Rising tension, a parallel universe, and a running turret, Valorant's most recent cinematic, DUALITY had us all on the edge of our seats.
In celebration of the game's first-ever international tournament and ahead of their first anniversary, Riot Games unveiled the latest glimpse into Valorant's extensive lore last May. And to say the least, it was exhilarating.
Starring some of the tactical shooter game's iconic agents – Killjoy, Viper, and Phoenix, DUALITY revealed the existence of two parallel universes with clones and alternate versions of each character. While more is to be revealed about the in-game lore, the cinematic previewed what to expect moving forward.
Beyond the actual story and riveting action sequences, the cinematic trailer itself was a sight to see. Filled to the brim with vivid colours and mesmerising animation, DUALITY saw the world of Valorant come to life.
See the other side when VALORANT Creative Director @davidnotty bridges the gap between DUELISTS and DUALITY. Read more lore: https://t.co/Xsc4aM8rom— VALORANT (@PlayVALORANT) June 1, 2021
Helmed by UK-based animation studio, Axis Studios, in close collaboration with Riot Games, DUALITY was a product of undying passion, relentless hard work, and pure love for Valorant. Over the course of seven months, the team put together an enthralling cinematic that has garnered over 3 million views since its release.
Bandwagon caught up with Axis Studios' CG Supervisor Steven Barbour and Art Director Almu Redondo to talk about the creative process behind Valorant's DUALITY, and what it's like working in the animation industry.
How did each of you get started in visual arts and how did you end up in Axis Studios?
Almu: I started as an architect but I always wanted to work on films. Then, I met an architect who was working with some cinematographers as well and suddenly that dream became a reality. I started researching how I could do that too, and then I dropped everything and took all the savings that I have, I left my jobs and everything. I just started studying for one year – filmmaking, design, visual effects, and animation, everything that I could find. From there, I started working in visual effects and slowly started to work more in animation.
I got into Axis after I met someone on the recruiting team, John, in one of their events in London. They do some gatherings with different concept artists and people in the industry where for three days, you just have a lot of talks with all the best work of that year. I met John and from there we connected so well and really wanted to work together. It's been amazing.
With the recent release of DUALITY // Official Lore Cinematic - VALORANT in our latest collab with @riotgames,Play Valorant discuss where it sits within the wider VALORANT Universe.— Axis Studios (@axisstudiosgrp) July 13, 2021
Hear the story of VALORANT so far here:https://t.co/xU0ptkLyru #RiotGames #Valorant #Animation
Steven: Before I got into working in the animation industry, I'd had various jobs that didn’t really grab me very much. When I was approaching 30, I thought that I wanted to do something that I was going to make a proper career out of. Around the same time, my brother got a job back working mostly in TV and movies. I thought that sounded really interesting, it's the kind of industry that you're aware of but never really thought about getting into. It always seemed like something that somebody else does.
So, I started to research a little and I found a Master's Course in Multimedia Communication that had quite a strong animation element. I did that and graduated with pretty good results and started a job search. Coincidentally, I came across this advert saying there was this animation training programme starting in Scotland. I applied to that and what it did was it gave you trainee positions in various animation studios in Scotland, and the first one I went to was Axis. I just immediately liked it – the work, the people, what they produced, the environment. I finished my time there and went around training in other studios. Around the time that my training was finished, Axis got in touch again and I've been here ever since.
Just in case you missed it😉…#AxisStudios #VALORANT #ValorantArt #DUALITY #Trailer https://t.co/NkqUBUeKbF— Axis Studios (@axisstudiosgrp) July 19, 2021
What are some of your favourite projects that you’ve worked on as part of Axis?
Steven: One of my favourite ones is the current work that we're doing right now [with Riot Games]. It's the longest that I've worked with the same team, and it's given us the opportunity to push what we do in a project more than we have in previous projects.
Another one of my favourites was Spartan Ops, a series of episodes for Halo 4 when the game was released. Five years before then, I was sitting, playing the game on my couch at home with no idea that I'd ever be working in the animation industry or working on the game. That was a lot of fun.
Almu: Valorant is a big highlight for me because it was one of the biggest shows that we've done and we got to try different things. We’ve also been working together for a long time so as a team so we know each other so well. There is a special chemistry that just happens when you've been fighting all these battles together and you understand each other so well, that makes everything so easy. That was amazing to get to do that one.
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Let's talk about your work on Valorant’s DUALITY Cinematic. What was creation the entire process like?
Steven: I think from when we got the first concept to when we actually delivered took probably around 7 months. It was quite a long time because we can go through this process where Riot will deliver that idea to us then we'll look at it and talk about it a lot.
We look at all the variables, in terms of the animation, the environments, and the character complexity, there's always quite a lot of back and forth and kind of figuring these things out. It’s a lot of figuring out what we can make with the time we have and what ideas and parts of the story that we want to keep. The story changes its shape a lot and gets refined, it goes back to Riot then back to us. From there, it develops but it's probably like a good couple of months before anybody actually starts producing anything. It was quite a long but fun process.
Almu: In the beginning, it’s usually a very small team and we're just looking at everything. We get some basic concepts from Riot and then we start elaborating everything with them. We then build on top of that and bring it into the style and a little bit of [research and development] as well because there were certain things that we needed to create that we hadn't done before.
For example, like moving cameras in a 3D space, and the illustrative style. Because the action was a high demand for [DUALITY], we needed to move the camera way more inside and we needed to think about how we were going to do it because it was a big change to how we were going to plan everything. We started to look internally at that and propose how the environment would look as well because we were mainly given the game references, we need to translate that into the cinematic world.
We needed to keep it... not realistic but believable and keep the essence of the experience that all the players and the fans of the game have in their everyday lives. So, it's finding that balance of how you enhance and translate the story, and how you treat those assets, the style, and the look of everything.
How did you ensure that you adapted the environment and characters like Killjoy, Viper, and Phoenix into that cinematic world while still staying true to how they are in-game?
Almu: Proportions changed a little bit, as well as the level of fidelity of the textures. The environments were the things that were worked on more because we needed to preserve the main spaces. You can’t change the main landmarks and the main distribution of the space because the players are going to recognise that, but we needed to make sure it wasn’t just a map or a stage, it needed to feel real and lifting.
So, we studied and thought about how we could make a place that feels like a real city in the North of Africa that has been taken over by a tech industry without a lot of people because we don't have the budget to do so much animation. We thought about giving the feeling that people just left or people just got inside their houses.
We worked a lot with environment artists to figure out the props, the set dressing, and how we could craft the lighting and enhance the cinematography and the photography, while also keeping the action.
Steven: With the assets, some of them were from the game and some of them were from previous episodes, but there's always a little tweak to the formula because you've got a new creative team. So we'll have the assets but we want to adapt them to the trailer so you work in the textures and work on the proportions a little bit more as well. It was kind of taking what we've done in the previous episodes and building on it to bring it into the Valorant world but also putting our own spin on it as well.
The environment was a big one because we had to have more moving cameras. Traditionally, in the other episodes, [the environment] would be hand-painted which are just flat projections. But this time we also had texture artists that painted the textures in a similar style so it's a combination of projective environments and traditionally textured and rendered 3D environments. Getting that to all work seamlessly was quite an interesting challenge but it all came together in the end.
What were some highlights working on the cinematic?
Steven: I really like the effects around the Spike as it's in the process of [detonating]. It meant a lot of light and had a combination of 3D and 2D effects on it. A lot of things were involved, like the characters and the environment – there was quite a lot of development that went into that to get it working.
I enjoyed our final reveal as well – when we revealed the planet spitting. Up until the end, there were quite a lot of conversations that went into how we were going to sell this idea that these metacharacters can have access to this alternate world that's right next to our own world. So, we were working on that aspect almost until the final week, just creating things and changing things.
There's one other moment that I liked even more after watching reaction videos on YouTube – it was where we revealed that the guy that Phoenix is chasing is actually meta-Phoenix. There was quite a lot of work going into having this character of meta-Phoenix being in the earlier part of the trailer but not recognise who he is. So, the reactions [people] that he has when he stands up and reveals who he is was really really fun to watch.
Almu: Yeah, it was really difficult because the character designs are so well done. They are amazing and their silhouettes are so recognisable. It was difficult to hide who he was – it was Phoenix, such an iconic character.
How much creative freedom did you guys have for this project?
Almu: We had a fair bit of freedom I will say. There was also a lot of trying to ensure that the personality of Valorant was coming in, so it was a departure from some of the things from League of Legends in that sense.
All the things are more grounded in reality at the same time, so finding that balance was really interesting and they gave us a lot of freedom. We had a really good understanding as well of what the directors at Riot wanted and as a team, there were a lot of conversations at the beginning and we had the style guides from them as well.
Steven: Yeah, it's quite collaborative and open. There are certain aspects that you have to match to the game and what has already been established, in terms of the characters personalities and certain behaviours of the state. But there's also a lot of other areas where we have a lot of creative freedom and input. Like, although the Spike behaves in a certain way, how we want to do it, and how we want to develop that and its certain behaviours and shapes, there's quite a lot of ideas that we had and suggestions that we had that Riot were really happy to take on board.
Going back to the challenge of revealing who meta-Phoenix was something that Riot was very clear about like we can't know who he was until the reveal. But how we achieved that was ours to solve with cameras, motion blurs, lens flare, haze, rays and those kinds of things. So, there were a lot of fun, creative challenges to solve.
So now that the cinematic has been released, how do you feel about the response?
Steven: It's one of the most fun parts of working on Riot projects because we’re always waiting for the reaction videos. There are certain YouTubers that keep track of what Riot are doing. Every time Riot releases anything, they have a video about it, they comment on it, and they talk about it; and when they do ours, it's a lot of fun to watch and then to read the comments and their videos is, it's really great. It's really good fun to see the fan response, it’s all for them at the end of the day.
Almu: It's invaluable to get that level of feedback because as Steven is saying, we are doing it for the fans. You’re planning how to craft the lighting, to get this point across and how you're planning the animation and the coverage to make this happen, but you're never sure if the point is going to come across or not. There's a lot of layers of feedback inside in the studio and with Riot but then it's really the fans that are going to react and take it onboard or not. So it's really amazing to see where things are clicking and when things work. It’s absolutely fantastic.
What words of advice would you give someone aspiring to get into animation and visual effects?
Steven: It's focusing on your reel and the quality of work and sort of figuring out the aspect of animation you want to get into. If you want to be a modeller, show your best models; if you want to be a FX artist, show your best effects. Build up your art station page with one of your best works – if there's something you're not more than 90% happy with, don't show it.
Just pick your best stuff there, and what particular aspect you want to target and focus and work really, really hard on it.
Almu: It's super important to have a super clear idea of what you want to do and always strive. But at the same time, be flexible because sometimes you'll just start going in one direction and it's good to check constantly if this is really what you were hoping to do. Then maybe recalibrate to see if this is the path you want or not.
For me, the most important thing will also be to grow as a human because the more you grow as a human, the more you're going to grow as an artist and as a team player. That side of things is super fundamental for the things that you're going to be able to express later on in your work and also how you communicate with your teams because this is not a line of work you can do alone. It’s only Steven and I chatting here today but we're also representing like 50 people behind this project.
Check out more of Axis Studios' work here.
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.