Just as a kickoff, please tell us a bit about yourself. Why did you become an animator, what kind of skills did you have, and what games have you worked on? What are you most proud of to date?
I am a Canadian animator and artist currently lending my sense of dynamic motion and timing as Animation Lead on Halo 2, developed by Bungie Studios. I grew up outside of London, Ontario, Canada playing any game and watching any animation I could find. I entered Sheridan College’s Classical [2D] Animation program right after graduating high school then continued my education at Sheridan with their Computer Animation program.
After graduation I entered the games industry and contributed my talent to a WCW title and Monsters, Inc. for PS2 before finding a great home at Bungie to start work on Halo 2. To date I am most proud of my work on Halo 2 and the direction it is heading. Halo 2 is one killer game, and Bungie is a killer team to work with.
Many people would LOVE to get into the video game animation field, but just can’t find a way in. How did you pull it off? If you had to do it again, would you do anything different?
Early on, I had a passion for games while simultaneously having respect and passion for traditional art and storytelling. Soaking up all I could in both forementioned mediums helped guide my way to a post secondary education in art and animation. Whether it is an accredited education at a formal institution or home schooling yourself in the latest traditional and 3D techniques, I cannot stress the importance of an education enough. In the end, your portfolio is a demonstration of what you know. If you show what you know people can learn to understand your thought process and where you are headed in the future.
If I could change anything about my past experiences, I would want to demonstrate what I know, and therefore what I am capable of, more accurately right out of the gate.
From a DPERRY.COM visitor – “Hi Nathan, I ‘think’ I am a decent animator, so how would you suggest I go about finding out if I have what it takes as I don’t want to be like the guy on American Idol that thinks he can sing, but ends up embarrassing himself and loses all his friends?”
Peer interaction is an essential gauge for one’s skill set. You get inspired by your peer’s good work, and inherently you want to do just as good or better. This is where constructive criticism comes into play. Criticism will give you a good judge as to what other peers and professionals can see in your work. Honest critiques can be harsh when you first start out, but take the information in stride and not to heart, because it will only make you see your own strengths and weaknesses. Criticism is a daily part of working in a game development environment, and an essential tool in giving the public the best experience possible.
If you are ever looking for critique of your work outside of a school or work setting, there are several very helpful online forums that come to mind. I post a lot on www.cgtalk.com, an online community dedicated to CG artwork and the growth of the artists that visit the website. You can also find many great community links here at http://www.dperry.com. In addition, I will have some more specific animation resources on my personal website, www.bentllama.com, upon its impending re-launch.
What kind of tools would you recommend I use / buy to steer me on course for being able to hack it in a real game development studio? Better still, are you aware of any decent tools that are FREE on the Internet?
There are your main apps that you will use in any professional studio situation. Maya, 3DS Max, Softimage XSI and Lightwave are the most popular professional 3D packages. If you do not have access to one of these packages there are several free alternatives available for download. Most of the professional applications that I mentioned have “educational” versions of their software available for you to learn on for free.
You can also wet your mind with a lot of the existing moddable commercial game engines. Try your hand at building a character or level for an existing game. Grab the soon-to-be-released Halo PC mod tools and have fun. Going through the process of getting your artwork from concept to game engine is a great learning process.
Do I need to be able to animate with a pencil and paper like the old Disney guys to be able to make animation for games?
Classical animation is at the roots of what you see on your screens today. We learnt many principles about animation through the triumphs and errors of past animation greats. While it is not imperative for a 3D animator to have the skill to animate traditionally, every animator must learn the principles of animation that the early 2D animation brought to light. I come from a classical animation background and even though I do 3D animation everyday, I still draw as well. A lot of misconceptions exist surrounding a 3D animator and their need to communicate their ideas through a traditional medium. Sketching and thumbnailing your ideas out is a quick way to communicate your thoughts to yourself and others. You will find that if you plan it out on paper first, no matter how rough the sketch, you will get your ideas flowing at a cheaper cost than the time it takes to manipulate pixels.
I keep reading about Motion Capture — is this really the future? Should I study that instead of Animation? Is it true that there is a job for cleaning up Motion Capture data, that would let me be an ‘Animator’ without really having to be a fantastic animator?
Motion capture is a viable production alternative to keyframed animation, however I believe it is better suited for certain situations over others. Motion capture, or Mocap as it is commonly referred to, is great for emulating sports movements and fighting choreography. Motion capture is also great for larger productions that entail a huge list of animations. I have worked with Mocap in the past on a wrestling title and it helped me understand some subtleties of human motion and how I could apply that to traditional keyframed animation.
It is unfortunate that Mocap is often thought of as a cheap alternative to keyframed animation. A lot of people think that when you Mocap someone going through the action, the animation is basically complete. That thought could not be farther from the truth. It takes a skilled animator work with Mocap successfully. You need to have a strong sense of the principles of animation to know how to properly dissect it and stitch it together seamlessly.
When I write to video game companies, they NEVER reply. Why is that? What should I do to get noticed?
Studios are VERY busy making the games you love to enjoy … or we are killing each other on a good LAN battle playing the latest Desert Combat BF1942 mod. A good way to get in contact with game companies is to constantly check websites for job listings. You never know when your favorite game studio is looking for someone just like you.
When you send in your work, you want it to get noticed for the right reasons, so include only your best work and let it speak for itself. After sending in a reel, be persistent and follow up. If a company has not stated on their website that phone calls and emails will not be returned, email or call them inquiring about your submission and if the studio should require any additional information or materials.
All video game companies seem to insist on me having a string of hit games under my belt before they will hire me. However it’s a Catch-22 as to get that list of games, someone needs to hire me! Obviously there are animators in jobs, so how the heck did they get over this hurdle?
We all have to start somewhere, and getting your foot in the door is not always easy. You can build your experience through creating mods of existing games and bettering your portfolio. Often, depending on the stage of game production, a studio cannot afford the time to train a new artist for a position. In mid-production they need artists that can get up to speed in as little time as possible.
Do not fear that all studios are like this though; there are still the odd few that encourage growth of younger artists that demonstrate amazing potential on their demo reels. Prove in your demo reel that you are a viable future team member. Your work talks for you, so make it shout at your potential employer.
In the industry, how many different kinds of animator positions do you think there are in large video game teams? Roughly what would be a salary range I could hope for across these positions?
Team sizes vary quite a bit from studio to studio. Today though, game development is growing artistically and specialization in a field is becoming more common. Gone are the days when programmers also did the art. We have specialists in technical art, animation, character modeling environments, etc. It is quite common now to be doing solely one task, but you need to have a basic understanding of other aspects of development to aid in communication and the meshing of every discipline.
Salary varies as much as team sizes. Salary is based upon industry competitive rates and living costs of the area the studio is located in. Your best bet to get an idea of your cash comfort level in varied positions is to look at published surveys of industry salary. Gamasutra has a salary survey updated yearly on their website. If you are passionate and looking to get your foot in the door you should know that more money comes with more experience. I think some people starting out are too worried about salary and not the reason why they are there in the first place, the love of the art form and the desire to get experience and training.
What’s the future like for Animators in games? Will they become more or less important? If I start studying now and won’t be ready to work for 5 years or so, will there still be a possible career there?
The future for animators is very bright. Games are becoming an improved storytelling medium, opening the doors for incredible performance and increased character empathy.
As far as a future career is concerned, the industry hiring booms are cyclical, much like a sine curve or roller coaster. There will be dry spells and amazing fluxes. In 5 years or so it is impossible to say what the hiring cycle will be like, but good artists will always be in demand no matter what the job climate.
David Perry is always pushing “demos.” Just how much does a good demo tape really do for you? Just imagine I have made a really great demo tape, then who should I send it to? The Executive Producer? The Animation Director? The President? Human Resources? I don’t want it to end up on a shelf!
Your demo reel is your Golden Fleece. There is nothing a studio focuses on more than a good or bad demo reel. A good demo reel is worth its weight in gold, tenfold. Look on the website or job listing to see who to send your reel to, if no contact particulars are provided then send it marked “ATTN: *insert position being applied for here*” and it should get directed to the appropriate person. Another helpful job search technique is all about who you know at a particular studio. A lot of jobs open up after your first gig because you have made contacts and have peers at other studios. Sometimes who you know can get you in. Networking is an important part of keeping your name and work fresh on the tip of people’s tongues if ever a position opens up that your skill set can fill.
What makes a good demo tape? How long should it be? What should be on there? What shouldn’t be on there? Does it need audio?
There are a variety of things that make a good demo reel. I will try to outline what I feel as being some more of the more important factors. A reel should be 2-5 min, if it is longer your audience will lose interest. People reviewing reels often do not have the time to even sit through a 5 min tape, so book-end your reel with your best work. Open with a bang and close with a bang. If you do not grab their attention at the start, your reel could end up ejected or viewed in fast forward. Show only your best work.
Be wary of showing immature or blatant fanboy material, tattoo art, offensive material or poorly done spaceships or crazed ninja robots. I have seen countless reels that do not take their work seriously. Remember that we want to see how you think. How you apply your skills to the medium. Be serious about your work and it will be seriously viewed. Audio helps, but some people watch reels muted as too avoid the gazillion reels with techno grooves blaring on them. To sum up a good reel, put your best foot forward, respect your work and take it seriously.
From a DPERRY.COM visitor – “I wanted to be a Programmer, but the industry seems to move so fast, I can’t see how to learn it all without falling behind! Is the Animation Field like that? Are you always having to learn new things?”
While the basics never change, we are always reinventing what we do in animation. Education and continuing education is an integral part of your vocation as an animator. Address your career with a Darwinist attitude and you will see yourself thriving as time passes.
From a DPERRY.COM visitor – “Is there ANY other job in Animation that you can think of that I might be able to do? Like being the guy that edits movement in the game, or does the repetitive work of connecting sound effects to punches and kicks? Anything! I’ll do anything!”
Animators animate, plain and simple. The only other job in animation that I can think of is that of a technical animator, the person that does all the character setup and technical animation duties. If you like other areas in game development or are unsure of what you would like to specialize in try testing, design, sound engineering or other disciplines until you find something that sparks your interest.
Is there a college course that you are aware of that would set me up nicely and teach me what I need to know specifically to kick butt in the video game industry?
There are many college courses out there that teach a good foundation. In school or self education you get what you give, so put your best effort into going above and beyond the curriculum and practice until your fingertips bleed, seriously, then you will be on track to kicking butt in the industry. The only way to dominate is to keep practicing and honing your skills. Any professional can only get better through perseverance and dedication and constant practice.
Finally, what games should I look at that are examples of really good quality video game Animation? David Perry commonly says to take the time to look at your competition, so what games do you think should win Game Animation awards?
Earthworm Jim sparked my interest in game animation. Until then, I never knew game animation could be that fun. It must be the 2D animator in me, but I love old sidescrollers with character and panache. Current gaming animation that has me excited includes the Jak series, the Ratchet and Clank series, Sly Cooper and Herdy Gerdy.
Oh, I really like that Halo 2 game too…