I directed over an hour of motion comics cinematics for “Marvel Heroes”. The game story was penned by Brian Michael Bendis, and starting with Brian’s scripts we storyboarded and cut animatics in-house. We worked with comic book artists for the artwork, and then animation and compositing was done by The Sequence Group. This unique style of storytelling was often called out as one of the highlights of the game both by fans and in reviews.
The Marvel Heroes opening/cinematic movie featured CG and 2D animation. The CG part was done by our small in-house team, and the 2D animation was done by Titmouse. We storyboarded and did the animatic in-house, and I did all of the CG character animation for Dr. Doom and the Watcher. It was really fun to work on, and the fan response was great, getting over 100,000 views in 24 hours. One of my favorite projects I’ve worked on.
As Art Director for the “Marvel Heroes” MMORPG, I had a team of 30 artists in-house, and oversaw all aspects of the game graphics. From establishing the style of the game, to working with Marvel on the characters and brand compliance, to overseeing the environments, animation, VFX, UI, and marketing assets such as key art and trade show booth displays.
CHARACTER VISUAL DEVELOPMENT
Based on my original pitch for the look of the game, and before I had built the art team, we started with the visual development of the characters. With the Marvel IP, we’d all seen these characters depicted hundreds of different ways, so it would be a challenge figuring out what OUR Spider-Man or Hulk would look like. I started out having several comic artists give us some character designs based on my pitch handout. Comic book artist and pal Sanford Greene did these amazing designs that really resonated with the development team:
We started doing some early exploratory character digital sculpting/modeling to see how the designs would translate into a CG model. I stared with Captain America as he’s a fairly straightforward superhero body type, and he’d be the average model, given the extremes such as Hulk (giant, bulky) and Spider-Man (shorter, wiry build). Here’s my handout for Captain America to start the modeling process:
Model development by Daveed Kaplan with my notes
Through the visual development phase of the project we did a lot of iteration on the character designs. You can see in this progression of Captain America designs we moved to a more traditional comic book look, with more realistic proportions, anatomy, design, and stylization. Marvel was very supportive of me in the evolution of the designs, and eventually we arrived on this look we thought aligned with fans expectations for the project.
While still in the early character visual development, the Thing was another character we developed as a CG model. Sanford’s design was awesome, but how would we translate it in to 3D? Here are some of my notes on the process:
We then worked on Ms. Marvel with sculptor Josh Singh. Here’s my direction for her model:
And here’s how her model progressed, with my notes:
We did a lot of work with the more stylized/animation look for the characters. You can see this lineup that existed in game at one point.
The silhouette variation was one of the stylistic pillars of the original pitch were definitely a big part of this design.
PIVOTING TO THE FINAL LOOK
Ultimately the final look of the game went a different direction, as you see below. During about a year of visual development, Marvel decided they wanted a more comic book influenced representation of the characters. They were looking at their larger entertainment portfolio and how our game would fit into it. The decision by the development team in that same timeframe to use the Unreal engine gave us the ability to have characters that would look better in a realistic style with a larger tech budget and Unreal’s real-time rendering.
When developing the original style, a large part of the discussion that was affecting the aesthetics was the technical pipeline and the game engine. We weren’t sure we were going to be using the Unreal engine for a good part of the project, so we were projecting to have more strict tech budgets/limitations for the characters. The above more stylized characters were designed to look good with these limitations. The below character aesthetics definitely took into account that we could have at least twice the poly budget of the characters above, and though it’s a different style from what I originally envisioned, I’m happy with how they turned out. A lot of the underlying ideas from my original pitch like pushing silhouettes and shape variation between characters and a bright saturated color palette persisted through to the final look, but were dialed back to fit the style.
Models below by Chris Anderson and Tyler Fermelis.
One of the aspects to the game that made the environment creation very tricky was the randomized levels. As a result, small to large set pieces were designed and created. We’d create images such as this one which we called “Disneyland maps” as a way to look at the features of a level and call out color progression through a level and the set pieces to be built. Art by Nino Navarra.
Some of my environment notes. Most of my notes were given in review sessions verbally (which is possible when you’re lucky enough to have the entire art team in-house on the project!)
(Left to right): Baxter building design sketch by me and ref images for deco look surfacing; Possible occlusion solutions mockup; How to fill New York with a wide range of different looking cars with the same underlying model geometry.
STORYTELLING IN THE ENVIRONMENTS
It was my job to make sure we had continuity between the game environment/world and how it was depicted in the motion comics storytelling. Quick drawovers to note changes to have everything align.
Though we had randomized environments, we had specific set pieces that set up story “memorable moments” such as this, where Eddie Brock uses the distraction in the Raft to break into a lab, unleash the Venom symbiote, and escape. I storyboarded it out and it was turned into an in-game cinematic triggered when you entered the cell.
ANIMATION AND VFX
With my background in animation, I was heavily involved in this part of the production. At the character planning meetings I’d help plan out moves and attacks, idles, fidgets, etc. In the daily animation reviews I’d give notes, trying not to injure myself while demonstrating superheroic moves.
I did some VFX design in the early visual development stages of the game production, but once we really got moving my role was directing up front in character planning meetings, and then giving verbal notes at daily rounds. With an IP as loved as Marvel, we had to get the flavor or spirit of VFX we’d seen drawn in the comics (and film and animation) working in our game and really feeling like each set was unique to each character and true to the source material.
Our first teaser trailer for the game was an in-game rendered cinematic, featuring Dr. Doom standing at the end of his castle hallway holding the cosmic cube. Here’s a mood board I created for it, with a frame of it as well.
Titmouse did an amazing job on the 2D animation for the game opening cinematic. Juno Lee did the character designs and most of the key shot designs. I gave notes on these mostly to keep the look consistent with how the characters were depicted in-game, and sometimes little adjustments to the shots. I love the work Juno and crew did.
For the UI for the game I didn’t want it just to serve a function or look pretty, I wanted it to have a story reason for it’s look that “made sense” in the context of the overall game. I discussed with Marvel various options (possibly having it based on Avengers, or Tony Stark/Iron Man tech, or Reed Richards and the Fantastic Four) but we decided on a high-tech interface that was created by S.H.I.E.L.D. This enabled us to have communications and missions be sent to the player by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, and this story framework helped guide the visual design. There were hundreds of hours of meetings to figure out usability, systems, and of course basic interaction, but it was super artist JK who crafted the final high tech look that really pulled it all together. Creating the hundreds of icons that had to summarize a super power in a 64×64 pixel canvas was a big challenge, sometimes having to get either very literal or very abstract with the concept and graphics, and artist Nino Navarra did the final graphics for them.
I made the logo for the game, actually 3 times, as we first changed names and then went for a different look. Final logo above.
I also made the logo for our studio within Gazillion called “Secret Identity Studios”.
For our first piece of major key art (right) I posed the characters in Maya, then the character team rendered them out, and we all worked on paintovers in Photoshop on different characters and I did the final compositing.
Our second major piece of key art was by Marko Djurdjevic and his team at Six More Vodka. They just knocked it out of the park. I gave minimal notes on behalf of Marvel and our team, but it was a just beautiful piece that was also a poster giveaway at some conventions. Amazing work, and great to work with such talent!
Our third piece of major key art was this stunning piece by J Scott Campbell, with colors by Nei Ruffino. A huge challenge because of several factors (it had to be divisible into three groups of heroes, each with an equal division of Marvel “families”, and just the sheer amount of work that went into it. Seeing it come in from the rough stages on was super exciting, and it was great working with J Scott.
Marko Djurdjevic / Six More Vodka
J Scott Campbell / Nei Ruffino
FOUR YEARS, HUNDRED OF CHARACTERS, DOZENS OF ENVIRONMENTS LATER…
My four years on the project were a career highlight. Working with the amazing Marvel IP, building out the art team, helping define the characters and powers, directing the cinematics, meeting fans at SDCC/NYCC/PAX, making new comic artist friends… what an amazing project, and a special dev team to be a part of!
I’ve established the CG look and animation style of several hit Emmy and Annie Award winning series for Nickelodeon and Disney:
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SHOW: THE PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR
STUDIO: NICKELODEON ANIMATION STUDIO
ROLE: CG CREATIVE DIRECTOR
Based on the characters from DreamWorks’ “Madagascar” hit animated feature film franchise, for Penguins of Madagascar I oversaw taking the characters from the movie theater to the TV screen for this Emmy winning series. Working with the fine folks at PDI/DreamWorks Animation, I gained insight into their creative choices through meetings and style guides and carried it forward to series.
I directed, pre-vized and storyboarded a CG pilot piece that successfully pitched both Nickelodeon and DreamWorks execs on the look of the series. Among my chief concerns were establishing what the characters and final look would be, and how high the animation quality could be while still working under the time and budgetary limitations of an animated television series. Everyone had to “buy in” to what we were going to be making, and they did.
Some of the changes we had to make for series included how to handle CG fur, which at the time was not sustainable for TV. We ended up with a modeled sculpted hair look which fit in with the strong character designs. The snappy pose to pose animation style of the film translated fine, and we were able to come up with a rendering solution that was quick and looked great. The show was one of Nickelodeon’s biggest hits.
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SHOW: TAK AND THE POWER OF JUJU
STUDIO: NICKELODEON ANIMATION STUDIO
ROLES: CG CREATIVE DIRECTOR, CG ANIMATION DIRECTOR
For Nickelodeon Animation Studios’ first in-house CG animated TV series “Tak and the Power of Juju”, I build the CG Department, developed the pipeline, and established the animation style and CG look of the show. This show laid the foundation both in crew and methodology for all the CG series created at Nickelodeon that came after it.
I started at Nickelodeon as a character animator on the Tak pilot. I expanded my role jumping into lighting and compositing after animation was complete, and was given the opportunity to oversee the CG when the show was picked up for series. The department grew from a handful of artists to over 50 CG artists, animators, and production team members working on multiple TV series. My role grew from Supervising Animator to CG Animation Director to CG Creative Director along with it.
I established the CG pipeline internally at Nickelodeon and worked with outsourced overseas studios in India and Korea, as well as in the US. When I left Nickelodeon we were creating 19.5 hours of high quality CG animation per year.
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SHOW: BUBBLE GUPPIES
NETWORK: NICKELODEON / NICK JR
STUDIO: NICKELODEON ANIMATION STUDIO (PILOT)
STUDIO: WILDBRAIN ANIMATION (SERIES)
ROLE: CG ANIMATION DIRECTOR (PILOT)
ROLE: CG SUPERVISOR (SERIES)
At Nickelodeon Animation Studios, I started on the pilot overseeing the animation, the look of the models and animation tech such as the method to animate the facial features in 2D animation on the 3D puppets. The series animation work went to WildBrain Animation up in San Francisco.
A while later I moved back to the Bay Area and the creators of the show asked me to contact WildBrain to help out. I was brought in-house and oversaw the CG for season one of this hit TV show for Nick Jr. I’ve also continued to create key art for the series through Nickelodeon Creative Resources in New York.
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SHOW: SHERIFF CALLIE’S WILD WEST (PILOT)
NETWORK: DISNEY/ DISNEY JR
STUDIO: WILDBRAIN ANIMATION
ROLE: CG SUPERVISOR
As CG Supervisor for the pilot for Disney, I worked with the series creators at WildBrain Animation to oversee the CG from modeling to animation and final composite. I also did some animation work and look development in a “pre-greenlight” period between pilot and series. The pilot was picked up and became a hit TV series for Disney.
I CG Supervised this commercial that combined live action filmed footage with a CG animated character. I was on set as we filmed at a beach near Hollywood, gathering all necessary on-set data. Then I oversaw modeling through final composite with the live footage.