Becoming a Game Animator
Monday, September 8th, 2003, 12:51 PM
The following article was written by John Butkus , aka "anim8rjb", one of Bungie's animators working on Halo 2.
Do you have a critical eye for motion? Do you find yourself buying games simply because they have great character animation in them? Do you see animation in games and think to yourself, ‘I could do better than that’? Could you see yourself animating for video games and actually getting paid to do it? Well, then maybe the games industry is for you.
Okay, so you know you want to make a career of being an animator at a game studio. You see the light at the end of the tunnel, but have no idea how to get there. In this column I’ll explain how to prepare your demo reel, and some of the common mistakes people make when preparing their reels. For you young guys in high school (or even earlier) who think that this is something you really, really want to do later in life as a career, I’ll walk you through some of the kinds of courses you may want to take in college and even some things you can start doing on your own right now.
Be Cool, Stay in School... Or Not.
Contrary to popular belief, college training in art is not necessary if you want to be a successful animator. It most definitely helps hone your skills as an artist, but it is not an essential tool. The level of talent and understanding of the craft you display on your demo reel is what studios will look at first, your resume and experience come second. I have seen some absolutely amazing artists who are completely self-taught and have never attended an art college. What an animation school will do is place you in what is essentially a mini-studio setting, complete with the same group setting, high expectations, and tight deadlines of a working studio. You will also have 3-4 years to completely devote to practicing your craft, and this can give you a definite edge when studios are looking to hire. I took the Classical Animation (2D animation) program at Sheridan College in Oakville, ON, Canada and looking back now, it was worth every sleepless night and broken pencil because I had the principals of animation hammered into me on a daily basis until they stuck, and became second nature. I learned so much more about animation from interacting with my instructors and peers than I would ever learn from some book or tutorial. Your animation is also regularly (and heavily) critiqued. What some artists fail to remember is that the purpose of a critique is to always be constructive, regardless of whether or not it seems that way at the time. It may feel like the instructor is tearing that piece you worked for 5 days on to shreds at the time, but when you look back on it later that evening you can almost always use the information gained from the critique to make your animation even better. As an animator in a games studio your work will be critiqued on a regular basis, so if you have a hard time taking constructive criticism, please stop reading now. You’re not cut out for this industry.
All right, so you’re positive that you’re up for the challenge that is learning the art of animation. Now what sort of classes should you be thinking of taking? By far, the best favor you can do for yourself as an animator is have solid understanding of anatomy and the way humans (and non-humans) move. It makes your animation better, and you can work much faster when you know anatomy inside and out. That means Life Drawing courses. In my third year of college, I was life drawing for at least two hours a day, every day of the week. At first, I hated it. My drawings sucked, I could never get the whole model on the page in the time alloted for the pose, and I could not draw hands and feet well at all. I knew if I wanted to get better that I had to practice, and after about eight weeks of constant drawing I started to get better. I also got faster, and didn’t have to think as much about the pose and the nailing the correct anatomy. By the end of the semester it had become second nature. Because my ability to draw hands and feet wasn’t really that strong, I took extra time after class and in extra life drawing sessions and devoted it solely to drawing hands and feet. Nothing fancy, just quick 30-second sketches to concentrate on form and silhouette. I would do this for about thirty minutes or so, about three times a week. Here is an example of what I would do:
I will say it again – if you want to be a successful animator (whether it be Classical or Computer), you need to draw from life and know anatomy. The models don’t have to be nude; you can draw you friends, you parents, or your dog. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you eventually get to know anatomy so well that you don’t even have to think about it any more when you animate. This includes posing the character in believable (yet exaggerated) poses, with correct balance and posture. You should also begin to more closely watch the way people’s bodies work when they move. Don’t watch in a creepy, staring way…just learn to observe and try to understand why their body moves the way it does.
If you don’t have access to, or can’t afford to take animation classes, then your next best bet is to try to learn as much as you can from a good animation book. A couple of very good books that teach the fundamentals of animation are:
i) The Animator’s Survival Kit – by Richard Williams
ii)Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life – by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson
Both books are extremely in-depth and informative. They’re also very easy to read and understand, so you won’t be sitting there scratching your head when you’re reading through them.
Pick a Package
What’s next? You’ll need to learn a 3D animation package of some sort. I recommend either Alias/Wavefront’s Maya, or Discreet’s 3d Studio Max program. Most studios will use either one or the other for animation, and if you know one of the packages really well, the other is easy to learn. If you already have experience with both of them, even better. My software package of choice is Maya, simply because I find it offers more animation options than Max and I can animate faster in it. Depending on the needs of the studio and the tightness of the schedule, experience with a 3D package is not always necessary. I got my first games job straight out of college with no 3D experience at all, and I learned on the job. With 3 years of 2D experience and a solid understanding of animation fundamentals, learning Maya was easy. The software package is just another tool, much like a pencil is a tool. If you lack a solid understanding of the fundamental principals of animation, simply learning a 3D package will not make you an animator.
The Reel Deal
All right, you’ve got the training, you know your stuff, and now you’re ready to get your demo reel together to send to a studio. What do you do? There are several options. Most games studios will accept your demo reel on pretty much any format, as long as it’s quickly and easily viewable in the studio. For the most part, this means anything on VHS tape, cd-r, or weblinked is viewable. The most acceptable (and unfortunately, expensive) format is VHS tape, simply because every studio has a VCR. For the more budget-conscious animator, movie files in a simple directory on a cd-r are perfectly acceptable, providing you don’t encode your work with some crazy codec that prevents us from viewing your reel. Stick with Cinepack, Quicktime, or Divx and you should be good to go. If you’re sending your reel to a studio overseas, use a cd-r (unless they state otherwise), because they may not have an NTSC vcr handy.
Okay, you know what format your demo reel should be in, but what do you put on it? First off, keep it under two-and-a-half minutes, and put only your best work on it. No exceptions. No person viewing your reel is going to sit through six minutes of every piece of animation you’ve done, especially if it’s not all that good. Try to have your reel start off strong, and end it off very strong with your best pieces of work. Also, try to start your reel with your most recent work. If you’re applying for a position as a Character Animator, do not include any spinning logos, flying cameras, or space battles on your reel. That is not what studios are looking for. We want to see how well you understand both human and animal motion, whether you know how weight shifts as the character moves, and whether or not you can convey attitude and evoke empathy through your animation. Spinning logos and lens flares do not accomplish this. My suggestion is to pick 10-12 pieces of your finest character animation, and stick with that. If you have an animated short, you can also include that – but only if it’s short. IF it’s long, pick your best animation pieces out of that short and just include those. If you worked with other people on some of your pieces, and didn’t do everything we’re seeing on the screen, definitely inform us of that by using a shot list describing exactly what you did in each scene on your demo reel. I can’t begin to count how many reels I’ve seen that look very very good, only to find out that the person submitting it didn’t do all of the work on it, and failed to include a shot list.
Wait a second, I’m just a starving artist with a computer – how do I put my reel on VHS or cd-r? Well, your reel is most likely sitting in pieces as a million separate movie files on your computer, right? What you’ll want to do is stitch them together, set them to music (nice, but definitely not necessary), and then transfer them to the medium of your choice. There are a multitude of programs you could use to edit your work together. Adobe Premiere is a good solution, but is expensive, so there are lots of freeware programs that work just as well. Once you have your reel all edited together and ready to transfer, there are different options depending on the medium you choose to submit it on. If you have a website, you can just upload your reel and resume there. If you choose the cd-r route, just burn you reel, shotlist, and resume on a disc and mail it off. If you want to use VHS, you don’t need to take your file to a fancy editing shop to have it transferred to tape. You’ll need a video card with tv-out capabilities (most cards nowadays have this option), a tv, and a vcr. Connect the tv-out of your video card to the video-in on you vcr, then conenct video-out on your vcr to your tv. Your computer should now detect your tv as a second monitor. Set your tv to be a full screen device (what this does is default any movie file you open to play full-screen on your tv). After you have it all successfully set up, simply open your demo reel movie file, check to make sure that it plays full-screen on your tv, and record it on your vcr as you play the file. It’s actually much easier than it sounds, and the results are more than adequate.
The Waiting Game
Now that you’ve sent your demo reel to the studio, please be patient. Many times you won’t hear anything for weeks. This isn’t because studios dilly dally and don’t want to see your work, it’s most likely because studios get many, many demo reels each month and it takes a while to sit down and review all of them. If you’re not called in for an interview, the key is to not take it personally. This is a highly competitive field, and there are many skilled animators looking for work. Use the time and any feedback you receive to further work on your skills and make your demo reel even stronger. Above all, have fun animating and do not give up!
About the Author
John Butkus, known online as "anim8rjb", is a 27 year old game animator from somewhere outside of Toronto, Canada. John joined Bungie Studios and the Halo 2 team earlier this year, building on nearly 7 years of animation experience. Together with fellow Canadian Nathan Walpole, the two have come to be known as The Cananimators. Prior to joining Bungie, John has worked on several other games, the most recent being 'Minority Report' for Treyarch. John is a Pices, enjoys long walks on the beach, prefers pancakes to waffles, and can usually be found sneaking around the IGN message boards. For more info on John, check out his website: www.jb-incred.com
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