Games to Film and Around Again
Cameron Fielding
Issue: Volume 36 Issue 3: (Mar/Apr 2013)

Games to Film and Around Again

Animation has always been an essential part of the movie experience; in fact, movies would not exist at all without the convenient truth that persistence of vision allows us to perceive still images as movement when played in rapid succession. Movement is so intrinsically related to movies that the American term "movie" is directly derived from the noun "movement."

Conversely, early video games existed without the need for animation. The game of chess, which was one of the first games ever to be written for a computerized system, does not require animation in order for the player to understand what is happening, but just an occasional refresh of the screen to update the new positions of the pieces. Computerized, text-based adventure games were also popular for more than two decades starting in the 1970s, requiring a refresh of the screen when absolutely necessary. Such a low "frame rate" could not realistically be described as animation in the conventional sense.

Persistence of vision and frame rate, however, only serve to highlight some of the science behind animation. The real discussion lies in animation as a form of art, which is where the unique capabilities of the medium really shine.

To recall movies, such as any of the Disney classics, and compare them to a video game favorite, such as Street Fighter, requires the clarification of the similarities in their core approach to animation. It is, of course, with the medium used to create the animations where we start to see the differences. With the 2D animated feature, the scenes were animated with a pencil and paper, whereas early games that started to introduce character animation were created pixel by pixel and required the storage of these individual digital drawings in a strip of "sprites." Video games have also been able to leverage the process of procedural animation essentially from their inception; the wildly popular Pong used such an animation system to drive the movement of the ball and the paddles around the screen.

Special effects and feature animation generally did not use any procedural animation at the time of early video game development. And for the most part, we see a clear split between the stop-motion character animation techniques and practical methods used in abundance until the mid-1990s to create any number of effects on screen for movies. Conversely, that has never really been fully utilized by the video game industry.

Converging Course

Despite the fact that movie production had an almost 100-year head start over video games, the two have finally started to dramatically converge when we speak specifically about animation and the methods used to create it. With the development of new types of 3D games - notably starting with Doom in 1993, and then soon after with polygonal-based true 3D games such as Quake in 1996 - mainstream video game development quickly migrated from using 2D paint packages and sprite strips to 3D content creation packages, such as 3D Studio Max (the Discreet predecessor of Autodesk's 3ds Max).

Strangely enough, despite advances as early as the late-'70s, it took until 1993, with the incredibly successful Jurassic Park, to convert the movie business to using 3D computer graphics for authoring the majority of character and VFX-based animation. Largely attributed to this advancement was the availability of relatively cheap computer systems that afforded game developers and hobbyist animators the ability to use software that had, until that point, only really been accessible by the movie special effects industry.

Today, the process of creating a character animation for a mainstream 3D game is almost identical to that of a 3D character for a multimillion-dollar movie production -
the only difference being the visual fidelity. The articulation of a character via the rigging process is often done using identical software - this holds true for the animation itself, as well. In fact, the advancements in 3D computer graphics software, such as Autodesk Maya and 3ds Max, has allowed authoring of almost every visual element in both film and game content; modeling, shading, lighting, and procedural effects can all be generated on these platforms.

One of the key differences at this time is the method used to render images to the screen, with games generally using real-time technology and generating visuals on the fly, and movies using high-end renderers like Pixar's RenderMan, which generally take much longer but result in much higher quality. The boundaries that define this difference are even starting to blur, with many games also incorporating non-real-time rendered cinematic sequences into their products for story exposition, and technological advances dramatically increasing the quality of real-time rendered visuals.

I am an animator who has been fortunate enough to work in both these exciting industries since 2001. Originally from the UK, I have worked at some of the most respected film and game development studios in the world, including Ubisoft Montreal, Industrial Light & Magic, DreamWorks Animation, and currently Valve Corporation in Bellevue, Washington. As such, I can offer insight into the similarities animators can expect in their day-to-day experiences in either of these mediums.

Animation Knowledge

Animation is driven by the same set of core guidelines regardless of what the animation is being created for, so the skill set required when you look at animation purely as an art form is the same across both games and movies. Understanding what specialized animation knowledge to apply to a situation and how to best execute that for the product comes with experience. It's important to not get too swept up in technology and remember that a group of men figured this stuff out in the early 1930s, and their discoveries have laid the foundation for hours upon hours of successful storytelling. It is true that video games, in particular, expose and often exploit these apparent advances in technology, but the role an animator plays on a production is the same across these two fields: to compel the audience to want to see more.

In a movie, that is done by selecting acting choices which make the characters believable, allowing the audience to trust what they are watching and to empathize with those characters. In a video game, the animation needs to be unobtrusive and reactive to the player's input, allowing the person to become immersed in the experience, yet at the same time, it must perform the same storytelling function that would be expected from a movie. Many games now are trying to create more opportunity for animators to create these compelling experiences by entering the player into scenarios wherein they can see characters act and behave in a similar fidelity as they would in an animated movie, bridging the kind of animation created by artists even closer together.

The release of DreamWorks Animation's Madagascar 3 this past summer included a new character named Gia that I led throughout the production. Working with Gia was very satisfying and incredibly challenging. In a movie framework, the animator needs to understand the role of the character in the story and how to best express that through animation. It's also equally important to make the character entertaining while successfully portraying its arc progression. That meant a lot of groundwork with early shots, getting feedback from the directors, and trying to create a mutual understanding about who she was and how she would act in certain circumstances. These were often done with video reference that I would act in myself and then record, and later show during the dailies as part of the blocking process. The key thing we were trying to accomplish was a character that the audience could relate to, but at the same time, give her a bit of spice and keep her unique.

Back in 2008 when I worked on Turok for the Xbox 360, I had a similar challenge with the enemy Raptor characters, but the requirements and execution were quite different. We needed the player to really be afraid of these things and be satisfied when they were able to kill one. A lot of different animations were tested for the same idea, such as alternate versions of the same attack and multiple deaths. There was also an extensive collaboration with engineering to figure out exactly how a player could shoot a Raptor so we could have different animations to show reactions from different weapons or from different directions. There were no direct dailies sessions to review the work that was done; rather, it was play-tested as much as possible by different people. We really just wanted to have the Raptors be clearly identifiable and the player excited and challenged each time he or she met one. However, you couldn't say there was any real story arc that we tried to create for them via the animation.

Despite using similar or identical software, such as Maya, across many animation studios and game developers, there is still a strong existence of proprietary systems, particularly at some of the older feature animation studios, including Pixar's Menv (Marionette) and Dream­Works' Emo. These systems generally exist to support specialized character rigging pipelines that were developed before the mainstream availability of commercial software, but also to support proprietary functionality and to provide ownership over the authoring software for the companies in question. These systems are relatively rare, however, and well-established companies, such as ILM and Weta Digital, use Maya to author the majority of their character rigs and animation with notable success.

My time at ILM was made considerably more successful because I had been using Maya for approximately seven years for game development before I started at the studio. It was a natural transition from game development because the essential workflow of Maya, its interface, and its programming language were still the same. Essentially, the requirements of the work at ILM were vastly different from previous game work, but I knew the methods that were needed to produce them. Following ILM, I was fortunate to use DreamWorks' Emo on a number of feature animation productions. Emo software required an entirely different execution of my animation knowledge, leaning more toward a traditional 2D drawing-based approach to animating. This switch in technique was somewhat a symptom of the requirement to show progression of a shot to a director, but was very closely tied to the working framework of the Emo software. I strongly believe that Emo taught me how to think through a shot, and made me a much stronger animator.

Where the game industry tends to differ substantially from feature-film production is with delivery of the animated content - integrating that content into a game. This is usually done through proprietary systems and changes substantially from studio to studio. Animators are usually required to set up move trees that describe how animations blend from one to the other based on circumstances in the game or player input, but also they have to contend with far more complex configurations, such as attributing elements that are controlled dynamically by the game engine, including cloth or inverse-kinematic controllers. On the whole, these systems tend not to be dramatically complex, yet they are continually emerging and change considerably based on the kind of game being created and the kind of animation required for the game.

Animation as a Career

With the immense popularity of animation training available today, there are more and more animators entering the job market and looking directly to film and game development for their careers. Both seem to offer wonderful opportunity to the new animator.

The games business has become well known for employing multiple teams of animators on permanent contract positions to fill the requirements of the project. Traditionally, game animation has served as a good way for inexperienced animators to quickly progress their skill set, as the products generally tend to call for manageable cyclic animation that allows the artist to concentrate on the artistic fundamentals and get good at what really matters early on. Being active in an environment where animation technology is developing exponentially also exposes animators to different approaches to creating content and vastly different requirements for that content, which would rarely be encountered in traditional feature animation context.

Positions for film and visual effects animators generally have been considered harder to secure because of a perceived need for experience with acting scenarios or complex choreography sequences. Due to the nature of character animation in movies and the need for acting, this is generally true; however, there are also clearly fewer seats available in the feature-film industry compared to the games business. It is also important to mention that the movie business and VFX industry tend to be clustered in the western US, particularly in California, which is contrary to the games industry, which offers more opportunity across the US and in Europe.

I started my career at a small game development studio in Manchester, England, and have since worked in Canada and the US. I was lucky to have landed a good job right out of university. I had received a degree in graphic design, which I was terrible at, but I had managed to somehow create a short animated film that won a national competition as part of my course. That helped me a great deal with getting started in the business. Going straight into games was perfect, as I could develop my basic understanding of animation and also had plenty of opportunity to expand my technical knowledge of Maya's programming language.

Afterward, I worked in Canada for a number of years and then was driven by a desire to work on visual effects or animated features in the US. It took a good few years to get the experience to animate to a level of fidelity required for the big screen, a lot of which I had to do in my own time, but it was established by a strong footing in the principles of animation and a solid technical knowledge I had acquired from the gaming industry over the years.

What appears to be common in both industries is a tendency to specialize in either film or video game development, despite the bridging of the two by many commonalities regarding the practice of animation. This could be attributed on an obvious level to the notion that people merely choose the career path they prefer, or possibly by the kind of skills learned in one industry not necessarily translating efficiently to the other. Generally speaking, animators working in the video game industry start off their careers in that industry and have decided to stay; and likewise, with feature animation, many animators either come from a 2D background or are part of the new wave of talent hired right out of the online animation schools.

Obtaining considerable working experience in both these professions is uncommon. There are many reasons for this, both from a professional standpoint and a personal one. My dream, since I was young, was to animate movies, and starting in the games business was a great way to realize that. I feel that feature studios can have a hard time reviewing and appreciating the kind of animation that is created for games, so it can be tough to break into the movie industry without thinking strategically about what you choose to work on or complete as a personal project at home.

Because of this, there are probably many good and perfectly able animators who want to work in film but simply don't have the suitable content needed for their demos. However, as mentioned before, there are many factors (like types of employment offered to animators) that can dramatically affect long-term decisions - the games business is fairly notorious for paying respectable salaries for full-time, permanent positions. Conversely, the feature animation and VFX industry often offers work on a contract basis that can place a huge question mark on the availability of future work. Schedules and the amount of time required for a project also vary between the two, despite the fact that both industries will inevitably have their "crunch" times. Even so, it is commonly accepted that the movie industry is more demanding in this area due to the sheer quantity of work expected in considerably short time frames. Technical hurdles perceived by feature or VFX animators considering a switch to video game development are also big deterrents.

Viva la Difference

The quality of animation across these two industries is also converging at a notable rate. As modern console and PC gamers start to ask for more and more depth from their gaming experiences, it is becoming less successful for developers to commit to simple game characters, like Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog, to deliver their audience's experience. Modern games more frequently require the illustration of rich back-stories and detailed character interactions, such as those in the Mass Effect series or similarly with the recent release of Max Payne 3.

This is less of a problem within the handheld and mobile sectors of the game market (at least for now), where gamers generally are not looking for the detailed play experience, but rather something to occupy a short time span, while more traditional games accommodate this very successfully. People, particularly students, often ask me which industry is harder to animate for. It's a valid question with game animation becoming richer over the last decade, but I don't think I've ever been able to give a reasonable argument either way. The general notion is that feature animation is harder because of the fidelity required, and it is true that the bar is set very high indeed.

But on the flip side, that kind of animation is a lot more predictable and generally an easier medium in which to solve problems. You could say animation is like riding a bike: It takes a long time to figure it out, but eventually it becomes second nature, and you then have the bigger problem of figuring out where you should go. For feature animation, that gets reflected by how you decide on your acting choices, your understanding of the story, and how to better the movie with each shot you do - not to mention the persistent back-and-forth iteration and change that is a key part of the animator/director relationship.

On the other hand, game animation is a constant case of shifting goal posts. Every project is so dramatically different, and not just artistically, but technically too, and it takes considerable effort to figure out how to get an animation in the game to feel satisfying and rewarding to the player without the person really noticing that it's an "animation" and pulling them out of the experience.

I also am a strong believer that a good cycle, be it a walk-run, laugh, teleport, or whatever, can be one of the most difficult things to get right, particularly when you never know what angle people will see it from.

When discussing the approaches to animation in games and film, it might be worth reminding ourselves that they are two very separate industries, both creating very different types of product. It has long been a goal of the game development business to create the true "interactive movie" that we all think we would love to play, yet it has never been achieved, and there have been many horrific failures. I think it would be an amazing experience to play a movie, but when I think about what that really means, I catch myself and realize that, as a matter of fact, the beauty of movies is that we don't actually have to do anything at all. The audience sits back and enjoys the ride. Can you imagine how frustrating it would be if you were watching Indiana Jones and every now and again you had to solve a puzzle or kill a bad guy just to see what happens next?

Movies are all about experiencing the story through empathy with the characters. Games are almost the opposite of movies in that you are the protagonist, you make the choices, and so the criteria required to immerse the player in the story are very different. When it comes to making video games that have a need for story exposition, using cut-scenes is a risky way to do this, since you are not playing a game at that point but are instead watching a movie.

Some of the most successful games of all time embrace the fact that they are not trying to deliver a movie experience. Look at Tetris or Portal to see a stripping back to basic game play and simplicity that is, in fact, what draws the player further in. I do think there is a valid place for games with a cinematic tone to their delivery, but if more developers understood that they don't necessarily blend as well as we would like them to, we may make more progress in the kinds of good games that actually make it to the consumer.

We are trying to make both games and movies the best they can be, not turn one into the other.

Cameron Fielding works at Valve Corporation, helping to nurture the next generation of interactive entertainment while spending his free time with his family.