Insight into Character Animation for Games from Arthur Munoz

Insight into Character Animation for Games from Arthur Munoz

Arthur Munoz, an experienced 3D Animator at Spiders Games who worked on multiple titles including The Technomancer and Greedfall, shared his workflow and methods for creating fluid animations for games.

Introduction

My name is Arthur Munoz, I am 32 years old and passionate about animation and video games. I have been working in the video game industry as a 3D animator and rigger for eleven years now.

I grew up in Villeurbanne near Lyon in France, surrounded by comics, video games, and movies. I've completed a 3-year course at Studio M in Lyon after high school, where I learned modeling, texturing, animation - everything required to be a 3D generalist. After my studies, in 2008, I joined an animation studio for a few months in Luxembourg, Studio 352, where I worked on a kid's cartoon called "T'choupi" as a 3D animator. I then moved to Paris to work as a freelance 3D artist on animated films for architectural projects while seeking to join the video game industry.

Since 2009, I’ve worked mainly with Spiders Games as a 3D freelance animator, and have been on all of their projects: Faery, Of Orcs and Men, Mars, Bound by Flame, the Technomancer, and Greedfall.

I sometimes collaborate with other studios as well - I’ve recently worked with Lightbulb Crew for their game "Othercide" as a cinematic animator, and with Cyanide Studio on their game "Werewolf" as an animation consultant to share experience and advice. 

Finally, I also work with indie game developers like Fusebox Games, making the hero's animations for their dungeon crawler game "Godlings".

And now I'm working on Spiders’ new project called "Steelrising", mainly animating automatons - quite a new challenge!

I am also raising 2 children of 3 years old and almost 1 year old with my beloved wife (another challenge!).

Education

I learned the basics of animation as a student, but most of my knowledge came from working as a professional animator. Each game and character to animate is a good occasion to enhance your skills and understand animation. Spiders Games is a company that mainly produces Action RPG, in fantasy or science-fiction type universes, so there are always a lot of creatures in addition to the classic humans.

You also have to be quite versatile, because you have to do both gameplay and cinematic animations, either in keyframe or in motion capture, but also make rigging and skinning as well as looking for solutions to increase productivity and fixing problems in this fast-paced industry.

As a result, I have accumulated a lot of experience as a game animator over the years, deepening my understanding of the field, developing my skills in rigging, focusing on the game experience through animation. In addition, I'm always making personal post-mortems to evolve in a good way and focus on being a better game animator.

I also spend a lot of my free time staying on technology watch, watching Game Developer conferences, tutorials, testing new tools to become more efficient - but much less since I had my kids!

Preparing for Animation

I always start by giving some keywords to define the character and what kind of “energy” I'm looking for. These keywords will be the anchors for this character. At the same time, I'm going to look for some video references with these keywords in mind, mainly on Youtube or Google Image. And then, with all my references gathered, I make a “reference board” to keep all these elements in mind.

Here for example, on this creature board, you can find some Bloodborne and Alien references along with some keywords: “powerful”, “agile” and “ferocious”.

References can be animals, monsters from games/movies/anime, or even filming someone (or myself) acting. Sometimes I just follow inspiration from core references coming from my childhood, or even from the last game I played (like those bosses in Sekiro or Bloodborne by From Software).

Even monsters can have a backstory and a personality, so it's important to give them one before animating. Give them secondary actions, to show their personality and their behavior, like a scream before charging or pointing at his opponent with his sword before an attack. It's also a good feedback for the player to anticipate and learn the pattern of his opponent.

Workflow

For the technical part, I use the software 3ds Max.

I always do the rig of my characters to have control over the upcoming animations - to make sure the controllers I need are in the right place, in order to get the best balance between my ideas and the game engine’s constraints.

For example, on creatures like the Winged Guardian or the Final Guardian (Greedfall), I wanted to be able to make smears frames to improve the fluidity of movements - like in old cartoons, faking a “motion blur” effect. I had to look for a way to have maximum control over the rig so I could stretch at will during key frames and be compatible with the game engine.

I also set up controllers on secondary elements (such as the wooden branches they have everywhere, or the feathers of the wings or the body): these elements are rigged to be animated automatically so I don’t have to bother animating those time-consuming elements, but they add a lot of movement and consistency to the whole.

For the artistic and game design part, everything starts with discussions with the team, the vision of the Art Director and the Game Designer. Their purpose is to identify everyone's expectations and to plan the type of behavior desired.

Then I create a series of various posing, to explore the possibilities while staying in line with the artistic choices and my keywords. When I have a fairly detailed idea of where we are going, I plan the animations that the game designers need by looking for interesting movements and rhythms.

After planning this road map of actions, I go through a blocking phase with clear posing and visible intentions to make rough proposals to the entire team, focusing on body mechanics and silhouette. Then I build each animation as several puzzle pieces of a single set, trying to keep consistency with each iteration while testing the game after each integration. Integration into the game is crucial: we must remain vigilant about the “game feel” once the controller in hand. After each iteration or retake, you have to check that the essence and the feeling of the characters or the creature are still there while playing.

Do not hesitate to offer ideas to game designers on animation behaviors that could influence the gameplay directly: you can help to create even more unique and memorable opponents! The whole process is a maturation cycle over several months that comes with ideas, good and bad, that must be sorted and selected to keep the best possible substrate.

When the first iterations are validated, we can then polish all the animations, focusing on the essentials.

Creating Fluid Animations

Like any animator, I try to follow as much as possible the 12 principles of animation.

I recommend the “5 Fundamentals of Animation in the Video Game” by Jonathan Cooper, who described the principles of animation through video games and categorized them as the Feel, the Context, the Readability, the Fluidity, and the Elegance. Explained by Video Game Animation Study here:

It is important to always keep these ideas in mind when planning your animations.

Beyond the technique and principles of animation, I would say that to make good keyframe animations, we must focus on something that interests us and excites us to give the best in this animation. To push this idea to the maximum, to be proud of this work and give life to both the character and the gameplay idea behind it.

I usually take a long time planning the animation set, to be sure I will be fixing an interesting compromise between gameplay and animation. And of course, I spend time developing a blocking of my animation that is advanced enough to be able to convince the team of my idea. Depending on their feedback, I iterate and end up cleaning my animation until being fully satisfied.

To obtain a fluid animation, I think you have to take care of its arcs on each element: the spectators are used to seeing movements that follow very distinct arcs. Even the smallest glitch is enough to take the viewer out of the illusion, reminding him that he is looking at a series of images made of pixels, and not a scary creature that was brought to life.

Fluidity also goes through the smears frames I was talking about before. These make the bridge between two large spaced frames: the human eye makes the shortcut easily. But be careful: you can quickly end up with a cartoony style!

References in cartoons or video games:

Example in my showreel:

The trails – movement representation of wind - are also there to support rapid and important movements, such as swords or claws. They guide the player's eyes to show him the path traveled by the weapon or the claws which move at high speed.

Above that, the follow-through and overlap are applied as the finishing touch over the main animation to soften the movement.

Animation for Games

Making animation for the gameplay is the key, gameplay is always the “king” of the game, no matter how cool your animations are. So, keep it simple, clear, and always play the game to see how it feels. Always test your animation in-game, ask for feedback, and make a lot of retakes to find the perfect balance between animation and game design. Understanding how the animation system works in the game engine is very important for a game animator.

Communication between each job in the team is also crucial. Understanding what your colleagues are working on is capital, in game design, programming, sound, modeling, to be able to anticipate and to understand future needs.

The most complicated thing in the video game industry is time management: making thousands of animations for a project over several years while maintaining quality is difficult. It is important to be organized and to focus your time on the elements that matter for the game. I like to use metrics to do this and to focus my energy using the 20/80 rule. 20% of the animations are seen 80% of the time, and therefore 80% of the animations are seen 20% of the time (Simon Unger, GDC 2016 Trick of the trade), so focus on 20% most viewed. It can be for polish, or to characterize a character (eg. a female character drawn from a male set), or to underline the gameplay mechanics that stand out the most.

To optimize time, I use also some useful scripts to automatically animate certain parts like tails, to create rigs or make trails.

Advice

I would advise that you always stay positive and aim high in terms of quality, even if sometimes it is difficult with planning constraints. Try to analyze the animations of the games/films that you are passionate about to understand how they work. Set clear goals before starting a project or any task. And stay inspired with everything you like!

Keep challenging yourself, always give the best and animate every day!

Arthur Munoz, 3D Animator

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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