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How Animation Directors Are Crafting Game Trailers


Le Cube director Ralph Karam takes us behind the scenes of the NARAKA: BLADEPOINT trailers

How Animation Directors Are Crafting Game Trailers

Game companies tend to have large and technically excellent inhouse animation teams, yet are increasingly seeking animation directors, often those best known for commercial work, to craft their animated trailers and cinematics.

Final Frontier and Le Cube’s anime-inspired short films for Netease’s martial-arts driven battle-royale game, NARAKA: BLADEPOINT are two such examples. ‘Crimson & Winter’ (2021) and ‘Gelid Yushan’ (2022) are both rendered in a style reminiscent of anime, animated in Le Cube’s signature dynamic style with fluid transitions, yet choreographed with the moves and sequences distinct to Chinese wuxia-style sword-craft. The films have garnered close to 2 million views combined on YouTube, with many enraptured commenters calling for a full anime series.

Ralph Karam, Le Cube and Final Frontier creative director, and director of both NARAKA pieces, takes us behind the scenes to shed light on the process of crafting game trailers and cinematics, and why game clients are seeking animation directors like him to craft their content.


Gelid Yushan is Final Frontier's second outing for NARAKA: BLADEPOINT, following 2021’s Crimson & Winter. What is it about the property that makes it such an exciting story and set of characters to work with?

Ralph> The moment we saw the references for the kind of piece Netease wanted to create, we were hooked. Martial arts projects are always fascinating, but the fact that it was Chinese wuxia, a new and unexplored storytelling genre for us, gave it that extra edge, not least because Final Frontier is HQ’d in Shanghai and has Chinese DNA. It was a natural fit and an amazing opportunity to go deeper into the culture. Besides that, we were excited to explore a classic visual language which we, as anime fans, grew up admiring and being influenced by, all translated into extremely dynamic and fluid action, which is what Le Cube loves to do. As our relationship with Netease has developed, we’ve seen first-hand that NARAKA is a game built from a place of real love for the genre and these particular characters, which I think shows in the depth of the game’s lore.

What are your first steps in translating a video game’s content into an animated trailer?

Ralph> To begin with I take a deep dive: I play the game, watch demos, read the game lore, and consult with the developers to gain a deep understanding of the world and the narrative and, crucially, to identify the key elements they want to showcase in the trailer. 


Does it matter if you personally play the game or not? 

Ralph> While I don’t think it's strictly necessary, it can certainly be helpful to give you a deeper understanding of the mechanics, story, and world, and can also help identify the game’s most exciting and compelling elements which you can use in the trailer. That said, it's not always possible or practical to play every game I’m working on, particularly if I’m doing multiple projects at once, or the game hasn’t been released yet. In those cases, I rely on game footage, concept art, and any other materials the client can provide to build a fuller picture.


How do you adapt the game’s aesthetics to create something fans haven't seen and which can inspire the imagination, without losing the game's core style and essence?

Ralph> For me, it’s vital to have a deep understanding of the game's visual style and how that contributes to the overall feel and tone of the game. After that, I explore how best to adapt the style for the film while still maintaining the game’s core elements. And of course, we always need to be mindful that we’re telling a compelling story. It’s a careful balancing act, and I love that challenge. For the NARAKAs for example, the most interesting creative challenge was developing a visual style that was unique and our own vision, yet accurately represented the world and characters, and the specific way movements of wuxia characters. 

How much is necessary to know about the game’s lore?

Ralph> It can certainly be useful to ensuring we are accurately reflecting the game's story and themes, but it varies depending on the specific project. If the focus is on a particular character, then I’ll want a good understanding of their backstory and motivations. On the other hand, if we’re aiming to introduce the game to a broader audience, then we’re usually just trying to convey the game's general premise, tone, and themes rather than delving into specific details of the lore. In NARAKA’s case, the lore is quite complete and complex, so it was a challenge to simplify the background story and not fall into something too explanatory, finding the right balance between the action scenes and the flashbacks that help maintain the context.

What was your starting point when it came to the visual interpretation of this 3D, hyper-realistic game, and translating it to 2D?

Ralph> The first challenge was to find a 2D art style with enough detail to allow us to reinterpret the most relevant elements of the game art, but that was also feasible to produce within the tight time frame. From the beginning, we looked at traditional Chinese illustrations as a reference, and the final touch came with the brush painting and textures, inspired by The Tale of Princess Kaguya.


What I love about that first film is the stylistic nods to traditional art styles, though without the thin, watery look. Can you talk me through that look, and the inspiration for the aesthetic of this new film?

Ralph> Our vision was to pay homage to the anime style without losing our own imprint and signature, making it feel classic but with a personal touch. We found that most of all in the art and aesthetic, playing with the colour palette and creating some graphic atmospheres that make the animation unique. It was a challenge to maintain aesthetic coherence, especially with the fine work of inks and textures, which provide a touch of craftsmanship and give the project its personality. The goal was always to ensure that it remained refined and carefully crafted, and to avoid it becoming rough or messy. Our experience producing the first film helped us to maintain aesthetic coherence for the second, especially with the fine ink and texture work, which ultimately gives the project its unique personality. 


Some scenes in the second film were created first in 3D then the 2D animation was done on top of that. Why did you approach it that way?

Ralph> Since the whole sequence basically takes place in the same environment, it made sense for us to build a 3D mockup of the set. At first it was just as a reference to help maintain the consistency between each shot, but after some R&D we came up with a lighting and shading solution that allowed us to use the render as a base layer that we could paint over. In terms of animation, the final film was a combination of 2D and 3D. We decided to still animate most of the film in 2D, to stay true to the classic anime technique and not lose that hand-crafted, imperfect feeling as much as possible. 

There's a lot of scale and drama in this film, from the cavernous setting to the imposing villain (and even more imposing dragon). How did you approach that?

Ralph> To reflect the magnitude of the battle, I wanted there to be a feeling of tension, an oppressive atmosphere of terror, and a constant, inescapable feeling of Ning’s struggle against a formidable opponent. We wanted that tension to build and intensify until the final climax.

What role does music play in both films?

Ralph> For ‘Gelid’, music was a key component in achieving the effect of building the tension I just mentioned. To intensify the feeling, we layered sound effects rather than going with melodic music. The style was informed by the tone we had already established in ‘Crimson’, where we combined classic European musical structure with Chinese instruments like the guzheng, erhu, gu, pipa, and the tanggu and bangu as main percussions. It’s worth adding that all SFx we used for the battle scenes comes from the actual game library.

What are your favourite scenes in both films?

Ralph> My favourite scenes in ‘Crimson’ are the flashbacks, particularly Ning’s, which is one of the most dramatic scenes of the film. Our idea was to reinforce the drama by playing with the lighting, using a strong darker approach, to create a powerful and dream-like, nostalgic atmosphere. In ‘Gelid’, I like it when the Mother of Kunlun looms forward and emerges from the shadows, fearsome, eyes blazing. Again, it was all about playing with the light and shadow and sound to create that chilling sense of dread. I also love the effects, which infuse the action with extra dynamism.


Why do you think game companies often seek design-driven animation directors - often those best known for commercial work - to create animated trailers, rather than working with their own in-house artists?

Ralph> I think because they can approach the project with a new set of eyes and bring innovative ideas and techniques that may not have been considered by the in-house team. Directors who are not part of the game company can bring a fresh perspective to the project, and having experience and expertise in creating visually stunning and compelling animations for commercial projects can certainly be valuable in creating a high-quality trailer that effectively promotes the game and generates interest among players.


Games adapted to live action - a few notable exceptions aside, like ‘The Last of Us’ and ‘Detective Pikachu’ - have been quite inconsistent and hard to pull off. One just needs to compare Street Fighter's live action movie with the classic ‘Street Fighter 2’ animated movie! On the other hand, we've seen how ripe gaming properties are for animated adaptations, both short form and long form. What is it about the creative cultures of animation and gaming that means that they're so in-sync and compatible?

Ralph> The cultures and subcultures at the foundation of the animation and game worlds not only cross over but are pretty much one and the same. The kids that grow up reading comic and graphic novels, devouring animation and anime, or even playing with action figures or top trumps, are gamers too. The fans and consumers and players, and in turn the people that go on to become artists and directors in these fields, are highly imaginative people, enthralled by visual culture, fascinated by characters, drawn to the esoteric, the wild and the fantastic found in these vast and exotic worlds rich with complex storytelling. Games have always featured animated elements to one degree or another, and with the modern power of computer graphics, that combination is more seamless than ever. It’s only natural that we’re seeing more and more animated series being produced from game IP. 


How does working on a gaming franchise differ from a more traditional commercial-type client? What might the rest of the marketing industry learn from that?

Ralph> Both types of client come with a more or less defined vision of what they want to create, and it’s our job to discover what that is, and execute. The main difference is that game clients tend to be working with an existing IP, which means you have those design and story parameters we’ve already mentioned. You’re developing a film that needs to fit into, and hopefully enrich, an existing canon of content, rather than craft a one-off film. In terms of dynamic, game companies tend to have an in-house team of very skilled artists and storytellers who work year round with this IP, so you’re often able to form a collaborative creative partnership, bouncing designs and ideas back and forth.


Why do you personally like to create game trailers?

Ralph> Trailers are often a would-be player's first introduction to a game, and a well-crafted piece has the potential to whip gamers into a frenzy and build anticipation to a fever pitch. I love the idea of being part of that. Besides that, creatively speaking, the idea of an entire world, with all its lore, complex narratives and character relationships, is something that’s always appealed to me. Trailers offer an amazing opportunity to tell a story that draws people into that world.


Which game(s) would you most like to create a trailer for?

Ralph> As a ‘90s kid, I would love to work on an adaptation of any of the classics. Super Mario, Mortal Kombat and Zelda are on my bucket list.

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Final Frontier, Tue, 16 May 2023 10:44:00 GMT