Making the Serious Sam: The Random Encounter Trailer

Of all of the video game trailers I’ve created in the past 10 months, this was by far the most fun to assemble, and easily the most complex of them all. I’ve been looking forward to having the opportunity to sink a good amount of time into one of these trailers, so this was a pretty awesome opportunity.

A few months ago, The guys at Devolver Digital approached me about making a cool trailer for the new Serious Sam: The Random Encounter game that Vlambeer was working on. This game was part of the new Serious Sam Indie series, where three indie game studios got to take a stab at making a new game based on the Serious Sam franchise. It’s a pretty cool idea, and I’ve worked with the Vlambeer guys in the past on their Super Crate Box iOS and Winnitron trailer, so it was a great fit.

I was super pumped to help these guys out, and all we needed was a good idea… I was sent an early build of the game, and one thing immediately came to mind. It would be really cool to shoot this in a desert, since a good chunk of the game takes place in that kind of environment. The only problem is, I’m in the middle of central Canada, and the closest desert is a few 1000 miles away…

Spirit Sands at Spruce Woods Provincial Park

Spirit Sands Desert

Spirit Sands Desert

I remember reading about this cool place in Manitoba called the Spirit Sands. People have told me that it’s like a little mini desert in the middle of the province, but I’d never been out there to check it out. There were some massive floods in Manitoba this year, and unfortunately, Spruce Woods was one of the provincial parks that was majorly affected. It was totally shut down, and the access road to Spirit Sands was completely washed away. It totally sucked, so I tried to come up with some other ideas, but nothing really stuck. I really wanted to shoot there if I could. So, since I had some time, I waited it out, literally until the last possible moment to see if they would rebuild the road and open it up for the summer.

Serious Sam Shot List

Serious Sam Shot List

A few weeks later, I noticed a few awesome shots on my friend Ian’s instagram feed of Spirit sands! It was finally open and the place looked great! I was really excited, but I still didn’t really have a plan… This was the last weekend I had to shoot, so I hopped on skype with Rami from Vlambeer, and after about 5 minutes of discussion, this was the idea:

  • Sam’s shadow across the desert
  • Pan up, see him alone
  • Enemies appear, sam shoots stuff
  • More enemies appear
  • Explosions
  • Sam joined by two other guys
  • Boss reveal

Simple, but hopefully effective. Now the hard part is turning those 27 words into an engaging trailer that I would shoot the next morning… I kind of let it stew overnight and the next morning I storyboarded out some shots in my brain and sketched out a rough shot list.

Shooting at the Spirit Sands Desert

The Desert it’s self is awesome! It’s about a 2 hour or so drive from Winnipeg, just outside of Brandon. It’s another 20 minute hike to the desert from the parking lot… Not bad, but I had a ton of camera gear with me :) So, having never been to Spirit Sands before, I hunted around for about 30 minutes for a good location to shoot, and eventually settled on this little valley that seemed to fit the bill. I plunked down my gear, and started exploring the area, looking for cool shots.

Shooting in the Desert

Shooting something like this is honestly, kind of terrifying, since I’m literally pointing my camera at nothing, and triyng to imagine what it looks like with a bunch of characters and enemies running through. There’s nothing to pull focus on, and nothing to frame up against, so as I was shooting, I was literally saying crap like “OH MY GOD, LOOK AT ALL THE ENEMIES COMING OVER FROM LEFT OF SCREEN! HOLY CRAP, THERE’S SO MANY EXPLOSIONS, I CAN’T BELIEVE IT, AHHH!” and so forth, lol.

Shooting in the Desert

Screaming this nonsense at the top of my lungs helped in 2 important ways. First off, it helped keep my energy and excitement level up, since I was in the middle of nowhere, spending a few hours shooting spastic camera moves of orange sand. The other nice side effect is that when I captured the footage, it was great audio reference for which shot I was actually shooting. After a while, every shot I was doing started to look the same, and I was having a hard time keeping them straight in my head. I started crossing them off my list as I felt I had something decent to work with for each individual shot.

As the sun started to set, I walked around a bit more to try and capture a few of the opening/closing establishing shots with the slidr. These were pretty fun, and I managed to completely fill my shoes and any small hole in my tripod with tons of sand :) After all was said and done, I was shooting our there for about 5 hours.

Assembling the Trailer with Premiere and Adobe After Effects

When people ask me how I make these videos, I tell them it’s like assembling a puzzle where you don’t know what the end result is supposed to look like, and you’re responsible for making all of the different pieces. It’s a little daunting staring at an empty timeline, but slowly, after going over every single shot multiple times, things start to take shape.

Serious Sam After Effects Comp

I generally try and get a really rough edit going in Premiere first, and then fine tune things in After effects, but after spending a few hours hammering on it, that workflow just wasn’t working for this trailer. The problem was, that I was basically editing shots of nothing. No context, no timing, no characters. It was really frustrating. So, I just took the whole project into After Effects, and started cranking on some of the shots.

The guys at Vlambeer are super awesome, and they provided me with animated GIF’s of every character’s animation in the game. So, after some fixes in Photoshop, I took those elements into AE, and just started throwing them into the shots. I kind of made a previz version of most trailer, and that’s when, finally, things felt like they were coming together. I sent a few stills and shots to Devlover and Rami, and they loved it. Now it was just a matter of hammering out the rest of the shots and tightening it up.

Compositing and Visual Effects with After Effects, Fusion and PFTrack 2011

Serious Sam Comp Breakdown

The techniques I used to composite the characters in this trailer aren’t really any different than what I’ve done in the past on my Super Crate Box trailer or Canabalt: 2 Player trailer. The only difference here, is that there’s about 20x more elements to deal with.

The basic technique involved getting a good solid 2D track of each shot, and parenting each character to that tracking information. Some shots have some pretty crazy camera moves, so they needed a lot of love, and some shots were basically hand tracked frame by frame. Once the characters are attached to the track, they’re relatively locked into the shot, and it’s just a matter of tweaking the crap out of it, and creating animations for each of the characters. There are so many different enemies in this game, it was super fun to start layering them in and creating these cool battle shots. There’s tons of elements like the gunfire from both Sam and the enemies, muzzle flashes, bullet hits, shadows etc etc etc…

One of the funnest parts was adding some live action elements into the shots to help sit the 2D sprites into the live action footage. I’ve had a copy of Video Copilot’s Action Essentials 2 kicking around for a while, but I’d never had the chance to use it until now. I used a bunch of the dirt hit/explosion movies and sound effects that are provided in that set. I really think that’s one of the things that helped push this over the top. I can’t recommend them enough!

Speaking of sound effects, was an awesome resource for this project. I’m not a sound engineer by any stretch of the imagination, so having some good high quality effects available for free was a huge help. They just updated their site too, so it’s a lot easier to find good samples.

Boss Battle shots composited in Eyeon FusionIn the end, basically every shot was composited inside of Adobe After Effects, except for two. The two boss battle shots at the end were run through Eyeon Fusion. The reason I had to use a different application is I’m way more comfortable keying with Primatte inside of Fusion rather than Keylight in After Effects. I wanted to put the boss behind the hill, so I’m using the blue sky as a makeshift bluescreen. I had to do a lot of massaging to the key, and do some interesting lightwrap and colour correction to the ground to make the shots feel right, and Fusion’s node based workflow just works so much better for this kind of stuff. What would have been a complicated mess of comps and precomps inside of After Effects was a (relatively) simple composite in Fusion.

The other minor anomaly was there was one shot that needed to be 3D tracked, rather than doing a simple 2D track. The shot where Sam’s friends Bim and Bam run into screen has a ton of parallax and camera moment, so it needed to be stabilized first, using After Effect’s new warp stabilizer. That tool is pretty slick, but one side effect is you can’t do a 3D camera track of the result afterwards since the pixels are literally being warped all over the shot. Fortunately, there’s an option to simply do a rotation and transform stabilization based upon the tracking data it extracts. I brought the shot into PFMatchit, and it tracked the shot with no problems at all. The 3D tracking data was brought back into AE and bob’s you’re uncle!

3D Tracking with PFTrack 2011

For colour correction and grading, I used a combination of Magic Bullet Looks, Mojo and Colourista II. While I was shooting I was dealing with pretty varying lighting conditions, and the sun was going behind the clouds every few minutes which made things a little frustrating. In the end, the colour looked pretty different from shot to shot, and some shots needed some major adjustments to make them sit in with the rest of the sequence. A couple of shots had to be pushed really far, and the limited bitrate of the AVCHD codec on the GH2 started to rear it’s ugly head. There’s some nasty macro-blocks on a few shots, but I don’t think most people will notice. I was going to try and hack my GH2 and apply the new 48+mbit hacks, but in the end, I chose to play it safe this time around. I’m going to give it a shot, but not without some testing first.

After all was said and done, I’m really happy with the way this trailer turned out! I’d like to thank the guys at Devolver Digital and Vlambeer for being awesome collaborators, and basically allowing me free reign with the project :)

So after delivering this trailer to Devolver and Vlambeer (It was actually finished mid September) they liked it so much they decided to hold off releasing this trailer until launch, and have me make another gameplay based teaser trailer to release ahead of time. The gameplay trailer was released on the 7th of October and was covered on a bunch of sites including Rock Paper Shotgun, Indie Game Blog, and Destructoid!

If anyone has any questions, please feel free to leave a comment, shoot me a note on twitter or send me an email.




  1. George says:

    Great stuff Kert! I love Spirit Sands and am really glad you got a chance to get out there and shoot something cool at the same time.

  2. Jason Cobill says:

    Agreed – Spirit Sands is rad! :) I was wondering how you got the weather you did, but learning you held onto the footage for a few months, it all makes sense. :)
    Another highly informative article! :) Thanks Kert!

  3. Darren says:

    Great trailer! I imagine screaming those things at the top of your lungs also helped dissuade other hikers from wandering into the frame. :)

  4. Greg says:

    Thanks for the play by play, this is a fun trailer.

    I envy your abilities! one day…