Monday, September 5, 2011

Technically, It's Creative!

This blog was cross-posted here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nah, we're just painting pixels, really

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, usually. :)

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

No comments:

Post a Comment