Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Should I be a 3D Rigger? | Interview with AnimSchool Rigging Instructor Daria Jerjomina

We recently had the chance to interview AnimSchool instructor, Daria Jerjomina. Daria has worked as a technical animator and rigger for video games, stop motion (Laika), VFX and is currently using her skills outside the animation industry in tech. In our interview, we talk to Daria about what it takes to be a rigger, working in each field, why she made the switch to tech and robotics. We also gain insight into her rigging courses, including Rigging Automation, where students create their own rigging tool, just as they would at a studio.

Watch our interview with Daria on Youtube

How did you first get into rigging? Did you always know you wanted to do rigging for animation?

I didn’t know anything about rigging until I went to school (Academy of Art University). I wanted to work in animation and visual effects but I didn’t know about the difference between the different disciplines. After taking a couple introductory classes I learned about different parts of the industry and found that I enjoy rigging the most. I saw there was a combination of it being both technical and artistic, and that really appealed to me. And the rest is history!

Where have you worked?

I started working at some small video game companies. Then I worked at a company that did a little bit of everything. They did visual effects and theme park things. And then I worked for animation at Laika. And after that, I worked for some tech companies. I feel lucky that I’ve tried a little bit of everything.

Can you talk about what it was like working for Laika on a stop motion feature as opposed to 3D animated projects?

I enjoyed working at Laika a lot, and the stop motion side of it was part of the reason. It was just so great to walk through hand-built sets when walking towards my desk and collaborate with so many extremely creative people, who do the kind of work very few others can do. Working with 3d printing was very exciting, and it was so cool to be able to hold the face you rigged in your hand after it was printed out.

Laika is a stop motion company, I’m surprised they need riggers. What kind of work did you do for them? 

I came in when they were working on Boxtrolls, but I mostly worked on Kubo and the Two Strings. They have a department called Graphic Prototyping Department and they work on just facial animation and facial rigging. So what happens there is that all the body is animated by hand, in a very classical stop motion way, but then the faces are animated in CG. Kind of the same way they would be animated in any other CG studio. All those faces that are animated CG are then printed. The old-school stop motion way would be to sculpt different faces and replace them on the character in the scene. But Laika is taking that a step further and what they’re doing is 3D printing those faces. So almost every frame they print out and place on the characters. That way it feels very seamless and fluid. If you look at the older stop motion films, you’ll see the facial animation is a bit choppy because they hand-sculpted all of those faces.

What kind of tools did you create there?

At Laika, I switched from doing rigging into doing more programming. I started there as a rigger but then went into the engineering department. So I was writing tools for 3D-printing-related pipelines. All of the tools I created related to how rigging is happening and how the models are being passed to the rigger and how the rig character is being passed to the animator. One of the tools helps pass information about the rig onto the servers so the rigging can happen on the farm. Some tools were for creating ways to automatically check for model intersection. A lot of things to help review the model before it gets printed, how we can rig it faster, or review the models before their animations. 

Who and/or what are some of your biggest inspirations in animation?

For technical work a lot of what we do is behind the scenes, and you realize the intelligence with which a tool or a rig is built only when you yourself work on a project. For that reason, most people that have inspired me are the people I’ve worked with. Seeing the amazing work that they contribute to a mutual project inspires new ideas and pushes me to learn more.

Do you need to be able to code in order to be a rigger or technical director?

It’s different per company, but nowadays in most cases - yes. You need to be able to create tools that would help with rigging. Which is why I’m happy to be teaching a Rigging Automation class at AnimSchool and help students learn those skills.

AnimSchool teaches modeling and rigging together in their Character Track program. Do riggers need to be able to model as well?

No, not really. It helps though. At some places, riggers do a lot of blendshape and corrective shape sculpting, with that it really helps to know modeling. I’m not very good at modeling so I'm an example of being on the more technical side of it. Animschool teaches modeling and rigging, but they also have a rigging automation class where we do all that tool writing.

Can you talk more about the Rigging Automation class?

I like this class a lot because I see how much students improve in that class and all the great work they do. In that class, students write a tool of their own design from the beginning to the end of the term. They work on the tool at home, and in class, we review how they’re working on it. It can be any tool they want, but it has to help automate some part of the 3D pipeline. Most choose to make an auto-rigger, which is a tool that automates the rigging of the character, but they can choose any other aspect as well. And in the class itself, we go through important programming concepts. So they don't need to know any programming when they start the class.  We talk a little bit about mel but mostly about python and we talk about all the concepts such as writing loops, variables, classes, functions, all those things they learn in that class. We do a lot of practice and small exercises in class to help them write their own tool. A lot of the tools people create in this class are really good tools. They can put them up on GitHub and then companies can notice those tools and bring them to their company. 

Do you need to know programming in order to take rigging classes at AnimSchool?

No, not at all. It’s not expected. If you know too much programming, you might be bored in the class. But If they know a little bit, that’s fine too. The concepts we learn are applicable to all parts of the 3D process. And it’s not just riggers who can benefit from the class, modelers and animators can too. There are cases where animators write tools for their company. It's a very valuable skill. 

You found rigging work outside of the animation industry. Can you talk about this more?

When I started I was the same way thinking it was just for animation, games or VFX. But that's actually a pretty small field, and there aren't enough animation companies for everyone. Other fields are very interesting. At the robotics company, we had a team of animators animate a  robot in Maya that was modeled and rigged in Maya. We then exported that animation onto the robot. My position there was tools engineer. So I wrote tools for maya to help animators create their animations and export their animations onto the physical robot. That was really fun for me because I never before thought about how rigging and scripting could be used to fill the gap between 3D and the real world. It was so much fun.

I understand that you are working in the tech industry now. Why did you switch? How does this differ from the animation industry? 

I used to work in robotics at my previous job, for the past two years I’ve been working at an AI company that creates realistic digital human characters. I switched because an opportunity came my way, and I wanted to try something new. It ended up being a great decision, working in tech is very exciting, and I have a chance to work with very innovative people from different industries. I definitely don't regret switching, but I don't think it's superior to the animation industry or vice versa….different things work for different people.

Were your skills from animation rigging transferable to your tech jobs?

A lot of the work I do is very similar, the differences are usually very specific to each project and company. A lot of the skills are transferable though because it's still working with the same software and there's still rigging and type of programming involved. 

What is your advice to students struggling to decide which industry (film/tv/games/other) to pursue?

There are some people who want to get into feature films or VFX. And there are some who just want a job and don't care where. I think both are fine. I think it's fine to have one goal in mind and strive for it, but it's important to remember that not meeting that goal may not be dependent on you, it may just be dependent on luck. It's good to have an open mind, but it's ok to have specific dreams.

What are some key concepts you try to emphasize to your students in your class?

I think it's important to be open to other ideas and different approaches. In my intro to rigging class, I teach them how to do it my way, but then when they go into intermediate rigging class and they learn it a different way, I don't want them to just stick to my way. People would come into my intermediate rigging class and they would come to me and be very stuck on how they were taught something differently in the previous class. I think it's important to see the different approaches and try them as well.

Also, I think one important thing, especially when starting a new job, is to understand that not everything will not be perfect at the studio. A lot of times when people start working they expect the big, fancy animation studio to have perfect tools and rigs, but it's not like that. If they're hiring you, they're probably in crunch time and just want to get the movie done. So of course there are going to be duct-taped things here and there. You can't have perfect code and rig. It's important to remember that when you go into a new studio or project, you shouldn't come in and say “This is not how I learned it in school.” 

What kind of person do you recommend going into rigging? Do they need to be more technical or creative?

I think anyone can go into rigging. And definitely, everyone should try it to see if that’s something they might enjoy. The combination of technical and creative usually works the best, but the bigger problem is that people often don’t see themselves as technical and get afraid of doing tasks that they might be good at if they were to learn the method or get more familiar with the software. I think if someone is just very technical and not artistic at all, they can pick up the artistic side and vice versa. It's good to have a bit of both, but I don't think it's a requirement.

Aside from the technical skills, what are some soft skills that are essential to being a good rigger?

It’s good to be flexible, to be able to adapt to different workflows at different workplaces. When people are less experienced they usually want to find some flaws in the new pipeline or new codebase they see. But with time I think you learn to adapt yourself, rather than try to change the project or workflow to be “the right” way.

What are your biggest demo reel tips for rigging and TDing?

Put your best work first and don’t make the reel too long. Also, it’s a good skill to have to be able to put together your work and make changes to your reel quickly, especially when starting out. That way you can cater your reel to different workplaces, and create new ones if companies ask for examples of other work.

With that said, we all have a finite time to spend on our work, and I would prioritize getting better at what you do, being rigging, animation or tools, than spending too much time working on your reel.

Is it easier to get a job as a rigger compared to an animator?

I think it is easier to get a job as a rigger, just because fewer people are doing it. Another good thing is that if you're getting into the programming side of rigging more, and you decide later on you want to switch industries, it’ll be a lot easier as a rigger than an animator. I think this discipline is a bit more flexible in terms of jobs.

What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to someone just starting out?

See the different methods with which different people work and try them out. If you rigged a character one way, try to create another rig a different way. This way you will try different methods and can see what works better for you. I would also say that it’s important to not be afraid to fail or be “bad” at something. We all start at the bottom and we all make mistakes. Students that I see succeeding are the ones who work on their projects despite the fallbacks, who are not afraid to redo the work, and don’t get discouraged by negative grades.

What has been your experience as a female in the animation industry?

You do definitely find yourself being in male-dominated groups. At my current job, I'm the only woman on my team. So that happens. I think even not that long ago, 5 -7 years ago, it used to be felt a lot more. I felt there was under the rug sexism going on, but now to be honest I'm not seeing it. Maybe I'm just lucky at my current job. I’m not seeing any different treatment; I'm being treated very well. It might also be because I'm getting higher in my experience. But yeah, I have to say I have noticed some of it, but I'm not really seeing it for myself right now. It doesn't mean it does not exist or that there are people who are not experiencing this mistreatment. We hear stories from various companies of course and that’s horrible and we should do everything we can to prevent that. But again that hasn’t been my experience recently. If we have more women, we’ll have a more diverse and more comfortable environment for everyone. In my experience, at teams and companies where you see more women and just diversity in general, it just creates more ideas and comfort for everyone.

Can you talk about your experience watching your student’s skills develop through AnimSchool?

That's my favorite thing! Just to see how people improve from knowing nothing to creating rigs and tools. That’s just great. I think it all boils down to how much time and effort people put in. The people who put in the most time and passion for something, improve a lot, and seeing that improvement is amazing. For rigging automation class,  people come in that know nothing about programming. They ask these questions that can be considered very simple, but it's always very good that they ask questions if they don't understand something. Then you see those people who were worse than their peers in the beginning, and by the end become better than everyone else.

Why should students that are interested in rigging and programming for animation attend AnimSchool?

I think AnimSchool is really good. All classes in general are a nice system where you can listen to the lecture. It Is nice that the lectures are being read for students so they can interrupt the instructor whenever they want. The deal I make with my students at the beginning of the term is that if you don't understand something, interpret me and ask the question. I tell them they can even interpret me mid-sentence. I think that's the big benefit of AnimSchool because other online schools use pre-recorded videos that you watch. And of course the reviews as well. We have one lecture class and one review class each week. Those reviews are very beneficial for students as well. It's a critique of their work. And then just the professionals who work at AnimSchool are just great too. I love to watch some of the videos from the other classes, it's just so educational.

How do you like teaching at AnimSchool?

I love it a lot. I didn't expect to like it as much as I do. I like to see how people grow in the class. I really like to learn things from students. Because when students have a question, it will make me think differently about a concept or design pattern that I'd normally do automatically. And they stop you and ask why you do it that way and it makes you pause and ask yourself “Yeah why do I do it this way?” Sometimes they even bring up that Maya has this new feature that I’ve never heard of, which then forces me to research and ask others about that feature and determine whether I need to talk to my students about this feature.

Where do you see your career going in the future? Do you think you’ll ever go back to animation or are you happier in the robots/engineering world right now?

Only time can tell! At the moment I’m very happy working in tech, but I am not opposed to going back to feature animation, games or VFX in the future.

Sign up today to learn from industry-leading animators like Daria in our online accredited courses (ACCSC). Apply today at animschool.edu She is currently teaching Rigging Automation and Intro to Rigging.

Follow the links below to learn more about Daria!



AnimSchool YouTube (Daria is featured in How to Create Rig Controls and An In-Depth Guide to Maya Constraints)

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

A Day in the Life with Pro Character Animator Scott McWhinnie

Watch on Youtube: A Day in the Life of a Pro Character Animator

We recently had the chance to sit down with AnimSchool instructor Scott McWhinnie and chat about his adventurous career as an animator and the things he has learned along the way. Scott has worked at Moonbot Studios, Sony Animation, Bue Sky Studios, and most recently, Illumination Mac Guff in Paris. Scott gives us an insightful look into the day-to-day life of an animator and illustrates how to balance working hard for those top-level industry jobs with your own happiness.

Tell us about your journey. How did you get into animation?

I started out as a teenager wanting to do comic strips for newspapers, but after a while, I realized it would be even cooler to make those drawings move, so I started wanting to do 2D animation. Eventually, I realized that I would have more opportunities to animate in 3D, so I attended Ringling College of Art and Design. During my time there I spent a summer as an intern at Sony Imageworks in LA. After graduation, I started working at Moonbot Studios in Louisiana. After a year of working there, I jumped around between animation studios in NYC and Dallas. I eventually landed at Blue Sky Studios where I worked for about 5 years on Rio 2, Ice Age 5, Ferdinand, and Spies in Disguise. Then in 2020, I started working remotely... before it was cool :) ...so I could live as a "Digital Nomad", where I would travel around and work from wherever I was staying. A studio called Little Zoo, which is fully remote, gave me that chance, but we all know what happened in 2020. Later I made my way back to Sony and animated on Hotel Transylvania 4. Currently, I have just moved to Paris where I am working at Illumination Mac Guff.

It is incredible how your career has taken you around the world. Would you say moving around a lot like you have is normal for a career in this industry?

I think if you want to stay put you can find a way. If that’s your priority, there are plenty of jobs that allow you to stay relatively stable. It's just a matter of whether it lines up with what you want to do in animation. For me, I always wanted to do feature films so that was a big part of moving around and figuring out where to go. Also, for me moving around was sort of my life. My dad was a pastor so we were moving every two to three years on average; moving for animation jobs wasn’t a big deal for me. It actually feels weird to stay in one place for more than five years. It is very common to move around in this industry, but I don't think it has to be if you don't want it to be.

As someone who went to a four-year art college, can you talk about the pros and cons of doing an online program like AnimSchool compared to a traditional four-year university?

I think the biggest pros of a traditional school are the classmates and the environment it provides. I learned so much from the person sitting next to me during late-night discussions about animation and art with friends. For me at least, those interactions taught me so much and are much easier and more organic to come by in-person versus over the internet. A big con of course is the cost, but I would recommend to any new student is to really understand what the true cost of your schooling is and what that might mean for your future and try and take advantage of financial help. I think a lot of students don't understand and might not even realize what the cost of the school is and what that will mean. I was lucky because my grandmother worked in banking and made sure I understood and taught me ways to manage this cost and save as much money as possible on school. As far as pros and cons for an online school, I would say the pros are one: the price, they are very affordable. Also the flexibility so you can take classes at your own pace, which opens it up to so many people...oh, and the ability to take the classes from anywhere on the planet. It is so cool to have students from all over the world. A potential con for me would be having to build relationships over the internet. For me, it is not a thing I did really until 2015, (I didn't even have a cell phone until 2012) so I find it a little extra challenging. I think a lot of students today have probably spent their entire lives interacting via the internet, so it is probably very normal for them.

As far as recruiters and supervisors looking at your work, they could care less where you went to school.

Does the type of school you go to factor into getting a job?

No one cares. At Blue Sky, I don't think they even looked at my resume when they hired me. Years later I started talking about how I worked at all these places and they were like “Oh...we thought you came from straight out of school or something?” So a lot of the time they don't know. They just look at your work and that’s all they care about. I’d say the one advantage is—it depends on the kind of person you are—but the connection you make with people, especially in person. For me, it was a lot stronger in person. When I started working here I went to school with someone for only one or two years, but we had known each other in person. We hadn’t spoken since school, but we still had that immediate connection where we recognized each other and knew each other. Compared to the online school where if no one turns on their camera you may not feel like you really know your classmates. As far as the recruiters and supervisors looking at your work, they could care less where you went to school.

Should you consider online animation school even if you went to a four-year university?

I think it’s just going to come down to what your priorities are and what you're comfortable with. If you're going to a traditional four-year school that makes you do everything, you have to spend all your extra time focusing on animation if you want to be an animator or modeling if you want to be a modeler. If you don't do that, just assume you're probably going to have to sign up for AnimSchool after you graduate. There's a lot of stuff you can learn at the four-year schools but if you want to specialize and you don’t focus on it at the four-year schooling then you're probably going to have to take another year doing online animation school. I was too stubborn and just worked on my reel privately. I probably wasted three years that I didn't need to if I had just gone to an online school after graduating. I probably would've gotten better a lot quicker. 

I chose AnimSchool because it's the school I always said I would take if I were to take a school.  I saw what they were producing and I thought, I want my stuff to look like that.

Why did you choose to teach at AnimSchool?

I chose AnimSchool because it's the school I always said I would take if I were to take a school. It really just came down to seeing the work the students were producing. I saw what they were producing and I thought, I want my stuff to look like that. When I was at Blue Sky, I knew a few animators who were teaching there and they only had positive things to say about it. As far as compared to the other schools, I don't know enough about the other schools beyond looking at their reels. I just think the AnimSchool animation that comes out is cooler and better. I like what they do and what the students are producing, so it seems like we’d be a good fit.

What are some of the most important concepts you try to emphasize in your own class that you feel like missed out on in school?

I would say the main thing I try and emphasize in my class is the idea of learning concepts that can be applied to every shot you will animate in the future and not just specifics for a specific shot. I’m not going to teach “here’s how to make an angry face.” Instead, I’ll talk about how I can structure my face to read clearly and look appealing. Of course, I'll go over basics stuff like, “angry brows go down,” but we’re going to spend more time on how to make an appealing face pose that looks good and feels believable. Instead of teaching that a blink is always two frames down and three frames up, I’d say just make sure to get some variety in your blinks so it doesn’t feel mechanical; we’re going to go faster down and slower up.  I’m teaching more conceptual things so that the knowledge can bend and change depending on the need. Sometimes we’re going to have blinks that go up a lot slower, but if they’re going up and down at the same speed, it’ll feel very mechanical. I try to teach things as concepts and ideas, instead of “this is how it's done: step a, b, c” because that’s only going to help you on that one shot instead of down the road on other shots.

Do you need to be good at drawing in order to be a good animator? Do you have a studio art background yourself?

Short answer: no. But I think it can be very helpful. Drawing can provide exercise and practice of a necessary animation skill: critical observation. Anyone who draws in a representative style is required to be highly observant in order to recreate the world around them, and those skills are also essential to animation, but you can develop these skills in other ways as well. Yes, I do have a studio art background; at Ringling your first year is all traditional art. In fact, in addition to animation, I landscape paint (with real paints :)) and do a bit of pottery as well.

How does animating differ between feature film, TV, video games, and VFX? Should you stick to one medium, or is it normal to jump around?

I can only speak for film, TV, and video games because I have not animated on a VFX project. But the basic animation skills are all the same. The main difference is going to be workflow stuff and, of course, speed. So I don't think jumping around is that crazy of an idea, you just have to be willing to accept the change to your workflow to adapt to the production. I would say jump around if you want, but if you don't want to do video games then there is no need to be doing game-related animations. 

If you ask almost everyone in the industry what their favorite project they work on is, it's almost never the coolest film. It's just the one they felt was the most smooth and enjoyable. Once the honeymoon phase of the job wears off, your day-to-day ease will really be essential to your enjoyment of the job.

How important is it to find a studio you get along with versus working at a big-name studio?

If you ask almost everyone in the industry what their favorite project they work on is, it's almost never the coolest film. It's just the one they felt was the most smooth and enjoyable. For me, it was Ferdinand because Carlos and I were just mentally on the same page. I’d just show him something, and he’d say two words and I knew what he meant instantly. Alternatively, there were other people who didn't like the production because they had no idea what he wanted. So it depends on creativity if you have that or not. I’ve had that at other studios where I was struggling so hard to figure out what the heck they want from me and I see these other guys who love it there and are having so much fun because they know exactly what everyone wants. Once the honeymoon phase of the job wears off, your day-to-day ease will really be essential to your enjoyment of the job.

If you're looking for a job that you really connect with and enjoy and don't feel like you're struggling at, just do what animations you like to do and put that on your reel.

What are your biggest demo reel tips?

My tip for demo reels is to just do work you like. Do the work you want to do for your job. Do the style and kinds of shots you want to do and do them well. And then just apply for all the jobs. The people who like your reel are going to be the people who are creatively in the same boat as you, so you’re going to enjoy the job more than if you’re creatively in two different worlds. That’s one thing I was surprised to find out. At Pixar, they make amazing films, but not everyone’s going to like it there. Not everyone's going to like every studio. Some people are going to feel like they fit in better, they work better, fit the style better, connect with the director better at certain studios over others. So for reels, I always recommend putting your best stuff in there, and don’t...well, this sort of contradicts what a lot of people say about tailoring your reel to the job you’re applying for. If you just want a job and you don’t care if you’re going to like it or not, then yes, tailor your reel. But if you’re looking for a job that you really connect with and really enjoy and don't feel like you're struggling at, just do what you like to do and put that on your reel. But definitely try to make sure all your shots are the same quality. I know some supervisors when they watch your reel are only looking for your worst shot and will ignore everything else. The director is thinking that you’re going to give them nothing less than the worst shot, but if they only look at your best shot, they think this may not always be their best work. So some sups like to find the worst shot and base their decisions off of everyone's worst shot on their reel. So don't give them the worst one. Make it hard for them to decide which one is your worst one. 

Aside from the technical skills, what are some soft skills that are essential to being a good animator? For instance, as an artist, can you talk about best practices for communicating with your animation supervisor?

I think it is super important and took me a while to find what works for me. The best thing is to be positive to the feedback and open to ideas.  When you're next to get your notes, sit up in your chair, get your little pad out, and just let them talk and just say “cool….yeah…awesome” and write all the notes down. And if you have any notes to clarify, you can ask. The worst thing you can say is “okay, yeah….but”. Try to avoid saying things like "but". When you say "but" after receiving a note it has the implication that you don't agree with the note. I like to let them say all of their thoughts and then come back and ask questions to make sure I understand everything they have said.

The worst thing you can say when getting notes is "okay, yeah...but".

Another thing I’ve learned is don’t be afraid to get up out of your chair and talk to people. You’re just going to learn from what they have to say. By going up and talking to them, you’re going to see what they’re working on or they might explain something to you or you might all of sudden realize you have a question. By developing some sort of social relationship with the people around you, you will open up doors and opportunities to discuss animation and get help from people. If you just sit in your chair and never get up, you’re never going to get help from anyone else…. or vice versa, helping someone else out will give you a lot and show where you are with your own animation. And that same kind of concept goes for your supervisors as well. I think it is great to make sure you establish a bit of a relationship outside of getting notes from a sup. In animation we are all much more laid back than say an accounting firm, so don't be afraid to have conversations with your sup just like you would with your friend. This can make receiving notes less of a to-do list but more of a discussion between peers, which will be more enjoyable as well as breed better animation.

What was the most unexpected thing you encountered when going from being a student to working professionally at a studio?

That it is a lot less work. When I was a student I stayed up until 2, 3, 4 in the morning and now I'm done at 6pm. Maybe I've been very fortunate with all the studios I've worked at, but over time has never been mandatory. They’d say if you want to do 5 or 10 hours extra a week, you’re more than welcome to, but it's not required. Only a couple instances they’d say, “Do overtime just these couple days we need you to finish this up.” Whereas school it was every day. I was always falling asleep. When I'm finished with work, I'm done and I don't have to think about it until the next day.

How important is it to be a super clean, organized animator? I know some animators animate strictly in the graph editor and keep their keys super clean while others manipulate the rig freely in the viewport and slide keys around without much thought.

Well, I hope it isn't super important because I am not organized at all. For me, if I am thinking of anything besides that image in front of me that is wasted thoughts. Art is not about the tools or the technique; it is about expressing the ideas of the artist. I want to say it's good to be organized, but it feels weird to say that because I'm not organized at all. I don't worry too much about technical stuff because I don't like technical stuff. I think it can be helpful if you’re organized, but my mentality is that if I'm worrying about technical stuff, then that's energy that I'm not using on the image in front of me. And I want to put all my care and thought and concerns into the image in front of me and nothing else. If I'm thinking, well if I do that pose then it kind of breaks the rig, now I don’t have the best pose, and what's more important: breaking the rig or having the best pose? I’m sure some artists in the tech anim department would have a different answer though :)

My mentality is that if I'm worrying about technical stuff, then that's energy that I'm not using on the image in front of me. And I want to put all my care and thought and concerns into the image in front of me and nothing else.

One of the bigger things student animators struggle with is making the jump from stepped to spline? What's the best way to get out of the “floaty phase” and into the polish phase? Does this floaty phase get less time-consuming as you get better at animating?

Ah yes... I actually have a whole lecture about how we can avoid this. If you are working in stepped and want to avoid that terrible first spline floatiness you need to make sure you have enough blocking keys and that they are the correct blocking keys. The computer is stupid. So we need to make sure that the keys we put down give the computer the best information to give us the result we want. So if your animation after hitting spline is very floaty you either need to add in more information (keys) or your information (keys) you gave the computer was not the correct information.

How do you think working in the industry will be in the future, post-COVID?

I think the biggest thing will be the opportunity for people to choose if they work from the office or from home. I hope it is a hybrid, but I think a lot will go back to normal. 

What are some of your favorite activities to do when you need a break from animating and looking at screens?

Oooo, I love breaks! Just ask anyone who has sat next to me and they know I get up from my desk like every hour. Typically the longer I sit in front of the computer the less productive I become, so I always get up take a walk outside or go say hi to a friend, or grab a snack about every hour or two. I think it keeps us more focused. Some people say having a life outside of animation will make your animation better, but I don't know if it will definitely make your animation better. I will say though, if you are not in a good place with your life, it will 100% affect your animation for the worse. Back in the day, I did painting, drawing, sketching... art forms that weren’t animation-related. But now I've started to do some non-art-related things. When you start animating for a while—when you do one thing for a long time—it's good to get out and branch out into different aspects of the world. It can open your mind to new ideas. Just branching out and doing things that aren’t animation or even art can help with your animation by having a broader scope of the world and life. And also, you don't want to get burned out. Going out and doing things that you like outside of animation that doesn't have the same stress as trying to be the best animator ever, can alleviate that potential issue of burnout which is super important if you plan to animate for thirty years.

What’s next for you? Are there any other facets of animation you want to try out or are you happy with animating for now?

I really enjoy animating so I think I will keep animating how I am for the moment. But I have always been amazed by stop motion so maybe one day I will try and make that transition and try and work on a Laika or Aardman film. I also love teaching so maybe more of that too.

Thank you so much for sitting down and chatting with us Scott! If you'd like to see more of Scott's work, click the links below.
Instagram @mcwhinniescott
AnimSchool YouTube
Some of his featured videos include Hand Posing, Eye Mask, Eye Darts, Breakdowns, Anim Polish

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Friday, July 9, 2021

How I Became a Game Animator for AAA Games

We recently had the chance to interview AnimSchool instructor John Paul Rhinemiller and talk to him about his journey from being an animator for feature films to a game developer at Vicarious Visions for the past ten years.  Keep reading to get a taste of what working in the game industry is really like and whether it's the right choice for you.

Tell us your story! What got you into animation?

It’s not something I knew from the start. It’s more a series of events that led me to want to be an animator. I always was into art but never put the two together until I attended McCann Technical High School where I focused half my time on Computer Assisted Drafting. I loved the computer side of things but not so much the mechanical drafting of parts. After high school, I attended a local community college and took an elective course in animation, and the marriage of computers and art for me is what I needed. I never looked back.

Did you always go for games specifically or did you explore films and TV first?

I think I always had the film itch, just like a lot of students do. They get it into their head “Film is the thing that we have to do. If I don't reach film, I am not a success story.” It feels like film is the pinnacle of animation sometimes. In a lot of schools back in the day, a lot of programs were set up like that because the game industry was this weird insular thing. There really wasn’t a lot of exposure to games. So I gravitated towards film in the beginning. I worked as hard as I could to get in, and then worked in film for a few years. It wasn’t until my wife was looking to go back to college that I came across Vicarious Visions in New York. It felt like, “Ok let's go there for 2–3 years while she gets her degree and then I'll go back to film. That’s the plan.” I got there and interviewed, and the environment throughout the interview process was just a breath of fresh air. I got to interview with people from all different disciplines, not just animators, and they all wanted to know how I would collaborate with them. There are just so many more opportunities to collaborate since the teams are so much smaller. Over the years at Vicarious Visions, I learned a lot about being an artist and game developer, not just an animator. It provided this opportunity for growth that I don't know I would've gotten in film because it's so specialized. Sometimes there’s very little room to lift your head up and see what's out there in film, but in games they encourage that. They push you to follow what you're passionate for and want to go after. Even after I shipped a project, I’d think about looking for another job but then I'd think, “The next project looks really great and the studio has been really good to me and I’ve learned so much so why don't I just hop onto the next project?” Before you know it, I’ve been here for 10 years. And I’m not ever going back to film, I’m a game developer now!

Can you talk a bit more about the key differences between animating for video games versus film?

Honestly, the amount you are involved in the entire process with animation in games can be very different from film. I have been able to collaborate with so many departments that it allows me to enjoy being an artist and an animator. The teams are smaller, so even when I interview people now, I’m looking at how their voice is going to impact my team. At a game studio, there can be six animators on a team. When I was at the Rhythm and Hues, we had 90 animators on a team for a short project. My personality is big, and I try to get to know everyone, but at a game studio, you really get to know everyone and you have to work together to solve problems. As an animator you want that quality to be shown, and if there are technical issues, you have to work together to solve them so the rest of the team can be proud of what we ship. You can be involved as much or as little as you want to be. If you want to be heads down and just focus on being a good animator, there’s room for that. If you want to solve technical problems and want to work and collaborate outside of just animation, there's also room for that. We expect animators on our team to have more of an impact and a voice. We really want their voice to shine through, because your perspective is very important to round out our team and help give us the different pieces that come together to help us ship a good project.

A lot of student animators aspire to animate for the big screen. Could someone start off in games and transition to film or vice versa?

I feel like the difference between the quality of animation in film and games is narrowing all the time. This means that the qualities each look for are also narrowing. The foundations are super important as your building blocks. One thing that transfers to both industries is showing a wide range of styles on your reel. One thing that sticks out is many of the studios want animators to think like game developers as well. It’s important to hone your craft but understanding how games get made is super important to continue to push this medium further. With tools and pipelines, knowledge does not always transfer one to one.

Can you elaborate a bit more about what you mean by “think like game developers”?

Game development is a process you have to see in real-time. Cinematics can be isolating when you do large, full-scale movies. When it comes to game animators in general, it's not just about your animations. You have to get it into the game and see the responsiveness of your controller or PC. When you put it in a playtest, they’re immediately talking about how responsive it is, how it feels and what their experience is. And you as an animator have to interpret this and work with designers to make sure that responsiveness not only looks good from a visual standpoint but also plays well with the gamer who’s thinking, “Well this guy isn’t turning fast enough so I can’t get over here fast enough…” There's a level of responsiveness that has to go back and forth with the game and player. When you understand game development, then you can craft and tailor your animations a little bit differently in the beginning. Your approach might be slightly different compared to a shot that’s just going straight onto a screen in a film. I was an animator when I started, but now I'm a game developer first. I know what animation systems it takes to make the animation run well in games. I have to understand game development in order to know how to make the animation shine.

How well versed in video game programs such as Unity and Unreal do you need to be to animate for video games?

It is a plus and we teach some intro and basic setup in our game courses. From my experience, as a junior animator coming in, we like to take into account that new hires will need some guidance and mentoring along the way. Getting experience in an engine will always start to set you apart. As real-time rendering becomes more and more widely used in the industry as a whole, it will only serve you better to get some training.

In your class, you also teach cinematics. In the industry, how often do you animators utilize knowledge about cameras and cinematography?

It all depends on the size of the studio that you work at. The larger teams tend to have layout artists. That doesn’t mean you won’t touch cameras or have a say, but it may not be your primary job. At Vicarious Visions we want our animators to have a good understanding of cinematics as a whole and be  active participants in the development of our story content so understanding the foundations of cameras and cinematography is certainly a plus.

What’s your biggest piece of advice to students?

Two things:

1. Everyone's timelines/journeys are different. If you chat with someone working in the industry, most of the stories on how they got there are different. So stick with it if you are passionate. Someone may land a job right after school and someone else may take a year. That's their journey. You have to continue on that journey and continue to find that passion in order to make it happen. If you continue down that road, continue to be passionate, and continue to put your all in it, you’ll make it into the industry. 

2. It’s easy to get distracted by all the areas within school so FOCUS. The earlier you can figure out what you want to focus on the better off you will be and more practice and iteration you will have under your belt. If you want to model FOCUS on that...if you want to animate, do that as much as possible. There’s plenty of time for you to learn other things afterward, but if you want to get that job, it is very competitive and you need to focus as quickly and as early as possible in your studies.

What are your biggest demo reel tips for those trying to get into the game industry?

Only put your best on there. If that's 2 pieces then so be it. Organizing your reel around consistency and pacing can show really well. Variety! Showing your range to potential employers can help set you apart.

You’ve clearly animated a variety of characters and styles. How do you film references for creatures that don’t exist and make them feel believable, but also have character/personality?

What a great question! Many places I had would bring in animals if possible for us to take time and study. One good way is thinking about 1-2 features that could ground that creature in reality. Talk to your lead or get input from the team and then you have a good starting point for reference gathering. If you can add something that people can connect with it can help make these fantastical creatures feel a little more believable.

How do you use MoCap in your game animation pipeline?

For the first five years I was here at Vicarious Visions, we didn’t use it at all. Since working on the Destiny franchise, we transitioned and have been using a mix of it since. We still feel it’s really important to be a good animator at the core. We look at MoCap as another tool for animation to use. You must have solid foundations to build off of. If we are talking from an execution standpoint, we have lots of resources across Activision. They have a large motion capture space for anything that requires that level of effort that we use from time to time, and we also have an Xsens suit that we use at the studio.

In your class, how do you push your students to create industry-level work?

We focus a TON on iteration and feedback. One of the biggest things I push is Weight, Timing, and Spacing. I feel these are some of the important building blocks to an animator's foundation. Without being able to show this off in your work, it is hard to see past the mistakes. They don’t have to be perfect, but the sooner you understand this the faster you can show the potential you have as an animator to potential studios.

Where should I start if I only have a little bit of animation experience and want to be a game animator?

There are lots of resources out there nowadays but I like to think we have a good veteran group of game instructors here at AnimSchool. We are constantly trying to evolve the curriculum as the gaming industry evolves as well. We need to be agile just like game development in order to help provide the best training to our students. We care about our students and really work to help them succeed with their hard skills as well as their soft skills.

What’s the biggest advantage of taking live classes instead of learning from online tutorials?

The interaction that I have with the students individually and drawing over and being able to explain what's in my brain about animation is so much easier. I can see what's on the page and interpret their animation skillset and give appropriate, individual feedback. They can ask me questions in real-time while we’re going back and forth, and we jam just like we would in a studio. During dailies at a studio, if you don't understand it, then we continue to hammer on it until it clicks. It's not just about draw-overs, we’ll open up the files and I'll do the note, show it to them, and then they’ll go back and do it on their own.  You can listen to or read something, but are you getting enough clarity in order to interpret it in the way you see animation? Everyone understands and sees things slightly differently. We also get to talk about the industry as a whole. Some of the discussions for the first 5-10 minutes of class are about the industry: how you can advance your career or get better at an interview. There's so much I'm trying to give these students in only 11 weeks. We try to inject as much as the other stuff that’s going to get you a job. Your reel is the 70% that’ll get you an interview, but if you go into that interview unprepared, you might not get it. We really try to inject a whole lot more about the industry itself (how to succeed and how to get in), rather than just the skillset. There'll always be time to grow the skillset, but how often do you have the opportunity to ask someone with 20 years of experience questions about the interview process or how to tailor your reel? Those kinds of things are gold that never really get seen in a curriculum.

What kind of person should pursue the Game Animation track?

There’s a lot of stigma that you have to be a big gamer to go into games and that is not true. I was a casual gamer growing up, but I wasn’t a hardcore gamer that knew from day one that’s what I wanted to do. There's a love of animation in this industry just like there is in film. The thing that AnimSchool has done is set up tracks to help you understand the multiple facets of being a game animator. Whether that be cinematics, whether that be motion capture, whether that be gameplay animator. The Game Animation Track gives you a good foundation of touching an engine for the first time, getting your stuff in an engine, and being able to present that work on your demo reel. If you want to see where this industry is going and have a different perspective on how animation can be a part of the community and touch people in a different way, then this is for you. Games are an experience. And there's so much new tech out there that allows us to interact with a community and the people playing our games. Games are still in their infancy as an art, and I think AnimSchool does a great job of capturing that base foundation so that when you get out of school, you’re not completely lost. 

Can you talk about the gender gap that exists in the game industry?

As we continue to develop more young talent and more young gamers, we’ve seen some good growth in the diversity of the new hires we’re getting out of school. However, we definitely need more diversity in games in general, but we also need more females. The thing that this offers is different perspectives. We need those different perspectives in our industry to help create great ideas and good experiences that everyone can enjoy and that represent everybody. Those perspectives are going to help us develop games that people want to play in the future. The gaming industry as a whole has done a better job of being more self-aware, but we have a long way to go. Young female gamers can be part of that change and drive to evolve our industry. It offers a completely different dynamic to our teams and it makes us better. That diversity and inclusion make our games better and just make us all better.

How has working during the pandemic been for you? Do you think video games will shift more towards remote work than it already was?

This is a tough question. While I think we have been successful and very productive, I feel we lose a whole side of our industry that makes it special...the culture. We give it a good try, but trying to inject the fabric of a studio through Zoom boxes will never be the same in my opinion. I feel the collaboration and excitement of being around other creatives can never be replicated from a screen. Part of why I love this industry so much is all of the little interactions and events that happen at a studio that we miss out on when we're remote. I do think that we can strike a balanced approach of hybrid and many studios are, but moving to the extremes of all WFH or all in the office could definitely change moving forward.

What are your favorite games at the moment?

There are two games that have affected me in two different ways. One: The Last of Us 2. I was playing it at the beginning of the pandemic and that story….it felt like an episodic HBO series that I could not wait to pick back up again and see what happened next. And I was interacting with it—I was actually in there—so there were moments that were really tense and I'm gripping the controller super tight and holding my breath. I can’t remember the last time I played a game like that. With technology getting really good and the amount of time and effort those devs put into that game, it was just a really good immersion of story with an experience from beginning to end. There's really not a lot of lag time in there. I really felt engaged the entire time. That one stuck with me and it will for a while. The other one is Spider-Man. It’s the first one that my son and I really played together. I’ve started to slowly age him into games and try to keep it as PC as possible, for as long as possible. But that was the first one that I opened up and he saw me playing it, and for 3-4 months I just let him swing around the city. And that one mechanic was so enjoyable to do; to learn about and to watch. They did such an amazing job of creating the experience of swinging through New York, so I just let him do that. Then we finally started the game and we 100% it. All the missions, all the quests. I can’t tell you the last game I’ve 100% a game! My son has played some of the games that I've made, but this was the first time we were in it together for the journey.

Where do you see yourself going in the future? Games, film, or something new?

Games are my future. I am a game developer first and an animator second. The future of games and how we tell stories to interact with our community is still evolving. It's exciting to be a part of and if I’m lucky I can continue to be a part of this industry for some time.

Level Up in our Game Animation courses taught by industry pros:

Intro to Game Animation | https://lnkd.in/gXc9pta

Instructor Jarrod Showers

Game Animation Pipeline | https://lnkd.in/ghxXh5M

Instructor Seth Kendall

Advanced Game Animation | https://lnkd.in/g4Myfzi

Instructor John Paul Rhinemiller

Learn to be a Game Animator in our next 11-week term at animschool.edu

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

3 Ways to Take Your Animation Above and Beyond Your Reference

Shooting reference is an essential part of the planning phase when animating a shot. It gives the animator an opportunity to step into the character's shoes and fully explore their personality through movements and acting. Studying reference is a key part of how students learn body mechanics because it allows them to experience the movement and timing of a scene firsthand. Over time though, it is easy for animators to fall into the habit of relying on their reference too much. So much that they begin rotoscoping the reference into their shot, frame for frame.  

It is easy for student animators to fall into the habit

of relying on their reference too much. 

So does this mean that you should stop filming reference? Of course not! You still need to do reference in order to try out different acting ideas and provide some kind of foundation for the timing and body mechanics of your shot. The key is knowing when you can steal directly from your reference, and when you can simply ignore your reference. Your reference is a foundation, it is—as the name implies—simply a  reference. It is an inspiration, something to refer back to, but it is not meant to become a carbon copy of your animation. When animators begin rotoscoping their reference, they forget to think about pushing appealing poses, creating stylized breakdowns, maintain smooth arcs, and deciding what’s leading and what’s following. It's these decisions that really make animation an art form and the animator, an artist. 

Below we’ve compiled a few ways you can avoid falling into the habit of rotoscoping and push your animation beyond your reference to make a performance that’s all your own. 

1. Stop putting reference into your viewport.

This is a debatable topic, so it is definitely not for everyone, but we encourage you to try it out. The idea is, that if you put the reference directly into your Maya viewport, there is a greater temptation to copy the poses and the timing of the reference frame for frame. Without the reference sitting in the viewport though, you’re more likely to push the poses and timing of the shot.

Don't stop using your reference though! If your reference is open in another program such as QuickTime or SyncSketch, you can easily frame by frame through it and pick out the poses you want to use. You can even count the frames in between the poses if you want to get the timing in Maya the same as your reference. But isn’t this just rotoscoping, why not put the reference in Maya and save time? By having your reference in a separate window, you will automatically feel less tied to the reference’s poses and exact timing. Instead of animating on autopilot, you’ll become more conscious of how many frames it takes to get from Pose A to Pose B, and therefore more likely to make the timing more your own. 

AnimSchool Student NyGyra Lawson

Nonetheless, if you're still adamant about sticking your reference in the viewport, that’s okay! Many professional animators actually prefer it this way. The key point is to remember that animation is an art and as an artist, you need to make decisions about timing, poses, breakdowns, and all the animation principles, independent of your reference. If you copy the timing of your reference exactly frame for frame to start off, that’s fine! Just be sure to go back, and move those keyframes around to really push the timing before you start polishing. You should also keep in mind that sometime during the late spline phase, it's ok to just turn off your reference. There will be a point when you’ve got everything you could from it, and now it's up to you as an animator to make the animation really shine. 

2. Study the reference in your sketchbook and do a 2D drawing pass of your reference before you even touch the rig. 

If you like drawing then this tip may be great for you. First, observe your reference and try to get a good understanding of the motionwhat’s leading, what’s following, where’s the arc, etc. Once you feel like you understand the reference, pick out your golden poses and some key breakdowns and draw them in your sketchbook or directly on top of your reference (you can do this pretty easily in SyncSketch). 

Now that you have a solid understanding of the reference, draw some variations and try to improve the appeal of your sketches. Try pushing some poses or pulling back on others. You can push the timing of certain movements for exaggeration by changing up the spacing. Experiment with spine reversals, line of actions, and even mouth and eye shapes. 

By doing this, you’re figuring out a lot of the body mechanics and posing before you even get into Maya. Figuring this stuff out on paper is much faster than in Maya, and you do NOT need to be a good artist to use this method. Trying a new pose out in Maya can take 30 minutes to an hour, but you can easily sketch out a stick figure in a few different variations of a pose in a couple minutes. Working in 2D will also help you avoid getting too caught up in the complex 3D rig, and instead focus on appealing graphic shapes and silhouettes for poses. 

They say animation is ultimately 50% planning and 50% animating. Though this planning phase can seem time-consuming, it’ll more than likely be worth it and make your animation not only better but quicker to complete.

Here is an example of some planning thumbnails from AnimShool’s Body Acting Class. 

AnimSchool Student Rhys McKenzie

3. Push the poses in Maya.

This is probably the most obvious way to go beyond your reference: push the poses! 

The biggest things to remember when translating a pose from reference to the rig are line of action, silhouette, and character. Oftentimes, humans aren’t the most elegant creatures and our line of actions can feel a bit disjointed no matter how much we try. This is where you as an animator can come in and make the poses your own. Try and simplify that line of action, in one coherent statement that supports the way the character is feeling. Doing this will not only improve the clarity and appeal of your pose, but it’ll also allow the character’s thoughts and feelings to read better. Improving the silhouette of your character can have a similar effect as well. Ensuring that limbs and hands don’t get lost in a character's body will allow your character’s emotions to be read with clarity. They say that after the eyes, hands are the most expressive part of a human, but if you can’t see the hands because they’re lost in the character’s silhouette, the pose ultimately doesn’t read as clearly as it could.

AnimSchool instructor Garrett Shikuma does a fantastic job of demonstrating some methods to push a character’s pose to be better than the reference. Though Garrett says you can always push your poses, he emphasizes the importance of remembering to make intentional acting decisions while posing your character as well.

We hope you found some of the methods useful. What are some of your best tips for animating with reference? 

Join our online community of 3D artists and animators in our online accredited courses (ACCSC). Apply today at animschool.edu