And Now For Something Completely Machinima

Full Interview with Ricard Gras

March 04, 2021 Ricard Gras Season 2 Episode 2
And Now For Something Completely Machinima
Full Interview with Ricard Gras
Chapters
And Now For Something Completely Machinima
Full Interview with Ricard Gras
Mar 04, 2021 Season 2 Episode 2
Ricard Gras

Tracy Harwood interviews Ricard Gras, Games Chair at SIGGRAPH Asia 2020

An excerpt of this interview was featured in Completely Machinima, Season 1 Episode 2.

Show Notes Transcript

Tracy Harwood interviews Ricard Gras, Games Chair at SIGGRAPH Asia 2020

An excerpt of this interview was featured in Completely Machinima, Season 1 Episode 2.

Tracy Harwood:

This week we thought we'd catch up with what happened at SIGGRAPH Asia in December. Our listeners will probably be aware that SIGGRAPH is an annual conference on computer graphics and interactive techniques. The main annual event takes place in the US and has been running since 1974. SIGGRAPH Asia is a second annual conference that has been running since 2008 in countries throughout Asia. In December 2020, it was held online and included its first dedicated game track, although it had of course previously covered games in other tracks. The new game track was chaired by Ricard Gras. Now for those of you with long memories Ricard has a machinima background. He was part of the influential AMAS Europe team. His film "Silver Bells and Golden Spurs," which was filmed in Second Life won a Mackie for Best Commercial Machinima back in 2006. And you can read more about that in Henry Lowood and Michael Nitsche's Machinima Reader. He was also my technical advisor on the Machinima Europe Festival in 2007 and we've been friends ever since. So, this is a great chance to discuss the latest developments in games covered at SIGGRAPH Asia with a machinima hat on too. So Ricard, welcome to the podcast, it's great to have a chance to talk to you. I was gonna ask, do you want to talk a little bit about what you've been doing since 2007?

Ricard Gras:

It's a long time ago. To summarize, thanks for the intro, thanks for the opportunity. It's just great to continue to be in touch, not just with you personally, but also with with the community. So it's been quite a long way in terms of work. The one thing perhaps that would summarize it all is that like many, many of those who have started somehow doing machinima at an artistic or academic level, we ended up in the commercial world. And that's what I did, I started with using kind of, out of the box standard games, I then jumped into virtual worlds such as Second Life, which connected me with the opportunities brought to us by the commercial sector, marketing agencies, research institutions, and then ended up kind of taking on larger, larger projects. And then I joined a company that does a lot of those, including a lot of motion capture on the large side as well. But that's it. I am and I have continued to be in touch with machinima, though, as I said, at a more commercial level.

Tracy Harwood:

Yeah. And that's great. I know you've recently won a grant as well, do you want to tell us a little bit about that? That's a very exciting project.

Ricard Gras:

What it did do is just that, I guess that's in parallel to my work with machinima. One of the things that I have been doing is getting into virtual reality. Once again, as many of us like, you know, rest in peace, Hugh Hancock, who was very interested in that area as well. And I think it's a natural evolution. I think that the fact that you know, you went into machinima and you start playing with the language of video games and the language of film, and then you I think, by default, you have an understanding and relationship with the audience that is very unique, because you know that usually, those who enter machinima and watch machinima know the game that they're watching on screen. So my point is that, that is part and parcel of VR, that understanding of the audience and the way how they interact with content. And, and it is only natural that as I said, some of us ended up there. So I would use my time at work to do a PhD in immersive media. And one of the things that I wanted to do is explore how life experiences can happen in virtual reality. And I won an award to conduct the research, which basically allows what I call hosts to let you kind of manage the space and also manage audiences in live scenarios within 3D virtual worlds or otherwise.

Tracy Harwood:

And when do we get to play with this?

Ricard Gras:

I don't know. It is research at the moment, so I have completed it and it looks good, apparently. The evaluation is fine. But now is when development should go somewhere. Yes.

Tracy Harwood:

Excellent. Well, I look forward to having a look at this. Let's go back to SIGGRAPH then because as I said that you were Chair of the the games section this year, which is a really exciting role to have taken on. What games did you feature, and how do they help people make machinima?

Ricard Gras:

So the opportunity was, I mean, Jinny Choo, the conference organiser said, this is a new program. So what do you think we should do. I was given the chance to take on that which is a huge responsibility, for many reasons. But the key problem the key challenge that came to mind is to try and portray the diversity of the games industry in just three talks. So it is practically impossible to cover everything that's going on in eSports and mobile and so on. But I did choose Naughty Dog, the company that's behind The Last of Us 2. And I think that that game, is not just that it's critically acclaimed, but also by audiences too, it is so beautiful. It reminds me of a lot of the work that he did with GTA back in the day and I think is ideal for machinima. So machinima was part of that program, but in kind of a parallel way. Unity was invited to deliver the workshops and of course, one of the key parts of my program was inviting the guys behind the Unreal Fellowship. And perhaps I'm not sure if I should explain what it is. But to me it was the the one thing that is directly tied with the machinima community, and that is a very, very exciting thing that is going on in the games industry right now.

Tracy Harwood:

And what were their thoughts about where machinima is going? Well, they call it virtual production, don't they?

Ricard Gras:

Well the thing that I think is, I mean, technically speaking, we're probably talking about the same thing. But virtual production, let's not forget that it is as much about developing 100% 3D content, but it's also about hybrid stuff. So in other words, you would bring in the actors and the background would be virtual. But never mind, the process is very similar, the way how you woul develop assets and move asset or think about camera angles and so on, is very, very simila to machinima. But there is on thing that I think in terms of looking ahead, and it doesn t matter where this goes. But t ere's something about machi ima which is quite unique, unde stood in the old school sen e, which is that when you d a machinima and use an exist ng game, you immediately tap i to the pop element of that game nd how it plays in the minds of audiences. I think tha 's something that virt al production will never ne er achie

Tracy Harwood:

Yeah, I agree with you.

Ricard Gras:

And as much as I think it's a wonderful thing to the point that I invited these guys to the panel to the to be one of the keynotes in within the program.

Tracy Harwood:

So with the mega... is it mega grants? Or the little grants that we're talking about there.

Ricard Gras:

It's called the Unreal Fellowship, they give 10,000 US dollars and a month worth of training to anybody wanting to learn about how to use Unreal for virtual production.

Tracy Harwood:

And are they sort of looking at indie creators primarily and just upskilling? And if they are, what are they looking to do with the people that go through the fellowship program?

Ricard Gras:

So you mentioned, they have another program called the Megagrants.

Tracy Harwood:

Yeah, I was getting confused there, sorry.

Ricard Gras:

No, it's good, it's good to say that, obviously, Epic are committed to supporting the indie game developers, and that is a very, very strong, very powerful, very big, grand scheme. The Unreal Fellowship, it is, just to answer your question, is very, very much about diversity. So when I had Linda Sellheim and Brian Pohl, who are the people behind this program. And they made a point about explaining that they wanted professionals because they had a few Oscar winning people in their program as much as indies from other types of industries as well. Like they had some people from the theater world, some traditional directors of photography. So it's a very exciting mix. And I would recommend and encourage anybody to have a go. But of course, they give you 10K for one month training. So it's pretty competitive.

Tracy Harwood:

Yeah, I can imagine, well, hundreds, isn't it? I've seen literally hundreds go for these grants. In fact, I only know one well hang on. I know two people that have got them which is quite, quite cool. And the work that they've produced is pretty stunning, I think. So what, in terms of the specific software that you saw through the SIGGRAPH Asia elements, what's most impressed you from a machinima point of view other than you know big software packages like Unity or Unreal?

Ricard Gras:

So, obviously Unity and Unreal is just great to see that they are kind of trying to bring a lot of tools into the hands of creators and in that sense, when I introduced them in the different talks, I did say that it was a dream come true. And I did mention that I had a machinima background when I said that. It is a dream come true to see commercial engines such as them bringing these powerful tools into the engines. But that aside, there was something which kind of is not machinima, but I think it will interest most people who are in it into it is the Ubisoft. And I didn't know this, they have a research and development team in China, led by Alexis Rolland. And what they're doing is or one of the projects they're working in, they're working in many, many projects that serve the whole of the Ubisoft head branches, is that they are looking into videos and they're turning them into animations, actually mock-up compatible animations. So they are concentrating on animals to start with. And they automatically have programmed something that turns it into FBX files. So it is a very, very exciting development. And of course, the next step is that we will see humans being transported from video to virtual seamlessly at one point, hopefully.

Tracy Harwood:

So let me get this right, this is creating a 3D asset from a 2D image. Is that what you're saying? Correct? Yeah, brilliant, and rigging it?

Ricard Gras:

I wouldn't go that far. It didn't work out of the box. But it's one of these early projects and it is already being used. So despite the tweaking it is already exciting. I think the one thing that I think kind of surprised you the most or excited you the most when we discussed this was the fact that SIGGRAPH Asia, because the Asian strand of things is actually populated by companies from all over the world, and when Disney and ILM came to present the have unveiled the way how they work. That is that is relevant for for machinima people in the sense that these guys are building virtual worlds so that they can reuse the assets from one project and one feature to the next. That I think is extremely relevant to our work.

Tracy Harwood:

You know, in many ways, you can really see that there's been a big shift in the way that these games organizations think about the indie creator in the ways that they're going about developing the tools and assets now. I mean, do you see a lot of different attitudes from these organizations, towards say machinima specifically? Or do they just call it something different?

Ricard Gras:

Yeah, I think obviously, they're not bothered about the nomenclature, and they don't have to promote, you know, certain things or certain behaviors. But let's face it, the way how the games industry has liaised with us and related to us has been very generous. So if you look back at the beginning, there was a lot of talk. I remember seeing a lot of disclaimers in early machinima works of like, we don't intend to use the copyright for whatever reason, blah, blah, blah. And you don't even have to do that anymore to the point that both software and hardware manufacturers they are embedding tools for social media sharing in both games, but also in consoles. So perhaps do is more awareness, perhaps there is a more proactive attitude towards embedding features. But I think we should be very, very pleased about how the games industry has welcomed our work to be honest.

Tracy Harwood:

Yeah, yeah, I agree. What do you think is next in the world of machinima then?

Ricard Gras:

It forces an impossible answer, which is that it is an evolving industry or market or phenomenon, which is led however, both by technology and by creativity. So you see that there are changes or, you know, the embedding of cameras or the virtual production we just discussed, which pushes things forward, and the fellowship and so on, but to me the most exciting part is the dialogue, is the way how anybody doing a machinima is establishing a dialogue with games from a different point of view, from a critical point of view. And I love that. I think that it doesn't matter so much about the technology, we could do it in whatever way and maybe the technology that I described before from Ubisoft will change things in the long run. But to be honest, there is something about machinima which I particularly love which is the strength of its pop element. If you love a game and you use it to create animation, those who play that game will relate to your work. And I think it's that celebration of that dialogue between art and games, that is something very unique to us. And you can look at it from a tech perspective. But you can also look at it from a purely art perspective and think that well, Andy Warhol did something very similar when he repurposed elements of pop culture, even though it was food. And you can also refer to the work of the mashup artists like Eric Kleptone., who came to the Machinima Festival.

Tracy Harwood:

Yes, I remember, yeah,

Ricard Gras:

And he did it with music. So that's the dialogue that i think is going to be our legacy.

Tracy Harwood:

Excellent, excellent. Have you seen any great machinima films lately? Have you seen anything that really sort of titillates you?

Ricard Gras:

To be honest, I keep going back to the oldies. Yeah, because I think there is something very unique in the puppetry, for example, that is used in Red Vs. Blue. Or when you see these old video clips being made with old games, that dance to hip hop tunes, and are made by people using joysticks, I just find that part... that and the numerous countless backs that you find like people that get backs and put them together, and then there's something kind of very, very relaxing and very subversive as well that I find in those videos. I watch them in loops, those ones.

Tracy Harwood:

Yeah, yeah. I don't know if you saw, I recently got sent a Red vs. Blue reincarnation in Fortnite, and it's the same old tropes, but just imported into Fortnite, which I think is, you know, and the video, there's only a couple of videos so far, but the videos have got millions of views. And I just wonder how that, you know, the old and the new can be mixed together successfully and what success might look like, and obviously, you know, Rooster Teeth are a big commercial entity, in terms of the way that they're going about things, but to have kind of attempted to reinvigorate the old RvB stuff in Fortnite, which clearly appeals to a different audience, is a very interesting way to go I think.

Ricard Gras:

Yeah, there's one part of machinima I miss, but that's because it's hard to come across it really, which is the live aspect as well. So when, like I was my mind blown when I first first heard about the ILL Clan. Which to me was a surprise. It was doing machinima didn't know he was called machinima. I didn't know there were other people doing it. And then here they were, these guys, you know, doing live stuff using games on stage. That is mind blowing. And it hasn't been explored properly, I think. And I would love to see more of that.

Tracy Harwood:

Do you think, I mean, you know, when we talk about Unreal, and the way that Unreal is being used to do extended reality experiences, or mixed reality experiences, and what have you, do you see more of that coming into play with those kinds of things? It brings to mind project that I'm loosely involved with at the University at the moment, which is the Audience of the Future Royal Shakespeare Company's reincarnation of A Midsummer Night's dream with you know, so there's actors on the stage and there's a virtual world there that the audience interacts with. Through the internet in this particular case, but you know, you've got both the real performers and the virtual working together to create that. Do you see a role for machinima in that as well?

Ricard Gras:

If you, that, I mean, from a technical perspective, we're probably talking about a lot of similar things being used and crossed over. But then I'm not sure to which point it's machinima anymore. But there is something, since we're mixing it now with the live aspect, it all gets complicated, not just from a delivery perspective, but also from an uncanny valley perspective. And I'm talking about the uncanny valley as an emotional concept. So I saw a presentation by Magic Leap and a couple of years ago at GamesCon. And they said that the uncanny valley is not something visual anymore should be understood also in emotional terms. So if you grab a 3D character, and you put it in a room and you can see him or her or it through your glasses, and if they don't react to your input, and to you saying "Hi" or "Let's shake hands" or something, then you start getting awkward. Do you want to, you know, if they want to fight you or you want to fight them or whatever, if they don't react in a in in a way that is consistent and make sense, then you enter in this emotional uncanny valley situation. This is something to be aware of in that scenario, but then again, it's something which, yeah, as machinimators maybe we'll be more accustomed to managing these things. But it's kind of a different thing altogether.

Tracy Harwood:

Very interesting. Well, I'm conscious we've been speaking to you for quite a while now. So just like to say thanks very much for talking to us and look forward to hearing more about your projects. Thanks a lot, Ricard.

Ricard Gras:

Thank you, Tracy, and congrats on the podcast. Hello, everybody. Cheers.

Tracy Harwood:

Bye.