Interview:Nintendo Power December 2005

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Part VII of Nintendo Power's series of interviews with the development team of Twilight Princess. This seventh one is with Takumi Kawagoe, the man responsible for the cut-scenes and trailers of Twilight Princess.

(NP:)An Honest Perspective on Hyrule
Yakumi Kawagoe has a firm answer to one of the most hotly debated topics in video games: Did that stunningly beautiful game preview trailer you just saw reflect the actual game? When Kawagoe has anything to say about it – and, as Nintendo's main man behind preview trailers, he usually does – what you see is what you'll be playing. Which is fantastic news for Zelda fans who've replayed his E3 game trailer 500 times, searching for clues about the Nintendo Gamecube title. While many Twilight Princess details remain shrouded in secrecy, the trailer offers a perspective on the brutal action and dark side of Link's upcoming quest. And Kawagoe knows a thing or two about perspective – which you'll find out as he reveals the way he's changed the way you look at gaming. And how he's gone over to the dark side himself on occasion.

The Truth in Trailers

Take a look at that E3 Twilight Princess trailer one more time. Notice the extreme differences between the trailer images that show lively village life and the dead hopelessness of the Twilight Realm? I focused my full attention on making that difference as sharp as I could. Because that's the nature of the game you'll be playing. And notice that we dwelled – at just the perfect moment – on the gloomy image of Princess Zelda? Her dark melancholy is just as essential to the game experience. Personally, I hope that Zelda will liven up and regain her cheer by the end of the game, but I suspect that that may not be in Hyrule's destiny this time around. Though I can't expose any more truths beyond what I brought to light (and dark) in the trailer, I can say that we've been adding more rich expressiveness to Link's face than what you saw during E3. Because there's a lot to react to in Twilight Princess – and I'll have to stop myself right there.

Instead, let me talk about the way I create trailers and cut-scenes for Nintendo. I've got a strong philosophy that's rooted in not discarding the gameplay footage, as so many trailers and cut-scenes do. Above all, I refuse to eliminate the feeling that the player is controlling the action. This way, the viewer will be drawn in like a gamer, not just a passive moviegoer. This philosophy has been my number-one priority ever since Ocarina of Time. If we design movies only in terms of cinematic experience, they enter the realm occupied by the Star Wars or the Lord of the Rings series, and that isn't comparing apples to apples, so to speak. Interactivity is the game industry's biggest advantage, and I believe in playing that up with potent images based on gameplay. There's a trend that some games are bringing film directors into the creative mix – a mistake, in my opinion. From a film director's point of view, game movies may not live up to their silver-screen standards, but I like to probe deeper then the cinematic surface. Exactly what role does a movie have in a game? That's what I ask myself every time I design my creative plan for a project. And in Twilight Princess, we're probing even deeper, considering many new ideas about how to involve the player even more actively in the movies.

Lights… Camera… Action!

Let me probe even deeper yet into my own past with Nintendo. When I started my Nintendo career in 1989, it was just before the Super NES opened a new universe of thinking about game design in Japan. I did a little programming on Pilot Wings at first, then worked on our internal course-editing program for Kirby's Dream Course. But soon after that, I was put on a highly ambitious project: Star Fox 2. I was working on player and camera control, which carried the concept much further then the earlier Super NES game. It was a 360-degree 3-D shooter with battle-sim-like-elements. You could also morph your flying fighter into a mech that could touch down to jump, climb and navigate the landscape extensively. In order to give the player comfortable play control over such a free-roaming environment, we knew that we had to develop a breakthrough camera system.

In those days, there hadn't been any 3-D games that had a camera that would allow the player to get a great sense of action and movement. Most developers had simply stuck the camera onto the character's head. To better feel character action, I detached the camera and has it chase the character instead. In a way, this technique would convey the more-exciting action of a 2-D Super Mario Bros game to a 3-D environment. As a second project on Star Fox 2, I also worked on many of it's cut-scenes. I hadn't yet had my Ocarina of Time Awakening, and I created the animations with programming rather than gameplay. The development team liked my work, which started me down a path that led to my current work of supervising demo movies and cut-scenes. Unfortunately, Star Fox 2 was a little ahead of it's time and never released, but the project was a major turning point for my career and game philosophy, and I still have very warm thoughts about the title.

Mr. Miyamoto then asked me to think about how the camera control should work in Super Mario 64. Now that was a daunting task – applying what I'd learned from a game like Star Fox 2 to Mario's motions and the complex levels in the huge N64 project. But Miyamoto trusted to my experience and feelings about camera perspectives, and he turned me loose to explore my ideas. And it turned out that gamers really liked the camera control… to the point that it became a sort of industry standard. I was pretty happy that it was that well-received. During Ocarina of Time, I continued to supervise camera control, another incredible project, since Link moves so differently from how Mario does.

As the Ocarina camera system became finalized, I began to devote my energy to making some of the cut-scenes and demo movies for the title – about half of those finally used – starting with storyboards and then creating the final versions. It was the first time that I'd guided the process all the way through from inception to completion, which gave me key experience for the work that I do today at Nintendo.

The Sith Sense

When I was in the sixth grade, the first Star Wars movie was released in Japan, and it had a profound influence on me. In retrospect, it wasn't that I was seeing things that I'd never seen before. It was because Star Wars revealed to me what could be seen through filmmaking. Yes, it was a major visual experience, but it also opened the door to my fascination with technical aspects of creating engaging images, and I consumed everything that I could about special effects, from creation of creatures to optical composition and beyond.

Years ago, I thought that I'd want a job in films, especially working on CGI animation. But the Japanese movie industry was getting smaller then and there weren't many careers in filmmaking. But game development - that was seeing explosive growth, technically and artistically. I knew that gamemaking was the place for me, so when I landed a job interview with Nintendo, I took a lot of my creative work with me. Luckily, I got hired. Though I wanted a designer position, that wasn't in the cards, at least to start with. But several projects later, I'd found a much more creative role within the company. I feel very fortunate to have found a great place in the game industry.

But you never know what life will show you, so let's go back to Star Wars. To the fourth flick, Episode 1, where I had an unusual episode of my own! Starting with that movie, I've always flown to Los Angeles for the opening of every Star Wars movie. I'm still a fan, obviously, and I wanted to take part in the enthusiasm and celebration in the US. Truth be told, by the time I hit opening day of a Star Wars movie, I'd soaked up so much information and anticipated it so much that I was almost like a zombie during the movie. But that's a Star Wars fan for you!

Actually, I'm more of a superfan. Try this story on for size: When Episode I was released in Japan, there was a popular TV Quiz show that would give a contestant one million yen if you answered a 100 Star Wars questions consecutively. Since I'm a member of one of the Star Wars fan clubs in Japan, and the chairman of that club was connected to the TV show somehow, and Nintendo was a sponsor of the show since it was about to release an N64 game tied to the movie, I got a shot at winning the prize. Did I win? No, I failed in the 50th question, but not for the reason you'd think. I wore my Darth Vader suit and mask; that's why. I had to sit in that outfit – with it's well-sealed Vader Mask – for five hours during the show's production, and the eyeport glass fogged up terrible if I breathed to much. But, of course, oxygen is key. And I almost felt like I was in a little danger. Ironic, given that Darth Vader's suit is supposed to be life support. So my eyeports fogged up and I couldn't see questions. I learned a lot about perspective that day! But seriously, Star Wars has taught me much about story and imagery, plus it's influence on the movie industry, from it's music and film techniques, even merchandising. Now that the movie episodes are completed, I can't wait to see the upcoming Star Wars-related TV series that George Lucas has promised fans.

A Mind in Motion

As much as I insist that game demos and cut-scenes must be based on gameplay, you can still learn a lot of creative techniques from films. Fortunately, watching movies is my big hobby. As far as movies go, I think that quality is much better than quantity. I'll go see the same movie many times. And when I watch them at home, I'll rewind me favorite scenes many times, taking in everything that I can about how the scene works. Sometimes I'll even put those elements in my "creativity drawer," and use them for inspiration on game projects. Here's a good example: When I had to create a demo of Majora's Mask, a game that had a very strange atmosphere, my mind found some unusual inspiration, Woody Allen's movie Husbands and Wives. In it, there's an eccentrically edited scene in which in which actor Liam Neeson is getting psychotherapy, and Allen has the camera hop around Neeson without a break in conversation, which creates the strangest impression! So when I created the Majora's Mask demo showing the Mask Seller, I used a similar idea to capture the spirit of that very bizarre character. Currently, the movie Mind Game, directed by Masaaki Yuasa, is my fave movie. Unlike most animated movies in Japan, which are crafted with a delicate sensibility, Mind Game portrays it's world in a strange, deconstructed way. It S beautiful and throws the viewer off-balance with potent impact. Maybe if there's another Majora-like project in my future, based on a bizarre world, perhaps I can reopen my creative drawer and revisit Mind Game for fresh insights.

Around the time that we were developing Super Mario Sunshine, Nintendo decided to create a team specifically devoted to movie creation, and that's where I work today. The team oversees the quality of all movies in Nintendo games. Another responsibility for this team is the production of motion-capture data for game development – which has strongly come into play for Twilight Princess like never before in a Zelda game. Though our team is also focused on the creative work for other titles, I'd have to say that 50%, maybe 60%, of our time is going into Twilight Princess right now. With the kind of talent that we've got on our team, I'm continually impressed by the work I see being done every day. And because our creations directly use game data, it's critical to maintain great communication with all of the various development teams. Since the Twilight Princess development team is so enormous, even though it sometimes seems like the long-time Zelda developers on the team have a telepathic connection! But with so many people involved, communications and scheduling are proving essential for keeping everyone on the same page.

I still have a little time to dream about other things: Drawing has been one of my major interests since I was young, and now I love to draw with my own kids. I sometimes wonder if it might be possible to develop an animated-movie version of the Super NES classic Mario Paint, but one that would let people create animated art in a very simple, casual way. I'll keep dreaming. But for now I need to devote myself entirely to Twilight Princess. You wouldn't believe how serious some people can get when they think about working on a project that aspires to be greater than even a hallmark like Ocarina of Time! But even though E3 is now a half year behind us, the impact that the game and trailer had on crowds stays high in our minds. And personally, though some might thing that making Twilight Princess stay true to the Zelda series and pushing the game to live up to fan expectations are two different things, I believe that they're one and the same. I can't say more, but believe me when I say that Twilight Princess sees it's new ideas through a very Legend of Zelda perspective.