Instilled with a love of movies at a young age, Michel Lefèvre pursued his passions to work in cinematic animations. His creativity shines through through his work in games – and the characters you know and love in Horizon!
Michel shares with us his journey from Belgium to the Netherlands, the role of a Cinematics Animator, and the creative process behind bringing performances to life.
Hi Michel! It’s great speaking with you today. Can you introduce yourself to our readers and tell us a little bit about yourself?
Hey! I’m Michel and I’m Senior Cinematic Animator here at Guerrilla. I grew up in a small town in Belgium called Tamines, situated south of Brussels.
What was it like growing up in Belgium?
Growing up in Belgium was fun. We have great beers, awesome chocolate and three official languages. And a king too!
As a kid I spent my time biking, drawing a lot and watching movies. I started playing games too. My first machine was an Amiga 2000. I initially wanted to become an astronaut, but I was too much of a daydreamer to follow this career!
I imagine we’d be having a different kind of discussion if you were an astronaut right now! With so many hobbies, which one had the biggest influence on you?
I have a huge passion for movies and I got this very early on when I was little, especially for sci-fi and horror movies. I have vivid early memories of watching Italian B movies on Italian national TV with my grandparents and I owe them a lot for kickstarting that burning passion!
The first films I’ve ever watched in a theater were E.T. The Extraterrestrial, Tron and The Dark Crystal. These had a big impact on the very little kid that I was.
These are great movies – classics! Why did they have such a big impact on you?
These particular films immersed me for the first time in some incredible fantasy worlds that blew me away. It was colorful, weird, scary, sad, funny. Unbelievable stuff! I didn't understand much of what was happening, but I felt a lot of emotions and still have vivid memories of these early screenings. And it was of course way more impactful and immersive on a big screen.
These films (and some other ones from the same era) were aimed for kids, but had some dark elements to them, a bit like old fairy tales: beautiful monsters, creepy forests, weird aliens, strange foreign worlds. My interest in these types of visuals and stories started there.
It’s so great you found your passion early on. Where did this take you when it came time to your studies?
I studied animation at a school in Brussels called ENSAV La Cambre. There, we were able to work on our own short films – from the storyboard to sound design, we had to do everything. You wanted to do a short film only with matchsticks? Sure! Tell a sad romance story between a hunter and bear? Go for it! We were totally free to pursue the stories we wanted to tell. The atmosphere at the school was very open and creative and all the students helped each other by giving feedback, helping with technical elements, etc.
And how did this experience bring you to working in games?
After I finished school, I started working in keyframe animation for TV series in Belgium and Luxembourg. My first experience with game cinematics animation was at a Scottish studio called Axis Animation. There, I also worked on really cool game trailers (and some commercials, too).
After that I decided to focus solely on cinematics animation. I’ve worked at Asobo in Bordeaux, Remedy in Finland, Cloud Imperium Games in Frankfurt – and now I’m here at Guerrilla in Amsterdam!
You have some cool experiences across different places! What did you love about Amsterdam that made you want to move here?
As a film fanatic, Amsterdam is a true paradise! The number of small cinemas here is incredible. There’s always a great film to watch at a cool venue, whether it’s a Hollywood classic, silent film, horror movie or European Art House.
Amsterdam is also great because I’m closer to my hometown: I can take a train and easily see my family and friends in Belgium.
How did being such a huge movie aficionado help you decide to get into games?
Storytelling helped me decide to get into games. I love all forms of stories in general and I see movies as the ultimate combo of narrative arts. To tell a story, it mixes moving images, music, colors and sounds. Video games are also a form of "combo of storytelling mediums". And as a player, you can even choose where the story goes! How cool is that?
What do you find different between the two mediums?
The pacing of the story and the point of view are different between the two mediums.
When watching a film, you enjoy the story through a locked rhythm and a point of view that was determined by the director. In a game, you are free to enjoy the story at the pace you want. You can fly through the main quest and enjoy the core story really fast or at your leisure, discover more lore in secondary quests or disconnect completely from the story and simply enjoy beautiful sceneries.
And of course, a game gives you the freedom to be an active element of the story. You have choices. You are the lead actor. And you can also be the director when swooping the gameplay camera on amazing vistas!
So being the one who allows players this freedom in games, can you tell us what you do as a Cinematic Animator at Guerrilla?
The work of a Cinematic Animator is to adjust the motion capture of an actor to a CG character and to push it further. “Mocap” is a totally different beast than keyframe animation. In keyframe animation, you start from a blank page and do all the motions yourself. When working on mocap, you start from an existing animation coming from the performance of an actor.
Your goal is to adjust this performance to make it more expressive, appealing and alive. Some details in a performance can’t be captured, so it’s up to you to bring them back or create different ones.
But you can’t force details – they must complement the existing performance. It’s like a tango: flow with your partner and don’t try to force her/him to where you’re not supposed to go. Details range from facial expressions (blinks, mouth shapes, etc.) to stronger gestures, body poses, the movement of the hands/fingers, slower timing, faster timing (impact of a punch. for example), adjusting the eyes to have proper eye contact between characters, and so much more.
It sounds like such an amazing creative process. How have you been able to push the boundaries in your craft? Have you been able to try anything new or different?
Here at Guerrilla, I was offered to expand my skills and work on layout. I expressed my interest in cameras and editing, and so I was given some exercises to see how I could build a scene.
In layout, we assemble the motion capture clips and add cameras following a storyboard, thus building the scene. We also edit the data to find pacing to the scene. This is an exciting and creative step, as we try different ideas to make the scene as strong as possible: changing camera angles, speeding up the edit, slowing the edit, using different mocap data, etc. all to improve the storytelling of a scene, while staying true to the vision of the director.
It sounds very logical when you describe the process. What's something challenging about this that may not be obvious to players or viewers?
Deadlines are challenging. A layout scene or an animation can always be tweaked and improved. We want it to be perfect and keep working on it, but at some point we need to let go. And it's sometimes tough! It feels like a scene is never done. It's only finished when you have no more time to work on it.
Like all great art! Despite having to “let go” of it at some point, do you have a favorite scene you worked on in Horizon Forbidden West?
A scene from Horizon Forbidden West that I worked on and love is when Aloy meets Morlund in Las Vegas for the first time. The performances were so funny and the blocking – how the characters move on the stage as the scene progresses – was stellar!
The director did an amazing job – it felt easy and smooth to put cameras and edit that scene to simply highlight the actors’ performances. This is definitely my favorite scene in the whole game!
So many of our fans love Morlund – that’s so cool you worked on this scene! Thanks for sharing your insights with us, Michel. Before we wrap up, could you offer some advice for those wanting to pursue this discipline?
Be curious and open. AAA games and blockbusters are a great source of inspiration, but don’t limit yourself to them. Watch a lot of movies from different eras and look for inspiration in other media forms like painting, music, literature, indie games, film scripts, and so on. See what they do well and adapt their ideas.
As for animation, even if most of the cinematics animation is mocap, a good knowledge of keyframe animation is very useful: build a good pose with a nice silhouette and correct weight distribution, prop animation and lipsync animation.