What do Trump and Holograms Have in Common? (PART II)

Creating the animation and artwork for a ‘serious’ game on an interactive lightfield display prototype

This is PART II in a three-part series. To read PART I, please go here.

Given the open frontier of what interactive works are capable of, I have few regulations on what content or methods I use. I do however, have a cardinal rule: The Work Must Be Visual.

It must be visual in the sense that it triggers a feeling or memory from the body and can be understood as a cohesive style that differentiates itself from the zeitgeist. This rule can be considered a strong preference or as a bias from my visual arts background. Now, visual does not necessarily mean the visual image itself but also encompasses the assets, the animation, and especially the coding. In the case for Marshall’s Theory: C-Sharp.

Since I have experience in developing with different programs and methods — at times a clear 50–50 split workflow between the ‘visual’ and the ‘scripting’ — I tend to think of interactive works as a gesamkunstwerk, the German word for ‘the whole piece’.

The Animation

To take an example, knowing computation allows me to know that a 3D mesh will fail under certain circumstances of pressure from a called function. I’ll always be asking myself questions like, Is the poly count too high? Are the normals correct and do they display properly? If I add physics, will it crash everything I’ve already set up? Animation draws from computation much the same and vice versa.

As a professor, I’ve always wanted to gamify or add interactive elements to animation-based lectures because they have everything to teach about proper timing and when to call a certain action. In coding, what may be referred to as transform.position[ing] or Delta.Time may be alluded to as ‘blocking’ on flat tangents. The more I work between the disciplines, the more I analyze similarities. Developing therefore becomes less about ‘art’, or ‘animation’, or ‘coding’, or ‘texturing’, or ‘rigging’; it just becomes a ‘thing’. My days become much more serene when I work with ‘things’.

For Marshall’s Theory, I followed the 50–50 trace of development. While I had a subject matter that could have easily served as a pure aesthetic portraiture, I wanted to focus on a fun, bizarre, and original experience that would have the player come for the visual shock and stay for the hidden nuances and user experience. On the art and animation side, I found myself bouncing rapidly between Maya and Unity-Visual Studio.

From direct memory, the animation sequences for Mr. President himself excluding the title pages are: IDLE-WALKING, WORD SHOUT, HERO SUMMON, SHIELD RUSH, PAUSE DANCE, FETAL POSITION (GAME OVER), VICTORY YELLING, and of course the BOMB EVERYTHING AROUND YOU AND LOSE ONLY ONE LIFE.

The technical process of bringing these animation sequences from Maya to Unity involves rigging the characters with bones, constraint-curves, and IK handles. Then, I had to animate with that rig (which takes time in and of itself), bake the keyframes to last the full timeline (Unity dislikes it if you do not do this), and import as an FBX to be situated in the virtual world. From there, I adjusted in Unity.

If the animation settings are set and well, and not often if you were my NPC protesters, then they could be added to an animation controller and manipulated by the Mechanim system. I would share parameters between the Mechanim system and my various C-Sharp scripts and call certain functions of the script through animation events set on Unity’s own timeline system. The more I became comfortable with this system over the last years, the more I began to utilize what nuances the system had. For segments in Marshall’s Theory as well, I relied less on the animation I did in Maya and even built elements of it in Unity. For example, in the winning cutscene after successfully completing the 2 minute survival in Washington D.C. where Abraham Lincoln impales himself on the George Washington monument, I animated the general appendage motions and spinal twists in Maya but positioned the ‘whole’ body and weight in Unity to save time that would have undoubtedly gone towards calculating precise positioning.

The Aesthetics

I wanted the aesthetic style for Marshall’s Theory to be a hybrid between a modern infographic—reliant on color theory and low-poly virtual icons and elements — and maximalist composition chaos. Our current political landscape is full of noise, uncertainty, and enough visual images crossing the corneas of our eyes to make even the deepest cave dweller see light.

In this day and age, there is a natural human instinct to control this hysteria by limiting visual motifs to simple expressions; cubic, solid, or low in density (read: minimalism). However, these attempts falter because an expression, no matter how simple, always adds to the bigger pile that is the ‘superbrain of visual overload’. Additionally, I always have a micro-aneurysm when a product or situation that is not simple is advertised as such. The aesthetic of our times is based on maximalism. To ask someone to describe the current American debacle in a sentence or two is to murder them by inciting a stroke. To be an artist today is to beat the spectator over the head on multiple occasions with the overloaded canvas and ask them to like it.

From a technical standpoint, creating the visuals were an immensely fun and not particularly laborious despite the fact that I modeled every single asset, character, UV-texture alone, and composed them in the various game scenes which all of their own technical gaffes and issues between file formats and shaders. Another cardinal rule I have for myself: work fast. The longer the wait between initial idea and brush stroke, the more dull the stroke gets.

Read PART I of this series here.

PART III….Coming soon!

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