Paul is a Lead Animator here at Respawn and for the past several months I’ve had the pleasure of sharing workspace with Paul and the rest of the animation team. I asked them to nominate one of their own for this weeks interview and they not only nominated Paul, but provided questions they wanted answered.
Abbie: How did you start out as an animator in games?
Paul: Well, growing up I knew I wanted to be something that was frontier, something that didn’t even exist at that point. I wanted to do either 3D animation or genetic engineering. Those were the two, where I thought “That will definitely be an adventure”
Abbie: Wow. What made you choose one over the other?
Paul: Basically it was about who funds each one and what kind of people work in those industries. Games were the obvious fun one.
Abbie: And what inspired your interest in animation?
Paul: Early on my interests were actually more game development and world development than actual animation. I was actually pretty bored and uninspired by most of the animation I was seeing growing up. I didn’t get really excited about animation until I was introduced to the stuff coming out of Japan. I remember my dad would build computers when I was pretty young so he’d bring home those early computer magazines and in the back they’d have a page or two of just code and if you typed that up you’d make a game. And that took all the mystery out of games, like wow, it’s really that easy. So I used to do that when I was pretty young, and then as I got older I’d be making my own text based adventure games on the computer.
Abbie: Like MUDs?
Paul: Sort of, but they had full AI systems in them. Like “How do you make this enemy feel like he’s alive or fears for his life?”
Abbie: So when did animation factor in?
Paul: My father was very much into computers and my mother was a fine artist, so I became this weird amalgamation of them both.
Abbie: Do you find having a strong art background really helps what you do now?
Paul: Yeah, you definitely have a different eye from developers that were not raised around art. I did indie comics for a while but it’s a kind of shorthand. Comics and story boarding are the most direct, straightforward way of getting the idea across, but I really like all those subtle and complex details in motion…for me, animation is just losing yourself in a performance. I love this industry because it’s changing so much. I was not upset when 3D animation came along, I was not upset when Mocap came along, ‘cause I want change. I want to always be learning new things. A lot of animators haven’t liked either of those changes.
Abbie: I think a lot of people in creative mediums with technological components had the experience of transitioning from analog to digital. How was the actual transition for you?
Paul: I don’t feel like I felt that transition because my mother was analog and my father was digital. I would be painting, pixel painting, on my dad’s computer and then my mom would set me up with some of her old prints and I’d use those as scrap paper to paint on. So for me those always sort of existed side by side. I was always looking forward to when they would blend better.
Abbie: And so you see that represented in 3D animation and mocap?
Paul: To me mocap actually represents something else. The thing I always hated about traditional art, and even to some extent traditional animation, was the isolation. Traditionally artists sit in their studios and just paint alone. And animation, you work at large studios, but still you just sorta sit in front of your desk, alone. In art, this thing called plein-air came along, which is a big movement where artists get out of their studios, they pack up all their gear, they hike up into the mountains and find some amazing scene and paint it together and they talk about their work and give critique and …to me, that’s what mocap is, you get out of your studio, you collaborate with other people who have a lot to teach you. So I love working with stuntmen and actors and seeing what they’ll bring to a shot. To me the interesting part of animation is not about the process, that’s just technique and techniques always change. Really for me it’s just another way to find the performance and grow as an actor and storyteller.
Abbie: What are the most difficult things to capture?
Paul: Anything that’s not normal human movement is a challenge, you’ve got to find out what defines it as different and why. Its great to just put yourself into a character and see what comes. I find the hardest thing to get people to do well is pain or death. In the early days of computer animation in games, there was no room for acting during gameplay, so the only way to get emotion in was to do dramatic deaths. So that became the focus: “How do you get emotion in a really good death performance?” Very few people can do a really good death performance. I’m always amazed.
Abbie: Why do you think that is? It’s over-dramatized?
Paul: It’s either too slow or too melodramatic. Band of Brothers has some of the best deaths I’ve ever seen. Throughout my career I’ve looked at lots of movies but the death performances in Band of Brothers are still some of the best I’ve ever seen.
Abbie: Do you find yourself watching the physical movements of actors in movies more than paying attention to what’s being said?
Paul:Sometimes you’ll notice the way someone moves is really unique. If I watch a really good animated series I might say “Wow that’s a really interesting way to do that move. I wouldn’t have thought about that.” I’m usually thinking about animation when I see something that’s taking a very mundane thing to an interesting place.
Abbie: How did you get started in games?
Paul: Actually in my senior year in high school I knew exactly what I needed to do to get into games but didn’t act on it.
Abbie: Like many people in their senior year of high school.
Paul: I got really lucky, I went to this painting competition and I got best of show and the award was a full scholarship so I went to that school for a year and just worked on my portfolio to get into the school I really wanted to go to. At the time there were only 2-3 schools in the world that offered BFAs in computer animation because it was so new. So I finally got to my dream school and I was blown away because as soon as I got there PIXAR showed up and hired most of the juniors and seniors away. So after that everyone was completely obsessed with Pixar and working for PIXAR was all anyone could talk about. But I never wanted that. I never wanted to work at the big established studio, the big name. My dream was to find a small studio that no one has ever heard of and work with them to become the next big thing.
Abbie: Very admirable.
Paul: And I’m happy that I actually feel that I’ve achieved that. So, now I have to figure out what my next big dream is. As soon as I finished school I was pretty burned out on 3D animation I spent so much time in the lab and I was sick of 3D. My first industry job was a 2D animation job. I actually believed the propaganda that violent games were bad for people so my first job was very idealistic. I was making children’s educational games, teaching games. The strange thing is that I pretty much had a nervous breakdown working there because I hated it so much.
Abbie: So what changed your mind about the violent video games aspect?
Paul: I think that I was really unhappy at that time and we just had so much fun playing Quake 3 at work. There was so much joy playing that game. It was very therapeutic. After I realized I wasn’t getting any satisfaction out of making educational games I started looking for work in AAA games. No one would give me a chance because I didn’t have any real time experience. Finally I found this small company in Oklahoma called 2015 and the screenshots for their game looked amazing. I remember this one shot of 4 Germans jumping out of the back of a half track in cool dynamic poses and decided I had to work with them. AI animations at that time were stiff and robotic so any company that could create AI that dynamic was where I needed to be. When I turned up for the job I realized the screenshots were all faked and that they didn’t even have AI. This should have scared me but I didn’t know what to expect so I just went with it. I spent the next few weeks animating the characters for the big D-Day landing Level. A few weeks later we showed the level at E3 to rave reviews… it was a great time. I think that was also my first E3! What happened after that is pretty well documented, the forming of Infinity Ward and later Respawn, but I feel like I should at least mention my time at 2015.
Abbie: So since the animation team nominated you to be interviewed, they also submitted some questions: Who is your favorite animator or work of animation?
Paul: Porco Rosso and Cowboy Bebop are two of my all time favorites. My favorite animators are Don Bluth and Peter Chung. Some people say Bluth’s stuff is a little too bouncy but I find that technique really adds a lot of life an appeal. Secret of Nimh was the only animated film I respected growing up.
Abbie: What animated thing are you into currently?
Paul: I’m watching a lot of the old Votoms, Armored Trooper Votoms because I grew up with the Heavy Gear board games so when I realized, “Oh, these are rip-offs of this thing from Japan. I wanna see what the original is like.” The animation isn’t great but the storytelling goes to some interesting places. I guess with the exception of maybe Aeon Flux, I tend to be drawn more to the characters and the story more than the actual animation performances. A coworker Just introduced me to Crusher Joe and I’ve really been enjoying It. It hits a lot of the same cords as Firefly and Cowboy Bebop.
Abbie: What was your favorite movie as a child? And it doesn’t have to be animated.
Paul: It definitely wasn’t animated. My favorite movie growing up was Dune. I watched Dune a thousand times. Some of my earliest memories growing up were of my parents reading the Dune books and the Lord of Rings books to me. I loved that these authors put so much into their worlds… history, language, religion, politics. The idea that it was possible to create such uniquely beautiful and believable worlds was intoxicating.
Abbie: What’s your favorite kind of music (Grigsby wanted to know)?
Paul: I have some pretty eclectic taste, I guess. I love soundtracks, for the story telling aspect and reggae dance hall, particularly Japanese reggae dance hall. And classical. I listen to live classical music for 4-5 hours a night, because my girlfriend’s daughter is training to be a classical pianist. I’ve become so used to the power of live music that its hard for me to enjoy listening to recordings.
Abbie: What do you do in your spare time?
Paul:I don’t draw or paint as much as I used to though I still do figure drawing every week. These days I’m more obsessed with design, game design in particular. My whole life I’ve been making games, board games, card games, role playing games. I like traditional games because they’re transparent. If something is really working you can look at it and see why it works, you can see when the next game comes out what little thing they tweaked. So I spend a lot of my free time doing that. I’ve done it my whole life but now I’m trying to write out the rules well enough that other people can understand and enjoy them.
Abbie: What kind of games are you designing?
Paul: My girlfriend always gets mad that I tend to make war games so my latest two games are actually more sports themed. Sports give you unlimited replayability without feeling as repetitive. One is about a sport played in an Oubliette, so there is this dark dangerous labyrinth that is trying to kill you and you’re trying to get in and get something and get out. So it’s kind of like football but every drive is you sending one of your players into this horrible place and desperately trying to get them out in time. You can use portals to shift in time, because time is very limited, and how and when you use light to illuminate the labyrinth is very important.
Abbie: Have you thought about bringing them in here to playtest?
Paul: I probably will eventually. Actually my first gaming memory is digging through the cupboards and finding this tactical board game called Tactics 2 that my dad had and that was my first introduction to games. I had no idea how to play so I’d basically sit down and draw GI Joe tanks and aircraft and helicopters and make up my own games with that.
Abbie: Did you play a lot of table top games as a kid?
Paul: We mainly played table top games when we went camping. I tried to play a serious war game with my dad once but we were both so serious. Neither of us wanted to lose but neither of us really wanted to beat the other so it was kind of awkward. But he always bought every flight sim or submarine sim that came out on PC, so I played all those growing up. I had a lot of military games. I found out an interesting story about that Tactics 2 board game. While my dad was in Vietnam, he got this package from my mom. As he opened it all the other airmen gathered around to see what it was. When they realized it was a wargame everyone teased him because, who wants to play a war game in the middle of a war? But a couple days later it was non-stop, 24 hours a day someone was queued up to play that game for the rest of his tour. ‘Cause there was nothing else to do. This thing I played with my whole childhood had this backstory I didn’t know anything about.