How Pixel-Threading and Other Animation Techniques Positioned the Xbox One X as an Industry-Leading Game Machine

Santa Monica, CA-based Blind has worked with the Ayzenberg Group agency on past Xbox launches and videos. But it was obvious from the start that the job of creating the release trailer for Microsoft’s new gaming console, Xbox One X, would be different.

Microsoft and Ayzenberg asked Blind to create a spot that reflected a genuine 4K gaming experience.

After a brainstorming meeting with Microsoft’s marketing and industrial design teams at the company’s headquarters in Redmond, WA, Blind Creative Director Matthew Encina recalls heading back to California knowing that he and his team needed not only to convey that the Xbox One X was the most powerful game console out there. They also had to design something that allowed viewers to experience the feel, look and sound of a 4K gaming experience in a way that hadn’t been done before. “They really wanted us to convey somehow that underneath the sleek exterior, a powerful brain is running, enabling rich details and clarity like no other console,” Encina says.

Using Cinema 4D, Maya, Houdini, X-Particles, Cycles 4D, Octane and VRay, as well as an effect they dubbed “pixel threading”— weaving digital pixels together to create high-fidelity 4K imagery—Blind created an artful trailer that captivated viewers when it was released at E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) in June.

Pixels surround the young gamer featured in the spot when she activates her controller.

Here, Encina and John Robson, who served as associate creative director on the project, talk about Blind’s process for concepting and creating the trailer.

StudioDaily: Blind used to be known more for motion graphics, but in recent years has done more brand strategy design. Can you talk a little bit about that evolution and what Blind’s been focusing on lately?

Matthew Encina: Though we have deep roots in design and animation, clients come to us today because we understand how to solve a wide range of business, marketing and communication problems. Whether it’s creating a brand identify, improving user experience or creating an effective piece of marketing content, we are able to pair strategic thinking with creative execution.

SD: How did Microsoft explain its vision for the Xbox One X trailer, and how did you boil down what came out of that first meeting to come up with concepts to show?

ME: Craig McNary, director of global integrated marketing for Microsoft devices and studios, wanted it to be clear that they were launching something that went beyond industry standards. Focusing on specific aspects of the hardware was important, but so was capturing the emotional feeling of 4K gaming. When you think of high-fidelity graphics, you think of lots of particles, detailed textures and high-end lighting. Trying to translate that drove a lot of the pixel-threading concept we came up with.

At one point, the trailer demonstrates the Xbox One X’s power by showing a gamer in front of a massive 4K screen.

SD: Say more about pixel-threading and the look you were going for?

ME: The concept was that pixels burst out of the console’s core and weave tightly together into a rich 4K visual experience. Since a core component of the spot was featuring fine details, we started by researching a lot of ads for 4K TVs, including a Vizio spot that John Robson previously worked on. To put a twist on that type of visual language, we also looked at unconventional references, and we ended up being heavily influenced by Nike commercials where the knitted materials come together to form a shoe.

Once the agency and client saw what we were doing, they fell in love with the idea of threading digital pictures together, so the next challenge was, ‘How do we animate this?’ We’d never done anything like this before, so we built a team that allowed us to test a range of techniques before we landed on something that we all loved. John thought we should use [Side Effects Software] Houdini, so he brought in Yates Holley to help us define the animation technique.

The spot uses pixel-threading to reimagine iconic game characters in 4K.

SD: John, can you talk about how you figured out the pixel-threading effect?

John Robson: Part of what I really like about working with the team at Blind is that we organize and crew up for projects based on what we feel we need. We think about what artists’ strengths are and who we work well with and then we start experimenting. We had an idea of what we wanted to do for pixel-threading but we wanted to invent our own language that was unique to our vision and the project. Interweaving abstract objects is cool, but it’s been done so we wanted to integrate programs and combine ideas from different artists. Every artist used the software they felt most comfortable with, which is something a lot of studios won’t do because they are locked into a rigid pipeline.

The Cycles 4D interface includes a node-based system and real-time render window.

We ended up using Houdini and [Insydium] X-Particles simulations out of Cinema 4D for the pixel threading effect. Rendering was done with Insydium’s Cycles 4D. We chose Cycles because we realized that we needed a photoreal rendering solution that included depth of field and motion blur, but we also needed something intelligent that could utilize particle attribute data from X-Particles to change the look of the particle over time.

Blind used Houdini with X-Particles and Cycles 4D to achieve the pixel-threading look.

Blind used Houdini with X-Particles and Cycles 4D to achieve the pixel-threading look.

Also, Cycles’ node-based shading allowed us to create very complex materials that piped in all kinds of data from the particles, which could be manipulated in different ways. For example, particles would glow hot when born and slowly cool down, changing color and glossiness to become glassy, fiber optic threads. Other particles would ignite when reaching a certain speed, like embers from a fire. It worked really well and I think this was the first major project the renderer has been used for.

SD: What was particularly challenging about this project?

JR: Every asset that we got from the game developers was a little bit different, so we had to use different approaches. The hardest thing was getting particles to stick to the surface of moving characters. Houdini eventually allowed us to get simulations to stick to the animated meshes, but we had to break up the geometry into different parts first, and then put the simulations on the animated rigs.

Particles were simulated over the mesh of animated characters.

Particles were simulated over the mesh of animated characters.

How did it go trying to combine so many different software packages?

JR: This is a great example of what can happen if you’re able to experiment and find out what works. As we started getting more into particles, we required very complex attributes, like needing particle colors to change based on age and speed. Cycles worked well for that, and we learned more about using Houdini in the process. I found I could create a wave that went across the surface of a character that created a point cloud that was a new way for particles to reveal. I also played with growth propagation so the path from each point almost looks like bacteria growing along a surface. This kind of exploration wouldn’t have been possible without the ability to combine different software packages and see what happens.

Blind’s artist workspace is designed for independence, as well as collaboration.

Blind’s artist workspace is designed for independence as well as collaboration.

ME: That was the beauty of working with John and rest of the team. Everyone had their own expertise and was able to look at what we wanted to accomplish and weigh in. There were suggestions all around, and this team had no ego about the software they used so all of that brain power coming together to find creative solutions was really great.