Zenimax Online's Mike Jungbluth rounds up expert insight into video game animation in this roundtable Q&A.
Last year at Game Developers Conference, a group of animators came together to create the first ever game animation-specific gathering any conference has ever seen; The Animation Bootcamp. Sure, there are other conferences that focus on or examine animation as a whole, but nothing that specifically looks at the unique challenges and skills required of interactive game animation. And with the continued focus on creating stronger character performances with more lifelike movement, the need to give animators a chance to gather and become advocates of their craft has never been stronger.
While creating an opportunity for game animators to meet and discuss their growing craft is the first step, having their voice join the chorus of other game development disciplines is just as necessary. This is the beauty of having the Bootcamp at GDC, as it takes a rather insular and misunderstood craft and opens it up to the conversations and applications of the broader game dev community.
With that desire for animation to be better understood and integrated into the hearts and minds of all developers, editor-in-chief Kris Graft offered us the chance to take part in a roundtable here on Gamasutra. We have collected a few of the Animation Bootcamp speakers to answer some questions we received online, as well as ask a few of our own. We are:
Kristjan Zadziuk (@KrisZadziuk) - Animation Director, Ubisoft Toronto
Ryan Duffin (@AnimationMerc) - Senior Animator, EA DICE
Simon Unger (@Simonunger) - Lead Animator, Robotoki
Tim Borrelli (@Anim8der) - Lead Animator, 5th Cell
Mike Jungbluth (@Lightbombmike) - Senior Animator, Zenimax Online
This should give you the perfect insight into the conversations we have at the bootcamp and how it affects more than just animators. While some of these topics are certainly craft specific, many also reflect the blurred line between art, design, and tech that animation often lives within and helps to define.
Animation in games doesn't start or stop with animators, so we look forward to hearing your thoughts below, as well as at the bootcamp on March 17th!
Tim Borrelli (left) - Reading list: there are three books I recommend, each with their own strengths:
The Illusion of Life: It’s not going to teach you how to become an amazing animator, but it’s worthwhile to understand the history of the animation craft. This book will do that in regards to the Disney way--it not only teaches the Principles of Animation, but it explains why they are important.
Simplified Drawing for Planning Animation: Planning is key, not only in film/cinematic shots, but for in-game motion as well. This book does a great job of teaching how to plan -- lessons that can be applied to not just 2D/hand-drawn animation, but to 3D as well.
Animator’s Survival Kit: This one has a lot of information, and not everyone agrees that all of it is valid, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more thorough tome of practical information about the craft.
11 Second Club is a great online resource, as is Animator Island’s 51 Animation Exercises. If you can afford it, check out iAnimate (over Animation Mentor solely for the fact that iAnimate has a games focus).
Most importantly, go out and be active! Do stuff! You don’t have to run a triathlon or learn Krav Maga, but you need to have experiences to draw from when you are creating something. Go to a firing range, go running, go lift weights, go swimming, go for a walk, whatever. As Brad Bird said, “You can’t create the Illusion of Life if you don’t have one.”
Kristjan Zadziuk - Observation and practice has worked for me. Don't be afraid to ask for feedback from fellow animators. I went to University to study animation 14 years ago, but I felt that the most valuable resource was being around like-minded people. Now with all the forums and courses out there such as iAnimate and Animation Mentor you get a very similar experience, but this time with lots of different levels of experience. On a practical side, I focused a lot on the biomechanics of movement, understanding my own reasons for why and how I move and studying videos of anything in slow motion where possible, as it really helps you understand the mechanics of a motion.
Ryan Duffin - Yep. Study life. Always be watching people. One of the best things about GDC is that San Francisco has some of the most interesting characters I've seen anywhere. Watch how they move and go about their business. Try to define what about their movement and posture tells you their story.
Also, watch movies. Ones with real people who are great actors giving great performances. I love watching good animation, but don't imitate the imitators no matter how good they are; use life as your reference. I think this one is a big mistake of new animators, even though I know a lot of their teachers are telling them not to.
Simon Unger - Full disclosure, I'm an instructor at iAnimate and as far as online schools go, I'm a little biased. That said, I think there's a lack of breadth with many of the educational options out there and in a lot of the students I come across. I feel they tend to be a little too myopic in their focus. Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I like my artists to be on the well-rounded side. I expect my animators to have a basic understanding of color theory, composition, storytelling, acting, etc. I don't expect anyone to be an expert in all things, but a healthy interest and willingness to learn is pretty important.
There will always be a place for specialists, but I feel a shift in the industry where people are wearing more than one hat on a dev team, especially at the smaller studios. For me, personally, I want to work with collaborators, not "outsourcers." Having an opinion and the knowledge to back it up is important to me. There's never been a better time to access knowledge and information when it comes to animation.
The best resource for getting better at something? Feedback. From anyone and everyone. Seek it out and eat it up. It will make you better. Push your stuff out there and celebrate the failures as milestones to becoming better at your craft. I grew up skateboarding and we always used to say "if you're not falling, you're not trying hard enough."
Tim Borrelli - I love getting feedback from non-animators because they won’t try to find an animator solution for you, they’ll just tell you what feels wrong to them.
Ryan Duffin (right) - Oh jeez, that's a good question. Some contenders would be: Ryan Reynolds and Mark Strong's neck in the Green Lantern movie. Dr Octopus' tentacles on the Spider-man 2 game. Choreographing and keyframing some of the multi-character fight sequences in Ultimate Spider-Man. And weird as it may sound, I spent waaaay too much time on Alan Wake's running up and down stairs animations.
Kristjan Zadziuk - Most difficult character: Realistic domestic dog.... on a biped rig... We all know what they look like but interpreting that into a believable character is tough, the technical constraints made things even more complicated.
Simon Unger - There have been a lot of tricky shots over the years, both subtle and extreme, but by far the most difficult thing to do from an animation perspective has been Hitman (Agent 47). Working on a character that has an established fan base and a lot of built-in notions on who and what that character is was so incredibly hard. The slightest twitch of the mouth or angle of the eyes would take him off model. On top of that, we were tasked with making the game a more "personal journey," which was a major detour from what he always was. A large part of my time directing on that project was spent worrying about whether what we were doing was taking him out of character. I can't imagine what animators who are given the keys to animate Woody or Buzz go through. Big, intimidating shoes to fill for sure.
Tim Borrelli - Player movement is by far the most difficult thing for games, in my opinion. There is a delicate balance between looking good and feeling good, and more often than not, looking good is sacrificed for feeling good. This makes sense -- if the player moves like garbage, then the gameplay experience can be ruined. The balance also depends on the kind of game being made. For example, a twitch game will have a much different feel than an adventure game. The real challenge is nailing the feel early so the animation team can experiment with the "looking good" part as much as possible, while staying within the constraints of the feel.
Mike Jungbluth - On Singularity, different animation teams used different software packages. This was a unique case for an animation pipeline, but a norm for modelers, so why not go with it, right? Some characters would be in Max, some in MotionBuilder, and the first-person arms in Maya. Easy enough. It worked well enough until I had a scene that had a multi-character interaction, each exclusively in their own package, and the nightmare began. I would have to hop back and forth, referencing each character or object, using MotionBuilder as a go between. Needless to say, it took a complex scene, made it take twice as long to complete, required specific tech art support that wasn’t going to be used again, and I was half as happy with the final product. So from that point on, I stopped arguing about which software package was best and decided to simply champion the one already being used, as having a unified pipeline is far more important than a multi-software preferential one.
Tom Kay asks:
Mike Jungbluth (left) - I haven’t used the Lenovo, but I have played around with some 2d animation on my iPad, which I imagine is a similar experience. In fact, as I work on some more personal projects, I plan on using that as part of the process. But ultimately, if you are comfortable with a tablet PC, then use a tablet PC. If you are comfortable with finger painting, use finger painting. Animation is hard enough to learn on its own, so choose a tool that removes the complications keeping you from animating. This is why so many old school animators say learn with a pencil and paper, as that was most known and comfortable to most people. But we have crossed that generational gap of technological comfort, so if a mouse, keyboard, stylus and software package are more natural to you than a pencil and paper, rock it!
Kristjan Zadziuk - Software, to me at least, is more important than hardware, as you find you adapt to the tools you have. (Showing my age) My first steps as an animator were with Deluxe Paint 3 on the Amiga. I didn't even have the RAM extension so unless I saved to disk each time I would lose everything. I animated pixels jumping off a building and splatting into the floor, it was so satisfying, I loved it and it taught me so much. Currently the gameplay teams at Ubisoft Toronto use 3DS Max and MotionBuilder extensively, and a talented team of TDs writes amazing, time-saving scripts which help to make our lives easier. But I feel we would find a way if we didn't have all those at our disposal.
Ryan Duffin - Don't get hung up on the hardware or the software; game animation, no matter how technical it gets is still an art. Basically, any good gaming rig will be a pretty good content creation rig. The only possible difference is a quadcore processor definitely isn't wasted money when running software like Max, Maya and Photoshop, as some people would say it is when building a games-only rig.
Simon Unger - As far as how important the tools are, my answer would be "not very important." We probably have more processing power in our pockets these days than what they had to make the original Toy Story with. I think the old saying "An artist never blames his tools" has some truth to it. I see so many people getting caught up in the minutia of tech specs and automation that they lose sight of the main purpose they all serve; great characters and movement. If you're looking to get in as an animator, great animation will always be worth more than all the cool lighting and render effects that a better box gives you. Save your money and take another couple months off work to focus on the craft. Animation principles and good acting transcends which software package you choose.
Now, after saying that, a lot of studios don't want or have the luxury to devote a ton of time to "on-boarding" new hires (not something I necessarily agree with, but it's a fact. This is a whole other conversation though...). A software package like MotionBuilder is not often taught in schools but is a very common tool being used in games. Also, being familiar and comfortable working with motion capture is a rare skill for a student to have. These two things have cost me a lot of production time, as I have to train animators how to use them. It would have been much better to bring someone on who had some experience with them.
Tim Borrelli - The only importance that tools, hardware or software have when you are starting out is that you have access to something. Max, Maya, XSI -- they all do the same thing, just differently. If you are starting at a studio that uses different software than you know, get the evaluation version of that software and learn the basics. Also, ask if you’ll get a ramp-up time to learn more of it, as well as the tools and tech the studio uses. Hopefully they’ll say yes -- there’s rarely a good reason to hamstring new employees on day one after making the investment to bring them on board! (There are obvious times this isn’t possible, especially if you are brought on as a closer to finish the project.)