ALEX HORTON JOURNEYS THROUGH HIS EARLY CAREER AT ROCKSTAR GAMES WORKING ON GRAND THEFT AUTO 3.
IT’S A PRETTY SPECIALISED AND UNUSUAL SERVICE I OFFER, BUT IT’S WHAT I KNOW BEST.
I work as an experiential director for production companies and advertising agencies. I help projects with a blend of physical, Digital and Virtual come to life. It’s a combination of various experiences I have acquired on my journey so far. I studied as a Product Designer, but found myself working in the computer games industry, the peak being working as the art director at Rockstar Games. This extremely formative experience gave me a lot of the foundation of what i do for people now.
I FAILED INTO ART SCHOOL.
Failure’s kind of trendy these days, but I properly failed into art school. Disappointed parents and i was shitting my pants about the future. Art School is exactly what i wanted to do and had a feel for, but I knew it was risky. I had been given an offer to study product design off a folio of not especially good drawing, but it had a vibe to it. I got a 1st in product design, but i was still totally fucking unemployable. Fail. I’d spent 4 years debating the future of transportation or how to create a spacesuit zip, not the kind of thing employers want from 23-year-olds who can’t draw like a car designer. People around me wanted to know why i wasn’t starting my own thing. I knew I still had tonnes to learn. I was still a kid.
I CAN’T CODE BUT I LIKE TOOLS.
I got in early on what’s now ‘creative tools’. Since I was very young, I’d messed around with graphics applications on my father’s computer. i made pocket money laying out the ‘decks’ for his consultancy business. In parallel, despite learning the piano for a decade, i wanted to DJ, i wanted to be able to cut up records and swung myself a residency at the famous Sub Club. I had an eye for style that came out of my love of skating and street fashion. Soon, the interests collided and i was making record sleeves and posters for independent music labels and clubs. Art school gave me the opportunity to take that up a few levels and it was super-hard work, but it taught me a lot about graphic design, print and somehow i also worked in a very cool clothes store, selling Supreme when it started and shit loads of Stussy.
PRODUCT DESIGN IN THE 90S DIDN’T NEED YOU TO TOUCH A COMPUTER.
Which is nuts when you think about it now. I got into 3D graphics software, which was in its infancy as a ‘desktop tool’. However, i managed to combine my degree experience with the graphics work i’d been doing for the music business and got a scholarship to study Virtual Prototyping. This gave me access to proper 3D tools, back when that had a 20 grand price tag. I took the leap and borrowed money to pay my running costs. I was looking to learn a trade in the masters course (stupid me), but i did have access to the tools and an abundance of time to work them out. One great thing, is they pushed me to animate a few things and i realised i had the feel for it. I had a feel for cutting things together and my experiments had a vibe that was informed by my influences. Influences that were pretty different to the norm when it came to animation.
I REALISED THERE WAS NO WAY I WAS GETTING A JOB AT PIXAR.
But there were lots of computer games being made around Scotland. The games industry was starting to move to 3d and i was already working with 3d. Door opens...i land myself on a day release placement to a small games company, and at the end of the first week, the art director saw my name in the back of The Face for DJing and i was set up. I parlayed myself into being an animator (at least i was the best person available) and got paid to practise animating on a game that ultimately failed to launch, but i got my grounding in games and interactive software
I FOUND OUT THE VIDEO GAME GRAND THEFT AUTO WAS GETTING A REBOOT.
They were using an off-the-shelf game engine and mocap to recreate it in 3D. Before GTA3, the game was a ‘top-down’ 2D game that was an underground hit. It was the right subject matter for my influences and promised a technical approach that made sense to get stuff done. Even back then when a coder said, ‘i’m going to write it myself’ i ran a mile. I applied and interviewed. Next morning, pager buzzed, unknown number, called it, boom! Got the job, let’s go.
FIRST WEEK I GET STUCK INTO SORTING OUT THE ANIMATION.
I got into a bit of a ruck about whether or not carjacking should be a simple snap in and out of the car when you press the X button, or an animation that had the character perform the carjacking. I just said i could work out how to make it look great and perform as it needed to. I explained that i can cut animation into tonnes of pieces and rebuild it on the fly, the same way drum and bass music does with drum loops. It went over their head, but the top guy was like, do it, so i attacked it, full-on housing-estate car-break-in style. 2 days later, i walked into the office and my animation test was on everyone’s screen, ‘how did that get there?’, ‘it’s on the internet!’ they said, i lost control of my bladder, even then i was paranoid about security and the like. ‘Rockstar leaked it’ i was told. I must be doing ok then (general psyche that sums me up) and that week Sam Houser came to visit, we were introduced, he sized me up that way heads do and that was the start of a situation that led to a stop-start stream of requests from the head office in New York to ‘get Alex to look at that bit’. To top this off i got to design the Thomas Crown Affair style intro sequence for the game. Out of that came the design I did for the game’s logo. Something I’m proud of to this day, which is unusual.
WORKING ON THE GAME OPENED UP SOME SERIOUS TOOLBOXES.
I started working with motion capture and we decided that we wanted to make the theatrical ‘cut scenes’ in the game in the game engine (not pre-rendered, mismatched-style animated films) and next thing, i’m off the deep end and we’ve shot loads of motion capture on-set with actors in New York City. The conventional knowledge at the time was that motion capture should be shot to a pre-recorded audio track if you asked an animator, but if you ask a film-maker then a scene should be built up from takes of coverage and crafted in the edit. What i worked out pretty quickly is that neither would work well with the time and tools we had nor play to the strengths of performance capture. At that time, motion capture was being used for VFX shots and motion clips to build up character animation systems in games. I proposed that we get theatre actors and capture scenes in one take, so it plays like a natural scene and we will then add all the camera work later. This was the start of spending 50% of my time on performance capture sessions the best part of a decade.
YOU ALL KNOW THAT GTA BLEW THE FUCK UP.
But you probably don’t know that just before that no one was really sure that would happen. We’d been working 11 hour days for months, i had a 2 hour commute each way and then, to top it all off, 9-11 happened. Everything seemed pretty shaky. To me, there were no signs that the game would be big except i let a couple of friends play a test build after a pub session one Friday and they went nuts. There had been no real marketing, there was no buzz like we expected! It had reviewed badly in a particular British mag. The game looked a bit rough around the edges, but had a fuck load of style, swagger and that melting pot of game mechanics we all now take for granted
RUMOURS STARTED CIRCULATING ABOUT MAKING A SEQUEL TO GTA3.
Great. What was worrying us all was that it was going to be inspired by Miami Vice, Miami Fucking Vice? Seriously. We were even sent some VHS tapes of the show. I can’t tell you how odd that seemed in 2001 when you look at the popular culture of the late 90s. I was into a bunch of 80s music, but I would never have been as bold as to think the market was ready for 80s nostalgia. Scarface? Yes, obviously. Miami Vice? Not sure about that. Sam (Houser) was militant on his vision and obviously, he was dead right. He knows how to hold a vision like no one else.
THE THEME MUSIC FOR VICE CITY WAS A PAIN.
I was always involved in the music on the games in an unofficial capacity. I knew my tunes, as did a lot of the people at Rockstar in NYC. I’d been part of steering the theme music for GTA3 as i worked on the title sequence and had a ‘vision’ for what it could be (Thomas Crown was Sam’s idea). With the game now famous, people got really territorial, the music department doesn’t want to deal with an animator with music ideas, regardless of my background, so they went at it alone. However they didn’t get a theme that could get approved, and i needed it to finish the title sequence at the start. With 2 days to go, I’m asked if i can help, my response is ‘yes but you gotta tell them i’m coming in to help produce it’. Needless to say, no such message was relayed and when i shows up the next day with a synth and a drum machine, there’s plenty of WTF faces. I went in and added the energy and musical reference points the theme needed, I had no risk cos what’s on the table wasn’t working anyway. It was approved right away and is pretty well respected amongst game themes, it’s something i get emails about to this day. Shortly after Vice City i moved to NYC to head up Art.
WHAT DID I LEARN?
Ideas & stories are incredibly important, but great experiences often come from a new and unique combination of the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ hacked together then refined. They come to life in the execution. I don’t have any facts and figures, but GTA Vice City is one of the best-loved games we made in that era. It’s tight and resonates with people. This was a product of Sam Houser’s vision, something that makes a huge difference to a project. Whilst these days it appears we’re in a collaborative and agile world of ‘soft launches’ and MVPs, in my experience, most successful projects have a strong vision holder who’s dedicated to that vision. As a director I have learnt over time that everything is much the same as it has always been - someone’s got an idea that sounds great, and I just need to find a way to help make it happen.