Your Shot: Peter Chung and Sung Jin Ahn 'Obey the Call' of Blizzard
This week, thousands of gaming enthusiasts flocked to Cologne, Germany to attend the 2017 Gamescon trade fair. Among the publishers and developers, gaming giant Blizzard was out in full force to show off new content, cinematics and features for their biggest titles.
Kicking off their panel for Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard released an action-packed short ‘Obey the Call,’ directed by animation legend and creator of Æon Flux Peter Chung, with co-direction from Titmouse’s Sung Jin Ahn. The duo worked with Titmouse to bring Blizzard’s recognisable characters to life in glorious 2D animation.
LBB’s Liam Smith caught up with Peter and Sung Jin to find out more.
LBB> Did Blizzard approach you with a brief? What was it like?
Peter> Blizzard provided a detailed script along with notes and reference images describing the style of animated short they were aiming for. I had completed an earlier short for Blizzard, Diablo III: Wrath, which they liked, so we started off with a clear common vision for what we would do. I suggested some changes which I felt would make for a more dynamic 90-second piece, and they were open to our input. For example, I thought we could begin right in the middle of action and they approved that direction. In the end, 90 seconds is not a lot of time to tell a story, so it was a challenge to fit in everything and for everything to be conveyed clearly without a lot of dialogue.
Sung Jin> Blizzard approached us with an idea of the message they wanted to convey for this animated piece. It was really amazing, because they came to the Titmouse, Inc. studio personally, so we could meet them and feel their energy. Overall, it was a very positive and inspirational briefing. They emphasized collaboration and really embracing creative freedom with the storytelling.
LBB> How closely did you work with the team at Blizzard?
Peter> We had regular phone conferences, then met in person when the team from Blizzard visited Titmouse to launch the project. We continued to update them on our progress through design, storyboards and animation. The purpose of the project was to introduce a set of new skins for their existing characters. Getting the look of our 2D drawn versions of their 3D characters required some delicate balancing between the level of detail that Blizzard characters are known for and what would be practical for hand-drawn animation. They have a lot of experience producing their own animation, so it was no problem getting them to understand the production pipeline and timely approvals. That isn’t always the case with clients. The feedback we got from Blizzard was always helpful and gave us an additional set of expert eyes to improve the final result. They are very tuned into the expectations of their audience, so we got many suggestions for specific poses and actions. I proposed showing Sgt. Hammer punching Zagara in the face precisely because it isn’t something that would happen in the game. For me, it was an opportunity to give the characters a life outside their usual arena.
Sung Jin> We worked really close with the Blizzard team, constantly communicating as the production started. Blizzard would even send us updated reference material as they were finalizing builds of their game character.
LBB> The film has such a distinct animation style. Can you tell us a little more about the techniques and processes you used?
Peter> For me, it was a chance to learn a way of doing 2D that was new to me. I’ve always drawn my animation on paper, whereas Titmouse has a completely paperless pipeline. They are very adept at producing a high volume of animation using digital drawing techniques. For this project, however, the look that we were aiming for was a classical full animation style, and we chose deliberately not to use a lot of the time-saving advantages of Flash animation. What we did not want is for it to look like a TV show. The characters have loads of line work, shadows, highlights and complicated weapons. I stuck with working in Photoshop, which I normally use for storyboards, but not finished animation. The rest of the crew worked in Flash.
There were a few elements, such as the tank and the chains that were done in 3D. The camera work was all AfterEffects. So it was a mix of processes, which is pretty common these days. I think the final look and feel has a lot to do with the dark lighting and colour schemes, which reflect the level of the game we were depicting.
Sung Jin> Peter was the main visionary for the style of the animation. I mainly helped him and our team translate his design style into a full digital pipeline. We really wanted to have a very hand-drawn technique with the animation, but used programs such as Flash and Photoshop for the execution. It was, in a way, poetic and ironic at the same time.
LBB> Peter, you worked with Titmouse on Blizzard’s Diablo III: Wrath film. Did your previous collaboration make this project a breeze?
Peter> Diablo III: Wrath was a lot harder during the initial phase, as it is a genre that I hadn’t worked with before. Nailing the designs and storyboards was a long and circuitous process on that one. Having had that experience definitely made this one go a lot more smoothly. For the animation for Wrath I went overseas, with a Korean studio that worked on paper, so once we were in production I was in my element. I could foresee how much time it was going to take for the crew at Titmouse to accomplish the level of detail that would match the Wrath short. They were doubtful at first that it would really require the number of animators I estimated. What tends to happen, I think, is that a lot of animators can get very caught up in details once they are given the permission to draw detail. It always ends up being more time consuming than you think. Sung Jin Ahn, who is a veteran at Titmouse, took on a lot of the load. He did half the storyboard and supervised the animation crew. He’s pretty fearless, willing to try anything, and has the skills to back it up. So while not exactly a breeze, the experience was a real pleasure.
LBB> And Sung Jin, you’ve got quite the pedigree yourself, having worked on a whole host of animations for Amazon, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. What was it like co-directing with Peter?
Sung Jin> When my producer first told me that I would be working on a Blizzard project with Peter Chung, it was hard not to freak out a little bit. Both Blizzard and Peter Chung were large parts of my childhood and growth as an artist. So to finally collaborate with them was surreal. I was mainly super nervous working with Peter, because in my mind I was just some kid from a small animation studio and he was a legendary animation director. But as we worked together on this project, I feel like I got to know Peter really well -- he’s just a guy who really cares for his audience and wants to make the best experience possible. It was this driving force that gave us a common goal, and helped me realize that we are just a bunch of people, trying to do the best we can.
LBB> What was the most enjoyable part of this project?
Peter> For the animation crew, it was the chance to lavish an amount of time and care on each frame that they would normally not be allowed to, working on a TV schedule. For me, the part I enjoy most is the pre-production, when you are trying out different story ideas, storyboards and designs. You work to shape the material into something specific and focused. That is the main task of directing. That’s challenging and hard, but it’s the most creatively demanding. Once we get into production, it’s largely a grind. What I enjoyed at Titmouse was having almost daily meetings with the art teams and interacting and getting to know the artists. The animators at Titmouse are young and enthusiastic, and that’s always energizing for a director.
Sung Jin> Working with Blizzard was very enjoyable for me. As a professional, you get used to just having a back and forth with your client. But with Blizzard, it was genuinely collaborative.
LBB> What was the most challenging part of this project, and how did you two overcome it?
Peter> As I said, the hardest part is to decide on the final shape that you want the finished product to take. A script can be interpreted in so many different ways. A lot of game-related animation pieces tend to be what is unfortunately called “punch porn.” Glamorous and stylish action sequences of heroes and villains fighting for the sake of fighting, but with little sense of stakes or motivation. We knew we did not want that for this piece. We had to decide which character arc and story point to focus on. The goal is to show Jaina’s betrayal and transformation, which leads directly to the defeat of the “good” hero characters and the appearance of the badass boss. My method is often to work backwards. You imagine first what you want the final impression to be, then you work back to set up the earlier scenes for the final twist to have impact. So here, we end with the defeat of the heroes, which needs to come as a shock. Which means you have to show them looking confident and winning at the start. Otherwise, what can happen is that the audience can be left thinking “they lost - so what?”, which is not the impression you want.
Sung Jin> The most challenging part was translating the Blizzard characters into an animation style, and then animating them. Most of the characters had armour, and most of them had at least eight or nine skulls or lion heads on their design. It’s really hard animating eight skulls moving independently on one character! And the only way to overcome it was to just buckle down and draw through it all.
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