What's it like to be a video game animator?

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Just a few decades ago, video game graphics were simple, one-dimensional box-shaped items that chugged and sputtered across our screens, providing little sensory inspiration.

Fast forward to now and video games are cinematic masterpieces that a handful of talented animators are diligently whipping up so that kids and adults alike can experience the ultimate child’s play.

Melbourne-based illustrator Simon Boxer was drawn into video games as a child and still inhabits these worlds daily. ‘My father and grandfather were both into technology and would download new games for me to play in the early 90s, so I grew up on games like Commander Keen, Crystal Caves, Cosmo’s Cosmic Adventure,’ he recalls.  He does have to drop the console for his drawing tools from time-to-time, but at least he’s turned his passion into a money-spinner.

As a seven-year-old, Boxer was already developing the skills he’d need to make a living creating video game characters. With a pencil in his tiny hand, he’d draw and draw. By the late 90s, the then teenager had developed intricate skills to emulate the fighter robots in a game called One Must Fall. He describes developing his ability as, ‘an all-consuming, multi-year pursuit.’ His precision and flair are not the result of a couple of years of training, but constant development.

Although video game illustrations are highly technical, his ideas are always sketched on paper first. He is one of the many cogs turning the still image into moving art. It takes a team including a 3D modeller, a technical artist, an animator and an art director to manage the process. Once he is clear on his initial drawing, he will use Photoshop and an interactive pen and pad known as a Wacom tablet, to create a digital file. He says there are few differences between working as a paper artist and a digital concept artist.

In 2015, Boxer has been working on a game called Armello for Australian game studio League of Geeks. ‘Not all of the tasks are glamorous,’ he admits. ‘Sometimes you need to be motivated to get everything done in a timely fashion. Other times it’s easy to get into the workflow and the day will flash by.’ Another challenge is the ongoing shifts in hardware and software. Consumer desires change too. ‘It’s really tough to speculate on what kind of project could be successful,’ he points out.

'My father and grandfather were both into technology and would download new games for me to play in the early 90s.'

Simon Boxer,
Illustrator

On the other side of the globe, 34-year-old Erwin Kho is at his desk in the Netherlands learning computer programming language so that he can illustrate video games and build them, too. He studied visual communications in the Netherlands and went on to work in Amsterdam-based studios as a graphic and motion designer. Berlin-based illustrator Mark Verhaagen nudged Kho into illustration after he saw some of his 3D work and encouraged him to send it to some agencies. Today he’s working as a freelancer and he splits his time working from home, cafes and friends’ studios.

He designs in 3D low poly. This is a technique that is used to make 3D models. ‘The geometry of the 3D game’s objects needs to be defined enough, but not so detailed that they slow down the processor,’ he explains. He’s worked on games for an educational publisher and an independent game studio and uses software called Cinema 4D. ‘I’d start with pencil sketches based on the game concept. After discussing it with the developers, the sketches would be turned into 3D artwork.’

Since Kho started learning game programming, he’s become better equipped to understand how the designs impact the game player’s experience. He created a game called Noodles so he could learn 3D game engine Unity and programming tool C#, but it’s also helped him refine his game illustration, ‘It’s been a great way to learn what works, what doesn’t, what makes sense to a player and how you convey the information.’

The process is complex. A change in the game’s mechanics during the development will mean re-creating the animation and hours of extra 3D modelling. The other key is the programming, where the visual elements must be integrated with the code. Although it’s complex, Kho says seeing his creations come to life in a game is extremely rewarding. ‘It makes the work come alive in new ways and the fact that people can interact with the work is really exciting.’ He says the fact that his work is being recongised as art is a bonus. According to Kho, the days of video games being labelled as kids’ entertainment is long gone.

'The geometry of the 3D game’s objects needs to be defined enough, but not so detailed that they slow down the processor.'

Erwin Kho,
Illustrator

However, US-based illustrator Aaron Limonick says that although his job requires considerable skills and dedication, the profession is not always given the respect it deserves. ‘It’s this self-fulfilling prophecy where the general public thinks that artists aren’t typically successful for some reason, so kids never go into learning it with the necessary level of seriousness to ultimately be successful.’ He encourages young people to treat their professions with the same respect an academic or businessperson would.

Thanks to technological advances, the industry’s credibility is on the rise. The ability to use multiple skills to bring a video game’s graphics to life is increasingly valuable. Deakin University motion capture supervisor, Peter Divers, says ‘Every next generation console has less restrictions so we can put more and more detail into our characters which gives us more creative freedom.’ Divers has had experience working as a motion capture animator on sports games including Rugby League Live 2 and AFL Live. ‘When you know all aspects of the pipeline it makes you a very valuable asset to a team,’ he points out.

So, you want to be a video game animator too? Many game companies offer internships and there’s a booming indie scene where qualified artists can find work.

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