despite the leaps and bounds made in the technology to produce photorealistic rendering in video games, the trend of creating games featuring non-photorealistic rendering, such as Fear Effect, has gradually increased (Mobygames.com 2009). Of particular note is the team-based online multiplayer game titled Team Fortress 2, from Valve Software.
Case Study: Team Fortress 2
In 1998, game development company Valve software presented a demonstration at the electronics convention E3, of their spiritual sequel to the popular community born game Team Fortress (PlanetFortress 2009). Team Fortress originated as a modification by Australian based Team Fortress Software (Carlson 2004), for iD Software’s 1996 game Quake. As Team Fortress grew in popularity, Valve software announced that it would make a sequel in the form of a multiplayer add on for the 1998 game Half-Life (PlanetFortress 2009). The proposed Team Fortress 2: Brotherhood of Arms quickly became much a much more unwieldy project than anticipated, and was subsequently left out of the 1998 Half-Life experience.
To sate the expectations to play the new installment of Team Fortress 2 in the gaming community that grew around Team Fortress, Valve software released an updated Team Fortress mod, this time for Half-Life in 1998. Because Half-Life was built on the same game engine as Quake (Keighley 1998), many of the quirks of the early game engine were kept and expanded upon in Valve’s 1999 professionally developed version of the Team Fortress mod, titled Team Fortress: Classic.
One such example of the gameplay elements that emerged from quirks inherit in the game engine is the “rocket jump”. This technique evolved from players discovering an exploit in the physics calculations made by the game. When an explosion occurred near the player, they were knocked back a certain distance based on the size of the explosion, and the distance they were from it. Players discovered that if they jumped and fired a rocket launcher, (or similarly explosive weapon,) they could propel themselves much higher than normal (Wikipedia 2009). This new exploitative gameplay element was noted by the staff at Valve, and was integrated into Team Fortress: Classic (Planet Half-Life 2009).
Over the course of the years between 1999 and 2006, Team Fortress 2 wasn’t present at another E3 convention (Gametrailers.com 2006). The game fell of the radar because it was decided that the military theme originally delegated was an aesthetic that did not unify well with the peculiarities of gameplay logic that evolved from the original Quake and Half-Life mods. In an interview at the Game Developer’s Conference of 2006, Valve’s Director of Marketing Doug Lombardi claimed that photorealistic graphics “...did not stay true to the roots Team Fortress, this sort of over-the top game that could be spastic at one moment and incredibly tense at the next” was a key deciding factor in changing the art style.
“Trying to do something in a realistic kind of environment again is like, if I'm going to have a hanger over here and a hanger over here with this airport runway breaking up this neutral territory, why is it that them across the way are my enemies? So we had some of these kind of problems that we thought it would be, again, interesting in a non realistic environment to kind of play with that a little bit.” – Charlie Brown, Team Fortress 2 Project Lead (Onyett 2007).
As a result of these conflicting elements of gameplay and art direction, Team Fortress 2 went through several iterations that experimented different artistic attributes that went well with staple gameplay fundamentals of Team Fortress.
“The earliest version of TF2 that you guys never got to play was this ultra-realistic… it looked a lot like Counter-Strike to a large degree. We wanted to do all these things, but realism fought us every step of the way. In a realistic game it’s hard to justify why everything isn’t just a bullet or an explosive...” - Robin Walker, Team Fortress 2 Programmer (Walker 2007)
The final artistic choice was inspired by early 20th century commercial illustrations appropriated into design elements based around the design and logic of spy fiction of the 1960’s This style was selected when Valve designers found silhouettes are very important in communicating the visual information of the stylised in-game world to the players. By using distinct silhouettes for each character, it was almost certain that a player could identify another character in any dynamic lighting situation and identify any possible in-game threat. The consistencies in the 20th century illustrations featured strong emphasis and stylisations of body proportions, clothing and props such as weapons (Mitchell et al 2007).
Colours and texturing of the game world is similarly stylised. The colour palette is limited to accommodate for the flow of gameplay. The gameplay revolves around the concept of two teams, red and blue, pitched against each other. The world is divided to represent these two factions through a basic colour scheme that is stylistically applied to gameplay textures. Contrary to games featuring photorealistic rendering, Valve did not appropriate textures from photographic reference. Instead, all the textures were digitally painted by hand. When applied to gameplay, the stylised textures not only reduced unnecessary noise in the game world, but also reflects the inspirational artistic style.
Hand painted textures also solved an issue relating to the uncanny valley in the context of environments and interactivity in games. James Portnow, Chief Creative Officer for Divide by Zero Games, discusses this phenomena in a series of online lectures, stating “I’ve seen the same player play a hyper realistic game, get stuck on geometry and say “what the h*$%, that’s so stupid, I’d never get stuck on that” and then play a Mario game and have the same thing happen without it phasing them in the least,”. This also means that the textures can be scaled to work well with older systems that aren’t capable of producing photorealistic rendering techniques without compromise.
Illustrative Rendering in TV and Cinema
The relatively lossless scaleability of quality in products utilising illustrative rendering techniques, as was relevant in the development of Team Fortress 2, is also relevant to animated TV series. The ability to create 3D elements with an effective stylisation as to avoid falling into the theoretical uncanny valley makes illustrative rendering an ideal technique for the 3D medium in TV series. The first fully animated TV show was Insektors, created in 1993 (Fantome Studios 1997). It featured stylised and cartoony characters, much like designs of many early 3D video games, but didn’t use an illustrative rendering style, and relied on less specialised rendering techniques intended to imitate reality.
As part of an addendum to a paper on non-photorealistic rendering, Doug Cooper, Digital Effects Animator responsible for the illustratively rendered 3D sequences in classically 2D styled film Prince of Egypt (Dreamworks 1998), commented on his personal thoughts on non-photorealistic rendering. He asserts “... as the tools and technology grow, I feel there is much more potential for non-photorealistic rendering techniques than merely the ability to make films faster and cheaper, or to reproduce the look of other artistic mediums,” (Cooper 1999).
Applications of illustrative rendering techniques to children’s shows in particular have produced a more aesthetically pleasing visual quality of rendering. This is evident when a comparison is made between shows like Storm Hawks (2007), earning more artistically oriented awards and nominations (IMDB 2009) compared to shows with traditional rendering styles in shows such as The Save-Ums (Decode Entertainment 2004).
The first animation to use 3D graphics with an illustrative rendering technique that aspires to match with 2D elements, was Technological Threat, made in 1988(Kerlow 2003). Development of effective illustrative rendering, however, was not integrated into mainstream television until 1999, with Futurama, a TV series by Matt Groening of Simpsons fame.
Futurama’s use of illustrative rendering was limited to backgrounds and occasionally used for the robotic characters, in the same way that illustrative rendering was applied in Technological Threat. The first TV show that was comprised exclusively of 3D elements rendered to imitate conventional 2D cel shading was Dragon Booster by the animation studio Nerd Corps.
The discussion of the artistic and practical advantages to illustrative rendering techniques will continue indefinitely, even after technology is able to surpass our expectations of realism, and consistently cross the uncanny valley phenomena of audience’s subconscious. New heights of in-game photorealism, such as graphics produced by CryTek software’s newest CryEngine 3(CryTek 2009), is contrasted and complimented with new explorations into illustrative rendering techniques, as seen in the soon to be released Mini Ninjas from IO Interactive (Purchese 2009). “As with any medium, success will come from learning how to apply the emerging techniques, feeling through their strengths and weaknesses and by opening our eyes to new ways to create and not by constraining the new medium to replicate or replace what has gone before it.” – Doug Cooper, 1999.
Thomas Renn, 11th June 2007
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Tony de Peltrie (1985)
Technological Threat (1988)
Prince of Egypt (1998)
Final Fantasy: Spirits Within (2001)
The Polar Expres, (2004)
Crash Bandicoot (1996)
Team Fortress (1996)
Team Fortress 2: Brotherhood of Arms (1998, unreleased)
Team Fortress: Classic (1999)
Wacky Races (2000)
Fear Effect (2000)
Jak and Daxter (2001)
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (2007)
Team Fortress 2 (2007)
Mini Ninjas (2009, unreleased)
The Save-Ums (2004)
Storm Hawks (2007)
Dragon Booster (2004)