HOW A COMMERCIAL AND FULL-LENGTH FEATURE EDITOR DECIDED TO SWITCH GEARS, PURSUE A LUCRATIVE NEW CAREER EDITING TRAILERS FOR VIDEO GAME RELEASES, AND BUILD OUT AN AFFORDABLE EDIT SUITE THAT REALLY COOKED.
Times are changing, and for editors like me, that means we’ve got to change with the times.
Hollywood is clearly in a transitional moment as it figures out how to deliver its films – and make money from them – beyond the box office. Worldwide box office receipts hit a record 28.1 billion in 2008, but although Blu-ray and on-demand sales continued to rise, DVD sales were down by 10 percent. The prognosis for 2009, however, is even worse. Due to the credit crunch and dried up financing, film and television production has shrunk to all-time lows. In the past few months alone, many production and post facilities have gone bankrupt as a result.
The home video game market, on the other hand, continues to grow. As CNET pointed out in March, “The video game industry continued to defy general economic realities in February, posting a 10 percent year-over-year sales increase and a 10.5 percent boost over January.” Is it recession-proof? Development costs, as next-gen consoles evolve, can get expensive, and some bigger game studios have had to lay off workers to meet budget. But at Volition, the game studio where I now work, our development team is thriving.
Before I joined Volition, best known for games like the Descent franchise, I already had established a fairly successful career as a video editor, cutting commercials (one earned me a regional Emmy Award) and the 2008 feature, Fraternity House, on which I also served as DP. But when Volition approached me a year and a half ago to help create promotional trailers for its new game, Saints Row 2, I instantly saw how this could move my career in a completely new direction. The experience has been a revelation.
The biggest difference I’ve discovered in editing video game trailers is my access to footage. Most production editors are normally given a set amount of footage to work with and have to go down a long chain of command when they need approval for more. The video game world is completely different. There is no large production crew working on the project, so if you need more footage to make a certain sequence work, you simply fire up the game itself and use live capture to generate the needed footage. Did I mention that I also love playing computer games? The on-the-job rewards are obvious.
I’m fortunate to have had some solid experience as a videographer as well. I was the main shooter at TAV Productions in Indianapolis, where our “Positive Putter” commercial won an Emmy. Combine that with a background building edit systems and I knew right away what was needed for Saints Row 2.
Bringing It In-House
Game development is a much slower process than feature filmmaking. Before I joined Volition, all game ads were outsourced, which meant developers, still building out the game had to take that extra step creating instructions for other production companies on how to navigate the unfinished project. If these contract facilities didn’t understand the game, how could they create the high-impact multimedia that would showcase the game in the best fashion? With Saints Row 2, Volition decided to bring more control of the video production in-house. While this helped the company bring down the costs of outsourcing the trailers and advertising material, it also gave Volition greater control over the game’s video production and, more important, its promotion.
Building the edit suite was my first responsibility at my new job. We all agreed we needed to have the fastest and most reliable workflow available but that everything also needed to happen within our own computer-based production systems. I knew we couldn’t be Mac-based, since our systems had to interface with the Xbox 360 development kit on Windows. All of our hardware had to be compatible with Vista x64 to maximize all of the RAM we could afford to stuff into our workstation. There were constraints, however. Our limited budget couldn’t be stretched to the high-end HDMI to HD-SDI converters needed to ingest 4:2:2 YUV Xbox 360 footage from an HDMI port into higher-end capture cards. Also, since we had to keep the commercial sphere of broadcast TV in mind, analog capture simply would not suffice.
Every person on our team had to be able to view the game’s progress on multiple monitors in real time. Unfortunately, we couldn’t afford to provide them all with state-of-the-art HD displays. Still, each developer needed to be able to view the footage in the highest quality possible; we also wanted to split the output of our system so each developer could have his or her own screen.
I found the solutions to most of these problems last year at NAB, in the Blackmagic Design booth. To begin with, Blackmagic Design’s Multibridge Pro external PCI Express capture and playback solution was the only hardware system on the market that let me ingest footage straight from the Xbox 360, our target platform, digitally, at uncompressed broadcast quality. We needed that level of video purity because we never knew if our publisher, THQ, would choose to send the promo spots for our game just to YouTube or go all the way up to an HD TV broadcast. The decisions made while setting up our editing systems would affect the game’s visual quality all the way through the Saints Row 2 production process.
I had decided to build our edit system around Adobe’s Creative Suite 4 production package with Premiere Pro 4.01 editing software. The Multibridge Pro was great for ingesting the uncompressed video. I also found the render capability of CS4 was invaluable to let me capture video even when the editing system was rendering other material.
Gamers are a demanding audience. When we put out the early trailers for Saints Row 2 that showed off the game play aspects, we got a lot of comments from the fans. “Where’s the story?” many of them asked. “I don’t see any story.” Even though a fleshed-out story trailer wasn’t in the plans for a few months, I was able to start cutting one right away with the Multibridge Pro. That kind of flexibility still gives us an edge over those studios that outsource all of their video media because we can shoot high-quality footage, quickly conceptualize trailers – and respond to fan input – in the blink of an eye.
We had a very successful marketing campaign for Saints Row 2 as a result, releasing five full-length trailers during our promotional period last year. As of this January, our publisher THQ had shipped some 2.6 million units of the game. Volition is also planning to expand its production setup in the near future. Thanks to the native DVCPRO HD support in the Blackmagic Design Multibridge Pro, we plan to buy an inexpensive Panasonic HPX-170 P2 camera to add to our arsenal for shooting developer diaries for our community. We also plan to begin making Internet marketing materials earlier in game development, since we have more control over the media that goes out. More than just a game developer, we’ll soon be a viral video contender.
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