Happy Halloween! As people bring ghastly characters to life with their costumes and decorations, we’d like to introduce you to a member of the Bungie Team who does this every day in the games that we make. For this artist, realizing our worst fears is all part of the business…
Who are you, and what do you do at Bungie?
I am Forrest Söderlind. The title on my card reads (lambda x: x if type(x) is ‘rigger’ else x=’tech_artist’), but most people know me as a Technical Artist. My job is to create deformation skeletons, control rigs, skin weights, and tools for the animation and cinematics teams. What this means is that when you see the characters moving around in the game world and the cinematics, I played a part in making it so they are alive and how they look as they move.
Before we learn what it takes to give life to these characters, let’s talk about real life. What are your interests outside of work?
What is this ‘outside of work’ you speak of? Actually, I’m really busy outside of work as well. I’m into death metal, black metal, grindcore metal, thrash metal, speed metal, doom metal, power metal, industrial metal, djent metal, and showtunes. I kid, I kid - I’m not that much into doom metal, but I’ll enjoy it occasionally.
When I’m not listening to music, I’m usually found learning a language. This month’s language focus has been C#. I’ve also done some world travelling and we’re aiming to hit all continents. So far, we’ve hit North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Only three left… then it’s time for space! Oh, and I was in a metal band, unsurprisingly, and still make music today of a more glitch nature (still sounds like metal where appropriate).
Are you sure you’re in the right place? It sounds as if you may have wanted to be a rock star when you grew up.
Do we ever really grow up? Philosophical, snarky answers aside; I’ve known that I’ve wanted to work in video games since my family first owned a Commodore64. I have some art skills and some technical skills, so a mashup of both is a perfect fit for me. From then on, it’s been lots of research and development (c’mon, Mom, just one more level?!), drawing, painting, and programming. Actually, when I was a kid, I did see a glimpse of me working on a flux capacitor sometime in the future…
You were wise to settle for more practical aspirations, as we can make games without the burden of generating 1.21 gigawatts of electricity. Has your entire career focused on Technical Art?
I’ve worn many hats throughout my career, including tech support, software support, hardware support, computer building/repair, and game testing. I’ve played a lot of other video games, on console, portable, and PC – my favorite portable system is the Virtual Boy. A Technical Artist is part support, part content and my experiences enable me to assist in a wide variety of tasks, when necessary.
Wearing many hats requires a big head filled with all kinds of knowledge. How did you learn all the things you would need to do this job for Bungie?
I have an AAA in Programming, an AAA in Computer Animation, and a BFA in Production Animation. I use all of the skills I learned in school just about every day. I also learned how to work with other people since, largely up to that point, I was focused on solo projects. In each school, video games were relatively untaught, so I studied short and feature films. Today, there are more options for training in games, but curriculum quality is still being worked out in many schools. There’s much to be gleaned from film about storytelling, character design, environment design, and character development. All of this is transferred into games (hopefully) and blended seamlessly (hopefully) for players to enjoy. A great game will immerse you without you even knowing.
Your hope is a beacon in the night for students who are about to embark on their own adventure. Once your schooling was complete, how did you infiltrate our studio?
I just happened to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right attitude. I was part of a couple local meetings and lunches that my current team members also attended and we just got excited talking about the same sort of ideas. We’re definitely on the same wavelength, with the same goals in mind. Also, my appearance is hard to forget. I have a clearly defined silhouette (Character Design Lesson #1, kids).
It sounds like the introduction was like a first date. Was the interview as much of a love affair?
The hardest part was figuring when to stop discussing cool ideas and plans for the future with everyone. Also, the interview room had no windows and my retina UI was disabled on the way in, so I didn’t have any reference for the time that passed. It seemed like the first three months of the interview went by so quickly, that the next three months started without being aware that time had actually progressed. The next few months of the interview were fairly grueling, but once I foraged for food, fresh water, and a razor, I was equipped to handle the oncoming interview years.
(Disclaimer: Forest is exaggerating for effect. The Bungie Interview loop lasts a standard Earth day – but can feel much longer.) What is the reward for all those years of struggle?
The most rewarding thing is working with an esteemed group of people on a fantastic project every single day. It is just amazing to see all the characters coming to life and running around in the world. The feeling that our cinematics give is just breathtaking to me. We make games that we want to play, have fun doing it, and that is very exciting for me.
What does that mean in the course of one day?
After battling several bears and wolves on the way to work, I hit the gym. Sometimes I’ll eat a steak or two before the gym, depending on how many bears I’ve beaten. Then, I’ll have two more steaks to prepare for work. I’ll usually get the latest build, meet up with some of the other tech artists for steak, and discuss the plans for world domination. Then we’ll move on to building a character skeleton or two with our bare hands and checking for animator or artist tool needs. If there are bugs in our tools, we’ll fix those, while fighting off wolverines. After lunch, which is usually a couple of steaks, wrapped in steak, we’ll check out some character designs and plan out upcoming skinning or weighting work. Sometimes, we’ll need to update characters or control rigs, so those are usually longer processes, spanning a couple days. We’ll finish off the day with a nice steak, and sometimes a steak wrapped in bacon to help balance out all the other steaks.
If you’re not going to take this seriously, no one is gonna learn a thing. Please name, as sincerely as you can, you favorite perk as a Bungie Employee. You may only use the word “steak” once.
My favorite perk is definitely the gym membership, so I can be fit for the Zombie Apocalypse. I go every day, and sometimes eat a steak there. It’s vital to have some sort of physical exercise since most of us lead a rather sedentary lifestyle.
But we accomplish so much from that sedentary posture! Among all of your accomplishments at Bungie, which one stands out in your memory as the highlight of all that sitting around?
While I was learning how the vehicle system in Reach worked, I made a test vehicle using a skateboard. I set up a shredder animation set with ollies, airwalks, street plants, ollie finger flips, heelflips, impossibles, kickflips, etc. While it was pretty sweet, there wasn’t enough memory to support the extra vehicle in game. Using our carefully handcrafted tools, I transferred the animation to the Mule character (the giant beast that the Covenant were attempting to wrangle), doing the same tricks on more appropriately-sized Warthog. That was also pretty badass and we tried to find a place to jam it into memory. Sadly, it never made it onto the disc.
It’s just as well. Skateboards have never fared well in battle. With the obvious exclusion of pushing the boundaries for combat vehicles, how have you been able to expand on our skills working at Bungie?
I’m always working on little home projects, trying out different animation controllers in other engines, or testing out MIDI interface devices for DJ software and/or game engines. I never waste my commuting time and always have my laptop active while riding the bus, working on game prototypes or creating music. See other interests for more details.
Aside from sitting next to you on a bus, is there anything you would recommend that hopeful developers do to learn more about our corner of the industry?
Keep working on projects, whether it’s art content, audio, or programming. Find a small team to work with and finish the project. Keep scope small and achievable. Lots of projects get started, but very few are finished. Work on mods, level packs, game prototypes, short films, and anything that will show the skills that you can bring to the table. Playable demos and videos are great. We need to see what you can do, rather than just hear about it.
Get to know people in the industry – attended GDC, Siggraph, E3, etc. The more people in the industry that get to know you, the more they’ll think of you if they’re looking for an engineer or a modeler (or whatever your specialty is). Forums are also a great way to get involved, but be polite and people will respect you back. Ask questions pertaining to your projects and offer good advice to those asking for it.
Thanks for sharing your story with us, Forrest. Before we return you to the characters that need rigging, please sort these virtues for us: Experience, Work Ethic, or Talent? Rank them in order of importance to your role.
I’ve found a better metric that seems to fit. I show my Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent at all times. That being said, while it’s good to have a balance of all of them, Nerve and Experience are key to my role as it’s important to not be afraid to try things out, while keeping in mind the things that didn’t work in the past. It’s also important to be Flexible and Evolve to develop better workflows and tools that continually improve. I include Charisma since a large part of my job is support for animation and cinematics and it’s crucial to be approachable when dealing with some very complex issues that happen when making a game and have Patience in order to come up with solutions and explain them. Work Ethic is also important, and very imperative to know when to stop working, go home, get some rest, and come back the next day refreshed and ready to dive in again.
Forrest is obviously a character in his own world, and his world is a stage for his own show. We wouldn’t have it any other way at Bungie. As a bonus for this Halloween Edition of the Breaking In
series, we give you a startling visage from his time spent next door, enjoying his favorite perk. Metal enthusiasts call that corpse painting - the perfect accessory for some dead lifting. We call it just another day at the office.