INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Hannes Appell (LONECLONE VFX, Creator Of The Monkey Island II: Special Uber Edition Youtube Phenomenon!)

By Marty Mulrooney

foto_hannes

The recent release of LucasArt’s The Secret Of Monkey Island: SE (in 2D) and Telltale’s Tales Of Monkey Island (in 3D) have shown that nothing can stop the allure of an aspiring pirate named Guybrush Threepwood fighting an evil ghost/zombie/ demon/ voodo pirate called LeChuck, a phobia of porcelain and a three-headed monkey, all rolled into a traditional point-n-click laugh-fest. Regardless of being 2D, or 3D, the franchise has always done well, and now it’s back with a vengence baby!

But what if you could have the best of both the 2D and 3D worlds all at once? Even more intriguing, what if there was a way to apply some voodoo magic, and completely update the visuals of classic games from the past, whilst still retaining a faithful look and feel to what has gone before?

In our recent interview with Dominic Armato, he whispered oh so gently of a video that allegedly showed just that. A clip that has become a youtube phenomenon, splashed out over various Monkey Island fan sites and game news sites, sending fans into a frenzy. Alternative Magazine Online knew of this video, and of course we linked to it. We decided this wasn’t enough.  We wanted to know more. So we tracked down the man responsible. The man behind the magic. Get ready, ever faithful reader, to witness an interview with Hanns Appell…

Hi! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

I’m Hannes Appell. 30 years old. I worked as a video game journalist and co-host of NBC Giga Games from 2000-2003. I graduated from Filmakademie’s Institute of Animation & Visual Effects in 2008 and currently work at Crytek in Frankfurt, Germany.

You now run Loneclone VFX. Who works at the studio, and what areas does it specialize in?

Hey didn’t you get the name? It’s just me! A lonely clone. I use that label for all my work related to vfx, animation and cg art projects.

Doh! So where did the name Loneclone actually come from?

When I started out I wanted to have my online portfolio a little bit more mysterious and interesting than just your typical “<insert random name>.com”

It”s a multiple play on words. I like paradoxa and the name in itself is one. There is no lone clone, clones by definition shouldn’t be lonely. Also it contains lots of 1s and 0s which I tend to create…like clones are created…alright you get the picture…

monkey2se_concept_01

You have recently had a lot of attention due to your Monkey Island 2 videos. For our readers who have not yet heard about this, could you explain what it is all about?

With the announcement of the Special Edition of Monkey Island, my old monkey love-o-meter warmed up again. After the Special Edition hit, it reached fever pitch and I decided to do my own take on the source material I love so dearly.

It was a chance to revisit some of my favorite game locations and apply 3D/ tech knowledge to make them come alive. So it was basically two love interests coming together…very satisfying to do.

I decided to try out a well-known technique in vfx that I learned during my years of studying and apply it to a traditional 2D art. I know the traditional typical 2D vs 3D rant debates and wanted to prove once and for all that you can infuse 2D artwork with 3D without destroying it’s original composition, mood and style. There is a way to translate 2D art into 3D without loosing what made it so ‘precious’! So I took some of the available source concept art for the Monkey Island 2 backgrounds and started doing my take on those magical locations.

How does it actually work?

Well it’s VoodooTM ! The ingredients are: Put <insert number> piece of 2D image on a 3d camera imageplane, try to guess a Field of View (FOV) that seems reasonable and then start to model the basic shapes of all the elements in the image that seem to be of interest.

It’s important to strictly model from the camera’s point of view. So that everything is in 3D space but exactly at the right place from the 2D perspective. The Monkey 2 art has a very exaggerated style so guessing a suitable camera lense and perspective and modeling everything in 3D space is a little tricky.

It doesn’t have to be perfect though. Far from it. You just need to place everything roughly at the same distance the stuff would be in a real 3D space. The original 2D art is then projected as a texture onto your basic 3D geometry. You gain more accurate shadows, surface properties, lighting etc out of working in “real” 3D while maintaining the composition, mood and brush style of the original 2D art.

The amount of work needed very much depends on what you want to do with it afterwards. Whether it is sufficient to model only simple basic geometry or be more fancy or even re-texture some elements depends on what your goal is.

My goal was to create a scene where the original point of view of the camera would be movable.

So imagine Guybrush walking a little to the right and the camera could not only pan with him but dolly to the right along with him. Or let’s say Guybrush walks into the distance, the camera could dolly into the scene a little.

The goal is to still retain the original framing but infuse it with 3D and not to create a FirstPersonShooter-like environment where the player can look in every direction and run around randomly. So you don’t have to create the environment from all sides and fix all possible angles and details.

The scene can really come alive when the player senses the 3D space when the camera is slightly moving. The original framing and composition would still be intact (as would be the original point-and-click adventure feeling), there would be no need to model unseen areas e.g. the sides of an environment facing the camera.

When you are finished with a scene and the projection looks right and you want to get the 3D scene into a realtime game engine, you need to ‘bake’ the projected 2D texture into suitable UV texture maps. That’s a bit more work and a little bit more complicated but is still pretty easy to do.

I’m planning on doing that next, when my freetime allows it.

monkey2se_concept_03

Was this purely a pet project as a fan of the games? Or did you think it would be a good way to get exposure?

Well I got lot’s of exposure with another project I did, so this was really just a pet project I did while my workstation was busy rendering away at said project and I got bored. I’m truly amazed that the videos got over 40,000 hits in just a few days! It seems Monkey fans are still alive and not buried somewhere in Scabb Island’s cemetery.

Was it done with the intention of LucasArts seeing what is possible?

My guess is they already know what’s possible. They live with ILM under the same roof now! Might even be that ILM was the first vfx house to use camera projection/texture projection in the first place some years ago, I don’t know. LucasArts has probably already started work on a Special Edition of LeChuck’s Revenge but this was my try to show that there is another way to do it instead of repainting or retouching Purcell’s glorious original art. With this method there is even the possibility for a 3D Monkey Island 2 remake without pesky oldschool fans cursing and loosing their precious hair over the changes. Whether that way is feasible in a production environment or not, I don’t know. Probably makes no sense to have 3D artists working on redoing 2D backgrounds if the project is just a 2D remake and your output is just a flat image.. If they tried something more ‘fancy pants’ or are doing it in 3D, this might be the way to go.monkey2se_concept_06

Do you think a lot of old games could be given new life with these methods?

Sure. You can and could do lot’s of cool stuff using this method. It depends on the art style and the production requirements. As I said earlier: If you give the player freedom to see the whole environment or e.g. let Guybrush and the camera go up to a distant wall and look at it, it wouldn’t look good at all without retexturing.

Also: it all depends on whether it makes sense in a production environment to go 3D if you just want enhanced 2D.

Would you ever make an adventure game yourself in this way? Or are you still primarily focused on visual effects for other clients?

I’m busy at my job right now, but you never know…

Do you think that the methods you have used could have been used in the recent Secret Of Monkey Island: Special Edition?

I have to defend LucasArts: They didn’t have the cool concept art for the Monkey Island 1 SE, because the backgrounds back in 1990 were directly painted in Deluxepaint and at the same resolution the game was made in (320×200). It would have been very difficult doing 3D projections using only the pixel art in 320×200. I guess it made sense to repaint those backgrounds in 2D like they did with their SE. For MI2 they have the original painted concept art pieces so my guess is, their Special Edition will look amazing, even when done purely in 2D Photoshop fashion.

We recently interviewed Dominic Armato (the voice of Guybrush Threepwood) and he seemed very impressed with your work. How does that make you feel?

Proud like a monkey who was just given 3 bananas by Guybrush!

monkey2se_concept_04

Can we expect any more of your Monkey Island II SE videos in the future?

Maybe…it takes roughly 3-4 days for each background and I don’t have the time right now for another one. Doing another one might also give off the impression that this is a real fan remake project that will someday hit the legal wall, which it is not. It was just a demo done out of love :) Also: there aren’t many concept art pieces available anymore and without them (and just using low-res in-game backgrounds) it’s next to impossible to re-do a scene in 3D and still have it look good in 1080p resolution.

What else can we expect for Loneclone VFX in the future?

Hopefully many great things! That reminds me…I really need to update the site. All my stuff from last year isn’t really on there yet. Stay tuned!

Will do! Thank you for your time!

Be sure as well to check out the rest of our Monkey Island coverage, including our Tales Of Monkey Island Episode 1 review here, our Alexandra Boyd (the voice of Elaine Marley) interview here, and finally our Dominic Armato (the voice of Guybrush Threepwood) interview here !

Also, add us to Twitter here to keep up to date with the latest reviews, articles and interviews! (Dominic Armato has agreed to do a mini-interview after every Tales Of Monkey Island review, so stay tuned!)

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8 Comments

Filed under Alternative Musings, Games

8 responses to “INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Hannes Appell (LONECLONE VFX, Creator Of The Monkey Island II: Special Uber Edition Youtube Phenomenon!)

  1. Nice work! People like me, who have long forgotten the scenario of MI2, would surely play a simple remake with all the same stuff, just in better resolution, and in 3d.

  2. Mares

    I’m not bragging or anything, but I had for the longest time wondered if something like this was possible! Not the redoing old games part specifically, but the idea of infusing the beauty of 2D into a 3D environment. Glad to see someone’s finally found a way! The way I understand it, tracking 3D geometry onto a preexisting 2D image is much more difficult than it would be to paint over a particular viewpoint of a brand new 3D scene. Imagine what Vampyre Story, as great as it looks, would’ve felt like if this method had been employed (the lovely graphics weren’t enough to keep me interested in this one though, sorry). Here’s hoping that LA takes notice, and we see in the near future a bona fide LA-produced MI5 using this method! Any idea of the system specs required to run something like this in real time, BTW?

  3. Mares

    Also, and sorry about the double post. Not sure if the interviewee is reading this, but anyway: Do you think a lighting-neutral 2D scene with an underlying 3D framework would work well with actual light sources that are placed in the 3D aspect, illuminating the overlay? I think this would look interesting with a full 3D character moving through the scene, casting real time shadows everywhere…

    • Marty Mulrooney

      Hey Mares, some cool comments there! I don’t know if Hannes (the interviewee) will be reading what you said, but I (the interviewer) certainly have, and from my other conversations with Mr Appell, what you just said sounds totally within the realms of possibility. I also agree that it would be great for these techniques to be applied to brand new adventures, as well as the obvious potential they hold with regards to sprucing up gems from the past.

  4. Mares

    Umm, sorry again. Seeing as how comments are “awaiting moderation”, maybe someone can combine the posts? Have each be a P.S. and P.P.S., lol. The single problem, if you can call it that, I envision with this method, is conversation close-ups. Each would require a higher res, brand new 2D overlay, right?

    • Marty Mulrooney

      Hey, don’t worry about the posts, they look fine and the moderator (i.e me) has approved them :-P You are now free to post on the site. Although please be aware Mr Appell probably hasn’t checked the interview since he initially read over it before and upon publication! You certainly bring up some interesting points though!

  5. Mares

    Hey, thanks for the vote of confidence! ;) As for Mr. Appell, maybe I’ll try to track him down elsewhere and ask him to take a look.

    There’s something else I’ve always wanted to see in adventures that comes to mind. The awesomeness of panoramic adventures’ 360 degree backgrounds combined with 3rd-person character control. I’ve never played any panoramic adventures, precisely for their lack of characters, but I love what they try to accomplish with the illusion of 3D when rotating around one’s axis. Now, imagine applying voodoo to the patched up photos/paintings of such a game. For example, the main room from which one has access to all the different areas’ doors in the Dig is a panorama. If this painting were curved all the way around the camera which sits smack in the middle of a 3D modeled room, you would have a panorama with actual, not simulated 3D. And if you gave the player full camera control, he could have the character walk across the middle of the room to its opposite end, instead of having him circle around its edge in a 180 degree arc. The possibilities are endless.

    In any case, I’m excited about what your concept means for the future of adventure games, especially considering you already have a job in the industry. They could very well take back the throne of most visually stunning genre.

  6. Pingback: CVMP 2012 « "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain"

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