Released just over a week ago, the animated trailer for new zombie-based survival horror game Dead Island caused quite a storm -- receiving both plaudits and derision for its sombre, slow-motion narrative of a family being attacked by zombies.
The most controversial part is the representation of a child being chase by zombies, being bitten, turning into a zombie, attacking her parents and finally being thrown out of a window by her father. We sat down with director Stuart Aitken of Axis Animations to find out more about its creation.
The events are shown played backwards from the girl lying on the grass outside the hotel. The overall tone and the way it takes its subject matter seriously and imbues it with pathos taps into a recent tradition in game trailers that began with Joseph Kosinski's Mad World, Rendezvous with Death and Last Day spots for Gears Of War.
"If the emotional tone of trailers is becoming more three-dimensional -- or at least attempting to cover a wider gamut -- it's certainly in part a reflection of that intent towards more mature and sophisticated story telling within the games industry as a whole", says Stuart.
"There’s also the fact that the creative tools at our disposal have advanced rapidly," he continues, "and you require a certain level of technical sophistication in order to attempt to illicit more complex responses. We are constantly trying to raise the bar higher and higher in terms of what’s possible: both technically and creatively. It's natural that this involves trying to do things that are more subtle and harder to pull off."
The brief submitted to Axis by developer Deep Silver included an outline of the game with artwork and video, a short description of what they were looking for.
"The key points were that the trailer should feature normal everyday people coming under attack at close quarters from zombies in a memorable fashion," says Stuart, "that the zombie attack felt unstoppable from their point of view, and they were not specially equipped, or uncommonly proficient at dealing with this situation. We also had to get across a strong flavour of the island holiday resort where the game takes place. Above all we had to come up with something interesting that was going to get peoples attention.
Stuart's initial script put the family in a different scenario. Deep Sliver liked the concept of the family but wanted Axis to push the premise further, so the story as seen in the finished piece was conceived. Stuart describes the premise as "risky" and notes that to succeed, the execution had to be flawless. To ensure the end result would turn out as intended, Axis shot some motion-capture test shots and then worked out the camera angles and timing by roughly blocking out the test shots in Maya.
These pre-viz shots were then taken over to Premiere, slowed down the footage and reversed the main sequence -- intercutting with scenes from the corridor chase. Once the edit was finalised, 3D modelling and animation could begin in earnest.
Zombies have a long tradition in film and an associated set of trappings that even modern reinventions such as the popular US TV show The Walking Dead adhere too. In preparation for the trailer, Stuart says he watched a lot of zombie films, taking inspiration from the genre as a whole to create something unique rather than individual films or shows.
"I’m not aware of cribbing anything directly," he says. "It was important that we still had our own take on things, even if existing work did inform much of the dialogue we had about how the zombies should behave, how the contagion might take hold of a victim and so forth.
"Out of all the zombie films out there I would say the recent Spanish film Rec was maybe closest to the kind of thing we felt we wanted to do. Ironically even though it was on TV at the same time, I didn’t get round to watching any of The Walking Dead. it’s on my list of things to do now we’ve wrapped."
Stuart also looked outside of the zombie genre for inspiration, with Adam Berg's Carousel ad for Philips being an obvious influence.
Stuart says that he was surprised by the how much interest the trailer generated.
"The scale of the response more than anything just blew us away," he says. "The days after it was launched were very exciting as we started to see just how many people were commenting around the web, and it started showing up in places like Variety and the LA Times -- places that would not normally cover a game trailer release."
"I would say that although there have been several notable examples of commentators who didn’t like it much for various reasons, the general reaction has been overwhelmingly positive and even detractors tended to have a strong reaction to it, which is still a plus from my point of view since the piece was intended to be unsettling and provocative."
Axis is one of the leading creators of game trailers in the world, having producing stunning animated shorts for the likes of Killzone 2, Mass Effect 2 and Under Siege. Stuart puts Axis' success down to the talented staff they employ.
"We put a great deal of effort into hiring talented, clever, hard working and dedicated people who care passionately about what they do," he says, "and the quality of our work is a direct reflection of the directors, artists, animators, TDs, producers, coordinators, managers and support people here who make it happen.
"We are dedicated to making the best art we can, and we’ve chosen to specialize in this field ever since we started over a decade ago. I guess we got something right over the years."