“AAA – Animator, Artist & Advocate”
Allyn, so good to chat with you.
“Hi! And to you!”
You are currently working at Zynga, right?
“Yes, almost 3 years now…I’m getting to be an ‘old timer’ there.”
3 years or more at any one company in games is almost a lifetime.
“These days it’s very true.”
“I feel a bit like a trailblazer in this industry as I started with it when it was very young and grew up with it.”
What is your current title?
3 years at Zynga is not the extent of your experience in games. I know you’ve worked at a few different companies. You’ve animated on a bunch of games. Could you name a few of them?
“Well, going way back, 20 years; I worked on Aladdin for the Sega Genesis and Jungle Book for the SNES…Then moved on to the PS1 and did the first NHL Faceoff hockey game. An MLB game and then there was a good 5 years of cancelled games. I moved on to Maxis and worked on Expansion Packs for The Sims and then worked on The Sims 2 and quite a few Expansion Packs there, The Sims Wii…then burned out on The Sims. Moved to Lucas and worked on some DLC’s for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and then Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II. After that Backbone a few titles there including Dance Central 3 and now Zynga and a couple years on the FarmVille 2 Web franchise. Phew!”
So, did you start off doing 2D animation? Hand drawn art?
“Yes, doing Sprite animation. I studied Illustration in college and learned everything on the job. I had a lot of great animation mentors and learned traditional paper animation and all of the basic principles.”
“I went to Art Center College of Design to study Illustration. Virgin Games recruited during my Senior year and they thought I’d be a good fit for working in Games.”
Where is the Art Center College of Design located?
“Pasadena, California. I believe they now have an Entertainment major that specializes in games and film art.”
You are originally from Kansas, right? Pasadena was probably a big change.
“Yes, I grew up in KC, KS. My parents both worked for Hallmark Cards so I had a lot of support to become an artist growing up unlike most kids. The only downside to that is that I was always art directed. I never really felt like I fit there in the Midwest, and really thrived in California.”
So, when you chose the Art Center, were you thinking you would go into games? What were your goals at that time?
“No, I didn’t really play games much at all. My parents were the kind who limited our TV hours and computer time. I was one of 3% of Art Center students who were accepted out of high school. It’s a very difficult school to get into and had I not been accepted I would’ve gone to KU. I wanted to become an editorial illustrator at the time. I liked how you had to think and tell a story through your illustration. You had to be clever. That’s what I like about making games. You have to figure out hacks and ways to fool the eye or make it perform better, etc. I love to problem solve.”
Do you feel some of the rules or learning from illustration translate into animation?
“Absolutely! We did a lot of life drawing and how you pose your characters for animation and how body mechanics work are all basics of life drawing. Composition and silhouettes are very important in animation.”
So, you’re now a principal animator. 20 years in the biz. Could you describe what your typical workday is like?
“Well that varies from project to project and where you are in that project. For instance, on The Force Unleashed 2 we spent a lot of time doing concepts of the lead character, discussing what we liked and didn’t and testing out animation rig needs etc. Then the animation lists would be figured out and listed based on the game design. We all have to work cohesively as a team and we all have dependencies, so there can be a lot of back and forth. We’ll start to concept out movements and start animating and trying to get them into the game while working with pipeline guys to make it all work. Then once we have established a solid game design and pipeline we crank away at animations, working long hours to put out great work and iterate, iterate, iterate. It’s a long grueling process that can take 2 plus years!”
In my experience there are differences between animations for “cinematic” performances and animations used for “in game” where the player must control a character. I’m not sure how much traditional schooling prepares you for that difference.
“Well, I learned animation while making games. So for me there wasn’t a lot to break as far as tradition goes. Basically with game animations you mostly lose anticipation and follow through. Whereas Cinematic performances can have all of that and more. Quite a lot of cinematics these days use motion capture for some if not all of the animations.”
“Also, game animations have to work at all angles that the game will be displaying them, so usually 360 degrees whereas film is animated to camera…quite a bit easier I think. I really enjoyed animating cinematics. That’s when you really get a chance to animate and polish and make your work shine.”
I typically saw some animators who came from film having trouble making that transition.
“Yes, that’s very true. You can’t ‘cheat’ making game animations the way you can for film. I also noticed a large drop off of animators and artists when games went from 2D to 3D.”
2D seems to almost be a lost or underappreciated art. Although, more independent developers seem to be keeping the sprite animation alive.
“That’s true. As mobile became more popular, 2D art and animation became more important since the phones were like PS1’s again. Now that they’re getting more powerful you’re seeing a transition to 3D graphics. There are lots of simple and easy 2D packages for them to use.”
So, what would you say is a most important skill or trait to have as an animator?
“I think animators, especially for games, need to have very strong foundational skills in animation. Run cycles, jumps, rolls, etc. are all heavily used in games. A strong understanding of body physics is key. Beyond that, is acting and quadrupeds/creature animation skills. You really have to be a jack-of-all-trades to work the various jobs in game animation. Motion Capture cleanup is really popular lately.”
I would imagine, quadruped animation would be the most challenging. Many things in games are not humanoid. Creatures with 2 heads, 4 tails, and 3 legs. Just weird stuff.
“Yeah, that can be tough but a lot of fun too. The animator had to rely on their knowledge of body mechanics to make it believable. Anatomy and knowing how a structure like that might work is really important to keep in mind when animating.”
Dance Central 3 - MoCap cleanup by Allyn Bruty
Mocap is popular with more realistic games like Call of Duty, Tomb Raider, or Dance Central. However, I’ve heard mocap cleanup is almost like tracing. Are those things helpful to an animator’s portfolio or harmful?
“I don’t think it’s harmful at all. It’s a job in demand. In fact on Aladdin I more or less learned animation via tracing. We had traditional animators doing 8 frame walk cycles on paper (they hated that, they were used 2 or 3 times more) and we digitized it, colored it, and scaled it down. I did the cleanup of pixels for most of Aladdin’s animations and copied the VFX directly from paper drawings (they didn’t scale down well at all). So I learned a LOT about animation from cleanup work. I think MoCap can do the same for a beginning animator.”
Right. Everyone needs to start somewhere. Are there any tools or plugins you use regularly? Any tips or tricks you use?
“Well that depends. I have been bouncing around various animation software programs for years now. I’m working in Maya again after a 3-4 year hiatus (previous projects required MotionBuilder and then Max). The one tool I consistently use though is ‘Pose 2 Shelf.’ There are a lot of tools out there and I like to have a nice library of selection sets and poses to block out animation quickly. With games, most animations come in and out of a neutral pose that you want to have stored and shared across the team.”
Looking back over your career. Is there anything you would do differently? Anything you wish you knew before encountering it?
“Well, I feel a bit like a trailblazer in this industry as I started with it when it was very young (1992) and grew up with it. There’s a lot that I would do differently in hindsight. I was 1 of 3 women on the job at Virgin Games, my first job, and one of 2 single women. So the amount of guys circling through my cube to ‘say hi’ was ridiculously time consuming. And the guy who cat called me every morning as I walked to my cube should’ve been written up by HR….but I don’t think we had one at the time! It was the wild west and very much a ‘boys club.’”
“Yes, but the sad fact of the matter is that it’s still happening now. To me and to other women who work in the industry. Gamergate is an amazing example of how gamers and developers view women.”
Yes. The sparse presence of women in game development breeds such an environment. I imagine this carried over into management at times.
“Yes, and they often feel like they can take advantage of us, not just sexually but salary wise. I was once promised a promotion and pay raise after ‘proving myself’ as a lead for 3 months. After that time was up my boss didn’t seem too interested in giving me a raise and asked me how much I wanted. Well, I wasn’t really up on salaries at the time so I told him, I’d have to call my headhunter (who’d placed me there) to ask what the going rate was. He offered me way more than I would’ve ever asked for and I took it. That said, I’ve also taken pay cuts to work on projects I was passionate about and for a better commute. I think you have to look at all of your options and what suits your life and what you’re passionate about working on.”
“I think there still needs to be more support to bring women back to the workforce and making games as we are an important voice and 50% of the players!”
It has been suggested to me, that to get the price you are worth, sometimes you need to quit and get a job someplace else. Then you get paid appropriately. The mental model of you is not rigid with new people as it is with your current supervisors.
“Hmmm, well that used to be the case the first 5-10 years of my game experience and then the recession hit. I definitely got a huge bump in pay between my first and second job. After that though, I was well compensated and honestly I couldn’t get more than I was already making when I was trying to move to the Bay Area from Southern California. Sony paid really well. Better than any offer I was getting from other companies and startups in the Bay. Also if you jump around a lot it doesn’t look great on your resume. I think you need to stay at least 1-2 years to get the experience you need to ask for more money.”
You are a mother. You have two kids. Game development can be very demanding. How have you managed the responsibilities of your career and being a parent?
“Well, to be honest, it’s tough and having kids was a career setback for me and for many women. Some of my male managers were afraid to give me too much work in my ‘condition.’ and when you take leave you pretty much walk away from gaining 4 months of experience (if you’re lucky enough to manage to get 4 months off) and you have a steep learning curve to climb back to when you come back. I feel like I’ve lost 2 years off of my career but to me, all of that stress was worth it as I have 2 amazing, well adjusted kids who LOVE video games.”
“I had each kid at a different company but the financial hit was immense at both. They only paid 1-2 weeks of full pay before I went on government and state assistance and burned through my sick and vacation days and ultimately was unpaid for the last of my 4 months away (the longest you can leave and still have a job guaranteed to come back to). So I came back to work in a vacation and sick day deficit which meant that if my child was sick and I had to take time off to care for him it would be unpaid.”
There aren’t many game companies or other companies in general that offer onsite childcare. Are there any companies you feel are leading the charge into parental/childcare reform?
“Absolutely. EA Redwood Shores has had on site childcare for many, many years. Although I’ve been told it’s not large enough to accommodate all of the employees children who would like to be able to access it. NetFlix and Facebook have been leading the charge in paid maternity/paternity leave which is great; 4 months fully paid? Amazing!”
“Also, one side note, nursing rooms for mothers returning to work. They are few and far between for many companies. I think there still needs to be more support to bring women back to the workforce and making games as we are an important voice and 50% of the players!”
I believe, nursing rooms are a requirement now. My studio had to have a place where a new mother could nurse. We’ve at least earmarked a room for it.
“That’s great to hear. I know it’s required by law, but I’ve used exercise rooms and random windowless offices in the past. When we can get to the point of making it a comforting environment for nursing moms then I think that will be a great day.”
At Zynga, do you get to see the resumes and portfolios of prospective animators?
“I haven’t had a chance to do a lot of looking at animation reels these days. Zynga has all of the animators they need at the moment and aren’t hiring more.”
What advice would you give to an animator trying to break into the industry?
“If you have a chance to intern, DO IT! Meet people, make friends, make connections. Show your work at recruitment events and if you’re really good, market your work on Social Media. We’ll find you!”
If you had to describe yourself in one sentence what would you say? What is your tagline?
“AAA – Animator, Artist & Advocate”
Allyn, thank you for your time this evening. I know I learned a lot more about you.
“Thanks Marcus, it was my pleasure!”