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And the highest-grossing animated project of 2011 is…

The year isn’t over yet, but barring a record-shattering gross by Tintin or Happy Feet 2, we already know what will become the highest-grossing animated project of 2011.

Drumroll, please. . . and the film is . . .

. . . actually, it’s not a film at all. It’s a videogame:

Activision’s release of the videogame “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3” last Tuesday ranked as the biggest launch of any videogame in history. Within its first 24 hours of release, the game sold 6.5 million units in North America and the UK, earning $400 million dollars and well on its way to over $1 billion. “We believe the launch of ‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3’ is the biggest entertainment launch of all time in any medium, and we achieved this record with sales from only two territories,” claimed Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision. By contrast, the all-time single-day movie gross record belongs to the latest installment of Harry Potter, which took in $91 million earlier this year.

Some may cry foul about comparing higher-priced games to movie ticket prices, but videogames have always cost more, and it has been only in the last few years that they have consistently challenged the dominance of feature animation grosses. Activision’s accomplishment provides an ideal moment to reflect on the growing influence of game companies like Activision and Electronic Arts on the animation community as a whole.

Some ideas to consider:
* Animation has become an integral component of contemporary games in a way that it wasn’t twenty years ago, and the quality of a lot of game animation surpasses anything you’d see in an animated TV series (not to mention some features).

* Using similar toolsets and production pipelines, game creators have achieved success by pursuing a vastly different aesthetic sensibility than traditional CG features.

* More animators in the US are likely employed in the gaming industry than are in feature animation.

All of this points to a paradigm shift taking place throughout the animation industry in which gaming is emerging as the preeminent form of cartoon entertainment. The effect that this will have on feature animation–the medium’s most prestigious format–remains to be seen over the next few decades. Perhaps animated features will begin to look more like games (an idea that filmmaker Robert Zemeckis has promoted) or perhaps they’ll push further in the opposite direction. It’s about to get interesting.

  • DonaldC

    That’s pretty impressive for a game that’s essentially the same as its predecessor.

    Activision must have a strong marketing division.

    • Jorge Garrido

      The same as its predecessor? You mean kind of like the marketing for Toy Story 3?

    • Steve Gattuso

      Originality hasn’t exactly been Hollywood’s strong suit, either.

    • Kevin Dougherty

      It is “essentially” the same as its predecessor in the same way that a road map of Boston is the same as a road map of New York City. They both have squiggly lines on paper. Yes it’s the same game but a different experience.

  • SERIOUSLY, games are serious business!

  • Watching this video makes me hate videogames a bit- I used to play Caesar III and Pokemon but that was about it… then I realised that they can be quite pointless.

    The quality is amazing, tho. A friend working on video intros showed me a few “popular” ones… it’s the truth, they’re amazing. I wish the energy they spend on making this tuff was done more on music clips. I was watching “Rock the House” by Gorillaz the other day and the giant blue genie guy is fantastic (considering the age of that video!)

  • Tim Douglas

    I’m all for games being recognised as animation & getting their due.

    It’s just a shame that it’s one of the less inventive (albeit well made & highly profitable) titles that only seem to up the level of detail with every iteration.

  • This game looks pretty awesome. So does that new “Batman: Arkham City” game. Not being a game player I’ve not played anything beyond Super Mario World, but the graphics on this stuff are amazing. They seem to be able to give life to the figures that stuff like Polar Express or Tintin can’t.

    I’ve always wanted to see some kind of animated action film made using CGI. I think it’d be great for a superhero story, or Transformers or something (without the annoying live action humans). I was hoping that Ninja Turtle CGI movie from a couple years ago would fit the bill but that was pretty disappointing, aside from a couple scenes or sequences.

    • NC

      I definitely suggest Arkham City it does a great job of telling the story while teaching you the game mechanics at the same time.

  • The moment I read the title with “highest-grossing animated PROJECT”, I knew it wasn’t gonna be a feature… :P

  • Blech, what a sad day in my opinion. Give me something light, colorful, and animated with all the principals in mind any day over this sort of thing. I’m frankly sick and tired of the dark, gritty worlds of these sorts of games. I think interactive entertainment is certainly the progress of the future, but this sort of thing has zero style and appeal, especially since we’ve seen it now five dozen times.

    It’s all substance, really. The fact that you can shoot things online with friends pushes its buyers to ignore that animations are canned and glitchy, with the narrative told in generally buggy in-game cut-scenes. If you were to take the exact cut-scenes of this game and stitch them into a film, and then ask people to spend $10 in the theater on such a thing, they’d laugh you into bankruptcy.

    • Snagglepuss

      Psychonauts is 9.99 in the iOs store.

      • I keep meaning to go check out that game. Lots of people have recommended it to me.

    • Jason H

      Shadows of the Colossus

      Great games with great stories.

      Just like film and animation, there’s more to it than what’s pushed for the box office.

    • Funkybat

      Unless it’s for Nintendo, most console games seem to go more for “gritty reality” than colorful whimsy these days. The mobile/social game arena seems to have most of the colorful, lighthearted stuff these days. I’m much more into casual games that are fun in many senses of the word, and don’t require a huge time investment, as opposed to the mega-games that are prevalent on the consoles and PCs.

    • Jorge Garrido

      Sorry, but are you saying it’s a BAD thing that games with substance and gameplay emphasis trump presentation and graphics?

  • AniCentric

    Sorry, but i’m not buying this obvious site advertisement for a video game as having anything remotely to do with animation.

    If you wanted to promote a video game here, you could have, at least picked one of those traditional, hand-drawn 2D fighting games with scanned in character drawings.

    Then I would have at least bought into this connection, though still admittedly vague at best.

    But some drab, random, first-person bang bang pew pew shoot-em-up thing that’s the same boring recycle video game from the last two years, and virtually indecipherable from every other drab, lifeless, colorless game of it’s kind? No.

    • How is it unrelated?

    • Snagglepuss

      A 2D fighter didn’t make money this much though… Which is what inspired the story.

      • Funkybat

        I think AniCentric’s point is that, as far as he or she is concerned, stuff like “Call of Duty” or “Gears of War” don’t really deserve to be called “animation.” He’s saying that something more like the Sega Genesis “Aladdin” game or the old Street Fighter games would more closely qualify because they had animated cycles drawn according to the 12 Principles and not a bunch of mo-capped and tweened 3D models.

        At this point, these kinds of discussions usually have nowhere to go but to devolve into arguments with people entrenching further into their respective corners. It’s interesting to see what different people’s views are on these kinds of “animated projects” but I don’t think too many people are going to change each others’ minds, what does and does not constitute “real” animation is something a lot of us “know” emotionally, and rational argument won’t really change that.

  • Video games, unlike almost every other media, usually have sequels that are better than the originals. Gameplay problems are sorted out, advances in technology allow for better graphics, and a successful first game can sometimes allow for more innovative storytelling or control options.

    It also doesn’t hurt that most video games have fairly simple plots that can be easily extended to multiple sequels. “Kill that guy and his army,” is a standard.

  • As someone who has worked in both, film and games, I can tell you that from the side of the animator, games has treated me much better than film ever could. Actual results may vary of course, but I have found much more creative input, greater responsibility, and better pay than I ever did in film.

    Modern games have crews and budgets (both production and marketing) that rival, and in many cases surpass, those of most films.

    From the creative side, there is more to consider. As an animator in a game, your audience will be spending much more time with your animation than in a film. While a film with a running time of 2 hours may be seen by an audience member a couple of times at the theater, a gamer may play a game for dozens if not hundreds of hours (especially in the case of an MMO type game, which is what I help make now).

    In a film, you are usually handed storyboards and shot lengths. The window for your own creative input is often rather narrow. In a game, you are told that a character is needed, and here is some of his back story, but we don’t know what he should move like or sometimes even what he/she/it looks like. Again, actual results may vary.

    All things equal, working in games has been awesome. I think we are finally seeing the shift in thinking that used to place video game development at the bottom rung of the creative talent ladder.

    I think it’s great that this game had such a great reception. I think that coverage of game animation is something that should be getting more coverage here on Cartoon Brew. Perhaps you could also cover some other recent video game releases that have been stronger than the average film release?

  • joirs

    So.. does anyone know how much it costs to make a game like this? It’d be interesting to know…

    • gbop

      Modern warfare 2 cost $100,000,000 to make

      • Kion Phillips

        most of the big games cost about 40-50 mill to make.

    • snip2354

      A college buddy and I both attended the same main class, but our interests differed. I wanted to go into linear animation (movies, tv, etc), and he wanted to go into games. Coincidentally, one of the class’ teachers was among the original staffers of a popular playing game, and my classmate interned there and eventually became full employee, while I went to New York City to work on an animated series for a major network.

      Today? He’s still working there, and living with his now-fiance, ALSO a fellow staff member at the same place! And I’m single, laid-off since 2008 in the economic downturn, and in a job that’s only tangibly related to cartoons just for the money.

      GAMES. Make MORE money. Than FILM. Simple as that.

      And you thought it was good when your mother prohibited you from buying a console because she said, “Video games will always be a waste of time!” PFHH!

      • droosan

        Good for your friend .. but my own experience has shown that videogame companies are JUST as quick to ‘lay me off’ at the completion of a project as film studios. ;)

  • Snagglepuss

    Great great and very on point post. It should be noted too that motion capture isn’t the only animation style to be found in games. Stuff like Psychonauts has a very John K. vibe to it, Kingdom Hearts gives us the purest Disney animation since the 1990s, and Epic Mickey also holds his own, and no cartoon has given us landscapes more distinctive than Super Mario Galaxy one and two. You’re right, something very interesting is happening, and a new Golden Age in a diffirent medium is being cusped.

    • Steve Gattuso

      And then there’s Okami, whose style stands out so well that it’s more beautiful than most animated films I’ve seen.

  • zac

    I never really jumped onto the “next-gen” bandwagon because far too many game developers sacrifice solid game play and a good story for some pretty graphics. I will say, however, that some of the game cinematics that I’ve seen are in a league of their own. In cases like over at Blur stuidos, their background in making very polished cinematics have lead to some really fantastic independent short animations.

  • Justin

    I’ve always found that video game animators and film animators are very different minds. The majority of video games are mocap intensive, very little is actually frame by frame. An animators job in video games is very different then an animator in a film.

    Instead of figuring out what the motivation is in a scene your working on death animation #5 out of 20, so it can be very tedious, and the considerations are quite different because gameplay is king in video games so if you make a perfectly timed animation that looks fantastic, when you bring it in game you might find out you have to speed it up twice as fast which results in your perfectly timed animation losing its weight and appeal, so its a lot of back and forth.

    It’s an interesting discussion one that I’m probably not qualified to talk about, but if you’re interested in hearing what its like on the “otherside” then check out the reanimators podcast. It’s a group of video game animators that talk shop talk about video game animation and really gives you an insight into the hardships and different challenges that video game animators have to face then film animators.

    (the fact that it’s call of duty kind of makes me sick to my stomic, MW3 is like the 7th? sequel to the series? so maybe that’s saying something, video games regurgitated garbage is beating out film?)

  • w

    I worked as a board artist on ‘9’, and the initial approach to the version of the story that I saw resembled a gaming approach.

    Execs didn’t accept that as a way to approach a film, so the backstory wound up being the prologue instead of being revealed via the protagonists actions. But I personally think it’s only a matter of time that a less traditional method of telling a classically structured story is just around the corner for kids’ movies.

    Gamers ‘get’ parallel storylines and timeshifts thanks to that related industry. New story language has emerged. Let’s utilize it in North American productions, I say.

  • Yay…War is so cool and fun! NOT!!! The video doesn’t really look special to me, probably because I hate war games!

  • Senor Verde

    To offer a contrast to MW3 as the high bar of the gaming space, another very highly regarded game is the upcoming Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. While the game may not appear as detailed or realistic the reviewers are calling it a masterpiece of gaming more akin to Pixar or Ghibli than Michael Bay:

    While I have not played the game yet, I tend to love more whimsical, adventurous, or fantastical games (Zelda, Chrono Trigger, Donky Kong Country, Mario, Castlevania, Uncharted.) Not all the gaming projects are mo-capped gritty war shooters. With a field as varied as the current gaming space, things could indeed get very interesting.

    A lot has been written and argued about film versus games, and I feel like there is no reason to pit the two against each other. Games and film seem to exist well together and, in the end, it means even more job opportunities for animators and artists.

  • Jeff
  • Brad Constantine

    I think the time has come to stop treating Game Animation the same as TV animation was treated in the 50’s. Like some bastard step child to some sort of elite high quality bar set by Film and TV. The truth is that Game animation has made real leaps and bounds as far as quality is concerned. I am a game animator, who spends most of my time hand keying animation for my projects. I feel that what I do is no different than any TV or Film project I have worked on. If most cases, it’s actually more difficult because we have to animate in the round, and not from a fixed camera perspective. I say “Humbug” to those who still feel TV and Film have some sort of stylistic or quality advantage over game Art…The future will see a big transition from a more public entertainment experience(movies, tv) to a more personal virtual experience with more emphasis on Immersion and interactivity.Only the best animators will be ready for the next wave of entertainment coming.

    • Funkybat

      I believe the main dividing lines are:

      -mo-cap vs. hand-drawn/hand-keyed

      -linear storytelling vs. interactive storytelling (or more often, scenarios with scant story)

      -fixed cameras with cuts vs. roaming cameras that are either POV or Over-the-Shoulder POV.

      I feel like Games vs. Film is a much bigger difference than TV vs. Film. The entire experience is different for those two preceding media. I enjoy both types of entertainment, and don’t see any reason why they can’t each be appreciated on their singular merits rather than trying to put them all under one umbrella. You don’t hear much (or at least I don’t) complaining about VFX animators for live-action films being inferior/superior to animators at places like Pixar or Dreamworks. They are two different things essentially, even if many of the same techniques and tools are used.

  • Kion Phillips

    I Agree! I think people don’t realize how much animation actually goes into these games, Its not just gameplay animation, for Uncharted we clock in at about 90 min worth animated cinematics.

    My plug for our game we just finished working on check out Uncharted 3!

    • secret goldfish

      I just finished playing Uncharted 3, wow it is something to behold, a near perfect and beautiful example of art and science working hand in hand, congrats to both you and Naughty Dog!!

      I work as a creative person in the film/tv industry and I’d say most people I come across who discount video games as a valid art form are like traditional artists who discount anything digital, they simply have either little to no understanding and or any real experience with it.

      My parents wouldn’t be caught dead watching most animation because they equate it with juvenile kids entertainment, a lot of folks have the same ideas about video games, they’ve never moved on from the concept of them being any more than Pac-Man and Donkey Kong

      It is a tired argument that isn’t worth having, it is far better to just pull out either Uncharted 2/3 or something beautiful and minimalist like Limbo and let the games speak for themselves.

      People are far too quick to discount video games as art/animation, citing cheap, simple and easy examples such as the ‘hipster hate for mo-cap’ argument yet ignoring how pretty much everything else, be it the tools, the creativity or the science and planning share so much more in common.

      I hope the folks at Naughty Dog are planning to release another ‘Art of Uncharted’ book, the last one was not only a great book but helps you appreciate the huge amount of art, science and creativity that goes into these big budget games.

      Whenever I see the Tintin film trailers, I immediately think of the action in the Uncharted series (and Indiana Jones of course) but lament that I’ll never experience Tintin in the same way you experience an Uncharted game.

  • Bape

    I call that a advertisement. How the hell do you show one of the most overrated and very casual games as a example it’s currently one of the bad animated titles.This graphic engine wasn’t made for graphic stuff.
    West game industry today tend mostly to imitate real life.

    Use other examples or let us dicuss about graphic engines, how they inflect real-time animation and color style to the games.
    I got examples, how about the unreal engine, which got excellent lightning effects, or the hedgehog engine, which is the fasted real-time cgi quality engine today.

    Game animators got disadvantages too, except CGI scenes, they have to deal, how the programming works and the hardware limitation, everything have to work in real-time. This could be difficult, that’s why there isn’t much animation in most games.

    • amid

      This post wasn’t about the quality of the animation or the content of the game. It was only to acknowledge that based on first-week sales, “Call of Duty” is poised to becoming the highest-grossing animated project of 2011.

    • Bape

      Sorry, my bad english
      I modifier the last sentence more understandable.

      Game animators, except cgi scene, have to deal with programming and hardware limitation, everything have to be in real-time, that’s takes much more time and experiment attempts to perfect it.

      • But WHY does it have to be in realtime? The answer is it doesn’t. Once upon a time we got beautifully animated video cut scenes that DIDN’T have to deal with technical limitations, and they were way better because you could catch clipping issues and the like and fix them. I dunno, it seems like “they’re limited, so for their limitations this is good” is an excuse to me. There’s no one holding them hostage and saying “It has to be in-game or it doesn’t count.”

      • Bape

        Are you talking about CGI video scenes? They are rendered frame by frame, snap picture to picture, in high-resolution compiled into a video, there are no limits anymore in this processing.
        Alright if you know already.

        Real-time or Ingame Scenes, whatever, refresh they images how the fps are configured and save more disc space than video scenes. (Flash Animation in browser use framerate)

        There is a limitation in hardware today, tends for which system are you programming.
        You couldn’t just design a level where you put so much details and works, then suddenly the game don’t run fluid or freeze cuz your home console can’t keep this graphics with his power and resources.
        Therefore, you have to keep some things low or out for fluid gameplay even it isn’t looking good.

        I could be wrong sometimes. ok

  • Ethan

    Amid, earlier you posted about animated films making BILLIONS in ancillary revenues. This even triggered claims that the box office of an animated film is only a small part of the revenues.

    One day you say it’s the box office.
    Then it’s the attendance, not the box office.
    Then it’s the total including ancillary revenues.
    Then it’s only the American box office.
    Then it’s the second weekend drop.
    Now it’s the total revenue upon release, and video games are in. But ancillaries are not in, not this time.

    Which factor will determine success next time? Hey, Wii Sports sold 76 million copies which came with the hardware for 300$, that would be 22 billion dollars for that game. Does it count? It should count because you included all hardware sales when you counted Cars-2 revenues. Including diapers. Admittedly Call of Duty did not sell any diapers, at least not that I’m aware of. If you actually know please don’t tell me.

    • Trevor Keen

      If you want to sell diapers, then it should be ‘Call of Nature’ instead

  • Joe Horne

    awwwww c’mon….i haven’t played a video game in almost 2 years….i’ve been good…but this…i must avoid the temptation…but it looks really fun…7pm turns into 4 am….please no……..

  • Confusion

    While it is impressive in terms of graphical prowess…meh. These kinds of gritty, ‘realism’-based, gun-totting games honestly don’t do anything for me. Now, the upcoming Rayman game is what I’d personally consider a feast for the eyes. Even Skyward Sword, which is running on what is largely considered dated hardware, easily trumps this when it comes to aesthetic superiority imo.

  • Lib

    And this happens on a year when excellent games like Skyrim, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Uncharted 3, Rayman Origins and Zelda: Skyward Sword are also coming out. Hell, even Battlefield 3 and Gears of War 3 deserve more attention than this Call of Duty.

  • Katie

    I hope non-gamers don’t see this post and dismiss all other games. Video games shouldn’t get less attention from the animation community because they are “just games.” I get this sort of response all the time when discussing children’s animated features with non-animators. If I have anything critical to say they just default to “well, it’s just a kid’s movie.” Personally, I’d like to see MORE posts about games on here, especially if we could get into the artistic side of the business.

    As an animation student, I was really interested in what Floyd Bishop had to say. While watching reviews for Skyrim many of the fans were really excited in the improvements in animation from the previous installments in the series. Games like that are so dense with design (300+ hours of gameplay, thousands of items, unique animations for different characters and monsters) how could I NOT be considering that field? Especially when so many TV series and feature films of the past ten or so years are just so…bland!

    Besides, I grew up on video games just as much as I did on Disney. I’m in with whichever field has the most creative potential to offer.

  • Earthworm Jim 1 and 2 have some of the greatest animation ever made for a 2D game.

  • Stakker

    Check out El Shaddai if you want to see something truly mindblowing from the (left) field of big game visuals: (I won’t even go to indies here…)

  • what_in_the_cel

    I’m old and these new devices scare me! Back in my day if we wanted a video game animated we would just throw the telegraphs at the wall… now that was hi-tech entertainment!

  • The game is war propaganda…tells us we need to be afraid of everything…prepare for a real WW3. Those young enough to serve get ready for the draft.

  • mazigazi

    Sorry, I can’t recognize video games as legit animation until we start seeing something creative done with this medium. Right now, the only people making these games seem to be technicians and marketing people.

    Show me where an artist lives in this medium, because I can’t see it.

    • Brad Constantine

      Obviously you have not been looking Hard Enough…Here are some fine examples from Artists at my studio…I sincerly hope you enjoy these..
      I will find some animation samples as well later today to post.I need to find somewhere to put them.

      • James N.

        Here here Brad!

      • DJM

        Those guys aren’t really living in this medium. They’re just drawing nice pictures. Artists living in games would have their final output be games, nothing else.