Respawn and EA released the animated video Northstar, created by Digital Domain (DD). It was created to help introduce Valkyrie, the latest playable Apex Legends character, and it’s a complete short film that highlights a deep father/daughter bond.
Apex Legends is a free-to-play battle royale game developed by Respawn Entertainment and Electronic Arts. It was released for Windows, PS 4, and Xbox One in February 2019, and for Nintendo Switch in March 2021. The game has proven popular, Apex Legends surpassed 25 million players by the end of its first week, and 50 million within its first month. By April 2021, it had approximately 100 million players worldwide. It is projected to have revenue of $500 million this year. There have been 9 seasons so far and each new season brings with it the release new playable characters, usually with new weapons and purchasable sloths and cosmetic items. This season, the newest legend is Valkyrie, the daughter of known pilot Viper from Titanfall 2. A new gun called the Bocek Bow was also introduced, which shoots arrows instead of the usual bullet types.
The film was created using some of the same tools DD uses on feature films. Northstar is heavily influenced by Japanese folklore and art from groups like Studio Ghibli, and it includes several subtle touches, and cinematic references and homages.
The actual game is built using a modified version of Valve Corporation’s Source engine. Source had previously been used for Titanfall 2, however, for Apex Legends several necessary adjustments to allow for the increased draw distances and the large game map were made. The look of the cinematics was not intended to match the gameplay.
DD is at the forefront of facial animation, both traditional CG and newer neural rendering approaches. The facial rigs for Northstar were based on DD’s high-quality internal rigs, which are used in the complex MoCap pipelines for the company’s photoreal rendering, but here all the animation was hand-animated, and there was no MoCap. The animation team needed to simplify the animation for the stylized look, so while the tools could provide exceptional fidelity, it was left to the artistry of the DD team to know what to animate and what to leave out. There was an actress filmed as a reference for Valkyrie but she was only used to inform the thinking of the animators. To get the hand-animated feel and look, the team used special toon shaders, and the character’s hair was done with cards and painted textures. The shots were rendered in V-Ray with additional Houdini effects simulations.
It is consistent with the game developers’ past character extensions that Valkyrie be a woman of Asian descent as the game has aimed to be more inclusive than many other such game franchises, (- as inclusive as a shoot-em-up battle royale style game can be in). Apex Legends has received critical praise in the past for the perceived diversity of its playable characters. Several characters are LGBTQ, these include the characters Bloodhound and Gibraltar. The studio specifically wanted to speak to an Asian market and be inclusive. DD paid attention to the Valkyrie character’s mixed-race background, with attention to both Japanese inspired visuals and cultural references. This was not hard for DD as the creative team themselves were also personal fans of the game and they were very keen for the release of the new elements.
The characters were composited into the environments using Nuke. The project was actually a fairly large compositing project as the comp team blended 2D manga style elements with subtle realism such as blooming highlights, bokeh, and atmospheric depth cues. The base colour and shading were separate AVOs from V-Ray to allow the comp artists to craft the toon shading look. Interestingly, some of the smoke and explosion effects that were added in the comp were actual traditional 2D Cel animation layers. The DD team were visually influenced by some of the stylistic effects pioneered in Spiderman into the Spider-verse, such as adding textural elements into the shadows, for example. The final conform was done in Autodesk Flame, where all the shots and elements were finally balanced.
In the end, after just 5 months, even with COVID, the DD team delivered the 8.5 minute short film with over 200 shots.