New Game Plan
By Christy Lemire
Published Oct 1, 2014 8:00 AM
When his children were born, “Medal of Honor” and “Call of Duty” animation director Sunil Thankamushy M.F.A.’01 gave up “shoot-’em-up style” creations and turned to nature as a gaming subject to nurture creativity.
As the eldest of three kids growing up in Kochi on the west coast of India, Sunil Thankamushy M.F.A. ’01 loved cartoons and drawing. As an adult, with the help of his studies in the Animation Workshop at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, he turned those passions into a groundbreaking career.
Reporting to Steven Spielberg at DreamWorks Interactive, Thankamushy was animation director on the innovative 1999 video game “Medal of Honor.” After Electronic Arts bought DreamWorks Interactive, Thankamushy and several “Medal of Honor” veterans left to found their own company and build a new title for Activision. Thankamushy served as animation director on “Call of Duty: Finest Hour,” one of the two titles that initiated the multibillion-dollar “Call of Duty” franchise.
Hear Sunil talk about his transition out of the "shoot-em-up" video game genre, on INKtalks.
But becoming a parent changed his perspective, and his purpose. “Xplore: Pangaea,” the latest project he’s developing through his company, DEEPBLUE Worlds Inc., is an interactive game in a prehistoric setting that teaches kids how to care for ecosystems.
“They were the inspiration,” Thankamushy said of the 11-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter he and his wife are raising in La Jolla, Calif. “If not for them, I would still be making shoot-’em-up games.”
Sitting on a bench amid the creatures and the ooze at La Brea Tar Pits on a recent morning, he discussed his inspirations and ambitions.
Q: What were your cultural influences growing up in India?
A: My big cultural influences were comic books — and not exactly the comic books that you guys grew up with in the U.S. In India, we are influenced more by European-style comics. They’re not really superhero-oriented. It was more adventure-based stories: Tintin, Asterix and Obelix. [But] I was always reading about all kinds of things — especially science. I loved science, geography and pretty much anything to do with nature. In fact, at one point I wanted to be a naturalist.
Q: What inspired you to come to UCLA to study in 1993?
A: I wanted to get into animation. Just like most Indian, middleclass kids, I watched a lot of cartoons, especially Walt Disney-based animation cartoons — everything from Snow White up to the 1990s movies. And especially Who Framed Roger Rabbit. That was revolutionary, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day was absolutely revolutionary. I then watched The Abyss. And I realized, “Oh, my gosh. This is mesmerizing, and people can do this for a living — I can totally see myself doing this.” Games had not crossed my mind, because I never used to play games. But I could not just sit there in India with these crazy things going on around the world.
Q: What did you learn at UCLA film school that helped shape your career?
A: The philosophy was, “We’re training you not for your first job, but for your final job, as a director.” It made you think: You’re in charge of learning not just the art of animation, not just the craft alone, but to see holistically. It’s called “one student, one film.” So I learned everything that comes with that: 2-D animation, 3-D animation, cinematography, screenwriting, television direction and live-action filmmaking. It was just a stunning experience.
Q: Then you became one of the first animators to work for Steven Spielberg at DreamWorks Interactive. What did you learn from him?
A: I learned that it doesn’t pay to show off. Spielberg, of all people — I had this vision of what he’d be like, and he completely destroyed my vision. Here’s this guy, completely down to earth in his tattered jeans, tattered baseball hat, and completely different from any other so-called important person I’ve ever met. That inspired me to just be genuine. Be driven not by your importance but by the work that you’re trying to do. Focus on the work and let it mold your personality.
Q: You worked with Spielberg on “Medal of Honor.” Did you realize what a huge phenomenon this game would become?
A: Yes (laughs). You can never be sure, but I thought it had a 70-percent chance. The ingredients were there. We started to tinker around with some game ideas, and Spielberg comes one day and says, “I’m making this film called Saving Private Ryan, and let’s change the way world war games are played. Let’s make it about the American soldier. Let’s give him a name, and let’s show the glory of what he’s trying to achieve.”
See what Xplore: Pangaea is all about.
Q: But then you became a father and it just didn’t feel right to make these kinds of violent games anymore.
A: I basically lost my heart in this some time ago — just making yet another shoot-’em-up game. I didn’t have the clarity of vision that Spielberg talked about anymore. Because now every studio has a World War II game. My mind shifted, especially because my kids were born. My wife was the one who gave me the impetus to do this. … [She said,] “Go and find out what it is that you want to do.” I want to use animation and gaming for its greatest purpose — to make interactive experiences for kids and families that will teach them and nurture their natural curiosity.
Q: Why did you decide to focus on dinosaurs?
A: Dinosaurs always fascinated me. One film that gave me an extra boost was Jurassic Park. For me, dinosaurs represent the most magnificent animals of all time that we know of. And to know that this place was full of such magnificent animals — I cannot shake it out of my mind.
Q: When will we be able to see “Xplore: Pangaea”?
A: It’s in beta stage right now, so we’re testing it with select audiences. I expect the beta to last at least another half a year. We are continuously changing things to get that right, magic spot. The challenge is how to make nature interesting. It’s not a simple thing, because if so, everyone would be doing it. But I’ve taken it upon myself to actually crack that. It’s not just a matter of putting puzzles and games all over the place. Many people do that. But I know there’s something bigger.