In retrospect I think I’d probably say that the Corpse Bride project began with more of a "woof" than a "bang," or at the very least a kind of repetitive "yipping."
For those of you who are unfamiliar with either 19th century Russian folklore or IMDb, the storyline of the movie invokes an age-old tale of boy meets girl, boy gets engaged to girl, boy goes running off into the woods without girl, accidentally proposes to another woman who just happens to be a disturbingly-attractive corpse, and winds up married and stranded in the Land of the Dead.
For those of you who’ve been to Vegas the story may be vaguely familiar but features fewer zombies and better lighting.
After arriving below-ground, the main character is reunited with his long lost (a.k.a. long-dead) pet named Scraps.
During the pitch stage Blitz demonstrated one of the site concepts by modeling and animating this very lively dead dog for a Flash game of “catch” with the user.
The demo, along with some detailed site concepts and early pitch creative helped to sell our ideas to Warner Bros., and as legend has it you could hear Scraps barking up and down the WB hallways just after the presentation was sent.
Meet The Dead
The team that we assembled to work on the site was fairly diverse – we had 3D artists, Flash animators, programmers, and two designers all working in tandem to create one cohesive experience.
Occasionally this can be more of a hindrance than a help depending on the scale of the site, the proximity of all those involved, and general personality of the group. The fact that everything went as smoothly as it did was a testament to the flexibility of those people as a team and to the trust that Warner Bros. bestowed throughout the project.
Concepting and Design
Planning and designing for the site itself felt a little bit like carrying Tim Burton's precious baby into a new medium, except instead of a baby, we carried a decomposing bride, a humorless aristocracy, and lots and lots of dismembered corpses.
In keeping with the themes of the film, the site was to be divided into two sections: The Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead.
In a twist of irony that’s characteristically "Tim Burton," the sets and characters from the Land of the Dead were portrayed as being vibrant, saturated, and emotionally vivid while those of The Living were lifeless, monochromatic and, well, "dead," in both color and personality.
In creating the site we felt it was very important to stay true to the spirit of the film, and we spent a lot of time trying to bring these color themes into the design.
Initial homepage comps were created with these concepts in mind, and after a final direction was chosen we worked to carry them throughout the site.
Creating The Experience
Much of the time designers hear the word “environmental” thrown around in concept meetings or brainstorms, give a quick roll of the eyes, and dismiss it as one of those generic terms that are used as filler when concrete direction is at a loss (much like “Make it pop,” “Just sexify it,” or “It can be anything - make it a starfish!”).
However given the strong connections between the characters, the storyline, and the film's specific locations, this was one of the occasions in which it seemed appropriate.
That being said, we spent a lot of time reconstructing stylized versions of some of the film’s relevant scenes from our available assets. This involved a great deal of compositing, touching up, cutting out, stamping in, and reworking from scratch - much of what we didn't have, we wound up piecing together or modeling, either in 2D or 3D.
Ultimately the design, animation, audio, characters, and placement of content were all intended to create an atmosphere for the site that (hopefully) resembled that of the actual movie.
Modeling and Animation
One of the biggest challenges in designing for the Corpse Bride site was re-creating the characters in 3D to give us more control over how they moved and reacted.
Blitz had artists working in Maya and 3ds Max to model and animate several of the characters, including Victor, the film's lead and reluctant groom.
The movie itself was created using maquettes and stop frame animation, so in rebuilding them we had to be somewhat reverent to insure that we were as accurate as possible.
Throughout the process Warner Bros. provided feedback to keep us true to the spirit of the film and the personality of its cast, but enough freedom to give the online experience a life of its own.
The Content and The Games
Before comping even began, we spent a lot of time planning out how content would be organized, selected, and accessed within the site itself.
In a nutshell, we decided to layer the information so that the “crucial” pieces would be readily available within the sections, while more selective content would require interaction from the user.
For example: to get some of the character printables one would have to play through a tune on the Music Room piano, accessing certain character bios would require a game of catch with Scraps in the Dead Square, and finding hidden videos in the Pub would necessitate a quick game of darts in which the amount of content received was linked to the final score.
Enough hidden information would be seeded within each section to give the site a sense of depth, and we hoped that each newly uncovered bit of information would encourage users to probe a scene for more.
In every case, however, the movie’s storyline was the driving force behind the interaction.
Blitz uses a proprietary Flash framework upon which many of our sites are based.
As the name implies, the system provides a general outline for handling standard and often-used processes in Flash ranging from load and transitions management to bandwidth profiling.
It employs numerous custom classes and debugging applications that extend Flash’s native capabilities and allow us to streamline the development process without restricting each programmer’s unique style.
Time that’s usually spent rebuilding standard functions from scratch can be dedicated to polishing animation and interactivity.
Overall it’s considered to be a supplement to the Flash coding environment rather than a replacement, and it allows multiple developers to work together in a relatively consistent way.
While I wouldn't exactly characterize the Corpse Bride site as being "low-bandwidth," in retrospect I don't think we would have cut out much more of the experience for the sake of faster downloads.
The framework and a great deal of optimization allowed us to create an experience that was bandwidth-profiled and optimized (specifically with respect to audio, video, loading management, and animation), without a huge sacrifice in quality or appearance.
Ultimately we felt that sometimes a good site is worth a bit of a wait, and hopefully that was true in this case.
At the end of it all
I can’t think of any site that’s beyond critique, and the Corpse Bride is certainly no exception.
I also doubt that any designer can finish a site, look back on the experience, and say that they wouldn’t have done anything differently.
That being said, I _would_ say that the collaboration between the artists, animators, developers, project managers, and Warner Bros. themselves was more fluid and genuinely enjoyable than in almost any other project I’ve worked on, and at the end of it all when the coffee ran out and the last Red Bull was gone, we all felt privileged for the opportunity.
About the author
Joshua Esguia is a Senior Art Director at Blitz