From Concept to Buttercup: The Art and Animation of Bleeding Edge
We had an early chance to play Bleeding Edge, the team multiplayer title from Ninja Theory. During that time, we had a few interviews with some of the developers, including those on the art and animation team. Lead Artist Aaron McElligott (pictured left) and Principal Animator Warwick Mellow (pictured right) give us the scoop on how the unique vision of Bleeding Edge came to be. Here’s what they had to say.
David Poole (DP): So Bleeding Edge is very different than anything I’ve seen from Ninja Theory in the past. What was it like to do the art style for this game?
Aaron McElligott (AM): Okay, well, what was it like? (Laughs)
AM: Let me think. Challenging.
DP: What was the inspiration?
AM: Ok, I can move on to that, you know what’s interesting? No one’s asked that. It was challenging. It was the first time kind of out on our own so to speak. So normally the Ninja Theory umbrella is kind of Tameem [Antoniades] really. You know, he runs these projects. Rahni [Tucker] did a good job in Daly City, she did a prototype project which was like a mini Bleeding Edge called Fighter. And then it was up to us to try and come up with kind of a style that suited the sort of things that Rahni did. She loves kind of like multiplayer combat sort of stuff, and then we have Warwick on the team, and he’s like this top hand key animator.
So then it was my job to try and find an art style that fit something that we knew was going to be fast paced, arcadey, you know, really expressive, over the top sort of animations. So I was looking at things that I like, so kind of anime. You know, Ghost in the Shell, Akira as the starting point, and it didn’t really work out because we were coming up with that while the game was developing. The game sort of started to become… it wasn’t really evil and aggressive, it became more lighthearted and fun the more it went on. So this kind of more dystopian, gritty, dark vibe wasn’t really fitting and we needed something else.
And so, there was another anime I really liked, Tekkonkinkreet, don’t know if you’ve really heard of it or not, but it’s a really weird but amazing kind of anime, and it’s got quite violent undertones. You know, lots of knife fights and things like that, but their world is amazing. It’s sunny, this huge juxtaposition between this kind of very rough in the streets thing and then this beautiful sunny day. All the buildings have got this sort of tons of character with faces on them and graffiti, and then to get all this paint and everything. It’s like something here, something in this that feels good, that feels kind of aligned with us, so we used that as kind of a jumping off point.
I made a couple of what we call a beautiful corner, so you design like a high res sort of corner of a level, and then imagine what the rest will be like. And that was going okay, but then we really needed a character for the team to kind of align around. Warwick, who’s a principal animator, but he could also use ZBrush and sculpt and stuff, we had a chat about the character, and he came up with this form of this woman [Buttercup], the skin, and I added all of the tech components, the bike and basically hell of augments. And it was around that time that Marco [Teixeira], the concept artist that joined us from Rio in Brazil, super humble guy, he’s lovely; we gave him all these references and said that to our 3D model.
Warwick Mellow (WM): Yeah, that was the important part because at that stage, we just had this nude woman with these augments, and it was like how do we fit her, this 3D model we’ve done as kind of the right start in terms of 3D modeling, into this environment that Aaron had come up with. So he overpainted it and he gave her some lovely tattoos and gave her this beautiful Rockabilly hair style, and he came up with these really cool extra augment ideas that we hadn’t even thought of.
And then we did a bunch of previews with her, and we kind of knew, as soon as she had been created, we’ve kind of stumbled upon what we thought was the linchpin character for our game. She had a beautiful subculture that she belonged to, she was the Rockabilian motorcycle, she had augmentations that allowed her to fit in this futuristic world, but it was also able to be weaponized as well. Giving her the beautiful buzz saws, and from then it was like coming up with characters that would hold up to her standards. So that’s kind of like how the art came about.
AM: Yea, like that Guardians of the Galaxy style lineup when they’re in the prison ship thing. They’re just so different from one another, but we wanted something like that and that was actually a reference at one point, that idea. So we would have Buttercup and then we’d make a new character. Could they possibly sit in the same world, could they exist together? So that path or base of when we create a new character was standard then.
DP: Nice! So Buttercup was basically the foundation character and you sort of just built off of that.
WM: She was for art. The foundation character for gameplay was actually Daemon, so he was obviously the first character we worked, cause Rahni had come straight from DmC [Devil May Cry] and was like “let’s get a DmC-esque style character in our game straightaway,” so we had a very low res character of Daemon. He was only like 300 polygons, didn’t have any personality. I think he had a different name at that time, we just called him Ninja.
And he just ran around, we were able to build the mechanics with him, so we tried out run speeds and jump heights and evading and figuring out the distances. You know, what’s the right distance for evade? What’s the right distance for jump? And then we built mechanics on him, and then after that we started laying out different ideas for different characters, but Buttercup was definitely the first art realized character. We were actually like “this is what we want her to look like, this is how we want her to play,” and then it was like filling in the gaps.
AM: Yeah, I mean we knew she was right, cause people would start rallying around and coming up with ideas like “she could do this, she could have all these extra moves.” And I think when people do that, you’ve found something of interest to players.
DP: Yeah, I liked playing as Buttercup, and I didn’t really play that much with Daemon, but there were a lot of really cool characters and everything. Do you guys have a favorite?
WM: We do, yea! My favorite’s Buttercup, mainly because I have a nostalgia about her being the first character. Obviously Aaron and I worked on her together, but also, I feel like her design is quite sophisticated. I love characters that have attributes that are hidden. They’re revealed later on like a Predator. So she was like that, and I think because we worked on her, it’s probably lost on us, but I can imagine the first time someone sees her transform into a motorcycle from just sitting on the bike. It’s quite a “wow” moment, and I think to me, that’s kind of high art in character design. I love that about her. Your favorite character (gesturing toward Aaron)?
AM: Oh, sorry, I was getting caught up with what he was saying. Um, [El] Bastardo, I really like, just because he’s… it’s like a buzz when you’re playing him, for me. Cause he’s just relentless, so he’s encouraged to go in and attack to get his shield, so you’re just leading the charge all of the time. It does kind of… I have to swap after a few games to chill out for a bit, cause it’s pretty intense if you’re playing 20 minutes of him, over and over and over, it’s pretty full on, but yeah, I love him.
I love that relentless sort of play. And the fact that you can deal with a couple people, and if you’re reasonably competent, you can kind of deal with maybe three people at once. You can dodge around, hit a couple. You can jump out, you’ve got the shield. It’s just the timing and positioning playing with him. But anyway, he’s a good guy.
DP: Yea, I’ve been noticing some of the characters have very distinct attributes, like I was looking at Kulev, who’s a snake. (Laughs)
WM & AM: That’s right.
DP: And I just love the concept of a character that isn’t really what you see. He’s like something possessing what you see, and that’s awesome.
AM: He’s a really funny genesis story actually.
AM: So Kulev came about at the start of the game below that characters that were sort of design led. Rahni comes over, she’s prototyping gameplay, and it may be that we have a little box character running around in the game, so Kulev used to be just this little round character with a top hat, in a room that was made out of a couple polygons.
WM: It was made out of cubes and spheres, like primitives and stuff.
AM: And at that stage, you didn’t really have a personality or a design, but Rahni was trying things like hexes and boons, and controlling people mind control. It just made sense that maybe we could base him around some kind of voodoo like some sort of witch doctor or something like that.
WM: It was kind of like I like the idea of him being like a voodoo doll, which is why he’s got pins in his legs. And I was thinking of him being almost like a puppet sort of doll, like he’s being supported by something, which is why he’s got all these hanging strings. And I wanted him to be broken, you know, so he’s got like one arm, which helps his silhouette and stuff. Then we’re locking features of voodoo like snakes and stuff like that, so we’re like “let’s put a snake on him.”
AM: That’s right, and then we had this idea for a snake, you know he’s missing an arm, why don’t we make the snake the other arm? So then the snake could attack and it could lead him or whatever, and it could be this really cool kind of entity. Then we just came up with the idea like let’s just make the snake the character. All of a sudden, it was like “man, this is getting more and more bizarre.”
WM: Yeah, but we really like it.
AM: We thought it was really cool, and then Rahni came up with the crazy backstory that actually, she sort of tied it all together. It was like he’s actually a Cambridge professor who’s studying the dark arts, and the occult and voodoo. As he’s elderly and old, he taxidermies his body and reuploads his consciousness first into an AI, which is the snake, and then the corpse is actually his decrepit taxidermied body. The snake is actually his consciousness.
WM: You know, like a standard story.
AM: Just like some guy that walks around the street you know, in San Fran of course.
DP: Of course! And then with the new character, Mekko? There’s two similar names, Miko and then Mekko.
AM: Yes, that’s true.
WM: Mekko, he was an interesting one. So we’re saying that sometimes characters are design led, and sometimes we have components of gameplay that need to be filled. It’s like how do we skin that gameplay with a character? Mekko was the opposite in that he was a concept that came about very early in the project and was completely outlandish.
AM: Within the first two or three months of us starting, he came up.
WM: So we have this very talented concept artist, who’s working on another project and he liked what we were kind of getting up to. And Aaron had asked… he liked the idea of a bit of anime, some mech influences, maybe like a mech controlled by AI, and came back with Mekko, which is..
AM: He was like “what do you think of this?” It’s like… “uh, it’s amazing.”
AM: Not really what I was expecting.
WM: And at that stage, it’s way too outlandish right?
AM: But everyone loved him. I remember saying “that’s fantastic,” but because we didn’t have any other characters at the time, it’s such an unusual character to start with. Like when you’re trying to discover what your game is, that’s a hard one to basically begin with, because if that is your first character, you would branch from there, so you know there were some really unusual characters. And that’s cool, but it’s just not really what was feeling right.
The way we designed all our characters and what felt like it was successful is that we kind of base it, at least initially, on real people. So like you can be in the game, I could be in the game, and you would have more personal interests and hobbies. So if you project yourself in the near future, and augments were as common as tattoos and piercings, what would you do to enhance the things that you’re really passionate about? So yeah, that’s where a lot of them began.
WM: That’s right, and so we had the design of Mekko just sitting on a shelf, almost forgotten. But we knew it was in there. And then Rahni, when she was coming up with a new character gameplay-wise, she liked the idea of a ranged tank. It was one of these things where it was like “ah, we remembered Mekko!”
AM: So we go back digging out these old pictures.
WM: Yeah, and we reanimated him and brought him back to life, which is really exciting. And I think Aaron’s right about having him be the first character. He’s too much of an outlier. He’s too bizarre, so you need to land the quintessential Ninja Theory Daemon character with the sword.
AM: It’s kind of the entry point for the game.
WM: Yeah, and then you could start exploring stuff. And as the game became more sophisticated, some of the choices of design have become more sophisticated, so that’s why Mekko’s a little bit more of an advanced character. We think it’s really cool for people who have already entered into the game and are enjoying it actually want that. The community wanting a bit more complexity to the characters.
DP: Nice. Okay, last question about the animation specifically.
DP: Were there any challenges with animating anybody in particular?
WM: I think most of them were challenging. We had a very small team as well, we’ve only really averaged probably two animators on the project, gone up to three at one stage, and then from here it was just me. I think the biggest challenge facing my team was probably making sure each character was individually distinct. And trying to reinvent our animation for every character, they weren’t born from each of them, none of them moved the same. It was all completely different and individual.
AM: Entirely bespoken.
WM: Yeah, and so that was a real challenge, and I think just sort of like all the games have bipedal characters, but Buttercup transforms into a motorcycle, so it’s like I’ve never seen that before. So it’s having to, through keyframe animation, just try and imagine just how it’s going to work. And a lot of to and fro, we take art to make sure the rig worked. Probably the most challenging character to animate would’ve been Kulev, and unfortunately, it was given to somebody else. At a time, just an animator called Luke Murray, and he’s just absolutely done such a stellar job. And thankfully I worked with him on the project before with snakes, so we did kind of try and combine and tease him out. But yeah, they’ve all been challenging in their own ways, and I think making sure they’re being individuals is the most important thing.
AM: Yeah, but not individual enough that they feel like they come from different games. That’s kind of the hard part.
WM: The style of animation has to be consistent but their performances have to be unique. And that’s one of the reasons we use keyframe animation. I think motion capture is used prolifically in the industry and definitely at Ninja Theory. It’s a great tool, but we knew that having motion capture actors that are different enough to do the different performances, and there’s just some stuff that our characters do that it’s just so outlandish. You know, it needs that keyframe touch. There’s the way they jump, the kind of maneuvers, their posturing. It all comes down to gameplay readability, making sure that at any given moment, you know who’s playing the game or which character’s on the screen.
AM: I hadn’t based the kind of animation, as well as how expecting it on the anime influence, and it definitely got kind of an outline in some shape and the characters. You know, a little tip of the hat in that direction.
WM: Definitely. It really informs everything of the beautiful art that Aaron’s come up with and the world, you just sort of want characters in that world that are larger than life and are just beautiful, you know? And everything’s just touched by hand, it’s all painted
AM: It’s more like painting.
WM: Yeah, so if we wanted like an anime, comic book slashy type thing just to come to life as the game. If you could play an anime as a game.
DP: That’s a good way to look at it. That’s all the questions I had for you guys. Thank you.
WM: Thank you so much.
AM: Thanks for coming and playing.
Bleeding Edge is officially available now on Xbox One and PC, including Xbox Game Pass. We’ll have a review of the game later today, as the multiplayer went live at launch (UPDATE: You can check out our review now!). What about you? Are you playing Bleeding Edge right now?