Publishers have 30 seconds to grab your attention. 30 seconds to convince you to be excited for a game that you know nothing about. Some game trailers achieve this feat, while others flounder with poorly put together gameplay clips and drab visuals. Dead Island nailed it. Within 24 hours of its release, the heart-wrenching trailer gathered 1 million views on YouTube and set the internet aflame. More importantly, it gathered excitement for a game that had practically been vaporware since 2007.
But who is responsible for the trailer’s success? The answer is Axis Animation, a studio based in Scotland that has plenty of experience in creating superb game trailers. We got in touch with the creative minds of both Deep Silver and Axis. They were happy to speak to us about the development behind the project. Read on for the full interview.
G4: How closely did Deep Silver and Axis work together? Was Axis given a script or storyboard beforehand?
Stu Aitken, Director (SA): Originally, Deep Silver had sent us an initial brief that included a small script they had developed. From there, we built upon the ideas that Deep Silver brought to the table. There was one script that I had written that was more violent and gory than what was shown, but we decided that it was a bit too linear. At one point the action was taking place in the lobby/ kid’s area downstairs.
From there we decided the action would be best suited in the actual hotel room; therefore, we decided on starting the scene with the daughter outside of the hotel. Both sides also discussed the level of violence. We didn’t want to go completely over-the-top and be grotesque.
Malte Wagener, Deep Silver Global Business Development Director (MW): Of course zombies are firmly connected to grotesque violence, but we didn’t want the violence to be the focus of the entire trailer. The decision to tell the tale in a reverse narration actually evolved from that concern. We wanted the story to have room to develop… that was something that the Axis team understood very well—the level of violence we envisioned.
G4: Why focus the trailer on a family and their child?
SA: You have a little over two minutes to tell a story and within that time we wanted the audience to develop a strong emotional connection to the characters. This was the key goal for the trailer. This isn’t a bunch of stereotypical game superheroes that you’re watching. These are real people. The audience could very easily put themselves into their position…in order to convey that quickly, we focused on the strong relationship between a parent and their child.
This isn’t just happening to you; this is happening to your family. We wanted the audience to connect with those emotions and empathize with the characters. Considering that the child is the most vulnerable part of that equation, it made sense to have these events center around her. The original script I wrote actually focused more on the mother; the daughter was regulated to a side character.
The reason we revised and focused on the daughter was because she is the one who carries our sympathy and empathy the most. Also, the fact that she starts as the weakest member of the family and ends up attacking them in the end is an interesting inversion you couldn’t achieve with other characters.
Anton Borkel, Deep Silver Cinematic Director (AB): It also shows what an evil force this zombie threat is. It does not simply stop at a helpless child…even this small girl is vulnerable to this group of zombies.
G4: In a majority of zombie fiction and film the survivors have at least one gun or projectile weapon. Was there any discussion of including weapons in the trailer?
MW: (laughter) There was a lot of discussion about including a weapon, and that lead to about three weeks of just debating if they should use guns etc. Stu was actually very firm in regards to them not having guns.
SA: If these people were real tourists on an island, where would they get a gun from? That was the fundamental problem. Of course, we could have added one gun, but we would never have gotten beyond the explanation of how they came across them. The end product is much stronger because it lacks the guns. The trailer is about the vulnerability of the family. The audience simply couldn’t feel that if the family has weapons.
MW: We also wanted to convey what the game stood for. We didn’t want to include machine guns and other weapons because the game is not a shooter; it’s not like Left 4 Dead.
G4: Did any outside influences play into making this trailer?
SA: The “zombie canon” was created by the film industry. We had conversations on whether the zombies should feel more like George Romero’s Undead or the zombies featured in 28 Days Later. As for the trailer itself though, we didn’t really pull any influences from other zombie films. Sure, there may be similarities in certain scenes, but nothing that was deliberately placed. There were some influences from other pieces of media that affected how I thought about approaching the trailer.
A particular commercial by Philips, entitled Carousel, followed a bank robbery frozen in time. It’s a great example of a commercial being a piece of artwork that stood on its own two feet. We wanted our piece to have a similar feeling, carrying a different editing structure than your typical action film. We wanted the audience to experience the scene in a completely different way.
ST: We were getting great internal feedback within the Axis offices. Some of the guys not working on the project commented on the trailer. One of our lead artists actually told me that he was really happy that we had done a piece with more inherent value than the other throw-away trailers we’re used to seeing. That said, I was totally taken aback by how many people were commenting on it and pulling it apart in such a short period of time. This was a really risky project for a game trailer, and I think those risks paid off.
MW: To be honest with you, we never really expected a response of this magnitude. The trailer has been covered in Forbes, L.A. Times, etc. This type of reaction is just not typical for a game trailer.
G4: Will we be seeing more of Axis’ work in upcoming Dead Island media?
MW: It has a lot to do with our communication strategy for Dead Island. There will definitely be more game trailers. Can you expect every game trailer to come from Axis and be CGI? That is very unlikely, simply because it wouldn’t be that good for the game. I believe CGI is a great way to deliver a story, but it’s unable to sell a game to real gamers.
This trailer isn’t suppose to do that; this trailer is suppose to give players an idea of what we want to achieve in the game in terms of atmosphere, intensity, and especially, the fact that it’s up close and personal. Personally, I think that the trailer conveyed that well. If there is another CGI trailer, the chances of Axis developing it are very high.