Wednesday, November 23, 2011

So You Wanna Be In Charge?

"It is a well known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it." - Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy

This blog was cross-posted here.

OK, animators. I know the deal. You guys want to be the next Brad Bird, the next John Lasseter, the next Jennifer Yuh Nelson, or the next Glen Keane.

Well, don’t we all. But here’s the problem. Instead of concentrating on the craft that you so passionately want to blaze a trail in, some of you are concentrating on figuring out how to become the next amazing director. While some of you are going about this endeavor in a respectful and proper manner, some of you are doing it wrong.

In fact, by my completely unscientific count, there are 99% of you doing it right, and 1% of you doing it wrong. It's not just animators, either. It's just about every discipline in this and other industries. So to the rest of you, when you read "animator," fill it in with your specialization!

The 99%, Part 1: The 85%

I’ve interviewed many of you. I’ve asked many of you the stereotypical “what do you want out of your animation career while working here” while trying to fill entry to senior level positions. Almost all of you have responded with “learn game animation, contribute the best I can and be a part of a great team.”

You guys and gals are the easy hires. If you’ve got a positive attitude, a killer demo reel and the position is open, you’ve got a good chance of being picked up. If the position is filled, your reel will stay in the pile for future positions.

You’re going to work hard at improving your craft, no matter what your experience level. You’ll soak up as much information as you can, learn to give and take constructive criticism and build positive relationships with many of your fellow animators in the trenches. You are going to excel in animation and be the people that everyone wants on their team.

You probably don't need to read on, but I bet you will, because you want to learn.

The 99% Part 2: The 14%

Some of you want it all, and want it now. When asked what your short-term goals are, you answer “To be an animation supervisor!” When asked why, you answer “Because I have great ideas!” or “That’s how I feel I can make the biggest impact!” That kind of ambition is great when expressed and executed respectfully, and many of you understand that.

You guys and gals are a little harder to hire. Your enthusiasm to excel may be off-putting to some potential employers. Others may see a little bit of themselves in you and want to give you a chance. In some cases, the position you are interviewing for just won’t match your goals, and in others it will.

Out of your smaller group, many of you realize that you aren’t going to just be handed the responsibility you want. You work your way through the ranks, learning like sponges, waiting patiently for the opportunity to prove your ability to lead your peers. You step up in team critiques. You seek out opportunities to speak at conferences or start podcasts or conversations to talk about the future of your craft while embracing its past. You may not all excel at animation as well as the 85%, but many of those 85% respect your leadership.

You should probably read on, I promise it'll help you achieve your goals.

The 1%

Then there are the rest of you. You have a sense of entitlement that is mind boggling. Not only do you want it all, and want it now, but you proclaim you have great ideas and scoff at those who disagree with them. You routinely criticize other disciplines, proclaiming you could do their job better than them. Whether or not your beliefs are true, you have little respect for the path already laid (and those who laid it) and even less patience for earning a shot to prove you can improve that path.

You guys and gals are usually excellent at manipulating people to your side, which can be misconstrued as leadership. Hence, you tend to talk yourselves into getting hired and promoted. Some of you will force people out of the way to move up, others will simply move on to the next studio when a higher position opens up.

There are a few of you who can animate to the level of the 85% or 14%, but not many. You’ve spent more time trying to LOOK good and less time trying to BE good- good at animation, good at teamwork, good at being a leader. You seek praise, not feedback. You are quick to blame, but quicker to take credit for a job well done. You are on a team, but not always a team player.

You probably won't read on, even though you should.

The 100%

No matter what your goals are with your animation career, and no matter what group you fall into, there are some things you all need to learn. Some of you will listen, some of you won’t, and that’s fine. These things will work themselves out over time. This isn’t so much a checklist of what to do as it is a guideline on how to behave in a professional and social environment.

More importantly, this is my priority list of what I’d like to see in a person looking to become an animation lead, supervisor, or director. Most of this stuff is fairly common knowledge, but unfortunately not common practice:
  1. When giving critique, DON’T give it the way you would want to be given it. Not everyone will respond the same way to feedback. First, learn how to constructively critique (saying something sucks, doesn't "feel right", or "you'll know it when you see it" isn't constructive). Second, learn how each member of your team most effectively responds to critique. Easy? No, but being a lead isn’t easy.
    • On that note, if you are talking about work done on another studio's project, publicly calling their work "horrible," "terrible" saying "it sucks", etc., is fairly poor form, even moreso if you offer no opinion on how to improve it. Who's going to want you directing them if that's how you treat the hard work of people you don't even know?
  2. No matter how good you are, or think you are, there is always someone better. That someone might be on your team. Be OK with that, and look at it as an opportunity to improve YOUR craft. Besides, if you want to be in charge, you won't be animating as much (if at all)  anymore. May as well get used to it.
  3. When someone compliments something you worked on, your first response should be to credit your team. This applies to in-person as well as in interviews, via email, on Facebook/Twitter, etc. Whether you believe it or not, at least ACT like the thing being complimented was a team effort. Chances are it was anyway, and everyone knows it.
    • Conversely, if you make a mistake, own up to it. Being in charge also means taking the brunt of the blame when things go wrong, and if you can't even admit when YOU made a mistake, few will trust you to stand up for them as their leader.
  4. If you don’t like how a teammate or your current lead does things, talk to them about it. Don’t harbor ill feelings or talk about them behind their backs, since the people you talk to will eventually assume you treat them in the same manner. Besides, throwing your team under the bus is not a sustainable career tactic.
  5. Self-promotion is important, but don’t do it selfishly or immaturely. You weren't the only one who worked on your project, after all, so don't misrepresent the rest of your team by acting like a child. Promote your game, yes, but leave the interviews to the PR and community team to set up. If they want you to be a part of them, they’ll ask.
Above all else, treat teammates like human beings, not like resources. If their work is suffering, maybe something in their personal life is distracting them that you can try to help them work through professionally. If someone has the potential to exceed your abilities, encourage them instead of setting them up for failure. If someone pays you a compliment on your work, pass it on to the others who had an impact on that work. If you feel the need to shout to the rooftops about how awesome YOUR work was on a game, remember there are teammates who don’t seek that recognition who worked just as hard as you did, if not more.

Doing it Right

If you want to be a director, supervisor or lead,  you'll need to learn to let go. Let go of being the one who animated the cool thing. Let go of believing that you are the only one that can act out those moves from that passion of yours. Let go of trying to be the best animator on the team.

Instead, learn to direct the cool thing and allow the animator you directed to shine when it comes out well. Learn to trust and direct your mocap actors. Accept that you aren't in the spotlight on your team anymore.

You are no longer the producer of content, you are the ENABLER of those who DO produce the content. It's not an easy transition to make, especially if you were the go-to guy for a long time. However, if you follow the guidelines above, and find that the transition is right for you,  it's definitely a rewarding one.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Who Designs Animation?

This blog was also posted here.

Designers, do you work with animators or an animation lead who think they can design better than you with regards to animation? Animators, do you work with designers who don’t care how the animation looks as long as the gameplay feels right?

Well stop that and play nice!

My stance on animation vs. design has been documented before. Long story short, I feel that animators are not designers, not in the traditional sense. We serve the vision of the game, and we animate FOR design and gameplay. Yes, everyone who is part of a game development team has some amount of influence on game design, but that doesn't make us all designers.

That doesn’t, however, mean that animation isn’t an integral part of design.

Technical Creativity?

This topic comes up in conversation frequently- in my case, when I was recently invited to be a guest on the Reanimators Podcast. During the podcast, we discussed where next-gen console development (the real next-gen, like PS4 and XBox 720 or whatever) was headed in regards to tech animation and animation overall.

Topics like more realistic cloth sim, improved skin and hair dynamics, and better body physics were brought up as needing attention on the tech side. When we shifted to animation, the topic of animators being “motion designers” came up in regards to how more and more animators need to become technical in order to use animation network editors. Where 10 years ago animators may have begun to rig and write facial animation toolsets out of necessity (giving birth to the tech animation discipline), now they need to understand more than the basic logic that goes into how animations behave with one another to use these editors.


During the podcast, I believe I made the prediction that tech animators will be rebranded as Character TDs, and that tech animation will be more of an animation heavy role that involves animating AND building up these animation networks. I’ve thought about it since then and am changing my prediction a bit.

Motion Designers?

While many studios and animators have already been using network editors, I’ve noticed a split on who uses them. Some places have a tech animator setting up the networks full time, while some have the animators do the simpler blendtrees/state machines and pass them off to programming for the more complicated behaviors. And in some cases, even the designers set up the networks. In any case, there is still a back and forth between the owner of the animation networks and design.

With all of the potential hands in this pot, the question I’ve been thinking about since the podcast is this: Will the need arise for a “motion designer” discipline?

I’ve spoken with animators who think that the discipline should exist, and that it should have an animator-driven workflow. When pressed for reasons why, the typical answer has been “because designers don’t care about how the animation looks, they only care that it’s fast enough to be fun.” Well no kidding. Of course designers care about gameplay and the game being fun- that’s what they do! That doesn’t mean they don’t care about how the animation looks, and even if they really don’t, creating an entire new discipline wouldn’t solve the problem! Designers will still want to get in there and tweak values in the animation networks to make it “feel” right for gameplay, and they have every right to want to do so.

Pop Quiz! Animator or Designer? 

On the other hand, it IS the animation team who knows how they intended their animation to look and feel within the design constraints. Where design may ask for a reload animation that is 3 seconds long, animators will create an animation with the timing INSIDE those 3 seconds that looks best. They don’t want design going in and scaling the speed of the animation to 2 seconds, as the timing would then be off from the animator’s vision. If they are lucky, the weapon balancer will alert them to the change ahead of time so the animation team can get updates scheduled and executed (I'm fortunate to be in this situation), but this is not always the case.

Additionally, where design might want a hero character to have a “tough, Clint Eastwood-looking motion set,” the animation team will base that look on not only their individual poses and animation timings, but also how each of those motions blend and transition between each other. Tweaking even the slightest of blend values or cutting transitions out for the sake of a faster pace can break the immersion of the character being that “tough guy.”

So does that mean we absolutely need a “motion design” discipline?

Yes. But not in the way some might think. Motion design is a needed discipline, but it already exists. Instead of it being an individual role, however, it’s a team effort, combining the talents and hard work of animators AND designers. Unfortunately, the case can exist where each side (animation and design) doesn't see it this way. It may not be intentional, but all too often there is a gap between the two disciplines when it comes to seeing eye to eye on looking good vs. feeling good.

How Can We Bridge The Gap?

Not all studio cultures allow anyone expect designers to have influence on game design, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Both animation and design side can make the effort to bridge the gap between their disciplines, by working to resolve some of the following behavior patterns:

Designers, do you work with animators or an animation lead who think they can design better than you in regards to animation? Find out why they think that and work with the team or the lead to figure out what the design team can do to get them what they need to animate effectively for the design vision. Remember, however, that you need to respect the ability of the animators to create animation that will allow gameplay to come first. Ideally, you’ll have (or seek out) an understanding and appreciation for animation so you don’t just grab that animation speed slider and butchering the timing of animation.

Animators, do you have designers who don’t care how the animation looks as long as the gameplay feels right? Ask them what makes the gameplay feel right when they scale animation speed values, and offer them animation solutions that both look AND feel good. You also NEED to understand that gameplay should come first, and you should build an understanding and appreciation of what design wants and needs a set of animations to do for gameplay.

The Answer

It also helps get stubborn knots out of your back.

Animation and design are disciplines that often have desires that are at odds with each other, causing conflicts in determining the ownership of motion design. With the advent of network editors and a concentration on character performance in more and more games, the question of ownership has become a much bigger topic of debate.
However, the game and its gameplay should always determine what motion design and character performance the end user experiences. The best, and in my opinion, only way to deliver the best motion possible while providing the most compelling gameplay is to have animation and design working together, without the need for an individual “motion designer” position the be created.

So I say again: Animators, make it a point to understand where the designers are coming from. Designers, make it a point to understand the passion that the animators have when creating the motions you request.

And both of you: Stop that and play nice!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Managing Culture Changes

This blog was cross-posted here.

Ah, culture change. It happens at many studios- as they grow, as they bring in new management teams, or as they shift in genre focus. In the age of tech art, there are times that culture change can occur in art content creation and management pipelines. From world editors, to audio management tools, to animation systems, new tools will often create new problems before solving the ones they set out to fix. Managing these changes can prove to be quite difficult.


They happen all the time

Let’s say you’re the character team lead. Your team has just shipped a great game, but during the course of creating the game you and your team compiled a list of shortcomings in your character creation system, software, and pipelines. The phrases “we need to find a way to do this better,“ and “we need to stop being so dependent on Bob the programmer so we can create characters more efficiently” were uttered often, especially during the final push.

Even with those "broken" pipelines, the project was successful. Your team moves on to the sequel, which needs to be created much faster with many of the same tools and pipelines. Sure, you make a fix or a change here and there, but you’ve barely made a dent in that huge wishlist you compiled during the last project. You go on to make a better game than the first, but the problems from the first development cycle still exist.

Thankfully, as the sequel ships, studio management finally agrees that a new Character Creation System (CCS) is needed to keep moving forward with the franchise in a way that can compete with the big boys. The studio selects you as the person to guide the CCS development team, and gives you the resources to create the ideal CCS.

6 months later, it’s done and works perfectly! Pipelines are exactly what everyone wants! The CCS works like a dream! The tech and project teams are delivering each other’s babies! All is right in the world and you are all now rich. The end.

Hahahahahaaaa. Right. If only :)

Reality Sets In

A few months after the CCS team begins development, reality sets in. The studio needs to re-allocate resources, so your team shrinks, and with it, your Alpha milestone feature list. You begin to realize that even in the design phase, the character artists are beginning to question decisions that are being made in regards to the new CCS. Features they had clamored for just months ago were suddenly not so important. The old CCS suited them just fine, they claimed, except for these three things. No, make that five things! In the coming weeks, it’s ten completely different things, all of which were never on the initial wishlist. And forget about the animators, they say, even though they need this tool as well. Just implement the character art features and let the animators deal with it!

After all of this, it becomes apparent that the character artists each had their own idea of what the proposed changes would be, and how they would affect their daily workflow. While this individuality is what will eventually make the CCS great, it currently makes it extremely difficult to develop in a way that will make everyone happy.

Not only is the new CCS affecting the workflow of the character artists, but it’s affecting you! As the CCS team lead, you want to deliver the best possible toolset, based not only on your experience but on the experience and input of the rest of the character artists. There is a lot of pressure on you, not only from the character artists to deliver what they expect, but from management.

So you rely on the character artists to give input and guidance for WHAT to deliver while balancing the features that the CCS team CAN deliver. Quite often, you come out as the bad guy with the character artists, even though you are one of them- you were even involved in the initial wishlist that resulted in the CCS team being created! The level input you receive from the character artists devolves from enthusiastic to almost nothing, even when you request it. You begin to deliver incomplete or incorrectly developed features only to learn that the character artists never read the design documents for those features in the first place, even though THEY prioritized them.

Eventually, you feel like the character art team is working against everything you are working for, even though you were all supposed to be working towards the same thing. And the character art team feels like YOU are working against THEM. There is a lot of tension between the sides, and eventually management has to intervene, sometimes more than once, with limited effectiveness.

It’s not quite how you envisioned it happening, is it?

Tim’s Amazing Way To Do it Right!

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way.  Both sides of a culture change don’t have to be in conflict- hell, they don’t have to be on opposite sides! There is a better way to handle a situation like this, but it takes EVERYONE involved- in our example, the character artists, the character art lead, the CCS team, and most importantly, management.

Here’s how:

Management Support

The number one thing that a change like the CCS needs is support from all levels of management- from studio level down to the character team lead, and everything in-between. If this support doesn't exist, you need to get it, starting from the bottom up. Get buy-in from the character artists that this is a change that needs to happen (This should be easy, as it was their idea!), then gain support from their and your managers by outlining the project cost savings of the CCS, and then finally studio management.

Once you've garnered the proper support from all levels of management, you then need to set some ground rules. The character team and its lead need to know that their managers support your development of the CCS. Studio management and your managers need to support you by helping deal with any conflicts that may occur between the CCS team and the character team. You should also now hammer out how features and assets will be delivered, and implement a change request system for features that are broken or require changes as well as for new features.

Once the rules are set, you are hopefully making the development of the CCS more about the behaviors of the people involved and less about how it is being developed.

Seek Peer Counseling

The number one thing that YOU will need while guiding the development of a change like the CCS is friends. People to talk to. Peers, not just in character art, but in life. Developing the CCS is going to be hard, it's going to be stressful, and it's going to flat out suck sometimes. You'll find times where you don't want to get email from the character art team for fear of what they don't like that day. You'll find yourself second guessing every feature design spec you write.

So you'll want, no, you'll need people who you can go to. People you trust, who can sanity check your ideas and also tell you when you are being an idiot.

If you have people like this to unload on, then being confident in what you are trying to deliver will come easier. It will also allow you to get stress off your shoulders so that you don’t take it out on the team you are delivering to (in this case, the character artists).

Stay the Course

Remember that the CCS was a group idea, supported by management. If it ever feels like everything you are doing is pointless, worthless or unappreciated, just remember that the goal is to deliver a toolset and pipeline that will make everyone's lives easier when it is done.

In that same vein, be confident enough to change direction if needed. It could be that the initial ideas sound great on paper to everyone, including the character art team, but once put into practice it becomes obvious that things need to change. Work with naysayers of the vision to determine if their concerns are valid and course correct if they are. If they aren't valid, clearly lay out why they aren't valid to those people.

Most importantly, don’t feel threatened by people who seem to be working against the end goal of the CCS. Give them all of the information they need and ask THEM propose better solutions. Quite often their antagonism is caused by simple miscommunication (I'll outline what should happen if it is truly brought on by ill will or poor intentions later).


Communication and Transparency, the catch-all words that are supposed to make everything better, right?


Just saying you "need to communicate better"  or "have decision making be more transparent to the team" isn't enough. You'll need to outline HOW communication needs to happen and how each side will respond to it. You need to have a process for making decisions and making sure those affected know how the decision was made without holding 5 meetings and having different go-betweens.

If you have features that the character team needs to read over, set the ground rules for how they'll read over them- are they just bullet items? Do you have design docs written for each feature? Set a consistent expectation and then police it. For example, let's say you've got a feature list that contains design documents for each feature. At 12:00, you ask the character art team to read it over and prioritize it. At 12:10pm, they have it prioritized. Does that sound right? No. They probably didn't read the design documents of each feature. Kindly ask them if they did, and if they didn't, ask them to do so in order to ensure that the CCS team delivers the features properly. This will hopefully eliminate the possibility that, upon delivery, the feature is not what they expected, which could (unfortunately) lead to your team being thrown under a bus due to miscommunication.

If there is resistance to proper communication from the character art team or the CCS team, you still need to keep trying. Get management involved if need be, but hope that you won't need to. It would also would be a mistake to step back and stop pushing for input and feedback, and to stop GIVING input and feedback to the project and project needs. You need to remain steadfast against the wishes of those who are either complaining about or worse, threatened by your presence- instead, talk to those people and find out exactly what is causing the tension,and work to correct it.

And if at all possible, keep the CCS team and the character art team in the same room! Feedback can come more freeform, both sides can see how each other's decisions are made, and it can potentially eliminate an air of open hostility (if it ever devolves to that). At the least, it can help you identify when it starts so you can work to resolve it quickly.

Respect & Ownership

Don't pull a Cartman
No matter what you think as the CCS team leader, you don't own the CCS. It's being developed for the character art team. Make sure they know that, and make sure they feel empowered to use the processes outlined in the points above in order to get the tool that you and they had initially envisioned. This is very hard to do, especially when things aren't going the way that everyone had planned or hoped.

The best thing for the CCS team leader to do is to treat character art team with respect, and leave it up to them to return the favor. During troublesome interactions with the character art team, think of how you would resolve a situation with one of your closest friends- would you complain about them behind their backs, try to garner support against them, and then blindside them? Or would you lay it all out to them, face to face, with the hopes to resolve what is likely a minor conflict?

Make Personnel Corrections

Even with the best communication, the most thought out processes, and all the respect in the world from your team, there are people who just aren't going to get on board. Whether they don't trust that the CCS will be what they want, or don't like the people working on it, there is the possibility that you'll have to deal with bad situations involving them. Like in the above example, if the character lead or team is shown progress of said feature, but raises no red flags until the feature is delivered, that's just bad. If those people are also involved other subversion (like circumventing the use of the CCS), that's even worse! First, you'll want to find out if there is a valid reason for this behavior. If there truly isn't, those people need to be properly disciplined- performance warnings, firings (last resort), whatever, but it needs to get nipped in the bud.

If management is already supportive of the goal of the CCS, they should get involved in these situations quickly and correct the situation as swiftly as possible. If they don't, as the CCS team leader, don't take it out on them. There can be any number of factors in determining if someone needs to be disciplined. You need to trust management to do their job just like they are trusting you to do yours.

That's All Folks!

Overall, making a culture change like the CCS is not easy. It can be a long, arduous journey, but if everyone realizes that they are all aiming towards the same goals, it can be successful. Getting management's support early, setting up expectations properly (and following through with them), treating everyone with respect and making sure the right people are in the right positions are the keys to that success. I'd love to hear from others regarding their experiences with similar situations, and if they have their own ways to do this better!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Law Of Diminishing Returns: Redux

This post is a revisiting of a previous post from this blog, and is also posted here.

Every so often, the hot topic of crunch/overtime/extra hours comes (read: anytime a jackass like me writes a post about it or the mainstream media decides to interpret what a jackass like me writes as a scathing commentary on the state of the industry). Sometimes, though, high profile people say something about overtime, and it incites a reaction, no matter what the intent.

It’s no surprise to anyone, in any industry, that overtime can creep into all facets of our lives. In the case of me being both a powerlifter and a video game developer, overtime has come in the form of overtraining and crunching, respectively.

Not this kind of crunch, guys

For powerlifters, overtraining generally involves training your body so hard that it effectively cannot recover- your basal body temperature drops, your central nervous system begins to shut down. For game developers, crunching is typically a point in a project that requires developers to work 60, 80, or even 100 hours a week to hit a deadline, pushing our mental capacity to a limit. In both cases, you become lethargic and your sleep suffers, furthering the lack of recovery. The belief for both overtraining and crunch is that that the extra time put in will result in higher quantity and quality of results.

Our ability to cope with such overtime hinges heavily on the amount of time we have to recover from engaging in it.This recovery, whether or active (by, say, deep tissue massage or engaging in an unrelated interest) or passive (by relaxing on the couch or playing video games), can only work if those needing it are given the proper amount of time and resources to ALLOW it to work.

All The King's Horses

Recently, I spent a large amount of time training for a national powerlifting competition. I trained for 5 months, competed in a local meet as a warm up, and then trained for another 2 months before the national meet. During the initial 5 months I worked very hard in the gym and took regular breaks from training so my body could recover, and I saw great gains in strength. At the local meet I set a personal best in the deadlift, and walked away happy.

After the local  meet, I took only a few days off, and then decided that I had recovered from the first meet and the stress it had put on my body.  Since I had limited time before the national competition, I spent the next 2 months working even harder than I had before. Not only did I not take enough time off after the local meet, I eliminated any down time from my training, effectively giving my body no time to recover. After several weeks of this new training plan, I actually felt weaker. I started skipping workouts and making excuses to myself to not push it too hard. It got to the point where I didn't even want to compete in the national meet anymore. I was burnt out, stressed out, and flat out tired. Even still, I set a goal to break my personal record for total weight. In fact, I planned on pushing myself to move more weight than I had ever done, even during training.

He probably overtrained something...

So what happened? I failed. I didn’t allow my body to recover from the incredible stress I was putting on it, and as a result when it mattered most I couldn’t compete at my full potential. I didn’t reach my goals, and the national meet was one of my worst in recent memory.

All The King's Men

Game devs are probably wondering what this meathead, lunkhead, Planet Fitness-reject's story has to do with them. Well, to paraphrase Matthew McConaughey in “A Time To Kill,” just imagine if what I described above was the progression from a press demo to a final build (or, maybe the progression from shipping a game to working on the next one).

Imagine that the whole team gets behind polishing the absolute hell out of the first hour of gameplay. We spend a good 6 months of time getting the first 3 missions right. The scripting, the code hooks, the character performances, everything. We show it to the press during the months leading up to launch, and all of our attention is focused on that one hour of gameplay shining like a star.

After all of that, the realization sets in that we have 3 months to finish the game. We have to get ALL of that hype into the rest of the missions, the gameplay, the general feel of the game. Maybe this mission here doesn’t have enough of what dude from Kotaku loved, and maybe those animations there don’t live up to the expectations of our publisher. So we start spending extra time revamping, changing, cramming in content. Features creep in. Hours start piling up. Some of us are thinking "I'm working extra hours because I believe in the project," so when we hit a wall at 10pm, we push through it.

We probably looked like MC Hammer on crack at times, too

Suddenly it's Thursday, 2 weeks before submission, and we've already put 50 hours in this week. We start to check in bad data. We break the build. We snap at co-workers. We're no longer being smart or creative about making the game- instead we're going through zombie-like motions to just get it done. We just want to ship this thing and move on to the next project.

And that passion we had? Starting to dwindle, if not gone already.

Sound familiar?

Putting It Back Together

The thing is, though, that it doesn't have to be like this. There can be good overtime. For example, I've overtrained my deadlift and seen incredible gains by pushing myself on heavy days and taking a month away from the next heavy session. I've worked 50-60 hour weeks, with 5 (and rarely 6) days a week for no longer than 2 or 3 weeks to get a deliverable out the door, and have produced work that was higher quality and more rewarding, with no negative effect on my health or marriage.

What made the good overtime better than the bad?

After the bad overtime, I was done. I thought I had recovered enough, so when I tried to (physically and mentally) get back into both activities, I couldn’t. I was done, and wanted out. I considered quitting both powerlifting and game development after the last bad overtime experience with each.

In the case of the good overtime experiences, I was able to take the proper amount of time off that both my body and mind needed to recover not just AFTER the overtime, but DURING it. The work I put during these smaller pushes was of higher quality, more rewarding in the end, and most importantly, kept me engaged in I was doing and looking forward to getting back to it at full tilt as soon as I could.

It can be argued that if we want to be successful, we have to push ourselves harder than the average in our fields. It doesn’t, however, have to have a negative affect on the things we are passionate about. We’ve all read the reports, seen the opinion pieces, heard about EA Spouses and Kaos’ “thousand yard stare.” I’ve read articles on how overtraining has blown out knees, biceps, backs, and worse. Everyone universally agrees that too much overtime is bad- Bad for your health, bad for relationships, bad for studio morale, bad bad bad.

Smell The Roses

Don't let life pass you by
Overtime exists and it’s not going away. I’m not suggesting that it does. I’m not going to rant about crunch time ruining lives. I’m not going to claim that my life has been horribly affected by working overtime or training too hard.

I am, however, going to say this- we all need to manage it better.

I don’t mean that we need to plan better (we know), or avoid feature/exercise creep (we try), or never put in overtime (we will). I mean that we as individuals need to manage how we represent ourselves while working overtime. We need to be conscious of the fact that people who are interested in what we do (powerlifting, game development, insert-your-interest-here) are going to look at us as an example. They’ll see us doing stupid things in the gym or working 100 hours a week, and see us wearing both of those things like honor badges. They’ll see us tweeting about how we’re “crunching to make the game better for you, the consumer!”, or read our Facebook post about how we just totally killed a training session and can’t walk right now- but hey, "no pain no gain!"

Those people will enter our fields and expect that to be the norm, the right way to do things, and they will never question those methods until they too are burnt out. And that’s a damn shame, because we can prevent it. We can teach these newcomers a different lesson- to not make the mistakes that we did. We need to encourage them to come into our industries and change them for the better.

When all is said and done, people will only remember the 4-million-on-day-one sellers, and not the people who worked hard and sacrificed to get the game to that point. We’ll only remember the monster numbers that a powerlifter put up at Worlds, but we’ll never see the training that was put in to achieve that. So let’s take back that part. Let’s do it smarter. Let’s follow the Law of Diminishing Returns.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Technically, It's Creative!

This blog was cross-posted here.

While waiting for a reply to my open letter from a few weeks ago (I still haven’t heard back from you, Andy!), I gave a talk at PAXDev regarding how to animate quickly for design, which contained both creative and technical approaches to game animation. After the talk, I received an email asking two things:

 “How do I get into video game animation? I've always found animation to be a very interesting discipline. The problem is that I'm not even sure where to begin training for such a thing.”

“Is animation more technical than artistic, or is it the other way around?”

The first question is something I am asked often, and am glad to help with. I responded to the inquiry with this:

“The first thing to do is learn the basics- read up on the 12 Principles of Animation (read The Illusion of Life- it's the animation holy bible). If you can draw, you could start doing the basic animation tests (bouncing ball, flour sack, etc.) that way w/o needing to buy Max or Maya (though both have 30 day trials!) I've seen far too many beginners jump right in with a walk cycle and not be able to take or understand critique on their work because they don't understand the principles and the vocabulary. is a great place to share animation, as well, once you feel comfortable with it. Online schools like and are good, but they are not cheap.

Also, watch movies! Watch old WB classics, watch Disney, Pixar, and study the animation. If you see something cool, rewind and step through frame by frame to see what they did. Deconstructing the masters is a great teaching tool.”

However, second part really made me think. Is animation more technical than artistic, or is it the other way around?

The easy answer to this very good question is “yes.” Game animation is both creative AND technical. Animation is creative by nature-we’re figuring out timing of our motions, developing poses that communicate emotion and intent to the player, and ultimately, we’re delivering the look and feel that design wants. In all, we are breathing life into our characters!

Nah, we're just painting pixels, really

However, it helps if you have some proficiency with understanding the technical side of things (though I’m not talking about rigging and other technical animation specialties - those have their own discipline separate from animation). In some engines, your timing in that walk cycle needs to match the timing for the rest of your walk cycles so it blends properly, or your footstep events need to be setup so time-scale blending to your run cycle works properly. In other engines, your poses need to be setup so that they makes sense against other poses they will blend to, unless you want to create countless 3 to 6 frame transition animations.

And you better know what state machines and blendtrees are. If you know how to build them, that’s a big advantage. Know a little scripting? That’s even better.

Oh hey, I can handle that!
This begs the question, however, of where exactly the line drawn is between the two, and how important it is as an animator to BE technically trained. Sure, you can create the best looking run cycle in the history of run cycles, but how does it work with animation layers in-game, how does it transition, and does it hold up to speed changes?

Or does it really matter? Who’s to say that a game animator NEEDS to build those blendtrees? Or that they have to understand how to set up an IK chain in-engine? Or know how the aiming system works?

In my opinion, animators will be far more successful if they have that knowledge.

I don't expect them to have it right off the bat, mind you. Entry level folks should be concentrating on creating good motion and letting their leads dictate the technical details. I also don't think it's a requirement to know scripting or understand how to build a complex state machine in order to be a successful game animator.


However, those animators at any level should be learning WHY those technical details exist. Why a pose needs to be oriented one way or the other, or how their motions will be used in game and why it works that way. They should know what scripting can do for them, at the least so they can request a tool from a tech artist. All the while, continuing to hone the creative side of their craft, in order to become the best game animator possible.

Marrying the creative side of animation with the technical side makes an animator even MORE creative. For example, on a project early in my career, I was tasked with giving the attack animations of a character “more flair.” This was all the direction I was given from my offsite corporate producer. I worked for weeks on just adjusting and presenting the animations with no success. By shear “he was a close friend” luck, I spoke with the VFX artist on the project on how we could push the attack animations further. He told me that I could attach VFX to my animations! I immediately added ridiculously exaggerated spinning weapon movements to the attacks, and worked with that VFX artist to create trails for the weapons. We hooked it up in game, showed it to our producer a week later and he exclaimed “that’s it!” Had I not known about that ability to tie VFX to an animation, I may never have succeeded in bringing my producer’s vision to life.

(at 3:16) More flair, Taurgis, MORE FLAIR! :)

Understanding what happens after your animation is done and makes its way into the game will allow an animator to devise new and interesting ways to make a character move. It also allows them to do it more efficiently, leaving more time for polishing animation or sneaking in that fidget animation that everyone keeps saying they should do.

Understanding both sides also creates the opportunity to be creative with the most tedious, technical animations, like those aforementioned transition animations. Mike Jungbluth does an excellent job discussing how to inject more character into those animations in a separate post. By not treating those animations as a technical requirement and instead as an opportunity to communicate a character’s personality, they become a creative necessity, not a technical one.

Use of motion capture is another opportunity to push beyond the technical. If treated like nothing more than technical data, the motion will stay as it was captured, and the performance delivered will fall short, no matter how good the actor (and we all know my opinion on THAT). Inject the creativity of an animator, and you have the opportunity to punch out poses, adjust timing for bigger impact, and even change shots after the fact. Yes, this opens up the "ownership" debate, but it’s the end result that matters. It’s important to remember that it’s a creative, collaborative effort, and not a technical hurdle that gets in the way of a performance.

Well, usually. :)

In the end, it’s best to approach both the creative and technical sides as wholly creative. The technical side varies from studio to studio, engine to engine, and it's ultimately a teachable process. The creative part comes from you, and you take that to whatever studio you work at and use it in whatever engine you work with.

Monday, August 15, 2011

An Open Letter To Andy Serkis

Dear Mr. Serkis,

If you deserve to be considered for an Academy Award nomination for Acting in regards to your performance motion capture, then every animator who has ever animated a character in any movie deserves consideration as well.


Tim Borrelli

P.S., Let me clarify:

Recently, you have been quoted as claiming that performance capture actors deserve to be considered for the Academy Awards in Acting categories:

Before I even start, let me say that I feel that you are a great actor. I don’t doubt your acting ability, both on stage and on film. But that’s not the debate here.

From what I gather, here is what you are suggesting. You seem to feel that performances like yours in Lord of the Rings (Gollum), King Kong (King Kong), and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Caesar) should be recognized by The Academy as an individual effort in excellence of acting performance.

Wait. What?

Let’s ignore the fact that animators have been doing this without motion capture longer than you have been suiting up for it.

Performance capture is the digital capture of a performance of an individual actor, to be later applied to a digital character. Yet according to you, “…there are two parts to the process. The first part is capturing the performance. Only later down the line do you start seeing the characters being painted over frame by frame using pixels."

First, that doesn’t sound like an individual performance to me.

Second, painted over? Using pixels? For a guy who has positioned himself to be the spokesperson for performance capture, it sounds like you don't quite understand what goes into the entire process.

Ignoring the fact that there is nothing “being painted over frame by frame using pixels” (almost) anywhere in the process, you seem to be ignorant of what happens to your performance data after you walk off the set. Many times, chunks of data need to be thrown out entirely and done by hand. Also, it is quite often that the actor’s proportions don’t match that of the digital characters, requiring a remapping of the motion. This may not seem like it affects a performance, but it in fact does. Different proportions means poses don’t read the same. It means a slouch on a short actor is a hunchback on a tall character. It means delicate interactions often need to be heavily modified or redone with animation due to differing limb lengths. I could go on.

Long story short, it means the performance is not 1-to-1 from performance capture to screen.

Furthermore, you claim that "Performance-capture technology is really the only way that we could bring these characters to life… It's the way that Gollum was brought to life, and King Kong, and the Na'vi in Avatar and so on and it's really another way of capturing an actor's performance.”

You then go on to say, “That's all it is, digital make-up."

What. The. Hell.

Well, makeup artists HAVE an Oscar category. So are you also suggesting that the people behind taking his performance to the big screen be considered in that category? When you say “that success using the technique can be rewarded with current accolades,” is that what you mean? Should the modelers, animators, painters, shader TDs, lighters, etc., be considered for Makeup and Costume Design?

Makeup and Costume Design teams do amazing work. I just have trouble seeing how modelers, animators, painters, shader TDs, lighters, etc. fit into those categories.

Or are you referring to the VFX category (which, while valid, is a much broader category than acting), or even the lesser known, non-televised technology categories? Are you basically saying that your performance, which wouldn’t even be viewable without those aforementioned teams of people, is more deserving of public recognition?

I, as well as many others, won’t argue that motion capture data is only as good as the actor in the suit. I have directed and worked with motion capture data from actors on both ends of the talent spectrum. I agree that without the proper direction and performance, the end result that I produced wouldn’t be as emotional, as powerful, or as accurate.

However, I also know that without a talented digital character team (animators, modelers, TDs, etc.), that performance will NEVER look as intended.

What you've done here, Mr. Serkis, is downplay the contribution that the whole team makes to bring a character like Gollum to life. What’s worse is that you aren’t alone. In this featurette on the making of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the animation team is completely overlooked!

Is the technology that Weta developed awe-inspiring and exciting? Hell yes it is. I’d love to be on set just for a day and see what the technology is like from start to finish. It would be amazing (and after writing this I may never get the chance). But to see the contribution of an entire discipline glossed over so readily by both a recognizable name (your own, Andy Serkis!) AND a production team is disheartening and frustrating.

Yet, as infuriating as that may be, this is not the point I want to make here. That point is:

If you deserve to be considered for an Academy Award nomination for Acting, then every animator who has ever animated a character in any movie deserves consideration as well.

Animators, both hand-keyed and motion capture artists, breathe life into their characters. They push performances of their characters to an artistic limit, based on the direction they are given. Many even use video reference- animators often of themselves performing (yes, ACTING) the scenes they are working on, mocap artists using video shot on set.

Not to single one person out, but some do it REALLY WELL, like this example (password: education):

Rio Comparison Reel from jeff gabor on Vimeo.

And this one:

It should be clear that this guy is an amazing animator. He’s also a great example of an animator using his own performance to bring characters to life (in the case of Rio, a female lead, and supporting male, and a bird.) As animators, we’ve been taught that video reference is a powerful tool. Like any tool, however, it requires training and practice to get right.

Some things may come more naturally (in a male animator’s case, the supporting male). Some things may take more creativity (like humanizing a creature, such as a bird). Even other things may take a bigger investment into the movement and emotion of the character (the female lead).

However, the end result in Rio didn’t come from just an animator’s performance. It came from the ability to translate that acting into what the digital character warranted.

Like you, Mr. Serkis, animators use their performance to improve and sell the characters they are acting for, in the interest of the whole story.

So my question for you is this:

Don’t animators also deserve individual recognition from the Academy for Acting?

Mr. Serkis, please leave a comment here, or drop me a line. I welcome the discussion, as would many others who do and do not share my opinion.