Many 3D artists aspire to someday become an animator on games from landmark companies like Ubisoft, Nintendo, or Rockstar. Video game design takes a team of specialized talents and animators are an important element of polishing a game and ensuring it looks and feels perfect for the player. Casey McDermott is a Gnomon School alumni who's landed a role with one of the most influential games studios on earth: Blizzard Entertainment.
Blizzard is known for revolutionizing the MMO genre with its smash hit World of Warcraft, but its other big franchises (Diablo and StarCraft) are also considered mainstays of the games industry. We sat down with Casey to learn about what a games animator does, what it took to earn a position with Blizzard, and what it's like to work on some of the most high-profile games on the planet.
How did you first get involved in the world of game design?
Well, I was the type of kid who would ride the bus to school and talk to my friends about all the events that happened to me the night before in whatever game I was playing. So in that sense, I was probably 6 or 7 when games grabbed my attention. I always loved spit-balling ideas as a kid of what game I wanted to play, or how we could make it better. We were always so imaginative.
Tell us a bit about your games background.
Besides the school bus? Ha! I love games! As a kid when you'd go out and buy a new game, you had the manual read before the car was parked in the garage! But you couldn't play it until you brought all the groceries in, so you looked like a pack mule traveling through the Himalayas so you could make it one trip in order to start playing your game sooner!
As far as my professional career goes and getting started in the games industry, there was a lots of late night practice, working, and networking along the way. I was involved in asking a lot of questions and seeking feedback from other artists, even those not in my specific field of interest. This is where my experience at Gnomon really helped me.
In the summer of 2005, I was a production assistant at Sony Computer Entertainment America, where I met some really inspiring artists. During my time there, I asked tons of questions and met some fantastic people who really helped inspire me and show me a path in order to achieve a job in the industry.
After I graduated, I animated at several studios for all sorts of projects. As far as games go, I worked on iPhone games at Workaholics Studios(for which I was recruited through a colleague of mine at SCEA), several games (cycles and cinematics) at BrainZoo, and then lastly here at Blizzard.
What is your primary role at Blizzard?
I am an animator at Blizzard. Since my start date, I have had the wonderful privilege and tremendous opportunity to work on a couple different games and now in the cinematics department. It has been an incredible experience and I've loved every minute of it. I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to work on several teams all the while being surrounded by some of the most talented and inspirational artists in the world.
What are the responsibilities of an animator?
When I was on the games side of things, it was the animator's role to animate characters doing anything you see in a game. We also had to work very closely with design in order to help create ideas for abilities, match up the timing for our animation and the game effects, and lastly, to bring out unique and sincere life and style to each character.
In cinematics, it's more similar to film. We have “shows" we work on, and it is our job as the animators to work with our team and the directors to create compelling performances through animation.
What is your average day like?
First thing I do? Get coffee! Haha. I'm not much of a morning person, and this seems to settle me into my day a little easier. As far as animation goes, it really depends on the stage of the project. Typically in the beginning of a show I am handed a rig and I'm told to “break it." One thing I am good at is breaking things; no matter how sound something is, I'll find a way. I'm the dude that's always stuck in geo [world geometry] when playing video games, or finds the one floor tile you can fall through, or magically shatters a cell phone with an impenetrable case.
Once we have gone past R&D (which can sometimes carry over into the start of the animation), we are handed a sequence or a series of shots, and it is our job as animators to find the best possible way to tell a story through the craft. Often times before I start I'll ask lots of questions to directors, animators, and other artists that have good vision of the project or have had experience with the characters in the past. This way I can help contribute to the continuity and sincerity for each of these characters' performances. I do this for game animation just as I would for cinematics.
If we have enough ramp up time we work a lot with riggers and the technical animators to get desired results. We have a really great relationship where we go back and forth, very iterative, until we are happy with our result, or we run out of time. Our tech team is superb and without them the animation we do wouldn't be possible, or look half as good.
After everything is figured out and I can finally get to my scene, I put some headphones on, and listen either to the dialogue of the scene or sometimes I like to listen to original soundtracks that fit the aesthetic or mood that I'm animating. From this point on, it's working on the animation performance. “Failing early and failing often," is something someone once told me. I try to get eyes on my work quickly and early to make sure the clarity in my storytelling is there. Once it's clear I'm on the right path, then I can just jam to my tunes and really start to polish and polish and polish my animation until I'm out of time. Because, let's face it, without the deadline, we animators would tweak it for as long as production allows.
What would you say has been your most challenging project so far?
All projects have their certain sets of challenges. Because of this, I cannot pinpoint one particular production that was “more difficult" than any other. But I will say, that the most difficult thing for an animator is a “blank piece of paper."
Giving an animator an assignment without a clear vision and saying, “do something cool," is always challenging. One of my mentors explained to me, “it's a wonderful thing to have parameters." The reason is this: If I say make this character walk over there, you as an animator go, “OK!… but how? There are like a bazillion types of walks!?" But If I say “Make this old kung-fu master walk over there," BOOM! You already have a clearer vision. Thanks, parameters!
What would you consider a dream project?
I love slightly pushed style. In the book Illusion of Life, Frank and Ollie say that “I don't think he [Walt Disney] meant 'realism.' I think he meant something that was more convincing, that made a bigger contact with people." I would love to see or be a part of something a little irreverent and shocking at times, but still deliver what Walt Disney was trying to convey: something more real than real life itself. My favorite comic book series is Ed Powell's The Goon. Something in that essence for animation (entertaining, geared for adults, stylized, an exaggerated world) would be my dream project.
How did your education impact your ability to work in the field?
Tremendously! I would not trade my time at any of the schools I attended. Gnomon was exactly the thing I was looking for in my life and I'm so stoked I found it! All my mentors, and now great friends, had a HUGE impact on my animation career.
Mentors like Tim Ingersoll inspired me with their passion to animate. Chris Kirshbaum's ideas and the way he breaks down and processes shots we so helpful! His kind honesty was one of the greatest things I could learn. I always knew when I missed the mark and could have done something better. Chris helped me learn what it was I was missing. Each time I went to class I wanted to impress him, which I never felt like I succeeded in accomplishing. But this was a great lesson for me to learn, and it kept me driven and thirsty to learn and get better at the craft. Another great lesson I learned from my days of playing baseball. A coach used to call them “baseball lessons in life." He would always tell us, “We all make mistakes every day of our lives. In baseball you can fail 7 out of 10 times for your career and be a hall of famer!"
Later in my educational career I came across several other mentors who really helped me see animation in a new light, like Josh Book, Boola Robello, and Sean Sexton.
My most recent mentor had a huge impact on my career. He blew my mind every time he showed me something new. Michael Makerwicz, the spline tamer! He taught me what goes on under the hood in CG animation and how to use these tools to bring the art in my head to fruition. He taught me how to ask the right questions and commit to an idea.
So hell yes. My education was huge. I appreciate every one of their teachings and took nothing for granted; I tried to be a sponge for all of them and I appreciate all the knowledgeable bread crumbs they dropped for my consumption!
How did you approach landing your current position?
A good friend of mine was working at Blizzard at the time. He put my portfolio forward and a fantastic recommendation, for which I am extremely grateful. Because of his great recommendation I procured a phone interview, and later an animation test.
The test was a ton of fun to create. HOWEVER, it was due on a Wednesday morning and I had a computer crash Sunday morning at 4 AM. I lost everything on the test. I called one of my closest friends at 4 AM and asked if I could commandeer his computer for the next 3 days. So thanks to my buddy, Les, I was able to finish the test. Albeit, it was pretty messy, but the idea was clear.
After my test, there was an in-person interview with the team. They were all fantastic, and it made it very easy to answer questions and also carry on casual conversation. It was very comfortable, and those people in that interview are some of my best friends in the industry today. I approached my interview confidently, but I also knew/know that I have a lot to learn as an animator. And I knew that the artists conducting the interview were extremely talented and knowledgeable, and could help further my abilities, as I hope I have helped them in some way or another.
What advice would you give to aspiring games artists?
Fail early, fail often. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. You will make plenty of mistakes all throughout your careers. The earlier you make these mistakes and learn from them, the better. Just keep creating what you love. Games or whatever it is that drives you! Recruiters/artists/people will see your passion when there is sincerity in your work.
Thanks for your time!
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