By WILLIE CLARK
“I really fell in love with the problem solving and the power that comes with compositing and visual effects.”
While Keith Guerrette may not be a household name to many who have played the visually stunning video games he’s won awards for, his influence and leadership are widely recognized in entertainment, VR and educational industry circles, as well as for capturing the imaginations of millions of fans with his groundbreaking work. Guerrette, Founder and Visual Effects Director of Beyond-FX and Founder of realtimevfx.com, is a respected veteran at age 32.
David “DJ” Johnson, Lead Visual Effects Artist at Activision/Blizzard’s Infinity Ward Studio, calls Guerrette “perhaps the most recognizable name for VFX in all of the games industry due to his wonderful technical talks and kickoff of the VFX bootcamps at Game Developers Conferences (GDC), his time at Naughty Dog working on the beloved Uncharted and Last of Us franchises, and his co-founding of the website realtimevfx.com. Keith has now formed his own VFX company, Beyond-FX, and many eyes are on his business model. VFX for games is a dark art, and Keith is one of its greatest wizards.”
Guerrette was born in Wurzterg, Germany. His father was in the army, which meant plenty of moving around. The young Guerrette enjoyed storytelling, and he grew up playing video games with his brother. Years before he would be involved in the process of making games himself, he connected with one game in particular: Valve’s Half Life.
“It was the first game in that genre that actually tried to place you in a world where there are things happening outside of you, that embed you in the world and craft a story and experience you’re a part of. I’d never really felt that before, and I started to feel a passion for the potential of the medium,” Guerrette says.
Following high school, Guerrette went to Full Sail University and studied 3D animation. His goal was to understand the creation process behind such worlds. He graduated with an A.S. in computer animation in 2004, followed by a B.S. in entertainment business in 2005.
“I downloaded Unreal 2, and I was instantly taken by the immediacy of working in a game engine. How you’re presented a different set of puzzles and you don’t have to wait for simulation times and render times. You basically try different solutions and they function in the game. Then I was captured by the different challenges of the puzzle itself.”
While working on his business degree, Guerrette was also freelancing on the side. It was here that he found his calling for visual effects.
“I really fell in love with the problem solving and the power that comes with compositing and visual effects,” Guerrette says. However, his path into the world of video game effects started while Guerrette was working as a lab instructor at Full Sail following his business schooling. A student asked him how such effects worked. At the time, he didn’t know.
“So I downloaded Unreal 2, and I was instantly taken by the immediacy of working in a game engine,” Guerrette recalls, “how you’re presented a different set of puzzles and you don’t have to wait for simulation times and render times. You try different solutions and they function in the game. Then I was captured by the different challenges of the puzzle itself.”
Guerrette posted projects online, and companies took notice. He moved to San Diego and joined High Moon Studios where he worked on The Bourne Conspiracy. “It was a team that encouraged experimentation and usage of the tools past the standard, prescribed way. Again, I fell further for the puzzles and the challenges of visual effects for games,” Guerrette says.
“It was a team [at High Moon Studios] that encouraged experimentation, and usage of the tools past the standard, prescribed way. Again, I fell further for the puzzles and the challenges of visual effects for games.”
In 2008, at the age of 22, Guerrette joined Santa Monica-based Naughty Dog where he stayed until 2014. In his tenure there, which coincided with the company’s move to explore a more realistic direction in their games, he worked on the action/adventure Uncharted 2, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, The Last of Us and its remaster, and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. The level and intensity of storytelling and the cinematic quality of the graphics in these award-winning titles were hailed by fans and industry alike. As a result, Guerrette has been acknowledged for his role in raising the bar on what he calls “immersive graphic technologies for narrative-driven games.”
“Naughty Dog was where I fully came back around to my passion for storytelling,” he says.
While visual effects can encompass many things – including feedback effects and design effects – at Naughty Dog the focus was mostly on atmospheric effects.
“We started to understand that visual effects, and any type of motion that you apply to the game – not just effects but animations as well, lighting and everything else – thoroughly drive the emotional tone we’re trying to convey through the narrative experience,” Guerrette says. “We spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make the levels feel alive, but also feel alive in a way that matches the ambient tone we want the player to be feeling.”
The Last of Us launched in 2013 and received over 200 Game of the Year awards. It was also the most difficult game that Guerrette was involved with because of the game’s tone. “It forced us to spend a lot of time on the ways we built effects, and it forced us to spend an insane amount of time on details so that the effect wouldn’t even be noticed,” Guerrette says.
“Naughty Dog was where I fully came back around to my passion for storytelling.”
There was also a lot of new technology required. And while The Last of Us still had big effects, most of their time was spent on the small details, such as bloody footprints on carpeting, lens flare and dust motes.
“They’re unique puzzles that required unique solutions that forced us to go way outside of our comfort zone. We pulled solutions and inspirations out of film pipelines and compositing pipelines, as well as from other cool tech demos and games,” Guerrette explains.
Working on the earlier Uncharted 3, which released in 2011, “was one of the first times that I started to really appreciate that all that we’re really doing is passing data around,” Guerrette adds. “As soon as I started to completely understand that, it opened up just a world of possibilities.”
“The [visual effects for Last of Us] were unique puzzles that required unique solutions that forced us to go way outside of our comfort zone. We pulled solutions and inspirations out of film pipelines and compositing pipelines, as well as from other cool tech demos and games.”
Naughty Dog has made a name for itself within the game industry, and its titles have been successful, both in terms of sales and critical acclaim. Among the games he worked on, Uncharted 3 received three D.I.C.E. awards from the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences (Outstanding Achievement in Animation, Outstanding Achievement in Art Direction, and Outstanding Achievement in Visual Engineering). Uncharted 2 took home 10 such awards, including the same three that Uncharted 3 did. The Last of Us (2013) also received 10 D.I.C.E. awards, including Game of the Year.
At their best, visual effects in cinematic games have made an undeniable impact. “At the end of the day we’re building something that the player is supposed to be able to believe is a world,” Guerrette says. In a hyper-real setting, that comes down to the details, like trees actually moving in the breeze or clouds moving across the sky. He believes visual effects, along with other tools, should be used to make worlds feel compelling.
“We started to understand that visual effects, and any type of motion that you apply to the game – not just effects but animations as well, lighting and everything else – thoroughly drive the emotional tone we’re trying to convey through the narrative experience. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make these levels feel alive, but also feel alive in a way that matches the ambient tone we want the player to be feeling.”
But there’s also emotion to consider, and he believes that visual effects should be the compass of a game’s emotional tone.
“We’re the frosting on the cake,” Guerrette says about the role of visual effects. “I would never say we’re more important than the animations or the game design, because if the game’s not there and the animations aren’t there, you don’t have a game for me to put effects in. But if those things exist without effects – versus with effects – you’re definitely missing out on a huge potential improvement.”
Guerrette’s fledgling Beyond-FX functions as an external studio, and has worked with Riot Games, Sony’s Santa Monica Studios, EA’s Visceral Games, and Giant Sparrow, who they worked with on Beyond-FX’s first shipped game, What Remains of Edith Finch.
Tipping his cap back to Naughty Dog, Guerrette mentions how the studio emphasized sharing technology. “That’s definitely how the industry grows, and that’s a really important part of the team we have. It’s fostering that growth, where we all feel like the only way we’re going to get better tools – so we can finally start to make art, focus on art instead of tools – is if we share that technology, and if we build a platform for the industry to grow together,” Guerrette says. To that end, when he isn’t creating new cinematic graphic effects from the ground up, he’s keynoting and presenting at leading industry conferences to share and inspire more education for visual effects growth in all fields of interactive entertainment.
Looking ahead, Guerrette doesn’t think that volumetric simulations will dominate gaming effects yet, with people still using illusions. Noting how games tend to lag a decade or so behind film, he mentioned the tricks used for the fiery Balrog in 2001’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
“They were using really smart tricks and pipeline techniques to achieve the end result. That’s where we currently are now,” Guerrette says. “Where we’re going for probably the rest of this generation of consoles is [established], and we’ll be coming up with really cool, innovative ways to use what’s available to us.”