25 December 2012

iAnimate Games Workshop 2 Review

I wouldn't go as far as saying Workshop 2 wasn't a great experience. It just wasn't as good as the first workshop.

Allow me to elaborate. Workshop 2 started normally enough. We were given our assignments as usual, but something that was slightly new was that Ric Arroyo (the instructor in charge of establishing the curriculum) gave us a sort of teaser video of what to expect throughout the entire workshop. It was actually really exciting to watch and get hyped about the upcoming assignments. But for me and at least a few other students, that excitement quickly faded when we realized how intense the assignments were.

About 5 or so weeks into the block a lot of the students were discussing the difficulty and confusion on our Skype group, and I felt we had to take action. I took it upon myself to message David Hubert and Ric Arroyo about the difficulties we were having, and David responded with his thoughts and we had a rather productive back-and-forth about what to fix and how to fix it. David and Ric backed off on the intensity and pacing of the assignments, and they were able to make adjustments on the fly with the curriculum. We were also having difficulty actually understanding what was required of each assignment, so Ric started laying out more specific requirements as well as making a complementary video to explain what was expected.

This leads me to another issue we encountered. When my instructor, Tristan Sacramento, started explaining the assignments, it was clear that all he had to go by was the assignment sheets; there seemed to be a lack of communication between Ric and the instructors as to what was expected. This led to Tristan giving us an assignment that I don't think any of the students were quite ready for. Don't misunderstand me; I'm not trying to lay the blame on anyone. These are the kinds of kinks you would expect in an early program like this. Though if I'm not mistaken, some of the students were actually able to complete said assignment and make it onto the student reel so I guess it all worked out.

Tristan Sacramento is a great guy and an incredible animator, but he told us from the start that this was his first time doing any kind of teaching gig. For the first few weeks, he realized that he couldn't quite squeeze everything he wanted to say into each students short window of time for the critique (about 15 minutes), so he constantly offered to give us in-between critiques - critiques we could get if we sent him an email during the middle of the assignment week. This was obviously a pretty big deal that he would take extra time out of his busy life and give us even more critiques in between class sessions. I also had a back and forth with him regarding feedback about what he could do differently and he took my suggestions to heart. I think that speaks to how great of a guy he is, so, good job Tristan :).

Now to come full circle about my first point. At the time, I thought having teaching experience should be some sort of requirement, so I again contacted David (he's very easy to talk to if you haven't gathered). He responded by saying they pick the instructors based on experience and artistic ability, and that having teaching experience is a plus. I foolishly compared Tristan to Richard Lico (my instructor from Workshop 1), and thought that Richard Lico had teaching experience and therefore I got more out of it. David's response was that Lico is one of the most productive, talented animators he's known in his 12 years of experience, and that if you compare any of the instructors to a particular one expecting them to be the same you'll be disappointed.

This was quite a revelation for me as I realized you have to take each instructor as they are and try to get the most out of it. I was expecting Tristan to be as brilliant of an instructor as Lico, but the fact is Tristan just did things differently. Please do not misunderstand me: Tristan is a great animator and turned out to be a great instructor to work with.

There were a few other flaws to speak of, the first being that the rigs weren't quite there yet. The rigs weren't so much buggy as they were cluttered and hard to work with, there seemed to be too many features put into the rig to try to account for every situation an animator could face; many students preferred to use the feature film rigs such as SkyScraper instead. As of this writing, as far as I know, they're hard at work on 3.0 of the rigs that should be ready by workshop 3.

There's also still no game engine as part of the curriculum. Based on what I learned from workshop 1 - you can make all these shnazzy (that's a technical term) animations in Maya, but if you don't stick them into a game engine to test for gameplay, responsiveness, etc, you won't know if the animation works. This will hopefully be remedied by workshop 3, as I'm quite eager to play with the blending and layering of the animations (something that to the best of my knowledge requires scripting/programming, which is another area of knowledge I'm quite fond of). As of writing this we should have access to a game engine to put our animations in by workshop 3. If not, I'll take it upon myself to simply learn Unity or Unreal and put my animations in an engine either way. Showing that kind of initiative will surely earn me some brownie points along the way :)

Workshop 3 should be very fun. Brett Pascal seems like a great guy (he was in a guest QnA event that was open to the public about a week ago). And it just so happens that he's working on a game that I'm VERY excited about: Company of Hereos 2. I absolutely cannot wait to pick his brain about it. If he breaks his NDA by the end of the workshop, I'll consider it a success :)

Overall, the second workshop turned out to be great. I started out comparing it to Workshop 1 and the "newness" simply wasn't there, but that does not at all mean it doesn't stand on it's own. Once they work out the kinks and bugs these will be hands down the best place to learn game animation; in my mind it already is - it'll just be that much better.

05 August 2012

iAnimate Games Workshop 1 Review

Starting in May of 2012 I had the somewhat unique opportuny of doing essentially the pilot program for the iAnimate Games Division of workshops. Up to this point I had already done two body mechanics classes at iAnimate (4 total if you count the 2 at AnimationMentor). It was about mid-way through my second term that Jason Ryan officially announced it internally to the students. I was dead set on doing it, but I decided at the time that it would be better to move on to Workshop 4 (Facial Acting), watch some of the game lectures on the side and try to glean and follow the assignments on top of my existing curriculum. After discussing it with a friend, he convinced me to switch over immediately to games rather than doing Workshop 4 and then switching. His argument was pretty compelling, so I decided I would do it (it was just a matter of convincing my parents). After I officially passed Workshop 2 Body Mechanics, I paid for Games and was good to go. I was more glad I did so once it started because the lectures are blocked to any one on the feature side and vice versa; my original plan to glean from the lectures wouldn't have worked.

A great thing about the Game Division is that there is literally nothing like it. Sure you have schools like AnimationMentor, AnimSchool, and now CGSpectrum, whose instructors come from some of the top film and vfx studios, but you never hear anything about them being from a game studio. Anything that is taught at these schools is almost 100% feature film oriented. Even traditional brick and mortar schools may teach classes like game design or some other such broad topic related to games, but to my knowledge this is literally the first class you can take specifically to learn game oriented animation.

The Instructors
As you can expect from a school like iAnimate, they have signed on some of the top animators in the industry to be the instructors of the Games Division. Richard Lico, who worked most notably at Bungie on Halo Reach, Kevin Rucker, who works on God of War, and David Lam, animator on Uncharted for Naughty Dog. Hopefully I don't have to tell you the awesomeness of such AAA titles, and the skill that is obviously required to work at a studio that puts out those kinds of games. In other words, these guys work at some of the top game studios in the world, so you know they know what they're talking about, and are more than fit to teach the next generation of up and coming game animators. Richard Arroyo, who himself is not an instructor, but rather is the head overseer of all the goings-on, get's a notable mention. David Hubert also gets a notable mention as the one who conceived and proposed the idea to Jason Ryan.

I've done my best to watch the lectures from each instructor. While a lot of the things they say will obviously overlap, I think the best part about watching all of them is finding little nuggets of knowledge that the other instructors don't talk about. I'd say for each lecture there's somewhere in the ballpark of 10-20% new knowledge between them each time.

The instructors themselves are all really laid back and down to earth. They're there to teach you and make you better and they definitely left their ego at the door (a very good thing!)

The Curriculum
Whereas the QnA's on the feature side of iAnimate are more for the instructor to answer questions, the QnA's on the game side are more like actual lectures where the students are allowed to ask questions along the way. The instructors all got together before it started and shared their work that related to whichever assignment. They then pull from each other's examples during the lectures, which I think is pretty cool. While they each have their own teaching style, each instructor manages to convey at least the important information in a concise way.

At the time of writing this, I haven't watched the other critiques, only the lectures, so I will only speak for Richard Lico, my instructor's grading style. Lico is a hardass. And I say that with the utmost respect. He definitely know's how to be tough on you to push and make you better but not so tough that you feel inadequate. In my opinion he is just about the perfect mix of being tough yet helpful. After the first assignment, he started grading with a pass/fail system. Pass would mean if you were at a studio that he was working at as a lead, your animation would be able to go in the game, albeit with minor tweaks and notes, which is to be expected. Fail would mean that you would have to go back and re-work and make it better and closer to game ready animation. Another cool note about the grading is that you send in your Maya scene, rather than a simple quicktime video, to be graded. This way the instructor can not only tell you what to fix, but demonstrate fixing it if he so chooses to, right in front of you. If I were to be nit-picky about Lico's grading style, or just teaching in general, my one complaint would be that he would sometimes fail to say explicitly if our assignment was a pass or a fail. I remember on several occasions I would have to ask him if it was a pass or fail because it was somewhat ambiguous. So, Lico, if you're reading this, keep that in mind for next time :). I think if the other instructors adopted this style of grading it could help the students in knowing where they stand with their abilities. A note to prospective students: it shouldn't be construed that too much weight should be put on Lico's pass/fail system. I failed several assignments in the beginning of the class, but it was clear that I was getting better as the class went forward. The main thing is that you're improving.

Obviously I do not wish to divulge too much about the actual curriculum as far as the assignments go, but suffice it to say that they're pretty close to the kind of work you'd expect to recieve at an actual studio, depending on the genre of game.

The Rigs
I don't think it's really far out there to say that iAnimate is becoming famous for it's character rigs. They've already got an impressive library of characters, and more scheduled to come out roughly every block. The Games shops started out with two character rigs: Lisa, and Redback. Lisa is a pretty badass female bipedal type character, and Redback is a cool monster type creature. Both are pretty cool designs, but, the rigs themselves do have their flaws and bugs. Redbacks default pose, for example, doesn't have the feet actually planted on the ground like you'd expect, but rather slanted and penetrating (if you use the grid as a ground plane). This creates a problem when you go to animate the feet: the move forward on two axes in the graph editor rather than just one. That is not exactly the kind of "rookie mistake" you'd expect to see in a "quality game rig". Lisa has issues with skin weighting and other bugs. As of writing this they are completely rebuilding the rigs from scratch as well as adding two new ones to the collection, all rigged by the new Game Rigging instructor, Daniel Belair. So I'm most definitely looking forward to those updates come next block, because, let's just say that everyone got pretty tired of Lisa too quickly. Speaking of the Rigging Instructor, they've started a new rigging class, so it'll be exciting to see what kinds of rigs those students kick out. I even suggested on the iAnimate Games Facebook page that the rigs that the rigging students produce could potentially be released to the animators, and they replied that that was a good idea (have to give credit to AnimSchool for that one).

The Not-So-Great
Being essentially a pilot program - it's first time out of the gate - there's bound to be flaws. In my opinion these are rather nit-picky but flaws nonetheless that I believe if improved could enhance the overall experience. Probably the biggest thing for me is the timing of the lectures. David Lam and Richard Lico's lectures were on Monday and Tuesday, respectively, while Kevin Ruckers was on Friday. Now I know these are hard working dudes and they have to squeeze in this school on top of their no doubt busy schedules, but Friday is a bit late to have a lecture compared to the other two. In other words, when I'm watching the other instructors lectures, I want to do it somewhat before I'm starting my assignment, which David and Richard's allow me to do. Having Kevin's lecture two days before the classes assignments are due makes it hard for one to take the aforementioned "nuggets" from his lecture and apply them to one's assignment, provided one has worked diligently on it up to that point (i.e. is almost done with it). If the lectures were scheduled more or less in the beginning or middle of the week I think it would be better for everyone.

The other thing is about the specifics of the requirements of each assignment. There seemed to be a disconnect in the way the instructors would have the students do certain things. I believe this is due to the different genres of games they have worked on. Richard Lico for example would have his class do a certain assignment somewhat with a first person shooter slant on it, whereas Lam and Rucker, who have worked on 3rd person action games, have their different slants as well. It's rather tough to explain this part without again divulging too much about the curriculum, so allow me to attempt with an example. With Lico, he expected his class to do the jump assignment as it would be seen in a first person shooter game, i.e. when the player presses the button the character immediately jumps - there's no anticipation whatsoever. Lam on the other hand, who has worked on Uncharted, would have his class do the jump as if they were workin on Uncharted - a game with a very realistic style of animation - and therefore had an anticipation for the jump. Again these are rather minor, nit-picky things, but I feel there should be less..."chaos" for lack of a better word between the specifics. On the flipside of that coin, if one did his research before choosing which instructor he wanted, he could tailor his experience to which genre of game he wanted to work on. I, for example, play almost exclusively first person shooters, so Lico was a great fit for me. If a prospective student were to want to work on a game such as Uncharted or God of War, they would no doubt pick Lam or Rucker, provided the schedules matched up. One could maximise the benefit of their experience if they payed attention to a detail like this and used it to their advantage.

One other example in disconnect is when one of the assignments came up, the assignment sheet said it was a 2 week assignment. Lico had his class take a "break" week and work on any of the past assignments that they felt needed polish or that extra push instead. The second week of the 2 week assignment he moved on to the next assignment after that, and the week after moved back to the original 2 week assignment. Sounds confusing? Because it is. I would be remiss to lay the blame all on Lico, especially since he had a family emergency that week. In this case I think there should have been more discussion amongst the instructors as to what was due each week. As an aside, Ric Arroyo stepped in to do the critique in Lico's absence. He definitely had a different take on our animation and it was interesting to get a different perspective. This example, though, is hopefully a one time thing and won't happen in the future.

One caveat I should mention is about game animation itself. Something very cool that Lico did during the critiques was asked the students what their thought process was, what they were trying to achieve, etc. We didn't know it until about a month into it that he was preparing us for a real job interview; those are the kinds of questions we could expect to be asked about the animation on our demo reel. So the caveat you have to think about is that you can produce a pretty, polished animation in Maya, but that animation might be blending and layering with other animations in an actual game engine. The reason he was asking us these questions is that he was trying to get us to think about the animation from a gameplay/game design perspective, rather than solely an animation perspective. I think this could be applied to anything in games. So, bravo Lico.

The final thing that I would have to be nit-picky about pertains to the caveat. If we were truly trying to take our animations to the next level, we would have to test them in a game engine to make sure they work. Now granted, there are a lot of logistics to think about when putting an animation in a game engine, but I still think this is something they should have had ready to go out the gate: a game engine ready for our animations to be put in. The instructors were supposedly in talks to get a license to use Unity or Unreal, but from my understanding there's all kinds of hoops they would have had to jump through in order to receive licenses for use in the school. It would not have been all that bad if they had taken another month or two to figure these things out, and open up the games workshops one block later. As of writing this they will have the game engine ready by the beginning of the next block.

One last note about the critiques, although it's not really a "con" or a "downside". There is basically one new assignment each week, so when the next critique session rolls around you've already moved on to the next assignment and don't really have an opportunity to show that you hit the instructor's notes on the previous assignment. This isn't to say that you can't; I'm sure the instructors are flexible enough to allow you to hit the notes and submit a revised version, in fact I'm almost certain that they would encourage it, but there's only so much time they can spend on each student per critique, and if you only turn in and/or receive a critique for a revised animation, you'll be in a constant game of catch-up, unless the instructor is able to do both. Fortunately for Lico's class, we had a relatively small class size, so there was plenty of time at the end of each critique session if a student wanted to submit a revision. One would be wise and at least try and hit the notes either way, and wait for a hole at the end of a critique so the instructor could take a look. I only mention this because on the feature side, there may be two, three, or even four weeks to complete a single assignment and submit several revisions. Having this quick pace of assignments on the game side is definitely good, though, because you can expect to have to animate faster, i.e., not get to as much of a level of polish as you would like, at a game studio.

Overall, I'm very glad I decided to take the games workshops. They've got a great cast of instructors, a great setup with the assignments, and I know they have some awesome stuff in store for the next two workshops, and if the right eyes read this review, some things could be changed for the better. If you're a) at all interested in getting into game animation and/or b) comfortable with your body mechanics skills, don't give it a second thought. You'll be glad you did.