Develop caught up with Traveller’s Tales’ Alan Murta and BAFTA-award winning children’s TV producer Jocelyn Stevenson in the second of our Q&As looking at artistic convergence…
You’ve both brought very different skill-sets to this project; can you give us a little background on your careers so far?
Jocelyn Stevenson: I started as an assistant at the Children’s Television Workshop, the producers of Sesame Street, about 35 years ago, and have been in children’s television ever since. I love it. I’ve been writer, creator, head writer, producer, and executive producer on over 40 properties, including Fraggle Rock, Jim Henson’s Ghost of Faffner Hall, Bob The Builder, Barney and Friends, Thomas and Friends, Mopatop’s Shop, The Magic School Bus and What’s Your News?
Alan Murta: I began my career as a lecturer at the University of Manchester doing research into computer graphics and virtual reality. In 2000 I made a move into games, starting out at Elixir in London and later moving to Traveller’s Tales in Knutsford where I now work as a senior tools and render technology programmer.
How did this collaboration come about?
JS: I co-created the series with Chris Dicker, the designer. I was responsible for the words and he oversaw the look. Because of my background in puppets, I suggested that we use ‘performed animation’ – a combination of motion capture and digital puppetry – to bring characters to life. Because of his background in games, Chris suggested we take this idea to Jon Burton at TT Games for technical expertise and possible funding. We received both. What’s Your News? was born.
AM: Chris Dicker came to us – the render technology team – with various concept sketches and our task was to come up with a way of turning these into CGI, preferably using a (near) real-time renderer. We wanted to avoid the significant time and system costs associated with traditional software image creation. Instead our approach involved adapting existing a GPU-based game engine to provide a cost-effective solution using a small number of render PCs. It was a great collaborative experience with Chris, the art team and the render technology team working together to finalise the visuals.
What has the collaboration taught you?
JS: Producing What’s Your News? presented me with a vertical learning curve. No one had ever used this particular production pipeline for a TV series; we were making it up as we went along. It became clear early on that the two cultures – television and games – were completely different, with different business models, terminology, pace and priorities. But once we figured this out, we could work with it – discovering how and where to combine strengths. And we all plan on repeating the experience. We all want to apply what we’ve learned so that next time it will be easier.
AM: It was a liberating experience to be freed from the usual game constraints in which all images must be drawn in no more than a few milliseconds. The luxury of having a few seconds to spend on each animation frame allowed us to focus a lot more on image quality. One significant difference between game and TV production is that the former discipline allows us to continually tweak the graphics technology, almost until the finished title goes out the door. In contrast, making the TV show forced us to deliver key tech early on, then lock down as much as possible for the series render phase. But it is always good to be presented with new challenges and we are keen to explore further these.
BAFTA Videogames showcased What’s Your News? as part of their Crossover Event and, of course, BAFTA’s heritage was established within film and TV. How do you see their role progressing in terms of these collaborations?
JS: BAFTA made video games one of its three ‘pillars’ about four years ago, and has played a progressively more influential role in bringing the TV, film and video games art forms together, mostly as mutual ‘appreciators’. As the professionals in the different industries come to understand each others’ expertise, the collaborations will naturally follow.
AM: With video games now being a major player in the entertainment sector, it is natural that its contributions are recognised by the BAFTA organisation. BAFTA has been quick to identify the potential alliances between games and traditional media.
Alan, advances in animation and CGI have often been led by film and TV, given their bigger budgets. As the games industry evolves and converges with these industries, do you see that changing?
AM: I would say the real advances in CGI still tend to come from the academic sector, which effects companies and games developers then adapt for their own uses. Film studios often have the resources to apply the techniques to the point where their synthetic results are indistinguishable from the real world, or which will conform precisely to any desired art style. Game developers will adapt these innovations for real-time use. However, there is certainly a convergence in what is achievable in related disciplines, and both are using shared tools and approaches to tackling effectively the same problems. The only difference is one of scale, and this distinction is continually diminishing.
Jocelyn, similarly, the forefront of scripting and development still belongs to film and TV. Do you see a day when you’ll be storyboarding the latest video game rather than a children’s TV programme?
JS: Possibly, though not being a gamer, I’m not sure I’d be very good at it. I do think it would be really interesting to work with a games developer on the same property – a property for young kids – developing it for both TV and a game simultaneously, sharing the discoveries we make in our relevant areas as a way of informing and building the property creatively. It would end up being something neither group could have done on its own. Something new!