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Q&A: ILM's Sullivan Talks LucasArts Convergence Plans

We've all heard about the dream of game & film tool convergence, but Industrial Light & Magic's director of R&D (and Oscar-winner!) Steve Sullivan is rapidly putting it into effect with sister company LucasArts - Gamasutra caught up with him to find out j

July 23, 2007

9 Min Read

Author: by Brandon Sheffield, Staff

We've all heard about the dream of game & film tool convergence, but Industrial Light & Magic's director of R&D Steve Sullivan is rapidly putting it into effect in conjunction with sister company LucasArts. Sullivan joined ILM in 1998, and received a Technical Achievement Oscar in 2002 for the MARS motion and structure recovery system. We caught up with him at the recent Hollywood & Games conference (run by CMP, as is Gamasutra) in Los Angeles. In the interview, we discuss just how the project is proceeding, following a in-depth public discussion of LucasArts' and ILM's initial plans in December 2005 during an IGDA Chapter meeting - as well as probe into convergence plans between the Indy IV film and the forthcoming Indiana Jones game. Gamasutra: How far are you into the tool convergence that's going on? The last I heard, it was just starting to pick up now in terms of use. Steve Sullivan: It's in full production now, so there's a full tools suite for the first game: the Star Wars game. We're starting to work on tools for other games as well. Tools iterate and you go on forever in making them better, but they're in full production now and lots of artists use it. Gamasutra: So the game artists are using it, but are the film guys using it yet? SS: They're all built on the same platform, so some of the pieces are available to both sides automatically, and some are more dedicated tools, like to lay out a level, or to set up sound banks and deal with audio. There's some game-specific things, and some that are shared among both. Gamasutra: The film guys are using the real-time stuff in order to block out scenes and that sort of thing, right? SS: Right. Our previous system is one of these tools that's used by everybody essentially. It's using some of the game lighting, rendering, and materials stuff, to accelerate and to give a good preview and good shadows. Shadowing and key lighting is important for all of the divisions, so that's one example. Gamasutra: Is this something you could ever see yourselves licensing out? SS: Yeah, I think some day. Our first priority is to obviously build the stuff to work for the projects that we have at hand, but when it reaches a certain level of maturity, we'd probably partner with somebody externally, to try and spin it out to potential projects. We don't sell software directly ourselves. Gamasutra: It's come to pass that a lot of companies that previously did not sell software themselves decided that it was time to start doing that, because it's pretty lucrative. But if you were to do it, it would be through a third party? SS: I assume so, yeah. We haven't done that yet. We do have a few things that are clearly of interest and of value, because they can create these very high-end experiences. It's just that we put all of our effort into pushing things forward rather than polishing them up or making them complete, which is what a product has to be -- very polished and complete, and anticipating the needs of any potential user. So we would look towards partnering, for somebody to do that complete work. Gamasutra: Have this tool facilitated any lateral moves between LucasFilm and LucasArts? SS: Yeah, there have been a few, but I haven't really kept track of them. For example, one of the guys who helps drive the system has worked at Lucas Animation and ILM, and is now working at LucasArts. He kind of just spins among the companies, working on the same sort of toolset and doing the same kind of thing. Gamasutra: This whole conference is supposed to be about convergence, and it seems like that's a really big way to facilitate that. If you're a company that owns both a film and a game side, you could truly do that. Have you seen that happening more because of the tool, or is it too early? SS: It's definitely happening. We make the framework first, then tools, and then the ultimate goal is the techniques and then the artists. You need common tools in order to enable common techniques, and there's that barrier there that even if both sides were interested in the same problem, they wouldn't execute it in the same way. So by enabling common tools, we can have artists talk directly about how they would do things and exchange ideas. Gamasutra: Have you heard about Ubisoft's digital initiative, where they're trying to forget the new world of interactive media? I was talking to Yannis Mallat, and they were talking about how they were trying to devise something that is completely cinematic, but a user-driven experience. It sounds like they might have to build similar tools to yours in order to do that. Have you heard anything about what they're doing? SS: No, we haven't discussed it or seen what they're up to. That concept makes sense. We can see where our tools would lead to that sort of thing if the right projects came along. But we're sort of the other way around. We take the projects we're pursuing and build the tech towards that, then keep an eye on keeping things generally connected so we can keep our options open. Gamasutra: It seems like you're making a bigger push right now in games than in the past, in terms of internal development. Internal development was ramped way down, and now it's going back up. SS: Essentially, the company was rebooting. It was almost like a start-up environment: rethink everything. Rethink the approach to what kinds of games are going to made, which technologies are going to be stressed, and build a technology infrastructure from scratch. That's what you're seeing. Gamasutra: Do you know to what level you've built up now? How many people are on the development side? SS: Actually, I don't know. It's changing quite a bit. Gamasutra: Are you still hiring, then? SS: Yeah. Gamasutra: As director of R&D, what are you covering right now? SS: There's the ILM R&D group, which is the long-standing one that's been around for awhile, and the new group of shared technology at LucasArts. We also have some similar R&D efforts going on with Lucas Animation that dovetails very nicely with what ILM does. We're trying to see this as one group of people that are able to work together. At any given time, people are obviously focused on real projects for a specific division, but we want them exchanging techniques and being able to jump back and forth when there's an urgent need. For example, someone might be working on animation technology at ILM, and there's an urgent need for motion capture at LucasArts. So we can grab that guy for two weeks, to go help on that urgent thing. He's familiar with the code base, and he's familiar with the techniques from using all the same stuff. It gives this very deep pool of expertise available to all divisions as needed, instead of them having to keep their own set of people. Gamasutra: So it pretty much is all about that tool. That seems to be facilitating Lucas' future right now. SS: I think so. It's letting us think very differently about our products, and certainly about how we can hire people and how we staff ourselves with one very deep staff rather than three shallow ones. Gamasutra: Can you say if that tool's being used on Indiana Jones? SS: Indiana Jones, the game? Yeah, absolutely. All of the internal projects at LucasArts are going to be using that. Gamasutra: So I would imagine there's some cross-convergence with some films you might be working on also. SS: I can't go into that, but certainly ILM uses the same toolset in order to facilitate the exchaning of techniques. Gamasutra: A lot of these problems that people are trying to figure out the answers to aren't the same problems that you guys are going to have, because you have these two sides that can communicate. You're not pulling teeth, and you're not fighting each other. SS: I don't understand how people without that kind of advantage [can work]. It's very difficult. Gamasutra: Were you around before it was all internal like that? Some stuff is still licensed out. SS: Oh, absolutely. We still have lots of publishing partners. Gamasutra: Do you find that more challenging than internal projects? SS: No. Just the way the businesses are set up, I'm not as exposed to that. My focus is on the internal stuff. They've set a certain technology, visual, and creative bar for themselves that we're trying to hit with the new technology. That's our push right now. Gamasutra: Is there anything else that you want to say? SS: It might be early to talk about, but I think it's going to enable different ways of creating the content. We use the same stage for all three divisions to iterate on ideas, and it's not just about the tools. It's really about the techniques, and we're finding more and more now that an ILM expert in doing a certain kind of thing as an artist can go and talk to and relate to a LucasArts, and it's just as much coming back in the other direction. Gamasutra: I wonder if at some point there will be a situation where people are working on an IP, and the game side and the film side come together in the early stages to see what's going to work. Has that happened yet? SS: That's absolutely possible. The thing that's different for us is that the companies have very different business partnerships and strategies and so on. Where a game/film convergence might occur around a particular project that's being started elsewhere -- two companies might come up and say, "We're going to partner on this project," -- we're sort of partnering from the technology base first, even though they may serve entirely different projects all along. Even if we never have a project where we're sharing lots of assets and co-developing things, it's still valuable to us, so we have a different angle on that.

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