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.


  1. " 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..." - Which totally sucks for people trying to get into the industry. Like me. :) But I agree (and disagree) that the bar needs to be raised to accommodate the junior ta position. The problem with that though, is actually pointed out in your notes: People are still discussing what a TA is and what their duties are. How do you raise a bar, when you don't know what's holding it there in the first place? Should everyone come in knowing C++, Rigging, Skinning and 3 software packages? Or should they be entry to mid-level programmers with Rigging and Skinning experience knowing a single software package? It's hard to define that because what current TA's came into the industry with wasn't anything that was related to being a TA because the role is still rather new. It's a dilemma that will continue until the industry decides what the role is.

    Team building is always tricky. Everyone wants the best and the brightest with the most experience. Unfortunately if you continue down that road, you'll continue to put out products the same way. Thus the reason you need junior/entry level folks on your team. What you gain is fresh perspective on ideas and systems because they haven't been in the industry so they're willing to throw anything at the wall to see if it sticks. (This is, actually, generally true of all industries.) Yes you'll always have some of the senior folks who are constantly driving to push new things, but the crux of it is, you'll still have those few senior to mid people that are stuck in their ways. New blood means that you get new perspective on old (and new) problems. I'm not saying that all junior/entry level folks are going to give you that, but figuring out who will do that should be part of the interview process.

    Great notes and I wish I could have been there for those talks. Gotta start saving my pennies now so I can get there next year.

  2. Great write up, Tim.

    I'm glad you found the videos useful. Thanks for mentioning them. Any thing that can help the IGDA education SIG connect educators to the real needs in studios is a plus.

    If you would like to do a video at your desktop and FTP it to my server, I'll do the post processing and get your responses in with the group. (And don't worry about all of those deadlines and stuff. Milestones are meant to slip ;-)

    [bill aka opcode6]

  3. @John I agree with the sentiment that junior folks bring in fresh perspectives. I always try to mix in seasoned folks with junior ones when hiring an animation team- the seasoned guys know what works and what doesn't, but the juniors will question it and make them rethink a lot of things, while bringing unjaded views to the table. I think it works the same for any discipline. Unfortunately, tech art isn't as widely implemented at studios as animation is, so finding spots as a junior TA is harder to do.

    I think part of the reason for that is that companies that have heard that tech art is something they need, "want it all and want it now," so they look for senior TAs. It's almost as though it would be beneficial to go into one of those companies as a junior artist and transform into a TA once there.

  4. @bill I may take you up on that :) no promises, though- it's a bit different talking to a monitor than a person.