Not too terribly long ago, Bungie.net community member and animation student J. Cerilli sent over some pretty specific questions he wanted to bounce off of one of our seasoned animators, Bill O’Brien. Bill, being the super generous and totally awesome guy he is, took some personal time out between move sets to help fill in the blanks.
Since we figure this could be gold for anyone looking to make a go of getting into the gaming industry – especially in animation– we’re gonna post the end result for everyone to see. If you stepped inside for pretty pictures or new Reach intel, now’s your chance to back out slowly. This wall o’ text is all about getting your learn on.
Ready? Bill's about to drop the knowledge. Let’s begin.
What are some of the most significant differences between a feature film and video game production pipeline for an animator?
The major differences between animating video games and features are found in creative input and deadlines. Feature Film work gives an animator the luxury of longer deadlines and more focus on creating polished content, but animators are often at the director’s mercy as far as creative input in each scene goes.
Video game animation has more restrictions, because it can be viewed from almost any camera angle, and at any time. It also needs to support the game’s design and provide the player with the feedback required to strengthen gameplay. But although it’s more restricted, you are also given incredible freedoms to make your work truly yours – as long as it fits the requirements for the game.
In Feature Film the animator is dealing with the emotional performance, the dialogue, acting, and facial close ups. In games, the animators are dealing with physical performances. How does a Spartan move through a war zone? How should he hold his weapon? How does a Brute hoist a boulder? How would a Bugger’s anatomy make him jump?
Finding ways to add an emotional element to the physical movement is the real trick. Instead of worrying about how a Marine’s legs move as he runs, think about how scared he is. Think about how he can die at any moment. How do you communicate that in a run cycle? You don’t want generic movement just for movement’s sake. You want to always describe the character through motion – the situation he is in and his present state of mind.
Anyway, got off track but those are the ways I tend to look at the two industries’ differences.
According to the Halo 3 credits, there were a total of five animators who worked on the project. In a feature film such as Ratatouille, there were sixty-three animators. This seems like a massive contrast to me. How does this reflect the responsibilities of the video game animator? Is more expected from you, or is the work more streamlined?
Yes, more is expected of individual game animators in terms of output. Most of our animations are 30-150 frame “one-off’s.” There are times where we have as little as a half a day to to get an animation done for the game. To compensate, we try to determine most of our animation sets ahead of time. For example, we take great care in fashioning strong movement sets for the pistol so we can use that content as a strong base for the rifle set.
Is there an even distribution of work across the animation team, or do certain animators focus exclusively on certain characters/events/cinematics?
At Bungie, we often assign characters for each animator to head up. They become the character leads and are responsible for the overall aesthetic feel and functionality in game. Our cinematics department handles layout, camera, editing, and some animation, and then outsources a lot of the mocap polish to external animation houses. We have in the past reserved some of the better chunks of cinematics for the in house animators to do if time allows. (Woohoo! Die, Miranda, die!)
What are some of the challenges and limitations a video game animator could encounter?
Video game animation has to work from any angle and the player needs to be able to react or attack quickly, so for me, the biggest challenge is creating a sincere animation using a small amount of frames.
Sometimes that means you need to sacrifice weight and timing in a character so the player can keep moving. When you jump off a wall, I want to animate the body changing shape upon landing, showing the impact of the weight on the hips, spine and legs, but often the game needs the player to be moving again in just six measly frames. Those are moments you have to live with.
The trade off comes when you’re given a walk for a monster and you have total freedom to make it your own and inject whatever character you think is cool into that monster – as long as you sell it with animation that excites everyone.
Is it common to have to revisit, modify, or recreate animations due to design changes (or possibly bugs) in the game? (This is one thing I've been particularly curious about.)
Yes, and sometimes yes, but every now and then YES!
We are better now than we have been in the past, but when it comes down to it, it’s ultimately about what’s fun. Every so often you’ll animate something and it’s in the game and tested, but it comes back as being too slow or just not fun, or it’s just not behaving correctly. There’s a lot of that. In the end it’s about making the game enjoyable and meeting animation challenges while trying to get better with your craft.
Look at those challenges as new opportunities to reinvent!
What sort of influence does an animator have on the project? Are you specifically told what is needed, or are you granted a certain amount of creative freedom?
There is a lot of freedom in our field. At the beginning of Halo 3’s production cycle, we spent three months creating whatever animation we wanted. I decided to create some specific character interactive moments that I would like to see in the game. Buggers picking up Marines and flying off, buggers landing on dudes and eating them, Brutes manhandling Marines...
Later on in the project the designers remembered those moments and came around looking to showcase those animations in their levels.
The animator also plays a huge role in how characters will move. Design may dictate their speed, but the animator and lead animator work very closely together to create something inspiring and fun for the animator to work on.
Outside of the core animation team, who do you tend to interact with the most during the project?
We interact early on with the modelers. We go back and forth, working to ensure the proportions are something everyone is happy with. Then onto rigging where we make sure they bend and move properly. We spend a lot of time with design, who will communicate the role this character plays in the game and establish their basic gameplay behavior. This process goes on throughout the whole project.
We also collaborate nonstop with the engineers who create the tools and systems that allow our characters to jump, die, take damage, and otherwise interact in the game.
Could you give me an example of your daily workflow? (To be honest, I have no idea how consistent it is. I've read about other animator's workflows in feature films where they are assigned a shot, show their progress in dailies, work to refine it with guidance from the supervising animator, and show the changes at the next daily. I don't really know if this would be the case in video games or not!)
In Reach, I took lead on Spartan, Marine, and other human characters, so I established the look of those characters as far as animation goes.
When I come in, I’ll grab some coffee first thing and then head over and talk with design about the move list I’m working on. Then I’ll brainstorm some ideas at my desk and grab the cameras to go record myself acting out the moves from two angles, one front view and one profile. I edit those down to the takes I like, sometimes combining different parts of takes to create something brand new to base my performance on.
Next, I’ll start animation and block in the golden poses – the main four or five poses my work is based upon. I continue breaking those poses down into secondary poses, being sure to keep in mind that I’m defining arcs and establishing timing and maintaining the character’s balance.
Once I’m happy with that, I’ll show it to as many of the animators as I can. That’s how you really get better...showing your work and being honest enough to incorporate feedback. That will make you and your shot better as a result. I’ll make those adjustments and export it to the engine, which takes about two minutes. After that I can see how the engine is interrupting the keys I’ve set and if it reads and blends back into and out of the idle animations okay.
Then I’ll get some feedback yet again. I’ll make any necessary changes and polish it to a shippable quality. Sometimes on Fridays we have review crits, but toward the end of the project, when deadlines are tight, the lead will just make rounds and do one on one reviews to save everyone some time.
How much of your animation is excluded from the shipped game? Is it disappointing when this happens?
It varies. There is always a chance that a character will not be fun enough or that the systems are too out of scope to be integrated in to the game. That is a bummer, but it goes with the territory and the second time it happens you say to yourself, “okay, this will look good on my reel then.”
Do you ever feel limited by time, or other constraints? Do you feel this affects the quality of your work?
It seems we’re always limited by time. There’s a lot of animation to do in a very short time. You quickly learn the art of doing more with less. It can be a trap, though, because you don’t want those tricks and approaches to define you as an animator – you want to be able to really fine tune work when you have the opportunity. At Bungie, we’ve gotten really good about giving our animators enough time to create fun work and still have a blast doing it.