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Using Video Games to Source Motion Design Inspiration


Like cinematographers who get inspiration from classic paintings, motion designers can get inspired by modern-day video games. Let’s see some examples.

Film, TV, music videos, and commercials are littered with excellent motion graphics. However, just as how cinematographers will absorb composition and lighting inspiration from classical works of painting, it doesn’t mean that as motion graphic artists, you have to look to what’s on TV and the web for ideas. Video games are also filled with excellent examples. If you don’t play games, you might initially wonder how a first-person role-playing game set in a world of dragons and monsters could inspire any form of motion design. Well, it’s not so much the gameplay itself. Instead, look to the components that assist the gameplay such as; maps, tutorial screens, the user interface, and on-screen text.

If you don’t play video games, don’t worry. I’m not about to suggest that your first port-of-call will be buying a PS4. As we can (legally) watch an entire game on YouTube, and as an avid gamer myself, I have more than a fair share of games to recommend that house motion design elements. However, we should perhaps cover two important notes before proceeding. Thirty games are released each day across all platforms. So, I couldn’t possibly give you a comprehensive list to sift through, as I don’t think there’s enough time for both of us.

Secondly, I’m only going to recommend video games that have been released in the last few years. I appreciate that there may be some games from the 00s with great UI or an animated title sequence. Still, with recently released games, there’s a greater chance of finding 1080p-4k video references and reference stills. If you know of a game with great motion design elements and people must know, let us know in the comments.

Maps – Division and Call of Duty

The After Effects Maps community has become rather large over the last few years, with numerous map tutorials making their way onto YouTube each month. Long gone are the days of your generic Indiana Jones map flyover. Now we see maps with animated buildings, camera properties, and even geometric elements made from particles. Additionally, we’ve also seen numerous map plugins enter the plugin market with a wide variety of additional mapping tools.

Video games, especially military video games, are no stranger to imaginative design. In Division 2, the map displays in 3D space, allowing you to zoom into specific areas and see the buildings’ extruded height.

Immersive 3D Video Game Maps in Gameplay

Initially, this type of effect may appear like you’re going to have to touch upon your Blender or Cinema 4D skills. However, you can find a plugin on aescripts called GeoLayers3 that can replicate this.

Looking from that specific promo video, I have to wonder if GeoLayers was actually the tool the developers used to create the Division 2 map.

In 2019, we were treated to a soft reboot to the Call of Duty franchise with Modern Warfare. As always, there were several map scenes throughout, but most were more based on the traditional Indiana Jones flyover opposed to digital mapping. However, unlike Indiana Jones, the map is presented in 3D space in this game, as if we’re gliding a camera above the map ourselves. We can see this because the sequences display visual abnormalities such as chromatic aberration, areas out of focus, and on some missions, cuts of light from an outside source.

There are no plugins for this effect, but thankfully you can do all of it inside After Effects. I’ve already taken the liberty of creating a tutorial to replicate this exact effect.

Games to research for maps

Ironically, while writing this article, a new Batman-based game was announced, and the trailer features a beautiful geometric map.

Geometric Maps in Arkham

Integrating Information into the Location  – Death Stranding

After the 2008 release of Marvel’s Iron Man, you couldn’t escape online video without seeing digital holographic projections scattered across the composition. While holographic motion graphics didn’t entirely go away, toward the mid-region of the 10s, we did start to see a decline in popularity, and perhaps a decrease in innovation as most effects had been done.

In 2019, we were introduced to Hideo Kojima’s latest mind-bending epic, Death Stranding. You have to traverse over tugged terrain and harsh landscapes throughout the game, but you have the assistance of a terrain pulse scanner. This was a tool that would scan the landscape, allowing you to see what terrain was level, and it would also highlight any additional information nearby.

It looks a little something like this:

Maps in Death Stranding

Applying motion graphics to a moving landscape itself instead of having digital elements hover over the said landscape is undoubtedly a smart take on the idea. The digital elements become ingrained into the landscape instead of existing outside of the world and doesn’t break immersion for the player. Adopting this notion of graphics appearing within the real-world objects instead of existing in 3D space could certainly take your project to the next level.

Initially, one may think it would take nothing more than tracking your digital elements to the landscape. But landscapes, especially hillsides and rivers, are anything but still and warping surfaces have always been an issue for tracking software.

Thankfully, we have Lockdown by Chris Vranos, an After Effects plugin that allows you to track to warped surfaces (we have a review here) and yes, that includes landscapes and water.

As a side note, if you were interested in recreating the pulse scan itself, there’s a case study on RealTimeFX here.

To a lesser extent, this was also used in 2010’s Splinter Cell. Mission Text and information display in the world as if projected onto the surface.

Incorporating Graphics into the Visual World of a Game

This, too, you can create by using the built-in tracking tool within After Effects.

Information Montage – Batman Arkham Series

Who doesn’t love a good digital montage of information glitching and bursting in and out of the cybersphere? It’s not so common in films given that the exposition explosion can be a touch on the nose. However, in video games it’s a certified way to get information about the bad guy you need to take down. Again, military games and action games that involve digital equipment are prime candidates for sourcing this sort of sequence.

As you can see from the Arkham Origin sequence, the compositing isn’t technically that difficult. It’s fundamentally text and animations moving in 3D space. However, the method that gives the sequence its elegance is the presentation and style. There are a few plugins that you could use to help emulate this presentation.

If you’re not too efficient with animating text, there’s also this perfect digital typeface for replicating this sequence.

Simple UI Elements – Grounded Games 

While games with digital components seem like the best form of games to look for motion graphic inspiration, don’t limit yourself to those games specifically. The recently-released Ghost of Tsushima is an open-world third-person exploration game set in feudal Japan and somewhat grounded in realism. It doesn’t openly scream “amazing motion graphics inside.” But, you can still find interesting UI elements that can translate into lower thirds, transitions, and general design inspiration.

  • Menu elements appear as if drawn on with a traditional Japanese brush.
  • Story tales are animated a continuous ink stroke.
  • Mission titles disintegrate into petals upon completion.

I also recently produced a tutorial that demonstrates how you can openly replicate the text disintegration effect.

Therefore, when searching for inspiration, don’t leave grounded games outside because of their UI elements.

Grounded games to research:

2D Character Animation – Limbo

Okay, so Limbo was released way further than five years ago. However it’s still a great example of elementary character animation outside of cartoons.

We don’t typically think of video game character animation falling into the realm of motion graphics. However, while many games strive toward complete realism with their character animation (see The Last of Us 2), there are still plenty of games that use rudimentary 2D animation. And if you watch just a few commercial breaks, I’m sure you would catch a commercial like this.

At the 00:11 minute mark, that form of 2D animation certainly mimics a 2D side-scroller game’s movement more so than your typical animated cartoon. And numerous games on the market employ this style. Character animation always scares me as it’s one area I’ve never delved into. Still, thankfully, there are numerous character rig plugins for After Effects that can take the strenuous part of animating out of your hands. In the video below, Keyframe Academy runs through the most popular tools and compares their pros and cons.

Planetary Navigation – Mass Effect/Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order

I was initially going to cap the article with 2D character animation segment, but I thought about an important factor when drawing inspiration; it’s not so much how can you replicate that effect, but how can you make it your own. Until you dig into an area you’re not too familiar with, you might not find that well of ideas. We can use this foundation with the planet navigation screen, which has become a staple feature in space games that feature free roam planetary travel.

Designing for Planetary Navigation

Our friends at Shutterstock Tutorials have an After Effects tutorial that uses the basis of the planet navigation screen and turns it into something wholly unique. The finished result could easily be issued as branded content for an ad campaign.

Additionally, video games set in space usually have numerous digital elements that are a treasure trove for design inspiration.

Space games to research:

While it’s comfortable to stick with what you know, sometimes that additional touch of inspiration is hiding in an unexplored area.

Cover image by REDPIXEL.PL.