Meet the Team #11 - James Avery (Senior VFX Artist)
Welcome to the 11th Elite: Dangerous team interview. For this edition we talked to VFX artist James Avery. James not only works on many of the incredible visual effects that will end up in the game, but was also previously responsible for creating all of our Elite: Dangerous video content, including the Damocles Capital Ship Video! As usual we start this interview by asking James how long he’s been at Frontier and what projects he has been a part of:
I have been at Frontier for around two and a half years and during that time have been lucky enough to work on some very exciting projects, including Kinect Disneyland Adventures and of course Elite: Dangerous.How did you get into Visual Effects and what advice would you have to anyone else planning to get into it as well?
Visual Effects is a tough discipline to crack as you must have a strong understanding of other disciplines in order to do it well. It is an extremely rewarding career though, as you breathe life into all aspects of the game world, such as environments, characters and in this case, space ships! I was lucky enough to be contacted by Frontier and after going for an interview I was working on Disneyland Adventures before I knew it!
My advice to anybody who is thinking about pursuing a career in Visual Effects really comes in three parts. Firstly, your show reel has to speak for you. Try to keep it short and put your most attention grabbing work at the start. Secondly, Visual Effects is a far more technical art than other disciplines, so become comfortable with real-time effects and how they affect performance, game engines, and editing code,. Thirdly and most importantly, analyse everything. Films, games, real life - everything, because every reference is useful to a Visual Effects Artist and understanding the techniques another artist has used to create a certain effect is key to improving your own.Is Elite: Dangerous the most complex project you’ve worked on in your career?
Without a doubt, Elite is an absolutely huge undertaking. The level of detail that is needed to make the experience feel immersive and real is at times mind boggling - but working on Elite is the highlight of my career so far!What’s a normal working day like for you and what are you working on right now?
Well, first things first - Tea - and lots of it. After grabbing the latest build of the game I will usually continue the task that I was working on before. Ship thrusters, explosions and lens flares are just a few examples of some of the effects that I have been working on recently. I work closely with other disciplines, as well as Chris Gregory, the Art Director on Elite: Dangerous, discussing new ideas and artistic directions for effects.
Right now I am working on new thrusters and lens flares for the ship drives but because we are lucky enough to have a great tools department at Frontier, we are constantly being given new features to play with. This means that we are always going back and improving older effects!What are the biggest challenges that the Visual Effects team are currently working through at the moment?
One of the biggest challenges that we are working through at the moment is the balance between realism and artistic license. Generally we are trying to keep everything as grounded in reality as possible, but for certain effects we need to take artistic license to make the effect readable, and the experience fun and satisfying.Where do you draw inspiration from for your designs? Do you have any major influences?
I tend to take influence and reference from films rather than games. Aspiring to compete with visual effects in films is much more challenging but usually results in higher quality and more realistic visuals.How challenging is it giving Elite: Dangerous its own distinctive style, with so much Science Fiction already out there?
Elite is firmly rooted in the realms of possibility and we are trying to design effects with real science in mind. While challenging, I think this in itself gives Elite: Dangerous its own distinctive style, but we are prepared to take artistic licence where needed in the interest of fun gameplay.A lot of people in the office are fans of science and science fiction. What are your personal favourite works of SciFi?
Space and Science Fiction have always fascinated me. One of my favourite SciFi genres is space horror and although Elite: Dangerous isn't a horror title, there are definitely elements of the genre that can be lifted and applied to Elite. The cold, eerie, dangerous, lonely atmosphere that a player should experience when in the far reaches of unexplored space for example. As for my SciFi favourites, I was blown away by Gravity this week! Other films, games and books that I have enjoyed over the years for their art direction and story (and not necessarily both at the same time!) were Elysium, District 9, Star Trek, Bioshock Infinite, Dead Space, Portal 2, Mass Effect, 1984 and Only Forward. Other than Sci Fi, I have particularly loved playing The Walking Dead, The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V. I am also starting to get in to comic books, and have just picked up the first Walking Dead Compendium, so if anyone has any recommendations on great comics I would love to hear about them!Of the side-projects (writers packs, podcasts, audio dramas, etc) what are your favourites and what are the ones you are most looking forward to?
There are so many cool sounding side projects that I couldn't possibly choose a favourite, but I will say that the whole team at Frontier is honoured and inspired to have such talented people working on making the Elite Universe as amazing as we all know it can be!Community Question: How long scripting and directing (placing cameras, etc.) of the Damocles demo took? Was it and incremental process during development?
Directing the Damocles video was an ongoing process. In the early stages, a rough storyboard was drawn up, and some basic game captures were edited together. After this, I revised a few shots, came up with a more solid structure for the video, and a story for the video to tell. I pitched it all to Chris Gregory and before long we had an animator blocking out each of the shots. I worked closely during this time with art direction and animation on the cinematography of the shots, and also began to design visual effects that would be needed for the video.Community Question: I love the glass effects of the cockpit (scratches lighting up, frosting during jump). Can you take us through such an effect and explain what you have to do for it to look right the way you want it?
As the cockpit was rendered in 3DS Max, we were able to position lights to illuminate the scratches. This was then rendered out as a separate pass and composited on to the gameplay capture. I can tell you now that the game has already matched and exceeded the visuals in the video. It is starting to look truly stunning.Community Question: Will the SFX be restrained enough to not give the impression that everything in the Elite: Dangerous universe is made of high-explosive and filled with kerosene (thinking cheesy Hollywood "action" films)?
Absolutely. Although there is nothing more satisfying than seeing your enemy burst in to a ball of flames after a tense dog fight, this will not always be the case, and bespoke effects are being created for almost everything so that you don't get the same generic explosion effect on everything you shoot. We are currently working on a debris system so that when a ship explodes, dangerous twisted pieces of ship hull will drift in to space - just don’t get in their way! Realism versus artistic licence is a difficult balance. I am generally pushing to ensure that effects are satisfying when you see them, but firmly rooted in the bounds of reality. To do this we have done extensive research on what effects look like in ZeroG, however sometimes it is simply the case that the effect is unreadable and needs to be exaggerated or made more traditional in order for the player to understand what it is.Community Question: Can you give an example of a particular SFX that you're pleased with (large or small)?
Ship explosions and thruster effects have come on leaps and bounds recently. We have also introduced lens flares to stars, thrusters and explosions!So to finish off this interview what is your favourite ship from the Elite series and what role will you be playing most in the final game?
All of the ships that I have seen being worked on for this game look absolutely stunning. The level of thought and detail put in to them is mind blowing and each one feels unique to look at and to pilot. My favourite ship at the moment is the Anaconda.
As to what role, definitely a Pirate! I can just imagine the tense moment before I fly out from within an asteroid field and ambush a lone trader to steal the goods that I spotted them exchanging in the previous system!Thank you to James for taking the time to do this interview and to you all for reading it! You will be able to see a lot of James’ and the rest of our talented visual effects team’s work when the first stage of the alpha process is released ‘soon’.