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 |

Instructor Jarrod Showers

Game Animation Pipeline |

Instructor Seth Kendall

Advanced Game Animation |

Instructor John Paul Rhinemiller

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

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

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Instructor Interview: Koji Tsukamoto

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with AnimSchool instructor and CG modeler, Koji Tsukamoto. Koji is currently teaching Environment Modeling and Intermediate Modeling: Intro to ZBrush at AnimSchool and has worked at DreamWorks Animation as a modeler for the past five years. It was a pleasure to learn more about Koji’s passion for his students and the art of modeling.

Tell us a bit about your journey. How did you get into modeling?

From childhood, I loved building and creating things.  My father worked in the auto industry and would take me to the Detroit auto show.  I became fascinated with car design and dreamt of becoming an industrial designer. My older brother is also a very artistic and creative person, he helped me realize animation was an actual career path. This quickly became my goal, I studied animation at BYU Provo and took courses online through Animschool.  I was determined to become an animator.  But I soon discovered whenever I felt stuck or stressed while animating I would model and sculpt to relax.  So I modeled.

What are some of your biggest inspirations in animation?

Studio Ghibli! I grew up watching Laputa, Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery, etc. I ate it up as a kid.  For most people who wanted to go into animation, they watched a lot of Disney films and thought Oh that’s why I wanted to go into animation. For me, it was Ghibli films. That beautiful storytelling is what made me want to go into animation. I wanted to be part of a story like that. When I was jumping into animation originally,  I was completely clueless about anything. I didn't know who any of the artists were. I just really wanted to do animation. When I  was a little kid I wanted to be a pilot and fly planes and be in the air force. And then I found out I was color blind and was like “Ahh I can’t do it!”. I remember the day I found out I couldn't be an airforce pilot was a little like Little Miss Sunshine. 


Do you think it is necessary to be able to draw or sculpt with clay in order to be a good modeler?

I always loved drawing.  I wasn’t amazing, but I loved it. Traditional sculpting, painting or drawing definitely helps enlarge one’s understanding of form, design, and style. But it’s not necessary. I’ve never really touched clay. I wouldn’t call myself very good at clay sculpting at all. So yeah I’d say you don't need it. It’s something you should study if you are interested because any design knowledge helps. But starting off it's not necessary to have that down. 3D art is like anything else. If you practice, you’ll figure it out.

Can you elaborate on your time learning at AnimSchool versus learning from YouTube tutorials and at a four-year university.

BYU (Brigham Young University) is a great school. For me though, I knew I wanted to get into modeling, but there weren’t any teachers who specialized in the technical side of modeling. Honestly, the reason why I started going to AnimSchool really was that I lacked confidence. I was unsure if what I was doing was correct. And even watching YouTube—there are so many YouTube videos—half of them are not good. Maybe they were good at the time, but now they're outdated. I just wasn't very confident whether I was modeling things correctly. 

So I was emailing artists. That's something I recommend doing: finding artists that you admire in the industry and try to reach out. If they don't respond then they’re just busy. But if they do respond then that’s awesome, right? I was lucky there were two modelers who responded to me and gave me some feedback.

I felt I needed a little bit more in-depth feedback than that, so I went to AnimSchool where I could learn from teachers who I knew specialized in modeling and could let me know whether I was doing it right or not. When I was taking my courses, a lot of my teachers asked me why I didn't skip ahead to the later classes. And yeah, I probably could've skipped ahead, but for me, it was a confidence-building experience. There were small things here and there that I didn't know, but really, the biggest thing for me was to see them model and see them confirm that what I was doing was correct, and that helped me become more confident in what I was doing.

How does environment modeling differ between feature film, TV, video games, and VFX?

A lot of the differences are technical or found in the level of detail. The budget, available software, and hardware all affect how one models. VFX and TV are more time-limited and some of the detailing will be baked maps or skipped for surfacing.  Video games rely even more so on baked detail because of the needs of real-time rendering. I believe they’re all pretty similar though. I think the biggest difference between video games and film and TV is style. If there’s a studio you like, focus on that style and that’s how you’d get into it. Like if you want to go to Pixar or Dreamworks, don't go super realistic VFX style. It’ll be hard for them to tell if you can make models in their style. Definitely tailor your stuff to what you want to do.

Can you talk a bit more about the styles you teach in your modeling class?

In my environment class, I sort of let them do whatever they want. The scale of their model and design they pick determines how they model it. I had a student, Shanté Knott, who did this Paris-steampunk scene (design by Bogdan Marica). That scene was really large scale, so we modeled that scene how they would model it in video games: very low poly with a lot of bake maps on it. We went that route because if she modeled all those details to feature film level that’d be way too hard on her computer and it’d be way too large of a scene file. In my environment class, I try to tailor it towards what my students want to build. My class is pretty flexible. A lot of the time, they have questions about things I normally don't teach, and sometimes I'll take part of that class time to cover that information even if it's not part of the curriculum. If that's the kind of knowledge they want and I feel like that's going to help them become a better modeler, then I want them to have that information.

How does your modeling process differ from project to project? 

Every show is different. The style and shape language the Production Designer and Art Director’s aim determine the process. There are just so many different styles. On Boss Baby, it was all ridiculously straight lines and sharp edges. I had to go back and fix so many models because the director wanted things so sharp you could cut your hand on it. But then you have other films, like Trolls World Tour, where everything was soft and round and felt like miniatures. The funny thing with How to Train Your Dragon 3 (HTTYD) is that I could get away with so much. With rocks and trees you could make a mess. A lot of it was covered with moss and dirt and foliage. Every film is very different. It's definitely a process we go through with all the other departments. That’s one thing that makes DreamWorks really fun for me. All our films have very different styles. I get to jump around and try my hand at very different styles. Each time I switched from one film to another, I had to kind of warm-up and get used to working in that style.

How do you create stylized sets that still feel based in reality? Do you have any advice on how to best combine inspiration from the real world with stylized design ideas?

#1 Have a clear easy to read silhouette.  If you blackout the shape and can’t recognize what the object is, you are probably doing something wrong.  I like to build the basic structure based on reality (maybe simplified), and then push and pull from there. Don’t be afraid to go too far, play around.  I like to place layers of added detail on a blendshape.  That way I can pull back to find a balance. #2 Big, medium, and small.  Having repeated shapes and patterns in your object is fine, it can actually be really great, but when they are the same size it can become noisy, rigid, and uncomfortable.  Change up the size, have areas of rest (less detail) to contrast areas of higher detail.  #3 I like to see environments the way I see characters, they have personality and history.  Think about the weathering they face, the maker (if it's man-made), and how people treat and interact with it.

In your class, how do you guide your students to grow and work towards industry-level models?

What I try to help my students do is capture the essence of the art piece. I really iterate over and over in my class that these environments aren't just props or a set-piece. Think of these set pieces as characters. They have their own story. They have their own life. They have their own history that occurred to them. One of my favorite things I like to show my students when they first start off is stairs: really old, worn-up stairs. You can see exactly where people keep on stepping on these stairs, there’s a history. You can see people always walk in the center, always step in these two spots. You can see this indent where their feet lay and when it rains the water probably flows through. When you're adding wear and tear into the model, when you’re adding character, you have to think: what’s affecting this piece? What’s rubbing up against it? We don't want it to feel artificial? We want it to feel organic and real, like it's experienced stuff. When I have my student take a concept piece, I want them to really nail that concept piece, but I also want them to add more to it. To make it feel like not just a copy of it, but an actual place where you can see things occurring at. You can feel it's something people are actually living in and interacting with. That’s one thing I want to help my students do: to make a piece that tells a story and draws people and makes them wonder what this piece is about.

I also try to help my students get the tools they need to make their pieces as efficiently as possible. I could show them the slow way of making something. Like laying down the tiles of a roof, piece by piece and duplicating it, but one of the skills you need when you work in the industry is that you need to be able to make things fast. As much as I'd love having a lot of time to make things perfect, there’s a deadline. I try to give my students the tools to get their work done fast. I just noticed the video posted of me teaching MASH. I try to let my student learn tools that are outside the basic modeling toolset. I want to give them access to and knowledge about tools that are outside of what most people know so they can be competitive in the industry.

Aside from the technical skills, what are some soft skills that are essential to being a good 3D modeler? For instance, as an artist, can you talk about best practices for communicating with your art director?

It’s very different depending on the art director. I’ve had art directors who have been like, “Hey you can email me directly, just send me screenshots and I’ll do draw overs,'' and I’ll have other directors who are like, “No don’t do that, email the production people and they’ll email it to the art director.” What I would do is make sure you’re writing it down. I have a bad habit of just looking and thinking about things and then later I think Shoot, I should’ve asked that. It’s good to write your own questions and notes that the art director gives you. That way you’re sure you don't miss anything. It also shows the art director that you care and you’re paying attention. It’ll make them feel more confident that you’ll get it done. Just create a good impression and find ways where you can create a good relationship of trust. It's also good to experiment and try things. Don't just do what's given to you, try to make things better. Don't go crazy though! Just add a little bit to it that you think will improve it. It's best to make the project look as best as you can. But yeah overall, teamwork, friendship, communication are big.  It makes working much more fun and enjoyable.

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

Open up, ask questions, show your work to the world.  Reach out to artists you admire, and studio recruiters.  If your work isn’t the best, that’s okay.  Getting feedback is the best way to grow and improve.  Showing progress is the best way to impress. I always felt like I needed to do things myself. Don't do that—reach out and ask for help. The biggest reason you need to do that is people need to know who you are. It's fine if you’re introverted, but you need to step out of your bubble to make it in the industry. You need to introduce yourself. You need to show your work. That’s really what animation is: showing who you are and telling a story. If you want to be a part of that, you need to show you can do that. Show that you have a story to tell, you have amazing taste in art and style. It's ok to be a quiet person but definitely reach out to artists you like and recruiters. If you have good things and show it...maybe not everyone will remember you, but some may. And when opportunities come around maybe they’ll reach out to you. 

How has your experience been working remotely? Do you think in the future you’ll have to live in the same city as the studio?

Well….I think I’m going to have to go back to LA eventually. So...still expensive. It’s been nice working remotely. Just being able to spend more time with family and take care of my kids. At work, I’m stuck in that timeframe when I'm at work. I’ll be there for nine hours and then I leave. At home when I feel distracted, I can take a break and put in my hours more effectively. I’ll go back and work on it longer. Sometimes the hours I work at home aren’t exactly the timeframe I normally work (it's a little later) but I feel like I'm being more productive with my time. What's cool about modeling is that working remotely has not really affected me. I have my computer. I can do all my work from here. I know there are some departments that have struggled to work from home, such as surfacing and vfxs. They have their own technical issues that come up from not being able to use their computer. They have to work remotely controlling their computer at work.

How do you think working in the industry will be in the future?

What’s interesting is that Netflix, prior to the pandemic, was doing a sort of hybrid working situation where people would come in for meetings and some people work from home part of the week. There’s been talk at my company whether we might be working hybrid as well... where we come in some days and work from home other days. And that sounds really nice to me. Working completely remotely sounds nice too so I can live in a cheaper place but it is nice to see people’s faces. I do really miss a lot of my co-workers.  Working in the studio, it is nice to just be able to turn around to the guy sitting next to me and ask questions. Now you have to send a chat online and hope someone sees it. Another thing I miss is the DreamWorks campus, it is really beautiful...and there's free food….and free soda fountains. Yeah...I miss all that a lot, actually.

Where do you see your career going in the future? Are there any other facets of animation/3D modeling you want to try out?

I would love to continue being a simple modeler, maybe eventually take a position as a lead or supervisor.  I love it at DreamWorks, but video games are interesting to me because software-wise they’re really ahead. Being able to render and do things in real-time is just amazing. There’s a lot of new things out there that keep popping up and it's too many for me to really get into all of them, honestly. At DreamWorks, up until HTTYD 2, everything was NURBS modeling. So a lot of the models in HTTYD 2 were still NURBS. When I got to HTTYD 3,  a lot of my work was converting NURBS to poly. Modeling is always changing. I’m always going to have to be learning. I don't know what modeling is going to look like in the future, but modeling is what I'm interested in and what I want to keep doing as long as I can. 

That’s one thing I really love about teaching is that it forces me to keep learning new things. When I’m teaching I have to do the process over and over in front of my students and that forces me to retain it and really understand how these new tools and processes work.

Thank you so much for your time Koji! If you'd like to see more of Koji's work, follow the links below.

Instagram: @tsukachan

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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Top 10 Tools and Plug-Ins Essential for Maya Animators

We can all agree Maya is quite a remarkable program. From creating particle simulations to modeling a character, Maya can do just about anything in CG. Maya was clearly built for a lot of different artists, but not for any one of them specifically. As a character animator, Maya can serve most of your needs, but the program wasn’t built for character animators specifically, so doing simple tasks such as checking arcs or creating parent constraints can get complex and time-consuming. Lucky for us though, artists around the world have created numerous plug-ins, scripts, and tools to help Maya animators out. Below we’ve compiled a list of some of our favorite tools that will help make Maya a happier place to animate and speed up your animation workflow. The best part: a majority of the tools we list are completely free to download today.

1. AnimBot | Subscriptions starting at $60/year (Free for current AnimSchool students)

First and foremost, the plug-in professional and student animators alike swear by: AnimBot. Tailored specifically for animators, AnimBot is filled with 150 tools that make animating faster and easier. Some of its notable tools include the tween machine, retiming tools and selection sets. It is an essential plug-in for any Maya animator and absolutely worth the cost. To keep animators from getting overwhelmed by the myriad of tools, there are pop-up gif tutorials built into AnimBot that make it quick and easy to find out what any of its 150 tools do.  


2. ZV Parent Master | Free

If you’ve ever felt lost in the world of Maya constraints - fret no longer! ZV Parent Master is a plug-in designed to make constraining objects simple and painless. With a few simple clicks, you can attach, detach and then reattach an object to a new object with ease. Retiming your attachments and detachments are as simple as shifting a couple keys, and for more complicated scenes, ZV Parent Master also has a colored timeline to visually show you what to and when an object is constrained. Currently offered for free, this tool is a must-have for animators.


3. bhGhost | Free

One thing many 3D animators forget is that despite the fancy 3D models that can be tumbled around freely in space, 3D animated shots are viewed on flat 2D screens. Ultimately, you are animating for the camera. In this way, classic 2D hand-drawn animation isn’t very different from 3D animation. With this in mind, tracking arcs and spacing on a 3D character can seem complicated compared to 2D drawings, where the spacing is obvious. bhGhost helps us bridge this gap by creating a way to transform your 3D model into a simple outline to help track spacing and timing. With this plug-in, you select your character's geometry, or whatever you want to track — whether it be a hand, a foot, or the entire character — and you ghost it. What sets bhGhost apart, is that it doesn’t simply onion skin your entire geometry. Instead, it creates an outline that reads as 2D to make it look like you're tracking a simple drawing instead of a complex, 3D rig. The plug-in allows you to change line thickness, color, and even add sphere trackers to the geometry to see parts of the body as a simple bouncing ball to track spacing. If you find that you have trouble tracking arcs and spacing with only your eye in Maya, bhGhost is definitely worth a download.


4. World Space 2 | $15

World Space 2 is a set of advanced animation tools for manipulating animation and switching between world, local, and parent spaces. First off, this tool is yet another way to constrain objects to each other. In this case, you put child objects into parent space and the tool will create temporary controls for you to animate with. Once you’re done, you can simply bake down the animation and have complete control over your character's original controls again. In addition, utilizing World Space 2 to put part of a character, such as an arm or head, into world space is a great way to do a final polish pass on animation since controlling how an arc will look to the camera in world space is much easier than in object space. In world space, you can fine-tune an arc by translating the head or limb more precisely. World Space 2 also includes a number of other features that allow you to create simple on-the-fly rigs for props, manipulate which channels you want space switching on, in addition to tools for creating paths and copying animation. 


5. AnimSchool Picker | Free

The AnimSchool Picker allows you to select and control components within Maya, just like the pickers they use at the big studios. With the AnimSchool Picker, animators can easily select rig controls without the clutter of NURBS curves controllers in the viewport. There’s ample opportunity to customize your picker from colors, names, sizes, and alignment. Navigating the picker is simple and allows users to zoom, pan, and click and drag to select multiple controls at once. In addition to controllers, the picker can be used to select geometry and other components in your scene.  Once you’ve created your custom picker, save it and reuse it for other characters by simply changing the namespace. The best part is that the AnimSchool Picker is free to anyone! I repeat you do NOT need to be an AnimSchool student to use this picker, however, students receive the perk of being able to use a number of pre-made AnimSchool Pickers included with their character rigs.


6. AnimPolish | Free (Basic Version)

Most professional studios have the luxury of a technical animation department. These are the people responsible for hair and cloth simulations, in addition to smoothing out any kinks when the rig needs to be pushed beyond its own boundaries in order to hit an extreme pose or make a point of contact feel like real flesh instead of crashing geometry. Unfortunately, as student animators working on personal projects at home, we don’t have this luxury. That’s where AnimPolish comes in. This plug-in offers a set of artist-friendly deformation tools to help add that extra polish and believability to their animation. With AnimPolish, you first export your animation so it is cast geometry. Then, using its tools, you can sculpt, adjust, and animate the geometry using a set of intuitive tools to fix any clothing clipping or crashing geometry, push poses for smear frames, or deform the skin in places where it comes into contact with other geometry. This is a great free tool if you're looking to bring your work to that next level of polish.

7. FCM_Hider | Free

We’ve all been there before. Awkwardly holding our hand up to our computer screen to block out the arms of a character so we can check if the body animation is working without being distracted by the other limbs. Or trying to add the rig's geo to a display layer but for some reason toggling the visibility button isn't doing anything. Well, there’s no need for that nonsense any longer! This tool gives animators a simple, quick way to hide parts of a character in order to focus on certain body parts. This is a great tool to ensure the body and root of the character are polished and moving properly without being distracted by the character's limbs. With FCM Hider, adding controls and geometry to a selection set is simple, and the easy-to-identify icons make turning parts of your character on and off a breeze. 

8. Convert Rotation Order | Free

Rotation order is something most student animators may not even know is an issue. You click E, the rotate gimble appears, then you click and drag that blue circle with the intention to rotate solely in the Z-axis, but when you check the channel box or the graph editor, you notice the X values changed as well. What’s happening? This is a small issue but becomes a problem when trying to polish rotations in the graph editor and the curves aren’t affecting the rig how you expect. You may also run into this issue after running the Euler filter to fix gimbal lock. This rotation order issue is further explained HERE. Unfortunately, you can’t simply switch rotation orders mid animation natively through Maya. However, animator Morgan Loomis has come up with a script to switch rotation orders while preserving animation. The ability to freely convert rotation orders with this plug-in will and allow you to polish curves in the graph editor with more accuracy. (If you’re still a bit lost and want to further understand this issue, AnimSchool instructor Justin Barrett explains Maya’s gimbal rotation HERE. Gimbal rotation, as opposed to object or world rotation space, is a more accurate representation of what rotation orders are.)

9. Studio Library | Free

As the name implies, Studio Library allows animators to create a library of poses and animations. This tool makes reusing character poses, cycles, and lip-sync poses throughout a scene simple and helps speed up the process of blocking in poses. You can build upon and blend between different poses within your library to ensure your poses are still unique and not repetitive. Studio library also gives you the ability to create selection sets, mirror poses, and utilize shared pose libraries. If you’re looking to speed up your animation process and work with a pose library, Studio Library is definitely worth looking into.

10. Aaron Koresell Scripts | Free

Lastly, Aaron Koresell offers a collection of free scripts aimed at Maya animators that help fill in some of the gaps in Maya and improve your animation workflow. Created back in 2007, these tools are still very useful, however, a number of these are now available through AnimBot. Nonetheless, it is still worth giving his collection a look, especially since they are completely free, unlike AnimBot. To name a few, Koresell has scripts that will allow you to insert a key without changing animation curves, delete redundant keys to make the jump from stepped to spline more manageable, and toggle on and off image plane visibility. Since these are all Mel scripts, they can easily be made into buttons or hotkeys for easy access as well.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Maya Tools 101: Retime Your Shot

As an animator, learning how to retime your keys in a shot is an absolute must. If the character is moving too fast, you need to add frames. If the character is moving slow, you need to remove frames. Before you know it, you are retiming your keys left and right. There are various ways to retime your keys depending on the situation. 

Maya Timeline

The most common way of retiming keys is to use the default Maya timeline. 

Moving One Key

If you want to just move one key on your timeline, this is the easiest way to do it.
Left Mouse Button + Shift to select the key.
Left Mouse Button/Middle Mouse Button to move it.

Moving Multiple Keys

If there is a section of your shot that you want to move, you can select multiple keys together of that section to move those together.

Left Mouse Button + Shift to select the key.
Left Mouse Button/Middle Mouse Button to move it.

Make sure you are moving the keys by clicking on < >, anywhere else and it would deselect the keys.

Resizing The Keys

If there is a section of your shot that you think is overall taking a lot of frames, you can select that section and then resize it by making it shorter.
Left Mouse Button + Shift to select the key.
Left Mouse Button/Middle Mouse Button to move it.

However, this creates a problem of having keys midframe Like this.

Midframe keys create a lot of problems in animation and rendering so make sure your keys are exactly on frames like 12.0, not 12.34.
To deal with this issue, you have to snap your keys often manually.

Left Mouse Button to select the key.
Right Mouse Button to open the options menu.
Left Mouse Button on Snap.

Even after the snap, sometimes the keys have issues in graph editor with tangents so it is extremely important to use this one with caution.

Graph Editor

If you are an animator who uses graph editor a lot, selecting keys and moving those must have become part of your muscle memory by now. I for one am so used to moving keys in GE that I could not even recall how I was doing it. I had to do it slowly to make these gifs. 

Left Mouse Button + Drag to select keys.
Middle Mouse Button + Shift to move the keys.

The shift key helps you to move keys horizontally (0 degrees) and vertically (90 degrees) from the position of the key. You cannot move keys diagonally. This helps you to preserve the value of the keys that otherwise get changed and can cause a headache.

See! Values of the keys get changed. Better use Shift.

Dope Sheet

Not many animators use the dope sheet which is a shame because it is pretty dope (get it?). The dope sheet looks like this.

It shows all the keyed objects on the left side and their keys on the right side. It gives a very clear picture of the whole shot in terms of frames and makes it easy to move those without messing up any value or tangent arrangement of the keys.
Look at the following .gif! So neat...

Left Mouse Button on DopeSheet summary
Middle Mouse Button +Drag to move keys.

However, the dope thing is that you can move frames of one object on its own as well. Like this...

This is not all, you can move selected frames of objects you want, as well.

Left Mouse Button + Drag to select keys
Middle Mouse Button to move.

You should definitely try using the dope sheet more.

Mel Scripts

Here are the two most basic scripts for retiming keys:

timeSliderEditKeys addInbetween;

timeSliderEditKeys removeInbetween;

If you want to add more frames between your keys, this is the easiest way. 

Click the Left Mouse Button to add frames to your heart's content, but let's not go overboard alright? 

And the same goes for removing the frames from your timeline.

Happy Animating!

If you want to get started in Maya, check out our class Introduction to Maya at
Visit our Youtube channel for more animation tips. 

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