EVE Spotlight: An interview with Clear Skies creator Ian Chisholm

EVE Spotlight is a biweekly feature in which we interview prominent members of EVE Online's player community or development team. Every two weeks, we'll be shining the spotlight on a player or developer who has a significant impact on EVE to highlight the efforts of EVE's most influential people.

EVE Online is well-known for its community's awesome cinematic productions, and no film is more renowned than the incredible machinima Clear Skies. Directed by Ian Chisholm, Clear Skies seamlessly merges in-game EVE footage with scenes composed using Valve's Source development kit. The films follow the adventures of captain John Rourke and his crew aboard the Minmatar Tempest class battleship Clear Skies. With more luck than sense, the Clear Skies crew continually finds itself in sticky situations but manages to come out on top.

The first Clear Skies film won the award for best long-format film at the 2008 annual Machinima Filmfest, and a second film solidified the series' huge cult following. Clear Skies has even inspired other players like Kyoko Sakoda to produce their own cinematic masterpieces set in the EVE Online universe. The third and probably final film in the Clear Skies series was released earlier this week, absolutely shattering all expectations.

In this massive edition of EVE Spotlight, I interview Clear Skies creator Ian Chisholm to find out all about the production of Clear Skies III.

If you're new to the adventures of captain John Rourke of the Clear Skies, I strongly advise watching the first two films before getting your hands on Ian's latest masterpiece. Although both of the first two films have been uploaded to YouTube, the video quality is significantly better in the original files, which you can download at EVE-Files. While you're waiting for the two-gigabyte third installment to download, check out the film's full trailer, embedded below:


Massively: When you first published Clear Skies I, did you expect it to get the massive positive reception it did, both on the forum and at the 2008 Machinima Filmfest?

Ian Chisholm: Absolutely not! I was expecting about 15 replies to the thread saying it was, at best, "different." I only really did it as a creative outlet and a bit of fun with my friends, so my expectations were quite low. I only entered it for the various expos and festivals after the amazing response from the EVE community. I've said this next thing a lot of times, but it epitomises how much things ran away from me: I wanted 2,500 downloads because at 40 minutes long, that would be 1,500 hours spent watching it. My rough estimation of how long I spent making CS1 was 1,500 hours, so I'd "break even" at that point. We had over 2,500 downloads in 48 hours, and the number of downloads just from EVE-Files itself currently stands at about 100,000.

You've inspired a lot of EVE players to enter the film-making arena over the years. What advice would you have for an aspiring machinima film director?

I'm glad I've inspired them; that's good to know! My advice would be to start small, make a short five- or 10-minute feature because the amount of work involved will be probably 10 times more than you think it will be. And don't dive into recording footage, even though that's what you're really desperate to do -- get your script written and 100% sorted before shooting a single frame. You live and die by the story, dialogue, and characters. No amount of spaceships and explosions can fix a poor script.

After Clear Skies II, you took a long break before deciding to work on the third film. What made you decide to dive back into the shark tank for a third round?

The break wasn't very long, lasting at most three months. I like to push myself when it comes to big projects, which is why I said CS2 would be the last one unless something came along that would let me up my game. There is no point spending two years of your life to do the same thing again. As it happened, I had two things come along that allowed me to up my game. Three, in fact, although the project was already underway when the third one happened.

The first thing happened because the developers at CCP Games are big fans of Clear Skies. They invited me over to Iceland, showed me round the offices, and introduced me to pretty much everyone who works there. Then I sat down with a couple of the guys who are responsible for producing the cool EVE trailers and adverts that you see, and they showed me the Jessica engine. This is a rendering engine that lets you create and control any model in EVE, from asteroids to Titans and everything between.

Jessica has a few limitations, and it's a nightmare to use, but after a crash course in it and signing a raft of Non-Disclosure agreements, I was packed off home with my sweaty mitts on the ability to do whatever I wanted with exterior space shots. I already had plans formulating in my mind, and pretty much all of them made an appearance in CS3. Most of the shots in CS3 are simply impossible to film "live" in the game itself, so this ability was the first major step up. The second thing that let me up my game was the motion capture side of things.

How did you get involved with motion capture?

My friend Ricky Grove, whom I met when entering CS1 into an expo he was hosting, is an LA actor who is heavily into machinima and voice acting/sound design (and I'm very glad he worked with me on CS3 to voice Falon Hausmann). He visited the SigGraph expo back in 2009 and met iPiSoft, which was demoing its markerless motion capture system. One of the company's target markets is the machinima world because it presents a low-cost solution that gives comparatively high-quality results.

The company reps asked Ricky for suggestions of good machinima to watch, and when he mentioned Clear Skies, they remarked on how much they liked it already! Ricky told them that he knew me, and the upshot was iPiSoft getting me a license to its software for free, which was awfully nice of the team there. It was a beta product and so a bit rough to start with, but over the course of about six months, it matured into a very good product. You can see the end results in CS3.

The ability to act out the movements for each character in every shot was a huge leap forward in the acting and onscreen dynamics. The energy it puts across is a massive step up from CS1 and 2, in which I was limited to the models' built-in gestures from Half-Life 2. There were ideas that I couldn't have realised previously, such as the fist fight scene, thus adding to the excitement and production values all around. With all of these new tools, how could I not make a third episode? I had the big leaps up I needed.

What was the third big improvement over the previous two films?

The third major improvement was an extremely fortunate incident. Three friends of mine were at a convention in London based around the show Veronica Mars. Francis Capra was a major part of that series, and he was there doing talks and so forth. At one of the round-table discussions, he mentioned he was trying to break into voice acting and really wanted to work in a machinima production!

He's a major World of Warcraft player and so tried to get into that scene, but no one believed it was actually him and people hurled abuse at him on the forums. He mentioned all this while my three friends were sat around the table with him. They shared a very significant look amongst themselves and said, "Errrr, we have someone you might want to talk to." Several frantic phone calls, emails and text messages later, I was at the convention meeting up with Francis to screen-test him for the part of Ghost. It was unbelievable! I was terrified but I think I held it together!

Clear Skies III seemed to have a lot more production staff than previous films and used some new tech. How did the production process differ from previous films?

I offloaded the lipsynching grind to Sam, who was a lifesaver. I also had Bjorn making pretty much all the new sets, and Iain helped with the problems of getting motion capture data into the HL2 models. Andy made the more complex graphics for screens and ship controls. This was all great as it meant I had more time for other aspects of production. Unfortunately, those other aspects were composing scenes in Jessica, planning, acting, recording, and processing the motion capture. In the end we also accidentally doubled the length of the movie, counterbalancing (and then some) all the time savings I'd made.

Are you planning to produce an outtakes video for Clear Skies III?

Yes! It'll take a while though as I have to motion capture for it, and I'm taking a break for a couple of weeks first. It'll be on the website when it's done, and I'll post up on the Facebook group and the threadnaughts on the EVE forums.

The action scenes in Clear Skies III were incredible. How did you come up with the ideas for them, and how difficult were they to put together?

Once I had access to tools that afforded more control over what was happening onscreen, my imagination went into overdrive. As I was exploring JR's character a lot in this film, I needed to demonstrate his abilities as a pilot. There isn't much to give a sense of speed and motion in space, so I had to move the ship into a place where things were very up close and personal for the station chase scene. It was just going to be the first flip-on-the-side part, but early on in the production I thought it'd be rude not to have a Star Wars-style trench run in there!

With the fighter crash/hanger bay scene, I really wanted to emphasise the destruction that was going on (I'm being as non-specific as I can here to avoid spoilers, so sorry if it sounds vague!). The idea of a fighter crashing into the side of a ship is certainly not a new one, but then following the wreck through into the interior of the ship to see the consequences of that crash was certainly something I'd never seen on screen before, so I really wanted to do that. It ended up being the last shot to be filmed, so I had to wait nearly two years to see it come to fruition!

Having motion capture technology meant I could push the interior action as well, so of course I went for a gunfight scene. It wasn't gratuitous, either, as it directly led to an important plot point and story moment. That was a hoot to perform the motion capture for, and I want people to know that I actually pulled off Charlie's shotgun move. Of course I used a table leg rather than an actual firearm, which makes it a bit less cool but somewhat less dangerous in the studio.

The fist fight was another "well, it'd be rude not to..." moment. Richie and I blocked out all the moves and ran through them at half speed, working out how to get from the door of the set to the final positions without the scene's being too short or too long. We worked on JR having a barroom brawler fighting style and Ghost being a trained and experienced fighter. It was tricky to actually capture, though, as only one person could be on camera at a time when recording. Every move you see in the fight was either me, fighting nothing, or me, reacting to nothing. It turned out incredibly well in the end, but every muscle ached for several days afterward and I pulled some twangy bit in my right arm quite badly from punching thin air!

Do you think CCP should try to release a stripped-down version of the Jessica rendering toolbox? Are there any other tools or assets film-makers would find useful?

I think a cut-down and more friendly version of Jessica would go down a storm in the EVE community. You'd probably end up with a lot of tripe, but you'd also get some amazing short sequences from the many talented EVE film producers out there. However, I know that there is a major problem with that. Jessica contains a lot of sensitive and proprietary technology belonging to CCP, and letting it out into the wild as it is now is just unthinkable. It'd be dismantled in days.

When Incarna is released, do you think we'll see more people producing EVE machinimas based on the lives of avatars, possibly using in-game footage?

Definitely, it'll be a shiny new toy for them to play with! Despite the limitations it will have, it'll still be massively faster and easier to produce the footage in Incarna than the Source SDK. If it means people are getting creative and producing things they put their hearts into, then that's got to be a good thing.

I don't think it's going to be the machinimist's dream some people think it will be, though. The gestures, actions and probably camera controls will all be seriously limited, and you can forget about injecting motion capture or making use of face posing or lipsynching. I'm not having a whinge here; it's just simple mechanics and priorities. The Incarna release is a massive and complex endeavour by CCP, and putting in all the things needed for film making would easily double the complexity and therefore the risk, cost, and development time involved. There are a lot more EVE players than there are EVE film makers. That's the commercial reality of it.

Can you tell us a little about how the storylines for the films are put together, where the jokes come from, and how you've managed to inject that signature Clear Skies humour into each film?

It's a long process to write the story. It starts with a series of plot points that I think would be cool to have come up, though some of them don't make it into the finished script. They are the nuclei that the story forms around. I then work out how I want it all to end and how we can jump into the story at the start. Most of the writing from there on is joining the dots, seamlessly and plausibly joining the cool plot points from the start to the end in the shortest and most interesting fashion possible. It's like solving a really big puzzle, and I really enjoy that challenge.

Richie and I made a couple of important decisions early on about the plotline. There would be no crazy bad guys, and the end wouldn't be marked by an even bigger explosion than previous films. We pushed the "mysterious bad guy" angle in CS1, and the "crazy bad guy" angle in CS2, so it was time for something a little more challenging. We settled for antagonists who aren't necessarily bad or evil but have plausible motivation to act the way they do. We'd have to get silly to top the huge explosions in CS2, and we didn't want to blow up a station or planet full of people. Instead, we went the opposite way and made the focus progressively narrower as the film's climax approaches.

In the midst of all this, the humour comes naturally. I make those kind of comments in normal daily life, as do my friends. I think people like to see the characters making stupid flippant offhand comments at inappropriate times or ribbing each other about perceived character flaws. That's more like real life, as people interact like that every day. Inspiration is easy. I simply put myself in their place and think what stupid thing I'd say. Richie and I are a fan of the ridiculous as well, which is where things like the head-door interface, the SpongeBob scene, and the victory dance came from. You should have heard some of his ideas we rejected!

We often forget the other people working in the background. Are there any under- appreciated members of the team you'd like to give a shout out to for helping make the film a reality?

Sam Gyseman. She lipsynched over 1,500 lines of dialogue, and I know how much of a grind that is. Andy Carter also deserves recognition, as after two films of getting only one or two lines, he was going to have the major part of Ghost in CS3. I then had to drop him so that Francis could have the part instead. It was an unfortunate decision to have to make, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity. Andy understood that and bowed out gracefully, for which I am very grateful.

I'd like to ask the obvious question, in part because I think people will kill me if I don't. Are there any plans for a Clear Skies IV, or do you have any idea what your next project will be?

There are no plans for CS4. I explain the various reasons why on the Clear Skies website. I'd need something bigger and better to do, and I can't think of what could trump having Jessica, motion capture, and real actors on board. Ultimately, life moves on and I can no longer spend two years on a single personal project. I think it's about time I take this talent and try to make use of it elsewhere, maybe even get paid for it at last!

For my next project, I'm going to try my hand at writing a screenplay or two. I have a couple of good workable ideas that should make for an interesting story or two. It seems I have a talent for this, and opportunities such as these don't come along often in life. I intend to make as much of it as I can.

Thanks for interviewing with us! Any messages you'd like to send out to fans?

No problem; it's always a pleasure! If you're a fan of the Clear Skies movies and want to show your support, we have a PayPal donate button on the website. JR needs a new top wingy bit!

This article was originally published on Massively.