DID YOU READ

Interview with Rockstar Games’ Rob Nelson, Part 1

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If you’ve played Rockstar Games’ latest hit game, then you’ve probably marveled at the detail-oriented recreation of 1947 Los Angeles that “L.A. Noire” delivers. While the entire creative corps at Rockstar tends to focus on little touches, art director Rob Nelson gets the nod as the guy who holds the visual aesthetic in his head. Nelson’s an industry veteran who’s been with the company for eight years, with a hand in “L.A. Noire,” of course, and last year’s “Red Dead Redemption,” too. The Canadian transplant spoke with me over the phone about bringing the aesthetics of cult movies, cowboys and cops to the controller set.

Rockstar’s one of the most envied and respected developers in the games business. How long have you been with them and how did you get there?

I’ve been at the company since 2003. I started in our Toronto studio actually, after coming over from another game company called Silicon Knights. I had worked on a game called “Eternal Darkness” there.

Great game.

Yeah, it was a really fun one to work on. I remember when we finished, “GTA 3” came out, and I was as blown away as everybody was by it. I hadn’t seen anything like that probably since I had seen a game for the first time. I was just really, really in shock by what they had done. And then I played “GTA: Vice City,” and I don’t know, something about what those guys were doing made me want to be there. Around that time they had a studio in Toronto, where I was living, and I just pushed really hard to get in.

I basically made them hire me. And it was actually [VP of Product Development] Jeronimo Barrett who hired me.

And now, you’re both in New York, right?

Yeah, but he was at that Toronto studio at the time. They were doing the Warriors at that time, and were about a year in. And so, I had one interview with them and they didn’t call me back. And then me and another guy that I worked with at Silicon Knights, made like a sort of New York-inspired environment. I wasn’t even an environment artist. I was an animator! But we sent it to them anyway.

We sort of stayed up one long weekend and did it, and sent it to them just to say, “We’re serious about this.” They hired me. I worked as an animator for maybe a month and then Toronto decided that I would be a producer in that studio, and that’s what I became, and that’s what I was for about five years or so.

And we did “Warriors,” and we did a couple things on the Wii. We did “Bully” for the Wii and “Manhunt 2” on the Wii. And we did “GTA IV” on the PC, and put a video editor in there, which was a lot of fun. And then an opportunity opened up in New York and they asked me to move to New York and work out of there on all the games with all the studios. So, I took it, and that was like in 2008.

So, Rob, how about the guy who helped you get the job? What happened to him?

He’s still in Toronto. The guy that I worked with, yeah, he’s still there. He’s a lead designer there. I love him.

He’s still at Silicon Knights?

No, he’s at Rockstar Toronto. We both got hired.

Oh, OK, good. That’s great, that’s great.

He was like my roommate at the time and so we both sort of left at the same time. But he’s still at the Rockstar Toronto studio.

In terms of schooling, what’s your background? You were probably an art major, I’m assuming?

Yeah, I went through fine arts at the university and I also did like a classical animation diploma or degree, whatever you call it, at Sheridan College.

When you say classical, it’s hand-drawn right?

Mm-hm. I wasn’t computer illiterate when I came out of school, but it was the late ’90s. So I was sort of one of the last classes to go through, before CG really took off in a major way. When I was animating, it was all hand drawn 2D, shooting on film and editing on these old, old, machines. We were using ancient PET computers–like older than I was–for programming complicated camera moves.

So, fast forward. You get to Rockstar in Toronto and the first game you’re working on is “The Warriors.” They were already in progress at the time?

Yep. About a year in maybe.

It seems that, as a work environment, it had to be different than everything you’ve done up until that point. At Silicon Knights, on “Eternal Darkness,” you were creating your own world and its own history from scratch.

Whereas, on “The Warriors” you’re trying to build out something that already existed as an idea in people’s minds and on film as well. What was that like? And what was the approach at Rockstar insofar as thinking, “All right, we’re going to build out this world around the movie and try not to violate anything?”

They picked up the license for “Warriors” a long time ago and were sort of sitting on it. [Rockstar Games founders] Sam and Dan [Houser] and everybody at Rockstar at that time loved the movie. It was sort of a big influence for them. They always knew they wanted to do something with it. I remember when we were working on it, people were like, “Yeah, it’s a perfect movie to make into a game. It flows like a game. But when you actually break it down, they only really have a handful of encounters as they’re trying to get home. And it’s actually not enough to sustain the length that a game would require if you’re going to do a linear narrative. We really didn’t want to do like an arena brawler. We like telling stories, and we love the story in that film.

So we made the decision to expand on it and try to be as faithful to the characters and the story that already existed as we could. And we were really, really obsessed with the material and the characters, and spent so much time with it.

It seemed like a natural progression to have the climax of the game be the events of the film. The thinking was to take the three or four months leading up to the big summit that they have in the park, where the Riffs hold their big meeting and Cyrus gets shot. So, we just wrote a story around that about this gang that was sort of coming up in the city, and we were really, really obsessed with the characters and the material. It was a really incredible experience.

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So, when you guys talk about crafting story, how does that start? It always seems like Sam and Dan are very central to whatever happens. But how does that process flow out like to the rest of the creatives?

It depends. It’s different on different projects, I think. Those guys are the driving force behind everything that we do. I was already in love with the product, the game that they were making when I got there. But, the thing that kept me there and that I love about it is that there is no sort of single solitary creative genius who presides over the whole thing. We all sort of play to our strengths.

One person can only do so much, they can only write so much, they can only direct so much. So, it just depends. Sometimes they’ll have a very, very specific vision for the whole thing. Sometimes it will be specific things that they want to hit and they ask us to sort of fill in the blanks.

It’s a very collaborative process. For something like “The Warriors,” we would definitely come up with a plan, the design team, and the writers, and talk to them about it. We go back and forth. And not just them, we talk to the heads of product development, like someone in Jeronimo’s position or the art director at that time. It’s a fairly democratic process figuring out what we’re going to do. And then we sort of execute, and then we play and get feedback, and make adjustments, and play, and make adjustments. It’s sort of an ongoing very organic process with us.

Would you describe it as a rapid prototyping model? Like a lot of video game development companies, they just try to get something playable down as soon as possible and get their hands dirty with it, and then trash whatever needs to be reworked, and go at it again. Is it that fast or is it more like, “OK, let’s sit with it for a while?”

Yeah, it’s fast. It’s never as fast as we would like it to be. It just takes a long time to put these things together. But we try to turn things around as quickly as possible. You’ll work up core mechanics at the same time as you are writing the story. Once you’ve got the rough story that you want, you maybe pick a few missions. You start roughing in all the scripting or the gameplay for things.

Then, you probably pick a couple of, whether it’s missions or cases or levels, whatever it is, depending on the type of game it is. You really push those and work those out to try and get– I guess some people would call it like a vertical slice–but it’s really just a good idea of the game you’re making.

So we can all look at it and go, this needs adjusting, this is heading in the right direction. Whatever. And with one 10, 20, 30 minute chunk, you can really tell what the game is going to be once you start getting there. But sometimes it takes a long time for us to get to that. We’re very hard on the games all the way through. So, it’s fast but it’s never fast enough.

When I talk to my peers about the work that Rockstar turns out, I think the one think that everybody homes in on, in a good way, is that you guys nail tone above everything else. Like, people can criticize a story element or a gameplay element. But, everybody feels like you get the tone of the milieu that you guys were trying to set up in your games really right. What goes into that? If it’s a big stew, what are the ingredients?

We’re just relentless about that stuff. First of all, we try to construct our teams so that they get that. Everybody that’s working on the game gets what it’s about. And that’s supposed to just continue on up from the people making the assets or programming the AI, or writing the stories, to the leads in that studio to us in New York.

There’s an understanding that that’s what’s expected, I think, of us. We do pretty well I think, for our first cracks at it. We always sort of know what the vibe is and what we want to hit. Then we keep working at it until we get it. We just keep turning things back that don’t fit, the smallest details to the largest.

You can plan, and plan, and plan, and lay things out, and write design docs, and have meetings about it, and do all the Microsoft Project stuff you want to do, but we are really good at turning back things that could be seen as done.

You could ship a lot of the content that we turn away, but we just keep at it until it’s right. That was one thing that was really good for me, I think, about art school. You just got the notion of being precious about your work, literally beat out of you. You would do something, and throw it away, or do something and go over it. You just got to understand that it was as much about the process as it was about the product. I loved the ways that we worked, because you work at it until it’s right. There’s not a lot of egos involved or hurt feelings. You chuck an idea or we chuck a whole piece of a map, or we cut a whole level. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. We won’t really accept it until it’s right to all of us.

Is there a way to possibly co-ordinate that much brainstorming?

Probably. But, we don’t stress that too much. Games are big, messy things with so many people touching them across different disciplines, and now for us, across different continents, too. And everyone is just slamming things into the build constantly. It’s not without organization and direction, but we try not to micromanage the teams.

We want the teams to feel involved in what they’re doing. And so, if you’re in some kind of role where you’re giving direction, we’ll respond to the things that are working for us and the things that aren’t. But we have to let people execute and let the content speak for itself.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.