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Game Dev Stories: Plastic Wax

Darksiders II. Civilization V. Borderlands. Bioshock. If you play videogames, you've seen the cut-scene work of Sydney-based CG studio Plastic Wax, without ever knowing its name. We go behind the scenes with production manager Dane Maddams for an up-close look at what they do.

Darksiders II. Civilization V. Borderlands. Bioshock. If you play videogames, you've seen the cut-scene work of Sydney-based CG studio Plastic Wax, without ever knowing its name. We go behind the scenes with production manager Dane Maddams for an up-close look at what they do.

"Death Lives" from Darksiders II. (Credit: Plastic Wax)

Can you tell us a bit about yourself? Who makes up Plastic Wax and how did you all get into CG?

Plastic Wax production manager Dane Maddams.(Credit: Plastic Wax)

Our website says, "Plastic Wax is an award winning CG house, specialising in premium CG content for the videogame and film industries", however, between you and I, we're a group of really passionate and creative people who really love to play videogames.

Following on from there, how did you get into working on videogame?

What's great about this question, I've found no two answers are ever the same, some will tell you that they've paid their dues through university courses and arduous work, others tell tales of a side hobby during high school, building 3D models when they should have been doing homework, which, through community awareness, turned into a full time job.

"The Last Salvation" from Darksiders II. (Credit: Plastic Wax)

One unifying thing in my experience is that there's no sure-fire course or path you can take. Finding the recipe for your goal is self fulfilling. As a studio, we never judge a potential recruit on their latest certificate (it helps, but it isn't the be-all and end-all); what's important for us is the quality of their reel and portfolio.

How do your relationships with studios work? Do they contact you or vice versa, or a combination of both?

We're very fortunate to have awesome clients, so much so that we've had the opportunity to solidify relationships over the course of the better half of a decade.

Our roots began in the late 90s, working on cinematics for The Wiggles, Bananas in Pajamas and Ultima Online. Being active in the industry for over a decade affords you the opportunity to build a reputation and title recognition, we'll go knocking on doors when we're excited to show something off (a latest 3D reel or CG sequence); however, a lot of the time, clients will give us a nudge when they have something bubbling.

Inside the Plastic Wax Sydney studio. (Credit: Plastic Wax)

Given that so many development studios in Australia are struggling, and have been for some time, how do you manage to stay afloat? Would you say that staying small and independent is the best way to navigate the current climate?

It's definitely tough out there, and some businesses, that certainly don't deserve it, are struggling.

I don't think it necessarily has to do with scale of a business, as there's an immeasurable amount of factors that play within the growth of a company.

In climates like you had mentioned, we've found it important for us to work smarter; keeping in mind fidelity, communication and story immersion is key, along with having the foresight to remain ahead of the curb.

As a business model, we try to keep it simple; if we do great work, clients generally return.

Civilization V. (Credit: Plastic Wax)

Can you walk us through the process of a project?

"No two jobs are ever the same" — we've all heard that one before, but it's especially applicable in what we do, in the sense that we've begun productions on the back of short verbal discussions in a busy hallway, through to fully fleshed-out storyboards and/or scripts being created from scratch by us.

Pre-production begins, and all the backbone planning is performed first. The production and creative teams engross themselves in the world of the title (which usually involves playing it — the fun begins!). From there, asset/prop and environment development process starts, then it's onto animation/rendering lighting and compositing. Sprinkle some FX and rigging in that recipe, and you have a party.

Feedback and communication is a critical part of that pipe; we also work with development, publishers, IP holders (or all), and ensuring their respective visions are maintained is an important part of that process.

What tools do you use?

We are primarily a 3ds Max studio; we use Nuke for compositing/grading. V-ray is our shader of choice for lighting setups, Photoshop for texturing and ZBrush/Max for modelling are the core packages.

Warhammer 40K: Space Marine (Credit: Plastic Wax)

What is the best thing about working in gaming development? What is the worst?

The immediate reaction of fans would be the best. We have colleagues and friends working on feature film productions who have to wait 2 to 3 years to receive a public response.

We finish our cut-scenes within months (sometimes weeks), and the reception is immediate. There's nothing more elating than to pour your heart and soul into something and see it publicly celebrated.

The worst would be short deadlines; we all have them in every industry, and they aren't fun. At times, we've had a handful of weeks to create a high-profile sequence. It definitely has its challenges, as the turnaround's become quick and the work still needs to be compelling and of quality.

Do you have any advice to offer aspiring game developers?

I vividly remember, as a child and being at a friend's house, playing Mega Drive and hearing whispers from one unknowing adult, stating, "It's a shame they play so many videogames, it won't amount to anything". Now, I get the high honour of telling my girlfriend when I play videogames that it's "official business research" jokingly, but with the most serious of expressions.

High-quality poster from trailer still, created for BioShock. (Credit: Plastic Wax)

The best advice I could give is to focus on an area of the pipeline you truly enjoy of the game development cycle. It doesn't need to be specific to cut-scenes; it can be programming, level design, concepting and so on. Once you've honed in on something you're digging, join a local and/or online community. Upon being involved and possibly building a reputation, and with others encouraging your growth with a little positive competition, you have further incentive to remain committed and passionate about what you do.

If you're struggling to find work, make it yourself! Set objectives for personal projects with the intent to showcase it, once completed. Once you feel comfortable with your portfolio of work, sit back and review it critically, focus on your strongest shots and materials, if you feel that there's a certain element that doesn't do you justice, leave it out. Focus on the awesome stuff.

What's next for Plastic Wax?

This is the part where I can do an evil laugh and disappear in the shadows, right?! Boring answer: unfortunately, we can't speak about what we're currently up to, as a lot of the content is unreleased. We keep our followers up to date with our latest exploits on Twitter and Facebook, so join us and you'll be the first to know.

See Plastic Wax's work in action in the showreel below.