We sat down for a chat with our Founder and Director Stu Aitken to discuss his impressive career, favourite projects, and the future of Axis' IP.
What attracted you to working in the animation and VFX industries?
From a young age I wanted to pursue a career in art. I originally wanted to be an illustrator and I did a lot of drawing and painting at school, but I was also reasonably academic. The other factor was my dad who was an electronics engineer and he’d bring computers home, so I’d always dabbled with those as well.
I ended up doing a design degree at Glasgow school of Art, but although I learned a lot there it was clear from fairly early on it wasn’t what I really wanted to take up as a career. Around that time software like 3D Studio started to appear that would run on a normal desktop computer, so I started playing around with that at home. I felt I gravitated towards 3D CG because it mixed techy stuff with the art side. I felt ‘at home’ there. It allowed me to create images which were more along the lines of my original ambitions - fantastical images detached from the need to conform to actual reality!
What video games are you playing at the moment?
If I’m working on anything new I haven’t played before then I’ll pick it up and play it. A lot of games I’ve played because of that, like Halo and Destiny. Dark souls I also picked up recently - it was very much a classic that I’d missed when it was originally released that I always wanted to experience. I also like slower paced games. I was a big fan of Myst, one of the first graphically orientated adventure games, and especially its sequel Riven. The visual world building in those games really captured my imagination. There’s a game that came out fairly recently called The Witness which was, at the risk of sounding pretentious, an architectural deconstruction of Myst in a modern way. These days games tend to be hugely “open world” and can take up a lot of time, so generally every year I’ll pick up two or three games - ones that I feel stand out.
What’s the most satisfying project that you’ve worked on at Axis?
The most satisfying project for me was the year and a half I spent doing Spartan Ops for Halo 4, because it was the biggest job we’d ever done as a studio at that point, almost 60 minutes of content. It wasn’t part of the main single player experience, it was integral to a follow on co-op mode they brought in gradually, that was delivered almost like an episodic TV series. We did 5 minute episodes, and with each episode you could unpack a new part of the game. It was a really interesting concept, like an ultra condensed TV series, with each episode more like a short film than normal game ‘cutscenes’.343 Industries gave us a large amount of trust and creative freedom on that.
Axis works on a lot of short projects like game trailers - what are the most important elements of condensed story telling?
It has to be something that captures the audience's attention and keeps it, and that’s quite tricky to do in a very short time span. We recently did the Magic The Gathering: Throne of Eldraine trailer which is a great example. The stars aligned on that project and the play on classic adventure movies using gingerbread heroes gave us a great ‘in’ to hook the viewer. If you want to create an immediate empathic reaction setting up some horrible situation between a parent and a child always works! That hits a primary artery pretty quickly. You don’t have 20 minutes to get people to care about the characters, so often you're looking for some short circuited way to get people to invest. I also think that treating characters with some respect, being faithful to the portrayal, trying to land on something that feels emotionally genuine is important to capturing the audience's attention and keeping it.
What about the future of Axis are you most excited about?
I’m really genuinely excited about the advances in realtime rendering over the last few years especially. There’s a lot of compelling things about realtime, you can assemble a scene and press play and it will run in front of you just how it’s going to look. Whereas with the normal process of making CG, almost every step involves some interminable weight to see the results of what you’ve done, particularly rendering. Tweaking and getting feedback becomes a slow process. There’s a wonderful freedom in realtime in allowing you see what you’re doing in a very ‘live’ sense.
Also, developing our own content and longer form content is exciting as well. We’ve been a service company for 20 years, doing other people’s projects, so to start doing our projects would be a big step. It is going to make the studio find its personality, because when you start doing your own projects it quickly defines who you are. Look at Pixar, once they made Toy Story that’s kind of who they were. So there’s an interesting question about when we make our first projects - who are we going to be?