Creature Creation Part 2: Animation
"Here's a good quote for you," says Brad Constantine, an animator on Star Wars Galaxies. "Animation is never finished. It's only abandoned." He laughs, but the sentiment about the complexity of animation is serious. "You can sit and noodle something forever."
Bringing a Star Wars creature to life can require a lot of noodling by artists. Even before the meshes and textures have been finished and handed off to the animators, the animators go to the zoo. Sometimes they go watch videos. Other times they may go read a book or surf the Internet. It's all homework done to prepare them for animating their projects (and you thought you'd escape homework once you were out of school-not a chance).
"I do a lot of homework for any animation set that I do," explains Brad. "When I know a character is coming up, I start studying this stuff ahead of time, to get a feel for how they move and how the bones fit in the body. A lot of these creatures are hybrids of creatures that you find in the natural world here on Earth. So, I'll find creatures that are similar to the ones I'm working on. In the case of the krayt dragon here, I've got a whole video of Komodo dragons. Even just things like the attitude that his body's in when he's walking, things like that are helpful."
Just as the artists who make the meshes are limited by technology to a strict number of polygons, so too are the animators similarly limited. Instead of polygons, however, they are limited as to the number of bones they can put into a creature. Brad shows me the bantha he has been working on. It is an enormous, elephantine hulk of swaying hair with a large mouth and great curving horns. "I'm only allowed a certain number of bones. The bantha here comes in at about 54 bones. The most we'd want to do for a large character like this is 60. The krayt dragon was a bit over, I think."
Back at the beginning of development, the designers decided on which creatures they wanted to include in the game, based on the planets they planned to have in the initial release, "niches" each creature would fill in gameplay, and other criteria. The list was long. It was the job of Joe Shoopack and Jake Rodgers to find a way to create them all within the development time available. Sacrificing quality for speed was not an option.
Their solution for animation was simple and efficient. Because so many of the creatures of Star Wars can find their physical roots in real Earth creatures, Joe and Jake were able to break down the list into skeleton types.
"We devised all the different types of skeletons," explains Joe, who begins clicking through the many folders in his computer, "such as goat, frog, giraffe, elephant, dinosaurid, canine, finch-type birds, and giant-type birds. We use some mythical skeleton types, too, because on Earth we don't have, say, a four legged giant flighted creature. We finally categorized approximately 40 skeleton types."
With a manageable number of groups in hand and most of the creatures divvied up into their proper group (some creatures, like the Great Sarlacc, are so singular in shape and function that they defied categorization and so were treated a bit differently), the animators could generate a basic skeleton for each group. Joe comes to the tusk cat file and opens it to show as an example. The "tusk cat" you saw in Part 1 of this article is not actually a tusk cat but a great plains tusk cat. With the release of The Wildlife of Star Wars: A Field Guide, the "tusk cat" was revealed as a mount, which differed considerably from the tusk cat the team had already designed. Rather than scrap the work, the predatory great plains cat-a cousin of the tusk cat-was born. "If you take the flesh off a cat, they're all very similar at the skeletal level, though they may be structured more muscular or thinner or sleeker," says Joe.
One might assume this would just lead to lots of the same critters running around in the game with different names and skin colors, but ultimately the same body. It crosses my mind briefly, but that assumption is quickly dispelled as Joe opens creature file after creature file to show me examples. Certainly, varying skin color is one way to introduce some variety, but it's limited compared to what the team is able to achieve through creative modeling, texturing, animation, and even specialized changes to a basic skeleton itself.
But we're jumping ahead a bit.
The Difference Between a Squill and a Squall
Along with coming up with the skeleton categories to help make creature creation efficient, Joe Shoopack and Jake Rodgers also came up with an animation list that would include the basic actions and reactions all creatures in the game need. "Everybody has to locomote with at least two different speeds; everybody has to turn left and turn right. Everybody has to have an idle," says Joe. "Beyond that they're all pretty different. The predators have multiple attacks, where the standard creatures have one attack. Predators can get into combat position, and have a combat walk that is like a sneak. These aren't necessary for a dewback. Fish, especially small fish, do not generally require a lot of these animations either."
Both the skeleton categories and the animation list provided a structured plan and jumping off point from which the artists could build hundreds of unique creatures efficiently.
Joe is still popping open creature files. His screen is jammed full of things you could only meet in a game like Star Wars Galaxies. "'He seemed to scroll forever down the unending list of imaginative Star Wars creatures,'" he quips in a writerly tone, as if he were reading it from the page of my future article. "'I was blown away by the sheer variety.'" We both laugh. I think to myself, there's no way I'm going to write that.
He stops at another peculiar looking beast. It's furry with a long body and short legs. Its head look vaguely like a giant fruit bat, but this thing doesn't fly. This is an example of a creature that uses the lizard skeleton as a base, but isn't lizard-like at all. Though a creature's skeleton may be one of the 40 basics, labeled "the lizard skeleton," or "the elephant skeleton," for example, it can drive anything that has its general posture.
Speaking of heads: "The secret with the heads is, all you really need on a head is the location of the jawbone and some eye movement. But this jaw can be like this," Joe shows me-something, I don't know what it is-with a hideously extended lower jaw, "or this," he points out another thing with a stubby beak, "as long as its pivot point is fixed." Neither creature looks anything alike, yet they share a common skeleton. This same principal applies also to things like ears and tails, too. As a matter of fact, a tailless creature could use a skeleton that has a tail. The bones still exist, but aren't seen be because there's no mesh weighted to them. Again, even more opportunities for variety.
A knock at Joe's office door interrupts us. Someone on the other side jiggles the handle but it's locked. I get up and open it. It's Senior Artist Jeff Jonas.
Jeff: "On these hair things, can we just assume that we're going to do all the hair and start doing them on all of our creatures that have hair, so you don't have to send out the pink slips?"
Joe: "Yeah, if you want to, go ahead and do it."
Jeff: "Why don't you email everybody to start fixing the hairs so you don't have to deal with that?"
Joe: "I do that because when I email people they'll say, 'I don't have anything with hair.' If I email them a specific list, they'll say, 'Oh, yeah that. Okay.'"
Jeff nods and leaves. Waiting patiently behind him is Tim Webb, an animator. I start to feel like I've been monopolizing a valuable resource with this interview.
Joe: "Hey Tim."
Tim: "I have a really difficult question for you. Now, is it the 'horned kreval' or the 'horned krevol'?"
Joe: "Let's check the list. These names are all approved by Haden Blackman our producer content supervisor guy. Let's see...it is...the horned krevol."
Tim thanks Joe and closes the door behind him. Joe resumes the creature slideshow on his monitor. He seems to scroll forever down the unending list of imaginative Star Wars creatures. And despite my earlier declaration, I admit that I am blown away by the sheer variety.
He finishes by offering a bit of ominous zoological advice to future players of Star Wars Galaxies: Know the difference between your squills and your squalls. Your life may depend on it.
The Illusion of Life
Once the skeleton categories and animation lists are done and the many creatures to be included in the game are parceled out to the artists (individual requests for certain creatures by the artists were considered as well), work begins. When a creature's mesh and texture are created, they are handed to the animators, who include Alan Pickett, Brad Constantine, Tim Webb,Kris Taylor, Nick Zuccarello, Don Alexander, and Dan Borth. Some of the artists, such as Don and Dan, do it all, from modeling and texturing all the way through animation to the final product. Don has even done some concept work as well.
Both Alan and Brad are veterans of 2D animation, and Joe Shoopack looked for artists with experience in this area. 3D experience along with computer knowledge was also valuable, but candidates with solid 2D animation background had definite appeal. "The software is only a tool," says Joe. "It's one thing to know how to use the software, but you need the traditional animation skills behind it."
"I still apply all the same techniques and methods I used as a 2D animator now to 3D," says Alan. 2D animation background can provide a sense of how things move (movement in 3D is driven by the bones; this is referred to as "weighting"), which is a very valuable skill.
The animation list, which is prioritized by ratings-one being the most important, two being secondary, and so on-helps the artists and the producers ensure that they cover all the actions necessary in the game. But within those specific animations, such as walk, run, gallop, attack, take damage, idle, etc., there is a great amount of creative flexibility for the animator. How will the creature walk? Does it lope from place to place? Does it dart about? Even when it is standing still, doing nothing, a creature is doing something. Otherwise, it doesn't create the illusion of life. How they do these things is largely up to the artist.
As mentioned, the animators do their homework, studying books, videos, and even real animals. If they're working on something that has been seen in one of the Star Wars movies, these will serve as terrific references-what better way to figure out how a rancor walks than watching Return of the Jedi?
Animating a creature is best tackled in stages. "The first thing we usually do is a walk," explains Brad. "The walk is a great way to start testing a character out. A walk kind of sets the tone for how a character will move size-wise.
"A lot of people don't know where to start on an animation. They start with the feet, and they're worrying so much about what the feet are doing that they're not thinking about the rest of the body. Generally I start with the body in a walk. I have a bone at the base of the spine, kind of a tailbone. I usually start there and think about what the whole body is doing. Then I add one thing at a time. That's why it's important to really understand what these things are doing in real life. And that's where having the video tape comes in handy."
A great example of the stages of an animation can be seen in the walk of the great plains tusk cat. The team has provided seven short movies of these stages, from beginning to end.
The computer is a tool that makes animation much easier and faster for the artists. A final animation can consist of about 60 frames. However, the artists need not hand-set every single one of those frames. Instead, they set what are called key frame poses. As an example, Brad shows me the krayt dragon's animation for taking a hit. "About seventeen frames is all I need to get him into the major poses to do the animation. I don't worry about getting from here to there. I let the computer do all that." In the action (or reaction in this case), the krayt takes a hit and rears its great head, tracking in a bent ellipse. It actually appears to be in pain, so effective is the drama in its motion, until it finally brings its head back around to face the fool that dealt the blow. Now it just plain looks furious. All that from just 17 frames blended into 60 by the computer.
This helpful technique performed by the computer is called blending, and makes animation efficient and flowing.
Another valuable tool is simply referred to as "the viewer." The programmers on the team developed this piece of software. "Our programmers in Texas are awesome," admits Brad. "What they've done is emulated the Maya window, so the same controls I use to navigate the windows in Maya are the same in the viewer." The viewer lets the animators adjust lighting, load up animations, and more so they can see just how their critters will look in the game.
When all the noodling of a creature's animation is complete (remember, no creature is ever finished!), it is reviewed by Joe Shoopack and Jake Rodgers. They make sure animations are smooth and there is no foot-sliding or jitters. But all the artists are professional, so issues like those are corrected before they ever get out.
The artists I talked to expressed similar feelings on what makes their job enjoyable: The challenges.
"Technically, the most difficult animation to do with our particular set ups is the death of four-legged creatures," explains Alan Pickett. "It is usually very difficult, though not impossible, to get the creature down and then back up again realistically. The creature usually doesn't want to cooperate."
This is a challenge Tim Webb particularly enjoys. "The locomotions are fun, but I think I like doing deaths," he says, laughing. "I mean, you can have a creature die, or you can have a creature DIE! As a player when I kill something, I wouldn't want it to just fall down and go limp. I think it'd be more fun to watch it try and fight for life a little bit. Of course, you have to worry about file sizes and stuff, but you can put a little extra in there, and I think it's definitely worth it."
Nick Zuccarello found some challenge in a "creature" composed of only nine bones. It isn't a creature at all, but rather an Imperial Interrogation droid. The metal ball hovers with one extended arm while a central band seems to spin within it, independent of the rest. "It's got two different skeletons in it," Nick explains. "That light you saw spinning in the middle, that's a layered animation that will be layered on top of the other animations that are playing. The spinning part's independent. It's a special case. We had to take a separate skeleton and attach it to the other. The game sees it as two skeletons, one following wherever the other skeleton goes."
Alan enjoys animating the established creatures from the movies. "So far, my favorites have been the rancor and Jabba the Hutt," he says. "I am now animating Salacious Crumb. You know, the little creature that hung around on Jabba's lap. I really don't like him in Return of the Jedi. I am enjoying the opportunity to really bring this character to life in SWG."
So, You Want to Be a Game Artist
The SWG art team is always willing to give advice to young artists who want to break into the gaming industry. It's not easy, but the rewards are many. For one, the pay for a skilled artist is often good. Plus, working in the gaming industry has considerable cool value.
Alan recommends you go to college, "preferably one that teaches both classical and computer animation. Try to hook up with people who know what they are doing so they can look at your work and give you pointers. Most people are decent enough and will help you achieve any goal you may be working for."
When you're applying for a job, present a solid portfolio that shows off your skills. "If you're focusing just on animation, it's probably a good idea to balance it out a little bit. Show a good sense of timing and the basics. Show that you can do cycles well; I think it will be a benefit for game or film. Get at least a quadruped in there, shifting its weight and walking with a little bit of character. It definitely doesn't hurt to put in presentational stuff. If you end up doing cycles all the time, it's boring. People want to see that you can do cycles, but deep down I think they want to see a little fun. Show them a couple different types of set ups. The models don't have to be perfect, it just has to move well."
"The most important thing a person can have in this industry is a love of learning," says Damon Waldrip, a senior artist. "There are so many ways of doing things that you can never know them all, and technology inevitably marches on, so you have to keep up. The second most important thing is persistence. This means believing in yourself. Nobody starts out any good. You can only get good at something by actually doing it. Talent can only be realized through practice."
So there you have a glimpse into animation on Star Wars Galaxies. This is hardly even the tip of the iceberg of all that the artists do day after day. SWG is a tremendous project. But stay tuned to the Forums, as the developers keep the community up to date on what's going on behind the scenes, and look for more articles in the future. E3, the biggest gaming convention in the world, is coming in May, and there's bound to be more great peeks at the game to come!
--Clayton Kroh ( email@example.com )