Interviews// The Lighting of Aliens: Colonial Marines

Posted 11 Dec 2012 16:00 by
What’s the one aspect of James Cameron’s Aliens film that remains the most striking in your mind? Is it the haunting soundtrack? The tense atmosphere? The sense of horror and shock as Ripley and the Colonial Marines venture deep into LV-426? For Gearbox, working on an action-shooter that aims to replicate those same sensations, it’s all about the lighting.

Lighting plays a huge role in SEGA’s Aliens: Colonial Marines, explains environmental artist Chris Neely. “It’s something we’re all really passionate about, and we had to do it right.” For Gearbox, getting the visual tone wrong could result in the whole project - which has been eagerly awaited by fans since its announcement some five years ago - being an abject failure. At least, in a creative sense.

“I had to become a student of how [the original film crew] did the lighting for the film. People’s first reaction, when they think of an Aliens game, is ‘oh, just make a blue game,’ you know? Just blue, everywhere. But if you only tint in blue, it looks cheap,” he added. “If you look back at the movie... anywhere there’s blue, there’ll be a pink or some other complimentary colour in there with it.”

Using one particular scene as an example, Chris makes a rather inspired point to explain the technical benefits of using additional colours. “Go back to the Med Labs in the film, for example - it’s pinker than shit! It’s also got a little bit of blue in it... but overall, it white-balanced the whole scene, so it looks genuine. It looks like white. It doesn’t look tinted with a gel.

“[James Cameron and his crew] spent a crazy amount of time with the lighting, and we had to do the exact same thing. But we have to meld it with a modern-day game, so that we could have this amalgamation of old-school movie approach and next-generation interactivity, in a game that can compete with others.”

The efforts to stay true to the original Aliens film has resulted in the development of a bespoke lighting system for the game. “We realised early on that, to be able to achieve all the different things that we wanted to do, just using the stock off-the-shelf lighting system from the Unreal engine wasn’t going to do,” Chris revealed. “So we programmed our own robust lighting system that can fit amazing things on it - on any console - and capture the true feel of the movies.”

Gearbox’s motives to build a ‘genuine’ Aliens experience goes beyond a ticking a marketing checklist in offering unique selling point. The developer of the Borderlands series are, by their own admission, bona fide film buffs - with the Aliens series topping their list of all-time greats. In past interviews, I have been told stories of how studio employees would debate and obsess over every minute detail, particularly in Ridley Scott’s original sci-fi horror and Cameron’s action-oriented adventure.

I get that same level of enthusiasm from Chris, who in our interview is wildly bouncing from tangent to tangent, referring to themes and plot devices in the original Aliens trilogy (and how much he dislikes the Aliens vs Predator sequel-cum-spinoff). While obviously very passionate, the artist is clear that the studio tries hard to ensure it doesn’t run away with itself - in an attempt to avoid what he calls a “fanboy” approach to Colonial Marines.

“Don’t get me wrong, we’re all the biggest fanboys here, but at the same time... we’re all disappointed with ‘modern fanboy’ takes on franchises that were very valuable to us growing up,” Chris says with a sigh. “Like Aliens vs Predator or something like that, which takes all the artistry out of it and just capitalises on the name. Honestly, that movie is like Godzilla vs Mothra. There’s no subtlety. All those deep undertones and messages are just forgotten by the fanboys because they don’t have the discipline. They don’t have the knowledge of those old masters who made that stuff happen.”

Assumedly, you’d think that Gearbox collectively sees itself as the developer that can steer itself from such problems. But Chris suggests that even his own studio can fall foul of failing to live up to the name of a big license such as Aliens, which explains the developer’s insistence to not just recreate the world of LV-246, but to intensely study how it was created in the first place.

“It was a huge responsibility for us, and we took the project on with all this humility,” he said. “We want to do it right, and do it out of passion. Not just to capitalise on the name, but to actually add an instalment into this thing.” Indeed, Gearbox has designs to set Aliens: Colonial Marines up as more than an interactive spinoff - rather, a true sequel to Cameron’s silver screen original.

Not only does that idea give Chris some serious pride in his work, but it also beats being relegated to a movie tie-in. “I can’t stand movie games,” he exclaims. “Games that are just made off of movies. Nobody cares as long as there’s a picture of the main character on the box and on shelves by a certain time. They just end up being hollow - they suck and have no soul. We didn’t want to do that. We didn’t want to ride on the coat tails of this franchise and just make this side thing that is easily forgotten about.”

While the studio hasn’t been working to any strict deadlines, it’s fair to say that fans have been waiting a rather long time for Aliens: Colonial Marines to be completed. Chris told me that the game has seen no delays, and that for Gearbox development has not taken longer than expected. “It was originally announced before we even started work on it,” he said, adding that development focus was on the game’s bespoke lighting system before work truly began.

“Ultimately, the [resulting] product will speak for itself,” he said to fans who are counting down the days until its February 2013 release. “We wanted to do it right, and that’s why it took the time that it did, because we had to front-load with this new tech. We could have gone a cheaper route - just put the lights from Unreal in it, make it look like any other Unreal game. But we didn’t want that, because we couldn’t emulate the lighting that way.”

And we come full-circle, with Gearbox’s belief in the lighting system providing the backbone for the core Aliens experience. “This is all directly linked to your emotions, and how you feel as you play. We didn’t want to phone it in, to ride on the success of an old franchise. And not fanboy half-hearted either. We want this to be genuine.

“That means learning the craft. Learning the trades that the film crew used to make those movies successful. We want this to be a true, justifiable sequel, where you can play it and watch the movies and see them all a little bit differently.”


kevin 12 Dec 2012 16:18
Very excited for this on the Wii U. I imagine the radar will add to the suspense, as the radar did in Zombiu.
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