Ember Lab's Animation Director Hunter Schmidt told us about Kena: Bridge of Spirits's unique art style, animating the little Rot spirits, and moving from cinematography to game development.
I'm Hunter Schmidt, Animation Director here at Ember Lab. I’m involved in all things animation, but also play a big part in our hiring, production planning, and story development. I really love getting to grow the team and animate and learn alongside them as well.
I actually started out studying visual effects and spent a lot of time collaborating with other friends getting started in their careers. I first met Mike and Josh when I was still in college, and I immediately fell in love with what they were doing. They had just founded Ember Lab and had some very small projects keeping the lights on, but what really sucked me in was the short film they were working on, Dust. I was really lucky to get to work with them on that, to learn from them and collaborate with them and everything just went from there.
So, I was part of the company almost from the founding. In the early days, we'd all be lighting and compositing shots together. We were all on the same page as far as tone, camera, and style. But something that kept coming to me was our animation, and my role grew from there. There were much better animators we’d bring on for short contracts when we could afford it, but at our scale that still left us with a bunch of unfinished shots, characters feeling different, sometimes completely broken. It was a whole other matter getting things to the finish line and making sure the characters had a soul carrying through each shot. That's where I found myself able to contribute the most. We all really enjoyed bringing these characters to life, and it was these animated characters that started bringing in bigger and bigger projects, which would ultimately fund some of our passion projects like the Majora's Mask fan film, and eventually that first prototype for Kena: Bridge of Spirits.
The animation team itself is still relatively small for now. We only have about four animators, but we have expanded our rigging and tool support. I still find it remarkable what you can accomplish with a small team of talented and well-trained animators. We absolutely plan on bringing on more animators in the future, but for now, we've just invested a lot in developing and empowering these team members, and I'm already seeing a huge difference in what we're able to accomplish.
The core animation team on Kena: Bridge of Spirits was similarly quite small for what you're seeing on the screen. There were only about three or four animators dedicated to the project at any point. For the cutscenes, we did bring on a team of about six to eight contracted animators for a short period of time. But we didn't outsource any of our animation, it was all done here in-house.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits
This was a big first for us. It was something on a completely different scale than what we had done before and game development brought a lot of complexity. But we set out to tell a story with a lot of heart, and had a very specific story of loss and forgiveness in mind, and that stayed true from the very first conversations about Kena.
From an animation standpoint, we wanted to develop a style that could lend itself to big, satisfying gameplay but still carry a character-driven, emotional story. We didn’t want to break immersion between gameplay and cinematics but instead wanted the gameplay to feel a bit like you were stepping inside an animated tale. So we tried our best to develop a style with exaggerated, fluid movement that reads in the wider game view but is grounded enough in physical reality to feel like the same characters when you cut in close. So the bigger movements were done pretty thoughtfully, with careful body mechanics and weight, and we always wanted to feel the finer, more tactile details in Kena’s hair and clothing.
It was also important for me to show the characters interact and make physical contact with one another. This is easy to avoid in animation as it can be challenging. But we sought opportunities to do this, and seeing Saiya hug Kena, or the Rot jump on Kena’s knee or shoulder, are some of the most memorable moments, in my opinion.
The game was developed in Unreal Engine 4, animated in Maya, and we used some well-known but still life-saving tools like Studio Library and AnimBot. Beyond that, we didn't really have any secrets. We kept things incredibly low budget for what you see on the screen.
To keep things streamlined in our small team, I just did my best to communicate and share as much as I could, often using video or music. I did a lot of demos and created tutorials to train the team on aspects of the animation style that were important to me. But at the end of the day, we just had a tight team of dedicated artists who cared about the project.
The Rot, little spirits that accompany the protagonist, were so fun. The challenge with the Rot was maintaining their perfectly round shape and capturing the feeling that they were one connected mass, like a squishy blob. There was some simple but clever rigging to help preserve their volume, and it took some care and attention to detail in animation to manage ugly deformations and clean interpolation in a methodical way.
It’s quite different from a more realistic, mature human body type. But some of our previous commercial work featured some very stylized, exaggerated characters and we were able to draw on that experience.
There are a lot of really wonderful moments I'm proud of, and in them, I still see all the animators who helped get it there. Some beautifully tender or striking moments in the cinematics. Kena’s controller movement was an undertaking. But I also love some smaller animations that do just a little extra work to show the characters being alive, like when Kena sits down and interacts with her Rot companions. It’s a great example of interaction that was so important for us to get right. You see Kena sit down in a cross-legged position, which is already a great exercise in animating weight. She'll then lean on her elbow, which attaches to her knee, then rest her head in the palm of her hand, another point of contact. Then her little Rot companion will jump from her leg to her hand, to her shoulder, to her head. I love this sort of thing. Getting all these pieces to fit together and feel connected does a lot, in my opinion, to give these characters believability and warmth.
From Movies to Games
Game development brought a lot of challenges that were pretty new to us, which ultimately helped improve our whole approach to animation all across the board. The sort of projects we were doing before would have maybe dozens of shots to animate and you simply weren't confronted with the challenges of iterating across literally thousands of animations. Being able to manage and maintain quality across thousands of animations was just a whole other story. The longer time frame plays very differently as well. Instead of creating something in just a few months, you’ll have several years of production where the product keeps evolving and the team keeps learning and improving, so you constantly have to change, rework, or improve things. It’s a bigger mental shift than one might think, as animators who are used to having ownership over a shot will find that their work needs to be picked up a year later and often passed to other team members. With time it really becomes even more of a team effort, united in learning from each other and building a style together.
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