Award Winning Animator
Can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit of your career?
Hi, I’m Gary Myers and I’m an animator. I currently work as the Animation lead at Heavy Iron Studios and before that I was involved with 2D animation at Walt Disney Feature Animation (now Disney Animation Studios) and before that I had a short stint in TV animation. So I’ve worked on a few features, a few games, and a tv show over that time. I’ve been in it professionally for about 19-20 years now.
You went from being a traditional animator at Disney to be a 3d Game Animator. Can you tell us about this transition?
At Disney I worked as a Clean-Up animator during the last big wave of traditionally made features. I loved it. There was a lot of talented people there and I learned a lot. But as our movies became less financially successful, and Pixar’s films were really being seen as the future of the industry, it became obvious that it wasn’t going to last forever. Disney’s artist development dept. opened up the computer lab during off hours for whoever wanted to come learn Maya (I’m talking Maya 1.0 here) so myself and a few others spent our lunches and after work learning the software and teaching ourselves how to animate in CG. I embraced it not only because my career would soon depend on it, but because it interested me and I liked it. It wasn’t easy though. It felt like it took me forever to understand it at a basic level. I thought in terms of x-sheets and timing charts but I had to learn the graph editor and all these foreign tools. So I floundered for a long time wrapping my head around these new concepts. But the more I did it, the more natural it started to feel. It was about that same time I was asked to teach an intro to animation class at my old college. Troubleshooting the student’s work and making lesson plans and what not helped me organize my thoughts and approach. So I did that for a few semesters during the last couple years I was at Disney. Video Games though– was something I figured I wanted to do at some point in my career. Even as a a young child I knew I’d like to do that at some point. So for me the transition was kind of a parallel step. I’ve been an avid gamer my whole life. So I understand games and a lot of what making them entails came very naturally to me. When I got my game job, I had a strong generalist’s knowledge of Maya coupled with my experience in traditional animation principles. And both were very necessary. Funny though, that Maya is such a monster of a program that I still discover new things all the time.
Feature Animation and Game Animation are pretty different. Could you tell us the main differences in planning and executing animation?
Both require a considerable amount of planning. Games are different in that besides the “acting” part, you’ve got to plan the out this jigsaw puzzle of a move set. The character’s personality comes across to the viewer/player in a very different way because the player is an active (as opposed to passive) participant with the character. But at the same time it has to feel just as natural. Features deal with animation on a scene by scene level, while gameplay deals with a large amount of short snippets of animation, which easily number several hundred moves per character and need to be created with many different scenarios in mind. Cutscenes and cinematics are much more aligned with features in that we use scripts, storyboards, and animatics. However, we usually render them through the game engine rather than the normal way so visually it matches the rest of the game.
As a game animator you need to be a bit more technical, and interact with the programming department when your animation needs to do something special in the game. As a pure artist, is it hard to communicate technical challenges?
It takes a certain amount of understanding of what the programming department does and how games are made in general. It helps to have a gameplay programmer who has similar sensibilities –being on the same page as to the what we want from the performance. Taking part in the creative problem solving is part of the fun of the job. If a programmer says they can’t do something, I usually ask a series of “what if we do this…?” until we figure it out. It’s like climbing a mountain. There’s always a way up, you just have to find the best route.
As an animator, you use rigs. What is your experience in dealing with Riggers?
Riggers are indispensable . For what we do, I can’t emphasize that enough. It helps to have a really good rapport with them, because I tend to ask for a lot all the time. So much goes into the rigs nowadays and game engines are very finicky. Besides just making sure things are constantly working, working to create a rig that can that can give a proper performance is really important. Also being able to constantly tweak things to accomodate design changes, art direction changes, feature creep… I lean on them daily to keep not only our animation department running smoothly, but keeping the game playable and fixing many of the bugs that inevitably come up. I’ve been fortunate to have some really talented riggers working beside me over the years.
From your perspective, what makes a good rig and what makes a bad rig?
Here’s a lot of factors as to what makes a good/bad rig. An obvious answer for the bad rig is that it doesn’t work correctly. –Ik/Fk switch that doesn’t work, etc. Or one that deforms poorly. I shouldn’t have to fight the rig. If I find myself fighting it, there’s a problem. Also, I think a bad rig tries to do too much. I don’t like too much automation, especially if control on certain parts is completely taken away. If a rigger likes to automate certain things, I always make sure it can be turned off. I also don’t like a million controls buried under a single node in the channel box. I like to use the timeline, so having lots of keyable variables under a single node can get messy fast. As for the good rig… I should feel intuitive, work fast, deform nicely, allow for nice, expressive poses, etc. Sometimes we’re limited by the game engine to something like number of bones, or unsupported blendshapes. A good rigger should be able to create something nice with whatever hand they are dealt.
Do you have a process that you always use for animating?
Process is a funny thing. I have a process I’d like to use, yes, but production time requires some creative problem solving to get the work done. Ideally I’ll thumbnail, act out, blockout, revise, breakdown, flesh out the facial, polish. Often for production you just have to muscle through some animations working straight ahead simply because there is no time to do otherwise. I sometimes have only 30-60 minutes to do gameplay anims, and 2-4 hours to do cinematics. There’s a variety of reasons as why that is the way of things and it rarely has to do with an initial lack of planning. Game production can be tricky and things change hourly sometimes, so you just have to roll with the punches, and work it out. You also have to check everything in the game engine, and that can be comically frustrating and a real time-sink because a hundred things can go wrong between the PC and the XBOX. Game engines can make the animation look different too, so many times I find myself animating something “wrong” to make it look “right” in the engine.
What is for you the most rewarding thing about animation?
For me, it’s making something come to life. Not just moving something around the screen, but move with a purpose, with a unique personality. It’s a unique art form that can be shared and move people in a very unique way. I’ve never lost that feeling inside I get when I see animated characters come to life.
You created a course on CG Circuit that covers sketching. Why should people learn more about that? After all you can just use a computer and a 3d Application to start animating.
Sketching is something I’m passionate about. It’s simplifying and capturing impressions of people, places, things… I like seeing the rough lines that come together to form something and seeing the artist’s hand and personality in that. It’s true that the barriers of creating animation are very low nowadays which is great, but many younger animators who don’t have a background in drawing or who have very little art experience, neglect or simply aren’t aware of how to decently pose a character. Sketching teaches you how to observe and trains you to transpose and communicate your visual impressions, while creating a mental library of how people and things look, move, and act. It gives you practice dealing with caricature, weight, timing, balance, composition, and appeal. These are essential in creating convincing animations.
Can you name your favorite movie purely from an animation stand point? And can you also tell us a specific scene from this movie what is especially great. Try to be very specific as to why.
It’s definitely Disney’s Pinocchio. It hits all the major points of what I love about animation. Beautifully drawn and appealing characters, geat music, action, humor, villians, it’s a great morality play, and the background art is possibly the finest Disney’s ever produced. There’s so many beautifully animated scenes in it, but my favorites are the “I’ve got no strings” sequence and the Monstro attack sequence. The amount of craftsmanship in there is breathtaking especially considering it was all created with 1930’s technology. In the I’ve got no strings part, I love the how naive they make Pinocchio as he’s doing his song on stage for the first time. Also, the animation on the other puppets is fantastic.
When people think of animation, they automatically think Character Animation, but there is also other kinds of animation, do you have any experience doing other kinds of animation (ie. vehicles, FX etc).
I’ve mostly only done character work, only recently have I done some visual effects work on an upcoming game. It was hard transitioning into doing that, but still (eventually) personally rewarding. It took many extra hours getting my head wrapped around the whole particle system thing. But I’m happy with the work we’ve done. It’s a lot different than anything I’ve done before.
What is your favorite type of animation?
My favorite type of animation is still character based hand drawn traditional style. I especially love watching pencil tests. But I like/appreciate lots of different styles. I’m not a snob about it either way.
If Characters is your favorite type of animation, what kinds of characters do you like to animate the most?
I like cartoony characters. They best take advantage of the medium and, personally for me, are the funnest to interact with.
What is your toolset of choice for your work: Animation, Storyboard, Sketching etc.
Animation I mostly do in Maya now. I recently used toonboom on a 2D project and I didn’t find it ideal, but it was useable. Storyboarding I do in Photoshop. For Sketching I use normal real life sketchbooks of various types. I have about 4 active ones I keep around – one in my car, one in the house, 2 in my bag for work. Then I have individual ones I keep specifically for sketching each of my kids. I have Moleskine and Cachet books and prefer a 4B Tombow pencil, .01 pen, and black pocket brush.
Interviewer: Carlo Sansonetti