Josh and Michael Grier, the studio’s co-founders, discuss how they applied their experience in film, visual effects, and creating brand mascots to the launch of the video game Kena: Bridge of Spirits.
https://assetsio.reedpopcdn.com/Michael-and-Josh-Grier.jpg?width=720&quality=70&format=jpg&auto=webpJosh and Michael Grier, co-founders of Ember Lab, can be seen grinning for the camera in the “loading=”eager” alt=”PR photo” width=”720″ height=”405″ fetchpriority=”high”>
Coal Lab was established in 2009 and initially focused on creating digital and business-related animation. With the publication of Kena: Bridge of Spirits a few years later, it would establish itself in the video game industry.
How did its co-founders, chief operating officer Josh Grier and chief creative officer Michael Grier, go from wanting to be filmmakers to creating a video game that would catch Sony’s attention just as it was about to reveal?
“We’ve always known that we wanted to make our own material, we’ve always been writers at heart,” one member of the group said.Mike Grier
Their commercial business, which included mobile games for certain clients’ promotional initiatives, provided the “enjoyable knowing” element. The germ for the idea that they could create their own video game was planted by these rapid iterations of progress.
“We invested a very long time in the business world and we discovered a lot from the 60-second stories that we needed to inform,” Josh says.
Michael says that the design of Ember Lab is a combination of stylized CG characters in suitably lighted and rendered environs, and that these jobs contributed to the creation of this combination.
The decision to get into the video game industry was ultimately less daunting than the challenge of breaking into the film industry as a small studio. When Epic released Unreal Engine 4 for free in 2015, that was the true tipping point.
As Josh puts it, “it was a really artist-friendly platform at the time,” thus the team’s VFX experience translated well to the software.
A young woman with a luminous spear tip appears in an image from Kena and the Bridge of Spirits. On the end of the spear, a slashed blue forest monster looms. image may be found at https://assetsio.reedpopcdn.com/kena1.jpg?width=720&quality=70&format=jpg&auto=webp” height=”405″ loading=”lazy”” width=”720″> img alt=”Image of Kena and the Bridge of Spirits showing Kena holding a spear with a glowing suggestion. A blue forest creature, slain at the suggestion of a spear.in terms of height, “405”kena1.jpg?width=720&quality=70&format=jpg&auto=webp” loading=”lazy”src=”https://assetsio.reedpopcdn.com/kena1.jpg?width=720&quality=70&format=jpg&auto=webp” “width =”720”>
The Griers’ prior advertising work alerted Kena: Bridge of Spirits to their presence.
The company has also found success with its tribute to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, the CG short film “Majora’s Mask -Terrible Fate,” which premiered in 2016 and has had over 13 million views on YouTube. The brothers acknowledge that, while the fan film was made with a lot of love, its primary purpose was to raise their profiles in the gaming industry.
The plan was to rely less on an established franchise or licence and more on creating their own original intellectual property. The company specialised in creating CG characters for companies to use as mascots or brand ambassadors, an endeavour that is easily analogized to the creation of a mascot character in a video game.
“We learned a lot from the film and animation side about how to structure what we wanted to make into a packagable, pitchable procedure.”Grier, Josh
For example, “we learned a lot from the movie and animation side where we’re pitching to brand names and various designers,” Josh says. So, that part was great, but we had to put in a lot of work to get the money for Kena. It was helpful to have that knowledge at our disposal for showcasing the final product.
Sony was not only interested in funding Kena: Bridge of Spirits after hearing their concept, but also provided crucial marketing support. The game was announced alongside a slew of others for the PlayStation 5 during the company’s 2020 Future of Gaming webcast.
Michael: “It was really exciting to introduce the video game to that many people that quickly. “But it was also like a lot of pressure that was suddenly turned on,” he continued. We’re a little studio making an independent game, and interest in our product jumped from virtually zero before the programme to a flood of pre-orders afterward. When that happened, we realised, “Oh man, now we have to provide!”
The fact that Kena was shown in an exhibition billed as the “future of video gaming” may have contributed to inflated expectations, especially because the game was often compared to PlayStation 2 platformers. The studio took this as praise rather than criticism, and they intended for the film to be accessible and entertaining without constantly shaking things up.
Michael explains that the event they proposed was “rich in beauty and had that fond memories edge to it.”As the developers put it, “[PS2-era games] is obviously a significant influence, we weren’t seeing a lot of those video games being developed, so it resembled, it’d be pleasant to play a video game like that, a sort of callback to that atmosphere, and the simplicity of it becomes part of the charm. That’s what we set out to create, for better or worse.
The brothers knew they couldn’t rely just on their animation skills to create a video game, despite their lack of prior expertise with delivering a commercial video game. That’s why it was so important to get them to come together and accept the experts when they came in.
“In the early prototypes, they looked like enemies that would swarm you, and the whole game was just you trying to get away from them. We eventually shifted our thinking to “what if we could use them to fight enemies?”Mike Grier
Michael explains that the early prototypes looked like “enemies that would mob you,” and that playing the game consisted entirely of “you fleeing from them.” “Then, at a later point, we shifted to wondering, what if we could use them to wipe out adversaries? Everything came into place after we made that change, from the story to how we’re going to use the characters on the planet.
The most challenging learning was interaction, as we transitioned from an advertising agency to a video game development business.
“When we were doing business on Kena, it was like there were only four or five of us,” says Josh. We had a shorthand for talking to one another, and the work we did was considerably less complex. Since your team now includes designers from all over the world, you can no longer assume that by saying something in a group meeting, everyone will immediately understand what you mean when you say “in the studio.”
Michael explains, “That’s just the nature of video game development, where we need to untangle to interact any concept across all departments, since you require the entire team to work towards that goal.” When a video game is in its infancy, its development is shrouded in mystery, and everyone has a somewhat different idea of what the game will eventually become. because it is unplayable and you cannot play it. One of the hardest things for me has been figuring out how to communicate and integrate a clear vision to the group over the period of 3, 4 years, as it is developing. It’s not easy to make progress in video games.
Having achieved success with Kena, with the video game recovering cost within a month of release and also winning Best Debut at The Game Awards, the team has felt energised and driven to do even better with their next project, though what that may be is something the brothers are unable to share during our interview. Even though it’s common practise in the video game industry for a new project to build on the success of the prior one, the developers want their latest effort to stay within reasonable bounds.
“I think you can call us ageing players, individuals who have less time to play things, so things that are more friendly from a scope viewpoint are always more enticing to us,” Josh says. To paraphrase, “We’ll try to do something a bit more enthusiastic as we grow, but in the meantime, we’re still trying to be mindful of making something that’s absorbable and something that we will wish to play as players today in our existing rate of life with kids and things.”
Their next project doesn’t have to be a game, but also isn’t going to be a Kena movie. In any event, the game’s success has expanded Ember Lab’s options for the future.
“We’re filmmakers by trade, and basically, we ‘d like to take a look at direct media,” Josh says. Fantastic examples may be found all throughout the world. Something like Kena exploring deep space using non-interactive methods. Numerous opportunities present themselves. We’d love to help out with that.