Chicken Run. The Nightmare Before Christmas. Fantastic Mr. Fox. Celebrity Deathmatch. These stop-motion creations all come to mind as I watch the trailer for Harold Halibut, with its moving miniatures and richly decorated sets.
But Harold Halibut is no movie. Somehow, its visual splendor–full of figures moved millimeters at a time and photographed over and over again–is a fully interactive video game, rendered in real time. And it’s being developed on a shoestring budget by a team of German creatives called Slow Bros., working on a loan from the German government, a grant, and hopefully, funds from a new Kickstarter campaign.
In the game, you play Harold. He’s a young janitor, trapped in a spaceship that crashed beneath the surface of an oceanic planet–sometime in the 1970s. You must navigate Harold through this somewhat fantastical, somewhat seedy world, with the hopes of getting the ship up and running again.
“We want the player to be mesmerized, mostly, to be drawn into this weird world,” says the game’s art director Ole Tillmann, of its fresh, handmade style. “It’s the same thing as vinyl over mp3s, or letters over email. It’s the digital-analog debate, basically, but there’s something about being able to control what feels like stop-motion animation very directly a very particular sensation about it that, sadly, can’t be translated through videos.”
In truth, the three original designers who began Harold Halibut planned to make a stop-motion game for a less intentional reason: They didn’t have skills to create 3D computer graphics. So instead, they planned to build models and photograph them in front of green screens, then import these short bursts of animation into a game. Because for as laborious as stop-motion animation may be, it’s not particularly expensive to produce. You set up a model once with an off-the-shelf SLR camera and lights. And then you simply photograph something again, and again, and again.
“It turned out to be too stiff, not interactive enough,” Tillmann says of the approach. Using pre-shot stop-motion animations limited how far and how flexibly a player could move the character across a level. The character was, in essence, something akin to an old-fashioned, mechanical penny bank. You could activate actions, but you couldn’t truly control them.
So the team tried something else to create the stop-motion look that they’d now fallen in love with. They took their same models and 3D-scanned them into the computer. Then they set up a motion tracking rig–an industry standard tool in game design today–to record the movements of humans doing all sorts of actions. Those human movements were fit to the 3D models, allowing a vast array of actions.
It’s actually an approach that many video games use, to some extent. Harold Halibut mixes photo-real 3D scans with motion capture movements, and then Tillmann roughs up the fluid animations with the lower frame rates and stiffer articulations, to make the movements choppy so they feel like imperfect stop-motion animation. “That was a pretty big decision,” says Tillmann about the move from true stop motion to this simulated style. “We had a big argument because there’s something special about stop motion animation in itself.” But the new technique prevailed. And it looks indistinguishable from stop motion by my account; every image you see in this post is actually from the scan and motion capture technique.
“There are senior stop-motion animators coming to us like, ‘Whoa, this is crazy! how are you doing this,'” says Tillmann. “And it’s like, it’s not stop motion.” But that’s not to say that the Harold Halibut method couldn’t be used for traditional film. In fact, Slow Bros. plans to use the same techniques to generate short films and music videos.
It’s something that makes me feel a bit guilty, as I prod Tillmann to share the techniques behind the magic. “It’s a tough spot to be in,” Tillmann admits of their semi-proprietary techniques. “You’re forced to be really open and honest about production as an indie developer, otherwise you’re not going to get your foot in the door anywhere. But of course, you’re kind of just waiting for people to hop onto it.”
In the meantime, Tillman spends his days in a dark basement, shaping 30 characters and countless set pieces by hand. He’s given up a lucrative freelance illustration career to work on the skeleton crew to make this game possible. A game, it should be added, that isn’t primed for easy commercial success, as a Call of Duty-style violent shooter, or a profit-focused, microtransaction-driven iPhone app might be.
“Some of us, including me, have already worked in bigger companies. I don’t know. This is a lot more gratifying, even if we don’t make that much money,” says Tillman. “It’s important to me to realize my own ideas, basically, together with other people. And to not have to rely on making crazy App Store candy flipping gamery.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this article claimed Harold Halibut was the first stop motion video game, but as many have pointed out, Neverhood was in 1996. We regret the error.