Sun & Moon Studios show their True Colors in the Life Is Strange trailers

Life Is Strange: True Colors takes place in a universe where everyday heroes wield extraordinary supernatural powers. The game’s story focuses on people, their relationships and their challenges. To mark the game’s release on the Nintendo Switch, we see this heroic universe brought to life in this cinematic trailer, animated by Bristol-based Sun & Moon Studios. 

To give a project like this depth requires an equally heroic team of animators, character designers and background artists. Life Is Strange: True Colors’ developer, the iconic game studio Square Enix, called on Sun & Moon to deliver the job.

We spoke with director Dan Keeble about the project. Dan discusses what went into creating a look that fans would love; from going deep on their research of the game’s cut-scenes and fan art, to working on character design with illustrator Carol Maciel. He also shares some techniques on how Harmony’s deformers and shift & trace tool helped them achieve their project.

Read our full interview below for a valuable look into how an animation studio delivers a project for a major video game developer, and more interesting industry insights from the Sun & Moon team.

Trailer for Life is Strange: True Colors, announced during E3 2021.

What was your research process into the Life Is Strange source material like?

Dan: Obviously we got to know the characters and environments through watching gameplay and cut-scenes from the games themselves but we also looked at fan art to see how the fans themselves see the world. Emotion is at the forefront of all of Life is Strange and this was clear in the fan art too. Our hope was to create something the fans loved and connected to as well.

What can you tell us about the Storyboarding process for the trailer?

Dan: We received storyboards from Square Enix for each of the trailers we have made. We then tweaked the boards where we could see that we could make the trailers better. In the True Colours trailer for example, we combined some of the shots to create a more relaxed pace to suit the mood and the music.

How would you describe the art style of Life Is Strange?

Dan: The character designs are straight from the pen and style of Carol Maciel. We chose to work with Carol because she creates very expressive and more naturalistic looking characters with the dash of Japanese flavour that we wanted to bring to the animations. For the backgrounds, we looked a lot at Makoto Shinkai’s films such as Your Name. He is an absolute master of creating moods with weather and if we even achieved 10% of the beauty in his work then we were on for a winner!

Compositing breakdown from the Life Is Strange: True Colors trailer, provided by Sun & Moon Studios.

How conscious are you of how the game’s graphics inform your execution in the animation?

Dan: We took lots of our colour cues straight from the game. The Life is Strange series makes fantastic use of lighting during the golden hour and we used this extensively! It creates this kind of heightened reality, a dreamlike place that you feel like you may have visited before. It quickly creates a sense of home and belonging which we want the viewer to then feel when they see the iconic characters of Life is Strange.

What tools or techniques in Toon Boom Harmony helped to achieve this style?

Dan: The shift and trace tool comes in handy every time that we do hand drawn animation. It allows you to temporarily move frames as if you are taking paper off of your peg bar and using it for reference; for example, keeping proportions in the face. And although the animation was 95% hand drawn, deformers also come in so handy. There is a deformer in the arm in the drumstick close up shot just to bring that element away from feeling cutout. And there was a tweak to the animation in the close up of Alex, the singing character in the True Colors Trailer. I wanted more of an arc in her head turn as she sang so we used the freeform deformer to add this really quickly rather than having to carefully go through frame by frame and adjust each drawing.

Deformers were also used to add all the complex logos and tattoos to characters and clothing. Doing this work by hand would have been extremely laborious and probably would’ve resulted in logos that boiled around and drew too much attention to themselves. These elements are a key part of each character’s look, especially the tattoo! Curve and free form deformers allowed us to add these seamlessly into the hand drawn animation.

Write nodes make exporting different passes an absolute breeze. We had line, colour and a shadow pass exported separately for each character. This is a small but such a useful detail, but the line art node has a tickbox called ‘flatten’ which allows you to export line art from multiple layers into one flat image.

With a focus on emotional stories, how do you use animation to respond to this emotional subject matter?

Dan: Working with Life is Strange was a fantastic opportunity for us to bring more subtlety to the animation, especially in the emotional moments. Lots of our studio’s work is fast-paced with a large element of comedy and aimed at a younger audience. For Life is Strange, we took our time to really capture the character’s emotions during the layout phase. These key drawings dictate the emotion of the whole scenes and it is amazing how much a slight shift in an eyebrow or a closing of an eye can convey. We are all so sensitive to these emotional cues so we had to capture the right emotions during layout.

With the stories centred around the three friends featured in the trailer, can you tell us about your methods of character design to convey these distinct personalities?

Dan: The characters were all pre-designed by Square Enix so they did all of the heavy lifting here. It was up to us to make sure that we stayed faithful to their designs when bringing it to the new 2D style.

Lofi Is Strange: True Colors, an animated loop created by Sun & Moon Studios inspired by the iconic Lofi Girl.

How do you create the amazing light and atmosphere of the friend’s journey?

Dan: Strong colour keys were important in establishing the tone of each trailer. We mostly kept the lighting accurate and kept the sun in the same place from shot to shot but when the shot needed it we did take a liberty or two to heighten the emotional impact of the shot. Also, you might be tempted to just bathe everything in warm hues with an animation set in the golden hour but cool colours provide a vital contrast in the backgrounds. 

What expectations do you have to keep in mind when delivering animated work for a major video game studio like Square Enix?

Dan: To be honest, we treat every job with the respect it deserves regardless of the client. Yes, there is a sense of giving the fans what they would love to see but what is more important is trusting our own abilities and delivering a clear direction for each piece. Art is all of us talking and sharing with each other at the end of the day and if you aren’t bringing your own voice to the piece then you’re going to find it much harder to connect to the viewer. If you aren’t saying anything, then people aren’t going to listen.

Sun & Moon Studios contributed animation to the Life is Strange: True Colors‘ retail release promo.

What is a day in the life like of an animator at Sun & Moon Studios?

Dan: There is no typical day in the life of an animator at Sun & Moon Studios. Each project we work on is very different so we all get many opportunities to take on completely different roles from production to production. This variety allows us to all grow in every area of the animation pipeline and keeps us all on our toes!

Storyboard sample from the Life Is Strange: True Colors retail release promo, provided by Sun & Moon Studios.

  • Ready to see more colourful work from Sun & Moon Studios? You can find information about their recent productions on the studio’s website, and if you are interested in joining their team be sure to visit their careers page.
  • Interested in getting started on your animated project? Artists can download a 21-day trial for Harmony Premium on our website.

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