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Exploring video game animation with a film industry veteran Exclusive
Exploring video game animation with a film industry veteran
April 4, 2013 | By Mike Rose

April 4, 2013 | By Mike Rose
More: Console/PC, Indie, Programming, Art, Design, Production, Exclusive

"Nowadays the skills and crew required to make a game and a movie are virtually identical... I've witnessed the blurring between the two media which has been occurring gradually over the years."

Lionel Gallat, known online as "Seith," has been working on animated movies for over 15 years now, putting his mark on films like The Prince Of Egypt, The Road to Eldorado, SharkTale and Flushed Away.

Most recently, he was Universal Studios' animation director on both Despicable Me and The Lorax. But even more recently, Gallat has moved away from movies into what he feels is a natural progression -- making video games.

"There was a very strong desire to create something that would be more personal," he tells Gamasutra. "When you work on a big movie it's a deeply collaborative process."

"It has its upsides obviously," he continues. "Mainly being able to share ideas with great artists and technicians who are at the top of their fields. But the downside is the fact that ultimately, whether you are in a leading position or simply a member of the team, you are more or less a cog in a large wheel. I'm not passing any judgement; That's just how the industry works and that's what I did to the best of my abilities for more than 15 years. Which allowed me to gather a lot of experience in different disciplines."

Now Gallat is at the point where he wants to try his hand at going it alone, and video games allow him to do just that.

"If I don't take the risks now, no-one will do it for me," he notes. "Also I didn't want to become a bitter person like I've seen some people turn into. I still love visual storytelling and I just want to keep having fun doing it, all the while having better control on what is ultimately the result of a lot of hard work."


The move into video game development has felt so very right for the former Dreamworks animator, as he's found that many of the skills he needs to get his ideas in motion can be ripped straight from his movie animation days.

"From a personal point of view, the experience of working on movies has taught me a lot in terms of attention to composition, design choices and plain taste," he says.

He adds, "I would say one big difference between movies and games is that on a movie we tend to nitpick about many things. The attention to detail is pushed to excruciating lengths. It's mostly due to the screen size movies are projected on, and the complex simulation calculations going on at render time. With games you can be a lot more loose in your approach. It's much more forgiving and I really like that."

ghost of a tale 1.jpgGames also have the upper-hand in terms of how quickly you can see your work coming together.

"I just tweak things in Maya, and then click on a button to send everything to Unity and there it is, looking exactly the way the player will see it," Gallat reasons. "I really love the flexibility of the process. Movie development moves at a much slower pace. Iterations can take hours, sometimes days. So in my experience this change of pipeline translates into more freedom in the workflow."

Keeping those animations flowing

It's this freedom, coupled with the aforementioned forgiving nature of video game design, that is driving Gallat's work on his first title, Ghost of a Tale. He's released some gorgeous alpha footage, and currently has a crowdfunding initiative on the go.

It's instantly noticeable just how movie-like and fluid the character animations are, especially on the protagonist -- although Gallat is keen to stress that he plans to make it all look a lot cleaner and smoother, especially when it comes to the animation transitions.

I ask Gallat why he thinks that video game animations can still be so rigid and lifeless in modern day releases, even with entire armies of animators behind them.

"I think there are mostly two reasons for the situation you mentioned," he replies. "First, it's a matter of education. When you work on a movie you need to study weight and acting. A lot. There are training courses, personal mentoring, etc... It does take years of experience."

ghost of a tale 2.jpg"Which brings me to the second point: Time. Animators in video game studios are rarely allowed time to learn, to refine, to improve their skills. So they mostly get better at being faster, more efficient. Which is important of course, but only the first half of the journey."

It's these two factors that can potentially bring video game animation down, Gallat believes. "As an animator it truly saddens me of course when I see bad animation in a game (truth be told it often ticks me off)," he adds. "But as a professional I understand the reasons behind that."

There are also notable constrasts between movie and video game animations that need to be kept in mind elsewhere, says Gallat.

"Animation-wise a big difference between movies and games is that on movies usually you create 'unique' animations, which tend to be quite shot-specific," he explains. "Whereas in games you have to think in terms of 'action units'; shorter animations that need to flow from/into each-other and be reusable. There is a lot of emphasis on the transitions. So I'd say it's a different mindset altogether."

ghost of a tale 3.jpgFortunately, the toolsets for both movie and video game animation are extremely similar, meaning that transitioning from one industry to the other is made somewhat more simple.

"I use Maya exactly the same way I've been using it for many years working on movies," says the film industry veteran.

"Regarding the choice for Unity, I have to say at first I wasn't really sure about using it for Ghost of a Tale". However, late last year Unity 4 started supporting DX11 and a friend of mine mentioned it to me again (thanks Chris!)."

When Gallat looked over the new threads, he realized that Unity was now very much a viable option, and he decided to give it a whack.

"As a single developer it allowed me to do what I needed without having to rely on a support team of dedicated animation TDs," he notes. "Once I put my character in the editor and I started playing with Mecanim (the animation manager), I found that it gave me a very fine control over all my animations with minimum fussing."

"So in other words, as someone accustomed to feature animation standards, I didn't feel shortchanged in the least."

Ghost of a Tale is currently looking for pledges on IndieGoGo, with a release date of sometime in 2014.

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Gabriel da Cruz
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Great interview. It's really interesting to hear about the differences and overlaps between film and videogame animation.

David Navarro
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I worked with Lionel on The Prince of Egypt and The Road to Eldorado; he's ridiculously talented and I really look forward to whatever he brings to the world of interactive experiences.

David OConnor
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Just to say also that last year, Lionel (aka Seith) contributed some of his free time to the CryENGINE community by building/sharing/supporting a free Maya>CryENGINE exporting tool, along with some free animation tutorials.

I'm hoping he'll find a LOT of success with this title... awesome!

Bruno Xavier
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As a person making a game by my own too, I for sure know what he is going through.
This is far from easy task. Wish him best of luck!

Ian Snyder
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This looks beautiful, but I was sad to see the mouse just start whacking away with a club rather than something more interesting, using the lute to lull the enemies or something. I love the look though, I'll certainly be watching it's progress.

Gern Blanston
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The combat looks pretty atrocious, but honestly everything else looks quite brilliant. I hope to see a more balanced product as the project nears completion. It could be really great!

David OConnor
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the video is still an early alpha, so I'm sure that the mechanics will evolve a lot

Michael Jungbluth
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More focus and attention to animation in games is definitely necessary in crafting stronger characters and experiences in games. I look forward to seeing how his animation training influences his design decisions.

I also appreciate the honest words about animators needing to specifically grow their traditional skills to help get past the stigma of game animation not being up to snuff. It is a tough pill to swallow, but it is more often true than not. Speed often trumps quality in production.

But that is definitely only half of it, as he states. The unique needs of the medium require game animators to not only understand the traditional applications of animation when crafting each movement but how to convey them when their traditional method isn't available (ie. anticipation, follow through, staging, etc).

Great to see someone from film being aware of both.

Genna Habibipour
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There's nothing quite like designer requests: "We want the player to do this really epic sequence in the game that makes you feel like your character is a super hero... And we need it to happen in 600 milliseconds without interrupting the player's ability to move." :D

TC Weidner
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Looks great, wish him nothing but success.

Robert Tsao
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Great interview. I find it interesting that so many different people have different trajectories when it comes to defining that "next logical career step" and I respect that kind of passion.

Also, I'm getting a huge nostalgia kick from watching the trailer. I grew up on NIMH, the Redwall series, and just recently discovered the Mouse Guard comic book, which is great. Lionel, best of luck. I'm looking forward to getting my hands on the game.

Josh Greer
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Honestly I feel like his reasoning for why game animation doesn't measure up to film animation is overly simplified and maybe even a little insulting to the artists creating it. The implication seems to be that film animators have a lot of training and experience studying motion while game animators are incompetent mooks who don't know what they're doing. A game may not be animated as beautifully as a movie, but that doesn't mean the artists making it are any less competent.

Game animation is a whole different beast because it isn't just animation, it's animation with a thousand caveats. Your average animation rig for a game character is WAY less complicated, and able to do much less than a film rig, because the game has to run in realtime. Often animation is mathematically filtered when putting it into an engine (meaning keys are deleted or values on keyframes are rounded) in order to make it less taxing on the memory, and this process can make it look like hell even if the starting point was great. Animations need to blend together based on player input, and they frequently need to break animation principles in order to serve the gameplay (Mario doesn't wind up for his jump, because this would make the game seem unresponsive when you pressed the Jump button).

He mentions the need for a game animator to be fast, and that I agree with, but I don't think he's giving that comment the weight it deserves. The speed you need to complete a task COMPLETELY determines how well it's going to turn out. Pixar movies look as good as they do because each animator is only animating around 4 seconds a week. I've worked with film guys who are unable to make anything good at all if forced to work faster than that. But 4 seconds a week isn't practical when your average game is 5 times longer than your average animated film, and with a smaller budget.

I agree that game animation should be better, but that's not going to happen until budgets go up or development cycles increase even further than they already have. The idea that game animation is bad because the people making it are bad is incorrect.

Craig Timpany
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Yeah, this. When there's a trade-off between more naturalistic animation and more responsive controls, the controls come first. I wanna thank everybody in game animation for all the times they've taken one for the team.

Christiaan Moleman
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I think part of the problem with game animation and the reason it's not given the time it needs is the perception (which seems to be changing slowly) that players don't care about good animation. Some point to games with terrible animation that still sold many copies as proof of this, which is just nonsense... like saying players only want ASCII graphics because Dwarf Fortress is popular.

When only the animation department cares about making character movement look good, it's difficult to make much progress. You need close collaboration with other disciplines (especially design and code) to do interactive animation properly. Some studios actively go out of their way to focus on this (Ubisoft, Team Ico) but it often remains an uphill battle to convince people to put time and money into it.

Also, this might not be a popular view among animators, but I would argue the energy that goes into creating impressive cutscenes and pre-rendered trailers (that players will watch exactly once and then skip) could be better spent on improving animation in-game...

David OConnor
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There's a new video - part of the IndieGoGo campaign - featuring the main character from the game, on YouTube...

I really think that some impressive visuals may be achievable with Unity 4