Game Animation Bootcamp: An expert roundtable Q&A

The game animation experts behind GDC's Animation Bootcamp answer questions from the development community. Even if you don't work directly in animation, this is worth a read.

Zenimax Online's Mike Jungbluth rounds up expert insight into video game animation in this roundtable Q&A.

Last year at Game Developers Conference, a group of animators came together to create the first ever game animation-specific gathering any conference has ever seen; The Animation Bootcamp. Sure, there are other conferences that focus on or examine animation as a whole, but nothing that specifically looks at the unique challenges and skills required of interactive game animation. And with the continued focus on creating stronger character performances with more lifelike movement, the need to give animators a chance to gather and become advocates of their craft has never been stronger.

While creating an opportunity for game animators to meet and discuss their growing craft is the first step, having their voice join the chorus of other game development disciplines is just as necessary. This is the beauty of having the Bootcamp at GDC, as it takes a rather insular and misunderstood craft and opens it up to the conversations and applications of the broader game dev community.

With that desire for animation to be better understood and integrated into the hearts and minds of all developers, editor-in-chief Kris Graft offered us the chance to take part in a roundtable here on Gamasutra. We have collected a few of the Animation Bootcamp speakers to answer some questions we received online, as well as ask a few of our own. We are:

Kristjan Zadziuk (@KrisZadziuk- Animation Director, Ubisoft Toronto

Ryan Duffin (@AnimationMerc) - Senior Animator, EA DICE

Simon Unger (@Simonunger) - Lead Animator, Robotoki

Tim Borrelli (@Anim8der) - Lead Animator, 5th Cell

Mike Jungbluth (@Lightbombmike- Senior Animator, Zenimax Online

This should give you the perfect insight into the conversations we have at the bootcamp and how it affects more than just animators. While some of these topics are certainly craft specific, many also reflect the blurred line between art, design, and tech that animation often lives within and helps to define.

Animation in games doesn't start or stop with animators, so we look forward to hearing your thoughts below, as well as at the bootcamp on March 17th!

Luke Dicken and @kaleidomaru asked similar questions, which boil down to:

What are some of your preferred resources for someone looking to learn and study animation?

Tim Borrelli (left) - Reading list: there are three books I recommend, each with their own strengths:

The Illusion of Life: It’s not going to teach you how to become an amazing animator, but it’s worthwhile to understand the history of the animation craft. This book will do that in regards to the Disney way--it not only teaches the Principles of Animation, but it explains why they are important.

Simplified Drawing for Planning Animation: Planning is key, not only in film/cinematic shots, but for in-game motion as well. This book does a great job of teaching how to plan -- lessons that can be applied to not just 2D/hand-drawn animation, but to 3D as well.

Animator’s Survival Kit: This one has a lot of information, and not everyone agrees that all of it is valid, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more thorough tome of practical information about the craft.

11 Second Club is a great online resource, as is Animator Island’s 51 Animation Exercises. If you can afford it, check out iAnimate (over Animation Mentor solely for the fact that iAnimate has a games focus).

Most importantly, go out and be active! Do stuff! You don’t have to run a triathlon or learn Krav Maga, but you need to have experiences to draw from when you are creating something. Go to a firing range, go running, go lift weights, go swimming, go for a walk, whatever. As Brad Bird said, “You can’t create the Illusion of Life if you don’t have one.”

Kristjan Zadziuk - Observation and practice has worked for me. Don't be afraid to ask for feedback from fellow animators. I went to University to study animation 14 years ago, but I felt that the most valuable resource was being around like-minded people. Now with all the forums and courses out there such as iAnimate and Animation Mentor you get a very similar experience, but this time with lots of different levels of experience. On a practical side, I focused a lot on the biomechanics of movement, understanding my own reasons for why and how I move and studying videos of anything in slow motion where possible, as it really helps you understand the mechanics of a motion.

Ryan Duffin -  Yep. Study life. Always be watching people. One of the best things about GDC is that San Francisco has some of the most interesting characters I've seen anywhere. Watch how they move and go about their business. Try to define what about their movement and posture tells you their story.

Also, watch movies. Ones with real people who are great actors giving great performances. I love watching good animation, but don't imitate the imitators no matter how good they are; use life as your reference. I think this one is a big mistake of new animators, even though I know a lot of their teachers are telling them not to.

Simon Unger - Full disclosure, I'm an instructor at iAnimate and as far as online schools go, I'm a little biased. That said, I think there's a lack of breadth with many of the educational options out there and in a lot of the students I come across. I feel they tend to be a little too myopic in their focus. Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I like my artists to be on the well-rounded side. I expect my animators to have a basic understanding of color theory, composition, storytelling, acting, etc. I don't expect anyone to be an expert in all things, but a healthy interest and willingness to learn is pretty important.

There will always be a place for specialists, but I feel a shift in the industry where people are wearing more than one hat on a dev team, especially at the smaller studios. For me, personally, I want to work with collaborators, not "outsourcers." Having an opinion and the knowledge to back it up is important to me. There's never been a better time to access knowledge and information when it comes to animation.

The best resource for getting better at something? Feedback. From anyone and everyone. Seek it out and eat it up. It will make you better. Push your stuff out there and celebrate the failures as milestones to becoming better at your craft. I grew up skateboarding and we always used to say "if you're not falling, you're not trying hard enough."

Tim Borrelli - I love getting feedback from non-animators because they won’t try to find an animator solution for you, they’ll just tell you what feels wrong to them.

@GamerMiller asks:

What is the most complicated or difficult thing or creature you have ever animated?

Ryan Duffin (right) - Oh jeez, that's a good question. Some contenders would be: Ryan Reynolds and Mark Strong's neck in the Green Lantern movie. Dr Octopus' tentacles on the Spider-man 2 game. Choreographing and keyframing some of the multi-character fight sequences in Ultimate Spider-Man. And weird as it may sound, I spent waaaay too much time on Alan Wake's running up and down stairs animations.

Kristjan Zadziuk - Most difficult character: Realistic domestic dog.... on a biped rig... We all know what they look like but interpreting that into a believable character is tough, the technical constraints made things even more complicated.

Simon Unger - There have been a lot of tricky shots over the years, both subtle and extreme, but by far the most difficult thing to do from an animation perspective has been Hitman (Agent 47). Working on a character that has an established fan base and a lot of built-in notions on who and what that character is was so incredibly hard. The slightest twitch of the mouth or angle of the eyes would take him off model. On top of that, we were tasked with making the game a more "personal journey," which was a major detour from what he always was. A large part of my time directing on that project was spent worrying about whether what we were doing was taking him out of character. I can't imagine what animators who are given the keys to animate Woody or Buzz go through. Big, intimidating shoes to fill for sure.

Tim Borrelli - Player movement is by far the most difficult thing for games, in my opinion. There is a delicate balance between looking good and feeling good, and more often than not, looking good is sacrificed for feeling good. This makes sense -- if the player moves like garbage, then the gameplay experience can be ruined. The balance also depends on the kind of game being made. For example, a twitch game will have a much different feel than an adventure game. The real challenge is nailing the feel early so the animation team can experiment with the "looking good" part as much as possible, while staying within the constraints of the feel.

Mike Jungbluth - On Singularity, different animation teams used different software packages. This was a unique case for an animation pipeline, but a norm for modelers, so why not go with it, right? Some characters would be in Max, some in MotionBuilder, and the first-person arms in Maya. Easy enough. It worked well enough until I had a scene that had a multi-character interaction, each exclusively in their own package, and the nightmare began. I would have to hop back and forth, referencing each character or object, using MotionBuilder as a go between. Needless to say, it took a complex scene, made it take twice as long to complete, required specific tech art support that wasn’t going to be used again, and I was half as happy with the final product. So from that point on, I stopped arguing about which software package was best and decided to simply champion the one already being used, as having a unified pipeline is far more important than a multi-software preferential one.

Tom Kay asks:

Have any of you used the Lenovo LT1423P and would you recommend it to those of us just starting out? (Extending this question: how important do you think any specific tools, hardware or software are when starting out?)

Mike Jungbluth (left) - I haven’t used the Lenovo, but I have played around with some 2d animation on my iPad, which I imagine is a similar experience. In fact, as I work on some more personal projects, I plan on using that as part of the process. But ultimately, if you are comfortable with a tablet PC, then use a tablet PC. If you are comfortable with finger painting, use finger painting. Animation is hard enough to learn on its own, so choose a tool that removes the complications keeping you from animating. This is why so many old school animators say learn with a pencil and paper, as that was most known and comfortable to most people. But we have crossed that generational gap of technological comfort, so if a mouse, keyboard, stylus and software package are more natural to you than a pencil and paper, rock it!

Kristjan Zadziuk - Software, to me at least, is more important than hardware, as you find you adapt to the tools you have. (Showing my age) My first steps as an animator were with Deluxe Paint 3 on the Amiga. I didn't even have the RAM extension so unless I saved to disk each time I would lose everything. I animated pixels jumping off a building and splatting into the floor, it was so satisfying, I loved it and it taught me so much. Currently the gameplay teams at Ubisoft Toronto use 3DS Max and MotionBuilder extensively, and a talented team of TDs writes amazing, time-saving scripts which help to make our lives easier. But I feel we would find a way if we didn't have all those at our disposal.

Ryan Duffin - Don't get hung up on the hardware or the software; game animation, no matter how technical it gets is still an art. Basically, any good gaming rig will be a pretty good content creation rig. The only possible difference is a quadcore processor definitely isn't wasted money when running software like Max, Maya and Photoshop, as some people would say it is when building a games-only rig.

Simon Unger - As far as how important the tools are, my answer would be "not very important." We probably have more processing power in our pockets these days than what they had to make the original Toy Story with. I think the old saying "An artist never blames his tools" has some truth to it. I see so many people getting caught up in the minutia of tech specs and automation that they lose sight of the main purpose they all serve; great characters and movement. If you're looking to get in as an animator, great animation will always be worth more than all the cool lighting and render effects that a better box gives you. Save your money and take another couple months off work to focus on the craft. Animation principles and good acting transcends which software package you choose.

Now, after saying that, a lot of studios don't want or have the luxury to devote a ton of time to "on-boarding" new hires (not something I necessarily agree with, but it's a fact. This is a whole other conversation though...). A software package like MotionBuilder is not often taught in schools but is a very common tool being used in games. Also, being familiar and comfortable working with motion capture is a rare skill for a student to have. These two things have cost me a lot of production time, as I have to train animators how to use them. It would have been much better to bring someone on who had some experience with them.

Tim Borrelli - The only importance that tools, hardware or software have when you are starting out is that you have access to something. Max, Maya, XSI -- they all do the same thing, just differently. If you are starting at a studio that uses different software than you know, get the evaluation version of that software and learn the basics. Also, ask if you’ll get a ramp-up time to learn more of it, as well as the tools and tech the studio uses. Hopefully they’ll say yes -- there’s rarely a good reason to hamstring new employees on day one after making the investment to bring them on board! (There are obvious times this isn’t possible, especially if you are brought on as a closer to finish the project.)

Chad Moore asks: 

In what ways and how soon do you evaluate the character's animation set as a whole, regarding aesthetics and gameplay?

Tim Borrelli - How soon? As soon as possible.

Gameplay-wise, we start all projects with box characters. They’ll have rough proportions that we think will work for a character. We rig that guy or gal up, and start animating per design’s needs. In tandem, character designs are worked on, but they don’t need to match our proportions as we aren’t using the box character for style development, just gameplay iteration. The box character gives us a fast iteration time with design ahead of character art and rigging, so that once the real character is done, our roadmap is planned and we can just create content within the constraints of our style.

Give your animation team a week or two of pose tests and animation tests to get to know the characters they are working on once the final models are rigged. With these, you can evaluate if the character will hit some of the poses and extreme moves we may have to hit, within style and design constraints. Doing the work up front saves time down the road (planning!). Once you get through that phase, look at the work done as a team and decide what fits the character, and begin animation (again, based on the design iteration from the box characters).

It’s also important to note that if you want to have animations that are considered polish, make sure those will work ahead of time (variations of movement, transitions, etc). Try to do all of those types of motions up front with the box character to make sure the tech is there and that they’ll look/feel good. This avoids wasted work down the home-stretch.

Kristjan Zadziuk (right) - We also try and evaluate feel of the gameplay as early as possible with those involved with the look and feel, we will use stick men and rough posing to get an idea of gameplay timings, that will often influence how we might tackle the aesthetic.

When we get mocap data back we usually have a pretty good idea of how it will look, but the feel will be off, so we insert the raw data to assess just what needs to be done and go back and forth with animation and design until we are both happy. I imagine most studios are the same. Ubisoft places a lot of importance on playtesting and player feedback, and animation will be involved in this process too. I’ve sat in many playtests and watched the reaction of people when they use a move we have been working on. I still get a kick out of it when the reaction is positive. We place a huge amount of importance in the balance between the look and the aesthetic often making small changes to the place that is best to allow interruption to another move.

We have regular team reviews, but more often we will have smaller cell reviews such as combat/ai/navigation so everyone had visibility on each others process and get enough access to the leads for direction.

Ryan Duffin - The best way to evaluate your animation set is to do it in engine. Game animation is the sum of all its parts so it's best not to get hung up on the parts. Get it in game, then evaluate, at least once you're past the basic stages of creating an animation. And I don't just mean in test levels, jumping and running around either. Once you're in the later stages of development, you should be playtesting often and evaluating your animations in their native environment and context.

How soon? Well, gameplay matters a lot sooner than aesthetics do, in my opinion. Get the other departments what they need to do their jobs first and foremost, then you can focus on iterating to quality. I believe you should be planning, authoring and/or capturing animation with an aesthetic intent in mind but you can get a lot of groundwork done for gameplay with placeholder assets too. It's kind of like throwing your dog a bone to keep him busy while you finish your nice steak dinner.

Simon Unger - Animation in games is an iterative process. I'm a firm believer in getting to your successes or failures as quickly and cheaply as possible. "Fail fast and fail cheap" was a mantra while I was at EA and it's something I've really stuck with. I want to see movement in the game as quickly as possible and evaluate it there. I really don't care what the source files or the curves look like, the only thing that matters is what ends up on screen.

In the past, our tools have been tedious and slow and when that happens there is less iteration time. Longer iteration times equals less animation quality. This was a major factor in why the older games were such poor quality. I don't think people realize how much work goes into a simple locomotion set for a character in a game. We're rapidly moving towards a real-time asset creation pipeline in games. It's becoming more and more like turning something on a lathe rather than writing a pen pal on the other side of the planet.

CJ Burbage asks:

What can an entry level animator do to stand out from the other applicants looking to get into games?

Kristjan Zadziuk - We get asked this all the time -- there is no one answer. If there was and everyone did it, then no one would stand out.  But with that said I recommend keeping it simple, and not trying to hide animation with flashy camera moves. I want to see personality and weight in your walk/run cycles. Show interesting interactions between two or more characters. Please don't use dubstep to accompany your reel. I tend to turn the sound off unless there are dialogue pieces. Start strong... Edit your best work to the start. “No filler, all killer” -- don't add moves to pad out your reel.

Show a passion for games animation. If you know how to break a system down or understand how multiple animations would blend together, try and show me that. Oh and one last thing, and this is more a personal thing: Try to keep the three-point landings down to a minimum, but that's just me. So basically, show a combination of good animation and technical know-how and that will definitely get you on our collective radar. If you are applying to Ubisoft Toronto, no more than one three point landing per reel.

Ryan Duffin -  Realize that games animation isn't just about good looking playblasts and renders any more. It's not about a really nice, super-polished and cartoony acting piece you got to iterate on a hundred times under close supervision. We don't want to be your consolation prize because Disney didn't hire you.

Show us something what you wish video games looked like. Show us something in a game engine; even better if it's an actual game!  Show us that you know games and can speak games. Show us that you play well with a team. Show us you know version control software (the last two parts are better to put on your resume than your reel, obviously).

Basically, do everything you can to show us that you are a production ready game animator, a team-player, free of ego who can take direction but isn't going to need much hand-holding.

And keep your reel short. Seriously. Never pad your reel with anything you don't feel is your absolute top-notch work, even if that means your reel is short. Worst case? We'll ask for more samples. Unless you are amazing, the worst case for too long of a reel is worse.

Simon Unger (left) - Every team is usually looking to fill a very specific void when they put out an ad for a new animator to join them. Here's a shameless link to a previous Gamasutra article I wrote on some common mistakes animators make when applying and interviewing at a company.

Beyond that, I really like to see an animator's voice in their work. Not literally your voice (though that would be awesome if you do some cool voices). What I mean is showing some of your personality, sense of drama or humor, whatever. Almost every reel I see is so obviously a product of whatever teacher/director gave them the shot and coached them through it. Seeking out feedback and implementing it is encouraged, but I really get excited when I see a fresh take on something.

Lastly, and everyone else is probably going to say this as well, but be easy to work with. I've lost count of the number of animators who basically had the job on the merit of their reels and resumes and lost the job at the interview. A bad personality or attitude will be your undoing. I spend more time with my team-mates than I do with my own family sometimes. I don't want to hang out with jerks. Plus, it's a small industry and word gets around.

Tim Borrelli - Yes! Personality-wise, don’t be a jerk. Be someone who everyone wants to work with, above all else. It’s a small industry, and both your merits and faults will follow you. If you meet people out at industry events (beer nights, GDC, E3, etc), make an effort to meet people, ask questions, and be respectful. You don’t want to be remembered as that overly drunk guy or the student who bragged about “how many beers he had that night and how many job offers he already had before graduation” at GDC.

Reel-wise, unless you are applying for a cinematics position or to a small studio, get the acting stuff off your reel for a game studio. Put it in a shorter, separate supplementary reel if you must, but in-game animation is not the same as cinematics. The lines are blurring at some studios, but if we are talking in the here and now, you are best off doing this.

Now, here’s what I would love to see, but rarely, if ever do: individual animations created for in-game use, which are then stitched together either via an NLE or a game engine for gameplay. I want to not only see that you can make awesome individual assets, but that those parts fit together to make an even better whole. Even better is if you can demonstrate an understanding of how blendtrees/state machines work.

I want to see something original! I want to see something that shows me who you are, not just a rehash of what games do nowadays. What’s your take on it?

Ryan Duffin asks:

With the final quality of games animation increasingly dictated by the sum of quality content and systemic solutions like layers and advanced state machines, which development field should be responsible for it? Is it a role that gameplay animators should be transitioning into? Technical animators familiar with the systems? Designers building the gameplay? A new job title altogether?

Tim Borrelli - It entirely depends on the toolset, its features and its maturity. I think long-term the role will be shared. Engineering will need to inform how the behaviors/state machines will need to be built per project, so that they function for gameplay engineering. Animators will need the systems to be human-readable so they can add states, blendtrees, transitions, blends, animations, etc. Design will need access to setting events/triggers/speed scaling, working with animation to ensure the look and feel meet the desired goals.

I could see the role becoming a separate job title, but it would live in the same area as tech art- service to design and animation disciplines. I think larger studios may embrace this role, but smaller studios will find their animation teams picking up the main duties for this as a part of their broader toolbox.

Simon Unger - I definitely see the toolset evolving into more of a "motion designer's toolkit," but I don't see the ownership going to anyone else. Animators are the only ones on the team trained to see and critique movement and as such, are in the best position to author, implement, and troubleshoot motion in the game. What I do see on the horizon is more artist-friendly pipelines that allow animators to prototype and test gameplay mechanics and features at their desk with little to no assistance required from programmers or designers. I know this has already been happening for some time at places like EA, but it has yet to trickle down entirely to smaller studios reliant on off-the-shelf engines.

At the end of the day, regardless of how the animation got there (keyframe, mocap, procedural, etc) it's still the animator who says "this is the best I can do with the time and resources I have available." How we get there will change, but the expectations of the end result will not.

Kristjan Zadziuk - I have heard that term “Motion Designer” thrown around, which I actually quite like, but call me old fashioned -- I like having the word “animation” in my title. But this is a role that I see animators evolving in the industry that separates us from TV and film. Being a gameplay animator really is an art form -- the ability to make an animation look good from all angles at any point is really tough.  But only focusing on the aesthetic alone will mean you miss the bigger picture. Games animators need to think in terms of the overall system. The balance we have at Ubisoft seems to work well for us and it is always evolving.  We usually have animators, programmers and designers sitting very close together.  The more understanding an animator has of the technicalities of how their animation is put together the better it is going to be for the overall feel of the game, but as soon as you put that control into an animator’s hands, then they may never want to give that control back. Its a very powerful skill to have, so use it wisely.

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