Channeling Creativity: The Story Behind Metal Gear Solid 4's Intro
Four years had passed since the last entry in the acclaimed Metal Gear Solid series, and seven since players had seen the character Solid Snake in action. On June 12, 2008, eager fans popped in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, hit "New Game," and were greeted by a futuristic cooking show with live actors ripping the skin off an alligator's snout. Pressing any button switched the channel, simulating high-quality and borderline nonsensical shows from the near-future 2014. Even those expecting the unexpected had no idea what they were watching. How did such a unique intro come about, and more importantly, why? We spoke with the three men primarily responsible for one of the most impressive, bizarre, and superfluous side-projects in gaming history.
Watch the video above to refresh your memory on what it's like to start playing Metal Gear Solid 4.
"In [Metal Gear Solid] 2 and 3, the opening titles were made by Kyle Cooper, the guy that made [the opening sequence for] Seven. For 4, we wanted to do something different," says Konami producer Kenichiro Imaizumi, who worked on the series since Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Kojima Productions had just shipped Snake Eater and was on the hunt for a fresh take on an intro cinematic to coincide with the leap to the PlayStation 3, and Imaizumi was chosen to head up this effort. In a meeting with series creator Hideo Kojima, Imaizumi remembered an old friend and suggested they use a Los Angeles-based production house called Logan.
Alexei Tylevich studying the monitor on the set of Metal Gear Solid 4's intro.
Alexei Tylevich founded Logan in 2001, a man that Imaizumi calls "one of the most genius guys I've met." The production house, described by Tylevich as a "factory of ideas," worked on Apple's famous iPod silhouette advertisements and has gone on to produce sequences in The Avengers and Zombieland, Skyrim's live-action trailer, and a feature film. The friendship between Tylevich and Imaizumi began in the early '90s at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. "Even back at school, we had a lot in common," Tylevich says. He tapped into Imaizumi's knowledge of obscure Japanese media and they bonded over their love of film. "I remember watching John Woo movies at midnight, that was our ritual. It was a very fun time, definitely a special time." The two stayed in touch after Imaizumi moved back to Japan and worked on titles for Konami like Vandal Hearts and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Now Imaizumi was throwing his friend's name in the ring as a creative partner for Hideo Kojima.
Alexei Tylevich (left) and Kenichiro Imaizumi (right) discuss the cooking segment.
On November 30, 2004, Hideo Kojima and Ken Imaizumi were in Los Angeles to sign copies of the recently released Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Kojima was familiar with Tylevich's work, especially the iPod silhouette commercials, and was looking to give him the seal of approval for work on Metal Gear Solid 4. After the signing at a GameStop in the Glendale Galleria mall, with fans still banging on the glass doors from the outside, Imaizumi introduced Kojima to Tylevich. Tylevich says the whole experience was surreal. "I was a huge fan of Hideo and it was a dream come true...It was the craziest thing. I remember meeting Hideo for less than a minute and it went from there." Imaizumi remembers it as "a good conversation," and it eventually led to a year and a half of conceptual discussions about what the opening cinematic could be. "It was a very long foreplay," Tylevich says with a laugh.
Hideo Kojima [below] was familiar with and impressed by Logan's work with Apple.
THE BLANK SLATE
Whenever Imaizumi and Kojima were in L.A., they'd swing by Logan's offices for a brainstorming session. Kojima Productions also recruited a recently promoted assistant producer named Ryan Payton to help bring the opening sequence together. "As one of the few non-Japanese staff, [Payton] really helped carry the process... so that was the beginning of our friendship," Tylevich says.
Payton remembers Kojima spitting out big ideas for the opening. "He wanted to explore real life, live-action, he wanted to explore animation," Payton says. "I don't know if he was joking or not, but he even said something about claymation. Ken and I just kind of ignored that."
Early art by Logan for the intro's costumes.
With years of work on the game ahead of them, Kojima had the foresight to craft an attention-grabbing introduction to his new world. Tylevich says that Kojima was open to new ideas. "It was a lot of presenting ideas to him, and he reacted – there was nothing that he mandated, except that this has to be something not seen before, something unusual," Tylevich says.
Payton remembers an outpouring of creative energy from Tylevich and the production team at Logan. "Logan does car commercials, and there is only so much you can do with a car commercial," he says. "Here was a blank slate; we had him come up with the concept."
Above: An early concept piece for the work-out sequence.
"The easiest thing for Hideo to do would be to put up the logo and some gameplay renders and be done with it," Tylevich says. "The fact that so much obsessive detail goes into something like this is symptomatic of how everything gets done over there." Everybody involved remembered the television format emanating from one source, Imaizumi says, "That was from Logan – 100 percent." Kojima immediately loved the idea. "The interesting thing about him is that he is such a visual person... I felt like there was a palpable change that occurred after he saw images. I could tell how excited he was, which was unusual. He's usually such a reserved person," Tylevich says.
Especially weird in retrospect, Tylevich says they weren't basing their shows on the expectations for real television in the year 2014 but more on the "alternate universe" presented in Metal Gear. Tylevich wanted to comment on tropes in television, but not break from Kojima's world. "It was about making fun of clichés but not devolving too much into complete parody," Tylevich says.
Imaizumi remembers that Kojima Productions was into the "cheesy-type stuff" like shopping shows, and it was Payton's responsibility to meld Tylevich's vision with Metal Gear Solid 4's setting and the series' long history. "I don't remember why we came up with the idea of the cooking show, I just knew that instantly what came to my mind was Snake Eater and all the food references," Payton says. On the inclusion of PMCs from the game, Imaizumi remembers, "We wanted people [to see] that there's a whole world of the future and in the future the world is like this. Maybe most of the people don't get it the first time they see it, [they're like] 'What the hell is this?'"
At a certain point in the brainstorming process, Imaizumi says Kojima came up with the idea for players to be able to change channels. The shift from creating just over two minutes of content to creating five concurrent channels was a giant leap in terms of Logan's workload, but one that excited everybody involved. "It's that satisfaction of having something substantial and deep," Tylevich says. "Unless they want to load the game again, they'd only have a certain amount of time to get through the intro. Most of the content will be missed."
Watch the video above to see the raw footage from the cooking segment alongside the finished product.
Payton's biggest regret of the whole experience was not making it clearer that players could change the channel. He says that players have been trained over the years to not press any buttons during cutscenes. "I did argue with Hideo quite a bit, and he won the argument," Payton says. "I was wrong about a lot of stuff... but this is the one I think I was correct on. I really wanted to have a UI pop up... but he didn't want that." When asked what Kojima's reason was for not wanting the prompt to change the channel, Payton says, "He didn't really explain himself like that. I said I was worried people aren't going to press the buttons and he's like 'Yeah, they will.' Overall, I think he was very open-minded to my ideas, but I was certainly right about that one." Imaizumi confesses they received feedback that some players didn't know about the multiple channels.
Front-loading a game with five channels, each consisting of a two-minute clip from a show and a thirty-second commercial that you'll only catch a fraction of, was a bold and expensive proposition. "That was big money, but not so big, because Logan gave us a discount, a friend discount," Imaizumi says. Tylevich laughs at Imaizumi's wording of the transaction, saying, "[That's] an interesting way to put it."
It's hard not to wonder how they got such an expensive part of the project approved through their publisher, Konami, and how they explained the reasoning behind it. When posed to Imaizumi, he reacted as if these questions were completely out of left field. "They don't ask why. Because we wanted it, so they don't ask why or say no or anything."
Tylevich also recalls great creative and financial flexibility during the course of the intro's development. "There were no sign-offs," he says. "There was nothing to be pushing forward, it was very unclear and nice and ambiguous." While trips back and forth and concept-art pitches were still happening, Tylevich was learning more about the creative control Kojima held within Konami. "I feel like he has a lot more power than other game creators. It's his way on everything. It wasn't frustrating; it was just done on Hideo's time. There's no hard deadline for anything. Everything is hinging on when Hideo is happy."
Since he has worked intimately on a creative level with both perfectionists, I wondered if Tylevich saw any parallels between Steve Jobs and Hideo Kojima. "Of course," he says. "Absolutely. But it was different because there was always a looming deadline. Steve was not working on a game that would take six years to make." Kojima eventually delayed Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots' release from the winter of 2007 to early 2008. Tylevich says, "I don't think Steve would be able to push the release of the iPhone by that much time."
Below: Ryan Payton (left), Imaizumi (center), and Tylevich (right) on the set.
DOWN TO BUSINESS
Ryan Payton was tired. In addition to working on the game's controls, design, and overseeing localization, he was constantly traveling between Tokyo and L.A. "I did 50 cross-Pacific trips during the course of Metal Gear Solid 4's development," Payton says. "I would always stop by Logan and check out the rest of the project. I had meetings with Hideo whenever I could to give him an update. But he really gave Alex and Logan the freedom to do what they wanted to do. I think he really trusted them."
Tylevich says a renewed sense of urgency grew when the new release date was set. "Once there was a game release date, this thing became real very fast, and this thing needed to be done," he says. "The development was really front-heavy, and then once we figured it out it was like 'Go! Go! Go!'" A major contributor to the project at this stage was Tylevich's sister, Katya. Katya Tylevich worked for the satirical news outlet The Onion around the same time as Metal Gear Solid 4's development, and her writing injected a twisted and comedic tone into the scripts. "We had a lot of fun coming up with situations and dialogue," Tylevich says. After over a year of bouncing ideas off of Kojima, the scripts and storyboards were ready. In October 2007, they started filming.
"The main issue was the now-looming deadline. Everything had to be put through the post-production pipeline; the live-action was just the beginning," Tylevich says. It took months to plan out and coordinate the ambitious live-action shoot. "It was a very stressful thing to produce. Shooting live-action and then all of the animation, producing twelve minutes of content, I'd say it was pretty insane... part of it was the cost as well, we had to do this under some pretty extraneous circumstances." The shoots had a crew of around a hundred people, which, according to Tylevich, is "pretty normal for a live-action shoot."
When it came to casting, Payton wanted to help connect the intro to the game by bringing in Metal Gear Solid 4's voice actors. "They're in the booth for four hours a day recording tons of insane, crazy lines," he says. "You tell them the things they are going to do and it's like 'Yeah, of course.' Nothing is surprising when you are working on a Metal Gear title." They lined up an impressive cast with plenty of hidden fan service.
Watch the video above to see the raw footage of the game show sequence, with Richard Doyle (the voice of Big Boss) as the host.
Payton pulled friends from the video game industry to help round out the cast. He even managed to get his little brother in the audience of the game show. Meanwhile, Tylevich was sweating. Not only did he have to create twelve minutes of content emulating the production values of the future, but he had to expand from his studio's comfort zones. "The idea was that all these different pieces of content came from different directors and different production companies," he says. "I hope that eclecticism comes through... We had six days to shoot everything. Imagine trying to schedule fifteen segments. It became a blur of shooting everything out of order. Each day we had to finish two spots in their entirety."
One of the most memorable sequences is the David Hayter interview. "That was a really fun one," Payton says. "Lee Meriwether [the voice of Eva] loved what we were doing. She was playing, in a sense, Snake's mom in the game, and we wanted her to interview David in a very motherly, kind of stern, harsh fashion. I really liked that." Described in the script as "someone like Barbara Walters", Meriwether is blissfully detached. Hayter attempts to respond to the barrage of questions while wearing the "Solid Eye" from the game, a Google Glass-like device that allows for augmented reality. "That was pretty sharp, pretty prescient on our part," says Payton.
Watch the full David Hayter interview above.
As for the bizarre tone, Tylevich says, "It was inspired by these weird facts in [Hayter's] bio that could be misinterpreted and miscontextualized. [Meriwether's] trying to give the conversation a generic feel-good vibe, and David Hayter just doesn't understand where she's going with it. I like that conflict, that quiet frustration on both sides." Payton loved Katya Tylevich's script for the sequence, "She's just an extremely funny writer, and David knew exactly what they were trying to do. Let's just treat it straight-up like a David Hayter interview; you are talking about him as a screenwriter. The first thing you see in the game is just tearing down the fourth wall."
While America was the game's largest audience, Payton couldn't help but wonder how the rest of the world would react. "I can't even imagine what the Japanese players who saw this thing were thinking. 'Who are these people?' Whereas when you are playing it, you're like, 'Oh, that's David Hayter.' They don't know who David Hayter is. The voiceovers are always Japanese in Metal Gear titles. All of a sudden they start off this game and it's in English with Japanese subtitles. I'm utterly shocked that we did this. It's bizarre."
"A lot of [the sequences] were visual moments, things Alex [Tylevich] just wanted to do on his own. It was a passion project for him. It was an excuse to do, for example, the Russian one," says Payton. The most difficult and time-intensive sequence to shoot involved two women on wires rotating around each other with guns drawn. While most of the live-action was filmed with a Red digital camera, this scene required the Phantom and its ability to capture 1,000 frames-per-second to achieve the smooth slow-motion effect.
Watch the finished Russian PMC commercial above.
"It was really a beautiful image that I had in my mind, and it just fit," Tylevich says. "It was in response to this idea of what an aspirational commercial for a Russian corporation would look like. It didn't need to be Michael Bay; it could be something that's a bit more emotional and melodramatic. I was born in Belarus, my family moved in the '80s to the U.S., so I do come from that part of the world. I have some visual references that I grew up with." Tylevich says the commercial for the Russian PMC spoke the most to his own background and taste in film. His parents worked in the film industry, and he grew up watching Russian film legend Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman. "We really got pretty deep into analyzing what these things could be. I wanted it to be allegorical in some way, good versus evil, and then the wider idea of this war on terror. There are some other elements in there that speak to Russian history and Chechnya – there's a broken statue of Lenin on the ground. There's all these Easter eggs within what is an Easter egg," Tylevich says with laugh.
Tylevich poses with one of the actresses from the Russian commercial.
With the six days of shooting behind them, Tylevich now relied on his team at Logan of over 60 people for the monumental amount of post-production work. Using programs like Maya, Cinema 4D, and After Effects, the team had to assemble the footage and create a tremendous amount of 3D animation. Amongst the post-heavy sequences, the Werewolf PMC spot stood out as the most detailed and laborious piece. "That was ridiculous, yes," says Tylevich. "That was a ridiculous amount of work. The renders kept crashing, that piece in particular was very heavy on the CG. We spent so much time on Werewolf."
Above: Watch the finished Werewolf commercial alongside the rough animatic, which features an unused Metal Gear Gekko.
While Logan was fully consumed by the overwhelming amount of work to do in such little time, Hideo Kojima and his team were starting to near the end of the game's development. Constantly thankful for the amount of trust that Kojima had in him, Tylevich would occasionally get a glimpse into the distant daily grind of Kojima Productions. Throughout the post-production process, Tylevich would fly to Tokyo and see the world of Metal Gear Solid 4 coming to life. While he was bogged down by what he calls "astronomical" rendering times back at Logan, he realized that the world of game development was flipped. He discovered more freedom to explore at the end of a project. "You haven't created a universe [when creating a linear narrative], you've created a bunch of shots. It doesn't give you that freedom. It really blew my mind when you saw this world becoming more real and more beautiful."
With a deadline in February 2008, the team had four months to finalize the project. "Twelve minutes of material is just ridiculous," Tylevich says. "It was very stressful." The team at Logan was used to producing short game trailers or commercials; their first iPod silhouette commercial for Apple only required a month and a half. Tylevich summarizes the project's workload multiple times as "insane." "It's essentially a short film, and [without] enough of a budget for what it was."
Imaizumi recalls that the budget became more and more of an issue as the project entered the post-production phase. "Well, we paid some money to Logan, but Logan spent more money than we paid," he says. "That was a problem for them."
For whatever reason, the project was not re-budgeted to account for the ability to flip through the channels. "I don't think there was ever an opportunity to properly budget this thing, because it would have been more money than they were willing to spend," Tylevich says. "I just really wanted to make it happen, I don't know what else to say. It was just such a passion project for me that we ended up going above and beyond and investing more money into it."
Partially for the legacy of Metal Gear and partially for his friend Ken Imaizumi, Tylevich dipped into his company's financial reserves to see the project through while maintaining the highest possible level of quality. "It was just such an amazing project, it would be silly to approach it in the same way that you'd approach a work for hire," Tylevich says. "If you really get to the bottom of a lot of incredible projects, you'd find a backstory that involves extra effort and resources allocated to it beyond the original plan... people work for free and post-production houses do a ton of work that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, and nobody knows about it."
But did Kojima Productions ever regret the costly ambition of the intro? "That's what Metal Gear is all about, so there were never any regrets," Payton says. "Cutting it was never on the table, obviously we could have cut it and nobody would have noticed. It's so unique and so different, but it was very difficult to develop that alongside the game. That's just Metal Gear development in a nutshell."
After years in the making and a stressful sprint to the finish line, the team at Logan created over twelve minutes of television from the future. "It takes its toll at the company, it was a heavy project in a lot of ways, but it was totally worth it," Tylevich says. "It was an amazing opportunity, so I wouldn't want to point fingers or put blame on anyone besides myself. You want to do a short film? You pay for it. You want to make something on a bigger scale? You should be prepared to make sacrifices."
MELDING THE WORLDS
With the intro videos in place, Payton finally showed the project to the rest of Metal Gear Solid 4's development team. "All I can remember is a bunch of confusion," he says. "A lot of confusion over what we just created... I don't think they knew what to make of it. I felt like it was really punk rock."
Imaizumi showed Kojima the final product and reported that he was thrilled. "If he wasn't happy with something, I think you would know," Tylevich says. "He's not somebody that would beat around the bush. My experience working with Hideo was just incredible. He was very respectful and not controlling, which I guess goes against some other descriptions of him. Whatever he does with the game internally at Konami is probably a different story, but I think this fell into the category of commissioning a piece of art to an external artist." After years of pouring his heart into every detail and frame of the intro, Tylevich capped off his work on the project by sitting down with Hideo Kojima as he gave his final pass on Act 3 of Metal Gear Solid 4. In the middle of the game's most stressful development crunch, with Imaizumi sleeping under his desk in the next room, Tylevich's one-on-one time with a sleep-deprived Kojima left a deep impression.
"He was debugging as he went, or picking out little details that needed to be fixed," Tylevich says. "He would pause literally every five seconds and yell his comments at his assistant like 'Fix this!' and point at the screen. The type of notes that he was giving were absolutely insane; some texture on the doorknob that needed to be changed, stuff that would go completely unseen by most people that don't have that vision... He was really proud of the game. It almost felt like we had one type of relationship before the intro was delivered and then after it was a different attitude. It was an ice-breaker between us."
Thanks to a brutal obsession for quality on both sides of the Pacific, the game went gold. Konami shipped three million copies of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots on the first day. Millions of fans started the game, were confused for a couple of minutes by the intro, and then whole-heartedly dove into Solid Snake's final adventure. While still largely concerned with the response to the overall game, Payton saw a couple of comments in forums focusing on the bizarre intro. "I remember checking NeoGaf and it was lots of people just saying 'What the hell is this?'" Payton says. When asked about feedback on the intro, Imaizumi nonchalantly answers, "I heard some people say that it was really cool and funny and stuff." Tylevich says that he didn't read any comments from the first wave of fans; he just needed sleep.
Watch the video above to see all of the intro's content in its entirety.
THE PURPOSE OF INSANITY
"Why do this? Because no one does it," Imaizumi says.
"It was a part of the project that was near and dear to my heart," Payton says. "I think within the context of MGS4, that [intro] project made a lot of sense. It's basically 'Scope Explosion: The Game.' There were so many different locations, so many different gameplay mechanics, so many different characters, so many different in-jokes, there were podcasts in the game, you can get the PMCs to dance, there's a monkey in a diaper drinking a Coca-Cola... It's like a turducken. It was such an honor to have worked on it, such a privilege..."
When asked if the project paid off in terms of future clients, Tylevich says, "This was an investment, did it pay off? Who knows? It's not really the point. It was definitely the right thing to do... It was the perfect project. It's why I wanted to do this thing in the first place; our company is set up in a way that is a playground for creatives. I want to start with a concept, with nothing on paper, and then have a finished piece. That project was really made of the spirit of this company."
Beyond the money and hundreds of man hours, the game's intro exists at such a high quality because of old friendships and a love for Metal Gear. Looking back at his time with Kojima Productions, Payton emphasizes, "One of my biggest takeaways is how important the team is and not just one individual. I remember feeling that kind of tingling feeling, even on bad days, walking into that studio and feeling how special it is and enjoying it, you know? I am still, and maybe more than ever in my life, a huge Metal Gear fan."
Tylevich continued to expand Logan, opening a branch in New York and a Logan Pictures division. Inspired by watching the creation of Metal Gear Solid 4, Tylevich says that he's "hugely fascinated with the world of actually making the games." He recently joined forces with his friend Ryan Payton and released the stealth game Republique on iOS, which Tylevich says Logan "essentially co-produced." When asked if he's looking to start up a full game development division of Logan in the future, Tylevich quickly responds with, "Hopefully, yes."
While the opening of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes has already been shown, the comatose mind of Big Boss is fertile ground for any production house looking to tackle the intro to Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Imaizumi says, "We don't want to do the same thing again. We want to try something new, so we're always searching for something."
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