Monday, November 13, 2006

TA-ncient History #8: Destroy With Care

The intro movie for Total Annihilation was a pretty important piece of work. This was the first impression we made when players launched the game and it was the only piece of snazzy video we would display at the humble little Cavedog corner of GT Interactive's booth at E3 that year.

The cut scenes were headed up by Kevin Pun. He started with a rough framework centered on a long, continuous pullback I tossed together, but added an amazing amount of drama and wonderfully orchestrated motion to the final sequence. Kevin created a huge chunk of the assets used in the introduction. He also incorporated models and animations from the unit artists, and a small team we added specifically to help out with the cut scenes. The movies came together so quickly the intro was extended by about one third at the last minute, incorporating new shots largely created by Rebecca Coffman. Cavedog was the third job I'd been at with Kevin and Rebecca, and it was a pleasure to see them kicking so much ass.

Page one of Kevin's storyboard for the final intro movie.

It's amazing how well most of this sequence holds up today. The movie was made by a handful of folks using relatively simple, inexpensive tools, but it delivers a great sense of action and anticipation.

Two excerpts from the original storyboard.

Once the final animation was rendered, a few dissolves were added using Adobe Premiere. The sound effects were added by Frank Bry, using an early pass of the theme music for Total Annihilation (by Jeremy Soule, of course) as a backdrop.

The question at this point was about what sort of media to use for E3. This was before DVD's came along. Plenty of video displays at E3 were still played off various formats of magnetic video tape, which necessitated rewinding your cool eye-catching movie every so often. To avoid that I asked if we could burn the intro sequence to a laser videodisc. I figured this would avoid the risk of jamming or wearing out and the movie could just be set to repeat all day.

I owned quite a few laserdiscs, but had no idea how to go about getting a single one-off disk made. It wasn't hard, but there were lots of little steps. First, I had all the individual frames for the movie rendered and numbered sequentially. We didn't have a CD burner in the office (we were that low budget) so I had to transport the frames on a stack of Zip disks. I took these, along with a stereo .AIFF file of the soundtrack to video post facility in Seattle, called Pinnacle Post. They combined the frames with the soundtrack and recorded the assembled movie to a betacam tape. This was FedExed to a facility in New England where they burned a single laser disc, containing the intro movie.

Make that two disks. I found out that unlike regular laser discs, a one-off was burned onto glass. Instead of the typical aluminum and polycarbonate plastic used for CD's, DVD's and regular laser discs, we would receive a disk made of perfectly flat, brittle glass. I had a bad feeling about that. Between getting shipped back and forth across the country, sent to E3 and the chaotic process of setting up the booth in Atlanta, I just knew something would happen to that lovely circular mirror containing our movie.

The shockingly reflective intro movie disk.

I was right. A teamster sat on one of the disks while the booth was under construction.

The version of the movie shown at E3 was slightly different than the one that shipped with the game. We hadn't done the full orchestral recording of the soundtrack yet, so the music was an earlier synthesizer-based version. It sounded pretty convincing to any casual listener, but lacked the punch of a real orchestra. We also hadn't recorded the narration, so the introductory voice over was accomplished with on-screen text.

Back to the story... The surviving disk played perfectly and we didn't have to worry about looking up to see if a tape needed rewinding. Next to booth babes, the most common way to lure dazed attendees into your booth at E3 is a mind-numbing display of sound and video. We had a fairly small screen, and the audio was almost impossible to hear, but the little TA intro movie did it's job. I couldn't believe how many businessmen would walk up to the big screen and dutifully record the intro movie on their camcorders -- and never once turn around to actually play the game itself.

That was fine, since lots of people wanted to play Total Annihilation anyway.



The thing said...

Blog rocks... woo-hoo!

Admanta said...

Clayton, thank you for all of this history you have given us. We in the TA community have never had a much of a history of the game from the developers side of things which makes your blog so important to us.

corncobman said...

I wonder what would have happened if the other disc was damaged...

Anyway, awesome stuff yet again. You never cease to amaze and delight. More. MORE!!!!

Ahem. Yes. Carry on.

mattGamer said...

thank you man for this info! really brings back the memories of the old TA days.

keep the posts, i wish i could find other developers blogs that explained so much about their previous games.
beblessed and cheers!

Clayton Kauzlaric said...

You're all quite welcome. Thanks for the encouragement -- We aim to please here at Ton of Clay.

corncobman: I think there may have been a backup plan to use a regular VHS version if the laserdiscs both perished before E3. Fortunately, that didn't happen, though I'm still kinda paranoid about breaking that thing.

george said...

Please, kep the posts.I never saw so interesting stuff about my favorite game!

Jeannette said...

A couple of years ago, when we were blue-skying a TA successor at one or another of the fan sites, I suggested a moviemaker mode. I was so impressed by the intro movie I thought it would be ultra cool to be able to make movies ourselves - and with the advances in animation software and processing power since 1997, that's not a ridiculous goal.

Please keep the stories coming, Clayton. It's fascinating to see what goes on behind the scenes...which is why I always buy the two-DVD set of a movie if there's one available. I ended up buying "The Fellowship of the Ring" twice. First the initial issue, and then later the expanded version. --AMRAAM

Garrett said...

Amazing, it would be really cool if you could give the TA Community a higher resolution version of that video..

Hmm.. Additionally, do you think there is any chance that you could orchestrate the TA source code falling off the back of a truck? Probably not, but hey, I can dream.

Clayton Kauzlaric said...

I've been thinking about making a fresh capture off that laserdisc. If I do, I'll be sure to post about it and upload it to FileUniverse. I'm not sure when I'll have time to get to that, but I'll keep it on my ever growing to-do list.

Sorry - I don't have the TA source code!

Ilja said...

Thanks very much for writing this blog, Clayton - it's very interesting reading; TA had no small influence on my teenage life!

You guys did a great job...
I always thought TA was a very underrated game; the wonderful on-line community, and continued popularity, so many years on, are testament to this.

It's very cool to read some of what happened behind the scenes!

george said...

Hi!If possible, can you show any hint or image about some never delivered TA units like the Core laser battleship?
Many thanks for all great stuff!

CamTarn said...

Awesome series - it's a really interesting story.

I can't believe TA is about ten years old now. The graphics haven't aged too well, but I still haven't found anything which can rival the versatility of the gameplay.

It's also rather nifty seeing some names in the comments from the old Cavedog forum community :)