Tuesday, November 4, 2008

How Does Creating Animation for Films Differ from Games?

As someone who has been back and forth between games and film for many years, I thought it might be interesting to offer my perspective on what I think are vastly different animation pipelines.

In my opinion, when it comes to animation, games and film begin their production process needing (not wanting) vastly different things, and this ultimately sets the tone for how animation is critiqued, processed and approved over the course of almost the entire project.

In general, prior to crewing up for a major animation feature, there needs to be in place some form of animatic that fairly accurately represents the needs of the client. From this animatic we can begin laying the groundwork for shot management, resource needs, asset needs, etc. The process is fairly linear in the sense that each respective department follows on the heels of the previous department, until eventually the shot is finalled and goes to film. For games this process is fundamentally different. By virtue of the fact that playability is required first and foremost, the only way to test the viability of the game play systems is by already having a large amount of assets on hand. This means that a lot of animations need to be blocked, put into the game engine, linked together by programmers and tested by game designers. This circular process of creating, testing, scrapping, and then creating some more, can go on for years. If during this process animation becomes overly concerned with aesthetic quality, they risk losing valuable time assessing the primary objective of any game, namely, “is it fun?”

In film, ensuring a strong narrative is to a large extent already done. Practically speaking this is not always the case, as many of us in the field are well aware of how often a project gets edited on the fly, shots get cut, sequences change, etc. But often those issues are merely a consequence of polishing the narrative and addressing budget constraints. Unlike games where animators serve a pivotal role in developing the game play systems, animators in film are not tasked with creating the overall narrative from scratch. Most of the groundwork has already been done. We have storyboards, an edit, a puppet, a layout scene, a camera, etc. Almost all of our time is dedicated to making amazing animation that communicates a narrative already (for the most part) locked down by the director.

So the division in methodology between games animation and film animation is quite clear to me. In games animations are finessed and tweaked once the game play systems are fun and functional. Getting game play to this level takes so much time and requires so much creating and re-working of animations, that making them beautiful needs to come much later in the process and is often left to the way side purely because time and money have run out. In film, we move from blocking to second pass much sooner in the process, and very rarely do we have to completely scrap our work as a result of core narrative changes affecting our shots.

Ultimately, I think of the film pipeline as linear, each department more or less sequentially following the next department down the pipe. On the other hand, I think of games as an intricate web. Each department is inextricably linked to multiple other departments, going around and around until a cohesive playable system is created. After these bare bones are built, then time can be allotted to perfecting the animation within the constraints of the system.

Animating for games can be a fulfilling process. What I enjoyed so much about it was the incredible sense of teamwork I felt on a regular basis. There is a big difference in the way film and game animators appreciate their work. Once you've completed a game, you wont sit back while playing it and say, “Get ready, here comes my walk cycle......there it is...see...I did that!” The reason is because often the work a gaming animator has done is fused into so many aspects of the game that it becomes very difficult to pinpoint an element and say it is exclusively yours. For that one walk cycle, a programmer has blended it with dozens of other animations made by other animators, a game designer may have tweaked it in the code, and other animators may have worked on it. In film, I can watch the movie, and when my shot comes up, I know the animation in that shot is exclusively mine. I can cut it out of the edit and point at it over and over again and say, “I did that.” But in film, the process of creating animation work is often isolating and impersonal. The sense of team (and I should specify this is not always the case on every project), is dramatically less intense. In games, you are constantly communicating and brainstorming with so many people from so many departments. That is rarely ever the case in film. But I personally will always love making films more than games simply because I love being part of movie history and knowing that my work may be seen by millions for years to come.

Guest Blogger Aaron Gilman


Jason Fittipaldi said...

Great topic, and one I've been interested in since I love both games and movies.

I've often thought (from my inexperienced perspective) that being an animator on a game project would be much more mechanical (cycles, etc.) and less...soulful.

Whereas on a movie, you would get to really focus on delivering a performance in a handful of different shots.

Pawel Swierczynski said...

Not really, jason.

Look at games these days. They are PACKED with cinematics and epic cutscenes, aren`t they? Look at latest Star Wars: Force Unleashed animations for instance. Or Half-Life 2 :)

Sure, most of today`s games use mocap, but there`re still some titles, where animators have so much to do :)

Aaron said...

Hi Jason, thanks for posting.

That is partially true. I say partially because you can get to work on some pretty amazing in-game animation. The animators working with me on Rainbow: Vegas got to work on some really cool scripted events. These are narrative based custom animations, often with multiple characters interacting with each other. This can be way more challenging than many types of shots you may get on a film project. Of course I wont lie to you. Working in games can have a lot of cycles, and short animations that are required to create blends between other animations. But games have come a long way, and the public's expectations of game animation has increased dramatically over the years as the technology has evolved. So if you are someone who likes to brainstorm, figuring out how to push the envelope within the constraints of the system, and if you are someone who can handle a mix of both cool and not-so-cool animations, then you could find the gaming pipeline very fulfilling. You can work on tons of film shots that offer little to no creative fulfillment. But the point of my article was to express how the immediate need for a high level of aesthetic quality is very different between the two pipelines. If you can live with that, then games can be an awesome place to be.

Cheers! I hope that helps :)

Aaron said...

That is true Pawel. But remember, cutscenes and cinematics in games are VERY often completely different teams than those working on in-game animations. My article is specifically about the difference between film and in-game pipelines. Most cinematics or cut-scene animations are created by a team modelling themselves on a film pipeline. It's all pre-rendered right? So they wont succumb to the same limitations as an in-game pipeline.

Yes, a lot of it is mocap, and it is infinitely more expensive to employ key framers to create custom scripted animations from scratch. But it does happen. In the case of Rainbow: Vegas I had many animators work on custom dialogue-driven scripted events knowing I would eventually mocap many of those events as we had hundreds to go through. Even if it is just to create rough blocking of scripted animations to get them into the engine while the project waits for a mocap date to come along, an in-game animator can be greatly challenged and greatly fulfilled by the needs of the project.

But it is important not to confuse the cinematics team with an in-game team. You can be hired to work on in-game animations and never get to touch a pre-rendered scene. The cinematics teams could be in another building or even another country! They could be part of the company, or outsourced to another company.

Pawel Swierczynski said...

Yeah, you`re right, Aaron. I understand what you mean. But I want to point out some things I don`t agree with, if you allow ;)))

When we talk about cinematics what you said is completely true.

BUT... in-game cutscenes are not always pre-rendered. I would even say rarely :)

Sure, some of game engines have their own cutscene tools (Unreal3) included and fixin an animated sequence is easy. But some doesn`t.

Take for instance JupiterEX (F.E.A.R. game). That`s pain in the a**, since it doesn`t even have camera preview and a camera itself is represented by... a cube.

Actors actions, cuts, camera movement - everything is done by scripts! It doesn`t even have any node interface or sth to make it easier. No.

So it`s very close to making game-play. MORE! Sometimes Level-Editors help me put a cutscenes togather, when needed! ;)

As an animator and cutscene director I had to figure out walk-arounds for engine limitations, work closely with programmers, brainstorm solutions, etc.
But yeah... if engine we use was better, that probably wouldn`t happen.

But I think makin in-game cutscenes is still close to other in-games animations.

Sorry for not that good English ;)

Aaron said...

Hi again! We're talking about the same thing but you are referring to cut-scenes where I repeatedly refer to scripted events. If you take a look at my previous comments where I refer to scripted events (think cut scenes here), you'll see that we actually agree with each other. I usually think of cut-scenes as pre-renders, but that is not always the case, and this is where I probably mis-led you.


mattanimation said...

Being an outsider to the industry, this little disscussion helped greatly. Thanks Aaron! and the others who added on!

Anne-Marie said...

I'm so glad to work on a TV show! :D
I've always thought video games animation looked so much less fun than animating on films and TV shows...

Daniel Harris said...

Heya guys!

Very interesting discussion! I've worked both sides and it's great to hear your take Aaron, and I couldn't agree more.

A big difference I feel is technicalities VS Personality. In a game, if the animation has no personality but the mechanics make the gameplay work, it's still a success - personality is just icing. But in a film if technically it's working, but the performances are boring, it's a failure. The animators that really thrive on in-game animation are those that enjoy being creative with technical challenges (Yes there's lot's of creativity with in-game animation!). These are also the animators that usually think about body mechanics more than personality and acting when they animate. The animators that have that drive inside them to be storytellers and focus more on personality with their animation will probably be disappointed working with in-game animation. I don't think it's a question of quality as many game studios now have decent budgets for animation. This is a generalisation and there are crossovers on both sides, but if you're someone deciding between the two I think it's more a question about the type of artist you are.

Hope this helps :-)

Pawel Swierczynski said...

Good point:) Thanks for that!

Emilie said...

I felt like pointing out a little something Aaron mentioned in the last few lines of his post. In the end, I strongly believe that an animator will have the best time of his life working for the medium he enjoys the most. A hard-core gamer will certainly have a blast working on an AAA game, and a film buff will inevitably strive working on feature... It's hard to put all your heart in something you don't really care about. Don't you think?

Great post Aaron! Thank you! :)

Anonymous said...

great topic! that was very interesting, i must say:)

this is pretty irrelevant to this post, but i have a question. i have found myself getting very frustrated by the overwhelming awesomeness of some my peers at animation mentor. while i have no experience at all, and the most impressive students have had 2-5 years in the industry, i was wondering how much experience did u get before you were convinced you knew what u were doing? i feel like i'm just missing a big, big piece that would give my shots life, ya know? i guess i might say something's not right but i cant spot what or begin to know how to fix it. sry if that makes no sense at all, it's pretty late at night here in jersey.

i found Alli Sadegiani's blog, who apparently is a crazy good animator. while i was definitely inspired, i was also frustrated as to the sheer distance between his level of skill and mine.

sorry to whine and bitch, it's obvious he worked uber-hard to reach this degree of skill, but i guess i feel like i'l never be that good at this rate. any advice you can give to cheer me up a little?

thank you!
_Steve Orsini

Aaron said...

Hi Steve! Thanks for posting! You have an "artist's complex". I just made that up hehe :) What I mean is, you are never convinced your work is really good. Well guess what? Most of us, even with years and years of experience, are never really convinced our work is good. A lot of us think of animation as an extremely difficult craft. Sure, you build confidence and get better and more efficient over the years, but as an artist you have a constant desire to grow and evolve, and you always see your work as something that could be better if you just had more time or more guidance. believe it or not, these feelings about your work are extremely healthy. Because it means you are always itching to do better. So to answer your question, you are never truly convinced you know what you are doing. Every shot is a new puzzle, every animation a new challenge. The simplest animations can make you crazy, and what you thought were the most complex might be fairly easy for you. You are not alone in these feelings. Any time I receive a new shot, I go through the psychology of "what if I cant get it", "what if people see it's weak", "what if my bosses lose confidence in my abilitie". In certain ways, that mentality can be your strength.

Now, about experience. I have looked at your work on AM. I can easily tell you that you are doing a great job. You are only in term 2 and already producing better animations than I ever did in that amount of time. Those people with more experience than you are your life line actually. Grow through them. You always want to work in an environment where you can learn from your peers. Once you stop learning then it's time to move on. You are definitely on the right track. Absord it all, keep learning, and try not to sweat the psychology part. Just create, create, and create some more. It will all click. But speaking for myself, it will probably never click 100%, and that's what will drive you.

Anonymous said...

hey Aaron,
thanks a million, aaron! i feel better. your quite wise, i must say:D i'll keep that in mind as i continue learning and growing as an animator! high 5! thanks again for the encouragement.

Carlos Ranna said...

Hey!! That was my question!! I can´t believe it! Uhuu!!!

Thanks a lot for the answer Aaron. And everybody else, thanks for improving the discussion on the comments.

One thing i was wondering when i made the question, and i´m not sure i´ll be able to express myself here, is this:

In a film, when a character have to run towards a cliff, jump, grab something in the air, and start climbing, the whole sequence would be worked having this in mind. The key poses would be prepared knowing the action that the character would make and things would be build from there till it feels good.

In a game, i believe, that action has got to be built in real time. How does the animator knows how to create the cycle for the run, the cycle for the jump, the cycle for the grabbing, the cycle for the climbing, and mix it all together in a nice fluid way? How can a key pose and another end and begin together? Does every cycle finishes in a center point where all the actions would begin?

I think for instance in the new Prince of Persia, or in the Assassins Creed, where the character can do many amazing acrobatics and all... Gee! How can that happen? No matter what you click, there is the action happening in a fluid way! Wow!! Same thing on the good old Earthworm Jim, that had some amazing animations with lot of squash and stretch and antecipations.

What you guys have to say about this?

Once again, thanks a lot for answering my doubts and for keeping such a nice blog!

SarithZ said...

Heya Carlos! i havent forgotten about you. I just finished my scuba diving certification and am exhausted. I will post a responce tomorrow morning. Thanks for your post!

Aaron said...

Probably shouldnt post on my wife's account! :)

Aaron said...

Hi Carlos.

The animator doesn't actually know how to create all those cycles. Creating animation and any other assets for a game is purely iterative. The speed of the animation, how easily the key poses read when playing back the animation, where the animation cycle starts, and the number of transition animations you create around that cycle, are all unknowns. This was essentially the point of my article. In games you simply have to keep building, working extremely closely with the programmers and game designers to build a complex system based around the abstract concept known as "fun". For example, on Rainbow: Vegas we created animations for the same gameplay systems for years. In some cases, a simple game design change could wipe out tons of animations and force us to rebuild them in a different way. In other cases, we couldnt guage how fast or slow animations needed to be because game design had to create a fun balance between playability and realism.

As for Assassin's Creed, I do not know the specifics of how animation was built for that game. I am fairly sure they used an innovative system that greatly differed from the way we built animation for the games I worked on. But unfortunately I do not know the specifics. But I can definitively tell you that no matter what technology or methodology is used for creating and implementing game animation, it is always iterative and there are absolutely no shortcuts.

I hope this helps!

Pawel Swierczynski said...


From technical point of view those animations are simply (simply? ;) )
blended togather. It`s like goin from one pose to another (blendin is usually linear).
Needed animation interrupts previous one.
That`s why they can be played in any moment of the game.

Other thing is that some animations can be played only on a part of skeleton. For instance on the upper part of the body the character shoots, while his legs are runnin. Two animations played simultaneously create new animation.

Oh, there`s usually some bone in the skeleton that`s driven by the player. That way you can see your character aimin wherever you point with your controler (mouse, pad).

Hope that answers some of your doubts :)))

Carlos Ranna said...

Oh yeah! Aaron and Pawel S, thanks a lot! That clears up some things for me.

You guys rock!!

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