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Interview with iAnimate Creature Workshop guest instructor James Cunliffe

iAnimate is proud to announce that James Cunliffe, a veteran in the animation industry and currently an animator at Valve Coorporation, is joining our all-star team of guest instructors for the new Creature workshop starting in September.

His background in both games and feature animation is pretty impressive. Working at world renowned studios like Valve, Crytek, MPC, FrameStore, and Animal Logic, we are privilege to have him share his passion for animation and knowledge with our students. We had the opportunity to discuss with him about his journey has a professional animator, his view about the industry and what he will be presenting for this new workshop. Without any further ado, here's our interview with James Cunliffe:

Interview with iAnimate Creature Workshop guest instructor James Cunliffe
What path led you to learn animation in the first place?

I was actually pretty invested in animation since I can remember. When my parents bought their first video cassette recorder I was 6. The first thing I did was record WB cartoons and pause the video so I could draw the still frames. Drawing was always an interest of mine and I used it as my medium for telling stories.

It took some time before I ever realised that it could be a vocation and bring me a livable wage. I remember the penny dropping when I went to see "beauty and the beast" at the cinema when I was 15. I got a sense that this movie had been given a bigger budget and marketed more aggressively than any recent animated features and I sensed a renaissance. I started to dream that this could be an actual career. The following years were spent hearing from various teachers and career counselors that I should aim for something more realistic.

I eventually managed to ignore my way onto an animation course at bournemouth art college doing 2d animation. I had been interested in the cg medium but at the time the character animation coming out of cg was rudimentary compared with the drawn work I could enjoy at the cinema. I had bought some 3D software off a computer magazine cover called Imagine. And had been playing with it a little. I was convinced that cg backgrounds with 2D characters would combine the best of both mediums and was keen to explore this at art college.

Tell us a little bit about your professional background?

Just as I left college, the 2D animation industry that had been growing in Soho collapsed when Warner Bros feature animation shut down their UK studio. What little work was left for 2D animators was getting snapped up by far superior, unemployed, animators scrabbling for work. So I decided that a better plan for me would be to pursue CG animation. During my college course at Bournemouth I had taken some time to animate a character piece in the 3D software I bought and it had turned out rather well... (for that time). So I figured I'd use this to try to get into either games or features. I carpet bombed the UK with video cassettes.

I got a number of different interviews at both VFX houses and games companies. In the end I chose to go to Games because at the time it was the better option for getting to do
character/creature animation rather than prop animation like cars or spaceships. I opted to go to Rare to work with the team that had made "Golden Eye" for the N64 on their next project "Perfect Dark". It was a baptism of fire. Rare were using a brand new program - Maya 1.0. The problem with getting trained on Maya back then was that it only ran on silicon graphics workstations - which cost $20-30,000 a piece. So you had to learn on the job. Rare gave me the "learning Maya" manual that came with the software and 2 weeks to show them a rigged animated character.It was quite stressful.

I was then given the task of working out the pipeline for the game's cutscenes while animating the first few of them.

It was a different time where a new guy like me could walk in and start owning large portions of a task that would eventually make up a sizable part of a product.

After a few months of this the other guys decided to leave Rare and set up their own studio. Free Radical Design. I left with them and my main task was to own the animation and the animation department as it grew.

This was terrifying. I wasn't prepared for how daunting it was to walk into an empty office space and for our first task to be to build our own desks. I had just months of professional experience and here I was co authoring an animation pipeline and making high level product decisions.

We shipped 4 games over the next 6 years. I could click up 114 hour in a single work week. And the company would eventually grow to 250 people. I learned so much doing this and made some amazing friends along the way.

In 2005 I became overly frustrated with the inefficiency of always having to break through my own creative glass ceiling. So I resigned from FRD and accepted a job in Australia, at Animal Logic working on "Happy Feet". It was an opportunity to learn from other people in a new environment and spend all my time animating rather than dealing with all the other aspects of production.

From there I spent the next few years traveling between projects and countries repeating the learning experience. Sometimes I'd push my ideas and working methodology from FRD back into productions when the opportunities were available.

You have an amazing background in both vfx and video games, how would you compare the two?

In 2010 I felt like I had learned a ton more about my medium and was ready to start playing around with developing product again. I had a load of assumptions about improving work flow and process that I desperately wanted to try out.

I was offered the opportunity to go and help develop a new IP for games company Crytek and it felt like the perfect opportunity.

To get this opportunity in movies is very unusual.

Movies normally work in a much more fragmented way with a tone of creative decisions happening up front by the writers. Studio execs then mediate the marketability of those ideas and then assign directors to envision it. People in story get a poke at the world and themes laid out for them, but once in Production a movie often largely becomes an exercise in executing on what is a clear vision of the director having experimented a bunch beforehand.

Even when it comes to asset production in games, I've found that it will be more likely you'll be given ownership of a larger piece of the pie.

Of course, the drawback to games being that you will tend to be given less time to polish your asset output, and good quality aesthetics in interactive content are much more difficult to maintain.

I had a wonderful time working with some clever people at Crytek. But unfortunately the financiers of the new ip pulled out in 2011.

Valve Corporation is a studio that many artist and gamers look up to, how is it to actually work there as an animator?

Around the time that my IP got pulled I happened to meet with a friend of mine who worked at valve. He outlined a working environment that seemed incredibly exciting to me. I managed to navigated the infamously difficult interview process successfully and started at valve in the October.

Valve is a very different place to work than anywhere else I have. I guess it's most similar to FRD in its start up days, where we were all finding the best work to tackle to add value to
company or product no matter what the work was. Maybe surprisingly - If that means building a desk or getting online to buy an air conditioning unit then so be it. A big difference is that this environment happens in a sizeable company. With no formal structure; communication and idea evaluation become as much your responsibility as the asset creation. Once in Valve you are not so much an animator as quality and value custodian. The funny thing about working in an environment with "no boss" is that rather than no one telling you what to do, everyone does. And that takes some navigating. You have to have a well developed evaluation process to not get lost. For that reason the hiring bar is monstrously high. A knock on effect of this is that the people around me all have an amazingly well rounded and in depth understanding of the medium. It's an amazing learning opportunity and so rewarding.

How did the animation industry changed over the years and what do you foresee for the future?

The industry has gone from small to one of the big global marketplaces today. Along with that growth has come both great opportunity and uncomfortable growing pains. Cg feature animation has grown tremendously and the application of real and good acting techniques to animated characters is now expected by audiences because of the consistent improvements over the years. Games have gone through the most marked change. The hardware improvements have allowed for better and better imagery but more importantly it has allowed games design the freedom to get closer to what it wants to be rather than what it could manage under old technical restraints. Ironically the biggest problem that I have with both mediums is the current lack of experimentation in the big budget ventures. The best quality imagery is now so complicated that it costs a huge amount of money to produce. With that comes larger risk and with that comes a desire to mitigate it. Green lighting truly new game ideas or feature film IP's is much more difficult now than it was when FRD got it's first financial backers.

This is one of the most appealing things for me about Valve. It's not so much that we take risk, but we have a really well developed evaluation process and it allows us to make content that could be considered risky by someone with less data.

The good news is that, with better tools available, it is getting gradually easier and easier to get product shipped for less money. And the "indie" scene is a growing marketplace with some truly courageous products available. The internet fuels this by offering a cost effective way to distribute content incredibly cheaply with market places such as Steam etc. If I didn't work at Valve or have a family to feed I think that indie development would be where I'd have the most fun.

With all the tools improvements over the years, animation tools have remained surprisingly static. And although I like to think the quality of what I work on day in day out has improved, the way I author it remains pretty much the same. I think that the time is ripe for some new techniques to rise to the surface.

I think that content generated specifically for the net will become more and more sophisticated and there will be more jobs available in this sector for animators. It'll be interesting to see what happens to the role of "TV as mass media" as the likes of Netflix grow into their natural marketplace share. And with change comes opportunity. I think that once the format requirements of TV (22 minute slots) falls away the barrier to entry for companies who want to produce short form content for Netfilx, etc. will reduce. Once you take away the 22 minute minimum I think there will be an increase in volume of short film production. Which would be really, really exciting for me as a consumer and for animators interested in this work!

What in your opinion are the most important personal qualities professional animators must have to be successful in this industry?

I have always been interested in learning. I always try to assimilate the ideas around me and look at things from whatever angle I can to benefit my understanding the most. At the same time I've always been aware that my job is to facilitate the success of the product and I will change how I work accordingly. If a project needs a leader, I'll try to do that, if it needs someone to quietly sit in the corner and final discrete portions of work, I'll do that. I've also always loved working in teams, and a good team dynamic is often more important than the quality of the individuals who work on it.

When I first got into feature work it was apparent that the minimum bar for entry meant that everyone could animate motion to a fine standard. The differentiation in quality was mainly in the performance choices. And, in fact, if the performance was stronger it would survive being less well executed than an alternative. In response to this I studied story and plot (two discretely different things) and apply those ideas to everything from micro decisions ("how should this guys foot move towards this guys face?") to macro decisions ("How do I improve this movie with a subplot?").

Also, In everything I do I firstly question it's appeal to the consumer. For example; a vanilla walk cycle has already failed, to some degree, no matter how well executed because it is not entertaining.

The short answer, for me, I guess, is to not forget the "Professional" part of being a "Professional Animator"!

Why did you chose to join iAnimate new creature workshop as a guest instructor?

When David first asked me I wasn't sure that I had anything to say.. I've never really considered myself a creature specialist as much as just an animator.

But as I thought about it more I decided that I had some pretty clear ideas about how I worked with non anthropomorphic characters. My methodology is largely self taught because of my situation for the first 6 -7 years of my career and despite my initial concerns that some of the ideas may be unusual, I ended up thinking that a slightly different perspective on how to look at things could be very valuable to people...

I've been following iAnimate for a few years and love the output your students produce. There's a maturity to it that really inspires. And it's an exciting space to be in, for me. Selfishly I am looking forward to focusing and revisiting my ideas to see if there is more that I can learn and I am also hoping that I'll be able to sit in on the other guys lectures and learn a few
things to!!

What topics will you be covering and why does it matters?

I'll be covering, Week 2 - Video reference for creature animation. It's a tool in my work flow that has taken the quality of my animation up more than any other. I am interested in sharing not only how I use it to inform the locomotion of my character but also how it allows me to stay away from a shot for as long as possible while I plan and how that keeps me more objective about the shot while animating.

Once I got comfortable with this workflow I started to find it the most creative part of my process. I hope it will be as valuable to your students as I've found it.

Source: ianimate.net