Signs Of Life logo sting - (After Effects)


Signs Of Life

This was a big project for me. I worked on it for about 18 months, all told. It's an online interactive drama for BBC/Endemol and is online here. I did a lot of concept art, storyboarding, and previz, made game assets, did some post-production effects work... loads of stuff. I even did the animated logo for the TV & web spots.

There was a team of very talented people working on this, but since this is my website, I'm only really highlighting my own part in it. It was a big project and even here, showing only my work, I'm being selective. There's a lot of art that I probably won't show. You'll get the idea, though.

My first real role on Signs Of Life was previsualizing many of the games and some areas of the drama. Typically this would involve sketches, concept paintings, and storyboards showing the transitions between the dramatic and interactve sections of the game. In some cases, this would be carried further into animated previz, which was useful not only for the video crew, but also as placeholder video material for the programmers to start development on the interactive sequences. Often, once the final footage had been delivered by the drama team, I would have to edit or treat it in some way to make it useable in the interactives.

The video sequence below illustrates this with the example of an interactive section that featured two creepy twins spinning on a roundabout.

Signs Of Life, Twins sequence, previz to final footage - (After Effects, Photoshop)


Concept Art & Previz

The very first thing I started work on was the ancient stone circle that was the mystical centrepiece of the story, and the setting for the climax. It was clear from early script meetings that the look and configuration of the set hadn't been entirely decided, so I thought I'd give it a bash. It was my first day, and I hadn't been given anything specific to do, so I thought why not. I think this kind of set the tone for my role on the production. I ended up doing a lot of concepts for a lot of different things. It was quite gratifying to be allowed to have such input on the look of the show.

Stone Circle set concept art

Signs Of Life, Stone circle set concept art - (Photoshop)


Stone circle pulse effects concept

Signs Of Life, Stone circle pulse concept art - (Photoshop)


Stone circle plans & concept art

Signs Of Life, Stone circle plans & concept art (detail) - (Photoshop)


There were two interactives that required CG work. This was to be completed by Fluid Pictures, who were handling the VFX for the drama too. For my part, I had to work with the interactive team, the creative director and producer, to establish a look and feel for the interactives. This was done using Photoshop paintings, storyboards, and 3D animatics.

Poison Chase sequence concept art

Signs Of Life, Poison Chase sequence concept art - (Photoshop)


'Twins on Roundabout' concept art

Signs Of Life, 'Twins on Roundabout' concept art - (Photoshop)


woodshed concept art

Signs Of Life, 'Wake Up Daisy' concept art - (Photoshop)


'Finding Hacksaw' concept art

Signs Of Life, 'Finding Hacksaw' concept art - (Photoshop)


The final interactive 'Turn Back Time' went through a lot of looks and gameplay styles. In the end, we went for a an animated video backdrop, a clip from which can be found further down the page.

'Turn Back Time' concept art

Signs Of Life, 'Turn Back Time' concept art - (Photoshop)


'Turn Back Time' concept art

Signs Of Life, 'Turn Back Time' concept art - (Photoshop)


'Turn Back Time' concept art

Signs Of Life, 'Turn Back Time' concept art - (Photoshop)


Storyboards & Guides

It was very important to the overall concept of Signs Of Life that the interactive sequences integrated smoothly with the drama. For this reason it was important that both production departments understood each other's ideas. Effectively this meant producing a shooting guide for each of the interactives (I think I made around 27 in all). They varied in specifics, but would generally include a synopsis of the preceding and sucessive scenes, a synopsis of the interactive, a checklist of stills and video photography required from the production, storyboards, concepts art, diagrams... loads of stuff.

I also sat down with the Director of the drama and the VFX company to storyboard the entire end sequence, which was a lot of fun.

Storyboard 1 Storyboard 2

Signs Of Life, 'Shed sequence' storyboards - (Photoshop)


The two interactives featuring Fluid Pictures' CG work required slightly more detail. I supplied not only a standard pack, but also several gameplay diagrams and some 3D animatics. We had used these animatics previosuly to figure out the best way technically to integrate the video backgrounds into the gameplay. By allowing the programmers to play around with various previz video clips, we could determine exactly what speed, dimensions etc of video Fluid would have to deliver.

'Poison Chase' animation guide

Signs Of Life, 'Poison Chase' animation guide (excerpt)


Signs Of Life, 'Daisy's Trip'sprite tests - (Lightwave 3D )


Signs Of Life, Daisy's Trip, previz to final render - (After Effects, Photoshop. Final render courtesy of Fluid Pictures)



Game Assets

There was a photographer on set to take shots for us to use as background plates for the interactives. Because a lot of the interactives played out across wide, scrollable areas, there was a lot of Photoshop image-stitching involved to make one large seamless plate from multiple photographs.

The two shed sets below for example don't look like much, but both are composites of at least 6 or seven photographs. The shed set was very small, so getting it all in one lens was very difficult. Instead the photographer took several shots at different angles and exposures and I merged them into one. If you look, you can see the changes in perspective towards the edges of the images.

The bottom pic has roof holes and shafts of light added. They're not particularly photorealistic, but they had to match the interactive light shafts we were going to add in Flash.

This kind of (hopefully) invisible work isn't much to look at to the casual browser, but I thought I'd put them in as indicative of the kind of jobs you have to do.

'Finding Hacksaw' shed background composite

Signs Of Life, 'Finding Hacksaw' shed background composite

'Wake up Daisy' shed background composite

Signs Of Life, 'Wake up Daisy' shed background composite


These three plates were more like matte painting than basic stitching. We had a crane for a very short window of time and the photographer went uyp and took some shots, but they were very fragmented and wildly differing in perspective. It was hard to stitch anything realistic looking out of the raw photos. My job then, was to go clone-tool crazy on its ass and try and paint something up out all the tiny little pieces. This was made more difficult by the fact that you could see this area at ground level in the drama sections, so it had to look reasonably consistent for continuity's sake.

On top of that, we needed a second, frosty version of the same fabricated background for a later interactive. This second interactive came later in the story, and in the dramatic sections shot, the weather had changed. I had to use all manner of photoshop jiggery-pokery to quickly and flexibly put frost on the ground and change the overall hue pf the shot.

On top of THAT, there was a video plate of two characters walking around the stone circle. I had to make sure that that video could a) play in an endless loop, and b) superimpose seamlessly over the top of the background plates (both regular and frosty). I think we got away with it...

Oh, and then there was the fact that these games were about using some kind of x-ray ground survey scanner to find hidden artefacts underground, so I had to make a couple of x-ray plates too.

'Locating the 1st Sigil' background plate

Signs Of Life, 'Locating the 1st Sigil' background plate


'Locating the 2nd Sigil' background plate

Signs Of Life, 'Locating the 2nd Sigil' background plate


'Locating the 2nd Sigil'underground plate

Signs Of Life, 'Locating the 2nd Sigil'underground plate


There was much discussion of how much help the player would be given during the interactives, and how best to display such instructions. We wanted to keep the feelings of having a GUI of any kind as minimal as possible, and keep the sense of immersion as much as we could. I had the idea of doing the instructions as 'found items' from within the story. Clues would be hidden in book pages and diaries, and when you hit 'Help' they'd come up. Note the (ahem) subtle use of bold lettering to make the key advice stand out. Ultimately, the idea wasn't used and we went for a more conventional instruction screen. I enjoyed writing these ridiculous and antiquated bits of prose, though.

'Max's Mythical Words' help screen

Signs Of Life, 'Max's Mythical Words' help screen


FX & Animation

I did a certain amount of work above and beyond the actual production content for the project. As well as the Flash homepage animation, I did the motion graphics for the broadcast TV spots.

Signs Of Life logo sting - (After Effects)


One of the tricky parts when transitioning between a live action video shoot and an interactive Flash game is the difference in style between the two. The Flash elements were often as 'realistic' as they could be, given performance constraints and the manner in which they were constructed, but in some cases there was a very noticeable difference between the two.

The two videos below are transitions to and from Flash games. The first employs the 'move the camera really fast and cover everything in clouds' technique, and the second uses the old 'move the camera a long way, and go through some increasingly painterly layers of cloud' trick.

Signs Of Life, 'Locating 1st Sigil' game completion sequence- (After Effects, Photoshop, Trapcode Shine)


Signs Of Life, Drama to game transition- (After Effects, Photoshop, Trapcode Shine)


Signs Of Life, 'Turn Back Time', mid-game animation - (After Effects, Photoshop, Trapcode Shine)


There was a game that didn't make the final cut called 'Angelica's Ghost'. In a drugged, hallucinatory state, the lead character Daisy followed the ghostly figure of her boyfriend's dead Mum through the woods. The ghost was trying to tell her something about her death. At the end of the game, the idea was had that the ghost should rush at the camera and scream, and it would all be shocking and terrifying and players would all suffer minor infarctions. Unfortunately the greenscreen footage of the actress screaming was a little static and unenthusiastic. Gamely, I stepped up to the challenge, throwing camera zoom, shake, colour shifts, light effects, rotting skin and a hideous ghostly skull over the top. the game was dropped shortly after. Hope that wasn't a reflection on my work...

Signs Of Life, Angelica's Ghost - (After Effects, Photoshop, Trapcode Shine )


On top of the regular interactives, at the end of each episode Signs Of Life would test your personality. There were colour perception tests, word association, image interpretation etc. The biggest job for me though, was the inkblot test. This required a 3-5 minute animation of carefully abstracted inky shapes, all swirling and blending, in constant motion, but not so constant that you couldn't study the shapes... A lot of masking in After Effects here.

Signs Of Life, Inkblot test - (After Effects, Photoshop )


All text and images © Graham Denney 2011