I recently heard about Double Fine’s documentary on the making of their Broken Age game. It’s quite long but I thought it gives one of the best insights into working in a creative field, being valuable for both people looking to enter into the games or animation industry and also experienced animators looking to develop their own projects. Here is a link to the documentary and below it some take aways that I thought might be of interest.
I thoroughly enjoyed how much time the documentary spent on Tim’s idea process, it seems to be a topic that I don’t see covered all that much. The depth he goes to in brainstorming ideas was great to see, literally showing endless titles before landing on “Grim Fandango” as a name for his game for example and not being afraid to shoot out fairly random/bad ideas to get it. I was also intrigued about his process of free writing as a warm up before getting into generating ideas specifically for the project and also that he still brainstorms offline, with pen and paper in his office, library or cafe. If you’re working on a shot or a short film, how in depth do you go before starting up Maya?
Listening to notes
One of the earlier episodes features an intern, who later in the production is employed to do some remote contract work. Tim states one of the reasons the intern became so valuable wasn’t so much because he did amazing work in the first pass, but because he was able to listen to the director notes and apply them well in the second pass. It’s a nice reminder that being a great animator isn’t just about talent or skills, but the ability to listen and achieve the director’s vision.
To delve deeper on that same point, there was another stage of production where an animator was screening for director approval, only to be told that the scene needed a complete reworking from the ground up. The animator later mentions to camera that the scene is 4,000 frames long, a huge amount of work to delete and redo. The thing to take note of is how he handles himself in that situation, there is a brief back and forth between himself, his lead and the director, but there was never a complaint or bitterness voiced. In a similar point to the above, being professional and easy to work with in my opinion is as important as how good your showreel is.
Productions are tough
One of my take aways from directing DUEL was the realisation that everything goes wrong. Everyday there’s a new problem to solve and the process of delivering a project is tackling those problems one by one until it’s finished. It seems the Broken Age project was particularly hard and it shows. There were mentions of people sleeping in the office, Tim mentions stress maybe helped lead to gallstones being removed, one programmer was forced off work for a week during the intense crunch and the audio engineer was close to tears when looking back on the project. We’re often given a pretty image of the industry on production documentaries, it was nice to see this one not being afraid to show that productions can physically and mentally affect those working on it.
Business drives decisions
Throughout the documentary we get insight into seeing how the business side of a company affects a project, one of the reasons of starting the project in the first place was to avoid laying off members of staff. It is nice to think that we choose to work in a creative industry, but at the end of the day the work we do is largely influenced economics. One example being the decision to split the game into two acts in order to have enough funds to complete the project, but it also later becomes depressingly clear when the studio does indeed go through lay offs due to a project cancellation. Just how dire the financial positions of some studios can become is something that few talk about while studying.
Finishing a project
One moment I particularly liked in the documentary was when the trailer was screened for the first time. The smiles on the crew’s face as it played on a big screen in an industry event is a great feeling and I think the film makers captured that well.
I thought the documentary also captured the strange feeling of releasing a project out to the public. There was a lot of reading comments on forums, watching analytics and generally.. just sitting in front of a computer. Premiere screenings are a great experience, but after that, the feeling of releasing a huge project can be somewhat anti-climactic. The amount of effort vs instant gratification is severely mismatched and the cliche of “enjoy the process” starts to hold a lot more meaning.
They were just some moments that stood out to me, hopefully you can also enjoy and find your own takeaways from the documentary. Kudos to the Double Fine crew for being so open about the production process.