While the headlines over the past year or so have concentrated on the frothy boom then (supposed) bust of ‘magic internet money’ such as Bitcoin and its ilk, behind the scenes dedicated teams have been putting in real work on this revolutionary technology. In his light hearted animation What is a Blockchain Game?, motion graphics animator Jerry Liu unravels the ways in which the gaming industry is making practical strides in their application of the blockchain. DN caught up with Liu to find out how his love of emerging technology, classic and current video games and of course cats inspired this self-initiated short film.

Hi Jerry and welcome to Directors Notes, let’s kick things off by finding out a little about your journey into animation?

I’m a child of the 80s (technically 79), born and raised in the DC Metropolitan Area, USA. I was all about video games and Van Damme. In 2001, I moved to New York to study graphic design at the School of Visual Arts. My 3rd year in, I discovered the exciting world of motion graphics. I then proceeded to lock myself in my room with my Power Mac G4 and trusty After Effects 5 Bible – and for the next two years, Mary Jane and I put in work!

After graduating and dipping my toes into the freelance pool for a few months, I took a staff gig at Comedy Central as a broadcast designer. That was for about a year and a half. Then I spent the next five years freelancing at various shops such as Psyop, Brand New School, Hornet, Hush, and Gretel. Highlights included playing poker with Darren Aronofsky at a monthly “industry” game and enjoying chorizo sandwiches from Despaña.

I like to spend my creative spare time thinking up new worlds, illuminative narratives, and stories to bring to life.

In 2009, I returned home to Maryland and spent about a year and a half as Art Director at Discovery Creative, working with all networks under the Discovery Channel umbrella. In 2011, I decided to get incorporated and have been doing my own thing ever since. I am now a lucky husband to my lovely wife Angela, and proud father to two wonderful little girls Riley and Allie.

I operate as a hybrid small studio and freelancer; and handle direct-to-client projects as well as collaborate with friends, animation studios and ad agencies as a director, designer/illustrator and animator. I like to spend my creative spare time thinking up new worlds, illuminative narratives, and stories to bring to life.

What prompted you to create a film about the emerging field of blockchain games?

Following the phenomenal surge of cryptocurrency craze and acute public awareness of “the blockchain”, in early 2018, I was intrigued and felt compelled to create something motivated by recent events pertaining to this emerging technology. Coincidentally, my wife and I also welcomed our second child into the world that May. Inspired by our two young daughters, I aspired to create something fun yet informative about their future. Combined with my passion for video games, and the desire to make something my kids could eventually enjoy, I conceived this film.

Blockchain technology is still in its infancy, but may very well be at the forefront of the future of gaming.

I sought to parallel this statement by paying homage to both classic and current video games, taking inspiration from old and new, retro and revolutionary, 8-bit and 128-bit, and of course (in the spirit of video game culture), I had to throw in a handful of Easter eggs and subtle nods!

Were there particular sources of inspiration which informed the style of What is a Blockchain Game?

Some driving forces behind my research/development and visual references for the film were:

  • Old school DOS games
  • Coding theory
  • Cryptography
  • My travels to and infatuation with Japan and Tokyo in particular – the circuitry of the city, signage, arcades, insane store fronts, off-the-wall vending machines.
  • Cats
  • Blockchain technology and blockchain operated games.
  • Video games!

I’ve played video games pretty much my entire life. These days I, unfortunately, don’t have time to play any more, but I still experience them vicariously through release trailers and gameplay videos. I absolutely adore video game concept art and follow loads of artists who work in the gaming industry. I own tons of game art books. I also follow indie game developers and enjoy watching their progress – again just living vicariously through them haha.

It’s always been a dream of mine to develop my own game, but I’ve come to realize the part I’d most enjoy would be designing and animating the graphics – so why not just divert that energy and passion into my work?

I have also always loved video game UI. I relish in the little details of the start screens, player select menus, pop-up menus, health bars, item shops… all that stuff. It has always fascinated me, ever since I was a kid. Even map design in video games excites me. I remember as a kid taking great pleasure in drawing Legend of Zelda maps on graph paper to document the dungeons I’ve explored.

Could you walk us through the software/tools and production processes you used to bring this project to fruition?

As I was writing the initial script and doing research/development for the film, I scoured the internet for articles citing the latest blockchain gaming advancements. Since the project took a year’s time (in-between client work and parenting duties), and blockchain gaming technology is currently in a state of emergence, the script and direction took a few detours as I came across new information. For instance, the final scene where the film touches on Playstation’s recent implementation of blockchain technology wasn’t added until the final months of production. That information was quite fresh and I thought it was important to include.

I aspired to create something fun yet informative.

Process-wise I took a fairly traditional route. I started with conceptualizing the idea and message I wanted to convey, wrote a script, then roughed out the story in the form of thumbnail sketches. The next phase (design), I started with a black & white/greyscale value study of each scene. I find that working in greyscale values first helps me focus more on the bigger picture and prevents myself from getting sidetracked with details such as color and compositing until it’s the right time. Next, I composed all the key design frames of the piece, explored color palettes, experimented with overall VFX/compositing treatments, and prepped all the artwork for animation. Finally, I animated!

In tandem with the visual development, I also worked closely with the sound designer Yuta Endo and voiceover artist Matthew Curtis. My buddy Ross Plaskow (who also happens to be an amazing animator) was so kind to lend me his voice for the original scratch track. Early on in production, Yuta provided me with a click track (similar to a metronome but for animation timing) for me to pace out the visuals to, while he developed music and sound at the same BPM. This proved immensely helpful in streamlining our workflow and minimizing any unnecessary back and forth.

Tools and software used included Photoshop and Illustrator for design and illustration, and After Effects for the animation and edit. In retrospect, I was a bit ambitious with this project taking on all the design and animation myself, hence the year timeline. Lesson learned. Next time around I’ll definitely look to collaborate more on the animation side.

Are you working on any new projects at the moment?

I am currently exploring themes and ideas for my next personal project. I have not honed in on any particular direction yet – but I do want to take a less practical route and shoot for something a bit more off-the-wall.

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