In and out of the battlefields of Dota 2 are spectacular garments and hints of lore to tickle any bookworm into a good mood. While Valve does some of the work of bringing this to life, they leave much of it in the hands of their Workshop creators, who work night and day to bring third-party goodies into the game. As an expansion of this, the Short Film Contest gave creators of all media a chance to bring Dota 2 to life in new and exciting ways.
Embracing all of these opportunities is Maxime “MaxOfS2D” Lebled, a Workshop artist and animator who directed not only this year’s Short Film Contest winner, but every iteration of it since its introduction in in 2015. His winning film “What does a hero truly fear?” tells a short but entertaining film that uses Bane’s Nightmare ability to speculate the deepest fears of a few of Dota 2’s most famous characters.
His contributions in animation and Dota 2 goes beyond his films, though, as he’s contributed a number of Workshop items, primarily as a rigger, or one who choreographs animation. Among countless other items that’s seen assistance from the item-crafting veteran, the creator’s touch can be seen in the famous Faceless Rex courier and the “Mothbinder” item for Death Prophet, for which he contributed the Exorcism animations.
We sat down with Lebled at TI7 after his victory to talk more about his time and work in Dota 2 animation.
The Flying Courier: Firstly, congrats on winning again! Initial feelings – how are you feeling about that, a day later?
Max “MaxOfS2D” Lebled: Still flabbergasted, I guess. In a way, I’m more happy that I managed to pull a hat trick by winning this year, if that makes sense. It’s a pretty good achievement and… it’s a bit hard to put in words, you know? It’s a big feeling, you try to assign words to…
TFC: The competition was really strong this year.
ML: Oh, it was really stiff. I really feel that Valve should have made it top five instead of top three. But at least they put it – like at the last minute they set it to do 15 finalists instead of 10, which was really great. And the fact that they listened to my suggestion to make it 90 seconds instead of 60 not only helped me but everybody to raise the level of competition. 60 seconds is a creative barrier to entry, because you have to figure out how to make a movie in 60 seconds and lots of people don’t figure out how to make a movie if they get started and then realize, “Oh shit, I don’t have enough time to do what I want to do.” Then they just end it abruptly.
Since there’s none of that this year, it’s easier for people to not have to worry about that aspect and focus on making what they’re best at doing.
TFC: Your background in animation work – where did you really start what you’re doing now?
ML: I remember I started in late 2010 when I was still in high school. I started using 3DS Max – I had friends that were making a Half-Life 2 multiplayer mod, which was about Care Bears shooting each other. They were like “Hey, Max, do you know anything about view models” – that’s the term for first-person weapons – and I was like “you know what, I’ll just mess around.” I like to mess around, learning new skills by messing around until I knew how the software works.
I had no idea what I was doing for six months. At the same time, I also had a really big interest in what people used to call “machinima.” You know, making movies and video games with prebuilt assets. Like what we’re doing, in a ways, today – a very old version of that. Back then we had Source SDK and Faceposer tool, which was the tool that Valve used to choreograph all the scripted sequences in Half Life 2 and so on. And I was making movies with that, but you know – you’re restricted to the animation of Half Life 2.
So eventually I was like, “you know what, I want to make my own animations.” I came back to animation and I tried way harder to figure that stuff out that time around. Eventually, I was hired by Garry Newman and I worked on Garry’s Mod and Rust while it was still in Alpha. After two years, I quit and I started doing Dota 2 Workshop stuff and indie game contracts. Since then it’s mostly been Dota 2 stuff.
TFC: Is that where you make most of your livelihood?
ML: It has been, but it’s not going to be anymore thanks to Valve’s not very good decisions about the workshop.
TFC: I was gonna ask if you wanted to talk about that, actually. What do you feel is the state of the workshop right now?
ML: Over the past year, it’s been pretty bad. The money that’s been coming in for artists haven’t been enough to support it. Even if the money was good enough, there’s just been three opportunities over the year: TI6 and the two majors.
That hasn’t been very good. But maybe with the fact that we have a staggering 11 majors and minors, maybe that will change. However… let’s say… I’m not going to get my hope up too much.
TFC: You’re really head-deep into Dota. What intrigues you about Dota—what keeps you in it?
ML: One of the things I enjoyed most about Dota, actually, is how its universe is really magical and inviting. Back during the 2013 era, the art by Jim Murray, all the great writing, all the hand-painted comics and stuff like that. Even though you can call the lore very background and stuff, I always found it super interesting. They managed to not make it feel like a writer had to just write this for its own sake – no, they managed to make it interesting.
They took some lessons from TF2, right? I actually like that. Note that it’s a bit less developed and not the focus anymore, but… it’s basically gotten the same syndrome as TF2 over the years. It’s gotten a bit goofier; it’s still really nice, I think.
A bunch of my friends don’t play Dota but just watch it, not only because the game itself is cool and you can understand without playing it. But the characters are super freaking cool. But that’s I would say is one of the biggest appeals.
Also, I kind of hate to admit this, but I live in a city that’s mostly old people and I don’t have many friends there. For that reason, Dota is kind of my social life. I get to talk to four of my friends over an hour or two, doing minigames in a row. That’s just really nice, you know, achieving something together.
It’s just fulfilling socially, in a way, if that makes sense.
TFC: It makes sense! You seem really interested in Dota and the universe; do you feel there’s a common thread through your work? Through whether your workshop or movies or something you stick to?
ML: It’s hard to say, because honestly I just tend to try to push myself. I just want to learn stuff, and actually, it’s going to sound maybe a little petty, but I just want to be validated. It’s crazy to me, and I have trouble internalizing the fact that there are actual industry professionals, including some people who work or used to work at Valve, that admire my work. I know it, but my brain refuses to accept it.
You could say, psychologically, that’s the reason. But other than that, I guess a common trend as far as Dota goes, I like to expand the universe in interesting ways – even if it just amounts to realizing a headcanon or even if it’s never going to be official. Maybe it might make people see what I see in the game, it’s going to make them see what I find what is interesting in the game.
For example, in my short film – a lot of people want to do action in short films and stuff like that. But what I like to try to do is, even if it’s a really short time, I want to add a bit of a story that looks a bit more into what we don’t really get to see in the game, which is characters’ personalities. I try to build a little bit off of that.
TFC: You can definitely feel that in the work: it always feels like a small story. So what are you looking forward to in the future, maybe between now and next International?
ML: Well, hopefully, the workshop rises out of the grave, but I don’t have many hopes about that. I kind of want to make a Director’s Cut of my TI7 movie. Unlike the two previous ones, I had so many ideas that I didn’t get up to using. Which was also the case with previous ones, but this time around, I really felt I managed to knock it out of the park in almost all aspects, but especially story is the biggest thing that I improved. Mostly due to the 90 seconds thing, but whatever.
I’m notoriously bad at estimating the time my ideas are going to take every year, even now I know it consciously and I keep reminding myself ‘you’re not going to have enough time, Max.’ What I’m getting at is that the Director’s Cut of my movie could be three or four minutes, and I kinda wanna do that. Even if not many people end up watching it because they’ve already seen the comic’s version, I think it would be really interesting to show people “hey, this is what I really wanted to do.”
Beyond that, I guess… if I had a dream, I’m not especially seeking to be noticed by Valve, but I do wish they promoted the game more. When you look at League of Legends, they do cinematics every other month or so. They always get dozens of millions of views, and it really helps promote the game, right?
If maybe Valve finally realizes that they need to promote the game more, and if they were looking for, I don’t know, an internship or somebody who’s good with Source Filmmaker or something like that…
I don’t particularly want to work in America right now, because of politics or whatever, but if I had a chance to work with Valve animators and really learn a crap ton of new stuff, that’d be great. Because you always learn 10 times faster on the job than when you’re at a school, by yourself, or a new tutorial.
TFC: So you want to work more professionally for your own betterment.
ML: I would love to basically learn more from my peers.