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The Work Behind Creating Animation Reels

Serhii Krystiev showed the workflow behind creating animation and demo reels and shared some tips for beginner artists.

Introduction

My name is Serhii Krystiev, I am a lead animator at the Creative Assembly studio based in Horsham, UK.

Since I joined Creative Assembly in 2021, I worked on Warhammer III and Warhammer III DLC as a senior animator. Now I’m the lead animator on an unannounced project. Previously, I worked at the 4A Games studio in Kyiv, Ukraine, on projects such as Metro Exodus, Metro Exodus: Sam's Story, and Metro Exodus: Two Colonels. I started as a cinematic and QTE animator and grew to a creature principal animator. Before my gamedev experience, I worked on the feature film "Clara" and at 95 Animation Studio on a TV show.

Animation

This is a controversial part of my biography. I studied Foreign Economics for 5 years and worked at the state bank in my native city Mariupol. But I quickly realized that this profession was not my cup of tea and began to think about changing it. By lucky chance, I met my classmate, who recently joined 95 Animation Studio in Kyiv as an animator, and he suggested that I try my hand at a new field. After a short interview with the studio director, my journey began.

As I was inexperienced, I learned fast from my colleagues and started practicing animation in my free time. Consciously, I decided to dedicate my career to animation when I realized that it is something that gives me joy, fun, and fulfillment during and after the process. Especially when I see my final work on TV, on a cinema screen, or in a game.

Education

I was self-taught. The first book that I started to explore was Animator's Survival Kit by Richard Williams. My first work was mocap-based, and after gaining confidence in this tool, I was craving more and started practicing keyframe animation. In the process of creating my first keyframe shot, I realized the importance of using a video reference.

Also, I analyzed in detail animations from different movies and games that I admired. I was lucky to have friends and colleagues who helped me with feedback. My first course was an Advanced Body Mechanics workshop at iAnimate with Alexis Wanneroy. It helped me to understand a different variety of pipelines and open a new perspective of thought processes and attention to detail. 

After improving body mechanics and character animation I decided to try creature animations. For more knowledge, I applied to the SquashnStretch animation school with Filippo Dattola. It was an advanced interaction class. This helped me become the principal creature animator at 4A Games. 

Last year, I attended the Animawarriors animation course with Stephen Eusebio. Although I was already an experienced animator, it helped me a lot to look at my current workflow from another perspective. Learning is a constant process for me. I still do my personal shots at home after work.

As for my first job, as I said, I was lucky to have the opportunity to start my career without an animation background. The studio director gave me credit. With the help of the lead animator, I quickly learned how to work with mocap, what its purpose is and the concept behind it. This gave me a big push and a solid base to start exploring keyframe animation. I’m still working with mocap, and I think it’s a great and important tool to have in your skillset. 

Tips on Demo Reels

  1. Keep your demo reel short. Better to have a 1-minute reel with several, dynamic shots that show your current experience and field of interest (e.g., stylized or realistic animation, cinematics or gameplay).
  2. Keep the shots for the reel short. Avoid animating long shots, especially if you’re aiming for a gameplay role. Up to 6 seconds should be enough to sell the idea. The more frames you have, the harder it is to polish and finish with decent/high quality. I would prefer to see 3-second polished shots rather than long and not finished ones.
  3. Don’t hesitate to delete old shots from the reel. Especially if it doesn't reflect your current level of experience. To catch the eye of the audience, put the best shots at the beginning.
  4. Ask for feedback from professionals. There are a lot of professionals who are open to help with feedback. Post your work in animation groups and social media. 
  5. Break down your reel. Who helped you during this shot? Was this done on courses or was it your personal work? Was it part of a collaboration with other people? Maybe you exported and rendered the animation in the engine? Highlight the things you were responsible for.
  6. Better to prepare your reel for a certain role or studio. If you’re aiming for a role related to gameplay animation, reduce the acting pieces and focus on adding a couple solid body mechanic shots or combo attacks. This will increase your chances of getting a job.
  7. Personally, when I look at a candidate's reels, I like to see a variety of differently weighted characters and weapons. I think practice with weight is beneficial in general and work for all studios.
  8. Don't aim just for the biggest studios from the beginning. There are many smaller studios, indie studios, or just less popular, with interesting projects that may be looking for less experienced animators but with the right attitude. It will be a great start for you and the more you gain experience the easier you will land your dream job.

Personal Projects

At some point, animation became not just a job but also my hobby. My personal animation projects have played a significant role in my professional growth and career. At work, you may not always be satisfied with the variety of tasks you receive or maybe you just want to try your hand at a new style. I always felt that I lacked experience in some areas so I started creating my personal animations. I started to motivate myself with the work of other professionals and created my schedule of personal work to maintain discipline. I also asked for feedback from professionals and colleagues in animation groups and social media. It helped me to cover some gaps where I was insecure and push myself toward new challenges. I was interested in creating new shots with different styles and characters in my free time. And I still do that. 

Tips for Beginners

  • In the process of learning animation, do not spend your time on other areas such as rigging, modeling, or FX. You will achieve your goal faster if you concentrate on one thing.
  • Register on social media like Twitter, Vimeo, and LinkedIn. Share your shots and ask for feedback. It will help you to improve your skill and create very important connections, you will become more visible to other animators and recruiters. Our community is very small, and being visible will improve the chances of being hired.
  • Aiming to work on gameplay animation you should focus on animating characters from 360 degrees (not from a specific camera). It will improve your body mechanics and make your poses balanced and appealing from all angles. Complete your reel with locomotion, attacks, idles, and death animations. Also, if you start to explore different engines such as Unreal Engine or Unity and create simple logic, it will be beneficial for you.
  • Analyse animation and train your eye. Choose an animation you like from professional reels and use the frame-by-frame function to break it down. Think about the principles and rules behind this animation. Breaking down animation will significantly increase your level.
  • Ask questions and feedback from professionals. It is okay to ask for feedback if you do not have any friends with an animation background. I know we are all busy people, but I guarantee you that you will find a person who will give you notes that will play an important role in building your shot.
  • Find inspiration. Play games, watch animated feature films and game trailers, watch GDC talks, and read other blogs from other animators. It will help you to find new ideas for your personal work, and it will keep you motivated.
  • At the beginning of your path, do not rely on tools and scripts. I highly appreciate that we have a variety of tools that help to increase your productivity and your workflow. Before starting to use scripts, try to understand what logic stands behind them and learn how to re-create the logic manually.

Serhii Krystiev, Lead Animator

Interview conducted by Arti Burton

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