E3 Demo & Animation Tech

E3 2015 was easily the slickest and most consistent in quality of all I’ve attended. So many great games from large and small developers around the world on all platforms, and most of all I finally got to see The Last Guardian in the flesh, (or feathers). We were lucky enough to close out the Sony conference with the first part of our E3 demo chase sequence, the full video of which was released this week:

I was far more involved in this demo than the last, pre-visualising much of the action from the bridge onwards among other things, ultimately focusing on the ‘bull in a china shop’ truck chase finale with the help of the ridiculously talented Tal Peleg animating the bike and the savants of design, modelling and programming bringing it all together. This team and pipeline are so suited to collaboration and rapid iteration it’s unreal.

Here’s a taste of some of our animation & character tools by Hans Godard at a recent Gnomon School presentation. It simply isn’t possible to create large games nowadays without such awesome tools, tech & teammates!

10 Years of Game Animation

This month a decade has passed since starting this blog. I initially began writing because there was, (and sadly still is), a notable lack of game-specific animation resources online for what I perceived as an exciting and growing medium. Now there are over 150 game courses across the US alone with many more around the world. What was then only seen as a hobby industry with widely varying quality levels across all manner of platforms has, from where I’m standing, become more focused with quality winning out at both ends of the spectrum – large budget and indie development.

It may be surprising, but despite games I’ve worked on being played by tens of millions around the world it’s rare that I get to interact with those players or my peers due to the largely insular nature of game-development. This blog was started in the pre-social media days in part as a way of starting some kind of conversation between myself and other game animators out there. Nowadays, interactions with players and peers have moved from the static, uni-directional conversations of blogs to the real-time updates and conversations of Facebook & Twitter. We’re still going through the growing pains of this more open conversation but I feel its worth it – for every malcontent lashing out at perceived unfairness in their self-stated role as consumers there are tens of positive and informative conversations I’ll have with potential future colleagues – leaving me optimistic for the future.

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GDC 2015 Panel

Our GDC 2015 panel Women Are Not Too Hard To Animate is now available to view for free on the GDC Vault here. Stick around after the quiet intro – my mic is turned on at some point I promise.

Following last summer’s controversy, (in a year of controversies), on the work required to animate female characters I was invited to elaborate further on how we typically approach character gender when animating large games, along with awesome co-panelists Mariel Cartwright, Brianna Wu and Tim Borrelli.

The discussion is deliberately high-level to speak to a wider audience than just technically-minded game animators, and from speaking to others at the conference it’s not animators that are the issue here, but rather a simple lack of awareness or consideration for better representing all players in our evolving medium. The fact of the matter is that animating diverse characters, as with anything in game development, is a matter of priorities.

Unveiling Uncharted 4

Last weekend in Las Vegas at Sony’s inaugural Playstation Experience event we unveiled gameplay of Uncharted 4 to a cheering crowd of thousands. It was an amazingly tactile experience as game developers usually put videos out online and can only see the reaction from comments. Hearing the crowd roar when they realised it was live and ingame was incomparable; confirmed by an accidental drop into the abyss where we’d yet to create the death animation sequence. I hope the 15 minute video below shows the lengths to which the team has pushed the fuidity of movement and overall character fidelity – animating this guy for the last three quarters of a year has been a blast!

Later on, the character team gave a presentation on the Nathan Drake model and the level of fidelity they are achieving, from physicalised hair and clothing to shaders that render mud, water and sweat. At around the 50-minute mark you’ll get a glimpse of the 800+ poses we have at our disposal when animating Drake’s face, requiring animation controls that have been as much an exercise in usability as in displaying emotion.

On Photo-Realism In Games

Below is an interview I gave a few months ago for a UK magazine on the topic of photo-realistic graphics that I have kindly been given permission to reprint. I provided an animator’s perspective as it also featured insights from developers working on racing games that are at the forefront of realistic mechanical rendering – something I hadn’t considered before. It would be interesting to know others’ thoughts on the matter, as it touches on that timeless classic, the Uncanny Valley.

From an animation perspective, how do you view the prospect of photo-realistic graphics?

I believe that years ago the game animation community realised it was something of a false god – that rather than realism we should instead be pushing for believability, (not realism), in our characters. It’s a lot easier to make a convincing performance with a character with exaggerated features when you can concentrate solely on acting instead of worrying about details such as the perfect movement of skin and muscle across a skull or the most accurate rendering of wetness in the eye. Ultimately it depends what kind of experience you’re hoping to achieve with your game. Assassin’s Creed simply wouldn’t work as a cartoony game, and the reverse is true for the Mario series.

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Women Are Not Too Hard To Animate

Well, that was an interesting E3 this year. For my part, I ran around the show floor and made executive decisions on which games are currently “bringing it” in terms of animation and character art. That’s always been my favourite part of the spectacle, showing where the bar is set for the coming year to know where we should be aiming. Then came the reaction to a tweet of mine calling out an argument I feel strongly about, (that of inclusiveness in games), which added fuel to the #womenaretoohardtoanimate hashtag.

Thankfully, this site allows me to elaborate further on the reasoning behind those 140 characters. But first, a qualification of the “2 days” estimation because, after all, this is a blog on video game animation. On reading comments in the aftermath it would appear many people online fell into one of two camps:
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Now at Naughty Dog

Since moving to Canada almost a decade ago I’ve been making games that involve hundreds of characters with hours upon hours of systemic and open-ended narrative. Now I look forward to channeling all that energy into an altogether more intimate story and cast of characters. As of late February I am now based in sunny Santa Monica, California working with the talented guys and girls at Sony’s Naughty Dog studio on the next installment of the Uncharted series for Playstation 4.

When working at an art-centric studio such as Ubisoft Montreal I had been hard-pressed to find anywhere that takes video game animation as seriously as there, but I’ve long held Naughty Dog up as a titan in video game animation, ultimately being won over by their game-changing work on The Last of Us. It’s no understatement to say, in my opinion, that that game has set a new standard for tone and characterisation in video games.

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Animating The 3rd Assassin

GDC 2014 is fast approaching, and the guys over at The ReAnimators Podcast have interviews with all the speakers at this year’s Animation Bootcamp. Here’s the write-up of my GDC 2013 talk, (available on the GDC Vault behind a paywall), on the approach we took in refreshing the animation of the Assassin’s Creed series for its third major outing.


Assassin’s Creed III was my first game after arriving at Ubisoft Montreal back in early 2010. I can’t tell you how fortunate someone like myself was to work on Assassin’s Creed as to me it has been a standard-bearer for animation since it’s initial release in 2007. Many people at the time told me that AC was the studio leader in animation, so with the position of animation director came a lot of responsibility – the pressure from above to not screw up what came before was immense.

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The Last of Us – Cinematic Journey

It’s currently tapped for several game of the year awards so now is a good time to write up my notes on David Lam’s talk from the 2013 Montreal International Game Summit on the cinematic process of The Last of Us, which he also kindly gave at our studio later the same week.

David was tasked with supervising the animation for cutscenes on The Last of Us, where he said there was even more of an emphasis on story and characters than Uncharted. In particular, there was a strong focus on the relationship between the lead characters, primarily the 180 degree transformation of Joel’s attitude towards Ellie over the course of the game. While being mindful of sensitive story elements, David jumped straight in by showing everyone present the final scene of the game – (note: there are story spoilers below also). This scene, he said, best illustrated the team’s mantra of “Grounded Realism”, with a down to earth, life-like approach to performances in order to create empathy.

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Watch_Dogs Mocap Process

Now that the busy holiday period is over, here are my belated notes from my colleague Colin Graham’s 2013 Montreal International Games Summit presentation entitled Are We Ready For Animation On The Next Generation Of Consoles? – Lessons Learned From Developing Watch_Dogs.

Colin started with a series of disclaimers, the first being that as the game was due to be released the week of the talk before being delayed we were getting an edited version. Still, there was much to take away despite his self-professed “controversial” approach to motion-capture pipelines, posing it as a counter-point to Brent George’s talk I attended the previous year on how we must bend mocap to our will. That said, he agreed there is no real right or wrong way to do anything, and often “counter-intuitive” thinking leads to innovation.

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