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Game Animation Bootcamp: An expert roundtable Q&A
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Game Animation Bootcamp: An expert roundtable Q&A

March 7, 2014 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Chad Moore asks: 

In what ways and how soon do you evaluate the character's animation set as a whole, regarding aesthetics and gameplay?

Tim Borrelli - How soon? As soon as possible.

Gameplay-wise, we start all projects with box characters. They’ll have rough proportions that we think will work for a character. We rig that guy or gal up, and start animating per design’s needs. In tandem, character designs are worked on, but they don’t need to match our proportions as we aren’t using the box character for style development, just gameplay iteration. The box character gives us a fast iteration time with design ahead of character art and rigging, so that once the real character is done, our roadmap is planned and we can just create content within the constraints of our style.

Give your animation team a week or two of pose tests and animation tests to get to know the characters they are working on once the final models are rigged. With these, you can evaluate if the character will hit some of the poses and extreme moves we may have to hit, within style and design constraints. Doing the work up front saves time down the road (planning!). Once you get through that phase, look at the work done as a team and decide what fits the character, and begin animation (again, based on the design iteration from the box characters).

It’s also important to note that if you want to have animations that are considered polish, make sure those will work ahead of time (variations of movement, transitions, etc). Try to do all of those types of motions up front with the box character to make sure the tech is there and that they’ll look/feel good. This avoids wasted work down the home-stretch.

Kristjan Zadziuk (right) - We also try and evaluate feel of the gameplay as early as possible with those involved with the look and feel, we will use stick men and rough posing to get an idea of gameplay timings, that will often influence how we might tackle the aesthetic.

When we get mocap data back we usually have a pretty good idea of how it will look, but the feel will be off, so we insert the raw data to assess just what needs to be done and go back and forth with animation and design until we are both happy. I imagine most studios are the same. Ubisoft places a lot of importance on playtesting and player feedback, and animation will be involved in this process too. I’ve sat in many playtests and watched the reaction of people when they use a move we have been working on. I still get a kick out of it when the reaction is positive. We place a huge amount of importance in the balance between the look and the aesthetic often making small changes to the place that is best to allow interruption to another move.

We have regular team reviews, but more often we will have smaller cell reviews such as combat/ai/navigation so everyone had visibility on each others process and get enough access to the leads for direction.

Ryan Duffin - The best way to evaluate your animation set is to do it in engine. Game animation is the sum of all its parts so it's best not to get hung up on the parts. Get it in game, then evaluate, at least once you're past the basic stages of creating an animation. And I don't just mean in test levels, jumping and running around either. Once you're in the later stages of development, you should be playtesting often and evaluating your animations in their native environment and context.

How soon? Well, gameplay matters a lot sooner than aesthetics do, in my opinion. Get the other departments what they need to do their jobs first and foremost, then you can focus on iterating to quality. I believe you should be planning, authoring and/or capturing animation with an aesthetic intent in mind but you can get a lot of groundwork done for gameplay with placeholder assets too. It's kind of like throwing your dog a bone to keep him busy while you finish your nice steak dinner.

Simon Unger - Animation in games is an iterative process. I'm a firm believer in getting to your successes or failures as quickly and cheaply as possible. "Fail fast and fail cheap" was a mantra while I was at EA and it's something I've really stuck with. I want to see movement in the game as quickly as possible and evaluate it there. I really don't care what the source files or the curves look like, the only thing that matters is what ends up on screen.

In the past, our tools have been tedious and slow and when that happens there is less iteration time. Longer iteration times equals less animation quality. This was a major factor in why the older games were such poor quality. I don't think people realize how much work goes into a simple locomotion set for a character in a game. We're rapidly moving towards a real-time asset creation pipeline in games. It's becoming more and more like turning something on a lathe rather than writing a pen pal on the other side of the planet.

CJ Burbage asks:

What can an entry level animator do to stand out from the other applicants looking to get into games?

Kristjan Zadziuk - We get asked this all the time -- there is no one answer. If there was and everyone did it, then no one would stand out.  But with that said I recommend keeping it simple, and not trying to hide animation with flashy camera moves. I want to see personality and weight in your walk/run cycles. Show interesting interactions between two or more characters. Please don't use dubstep to accompany your reel. I tend to turn the sound off unless there are dialogue pieces. Start strong... Edit your best work to the start. “No filler, all killer” -- don't add moves to pad out your reel.

Show a passion for games animation. If you know how to break a system down or understand how multiple animations would blend together, try and show me that. Oh and one last thing, and this is more a personal thing: Try to keep the three-point landings down to a minimum, but that's just me. So basically, show a combination of good animation and technical know-how and that will definitely get you on our collective radar. If you are applying to Ubisoft Toronto, no more than one three point landing per reel.

Ryan Duffin -  Realize that games animation isn't just about good looking playblasts and renders any more. It's not about a really nice, super-polished and cartoony acting piece you got to iterate on a hundred times under close supervision. We don't want to be your consolation prize because Disney didn't hire you.

Show us something what you wish video games looked like. Show us something in a game engine; even better if it's an actual game!  Show us that you know games and can speak games. Show us that you play well with a team. Show us you know version control software (the last two parts are better to put on your resume than your reel, obviously).

Basically, do everything you can to show us that you are a production ready game animator, a team-player, free of ego who can take direction but isn't going to need much hand-holding.

And keep your reel short. Seriously. Never pad your reel with anything you don't feel is your absolute top-notch work, even if that means your reel is short. Worst case? We'll ask for more samples. Unless you are amazing, the worst case for too long of a reel is worse.

Simon Unger (left) - Every team is usually looking to fill a very specific void when they put out an ad for a new animator to join them. Here's a shameless link to a previous Gamasutra article I wrote on some common mistakes animators make when applying and interviewing at a company.

Beyond that, I really like to see an animator's voice in their work. Not literally your voice (though that would be awesome if you do some cool voices). What I mean is showing some of your personality, sense of drama or humor, whatever. Almost every reel I see is so obviously a product of whatever teacher/director gave them the shot and coached them through it. Seeking out feedback and implementing it is encouraged, but I really get excited when I see a fresh take on something.

Lastly, and everyone else is probably going to say this as well, but be easy to work with. I've lost count of the number of animators who basically had the job on the merit of their reels and resumes and lost the job at the interview. A bad personality or attitude will be your undoing. I spend more time with my team-mates than I do with my own family sometimes. I don't want to hang out with jerks. Plus, it's a small industry and word gets around.

Tim Borrelli - Yes! Personality-wise, don’t be a jerk. Be someone who everyone wants to work with, above all else. It’s a small industry, and both your merits and faults will follow you. If you meet people out at industry events (beer nights, GDC, E3, etc), make an effort to meet people, ask questions, and be respectful. You don’t want to be remembered as that overly drunk guy or the student who bragged about “how many beers he had that night and how many job offers he already had before graduation” at GDC.

Reel-wise, unless you are applying for a cinematics position or to a small studio, get the acting stuff off your reel for a game studio. Put it in a shorter, separate supplementary reel if you must, but in-game animation is not the same as cinematics. The lines are blurring at some studios, but if we are talking in the here and now, you are best off doing this.

Now, here’s what I would love to see, but rarely, if ever do: individual animations created for in-game use, which are then stitched together either via an NLE or a game engine for gameplay. I want to not only see that you can make awesome individual assets, but that those parts fit together to make an even better whole. Even better is if you can demonstrate an understanding of how blendtrees/state machines work.

I want to see something original! I want to see something that shows me who you are, not just a rehash of what games do nowadays. What’s your take on it?

Ryan Duffin asks:

With the final quality of games animation increasingly dictated by the sum of quality content and systemic solutions like layers and advanced state machines, which development field should be responsible for it? Is it a role that gameplay animators should be transitioning into? Technical animators familiar with the systems? Designers building the gameplay? A new job title altogether?

Tim Borrelli - It entirely depends on the toolset, its features and its maturity. I think long-term the role will be shared. Engineering will need to inform how the behaviors/state machines will need to be built per project, so that they function for gameplay engineering. Animators will need the systems to be human-readable so they can add states, blendtrees, transitions, blends, animations, etc. Design will need access to setting events/triggers/speed scaling, working with animation to ensure the look and feel meet the desired goals.

I could see the role becoming a separate job title, but it would live in the same area as tech art- service to design and animation disciplines. I think larger studios may embrace this role, but smaller studios will find their animation teams picking up the main duties for this as a part of their broader toolbox.

Simon Unger - I definitely see the toolset evolving into more of a "motion designer's toolkit," but I don't see the ownership going to anyone else. Animators are the only ones on the team trained to see and critique movement and as such, are in the best position to author, implement, and troubleshoot motion in the game. What I do see on the horizon is more artist-friendly pipelines that allow animators to prototype and test gameplay mechanics and features at their desk with little to no assistance required from programmers or designers. I know this has already been happening for some time at places like EA, but it has yet to trickle down entirely to smaller studios reliant on off-the-shelf engines.

At the end of the day, regardless of how the animation got there (keyframe, mocap, procedural, etc) it's still the animator who says "this is the best I can do with the time and resources I have available." How we get there will change, but the expectations of the end result will not.

Kristjan Zadziuk - I have heard that term “Motion Designer” thrown around, which I actually quite like, but call me old fashioned -- I like having the word “animation” in my title. But this is a role that I see animators evolving in the industry that separates us from TV and film. Being a gameplay animator really is an art form -- the ability to make an animation look good from all angles at any point is really tough.  But only focusing on the aesthetic alone will mean you miss the bigger picture. Games animators need to think in terms of the overall system. The balance we have at Ubisoft seems to work well for us and it is always evolving.  We usually have animators, programmers and designers sitting very close together.  The more understanding an animator has of the technicalities of how their animation is put together the better it is going to be for the overall feel of the game, but as soon as you put that control into an animator’s hands, then they may never want to give that control back. Its a very powerful skill to have, so use it wisely.

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