Creative experimentation and emerging opportunities in animation
My first dabble in Computers was in when I went to College in Ballyfermot, Dublin. It feels like a million years ago now and I think there were only two places in the whole of Ireland at that time which taught art using computers! Ballyfermot’s focus was hand drawn animation and they opened up a very small department teaching people how to use computers for animation in 1998. I felt very lucky to have gotten a spot because competition was high.
It was a short two-year course, but it really helped solidify that gaming was what I absolutely wanted to do. I’d always loved games, but I also have a passion for movies, and I wasn’t entirely sure which route I wanted to take until my course began. It taught me a bit of everything, so I was in a good spot when I secured an interview with Studio Liverpool, where I started my first job in 2000.
I wasn’t in animation when I walked in the door - my first role was building vehicles for Wipeout Fusion™. After that I began building characters and that led me into animation work, adding rigging and skinning, until I was offered the position of Junior Animator on Formula One 2002™.
I spent 12 fantastic years with Studio Liverpool – including a year out in 2008 when I got transferred over to Amsterdam with Guerrilla working on Killzone® 2, which was an incredible experience and gave me the chance to work with weaponed characters for the first time.
I’ve been lucky to learn a lot from fantastic teammates at Studio Liverpool, during my time at Guerrilla and now here at Firesprite where I’ve progressed to Senior Animator.
Animation has changed so much since I started. Back then you weren’t just doing the animation you would build the characters, and if you weren’t building them, you were skinning them, putting the skeletons and the rigs into them. Whereas now you’ll typically be working with a box of tools and given characters already rigged, textured and ready to animate and export into the game, or you might focus on one area of specialization such as facial animation. It’s exciting to see how animation has developed though, now there are all sorts of detailed secondary animations, like hair, clothing and everything that’s properly simulated in the game.
This new level of specialization allows juniors’ careers to develop too, it gives the next generation of talent the opportunity to discover what they’re really good at or truly interested in. I remember talking to one graduate a few years ago, who sent me an animation of a dragon that he had done for some feedback. The animation was good, but I remember asking him where he got the rig from and he said “oh, I built it myself”. Really?! You built that yourself, that’s not an easy thing to do! I wouldn’t have a clue where to start with that! I suggested to him that he might want to look into the technical side of animation and when I spoke to him a year later and he had gotten a job as a Junior Technical Animator building rigs. So, I’d always suggest that aspiring animators dabble in the entire area, you might just find something that really clicks for you. Animation is so broad now that you know you can find yourself landing in all kinds of different roles.
With new levels of specialization comes new areas of opportunity. There are so many opportunities at the moment in special effects. Particles, simulations, dynamics and the like, that’s a skillset which is really missing in games at the moment. Visual FX Artists are always in such high demand, and those people would probably have to start off dabbling in animation in Unreal or something similar before discovering ‘oh, I’m actually kind of good at this bit!’ They might find they weren’t really clicking with the animation but really enjoyed creating particle systems.
Another role which is always in high demand is Technical Animator. Technical Animators will put skeletons in a character, put the rig on it. They’ll work closely with the Animator, Lead Animator, and maybe the Lead Technical Artist and just discuss what this character and rig is going to require. They have to work in tandem together it and it goes back and forth until everything is covered.
Another emerging opportunity I’ve seen is within mocap. I never really thought about motion capture when I started in animation, it was still relatively new in gaming. I remember when we decided we’re going to use mocap for the podium sequence in in Formula One 2001™, when the results came in, they looked so lifelike we thought we were out of a job! On closer inspection, we realized it actually required a lot of cleanup and that’s actually another discipline which has become more common over the last couple of years. Mocap cleanup is a skill in itself and there are so many games doing mocap now that it’s kind of a given that you’re going to be dealing with it at some stage.
The best advice I could give to aspiring animators, or animators at any level of their career is just keep trying things out. Try new things out all the time because with animation you get an awful lot of happy accidents.
What still excites me most about my job is when we get everyone together in in a one big room and we talk ideas out with the directors and designers, starting with little ideas and experimenting with what they could become. I love the process of doing some pre vis, not a full-blown polished animation, but just playing with ideas that we like. I love doing stuff like that because I find myself thinking about it on my way into work in the morning, excited to get in and experiment and see what other people think. Working together to build and develop ideas and try stuff, experimenting creatively to see what works and if you’ve discovered another happy little accident!
It’s truly a magnificent and rewarding career and I hope my story might help in part inspire you to find your way to your dream role in animation too.