Making Overwatch animated shorts: from game to content

DOWNTOWN LA – The creators of the Overwatch animated shorts discussed how they created content, from story development to character animation to visual effects, at the annual SIGGRAPH digital animation conference in downtown LA.

The Overwatch animated shorts are based on Blizzard’s popular Overwatch game.

Overwatch is a team-based multiplayer online first-person shooter game created by Blizzard in summer 2016. Because so many sci-fi games take place in dark bleak futures, the designers wanted to create an optimistic sci-fi shooter with a cast of international diverse characters. It worked. In just a year, Overwatch has grown immensely popular, thanks to its interactive team play and colorful character design. Overwatch won Game of the Year awards at GDC, DICE and the Game Awards. Blizzard is helping launch an Overwatch eSports league.

With interesting characters and fan requests, the team at Blizzard decided to create content. Animators decided to expand the short cut sequences in the game into animated shorts, starring Tracer the British time-speedster, and Winston the armored ape.

The Overwatch animated shorts team described making the shorts at the SIGGRAPH panel.

Story Development

It all starts with story.

“The core theme for us is creating a great story,” said Jeff Chamberlain VP of Story and Franchise on the Overwatch animation team. Jeff said that you could have the best animation, but without a story, audiences won’t connect or relate.

The story team works together writing the script, dialogue and plot, working around the table, like a TV writers room. Then, the story team works on storyboards and creates pre-viz in Maya.

The story team works with the game team to pull assets from the game . Usually, assets need to be up-rezed – adding resolution and detail, while still maintaining the look and feel of the game.


Character Animation

The character animation team works to create reference guides for the look of each character, from the way they move and walk, to their facial expressions.

In the computer, any Overwatch character can make any facial expression. The character animators work to figure out which expressions and movements fit each character. For example, spritely Tracer is very expressive, whereas, tough Winston is more grim. Directors approve of the character animation guides.

To animate body movement, the team uses keyframe animation rather than mocap because animation keeps Overwatch’s more stylized, cartoon look, energy. And it’s easier to create and share assets than hiring an actor. Overwatch animators often act out movements in the office, and record it on their phones, to use as guides for animators to create the animation.

Animators built a “stretchy” animation feature into its software, letting them stretch and bend a character’s leg, arms, neck, torso, etc, like a digital Gumby.

This allows the use of “smear” animation, to add to a sense of sudden motion. As a character is rapidly moving, getting punched, or falling, a few seconds of the animation is actually exaggerated with a smear (like in 2D animation) stretched leg, arm, etc to help guide the effect. You don’t notice the smearing when you watch the final animation, but it creates a smoother animation.


Visual Effects

The visual effects team creates effects like fire, lightning, smoke, gun blasts, and even plants.

Winston’s ape character goes into primal rage, with lighting coming out of his eyes and body. The character team worked to make sure the type and color of lighting was specific to him, as there are a lot of lightning effects in the game.

Gun blasts must look like the gun blasts in the game, and also have effect: for every gun blast, there needs to be damage where the blast hits. For example, Tracer’s gun blast in the game is based off sprites. In the shorts, animators, animators made the gun blast look similar using animation software.

The team also works on fire, smoke effects, and even plant animation and deformation.

In the first episode, Bastion walks through the forest. Initially, the directors wanted to animated just a tree or bush near the character, and keep the rest of the scene static plants. But directors later decided it would look more realistic if plants wavered in the wind, or were stepped on or destroyed by stray blasts. So the animation team set off to create a library of bushes and trees, and guidelines on how to animate each one. The end result, is a much more realistic forest.

Watch the six Overwatch animated shorts on YouTube.

In the Q&A, a fan asked when the Overwatch movie will be released. The animation team said they didn’t know, but would look forward to it.