Kert Gartner Explains the Genius Behind Mixed-Reality VR Game Trailers

 

The worlds of bicycle motocross (BMX) and video-game marketing collide in the person of Kert Gartner, one of the leading indie game trailer producers. Gartner's first film-making experiences consisted of filming his buddies while they careened around empty lots in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, performing crazy stunts. He quickly learned the craft of staging action, film editing, and adding special effects, and he even sold a few BMX videos around town. This was followed by stints at a local television station, and working on more than 28 movies as a visual effects artist (including Superman Returns and Silent Hill). Eventually, Gartner struck out on his own, and now specializes in producing award winning video-game trailers for indie game developers.

Kert Gartner, portrait
Figure 1. Kert Gartner is a magic man when it comes to producing trailers for VR games

Lately, he's been involved with creating virtual reality (VR) trailers using a mixed-reality technique. Showing the excitement of a 3D world in a 2D video puts a heavy load on the computing systems he uses. Playing the VR game, capturing the incoming stream, mixing them, and outputting the content aren't simple tasks, or even megatasks-they're extreme megatasks. His current computer is a Hackintosh—a system based on the Intel® Core™ i7-6700k processor, with 64 GB RAM, fast solid-state drives (SSDs), and an Nvidia GeForce* GTX 980 Ti video card. Most days, that's enough power to get his work done smoothly.

"I remember using Adobe After Effects* on a 100-megahertz Apple Mac* way back in the day," Gartner said. "But I could always use ‘faster.' I'm still waiting for beach balls every now and then, but I think that's got more to do with the software at this point." After all, he's pushing around highly compressed and optimized 4K files in H264 format. "The computing power that's necessary to decompress all that stuff, and actually work in real time, is pretty intense. It seems like, as the computers are getting faster, what we've been asked to do with them is getting pushed up as well," he said.

Gamer at Heart

Gartner has always enjoyed gaming, dating back to his younger days playing on Atari and Nintendo* NES systems. His workspace is surrounded by posters of PacMan and StarFox*, and there is "old NES junk all over the place," he admits. He just bought a new Nintendo Switch*, and he is currently enjoying Super Mario Odyssey*. Still, Gartner has always appreciated the work of indie game devs.

His very first trailer was for Canabalt 2p*, a custom two-player version of the indie game released in 2009 by Adam Saltsman that sparked the left-to-right, single-button endless runner genre. He shot the trailer in two days, compositing tiny live-action pixel art characters dashing across the skyline of Winnipeg. From a side hustle, his trailer work grew into a full-time job, and he's busier than ever.

Canabalt 2
Figure 2. Gartner's first video-game trailer was for Canabalt 2p, an "infinite runner," scrolling from left to right across the Winnipeg skyline.

Great Game Trailers Enhance Marketing

Compelling trailers are crucial to get noticed as you market your game. In her presentation "Marketing Indie Games On a $0 Budget" (given at the 2013 Konsoll conference), Emmy Jonassen listed her five essential pieces of marketing content that developers should have as soon as they can produce them—a compelling game trailer was #1. (FYI, the other four were screenshots, a press release, a landing page, and a development blog.)

Gallery of past work
Figure 3. Check out kertgartner.com for some of his past work.

Gartner has produced so many trailers that he's lost count—he guesses in the hundreds—and he showcases 30 of them at a time on his website. He sees trailers as one of the most important marketing tools for indies, as he explained in this blog post, "Trailers are usually the first impression that a player's going to get of the game." While many indies may believe that positive press coverage and glowing reviews are the key to getting noticed, Gartner points out that trailers are usually the first thing people see. "If someone is browsing games on Steam*, the trailer is the first thing that auto-plays," he notes. "They're not going read an article, they're going watch a video about it."

The Five-Second Rule for Attracting Viewers

Gartner stresses hooking the viewer, and keeping them engaged. He uses catchy music, extreme close-ups, amazing stunts, and other emotional cues, with the first few seconds of a video being "make or break," as he puts it. "I remember seeing some viewer stats on Steam about how fast people bail on a video. It's literally under five seconds. Now you're starting to see a five-second trailer before a movie trailer. I think Blade Runner 2049 did this—five seconds of super, super-fast cuts, just like boom, boom, boom. Cool shot, cool shot, Blade Runner [2049], boom, boom. Then it fades out, and the actual trailer starts."

What drives Gartner crazy are lazy trailers that start slow and go nowhere fast. "I see too many game trailers that spend the first ten seconds on title cards and logos of companies we've never heard of before, and I just ask, ‘Who cares?' Just put that at the end of the trailer!"

Another rule that Gartner preaches to indies who need to get noticed is to keep the total length at around 80–90 seconds. "If I can get it to a minute and 20 seconds, that's ideal. Unless there's a very good reason to go over a minute and 20 seconds, don't do it. People's attention spans are short as it is, so trying to keep their attention for more than 90 seconds is usually a tough sell."

Producing a tight, crisp trailer that informs the viewer is not an easy skill, so many beginners face a key decision early on: budget for a professional, or make it on your own. "A lot of people think, oh I've got Adobe Premiere*. I'll just capture some game playing, slap some music under it, and be done with it. But really, there's a lot more to it."

Sometimes Gartner will script out a plan with a storyboard, but it's often immediately obvious to him what the game trailer must capture. For example, his trailer for Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality starts with a bang, and quickly develops the story, the characters, and the game play. "It has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end," he said. "Then you figure out what pieces you should slot into each of those sections. Pretty soon, you have a plan."

Screenshot of Rick and Morty game
Figure 4. The trailer for Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality packs the whole story into 90 seconds.

It's a Relationship, Not a Project

Trying to distill what a game feels like, and how to play it, can be easier for an outsider to grasp than for someone who has labored on the project for a long time. "It's tougher for the game developer, because they're closer to the project. I can come at it with a different perspective," Gartner said, noting that he has to be sure to break that news gently.

Gartner is basically a would-be partner looking for a story to tell, and once he figures out the story to be told, he can swat away suggestions that don't lend themselves to the finished product. "The thing is, with a good game, it will usually market itself to a certain extent. A good game will have a very good hook to it, and there will be something really easy to latch on to. If a game doesn't have that, sometimes that's a warning sign that there might be other problems with the game itself," he said.

For example, Gartner was inspired by Dropsy, a non-traditional take on the classic point-and-click adventure game. It was unique—the art and style were unlike anything Gartner had ever seen. "It's a game about this clown whose parents died in a circus fire. It's got this crazy, amazing pixel art, really trippy art style to it, and just looking at that it was really obvious that we needed to focus on the crazy story that's happened to this clown, with this interesting art style." Once he established the key points, he was ready to tell the story.

Screenshot of Dropsy trailer
Figure 5. ;Inspired by the pixelated design of Dropsy, Gartner created a trailer that celebrated its trippy art style.

What happens next is an intense working session that can last for days. Gartner often needs custom programming, such as invisibility cloaks to keep the game play going, or drops to put him at certain points in the game. He might need access to every weapon, and that requires more code. Or, there might be bugs that prevent a certain shot. Having the developer nearby is a huge help.

New Challenge—VR Trailers

Lately, Gartner has been shooting trailers for VR titles, and the challenges have increased exponentially for his system, the software stack, and the post-production work. "The problem with most VR trailers is that they're shot from a first-person perspective, because that's typically the raw output from the head-mounted display. That is literally the worst possible thing you can use, because your head is not a camera," he said. When players are in a VR world, their eyes are darting around, and their head is making constant micro adjustments, but their brain cancels all of that out. The footage of that view is almost unwatchable, it's so shaky and unfocused. "It's a horrible way to convey what it actually feels like to be in that environment," he said. As a result, many VR trailers fall flat.

The answer is to film from the third-person perspective, as though the viewer is looking over the shoulder of the player. Typically, that would require two video feeds—one of the player against a green screen, then composite that over a feed of the actual game play. "When you have the ability to film that person inside of VR from a different perspective, like you're filming them on a virtual sound stage, or a virtual set, all of a sudden, your options just explode. You have new decisions about where you can put the camera, how you can frame this person within that environment, and [you can] now structure a shot that actually explains to the viewer in a concise way what they're actually doing in that world," he said.

Screenshot of Job Simulator trailer
Figure 6. The Job Simulator* trailer used mixed reality in a fast-paced, 87-second story.

The Job Simulator VR game from Owlchemy Labs simulates our inevitable, fully automated, cubicle-dwelling robot future. For Gartner's game trailer, developers had to code a custom, smoothed, head-mounted display camera that would be tied to the actual head-mount display and smooth the output.

The trailer for Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality presented a number of unique challenges. The game is a collaboration between Owlchemy Labs and Adult Swim Games, and pushes the player to explore Morty's world while solving puzzles. The linear nature of the story, and the vast number of environments and locations involved, were challenging—Gartner needed a way to access the different points in the story quickly so he could get as many unique shots as possible. Owlchemy Labs created a customized build of the game, with its own user interface (UI), that allowed him to jump to all the major points in the game quickly. If, for example, ten or more takes of a single place in the game were required, it would have been maddening to have to play through from the beginning for each shot.

Custom tools were used to turn off the in-game voice, in order to capture the raw gameplay sounds. Owlchemy Labs created a toggle to remove the large whiteboard in the garage for certain shots, added player invincibility, and enabled different facial expressions that matched the action in the scene. "Having the same static mouth throughout the video would have felt emotionally flat and weird," Gartner said.

Gartner used a third-person view almost entirely, and he's probably not going back. "Every single VR trailer that I do going forward, I basically talk to the developer first. If they don't want to shoot in third-person format, I'm not really interested in doing it, because I don't think that it's going to be that good of a result."

Avatars Take Mixed Reality One Step Further

One of his favorite recent projects was the trailer for Space Pirate Trainer*. Made by Dirk Van Welden of Brussels-based I-Illusions, it's a classic arcade-style shooter, putting the player inside the arcade machine, blasting away. Van Welden built a full-body, inverse-kinematic body rig that moved the entire body, based on the position of the head and hands. The result was like having a motion-captured person, or avatar. "It looked so good," Gartner said. "It was like we were filming a virtual movie. It was super, super fun to do."

Screenshot of Space Pirates Trainer trailer
Figure 7.The trailer for Space Pirate Trainer required custom programming for an in-game avatar.

Had Space Pirate Trainer been shot in first person, it would have been dry and boring, with the viewer seeing the same thing over and over. "We knew we needed to shoot this in third person, so we could show the Space Pirate on the landing platform, and shoot it from a wide variety of angles. We would put the camera way out into the distance, then pull it in close. My friend Vince came up with the idea of putting the camera on the drones so we could capture the drones flying at the player. I talked to Dirk, and he coded it in an evening, and had it in the next build."

Using in-game avatars instead of mixed reality cuts down on expenses, too. "We can experiment for a while trying out weird or interesting camera angles and if we don't get anything out of it, it's no big deal. Then we can come back tomorrow if we just get too tired after the day. It's not costing us any more money to experiment during the shoot, because we don't have a bunch of extra people that we have to bring in for another day on a green screen set."

Gartner is a seasoned professional, and the industry's go-to guy for trailers; his work shows how an experienced eye can make all the difference. However, using the latest Intel® processors and the best software tools can help anyone taking their first steps toward creating mixed-reality trailers. The extreme workloads involved put tremendous pressure on a system, and may require multiple PCs to play, capture, and mix at high quality.

Some of Gartner's work in mixed reality inspired an Intel team to try to replicate the entire process of playing, capturing, compositing, and streaming a session on a single, 18-core Intel® Core™ i9-7980XE Extreme Edition Processor, shown live at Computex Taipei in 2017. The system handled the chores easily, and the audience could see the utilization graphs for each core as the system worked. Gartner is seriously thinking about making the new processor his next upgrade. "I would kill for that," he joked.

Resources

Kert's Blog: http://www.kertgartner.com

Adobe Premiere Pro video editing software

Intel Game Developer program: https://software.intel.com/en-us/gamedev

Intel Corei9-7980XE Extreme Edition Processor Landing Page

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