Insight into the life of a games animator

Lionhead's Harvey Newman discusses his role and the various types of animations
Author:
Publish date:
Harvey_Newman_for_develop.jpg

There has always been a sense of mystery in regards to animation in games. In my travels to universities, during talks and chats to students, the first question they ask 93.7% of the time is: “What exactly is it like to be an animator in games?”

Well, I thought perhaps it was time for me to reach an audience bigger than just the confines of the universities. So I decided to contact the good folks at Develop, who have kindly allowed me to ramble about what life is like for a games animator.

Hopefully this quick read will explain what goes on inside the studio from an animator’s standpoint.

About Me

My name is Harvey Newman, and I’ve been in the industry for over six years now.

I am currently working at Microsoft/Lionhead Studios, on their soon-to-be-released franchise Fable Legends. I’m having a lot of fun.

Before I start talking about the animation process itself, let me lay the ground a little bit for those that are new to games production.

Key frame Vs Motion Capture

There are many types of animation styles, but the two most common are Key Frame and Motion Capture.

Motion Capture is where the motion of a performer is recorded and transferred onto a skeleton/rig of a 3D model, while hand key animation is where every single key of all movement is handmade by the animator.

There’s also procedural animation but that’s is mostly handled by the engine – think LittleBigPlanet or Ragdoll Kung Fu.

When I speak about animation in this article, I am referring to Key Frame Animation.

Pipeline

Every studio around the world, has some kind of a work pipeline. These pipelines differ, but the idea is the same. A pipeline is a process in which an idea or concept goes from A to Z and everyone in the studio touches it in one way or the other in order to bring it to fruition

Within the main work pipeline, there are “sub pipelines”, depending on the department in wich you work on.

In my case, we have an art pipeline. Here’s a super simplified way of how our pipeline works:

  1. A writer or producer writes a script/story for a specific character within the game universe.
  2. The character then goes onto Art who come up with the concept of the character.
  3. This concept, then goes to the modellers who grab the designs off the artists and create a 3D model from the 2D design.
  4. After that it goes to the Rigging team, where they add the bones and get the character ready for the animators.
  5. Once the riggers finish their work, that’s where we come in and do our magic. There's nothing like getting your hands on a freshly rigged character.

OK, now let me get in to a day in my life as an animator.

Image placeholder title

Planning

Our Animation lead, right at the start of a feature or story, will have a sit down with the producers to come up with a plan on what animations are needed, and where.

All of these talks revolve around the engine. Everything in a game can be quantified by what the team want to do and what the engine is able to handle. Finding a middle ground between the two is essential to make the best game possible.

Whilst this is happening, our lead will give us an idea of what we might be working next, and what kind of tasks are pending. Just so we don’t get caught off guard.

Distribution

Our Lead has a big list of animations that needs doing, now and in the near future. These animations were agreed upon amongst the leads and director of the game as being essential for the game continuity. These animations are converted into tasks, prioritised and distributed to all animators individually.

Here in the Lionhead we have a buddy team system, where we pair two animators at a time to form smaller teams and work on a specific character or feature.

You can be assured that anything that needs animation in-game is distributed to someone at some point.

Tasks

Once my team of two receives the next set of tasks we’ll be working on, the lead will tell us which animations each of us should do. And spread the work evenly, depending on the level of difficulty.

Animation

OK, now I am set to animate. Things have been discussed and everyone in the pipeline has been given the green light that these animations will be needed for the game.

I sit down with my lead and my team buddy, as I have a few questions that require clarification (which is normal):

Which Animations?
So my lead tells me that I’ll be working on four turn attacks (where a character has to rotate on the spot). I already know that based on the engine we are using (Unreal 4) and our coding team, we only need four animations for rotates: 180 Degrees Left, 90 Degrees Left, 180 Degrees Right, 90 Degrees Right.

How Polished?
My lead then tells me how polished he would like my animations to be, based on the premise given by the producers. Perhaps the producer already knows that these animations are going to work. If so, I can polish things a bit more to more of a finish state. But if it is something that is for testing purposes only, then I have to keep it as loose as I can.

Image placeholder title

The reason behind this is once the animation is done and it is in the game it might not work as intended and be binned.

So now that I know, what animations I need to do, and how polished I need to make them, I need find out how much time I have to make them.

How Long?
Here in Lionhead, we are given overall deadlines for each character from production, but we can plan our time within the confines of the end date to decide how much time we spend on particular animations.

So armed with all this information, I’ve concluded that I’ll be taking four days to complete the set. One Animation per day. If we are not in crunch time, and if at all possible, I might add a day to the deadline, just to make sure I deliver the best animations I possibly can, given the time.

Note: All animations are different and need to be assessed individually. Sometimes you do 4 animations in a day, others it takes 4 days to complete one animation.

Scrum

A Scrum is a meeting that happens every day, where a team of people from different departments who are all working on the same part of the game, get together to update the rest as to what they have done the previous day and what they will be doing next.

In these scrums I have to say that I’ll officially be taking four days to do the work mentioned above. That way everyone is on the same page. Also if someone has more information, or perhaps needs the animations sooner, this is the place to discuss what is possible, and what can be done to better deliver the work assigned to me.

After the scrum I can go back to my desk with peace of mind that both myself and my colleagues know what we are doing and how we are doing it.

Now it’s time to animate. Going through the process of Reference -> Blockout -> Functional -> Polished

All of the steps above have been taken into account when determining how long I’d take on my animations.

As the animation is produced and nearing completion I constantly receive feedback from our lead on how it could be improved and/or serve its purpose more efficiently. We continually make these changes until the animation works as intended in game.

Ok, now that I’ve finished my animations it’s time to review them in game with the rest of my scrum team. We set a weekly or bi-weekly meeting for this purpose.

Review

We gather the whole scrum in a big comfortable room, with a big screen (and sometime sweets) and start reviewing your work. When seen in context with previous animations, visual effects and audio, issues can be spotted with the new animations and these can be fine-tuned. If so I’d go back to my desk after the review, armed with my notes and I’d tweak the animation based on what we discussed.

If on the other hand I nailed it, and the animations work a treat the first time we see them in game. It’s time to move on and work on my next assignment.

And, that pretty much sums up a day in the life of a games animator. Or at least a day in my life. Different studios have different ways of working. One thing is certain: the games industry is a wonderful place to work as an animator, and if you are an aspiring games animator, you are in for a treat.

Hope you liked the article. If you have any questions, or would like to see more articles about animation, don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments below.

[Note: Working with Motion Capture is quite a bit different and something I didn’t touch here, but perhaps is something we can cover in a future article. If you guys are interested, please let me know.]

Harvey Newman, also known as Jose Lopes, can be found on LinkedIn here. His website is www.animworks.com.

Related

hensonhead.jpg

Pulling Animation's Strings

The Jim Henson Company isn't poised to start offering developers middleware. But the team there has been working on a game engine for several years, as part of an animation technique plump with potential across many disciplines.