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Very impressive article Jake! You are very talented.
nice article! i love seeing the breakdowns.
David Gibson from Blizzard showed some of the animations he made for Overwatch. We check out his beautiful work and provide some notes from his GDC16 talk, where he talked about the animation of Mei. The original concept art was created by Arnold Tsang, weapon model/texture – Kyle Rau, rigging – Dylan Jones, animation : David Gibson and Jesse Davis. 3d character design was made by Renaud Galand.
A couple of words about David. He is the Senior Animator at Blizzard. Having graduated from Ringling College of Art and Design (one of the best schools for game development people), he went to work for EA Sports, to help the Madden series. The Game Art BFA program at Ringling College brings our feature film aesthetic to games and is focused on providing students with the professional artistic skills necessary to create compelling and believable interactive experiences. Then David moved to Berkley to work at Tippet, where he contributed to a bunch of films, doing creature animation. In 2009 animator moved to Sony Pictures Imageworks in LA. After that he ended up in Turtle Rock Studios (Evolve) and finally – Blizzard. David’s speciality, as he puts it, is “creating memorable characters and infusing personality into everything I animate”. And you can really see it from some of the things he did, including Mei.
The Animation of Overwatch
Overwatch launched with 21 heroes. It’s a character driven FPS, so obviously all the assets for all the characters are created unique, as far as animation goes. Each character is hand-crafted and is given upmost love and attention. This was Blizzard’s first IP in 17 years, so David was under a lot of stress, trying to figure out the way to bring those characters to life.
As all the characters in the games are unique, developers faced a lot of challenges in trying to show the function and the features of the character from the point of view of the gameplay. So animation-wise even the pose and the idle movements of the character show their story and their skill.
Obviously heavier, bigger characters seem tired and strained, holding their huge guns, so you can kind of guess, that they are more on the attack side of things. On the other hand a character like Mei don’t look confident at all, she looks unsure and her animation proves this. All this is achieved with some simple exaggerations in animation (and also by great character design and other details). Timing is very important here, especially when you talk about first-person animation.
When David Gibson came to the project he already had all the necessary tech. Rigs were there, everything was working perfectly from the technical side of things. Davids task was simple: he had to make Mei the most appealing, the most loved character. He already had animation style locked down on this character. So he had to find a way to push it and take it a little further.
David Gibson: “What’s it like to be an animator? Every day as animator you get told what you did wrong the day before. It takes some thick skin to learn that it’s not personal.”
All started with the concept art. There were a bunch of images created by Arnold Tseng and other artists. All these images were created with the help of the whole team. Then after art is created, after all the skills of the character and all the features are discussed, the leads talk to the animator and discuss it all. They ask a bunch of questions: what do everyone want to see, what do gamers need to think about the character and so on.
Mei was described as a nerdy scientist: she’s shy and she’s younger than all of the other heroes. She’s also friendly and outgoing but not 100% confident. Not yet a superhero.
After that David took a number of steps to make sure that everything was done right.
Talked to everyone
He picked the brains of concept artists, art directors, designers. He tried to gather everyone’s thoughts on this character. Through these talks he tries to notice a trend and set the boundaries for his animations. He tried to figure out what would the team like to see in the final character. It could be just some small technical detail, which potentially was able to change the way you perceive the character. David also took into consideration design and gameplay restrictions. In Mei’s case there was a tube connected to the gun, so she couldn’t possible do a lot of crazy movements like Tracer.
References and inspiration.
If anyone on the team felt really strongly about his/her idea, David would ask them to send over some references. When looking for inspirations on his own, he tried not to find some things to copy, but to find certain things that have the same feeling. He advices to ma ke broad searches, look for different things. Even the most basic search can bring incredible results. Don’t tell yourself that you are looking for one specific thing. Most importantly – don’t copy anything. Reference helps to plan, it’s a guide. It’s not for copying. Also, while looking for reference in animation, try to find things that have that necessary feeling you want to convey. Try to observe everything in the world around you. You might see something in the grocery store. It’s all important.
Mei’s inspiration board is rich. There’s a ton of stuff there. There’s animation of Amy Adams from Enchanted, from Read or Die anime, pictures of Zoe Salander in glasses, Rapuntsel from Tangled. It’s a lot of various stuff and it all fits the right mood.
After all the information is gathered, David start to play with the character’s rig and explore different poses. He tires different stuff, goes through various poses. He tires to find the limitations of the character and understand its possibilities. He plays a lot with blackout models. Then the search for the right pose begins.
During his talk at GDC 2016 David said that the most important thing he learned at his school was “how to give and receive criticism”.
The animator looks at all the character poses of other characters. They look like superheroes. All like straight A. Shoulders are back, chest pushed out. Mei did not work with that type of pose. It was awful, really. So, animator tried to bust out as many idle poses as possible. There were a ton of those. He used the hands, the legs and tried to find something cool. He wanted the character to feel a little off balance. It worked wonderfully and everyone on the team liked the new idle pose.
Then he did some work with the running, which was done in the style of the character. Movement brought a lot of new visual additions to Mei as a character. Every movement of the arm or leg, jiggling of the backpack and so on – it all felt right. Mei moved soft, floating in space.
The developers also accentuated that feeling with an additional character – Snowball. The artists created some eyes, added some ears and made it all work beautifully. They actually made a beautiful little mascot, who contributed to the general idea of the character.
Hero Select Screen to Benefit The Character
Hero select screen is probably the quintessential part of the whole production process. It’s a way to show the character at its best, to present him/her to the player. On this screen Mei does look very shy and even surprised, which of course works great for her character. It’s all like Amy Adams from Enchanted, like Joy from Inside Out.
No wonder Overwatch characters look so cool. It’s incredible how much work was poured in every little detail, every small element of this project. Be sure to watch David’s talk at GDC 2016.