Hilda Karugabira – Principal Animator

Hilda Karugabira – Principal Animator

“Have fun, will travel.”


Hey Hilda, thanks for taking a moment out of your day off!

“No problem! I rarely do staycations so I could really use this time to do something.” [Smiles]


What is your current job title?

“I’m a principal animator at Zynga right now.”


What are some game titles you’ve worked on in your career?

“I worked on Cars and Ratatouille for PSP, Destroy All Humans: Big Willy Unleashed for Wii, a virtual pet site for web, and most recently Farmville 2 for web.”


Ratatouille PSP Gameplay

Ratatouille PSP Gameplay      

Very cool.  What’s a day in the life of a principal animator like?

“I usually get into the office around 9:30, grab a coffee, and get latest on Git and Perforce. Then we have morning art team meetings where we talk about what we’ll be working on that day, get synched up with each other and our upcoming schedule, then I get started. Most of my day is spent on animating characters in Maya and integrating them into our game using Unity, working out any bugs. Once in awhile I have to do json data stuff in Sublime, and sometimes rigging.”


That’s pretty cool.  Sounds like your pipeline is setup for quick iteration.

“Yes, very. I work closely with engineers on getting stuff in the game, if it also needs some code. I love that Unity is so artist-friendly, so I can check my stuff out right away usually.”


Cool, Unity seems to be nearly a standard in many game development houses.  Let’s go back a bit, where did you grow up?

Ah! Long story! I was born in Rwanda, moved to Uganda when I was very young, then shortly after that, to Canada, and finally to the US in my early teens. And within those countries, a few cities. My family rarely stayed in one house for over a year.”


World traveller.  Where did you learn your trade?  Did you go to university?

“Yes, I went to The Art Institutes here in San Francisco for a BS in Media Arts and Animation.”    


What drew you to animation?  What sparked your interest in that particular field?  Or did you study a broader art field?

“I always liked creating art in junior high and high school, and somehow the idea popped into my head that even better was art that moved! I didn’t know what the field was called at all, I just had a general sense of what I wanted to make. There were some great cartoons funded by the NFB/ONF in Canada that inspired me, mixing music with animation. So when I applied to an art school it was only with a loose sense of what I wanted to do with my life.”


So, as you took more classes your path became clear?

“Yes, at the beginning I had not even heard of computer animation. I had thought maybe I’d make Enya’s music videos or something for a living. But after the first year we moved into computers and it started to become clear. Games were something my brothers loved, but I had never really thought of making them, though I played sometimes, too.”

“My mother still refers to my job as ‘making cartoons,’ but I know she’s happy.”


How did you make the leap into game development?

“Once I graduated, I applied everywhere, and most of what was here in the Bay Area were game companies. By that time I had a good grasp of what was possible, and what I could bring to the industry.”


How long did your job hunt take?  Did the Art Institute aid you in your search?

“The job hunt after graduation took only a few months, and boy, were my parents’ voices ringing in my head! I was very nervous about the viability of a career, and even started studying to take the GMAT and apply to business school as a backup. My parents, being immigrants and having fought their way into and out of 4 countries always just wanted us to have stable, safe lives, so an unemployed artist was not going to make them happy. The Art Institutes actually did have a pretty good, caring team that pointed me towards some job openings, and my first job, at THQ, was a result of one of their job leads.”


I think unemployed _______ is pretty high on many parent’s lists.  It seems like the game industry is working out for you.

“Yes, I’ve been working non-stop for 11 years now, and love it! My mother still refers to my job as “making cartoons,” but I know she’s happy.”


Cars PSP Gameplay

Cars PSP Gameplay    

[Laughs] “Making cartoons”, that is a first for me, but seemingly fitting.  What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?

“I really loved working on the Ratatouille game for PSP. It was the first time I had to pull weekenders and late nights, and that’s when I learnt to drink coffee, but the end result was really satisfying, and that’s when I knew that my career truly suited me. Farmville 2 was also great fun, and I genuinely loved the team I worked on that with. It was a pretty successful game, and really made me value working with highly skilled talent to make a great product.”


Everyone remembers their first crunch.  It’s a hellish time that I remember fondly.  What are key traits to being a successful animator?

“Hard work, working hard, and… work ethic, [Laughs]. Sometimes it really isn’t going to animate itself, and you’ve got to set a key on every frame. I think computers do a lot of work for you, but ultimately the end result has to look right, and you can’t take shortcuts to that. And sometimes, the parameters change and you’ve got to do it all over again. Just say yes to the work. [Smile]”


In other words, sometimes you just had to put your nose to the grindstone and get something out there.

“Yes! Loving what you’re working on helps. We’re so lucky to get paid to do what we love. When I get frustrated I tell myself there are people who have to lift rocks all day. Is it true? I dunno, but it helps me keep a healthy perspective!”


“My biggest advice is to keep learning.”

Are there any essential tools or plugins you use at work?  Anything you can’t live without?

“Essential tools for me are Maya, Photoshop, Unity, Sublime Text Editor. Can I put in a plug for tech artists here? It’s really hard to get a team together without a tech artist. I can’t live without them, they save my life on the daily.”



Tech Artists FTW.  What advice would you give to someone attempting to pursue a career in game animation?

“My biggest advice is to keep learning. Tech changes so frequently, and you’ll quickly find yourself outdated and out of touch if you don’t keep looking into the latest and greatest. I remember when Unity was a new thing, and I started noticing it popping up on job postings as a required skill. Even if you’re not actively looking for a new job, checking up on what companies are asking for is a great hint at what you should be learning.”


Very true.  It’s important to stay on top of new tech.  Is there a particular game or animation that influenced you the most?

“I loved Mortal Kombat growing up, and Metal Gear Solid also. Frogger used to make my hands sweat, I remember having to take it easy with Frogger.”


Big Willy Unleashed Wii Gameplay

Big Willy Unleashed Wii Gameplay   

That is an amazing collection of games.  Highly influential to me as well.   How do you like to spend your free time?

“I am all over the place with my free time. I volunteer a lot, love working with kids, travelling, and I take lots of classes: Flamenco dancing, Spanish, skating, guitar. Really all over the place. If only I could clone myself and pursue 10 different life directions.”


That is a diverse set of interests!  How do you find the time?

“I run for the bus a lot. And I’m always a little late. But I fit it in!”


There are not enough hours in the day.  If you had to describe yourself in one sentence, what would you say?  What is your tagline?

“Have fun, will travel.” [Smiles]


If people want to find you, where can you be reached?  Twitter, Instagram, snapchat…?

“Oh lord. Now I look like a hypocrite. I have not stayed up to date with the young kids on the Twitters. I do have a LinkedIn account though: Hilda Karugabira.”


Excellent.  I’ve loved talking to you.  And your worldview shines through.

“Thanks! It was such a pleasure talking to you, too, Marcus.”

1 comment

Add yours

+ Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.