Behind The Walking Dead Story Builder: Coming Full Circle with Daniel Kanemoto

posted by Telltale Games August 7th 2018

Animator Daniel Kanemoto recently helped create the captivating Story Builder for The Walking Dead: The Final Season, but this wasn't his first time working with Telltale.

Back in 2012, Daniel animated an opening credits sequence for the Walking Dead TV show using artwork he scanned directly from the comic book. This title sequence was purely a passion project born of Daniel’s love for the franchise, but when Telltale Games staff saw his work, the team was inspired to reach out to him about making the very first official trailer for The Walking Dead: A Telltale Series.

Fast forward six years and the team at Telltale now needed a fun, creative way for both fans and newcomers to craft custom save files based on the series’ biggest story-branching choices, laying the groundwork for their own unique entry points into the upcoming season. With The Final Season already bringing so much full circle, Daniel naturally came to mind...

Q: Can you take us back to the first time Telltale Games contacted you about the first trailer? How did you feel?

It was awesome. I was inspired to create a title sequence for The Walking Dead before the TV show premiered, after I caught a glimpse of the show at Comic-Con. The series had so much potential – a serious horror drama, set in a post-apocalyptic, zombified universe, with Frank Darabont writing and directing the pilot, and the mad scientists at KNB creating all the cool makeup effects? As someone who grew up reading Fangoria Magazine, it was a dream come true.

At the same time, I’ve always loved title sequences and motion graphics, and I had just relocated my animation studio to Los Angeles, so I had some free time in-between pitching myself to new clients. So I decided instead of making a short film (which is what I usually do in-between commercial jobs), I’d make a title sequence just for fun. I had no idea that so many people would wind up watching the sequence, let alone actually lead me to my first West Coast client... which was Telltale Games.

Telltale spoiled the hell out of me. I visited the studio in San Francisco, met the creative team and artists – there’s a crazy amount of talent and enthusiasm at the studio, which is awesome to be around – and got an early glimpse at the game. It was wonderful to sit down and brainstorm with the artists and producers face-to-face. Plus getting a chance to peek under the hood of any creative project is always awesome.

Q: How did you go about building that first trailer? What was that process like?

I did a long interview with Art of the Title about the creation of my original Walking Dead title sequence, and I used a very similar approach for the first trailer. Basically, I’m animating a ‘virtual’ camera to reveal various 2D elements in 3D space, to create complex, multi-plane style camera moves. In the original title sequence, the 2D elements were comic book illustrations, and for the first trailer, the 2D elements were various art elements pulled directly from the game.

I used lots of screenshots of various backgrounds, and also 2D renders of 3D characters from the game to create a single animated camera move that would reveal the main characters and the post-apocalyptic world they inhabit. (And, of course, zombies. Lots of zombies.)

Most importantly, I really wanted to evoke a certain mood with this trailer – the game, like everything with The Walking Dead, is all about making tough choices and dealing with the consequences. In this case, playing as the main character of Clem, you have to make the call, and then you experience the consequences. That’s what makes this game such a fascinating and unique project.

Q: For the Story Builder, can you talk about your creative process?

For the Story Builder project, the technical animation process was very similar to the trailer and title sequence – I animated a camera in 3D space to reveal various 2D elements (in this case, customized drawings from a comic book illustrator instead of gameplay elements). But creatively, the project was much more ambitious. Unlike the trailer, we weren’t just teasing characters or trying to evoke a mood – instead, the goal was to find an interesting way to allow players get re-live the most important and critical narrative choices in past chapters.

My producer at Telltale, Brodie Anderson, wound up writing out a large document that laid out all the different story choices, along with a thumbnail storyboard for each cause-and-effect “choice”. Then we talked through how we wanted to present each sequence. I would write up a quick list that would describe which layers for which shot we would want illustrated on separate layers (which would allow me to create multiplane animation). The comic book illustrator would then take both Brodie’s storyboard and my request for various layers and draw them. Finally I would lay them out in 3D space and start working on a camera move.

Q. What was your goal for the Story Builder, and how do set about accomplishing that goal?

My goal for the Story Builder was to support the narrative of the game. I wanted each sequence to clearly show the consequences of each choice being made by the player. I also wanted to create something that felt unique and different. Usually when you watch a recap of anything, you’re just watching ‘old’ footage that gets repurposed. But Telltale really went the extra distance to commission original comic book illustrations and original animation for this project.

Q: What’s your favorite sequence in the Story Builder and why?

My favorite sequences are the opening and closing sequence, which both feature Clem, our main character surrounded by zombies. In the opening shot, she’s obviously very young, and has Lee protecting her, and in the final shot, she is now the protector, and you really feel how much she (and, of course, you as player) have grown as a result of the choices you’ve made in the game.

The opening sequence was really fun to work on as well because it was truly collaborative – originally I was planning to do a slightly more ‘traditional’ camera move – a simple dolly zoom out – and Brodie, my producer, suggested that perhaps we could see more of the zombies if the camera also moved laterally as we moved backwards to reveal Clem. The final camera move sweeps across the zombie horde, which adds so much to the shot. A fantastic note that really improved the animation – that’s good producing.

Q: Any subtle details fans may have missed as they played through? Any deliberate call- backs to your earlier work?

In my original title sequence, there’s a quick “punch-zoom’ out from gun that fires directly into camera. There’s a very similar ‘punch-zoom’ out from a firing gun in the Story Builder, and I wound using a similar camera move and some of the same effects animation that I originally created back in 2012 for this sequence.

Q: So...did you shoot Lee?

I sure did. Multiple times, because (spoiler alert) he gets shot in the Story Builder, and it took a few trips back to the drawing board before this shot got approved, hahaha.

You can find Dan on the web at his site, http://exmortisfilms.com/, or on Twitter: @dankanemoto.