This was another gig that I was amazed to see in my inbox! I liked previous trailers for Dead Cells, so I assumed that they already had someone helping them out. When I saw their booth at PAX West this year I didn't even bother going to hand them a business card, because I thought I'd be stepping on someone's toes. Just goes to show you can never assume, but it all worked out in the end!
Dead Cells by Motion Twin is a 2D side-scrolling action rogue-ish game with procedurally generated levels. The game has some of the most beautiful, juicy art and animation that I've seen in a recent game. Before I got the gig I was holding off on purchasing it, because even though I heard it was very polished, as of the writing of this post it's still on Steam Early Access and GOG Games in Development.
Sufficient to say this is about as fun a game to capture/cut for as there can be. I usually favor working on games with narrative driven gameplay, but of course I also love really crunchy video game-y video games. The art, animation, sound effects, music, and snappiness made it a TON of fun to cut this trailer. I also don't often get to cut with epic music, so it was an all around delight.
Yoann Laulan composed a piece of music specifically for the trailer, which was exciting and epic in all the ways you could want for a trailer. A couple weeks before I started work, he sent me a draft. I listened to it, and had just a couple notes that I sent to him. Originally the electric bass in the beginning lingered throughout the whole piece, but something about it felt unresolved. The other note was that the cue felt like it had too many climaxes, so he tuned the ending, and then it was perfect!
Right before I received a build, Motion Twin created a Slack channel for the trailer, and wrote up a document for what this trailer needed to highlight. They wanted a very fast kitchen sink sort of approach with title cards and quick cuts.
"...focus on the “WOW I didn’t understand everything but it looks really amazing” effect. :D"
Title cards can be very boring in trailers, especially if they're being used to teach something to the audience, so I tend to avoid them if at all possible, but if there was a time and place for them, it's in a trailer like this. Action games like Dead Cells communicate well visually, because "player avatar hits bad guys, who explode into blood and gems" is something very easy to understand. Therefore, the title cards can be there just to hype the audience with some quick text.
Motion Twin already had made some nice and simple title cards from a previous trailer, so they sent me their After Effects file. For this trailer I spiced them up a bit with a lens flare, some glow, more particles and a slam animation.
I knew from the doc that they wanted to highlight new levels, the new boss, wall grab, enemies and weapons (not necessarily in that order). So after marking up the music cue, I put in placeholder title cards to see where they should fall on the beats, and also what order they should go in. Even though I prefer having few to no title cards, they're a nice thing to have when editing a trailer, because they're an easy way to start building your timeline.
I originally put weapons around the end, because I thought it would be a strong way to finish. But later I decided to put them first because it would give context and permission to use them in the shots that came after. I also assumed that new abilities and weapons are what would get the audience excited from the get go.
Dead Cells is a very good example of a game that is great to edit a trailer for. The specific reason is its animation and effects. When editing trailers I'm always looking for motion, and snappy actions to sync up with music. Dead Cells has this in spades with its ground pounds, weapons with weak and critical strikes, arrows, magic, explosions, teleportations, elevators, kicking etc. It's a mix of anticipation, hard hitting action, and climaxes that are *chef's kiss* for trailers.
No matter how many trailers I've cut, facing a blank timeline is still very intimidating. In my mind I don't want to put anything in unless it'll look immaculate, but of course this is INCREDIBLY UNREALISTIC. So what will happen is I'll agonized and writhe on the floor (slight exaggeration) until I somehow work up the courage to put something in. I decided that this time I would put in shots that were generally what should be in the section, but knowing that the capture was going to be terrible. Then, seeing those shots in there would help guide me towards what I needed. It's much easier to fix something that's bad, than it is to create something from nothing. This worked great, but it was still painful to look at the horrible timeline.
The debug tools for the build I had were extremely helpful. There are a lot of enemies, weapons, items, power ups, and status effects for just about every item. I was able to do this all from a handful of keyboard commands, and gamepad menus. I could also teleport between levels, adjust strength and health, and also make enemies ignore me.
For the wall grab I played a lot in the new levels using the ability, then cut together the two shots that were my favorite. Originally, the quick series of jumps was in a smaller space, but the camera moved so quickly that it felt too jarring, so I used jumps in an area that was about twice as wide. Any game that allows original Ninja Gaiden style wall jumps has a special place in my heart <3
The weapons section took a while to do because not all of them communicate well visually. I also wanted the rhythm of the abilities to interact with the music as much as possible. So when recapturing for this section I tried to use weapons at the tempo of the music in each section (as much as the weapon combos permitted). A very handy debug tool here was the ability to spawn any enemy from the game by clicking in the left thumbstick. This made retakes very fast and easy!
The other problem is that Dead Cells gameplay can look very chaotic when on screen there are multiple enemies, damage numbers, status effect text, sound effects, explosions, etc. In the game, the weapons have different "levels," the higher the level the more additional effects they have like: shooting grenades, arrows, or other status effects that add little icons to the player. This would've made the visuals more confusing, so I opted to use the first level for each weapon so that no additional effects would compete for attention.
With the audience hooked (hopefully) by shiny new abilities, I put the "New Levels" title card which wasn't as exciting visually because stuff isn't exploding, but the lull in the music paired nicely with the steady pans of the levels. The vocals in the music nicely climaxed out of this section, and I augmented it with a rise. In the debug build, I could move the camera freely throughout a level, so I used this to show how tall the Clock Tower level is. I added motion blur in After Effects using Reelsmart Motion Blur which is a great tool that will add blur based on the motion in the shot.
The enemies section was pretty easy to cut together. I'm not sure it's clear that the Golem teleports you close to it so it can hit you; I wanted to avoid making it look like the player had a teleport ability, so I tried to emphasize it by having the player running away when it happens. When capturing, the grenades of the cluster grenadier would occasionally blow up in a pattern that matched the music, so of course I incorporated that! Then for the boss, I just played a lot, and got lucky with a couple shots where I was playing well, and were very readable.
The end montage was an opportunity to just show some more abilities I didn't highlight earlier. Originally I had some other clips with action and precarious platforming, but we later changed the end text to "It's going to be... brutal," so the last shots became the player dying.
The final touch was the scene of the glowing moon after the first title card. I originally had a shot from in-game, but since it was just a scaling animation to mimic a camera zooming out there was no parallax effect; Motion Twin sent me a Photoshop file which allowed me to make the shot in After Effects with 3D layers.
And that's it! This was a short and sweet project. From the time I received the build to the final edit was about a week and a half. I got to cut with amazing visuals and music, which made it that much more fun. Lots of thinking of eye trace in this trailer because it's cut so fast. A bunch of the shots are zoomed in a bit so that I could compose the shots as needed for better eye trace.
Now that the update is out, it's time for me to grind out some more abilities in Dead Cells. I'm already up to about 22 hours, and most of that time was just from when I received the code, and was waiting for the developer build O_O