Kristjan Zadziuk (@KrisZadziuk) is currently animation director at Ubisoft Toronto and is the first in a new series of game animator interviews on this site. He’s a veteran of the UK and Canada game development scene and is at the forefront of pushing the new mocap technique of motion-matching.
First off, let’s start by explaining your career so far and how you got to your current position.
I had been animating for years as a kid, (stop motion with a camcorder, getting stuffed animals to do strange things), but had no real idea that I wanted to be an animator when I “grew up” or that it was even I viable option. Even choosing my school classes I simply picked three topics I enjoyed… Art, P.E. (Physical Education) and Computing, without a plan…
One of my teachers happened to be the landlord of a guy called Jon Burton who was starting up a small company called Travellers’ Tales in my home town, (who went on to create all the Lego games). I managed to swing a work experience job there, so back in 1996 I was working as an intern for a video games company, which turned out to be my big break. Inspired by that I went to study animation in Newport, South Wales which led me to my first professional job at a company in Bristol called Hothouse Creations as a jack-of-all-trades. As the company evolved so did I, with them allowing me to become a specialist animator and eventually lead animator.
But even though I was ‘lead’, I had only 4 years of experience, all at one company. Knowing there was so much more to learn I applied to Ubisoft Montreal, who had just released Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. In the days before YouTube or Facebook this meant I had to send a physical copy of my showreel to the studio and hope someone would watch it.
Someone did, which led to a phone interview and me gushing about Prince of Persia for 30 minutes straight to who turned out to be the animation director of that actual project. 4 months later I was on my way to Montreal, a new country, and a new job away from all my friends and family.
This is where my career really took off. I was surrounded by some insanely talented individuals on a team that almost seemed unfair in its construction and absorbed as much information as I possibly could. Over time I started to take control of certain areas of the game, namely combat.
I would stay late… I loved it. I had no one to answer to so it was easy to focus on work and come up with new ideas and take risks, eventually working my way from senior animator to lead combat animator. I was given a huge amount of autonomy on a big project that I think would be hard to do now. The late nights resulted in my befriending one of the gameplay programmers and us creating the ‘counter kill’ mechanic in the first Assassin’s Creed. It fit the project ideals and they ended up being plastered all over the launch trailers.
After Assassin’s Creed shipped I made the tough decision to return to the UK for a studio that had big plans but, (unfortunately I would later find out), had no real means to execute them. I learnt a lot about creating an animation team from scratch while working with limited resources. We started to make some great progress with the animation tech, really empowering the animators. I enjoyed leading a large team again, but unfortunately the studio closed down just over a year after I joined.
This led me to join BizarreCreations in my home town of Liverpool, working on a licence I had always wanted to work on, James Bond. I decided to take a step back from being a lead so I could focus on animation, pure and simple. It was so much fun, we created a really open collaborative culture and the team was extremely close. Bizarre had assembled some world-class talent following an Activision buyout. But a couple of things, (such as the recession of 2008 coupled with poor sales of both Blur and Bond despite solid reviews, and our reluctance to work on the Call of Duty or Guitar Hero franchises), meant Bizarre was shut down also. The UK industry was falling apart.
So when Ubisoft Toronto opened and they were looking to staff up for the next Splinter Cell, I knew the time was right. The entire studio was started from the ground up, with a few transfers from Ubisoft Montreal, but combined with experienced devs from all over the industry. This made for a really unique atmosphere of talent, drive and culture. It took us a little bit of time to mesh together but when we did it worked amazingly well.
As animation director I was to outline the animation vision for the project and make sure that the animation team’s work all worked together, on one cohesive vision. I saw this as a contract between my team and the other directors. If we got their buy-in on what we wanted to achieve with animation they could judge us on that when we released. Since then we’ve been working on a few things, such as the motion-matching animation tech and other projects. Those have been a blast and I can’t wait to share some of that later on.
Where you are now, please describe a typical day of work.
So there is the standard; check emails and meetings for the day whilst I drink my tea, reply to any immediate issues, then I check in with each of my team making sure they have everything they need for their tasks. Sometimes this will mean I sit down with them for an extended period of time, be it to outline the style of something or help clarifying any vision questions they might have.
But I also like to work on a low-level basis, helping with fundamental animation issues. I find this investment of time invaluable for myself and my team as it highlights a thought process I encourage my team to go through when animating. Asking questions about their animation choices helps them progress and understand any issues there might be with posing, timing etc.
The rest of my day depends on the point in the project. If it’s early on in a dev cycle I spend a lot of time researching, pitching and blocking out ideas to present to the creative director and the team. Mid-cycle involves more problem-solving and hands-on animation. Due to the smaller but growing team size I do get to animate here but place a large focus on the team. The sooner they are comfortable, ultimately it allows me to focus on any animation tasks I have assigned myself.
Towards the end, most of my time is spent in reviews with either the team or the other directors, making sure that everything is working together as expected. Fighting fires and adapting to changes in the design is par-for-the-course. I need to try and anticipate as many issues as possible and be ready with a solution.
I become aware of the areas that are seen more by the player. This can be anything from what will appear front-and-centre in trailers, actions the player does on a regular basis, or just unique moments that we want to highlight. Of course we want to polish everything but the reality is it’s just not possible so I try and get the team to focus on areas that are front-and-centre first, polishing these animations so they look and feel solid. To make the most efficient use of their time we work down from there.
Who or what inspires you to go that extra mile to really do the best animation you can?
I’ve become really obsessed with process lately. I find it fascinating to understand how other creatives do what they do. I am actually really inspired by many people and things outside of the animation community, I could give you an exhaustive list.
YouTube has a ton of really fascinating process channels, such as Every Frame a Painting, The Nerdwriter and Kaptain Kristian, but I find people such as Casey Naistat who is so open with their day-to-day inspiring, on top of that his work ethic incredible. I love the work of directors such as David Fincher, whose unique style is extremely inspirational. Basically I really love seeing how people break things down.
Ballet… because of the flow and grace of the transitions between movements. I also feel dancers break down actions in a step-by-step way that really appeals to my thought process. So for me, inspiration can come from anywhere at any time, it really depends what I am looking for when you ask.
I have been lucky enough to work with some fantastically talented people and each one of them will have had an impact on me in some way. I love GDC and spending time with everyone there. The talks are always inspiring but I find that the magic really happens in between them.
Gameplay animation is something I really enjoy doing. I love the interaction and connection you have with your work, not just the aesthetic but the feel of it also… it’s so visceral. Seeing other people get as much enjoyment out of something you have worked on is a huge motivator for me to do better. It’s like instant feedback. Just look at someone’s face as they are playing with your work.
Animation bugs are the best – can you tell us about your favourite or most memorable bug you’ve been a party to during development.
I can’t think of any really memorable ones. I’m sure I’ve had my fair share but I do know of a time I made the mistake of leaving my PC unlocked after I exported an animation. Alex Drouin, (Assassin’s Creed animation director), somehow managed to replace an attack animation I wanted reviewed with a loop of the Assassin giving double middle finger salutes when you pressed the attack button.
I think I left my desk as I wanted one of the designers to test how it felt, and I have a feeling Patrice the creative director was there also. So I managed to bring them over to my desk, let them press the attack button, and the assassin would do that animation.
Lesson to self: Don’t leave your PC unlocked and unattended.
Video games are made by people – what’s the best human story you have of game development behind-the-scenes.
I’ve been on a ton of mocap shoots, where I’ve gotten actors to let loose. I find this is when you get the most natural moments. I’ll give you two examples.
Whilst working on cover takedowns in Bond, there was a move where you would come out fighting from cover, often blindly. One particular move just lacked the impact I was looking for and it was frustrating me. It was a jump-over-cover that transitioned into an attack, so I asked the performers how comfortable they would be with going full speed, and could they improvise a little? They said ‘sure’ and went off for a minute and came up with a plan. Next take, the main stunt guy ran at the cover full speed. Instead of jumping over and attacking he decided to combine the two. Rolling over the cover, onto his back, legs flailing, hitting the other actor full-pelt in the jaw and knocking him to the ground. We used that and it inspired a bunch of other moves we used in the project. When we looked back through the footage in slow-motion you could see the point of impact, it was so good!
During Splinter Cell, towards the end I ruptured my calf muscle whilst out running and we just so happened to need an injured walk for the start of the game. So the next day I went into the mocap suite, suited up and captured it. It became the walk for Sam Fisher the first time you play as him at the beginning of Splinter Cell Blacklist.
So what are you playing right now – and what are your favourite games of all time?
Prince of Persia, (the Amiga version), had a huge impact on me, as did Another World and Flashback. I loved how those characters felt and looked real. I kind of liked the delay when turning; the skid just became part of the gameplay that you had to account for. The block and parry in Amiga version of POP had a direct influence on the sword fighting in Assassins Creed; the block system is my homage to that.
So when Ubisoft Montreal created POP: Sands of Time and it was so acrobatic, I wanted to know how they did it. I loved how fluid all the moves and transitions were. I have to say I try and incorporate many of those things into work I do now.
Right now… man… Inside is fantastic. So simple, yet so elegant. I love that it’s such a short game, reminding me when you couldn’t save games and you had to play through in one sitting or use a passcode to continue. I love how Inside made me feel. Running away from dogs was so intense, climbing ropes had a real weight to it. It felt like there were a bunch of things done in that game that would be hard to do in a AAA game, such as speeding up or slowing down characters depending on situation, would be hard to justify. But it added so much.
What was the most difficult animation you’ve ever had to create?
The most difficult thing I’ve animated were probably dogs that adhered to the same AI principles as humans for Splinter Cell: Blacklist so it would fit within the system. Animating reactions and synced attacks. We had tons of reference; some of the examples from our combat consultant would have pushed our age rating to adult so we had to be very careful. We just didn’t know what we were looking for or how far to push it so we used the camera to our advantage and hid the final blow.
When animating, do you have any quick tips you use every day that save you a lot of time?
I used to use Motion Flow in 3DS Max A LOT, especially when piecing together concepts. It seems no one else used it, opting instead for Mixer, but I loved that you could adjust trajectories and direction, getting you to a semi-finished piece really quickly. Saving out a biped file and then adding it to Motion Flow was one of the single biggest time-savers I ever used.
While working on AC I would place a small red ball on the tip of the sword to highlight the trajectory of the motion. I would use this to make sure all the sword swings were readable. The swing would carry more weight this way because you would see it coming, which is why in AC 1 all standard attacks come from one of the diagonals.
When editing mocap I focus on the head position towards the end, because you will notice that when you rapidly move around the head actually doesn’t move a huge amount and is always trying to be stable. By solidifying this I would ensure that edited mocap, even with time warping and keyframing, would feel real.
What’s your biggest pet-peeve you see in game animation (or game development as a whole) that you’d wish to eradicate?
I only have a few pet-peeves if I think about it. This one comes from my time on Splinter Cell in particular, but I can’t stand static dull idles that have no purpose. For example, if a guard is to have their back to you for whatever reason, I like to make sure it feels believable. So maybe they are distracted whilst on the phone walking side to side, or they are paying attention to something else, anything… As long as they aren’t just stood there looking slowly side to side. It is a moment to at least say something about that character. Even if it’s fake, it’s still an opportunity to see something cool.
It’s also well known that inappropriate 3 point landings really get my back up. It’s lazy and cliché, and in my opinion there is a time and place for it. You would shatter you knees if they were real. But I suppose my biggest pet peeve is the lack of understanding that mocap is not the finished product. It involves an incredible amount of work to get it to a shippable state despite some people in the industry believing it is an easy fix. It certainly helps productivity, but it is by-no-means the end.
Nowadays game development is a highly sought-after career with lots of people wanting to get into the industry, which means more competition. What is the best advice you have for animators wishing to stand out from the crowd, and succeed once they get a job?
This is a great question and something I have been asked quite a lot recently. Ok, so I love lists – here goes.
Make contact. Know who you want to work with in the industry. If you like the work of a studio and you would like to work there, maybe check out the credits of that game and attempt to make contact on Linked In. BUT… (this is very important), don’t pester, sending a message when you connect so it isn’t the generic “I’d like to connect to your network” is always appreciated and is more likely to get a response. But if we reply that isn’t an open line of communication, it just means that if we see your work come across our desk when you apply it is more likely to stick.
Don’t be a fanboy/girl. As nice as it is to hear how much you loved playing a game we worked on, don’t go too far with your praise as it can be too much. There is keen then there is TOO keen… Also see above, don’t pester. Make contact, ask questions, get a reply, follow up. Try not to bombard a studio or recruiter weekly. You will stand out for the wrong reasons.
Solid Showreel. It is the first thing we see. Avoid flash camera moves that hide actions, don’t worry too much about rendering, lighting or motion blur. Only add this if you feel it highlights your animation. I am seeing a welcome trend of people showing their process in showreels now. With Unity and Unreal available it is great to see how you break up your animation and it shows a technical knowledge that won’t be lost. Also, it seems obvious but make sure you use your best work. I recently read in an article that you won’t be judged on your best work, but on your worst. I feel that this is very true. Make sure every shot counts.
Work Hard. Again obvious, but once you have the job, do what you can to learn from your peers. Put a solid day in, work smart, do your research on why you are animating something and make sure it shows in your piece. Be it a run, fight move or idle, everything has a purpose. Think of what the animation you are working on will be connected to as well as where it will be going. That will help inform your current piece.
Be Transparent. Something that has worked well for myself at least, especially the more senior I became. I tended to let people know what you are doing and why you are doing it, sometimes showing them half-finished work under controlled circumstances. I also used this as an excuse to get feedback without asking for feedback. I always had a regular dialogue with my programmers and designers. This would get buy in from them usually leading to them backing up tougher decisions later on as they trusted your process. Later on, with my creative directors, communicating with these parts of the team meant there were no nasty surprises.
Understand what others bring to the table. Understanding what other disciplines do and how your work can effect theirs and vice-versa is very important. Make a point of getting audio involved early on. They always get the rough end of the stick so bringing them in early can help inform the quality of your work and theirs. Everyone wins.
Video games are based on technology that advances rapidly even within console generations, and those that can’t keep up can be left behind. What do you see as the future for game animation, and what will be the game animators’ role in the future?
It’s well documented I suppose that the studio I am working with is working on some pretty cool animation tech, namely motion-matching. I’ve been lucky enough to work with awesome programmers and animators that have helped make this possible. I still think a more widespread use of tech like this is a generation of consoles away, if purely down to the data requirements. But what it does do is help animators create large volumes of realistic data from motion capture, this is essential is recreating realistic locomotion as well as other systems, all the while retaining complete player control. It also allows animators to focus on areas that could really benefit from animator attention. I have used the example of “Why re-invent the wheel when we have found a way of re-creating one perfectly”. I have said I felt it was the future of games animation, but I am not sure if that is entirely true, but I do think that it is part of the solution and I am sure many studios are going to be following suit very soon.
During my time in the industry I have seen us go from being generalist animators/artists that do it all, to specialists on a particular system. But I feel that the role has always involved elements of design as well as technical ability. The most talented gameplay animators I know aren’t always the best animators but are the ones that understand the impact of a well-placed interrupt-point or detail.
On AC1 the gameplay animation team was called the ‘Behaviour Team’, and I feel that that is exactly what our role is; we develop behaviours, not just animations. I actually prefer that term instead of animator. Understanding that the feel of something when you press a button, or push on the stick, is just as important as the visual part of that animation. If we can find a way of achieving this quickly as well as maintaining animation quality I am all for it.
Anything that we might have missed that you’d like to cover?
Not really a question, but I would like to share a bit of advice I was given by an old friend in the industry. We were talking about ‘burn out’ and how to keep it at bay. It’s a shame when sometime real talent just decides that video games aren’t for them. Which is totally fine, but I love video games and want to keep my passion.
He suggested that artists and animators should always have at least 1 personal project ticking over, not because they want another job or to make money necessarily, but more for your own sanity, to keep you fresh. It keeps you excited when sometimes AAA games can become a high pressure grind. This has really helped me last for 16 years. The industry is still really young and we need to make sure that top talent lasts to share the knowledge to the next generation.