Develop goes behind the scenes on the video that rocked the games industry

How we made the ‘gore ballet’ Dead Island trailer

Three minutes. That’s all it takes for a reasonably obscure game to capture the passion of the games press and become envy of Hollywood.

At the end of a slow-news-day on February 16th, IGN released to the world the trailer for Dead Island. The music-video-sized GC piece sent shockwaves across social media sites, game blogs and, in the end, national news media.

The video isn’t spared any criticism – some consider its depiction of a zombified child as a chomp too close to the bone – but the results speak clearly. The Dead Island YouTube video, at least the official one, has been watched nearly three million times. The game’s publisher, Deep Silver, is said to have been approached by “a couple of big-name directors” for a movie adaptation.

It is the trailer, and not the game, that has defined Dead Island. Those in the games industry who want the craft of interactive entertainment to be widely applauded, to reach the desk of Hollywood execs, to gain national presence, will likely roll their eyes at the success of a three-minute GC animation.

Yet it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Dead Island video puts the spotlight on the industry’s remarkably talented workforce. Glasgow-based animation group Axis can claim responsibility for giving the Dead Island brand international significance with the video it created.

Develop spoke to Axis co-founder Stuart Aitken, who directed the video, to examine the creative process behind the trailer, and discuss its impact.

There are so many ideas in the Dead Island trailer – the use of family, the reversed narrative, the music breaks – how did these concepts form?
The eventual treatment was the end result of quite a long collaborative process between ourselves at Axis and [publisher] Deep Silver.

Deep Silver initially supplied us with an outline brief and example script describing the franchise and the kind of thing they were looking for, which we then used to develop a number of in-house scripts that we felt addressed the main points within a cohesive narrative.

At that time the main essential ingredients were that the story should feature ‘normal people’, not super heroes. And that the location of Banoi Island, the holiday resort, should feature strongly, and that the narrative should hinge around ‘discovery’ of the zombie outbreak on the island and importantly suggest the inevitability of events – ie that the protagonists were powerless to stop it. We also knew there should be lots of great zombie moments that should appeal to fans of the genre.

I came up with a script that featured a Mother who had been ‘turned’ and a father who discovers her within the more public areas of the hotel. The daughter was in there at that point as well in a, perhaps, even more shocking manner than the final version.

Deep Silver really liked the setup with the family but it was felt we maybe still needed to push the family thing more, that it lacked a little conceptually.

We also started having discussions about what were appropriate levels of violence. Our first script was a lot more violent and gory. On one hand everyone felt, given the genre, that we shouldn’t hold back, but on the other hand we were aware there was perhaps a danger in going too far.

We tossed ideas back and forth – the main location changed to the more confined hotel room, and the main character we would see turn into a zombie became the Daughter rather than her Mother.

But Deep Silver were still very keen to have an external aspect as well so suggested the window scene, with a tracking camera that would show the Island more as the Daughter burst through. I then developed the interior scenes so that we had an interesting dynamic between the family members, and the zombies, leading up to that proposed end shot.

The slow-motion-in-reverse thing came out of a discussion about how to soften some of the violence a bit – the initial idea for that came from Deep Silver and we discussed making it more ‘balletic’, taking some of the aggressiveness out of it.

I really liked that idea and I think we all felt that this would give the trailer a different voice from anything else out there. On the other hand I also felt that the whole film playing out like that would maybe lack some needed punch, so I suggested that we inter-cut a separate thread in real-time, tracking the initial attack on the daughter to provide contrast and add drama.

The idea for the music treatment went pretty much hand-in-hand with the ‘balletic gore’ idea of the reverse-slow-motion – that is something somber, melancholy and elegant that would counterpoint what was actually happening and give it a different emotional resonance than if we had played it as a more straightforward action sequence in real time. I envisioned the audio design for the inter-cut corridor scenes as violent aural intrusions into that.

Tying it all together was the tricky bit and the eventual structure only really came together in initial editing after we had done some preliminary mocap – I think everyone had faith that it would work but we didn’t know for sure until we had almost the full sequence in edit.

That was also the point where we finally developed getting the two streams to culminate in a strong final image of the father reaching out for the daughter.

We don’t normally shoot mocap twice but we did so very deliberately on this trailer, in order to really finesse and lock down the edit structure before we shot principal mocap with the cast actors.

Deep Silver really had faith in us as well – the theory all sounded good on paper but it was an inherently risky approach. It’s all too easy for a ‘clever’ idea to end up a mess in execution. However as the initial edit developed, the internal feedback both within Axis and from Deep Silver was that it was really working, and had a real emotional depth to it even at the stage where we were still just editing rough playblasted shots with no polish, effects or facial animation.

Interestingly the final ‘holiday moments’ at the end were a sort of held over from the very first scripts we wrote – I almost wanted to get rid of them at one point but I’m really glad I didn’t – I really think they add a lot to the feeling we wanted to get across; that these were just normal people on holiday, and that their holiday paradise had become a hell.

Have you stayed faithful to the source material? Is there a concern you’ve overplayed the more emotional elements of the game itself?
I think we have been pretty faithful in spirit at least – the idea for this trailer is that these aren’t necessarily specific characters you’ll see in the game itself, but they really get across the idea of what’s happening in the game, the tone of events, the kinds of characters, human and zombie, you will either meet or play in-game. The Island environment itself should be very close to what is in-game.

To an extent a full CG trailer is always a different experience to actually playing the game. It isn’t trying to pretend to be game play, like a lot of CG trailers do, at all. It’s more trying to tell a story in the same world but in a different medium that describes an event that is illustrative of the type of interactive experience you might have when playing. All we have tried to do is tell that story as effectively as possible.

You must be delighted with the trailer’s response. How does this rank against your previous trailers in terms of expectation and popularity?

Delighted would be an understatement! [Laughs] Honestly, we have been stunned by the response this has had – we could not be happier about that.

We’ve been involved with trailers that have been lauded, or even achieved some notoriety, in the past, but for a game trailer to get on the pages of Variety, the LA times, the New York Post, the Guardian, and to be topping Google, YouTube and Twitter for days – that’s something pretty extraordinary.

That it seems to have crossed into the mainstream consciousness outside the intended gaming audience is what’s so exciting – it appears we really hit a nerve.

The whole team who worked on it here at Axis really put their heart and soul into this and I think that shows – that combined with an excellent opportunity to do something a bit different, to treat characters and events with care and depth, and a sense of maturity and realism despite the subject matter – that is quite unusual.

There have been voices of opposition to the trailer’s use of gore and children, and some believe it’s overstepped the mark. I personally disagree with these claims, but wanted to know if you did? Was it important to shock? Did you set out to do this?

I think we have been fairly restrained and grown up about it personally. The zombie genre is about gore and death and a primal fear of irrational violence so there’s no point trying to dodge those things at all.

If you watch carefully almost all the really graphic bits of violence actually happen to the zombies, not the family. The violence that happens to the family is implied or is treated less graphically for the most part and that was quite deliberate. We feel the fear of the family, their sense of hopelessness under the onslaught, their lack of ability to save one another despite trying, and that is more dramatically interesting than seeing them actually being ripped to shreds or something.

Conversely enjoying a bit of gore is part of the whole zombie appeal and we have that too. I think a zombie movie that doesn’t try and shock just a little bit is kind of toothless.

On the subject of the Daughter character specifically, we were aware that there was an impact about that choice for sure, but I think that choice fitted the narrative we wanted to tell and was appropriate in that sense.

As the audience you feel that fear much more strongly through the eyes of a child. Some people will see that as being ‘manipulative’ which is fair enough. It draws you in, makes you care. That’s quite a hard thing to do in 2 minutes and as some commentators have pointed out all effective fiction is ultimately manipulative in that sense.

I don’t think we glorified anything – quite the opposite. We portray the events as a tragedy, with perhaps an edge of black humour that is very much present in most of the genre.

Her actual death isn’t especially graphic or gory. The real shock is more about the relationship between parent and child and how that is perverted when she turns on her dad even after being saved by him.

If someone found it a little unsettling then I think that was what was intended. We didn’t set out to offend anyone – just rattle them a bit.

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