Plastic Wax is a company that you may well have not heard about before – but it’s almost a certainty that you’ve seen their work! Not only have they been involved in an almost dizzying number of projects both on the silver screen and in computer games, they have received a startling number of awards for their efforts. Check out their Wikipedia entry!
Today we are pleased to be able to bring you an interview with the team at Plastic Wax. We hope that you enjoy reading it as much as we’ve enjoyed putting it together!
Tell us a little about the history of Plastic Wax and what you do.
Almost 20 years ago Plastic Wax was born, the brainchild of Nathan Maddams (our studio founder and creative director) and his two parents, Roger and Liliana Maddams. The parents focused on business development whilst Nathan was at the helm with creative.
The studio originated in the basement of the family home, and the small but impassioned team began working on Bananas in Pajamas, Hi5 and The Wiggles. Our first game cinematic project landed for Ultima Online (One of the first MMO’s) and this spring boarded onto larger game cinematic projects such as the announcement trailers for Fallout, Borderlands and BioShock.
After graduating college, Nathan’s younger brothers – Tyrone and myself (Dane) – joined forces. Tyrone is our Art director and I run the business development and production.
Now we house around 50 artists and recently were privileged to have worked on the cinematic launch campaigns for Gears of War: Remastered, Lego Dimensions featuring Joel McHale (Community) and Christopher Lloyd (Back to the future), along with Homefront: The Revolution and Hunger Games.
What sets the studio apart and why do game developers and others turn to you for cinematic work?
Quality is everything to us. We’ve built our company from the ground up with that methodology in mind.
We understand development studios are under a tremendous amount of pressure and the last thing they want is an animation studio constantly putting their hand up asking for help. So we have a legion of talented artists and an arsenal of in-house tech artists who have developed our own middleware specific to our workflow. Our goal is to make our clients’ lives easier.
We’ve had clients approach us with an idea scribbled on a napkin with a game in its infancy. On the other spectrum we’ve had clients ready to launch with a fleshed out and realized cinematic campaign that they wanted executed. We can adapt as quickly to one solution as we do the other.
We place an emphasis on working directly with our teams, so there’s no bureaucracy or things being unnecessarily filtered. Our clients work directly with our leads and this opens the floodgates for amazing collaboration from which the product ultimately benefits.
We also focus on our creative team’s growth; most of our artists have been with us for around 7 years. So nurturing existing talent and growing artists is critical to our success.
What are some projects you’ve worked on in the past and what are you working on now?
All our current projects are under NDA, so I’m sworn to secrecy! I can tell you there are a lot of exciting AAA cinematic trailers, along with in-engine cut-scene and VR cinematic campaigns. So it’s a nice mix across varying mediums.
What does your current pipeline look like? How did ZBrush first become a part of it and how is it used by your artists?
ZBrush is crucial in our pipeline and used heavily in the creation of our assets. It’s used in every aspect of our modeling and texturing process, from blocking through to detailed character development.
We usually start off by modeling very simple proxies inside 3DS Max. The model would then be brought to ZBrush to do proportion adjustments. These steps speed the process by helping get the right silhouette and proportions extremely fast.
Once we are happy with the proportions, we export the lowest subdivision level for the rigger to quickly rig it and place it in the scene for animatics and storyboarding.
After that process is completed, we continue constantly refining the model and subdividing. DynaMesh is used to create temporary placements for the clothing and accessories, which is useful because it allows us to continue to refine proportions and shapes while also having the ability to add or subtract geometry if we make mistakes. Once that stage is approved, we would remodel the pieces again in Max with proper topology.
We tend to avoid having heavily sculpted cloth, as most of our trailers contain dynamic cloth solutions. Using this means that we want less sculptural detail as we want the cloth to solve naturally into place without fighting previously sculpted details. The areas that we would sculpt are usually the small folds in the compressed areas (i.e.: small folds on the cloth behind a belt or straps). Basically, the areas that need detailing which the cloth dynamics can’t produce.
Sculpting layers are awesome for keeping stages of damage reveal. For example, the base layer will be the perfectly intact model whilst the second layer is the beaten up/damaged variant. Additional layers could further build upon this so that the character appears transitional, starting clean and fully intact, yet almost totally destroyed in the end.
Decimation Master is very helpful to export many sculpted pieces at once inside Max. All the placeholder accessories and clothing are then retopologized in Max.
The retopologized models are then brought back to ZBrush for normal map and/or displacement generation. Projection is used to project the sculpted details from the old model to the newly topologized model for baking the maps. Generally for armors, the ZBrush pass would only really be used on the dented/weathered part. On the other hand, organics rely heavily on the displacement and the normal maps generated inside ZBrush.
For Gears of War, some of the character assets used many layers. Because some of the shots are seen close up, the major details are generated with displacement and then on separate layers we would bake out normal maps for the tiny surface details and detail in armor pieces.
What ZBrush features do your artists find most useful? Are there any specific jobs or instances that stand out as having benefited from the use of ZBrush?
Recently we were asked to UV some very high density models. Traditionally our artists would have to re-work the model to something more manageable but as time is generally restrictive, we’re always Looking for fast solutions and we used the UV Master tool with initially limited success. We then defined the UV seams and tried again. We were really pleased with what came out: it did a great job of UV’ing and was extremely efficient.
We have since found ourselves using the UV master tool more often. We would define the UV seams inside of Max and import the .obj into ZBrush and unwrap it using UV Master with “use existing seams” turned on. It pulls off a very good UV with little stretching. UV packing is still performed by hand.
We also use ZBrush a lot for environments, but again it just depends on what we are doing.
Our lead modeler Dean Wood mentioned he finds ZBrush pretty therapeutic at times as well. He mentioned that, “Sculpting rocks using the TrimSmoothBord brush with a square alpha. It’s funny but I find using this brush to be relaxing because I get a decent result with very little input. I get to Zen out for a bit in the madness of a big project.”
Do you work mainly with assets provided by developers or do you create content from scratch based on concepts alone?
80% of the time we build from scratch, but we’ll always ask our client for pre-existing assets to either up-rez or use as a point of inspiration. Even if the assets are provided they are generally built for in-engine use, meaning they usually always require some rebuilding/uprez work and custom rigging to bump up the fidelity for camera-specific use.
It has been a longtime concern of gamers when cut scenes and trailers look significantly different from the actual game play. How has Plastic Wax addressed this concern and what are the main challenges in overcoming it?
A good trailer should instill a feeling of pride and excitement, or push an inquisitive viewer to learn more. The goal is to show a story arc or sometimes a fidelity/style that hasn’t been seen before within the world. It shouldn’t ever evoke a feeling of deception.
That’s why we like it when we read YouTube comments to, “MAKE A MOVIE OUT OF THIS.”
A cinematic can be a powerful ally for storytelling and there are many instances where this can be a perfect asset to promote a title. For instance if a game is in it’s infancy as an announcement video (similar to our announcement trailer for Fallout) it gives a unique opportunity to build a community and gain critical feedback while the game is still being developed. Yet it never makes the viewer assume you’re comparing it to actual gameplay.
With hardware becoming more advanced and game productions becoming ever larger, what do you see for the future of gaming and Plastic Wax’s involvement?
In recent years we’ve begun to work more in-engine. This is moving toward VR and experiential productions too.
The exciting part is I don’t think the need for animation and cinematic content is going anywhere. It’s just shifting to new and emerging technologies.
What are your thoughts on virtual and augmented reality? Are you currently or do you plan to be involved in producing content for those mediums?
We have several productions in the works (again, sworn to secrecy!) with intense VR work. We’re excited about creating rich and high quality content on this platform so watch this space!
You’ll find quite a few more images in the next post. Enjoy!
Then join us below in thanking Petur for sharing all of this great info.