Sunday, March 27, 2011

How I Got My Start In Animation (and how you can, too!)

Every so often, I get connected with someone who has question about how to become an animator or how to get into animation in the games industry. When this happens, I typically find myself writing a ridiculously long email or having a very long conversation with that person. Today was no different, and while replying, I began to reflect on how I got started with animation.

This particular student wanted not just general advice on how to start learning animation, but specifically help deciding if 2D or 3D was right for him. He's been interested in animation for as long as he can remember, and has taken art classes all through his schooling. Currently, he has hit a snag- he can copy drawings quite well but is unable to draw the ideas he has in his head. He's tried anatomy books, drawing skeletons, and while he feels he is improving, he still feels stuck.

I can relate to this- growing up, I knew I wanted to "make cartoons" but I had a serious deficiency with drawing. I started out drawing and tracing what I could, taking art classes in school, making the standard flipbooks, but I didn't know how to learn to animate- the internet didn't exist, at least for me and for animation, in the 80s and early 90s.

I improved slowly over time, but even by college I was fairly convinced that I would never be an animator. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Then Toy Story came out during my sophomore year, showing me that animating characters on a computer was possible, and I felt that I found my calling in life. I went from animating space ships and effects to attempting character animation on my Macintosh, in Strata Studio Pro, with an FK rig. My first attempts were pretty horrible. I realized then that drawing was not the hurdle I needed to overcome with becoming an animator. Instead, I needed to broaden my understanding of what animation was and how to succeed at it. If I was going to be serious about animation as a career, I needed help, and lots of it. However, like the student I mentioned above, I didn't know where to turn.

My next series of blog posts will cover how I learned and grew into an animator. I am hoping this will be fun for me as I recall how my childhood dream became my career, and I hope that both aspiring animators & seasoned vets will get a kick out of it too. Stay tuned!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

GDC 2011 Trip Report

It's taken a few weeks, but it's finally done. I really thought it would be shorter this year, but I guess I got a lot more in-depth with my roundtable recollections. Enjoy!


Monday was fairly uneventful. I got into San Francisco around 4, got to the hotel, headed to Moscone to grab my GDC packet, and then made the obligatory Chevy’s food run where I met up with Tyler Good and a friend of his from school who had an awesome business card.

After food, I dropped my stuff of at the hotel, made some calls and headed out to meet up with some tech art folks at the Marriott. We grabbed dinner (again at Chevy’s), I headed out to see an old friend, and called it a night not too long afterwards.

I’ve heard good things about Chevy’s


Today was filled up mostly by the first ever Tech Art Bootcamp, followed by a visit to the Hybrid team, and finishing up with a tech art get together organized by the ever-social Seth Gibson.
Tech Art Bootcamp
In lieu of a huge writeup, I’ll just link to a few places that already discuss what went on, including TAO which has links to the slides of each:


Ben Cloward has a great write-up here on the bootcamp:

Interviews with some TAs (I’m still mad at myself for not participating):

I have to say, this whole thing was pulled off really well. Jeff Hanna did a great job getting all these minds in one room, and it was worth the time invested for me. Tech artists are an awesome group, and the fact that these guys were willing to spend time putting together their talks was amazingly awesome. I really hope this trend continues. I had to skip out on Bronwen's part of it (sorry!) to head over to see the Hybrid team, but I hear she blew it out of the park as well.
After a visit with the Hybrid team, I headed out to the tech art get together. I got to put some faces to names, and caught up with a lot of old friends. Overall a great time, and it could be argued that its social situations like these that are more beneficial when at a conference of like-minds. Lots of questions and ideas were shared this night, and I got to give Rob some more grief, which is always fun J


Art Director/Lead Artist Roundtable Session #1

I didn’t get to go to this last year due to other talks and obligations, but really wanted to get to all 3 sessions of it this year.

Day 1 of the roundtable started with 20 or so minutes of throwing out topics that affect leads and directors on a daily to project-long basis. After that, we split into groups to tackle a few of those topics and offer solutions. The whole thing felt a bit rushed, and in all honesty, I barely remember what was discussed. I salute the effort, but I think even Seth (Spaulding, an artist manager for Blizzard and the guy running the roundtable) saw it as not optimal and changed the process for the next 2 sessions, so I am happy I continued going.

Automated Pipeline for Generating Run Time Rigs

This talk was given by Adam Mechtley. As legend has it, he developed this process after attending Seth, Ben, Shawn and my panel last year on tech animation (This legend is, of course, supported by this epic slide from Adam’s talk)

Adam should be putting up slides and a writeup of his talk soon, and I’ll add that link when he does. This talk was great in that his setup and process was simple yet yields great results, and was also presented in a way that was package and engine agnostic. It also fired up some ideas in my brain about how to take this method even further. More on that as I research and experiment with some stuff.

After this talk I headed down to the room where my roundtable was to be held and got setup.

Tech Animation Roundtable Session #1

The turnout for this session was higher than I expected. I believe we got to standing room only at some point. Taking my experience from last year’s roundtable, I decided to open up with some topics I had brought along with me and asked for input on any other topics people may like to discuss. In retrospect, I wish I’d have started out with one of my topic ideas immediately- defining the role of a tech animator, since there is a wide-ranging opinion on what the role is and should be. Steve Theodore gave me this feedback on Friday as well, so I think next year this will happen.

No one spoke up with a new topic, so I started with the first one- how to build a team of tech animators and how to allocate those resources on a project or at a studio.

This topic spawned into many topics and conversations all intertwining. I actually think it was quite successful. If I recall correctly, we started to define the role, and that quickly turned into how to train a tech animator- what schooling, what skills were required. A general consensus was that nowadays, it is very difficult to find spots for junior-level TAs because a lot of those entry-level problems that the experienced folks had learned with were already solved. In retrospect, I’m not sure that this is really a valid reason to not have junior-level positions. As the discipline grows and matures, the junior-level expectations should as well. This may be a topic for another time (look for a potential blog post on this in the future!).

As we navigated through this conversation, we turned towards team-building. How do we build a proper tech animation team? How do we allocate those resources? After a few stabs at it, Rob threw in his curveball question, and a credit to him, it was actually a great point- why do we even need full teams of tech animators? Of course, this garnered responses from “good point” to “on a project our size we need a full dedicated team.” I feel like everyone’s point was made well and everyone’s point of view was valid. I think even Rob learned something. J

But Rob did acknowledge the need for tech animators!

This led to my favorite part of the session. During the “how to build a team” topic, someone made a point that we were looking at the “team” idea too narrowly. The concept presented (and that a few of us had seen be successful at our studios) was that instead of a tech animation team, projects needed groups of people in responsible for a certain part of the game. Scrum team, strike team, whatever you want to call it, we started discussing how each of us utilized a team of animator, tech animator, designer, animation programmer and/or AI programmer. We discussed how it could be applied specifically to character performance, to the point where we jokingly (or maybe not so much) suggested that next year, the roundtable should be renamed to the “Technical Character Performance Roundtable” in order to attract more animators, programmers and designers so that this conversation could really become beneficial to all those disciplines. I think this is a potentially great idea, and will be looking into it for next year- if not as the roundtable, then perhaps as a panel.

As this topic wound down, it shifted towards communication. Specifically, we discussed developing a common vocabulary for others to follow and vice versa. Everyone had their war story about how an animator or character artist asked for a tool with X, Y Z, features, and it was delivered with those features, but upon receiving the tool, the artist was unhappy. We were fortunate to have a few animators in the room (myself included) who could give the perspective of the artist. The overall takeaway from this exchange reflected back to the previous topic of strike teams. It highlighted the need for people working together towards a common goal, understanding just enough of what the others do to be dangerous, but also be able to deliver what their teammates need.

At this point I started wrapping up the session and gathered ideas for topics for the next day. The session ended and I had quite a few people come up to me afterwards to continue speaking about topics that had come up. I really felt like this session was a great success.

It's niiiiiiice.

After the roundtable, I spoke with Remi McGill from Autodesk and took a look at Skyline, the Maya blendtree/state machine system that is being developed. We talked a bit about how it would work and I gave him some feedback based on my experience designing a similar system last year (successes, failures, etc). I’m hoping to get on the beta for this, which would, in turn force me to finally re-learn Maya J

After that, I walked the expo floor, checked out some tech demos I wanted to see. Couldn’t get anyone’s attention at the OptiTrack booth, which was disappointing, but I did get to see CryEngine 3 stuff and some other neat things going on.

After a brief stop at the hotel, I headed to Imagemetrics party, talked about Faceware with Seth and Jay Grenier of ImageMetrics. I’ll probably download their toolset and play with the demo data to see how it works- always worth staying up on this stuff for when a project needs it! We caught up with a couple of guys from the MindFire Academy, a new school starting up in Kansas. We grabbed dinner with them, discussed their school plans and some other stuff. These guys seem to have some serious financial backing and are trying to figure out the best way to spend the money so the school can be as successful as possible. After that, I met up with some co-workers for a drink before calling it an early night.


Thursday started off with me not being sure what talk to go to, and then finding out that Jeremy Ernst's Gears of War facial rigging talk was about to start. So my mind was made up for me.

Fast and Efficient Facial Rigging in GEARS OF WAR 3

This talk was pretty awesome. Like Adam's talk, the processes that Jeremy showed were software and engine agnostic, even though he used Maya and UE3. I hope he gets the slides/movies and a writeup posted. There was a lot of stuff I had done or tried before, but 2 or 3 "oh damn" moments that he had hit, that I had never even considered. Those few things are going to help me immensely going forward even more than the stuff I already knew. I'm trying to convince him to post his slides and what not as soon as he can!

Art Director/Lead Artist Roundtable Session #2

The CAs taped up all of the topics discussed the day before, and Seth started the session with a shorter collection of topics from the group in the session. Of all of the topics discussed, the “Hard Talk” topic was the one that struck the most weight with me. The “Hard Talks” that were discussed ran the gamut- from firing someone to simply giving feedback to an underperformer. There were valuable lessons I learned from hearing people speak about past experiences, the main one that stuck with me being the following exchange:

“How many people have had a problem employee?”

(most of the room raised their hands)

“Of those people, how many delayed speaking to the employee about their behavior and how it affected them and others?”

(1/3 of the room kept their hands up)

“How many of you did that work out for?”

At this point, all hands were down.

This topic really stuck with me. When I first became a lead, I struggled with finding the line between being a friend and being an authority figure. This struggle made it difficult for me to pull aside those on my team to correct issues they were having. I also found that since my role was not clearly defined, I leaned on project management to guide me through these issues. I learned a lot from that process, and based on my experiences since then, it’s not so much friendship and authority that conflict, it’s personality and respect given (both ways) that matter. Learning about each member of your team by just interacting with them will help you find a better way to communicate with them when the “hard talks” need to occur. I’m still not great at it, but I am always striving to improve.

There were other topics discussed here, but were mainly focused towards project cancellations and large-scale outsourcing, both of which I’ve dealt with but neither of which really stuck with me as much as the hard talk topic.

After the roundtable, I went to a sponsored session for XSens, and left after 5 minutes due to already hearing their sales pitch multiple times. I wandered the floor and grabbed lunch with Shawn McClelland of Autodesk and one of his coworkers who is the YouTube Ninja for Autodesk. Or something.

Sorry I’m blanking on your name, ninja.
Tech Animation Roundtable Session #2

I was excited to host day 2 of my roundtable, and got there early to set up. My excitement dwindled down to anxiety and fear as I realized how small the session was going to be due to scheduling conflicts. I was up against an Uncharted animation talk, Peter Molyneaux’s talk, Debugging Python into Maya, and another animation talk.

Once the session started, I had maybe 20 people in the room (OK, 21 people exactly. I know because I counted like 15 times out of fear) as opposed to 60 or 70 from the day before. Oddly, some were seated all the way in the back corner! We convinced them to join the main group and dove into the topics that had been suggested the day before.

Please note, I'm having a hard time recalling this session. While "Adrenaline Moments" are commonly known to help people remember, I think this was a case where it helped me forget. A lot of this part was written up with the help of people who attended.

The topics I suggested were integration of 3rd party software, some best practices, and a discussion of issues that people have at work. It was very challenging to get people to talk in such a small session, but Rob (Galanakis), Seth (Gibson) and Rob (Butterworth) were my saviors. If I couldn’t get anyone to speak up, they surely could with either conversation that drew them out, or in some cases, staring through their souls.

The session was dominated by discussions of different uses of 3rd party software and plugins. Implementation of Morpheme and Euphoria into pipelines was discussed, with the main takeaway being that once you break your networks up into manageable chunks, Morpheme can be a powerful tool for artists and tech animators. This topic turned towards using Human IK and how both Maya and MoBu have begun to really be able to share assets with that toolset, which then led to a conversation about experiences with converting Max users to Maya. This topic was led by both Seth and Rob B., who had experience transitioning people over from one package to the other. The general difficulties were re-training animators away from Biped and into using Maya and MoBu to get the same workflow, and both found that once the initial shock passed, people were generally happy. It was also noted that with the 2011 releases of Max and Maya, the interfaces were becoming similar enough that a transition was easier to take at first.

At this point, we shifted the attention to the quieter folks in the room. Some of us had assumed they were either students or at small studios, so we asked them what kinds of processes they went through in dealing with their daily routines. The students had some questions about mocap retargeting and overall best practices. I really, really wish I could recall details here, but it was about time when the session was winding down and those are always the most rushed portions.

The session ended and I had a few people come up after and tell me they learned something, so I consider that a success. Seriously, I’m excited whenever anyone is able to learn something new, even moreso when I helped enable that. I really think the big takeaway from this session for me was to stop placing so much emphasis on attendance and to instead focus more on the people there and the topics of interest. Last year, each session was full, so I had no experience with a small group yet. I feel that I’ll be able to handle groups of any size in the coming years, especially as I get to know more and more of the participants.

I really can’t stress enough how much support I felt in that room. The TA crowd is pretty damn awesome.

After the roundtable, Seth and I grabbed dinner and a beer and I headed out to the speaker party where I met some Volition folks. I caught up with them, skipped the MS party and headed to Annabelle’s to meet up with some friends. I met some great folks there, had interesting conversations not only about animation and tech art, but about the state of the industry in general.

We also met Dave from Canada. He was an interesting one- we were all convinced he was “somebody” who was just messing with us. I am fairly certain I gave him my business card and wrote “Hockey SUCKS” on it. I hope he isn’t really somebody important J

Hockey isn’t all bad, Dave! I swear!


Today was a fairly light day for interesting talks, which was frustrating considering my roundtable Thursday was thinned out from heavy tech art and animation scheduling conflicts. I think that next year, if I am scheduled that poorly, I’ll request some schedule changes. I have no idea if it will work, but it can’t hurt to try. This conference is about learning, after all, and if talks exist on the same topic but are of a different nature, they shouldn’t conflict, in my opinion.

Art Director/Lead Artist Roundtable Session #3

I’m not going to lie. I was at this session, but I wasn’t fully there. The week had caught up to me and I was thinking about my roundtable. I am looking forward to getting the notes from Seth S.

After this session I grabbed lunch with Seth at Mel’s Diner, got the ship righted and headed back to Moscone to prep for my last roundtable session of the conference.

Tech Animation Roundtable Session #3

In contrast to the day before, the room was just about completely filled up today. In this session, I took a page from the Art Director Roundtable and decided to open the floor at the start to gather topics from the group. There were a lot of great suggestions, and we unfortunately didn’t get to cover them all, but overall I felt the conversations were great.

We started out discussing everyone's experience working with character artists. This was a great conversation that every animator, modeler and tech animator in the world should have been able to hear. We started out discussing how to teach a modeler to model characters for animation vs. modeling them as statues for Polycount or CGTalk or wherever. Solutions for this ranged from writing a document to show them how to format their edge loops, etc, to having them do that actual skinning themselves so that they understood what their geometry was doing when it moved (my preference is to skin it myself, but have the modeler look over my shoulder when I am close to done to show him the problem areas). It was interesting to hear where the line for skinning was drawn (animator/TA/modeler) at different studios, which was a relevant discussion considering the "what is the role of a tech animator" question typically yields "rigger and skinner" first.

The evolved in a discussion on how to create ownership of character pipeline. Again, there were varying opinions and processes on this- some studios have TA own it, others have the character artists own it. This discussion circled back to the "Technical Character Performance" strike team conversation from Session #1- some studios have a team that owns each character, some have the responsibility fall on just TA. I think what I got most out of this topic was that every studio tries to employ the process that best fits their needs- there is no right or wrong way to do it across studios, but there is a right or wrong way to do it within each project.

The topic shifted as some questions about motion capture arose, mainly about how people retarget their motions from one character to another or due to proportion changes. The most popular solution was to use Motion Builder- its retargeting works well not just for mocap but for handkey as well if the need arises. Naturally, you can't have a MoBu discussion without Full Body IK (FBIK) coming up, and talking about FBIK led to discussion of using it procedurally in game engines, which spawned the last topic of the day: Procedural animation use.

Procedural animation is a topic that could probably spurn an eternal debate between creatives and engineers. This may or may not have happened towards the end of the session...

Both were great sports

It was interesting to hear experiences people had with integrating procedural animation. Some swore by it (having implemented Euphoria in one case), and others admitted that while it gained them a massive amount of animation very quickly, they found themselves slowly replacing that procedural animation with hand-created motion to get artistic appeal back into their character movement. Overall, my feeling is that procedural animation is like mocap or any other tool that "takes it out of the hands of the artists"- you still NEED the artists involved in order to get your tools to deliver the look and feel that is desired for the current project. It's the same as implementing any game system- the programmers do the brunt of the work to make it function, but art and design need to be involved to make sure it looks and feels the best it can for the desired gameplay. It's a team effort, no matter what technology is involved.

This topic took us to just about the end of the session. I requested some war stories from people, got a few, and told one of my own about almost killing a guy on a mocap shoot. Video for that to come, if I can find it.

The session ended well, and i was really happy with it. Looking back on the 3 days of sessions, I think they were all successful in their own way. I look forward to continuing on with the roundtable in the future.

After the roundtable, I had to step out to make some phone calls. By the time I got back to the room for the Tech Art roundtable, it was locked due to being full, so I looked at demo reels and made notes on them. I'd like to note here that I would love to be able to crit every reel that comes in, not just on quality but on formatting. I may write a blog post on how to properly format a reel at some point...

Once the TA roundtable ended, I caught up with some folks and said my goodbyes, as I was flying back to Seattle that night. I headed to the hotel, then airport, and then home (read here about my post-flight experience, if you dare.)

Wrap Up


I really loved the tech art/animation community's presence at GDC this year. I love putting faces to names of people we interact with on an almost daily basis via IRC and forums, and I love having real people discussions with them. The community on TAO is great, but it can't replace the kind of stuff you glean from social interaction, and that's really where I learn at GDC. Notes can't do that.

I also have to say I was really pleased with how the tech animation roundtable went. There was a lack of animation-related talks this year (as compared to the last 2 years, anyways), and I feel like the groups that participated in the roundtable sessions enabled and encouraged topics not just technical, but also creative in nature. With all the emphasis on animation technology, new mocap techniques and technologies, blendtree editors, etc, there really isn't a lot focus on how to use this stuff to get the most effective character performances possible. I'm not just talking about making a beautiful cutscene here, either. I'm also talking about the performance the characters give during gameplay- both the characters you control and the ones you don't. I really feel like the people who want to discuss, explore and innovate in these areas were present at the roundtables, and I really hope they got as much out of it as I did.

Overall, this year's GDC was a blast. I didn't take as many notes as last year, though this lengthy report might hint at otherwise, but it was a conscious decision. Last year, I feel like I got too wrapped on _what_ was said and not the message behind any of the sessions I attended. I drew more inspiration in speaking with the people who gave the talks and with my peers than I think I could have from any notes I'd have taken, and that's really the value of GDC for me. I hope to continue attending, and I hope it keeps delivering.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

OK, I know we all wish we had these

No GDC report yet, but this just cannot wait. As animators, there are a few things that non-animators take for granted. The magic-bullet-y-ness of mocap, and the desire for that damn "Set Key" button to just read our minds sometimes. And so I give you this:

The basement mocap studio:

And you know what I'm talkin' bout here!

Animate Button FTW!!!

Seriously, The Cleveland Show can be hit or miss, but tonight's episode was epic for these 2 screen grabs alone.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Don't Be A Dick

"Animation and Design and Programing need to be collaborative instead of combative to produce great game play and games that people want to play." - Brad Clark

After reading this the other night in the comments section of my blog, coupled with my procrastination in writing my GDC 2011 report, I wanted to touch on this as it reminded me of a conversation with someone at GDC this year.

I have been on both sides of the battle in my career when it has come to collaboration vs. combat in regards to creating a great game. I realized that this ultimately came down to one thing: Don't. Be. A. Dick.

When I started in the industry, fresh out of school, I was insistent that design had to be written down at the start of a project and could never change. I butted heads with designers and programmers because all I cared about was my animation looking good, and "f-you all because I know how to do your job better than you do." In other words, I thought I knew everything. Sounds familiar, right? I was kind of (read: very much so): A. Dick.

I was fortunate enough during this time to have developed friendships with artists, designers and programmers at my job, who counseled me (or called me out on my BS) and showed me that everyone had their part in the great machine of game development. At this point, I began to realize and understand that game development is part foresight, and part rolling with the punches. I abandoned my ego in this regard, and started trusting the team members in other disciplines to do their jobs. I started encouraging them to both give me feedback and to accept mine. It was (almost) always in a constructive form, and I felt they reciprocated in a similar manner. It was at this point that I felt I was prepared to lead a team, having cast aside my selfishness in favor of the greater good- making a kick-ass game.

Now, that's not to say that I was going to be a good lead, not right away. I was only 5 years into the industry, and only had 4 titles under my belt. I still had a lot to learn- in retrospect, I was still too "young" to be a lead. Hell, I'm almost 13 years in, and I STILL have a lot to learn. So I did what I thought was right- I tried to surround myself with animators who were better than me so that I could learn from others who had gone through what I was going through.

I hoped to learn from them, and learn I did, but not always what I thought I would. While learning from some on how to become a better animator, I also learned that experience and talent did not always mean that there was a willingness to help or to teach. Sometimes they meant insecurity and backstabbing to get ahead. I also learned that I wasn't yet prepared to help or teach new folks, to let go of that ownership that I felt I had over animation on my projects. It took me a while to become comfortable with letting go, but I understood from my experience with those who did not want to teach me that I had to let go. I had to give up control and trust the people on my team to do their jobs well.

I also learned that insecurity wasn't isolated to the experienced folks we brought in- I also learned it could come from fresh-out-of-school folks. Looking back, I realized that I, too, had been insecure when I started out. Because of that, I gave leeway to those guys while making sure to pull them aside when they were acting inappropriately. I tried to make myself as approachable as possible. Did it always work? No, but I tried, and that's all I felt I could do at the time.

From garnering these insights, I worked as hard as I could to ensure that I was open to new ideas and others taking the baton as I got "older." I did not want to be one of those old, curmudgeonly guys who was afraid of young talent- I wanted to become a lead who was OK with not being as talented as his team, but instead was talented at putting together the right group of people to get the job done.

Unfortunately, this doesn't always happen with everyone. I've seen people become leads who haven't gone through that same learning process that I went through. I've seen these people alienate themselves with their egos, with their senses of self entitlement. I've seen them scream at a room full of people because they weren't getting their way or were simply disagreeing with a decision. I've had them tell me that my management style of compromise was unacceptable and that they would "kick and scream" till they got what they wanted. I've seen them trash talk, directly or indirectly, co-workers or the work they've done, and I've seen them behave this way towards others or on your favorite social network.

Do these people succeed? Maybe, but not likely in the long-term, and not without changing. Sometimes they are in a management system that is bogged down and slow-moving in replacing them. Sometimes they could be in their position because they were the only option, so they need to be allowed to learn from the mistakes they are making. Sometimes they are socially adept in blinding people to their ineffectiveness, or were recommended by their mentors for the position only to show their true colors after. Whatever the case, without changing, these people won't last. The teams they are on will either succeed in spite of them or fail in part because of them, and their actions and behavior will not be forgotten. Some will learn the important lesson and others won't, which is:

Don't. Be. A. Dick.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

GDC 2010 Trip Report

I found this report from last year while starting to write up my notes from this year. It’s interesting to see what my thought process was last year- some stuff I still agree with, some I don’t. Aside from removing some stuff that is likely under NDA, this is it in its entirety.

It should be noted that I wrote this during my tenure at Volition, and that the opinions and statements are my own, and not those of THQ, Volition, or my current employer, 5TH Cell.


I came away from GDC this year with fewer notes on talks than the last time I went, but more opinions and ideas based on social interactions with people at studios who are considered leaders in animation for games.

Tuesday, the Travel Day From Hell™

(Redacted due to lack of pertinent info) It took a while to get to SF, but we got there. ‘Nuff said.

Wednesday, the Meeting Day From Hell™

Due to the delay in travel on Tuesday, I had meetings (both work-related and social) that I pushed to Wednesday. Those, coupled with other meetings I had already scheduled for Wednesday, made my day unbelievably busy. To top it off, each vendor I was meeting with was in a different hotel, and getting a cab in SF sucks, so I did a lot of walking.

Prior to the meetings, I headed over to Moscone Convention Center to grab my credentials and my free Droid phone (this year’s gift to the speakers). I ran into Seth Gibson, a TA at 343 Industries (The MS studio rumored to be taking over Halo), we went over what our panel was going to be like on Friday, and scoured the hall for some party invites. We split ways when he ran off to do some powerlifting training and I had to get to my meetings.

In the interest of keeping my report shorter, I’ll go over the meetings that I felt were the most relevant to what we are doing here.

Meeting with Natural Motion

Wow, these guys have come a long way. They haven’t addressed all of our concerns from when we evaluated them a year and a half ago, but they are doing some really cool stuff nonetheless:

· Morpheme : Connect 2.x

o The meeting started out with them showing some MC 2.0 stuff. We evaluated 1.x, so I wanted to see what they had improved.

o They have a timeline now that shows events (triggers) as they happen

§ Also have “event detection” that works with footsteps

o Right-clicking the control param node lets you create a new one via a modal dialog. We should steal this.

o New gun-aim node that controls the arms and spine. It’s basically a spinebending node but specifically for aiming firearms.

o Head look-at node is improved in that it can drive other bones for a more realistic feel

· Added new Physics Blendtrees and State Machines

o They have ragdoll nodes that actually simulate in the editor

o The networks can transition to/from physics and animation

o Editor has world objects that the characters can collide with

o They have a physics rig editor, where you can setup the skeleton and the joint types/limits

§ These rigs/limits work in game

o Have a “closest anim” setting that will choose the appropriate animation based on root orientation plus limb positions

§ E.g., for a getup, they’ll have 20 motions, and this feature will choose the right one to play based on the position/orientation of the body and limbs.

o Physics objects can affect animation and vice versa

§ They do this via Hard Keying (Where the animation influences the environment) and Soft Keying (Where the environment influences the animation)

§ Both techniques can be combined on different body parts, and be given different strengths

o Zombie demo was cool

· Added some more organization stuff

o You can resize state nodes, which is nice if you’ve got a ton of transitions coming in or out

o Transitions can be broken out of

o Transitions have a group collapse/expand

o Added wild-card transitions, but they also contain limits to prevent them from coming in from certain states

· Working on speeding up network execution

o Version 3 is much faster, as it previews for errors as you work instead of runtime

o Want to make simulation time less than 1 second

· Their live-link is now productized, so it is a bit more efficient to look at multiple characters

o But, multi-characters will never be in Connect. It relies too much on game code.

· Doing the same stuff as us with Choice Nodes (When a state is entered)

· Miscellaneous details

o They have an “uneven terrain” node that drives how the characters react to uneven terrain

o There is euphoria integration into Version 3

o Gun-Aim Node is all IK (Arms, head, spine). No posing. It looked really good.

o Animation sets are improved, but still not what we’d need

§ In a clip node, you set what clip is used for what animation set, which is backwards to how we do it

§ They also use file names, but they claim we can change the code to use tags

o Have a mirror node now. Can mirror whole network or just a clip, like we have planned

· Euphoria

o It now plugs into Morpheme:Connect

o Behaviors are created by the client via an editor. No more sending programmers to a studio for custom coding

§ Ships with a few stock behaviors as well

o They have behavior nodes, which execute Euphoria behaviors, blending to/from/with animation

o Arrow Demo was cool

§ Arrow was user-controlled, and depending on the speed of the arrow thrown at a character, it reacted differently by ducking, or putting its hands up, pushing it away, etc.

§ I expressed interest in having public videos to do this justice

o Natal stuff is coming down the pipe

Overall, I was impressed with what I saw. It was cool to see Euphoria running in their editor, and good to see that they are improving some processes. It was disappointing that some major flaws from when we evaluated it were still there, but at the same time, it affirmed that we made the right choice, and that we are on the right track with our tools development. A lot of their cool new features are ones we either already had or already planned for, and the ones we didn’t we are definitely going to investigate.

Meeting with Moanima

Moanima is a motion capture cleanup outsourcer based in the Philippines. This meeting was to catch up with their management to discuss the potential to use them to cleanup any motions we get from our internal studio, as well as external if we feel that we can save money by moving cleanup to them. Their data from their POC was good, and it’s about half as much as we typically pay. They have 24-hour shifts, so the time difference is supposedly not an issue, and their client list is impressive if it’s accurate.

I personally feel that we should explore this avenue for cost savings, whether it be with Moanima or another outsourcer.

After all of my meetings, I wound up back at the hotel to wash up, check email, and relax for a bit before heading out to dinner.

Thursday, the Roundtable From Hell™

“So, why DO we need Technical Animators?”

We’ll get to the relevance of that question in a minute.

Thankfully, the first day of the actual convention had nothing scheduled too early for me, so I took the opportunity to walk the expo floor before lunch. I spent some time at the THQ booth talking to prospective recruits and other THQ studio and corporate folks. After that, I crawled around the floor looking for people I knew at other studios, seeing what the booths had to offer, and throwing rocks at the Autodesk booth. The expo floor was very tight, and there were tons of students looking to get interviews, so I didn’t stick around too long. Once the speaker lunch was served, I ran in, ate my craptastic sandwich, and headed off to my first talk- the Physics and Animation in Just Cause 2. Or so I thought. I got derailed by someone from corporate who wanted to talk about mocap-related topics, so I did that. I heard it was a good talk, and am looking forward to seeing the slides and video. I did make it to the rest of the talks I wanted to see, though.

Behind the Scenes: Uncharted 2’s Unique Cinematic Production Process

This talk was very informative, as it went over how Naughty Dog got their cinematics from start to finish. Some of it was “common knowledge,” in that they’ve disclosed some of this info before, but I’m going to include all of it in my notes below:

· Animators get 1 week to finalize 15 seconds of cinematic motion. This includes fingers, facial and props, since none of those are mocapped.

· All props are built to spec. If they exist in game, they are built to those measurements. If the prop isn’t modeled yet, they build the real-world prop, take measurements, and the in-game prop is modeled to those specs.

· Josh showed a lot of video of the shoots.

· The mics for audio capture were lavaliered to their heads. When they did ADR in studio later (when it was needed), the mics were put in the same exact spot.

· They mocap no crazy stunts. They leave those up to the animators.

· Prepping for a shoot involves auditions, callbacks, rehearsal, read-throughs. Each of these steps brings changes to the script based on ad-libbing and what feels right.

· Story guys, designers, cinematics guys are all in a room together during initial development. No one comes in from high (or 3000 miles away) and tells them to make sweeping changes.

· Their director, Gordon Hunt, is a film director.

· No storyboards, no animatics. On a shoot, they bring an overhead schematic that blocks out the motion of the actors, and placement on props. Camera blocking is known, but not final here.

o Josh did admit that there were some scene types that, in the future, they will create rough animatics for due to the sheer complexity of them

· No animators acting. They have had plenty of issues with animators and even actors making big, exaggerated motions, so they need to direct it out. They prefer people with real stage and film experience. The videos shown for this part were pretty entertaining.

· The have 4 camera operators shooting live footage for every scene. This footage is used for reference for finger/face animation.

· They still will mix and match takes when necessary, either by blending mid-shot or cutting on camera cuts.

· Mocap shoots occur every few weeks. This way they can shoot scenes as they are ready, keep the animators busy, and give the actors a real chance to invest in the characters. Since the work is steady, the actors don’t just come in, run through the motions, and leave after 2 shoots. A lot of ad-libbing and natural movement came out of this.

· Mocap data is heavily modified. He even went so far as to allude to how the “Avatar” way is a joke.

· Facial animation trumps body animation. If they feel a scene is missing something, or feels wrong, they attack the facial animation first. The reason being, and I agree with this, is that we are more forgiving on weird body motion, but not of weird facial animation.

· If they have to ADR, or when they are doing in-game audio, they have the actors in the booth together. It makes for a more natural exchange.

· Since they record audio with the mocap, they had to custom-tailor mocap suits with no Velcro, so the actors had no chance of sticking to one another and causing Velcro ripping to be recorded. Amazing.

Overall, they do this way better than we do. Part of it is probably that they are first party, and as such are fairly independent of Sony. There is a lot of trust and collaboration that occurs within their team, and if you’ll believe what they say, no egos.

I think we have the talent here to do this type of development (not the headcount), but I think we need to change how we do things in order to be as successful as ND is with their cinematics.

Technical Animation Roundtable

Back to the question, “So, why DO we need Technical Animators?” This was the first question of the first Technical Animation roundtable in GDC history, asked to a person (me) who was running his first roundtable ever, in a room full of mostly students. And it was immediately followed by the same person with “because at Bioware, I’ve automated everything a tech animator does, so I’ve made you obsolete.”

The air was sucked out of the room. The students looked shocked, and the industry vets looked confused. What’s worse was that Rob Galanakis, the asker of “The Question,” had made a declaration in the previous Tech Art roundtable (that had just concluded) that he was going to ask “The Question” in my roundtable. He was warned against it, but did not heed those warnings.

To be fair, it’s a valid question, and it makes for good debate when properly framed. But the intent behind the question was a bit questionable.

So that spurred a 20 minute conversation that I let go on too long about what Tech Animators are needed for. After a while it got cyclical, and I knew I let it go too long, so I switched the topic to pipelines and processes that people use at their studios or in school. We shifted topics a few times, started discussing network editors, mocap, and eventually ended the day with some topic ideas for the next session.

One interesting comment, from Rob, was that they use Morpheme at Bioware and found that they had to separate their networks into smaller chunks to make them manageable for loading and running. Morpheme is really, really slow.

After that debacle, I decided I needed a drink. (redacted- insert generalities about going to Valve party, bars, seeing old friends, etc)

Friday, the Panel Time From Hell™

Technical Art Techniques: Character Rigging and Technical Animation

First talk of the day was at 9am, and it happened to be the Technical Animation Panel I was on with Ben Cloward of Bioware and Shawn McClelland of Autodesk, moderated by Seth Gibson. Given that Thursday night was heavy on the partying, we were surprised to have the session fill up to standing room only. I felt that the panel went OK, as we discussed the past, present and future of technical animation, but I think we all felt that it was hard to get into specifics without breaking NDA. I think that if we had spent more time preparing for the panel, it would have went a lot better. We fielded very few questions from the audience, which was surprising considering the amount of people there, but did have quite a few people stay behind to talk with us after. One point of interest is that our use of Biped is a bit… ridiculed. I got in on it and poked fun at the situation, and while I maintained that if it was a broken tool, it wouldn’t be in our pipeline, the points made for switching are valid. It is worth further discussion, especially with (redacted) coming up and the chance to completely replace that pipeline with a much better one. I think our excuses to date to not switch have been pretty weak and short-sighted.

I had no more talks I wanted to attend till after lunch, so I spent a few hours talking with various people, walking the expo floor a bit more to catch up with some industry folks, and eating lunch.

Creating the Active Cinematic Experience of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

This talk was pretty amazing, from the first line (“Narrative drives gameplay, and everything is done in service of the story”) to the last. This may contain spoilers. My notes:

· On Uncharted 2, narrative drove the gameplay. Everything in the game was done in service of the story.

o Story and Gameplay go hand in hand. When both are being developed, they are developed collaboratively. Story does not insist on gameplay for story’s sake, and gameplay does not insist on story to make a gameplay element work. They come to those conclusions together.

· They decide on Genre before anything else, so as to have pre-determined expectations. This helps them ground the world and the story.

· Next step is to ground your world. It aids in believability, and defines the limitations of what can happen.

o i.e., no jetpacks or Bayonetta boots just for the sake of having them or making obstacles easier to overcome. In order to get to the top of a building, they made it so you had to climb, not fly.

o In situations where they wanted to limit things, they did so. For example, they removed the Yaks during the village invasion so no one would want to shoot them.

o Characters themselves behaved differently. Drake boosted the women and Sully up, since in this world, the women and Sully were too weak to boost up Drake.

· Pacing was movie-like, in order to keep the player invested. They had little to no repeating of gameplay or sets.

o Cutscenes were meant to prop up player interest, but were not the only thing used to do so

o Core mechanics were varied. No stealth missions 3 times in a row.

o Cutscenes were used to setup the frame of the story

o They involved the whole team, plus focus testing, to get suggestions for change.

· “The Gap”

o When the hero had a goal to reach, they presented him with a first action. This was typically the easiest way to reach the goal.

o They would then add a “Gap,” which made the first action impossible, and force the player to use a second action to reach the goal. This is probably writing and design 101 J

o The timing and intensity of the placement of these gaps was varied so as to keep the player from becoming too bored, or from expecting it.

§ They admit the Shaefer (sp?) rescue scene/mission was too long and did not contain enough of this.

· Along with gaps, they used contrast in gameplay and story in order to keep the player engaged

o Each moment in the game had a differing intensity

o Climaxes in the acts were contrasting as well.

o They would use calm moments, then exciting moments, but even the intensity of calm to exciting was varied so it wasn’t just a sine wave.

· Using Cutscenes

o They did everything they could to not use action set-pieces in cinematics. Those were for gameplay- it’s more fun to play the action than watch it.

o These are for telling the story, and for giving a performance. They don’t make a cutscene unless a story element is dramatic enough for one

o These are also used to manage physical, tonal, and player/character continuity

o Most scenes are started on an action, so as to not take the player out of the experience

§ i.e., if the player just escaped an exploding building, but the cutscene has the player clean and walking with no indication that he just jumped out of a building, it is bad. So they avoid this

o Will also cut on an external action

§ In these cases, they’ll force the player to do a movement via gameplay (like stumbling on the collapsing bridge) and cut on that, so the cutscene still has Drake stumbling.

o Always made sure to do environmental and FOV check to make sure the player didn’t miss big moments in game (like the tank)

o Design drove the in-game cameras.

o Design and Animation need to collaborate

§ Design is the driving force. Design needs to communicate what it wants and animation has to deliver. There is collaboration and back and forth, but ultimately, design makes the call.

§ The designer of the current level is the one who makes the final call on everything

· Using “Scenes”

o Cutscenes were used to create a change in the player’s world. Whatever gameplay tone there is, is also the narrative tone.

o All scenes are used to build up future scenes. They aren’t there for the sake of filler.

o All of the small details are meant to move towards the larger goal of moving the story forward.

· Misc Notes from questions asked by the audience and by me

o In-game dialogue was done with necessary actors in the same booth. A lot of ad-libbing occurred.

o Contextual move sets were used a lot. For example, in the village, shooting was replaced by handshaking

o In game cameras determined by design

o No motion in the game was done without design direction. Animation did not have final say on any motion, even though there was collaboration with design. This is an interesting approach, but hard to argue with considering the success of the animation in Uncharted 2.

o The designers who had final say per level were all senior, with years of experience. They also had to have their approvals approved by the game director.

Overall, I was happy with this talk. In my experience, I’ve had a better time as an animator and animation lead when design was allowed to be heavily involved in the look and feel of motion in the game. The key is to not have an ego about it (on both sides), and to work together to get the best results possible. Even still, design should be empowered to make the final call. The most successful animation we have here, in my opinion, is when gameplay mechanics drive animation. Please note that I am not saying animation quality should be sacrificed or that animation quality should be determined by design, just that animation shouldn’t drive gameplay unless that is the overall design from the start.

Technical Animation Roundtable

Today, we had half returnees and half new people. Once again, no one left and even had some stragglers file in. Today’s topics trended towards motion capture, 3rd party rigging and other software, blendtree editors, and batch export questions.

The most interesting conversation, that I had to cut off due to it becoming a 2-person event, was started by Travis McIntosh, Lead Programmer on Uncharted 2. He was in charge of the animation pipeline, and noted that Drake had 3000-4000 motions alone. They have a farm of machines at ND to handle batch exporting as well as many other things, which is good when they have to re-export every animation. When the farm is free, it takes 30 minutes. When only one machine is free (which is the case during the end of the dev cycle), it takes 27 hours. There was a lot of back and forth over spawning the batch event once per file, using ASCII files, etc. I took the topic offline and held it for after the session.

I ended the session with proposing a story time/rant session for the final session, to hear what people have had to deal with and how they overcame the problems. Everyone seemed amenable to that. I stuck around a bit to talk to a bunch of people with questions (people are always so much more talkative after the session, I need to figure out how to foster that DURING the session more), and then headed to the last talk of the day.

Animation Process of God of War III

This talk was pretty good, if anything to see where the line between design and animation is drawn at another studio. Notes:

· Animation is involved as early as the concept phase for a creature

o Here, animation helps determine scale, identifies rigging issues, and potential concerns over whether the creature is feasible to animate

o It sounds like (redacted) is doing this? Awesome.

· Once a creature concept is done, there is a Character Kick-Off meeting

o All characters go through this process, and the intent is to get all disciplines (art, programming, design) on the same page as to how it needs to work

o Personality of the character is developed here, and rules for its behavior and motion are setup

o The grounding of the character in the story is set here as well

o Our of this meeting comes a small strike team (animator, rigger, designer, gameplay programmer)

· In this strike team, a simple model and rig of the character is made and collaborated on between all disciplines in the strike team

· Once the character is rigged, an animator is paired with a combat designer

o The combat designer provides the motion list, many times down to exactly how the character should move

§ This process is collaborative, but the designer ultimately owns how the character should move and behave

§ He even went so far as to say that animators WANT designers to have that control. Crazy talk!

o With this small pairing, immediate implementation is possible. Once an animation or group of animations is done, they can be implemented

o Chimera character videos for GoW3 were shown here and looked amazing

o There was also the mention of using a silhouette pass on creature/boss intros. If the silhouette didn’t read, they’d change motion of cameras. This is a slick idea.

· Contact Sensitive Moves (AKA, QuickTime Events)

o These moves were designed by the combat designer, and were used to sell the brutality of Kratos

§ This is the only time the strike team animator animated Kratos.

o But, these are the times where the animators are given the most freedom to shine with the over-the-top animation.

§ This is also the only time animators are allowed to control the camera animation.

§ Even still, the designer had the final say on these

· Keeping Kratos Consistent

o They developed a set of rules for Kratos, so that all animators would animate him consistently.

§ Since all animators animate Kratos for their QTEs, this had to be put in place

§ Also made it easier for new hires, outsourcers and other studios using the Kratos character.

o Rules

§ He never falls on his back unless he dies

§ Never smiles

§ Always moves forward when initiating an action (movement, attacks, etc)

§ Always at the center of the action, so as to never appear weak

§ Fortunate to have the same voice actor for all instances that Kratos exists

o They showed a theme video that had been around since GoW1, that they still show to new hires to sell the Kratos vision

· Balance of Gameplay and Animation

o This was a common theme at GDC this year. This section wasn’t as informative as I’d hoped, but there were a few interesting tidbits

o Move cancelling was very important

§ Can jump, roll, cast magic, throw, guard from any other state

§ All moves were animated through and triggered for cancel

o They telegraphed an enemy’s moves

o On previous GoW titles, they used code blends for stand/walk/run, but on GoW3, they wanted to add in transitions

§ This caused issues with previous gameplay and control responsiveness

§ In order to fix that, they limited the frames of those transitions to the old code blend frame count

o There were rules for modifying playback speed (stockMAAAAANNN!!!)

§ There was a mutual respect between designers and animators

§ If the speed change was big (say, over 50%), it got sent back to animation for a real update

Overall, it was cool to see another take on how to balance design and animation. This was another talk, though, that emphasized that while it is a team effort, there is one driving force behind how characters move (again, not quality), and it’s typically design, not art.

After the GoW3 talk was done, I got food, went to the speaker party (and gave Rob some grief), met up with some corporate folks to discuss animation direction at THQ as a whole, and then called it a night.

Saturday, the Recovery Day From Hell™

The whole week finally caught up with me on Saturday morning. I was happy to not have my roundtable till 10:30am with no animation talks at 9 to attend, so I slept in. I think I was also finally converted to Pacific time, which I knew was going to hurt on Sunday when we traveled home. I grabbed some breakfast on the way to the convention center and got there with plenty of time to spare for my roundtable. The Tech Art roundtable was finishing up, so I caught up with a bunch of people there (my roundtable was in the same room, right after) before diving in to my final responsibility of GDC.

Technical Animation Roundtable

This was the final session of the first ever Technical Animation roundtable. I started out by getting everyone to give themselves a round of applause.

Today had some people leave, but they were quickly replaced with stragglers. I think the subject matter turned them off (those who left were all newcomers), so perhaps next year (if there is a next year) I’ll not have the final day be a rant session. I think the folks who stuck around appreciated it though, as after the rants simmered off, I asked everyone what they had learned from those situations in order to avoid repeating the same mistakes.

The session wrapped up with discussion about the importance of communication, as well as some questions from students. We ended a few minutes early, and we even had Rob lead a round of applause for the group. I think he was trying to keep me from sacrificing him to the tech animators in the room.

I enjoyed running this session and hope to do it again. There were plenty of roadbumps, lessons learned, and things I wish I had done better, but overall I felt like it went pretty well.

Off to the next talk.

Animation and Player Control in Uncharted1&2

This talk was given by Travis McIntosh, the same guy from the Tech Animation roundtable. This one was the most informative from the animation side of things of any talk I attended. Some of it is a bit rehashed from previous knowledge, but I’m including all the notes:

· Control and animation conflict with each other

· There is a heavy use of animation layering in UC1 & 2

o Face, Hand, Hair, Base, Run Randomizer, weapon, breathing all were separate layers

o At any one time, 30 motions could be playing

· Animations on the same layer are all the same length and synced up

o Lengths and syncs are different across layers, though

o There is different code controlling each different layer

· There are partial bone sets for each body area

o There are 12 (arms, head, spine, etc)

· Used reference nodes, which are actual nodes placed in a level by the animator

o These were used for determining what points in the level would play what contextual animation set

o Had a huge box level for each type of scenario for testing. The video was good to see here.

· Used animation mirroring everywhere

· Sphere Man in Box World

o Had this idea that just creating a “sphere man” in a box world would be enough to determine controls. If it felt right they’d just make the animations work!

o This turned out to be a horrible idea, since the animations themselves contributed to the feel of the controls.

· Stand to run animations were created with 8 different directions

o No blending between the 2, which meant that if you weren’t point in a direction divisible by 45, you were going in the wrong direction for the duration of the “Stand to run” motion.

§ The code corrected you as it ended

· Turn in place motions were 60, 90, 120 and 180 degrees

o The code would pick an animation and counter rotate in order to avoid foot slide

o Used the same motions for when you were standing or moving

· Bone counts

o 30-40 body bones, 30-40 finger bones, and 97 facial bones

o Face and finger bones were on layers, so not all motions had them

· Additive Animation (My note here is “weapon layering video is insane”)

o Showed how they used layering for reloading, and had same reload animation work for stand, walk, run, rolling, jumping, etc

o In Maya, they animate to one pose, then use a “diff” tool to subtract that pose from the animation, for their additive layering

o All aiming is additive (using poses) in fine aim mode. In non-fine aim, they don’t care if it’s accurate.

o The way they do the idle/stand motion is clever. It’s a 300 frame motion of just random, arm swing, breathy-type motion. They then layer a single frame pose on top. They use this same 300-frame motion for stand, ready, stealth, crouch, cover, etc., each with a different 1-frame pose on top. Awesome.

o Also use it for run randomness.

§ The run is 30 frames, but the randomizer layer is 302 frames, on purpose. This is so that after 10 cycles, it looks completely different and more “real.”

· IK

o No FBIK, but they are thinking of adding it on the next round of projects

o IK was 2-bone IK w/locators on weapons, much like we do

§ Also had foot IK to the ground, with a root offset. This fix floaty feet from the additive pose over the 300 frame idle motion

§ IK was done to the renderable geometry!

· Move Set Remapping

o Much like our animation groups, but they did it via code

o Their normal pipeline is to have the designer and animator work together to create move sets, but there are times when a move set type has already been designed and coded (like a pistol move set), and there is no programmer/designer time needed.

o Animator goes in and creates a remap for a rifle, for example, and it just works.

§ This is done via a script, not via a table file or editor

o There are many parameters exposed to the animators and designers so they can be less reliant on code support

§ Rotation, move speed, anim playback speed, etc.

· Memory Use

o Animation gets 15-30MB per level, which is 20-40% of their level mempool

o 3000-4000 moves loaded at any time, 3000 of which are Drake

§ They load only what they need per level

§ The sample their anims at 10Hz at export, keeping 15 and 30Hz for faster moves. Apparently, this doesn’t look bad. Maybe we should try it?

§ Insist that their compression schemes are “as good as they can be.”

· Other tidbits that came from questions or post-talk conversation directly with Travis

o ND does not want animators prototyping gameplay on their own. A designer must be involved.

o No skeleton retargeting! Wow…

Overall, this was a great talk. It was interesting to see how the tech side of their animation pipeline works. The videos they showed were really cool, and illustrated the animation layers nicely. There is definitely stuff here we should look into doing.

Building a Better Halo With Python: Production Proven Techniques

I didn’t take notes for this session, as I figured I could just get them from Seth later. It sounded like he had grandiose plans for this talk, but the IP hammer was brought down by Microsoft, so he had to make it quite generic. The talk went very fast (30 minutes), but he had a lot of stragglers asking questions later. I can’t say that I learned a LOT from the talk, but it was interesting to see how he handles the use of Python. I just wish I could have seen real-world Halo examples, and he wishes he could have shown them. From what I’ve heard, he’s already made the subject matter of this session obsolete due to things he’s learned since GDC.

Since Seth’s talk went short, a bunch of the TAs and FX people hung around to form a plan of attack for the evening. Since there were no public parties to attend, and most people leave right after the conference ends, we organized a group dinner followed by some drinks and conversation at a nearby bar. The dinner was initially set for Jillian’s, but there was a private party there and we wound up at Buca De Beppo’s. We had to split off into 2 tables, which was initially a shame because I didn’t get to mingle with the people I’d wanted to, but it turned out really well because our table was full of students with a lot of questions. Thankfully Tranchida was with me to aid in any awkward silences. Service was pretty horrible, and it was packed, but the conversations were good. The industry vets at dinner decided to pay for the students’ dinners, and once that was all worked out, we headed out for drinks. A few of the people at dinner had flights to catch that night, so we bid them farewell and looked around for a bar. A bar was found, and a good time was had all around. The group was a mix of students and professionals, so there was a lot of talking about how to get into the industry, as well as experiences while in the industry, along with more social topics overall. It was a good time.

I guess it should be worth noting that ‘The Mittani’ (of EVE fame) was there, unbeknownst to me. I wound up talking to him about fitness-related stuff a lot, and didn’t know it was him till the night ended. If I were an EVE player, I hear I would have wet my pants. A few of us got his ‘business card’- I will sell it to the highest bidder. He had quite the ego, but was far from a jackass about it, which was refreshing.

Sunday, the Jetlag Day From Hell™

Travel back to cornlandia.

Final Thoughts

Overall, this was a great trip. I do hope I can continue the technical animation roundtable and attend GDC every year. I learned a lot from the talks I attended, but I learned more from talking with other people in the halls, out at dinner, at the hotel, and at parties.

The volume of animation-related talks can be directly attributed to Naughty Dog, but it’s hard to argue with their success. I don’t think that there way of doing things will work at every studio, simply because not all studios are structured the way they are- no producers, no PMs, and a great respect across disciplines that leads to trust and faith in leadership.

As an animator, my desire here has always been to create the best possible animation for the games we create. We’ve shipped plenty of good and bad animation with our games. We have extremely talented animators here who can produce high-quality motions. But, unless there is a driving force behind how our motions work in game, how they are meant to look and feel, and ultimately, how they fit into our game worlds, we’ll never be considered as successful as Uncharted or God of War. That vision needs to be championed by the same people who champion the overall vision of our games- the designers.

The common theme among all the animation talks and animators who I talked to at GDC who have been successful with animation in their games was that design drove animation, but with a mutual respect and collaboration with the animators. If animation had an idea, they collaborated with design, but if it didn’t fit into the vision of the game, it wasn’t worked on. There’s no kicking and screaming until animation got its way, and design didn’t give in just because it was easier to not deal with it. At the same time, if design had an idea, but animation had concerns over how it would work, look or feel, design would listen to animation and come to solution.

I don’t think the “design rules all with an iron fist” approach is right, but I do think that design needs to have the final say and needs to be empowered to do so via strong project and studio leadership. How that final say is reached, however, needs to be through mutual respect, collaboration and honesty between all the disciplines. I liken in to erecting a building: Design is the Architect, Programming is Engineering, and Art is Construction. The Architect comes up with the grand vision of the building and its surrounding space. Engineering works with the Architect and Construction to make changes based on what is possible and what isn’t, concluding where to work within current limitations and where to innovate. Construction works with Engineering and the Architect to ensure the materials being used will not only keep the building standing based on the innovations desired, but also provide the overall look and feel that the Architect was going for. Is this idealized? Yes, but if we don’t strive for ideal, we’re going have a higher probability of mediocrity.

We need our projects to have someone in place that has the whole vision in mind, and can properly communicate that vision while encouraging collaboration among the team in order to succeed in bringing that vision to life.