Marvel Heroes Art Director Josh Book Talks Designing The Game And Directing The Opening Cinematic
Last week when the Marvel Heroes online game was getting ready to go live the opening cinematic for the game was released. It impressed a lot of people. After watching it ten or fifteen times, I had to talk to the people behind it. After a quick search I found out it was directed by Josh Book. Besides directing the spectacular opening, Josh Book was the game’s art director. I contacted Mr. Book and asked if he would talk to us about his work on the game. He was kind enough to oblige and we got down to some of the work it took to make the game. We talk about the design process for the characters and their costumes, what went in to making the opening of the game, and if that could possibly lead to the team working on a Marvel cartoon. The one thing I heard over and over was people commenting on how that should be the template for a future Marvel show. We got you covered. Read on to see what it takes to bring a game to life.
The game has launched and the opening cinematic has been making the rounds on the web. How does it feel to have it out and in the open? The response I’ve seen has been fantastic so far.
It’s awesome how positive the response has been! It was a lot of work by a lot of people to make it, and I’ve personally been working on it to various degrees for many many months, so it’s great to have it out in the world. Fans are loving it which is very exciting for us!
You were the art director for the game. How did you land on a lot of the designs and styles for what we see in the finished product? I mean there are limitless possibilities with the way things change in comics. How do you start to tackle something like that and did you have some freedom with it?
For the characters specifically, yeah their designs change a lot depending on the artist, era, etc. I wanted to have a timeless and historic take on the characters and their costumes, so we comb through tons of reference, seeing how they’ve been depicted through time, and what fans (and our team!) remember over the long haul, and look at how to solve inconsistencies or problem areas in designs. A lot of the time artists take shortcuts when drawing, so we’d have to compare a bunch of different images to figure out what’s happening when you turn the character. Some characters, like for the new Marvel Now Cyclops by Chris Bachalo (I love his work!), we got his first two sketches of the costume, when that’s all that existed of the design. They weren’t fully realized to the detail level we need to sculpt it in Z-Brush super zoomed in, so we had to analyze the quick line work and translate what that means when sculpted, if it were a physical costume we were going to wear. By the way we heard he loved our take on it, which was awesome. Working hand in hand with Marvel and it’s artists has been great.
From a design standpoint, Marvel Now Thor is one that I think looks awesome in game. That was another one where we got really early sketches and designs, before they were completely settled, so that’s a very exciting time to work on them. They’ve never been fully realized to the detail level we create them, or existed in CG model form. The high contrast color areas of the black chest and boots against his arms, the little bit of metal accents on the thighs and helmet and shoulder medallions, and of course his giant deep red cape – it’s awesome.
For gameplay, Scarlet Witch was one of the first ones that had a power where we all just went nuts seeing it. Her Chaos Tempest power, which affects almost the whole screen, is great. And her Ultimate Power is so creepy and cool, and I like how it gives a shoutout to an important story point in her history.
On the other side of that coin, was there one that was giving you a lot of trouble before everything was said and done?
The Iron Man 3 movie armors were a bit of a challenge due to their complexity, but they were very exciting to work on. Marvel sent us the all the Iron Man movie armors from the visual effects studios that worked on the 3 films (as well as The Avengers Movie Iron Man armor), and we had to rebuild them to the game specifications. Taking that much detail and getting it to our resolution took some great artistry by the team. But they look spectacular in the Unreal Engine. And of course it was awesome to get to sneak peek all the armors way in advance.
You directed that stunning opening piece. Now obviously there is a lot to what you do and there are a lot of hands involved, but people may not understand what a director does for these types of things. Could you give us the rough and tumble description of what your job entailed?
I was directing all of the motion comics cinematics for the game, which are like moving storyboards with very limited animation, but I wanted to take this to the next level. The script was so epic I felt the visuals needed to match, so I pitched it as full 2D hand drawn animation. Though I’m most known for directing CG animation, I love 2D, and honestly with the amount of shots and story moments I wanted to show, it would be too costly in CG. So I got everyone on board, with one note from Marvel. They wanted it to be bookended with the Watcher and Doom in CG to fit in with the style of the game. I thought that was cool. Watcher’s memories, his visions would be in 2D, and the “present” would be in CG.
So, I took the script, and I started thumbnailing out shots on the printout. Going through, planning out shots, cuts, what I wanted to show. I didn’t want it to balloon into too long of a runtime, so I thought of how do we concisely get a lot of feeling of the character and show their origin quickly. So after thumbnails I worked with my concept artist Nino Navarra who storyboarded the opener as well as all the motion comics. We’ve worked together for years now doing this so I can do simple scribbles and describe the shot I’m looking for and comes back with these great storyboards. I then edit it together to time and temp audio to create an animatic. This is when we can see how it plays out, feels, edit as necessary. Here the road between 2D and 3D/CG forks a bit.
For the 2D animation, I wanted to work with Titmouse. I was a fan of their work, and they were super excited to work on the project. I sent them the animatic, and some style guide type of stuff, examples from similar works, visual targets, lighting info and descriptions of action taking place. They took the animatic and broke it down and planned out how to attack the different segments. We made some changes from the animatic, some for economy of animating, some to punch up the sequences a lot. Then Juno Lee, the animation director there for the project, did character designs, and we started getting rough animation coming in soon after. I’d get shots in, make notes, send them back, get changes, etc., until we got the final awesomeness you see onscreen.
For the CG animation, we had a very small in-house team. I did previs for the CG in Maya myself, so the team could see where we were going with it. I did all the character animation, so when I blocked in the animation I was able to put in temp VFX, just spheres and columns for the beams, so the VFX development and animation could start early before final animation. Because of the relatively tight timeframe we had to work in parallel, but we had a pipeline that supported simultaneous animation, lighting, and VFX. Our lead character artist Tyler Fermelis modeled Doom, did the final modeling on Uatu, and also did most of the lighting and compositing on the piece. VFX was handled by Scott Kennedy, with some additional work by Clint Thorne. Eddy Piedra did the character rigging, and did the cloth work as well. John Dawson built the environment. Really because of the content, mostly acting and performance of two characters, that tiny group was able to deliver some great looking visuals.
The sound design was handled by Force Wick in Japan, who did all the motion comics as well. Our score was original, composed by Mark Griskey, and the dialogue was recorded by Studiopolis in LA, who’s done all the voiceover work for the game. Casting was by our producer Matt Group who’s produced all the audio for the game as well.
So Brian Michael Bendis is the chief writer for the game. He’s written for about every medium imaginable for Marvel, so what was it like getting the script in from him? How did you all work with Bendis, was it pretty tightly mapped out or was it a little more collaborative?
(Spoilers ahead). Working with Brian on the project has been great. The script for the opener was one of the first pieces Brian wrote for us. We were all blown away when we read it. Doom kills the Watcher – that’s just crazy! And it had origin moments of the Marvel heroes. As a lifelong Marvel fan, this was a dream project to get to direct.
I worked with Brian on all of the motion comics cinematics I directed as well, so there was trust there, which was great because there ended up being a good amount of collaboration on the ending of the opener with Uatu and Doctor Doom, with both Brian and TQ Jefferson from Marvel. The main thing I thought was that Uatu wouldn’t just go to try to reason with Doctor Doom. He’s watched this guy for long enough to know that wouldn’t work. So I asked around, if Uatu has any sort of cosmic power, and several people said, yeah, he has a lot, he just never uses it. I then pitched that alright, if Uatu is so in love with the Marvel Universe and humanity that he’s going to break his vow and interfere, and he’s really desperate, he’s going to really bring it, with all his power. Fans haven’t seen that before from Uatu, so it’s an exciting moment.
You packed in A LOT of origin stories into four minutes. Was there talk about who should be included? The origins are for some of the bigger guns, but the final little sweeping shot of Uatu’s monologue packs a lot of heroes in there.
For the origin stories, that was all mapped out by Brian as to which heroes were in there. Visually I wanted to show glimpses of the heroes beyond their origin moments, and show a little bit more of the heroes they became, so I added in shots such as the Fantastic Four fighting Galactus and Spidey versus the Green Goblin. For the final lineup shot I chose all those, featuring the announced playable characters in the game, (or summons like Groot), plus some from the earlier story moments (like Ant Man and Wasp), and some others… Gambit’s in there. A lot of people have noticed that. I can say no more. Ha.
You worked with Titmouse Animation, who people probably know from pretty much every Adult Swim show, for the 2D animation with the CG being done with an in-house crew. What was it like working with Titmouse for those portions? That was a pretty great contrast using 3D and then the 2D animations.
Yeah Titmouse was awesome to work with! It was very exciting to see new work come in from them every day. They are such a talented studio. Juno Lee was the animation director for the project there as I mentioned, so I worked mostly with him and producer Ben Kalina. Juno did all the character designs and a ton of the animation work himself. I went down to Hollywood and worked with them onsite a few times, which was great to be able to collaborate and direct in person. The rest of the time it’s lots of notes back and forth, seeing new stuff show up every day. It’s like Christmas every afternoon! I’d love to work with them again in a second!
The CG was done in house by a small crew. I’m really happy with the quality we were able to get with a handful of people while we were trying to finish the game. I animated the characters for it, so I was very busy at the end of production prior to game release.
The one comment I see over and over again about the scene is that it should be a TV show. Let me asks this to you two ways: 1) You’ve worked on TV shows before, but would you be interested in working on a Marvel show? 2) While it might not be possible for you guys and Titmouse to go and make a new Marvel show right now, is there a possibility of seeing some more cinematics at least? It’s safe to say the demand is there.
Absolutely I’d be interested in working on a Marvel show at some point. Right now we’re making more content for the game, and this is a lot of fun, but these characters are some of the best on the planet to work with so I’d love to do more animation with them. It’s my preferred storytelling medium.
I’ve seen all the comments about people saying that TV shows should look like this, which is a great compliment to us, but I don’t want it to be at the expense of my TV animation industry peers. I would like to point out that TV has a lot of limitations we didn’t have to work with. Proportionately we had much more time and money for the opening cinematic, it was much closer to a direct to video or feature film project in terms of the attention given to it. I was working on this to some degree for months and months. On a TV series at Nickelodeon for instance I was often involved in a half dozen episodes at the same time, you just can’t give it the same time or attention, and budgets are less which affects quality of the work.
Regarding more cinematics, I’m definitely going to try to push for it! Yes I’d say the demand is there. The more people support it/like it/share it/demand it, the more likely it is to happen.
What’s next for you? Are there some more things with this game coming up we haven’t heard about yet or are you working on something else that’s coming up?
Oh yeah, we’re already making more stuff for Marvel Heroes. More costumes, new characters, there’s always more stuff to add to the game. There’s just so much to explore in the Marvel universe! I don’t sleep much, so personally, I’ve also started an animation studio called Mighty Yeti Studios, focused on creating original content and IP development, that’s creating interactive storybook apps for kids for the iPad and tablet markets. I have animation industry friends illustrating them, and we’re moving into the interactive aspects of production now, targeting for a fall release for the first apps. So I’m staying busy, and having lots of fun.
Our thanks again to Josh Book for taking the time to talk to us about the game. You can play the game for yourself at MarvelHeroes.Com. If you’d like to tell him how awesome the game is and how great that cinematic he directed is, you can find him on Twitter @Josh_Book. You can find out more about his past, present, and future projects on his website JoshBook.com. The game is really very good and we’ve gushed over that cinematic enough. I hope Mr. Book has the chance to direct another one or gets to work on a different Marvel project. You can really tell how much he loves what he’s doing and he pulled off something that’s hard to do when it comes to games and animation- pleasing the fans. I’ve ventured into all parts of the web and I haven’t seen anything that wasn’t complimentary to both him and the team behind the game. What do you think about what what Book had to say? Do you hope he gets to bring us some more Marvel goodies?
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