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November 13
2018

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Jenna Ruth: Raising the Creative VFX Level in MARVEL’S SPIDER-MAN

By WILLIE CLARK

Jenna Ruth, Associate VFX Artist, Insomniac Games

Superheroes may be used to crushing the Hollywood box office, but  their track record isn’t nearly as solid when it comes to licensing those same properties to video games. Disney – now the owner of the whole Marvel enterprise – has had its own ups and downs in the video game market, and for the recent adaption of Spider-Man to the PlayStation 4, the company turned to Insomniac Games. For one member of the game’s development team, this wouldn’t be the first time she got tangled up in Spider-Man’s web. Jenna Ruth, 29, is an associate VFX artist at Insomniac Games, and worked on Marvel’s Spider-Man. But VFX wasn’t the first stop on her educational path.

Spider-Man in action in Marvel’s Spider-Man video game from Insomniac.

“VFX for games is not a very publicized profession. It’s not something a lot of people think or know that you can do.” —Jenna Ruth

Ruth’s humanities and fine arts background would eventually lead her to VFX. Before working on web-slinging and then virtual reality. She first got a liberal arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College in New York. She was “figuring out life and loving art, but not really wanting to be a starving artist,” Ruth says. “I had always grown up playing games, but I didn’t even really know, ‘Oh my God, this is something you could do for a living.'” Meeting people who worked in game development – and going to PAX East [games festival/convention] in 2013 – changed that for her. “I hadn’t actually been playing games for a couple years, and just seeing that community and how vibrant they were, passionate about games, it was really inspiring for me,” Ruth says of that convention. Ruth returned to Los Angeles that same year, and attended the Gnomon School of VFX. Even when she left there, though, her focus wasn’t on VFX, it was on environmental art. “I feel like VFX for games is not a very publicized profession,” Ruth says. “It’s not something a lot of people think or know that you can do.” It wasn’t until she was working at The Rogue Initiative as an environment artist that she finally dipped her toes into VFX. “We actually didn’t have an effects artist at the time, and so I took one class at Gnomon, and I was super shocked to discover that I absolutely loved it.” Ruth joined Insomniac Games in November 2016. Insomniac Games has long made a name for itself in the gaming sphere, being the studio behind the classic Spyro the Dragon franchise. Insomniac also developed the Ratchet & Clank and Resistance series, and released Sunset Overdrive in 2014.

Spider-Man swings.

“There was definitely a really high bar we set for ourselves [in developing the Spider-Man game] in terms of the fidelity of the visual effects. We were looking at Marvel movies and really wanting to hit the same level of fidelity in our cinematics as something pre-rendered. That was our ideal goal.” —Jenna Ruth

Aside from their gaming accolades, the studio was also named one of the 2017 Best Small & Medium Workplaces by Great Place to Work in Fortune. The company’s most recent title, Marvel’s Spider-Man released in September for the PlayStation 4, and met with huge success out of the box. According to USA Today, the game sold 3.3 million copies in its first three days on the shelves. This set a record for Sony, and made Spider-Man the fastest-selling first-party video game in the history of the company. USA Today also estimated that the game made more in its first three days than the Spider-Man: Homecoming film made in its opening weekend. Ruth actually worked on previs for Spider-Man: Homecoming as an intern, giving her the unique role of having worked on both the Marvel movie and video game. Of course, the game wasn’t developed in a vacuum where Marvel movies didn’t exist. Ruth says that they were really trying to make the game experience as much like film as they could. “There was definitely a really high bar we set for ourselves in terms of the fidelity of the visual effects,” Ruth says. “We were looking at Marvel movies and really wanting to hit the same level of fidelity in our cinematics as something pre-rendered. That was our ideal goal.

A fisted Spider-Man confronts adversaries.

“Effects are maybe seen as a little more interchangeable. I’m looking forward to more artistic specificity in effects supporting the style of the game.” —Jenna Ruth

“On the one hand, there are cinematic effects, which are very much about the cool factor and the [movie] feeling. On the other hand, we have gameplay effects, which definitely presented some unique challenges. For example, it’s a world of very variable scale, there’s a lot of stuff on the ground, and there’s the combat. You can also traverse extremely quickly through this gigantic city. So there was a lot of focus on conveying gameplay information,” she adds. One challenge was the game’s pause map, which used the imposter New York City’s geometry. “When you’re in the open world, like below the lowest LOD for buildings, there are imposters, but they’re 3D imposters,” Ruth says. Ruth worked on the shaders for map screen, and also worked on most of the Spider-Man suit powers. She was also involved in brainstorming the powers from inception, something that isn’t always the case. Prior to Spider-Man, Ruth worked on Crowe: The Drowned Armory, a VR title which released both on Oculus and Vive. The VR market is expected to reach $202.2 billion by 2022, and major players such as Facebook and Sony have already entered the market.

Peter Parker

Mary Jane

“What I enjoy most has to do with being able to mold and shape the emotional experience of the game through the craft of VFX, but also how VFX really apply to game design and user experience, and getting to shape those parts as well.” —Jenna Ruth

For Ruth, however, there’s a big difference to approaching a game that’s going to be played in virtual reality and one that isn’t. Guiding the focus of the player was a challenge, and the immersion of VR can lead to player’s getting distracted. “It was kind of a trade-off between the amount of focal points you wanted someone to be focused on, and how flashy you wanted those to be,” Ruth says.

Spider-Man jumps.

For VFX artists, Ruth thinks there is a benefit of being able to use VR creator tools. “It’s a proxy between the difference of looking at a photo of a sunset and watching the sunset,” Ruth says. “I think there’s a lot more information you absorb about it. It really sped up my iteration process, being able to see my effects in VR rather than just on a screen. Especially [since] making something in VR is amazing for its scale. Like when you’re looking at a wave versus standing in the middle of a wave crashing on the ocean – it’s just a completely different experience.” Ruth is just shy of hitting her one-year anniversary at Insomniac, and her career is just starting. Young though she may be, Ruth points to Elemental Magic, Volume 1: The Art of Special Effects Animation by Joseph Gilland as being important in her career. “Before I read that book, I had a lot of trouble finding effects tutorials that weren’t just how to use this tool, but rather how to think about the animation principles, or the manipulation of forces or energy being exercised on forms and matter. So I had all these raw ideas and I was looking at other references, and reading that book really helped me develop a methodology of how to even think about working on this stuff in a really creative way,” Ruth says.

Spider-Man shatters glass.

Spider-Man flips to avoid harm.

Looking ahead, there are always technical reasons to be excited about the future for VFX in games. But aside from that, Ruth, not surprising given her artistic background, also has her eye on the artistry. “Effects are maybe seen as a little more interchangeable. I’m looking forward to more artistic specificity in effects supporting the style of the game,” Ruth says. For Ruth, the games that she loved playing always left an emotional impact. And now she’s able to work on doing what she can to use VFX to reach those same ends for other players. “What I enjoy most has to do with being able to mold and shape the emotional experience of the game through the craft of VFX, but also how VFX really apply to game design and user experience, and getting to shape those parts as well,” Ruth says.


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