November 6, 2007
Roberta Browne, lead animator, Bungie Studios
Roberta Browne grew up on what she refers to as "a steady diet of Looney Tunes cartoons and 'The Wonderful World of Disney.'" All her spare time in high school was spent drawing cartoon characters, and all her notebooks were covered with doodles. After getting a commercial illustration degree at Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto, she tried her hand at freelance illustration for two years – and wound up earning the bulk of her income by waitressing and bartending. Feeling off her game, she returned to school for animation and, upon graduating, landed her first job as an animator. A decade later, in May of 2007, Browne joined Bungie Studios in Kirkland, where she works as a lead animator, a job that involves everything from 3-D software to brainstorming sessions to pratfalls.
Q: How did you land your first game animation gig?
A. I studied animation at Sheridan College, located in Oakville, Ontario. Every year the school would hold an open house to showcase the work of the graduating students. There was usually a big industry presence, with representatives ranging from small post-production shops to big movie houses to game companies from both Canada and the United States. After graduation I was offered a job at a small post-production house in Toronto, creating animations and effects for various TV shows.
I was contacted a few months later by Broderbund, a game company located in the San Francisco area. One of their lead animators had attended the open house and seen my reel. I was offered a job. I have to admit, the initial draw of living in California overshadowed the opportunity to work in games. I wasn't really sure what was involved in being a game animator, but I thought I could figure it out. What I discovered is that animating for games is an exciting, challenging and extremely rewarding job.
I worked at a couple of game companies in California before moving up to Seattle in 2003. Over the years I worked my way through the ranks, starting as an animator, working up to senior animator and then finally to lead animator. I have worked on seven released games in my career, as well as a few prototypes that did not make it to market. Some of the more notable titles are "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (Xbox), "Shadowrun" (Xbox 360/Vista) and, of course, "Halo 3."
Q. What does a lead animator do?
A. My role has changed from creating animation content to managing. I oversee a team of five animators. Most of my time is spent planning, problem solving, coordinating with other functional groups and working with the animation team to ensure they have everything they need to create animation content. I sit with the animation team and participate in [their] reviews of content so far, brainstorming, and acting sessions. Acting sessions involve falling onto mats, jumping, punching and so on. We hand-animate, so there's no motion-capture technology involved. We're old school in that regard.
I try to get in a little bit of animation here and there, but it is very limited. It was an interesting transition going from creating animation to helping others to create animation. But I have found it extremely satisfying.
"If you enjoy [computer] games, then play them! Knowing what both looks good and feels good from a game-play point of view is very beneficial for a game animator. Ultimately, people are going to buy a game because it is fun, not because it has the most amazing animation. So understanding that it's not just what the animation looks like in your animation scene but also how it feels and plays is an important concept."
Q: What software does your team use?
A. The animation team uses Maya, a 3-D application produced by Autodesk. There is a wide variety of software packages to choose from, and many offer free downloadable learning versions. I believe it is more important to learn the basic animation principles, rather than becoming an expert on one software package. But it's a good idea for people who are interested in computer animation to take a look at the various learning editions available. It provides the opportunity to play around with the software and see if it's something they want to do.
Q: How does game animation differ from film animation?
A. Games are different than films in the sense that the animators create a bunch of smaller pieces of content that are then combined in the game engine. In film, animators work on shots or scenes and animate all the motion from start to finish. So a game animator needs to collaborate with other disciplines. That's what I love about working in games – it takes art, design and engineering working together to fully realize and bring a game character to life.
Q: What's the office environment like at Bungie?
A. The studio has an open floor plan. Each group has their own unique work style, with some preferring to work in silence and others, such as the animators, requiring creative bursts of energy to get inspired. It always interests to me to see how all the different groups work together to create the final product. And while there may be the odd outbreak of "inspirational shenanigans," everyone here is extremely passionate about their job and the games we make. The key to creating great games is to have fun while you are making them.
Q: What hours do you keep?
A. Hours generally depend on where we are in the production cycle. Production cycles vary depending on the type of game you are working on. But on average, a production cycle ranges from two to three years.
During preproduction and early production, hours are pretty normal. For me, normal is 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., give or take an hour. This changes as you get close to shipping a product. Making games is such an organic process – no matter how much you plan there is always the feeling that there is more work to do than time available. You still want to make sure you have time to spend with family and friends, but at the same time you want to work as much as you can to make the game as good as possible.
Q. Are you a gamer yourself?
A. I do play games outside of work, about three to five hours a week. But I do not consider myself an avid gamer. My passion lies with animation and bringing characters to life. A lot of my free time is spent taking figure drawing and figure sculpting classes at a local art school. This keeps my observational eye sharp, which is a skill I use on a daily basis as an animator.
Q: What advice can you offer hopeful animators?
A. There are so many schools offering animation courses. My advice to those looking to pursue a career in animation is put your focus on learning how to animate. Many schools focus more on teaching different software, and it is fairly easy to get a character to move around. But to have that character act and emote is the real trick. Look for the schools that offer training in animation principles and acting. Having a solid understanding of the basic principles of animation and acting is the key to being a successful animator. Once you accomplish that, you can work in any area of animation production.
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