From the original Perfect Dark Zero site comes this 2006 interview with Perfect Dark Zero animation lead and multiple Bafta award winner Jon Mummery, who’s credits include the original Perfect Dark as well as Syndicate, but sadly passed away in 2014.
His predictions on the ubiquity and usefulness of motion-capture are insightful, and advice to game animators is timeless:
“Try not to get bogged down in the fiddly detail before the core basics are in place. It’s best to get something in the game as early as you can, block it out and see if its working before you spend too much time on the subtleties. This is something that translates into all aspects of game production really.”
MGS: Hello, Jon! Thanks for being the subject of our interview. First, we’d like to say “Congratulations!” on Perfect Dark Zero. The game looks absolutely fantastic, and that’s in no small way due to the terrific animation.
Jon Mummery: Thanks, it was a great project to be a part of.
MGS: Next, we’d like to ask you to describe for the PDZ online community a bit about your past. How long have you been animating? What kind of training did it take to get where you are today? What path led you to becoming Rare’s Lead Animator for PDZ?
Jon Mummery: Well, I was interested in art and videogames from early age, growing up playing Robotron and Defender in the local arcades to watching Dungeons & Dragons on TV. After getting A grades in Art and Art History I headed off to study an Art foundation course in Northbrook, Worthing. It was during my foundation course that I set myself with a project based around animation meanwhile fine-tuning my life drawing skills. After completing my foundation year, I was fortunate enough to be accepted on one of the leading animation courses at the time in Bournemouth studying under Pete Parr. I can’t recommend this course enough! Several other animators at Rare have since come from the same course too. Pete taught me everything I needed to know about the industry from a traditional perspective as well as teaching us important team-based skills. It was from completing my course at Bournemouth that I got my first job at SCi in 1994. Although I had never even used a computer to animate before, they had confidence that I could transfer my traditional 2D skills into 3D. The great thing about my experience there was that I was able to do much more than just animate, I also learnt how to model in my spare time and produced many backgrounds for their games as well as animate. After completing a couple of titles for SCi, I had a brief stint at Psygnosis in London followed by another company in Manchester, before wanting to settle down in a job with long term prospects. In my opinion Rare was by far the best company around, especially since I had grown up lovingly playing Jetpac and Atic-Atac in my youth … I remember applying to several other companies, but it was Rare that I really wanted to work for so I gladly accepted a job in Oct 1998. I was so happy when I found out on my first day that I would be working on Perfect Dark 64 as I loved playing GoldenEye. I was initially asked to animate the characters movements, storyboards and cutscenes. However, I did manage to design and build one of the multiplayer levels on PD too (villa) in my spare time. After working on PD N64, I naturally wanted to continue onto the prequel, and I was asked to be Lead Animator for the game which I gladly accepted.
MGS: What was the first step in planning the animation for Perfect Dark Zero? How did you approach the task of suiting the animation to the stylistic elements of the game, such as its futuristic setting and action-espionage atmosphere? What were your chief goals for the animation?
Jon Mummery: Initially, when we started work on the prequel, we knew we wanted to improve on the PD animations in every sense especially since the N64 characters didn’t even have fingers. So one of the first things to update was the skeleton used to animate the characters, also giving them a more flexible spine. All the movement from the original PD was still available to us as mocap data, but we wanted to re-do it all to give it a fresher, more dynamic feel. With the added advantage of the extra memory available to us, for the first few weeks of the project I set about creating lists and ideas about all the additional animations I thought should be in the game. From there we created a rough demo of what we thought the game should look like and presented this. I dare say that we changed the look of the characters a few times before Wil settled on the final concept look, but on the whole we were aiming for a realistic yet more dynamic feel to how objects and characters moved following on from the heritage of GoldenEye really.
MGS: Okay, the final character design is in your hands! What happens next? What’s the workflow process of turning a static design into a moving image?
Jon Mummery: For the cutscenes we would start by taking the script and storyboarding it out. Then we would create a small animatic of the storyboard to lay out various camera angles and see what works in the background. Once happy with that, we would go ahead and motion capture as much as we could, and for more tricky moves we would simply animate them the traditional way. Once we have the mocap data we go about editing it and speeding bits up, often adding a layer of animation over the top of the mocap to make it loop or move a certain distance as desired by the design. I would say that about half of the content in the cutscenes have motion capture and half of the content is traditionally animated.
MGS: What’s the relationship between the Animator and Artist on a game like PDZ? How closely do they work together? How much does the work of one influence and inform the work of the other?
Jon Mummery: I would say that the animators on PD work pretty closely with everyone on the team, not just artists. Whereas some artists can work in isolation, the animator has to be able to communicate with everyone from programmers, artists, audio, particles, and the concept guys on a daily basis. Once an object or character has been modeled, usually we would test how it works for animation and if needed we would request tweaks to be made before the setup becomes final. Sometimes we might need to animate something before the model has been finished – so we would go ahead and animate temporary models that we make ourselves, and then these are passed back to the object artists to be enhanced. I would say that a lot of the assets in the game generally pass through animation at some point during production so we need to be up to date with all the latest designs and models. We also get a lot of feedback from the designers who need animations to be a certain length or move a certain distance, so this generally goes back and forward until we settle on something mutual.
MGS: What were the major challenges involved in actually implementing your animation goals for the game? Have you experienced any surprises? For example, were certain things harder or easier than expected?
Jon Mummery: One of the main challenges initially was getting the ragdolls to work with our existing animation. It was fairly late on in the project when we chose to use Havok, but Dave Thomas did a fantastic job in implementing it from a code perspective, making the transition very smooth between the animation we originally created for the deaths and the physics that takes over. It turned out very well in the end and a joy to watch characters fall over balconies and down stairs realistically.
MGS: Please walk us briefly through the Lead Animator’s typical day at Rare.
Jon Mummery: I’m usually at my desk early so that I can get a head start on the day. I tend to keep lists of everything animation related, so that I know what we’ve done that week and what’s left to do as a group. I tend to prioritise these tasks as the various in-game levels evolve. If a particular background is being worked on, we would adjust what we are doing to make sure we have all the animation needed to piece that section together. This would involve meetings with Sam Jones and Dale Murchie to flesh out the important bits of the design and what animation needs to be tackled first. I tend to share out the work amongst the other animators evenly, so that Gary, Matt or Dan aren’t stuck doing just one thing for the entire project like gun reloads or doing just mocap, I try to get everyone on the animation side involved as a team so that we get a taste of each area and all get to do both the good and the bad bits.
One day I might be working on a particular weapon like the M16 for an entire day so we can start using it in the game, so in the morning I would grab the latest version of the weapon model from Jason and test the binding [that] enables us to animate everything correctly. Then I would start the process by animating the shooting and reloads first then adding the asset into the game. Once happy with how a weapon feels in-game and its position on screen, I would send a movie file of the animation across to the audio department so they can add their sounds on top.
In the afternoon we may decide we need some new motion, something like a guard jumping out of a Dropship for the Boss fight, so we would head off to the in-house mocap room, get suited up and capture a bunch of new moves ourselves. It’s such a great advantage for Rare to have its very own mocap studio on site and a weird thing to see your own movement in the game. We would generally share out the mocap data once captured to get it cleaned up, on a character and in Maya by the next day. It’s a pretty quick turnaround really as we have some great animators on this project we all pull together when something is urgently needed. At various points of the project the tasks change, but on a whole my job is making sure that the animation is of high quality and ready on time. I also tend to have a certain amount of input regarding how something behaves in the game itself, so I am able to edit xml files and tweak animation speeds or how an animation might behave in the game. I also submit suggestions to the designers about how to improve certain aspects, like adding camera shake to the weapon melee attacks and setting up the joint limits for the rag-dolls, generally working with the designers and programmers to solve issues as they arise. By the end of the day the team usually has a quick blast of the multiplayer and we tend to submit suggestions to improve and tighten it.
MGS: Being a Lead Animator must have its challenges. What is one key piece of advice you often find yourself giving your team?
Jon Mummery: Try not to get bogged down in the fiddly detail before the core basics are in place. It’s best to get something in the game as early as you can, block it out and see if its working before you spend too much time on the subtleties. This is something that translates into all aspects of game production really.
MGS: Let’s talk about technology, craft, and the future. What animation software packages do you prefer to use? Can you describe the technology used to create the PDZ animation?
Jon Mummery: Maya, MotionBuilder and Vicon Bodybuilder are the main packages we use. We are also lucky to have a bunch of plugins that the R&D department writes for us here.
MGS: We keep reading about Motion Capture—is this really the future of games? Should aspiring animators study that instead, or in addition to, traditional animation?
Jon Mummery: The topic of motion capture is always a hot potato in the animation world and I firmly believe that traditional skills should always be the main foundation to build your skills upon as an animator. I feel that the animators here that have worked with motion capture, technical and frustrating as it can be at times, have all learnt a great deal from studying the real motion of people and also getting the chance to act and study their own movement. It has to be said that more companies are turning to motion capture now for the speed in which you can deliver assets, but I certainly don’t think animators need to feel they have to learn it. Some people love it, some hate it in equal measure—its always going to be that way. Its obviously an advantage to be able to manipulate motion capture and understand what is involved with blending pieces together, therefore any experience gained will look good on your CV, but it shouldn’t be something to worry about too much while studying. Definitely concentrate on the more traditional skills as this will give you a solid basis to build your career upon.
MGS: In the games industry many of the traditional roles are diverging. An artist, for instance, might specialize as a texture artist, a background artist, or a conceptual artist. Does the same apply to animators? If so, what sorts of animators do you think the industry will need in the next five years?
Jon Mummery: It’s definitely heading towards a Pixar style of pipeline, as an industry we need to be employing specialist riggers and scripters for facial expressions, muscles and dynamics also lighting and rendering experts from CG film backgrounds, I mean this is already starting to happen. As the amount of detail increases on the characters, we animate simpler cubed versions linked via scripts to the higher res models so that the scene doesn’t grind to a halt. If you look at the tutorials online and courses available, there is a market out there for specialists in every aspect of the industry. There is a tendency to farm out work to external companies that can provide these specialist skills within a fast turn around – so if someone with these specialist skills were to apply to make games, they would be snapped up. It used to be the case that animators working in games desperately wanted to get into the CG industry, but I think the trend is reversing and more people from the CG industry are finding they have a lot of great skills to offer us. The games industry is certainly an exciting and challenging place for an animator to be right now…