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Ask the Experts: Animation Show Reels

Ask the Experts: Animation Show Reels

February 11, 2008 | By Jill Duffy

Ask the Experts is a biweekly column on, Gamasutras sister site dedicated to helping students and other aspiring game developers learn how to make it in the industry. Gamasutra is also hosting the column; for more advice about breaking into the game industry, visit GameCareerGuide.coms Getting Started section.

Dear Experts,
I am currently a student at an animation school, but the school doesnt concentrate on animation cycles or the daily workings of video game animators. I want to put a portfolio together that includes animation cycles, but I dont know where to start when it comes to frame counts for cycles and what cycles to include in a demo reel. Any advice you could give me would be greatly appreciated.

Best regards,
Digital Jake

Dear Digital Jake,
Like all demo reels or show reels, the purpose of having an animation reel is to showcase your best work, and only your best work -- about two minutes of it. For video game jobs, youre right to think that you need to tailor the animations to specifications of the industry, but there arent too many hard and fast rules about frame counts. On the other hand, most animators say you should include walk cycles as part of your reel.

I sent emails out to a few animators in the industry to ask what they would recommend.

Kirk Cumming, an animator at Rockstar, says, Frame lengths for cycles vary depending on the motion. A walk cycle might be 40 frames long, but if it is an old man walk cycle, it could be 60 to 100 frames.

Another animator I corresponded with, Mike Brown, cleverly says, Cycles should be as long as they need to be for the action to feel right. Brown is currently principal artist at High Moon Studios and formerly worked as an animator at Presto Studios. In gaming, Brown adds, we typically work at 30 or 60 frames per second, which is the same as video (30fps). If youre doing a walk cycle and you need to know the frame count, get yourself a stopwatch or video recorder and time the action. If it takes 1.4 seconds (42 frames at 30 fps) to complete a full walk cycle, then thats how long your cycle should be.

But viewers of your reel want to be impressed by your work, and showing them that you can produce a walk cycle thats between 30 and 60fps isnt nearly enough. The best stuff to put on a game reel for animation would be the following cycles: walk, run, standing, reaction to something (noise, object, etc.), Cumming says.

Brown notes that when he watches animation reels, hes looking for four key things: weight, timing, anticipation, and emotion.

For weight, Brown asks himself when watching the reel, Does the animator demonstrate that she has a clear understanding of weight? Do objects look and act as though they are light or heavy, and do the actions of the character interacting with those objects support this? All characters have a center of balance, and their interactions with objects of various weights should reflect this.

David Finlay, a 3D artist and animator also at Rockstar Games, found some information that shows the basic steps an animator needs in a walk cycle for it to have realistic weight. Obviously, theres more involved, but this gives you an idea as to where to place key frames and such, he says.

For timing, Brown says hes looking for the characters to move, react and come to rest in a convincing way. Its common to see young or inexperienced animators fall into two common pitfalls: Either every action happens at the same pace, or every part of the action comes to rest at the same time, Brown says. Experienced animators know when and how to use the principles of overlapping action and progressively breaking joints to break up the action and let different parts of the action come to rest at different times. They also know that different actions happen at different paces, and thats what makes it interesting to watch.

For example, notes Brown, a male character may take his time to ogle a female character before reacting suddenly to her noticing him. The pace of a sword fight between two characters may suddenly change pace or tempo as one of them gains the upper hand. A character may take his time to evaluate a situation before suddenly springing into action or vice versa.

On anticipation and emotion, Brown offers this advice: Show the audience what the character intends to do; do it; then show them what they did. Good animation has to be readable, memorable, and have a few surprises. Emotion: Do I empathize with the characters? Whether its an action sequence such as a sword fight or an acting sequence such as someone standing quietly waiting for a shop to open, it's important that the audience is able to identify with the characters involved. Are the characters in danger, which one is the hero, who should I be rooting for? A good animator gets the audience involved emotionally.

While its important to use cycled animation on a show reel, it shouldnt be the only thing, especially if youre applying for jobs in the game industry. Last autumn, I went to a talk at the Game Career Fair in London given by an animator who worked at Rare. She played a show reel that she said impressed her primarily because it contained a few clips, the longest of which was almost like a short film. It showed a Tarzan-like character swinging through the jungle. He turns his face to the camera and gives a cheeky smile, kisses his bulging biceps, and makes other movements that illustrate his cocky and egocentric persona. Theres a climax in the short plot, and the character of course embarrasses himself, giving the audience a little chuckle. In that very short animation, which was maybe 45 to 60 seconds, the animator proved she or he would be a valuable asset to a game team, creating characters whose actions express their magnetism and vitality. You dont want to just show you can make a walk cycle -- you want to create memorable characters whose actions reveal their personality.

One way to do this, says Brown, is to include a variety of actions with different pacing, such as a few hand-to-hand combat sequences (think three or more punches, kicks, or lunges that work together in a row) along with some walk and run cycles. And dont just have one walk cycle. Show your versatility as an animator by including a character strutting, limping, slinking, pacing. Do something unexpected, Brown says, such as having an oafish male character walk like a seductive runway model.

Browns final piece of advice for animators who want to compete for jobs in the game industry is to learn motion capture. Most game companies these days want highly realistic animation. Motion capture is used for at least 50 percent of the cycled animation in most big titles. Do your research. If a company doesnt have a track record of producing highly stylized or cartoony work, then having mostly that style of work on your reel probably wont get you an interview.

He adds, If youre opposed to using motion capture, your career opportunities are going to be very limited. That said, it takes a skilled animator to use motion capture technology to its full potential. My philosophy is I can bring a mediocre animator up to the level of the motion capture, or I can bring the motion capture up to the level of a talented animator.

And in case youre still at the drawing board, Finlay found a walk cycle tutorial to share.

Hopefully weve got you headed in the right direction now, Digital Jake. While youre putting together your reel, ask other students if you can see whats on their reels. Theres no better way to judge your own competence than by seeing what the competition is up to.

Jill Duffy is editor of and writes Ask the Experts biweekly. If you have a well-focused question about working in the game development industry that youd like her to answer, send it to theexperts(at)

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