There’s nothing quite as exciting as a slick CG trailer to fuel the hype behind your favorite AAA franchise. We caught up with Dane Maddams, Matt Dignam and Nathan Maddams of Plastic Wax at PAX Australia to talk about what it’s like to create CG trailers for games like Bioshock, Dawn of War and Fallout: New Vegas.
Fergus: Hi, So – Plastic Wax has been in the industry for twenty years. How did the company get started? What’s the arc of the company’s history like?
Dane: Plastic Wax is a family owned business. It’s an independent, solely owned company and it was conceived by three brothers and two parents initially – the eldest brother being the creative director and studio founder, the middle being our art lead and me being the EVP.
And then it just grew from there. We worked on a lot of products for the local TV network – the ABC – and creating educational content for the NSW school curriculum. Then fast-forward a bit of time and were privileged to launch the initial intro to the Borderlands CG trailer and then we made all the the endings for the Bioshock series. We’ve been involved in a lot of AAA trailers and have been really privileged to be big part of the [local] gaming industry – which is great because 90% of our client base is from the US, so they come to an Australian studio to create that content.
Fergus: What observations can you make about the direction that the games industry is developing can you make from this position of knowledge and having worked with them for two decades?
Dane: Personally, I think the rise of VR and in-engine content and the different mediums the industry is exploring is exciting for me.
Matt: Definitely, for me, I’ve loved seeing more story-driven content. You’re getting more serious writers now which are applying their trade in games which is really cool as it makes for a much more engaging experience. I look forward to more of that as more filmmakers start to come over too as the lines become blurred in those two approaches to design and technology.
Fergus: What is the relationship between Plastic Wax and other game companies like? How much creative control do you have with these cinematics? Do these other companies come to you with storyboards or ideas in mind or do you work with them to develop the cinematics?
Dane: We have an old saying, it’s that “no two jobs are the same”. We’ve had jobs that have been a scribble on a napkin and we’ve had fully fleshed out scripts and storyboard provided to us. Each project serves a different final purpose – whether it be announcing a game for a major event such as GDC or E3, whether it be 60 minutes of in-engine animation for story-driven content for a particular game or whether it be a VR-based cinematic trailer.
So generally speaking…a client would come to us with a game in the middle of it’s development cycle. We ask them for everything and anything – they provide us with assets, textures, models, really the entire world – even development builds of the game so we can really immerse ourselves in the world of that project. As part of that process we’ll develop and craft the story. We’ve got an envoy of creative production talent who work with our clients to really work out what that story is, [from there], it’s kinda concepted and developed all the way to the final polished production.
Fergus: Is there a particular cinematic that the team is most proud of?
Nathan: We’re always proud of the thing we’ve just finished. But we all have our personal favorites, mostly attributed to whether we had a personal touch in there or whenever we’ve broken new ground as a studio – be it creatively or advancing our own technology. We’ve done a few recently that pushed our facial animation and facial tech forward – which we’re really excited for people to see.
Fergus: As artists, I imagine you’re constantly pushing to make the best looking cinematic possible. How do you determine a cinematic is good enough to be considered finished?
Matt: I don’t think we do. If the deadline comes, then it goes out.
Nathan: I think we’re always striving to make it the best we can. Obviously you have to work within scope, schedules and deadlines but if we get given an extra eight hours to work on something we’ll use every single minute of those eight hours to tweak, adjust, iterate and refine until it’s as good as it can possibly be.
And we’ve ingrained that into the company culture as well. Everybody from our animators to texture artists to renderers and compositors they all have that innate ability in them to always want to push things as far as they can until that point where we have to say “stop, we have to move on now”.
Fergus: Do you do much work with film? What would you say is the biggest difference between working on film and working on games? IF ONLY GAMES: Why have you chosen to stick with games?
Dane: I think each market sort of represent a different final output. For instance in film production we’ll generally work with different film companies – for instance on Hunger Games 2 we worked with Animal Logic – and we sort of work closely with creative agencies and so on. Whereas with game development, we’ll generally work with the developers and publishers specifically working on game dev builds and so on – so the end client is different. The end purpose is different, naturally as well because a film product generally has a production cycle of a 2-3 years depending on what it is and the scope and fidelity. Whereas a game cinematic or in-engine cinematic may last a couple of months for us to turn around and create.
So the deadlines are very different. The spirit is very different too. I think when you’re working on a film product, it’s still chaotic and there’s still a lot to do. The timeline is very different so you sort of just focus on one shot specifically whereas for game dev it can be a shorter sprint.
Fergus: Are there any projects you’re working on at the moment that you’re really excited about and can tell us about?
Dane: We’re working on a lot of content at the moment – a lot of which is unfortunately under NDA – obviously Ghost in the Shell is one that we can mention. For us, we’re growing quite rapidly and we’re really lucky to be in a position where we’re continuing to work on really exciting AAA properties and representing them in Australia [which] is really important to us. There’s a lot more coming.