Exploring The Intense Visual Mastery of Square-Enix Cutscenes

by Callum May,

Realism can be a contentious part of 3D animation creation. Although cartoon approaches are common, realistic artistic movements have benefited greatly from advances in technology over the past few decades. That said, realism can often be constrained by reality. Many critics had this complaint with the recent Lion King remake, stating that it felt “soulless” and lacked the magic of the original. But even with these complaints, the film's financial success shows that realism does indeed have a market.

The team at Square Enix are painfully familiar with these sort of complaints, but they didn't have the good fortune of coming away in the black. Since The Spirits Within, Square Enix has strived to combine the technical achievements of realism with the fantasy concepts of some of the best designers in the industry. After all, realism doesn't have to be restricted to reality, but instead can be used to make amazing and fantastic worlds visually believable.

The result is some of the best cutscenes and trailers in video games. But it didn't happen out of nowhere. When Square Enix first opted to bring their flagship Final Fantasy series to 3D with Final Fantasy VII, what followed was a hiring drive for CG artists across the growing industry. As well as those with prior games experience, there were plenty with experience in films. This prompted the growth of pre-rendered CGI cutscenes (referred to as “FMV” at the time) and eventually the creation of the Visual Works subsidiary company.

1997 - Starting from Square One

In the early days of Square, your role was less defined. While people might technically be credited as pixel artists or background designers, they would often chip in and help out on other visual elements. So although they were specifically hiring 3D artists to help bring Final Fantasy to the next dimension with Final Fantasy VII, the 2D artists who were working on the backgrounds picked up some CG skills from their colleagues and got involved with the process. One such staffer was Kazuyuki Ikumori, a pixel artist who would eventually become the general manager and chief creative director of Square Enix Visual Works.

Final Fantasy VII today is regarded as a Visual Works production, but the subsidiary hadn't been formally formed at the time. Instead, a team of CG artists worked together under Motonori Sakakibara, a new hire with animation experience on projects both within Japan and the US. The game's director Yoshinori Kitase aimed to create cutscenes that felt like they could be part of regular gameplay. One such example is the opening scene that sweeps through the city of Midgard before seamlessly transitioning to real-time gameplay.

During the last stages of development on Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi brought up the idea of tackling films. This idea eventually sprouted into Square Pictures, a studio placed in Hawaii, the halfway point between Square HQ in Tokyo and Square USA in Los Angeles. The idea was that the team would focus on trying to improve their 3D animation capabilities through filmmaking, which would in turn improve the cinematics in their games.

Meanwhile back in Japan, Final Fantasy VIII was taking a step towards realism with realistic character proportions, and for the first time, motion capture was being used to portray human movements. They worked with teams from pioneer companies like Links Corporation (now Imagica) and Digital Media Lab to produce longer cutscenes with more realistic designs.

In 1999, Square established the subsidiary company Square Visual Works from their growing team of 3D artists. While many of the company's artists had travelled to Hawaii to work on the upcoming Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within film, Visual Works was established as a separate company with their own pipeline and set to work on projects like Parasite Eve 2 and Final Fantasy IX. At this time, while Sakakibara worked on the film, a team of three directors would work on cinematics for Square's new 3D titles.

2001 - A Final Fantasy?

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was a historic technical achievement, but not a financial or business one. The project was hugely expensive, the company neglected to apply for any of the typical tax breaks, and both audiences and critics were unimpressed. The studio had invested a massive amount of money in the project, arguing that it was normal for a major animated feature.

The staff members involved give various reasons for the film's failure. Some blame investors for overcomplicating the development process, making it difficult to find a consensus on the film's narrative, others blame cultural differences within the international studio, and Hiroyuki Seshita, the future director of multiple anime at Polygon Pictures, blamed the obsession with realism. When Seshita was working as an art director on the film, he believed that it was lacking any basic appeal outside of its photorealistic visuals.

Largely because of the film's failure, Square was in the red for the first time. As a way of taking responsibility, then-president Tomoyuki Takechi and both of the film's directors left the company, including Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi. Many other members of the company followed them out, leading to what Square localisation specialist Alexander O. Smith referred to as an “end of an era”.

Several subsidiaries were folded back into the main Square company, including Visual Works. To keep the company afloat until their upcoming 2002 releases, Sony purchased a large 18.7% stake in Square, stating that they hoped to see more Square games make their way to Playstation consoles.

The following year was a brighter one for the studio, with both Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts performing well. Both games received praise for their exceptional pre-rendered cutscene work. Despite not being re-established as a subsidiary company until after the merger in 2003, the team still referred to themselves as “Visual Works” and retrospectively counts these among their achievements.

For a time, it looked like Square might meet its end, but the Visual Works studio and most of its artists survived both the departures and the corporate shuffle and managed to release one of their most memorable opening cutscenes with Final Fantasy X-2. Directed by Kazuyuki Ikumori, the former pixel artist was able to prove himself as a 3D filmmaker, having spent years working in design. The studio had always strived for technical prowess, but Ikumori's approach has always been about balancing that technology with compelling art.

Both Final Fantasy X and X-2 are well regarded for their detailed character acting, which is a combination between motion capture and key frame animation. One such example is the kiss in Final Fantasy X, which Ikumori recalls had to constantly be redone because a lot of the young male animators on staff didn't have much romantic experience, and the female staffers at Square Enix would pick up on the awkward or unnatural positioning.

2005 - The Visuals Work

Whilst Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was sunk by its unwavering dedication to realism and not much else, the Visual Works team strove to learn from Square Pictures’ mistakes and emphasise the art as well as the technology. This was the theme of the film Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, a project pitched internally by the Visual Works team. Although the team at Square Enix theorised about realising it as a game sequel to Final Fantasy VII, they eventually settled on the cheaper option of creating a film, directed by character designer Tetsuya Nomura and Visual Works director Takeshi Nozue.

In many ways, Advent Children appears to be a model for how future Visual Works projects would look and feel. Like with Final Fantasy X and future projects from the team, it's a mix between 3D key animation and motion capture, with the staff preferring not to use motion capture as a crutch, but instead a basis on which they can create a form of realistic fantasy. Therefore, the cast of Final Fantasy VII is rendered in such a way that they look like they could exist within the real world, but are still able to perform fantastic feats that make the action scenes impressive. A year after the film's release, the team teased a director's cut of Advent Children that would release on Bluray in 2007. In actuality, their dedication to quality meant that it wouldn't release until 2009 and featured roughly a thousand redone scenes and 25 minutes of new content.

As of 2008, Kazuyuki Ikumori was the chief creative director and general manager of the Visual Works subsidiary and was responsible for both directing his own works, as well as managing the overwhelming amount of new projects that were also now coming in from Square Enix's new subsidiaries. In 2005, Square Enix had acquired arcade game manufacturer Taito, and in 2009, had acquired British publisher Eidos (now Square Enix Europe). These new acquisitions have led to Visual Works taking a large role in the promotion and development of outside projects like Hitman: Absolution, Tomb Raider, and Taito's popular Gunslinger Stratos arcade games.

It didn't take long for Visual Works to become one of the most important parts of the Square Enix brand. Within the corporate structure, Visual Works is entirely independent from the development teams and has their own separate workflow. Part of the reason for this is that the level of detail on Visual Works models are usually too high to work in-engine, but also because it's often the case that the game might not have even started development while these cutscenes and trailers are being produced.

It's here that the artists at the Studio Need to get creative, since whilst some developers will have the character designs drawn out with multiple angles and reference material, others can be a lot less clear and might only provide a couple of simple sketches. For instance, during a presentation at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, Kazuyuki Ikumori mentioned that they were once asked to create a 3D poster of a 2D design by Tetsuya Nomura for Final Fantasy Type-0 with no other reference materials.

The detailed 3D models that Visual Works creates will almost always be a part of the game's promotional materials. For instance, the Lightning models on the cover of the three Final Fantasy XIII titles were all created by Visual Works based on illustrations by Tetsuya Nomura. At the same time, although the developers aren't able to use the detailed models, Visual Works will still provide the 3D rigs (the bones that help a character move) for use in the final game.

Since the games are often still in development, Visual Works is also often loaded with the responsibility of creating the magic system for a huge amount of games, something Ikumori described as a “headache”. He would often approach developers asking for more information, but they'd all too often just say, “Just make something that looks cool”. In some ways, it might be risky to leave these important aspects of a game to another animation studio, but asking Visual Works to deal with creative direction often results in a more impressive final product.

One such example was the “End of an Era” trailer for Final Fantasy XIV, which signed the end of 1.0 and the beginning of the historic A Realm Reborn reboot. Whilst director Naoki Yoshida worked with Visual Works on the story and events of the trailer, some visual effects were developed by the Visual Works team themselves. One instance that Ikumori showcased at USC is the part where Bahamut's attacks clash with Louisoix's barrier. As well as the CG elements, that shot involved 37 different VFX layers, each with a different magical effect. The trailer was hugely popular among FFXIV fans and now has over 5.6 million views on YouTube. Since then, whenever the team is planning an expansion, the first thing they do is contact Visual Works. The trailer for the Shadowbringers expansion has 5.5 million views across multiple uploads.

2016 - Closing the Gap

Visual Works has been a major part of many works, particularly the Final Fantasy XIII games, which employed several lengthy pre-rendered cutscenes to showcase its world and action. The studio's philosophy allows them to adapt to the heightened reality of many Square Enix projects and this is even evident from the way they treat fabric animation. Whilst it would be perfectly usual to create global wind effects that scatter clothes and hair realistically, part of the fantasy of Final Fantasy XIII is that Lightning's bangs continue to cover her forehead regardless of how much her cape flaps in the wind.

However, whilst Visual Works’ talents in pre-rendered cutscenes have been integral to the storytelling ability of many titles, the tech has been catching up on them. Back in the days of Final Fantasy VII, cutscenes were able to depict story events with far more detail than the game itself could ever imagine achieving. Part of Visual Works’ job during the 2000s involved creating opening movies for re-releases of classic Final Fantasy games, giving fans a vivid impression of how these Final Fantasy legends would look today. But the gap between gameplay and films has been getting smaller, leading Final Fantasy XV to feature very little of Visual Works’ pre-rendered cutscene work.

Instead, Luminous Studio was able to achieve a lot of their desired effects in real-time, meaning that several moments that would normally be pre-rendered videos inserted into the game were now playable. The Leviathan fight in particular was brought up by Tetsuya Nomura as an example of something that would normally be pre-rendered. Another advantage is that the game could comfortably feature character customisation and the real-time cutscenes would be able to reflect your choices, no matter how ridiculous.

Instead of being heavily involved in Final Fantasy XV, Visual Works were instead able to create an entire prequel film, titled Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV with realistic facial animations and huge fantasy setpieces. But according to a “Future of Final Fantasy” presentation at NVIDIA GTC, it might not be too farfetched to suggest that the level of detail in Kingsglaive could be achieved in real-time in the not-too-distant future.

70% of Visual Works’ staff are artists and the 30% of engineers work to help them create their work efficiently. When an animator heads downstairs to do some motion capture work, the “Quickflow” system that they created means that the motion capture data is immediately uploaded to the network and available for the animator to work with. This would have been particularly useful for Final Fantasy XV, since Visual Works was responsible for creating the motion capture for many real-time animations, including conversations that happen in the Regalia.

It's this versatility and research that keeps the studio relevant today. In an interview with CGWorld.jp, Ikumori stated that it was important that they are able to create an environment in which their staff will be able to grow as both engineers and artists equally. One challenge that the team had to face recently was recreating iconic Disney scenes in Kingdom Hearts III. While the development team were able to recreate some scenes in real-time like moments from Tangled, it took Visual Works’ artists to create the famous “Let it Go” scene from Frozen, as well as the fight between Jack Sparrow and Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.

While Square Enix was provided with reference material for these sequences, all of the assets in these cutscenes are entirely original. Movie Assistant Director Yuki Akama recalled rewatching the “Let it Go” scene so many times that they'd put the whole choreography to memory. Whilst some of the work in recreating these scenes was trying to match the work of Disney animators, the only way they were able to create something of an equal quality was by studying the meaning of each of the details within the scene and the intentions of the animators.

2020 - Dawn of the Future

During the turn of the new millennium, Square Pictures poured millions of dollars into pursuing photorealism at a time when the technology just wasn't prepared for it. However, now that we live in a time where Disney is able to create a version of The Lion King with realistic hand-animated lions, Kazuyuki Ikumori has steered the studio towards a focus on art and design in cutscenes and film, rather than trying to portray a strict definition of reality.

“I see CG as a balance between technology and art.” he told students. “If I just did simulations for everything, it would just end up being photorealistic with nothing more to it.”

As someone who lived through Square's first attempts at 3D, watched the company struggle through the failure of The Spirits Within and continues to direct several projects each year, Ikumori's perspective is one that will ensure that Visual Works animation continues to surprise fans.

Their next work will have the team return to their roots with Final Fantasy VII Remake. Visual Works were the first to be involved in this new project, having created the 2015 announcement trailer that now has over 15 million views on YouTube and their cutscene work is present within the game's latest trailers.

Although gamers are familiar with their work, their name and history is only familiar to those who stick around to read the credits of the games they worked on. In fact, even though they're the world's most prominent creators of video game cutscenes, they only have 5000 followers on Twitter. We're living in a time where the distance between developers and fans is getting smaller, but opportunities for positive connections are still rare. It's worth keeping up to date with their independent activities to both learn from their experiences and celebrate in their ability to keep us on the edge of our seats with their action choreography, or make us tear up with months worth of character animation work.

You can follow Visual Works for behind-the-scenes material on Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. Thanks to the journalists and translators who have made information on Square Enix creators more available.

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