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The Ultimate Guide to Game Animation as a Freelance Animator

ben marvazi 2020

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"Nowadays the skills and crew required to make a game and a movie are virtually identical... I've witnessed the blurring between the two media which has been occurring gradually over the years."

Lionel Gallat, Animator and Game Developer

While the medium of animation has been around for hundreds of years, video game animation is still relatively new and still evolving. The world of video game animation is far different than film animation because it is a fast-paced and deadline-driven industry where the demand for new games often outnumbers the number of game designers and animators. 

For this reason, there are many opportunities for freelance animators to switch from regular film animation to game animation. Considering the high job demand, it might be the right choice for you if you’re a freelance animator. 

Luckily, game animation requires many of the same skills as film animation, so making the switch from film animation is relatively simple. But game animation also has added layers because it goes beyond visual presentation. You also have to think about things like collisions or making sure your characters feel responsive.

In this blog, we share with you the benefits of becoming a game animator, as well as discuss the fundamentals of game animation. We’ll also share details about the game animation industry and how you can become a game animator yourself. 

The Benefits of Game Animation

an animator reaping from the benefits of their work

Image by Sean Do via Unsplash

Although game animation is similar to film animation in many ways, there are also many more potential upsides, especially if you’re a freelance animator. Firstly, as we’ve mentioned, there is a very high job demand. 

This high job demand is mostly due to the size of the video game industry and the sheer amount of genres and mediums. For example, video games have recently started to include options for virtual reality, and, as discussed in another blog, virtual reality animation presents endless opportunities for freelance animators. 

Besides the high job demand, video game animation has a quicker turnaround time than film animation. This means that the quality of the animation sometimes gets sacrificed, but this also has a huge benefit because it also means that you don't have to be the best animator in the world to become a game animator. 

If you want to become a game animator, you don’t need years and years of training and experience as is required of Disney or Pixar animators. You simply need a basic understanding of animation fundamentals and some good quality software to create a great game that players will love. 

Being a game animator also allows you to create more interactive animated environments that can be enjoyed a lot more than animated films in some cases. 

This is because rather than creating a set story that people idly sit and watch, you’re creating an interactive environment where people can experience all that you’ve created by moving through the environment with a character. This way, people can also interact with your animations. 

The Fundamentals of Game Animation

fundamentals of game animation in the game

GIF by Spellbreak via Giphy

Game animation and film animation differ on many levels, but the most obvious is that video game animation doesn’t necessarily adhere to all the 12 principles of animation in the same way that regular animation does. 

All animators are familiar with the 12 principles of animation. These are squash and stretch, anticipation, staging, straight-ahead action and pose-to-pose, follow through and overlapping action, slow in and slow out, arc, secondary action, timing, exaggeration, solid drawing, and appeal. 

One of the reasons game animation can’t use the 12 principles of animation in the same way as film animation is because of the interactivity factor. Instead of viewing a linear story that is out of your control, game animation allows you to influence the animation and progress through the story at your own pace and in your own order. 

The visual identity of the medium must therefore adapt, and it requires a different line of thinking to animate a game than a film. For this reason, famous game animator Jonathan Cooper has written a book detailing five additional fundamentals of game animation to supplement the 12 principles of animation when animating for games. 

These fundamentals of game animation include the principles of feel, fluidity, readability, context, and elegance. When used in conjunction with the 12 principles of animation, these fundamentals allow game animators to successfully animate games that are not only fun to play but also offer a unique and engaging experience for players. 

  • Feel
the feel of game animation principle can be seen in the hammer's animation

GIF by Thomas Vasseur via Game Developer

The one significant difference between a game and a film is interactivity. There is a delicate balance to perfect to ensure the character your audience will control feels nice and polished. You should also be willing to give up the authorship of your animations to players since it is the players who now control the characters and make decisions about how the characters move.  

Cooper states, “The time taken between a player’s input and the desired reaction can make the difference between creating the illusion that the player is embodying the avatar or becoming just a passive viewer on the sidelines.” 

This emphasizes the importance of interactivity in video games and the role of the player in making the experience of your game animation complete. For this to be successful, the controls need to be smooth, and there shouldn’t be any issues with the character's movement. 

You should also aim to make your character feel as realistic as possible, especially with the development of modern games. To do this, the movement of your character should be realistic, depending on the context of the game.

All of this affects how the character feels controlled by the player. For example, there should be a clear difference in the feel between a hard punch and a soft punch, as well as making the character sprint or walk. 

  • Fluidity
the fluidity of game animation can be seen in the swords motion

GIF by Kyle W. Powers via Medium

In contrast to animated films, video games are made up of a series of shorter animations playing in sequence. Because of this, these animations often stop, start, overlap, and move between each other. 

Game animators need to ensure that these animations flow together to maintain the same fluidity put into the individual animations themselves. There are many ways to achieve this, but the ultimate goal should be to reduce any unsightly movement that can take a player out of the experience by highlighting where one animation starts and ends.

In other words, the fundamental of fluidity describes how smoothly and coherently different actions in a game blend together. It can be regarded as the art of transition in video game animation. As a game animator, you should try not to give away the game's magic by ensuring smooth transitions between animations. 

It’s important to note that it’s easier to animate the fluidity of a 3D game than it is to animate a 2D game. This is because it’s easier to achieve fluidity using programmable maps in a 3D rig than using separate sprite animations in a 2D game. 

With the high demand for new video game content, it might be a better choice to create fluid 3D games when you’re just starting as a game animator. 

  • Readability
the readability of the animation should be seen in how you

GIF by Ubisoft via Giphy

The second biggest difference between game animation and film animation, with 3D animation at least, is that 3D animated games will more often than not be viewed from all angles. This is where the fundamental of readability comes in. 

Readability refers to how the actions of your animated characters are read on screen. This fundamental is very similar to the ‘staging’ principle in the 12 principles of animation. However, with game animation, animators can’t always cheat or animate the camera. They also can’t always control the composition of a scene, especially with open-world games.

There are exceptions to this since there are fixed perspective games that can range from 2D to 3D. Good examples are platformer games like Super Mario Bros or even 3D adventure games like Diablo III

Therefore, the actions performed by characters must be animated to look appealing from all angles as the camera moves with the character's movements. In 3D games, the camera moves independently, and players often don't have control over it as they do over the character.

This means that, when working on game animation, animators shouldn’t only get the appeal right from a front or side view. They should always rotate and approve their motion from all angles, similar to how a sculptor walks around their art.

Game animators should also make sure that all of the actions and movements that are done by the character are picked up by the camera. You have to ensure a character’s actions are interesting by giving them varying movements and different actions to perform simultaneously. 

In short, readability focuses on the sub-concepts of posing for game cameras, silhouettes, collisions, and center of mass. 

  • Context
game animations would make more sense with the right animations

GIF by Warren Woodhouse via Giphy

With linear animation, the context of an action is defined by the scene in which it takes place and what has happened in the story up to that point. In contrast, game animators often have no idea what animations will take place when or where in the game. This is because these actions and movements are entirely up to the player to decide.

Oftentimes, the animator has no idea which action the player performed beforehand or the setting in which the character is currently performing the action. More often than not, the animation is to be used repeatedly throughout the game in a variety of settings and even on a variety of different characters.

Therefore, the fundamental of context relates to how and when an animation will be used in your game. While it’s hard to know precisely when a particular animation will take place within a game, there are possibilities for incorporating different nuances into your game animation. 

For example, suppose a player is only able to control one character. In that case, you might create different animations that correspond to different controls and make sure that these animations are different than other characters in the game to make the main character stand out. 

This creates nuance in how the main character moves and interacts with the animated world. Additionally, NPCs (non-playable characters) might all have the same general set of movements because they serve to flesh out the world, and they won’t be seen as much compared to the player character. 

You can also create specific animations for important moments in the game’s story, like cut scenes or specific sections of the game map. But these should be used sparingly as it affects the interactivity of the game as a whole. It’s also a good idea to put an option to skip cut-scenes. 

While game animators can’t always animate to the camera, it’s still important to consider how close a character will be to the camera. For example, more exaggerated movements can be placed further away to make them more readable, and more subtle movements can be closer to the camera during cut scenes. 

  • Elegance
game animation requires elegance for the characters to feel responsive

GIF by Diego Sanches via Twisted Sifter

Animations in video games require underlying systems within which they are triggered, allowing them to flow in and out of one another at the player’s input. 

As a game animator, you must make sure that these blend seamlessly, overlap one another, and combine multiple actions at once to ensure the player is unaware of the individual animations affording the player-character motion.

It is the game animator’s responsibility to bring these systems and characters to life since the efficiency of any system can have a dramatic impact on the production and the team’s ability to make changes further down the line toward the end of a project.

Just as a well-animated character displays the efficiency of movement, a good, clean, and efficient system to play them can work wonders for the end result.

Therefore, the fundamental of elegance refers to how elegant animations will look when working together. While this principle applies to design in general, in the case of games, it relates to the efficiency of animated actions and the animation systems in place that bring different animations together. 

This is an important fundamental as it also relates to the overall production of the game and how it affects workflow later in the project, especially when something needs to be changed. 

For example, if your game involves the player character interacting with many objects, you can spend a bit more time creating unique animations for different categories of objects. Holding rope and holding a cup are two different movements that can be animated to give your game a better feel.

Elegance is also about being clever and efficient. For example, you can use an existing animation for opening a door and tweak it to apply to other things like opening car doors or cupboards. This way, you can avoid your workload being overrun by the need to create unnecessary animations for every single action in your game. 

The Video Game Animation Industry and How to Become a Game Animator

the video game animation industry is on the rise

Image by Florian Olivo via Unsplash

The video game industry is an ever-changing and growing industry filled with opportunities for animators. When looking at the statistics, it’s clear to see that the gaming industry is only going to get bigger as time goes on.

The global gaming industry grows every year, and its revenue has hit over  $165 billion so far. Not only that but there are billions of gamers worldwide, further indicating the possibilities for work for freelance animators. 

The video game animation industry is characterized by a fast-paced work environment with an exceptionally quick turnaround time on games. Not only that but there are plenty of solo game animators who frequently release games on platforms such as Steam.

While animated films are highly collaborative projects, you can easily create a video game on your own. The nature of video games means that you don’t need to have a whole team of animators working on a project for it to be successful. As a result, video game animators have become very adept at being faster and more efficient in their work.

Since there is less time to refine your work, you will need to have a greater understanding of the animation and its purpose, as well as what you want the player to feel. Game animation isn't about creating top-notch performances like in Disney movies but about ensuring the animation will work well for the player.

Additionally, many skills needed to create a video game are the same as creating an animated film. Unfortunately, because of this, animators in video game studios are rarely allowed time to learn, refine, or improve their skills.

While game animation is much more forgiving than films, we suggest working in the animated film industry for a while before transitioning to video games. Fortunately, the toolsets for both film and video game animation are extremely similar, meaning that transitioning from one industry to the other is made a lot more straightforward.

Not only that, but programs like Unity that were designed specifically for game animation make the process of game animation much simpler and faster.

Becoming a Freelance Game Animator

The video game industry has grown exponentially in the last decade. This means more opportunities for freelance animators to make their mark in the video game industry.

Video game animation offers opportunities to stand out and not be just another cog in the machine, as is the case with many film animation studios.  In addition, creating a video game can be done as a solo animator without needing a whole team of professionals and experts. 

This process is made much simpler with specialized programs that were specifically designed for the creation and animation of video games. 

If you’re still unsure about becoming a video game animator, this is your chance to jump in and enjoy the benefits!

If you’re looking to grow your animation skills, check out our free masterclass, download a copy of our free marketing handbook, and check out our blog on “How to Start an Animation Studio”!

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