For the first time since 1998, the Blizzard Cinematics Team is revisiting the StarCraft universe - this time through the eyes of a deadly Ghost operative. With the development of StarCraft: Ghost in full swing, we sat down with Harley D. Huggins II, Ghost Cinematics Project Lead, to take a look behind the scenes and answer one of the most frequent questions we get at every E3 show: "Just how are Blizzard cinematics created?"
How does it feel to be working in the StarCraft universe again?
We would like to thank Harley for taking the time to provide a look behind-the-scenes of the creation process for Blizzard cinematics. Look for breaking news and updates on StarCraft: Ghost at
The StarCraft universe is such a gritty, cool world, and everyone is extremely excited to be working in it. This department was formed during the development of the original StarCraft, so for those of us that were here then, it's a lot of fun to be revisiting it. As proud as we are of the work we did in the original StarCraft, there are so many things we can do better now.
Could you walk us through the creation of a shot for Ghost?
Sure. After the script is completed, it is "broken down" by the director into a shot list. The director then works with the concept artist to create storyboards. Storyboards are hand-drawn representations of each shot - a kind of blueprint of the entire script. We take the storyboards and scan them into the computer, then cut them together to form what we call the "2D animatic." This tells us if the shots cut together well and how the piece flows as a whole. At this stage it is a lot easier to make quick changes - the concept artist just draws new boards.
The next step is to create the animatic in 3D. We do this in the computer using very primitive shapes - boxes and balls for instance, or a rough, box skeleton in place of characters. This stage helps us to work out camera moves and the composition of each shot. When all this has been locked-down and approved, the shots are assigned to animators. To help the animators we often videotape ourselves acting out the shots. The animators use this and the 3D animatic as a guide while they work. During this time, the modelers and texture artists have been creating our digital assets - characters, vehicles, props, and sets in 3D. Usually, the completed models are too complex for the animators to be able to animate efficiently, so we create simplified, less complex (low-polygon) versions for them to use. When the animation has been approved the shot is turned over to one of our technical artists. The technical artist's job is to prepare all of the assets in the shot for rendering in the computer. They extract the animation data from the low-poly model and transfer it to the high-res, complex model that will appear in the final shot.
At this stage the shot is handed off to what we call a "finisher." The finisher is responsible for the final stages of the shot - rendering and compositing. Usually a shot has far too many elements to be rendered by a computer in one pass, so the finisher has to break the shot down into layers. For instance, the sun and sky would be one layer, the ground another layer, and each character in the shot on another, separate layer. These individual layers are sent to our rendering computers that digitally "draw" each frame. Then the finisher combines these layers in a process called compositing. This is where each individual layer is digitally placed on top of each other, to create the final, finished shot. The finisher also adds any special touches, such as glows or highlights.
What are some of the challenges involved in making CG cinematics for a video game?
The first challenge for any work like this, whether it is film, animation, or a game, starts with the story itself. Story is taken very seriously at Blizzard and is an integral part of our game-design process. In the cinematics department, we like to get involved as early as we can and stay abreast of any changes. The game-design process is very fluid. Major changes can be made almost up to the end. Unfortunately, the cinematics team is not able to work like that - the production process is just too long for us to easily change directions on the fly. We have to be very careful about what we plan to do with the cut-scenes so that when the game ships they match up with the in-game storyline. The key to all of this is communication between all of the teams involved. I think with each release we get better and better at doing that.
How has the cinematics production process evolved since working on the original StarCraft?
If we were one-celled amoebas back then, we would be somewhere around the monkey stage of evolution now. Things have changed so much that at times we wonder how we produced as much work as we did. Back then we would just split up into teams of two or three, make up something cool, and start running. We storyboarded on napkins and made up a lot of the dialog in the recording booth. We all did everything - modeling, texturing, animating - you name it. We even did a lot of the voice acting. I think we produced some great work, but there were a lot of painful mistakes and a lot of late nights.
Things are very different now. We have a much larger team and a lot more hardware. In fact, we've grown from a team of six artists to over twenty-five. As we have grown and as the projects we work on have gotten bigger, we've had to develop an organized production pipeline. We spend a lot of time developing our scripts and storyboards and working closely with the game development teams to make sure everything is in sync. Everyone still does a little bit of everything, but each team member has a specialty that they tend to focus on, e.g. modeling, texturing, animation, rigging and setup, or compositing and rendering. We have a dedicated producer and a dedicated concept artist. We also have proprietary tools, created in-house, that enable us to do things that our off-the-shelf software can't do.
Still, we look back on those old days with a lot of fondness. And we still have late nights. How did that happen?
How is production going on the cut scenes for StarCraft:Ghost?
Great. We have completed all of the modeling for the intro and are just now finishing up the animation. Rendering and compositing has started on a number of sequences and we are very excited about how things are looking. We have an incredibly dedicated and talented group of guys here.