Videogame Cinematics aren't all spandex, velcro and Andy Serkis! Due to constantly evolving direction and assets, things change. That wall is gone, this character is taller...

In a large Studio you may only work on one aspect of a Cinematic (e.g. Cinematography or Lighting). In a small/independent Studio you're likely to work on entire scenes.

Phase 1 - Preparation
Stage Name Description
a. Script Unless you’re really lucky the Script will probably come from an outside source. Scriptwriters are mostly isolated from game development. They won’t have any technical knowledge other than a basic game overview. It’s your job to pick holes.

Read the script and familiarise yourself with the entire story, not just your scene(s). You need to be aware of the bigger picture.

Pay attention to…
  • Continuity
    Are dialog and actions in-character? Is everything in context? Are there any glaring mistakes? Is anything missing?
  • Confused messages
    Too many characters? Too much going on? Something doesn’t make sense? How do we clarify this scene?
  • Waffle
    Too much dialog? Doesn’t feel natural? Contrived? Too much exposition? What can we add/remove to refine the scene?
  • Time constraints
    Lots of unique props? Vague descriptions? Too many characters? Can we share assets? Do we need that Octopus?
  • Potential technical complications
    Long hair? Liquids? Extreme close-ups? Cloth? Can we do this in a different way? Do we still need that Octopus?
b. Research Watch movies and media related to the subject matter, even if you don’t like it. Get yourself in the zone. Don’t be ignorant!
c. Planning Each level will have at least one Designer and Environment artist working on it. Find out who and play through the level with them. They probably have requirements. Find out everything you can about your scene.

Most important are…
  • Continuity
    Is everything in context with the gameplay? Are there any glaring mistakes? Is anything missing?
  • Location
    Where does your scene happen? How should it play out? What does the set look like? Has it been built already? Do you need to make a placeholder?
  • Transitions
    Does the scene begin on a cut? Does it blend? In? Out? Both?
  • Character entry/exit
    Is the character running, walking or stopped? Are they carrying anything? Which direction do they come from? What happens directly before? After?
  • Mechanic constraints
    What can the character physically do at that moment in-game? Do they have this ability yet? What unlocks are active? What has been revealed?
  • Awesome
    Can we make it more compelling/awesome? How?
d. Storyboards We usually skip this stage as things change so much and we’re limited on resources.
e. Animatic Record yourself and your peers reading the dialog. In-character if possible. Use any media you can to make a rough Animatic of your scene, including:
  • Sketches
  • Storyboards
  • Screenshots
  • Video clips

This is a really good way to estimate scene length, timing and discover potential problems before you start.
f. First-Approval

Raise any problems that emerge with the relevant department Lead(s). Pay attention to the list in Stage a. because you’ll probably encounter all of these. Get the script altered if necessary/possible.

This is your first chance to make significant changes to the scene content, so make it count! Iron out all of the big problems before proceeding.

Phase 2 - Creation
Stage Name Description
g. Setup Create your source file. Everyone should use the same structure and naming conventions (ideally you should be provided with an automated way of doing this). Check what the conventions are – don’t just start creating files willy nilly.

It’s really important to set up your main source file sensibly. It’s not about being anal, just good practice, as someone else will have to use your file. Clearly name your content and make sure there’s at least one main control/object above everything in the hierarchy. You will have to move the whole thing at least twice.

Your main source file should contain the basic content for your scene:
  • Camera rig(s)
  • Character rig(s)
  • Prop rig(s)
  • Level geometry

If any of the above are missing let the relevant department Lead know.
h. Layout Using your Video Edit as reference do a really rough blockout of your scene. You’ll need to make sure you have the latest assets before you start. It’s your responsibility to make sure you’re up-to-date. Play around with camera angles and character positions until you’re happy. A few variations won’t hurt.

This is the first thing other people might see so it doesn’t have to be perfect, just presentable.

Layout tips…
  • Placeholder Sets
    Often level geometry won’t exist. Use basic primitives to create placeholder sets. Accurate proportions are important but small details aren’t. It can’t hurt to involve a Designer and Environment Artist to check what you’re creating is feasible. They have to make it!
  • Position Characters
    Keep the action around world zero. Try not to cheat/teleport characters – it can cause issues with physics, lighting and VFX (and can save hassle later)
  • Position Cameras
    Find the best angles you can to tell the story. Don’t be afraid to deviate or try something new if your Video Edit isn’t working
  • Animate
    Don’t pose characters at this stage unless absolutely necessary. Just slide them about
  • Variations
    Do a couple of different variations on the scene if you're having trouble deciding. Other people will be happy to give input and might even think of something you didn't
i. Second-Approval Review with your Lead and peers. This is your second chance to make changes to the scene content if anything still isn’t working.

You’re in a really good position here as you’ve not done a tonne of final quality work but have a pretty clear idea of where you’re going with it.

Ideally, all problems should be ironed out before proceeding.
j. Reference Video Record yourself (or someone who’s better at acting) performing your scene. Try to film from camera angles you’ll actually be using. You can use movie clips or YouTube videos but it’s better to be original and make your own acting choices. Edit the videos together and it’ll be great reference to animate with.

Filming tips…
  • Plan/Practice before filming
    So you have an idea of what you want and don’t waste your camera person’s time
  • Get someone else to film you
    Two heads are better than one. They can tell you if something looks wrong or isn’t working
  • Try to stay in character
    You want your characters to be as believable as possible, right?
  • Play the final audio (if you have it) on loop as you perform
    It’ll help with timing, emotion and emphasis. Use final dialog if possible. This will have a massive impact on body language and how you animate the character(s)
  • Use props
    Don’t pretend you have a sword, at least use a stick. Get dressed up if you can. Weight is important. The more accurate your performance the better the reference
  • Be mindful about what you touch
    Don’t be discouraged, just remember that touching things means more work for everyone. Is pushing that wall important? Is hugging that chair necessary?
  • Film facial reference
    Facial reference is really useful and it’s pretty safe to record later if you need to. I like to use scene-accurate camera angles rather than (the traditional) straight-on

(Those points, and more, also apply to filming/recording motion capture)
k. Third-Approval Share with everyone. This is the last chance you (or anyone else) will get to make changes to the scene content before it becomes a real pain in your ass. No-one else’s ass, just yours!

Changes are still inevitable, but from here-on-out they’ll eat into your schedule and mean re-doing work. As your scene progresses this becomes more time-consuming and complicated.
l. Blockout Using your new Reference Material animate the key character poses in your scene. You should also be able to animate final quality cameras based on the key character poses.

Your blockout should be a good, clear representation of your final scene.

Blockout tips…
  • Stage
    Use ‘Stepped’ keys for key character poses
  • Pose the face
    Basic ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘angry’ emotions will do. Nothing complicated
  • Use few controls
    This is the first ‘layer’ of animation so leave some controls untouched for later. Try not to use secondary controls
  • Pose the entire body
    Gives you a solid starting point and freedom to change camera angles even now. It seems like unnecessary work but could save hassle in the long-run
  • Cheating
    Try not to cheat/teleport characters – it can cause issues with physics, lighting and VFX. If you can keep the action seamless it could save hassle in the long-run
  • Final dialog
    If you don’t have final dialog, keep the poses open to change. A slight change in line delivery greatly affects body language
  • Sliding
    Keep (and perhaps improve) the character sliding from the Layout stage. It’s quick and can demonstrate movement where stepped poses alone can’t
m. First Signoff Share with your Lead and peers.
n. Implementation Ideally you want to get your blockout scene running in-game. Either as a video or (preferably) a real-time Cinematic. This will raise any problems with your setup or how your scene fits into the flow of the game. Which Game Engine you’re using will define the amount of work you need to do for this.

This usually involves…
  • Some file tweaks
    There are often a load of small, well-hidden, undocumented settings to change or adhere to before your scene will work. Search them out
  • Visual Script Editor setup
    Usually some kind of simple node setup is needed to trigger your scene or specify the duration
  • Exporting
    Files usually need to be exported as an engine-ready format
  • Building
    Files often need to be built for the engine to recognise them
  • Collaboration
    Designers are way more familiar with level graphs so it’s usually a good idea to collaborate with them to get your scene plugged into the main visual script
o. First Test Play through the game until your scene triggers. You just need to make sure it plays without breaking the game. This is really important – you can fix bugs later!

Phase 3 - Development
Stage Name Description
p. First-Pass Switch the keys to ‘Auto’ and animate your scene to a good standard. It’s normal to ignore facial animation at this stage.

First-Pass tips…
  • What’s on-screen
    Only animate what is, or directly affects what is, on-screen
  • Use few controls
    This is the first ‘layer’ of full animation so keep trying to use as few controls as possible
  • Cheating
    Try not to cheat/teleport characters – it can cause issues with physics, lighting and VFX. To be honest it's barely ever possible, but if you can maintain seamless action, all the better
q. Second Signoff Share with your Lead and peers.
r. Second-Pass Further animate your scene to an excellent standard. Again, it’s normal to ignore facial animation at this stage.
s. Second Test From this stage you should be able to easily re-export, re-build and re-test your scene in-game. It’s important that you do test to stay abreast of any recent gameplay changes that affect your scene.

It’s highly likely (nay, guaranteed) that things have changed and you’ll have to spend time re-doing work. This is usually due to a breakdown in communication between departments, or individuals not going through the correct channels. This isn’t great, and is extremely frustrating, but something you have to deal with.If something’s broken let someone else know. Find out who broke it. Chase it up. Submit a bug. Tell on them.

Common changes/breakages…
  • Scene has been moved
    This can happen if the story changes mid-development, or the levels get shuffled around. Usually it’s an easy fix and means re-exporting in a different location
  • Level geometry has moved
    The same as above. Whether it’s a small move or big move it means the same amount of work. Usually it’s an easy fix and just means re-exporting in a different location
  • Level geometry has changed
    This can be a bigger problem unless you catch it early enough. Especially if you have character interaction with the level geometry. Other departments don’t realise how big of an impact raising the floor by 1in can have on our work. So, in these cases, it’s best to talk to an Environment Artist and see if the change was necessary or if you can reach a compromise between what was there before and what’s there now
  • Characters have changed size/scale
    This can be catastrophic. Even a tiny change can cost weeks of work. Mostly, character scale is decided early, however in some cases it gets tweaked throughout development. This should not happen and is probably worth taking up through your Lead
  • Characters are invisible
    Check the size of the character’s bounding box. Is it on-screen? Is it disabled when off-screen? Has the rig been updated? Is the rig broken?

Don’t worry about fixing bugs at this stage, unless it breaks the game. And don’t check-in or submit broken content.

This is also the stage where other departments (e.g. VFX, Audio) may start working on your scene. Be sure to let people know if you make changes that might affect them. Letting them know beforehand is best but not always doable.
t. Third-Pass Start and finish the facial animation to an excellent standard. Reference is extremely important here as it can be tempting to animate every single mouth shape. Which ends up just looking wrong.

Facial tips…
  • Save poses
    Especially for long scenes. 10ish good mouth poses will save hours in the long-run. Traditional phonemes are a good start (M, P, O, U, F, S, A, E, K, relaxed pose)
  • Animate symmetrically
    Start symmetrically then, when you’re happy, add asymmetry. It keeps your graph clean and poses clear
  • What’s on-screen
    Only animate what is, or directly affects what is, on-screen
  • Do eyes/brows first
    Eyes are the most important aspect of facial animation so I animate these first. Eye performance may also mean further head tweaks for emphasis
  • Second, the jaw
    All mouth movement is driven by the jaw. Animating the open/close before moving on to the lips can be a really good starting point
  • More tongue
    The tongue is really important for properly emphasising certain sounds (e.g. ‘th’). Don’t forget to animate it. If characters or rigs don’t have tongues then try to get them added

Eye animation tips…
  • Avoid dead pupils
    Eyes are never still. They look dead when they are. Animate small, incidental darts and blinks even when a character is out of focus
  • Exaggerate pupils
    Eye movement can often get lost in CG. Sometimes exaggeration is needed to make it pop
  • Eye timing
    Eye and blink timing is really important, or it looks floaty and weird. 2-frames for a basic eye dart. 2-in, 1-hold, 3-out for a regular non-sexy blink
  • Head blinking
    Blinking isn’t just to moisten your eyes. If a character turns their head, or looks directly left/right/up/down, you’ll probably need a blink in there – right before the eye starts to move
  • Eyelids
    You hardly ever see the whites below/above your iris. Animate the eyelids up/down with every eye/pupil dart. It’ll look more natural and help emphasise the darts
u. Third Test Re-export, re-build and re-test.From this stage your scene should be >90% working, and looking good, in-game.
v. Third Signoff Share with your Lead and peers before Polish starts.From this stage your scene content should be >90% final. No further animation tweaks necessary.

Phase 4 - Polish
Stage Name Description
w. Lighting Some people see lights as a luxury. I think they’re a necessity. Adding and animating lights will set the mood and further ground characters in the world around them. Remember that the game itself already has lights put down by Environment Artists. Adding more can slow down the game so be vigilant. If your target frame-rate is 30fps and your lights bring it down to 20fps, you might have to do without.Saying that – in my experience – level lights never do the trick. Adding 3 lights per-scene is a good starting point if you can use them to good effect. Sometimes you’ll find yourself fighting against the level lights. In this case you might be able to switch them off (or talk to someone who can) for the length of your scene.

3 types of light…
  1. ‘Fill’ light
    This is usually a dim white light put behind the camera and in-front of the character. The idea is to reduce contrast and even out the tones
  2. ‘Rim’ light
    This is usually a really bright light, put behind the character on one side. The idea is to separate a character from a dark background. The colour is usually a 75%-white version of the sky colour
  3. ‘Key’ light
    This is a medium-brightness light, put in-front of the character on one side. The idea is to highlight a character’s form and add dimension. The light is usually the same colour as the dominant scene colour

Lighting tips…
  • Shadows
    You don’t usually need shadows for character lighting as this is handled by the level lights. And shadows are expensive. If you can, turn them off and your lights won’t slow down the game so much
  • Spotlights
    My preferred way of lighting characters. I find they are easier to aim, visualise and keep away from objects you don’t want lit
  • Point Lights
    Good for lighting environments or areas of a scene. Are hard to move subtly as they emit light in all directions

Of course you can use more/less lights, depending on circumstances.
x. Lens Effects These are also really important and can add some much needed visual/filmic fidelity to cameras. They include Depth-of-Field, Film Grain and Lens Flares (where only Depth-of-Field is absolutely necessary.) DoF lets you to guide the eye and focus out background/foreground nonsense. As with lights it can slow down the game so be vigilant about your settings.Unfortunately, good foreground DoF isn’t common in game Engines. But it’s used in the same way as background DoF.
  • Close-ups
    Usually you’ll have DoF up to the max for these shots. Close behind the character. It completely obliterates the background and keeps the eye focused on the subject
  • Group shots
    DoF should be about 10m behind the characters at 75% strength. This includes the background but still keeps the eye focused
  • Long shots
    DoF should be minimal here. 100m away from the camera and 25% strength at-most. We’re allowing the background to bleed back in
y. Polish The final stage is to make sure that your scene is perfect. Fix any bugs. Clean-up any small glitches, errors or mistakes before shipping.

Common glitches…
  • Lighting pops
    I’ve never used a game Engine that can update lights over 1-frame. This is something to be raised with your code Lead
  • Physics pops
    If you cheat/teleport characters then you’ll see lots of these. The solutions are either to make your animation seamless. Or speak to your code/rigging Lead about a control to freeze physics when the cheats/teleports happen
  • 1-Frame glitches
    Most game Engines don’t work on a fixed frame-rate. Meaning that, unless your scene keys are stepped, any interpolation between two keys may be visible and look like a glitch. Unfortunately, most game Engines don’t allow stepped keys either. Working solutions I’ve seen have been to pause the animation on the final frame. Split the animation into clips which play in succession. Or pause the entire scene on camera cuts.
  • Frame-rate issues
    In these instances you must compress animation, remove lights, disable VFX and cut down as much as possible without compromising the quality of your scene. If you’re lucky then the game Engine will let you compress specific joints for the duration of your scene (finger joints are complex and can be heavily compressed). If you’re not so lucky you might have to make do with a global compression setting where you have to find the sweet spot between perfect and poop
  • Animation compression
    All animations get compressed, which can result in 'floaty feet' or inaccurate animations. Sometimes it's possible for you to choose the compression or - in rare cases - choose compression on individual limbs. Either way you must balance what can fit in-memory and what looks accceptable.
z. Final Signoff Don’t do anything else. Apart from fixing bugs.

Phase 5 - Completion

Done. Finito. This is where you send your baby on for the VFX and SFX departments to do their thing. This doesn't mean your responsibilities are over... you must still keep an eye on - and periodically test - your scene(s) to make sure each still works as intended. Right up until the last day. Testers will usually find most problems as they occur, but only you have the depth of involvement to properly notice everything.