Reboot, Reboot, CG animation and more Reboot | A chat with Jim Su

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I had the chance to speak with Jim Su,  a professional illustrator and CGI artist. After graduating from Sheridan College for Computer Animation, he was hired by Mainframe Entertainment in 1999 as a CGI modeler. As he points out, many recognize him for his work with the popular Reboot series. He is currently the president of Beach Creative Studios Inc. and has worked on some mega block busters including Captain America: Winter Soldier and Wolf of Wallstreet, where he largely performed the role of rigging supervisor.

We talked about a variety of things including the development of CG animation, Reboot in comic book form and the general passion surrounding the beloved series. Though he isn’t involved with any potential revitalization of Reboot, which may or may not be coming from Rainmaker Entertainment Inc., he had some interesting things to say.

He will be at the Saskatoon Comic Expo this weekend, and so will I. Muahaha. More content to come.

Were you at the Saskatoon Comic Expo last year?

 

No I wasn’t. I went to the Regina Fan Expo earlier this year, that was the first time I set foot in Saskatchewan actually. It was great, I was surprised with the turnout. It was the inaugural show in Regina and the show was a success from a financial standpoint, which is partially why I wanted to jump on the expo in Saskatoon. I’m starting to branch off to do these smaller shows outside of Toronto and Montreal because I sell the Reboot art book and posters, and Reboot has this cult following in Canada. It seems like wherever I go to show these books off it’s met with a very positive reaction and good sales. People will come up to me, flip through some of my stuff, glance over pretty much everything but then they see Reboot and go “What?! you worked on Reboot. I love that show!”

 

I understand while you were growing up you were a big fan of Reboot. How did it feel being able to work on something you loved as a kid once you began working in graphic design/modeling?

 

That was pretty exciting because when I started working at Mainframe I think it was pretty much understood that Reboot was finished after Season Three. They were able to however, arrange for what I sometimes call a bonus season, and being assigned as the modeling lead on Reboot Season Four was just an exciting time and an honour. I knew its place in history back then already, but little did I know how much of a cult reaction there was in Canada. I think shortly after Season Four was finished, I pitched a comic book internally at Mainframe for Reboot. I didn’t have any data to gauge how big Reboot was with fans but later on when I left Mainframe I discovered how big it was and that’s why I pitched the art book to Rainmaker.

 

Do you still think there’s potential for a comic book surrounding Reboot?

 

Absolutely. I think – without revealing any plans Rainmaker has – a comic book is always a way we could tie up loose ends from the original series. Budget wise, it’s a lot cheaper than creating an animated show. Also, there’s been some precedence for that. I believe Buffy had its last season in comic book form which was written by Joss Whedon. I think it’s definitely possible in that sense.

 

Aside from the fact that the series is left wide open for more Reboot-related stories to be told, what is it about the source material that makes it an attractive project to tell stories in comic book form?

 

I think the strength of Reboot is no longer about its graphics. Although it still has this quirkiness in its visuals that people seem to still love, it truly is about the story that its creators crafted. Reboot was ahead of its time for North American animation because because of its longer story arcs, which people in Japan were used to. North American animation was generally comprised of episodic stories that wrapped up after each episode, that has changed today, but back then it wasn’t like that. When Reboot started, it stayed very true to North American animation storytelling, but then it started to develop this long story arc in Season Three, which lends itself very well to comic books.

Were you ever frustrated that the show ended on such a cliffhanger? And do you have ideas that you’d like to somehow see implemented within the Reboot universe?

 

I wasn’t frustrated at the time because we were slated to do three movies and we only got to do two – My Two Bobs and Daemon Rising – but even the creators back then Gavin Blair and Ian Pearson thought there was always going to be another season. They never thought that would be the end but there was never any real guarantee that the show would be renewed for another season, and that goes for any TV show really. But in the case of Reboot, these seasons came out years after the previous one, so there was never any regularity or consistency with the seasons of Reboot and so I wasn’t frustrated about that. However, it has been a long time, over 10 years, since Season Four finished up and the amazing thing is the strength of the show. It really shows because people still recall it vividly, and I think it’s reinforced by the fact that it was continually played on reruns after it was cancelled.

 

Is cosplay a big part of that dedication to the series?

 

It absolutely is. During the first convention I brought Gavin Blair to a fan expo, which I believe was in 2007 or 2008, and when fans got word of Gavin appearing, they did an entire cosplay show with pretty much everyone from the Reboot cast. They reenacted the guitar battle at the Fan Expo masquerade on Saturday night. They won best in the show and the cosplay was top notch. I mean, they had Captain Capacitor, Phong. I see a couple fans at every show I go to dressed up as people from Reboot, which is really cool.

 

When you started working with Reboot, what were some of the things you wanted to bring to the table? Do you think you succeeded?

 

One cool thing I wanted to work on was an update in the graphics, and that wasn’t just me spearheading it, a lot of people were involved. I got to work on the super viruses, so Daemon and Daecon, and you got to see an upgrade in the modeling, the facial development was more advanced. They were a little more up to date versus the general cast of Reboot. There were other people trying to make the facial developments of the other characters more advanced, but one of the things Gavin didn’t like was, because we were trying to upgrade the facial systems of the characters, they didn’t quite act look like what fans had known to that point. The more advanced they got, the less they felt like the characters from Season One.

 

It’s the same type of argument you can make with Yoda. You had the Jim Henson puppet that everybody loves and then when they had the prequel they had this full CG Yoda in the Phantom Menace. Fans were like, ‘that’s not Yoda’ and in the next two films they regressed it and gave him more of that puppeteer facial system. That’s one of the interesting things about Reboot is that you really saw the CG progression from Season One to Season Four. In Season One, there wasn’t even any shadow casting and by the fourth season there was. Even the rendering, the software we used changed from Season Two to Season Three, so you saw a huge leap in the rendering quality. I’m sure Reboot would have progressed the same way in future seasons, with updates and new graphics. That’s kind of what Mainframe did. It’s also hard to keep the old graphics as well. (Laughs) We can’t just dust off what we used 20 years ago and make it run. Even if Rainmaker were to complete the series today they would have a hard time achieving the same look the show had 10 years ago. Everything would be updated.

 

Was the rapid development of graphics in the Reboot series a reflection of how fast graphics are progressing within the industry in general, or is it more of a testament to Mainframe’s dedication to Reboot at the time?

 

I think its more of a reflection of how quickly things change. I’ve been in the CG industry for 15 years now and it’s just constantly evolving. As an artist and a technician I constantly have to keep up to date with what’s going on in the field. For instance, the stuff that I do now in feature films, is night and day compared to what I did in television years ago.

 

 What’s it been like working on movies with big ties to pop culture?

 

It’s cool, I mean I am working on these movies and contributing to pop culture but I’m just a small cog in the process. It’s still nice to say that I worked on Captain America, Tron Legacy or Resident Evil. It’s fun working on these tent pole movies that nearly everyone walking into a convention has seen.

 

When you watch a movie, would you rather see actors push physical limits as far as they can, or have 3D animation or some kind of special effect step in and be implemented even when the possibility of an actor performing those stunts is still possible?

 

That’s a good question. I think there are a lot of times in this day and age when an actor is not allowed to perform certain stunts. It’s just written in their contracts, the actor can’t do a certain thing. So it’s not necessarily about an actor’s limits, in fact, a lot of the time during our CGI process we’re replacing a stunt actor’s face with the actor’s face. You’re seeing two different people and that happens a lot. Sometimes, they just don’t like the actor’s performance, the actor couldn’t pull it off. We’ll then use CG to enhance the performance either by integrating some CG with the actor’s performance or completely removing the actor entirely with the exception of his or her face. There’s a lot of that going on. A lot of the stunts Mila Jovovich did in Resident Evil, we replaced her entire body so all that was left was her hair or her face. Her face could be projected on an actual CG surface, which is kind of neat. There are several different options.

 

What is your advice for anyone trying to enter the post-production field? Would that advice have been different 10 years ago?

 

I think the most important advice wouldn’t change from a decade ago and today, and that is the fact that it’s still an art form and you need to learn the art fundamentals such as human anatomy, usually for a modeler, animator, or in my position a character TD (technical director). You still need to know your anatomy and you should be strong, or at least disciplined, in illustration and sculpting. There’s usually a lot of competition for any given position, so your artistic talents are still the deciding factors for you getting a job. That hasn’t changed. However, today there seems to be a new epicentre for where you can get these jobs. You can’t just freelance from your home in Saskatoon, unless you’re in pre-production working as a character designer, but if you want to work on the actual post-production on a movie, generally speaking, in this country, these jobs are in Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal so you have to be willing to move to those cities. Even though the work I do is in the digital realm, CG, the traditional skills are still just as important. They form the foundation for any work that you’re going to do digitally.

 

There is also less of a barrier when it comes to entering the software aspect of the work, so while maybe 20 years ago the artists that were working on Pixar or Mainframe projects were more technologically inclined, that’s not the case anymore today. The best CGI modelers today who are going to get those jobs are the ones that are talented in a traditional sense. It’s definitely a competition for natural talent, not just talent when it comes to the operation of software, although, that is still important. You can’t just walk in being an oil painter and not have any exposure to the computer software and think you can be the best in that sense. There’s still a balance, but traditional talent still trumps all.

Women as wallpaper, Prince of Persia, and Duke Nukem | A disappointed lover of video games speaks his mind

Thoughts on Everything Video Games, Uncategorized

Tropes vs. Women in Video Games released a video recently and highlighted – effectively I might add, with blatant examples that are impossible to disagree with and ignore – the way non-playable women are used in games. Not only was it met with the most sexist, hateful responses you could possibly imagine, but mindbogglingly argued against, with some saying a game world without the sexual abuse and appalling treatment of women would result in an “unbelievable game world.”

I’ve played video games for the majority of my life, and not once did I ever play a game and think, “You know what this is missing? A woman getting abused, then swept under the rug and forgotten. Because without that, I wouldn’t understand how cruel this fictional game world really is.”

In hindsight I’ve realized even the first games I ever played fell victim to the damsel in distress cliche or an even greater form of misogyny.

The following spiel looks at two of the games I played early on as a kid and how the women represented in those games evolved over time in their respected franchises.

Prince of Persia and the damsel in distress

Much like the Mario games, a game that represented the start of many people’s path to gaming, Prince of Persia fell victim to one of the oldest gender-related cliches in the book; the damsel in distress. It was essentially the first thing that introduced me to the overused story-telling tactic.

And I loved it. The game, of course.

It was beautifully animated, the combat was fast and fluid and the puzzles were a joy to resolve. The colour palette was gritty and helped add to the overall sense of despair. I was a lonely wanderer in a dungeon trying to get out, and I had to fight a bunch of guys armed with swords. Every time I entered a new location, my heart would skip a beat as I discovered a baddie standing confidently on the other side of the screen, waiting for me to approach him. Other times, I would find a series of bizarre blades shaped like razor sharp teeth chomping at anything that dared to pass through. Then near the end, seeing my doppelganger materialize out of the magic mirror was one of the most intense moments I ever experienced while playing a game. These emotions flourished as a result of a game that used an ancient form of animation, some gritty colours and occasionally, a perfectly timed “duuuuun.”

As noted by Anita Sarkeesian, who talked about this in another video, the princess I’m rescuing is at least “a pawn in someone else’s game.” This is no reason to celebrate, of course, and is just as bit of the systemic problem that has resulted in today’s normalization of women being represented as sexual playthings or victims to violence.

However, Prince of Persia was the first of its kind, and though the princess that needed rescuing was there as a result of the patriarchy that has been in place in society for far too long, the game was still charming, fun, and had atmosphere. The latest reiteration of the long-running franchise created by Ubisoft in 2008 is an approachable and fun action/adventure title that successfully ditched this cliche. Nothing about it is ground breaking, but interesting alterations were made to its main pillars of gameplay – platforming, puzzle-solving and combat – which resulted in a fresh experience. The princess this time around tagged along while wielding some impressive magic and was also an integral part of the story. As mentioned before, nothing ground breaking here, but the game evolved and left behind the idea of having a princess that needed to be rescued (a concept that still lingered in previous entries of the Prince of Persia series) and replaced it with something unique and interesting.

Prince_and_Elika

Duke Nukem can last forever, but not like this

The Duke Nukem 3D demo was another title I played until my eyes were crossed. When compared to Prince of Persia, its gameplay elements were elevated in every imaginable way. It had a new perspective, vis-a-vis first-person, better graphics, better sound, guns, monsters, explosions, puzzles, secret rooms, and strippers, strippers and more strippers. I don’t fully remember how I obtained the demo, but believe it or not, I knew nothing of the dancing women prior to obtaining the game, and they interested me very little once I discovered them. Finding the secret locations, especially the ones that had a hidden weapon, were what I craved. Oh, and blowing the enemies up with an RPG was amazing. The game delivered some shock value, but to me, is ultimately remembered for its fast-paced action that was perfectly balanced with puzzle-solving moments and hilarious one-liners.

I remember entering the strip club on the second stage for the first time, and immediately assuming the dancers were some form of actual wallpaper. Largely because of their lack of movement, but even more so because they were in the MIDDLE OF A WAR ZONE. They can’t be real can they, I had thought to myself. Get out ladies! What the hell are you doing?? I walked up to one, hit the space bar, and handed over some cash. I was old enough at this point to understand they were strippers, that I was giving them money for their services, and even though I wasn’t aware of the fact I was living in a male dominated society, this part of the game felt mighty unnecessary. The dancers just stood there and took the money or an unlucky hail of gun fire. I got over this awkwardness pretty quickly however, and proceeded to the next level, (the demo allowed me to play until level three I believe).

DN3d_strip-bar

I totally understand that Duke Nukem is the epitome of testosterone-fueled penis attracting action, which is why I partially think Duke Nukem Forever failed so hard when “The King” made his supposed triumphant return in 2011. No, we cannot forget the technical atrocities that plagued that game from start to finish, the fact that Duke was suddenly limited to two weapons and not 10, and how the uniqueness that was Duke Nukem was now some piss-poor cookie-cutter first-person shooter. However, we also can’t ignore the fact that DNF had wall boobs.

It’s quite obvious DNF scrapes the bottom of the shit barrel largely because of its shortcomings in the presentation and gameplay department. It isn’t considered to be a terrible title because of the wall boobs or the Holson twins who get “fucked” by aliens seconds before being blown up into giblets. I’d be interested to see if the game faced angry protest or low review scores if those highly-offensive scenes were still present, but the rest of the game knocked it out of the park when it came to actually feeling like a game and being fun. DN 3D managed to get away with it because there actually wasn’t much emphasis on those “shocking moments,” they were instead sprinkled throughout the game, which played a helluva lot better than DNF, and tried to reinforce Duke’s mission to save the women of this world. Women weren’t being blown up, and when they were, it’s because you shot them, in which case shame on you. DNF could have kept that strip bar scene to establish his manliness, but beyond that things would have had to change big time because women being blown up is no longer even considered shocking today, it’s normal, and there’s no need to push that normalization further.

If you take a look at the comments under DNF reviews, you will notice a disturbing trend that includes praise being given to a game which some believe is still quirky and unique, despite the abysmal treatment of women. They often counteract any argument that says these parts of the game overwhelmingly contribute to the normalization of women being abused, and believe DNF is some type of blast from the past, something we should accept as quirky and funny.

Duke-Review-Comments

They also hilariously get upset about the fact that YouTube is trying to censor breasts.

YouTube_DNF

It’s also disheartening, though not surprising, to see people searching for the Holson Twins’ death scene more than anything else that has to do with them.

YouTube Search_Holson Twins

I think there’s room for any character to grow and adapt, even Duke. What if he was eventually partnered up with a woman halfway through the game who was just as much of a badass as he was? He would try and hit on her every chance he had, but she would tell him off. Duke Nukem would realize that he isn’t the god he thought he was, and what he was missing in his life up to this point was a powerful woman who would show him the error of his ways. Sure, hardcore Duke Nukem fans will want my head on a spike for saying something like this, but after 12 years of waiting, why not make something that’s different and unexpected. Keep Duke’s one-liners and the ultra-violence in there, you can certainly remind us at times what he thinks of women and how much they mean to him, but then surprise us with my aforementioned award-winning story line. I’m not saying Duke Nukem is the worst of the worst when it comes to women being treated like wallpaper, but it’s pretty damn close, and people saying, “that’s the point of this franchise,” is missing the point entirely. Those women trapped on the alien ships in DN 3D in the late nineties was shocking imagery back then, but it wasn’t a focal point of the game, nor was it constantly shoved in our faces. They were there, we then gasped, and moved on. It was wallpaper material unfortunately, but like Prince of Persia, the game was the first of its kind, and there was a noticeable amount of effort put into the rest of the game that had genuinely fun action, platforming, and puzzle-solving sequences.

Gearbox, and whoever else worked on this game, (the list of developers is lengthy) obviously tried to showcase that same shock in DNF. It failed. It failed so hard. No one was shocked by wall boobs or aliens impregnating women, we were instead sitting on our couches with mouths wide open because everything from the gameplay to the attempted “oh my god” moments were done so distastefully.

Final thoughts

Needless to say, Prince of Persia and Duke Nukem are franchises on entirely different wavelengths, but I brought them up because they were a couple of the first games I ever played and on the heels of the backlash Sarkeesian received this week, it made me realize the problems she talked about go far back. The more disturbing part is very little has changed. In fact, it has gotten worse. Each of these games had an element of the patriarchy – one obviously slightly more extreme – but where one game successfully removed it and did something interesting with the cemented princess in distress cliche, the other just embraced it, made it even more awkward, and released it upon us like some untrained dog that knows it’s in the wrong house but poops on your carpet anyway. DNF is so blatantly offensive and degrading to women, and any argument that tries to push this obvious fact is too often counteracted with, “oh you’re just trying to censor everything.” No, it’s not about censorship. It’s just a mighty shame that the sight of women being battered and slaughtered without any context is required to convey a sense of hopelessness in a game world. Games should be treated as opportunities to move away from what society unfortunately considers normal, and should channel talented people’s creativity when it comes to designing a game world that is asked to portray a sense of despair.

It baffles me that games today use women’s pain and suffering as a way to essentially set the mood within a game world. Technology has come so far. It can be utilized to create amazing things. I know it can. I’ve walked through the eerie camps off the coast of Peru in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, I scoured the wastelands of Washington in Fallout 3, an experience that conveyed terror and hopelessness in countless ways. Toppled buildings and abandoned shelters, mutants, raiders, abandoned children. Those things made me feel. My friends and I were sort of scared as we walked through the woods in Slender (really though, if you turn the lights out and the mood is just right, that game can be creepy). There are so many ways a game world can deliver a disturbing atmosphere, and its been successfully done in the past.

Sigh.

What a week. It was marred by a series of events that highlighted the worst the culture of video games has to offer. An industry, that for the longest time, has been this awkward, dysfunctional entity that many people have smeared with misogyny and outer-worldly behavior. This hobby that many crazies believe is being ruined by people like Sarkeesian who bring important issues to light are sadly engulfing it in so much negativity, and if it wasn’t necessarily elevated to another level recently, it was simply showcased in one massive wave of hatred that I don’t remember seeing before.

As mentioned in the article by Chris Plante in the previous link, video games are no longer designed for a “niche group of young men,” and despite the mistakes games occasionally make that further counteract this truth, I hope this week spearheads a turning point in gaming. I know wall boobs happened years ago, but we still have games like Watch Dogs forcing us to watch domestic disputes play out before we can intervene, while forgetting to implement any type of preventative measures players would want to use in these situations.

Time to make myself feel better. Time to play Pokemon for a while.

 

Moving on

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I mentioned earlier that over the past few weeks I was busy with life. To be more specific, I was offered a full time reporter position at the Estevan Mercury, and as a result, I had a lot to think about, and a lot to prepare for, since I accepted the position.

This also meant I had to move out to Saskatchewan. I touched down in Regina last night, where I was picked up by one of my colleagues, who was kind enough to drive two hours from Estevan to meet me.

This is the first thing I want to acknowledge, the kindness I’ve been confronted with in Estevan. People here are insanely nice. From my colleague, to my landlord who explained how I was now a part of their family, it’s been a pleasant transition from one province to another. I miss my family, friends, and girlfriend greatly, but the pain has been lessened with people being as nice as they are, and making me feel welcome.

Graduating from Humber’s journalism program, I was confident in the skills I had obtained, but it still didn’t prevent me from feeling the pressure of finding full time employment. The journalism market is super competitive, and I had sent out dozens upon dozens of applications before I heard back from anyone. I am very lucky to have found a full time job in my field, a job that also offers health benefits.

Me in my new room. Wee!

Me in my new room. Wee!

I officially start work on Wednesday, and I’m really looking forward to it. Though my parents are going to help me over the next couple of weeks until I actually receive some pay cheques, it’s encouraging to know that I’m on my way to sustaining myself entirely. They’ve done so much for me, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay them completely, but it makes me happy knowing that in time, they’ll be able to just live the way they want to, and not worry about keeping me alive. Times haven’t been that tough of course, I’ve done pretty good when it comes to graduating and not spending too much money, but you know what I mean.

It’s going to be fun.