Chris Douglas, Production Designer
Q: From an artist's point of view, what are the differences between Wing III and Wing IV?
CD: We knew we had a shorter period of time to generate at least as much art work as we had on Wing III. We were looking at having to reuse as much of the artwork as we could. At the same time, we wanted people to feel they were getting a very different game — to look at the artwork and feel Wing IV had achieved a new level of quality. So we did a couple of things.
For one thing, we got rid of computer generated sets except in a couple of cases. Instead, we used traditional matte painting. That freed up a lot of time to focus on animations and the big, exciting pieces of artwork like starships exploding and cinematic sequences. That's a lot more fun that spending time tweaking cameras to get backgrounds for talking heads in conversations. We definitely have a lot more animation in this game than we did in the previous one.
Secondly, I think the animation is a lot better. In Wing III we're working with the 3-D animation package Alias, but we weren't very familiar with it yet. We were all learning and experimenting. Now we've all gotten into a groove where we actually know how to exploit some of its strengths. I think that shows a lot. The animation we have is more sophisticated, plus it's better lighted. The cinematics — the continuity and the film-making aspects of it — also improved as we got more familiar with that.
Since we had to reuse a good chunk of the Wing III spaceship, about half the ships were new, and half were old ships recycled from Wing III. On these, we went through and re-textured them, and also made some changes to the geometry, to spruce them up a little bit. We just put a lot of energy into it. Wing III was just 256-color, but in Wing IV we did it all in true color, with 24-bit texture maps. We visited Air Force and Navy bases, and the Lexington down in Corpus Christi, and shot lots of photographs for reference. That had a lot of influence on the way things turned out. The textures are just much more realistic. In a close-up of the fighters, you can see that there is often a world of difference between the textures of Wing III and Wing IV.
Q: Besides ships, are any other things animated?
CD: Most of our effect sequences, of course, are spaceships flying around and things exploding. We also worked where there was a lot of integration between the live action and cut sequences, like in the opening — times when the pilots are flying around, and you'll see both in the cockpit and outside at other things flying around. A fair amount of things like that, but you know, we aren't doing any character animation or things like that. It's all spaceships. Guns. Special effects. Explosions. Force fields. That sort of thing.
Q: What's the hardest thing to animate?
CD: In a Wing Commander game? Well, a lot of the effects gets pretty sophisticated — pretty complex. Like the shockwave explosion effects, with lightning arcing over the ships and particles flying out. Of course Chris Olivia is good at that — he was able to handle a lot of that kind of stuff. It's really technical and very elaborate. Really, the hardest things to animate on computer are characters, but we didn't have to deal with that much.
Q: When you make a special effect, for instance a shockwave, and you are staring at a blank screen, what stages do you go through to make it actually play?
CD: There's not any one way you go about it. You can start by layering shaders and geometry, image planes, lights with fractal fog effects, things like that. Layer textures onto textures onto textures — all the textures are animated, doing different things. It gets really elaborate. In some of the animations that Chris Olivia does, like the flash-pak effects, there are 20 or 30 different things going on at once. Different textures and lights and shaders will be animating at the same time, with objects popping in and out of existence. Then explosions get layered onto everything else.
Q: What tools do yo use in coming up with a spaceship? Is there ever a point where you are working with pencil and paper?
CD: Yes. This is where we get into the production design/art director thing. The production designer is in charge of the look-and-feel type stuff — the conceptual art, making sure that all the Border Worlds ships look like Border World ships, and all the Confederation ships look like Confederation ships, and that sort of thing. I do a lot of sketching. At ORIGIN, we don't do it to quite the extent they do in Hollywood, where they do many, many revisions of a sketch, followed by a full-color copy drafted up by a professional drafter with side views, and all that. You only need to do that when you're going to have four or five people working on the same physical model so everyone is working on the same plan. But it's stifling creatively.
If you are going to have an artist build a spaceship, I think it's good to have the sketches be a a little vague so later artists can put some of themselves into it. Even if they didn't design it in the first place, they can look at it and see that there is room for innovation. Artists should be able to feel like whatever they work on is partially theirs. It shouldn't be a mechanical task we've been given: "here's this, build it." So really, I'd like to have more pre-production to do sketches and stuff like that. Not just me; I don't want to do it all myself. I love doing it, but the more you can get the artists who are going to be building objects to do their own sketches, or at least doing their own color comps for things, the better. The problem is, doing that sort of stuff takes time. We didn't always have time to do it. We certainly didn't on this project.
Q: So you use pencil and paper to sketch it out, and then the producer gives the ok. Then do you begin building it directly in Alias?
CD: Yeah. We just go from the sketch and start building it up in Alias. You build your model first so you have all the geometry, and then draw up your texture maps to go with the geometry and map onto it.
For the actual space flight engine, you give some renders of the spaceship to one of the EOR artists (EOR is our in-house object-building software), and they use that as a reference to build a much simpler version of the ship, and texture from that. Each ship will have two actual versions — the high end, glitzy Alias mesh, and the much slower 200-face polygon EOR version that you actually see in space flight. You see the bigger, more elaborate ones in the cinematic cut scenes and special effects sequences.
Q: If somebody wanted to be an artist working in a game like this, what kind of experiences and skills do you think they ought to have?
CD: It's changing. We used to be able to just hire traditional artists off the street and train them to do the computer art here. Now, though, we've gotten to the point where it's hard to hire someone who hasn't had some sort of Alias exposure in school, or some other high-end SGI package like Wave Front that lets uss teach them Alias pretty easily. The learning curve on Alias is so steep it's really hard to train anyone. It takes a long time. I've worked with it two years now, and there's still stuff I don't know. If it's somebody who hasn't worked with a computer before, you can forget about getting into UNIX — it's pretty complex. It's easy to do a lot of damage if you don't know what you're doing.
Q: Do you have any plans on how to make the next game look bigger and better?
CD: To do more of the same. I think we've gotten to a pretty high level of sophistication with the textures right now, and now it's time to go back and put some more energy into the modeling, try to make it a little bit better. Plus, I'm working pretty heavily on my design skills, brushing up on them quite a bit. So we're hoping our conceptual designs will be of a little bit higher level, too. A little bit more elaborate and integrated.
Originally published in Origin's Official Guide to Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom, 213-216.