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September 27
2018

ISSUE

Fall 2018

Who Are the Rock Stars of Video Game VFX?

David “DJ” Johnson

“For everyone [on my list], when I hear their name, an image is conjured of a moment in gaming where something astounding was created – something better than I had ever seen before.”

—David “DJ” Johnson

By DAVID “DJ” JOHNSON, CEO/Creative Director, Undertone FX

In the film industry, when it comes to Visual Effects, there are names that we all know. We know exactly what they worked on and where they made their names. They are legends: Dennis Muren VES, ASC; Ray Harryhausen; Richard Edlund VES, ASC; Stan Winston; Paul Debevec; Ed Catmull VES – the list goes on. While your list might differ a bit, this is part of mine.

So who are those people in the games industry? In video games, we are more than anonymous. We are the few in the trenches working on our passions. We don’t often show up in behind-the-scenes videos. We are rarely named in any of the gaming awards. But there are incredible talents out there that are doing what I and others consider to be some of the most cutting-edge visual effects in the game industry. I would like to call out some of these people. They are the legends that I look up to and aspire to emulate. A few of them I’ve worked with, and a few I’ve competed against at the VES Awards. But for every one of them, when I hear their name, an image is conjured of a moment in gaming where something astounding was created – something better than I had ever seen before. These are some of my legends of gaming VFX, and what stood out in my head as making them each rock stars.

Robert Gaines, Call of Duty 2

I remember everyone in the office I worked at huddled around a TV showing off this game and all of us admiring Robert’s work. It was a WWII level set in Russia, and in it you planted explosives, then from afar detonated a building and saw it come down. We were in awe. It was beautiful. The smoke plume left behind was gorgeous.

It eventually led to me applying at Infinity Ward and working under Robert for a few years. I’ve learned more from Robert than from any other person I’ve worked for or with in games. His critique was always on point and he came up with ways to work that I’d never seen before – time looping iteration, first-person in-context FX placement via the console. I’ll always consider Robert a mentor for what he taught me about creating video game effects.

Robert Gaines

Sascha Herfort

Sascha Herfort, RYSE: Son of Rome

There were a number of ways in which RYSE shined above anything I’d seen before. The siren character caked in dried mud with warpaint cracking off was stunning. The facial animation pipeline they developed was amazing, sharing the same setup across gameplay and cinematics. But the sequence where the warship crashed into the shore with sails tearing, ropes flying everywhere – it was destruction on an eye-popping scale. They implemented an Alembic GeomCaching pipeline. When this was shown at the Game Developers Conference the following year, I scrambled along with several other studios to play catch up. A new bar had been set. Sascha has now moved over to the film industry where he works as a Creature TD at ILM.

Marijn Giesbertz, Killzone Shadow Fall

Killzone Shadow Fall also had a number of advancements that truly amazed me, such as its approach to forces I hadn’t seen in a real-time engine before. Some of the cityscape fly-ins were absolutely gorgeous. The producers at Guerrilla Games were early adopters of PBR lighting. They were using motion vectors (functionally optical flow) to get higher-resolution effects textures early on. But the scene that really floored me came late in the game where gravity was going bonkers. All of these building bits were flying around the sky. It was the answer to “What if there were a massive destruction sequence, but instead of falling, everything just swirled around and you could fly through and run around inside of it?” I was truly astounded.

Marijn Giesbertz

Alessandro Nardini (Photo: Andrea Arghinenti)

Alessandro Nardini, Call of Duty: Ghosts

Alessandro comes from the film industry and is back in it now, but we were graced with his talents for Call of Duty: Ghosts. After seeing the work [leading technical animator and director] Chris Evans did in RYSE, we had our sights set on seeing how far we could push destruction in a game engine, and Alessandro was just the man to pull it off. The opening level shows you running through the streets and houses of a town outside San Diego, where a ‘Rod of God’ has just struck nearby (a non-nuclear kinetic rod dropped from space that does as much damage as a nuke). As the streets are cracking and dropping out beneath your feet, you run through houses that are being torn in half and witness buildings collapsing into the chasm. Alessandro won a VES Award for his work on this sequence, and it will always stand out as a high point in my career to have worked with him on it.

Matt Vainio, Infamous: Second Son

Second Son is what you get when phenomenal artistry intersects with powerful tools. It says something when, of all the games in this list, Infamous is the only one whose showcase of outstanding work revolves around core systems effects (the abilities of the player) rather than one-off set-piece moments. The player smoke, neon dash, and other gameplay effects are all brilliantly executed. Particles are emitted off of the entire player body with proper coloring, and transition to beautiful ribbons and ash with an insane amount of density and curl noise. When the team at Sucker Punch Productions showed off their tools at GDC and a VES event in Seattle, the audience was awestruck.

Matt Vainio

Tobias Stromvall

Tobias Stromvall, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare

The level in Infinite Warfare called “Dark Quarry” has you running around a ruined mining colony on an asteroid as it plummets into the sun. This level takes on a horror tone as the asteroid spins (it was thrown into a death spiral by an enemy nuke), and the day and night cycles (usually continuously powered by solar panels) cut out and reactivate in 90-second cycles. When you look or step outside, you can admire Tobias’s work. It is a hellscape. Boulders the size of houses crash all around you, and molten lava is tossed around in the air and splashes across the path you’re running on. Debris, hellfire and chaos erupt everywhere. And the all-too-large sun on the horizon, when it zooms past overhead, is beautiful with solar flares and a motion-vectored boiling core. Remarkable work by a magnificent artist.

Janne Pulkkinen, Quantum Break

When a new game is announced and its trailer is as impressive as Quantum Break’s was, there is often a healthy dose of skepticism. We collectively assume that it was pre-rendered and “inspiration” for what they want to achieve in real time. It’s quite rare to have your expectations shattered in the way Quantum Break did. The time stutter and broken time effects were just insane – in real time, with actual gameplay. Environments bend and warp dangerously. Cars pause above your head mid-flight from a crash, threatening to move again and crush you. Beautiful particle treatments convey the disintegration of matter. The way audio inputs are distributed spatially creates a timing and jitter that is perfect – all with a cadence to it that left time feeling like it was trying to kill you everywhere.

Janne Pulkkinen (Photo: Katri Naukkarinen)

Kevin Huynh

Kevin Huynh, God of War

This latest entry into the God of War series took a much different tone. It’s already getting buzz as one of the best and most beautiful games of the year, and then their ArtStation art dump happened, and it became clear that many talented artists showcased their best work on this game. One piece stood out to me as probably the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in a real-time engine: an ice tree. For over two minutes, this sequence plays out with particulates swirling in the air, ribbons of leaves flying around, culminating in a breathtaking burst of ice energy above you that continues to swirl and channel to a crescendo where a ray of frost unleashes on the far wall’s door. The mesh trunk of the tree begins to grow toward the rift. Standing ovation for Kevin.

Every person listed above has pushed the envelope in terms of what’s possible in a video game engine. There are other names out there probably more well known in the games VFX community that I didn’t list. It’s not that they don’t also deserve recognition – this list simply comes from my experiences. Naturally, your list will differ from mine.

It’s also worth mentioning that many people worked on all of these shots. Games are a group effort, and often it isn’t always clear who to honor, as more than one person worked on segments. Kudos to the other artists out there who played a role in creating these moments. You know who you are.

So to those of you in the gaming industry, I ask you this: “Who are your legends in games VFX?”

“It’s also worth mentioning that many people worked on all of these shots. Games are a group effort, and often it isn’t always clear who to honor, as more than one person worked on segments.”

—David “DJ” Johnson


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