Monday, October 05, 2009

Pascal Blanche, Art Director of "AVATAR: THE GAME" Interview!

Hi, Michael here with an interview with Pascal Blanché, Art Director of Ubisoft's James Cameron's AVATAR: THE GAME.

Pascal is a legend among artists, and as such his art direction makes me incredibly stoked to spend many an evening exploring Pandora, taking in the raw beauty of the environments between the tense battles. The amount of talent that has been poured into creating this game is incredible - there has never been a movie-based game that has benefited from such unprecedented levels of cooperation and respect between gamemaker and filmmaker. And in full-blown stereoscopic 3D to boot. Pascal lent his amazing talent to expand Pandora beyond what you will see in the movie, and I for one am eagerly anticipating spending plenty of time there:

Michael: When did you start working at Ubisoft? What was your first project there?

Pascal Blanché: I started with Ubisoft eight years ago. My first assignment was as a Character Designer/ Modeler for Myst IV Revelation. Since then, I’ve worked in the cinematics department for other games such as Rainbow Six and Assassins Creed, and then as Art Director for Naruto Rise of the Ninja. It’s been a long road, but it brought me to where I am now; Art Director on James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game.

Michael: When did you begin work on the Avatar games? Did you work on the presentation that got Ubisoft the job of making the game?

Pascal Blanché: I started with the project in September of 2007, shortly after it was officially launched by Cameron. I was in on the ground floor and was involved in the development of the prototype which we pitched to Lightstorm a few months later.

Michael: How was working on Avatar different from working on any other video game project you have worked on?

Pascal Blanché: I’ve worked before on original IP, game sequels, and even cartoons/manga adaptations. Avatar was my first movie-license title. The big change for me was how Lightstorm wanted us to work on their franchise. Most of the time, in other licensed games, you have to respect strict character sheets, and follow to the letter every aspect of the license. There is usually not that much room for creativity. On Avatar, I was given the chance to use all of Cameron’s universe (which includes the volumes of material that didn’t make it into the movie) and, with the team, add new elements to it.

Michael: Please describe your responsibilities as Art Director for the Avatar game. How much of your job was supervising other artists, versus creating your own designs? How many artists/designers did you supervise? Also, which artistic tools did you use to create your designs? (Maya, Photoshop, chalk on paper, all of the above?)

Pascal Blanché: There were around 40 artists on the project: level artists, character modelers, texture artists, FX artists, etc.... I worked closely with three very talented concept designers who filled-in all the blanks we had in designing the elements to be found in the game world. I was here more to supervise, and to make sure that we were following Lightstorm's basic philosophy when they created Pandora. So I was basically giving them guidance on pointed elements from the movie design. We created all sorts of new weapons, new armor, and new plants that were submitted to Cameron's team for approval. I was personally designing props as simple as roots and rocks, but with specific shapes needed to create the mood I was looking for in each of the game's many levels. Some of my designs (armor for example) made it into the final game, but not all! As for the tools we used: Photoshop, Painter, Zbrush and 3dsMax… a real mix of all at the same time ;).

Michael: Were you a James Cameron fan? If so, did that make you more excited for your job as art director on Avatar?

Pascal Blanché: Me? A Cameron fan? Without a doubt.... But more than just his movies, I share the same passion for sci-fi and fantasy. I remember making puppets after watching Dark Crystal when I was kid, and I had all the Ray Harryhausen films at home. I'm from the geek culture. I think that Dune is the best book ever written, that Frazetta, Moebius and Corben are living Gods, and I listen to the Planet of the Apes soundtracks on loop (the original version, of course). So when I found out that the game I was going to help develop was based on the next Cameron movie, I signed-on without a second’s hesitation.

Michael: Were you familiar with Avatar before learning that Ubisoft might be working on the games?

Pascal Blanché: I have a story for this one. I bought an art book, maybe two or three years before starting on the project: Worlds by Allec Gillis with a foreword by... James Cameron himself. In the book, he refers to Wayne Barlowe’s Expedition, a book I also had in my collection (I buy a lot of art books, I guess). When I was offered the job on Avatar, it was almost like I already knew where Cameron was going with Pandora…; it was intense.

Michael: What was it like meeting with James Cameron for the first time? What was your creative working relationship like? Did he often show you his own drawings? Any interesting anecdotes from meeting with Cameron? With Landau or other top guys?

Pascal Blanché: Well, he is Cameron you know. I tried my best to not act like a fan boy, and concentrated on any hint or morsel of advice he would give us. He was really on the same creative level with us, and after a while, I found myself (almost) forgetting who I was talking to. We would always take the time to prepare our meetings, to be sure that we were not wasting any time we had with him. I was amazed that when it came to the creative aspects of Pandora, he had all the time in the world for us (excuse the pun :-)). Because we had access to all the Lightstorm assets from day one, Pandora was common ground, and our questions were more about how far we could go with the weapon designs, the plants, the gear, etc.... So most of the time we were discussing those specific aspects while playing the game, and he was always extremely interested in the direction we had taken on various concepts. His inputs were really important to us, but he always reminded us that we were the game designers, and he was the film guy. He never insinuated that any ideas that he was throwing out there had to make it into the game. All said, he’s a really nice guy, and a man driven by the creative process.

Michael: Did you do any design work that you believe may end up in potential sequels to Avatar? I have read that Cameron has given Ubisoft tremendous creative freedom to come up with new ideas for Pandora, but that he had to reign in some designs / ideas because he didn't want them to contract ideas he had for sequels. Did you and Cameron discuss what you and the Ubi design team were allowed or not allowed to do, based on Cameron's ideas for sequels?

Pascal Blanché: We had ultimate freedom. Any potential for a sequel never appeared on our radar, so it definitely wasn’t a creative limitation.

Michael: Tell me about all the various sets and offices you visited. Specifically, what brought you down to Lightstorm, to the Howard Hughes hangar (perf-cap stage), and to Weta?

Pascal Blanché: I went several times to the hangar and Lightstorm’s offices in LA. Sometimes it was for meetings with Cameron, to show him a new concept in the game, sometimes it was to meet his team and talk about animations, props or environments. Jon Landau was also around, here in Montreal and in LA, to show us the latest scenes they had just wrapped for the movie. It was like being teased on the total experience once every few weeks! We went to Weta once, and it was like... being at the Lucas Ranch 30 years ago. Jim was super busy, shooting on this amazing set (some of the link room chamber you probably saw in the trailer). Jon gave us a tour of the set. It was surreal. There were one hundred tech, cam, and light guys, costumes, and people everywhere on the gargantuan set. Cameron was at the center of it all, asking for an adjustment or two before continuing the shot. We joined up with him in a room where we presented a new early version of the game, and he just lit up with design ideas, or ways to convey our game using his world. I think he was really having fun and our half-hour meeting stretched easily into an hour. The amassing crowd on the set was waiting for him to return so they could finish the shot. Totally crazy!

Michael: What is your favorite design or designs that you created for the game? What is your favorite Pandoran creature/plant?

Pascal Blanché: One particular character in the game, one of our Na'vi (sorry, his name is still Top Secret :-)), has great charisma. One of my character modelers, David Giraud, came up with the look, and the performance from the actor who voiced the role was second to none. He definitely fits into the Avatar universe! My favorite creature is the Thanator (the big, black panther-like beast from the trailer). It is fast, deadly, and pretty intelligent. What I love most is that Cameron hired one of the best in the business, Wayne Barlowe, for his bestiary look and feel. The guy is brilliant. He has this uniquely surreal aspect in his paintings: a cross between Dali, Bosch and H.R Giger that gives that unworldly feeling that you get when you watch the creature move.

Michael: Did any of your designs make it into the film? If so, which one(s)?

Pascal Blanché: Some elements of one of our Na'vi armor designs made it into the film, yes, but I can’t say more. Because of some pretty specific gameplay needs, Lightstorm provided us is with new, original vehicle designs, just for the game. When they saw how the vehicles played in the game, they thought it was cool and decided to suck them back into the movie.

Michael: What has been the most fun and exciting aspect of working on the Avatar game?

Pascal Blanché: Taking hundreds of movie concepts and making a world out of them. In the game, there are a multitude of varied and different environments. All of those environments draw upon Lightstorm designs, but we were allowed to extend them outside of the movie framework. So any time in the movie you fly over a unique or interesting place, in the game, you’ll be able to land on it and explore. Working on Pandora’s most beautiful sites and bringing them to life was a great experience. I love games where you can explore a new world on your own..., and our game is full of those moments when you stop fighting for your life for an instant to take some time and look around..., watching the sun arch over the Pandoran sky. Oh yea, I forgot to mention that the environmental lighting is dynamic, so you can go out in the wild and experience it during the day or night ( that is... if you survive long enough :-)). We added subtle visual cues to slightly change your perspective depending on who you decide to fight for. From the human point of view, Pandora is a very dangerous place. As a Na'vi , it is your home, your playground even! It's like being scuba-diver on one side (playing as a human), and the dolphin he’s looking at on the other (playing as a Na’vi). We changed the hues to make the world look darker and more ominous when you play as a human, and more saturated and colorful as a Na'vi.

Michael: What should gamers look forward to in the game?

Pascal Blanché: Avatar the game is huge. There is, for starters, two separate experiences: as an RDA Trooper or as an Avatar (fighting for the Na’vi). Two ways of playing…. One has more like a third person action/shooter, while the other is more of a hack and slash, melee-based gameplay style. A big part of the strategy in the game is finding a clever way to combine your skills and gear choices, something your survival will depend upon. Humans rely on long range weaponry and technology; the Na'vi on brutal force and nature. The player will have a choice to follow one path or another at a pivotal juncture in the game, and evolve from there. The game world is open within each map and can be played any way you choose. It definitely isn’t a corridor shooter or a linear brawler. You can decide which challenges you decide to take on, and action is always just around the corner. The more your experience grows, the greater your choice of skills and weaponry will be. Did I mention that you can drive vehicles and ride Pandora’s beasts? … and the multiplayer game modes? I guess we’ve got enough for a whole other interview!

Michael: I have read that Ubisoft has created its own CG animation studio, and that this studio has contributed final shots for the movie. Is this true? If so, did you do design work for those shots?

Pascal Blanché: What you’re referring to is Ubisoft’s Digital Arts (UDA) and Hybrid, our animation shop. UDA and Hybrid (the guys behind the effects of 300, Sin City and Final Destination 4) have been working together on a few projects. They’ve been working on effects for the film, yes, and they also came to our production floor to give us some hints on stereoscopy camera techniques.

Michael: How, if at all, did working on a stereoscopic 3D game based on a stereoscopic 3D film affect your job as art director? Did it complicate things? If so, how?

Pascal Blanché: I had two specific guidelines I had to consider, the first of which was to follow the movie’s stereoscopic 3D philosophy and try to recreate it within the game. I watched closely at how Cameron handled the cameras in his preview shots to give the sense of depth, and how I could translate that into the game with subtle moves of the camera that still follows the action and mimics an over-the-shoulder feel. The results were terrific. The camera moves drive you more into the game's space (when viewed in stereoscopic 3D) and give you the impression that you are physically behind your character in the game. The second aspect to consider was in the composition. It is one thing to stage composition in a single frame, another story when the player can actually look anywhere he wants to. I came up with basic rules for the level artists to make sure we always have nice foreground/background effects, and comfortable sense of depth while guiding the player visually. I think they did a terrific job on all of the different environments we developed. Some levels will give you a sense of height and verticality, while others will make you feel the expanse of an open plain.

Michael: After Avatar, what is your next project?

Pascal Blanché: For the immediate future…, LOTS of vacation. I’ve got to catch up on all of the sleep I lost during the project! I’ve seen what’s coming through the pipeline here at Ubisoft Montreal, and it looks like I’ll have a couple of tough decisions to make (plenty of interesting projects :-)). But in the meantime… vacation.

A huge thanks to Pascal for answering these questions!

left: 'mermaid' by Pascal Blanché

Visit Pascal's personal website (with more examples of his work) here:

And check out this awesome RabbitHoles 3D Motion Hologram of one of Pascal's personal pictures below (skip to 3:00):

Contact Me

Jim Dorey
jim (at) marketsaw (dot) com

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