A Matter Of Timing

Years ago, my future mother-in-law was curious about what I did for a living and asked me a question about being a game animator, “So do you have to draw every frame?” I thought to myself, “Thank God I don’t have to create 30 drawings for every second of gameplay.”

How could I explain it all? Sometimes what I do is technical, like when you adjust the weighting on a rig so moving a character’s wrist doesn’t make his shoulder flex in a weird way. Other times, it’s a form of acting, creating personality and mood with a stance or a movement. Often, it’s simply about getting the motion right, adjusting how a foot eases into or out of a pose, or showing kinetic energy transferring from one part of the body to another.

Working on a game, you use the same techniques as movie animators, but you often have extreme timing and movement restrictions to fit game balance requirements, and you rarely get to build an animation with just one camera shot in mind. You try to make things look great from every angle. It’s challenging, but when it all comes together, you take a beautiful, static model created by the art team and make people see it as a living, breathing being.

This is what I do.

As a kid, I always liked to draw, but the thing that really inspired me was animation. I would watch Looney Tunes and Disney classics no matter how many times I had seen them before. I loved old Ray Harryhausen movies like Jason and the Argonauts from 1963, and all of his Sinbad movies. Early on, I knew I wanted to be an animator.

As I got into my late teens, though, I learned that opportunities for animation schooling and jobs were few and far between. So when it came time to go to college, I looked for something more practical. A year of drawing bolts and geodesic dome houses taught me that architectural and mechanical drafting was not my true calling. I moved to graphic design next — first at the University of Washington, then transferring to Cornish College of the Arts to finish my BFA. It was interesting, but not inspiring.

Then I got lucky. In 1989, the last semester of my senior year, Cornish added a brand-new class to its curriculum: computer graphics. It probably sounds funny now, but back then things like PageMaker, Freehand, and Macromind Director were cutting edge. These weren’t just new pieces of software; they were entirely new ways to do things. Having access to Director let me try my hand at animation — I still remember that first experience of putting together a series of images and making it come to life.

That was my way into the field. In 1991, a buddy at Microsoft was looking for someone who knew Director to create animations for a new application called Cinemania. I didn’t know how to animate very well yet, and I barely knew the software, but I was in the right place at the right time. I knew this was the chance to do what I’d always wanted, and I wasn’t going to let it slip away.

Over the next few years, I used every free moment to get better and looked for learning opportunities wherever I could. Through a friend at work, I managed to get after-hours access to an expensive SGI computer running Softimage, a high end 3D program. I stayed late every night and taught myself how to model and animate in 3D.

My timing couldn’t have been better, because a game development boom was just starting in Seattle. I felt like I’d landed my dream job when I went to a little studio called Sucker Punch, where I got the chance to animate all of Sly Cooper’s moves in Sly Cooper and the Thievius Racoonus. Up until then I had only done small pieces of character animation, so this was the first time I was ever responsible for fully animating a character — especially a cartoony one with a personality like Sly.

During my time at Sucker Punch, I learned a ton about how animation affects the responsiveness of a character in a game. Animators are trained to have the character anticipate action, but in games, anticipation tends to go out the window in favor of getting the immediate response players expect when they press that button on their controller. With little to no anticipation, you start to learn little tricks that help sell the animation and direct the viewer’s eye.

Until this point in my career, I’d been primarily animating characters by hand. I didn’t have much experience with motion capture (mocap) animation, but this changed when I started working on MAG. While I was responsible for hand keying all of the first person and weapon animations, I also helped direct mocap shoots and modify the mocap data to match the game’s animation style. This experience helped me with my work on SOCOM4, where I was responsible for not only hand keyed character, vehicle, and cinematic animations, but also for character mocap.

I first found out about Undead Labs from my friend and old co-worker, Steve. When I learned that he and two of my other old colleagues, Foge and Shaun, were there too, I knew I had to be a part of the team.

I think that third-person action games are the most fun and challenging to work on as an animator because they really let you put a lot of personality into the characters. Animating combat is also one of my favorite things, and zombie combat is especially appealing to me because you gotta animate over the top!

It seemed like the Lab had everything I could want in a company and a project, and I feel very fortunate to be here.

Class3 presents a great opportunity to do things in animation and in games that I’ve never done before. At this point, I have been animating for games for nearly 20 years, but I’m still hungry to learn new things. As an animator, you can always improve — you’re always learning and there’s always more to learn.

I look forward to the challenge.


(Emily’s note: If you just can’t get enough Reid and would like to know more about him, be sure to check out Jeff’s introduction.)