I am the DJ

DJ Hero, the popular Activision console game, features a frenetic introduction created by Framestore and directed by Marco Puig. In the intro, the game’s main DJ characters are terrorised by a giant LP needle inside a vinyl planet. Visual effects supervisor Diarmid Harrison-Murray and digital producer Mike Woods tell fxguide how it came together.

Watch the intro here

fxg: What was the brief for this project?

Woods: It was quite incredible, to be honest. Activision and Freestyle Games wanted to see something that, when you put the disc in the console, you’d sit and watch it, rather than skip it. That was the brief. It didn’t have to be related to the game, per se. They just wanted something great. Jamie at Freestyle said that whenever he put in the new Streetfighter game he watched the opening video over and over.

So we had quite a bit of freedom. We approached a number of directors in-house and at production companies we work with and put that brief out that it has to be DJ-related, but apart from that, come up with anything you like. One of the craziest treatments we got was this Dune-inspired giant needle tearing up an entire planet and once the games company saw they said that’s what they want.

10Jan/dj/djhero2fxg: How was that idea fleshed out?

Harrison-Murray: Marco, the director, was working on a music promo at Framestore at the time, and he ended up being based amongst us in 3D through a lot of the early stages. He got a rough storyboard done and pretty quickly we fleshed that out into a rough and ready 3D previsualisation. It kept shifting a little underneath our feet because characters kept coming in and out. You’d wake up one morning and whole new chapters would appear and the next day they’d be gone. So it was quite a challenge early on, but having Marco sit in with us meant that we saw the director all the time for feedback.

Marco was also new to CG – it’s his first fully CG show. He had a plethora of ideas. To him the difference between idea A and idea B wasn’t based on the CG – they were just different ideas. To us, I ‘spose we would say, ‘Well, idea A is fucking difficult and idea B is easy…’ There was some to and fro about what could be done in CG in the time, but we certainly found a sweet spot between us. Because he had that open imagination, and being from a production design background, Marco was coming up with some pretty amazing ideas, and we only had to constrain him slightly.

fxg: How did you settle on the overall look of the piece?

Harrison-Murray: The main thing was we had to work with the characters from the game. We were given the 3D models, but they were relatively low resolution for the real-time rendering required. So the first thing was to start increasing the polygon count and add to them using our tools here. We would use the techniques we have for photoreal rendering, but at the same time making it stylised.

We also had a freelancer matte painter from Sweden come in and create mood boards. The characters and the backgrounds started to converge and we started to see a look emerging that felt quite dark and grimy. But the characters also had a kind of warmth, even though they were quite gnarly themselves. In terms of the lighting there was a realism, but in terms of what you were seeing it was really stylised – it gave it a hyper-real feel.

10Jan/dj/djhero4fxg: Can you talk about the effort behind modelling and getting all the detail together?

Harrison-Murray: It was huge, really. We had the characters from the game and that was it. They came with the basic textures from the game but it all needed to be tarted up. We started off with a fairly small team of technical people, and some animators doing previs. We just tried to break it down as best we could into subsections. For the environments we tried to set up procedural modeling systems in Houdini so we weren’t having to hand-model every single landscape. We could spit out variations of this black vinyl landscape and the freeways at the end. We could easily change the layout of the roads without having to go back and do it manually. As you’d expect, Marco would go: ‘Yeah that looks good, but can we have more tangled roads…’

But having said that, the buildings, the truck, the giant needle – those fundamentally had to hand-modelled. On the needle there’s a bunch of funny spaceshippy stuff. We had the base model in Maya which we could then run through Houdini and that could just grow weird bits of geometry on the surface without having to hand-model it. The skies were done as matte paintings and everything was comped in Nuke.

10Jan/dj/djhero5fxg: How was the animation achieved?

Harrison-Murray: All the hero characters were keyframed. We had some mo-cap from the games company of dancers. Marco was also really keen to get some breakdancing in.

Woods: Yeah, one of the producers knew a selection of the best breakdancers in Britain, so we managed to get them for half a day. So most of the breakdancing you see in the party is all mo-cap.

10Jan/dj/djhero6fxg: Another part of the piece that I like is the frenetic motion and the beats that it meets. Can you talk about the challenges of timing the piece to music?

Harrison-Murray: In terms of the whole cut, Marco wanted to feel like it had the pace and edit of a music video. Actually, even before you heard any music and just looked at the previs, you could feel the beat. Just the tightness of the animation and the motion meant that you could feel the beat in your head.

Woods: Because we were acting as the production company for the whole thing, we took control of the music as well, and we pretty much had free reign over 70 different mixes that are in the game that we could choose from. We wanted something up-tempo and fast. The original idea was that for each scene, each DJ would bring their own music to the party and so we’d have different music for each. But due to a variety of licensing things, we settled in the end on one track that is in the game but that we re-made ourselves. The fact that it’s Dizzee Rascal, a British urchin and Justice, an obscure French electro act, was quite brave on Activision’s part.

They could easily have put Eminien over AC/DC, which certainly would have appealed to the American market, but wouldn’t have done anything for our piece. The menace of that Justice track is incredible and the amount of sound effects that are going on in it just adds to all the visuals perfectly. The music doesn’t just sound like music in its own right – it sounds like the game play. A couple of moments where I think it works really well are when the camera flies around the back of the truck in Triple HHH’s sequence and it spins back on the record deck each time. It works seamlessly to the beat.

fxg: Visually the piece is pretty amazing. What were the rendering tools you used?

Harrison-Murray: All our animation was happening in Maya and the backend of our pipeline was coming out of Houdini. We were splitting the rendering between two renderers. All the effects stuff, volummetrics, particles, dust and rigid body dynamics was being rendered out of mantra, Houdini’s built-in renderer. And then all the characters and environments were rendered in RenderMan, but out of Houdini as well. We’d make sure it all lined up in Nuke. We’d have some issues where the truck was rendered in RenderMan while the dust coming off the tyres was from mantra, but you can get away with a lot. A good comp artist can make it work, without having to do horrible roto or anything.

10Jan/dj/djhero9Houdini artists are sometimes hard to come by, so towards the end we really ramped up the crew with Maya lighting TD artists working in Houdini. You can tuck away all the nuts and bolts details of the render pipeline and have a nice little interface so that that’s all they need to look at and play with. I had to jump around the room a bit, but by and large these guys could use a software and renderer they’d never used before.

Our multi-channel EXRs, high dynamic range and all that stuff was turned over to two Nuke artists who we got in. We’ve been moving over to Nuke in commercials. They did a great job putting together matte paintings, renders, dust – a whole lot of CG coming at them from different angles. I think they really managed to put that unified look to something that was actually quite disparate in terms of the different tools we used. It worked really well that that the Nuke artists could sit in with us in one big team tackling all these renders.

10Jan/dj/djhero10fxg: Any final thoughts on how it came together?

Harrison-Murray: The bottom line was that as soon as we saw the script, we just knew there would be so much to model and do. There’s a load of character animation, effects and crowds. I think the learning thing for Marco was that if he asked for something like shoes to be hanging off a telegraph pole, then that meant that someone somewhere had to go off and model that. I think he would have had even more stuff in there if he’d had his way!


CLIENT Activision / Freestyle Games

PRODUCTION COMPANY Framestore in association with Warp Films


EXECUTIVE PRODUCER Simon Whalley (Framestore)

DIGITAL PRODUCER Mike Woods (Framstore)

PRODUCER Diarmid Scrimshaw (Warp Films)
VFX Framestore
VFX SUPERVSIOR Diarmid Harrison-Murray

SENIOR CG PRODUCER Sarah Hiddlestone

ANIMATION LEADS Nicklas Andersson, Mike Mellor

FX LEAD Martin Aufinger




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