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The Moviemaking Process: Left 4 Dead's Intro Movie

December 4, 2008 - Jason Mitchell

Because Left 4 Dead is a new property for us, we wanted to provide some basic player training prior to the start of the game. Traditional in-game training mechanics didn't make sense for Left 4 Dead, because they would take away from the sense that players had been immediately dropped into a very real, very dire zombie apocalypse. We didn't want a slow ramp-up in gameplay to take away from that tension. As a result, we decided that it would make sense to begin the game experience with a non-interactive introductory movie that could get players revved up and subtly cue them to important gameplay mechanics such as "light disturbs the witch" and "car alarms attract the horde."

Starting a game with a movie was a new approach for us, but luckily we have built up some moviemaking expertise in the past few years with the Team Fortress 2 shorts. In this blog entry, we'd like to share with you some insight into the process that led to the intro movie that shipped with Left 4 Dead. To do this, we will show four different versions of the first half of the movie from various stages of production.

In order to evaluate projects as we go along, our filmmaking team prototypes and tests our movies on external test audiences, just like the gameplay teams. We began making animatics in mid summer as we started fleshing out the story and pacing of the piece, bringing in external test audiences to view the movie and provide feedback.

Animatics and Filmmaking

If you're new to the world of filmmaking, it can be a bit disorienting to try and concentrate on the primary goals of an animatic because the animation is intentionally very basic, the rendering is often crude and the dialog frequently consists of placeholder lines recorded quickly by an artist or writer working on the piece. It is important to understand that the purpose of an animatic is to define the timing of the dialog, story beats, edits, camera angles etc in order to quickly flesh out a story that works in a broad sense. This way, we can try out different ideas and can make large improvements in story quality in a short period of time at low cost. In the early phases of development, we are not concentrating on animation, lighting or rendering quality.

8 July 2008

What you see below is the first half of the very first animatic we created for the Left 4 Dead intro movie back in early July.

If you wish to watch this video, you will need to Download the Flash plugin.

As you can see, we were still using the old character models for Francis, Zoey and Bill. In fact, one of the reasons that the Survivor models were redesigned was that the original meshes did not hold up well under the demands of the facial animation that was required for both the game and the intro movie. Over the course of the next couple of weeks of refining the story, we found that the romantic tension between Zoey and Francis that you see in this version did not playtest well, as it proved to be a distraction from the gravity of the Survivors' desperate situation. As a result, this was dropped from subsequent versions. Later in the piece, when the hunter pounces on Louis, the timing of Louis's line and the hunter's pounce consistently came off as comedic, which was certainly not the intended effect.

25 July 2008

In this next version, completed two and a half weeks after the initial animatic, you can see that we had addressed some of the above concerns:

If you wish to watch this video, you will need to Download the Flash plugin.

As you can see, with the exception of Zoey's head texture, we have the new character models integrated into the movie. The animation and editing is starting to tighten up, including many camera angles that would survive unchanged all the way to the final edit. Even some of the dramatic lighting is starting to be put in place.

Despite this progress, there were still several areas that needed to be addressed. The infected saying "nyuh?" before the grenade exploded was distractingly humorous and was cut. The emotional beat between the grenade explosion and the arrival of the helicopter was breaking the otherwise quickening pace of the piece and so it was cut. Although this was painful because it removed an opportunity to further flesh out the characters, we felt it was the right move to cut this moment to keep the pace up.

Additionally, the hunter pounce on Louis still played as comedic and needed more tension to be as horrific as intended. Through playtesting, we also found that the initial sections of the hunter sequence were lingering a bit too long, allowing viewers to wonder whether Louis would himself become infected. In later edits, this part of the intro would be edited more tightly and shot with more close-ups in order to remove any lulls in which the viewers would be tempted to ponder the fate of Louis themselves. You also notice that the hunter no longer gets away from the survivors but instead falls from the building and sets off the car alarm, providing a plausible cause for the Survivors setting off the alarm.

4 September 2008

The version below is from September 4th, just one month before we had to deliver the movie for the final XBox 360 disc. The music was starting to come together and body animation was nearing final quality on some shots.

If you wish to watch this video, you will need to Download the Flash plugin.

As you can see, some basic facial animation was added to convey a sense of emotion, though most of the lip synch was still being put off until we had committed to final dialog.

The hunter's pounce of Louis was made into a scary moment by building anticipation through the hunter point-of-view, culminating in the hunter's scream as he pounced. This moment no longer got laughs and was actually cited by some viewers as the scariest part of the piece, which reassured us that we had fixed this long-standing problem.

You'll also notice that we had created an additional beat in Zoey's confrontation with the hunter as she ran out of ammunition and Louis had to shoot the hunter before it turned to attack Zoey. The subsequent fleeing of the hunter up the building and the fall down on to the car was eventually cut for a tighter one shot kill from Louis onto the back of an alarmed car.

In subsequent versions, we cut Zoey's running out of ammunition, as this made her appear weak, which we wanted to avoid. As you'll see in the final version, her rapid-fire double pistol attack on the hunter is much stronger, which was more in line with the feeling we wanted to convey.

Final Version - 4 October 2008

Although the Left 4 Dead ship date wasn't until the 18th of November, we had to deliver the movie for the XBox 360 game disc on the 4th of October, including localized and lip-synched versions in five languages and a low-violence version for the German market. Below, you can see the complete movie that shipped with Left 4 Dead, or you can watch the High Definition 720p version on Steam.

If you wish to watch this video, you will need to Download the Flash plugin.

Final Thoughts

The four minute Left 4 Dead intro movie evolved from animatic to final product over the course of about 3 and a half months and we were extremely pleased with the result. We managed to meet our goals of subtly teaching players about important gameplay elements while building excitement in the lead-up to the rooftop starting point of the initial "No Mercy" campaign.