Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Ins and Outs of Game Reels


As tends to happen when I write advice regarding something I’m passionate about, I’ve written a rather lengthy… well, lecture for lack of a better word… on what to keep in mind when preparing a game-animation reel.  If you’d like the quick and dirty “shots list” – that is, a list of 10 shots that, in my mind, would make up a perfect game animation reel – feel free to skip to the bottom.

Forming a good game-friendly demo reel is just as tricky as forming a good film-friendly one, because not every studio does the same kind of work.  From Visceral to Sanzaru, style can vary so extremely that it would seem impossible to form a one-edit-fits-all demo reel.  Having reviewed reels at studios that seek realism (Cryptic and the now defunct Secret Level) as well as studios that push the boundaries of cartooniness (Sanzaru), I have learned a few things about what catches the eye of the animation team – which I’ll list below [under the heading “ANIMATION”].  That said, the animation team isn’t the only group you need to impress.  Obviously, there’s the rest of the studio – the art director, designers, and (depending on the studio) departments such as rigging, modeling, or even programming might be involved in the interview process.  Often times, however, the primary group you want to get the attention of are the recruiters, which brings us to my first piece of advice; editing. 

EDITING:

Recruiters, for the most part, are a different breed than, for example, the animation team.  They don’t always have an eye for great animation.  What they do have an eye for, however, is entertainment value, or “appeal”.  Editing your reel is CRUCIAL to catching the eye of a recruiter.  Now I’m not saying “you’ll be offered the job based on the snappy music or clever cuts you use.”  That said, low-res playblasts on the Maya grid will pail in comparison to the same quality of animation rendered out w/ shadows and motion blur at a clearer quality.  It shouldn’t matter.  I spent a long time piecing together playblast reels strictly because I felt it shouldn’t matter.  However, much like wearing khaki shorts and a Darkwing Duck t-shirt shouldn’t matter in an interview, you want to put your best foot forward.  In the case of your demo reel, this is also (typically) your FIRST foot, and you want to make a good impression with it.
[I’ll write up a how-to for simple, game-reel rendering when I’m done here J]
Remember that your reel isn’t ONLY being submitted to studios. It’s also going online, where the wide world can look at it at their leisure, which is why “showmanship” is so important.  This is key, because while great animation will get you into a studio to which you apply, a great REEL will get the studio to “apply to you.”  In other words, a well-edited, polished and clean-looking reel can double your job-hunting efforts.
This isn’t something that comes naturally to everyone.  Don’t be afraid to stand on the shoulders of giants – if you find a reel you like the pacing of, try to match that rhythm.

ANIMATION

Rule #1: Know Your Mechanics:
Okay, now that the ugly truth of “presentation mattering” is out of the way, let’s talk animation.  I think it’s excellent that many of the online animation schools are offering programs directed toward game animation.  Here’s the key ingredient, however, to game animation success: MECHANICS!  It’s no secret that a majority of games are body-mechanics centric.  In fact, even many of the studios that are more “character acting centric” – I’d give examples if I was certain it wasn’t a breach of NDA contracts – have found methods of having the acting choices selected, in large-part, by the engine itself. 

Studios that are very cinematics-heavy will often have a cinematics-devoted team (Blizzard is the obvious example), and for these sorts of positions, you might as well have a film-friendly reel.

What really sells a reel to a game studio’s animation team, however, are proper mechanics.  It doesn’t matter what the context of the animation is.  Sure, things like hand-to-hand combat, run cycles, or well-executed falls seem like the bread and butter of game animation.  There’s nothing wrong with any of these, and in fact, if done right, they are PERFECT for a game animation reel (see “Shots List” below).  The point I’m trying to make is, whatever you choose to animate, make sure that the weight feels PERFECT, that the hips are shifting as they should, that the arms and spine overlap when he/she/it lands.   I say this with all sincerity, if you have a reel w/ a guy simply pulling a can of beans down from a shelf, but you do it with convincing and well-executed mechanics, you will go a lot further for most game studios than a reel chalk full of funny dialogue pieces that only show from the chest up.

Rule #2: Versatility:
There are two parts to this rule.  The first is style:
A good lead animator (who will typically have the biggest pull on who to hire) should be able to spot a good animator no matter the style of the animation.  I’ve always firmly believed that an animator who pulls off excellent realism should be just as successful at cartoony animation.  I’ve found, however, that not everyone sees it that way.  A reel full of Sly Cooper or Ratchet & Clank cartooniness might not get you the job on Assassin’s Creed.  Personally (and this truly is just one man’s opinion), I feel that the strongest reels are the ones that show a little of everything. I don’t have a specific example, but I can only imagine the animators at Sucker Punch or Insomniac would fit this mold perfectly, particularly any old-hands that made the transition between Sly/Infamous or Ratchet/Resistance.

The second part of this rule takes into consideration what you’ll likely be asked to do within the confines of one particular project.  You want to be versatile not only in style, but in function:
I use myself as an example only because I can give a first-hand account: I have spent a majority of my career on player-characters; that is, the character controlled by the player.  From time to time, however, I jump onto other things.  On Golden Axe, I had to do a lot of creature work and enemies.  At Cryptic, I was tasked with some quadrupeds (horses, deer, even spiders – which I realize aren’t quadrupeds).  On Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, the last few months of the project I spent on cinematics.  The ability to jump into these different roles will prove invaluable, which is why in the shots list at the end of this article, I’ve included a little of everything. 

SHOTS LIST:
Here’s a list of 10 animations (along w/ examples) that would constitute what I’d consider a “perfect” game animation reel.

[Note: this is by no means a definitive list.  I’m sure there are things I’ve forgotten to include, and I am sure some readers will disagree with me on the importance of others.  Please leave your thoughts in the comments!]

- Hook:   What I mean by “hook” is – a shot that is fixed to the beginning of the reel as a “hook” to let the viewer know they want to continue watching.  There’s no specific rule as to what this should be, but make sure it’s one of your best shots.  My rule has always been: Best shot first, second-best shot LAST.
[Example] (go to 00:15)  The first shot on this reel is so dynamic, with the creature crashing into the scene, big chomping motions toward the camera, and a dangerous, exhilarating pay-off.  A perfect “hook” to let you know “this is going to be awesome!

- Interactive Combat:  Throws, grapples, stabs.  To put a creative spin on it: hugs, pattycake, or sports tackles/checks.  The more of these on your reel, the better.
[Example] More than half of this reel is made up of excellent grapples.

- Realistic Walk/Run:  In the growing mocap universe, there aren’t too many jobs that will require this sort of work done by hand, but a great reel will show that you can. 
[Example] (go to 00:07)

- Environmental:  This can be anything from a car skidding believably to a stop, to a collapsing wooden structure.
[Example] (go to 00:21)

-Pure Weight:   This should show the character’s interaction with heavy weight, either by catching or lifting something, or by absorbing their own weight in a fall.
[Example] (go to 00:47)

- Gap Jump:    Have a character cross a gap w/ believable mechanics.
[Example] (go to 01:23)

-Creature Walk or Run (spider, farm-animal, large monster, etc.):  For bonus points, use a quadruped we’re familiar with, such as a horse or dog – these are more difficult because we know what they should look like.
[Example] (go to 00:41)

-Creature Contextual: A creature doing something other than walking or running.  For bonus points, have them interacting with the environment (or other creatures):
[Example] (go to 00:44)

-Dialogue Shot or Character-Driven Cinematic: Having a solid acting piece on your reel is paramount to attaining any job that might incorporate cinematics.  This doesn’t have to be a dialogue piece, so long as the character’s personality is driving the scene.
[Example] (go to 00:52)

-Closer:  Seal the deal with a solid shot.  I mentioned before that I prefer to use my “second” best shot at the end.  This is only sort of true – I put the second best shot toward the end, but if there’s a more “captivating” piece that might not have as much polish, but has more of an impact, I’ll choose that one.
[Example] (go to 02:30)  This shot, while perhaps not as polished as some of the earlier work, has a light-hearted gag and makes a nice “cherry-on-top” of the reel. 


1 comment:

Dan Long said...

Really great post Trav! Thanks for the awesome tips!