Last time DN spoke with Tomek Suwalski it was for his thrilling CGI trailer for Metro: Exodus entitled Artyom’s Nightmare, a short film which opened up the game’s world of a darkened Russia set in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Suwalski brings that same energy to his latest cinematic trailer this time for the traversal zombie-actioner Dying Light 2 Stay Human. Suwalkski has a strong knack for creating animated trailers with a live-action feel that subtly signpost key gameplay mechanics all whilst being utterly gripping in narrative. It’s certainly no easy feat and DN was excited to learn more about it. We were fortunate enough to join the Warsaw-based writer/director in conversation once more, where he distilled his journey into making cinematic trailers, his live-action approach to animation, and the benefits of utilising motion capture for photo-realistic projects.
What is your creative background and how did you get involved with making cinematic trailers for games?
My background is in writing and visual effects, which are quite separate fields. I started to write and publish fiction as a young adult, which led me to writing screenplays and pursuing a directing career. Writing and directing were always very close to each other in my mind, but I’ve also spent multiple years working as an editor and visual effects artist. Besides directing and editing education, I’ve also got a degree in film production, which I never practiced, but understanding the process from a producer’s perspective is extremely useful for directors. So it all was always about and around filmmaking, and the different aspects of education and experience gave me a broad toolset. Now I can use it all in both live-action and CGI projects, which require a bit of a different approach, so I can mix and match different experiences to be able to find the right solutions for a variety of challenges.
What is your initial process for approaching a brief for a video game trailer such as Dying Light 2?
I did another Dying Light 2 trailer back in 2019, so I was familiar with the franchise, and also the team at Techland, the studio behind the game. We started with meetings and conversations, trying to narrow down to the most important aspects of the world and story. After a couple of meetings we knew what the right tone was, that we wanted to go for a personal, human drama and show how ambiguous everything becomes in such a harsh reality. Knowing this, I could proceed to writing the script.
You mentioned that you wrote seven different scripts for this project, what were the deciding factors that became the final trailer?
The feasibility is always the first factor that comes in. Are we within the budget, can it be made on schedule, etc? This gives you the first verification of whether it’s doable, or if the scope is too big and it needs to be trimmed. I’ve got a good sense of how not to overdo it, but it’s up to the producer and the supervisor to come in and do a detailed breakdown, so we all know precisely where we stand.
The next factor is, of course, does it hit all the important beats we discussed, does it bring the right message, right tone, and right features; describing the world and story, but also some of the gameplay elements that can sometimes become crucial. Third, I’d say there has to be the vibe, does it resonate well with the developer’s team, does it feel true to the game, which also combines personal likings, just pure taste-based opinions.
We wanted to go for a personal, human drama and show how ambiguous everything becomes in such a harsh reality.
I also had my favourite among the scripts presented, the one we ended up doing, and my job was to convince the studio to follow the one I feel most strongly about because most possibly that’d be the one I’ll do best. The one we picked was both strong on characters, felt gritty and captivating, evoked very strong emotions, and had a bit of a unique twist with combining past and present timelines in a parallel edit. We knew how limited screen-time we’d have for this one, but suddenly there was an opportunity to tell a complex story in a very interesting visual way.
Do the thematic and gameplay elements of Dying Light 2 inform what you need to highlight with the trailer?
They do, at least to some point. For sure anything that happens in the trailer cannot be against what’s in the game itself. Virals, the zombies, are prone to sunlight, so we needed to keep that as a rule. Nightrunners, our male protagonist, move through the city using parkour movements, so we follow that as well. The city is alive on the rooftops, because that’s where the people live, and we follow this design; lower parts are dirty and dead, roofs are green and constructed, and so on and so forth. Then my job is to feature all these necessary highlights and plot them into a coherent story that doesn’t feel like a features list. You’d do the same thing for a product’s commercial, but here the features are gameplay elements, rather than product functions.
You mentioned to us last time that you treat animation like live-action when it comes to crafting and storyboarding trailers, was that the same with Dying Light 2?
Yes, that’s still my approach. I don’t really differentiate between animation and live-action. I think this distinction is somewhat artificial and we’ll all go past it in the following years where the virtual and real will blend unrecognizably. It’s already the case to be honest, movies like Gravity or The Lion King are in fact ‘animated’ films. So my approach to storytelling, storyboarding, editing, etc, is the same, but of course, there are huge differences in how you do projects like this.
Physical production requires a lot of technical and scheduling planning, you only get one chance to capture what you need and then it’s gone. So everything leads up to shooting, much like a sportsman preparing for an Olympics. In CGI projects the process is similar, but the pressure is less, even after capturing the material, there are still a lot of options to change and improve. This has its up and downs; the capturing process itself is much more abstract, as you capture only some ingredients of a final picture, whereas in live-action it’s much more solid and precise. That’s really a vast topic for a long and separate conversation, but if you’d take any of my CGI projects and tell me, now shoot it live, or take any of my live-action projects and tell me, now do it as CGI, they’d be exactly the same projects on the film language level.
Broad question, what are the benefits to utilizing MoCap as opposed to animating your characters?
Just to clarify, MoCap data is still being post-processed, hence animated, even after capturing. It does not eliminate the animation step completely, it just makes the animation step on top of MoCap data, rather than animating from scratch. Even for projects that don’t utilize MoCap into their projects, the animation is still based on a live-action performance captured on video. We do both, there’s always a huge video database after each MoCap shoot, capturing the actor/stunt performances from multiple camera angles and also with a shot camera. This, plus of course all the data captured directly for character meshes.
I don’t really differentiate between animation and live-action. I think this distinction is somewhat artificial and we’ll all go past it in the following years where the virtual and real will blend unrecognizably.
For photo-realistic projects, I’m a huge fan of utilizing motion capture and I do treat each of my MoCap sessions as live-action shooting days. Same as I’d aim to deliver the editor the best material possible, here I’m trying to get the previz team the best data possible, with right distances, contact points and cameras they can already use when laying out the shots.
Lastly, what will you be working on next? If that’s tricky to answer, do you see yourself continuing to make cinematic trailers in general and working within this field?
Without getting into any NDA details, I’ve just shot a very interesting project that combines everything we spoke about; a live-action shoot, VFX shots and CGI scenes and I’m looking forward to finishing it and sharing. Besides that, I keep on working on cinematic trailers and commercials, but I also prepare myself for longer forms, I have several TV series and features in development, and hopefully some of them are going to be in production soon.