Claymation has a very short and uneven history in video games – few games have been developed using clay as an animation medium, and even fewer were fun. Games like Trog and The Neverhood (despite of, or because of, their flaws) still stand out to me as wonderful and imaginative efforts.. but in the end fell a bit flat. (I highly recommend reading Anthony Flack’s three-part “History of Clay Games” for a detailed review of The Neverhood and Skullmonkeys). So when I came across Cletus Clay, I was both extremely excited and somewhat uncertain about a fresh attempt at making a new clay game.
Some time ago, Anthony Flack and Sarah Quick, the lead designer/artist and artist (respectively) behind Cletus Clay, were kind enough to answer a few questions about their upcoming hillbilly-fueled side-scrolling action-puzzler game built for TunaSnax. Cletus has been nominated for the Excellence in Visual Art award at the 2009 Independent Games Festival, and from all signs so far is a strong contender. So read on to hear about some of the crafts(wo)manship that is going into Cletus.
Chris – How much time have (you, the team) spent working with clay (plasticine) animation?
Anthony Flack – I did my first stop-motion animation at film school, with a 16mm Bolex camera. This would have been around 1996. The Bolex was great fun but I wasn’t too keen on waiting two weeks to see what I’d shot. I soon switched to digital, but the computers really struggled with crunching video data back then. I had to spend two grand on a hardware video codec card just so I could play back TV-resolution video in real time! Everything works so much better these days, and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper.
Sarah Quick – I’ve been working properly with clay for a year now. Messiest year of my life!
Chris – Aardman Animations’ “Creature Comforts” is one of my favourite stop-motion shows. One of the reasons I think it works is *because* clay animation doesn’t render ‘photorealistic’ scenes/characters. What are your thoughts on photorealism – hell, any kind of realism – in games and films?
Anthony Flack -Well in a way, stop-motion is a photorealistic effect because it depicts real-life objects. That’s what makes it so hard to fake, and what makes our job so tricky. But it also has all the flexibility of cartooning, so it’s a great combination of the real and the impossible.
I’m interested in all kinds of films, from cartoon fantasy to bare-bones documentaries. So I don’t have any opinion there. But I do have some issues with the pursuit of realism in video games. I see video games as essentially abstract compositions; a set of mechanics and counter-mechanics all working in a delicate and unstable equilibrium. They are usually presented as a rough approximation of some sort of real-world activity, but that is just for context: the game of Monopoly really isn’t anything like being a real property baron. Making it more true-to-life probably wouldn’t help the game play better.
The more realistic you try to make your game, the higher you set the bar for suspension of disbelief, and the fewer options you have for messing with your game mechanics. That’s why I generally prefer abstracted or cartoony games. I also think that realistic human animation is fundamentally at odds with responsive controls. If you jump up in the air, it probably takes you nearly a second between starting the movement and actually leaving the ground. That’s probably not what you want to happen when you push the jump button in a game. So you can make your characters and environments as realistic as you like; the player character is still going to either move unrealistically or respond poorly. I’d rather have them move unrealistically.
Chris - There’s a surprising amount of consistency between your (Sarah and Anthony’s) clay modeling styles. How do you manage to do that, when you live a few thousand kilometres apart?
Anthony Flack - I actually think our styles are quite different, but Sarah keeps in close contact with me while modeling, and we have some agreed-upon methods for modeling certain things, like planks of wood for example. I also check over everything before we include it, and once the scenes are built we have to go over everything again and fix anything that looks inconsistent.
We also divide up our to-do lists based on what models we are better-suited to make. Sadly for me, that means I have to do a lot of the technical, structural stuff like floor pieces and sections of ladders, while Sarah is off making an Optimus Prime robot or a crashed aeroplane…
Sarah Quick- Well it has been a bit of a challenge but all the work it takes to get our models to match is half the fun. This is the first time I’ve worked as part of a team that actually uses my artwork so it was always going to be a learning experience. Anthony has been schooling me through the process and we’ve now got a good system where he checks my work to ensure it matches with the look of the levels and his vision. Some tweaking still has to take place after the levels are put together but I think it is getting easier.
Poor old Anthony does seem to have drawn the short straw with the kind of models he has to make at the moment. I don’t have the competence yet to create some of the really technically complicated models and animations but hopefully in the future I can take on some of that so Anthony can make a few crashed aeroplanes of his own.
Chris – Why do you think it’s important that we not lose clay animating techniques in favour of CG?
Anthony Flack - I love CG too, but stop-motion has its own magic, just as hand-drawn animation has its own magic. I think it’s important that we keep some diversity.
Chris – Sarah: Prior to beginning work on Cletus, what was your background in artwork? Your influences?
Sarah Quick – After secondary school I worked as a freelance artist for a couple of years in my free time. I decided University was not for me but I was determined to get into art somehow. For a while I became a bit of an art hustler and took any art job I could find. Before joining Tuna I’d designed tattoos, painted pub murals, coloured architectural plans and sketched portraits in pubs. Tuna gave me my first big chance at doing something creative in the field of video games. That was a dream come true for a geek like me!
I suppose over my art career there have been many artists that have influenced me. The biggest would be Roman Dirge, a comic book author and artist. His Lenore comics saw me through my teenage years. Animation wise, I lived near Bristol where Aardman is based so I always loved their stuff and was proud of living in their vicinity. Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas was my favourite film growing up and the animations of Kihachiro Kawamoto are my current source of inspiration in the animation world. He uses these very beautiful dolls in his films which are enchanting to watch.
Chris – Any decisions on what kind of music that would suit Cletus Clay, if any?
Anthony Flack - Somewhere in-between frenetic video game music and a crackly old bluegrass record. I wouldn’t claim to be a banjo player but I have enough instrumental skill to do a reasonable imitation of one, and I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to make up some dinky fingerpicking stuff for this game. I like having the excuse to work on music, and video games are a wide-open canvas for experimentation. Unfortunately there’s not much time to play around with it when we’re in the middle of production and I’m in charge of the art and design as well, but I have written some tunes and I’ll have to get around to finishing them at some point.
Chris - What kinds of inspirations influenced the modeling process?
Anthony Flack - Whenever I get stuck, I go on the internet and look for photos of the things I’m trying to depict. I should really do it more often because it always turns out better for it. Recently I’ve been looking at videos of things blowing up on Youtube, trying to get a feel for the way an explosion moves.
Sarah Quick – I do pretty much the same thing. There are times where I’d be lost without Google image search. You can’t go wrong with good reference material.
Chris - What about the gameplay, design, and revision processes? Do you listen to music, watch TV, or concentrate on what you’re doing with autistic precision?
Anthony Flack - If it’s using the visual part of my brain, I’ll keep the rest of it amused by listening to the TV or podcasts while I work. There’s some interesting stuff on the BBC Radio 4 website sometimes, and I always listen to Mark Kermode’s film reviews. I like working on the visual stuff because it leaves my ears free to do whatever I like.
But if it involves the thinky parts of my brain, reading and writing and doing maths, then I really have to concentrate. If I listen to music then I’ll start thinking about music instead.
Sarah Quick – I can’t work in silence, even when I’m using the thinky part of my brain. I end up concentrating on the lack of noise instead of getting on with my work. Apparently even as a child my Mum could only send me to sleep if she turned on the vacuum cleaner in the corner of my room because I don’t like silence. Hence I listen to a lot of music and sometimes watch the odd documentary whilst I model. I’m a bit schizophrenic with my choice in tunes. One day I’ll be listening to composers like Hans Zimmer or James Newton Howard and the next it will be a bit of Disturbed or Nine Inch Nails. I’ve just discovered the band ‘The Knife’ which has been the flavour of the week so far.
Chris - Cletus Clay has been nominated for an Excellence in Visual Art prize at the 09 IGF. Let’s pretend that you have no sense of humility here … why do you think Cletus Clay outstrips the other (admittedly spectacular) finalists?
Anthony Flack - I haven’t played the other finalists’ games yet; I’ve only had a brief look at their Youtube videos. So I’ll get to take them all in fresh when we get to the IGF. I’m looking forward to checking out Machinarium in particular; I really enjoyed Samarost and I’m hoping it’ll be awesome. I’m looking forward to seeing all of them actually – they’re probably all going to be awesome.
Sorry, but other people’s work is always going to be more exciting than your own stuff that you’ve been staring at for way too long. We’ve put a lot of work into this game and there’s a lot of work still to do. I think it’s turning out well, but I’m way too close to it right now to compare it to anyone else’s. I don’t really feel like we’re in competition with each other anyway, since everyone is doing something different. I just want to make sure we get the game looking as good as possible before the festival, because it’s not fully assembled yet. And it’s always painful showing work that isn’t quite finished.
Chris - Anthony: You mentioned a horrible fire during the creation of Platypus. I cringe asking this, but … is your current domicile now insured?
Anthony Flack - Um, to an extent. We really need to up the coverage some more actually, now you mention it.
Chris - Anything to say to my partner’s junior high school art class students who absolutely adore Cletus Clay so far? They’re going to get their chance to work with clay soon…
Anthony Flack - I think this is better answered by Sarah, who is still flush with enthusiasm. I’ve been working with clay for so long I can barely remember what it’s like when you’re starting out. Having said that, I recommend having a jar full of plastic eyeballs of different sizes that you can stick into your models – an easy and fun way to build cartoony characters.
Sarah Quick – Don’t play with clay near a carpet. I always get in trouble for clay being walked into the carpet at work. Also, if the weather is hot, bung your model in the fridge, stops it getting to squishy.
Most importantly, let your imagination run wild. You don’t need much to make a good model, just some clay, a bread knife and if it is a big model; something to use as an armature (core). Having an armature or something inside your model, acting as a core, saves you a lot of clay. A number of my models are stuffed with crisp packets, polystyrene and one even contains a scented candle.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful and friendly conversation! I’m looking forward to seeing Cletus Clay in action at the ’09 GDC, as well as meeting you both in person. Safe travels, and good luck with the IGF!