Wednesday, May 11, 2011


editor's (my) note: Mike Carr's post beat me to the punch, but I still wanted to share my experience because I already wrote this :)

Over the course of my career, I have interviewed a lot of animators. Phone interviews, on-site, at schools. Some wanted to just animate. Some wanted to be managers right out of school. Some were more cinematically inclined and shied away from in-game motions, and some were the opposite. One guy claimed to have run over 300 motion capture shoots in a four year period! (we later found out he counted each day as a full shoot) It's safe to say year over year I had thought I'd seen it all, and year after year I was wrong.

Case in point- over a one to two year period, I saw an influx of animation applicants who all fancied themselves as designers. When asked what their goals as an animator were, without fail they expressed a desire to move into design. This is a valid desire (the current lead designer on Saints Row 3 started at Volition as an animator), as we're all in the games industry because we want to make games. In reality, to some extent we have input to the design of the areas we work in. In this case, however, the sheer number of animators wanting to be designers became a topic of conversation enough for one of the animators to deem them "designimators."

These animators felt that animation WAS design (ed. note: here I am referring to the interviewees, not any of the animators. Sorry if that isn't clear). Since they made the characters move and hence had an impact on how a character (quite literally) moved forward in the game, that they were designers. Some had respectable and honorable intentions, but some flat out thought that they had actually designed the last game they worked on and felt that they could immediately be in senior design positions. True or not, it was fairly mind-boggling to hear such claims be made at an interview for a completely different position.

Obviously, I feel differently.

As an animator, I recognize the impact that animation has on gameplay. I've long felt that animation is equal parts design and art in regards to video game development, possibly moreso than other disciplines (I admit I am biased and I'm sure my friends and colleagues in other artistic disciplines will beg to differ, and I welcome that). However, I do not fancy myself a designer nor do I feel that I can do a better job than a designer. My job is to make the animation look as good as possible within the design requirements of the game.

Quite often, the easiest way to satisfy those design requirements is to make sacrifices to the principles of animation. In my opinion, this is the wrong approach. While I have cut frames to "make it feel better" in game, that is only the first step. My goal is to get our timing, blending and "feel" right, before we create final animation that still works within the gameplay design yet follows the principles of animation. During this process, design is king. Animation gives input, but the goal of both disciplines is to make the game fun to play.

I have been fortunate (past and present) to work with talented designers/creative directors. These people have been tolerant of my desire to try to solve their requests and challenges by experimenting with animation solutions that still employ the principles of animation. These experiments have ranged from simple previz animations to full blendtree/state machines in-game that take time, but more often than not yield positive gameplay results without sacrificing animation quality.

As animators, we got into this discipline because we are passionate about breathing life into a character. In games, the "character" isn't just the muscle-bound hero, the large-breasted babe, the Italian Plumber, or the generic soldier. The whole world is the character- the environments, the effects, the writing, the code that runs it all. EVERYTHING. But I never hear of an animator calling themselves a modeler, or a writer, or an effects artist, or a programmer. Animators are not designers. We serve the vision of the game. We animate for design- only in that sense are we "designimators."

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Need A Spot?

In my training log from yesterday I wrote:

"The way this day typically goes is that if one of us (my wife or I) PRs, the other one has to PR to keep pace."

This kind of training applies not just to setting PRs, but to our overall philosophy of pushing each other to continually train and improve. The same kind of mentality should always be present in an animation team (or any team) setting- if we all work to improve and push each other to improve, our overall output will be more efficient and of higher quality.

Some days, we're in the gym and one of us just isn't feeling it. It would be easy to just quit, walk upstairs and eat some ice cream. It would be easy to just say "it wasn't happening today" and have that be that. But we're a team. Teammates are there to pick each other up when they need it, and to work with each other to figure out what will work that day in the gym. We don't want to let each other down. We know that if one of us gave up, the other may not have a successful training session or worse- neither of us will make any progress towards our current training goals.

There are also times where even though we are confident in the lift we are about to do, we need someone to make sure we don't injure ourselves- it's called "spotting" someone. Having a spotter also allows a lifter to go higher in weight during a session- not only due to being safer from injury, but by giving a confidence boost to the lifter that they can lift the weight.

Animation is the same way. There are plenty of days when I or another member of the team just cannot figure out a pose, a motion, timing, etc. An animator will plan it all out, it'll sound great in their mind, and when they go to execute, they just can't get it. When this happens, the team looks at it together (i.e, we "spot" each other). We throw out ideas- some good, some bad, some that will work better for another motion. Some are just so over-the-top hilarious that we know we can't use them, but have fun talking about them. The goal is to come away from that interaction with a fresh perspective on the motion and try it again. I know that for me, sometimes just that interaction with the members of my team is enough to get me over the hump.

This same interaction needs to occur when motions are completed and just aren't working from either a style, gameplay or quality perspective- while I am the lead and do the initial approvals, I try to encourage the team to give feedback on everyone's motions, mine included. This pushes each of us to continually put out high quality work that fits within the vision of not just the animation direction, but of the game.

For various reasons, however, not everyone is part of a team. This may be due to working better alone, being at a small studio, or being a student or jobless and trying to break in. Aside from those who prefer to work alone (who wouldn't be on my team anyways), I encourage the rest of you to go find yourselves some teammates! Get on Twitter, post on deviantart or polycount or wherever. Meet people via online networking, learn from them, teach them, let them help you improve while you yourself encourage others to improve. Get a spotter, as it were.

Use these powerful forms of social media the right way (i.e., don't be a dick) and you'll find yourself open to a world of people who are trying to do the same as you: improve their craft and become a meaningful part of a team.