3D models are the norm for video games.
But what if you want to make a game but don’t have industry standard digital creation capabilities? Well, you could spend years learning how to manipulate 3D models or you could try something else. This is how Germany-based game studio Slow Bros. spawned his first major game, Harold Halibut.
The story follows a human colony in the distant future that has been submerged in an alien ocean on a city-sized spacecraft for the past 250 years. The game follows Harold, an assistant to the ship’s senior scientist. Harold, his boss, and all the other characters in the game were created entirely by hand. Each character and environment was made of clay, giving their game a unique and real feel.
While clay models have been standardized in movies for decades with modern stop-motion-centric studios like Laika and Aardman, gaming is an unrefined space. Games have yet to standardize the making of physical models. Harold HalibutThe team had to create many standards to create a clay court video game.
Reverse spoke to Harold Halibut Tribeca Film Festival art director Ole Tillmann spoke about what it takes to create scenes for the game, how their lack of skills forced them to innovate, and what stop motion movies inspired the game.
Can you walk me through the process of creating a single scene?
We start by fantasizing and discussing a place, then we write a plan. I would sketch the scene. After having rechecked a concept with the team, I met our decor architect, Fabian Preuschoff. He would build the set at a scale of 1:10 from materials ranging from children’s clay to welded metal to weathered wood. Then it would be painted, “aged” via chemicals which create rust and other patina, dirt / dust smeared on the wall, etc.
The final product would be 3D scanned through a process called photogrammetry. This is where a bunch of photos are taken of the object so that they can be put together into a 3D model. Light, atmosphere and visual effects are configured inside this 3D scene in the Unity game engine and according to physics on a miniature scale. We then placed the characters and the objects they interact with in the room. The characters are animated by motion capture and the objects are either interactive or pre-animated by hand in 3D. Our final step saw us adding voiceovers, dynamic sound design, and music.
You made physical models for everything. Why choose to do this rather than copying a handmade aesthetic like games Little big planet and It takes two do?
It started with a lack of technical knowledge about alternatives like 2D animation / drawing or 3D animation etc. A handmade game was the only method of linear storytelling we had. The more we developed this plan of “hand-building” a video game, however, the more we realized the potential, even beyond the looks.
For example, the working method itself… we were able to chemically age the metal, let dust build up on surfaces, wet things, physically break things, etc. In addition, there is another type of commitment with no cancellation option. There is this immense wealth of detail in our photographic textures of these natural surfaces in general. There is an indescribable quality where people can recognize that other people have touched all of these things, both the characters and all of the objects. As sometimes, it can be a fingerprint left on a wall.
What difficulties did you encounter when choosing to make physical models?
Oh, full! Each new puppet that we complete would present a new set of difficulties. Just putting a long coat over one of our characters forced us to figure out how to animate it or apply some sort of physics rule to it.
We also encountered some characters wearing items that cannot be scanned like several pearl necklaces. When that happened, our character artist would need a few days to reshape it in 3D using the physical collar on his desk.
Usually we would drop things and they would break! We probably could have used a miniature splicer. It was also difficult not to have precursors for the process. Being the first also means that you have to understand a lot of things.
Despite our troubles, it was worth it.
Stop-Motion seems to have a big influence on the game, so which one inspired Harold Halibut?
First of all, the stuff we used to watch when we were kids, which includes the Sandmännchen (Sand seller), and a few other children’s specific programs made in Eastern Europe as well as the making of Polish, Czech and Hungarian films (many of which were reviewed and deepened in a film / art school). There was a show called Pingu that I don’t know where it aired, but it’s a cute clay penguin who has since become a meme.
I remember seeing a lot of special effects from stop motion movies at the same time Dinosaurs, King Kong, all the Star Wars ILM stuff. Wasn’t that one of the the Terminator even still stop based on movement? Finally, there was Celebrity Deathmatch on MTV, which I remember very well. Aardman (Wallace and Gromit) Robot Chickn, Wes Anderson and Laika films. If you haven’t seen it, take a look at Niki Lindroth von Bahr, a Swedish filmmaker… everything is fine!
Do you have a plan to preserve any of the models after Harold Halibut is finished ?
It seemed ridiculous to throw them away, so we carefully preserved them, especially since we have been working in our living rooms for quite a while, and even our office could never contain the mountains of physical things that we have accumulated over time. . But we dream of having some kind of exhibition.
Harold Halibut is the first Slow Bros. game, isn’t it? Will your next game use handmade assets as well?
Not necessarily. We are no longer dependent on it. But we’re also very into the groove now and feel like we’re able to fully wield the power of this style, so it would be silly not to. We are also considering using the technology for film making.
Harold Halibut is currently in development.