The Story Behind Metal: Hellsinger. Cutscenes of Epic Proportions

Source: Room 8 Studio portfolio

Swedish are among the most metal people in the world, and last year they had the chance to prove it. The Outsiders, a game development studio based in Sweden, recently brought us Metal: Hellsinger, a rhythm FSP that looks like the lovechild of Doom and Guitar Hero.

Usually, newer studios start with modest projects to show what they’re capable of doing first. Well, not The Outsiders. No, sir! These headbanging metalheads had one of the most ambitious projects in mind: creating an interactive concept metal album from front to cover, using original songs performed by the most recognized metal voices in the world to boot.

The game would revolve around music and a story that would transcend time and space. The riveting melodies, frantic drumming, and relentless guitar riffs accompany the player and cue them on when to unleash Hell (literally) upon hordes of enemies.

The game, of course, needed something unique in terms of aesthetics. After all, what good is a concept album without vivid imagery and stunning illustrations?

The Outsiders needed cutscenes that helped tell the story of the Unknown, a fallen creature who wants her voice back and is willing to shake Heaven and Hell to get it.

As soon as our team read the script and listened to the soundtrack, they knew exactly what to do. It took them six months to deliver more than 40 minutes of stunning cutscenes that cohesively tell the full story of Metal: Hellsinger.

However, the journey was far from uneventful. We gathered 2D art director Anastasia Shevchenko, our Animation 2D Team Lead Dmitriy Kramnoi, and Head of Animation & VFX Division Dmitriy Spasibozhko to tell us what’s behind the riveting story that unfolds in Hell.

Source: Room 8 Studio portfolio

Interviewer: I understand that Metal: Hellsinger is the most ambitious project you have worked on. Tell me a bit about the onboarding process.

Dmitriy Spasibozhko: Sure. The Outsiders contacted us back in 2020 and told us they had a little something that needed a special touch. And boy, we were in for a surprise. They dropped a huge raw script for a story of epic proportions that involved stunningly deep lore that draws from various mythologies and spans all planes of existence.

David Goldfarb, the CEO of The Outsiders, was very communicative and had a monumental vision of a battle between the most powerful realms in the universe with a fascinating plot and spine-chilling revelations along the way. The most interesting part is that it was not only an FPS title but a concept metal album that would take rock fans back to the days of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

The problem was that they required 40 minutes of animations and cutscenes that perfectly encapsulated his vision in under six months. However, our team was already in love with Goldfarb’s vision, and we got to work as soon as we put the phone down.

Source: Room 8 Studio portfolio

Interviewer: What does a project like this entail?

Dmitriy Spasibozhko: Well, the first thing you must do is create a storyboard. Then go through the VFX animation process, apply effects, render, and assemble the pieces together in a cohesive way. I know that 40 minutes of animation does not sound like a lot, but for reference, some cartoons and short animated movies take years to make. So it’s quite a considerable undertaking, but we have a fantastic team always ready for a new challenge.

Source: Room 8 Studio portfolio

Interviewer: Anastasia, I hear that your experience in this project was decisive. Can you elaborate on your role during the onboarding process?

Anastasia Shevchenko: Yes. I was the only one with practical experience in storyboarding tasks, so I immediately rushed to read all the material they sent us. They gave us complete freedom for this project, so I did my research and collected a lot of references from other titles with similar themes. I also knew this had to have that hardcore metal feel, so I checked some illustrations from legendary album covers and booklets.

I knew I had only three days to deliver a storyboard and a presentation for the Sweden team. That made it hard for me to pick a definite style as there were so many amazing techniques, all with their own advantages and charm. I finally decided on a color key and a general style and jumped to the drawing board. It was exciting to imagine animation sequences, camera angles, transitions, close-ups…

For the presentation, Dmitriy Kramnoy implemented animation sequences, and I made a synopsis for the first chapter. When Goldfarb and his team saw it, they were very impressed, and we signed the contract for the project for nine more chapters.

Interviewer: It was your first time working on a project of this caliber. Did your team have to overcome any challenges?

Anastasia Shevchenko:  I would say so. For example, the way you execute the intro scene will determine the workflow of the rest of the project. So, we first needed to nail the pipeline down to guarantee we could deliver all of the milestones in time.

Interviewer: Care to elaborate more?

Anastasia Shevchenko:  Sure. So, given the gritty nature of the game and its theme, we needed to implement some unusual effects. However, these added an extra layer of complexity to the process, and we needed to make sure we found the right workflow to keep everything streamlined. Once we had a solid process in place for the intro, we were ready to replicate it for the rest of the project without missing a beat.

Source: Room 8 Studio portfolio
Source: Room 8 Studio portfolio

Interviewer: What did the workflow look like on a typical day?

Anastasia Shevchenko:  In a word? Hectic! It was my job to make sure everyone had their hands full at all times during the project, so the pipeline operated at 100% efficiency. So, while our illustrators and animators were still busy finishing up the details of a previous chapter, I would create a synopsis and storyboards for the next one. After the art of a chapter was finished, we synced with Dmitriy (Kramnoi) to discuss details such as camera transitions, the main focus of each scene and take, and other technical stuff such as fade-ins and outs. Their hands were always full, so the production load was very high during the whole project.

It was a blessing that we shared the same time zone with The Outsiders in Sweden so that they could proofread and approve everything in real time. After a few iterations, David Goldfarb knew he could trust the work of our team without a shadow of a doubt, which in turn boosted our confidence and kept the momentum through the whole project.

Interviewer: That sounds like a lot of stress!

Anastasia Shevchenko: At the beginning, we did feel a lot of pressure, but we soon started having more confidence when we were sure our vision for Metal: Hellsinger was aligned with that of The Outsiders.

We soon looked forward to having meetings as they became a way of unwinding. It felt weird if we didn’t have fun at meetings, so we encouraged meme creation and cracking jokes. So many of the best ideas came from a GIF crafted by someone in the art department or a meme. I’m blessed to work with such a great team.

Dmitriy Spasibozhko: Well, usually, communications with studios feel too formal and mechanical. This is necessary and desirable in many instances. I am responsible for communication between teams and making sure that more than 20 people are constantly on the same page can be challenging if you don’t have a system in place.

So, working with The Outsiders was a welcome change of pace for us. Goldfarb is exceptionally experienced. Having worked on big projects like Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and Payday 2, he knew how to convey his ideas effectively. He is also a fiction writer and an avid Dungeon and Dragons player, so he communicated his vision and enthusiasm for Metal: Hellsinger effortlessly.

Source: Room 8 Studio portfolio

This meant that, although all we had was a raw script, Goldfarb was ready to answer any question and create vivid narrations of what he wanted at every plot turn. It was truly inspiring and allowed our artists and animators to bring his ideas to life without his team having to provide any additional directions. It felt like we were all working under the same roof.

I remember we were kind of anxious during the presentation of the first test video. But in the end, the people at The Outsiders were incredibly gracious and told us how much they loved our work. That practically opened an unlimited line of credit for us in terms of creative freedom and trust. They even welcomed many suggestions and additions from our team.

In that aspect, Anastasia was a vision holder and was responsible for executing Goldfarb’s vision. Dmitriy Kramnoi was in charge of the VFX animation and effects department. I served as a liaison between departments, making sure we all marched to the same beat.

Interviewer: Today, communication tools are extremely important, especially when working remotely. Was there any tool that proved vital during this process?

Dmitriy Kramnoi: The VFX team was inserted into the pipeline early so we could focus on delivering our daily milestones and sending them to Anastasia. She would put everything together and take it from there. Fortunately, we could also communicate directly with our counterparts in Sweden, so it felt like we were all one big team. I would say our internal chat was the most powerful tool in terms of communication. It was simple and direct and took all the distractions away.

Anastasia Shevchenko: We created a clean and direct pipeline to keep everyone focused on their tasks. We also leveraged the power of Miroboard, a collaborative platform where we could upload everything, so The Outsiders had real-time access. It is an excellent platform as everything is neatly organized, and everyone would receive relevant updates for their departments.

This was extremely valuable when it came to keeping a uniform style and color palette because everyone had access to the raw files and the graphics manuals. In addition, David was on most of the time, so we had a direct line with him in case we wanted to ask him questions or listen to his opinion. It was a time saver that allowed us to fulfill our tasks without missing a deadline.

Source: Room 8 Studio portfolio
Source: Room 8 Studio portfolio

Interviewer: I checked all the cutscenes, and they all look superb. Was there any scene that turned out to be particularly challenging?

Dmitriy Kramnoi: There were many challenges associated with creating each take because they all had to be unique, so we needed different ways to capture and implement VFX animation believably. For example, in this game, Hell is populated by demons who are both spiritually and physically broken. It was important to portray them as huge and menacing figures who have suffered the tortures associated with serving the ruthless Judge. So, we added this one scene where the Judge summons all demons, and we figured they would all walk on a huge stone bridge, hulking and limping all the way to the Judge’s throne.

This small 5-seconds scene took us several days to pull out because we had to convey the right mood. So we spent a lot of our time limping in front of mirrors, and breaking every movement into frames, then outlined our assets with these frames for the final sequence.

The result is an epic scene with dozens of lumbering demons crossing a barren wasteland, walking toward their judgment. This short segment was not even in the original script, but we felt it conveyed the right message and mood, giving the story some additional depth. We showed it to the team in Sweden, and they liked it so much that they included it in the final version.

Source: Room 8 Studio portfolio

Anastasia Shevchenko: Another challenge was the story’s continuity. After we studied the original script, we discovered Metal: Hellsinger had three layers of depth. One is what the characters are going through at the moment. Most of it is narrated by an ancient skull that accompanies our protagonist, the Unknown, through the story. Then, you have the game’s general lore, which includes the environment and the world. Lastly, we have the past events that led the Unknown to where she is now. As the Unknown regained her memory, we felt the need to show flashbacks of a distant past.

It was a challenge to present these three layers in a way that could be understood without giving away the plot too early in the game. So we decided to separate these graphically through the use of sepia tones, giving it a sense of yearning we felt it should convey. David loved this approach, and the rest is history, as they say.

Interviewer: Those familiar with VFX production know that rendering tasks can be a major problem for studios on a tight schedule. How did you cope with this problem?

Anastasia Shevchenko: Oh, yes. Rendering can be a real time sink. Some of the most elaborate scenes took hours, if not days, to finish processing. Moreover, sometimes we discovered something was amiss during the review process, so it had to be done all over again. For example, we found that the Judge wasn’t wearing her iconic red sash in one of the scenes. So we sent everything back to Dmitriy for corrections and re-rendering.

You need to show extreme attention to detail in this line of work. We watched every second of the animation several times to find small elements that were off. Sometimes it was a missing object, but others, it was something more subtle, like the character being slightly off on her throne.

We had a clear idea of how everything should look, and we made sure the audience would be able to experience Metal: Hellsinger the way it is meant to be. To me, when you make such a huge, interesting product, it’s just illegal not to be a perfectionist.

Source: Room 8 Studio portfolio
Source: Room 8 Studio portfolio

Interviewer: One of the main selling points of this game is the presence of so many renowned artists and performers. What was it like to work with them?

Dmitriy Spasibozhko: Well, contrary to what most people think, we don’t get to hang out with the big stars. It was exciting to listen to original tracks made by Two Feathers, but they were still in the process of composing and finding the right voice for each piece of the soundtrack. We didn’t hear the finished product until after the release. 

The same happened with the voiceover talent. We knew Troy Baker was going to be doing the voice for the skull, but he had not recorded anything before we started our work. I remember we needed to have specific cues to get the animation dynamic and timing correctly, so we started reading the script out loud and recording our own voices. When we showed our first videos to the team, they had a field day. It was a lot of fun, and it worked wonders as the animators nailed every take, thanks to us goofing around.

Interviewer: So, what does the future look like for Room 8 Studio?

Dmitriy Spasibozhko: Well, Metal: Hellsinger was our trial by fire. It was the biggest project we had taken and imposed very tight deadlines that would have scared other studios away. It put everything we had to the test, and we emerged victorious.

It was a fun run alongside so many talented artists at The Outsiders, allowing us to work together with professionals of the highest caliber. For that, we are thankful.

Now we have a lot more confidence and are ready to take on even bigger projects. We can’t wait to start working on our next major project.

Source: Room 8 Studio portfolio

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    Elena Natsvlishvili
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    Vadim Krayevoy