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How is a game cinematic made? I can't find a decent article anywhere to give at least starting point into understanding what it takes to create a cinematic.

I don't mean typical scripted game play, rather, the really nice cut scenes games have, like the ones Blizzard has for almost every game they develop.

Note: I'm not sure what to tag this under.

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up vote 16 down vote accepted

Blood, sweat and tears beers

For the movie-quality cinematics you see from companies like Blizzard, they are often following a process similar (albeit on a smaller scale) to the processes of professional movie studios like Pixar. This involves professional 3D artists, modellers, animators, etc, as well as various high-end technologies like 3DS Max, Maya, etc.

For the teaser trailer for Starcraft II, this interview with Blizzard (Part III particularly) mentions how the Marine 3D model had 5 million polygons, and the cinematic broke their renderer.

The Australian magazine Atomic also have a good article on Blizzard's cinematic development process here

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+1 - Good links! I'll also add that lots of times such cinematics are done by an entirely separate company, and may use completely different assets depending on the platforms involved. (PC/PS3/360 games may get to use the "same" high-poly model for prerendered cinematics and normal-mapped for in-game - PSP/DS games not so much.) – user744 Oct 20 '10 at 11:42

They use a product like 3DS Max or Maya.

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Don't forget Blender! – Anthony Arnold Oct 20 '10 at 1:54
True, but I'm guessing Blizzard is using Maya or Max ;) They can afford it! – Nate Oct 20 '10 at 2:08
Blender is actually used in Professional development, though I can't definitly speak about cinematics. Some ship-models for X-Rebirth have been created in Blender (German video, around 3:20). – J_F_B_M Aug 31 '14 at 16:40

The creation process is very similar to building geometry for games. Same tools for modeling & animation Max, Maya, zBrush. Most characters for current gen are built to extremely high detail for normal map generation anyway, so often those assets can translate easily to the pre-rendered realm. The main differences are in shader complexity, rendering, and lighting.

A studio can do this all internally, particularly someone like Blizzard who are known for cinematics. It does require some individuals with a specific skillset so you need to keep them busy with work. Today most companies find it easier to farm out pre-rendered cinematics to external houses that focus on that sort of work. As an example you'll recognize several recent pieces done by Blur.

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Step 1: Create assets in 3d program (3DS Max, Maya or blender)

Step 2: Rig assets

Step 3: Animate the needed animations on the rigged assets

Step 4: Create the scene, render and record.

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Most companies have a cinematic team that is separate from the game development team. The models and scenes used in cinematics are often of a level of detail that would be completely unplayable in a live game, so it's likely the only shared assets are concept art. Large studios like Blizzard (I believe at least one of Sony's various sub-corps has one too) have their own internal cinematics team that works on the cutscenes, intros, and trailers for all of their products. Smaller companies may outsource this to another studio.

The Atomic article in jeffora's response is a great explanation of this process.

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One of our (ArenaNet's) developers wrote a blog entry about how cinematics for Guild Wars 2 are created. There's also an accompanying video by our cinematic art lead -- this may not be exactly what you're after, though, since it's not fully pre-rendered 3D.

Back when I was a graphics programmer at Big Huge Games, we contracted with Blur for some of our cinema sequences (and another company, I believe, for the campaign cutscenes, but I am unfortunately drawing a blank as to who that was) -- there's a write-up on this process here. They were more disconnected videos, modeled, rigged, animated, and rendered out separately by the outsourcing team and we just played them back in-game at the appropriate point.

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