I receive a lot of similar questions from students and other aspiring game animators. Hopefully this page can help you by answering some of the most common requests, primarily involving breaking into the games industry.
Q. Hi, I’m a recent/soon-to-be graduate of [game/animation course] and am about to jump into the big wide world of employment hunting. Can you offer any advice on how to stand out from the crowd.
Yes of course, you can do worse than start by reviewing my 10 Steps To A Great Game Animation Demo Reel. Moreover, I would strongly suggest beginning your career in a smaller studio that will allow you to obtain a more wholistic overview of game development in general. Many of the best developers I know started this way and are more effective in a large studio environment than those that only specialise in their chosen field.
Q. Can you review my reel please?
Sure, I’m always happy to offer critiques of animation reels. Send me the link in the contact form and I’ll do my best to offer constructive feedback in a timely manner.
Q. Hi, I’m an animator in [foreign country] and am looking to make the move to a larger studio in North America. What advice can you offer to someone like me.
Studios typically only hire foreign employees of exceptional talent with a degree of proven experience as they have to prove to the government that they cannot find someone locally at the same level. You’ll stand a chance of gaining a work permit if your reel is good enough, though it has to be quite a bit better than someone local to make them want to bring you all this way. Keep improving the reel if you’re not successful at first, and also aim for smaller studios as a way to get into the country and learn a better overview of making games, then move to a bigger studio once you have a few games under your belt. The best things that can help you gain a foreign visa are having a degree in a related field, and having a body of work that illustrates you have skills difficult to obtain easily locally.
Q. I live in [non-North American / non-European Country] and I want to study abroad because here there no companies that develop games for current consoles and the local college courses are not recognized by foreign companies. Can you give me some colleges you recommend?
Importantly, recognised colleges or courses won’t land you an interview, but a really strong demo reel will. I’m afraid I don’t keep up with the latest schools and how good they’re doing. Nowadays there are a variety of online courses that offer access to some of the best talent in the industry, and you should absolutely be reading my book on game animation if you are interested in learning on the subject.
Q. I’m an advertiser – can we promote our product on your website?
No, sorry. I don’t accept advertising offers, link-sharing or requests for guest-posting, nor do I create posts for products unless otherwise stated as being of my own volition. Everything I write about here are things that I have a genuine interest in.
Q. Beyond animation, what skills are required in the field of game animation?
Skills required, other than the obvious artistic competence, centre a lot around teamwork and the ability to work with others that have complementary skills. Knowing that collaboration as a team makes the work more than the sum of its parts is essential, and the ability to give and receive constructive critiques is an essential skill to cultivate.
I always suggest making sure you focus on learning not just animation, but also how it works in the game, from the technicalities of getting it in and playing to how it works with the game design and the ramifications of artistic choices you’ll make. This will stand you in the best stead to be hired over someone that is JUST a good animator. As ever, try to end your studies with a strong demo reel. No-one hires you based on grades, though a degree did help me travel the world so it’s still totally worth it!
Q. I’m a student about to start a course in college/university. What subjects are preferred by the industry?
For an animator; Art, design and animation (naturally) all help, but a good idea of computing and maths don’t hurt either. In 3D animation particularly you’ll be doing a lot of calculations, and technical skills that complement artistic are the real key to being a great game animator.
Q. How did you become an animator?
I started at home on my computer, trying to redraw the 2D games I played at the time such as Street Fighter 2. I then went to college to study animation, and really loved computer animation. It was only at the end of the course that I realised I could make games with this kind of degree so focused my efforts on 3D animation and was lucky enough to be hired at a new local studio in Scotland. After four years of almost nothing but animating daily, I moved to North America to begin the real work – making some of the biggest and most technically demanding games.
Q. What does it take to become a successful game animator and what I should do to gain experience in computer animation?
To be successful at animation, the single best skill to work on is to be observant of the mechanics of how people move. Getting weight right and “seeing” how the whole body reacts to each kind of movement, be it a tilt of the head or raising a leg, is what separate the good animators from the average. Knowing how games work is a great advantage, and there are plenty of free game engines you can download and play with at home to learn the basics – each with a community of tutorials and forums to help you better understand the bare bones of how videogame animation works. I’d say start there, go to school to work and learn with others, then aim for a good small studio rather than a huge one, (where you may be pigeonholed), so that will give you a greater overview of ALL areas of game development – not just animation. This should stand you in good stead for the future as you specialize in one area of animation, such as technical, creatures etc in the future.
Q. I’d like to practice animating with a video game character rig. Do you know of a publicly-available rigs I might be able to play with?
While not actively used in a game, the Free AZRI Rig for Maya from this very site is based on a video game rig, with a focus on speed and ease of use.
Q. Is it important for the animator to be able to use ZBrush?
No, those are modelling tools. Unless you want to split your time between modelling and animation, (where you’re unlikely to master either), best stick with general 3D packages like Max or Maya. It is however beneficial to learn some basic modeling so you can create animation previz mockups for your gameplay, or build test levels for game engines to test your animations in game.
Q. Do you think there is a loss of creative control with motion capture?
Perhaps if the mocap was bought from a library, but because I and the animators I work with direct the actors ourselves the performance we receive is as much our creation as it would be directing an animator to create keys from scratch. Obviously the latter gives complete control to the animator, but our job isn’t to animate, it’s to create believable stories, worlds and characters for players to experience. As such, there’s no way we could create the games we do and make them move so realistically with keyframe alone due to the time it would require and also stylistic consistency across many animators. The exact same questions were asked years ago by 2D animators moving to 3D, who were afraid of losing control to the computers.
Q. With keyframe animation there seems to be much more appeal than motion capture, is this an area you try and address, or is it more about realism and believability?
Absolutely. I often joke that real life doesn’t look real enough – mocap doesn’t look like our perception of reality, so we spend months afterwards tearing it apart and putting it back together to add appeal in strong posing and better timing that only a trained animator can do. We do less work on unimportant characters in the background – it’s mostly about the player. Right now at work we’re hotly debating a new movement style and whether to make it more real or closer to what people perceive as real. I tend to the latter.
Q. Animators are able to get realistic and believable results with keyframe yet motion capture is very much dominant within the games industry. Why is this? Is it just because it is a faster process?
I’m not sure I agree with that assertion. Even the most accomplished animators in the world struggle to keyframe realistic human characters from scratch, and are very unlikely to match the speed of mocap. I attended a lecture by a former game animator that works at Weta who shared that he has booked himself 3 months to create a single scene of an elf sliding down a tree. One thing I and a lot of animators say on working extensively with mocap is that it makes them better at keyframing realism when they have to because they’re always surprised how real movement breaks the traditional “rules” on animating all the time. We can’t mocap everything, especially for an inhumanly strong character like the Assassin, so we need to create keyframing that retains all the weight and posing of mocap for consistency, even when he’s jumping off 100ft buildings.
Q. There’s always the ongoing debate about whether motion capture will replace keyframe animation. Do you think this will be the case and to the extent of it pushing out the big animation studios such as Pixar and Dreamworks?
They used to debate whether 3D would replace 2D, and we’re already starting to debate the next replacements for mocap ;-) I don’t think those studios are going anywhere – they tell stories, create characters and worlds that could not exist without their talented keyframe efforts, and are always pushing the technological envelope on how fast they can animate. I think the debate is over already as to realistic characters in games – we wouldn’t dream of creating a project featuring humans without mocap. But again, strong keyframe skill is still required for what are essentially all the fun, over the top actions. At around 40,000 animations required for an AC game, with one hour’s worth specifically to animate the Assassin, it simply wouldn’t be possible to give players the experiences we deliver without mocap, and he wouldn’t be able to perform all the amazing moves without keyframe.
Q. What kind of questions you were asked in an interview when first entered the animation field and/or game industry? What are typical questions in the animation field?
That was a LONG time ago! My memories are more of interviews I have given others. I often tend to ask interviewees to take us through their demo reel, which I have looping in the background. Knowing what works and what didn’t gives me an idea of how much they’re able to self-critique, as well as their own grasp of strengths and weaknesses. Mostly its a conversation where they take us through their past work and what they achieved to give a better idea of who they are. Ultimately it’s a question of whether I’d want to work with that person, and trying to avoid those who would take too much hand-holding.
Q. I wonder if you could give any tips for 3D noob artists who are still studying, something that could improve workflows and gain new skills. I am studying Maya and would like to know how to work it effectively!
For Maya, I’d say make good use of curves (it helps you visualise your in-betweens), and especially try to keep all your keys on the same frame, (rather than overlap them), as long as possible in the blocking phase. That will allow you to easily retime animation via the time-slider before going into more detail, and moreover adjust poses without things getting out of hand. I’m always moving keys around in the time-slider to get the best feel before doing any detail work. Also, layers are great if you want to make a modification to an existing move but not commit to it, allowing you to turn them off and on to see how your changes affect it. Also, save often.
To get almost 20 years-worth of tips and tricks, read my book!