A Day in the Life: Videogame Lead Animator

Published by: Phil Stott

Jonathan Cooper is Lead Animator at Montreal-based BioWare. He has been doing animation for a total of nine years—five of those as a lead animator, and around 3.5 with BioWare. Originally from Scotland, he holds a Bachelor's in Design in Animation, but says that "no qualifications are really needed" to break into the industry—"just a really good demo reel."

8:00 am – 10:00 am:  Flextime. Arrive at the studio. Check email, grab coffee and catch up with team.

10:00 am: Day starts. Monday typically begins with a Leads Meeting – 30 minute sit-down with leads from all disciplines (art, animation, programming, design & audio) and the Project Director to catch up with planned tasks and goals for the week. This keeps all informed with issues that may affect other departments.

10:30 am – 11:00 am: Multiple 5-minute (SCRUM) meetings to discuss schedule tasks with other teams, be it specific level-design teams, animation programmers, AI (Artificial Intelligence) programmers, character modeling etc. - whatever shares the most dependencies with animation at each stage of the project.

11:00 am: Short stand-up meeting with animation team (no sitting, so it goes fast). Each member goes over tasks for the day and what was achieved yesterday.

11:05 am: Open up 3D art packages and game engine. Either continue animations from previous day, or implement assets already created into the game engine to test, essentially playing the game to see how animations look. Fix animation-related bugs sent from the QA (Quality Assurance) testers.

11.30 am: Become frustrated with areas of the game where designers are using or placing animations/characters incorrectly. Take Notes.

12:00 pm: Go out for lunch. Talk excitedly about latest games, movies and other geek indulgencies with friends and colleagues.

1:00 pm: Walk around the team area, overseeing various in-progress animations or cinematic cutscenes, advising on visuals and their relevance to the greater game and story. Maintain consistency of style and quality with the rest of the project.

1:35 pm: Field crazy requests from designers making ludicrous requests for their own pet-projects within the game. Agree to less than 1% of them.

2: 00 pm: Work on a little team scheduling, as well as design-documentation for upcoming animation features to be prototyped in the game. Create pre-visualizations of concepts for visual aid within systems design meetings.

2:45 pm:
Afternoon coffee break. Again, wax lyrical about topical fanboy-isms internet memes.

3:00 pm: Group critique meeting. Full animation team in a dark room with a projector, watching renders of animations. Group critiquing allows everyone to grow by learning on all aspects, as well as leveraging the experience of the seniors in the team. Review character performances, cinematography, and in-game animation speed and "feel".

4:00 pm: Meeting involving design and programmers to either hash out a new gameplay feature or refine and iterate on a gameplay system already present in the game. Many notes are taken and everyone leaves satisfied with the result, with new tasks to bring up to the team in the following day’s stand-ups. Topics range from the highly technical (like how to get AI to behave correctly) to the pure fun (like how to make spaceships look even more awesome).

5:00 pm: Finally sit back down at desk to continue with this morning’s animation or technical tasks. Could be anything from creating a single gesture to be performed by a character within a conversation to a violent death at the hands of an enemy, or tweaking the weight of a character’s limbs when applied with physics.

6: 00 pm: Sit back and play the game, admiring the animation team's work. Get enthused by the level of quality across the board and use it to inspire the animators to do the same.

6:30 pm – 7:00 pm: Done for the day. Home now to play someone else’s games…

N.B. Jonathan adds: "If this seems like a lot of meetings, that's because there are a lot on our projects—mostly because they're some of the biggest in the industry."