By WILLIE CLARK
Jenna Ruth, Associate VFX Artist, Insomniac Games
Superheroes may be used to crushing the Hollywood box office, but their track record isn’t nearly as solid when it comes to licensing those same properties to video games. Disney – now the owner of the whole Marvel enterprise – has had its own ups and downs in the video game market, and for the recent adaption of Spider-Man to the PlayStation 4, the company turned to Insomniac Games. For one member of the game’s development team, this wouldn’t be the first time she got tangled up in Spider-Man’s web. Jenna Ruth, 29, is an associate VFX artist at Insomniac Games, and worked on Marvel’s Spider-Man. But VFX wasn’t the first stop on her educational path.
Spider-Man in action in Marvel’s Spider-Man video game from Insomniac.
“VFX for games is not a very publicized profession. It’s not something a lot of people think or know that you can do.” —Jenna Ruth
Ruth’s humanities and fine arts background would eventually lead her to VFX. Before working on web-slinging and then virtual reality. She first got a liberal arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College in New York. She was “figuring out life and loving art, but not really wanting to be a starving artist,” Ruth says. “I had always grown up playing games, but I didn’t even really know, ‘Oh my God, this is something you could do for a living.'” Meeting people who worked in game development – and going to PAX East [games festival/convention] in 2013 – changed that for her. “I hadn’t actually been playing games for a couple years, and just seeing that community and how vibrant they were, passionate about games, it was really inspiring for me,” Ruth says of that convention. Ruth returned to Los Angeles that same year, and attended the Gnomon School of VFX. Even when she left there, though, her focus wasn’t on VFX, it was on environmental art. “I feel like VFX for games is not a very publicized profession,” Ruth says. “It’s not something a lot of people think or know that you can do.” It wasn’t until she was working at The Rogue Initiative as an environment artist that she finally dipped her toes into VFX. “We actually didn’t have an effects artist at the time, and so I took one class at Gnomon, and I was super shocked to discover that I absolutely loved it.” Ruth joined Insomniac Games in November 2016. Insomniac Games has long made a name for itself in the gaming sphere, being the studio behind the classic Spyro the Dragon franchise. Insomniac also developed the Ratchet & Clank and Resistance series, and released Sunset Overdrive in 2014.
“There was definitely a really high bar we set for ourselves [in developing the Spider-Man game] in terms of the fidelity of the visual effects. We were looking at Marvel movies and really wanting to hit the same level of fidelity in our cinematics as something pre-rendered. That was our ideal goal.” —Jenna Ruth
Aside from their gaming accolades, the studio was also named one of the 2017 Best Small & Medium Workplaces by Great Place to Work in Fortune. The company’s most recent title, Marvel’s Spider-Man released in September for the PlayStation 4, and met with huge success out of the box. According to USA Today, the game sold 3.3 million copies in its first three days on the shelves. This set a record for Sony, and made Spider-Man the fastest-selling first-party video game in the history of the company. USA Today also estimated that the game made more in its first three days than the Spider-Man: Homecoming film made in its opening weekend. Ruth actually worked on previs for Spider-Man: Homecoming as an intern, giving her the unique role of having worked on both the Marvel movie and video game. Of course, the game wasn’t developed in a vacuum where Marvel movies didn’t exist. Ruth says that they were really trying to make the game experience as much like film as they could. “There was definitely a really high bar we set for ourselves in terms of the fidelity of the visual effects,” Ruth says. “We were looking at Marvel movies and really wanting to hit the same level of fidelity in our cinematics as something pre-rendered. That was our ideal goal.
A fisted Spider-Man confronts adversaries.
“Effects are maybe seen as a little more interchangeable. I’m looking forward to more artistic specificity in effects supporting the style of the game.” —Jenna Ruth
“On the one hand, there are cinematic effects, which are very much about the cool factor and the [movie] feeling. On the other hand, we have gameplay effects, which definitely presented some unique challenges. For example, it’s a world of very variable scale, there’s a lot of stuff on the ground, and there’s the combat. You can also traverse extremely quickly through this gigantic city. So there was a lot of focus on conveying gameplay information,” she adds. One challenge was the game’s pause map, which used the imposter New York City’s geometry. “When you’re in the open world, like below the lowest LOD for buildings, there are imposters, but they’re 3D imposters,” Ruth says. Ruth worked on the shaders for map screen, and also worked on most of the Spider-Man suit powers. She was also involved in brainstorming the powers from inception, something that isn’t always the case. Prior to Spider-Man, Ruth worked on Crowe: The Drowned Armory, a VR title which released both on Oculus and Vive. The VR market is expected to reach $202.2 billion by 2022, and major players such as Facebook and Sony have already entered the market.