South Park recently aired an episode involving World of Warcraft in which half of the show featured custom machinima footage. Machinima.com was given access to key members of the animation staff in order to find out more about the creative process behind the episode.
Joining us are Frank Agnone, Producer; J. J. Franzen, Technology Supervisor; and Eric Stough, Director of Animation.
Question: What on Earth inspired you to do a World of Warcraft episode - especially using actual footage from the game?
J.J. Franzen: Well, as it is with a lot of the ideas for the show, the idea came from Trey Parker. We first heard about it late November of last year, when all the leads were called into the conference room for a meeting. This usually does NOT happen, so we knew something was up. That's were Trey dropped the bomb that he wanted to do an episode about a MMO, and he wanted the in-game stuff to be full 3D, not the 2.5 D that defines the normal South Park look. And he wanted it to be the 7th, and last episode, of the current run. We had just finished the 5th episode of the run, episode 912 - Trapped In the Closet. That would have given us roughly 2 weeks to do the episode, not to mention we'd still have to produce a 6th episode while working on it. It was pretty much unanimous that we could not possibly develop, model, texture, rig, and light several MMO style locations and characters in 2 weeks. Even we have our limitations.
Since Trey had mentioned WoW as the type of game he was referring to, I mentioned the possibility of trying to shoot the in-game stuff actually in-game. I'd been following machinima off and on for years, and knew people were getting some decent results out of WoW. To give Trey an example of what was possible, I showed him The Return. That was enough to convince him to have us give it a shot. So, we called Blizzard, and since they are fairly nearby asked if they could send some folks out and help us do a test. They were very excited by the idea and sent over 3 people with a GM client and we shot some test footage. We tried to match a scene from our Anime episode to see what kind of challenges we'd be up against. The biggest problem that we found was that Trey wanted to have exact lipsynch and a great deal more expressiveness and acting out of the characters then was really possible using in-game emotes. So, the episode was tabled with the idea that we'd probably have to develop everything ourselves in order to get the level of detail and expressiveness that Trey required.
Eric Stough: The idea of doing a World of Warcraft show came from Trey pacing around our office. When he's stuck on a show or is thinking through an idea he paces around the cubicles. One day about a year ago he was walking around and noticed about half the staff playing World of Warcraft. Junichi, his friend from college who animates for us is an expert at it. Trey then bounced around the idea of the four boys getting destroyed by some guy in California.
Q: What inspired the storyline? Naturally it's taken to an extreme like all South Park comedy, but how did this particular story start and evolve?
ES: Junichi's (Junichi Nishimura) addiction was the inspiration for the show. In between animating shots for SouthPark, Jun is always playing Warcraft. For years it was Diablo. We would all tease him about having no life. One day he moved on to warcraft and now in the game, he walks around and helps players out giving them spells and weapons. At one point we were going to have the four boys become so intimidated by Jun that they were going to travel to California and blow up his character's computer. We almost did that to Jun when he was playing Diablo. We were going to toss his computer off a cliff.
Q: How were the custom animations created? How were they used inside of World of Warcraft - were they imported back into the game? What hardware/software did you use?
JJ: When Trey started thinking about how he wanted to start off the current run of episodes, he really wanted to do something big, and new. So, the idea of the "video game show" as we were calling it, resurfaced. We had a production meeting at Trey's house on Friday, Sept. 1st, and went over all the experiments and design work we had done to date. Once again, the idea was brought up of using WoW to shoot the in-game footage, with the added possibility of re-creating the characters in Maya, the 3D animation program we use to produce the show, in order to do close ups with full lipsynch and facial expressions. I mentioned that Blizzard had been very eager to help us when we ran our initial tests, so perhaps they'd be willing to let us use their own character models as well, which would save us a great deal of time and effort. All we would have to do then is re-rig the faces so we could animate them to the degree needed.
Eventually, it was decided that we would push forward in both directions, starting to model our own characters as well as contacting Blizzard and seeing how interested they would be in participating. We met with several people from Blizzard on Thursday, the 7th of Sept. and it became obvious that they were extremely eager to make this happen, and seemed willing to do whatever they could to make sure it did. Luckily, they also use Maya to do their in-game character animation, which meant we would be able to just grab their files and go, in theory. So, we asked them for a couple of their Maya character rigs to test with. Less then 7 hours later, we had male and female models for every race in the game, all fully rigged with every single animation cycle already assigned. It was exactly what we needed to get started.
After that, we started the actual design process were Trey decided what each of our character's in-game characters would look like. Once we had that all figured out, Blizzard sent us Maya files matching those designs exactly, as well as set up accounts for us that had those same characters set up and equipped to match. So, we basically ended up with in-game and Maya versions of the exact same characters which allowed us to cut back and forth between in game footage, and footage we animated and rendered ourselves.
ES: The NWBZ PWNR with his head bashed in was really the only thing we needed to create and that too was modeled and rendered in Maya with image plane backgrounds taken directly from the game.
Q: What was Tristan Pope's role in the creation of this episode?
JJ: Tristan was our primary "camera man". He operated the system that did the actual video capture and whenever you see the camera moving, more then likely it's Tristan's fingers making it go. As for the rest of the "team", here's the credit list from Blizzard for that episode. All these people were involved in making the episode a reality:
Chris Luckenbach, Corey Pelton, Joeyray Hall, Tristan Pope, Terran Gregory, Joanna Cleland-Jolly, Brandan Vanderpool, Shane Dabiri, Robert Foote, Lee Sparks, Carman Cheung, Mauricio Hoffman, Steve Aguilar, Jason Zirpolo, Bob Colayco, Lisa Jensen, Justin Thavirat, Joe Rumsey, John Cash, Alex Tsang, Jesse Blomberg, Matt Samia, Nick Carpenter, Mike Morhaime, Frank Pearce, Paul Sams, Chris Metzen, Rob Pardo
FA: Tristan Pope played a very big role with all of the in game footage that we shot. Tristan was kind of the assistant director to Trey. Trey would block and stage the action that he wanted to get out of the scene with Tristan. Tristan would then walk the Blizzard crew through it and do a couple of tests before Trey would call out "action". Tristan had a tough job because he was taking orders from Trey, Matt, Eric myself. Tristan was awesome.
Q: How long did it take to capture, puppeteer, and edit all the WOW footage?
JJ: Uhm... A really really long time. We decided early on to treat the in-game capture sessions as regular film shoots. Our "set" ended up being the lobby of the studio we produce South Park in. We rented 12 PCs, set up a bunch of folding tables, and were basically good to go. I decided that it would be best to capture on a Mac, since we would be able to capture directly to a quicktime file, which would make getting the captured footage onto the editing system a lot quicker. So, I hauled my shiny new MacPro out into the lobby and spent the next two weeks in a much bigger, if less private, new office. We had 5 "shoot" days, the first on the 20th of Sept. which lasted about 3-5 hours. The next was on the 26th of Sept. which also lasted about 4-5 hours., and then we shot almost every other day up to the last few days of production Monday and Tuesday were full days, with the last day going from 10am Tuesday morning to around 3am Wednesday morning the 3rd of Oct,, the day the episode aired. We have been producing our episodes in this fashion for years, routinely finishing within 12 hours of the episode going on the air. One of the neat things about the process was since we were capturing on a Mac with SnapzPro, we were able to output a quicktime file that then could immediately be imported into our AVIDs for editing. So, Trey would shoot for an hour or so, and then cut what he just shot right into the show to see how it was working. If he liked it, we moved on, if he didn't we re-shot. It was all very dynamic and fast paced... Shooting the in-game scenes seemed like a natural extension to our normal process as it allowed for the same rapid iteration and experimentation that have become integral to the South Park way.
Q: What kinds of problems did you run into during the WOW filming? Do you have any funny stories of quirks or goofing off or things gone wrong or just not working?
JJ: Oh there were several little glitches we ran into. Everything from lag, to having random players walk into the area we were shooting in (we shot on the Burning Crusade alpha server...), the all-too-frequent stuttering frame in the captured footage, to even tripping breakers because we had too many computers on one power strip. There were lots of moments of wackiness as well as the Blizzard folks got to show off just how well they knew their game. One moment that sticks out to me is looking at the capture computer and seeing a gnome female filling the frame. I though, "Wow, she's really close to camera". Then she started to move and I realized she was actually very far away and was about 150 feet tall. Was definitely a moment of "Whaaaa?"
ES: The tough part was trying to get the in game characters to "act". They are limited and stiff. For example, it was hard to get them to stop on their mark. Trey said it was a lot like working with the puppets on Team America. He swore he would never do that again...and once again, but this time he was working with computer puppets. He still says it's better than working with actors. As for goofing around, the game players would have to wait awhile in between takes so they would challenge each other to duels and tell each other to go screw off by using game chat. They would break into dance and balance themselves on top of fences.
FA: Just to give you an example of how easy our relationship with Blizzard was, Trey had written new new pages just a couple of days before air that had Stan's dad, Randy came across this Uber sword that was the answer to killing our villain. Later that day the Blizzard crew was in working with us so we approached them about swords and of course they had exactly what Trey wanted. Ask and we shall receive.
Q: Did the same production/animation team work on the WOW footage or was there a separate team for the WOW footage? If separate, how was that team structured?
JJ: Yes, the same animators and technical directors who work on our regular shots also got to work on the WoW stuff that we rendered ourselves. They all seemed to enjoy the change of pace. The South Park style is very specific and unique, so it was refreshing to be working in true 3D, using IK, and all the other goodies we normally have no need for.
FA: It was our entire South Park staff that worked on the WOW footage. We had some experts on staff that are WOW players. We even used some of our guys to shoot the in game footage. There were a couple of times that we needed a few extra players for the shoot so we pulled a few of our animators to sit in and play. Needless to say they were so excited.
Q: How would you compare making South Park's traditional animation with making machinima "animation"? Was one method easier than the other, or more interesting, or...?
JJ: Well, as Trey said when we wrapped up the last "shoot", this is definitely where animation is headed. I know that there were frustrations, but most of them were mere technical limitations that can and hopefully will be addressed in the future. Things like the ability to record an individual character's performance, and then have that character give the exact same performance each take would have been very useful because that way the performances could be treated almost like sound channels in an audio mixing program or video clips in an editing system. The ability to have full control over every single aspect of what is being seen in frame has got to be any director's ultimate dream. Combine that with the extreme flexibility of a virtual environment, and there quite literally is no limit to what could be done...
ES: The set up for machinima animation takes a lot longer. Originally we were going to try to produce our own video game that the South Park characters play. But we usually produce South Park in a week and there's just no time to create our own backgrounds, props and characters. We were so relieved we could use the warcraft world to tell our story.
FA: It was different for us to tackle the 3D animation shots versus the traditional 2D animation stuff that we do. It took three full weeks of production to produce the WOW episode and it takes us six day normally to put a South Park episode on the air. It is much easier to produce South Park style animation than the Machinima animation. Although if you gave us some time to figure it out, I'm sure we could. We have the fastest crew in Hollywood.
Q: How did you set up the independent server? How did you get permission and assistance from Blizzard to do this?
JJ: We didn't have to set up our own server. Blizzard was kind enough to let us use the alpha server for their upcoming Burning Crusade expansion, so not only did we have a fairly controlled environment, we also got a sneak peek at the new goodies!
ES: The Blizzard team gave us a special "friends and family" server to play on. Every once an a while a strange player would walk by and check out group the filming. The programmers could instantly kill a player that got in the way of filming. There's a player out there wondering what they had stumbled upon just before they were wiped from the location.
Q: Who determined how the characters would look in the game? For example, who decided Cartman would be the dwarf and Kenny the S&M-looking dude? Or should I say, why did the kids choose those particular avatars for themselves?
JJ: That was all Trey. He sat down with Tristan and the WoW Model Viewer and they just hammered it out. Trey would have a specific look he wanted, like Stan being a knight, and then they would just browse through the models and find something that Trey liked. All the "main" characters were specified by Trey. The rest of the background characters I made by just hitting randomize until I saw something I liked.
ES: Trey sat with the Blizzard team for about an hour and had free reign with the characters. We tried best to pick out close colors and match funny personas between our characters and the Warcraft characters. Kenny was the hardest. We wanted to find a character that had something that muffled his voice. Every character reminded us too much of the character we used in our anime show so we decided to go with something different. We made him the Hunter whose mouth was visible but we thought it was funny that his voice would still be muffled through his computer's microphone.
Q: Why would the kids choose to be Alliance rather than Horde?
JJ: Well, one thing that Trey had always been definite about was to have Cartman be a dwarf. It just fit too well to not have it. So, that automatically made everyone Alliance so they could be all playing together...
ES: We figured it was easier for our audience to relate to the alliance characters. Especially the fans who don't know what World of Warcraft is.
Q: Is everyone on the staff addicted to WOW now?
JJ: Actually, several of our staff were already addicted long before the idea of the episode was even brought up. I'm sure Trey walking around and seeing it being played all over the place helped a little in the inspiration for the episode. I personally had stopped playing WoW almost a year ago, but am now once again hooked. My paladin, Piousity, just hit level 43!
ES: I think 75% of our office is addicted to the game. Me and the rest of crew stick with Hello Kitty Island adventure. It gives us more of a chance at having a "life".
Q: Is there more machinima in the future of South Park? Perhaps a little GTA or something ultra-violent?
JJ: Only Matt and Trey could answer that. They are the driving force behind the show and everything starts and ends with them. So, maybe, maybe not It all depends on the story they want to tell. From my point of view, things will only get better in the Machinima world and an eventual merging of the two is completely inevitable.
ES: We'll continue making shows about games. Everyone here loves to play games and we're excited about the new platforms coming out. Hopefully a South Park GAME will come up that the fans can have fun with.
FA: You never know. Now that we have pulled off the impossible production wise, it gives Matt and Trey room to branch off as far as stories go. We will see what the future brings.
Best. Myndflame. Interview. Ever.
Videos and images provided courtesy of South Park.
Special thanks to Michael O' Connor at South Park Studios for helping us coordinate the interview.