Nov 19, 2008

Getting An Animation Job In Games

I realized today that I never posted about this. Might be useful to some who are starting out in this business. Probably going to turn into a long post - but you know what? the beauty is in the details.

The rules:
  • Understand what computer game animation really is.
  • Figure out if its the right thing for you.
  • Do your research.
  • Do what you need to show you can do it.

The common misconceptions:
  • You need a diploma, degree, or some kind of official qualification in computer game production.
  • You have to play loads of computer games, and know all about them.
  • You have to be a `generalist` who knows how to rig, model, texture, light, shade, and never make any spelling mistakes. ever.
  • You have to know how to use a specific program, like Maya or Max.

So I`ll step through these one by one and offer some advice.

To begin with, its safe to say that working in the games industry is fun, and challenging. Despite the fact that its not hard like an 8 hour shift at Starbucks, it is bloody difficult to make games, and it throws up new challenges everyday that are usually only partially related directly to animation. There are a lot of regular dealings with areas that feel very much out of your control, but directly effect what you do, and the final presentation of your hard work. When you create animation for games, you are constantly trying to fit a ball into a hole that is slightly too small.

Whoops. This sounds negative. The truth is the ball often fits, you just have to squeeze it.

Computer game animation is concerned mostly with physicality. Good representation of weight and force. There not usually much need for acting animation, or even very much facial work. 99% of the time you re dealing with clear full body actions, that need to communicate the player's input ( with respect to action = reaction ) rather than any real emotional or emphatic communication. For example, if I swing my sword into an enemy, I don't care how the game character feels because that's me! I care about a clear visceral reaction that is satisfying and represents the result of the action I took in order to make it happen. In truth, I don't even care so much how the poor enemy feels! what is most important is that it felt like I did it, and I got some kind of reward. That's pretty much the blood and guts of game animation in a nutshell. Of course this will vary from game to game, and studio to studio, but for the majority this is the rule.

Its important to also understand that game animation doesn't play out from start to finish, from one view ( that you animated it from ) and in one predictable order. Game animation is a bunch of hundreds, sometimes thousands of different actions and gestures that are pieced together programatically, as the game requires them to happen. Sometimes the game is even playing more than one animation at once on your character! Occasionally the kinds of actions that are needed can be solely just to fill gaps, or technical needs, and can be really bizarre, as well as dull and uninteresting to animate. There is a lot fighting with this. There is a lot of figuring out how things will work, and trying your best to accommodate for a variety of different scenarios, some of which you may feel only look good 50% of the time. There is a lot of time spent trying to get other people to do stuff that makes your work appear better on screen, but they just don't have the time ( most commonly ) or the tools they need to do it how you envision.

For the upside...

One of the major differences between computer games and movies strikes right at the core of them both. The role of the protagonist. In a movie the audience is led to empathize with the protagonist, and feels emotion this way. Movies don't allow the audience to make any choices that affect the outcome. In games, the audience ( the player ) decides the outcomes, and causes emotional response by their own actions. In essence, there is no pre-defined protagonist, only characterization. The character of the protagonist in a video game is a direct mirror of the player themselves, represented by the limited number of choices they are allowed to make during the game.
What makes this so exciting about animating for games is that when it works, it really works. When you create a successful animation that has a real feeling of action = reaction, for a split second you are not making the player feel that as an emotion... they are that character on screen. There are times when you create and play these animations and it is intensely satisfying. These moments can come in the strangest of situations, a gun reload, a turn, a landing.

Working within constraints is also a good thing. The unconstrained artist will usually get stuck in a rut, because he cannot decide what to do when he can do anything he wants. Computer game animation is rife with constraint, and forces you to think in creative ways.

Because computer game animation is very heavy on physicality, its perfect for learning the core principles of animation. Weight in particular is a must in video games, and you will get plenty of time to master it. You will also spend a lot of time thinking about the entire character, rather than just cowboy shots, or close ups. This really trains you in thinking how characters move as a whole entity, which is a wonderful thing to get plenty of time to practice.

Computer games usually offer a lot of variety as well. Modern games call for more and more characters, larger more complex locations, and frequently more unique and groundbreaking visual design. This is a lot to do with the fact that as an art form video games are still very much in their infancy, things are being figured out that could change the course of gaming history! it feels like a time where new discovery, new ideas, and forward thinking are there for the taking.

So something that is important to think about when you consider games as your first step into animation, is to really understand your career goals, and whether or not video games will help you reach them. To be honest, I always wanted to do movies ( and I still do ) but I took a games job when I left university because I lacked the understanding of what it really involved ( to be honest, I lacked any understanding of animation at all ). During my 7 years experience, I have learned that the kind of animation that is required for today's feature animation jobs, does not come around too often in video games. This is why you will find lots of posts on workflow, particularly blocking on this blog - because I haven't had the professional chance to learn real production based animation for anything outside of the abstract form of video games. I am having to learn the basics of acting, staging, story etc all in my own time, and by myself, outside of the studio environment ( which of course is the best place to learn ). This is very tough. Sometimes I wish I had taken a T.V job, or started in commercials, something at least a little less abstract than the presentation of animation in a computer game. The truth be said, such is life, and I enjoy making games very much... I would probably be desperate to work in video games if I had taken the other path. All I'm saying is think about this carefully. Animation is very hard, and takes a long time to learn, so you want to be heading in the right direction as early as you can.

Sniff around...

Like any serious job, before applying you need to do your research. The sad truth is that a lot of games companies don't use the power of animation to its maximum. What I mean is, they don't give it the time or attention to detail it requires, and don't hire the best animators. The bottom line is that there are lots of games that are great, that don't have good animation. Animation is not as important to a video games success as it is in an animated feature for example. As an animator, however, you want to be applying to studios where they value animation, and are interested in investing in its ability to tell story and create compelling entertainment.
The best way to do this is to look at games. Most importantly, don't just look at the core movements, but look at the areas that are supposed to be 'unseen'. Take notice of the transitions between animations, the quality of things like feet that connect properly to the terrain, the floatyness or weightiness of a ragdoll, the believable way a character opens a door or climbs a rope, the careful economy of the number of animations, the seamless ways a character may traverse its environment. These are the areas that are hard to get right, and companies doing this successfully, care about animation.

Watch out for mocap. Hey that sounds a bit harsh, but what I mean is, you cannot put mocap on your demo reel unless you want to get another job doing mocap. Its that simple. So companies that are heavy in using mocap, are hiring animators more as artistically centered technicians, not animators. Of course, there are plenty of games where there is a nice mixture of mocap and keyframe ( usually sci-fi games with humans and varying types of creatures ). You have to constantly think about what you will put on a demo reel, and for an animator, mocap is almost entirely useless.

When doing your research, consider the type of game the company makes. Developers usually stick to a certain genre is because it takes so long to figure out how to make a particular type of game, it doesn't make business sense to begin such grand undertakings for each release. Most companies will stick to a genre and try to perfect it, constantly building on to of their previous successes ( just look at Blizzard and Valve ).
If you enjoy playing computer games, it makes sense for you to take an interest in working on the kinds of games you like to play. This gives you an understanding of where you think you can improve or innovate. On the other hand, if you are not a game player, choose companies that create games most closely linked to the kind of movie genre you enjoy best. This is not a prerequisite, however, you may want to work on something completely new and different to you.

So .. the demo reel..

There are no right and wrongs, no rules... just advice.

For a game demo reel, try and have a clear target in mind of the type of animation you want to work on professionally. If you like cartoony - do that. If you like creatures and monsters - do that. If you're really not sure - do both.
I suggest the majority of your reel should contain clear and believable physicality. The truth is, that acting and story ( most usually presented through a short film ) are not the most important requirements for a game animator. Beautiful dialogue animation is nice to watch, but wont sell your physical skills unless you choose appropriate execution. This is not to say that you wouldn't get hired if you had a beautiful short film with lots of dialogue... its just common sense that this is much harder to produce than individual examples, that can cover more important aspects in much less time.

Full body shots are always good, but try and avoid the tired old 'boxlift'. Unless you can mold some empathy ( empathy .. not emotion ) into your box lift, its worth avoiding. Empathy is the key to good animation.
You know that thing that happens sometimes when you walk down the street, and your foot kind of catches the ground too soon, and you do a little"half trip".. and you just hope no one saw it happen? if you could animate that, and do it well, so the audience recognizes that universal experience... that's empathy, and that's killer demo reel material.

The thing about empathy is that we don't consciously notice it when it happens, and the thing about games is to remember that you are applying to places where they really are just a bunch of people who want to see a reel with "cool stuff" on it.
If you animate a careful shot with empathy, it will be appreciated in a subdued but vitally important way. If you animate a great sequence where a T-Rex fights another T-Rex, and it happens in a visceral and believable way.. that's the Hollywood element that is equally as critical and will wow the audience. If you could animate the T-Rex sequence with empathy... oh man.

I like reels where seemingly simple and usually faceless characters are animated in entertaining ways. This serves well for games, because believe it or not, a lot of third person games spend most of their time showing you the back of the main characters head! The "flour sack" is a good example of this, but I'm sure there are many more creative ideas you can come up with.

Its important to remember your own skill level. This is important not because it affects what you should try and animate, but it affects how you will be judged. If you are a student out of school, you will not be expected to animate Pixar quality acting and physicality. If you can, then you don't need luck for this journey, but if like most people you cannot then bear in mind what you are comfortable in achieving. Its important to challenge yourself, but its stupid to set your goals too high. Unfortunately this is the problem with a lot of short film reels. Just be sensible.

I'm not going to say more more on reels because I think that sums it up. Just remember that a single great animation, 10 seconds in length, could get you a job. 3 minutes of shit wont.

To dispel some of the myths...

You don't need any kind of formal qualification to get a game animation job. This should be the case for any creativity based profession in my opinion. If Joe Nobody applied with a 20 second reel that blew everyone away, at the same time that Mr Qualification applied... Joe Nobody would steamroll him. Even if Mr Experience had thrown in his reel, Joe would still walk away with the job.
What I'm saying is.. it all comes down to your reel ( and an interview, just to make sure you don't sleep in a coffin and eat mice ). On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with doing some kind of animation based course or degree ( I wish I had.. I did a degree in Graphic design ), as long as you remember the only thing that will count at the end of it is what's on your reel... so think carefully what you put on it.

You don't have to play computer games and know all about them. My dirty little secret at work is that I don't even own a 360 or any consoles. I don't play games so much. Its animation I like. ( of course its not really a secret, because it doesn't matter ). If on the other hand you do enjoy games and you like playing them and you've always wanted to make them.. then you don't need to worry about this part.

Its true there is the common misconception that games artists are generally good at, or know how to do all of the art related disciplines like modeling and texturing. This is based in fact, but needs to be properly understood.
In the early days of game development, teams were smaller and less specialized. Artists were hired as artists and expected to help out with animation as well as the other areas. As games have grown, the standards have risen, and the profession is now commonly driven by specialism. the type of candidate that a company looks for depends on their team structure, and is usually directly related to the size of the team ( more reason for your research ) . Companies may ask that candidates show proficiency in other areas outside of animation, but this is usually the sign of a newer less seasoned company ( not in a negative way ).
My advice on this would be to follow your heart. I know when you're a student its never clear really what you want to do in 3D, but I think deep down you know it. If its animation you love, then animate! and the rest will take care of itself. Avoid sending a generalist reel unless that's actually what you want to do as a profession.

You don't need to know Maya, Max, XSI to get a games animation job. The chances are, you probably know how to use at least one 3D package if you're doing any kind of 3D animation anyway. Just forget about this dumb myth. When I first started in games, I only knew how to use Max, but I was thrown head first into Maya. It didn't matter.
If you're a 2D animator, the "language barrier" is always there a little, but still, great 2D animation will still get you a 3D job. I would suggest at least playing around with 3D... but what am I saying.. you know this already.

I think that pretty much sums it up. The games industry is booming now, with more jobs in more locations than ever before. The salaries are great, and the positions are usually permanent with multiple benefits. In some ways, this can be a bad thing, if games isn't really what you want, and you have rent to pay.... but its a great place to start your ball rolling in animation. If you love games, love animation, and are dying to make the magic happen... then the world is your oyster my friend.

If you have any questions, you can fire off in the comments section, or send me an email.

Hope that helps.


Marty said...

Thanks for putting together such a great post!

I love getting physicality into animation, so i'm considering going down this career path. Which is why i wanted to thank you for taking the time to give advice to people like me.


Philip Crow said...

Thanks! So, it seems since I'll be graduating in March, I was guessing that my first job would be in games, as that is the reason I even got started in animation. But I would love to work on a feature film. So, would it be good to do both, because I seem to be better at full body physical actions moreso than lip syncs and emotions. I also love animation and would love to do it in any sort, games, tv or feature.

My question, is it hard to transfer from games to feature films?

Rock on!

WO''DZGN said...

Great post Cam, your insights continue to be a great source of inspiration to me.

Unknown said...

That was just what I was looking for thanks.I do have a quick question,Is it hard to get work as a freelance artist?I own a home and hve a family so it would be hard for me to stay in another state for a couple of months when I have mortgage payments kids and a wife,what would be your advice?

Unknown said...

whooooo hoooooooo!Is this gonna be a trend with the posting ;)?! Always eagerly witing for you to post.

Gonna send this post to my bro. ( He never listens to me...) Thanks for sharing like you do


geenpool said...

hey man...great post...I may have to send this to a couple of kids who are asking 'bout the game animation gig.

I also fell into game animations after graduation. I wanted to be a 2d animator for tv cartoons. But after seven/eight years of being in games...I'd never leave. In games I get to animate what I love (action and physicality) and I learn and improve so much in the development of each game.

Anyway, great post.

Cameron Fielding said...

Hi Guys.

Phil -
In reality I have no idea. I have never worked in films. All I can say is that working in games can be tough because you don't usually get to do much acting, or real acting with polish at least that is required for todays features. I`m having to learn and do all this stuff in my spare time, and that I find really tough.

- Micheal.
As far as freelancing for the games industry goes.. from my experience it is usually concept artists that get the freelancing gigs. I`ve never heard of animators freelancing for video games, and I think it wouldn't work out best either. Like I say in the post - there is so much firefighting that I cant imagine how you would do it well unless you were right there in the studio.

RedForty said...

Oh man! I LOVED this post! It really cleared up a lot of questions for me that kept me wondering if I'll ever really 'make it'.

Thanks, Flip. Please keep writing! I love your blog!

johnchuang said...

Great post! Keep writing!

mattanimation said...

this is gold! thanks a ton!

Jean-Denis Haas said...

Fantastic post, thanks!

Anonymous said...

thank you for the post!
i appreciate every entry you write and make a point to read every word of it
also, with the school im in right now it's hard to stay motivated toward animation because there are so few animation classes here and i really hate that.
they train you to be such a generalist because they figure noone knows what they want until the last few months where you need to somehow pull gold out your *** and expect you to get a great job.
Lol sorry for the mini rant, my point is your blog is a great source for my animation motivation!

Anonymous said...

Great Post :)

Anonymous said...

Your work is beautiful. I am looking for a job now. And you actually helped a lot. I am in Sf. Congrats for working in ILM. ^^

johnchuang said...

Hi Cam,I've translated this post into Chinese and repost the chinese version on my blog( .Hope you do not mind.
I gonna be a game animator soon,your post helps a lot.Thank you!

Call me Nick said...

Internship: on the requirements to say activision or EA it states must be proficient in Maya or 3D max. About how proficient are we talking? I took one class about 6 months ago. we got into face modeling and some rigging, painting weights.

Jay Dubeta said...

Hey Cameron,
I just wanted to say thank you for this post. It's very inspiring and informative, and it's sometimes difficult to find this kind of content on the web coming from someone with credible experience and a degree of wisdom that comes with it. Cheers!


Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say thankyou. You made my dreams seem easier to achieve. You are very inspirational.