Exploring video game animation with a film industry veteran
"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."
Games 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."
"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."
Fortunately, 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."