Game Dev Insight: A Chat with BioWare Cinematics Lead Tal Peleg

IMG_2222Hi everyone! I’m super happy to be able to share a nice chat I had with Tal Peleg, a Cinematics Lead at BioWare. His previous animation work includes a bevy of notable titles such as Mass Effect: Andromeda, Uncharted 4, The Last of Us and Dead Space 2 among others. We talk about everything from his path into the games industry to animation work and more.

Please feel free to check out some of his work on his website and YouTube channel. You can also check him out on Twitter at @The_Ur_Quan.

How’s it going Tal?

Tal Peleg: Hey, Nate! Thanks for having me on your blog. Love what you’ve done with the place.

Thank you. Let’s go back a little to the beginning. When and where did you first start out in the games industry?

Tal Peleg: I’ve been an animator (as well as a compositor) in film and TV shows for years before I made the leap into the gaming industry, around 2010. My first gig in games was at Visceral Games, on an undisclosed project. It was one of my favorite times in my career thanks to the awesome people and the project. Unfortunately, it was canceled; however, I ended up helping Dead Space 2 ship out the door instead, which was a good up-note.

Next chapter was Naughty Dog. I was a Senior Cinematics Animator on The Last Of Us from pretty much start to finish. I then animated a little on Left Behind, the sequel and shipped Uncharted 4. Half way through The Last Of Us, I began working on a fan-fiction short called “Dante’s Redemption”, which now has a sequel in the works. After five years at Naughty Dog, I joined BioWare. I hopped on Mass Effect Andromeda’s team late in production to animate on a few meaty scenes – you probably know which ones [laughs] – and get the game shipped out the door.

You’ve been around in the industry for a little while now. You’re a Cinematic Lead at BioWare Austin. What’s that mean exactly?

Tal Peleg: Typically, Lead Cinematics [animator] heads a team of animators to deliver the best work based on the creative direction. They’re responsible to help stir and dictate the look & feel of the animation in the proper direction as well as maintain top quality and continuity across the board with other cinematics teams as much as possible (and gameplay animation too). We’re responsible for the edit, cinematography and animation performance delivery of the narrative cutscenes at BioWare. While my team’s prime directive is cinematography and animation, we bleed over into lighting, simulation and other art departments.

You made a jump from TV and film into video games, that’s interesting! Any films or shows we might recognize? And what made you jump into games?

Tal Peleg: Not many [laughs]. But you may have heard of A Christmas Carol with Jim Carrey, Mars Needs Moms [both Disney animated feature films], Outlander and various VFX work for shows on the Discovery Channel and such. The main reason I have wanted to work in games is I’ve been an avid gamer my whole life. Additionally, I’ve always been interested in contributing to this medium as it’s an interactive one, which, if done right, can reach deeper levels of immersion and resonance.

So you ended up working on Dead Space 2 as your first project. What did you do exactly? Were you a fan of the series?

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Dead Space 2 (EA Trademark)

Tal Peleg: Technically, second project, but yeah, formally the first one as shipped. I ended up animating the death pairing move of Isaac during the boss fight of these dark
minions over empowering him and just mutilating him to death. Fun stuff! Yeah, I was a fan of the series. Loved the first couple of games in the series; haven’t had a chance to play the third.

It’s definitely one of my favorites from the last generation! From there you moved on to Naughty Dog where you worked on The Last of Us. It doesn’t need explaining that it’s one of the highest rated games on the PlayStation 3. What’d you contribute to on that project?

Tal Peleg: Being a Cinematics Animator, I primarily animated on the cutscenes [Note: see the animation demo reel]; on The Last Of Us, they were all pre-rendered. I originally helped construct the facial rig on the animation side, created a couple of Key Art pieces, animated a partial gameplay moveset (Joel swimming underwater) and designed the poses for the collector’s edition diorama.

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“The Clicker” statue (pose & base designed by Tal Peleg)

And you also created two little gems of the gaming meme world which I love, the infamous “Joel Banderas” and “Joel Nicholson” GIFs. What made you want to do that?

Tal Peleg: [Laughs] That’s right. I used to frequent a whole lot at NeoGAF, so some of the GIF reactions people had going on there were too priceless to not echo somehow in-game. The GIFS ended up in similar fashion in TLOU and U4 Multiplayers.

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The infamous “Joel Nicholson”

I have to say that personally, Joel and Ellie are some of the most memorable and realistic characters I’ve seen in a game. Did you feel the same way while working on it? Did they feel different than other characters you’d experienced in games up to that point?

Tal Peleg: I didn’t think they were necessarily different from past experiences. I believe what set them apart to be more believable and sympathetic from the rest was the intricate execution of their characteristics along with the narrative. The pacing, the acting and the creative choices came together effectively for that matter. Take Red Dead Redemption as an example; John Marston’s story arc is simple, but it’s how his character evolved throughout the journey that made him so memorable.

I like that example. John’s one of my favorite characters from the last generation. So how does a scene go from conception to realization?

Tal Peleg: Generally speaking, the writers come up with the narrative, which leads to storyboarding. Next, is the editorial stage of creating animatics (edited storyboards) or 3D pre-visualization. Then animation, lighting and you basically got a full blown scene. With Motion Capture, depending on the company and their workflow, it typically takes place after the writing is ready (if not after the storyboards phase). Some companies don’t invest as much effort into pre-visualizing and dive straight into the mocap stage, which continues right into animation work and finally lighting.

You have public samples of some of the work you’ve done on The Last of Us, Uncharted 4, and Mass Effect: Andromeda. They’re all really impressive to put it mildly. What do you feel goes into making an animation lifelike or make a cutscene stand out?

Tal Peleg: Thanks for the kind words! For animated cutscenes it’s typically a few factors: Getting the right direction, performance, editing and pacing, as well as good execution in animation will pretty much guarantee a strongly presentable cutscene. As far as animation itself goes, it’s about the nuances of a character’s physical translation of emotions that accurately define what we deem as realism. Animators, to a high degree, are CG actors. So, having a strong animator hit subtle (or extreme) emotions, thought processes and expressions on a character will go a very long way for the scene to resonate.

Kind of a fresh example, on Andromeda: I was tasked with animating the romance scene between Scott Ryder and Cora Harper. After we locked on an edit, timing and cameras, it was time to take it to the max. That’s not just cleaning up animation curves, but also making sure you land the right eye darts and facial expressions at the right moments, on exertions and such.

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Animation sequence from Mass Effect: Andromeda

I felt that at this point of the game, the emotions between Scott and Cora have to be at their absolute peak. That means, that on a directorial level, they need to radiate romantic love for one another. It’s how they look at each other with a smile, passion and even slight awkwardness. It’s how they connect with their eyes, how they kiss and react to one another.

All these things require great attention to detail and good level of execution to manifest it accurately. The choices of ‘Sex’ or ‘No Sex’ by the player will lead to different animations of these two characters as in the former they will act more physically and lustfully gaze at each other, scanning each other’s facial features, eyes and hair. The latter will showcase Cora smiling, closing her eyes to project immense gratefulness, as Scott’s choice to wait it out is rather a sign of true love. Each choice plays out in the best directive way to fulfill each tone.

I do think a huge amount of human emotion is conveyed through the eyes and little subtleties like that. You’ve also worked on things other than humans. Do you feel there’s some difference in difficulty between animating a human vs non-human?

Tal Peleg: Good question. I think the simple answer is no, but generally it’s a little more complex than that. If you animate, say a dog or a horse, you still want to adhere to their realistic characteristics or else you will fall short as you would with a human character. Another general point is that typically humans can have a very large range of motion, in action and performance, and animals typically have a smaller pool of performances, but it’s challenging on its own merit. It’s becoming more interesting and potentially more challenging when you get to animate a fictional character, like a hybrid of two different species fused into one (like a hind legged character) or a completely non-existent being; that’s where it can be arguably easier or more difficult, depending on its directorial traits. I had animated a lot of quadrupeds in my career, and although some were fictional they still adhered to real life quadruped animals of their size and type. So, all in all, it’s not necessarily more or less difficult. It’s different.

Let’s pivot a bit. You’re also directing a fan fiction short called Dante’s Redemption. Can you tell us a little about that? I take it you’re a fan of Dante’s Inferno! What was your goal with it?

Tal Peleg: Yes! I’ve been working on this project since around summertime of 2012, on and off. I got a few videos out of it, including an actually legitimate music album! I released a teaser trailer for the first short, the short itself and then a trailer for the sequel, which I’m still working on – and you got to have a glimpse on it [laughs]. Important to note Dante’s Redemption is an ongoing fan-fiction side project done in my spare time. There’s no budget for it; all is voluntary, if not off my own pocket. So it’s pretty tough to maintain progress, let alone wrap up a project in such scale while working full time. And yeah, you can say I’m a bit of a fan of Dante’s Inferno [laughs].

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“Dante’s Redemption” fan poster courtesy of Tal Peleg

I think it hit the spot pretty powerfully for many reasons. It wasn’t flawless by all means, but it was actually a pretty epic journey, not to mention it was a literal dive into an actual theological interpretation of medieval times [editor note: The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri poem]. That’s kind of an uncommon deal considering typical fantasy games never really step this deep into an actual Christian theme. I thought it was pretty daring,
raw, and fascinating. I actually loved the diverse gameplay, the lore and the gameplay animations. Dante, who’s played by the awesome Graham McTavish, is a pretty deep character with a strong arc. I felt the game didn’t deserve the fate it was ultimately handed and so I was compelled to “revive it” through the fan-fiction. My personal goal is to share this with the fans; just like any type of art. My greatest hope is that maybe, this will pull through strong enough to get the IP holders to think about digging open the grave and resurrect it into the living [laugh]. Wouldn’t it be awesome if Dante’s Purgatorio was an ARPG, with just as rich of a combat, but a much stronger branching story and open world structure to it?

Oh I’d love that. I enjoyed Dante’s Inferno quite a bit. The production quality on the short is pretty incredible. Are you working on it with a team or alone? 

Tal Peleg: Thanks, Nate. There has been a bunch of freelancers contributing to it, but I’m pretty much the only active artist on it. All the rigging of all the characters you see on screen were ultimately authored by a buddy and a colleague of mine, who’s former Tech Animation Lead at Naughty Dog (Tyler Thornock, who’s with us at BioWare Austin on a parallel role). The sequel, ACT 1, is a lot more invested as you’ve seen, with many more characters, new environment, sets, etc’. This time around we have mocap performance on it as well as additional animation help. There were more hands on deck with models and VFX, so all in all, a good few people chipped in to make this hit the quality bar I’m aiming for. Everyone integrally contributed and made all the difference on the project; I do have to point out the amazing work the composer did for Dante’s Redemption OST. This album is original from the ground up, hence why it’s authored on Apple Music and other online stores. Daniel Iannantuono is a music prodigy and I hope that one day we can collaborate on a full blown production to get some killer work out.

How long did it take to make that first trailer?

Tal Peleg: About a couple of years. Worth noting, it’s two years from inception to release; in between I have worked on full time, crunching on The Last Of Us. Typically, erecting such side projects takes an enormous level of patience and hard work to get things off the ground and moving. This means rallying artists to make the models and tech animators to rig them, etc’. It’s not easy, especially when there’s no income involved. I believe if this project was a full time gig it’d have taken about 8-10 months from start to finish considering I was the only animator, lighter, matte painter, VFX artist, compositor, sound mixer and editor [laughs].

Lastly, the games industry is a lucrative but hyper-competitive  field. Do you have any advice for aspiring animators looking to get into games?

Tal Peleg: Don’t relent. Don’t let your emotions get in the way. Be smart, friendly and a diligent hard worker. You can be in tune with the latest animation trends from the best seminars and schools and GDC talks. But it’s ultimately ALL your own hard self-practice work. Over and over until you master it. Failure is just another step of the way. Be healthily competitive, but equally a team player. All the rest will fall in.

That’s great advice. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me today Tal. It was a real pleasure.

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