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Lights, camera, video games

In speech at Austin Game Conference, "Titanic" producer looks at the latest ways films and games affect each other.

AUSTIN, Texas--In the last few years, video game versions of films like "The Godfather" and "Lord of the Rings" have seen filmmakers and game makers working more closely than ever before. Now, says one Academy Award-winning producer, the lines between the two media are primed to break down, perhaps permanently.

In a keynote speech at the Austin Game Conference here Thursday, Jon Landau, who co-produced films like "Titanic," "Dick Tracy" and "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," talked at length about the innovative technology he and director James Cameron are working with at their production company, Lightstorm Entertainment.

"Our process doesn't merely at times look like we're making a video game. It also directly helps in making video games."
--Film producer Jon Landau

Lightstorm, which is currently working on a film called "Avatars," is incorporating more and more technology into its production processes. Some of it will make its way into games, while some is being used to help Cameron--and other directors in the future--get the most out of the digital realm.

"We want to apply what we have learned in the past to...tell stories that could not otherwise be told," Landau said. "These technologies range from synthetic environments to facial performance capture (and) body performance capture."

He went on to point out that the technology is meant to capture and digitize actors' performances, not just their motion.

"In addition, we have created a virtual production pipeline where (Cameron) will be able to see in real time the translation of the performers into our virtual worlds," Landau said. "The end result will be 100 percent photorealist...with performances that are driven down to the subtlest of details by the performer."

Landau explained that the real-time visuals Lightstorm gets are the same visual quality as a video game. In fact, he said, Lightstorm utilizes video game engines and video game graphics cards to process its digital images.

And that's where video games and films can blend together, he continued.

"Our process doesn't merely at times look like we're making a video game," he said. "It also directly helps in making video games."

Landau said Lightstorm has been working directly with Jim Allchin, Microsoft's platforms and services division co-president, along with Microsoft's Windows Media group, to build a top-flight "film production-friendly digital asset management (DAM) system."

The idea, he said, is to create a "smooth pipeline" which, among other things, allows for movie assets to become game assets.

"In fact, we hope that many of the assets we are building and storing in the DAM are the same assets that can be used in game creation," Landau said. "This of course is one of those holy grails that both our industries have been chasing after for years. But it's finally within our reach."

Essentially, Landau said, Lightstorm's idea is that video game makers will be able to directly use visuals shot for movies such as parametric data, skeletons and animations Cameron sees through his camera.

Still, he added, it doesn't matter how good-looking the content is if it's not based on a good story. And that's why Landau talked about some of the similarities between what makes for a good film and for a good game.

But beyond their own projects, Landau also spoke about the ways he sees the video game and film industries merging and suggested he sees a near future in which each will have little choice but to adapt to each other.

Film as virtual world
Indeed, Landau explained how he and Cameron are putting their money where their mouths are: They have joined the board of advisers of Multiverse, a company developing tools that allow nearly anyone to create their own online games.

For film, he said, there must be relatable characters "doing extraordinary things," "worlds that themselves are a tapestry of environments that elicit the desire to explore" and "a theme that's bigger than the genre."

Similarly, successful online games must include immersive art, character customization and group identification, action game play, non-action forms of game play, an engaged community both in and out of the game and, as with films, themes "that are bigger than the game...(that) stay with you when you walk away from the keyboard."

"Turns out we're not so different, film and (massively multiplayer online games)," Landau said. "That shouldn't be too surprising. After all, what do filmmakers do, if not create virtual worlds?"

At the same time, he said, there are chief differences between the two media.

First and foremost, film is mainly voyeuristic.

"You're always in third-person mode, watching," he said. "It's critical that you identify with someone onscreen, but you don't control them."

By comparison, he said, games with deep immersion make players' experiences more personal, especially in online games where players have total control over what their characters do.

"You can live the experience of an ordinary person becoming extraordinary," he said. "It's much more of a literal hero's journey when you experience it yourself...This intersection of technology and culture has enabled an experience that's possibly even more immersive than the movies. That's why (online games) are the fastest-growing segment of the video game industry."

At the same time, Landau said he is looking forward to a time when a virtual world can be based on a movie and "really pull out all the stops."

"Instead of designing it to be restrictive," he said, "make it expansive, inclusive...Now a filmmaker can present his vision in a movie, and then let the game designers and the players take that vision to entirely new places. Places and themes that we didn't have time to explore in the movie. Experiences that fill out the world and allow it to grow. To become real."

Landau said these goals apply to games based on licensed properties. But he said he's just as excited about the rise of independents in the game business, something Multiverse's platform could well enable.

"When the indies are empowered to create," he said, "then you see a truly wide range of art. A greater pace of innovation."

He said he expects a day to come soon when many different teams will be able to use the kind of performance-capture virtual production 3D technology being employed by Lightstorm. And that day could well include independent film and video game makers.

"The indies won't replace the Jim Camerons or the (Blizzard Entertainment vice president of game design Rob) Pardos," said Landau. "But they will become the next Camerons or Pardos. And here you are now. I applaud you."