Making Movies With The Ant Farm
We meet the Hollywood company behind gaming’s new breed of trailers.
It’s generally accepted that when you capture gameplay as video or screenshots, something gets lost in translation. The living canvas of dynamic environment, AI interaction and 360 degrees of player freedom is sold short. One solution for advertisers: use Hollywood trailer tactics to breathe new life into the footage, finding dynamic camera angles and cuts. Few know more about this than Los Angeles-based The Ant Farm, the decorated ad agency whose portfolio includes work for Call Of Duty, Halo and Assassin’s Creed. We ask game department directors Rob Troy and Lisa Riznikove for the complete picture.
How would you describe The Ant Farm’s method?
Lisa Riznikove: I wouldn’t call it gameplay capture, I’d call it cinematography. If you buy an Audi and it doesn’t look as pretty as it did in the commercial, the difference is the cinematographer. We hire really, really good cinematographers to shoot the gameplay so it looks as good as it could possibly be, and so it feels epic to you. When you play a game, it feels epic. But if you just press record and replay it, it doesn’t. We’re just shooting it in a way that gives you the feeling you get when you actually play the game.
Axis Animation's infamous Killzone 2 trailer, shown during E3 2005, was somewhat misrepresented by Sony. Was that unethical or just a PR malfunction?
LR: The term a lot of people will use is that it’s ‘entirely game assets’, which Gears Of War came up with. That was a very smart line that their marketing group had. And there was a lot of buzz at the time about: what does that mean? Now it’s become the term. But at the time of the Killzone video that hadn’t happened yet, and unfortunately for them they didn’t come up with a term that made it palatable for the consumer.
Rob Troy: But didn’t they even say it was gameplay? I’m sure they did. And they did it again later with the bullet spot which is where they said it was all created ‘in-engine’. Epic does this a lot and Crysis 2 recently did it. That’s not the same thing as gameplay in my opinion. When we tell you something is a gameplay spot, if we tell you that it’s in-game, the only thing that’s different is that we’ve created tools that let us show areas within the game from views you wouldn’t normally see. But that gameplay experience is still there. And to be honest, [the player] might have missed the building falling down the in the right-hand corner because they were running-and-gunning through the level and missed this wonderful scene that seven artists, three animators and two set directors spent three months creating. It’s funny because you’ll actually have dev teams say, ‘Thank God you showed that because nobody would ever have seen it.’
A still from The Ant Farm's Won't Back Down TV campaign for Call Of Duty: Black Ops. The company makes use of unfamiliar camera angles to make its trailers more cinematic
You’ve seen Axis' Dead Island trailer, presumably?
RT: There are very few trailers, certainly of that significance, that we don’t see pretty much immediately. The piece is quite well thought out and it’s smartly executed. They’re obviously drawing on ideas from a number of different sources – the Max Brooks Zombie Survival Guide comes to mind. The idea to me of having two different plots going on at different speeds, starting at two different points, is an interesting approach and obviously very difficult to properly convey. And that’s the thing about it that really catches people off-guard. I know on YouTube somebody has painstakingly recreated the trailer into its proper chronology, and it quite simply doesn’t work. And purposefully so. It’s the only way they could tell the story.
Do you see any ethical issues with that kind of trailer?
RT: I don’t personally see a line in relation to its ‘authenticity’. Look at film; the red band trailers have been out there for some time and they certainly cross the line in terms of what’s seen as acceptable in theatrical trailers: there’s language, there’s sex, there’s obviously some pretty extreme gore. The ultimate question is: does the creative convey the proper story and emotion that you want? Only your developer or publisher can really answer that. Are you getting the point across that they want to? Does this approach sell games? And I think the answer still remains to be seen. This is the beginning, I think, of a long campaign [for Dead Island].
LR: There are eyeballs on it and they’re getting attention. That’s the goal at this point, and they achieved it in spades at a time where it’s really hard to break out. Whether it works as a marketing campaign remains to be seen – it could become another Snakes On A Plane. Snakes On A Plane was this huge phenomenon, they’d never seen anything like how this viral was taking off. The audience seemed to be loving it and they thought they had this massive hit, but it didn’t live up to the buzz they generated. To be perfectly honest, to sell lots of games you've got to have two things: good marketing and a good game. Consumers are very savvy and you can only pull the wool over their eyes so much.
Do these kinds of trailer have a tendency to backfire? Have you seen other examples in film?
RT: Absolutely. There’s a couple of examples that actually happened with the same person, and that would be Jerry Seinfeld. The two that come to mind would be Don La Fontaine doing the trailer for The Comedian, which is one of the funniest trailers of all time. Everyone knew Don’s voice and he was just phenomenal in it. No one knows what the hell that film’s about. And it happened again when Jerry did the schtick for Bee Movie. He was just dressed as a bee being goofy and so forth, but I don’t think anyone remembers much after that. The film did okay but it certainly wasn’t a blockbuster.
LR: Conversely, many would argue that a lot of the advertising and early movies put out for Halo: Reach had nothing to do with the game – all this live action stuff they did. But I don’t think you could argue they were a failure.
RT: They did have lore.
LR: You find people are very split on that. Some people hated it and thought it was a soap opera, and some people loved it.
RT: I think [Microsoft] did a great job of reigniting their core players. I don’t think they expanded to a broader mainstream; in fact they contracted between Halo 2 and ODST, contracted the entire time. That’s unfortunate because if you look at something like Call Of Duty, it’s the complete opposite. That’s expanded in ways no one ever thought a game could, and part of that comes back to your question about CG versus realtime gameplay. CG and live action do well as teasers to sell the promise of the game – they’re very useful in situations where the game’s is at too early a stage to be properly shown to the public – so it’s all about showing an emotional feel. And I guess [Microsoft] were able to create a mood piece but not something representative of gameplay. But in relation to using game footage, there comes a time when you just have to put up or shut up. Unless you’re in a type of genre – an MMOG or RPG – where it’s difficult to show the full promise of the game without the consumer playing it, if you’re not putting game footage out there then you’re really short-changing your marketing, and you’re giving the consumer a reason to go, 'What are they trying to hide?' Why would you try and hide your gameplay if that’s what you’re trying to sell?
LR: If [the makers of Dead Island] follow that buzz up really quickly with a really amazing gameplay trailer, then it might be a success. If they can show it wasn’t just hype then they own the buzz.
The Ant Farm's Burn TV spot for Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood helped generate record pre-orders for Ubisoft.
And if the game doesn't live up to the expectations created by a trailer, will anything have changed once the dust has settled?
RT: Of course. Any time you have something that's perceived as being so important on YouTube and the internet in general, or ends up on studio heads’ desks in the middle of Hollywood and travels around the world, once again promotes the fact that games are not only a relevant form of entertainment – they’re one of the leading forms of entertainment. For years this industry has really gotten a bad rep, and to a certain extent we’ve self-inflicted it because of some of the types of marketing and so forth. But this doesn’t matter. Is it a form of entertainment? Then let’s promote it like entertainment. It’s not about whether it’s a frickin’ game – promote it as a piece of entertainment that people are going to be a part of.
Is gaming naturally suited to viral marketing?
LR: We used to hear that term a lot a few years ago. For months and months the number one video on the viral marketing chart – not just games - was the very first video that Xbox put out about Kinect. When we talk about viral we think about something that’s shocking and pushing the envelope in violence, yet the number one video in the viral charts had none of that stuff, but was actually quite dry – it just showed how Kinect would work. So what does doing something viral really mean? The idea was that you get something so amazingly interesting that people pass it around and do your advertising for you. That worked when there weren’t a gazillion YouTube videos and a host of other sites posting things all the time. It's now impossible to get more than, I’d say, 25,000 views without doing any additional marketing. If you want to get your video to spiral and be seen by a lot of people, you actually have to do some marketing with it, things like banner ads and placements. Put a little force behind it and if it’s good enough it’ll snowball. But the idea that something can just go viral is a misperception, it simply doesn’t happen anymore.
RT: Viral marketing is supposed to have started back in 2001/2002 with things like BMW's The Hire, which starred Clive Owen. Those are the ‘grandfathers' of viral marketing. But games have been part of this long before that, because true viral marketing is people getting on message boards and forums and saying, ‘I hate this. I like that. And here are my reasons.’ That’s what viral marketing is about, and the core demographic of game consumers were probably doing that long before the mainstream consumer was.
Axis wasn’t allowed to talk about the Dead Island clip for a week after its debut. Is that unusual?
RT: It’s certainly not unusual in that it’s quite typical for agencies to be embargoed for an long period of time – in some cases weeks, sometimes months – simply because the publisher or developer does not want you competing against the trailer itself. They don’t want your press or PR competing against the actual buzz and what the trailer’s all about.
LR: We’ve never put out press releases about anything we’ve done because the clients are the stars. We’re all about the client having their day in the sun.
RT: And there are instances where – and I’ll give a very specific example without telling you what the game is – particle effects may be added to a gameplay shot because the effects in game weren’t completed. I can tell you in that instance that the client was very specific about how those effects should look, and, lo and behold, it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between those and the ones you can play now. It happens all the time: You have a game that’s incomplete but you need to show the consumer the promise of what the game will be, so you might need to embellish here and there but without misleading anyone.