Even if you haven’t played Battleborn, you may have seen its opening cinematic.
It’s a high energy hip-hop throwback to the days when hand-drawn animation used to run free on our TV screens, and it’s by far the best part of the Battleborn experience. It’s cool and rhythmic with a sweet custom track by Deltron 3030 that bounces smoothly around the bright neon characters drawn by up-and-coming animation studio Secret Sauce. Together they’ve created a new style of video game cinematics that was everything Gearbox’s Art Director, Scott Kester, could have dreamed of—even if it came together with some assembly required.
It started with the concept. “I wanted to see something like this in the game, I just didn’t think I’d be allowed to do it,” Kester told me over email. “The standard is to run a full CG cinematic, but I wanted to channel something bigger than it just being a game, to reset expectations on what games are, and how they can affect your feelings and moods differently, in many ways wanting this to be a cartoon I grew up watching that never actually existed.”
Kester grew up with a heavy influence of ‘80s and ‘90s cartoons and wanted to infuse every inch of Battleborn with that passion. Add to it a love of the energy represented in anime and manga and it’s not hard to see where the style of Battleborn came from. But the end results turned out to be even better than he could have imagined once he signed on Secret Sauce and one of his longtime favorite hip-hop icons, Deltron 3030, which features Dan the Automator (Daniel Nakamura) and Del The Funky Homosapien (Teren Jones).
“I got a breakdown of the basic story and artwork and from that I was ready to go,” Del said in an email. “I’m a video game fan from way back, so I appreciate little nuances and artistry in games. I didn’t need much convincing.”
Del is no stranger to video game scoring, with his work featured in NBA 2K, NBA 2K7, *Skate 3 and recently Street Fighter V, but this one was unique. From just a small bit of information, Del created a custom track for the opening, but never actually got to see it synced with the animation until the final product. “I handled the vocal performance and the writing of the song, but I wasn’t in that process, I just worried about my end with the information they gave me. That’s cool though, I was working from home, so I was alone with it.”
Secret Sauce CEO Sanford Greene confirmed in an email, “We heard the song after our work was completely finished, believe it or not. During the production of the animation we didn’t have any soundtrack to go by, so we did our best to keep the shot pacing tight in the middle and open on the ends.” After seeing it in action, it really is hard to believe, because the opening feels like it was synced and planned at every moment. But this could be because Greene is no stranger to hard work or hip-hop as he is a longtime fan and was the illustrator for 2008’s Method Man comic book featuring the titular rapper.
Greene is currently the illustrator for Marvel’s Power Man and Iron Fist as well, and the comic industry is where he and Kester met years ago. For Kester, he had looked at other animators, but Secret Sauce had the energy he needed.
“I did contact several studios, some much bigger and more established than Secret Sauce, but I felt the hunger in these artists and animators, I felt the passion for the work they had been showing,” Kester said.
This was Secret Sauce’s big debut and Greene was going to give it his all. “It was a huge opportunity for us and we knew it could be a game changer,” he said.
With Secret Sauce’s wild visuals and Deltron’s pounding bass and fresh vocals they definitely changed the game and it’s astounding given their separate work. “To be honest I wasn’t sure just how it would come together but I trusted in the creative process,” said Kester. “I led from the Gearbox side, but as an art director I feel when working with artists you need to offer them freedom inside of some set guidelines, I really tried to let them lead with what they thought was rad.”
Del seemed to thrive on that freedom and was ready for anything. “I’m always open for doing anything concerning video games,” he said. “I’m a visual artist as well so I have all kinds of concepts. My asset is ideas, man, you know what it is with that.”
On the game’s release Del and Secret Sauce’s synergy resonated with fans across the globe so much that they demanded the opening animation be rewatchable at will within the game, and within a week Gearbox obliged.
Kester was surprised. “It felt good to know people wanted to watch it again! I understand many gamers dislike cinematics and just want to skip them, so I thought that was pretty cool,” he said.
Greene couldn’t believe it either. “It was surreal observing the tremendous response to our production,” he said. “To be working with a small group of talented people for over a year and then one day our work is released and seen by tens of thousands of people and for Gearbox to immediately make those types of adjustments based on how much fans loved the cinematics is unreal.”
And Del really took it to heart. “It’s nice that people respond to our output in positive ways, and it kind of gives me personally an affirmation to my hunches about our talent in the first place,” he said. “You never know how good you really are until you put it out there to be checked out, so, yeah, it’s great that people dig it. I’m happy to do it.”
After this lengthy project all 3 contributors are already looking at future plans. Kester announced he’ll be returning to the wastelands of Borderlands, Gearbox’s other big shooter series, and Greene is teasing a new venture for Secret Sauce.
“This project has definitely gotten us some serious attention,” Green said. “We are trying to weigh our options to make sure we’re in the best position to move forward. That being said, we have something we are currently working on that I think will be our best work yet.”
Del is patiently awaiting his next gig. “My thing is scoring for movies, cartoons or video games,” he said. “I already did scoring for about a third of Skate 3, and that was a super awesome experience for sure. I also really liked how it turned out; you can’t even really tell it’s me! It just fits, you know? So yeah, those are the types of deals I’m open to, if anyone out there’s got any gigs for your boy—hint hint.”
Battleborn is available on Playstation 4, Xbox One and PC.
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