The story of Plastic Wax, a family-run studio that keeps moving the bar in the games industry.
You remember it – slo-mo bullets, long takes, Kanye West’s single du jour. The CG ‘Power’ trailer for 2011’s Saints Row The Third was a stylish commentary of the game as a guilty pleasure, a reminder that the series was meant to be anarchic fun. It was just one of many high profile projects by Plastic Wax, a VFX and animation studio that has dominated CG sequences in AAA video games for over a decade yet has remained largely out of the public eye.
Plastic Wax is based in Sydney, Australia, and identifies as a boutique business; small, family-run, laser-eye-focused on ‘getting the job done.’ Yet its resume includes the likes of BioShock, Darksiders, Saints Row, Borderlands, Gears of War, the Lego video games, and Injustice – you know, the sort of thing to write home about. So why do so few know its name?
I visited Plastic Wax back in March after learning that Injustice 2‘s “The Lines Are Redrawn” cinematic trailer (viewed over 3 million times on Injustices’ official YouTube channel as of writing) was made about a 10 minute drive away in Rhodes, the kind of empty Sydney urban suburb that seems to quietly safeguard a lot of the city’s creativity. Its office space was just as unassuming; single level, relatively bare-walled, a frightening amount of award statues the only decor of note.
Still, I’m told it’s a far cry from where Plastic Wax was born. 20 years ago Plastic Wax founder Nathan Maddams had been nominated for a national Australian art award during his final year of high school for a multimedia project that marked his first foray into 3D animation. It might have been revolutionary to a high school teacher, says Maddams, but still weighty with the kind of existentialism you’d find in any teenager’s art project. “It was about all the clichés you sort of go through when you are 18, about control and the government, these sort of things” he laughs, “but in a 1984 world kind of a way.” The project kicked off a curiosity around art in the digital space, and a freelance career from the bedroom of his parents’ house.
At first, Maddams was working on what he describes as “boring stuff”’; desktop publishing, graphic design, interface design. But the jobs kept coming, and soon he found himself employing people to help balance the load. “I ended up hiring one of my students and then hiring a friend and training them up and it was very early days because I just suddenly had too much work, then I hired someone else, then I hired someone else,” says Maddams. One day he came home and there were 14 people crammed into his bedroom, a chicken coop of developers hammering away at keyboards.
At this point, Nathan’s employees were living in the Maddams’ kitchen. Nathan’s dad Roger wisely decided that maybe the rabble raiding the fridge should be corralled into a functional business. His mum Liliana agreed, as did his two brothers, Dane and Tyrone, and thus Plastic Wax, an Australian family business, was born.
Pushing the Envelope
During the late 90s to early 2000s, CGI was still in its awkward teen years (as evidenced by every action or horror movie released during the period) but the term was very much in our shared lexicon. In the AAA video game industry, pre-rendered in-game cutscenes were becoming more sophisticated, and the demand for effects houses that could escape the ghoulish fingers of the Uncanny Valley was high.
Although Nathan was focused on TV and film around this time – Plastic Wax was creating animations for children’s TV shows – Roger saw the opportunity to expand. “He was out there cold-calling people,” says Nathan. The result of Roger’s hustle was a deal with EA to produce assets and animations for Ultima Online: The Third Dawn.
“And then suddenly I think that was the… that was one of the projects that kicked this off into this side of the industry.”
Nathan struggles to remember the deals made during those early days. Not because he’s absent-minded, but because he was positioned front and centre as Plastic Wax’s creative wunderkind, an all-encompassing job. “I wanted to try different things and play with different things and see what I could get out of them. We used scanning and different expression scans back on Hitman: Contracts which must have been 12 years ago when we did it. So, then that’s something that’s really coming to the fore now and sort of led by film and things like Avatar, and it was well before then, but it was just because I had an interest in trying new medias.”
His desire to experiment became the hallmark of Plastic Wax as a whole. The aforementioned scanning technology was a team-built piece of kit that Nathan’s younger brother Dane – Plastic Wax’s Executive Vice President – remembers as scrappy and improvisational. “[We built it] at a time when the information to build it wasn’t out there. There were other studios doing the same thing, but not showing you how to do it. We sort of put the hardware together ourselves, and started building a system, which was less reliable at first, but then we iterated and iterated on it”.
As Plastic Wax pushed at the limits of technology, more clients began to pay attention to the tight-rope thin line it trod between stylisation and realism. The Polar Express this stuff wasn’t. Through the mid to late 2000s the crew worked on high profile games like The Darkness, Tomb Raider: Anniversary, and Hitman: Blood Money. Plastic Wax animated both BioShock endings, and built the widely viewed cinematic trailer for Warhammer: Dawn of War 2.
Dane cites the latter project as a moment of lucidity for the studio. This wasn’t baked in footage that would be blindly attributed to the developer of the game; it was a stand-alone trailer that told its own story and had its own identity. People loved it, and Plastic Wax loved people loving it. “It took a lot of late nights and a lot of Red Bulls,” says Dane. “We’re always proud of everything that we do, but, for me, that was that moment of, ‘I think storytelling at it’s core is what we love to do.’”
2011 through to 2013 saw Plastic Wax complete work on Epic Mickey 2, Saints Row IV, and LittleBigPlanet, among other big-name blockbusters. The team remained relatively small, and the pressure on Nathan in particular was enormous as the studio gained momentum. It’s hard though, sitting in front of him, with his soft-spoken demeanor and tendency to self-deprecate, to imagine his feathers getting easily ruffled. “He’s very humble… if you are asking why is he not marketing himself?” says Plastic Wax’s Executive Producer Felix Crawshaw, “it’s almost like he didn’t need to, he wears his work on his cuff. And it’s his work that is him, and that’s what sells and what attracts the next job.”
“It’s very Australian,” says the UK-born Crawshaw, who worked all over the world in film visual effects before joining Plastic Wax last November. “To not celebrate who you are, but show who you are, and let that just be the undercurrent.”
On paper, Plastic Wax’s position at the bottom of the world saw it on the back-foot when pitted against other VFX companies based in more tech-centric cities in the USA and the UK. But punching above one’s weight is a highly-regarded Australiasian virtue, and Plastic Wax only embraced the challenge. “All our competitors are international,” says Dane. “So if we don’t meet that level, that sort of fidelity, we miss out. I think it’s a big part of why we collaborate very closely, why we’re in tune with the studio and its talent, and being very sort of self aware of what other cinematic studios are doing, and how we can push the limits.”
Despite an environment increasingly geared towards in-engine footage – ‘in-game footage’ text is slapped on E3 demos like a badge of pride – there appears to be no shortage of opportunities to let Plastic Wax push said limits with pre-rendered animation. On the one hand, explains Nathan, it comes down to manpower; not every studio can afford to set aside its animators for such a huge chunk of time. “As far as feasibility for a company to be able to function, [clients] can outsource to people that are confident with it who can handle that part of things and not have to keep scaling up and scaling up.”
On the other hand, cinematics are still used to tell stories, particularly in trailers, and if you’re going to go pre-rendered, you go with the best. “Companies with their own in-house team come to Plastic Wax,” says Crawshaw. “We’ve worked on multiple projects with different styles for different cinematic needs. We look at what story the cinematic needs to tell. They buy into that skill base. And that enhances their IP.”
Today, Plastic Wax continues to be an aggressively sought after VFX studio, with a headcount of roughly 50 based in Rhodes, and San Francisco and LA-based marketing teams at work during the off hours. Nathan tells me there are some long-form projects in the pipeline that he’s very excited about. “We’ll have to have you back,” he says.
My interview was one of only a handful Plastic Wax has ever participated in, but the studio is tentatively happy to step into the spotlight after being the quiet achiever for only 20 years. “I think being able to just, to some small degree, encourage new, upcoming talent in the Australian industry in video games,” says Dane, “that’s something I think we’re passionate about. We’re sort of, you know, building a bit of a voice as well.”
Lucy O’Brien is an editor at IGN’s Sydney office. Follow her on Twitter.