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