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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 3 of 3

Tim Borrelli asks:

Given that animation can be heavily design-driven, does it makes sense for animation to be under the guidance of the art department/direction, or should it be its own department on a project? Or even under the design bubble?

Ryan Duffin - Great question! I firmly believe that the idea that games animation is a sub-discipline of art is an archaic and obsolete relic of the 80s and 90s. It made sense then but not anymore; it's just too big. Its father is art and its mother is design but it's its own beast now, with more in common with its mother.

With a few notable exceptions, most art and design directors don't have a background in animation and aren't the best people to give the final evaluation of animation quality. I believe it should be its own department with its own director and the gameplay animators should be sitting closer to the gameplay designers than anyone else.

Simon Unger - This is a tough one as it really depends on a lot of moving parts. How much animation knowledge does the Art Director or Designer have?  In my experience, these two roles usually have little knowledge of animation and it's inner workings. Ideally, game features dependent on or requiring animation (usually everything) should be a collaboration between all parties involved. This would likely start with design saying "this is something I want to happen/experience" and art/animation coming back with "here's how we can/can't get you there and why, and here's also where we think we can make this better." This goes back and forth until a plan is created and implemented.

A lot of the direction should typically be hashed out during pre-production and referred to constantly throughout production. I see a lot of teams rush through the pre-pro stage and figure stuff out on the fly. This is how crunch, half-baked features, and poor animation quality end up in games as you are developing in a reactive state, instead of a proactive one.

Kristjan Zadziuk - I’m not saying an Art Director can’t have a good eye for animation, but animation is definitely grown out from under that umbrella.  As an Animation Director I definitely feel we have more of an understanding of the design and aesthetic makeup of a system, partly due to it being our specialty, but we are always open to another perspective.

Ubisoft clearly separates the disciplines, but I currently sit next to the Art Director on my new project and we often exchange ideas, but the line is clear -- animation is the Animation Directors bag, we focus on motion and gameplay mechanics. My report has always been the producer and creative director and we are and should be our own department.

Kristjan asks:

With the shift towards more interactive storytelling, away from the traditional cutscene/gameplay dynamic, how does this influence or set apart the role of animators?

Ryan Duffin - I think it's definitely making work more scarce for the traditional, set-some-keys-in-Maya-and-call-it-a-day cutscene animator.  It's getting harder and harder to avoid doing any in-engine work, which highlights the diverging paths of film/tv and games animation, even for cinematics. Game engines have been good enough to handle cinematics for a while now and it's great for consistency, but it does make for some headaches, especially when the animator is responsible for seeing their work through to the engine.

I think new techniques in interactive storytelling mean that cinematic animators are going to need to be a bit more technical and less compartmentalized from the game team than they might've been in the past.

On the other hand, I also think people have been hedging bets on the death of the traditional cutscene since the first Half-Life in 1998. And isn't Metal Gear Solid 5 launching any day now?

Simon Unger - I'm more excited about the potential of AI and more believable behavior systems than anything in the coming generations of hardware. To me, that's been the main roadblock to creating fully-immersive storytelling via NPCs. I don't see cutscenes going the way of the dinosaur, as they'll always be a tool in our storytelling kit. I just don't see us handling every situation with the same tool in the future like we do now. Don't know how to transition? Cutscene! Need to establish a new character? CUTSCENE! I think they've been heavy-handed and over-written in the past and I'm glad to see a shift where we're giving our audience a little more credit for their intelligence and ability to interpret or create a story.

How do I see this changing the role of animators? I think we're going to need to be much better, more rounded collaborators moving forward. We have to transition from being widget-makers and start driving decisions when it comes to creating better, more appealing, more believable stories and characters. I want to make people cry, laugh, or be so scared they have to force themselves to turn the game on to find out what happens next. I don't think we're there yet, but we're close.

Tim Borrelli - I cannot answer this one any better than Simon did. He and I share a brain.

Mike Jungbluth asks:

What is the most common misconception or challenge you find yourself having to correct on games you have worked on or at studios you have worked at?

Kristjan Zadziuk - First, is that all we need to do is go to mocap or apply a facial capture rig and our job is done, nothing extra needed. Maybe one day, but not yet. Andy Serkis has a lot to answer for! Second, with every team I have been on or led, I try to make our team as transparent as possible. With that usually comes trust, and with trust usually your managers give you a little more room to experiment. That often results in some of our more creative work.

Ryan Duffin - The most common thing seems to be not understanding how much more complex and technical games animation is than it used to be. When modeling made a generational shift and started using Zbrush and normal maps, the results were plain as day to the rest of the team. It’s less obvious that what used to be one single animation exported from Max or Maya is now a bunch of layers running concurrently, one animation on top of another. In game, it still looks like a character moving and the difference is in how systemically flexible and nuanced it is; it’s not “suddenly game animation looks 10 times more detailed” so it’s understandable that this isn’t obvious.

The other is the idea that every game animator is a closet film animator-wannabe -- that we don’t understand anything or care about gameplay, that we just want to make things slow and flourishing with tons of anticipation. Responsiveness be damned!

Truth is, most game animators play a lot of games and get this stuff. We know it sucks when something happens a half second after you pressed the button for it. Thankfully, this misconception seems to be on the decline.

Simon Unger - The most common and consistent challenge I have had over the years has been the lack of understanding between the different disciplines on a game team. Taking the time to educate each other on what your work entails and the challenges you face can go a long way to fixing a lot of the issues that arise during production. I always hear artists complaining about late or arbitrary changes from design ending in throw-away work and overtime to compensate. It’s not design’s fault they have no idea what goes into a feature from your end, it’s your fault. Reminding yourself that everyone, ultimately, is chasing the same goal and tailoring your approach with that in mind will help alleviate a lot of the stress that comes up in development. It’s no coincidence that “lack of communication” is the most common complaint in post-mortems.

Tim Borrelli - I think a common misconception is the difference between exploration and iteration.

Exploration is trying to find that thing, that something that resonates and works. It’s the part where you get to the point where you think something will work. Iteration is the part where you develop that idea and figure out if it does. Sometimes you know right away, sometimes you don’t for a few weeks or months. It all depends on what feature you are developing.

Think of it like being out in the wilderness. You explore all around to find a good place to set up camp and find food. Once you find what you think is a suitable spot, you set up camp and try to make it your home. Sometimes the first spot works out great! Safe from predators, good cover, close to food sources. More often, though, something is wrong with that first spot. Maybe there are bears. Maybe it’s great in the summer but awful in the winter. Whatever the case, it’s time to move, and start exploring again.

This same thing goes for game development. Take the player character (PC). Once you’ve got your story outline and general game design done, you can develop your PC concepts. This is where you explore. Male/female, tall/short, skinny/athletic, etc. Color palettes, outfits, personalities all come out here. You iterate on silhouette and proportion here. Once you settle on a concept, you start developing the model. Sometimes 2D to 3D doesn’t always translate, so that’s an iteration step. Models get rigged, but sometimes proportions are off for animation. More iteration. Then we get the PC moving -- the rig doesn’t allow for some motions. Iterate! Even after all of this, any of the previous iteration steps might be revisited. Shoulders might be too wide. Colors might be off once in-engine. The face might not light well. More iteration.

Sometimes, however, the PC needs to change completely, like Sexy Minimalist-Armor Queen to Amazonian Princess Warrior. That requires new exploration. Unfortunately, this is sometimes sold as “iteration!” And that’s wrong. 

Simon Unger asks:

Who or what do you think has been the strongest, most fully-realized game character and why? Is there anything you would change or improve? What?

Kristjan Zadziuk - Recently I think I have to go with Trevor in Grand Theft Auto V, he was everything people hated about the GTA series embodied in an actual playable character and I loved it! It justified you playing it the way everyone wants to play. Very self-critical and I applaud that, I would actually make a point of swapping back to him to see what the hell he was doing. Such a clever idea to give a moment of personality to a transition. Everything about him serviced who he was. The only thing I would change would be to give him a spin-off DLC so I can enjoy more of his antics. I look forward to that influencing character development across the board for years to come.

Naughty Dog is also deserving of high praise, the relationship between Riley and Ellie in Left Behind is really fun to watch play out.

Ryan Duffin - Oh gosh. As much as I hate to admit it, I can fall in love with a character who's animations are shit if their writing (and voice performance, if applicable) is excellent.  With that said, I'm restraining myself from name-dropping a bunch of great game characters from the past 20-something years to answer the question as I assume it was intended, in regards to their animation and performance.

So to that, I would say either Nathan Drake, Ellie from The Last of Us or the latest incarnation of Lara Croft.  They all had different animation states to reflect their current experience and environments and they all interacted with the world they were in, in ways before just killing things. Whether these were whole new animations sets or simple, scripted cheats, they added to the character's sense of life and reminded us they weren't just a robot, doing our controller's every whim but without fighting our input either.

Tim Borrelli - Lara Croft in Tomb Raider 2013 [see an animation reel here - ed.] is my tops in recent memory, especially the PC version. They did so much with her character development through animation. Her movement through the world feels great, the combat feels satisfying, and the way they evolved her animation as her skills evolved was great (if you noticed it). They managed to get me to empathize with her and her situation, which is really difficult to do with a main character. Plus, the character tech was really well done (that hair! HAVE YOU SEEN THE HAIR?!?).

On top of that, the industry needs more strong female leads, and history of Lara aside, I think she was a strong main character.

Mike Jungbluth - I am a sucker for when the actual mechanics of the game are brought in as a character beat within the actual performance. I’ll try to remain spoiler-light here, but when you call for the ladder in Last of Us, and Ellie doesn’t respond right away, or when you have to use the other inputs to control the younger brother in Brothers, I melted. These are directly looking at the medium and tying the progression of skill and systems to the arc of the character. And those are the moments we really tap into the potential of an interactive performance.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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