Wednesday, November 23, 2011

So You Wanna Be In Charge?

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

This blog was cross-posted here.

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

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

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

The 99%, Part 1: The 85%

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

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

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

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

The 99% Part 2: The 14%

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

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

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

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

The 1%

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

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

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

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

The 100%

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

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

Doing it Right

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

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

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

Monday, November 7, 2011

Who Designs Animation?

This blog was also posted here.

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

Well stop that and play nice!

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

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

Technical Creativity?

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

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


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

Motion Designers?

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

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

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

Pop Quiz! Animator or Designer? 

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

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

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

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

How Can We Bridge The Gap?

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

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

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

The Answer

It also helps get stubborn knots out of your back.

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

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

And both of you: Stop that and play nice!