BtV Interviews: Dan Whiting
When I began writing this column, I promised you periodic interviews with people in the computer gaming industry. Rather than talk with another game designer, I decided to go a different direction this time. Dan Whiting is a Senior Character Animator for EA Games, and he entered the game industry in a different manner than most.
He’s agreed to share his experiences in both the movie and computer gaming industry with us, as well as some general tips for organizing your game company. Rather than rambling, here is my interview with Dan Whiting.
Behind the Veil: Before we begin, on behalf of my readers, thank you for joining me here today. It’s a good idea to get insight from many different perspectives, and I know everyone’s eager to read what you have to say.
Dan Whiting: I’m happy to be here, I hope we can give them some good stuff to read.
BtV: Before you started working for EA, you did special effects for movies. Could you tell us a little about that?
DW: Sure. I’d been doing character and effects animation for TV and Film since 1995. I’ve worked in New York and Los Angeles while doing so, before jumping to the Games industry early in 2003.
BtV: What movies have you worked on that people might recognize by name?
DW: The biggest film I worked on was Ice Age for 20th Century Fox, which is a few years old now. That’s certainly the most commercially successful film I have been on. I also did some work on Fox’s Titan AE and Dreamworks’ Sinbad.
BtV: So you’re making movies, and having fun while you work, what prompted the switch to computer games?
DW: It sounds boring, but I did it for stability… The film animation industry has become very volatile. It’s better suited to people who will work on a contract basis, meaning picture to picture. Freelance. As a family guy, I wanted something a little more stable. Often, films are made, and then there may be a period where lots of people are laid off until the next one is ready to go.
Places like Pixar have a supply of movies they are always making, so they rarely have mass layoffs, but not very many places have that ability. On the other hand, games are always being made, year after year, whether it’s a new title or a sequel… And they are not done on a contract basis. That provided me with some job stability, without compromising in other areas.
BtV: So now you’re working for EA, as senior character animator. How did that happen?
DW: While in L.A., the movie Sinbad was wrapping up, and I knew there would be layoffs, as the next movie was not ready for production. A friend at EA in San Francisco mentioned that the Los Angeles office was hiring, so I contacted EALA and discovered a friend from Blue Sky in New York (where I had done Ice Age) was already working there.
On a side note, the industry is still fairly small, in that I can network pretty easily. I have close friends at nearly every major film or game production studio in the country. Networking and using those contacts has been invaluable.
BtV: Was it disorienting switching from animating for a predefined plot to an environment where the player controls what the characters do?
DW: Yes. In films, you control the character; he does the one thing you tell him to do in order to further the story. In games, it’s an interactive story done on the fly.. You need to be able to create that character’s full range of possible motions and have them ready to go at any time. Many of course are never used… For example, how often do you see a game character crawling on hands and knees backwards and to the left? Not much I’ll bet, but we did create an animation file for it, just in case.
BtV: How much, if at all, is your work influenced by other departments, like audio?
DW: There is a lot of give and take. When it’s time to do the sound of footsteps for a character, the audio department will follow animation’s lead; you don’t want to have to animate the character’s feet in time with the sound effect. But in cases of dialog, you obviously need that before you can animate. All the tools of acting and performance then come into play. In films, that is much more critical. In games, they still don’t quite believe that a game character can give an acting performance (or that anybody wants to see one), so often dialog comes late, or the animator works with temporary dialog and then the real audio is dropped in later, and hopefully it matches closely.
Animation also works closely with the technical directors, making sure the performance looks as good, if not better, when it’s fully rendered as it did in production. Sometimes when you see a character fully rendered with hair or gear and supplies, it may look quite a bit different, and the animator may need to make changes.
Animators also work closely with riggers in case they need changes made to the animation controls to make them more responsive or to increase their range of motion.
BtV: So basically the departments need to communicate, and work almost as a single unit.
DW: There needs to be a smoothly flowing transfer of information, otherwise a problem can cause a bottleneck, and like traffic on a highway, many different departments can become adversely hit by it.
Especially since different departments may be needed at different times… Audio is a good example… sometimes they are needed at the beginning, for dialog, and sometimes near the end, for sound effects… they need to be able to move in and out quickly.
BtV: In my column, I’ve been stressing the importance of setting design decisions in stone, committing to one path and not looking back. Do you have any insight (or horror stories) you could share about this?
DW: Well, I definitely feel you should try as much as possible to stick to plan. That requires having a good plan up front, of course. For one game, we had finished character design and started animating when someone high up the command chain saw a demo of another game. He noticed THEIR character seemed to have a moving Adam’s apple when he spoke in close up dialog shots. He made the decision that our character should do the same, so that we would be keeping up with the Joneses, if you will. This required sending the character all the way back to modeling. All production stopped until it was re-modeled…. then it had to be re-rigged (prepared for animating)… THEN it had to be re-animated.
And all so that you would see a moving Adam’s apple in the 3 or 4 close up dialog shots contained in the entire 4 hour game.
You also need to make sure to run your game plan past all the departments… When we were making Ice Age, they wanted something like a water park sequence at one point. It was in early planning stages until they discovered from the FX guys that such a task could require doubling the FX staff and take as long as 6 months… That was unacceptable, so it was cut.
The lesson there is, make sure you have your critical story points nailed first. Do what you have to do to get the important parts of your story told. Anything else you add on top of that is only going to make things better, and should enhance the overall piece.
BtV: Earlier, you touched on the concept of networking. How important is it in a technical field to have close contacts?
DW: It has helped me find work, or avoid places where I don’t want to work. I know many friends in technical fields that network that way. There is also some sharing of ideas, but because of intellectual property contracts, very little specific information can be shared of course.
BtV: If you could pick one thing to change in the game creation process, what would it be?
DW: Probably pre-production. Only in the last few months has the phrase meant anything in games… Games would typically have a rough story, and then they would just charge ahead, because the schedule was so short. That lead to problems like the Adam’s apple thing. In the film industry, that guy would have found his head hanging from a pole outside the movie studio.
In films, almost nothing is done until you have a specific plan of execution laid out, one that many people have seen and signed off on. It saves tons of money that way.
To their credit, the game industry is catching on. As games become more and more expensive to produce, wasteful practices are being scrutinized, and they are seeing the value of careful pre-planning.
BtV: A word of advice to budding game designers and graphic artists?
DW: My experience getting into games has probably been unusual. Very few people go from film TO games; it’s usually people in games trying to get to films. I would say you should be tenacious and patient; it may take some time to get in and make a difference. If you go to college, keep in touch with your friends and see if you can network with them. Don’t burn bridges behind you; I know people that have threatened to quit if someone they knew got hired. Have fun with it; it’s one of the coolest jobs in the world, without question.
BtV: Can you tell us anything about your current projects?
DW: Right now I work at Electronic Arts’ facility in Orlando Florida. I’m currently working with the teams to try to evaluate what is in store for us with Next Generation technology, like the XBox2 and Playstation3.
BtV: Alright, thanks for sitting down with me and being so open. It’s been a pleasure having you, and we all look forward to seeing what comes out next.
DW: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
So there you go. A bit about movies, a bit about animation, and a bit about the gaming industry in general. Next week we begin the second significant part of this column as we start to examine the programming side of making a computer game, from an unexpected viewpoint.
Disclaimer: Behind the Veil was written by Chris Marks and hosted by Diabloii.net. The opinions expressed in these columns are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Diii.net.