Calling the Dead Island trailer popular is like calling “The Dark Knight” a modest hit. Since it debuted on the Internet last week, the three-minute promotion for the upcoming horror game has been viewed more than 3 million times on YouTube alone. A blogger for G4 called it the “best trailer I have ever seen in my life. The best video game trailer. The best movie trailer. The best anything trailer.” It has also flown around the e-mail inboxes of studio executives and producers in Hollywood, sparking rumors of movie deals and questions about just who’s beyond the viral phenomenon.
Why the buzz? Unlike most game trailers, Dead Island doesn’t focus on gameplay action but is instead an animated short film that mixes “Memento”-minded time reversals to tell the story of two parents and their young daughter who are attacked by zombies while on vacation. The trailer was produced by Glasgow-based animation house Axis on behalf of the game’s Germany-based publisher Deep Silver (the Dead Island game is being made by Polish developer Techland).
Times reporter Ben Fritz spoke to four of the people behind the game, Axis producer Andrew Pearce, managing director Richard Scott, Deep Silver cinematic designer Anton Borkel and senior brand manager Malte Wagener, about the trailer and the reaction. Here’s a link to the trailer; YouTube requires viewers to be 18 to watch it.
BF: How long did it take to make the trailer?
AP: It took five or six months from start to finish, including script development and production. We had our first meeting with Deep Silver last year and Malte told us they really wanted to shake up how they market their games.
BF: This is obviously very different from your normal video game trailer. There’s no gameplay and it’s like a short film. Why did you approach it this way?
MW: A lot of games, when they do their “announcement” trailer, the game is much further along in development and has a bigger budget. We don’t have either of those things, so we set out to create a mood piece that would not represent gameplay, but would represent the atmosphere and the intense drama that will be in the game.
AP: One thing we picked out early on was the contrast between a paradise and the zombies. We tried to get that sense of foreboding in the trailer.
GB: So is the little story of the family in the trailer something that’s in the game?
MW: The goal wasn’t really to tell a story that was in the game, in terms of this triangle relationship between mother, father and daughter. Rather, it was to have something reflective of the mood we want to create in the game. But if you look at it from a gamers’ perspective, this could be one example of a quest you would encounter in Dead Island.
BF: I think one quality that really stands out in this trailer compared to any others for video games or movies is the use of backward and forward chronology. Where did that idea came from?
AB: It’s difficult to tell where that idea first came from. But one of the ideas from the beginning was to move a little bit away from the feeling of gore, but still keep some violent images because that’s what the game will show. We wanted to have an aesthetic ballet of death being portrayed in the trailer. One of the ways we got away from violence is that when you reverse stuff, it becomes more real.
AP: It was very difficult to work out the logistics of two plots running simultaneously, one forward one back; one at slow speed, one normal speed. One of the happy accidents of the way we did it is that the climactic shot ended up being the hand of the daughter not quite touching the hand of father. We could have only achieved that by doing it this way.
RS: From [director] Stuart’s Aitken’s point of view, he spent quite a lot of time working on slo-mo photography of all sorts. That was part of the crux of solving that poetic horror idea. Juxtaposing slo-mo photography with real time stuff gave it an extra layer of aggression punctuated with the more poetic stuff.
BF: So how exactly did you make it? Did you use art assets from the game? Do your own animation?
AP: We took a lot of concept art from what existed in the island environment in the game, plus some characters. Then we did our own animation.
RS: Another thing really interesting is that the mother, father and daughter are not based on game models. They’re real actors we cast for the parts. We scanned their heads and did facial scanning for facial animation. That’s one thing that allowed us to deliver the performances people connect directly with. We also did motion capture to get movements. We used the original actors for the family and mo-cap performers for the zombies.
BF: So you really had a girl climbing on a man’s back and biting his neck?
RS: Actually it was a small lady. She’s actually a martial arts star. She was perfect for playing the zombie moments.
BF: This has obviously gone beyond being a popular trailer into a mini-pop culture phenomenon. What’s it been like to see this happen?
AB: We had high hopes for the trailer, but the reaction has been just phenomenal. It’s pretty much beyond words for us. It has even led to a lot of the Dead Island movie talk… Studios and agents are contacting us and their interest was sparked by the trailer but we are showing them much more about the Dead Island intellectual property.
BF: So as we see more trailers, will they follow this template or be more traditional gameplay footage?
MW: Going forward we’re going to have a good mix of things. If we want to show people what the gameplay is like then of course we have to use footage. But if we want to transmit more of the atmosphere, there definitely would be another CG animated trailer.
BF: And will you guys at Axis work on it?
RS: We definitely hope so.
— Ben Fritz
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