Although a late starter as an animator – he didn't take an art class until college – Bill Buckley went on to work for AAA developers including Neversoft Entertainment and Infinity Ward before moving to start-up First Contact Entertainment. As the firm's animation director, he helps to shape pioneering virtual reality titles like ROM: Extraction and Firewall Zero Hour. Outside of game development, Bill has published two graphic novels, created his own animated short, and recorded several training courses for The Gnomon Workshop, including Creating Game Ready Animations for Production and Creating First Person Shooter Animations for Games. Below, Bill reveals the lessons he has learned over the course of his varied career, the secrets of creating a great in-game animation, and how working in virtual reality is changing the role of the animator.
GW: How does a game-ready animation differ from a cinematic?
BB: Cinematics are about telling the story. It doesn't matter if they're pre-rendered or created through the game engine. But in-game animation is always about response.
That can mean creating hundreds, or even thousands, of individual animations. A lot of them are only going to be two or four frames long – or even just a key pose that the game engine blends with all of the other animations. The timing has to be very precise. When I pull the trigger in-game, I want to feel that I'm shooting a real gun, and if the response time is off, even by a few frames, you lose that.
GW: If you aren't working on an actual title, how can you practice in-game animation?
BB: In my Gnomon Workshop tutorials, I cover creating a first-person animation as well as creating a third-person animation. One of the cool things about Unreal Engine is that it has templates for both. You can replace the animations for runs and walks and jumps with your own work. Together with a bit of light scripting, that lets you create a complete combat sequence.
I see this as a new frontier. There is now a need for animators to have more of a technical mindset: to know how animations will blend together; how to create a Blend Space that will do the job you need. I think there's a huge opportunity for students to show that not only can they create great animations but that they know how to blend them together in-engine.
GW: How technical a mindset do you need as an animator? Do you need to be able to code?
BB: Visual scripting [like Unreal Engine's Blueprint system] is completely adequate. If you want to go into hardcore stuff, C++ is there, but that's all Latin to me.
When I mention scripting, even animators who have been working in the industry for a while get nervous. The hairs on the back of their necks stand up. But trust me: if I can do it, anybody can. It takes a while, but if you're stubborn enough just to sit down and learn, you will see how you can make your animations do so much more than you expect at face value.
GW: What are the characteristics of a good first-person combat animation?
BB: There are a couple of things. One is timing. When you look at an animation of a gun firing, it only lasts for six or eight frames. It's the decisions that you make in each frame that set a good animation apart from a bad one. It's about finding the exact frame to maximize the effect you're going for.
It's also often about animating the player character's head as well as their hands. For example, a shotgun will shoot differently to a revolver. It should feel weightier. So it shouldn't just be the hands moving; the head should have some sort of reaction too. If you see a shotgun going off in front of you and there's no head animation, there's a weird disconnect.
GW: How did you get into the industry yourself?
BB: I actually never took an art class until college. Growing up, video games were a very big part of my life; I loved comic books. But I'd never connected the dots. I always thought I was supposed to wear a suit and tie for a living.
[Learning to be an artist] was definitely an uphill battle. Before you can animate, you have to learn how to draw, and before you can animate in 3D, you have to learn how to animate in 2D. But I stuck with it. I was more headstrong than anything, I think. Just stubborn.
GW: Did you get a job right out of college?
BB: It was about eight months after I graduated. I heard while I was in college that if you graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, there would be recruiters ready to hire you, and that they would even show up to the ceremony. I was shocked that they weren't there.
That was probably the most difficult moment in my life. Being an artist is a blessing, because you've found what you want to do for the rest of your life, but also a curse, because there's nothing else you want to do. The idea of not doing it is the scariest thing you can come across.
GW: What did you do during that period that helped you get your first job?
BB: At the time, I didn't know that there were places I could go and talk to developers, like SIGGRAPH and E3, so I just made a list of studios and sent out résumés. After that, I would follow up with people. I'd call to ask what worked in my reel, and what didn't.
It was when I was doing those follow-ups that I was finally able to get game developers to take a more serious look at me. I asked what they needed, and whether I could do a test to show that I could do that. If they needed someone who could do camera work, I would download a bunch of environments I'd found on the internet and do hero shots with the camera – not even knowing what they were working on, but showing that I had those skills. That was what eventually got me a second interview.
GW: How did your career develop once you'd landed your first job?
BB: I got on board with a very small company [Hydrogen Whisky] doing cinematics for a wrestling game, WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw. That was a contract gig, so I did it for just shy of year, then went to Sony [Interactive Entertainment] San Diego, and did a basketball title. That was my first introduction to in-game animation.
That opened the doors to more opportunities: after Sony, I got involved with Neversoft. I started on Tony Hawk's Proving Ground, and did all in-game animations. It was my training in a systemic approach to animation. Before that, I'd been working in a traditional way, creating animations that could plug straight into the game. This was using code to blend several animations at a time. It was eye-opening seeing how you could manipulate animations – and also that you could have two animations that would look good separately, but that wouldn't work together.
From there, I was one of the first animators to work on Guitar Hero, and that was just a whirlwind: we had so many games come out in such a short space of time. My job was to animate the singers who came in: James Hetfield, Run-DMC, Steven Tyler, Taylor Swift. We ran the shoots with them. It was very much a blur, living that rock and roll lifestyle for a little bit.
I did three or four years of that, then switched gears to Call of Duty: Ghosts when Neversoft teamed up with Infinity Ward. Then we started on Infinite Warfare, and that was right when Neversoft and Infinity Ward merged. It was a new chapter: it was a new building and there were now 300 people under one roof. I did that for a little over a year, then I had the opportunity to go off to become one of the original core team at what became my current studio, First Contact Entertainment, focusing on virtual reality.
GW: What made you want to go from a big AAA developer to a small start-up?
BB: It was a couple of things. One was having the opportunity to work in virtual reality. At the time, I didn't see the AAA studios doing that any time soon, and I really wanted to do something that was new and different. Getting into VR really felt like a reset button for my career. It could be the new wave, or it could fail. I found that exciting.
Another was having the opportunity to work with the team to design and build out a full animation pipeline from scratch. When you work at a AAA studio, there are always tech animators who are willing to jump in and create something new, but underneath it all, there is an existing methodology. When they build tools for you, they have to work within that system.
At First Contact, when we started, it was a couple of weeks before we even had computers. What we had was a whiteboard, a conference table and a bunch of notepads. We literally did a post-mortem of our entire careers: what worked and what didn't. I had a long conversation with our director of tech animation, right down to how long a file structure should be, where the animations should live in the server, and whether I should be able to search them by skeleton rather than animation name. At the time, I didn't know how much work that would be, but I enjoy challenges, and I couldn't pass up the opportunity.
GW: How does the role of an animator differ between VR and conventional gaming?
BB: When you've been working in video games for a while, you have a list of dos and don'ts. Once you get into virtual reality, that goes out of the window. A lot of the stuff you thought would never work, works. And when you try to do something the usual way, it doesn't.
I encourage my animators always to put on a headset and see how animation looks in game. A lot of times, you can't even make an educated guess. We've been working with flat screens for so long that having that parallax and sense of depth changes things a lot.
For example, I worked on a VR game called the John Wick Chronicles, and there's a moment when you're on a rooftop and this boss character shows up in a helicopter. You're firing over the rooftop, and the helicopter comes down and flies over you. I wanted to make people literally duck because they think the helicopter is going to hit them. The first time I animated it, I had the helicopter fifteen feet off the ground, and I thought that was more than enough. But when I watched people playing it, no one ducked. I had to animate the helicopter mere feet above someone's head before they started ducking. It showed me that if you really want to get a physical reaction – or an emotional reaction – out of someone in VR, you have to get a lot closer than you think.
GW: As well as bringing the action closer, do you have to exaggerate it?
BB: A lot of the time, you have to tone it down. One of my old lead animators had a saying that you should always play for the cheap seats, particularly when it comes to facial animation. When you're animating, you focus in on minute details on the face, but when you see the result in-game, the character is too far away for you to notice them. So you have to exaggerate some of those facial expressions. But when you do that in VR, it looks over the top. VR puts a magnifying glass on characters over-acting.
But in some cases, you do have to exaggerate – or to have really clear definitions for actions, at least. You can cheat a bit in console games, particularly when you have a fixed camera. No one is ever going to see if a character's hand goes through their chest when they turn away from you. But in VR, it's almost as if people look for that. You see them moving left and right, looking where the character is going. You have to make sure when you're testing your animations that you do what you want the audience not to do.
GW: Does seeing your work at a human scale change the way you animate?
BB: Oh, absolutely. It makes you think in different terms. One of the things I've noticed with virtual reality is that it's very difficult to give any kind of life to your [player character's] hands. On ROM: Extraction, I created this system where if you rotate your wrist left and right, the fingers bend with it. If you move your hand down, it becomes more of a fist, but when it moves up, the fingers spread out. It's such a subtle thing, but it's amazing what an impact it made – and you very rarely saw it because the game was so fast-paced. Virtual reality constantly throws up challenges you never thought you would see.
GW: Can a good animator work on any game, or do specific genres need specific skills?
BB: There are definitely specialists out there, but the mark of a good animator is that they can research the animation style required and work out how to do it. I don't think an animator should ever say: 'That's not the type of game I work on.'
One of my absolute favorite games is Cuphead, where they [developer Studio MDHR] went back to this old-school, Fleischer-Studios-type rubber hose animation. No one has animated like that for years, but it's obvious that the animators there took the time to research how it works. It's absolutely gorgeous, and it's very refreshing to see something so different.
GW: Should you tailor your reel to the kind of animation a studio specializes in?
BB: It makes you more hirable. I heard a great piece of advice when I was a student that if you're going to apply to 10 different studios, you'd better have 10 different reels.
When you're starting out, you should definitely explore all of the different styles, but when it comes to applying to a studio, take the animations that work best for what that studio does. As well as showing that you fit the role, it shows that you did your homework.
I think a lot of students have the misconception that studios will see potential in you and hire you on that basis. And that's only half true. The full truth is that studios see your potential to do a job that they need done.
GW: What are the most common mistakes that students make on animation reels?
BB: It often goes by genre. With first-person animations, one of the big mistakes I see students make is that they don't show how the camera parallaxes. If you create animations and there's just a gray screen in front of the character, you can't tell how the head is moving. If you put in even a simple environment, you can see how the head moves.
That coincides with a lot of other common mistakes. I don't need to see lighting on a reel, or even textures, but it helps if there's a simple environment, because without it, it feels like the character is floating. If you're doing a run, I love to see a floor plane. Put a couple of simple objects in there, too, so I can see the momentum. Even if it's just a simple checkerboard environment, it helps me to see how fast the character is moving, and that their feet aren't sliding.
I don't need to see a long reel. I can generally tell if a person is a solid animator in the first couple of seconds, so a 45-second reel is fine. And don't have any obnoxious music on there. I don't need any bass drops. If something distracts from the animation, take it out.
GW: What gets you fired up creatively outside of work?
BB: It's nice when you're able to do something purely for your own satisfaction. Being creative is tough. Sometimes it just comes down to making it a job. If I have a milestone, that milestone is not moving. It doesn't matter whether I'm inspired today or not.
There's a great book called The War of Art in which the author [Steven Pressfield] talks about his process – he's a writer. He doesn't feel inspired every day, but it doesn't matter, because every day, he gets into his office at 9.00, he has his cup of coffee at 9.15, and by 9.30, he's writing. It just becomes a habit. But sometimes that can grind on you.
So two years ago, I did a very cartoony short animation called Prank Invaders. It played at a bunch of film festivals, but I didn't expect anything out of it except to have created this really zany, fun, kid-centric animation. I just wanted to share it with people. That's also why I teach. I love engaging with students because it reminds me why I got into this industry in the first place. Seeing their excitement at the potential of doing something incredible reinvigorates me to keep on doing what I do.
GW: If you could go back and give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
BB: For the longest time, particularly in school, I wouldn't do art unless I could see it benefiting my portfolio. I felt that I had to be very focused. I wish that I could go back in time and say, 'Don't do that. Spend two days animating something that will never see the light of day.' It's just the act of animating – doing art – that will make you a better animator.
There's a story I love sharing with students about a pottery class. One day, the teacher comes in and says that everybody on the left side of the class will be graded on a single pot. For the entire semester, they have to make the best pot possible. Everybody on the right will be graded on weight: the more pots they make, the better their grade is going to be. And at the end of the semester, the pots from the people on the left look great – but the ones from the people on the right look better. By just keeping on making pots, they ended up making pots that were better than the other guys'. It's all just a matter of practice.