We Interviewed Brent George - Animation Director & VFX Supervisor

Posted at Dec 30th, 2013 by AnimDesk.

We Interviewed Brent George - Animation Director & VFX Supervisor

Since 1997, Brent's career has been enriched by many corners of the animation industry. Having spent time in Commercials, Television, Film and more recently Video Games, he has gotten a pretty good taste of what animation has to offer.

During his travels Brent has worked as Animator, CG Supervisor, Producer, VFX Supervisor, Character Technical Director, Animation Director and a countless number of other roles. Most recently, Brent can be found freelancing at local VFX and Game companies, Directing a web-series and/or enthusiastically imparting his knowledge onto the students of Dawson College's 3D Animation and CGI program.

Brent is best known for spearheading highly creative projects by assembling custom tailored teams and designing pipelines from the ground up. After which, he applies his unique flavour of collaboration and leadership in order to deliver high quality results on time and on budget.

Brent George - Animation Director and VFX Supervisor

Thank you very much Brent George for this interview, we would like to start with you by telling us about yourself? What are your hobbies? Passions?

It's my pleasure! Oh boy… hobbies and passions? First of all, I have too many! I'm the kind of guy that wants to learn how to do everything.

I'm into everything from: flying airplanes, photography, racing motorcycles, live-action direction, scuba diving...etc. You name it, and I've probably done it.

If I haven't done it yet, it's either on my list or will be going on it soon!

Where are you from, and how do you summaries the growing up part?

I come from a relatively small family in Hamilton, Ontario. Most of my professional life was spent in Toronto, but have been living in Montreal for the past 5 years.

If you haven't been to Montreal, you should come check it out. It's such a great city and Quebec is a very beautiful part of the world, especially in the fall.

Did you use to draw a lot? What kind of Art did you like the most growing up?

All the time! I was the kind of kid that would stay home and draw sometimes instead of going out and "playing". Being an avid comic book collector, I learned how to draw by mimicking what I saw in the comics.

Did you play a lot of games growing up? Did you go to the arcades? Had a game console?

Oh man. I pretty much lived at the local arcade growing up. It was called Arnie's. Man, that place was awesome. I'd show up with all my paper route money in rolls of quarters clenched in my tiny little fists.

My first console was a Nintendo Entertaining System. Metal Gear was probably my favorite game on that system.

I must have clocked weeks' worth of playtime on that game. Since the NES, I've owned a SEGA Genesis, SEGA Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, XBOX, PlayStation 3, XBOX 360, and I've already spent countless nights enjoying my shiny new PlayStation4.

I still remember the day that my dad kind of apologized, considering what I do for a living now, for giving me so much hell for playing games all the time... He's been forgiven.

How and when did you realize that you wanted to become an Animator?

Well, like so many young artists, I didn't really know what to do with my life. As you probably can tell from the hobby question earlier, I have many interests and passions, so choosing a career pretty much paralyzed me with indecision.

In the end, I decided I should just pick something that I loved doing, find a good school to help me be better at it and figure the rest out along the way. So, choose I did.

I ended up going to Sheridan College in Oakville Ontario for Illustration. It wasn't until I was there, that I realized that I wanted to be an animator.

The animation students were right next door to us Illustrators and I was always excitedly looking over their shoulders. Needless to say, I transitioned over to the Classical Animation Program the next year and never looked back.

Animation is the perfect choice for highly creative and curious people. It satisfies so many different curiosity cravings all at once. Not only is animating about drawing, it's about physics, psychology, acting, rhythm…everything. Every project brings the opportunity to learn about something new.

The first time I had to animate a quadruped was a memorable example of a steep learning curve. It's absolutely incredible what can be learned if you just take the time to observe the things that are around you every day.

So, if you're reading and you fancy yourself a creative person with an insatiable craving for knowledge and love to tell stories…you're either an animator already or maybe you should be!

What was the first studio you sent your reel to or tried to accept into?

"Canuck Creations" in Toronto. I got the job!

What was your first work you ever worked on professionally?

It was assisting on the 2D cinematic animations for a very early Bungie game called "Myth: The Fallen Lords". Back then, Bungie was a relatively small company run by a group of very passionate individuals with only a handful of games under their belts.

It's awesome to see how big they've become over the years. It was a fun job to work on and right up my alley considering my love for video games.

How did you end up Animating, Directing and working in the Games Industry?

I was the Animation Director and one of the VFX Supervisors at a VFX company called Toybox in Toronto (we were bought by Technicolor half way through my employment there).

It was a great job and I had the opportunity to work some pretty cool projects while I was there including "300". However, for years I was thinking about getting into video games because of my passion for them.

Toronto wasn't known for game production, but there was Pseudo Interactive, a particularly successful company in town and a few of my friends were already working there.

Pseudo were well known for the racing/combat games (‘Cel Damage', ‘Full Auto' and ‘Full Auto 2') all of which were launch titles for the XBOX, XBOX 360 and the PlayStation 3 respectively.

At that time, they were looking into spreading out into different genres and needed a character animation specialist. They hired me as their Animation Director so I could build a team and character animation pipeline for them.

Unfortunately they closed their doors a little over a year into my employment there… I still miss that place very much.

Tell us about "VIE Workshop", what do you do there? How did you end up being there?

I worked with Dave Massicotte, the CEO and founder of Vie Workshop, while we were both still working for Ubisoft Montreal.

In the past, Dave and I have outsourced work to many animation/motion capture venders. The truth is, too many of these companies are about the technology and the throughput.

Too often the creative spark or the soul of the performances, as Dave and I would often say, gets lost in the translation.

Vie Workshop was founded to solve that problem. We are an animation / motion capture outsourcing solution with a key focus on quality performance and have the experience to back that up.

Our playground, provided by our R&D partner CDRIN, is an 8000 square foot space complete with a 28 foot high 2500 square foot Vicon enabled capture volume.

I'm the Animation / Performance Director and Co-Founder of Vie Workshop, which means I'm involved with all Animation and Performance related fun.

Which project(s) are you working on? And what are you mostly responsible for?

At Vie, we're currently involved on a number of exciting projects at different stages of development. For example, we are working with SOF Studios on their latest game H-Hour, a tactical shooter by the very talented veteran game Creative Director, David Sears.

In addition to working with Vie Workshop, I also teach Animation at Dawson College here in Montreal Quebec.

I also instruct the fresh new Motion Capture Workshop at iAnimate.net and I offer my services as a freelance Director, Animation Director, Animator, Industry Consultant.

I love freelancing because you get to work on so many different and exciting projects. For instance, recently I've been collaborating with the amazing team over at Organic Motion the developers of Open Stage, a marker-less optical motion capture solution.

Working with the tools of the trade is one thing, but getting a chance to help pioneer the tools of the future is candy for the brain!

My most recent freelance adventure was as the in-game Animation Director ‘Batman: Arkham Origins' by Warner Brothers Games, Montreal.

What are some of your favorite Projects you're proud to have been a part of?

Honestly, I've been involved with so many great projects; it would be hard to choose. My favorite experiences tend to be the ones that challenge me most by putting me outside my comfort zone.

Few things are more exhilarating than the pressure to learn something new in order to achieve something that, at the time, seems impossible to complete.

Over the years, I've also grown to appreciate the people on certain projects more than the project itself. I'd gladly jump onto a dangerously ambitious production if I knew it had a team of selfless and devoted individuals because I believe that at the intersection of adversity and passion, lies the breeding ground for innovation.

I've done it before, and I'll do it again.

What was a typical day like for you with regards to your job? When do you wake up, when do you leave work? How many hours do you work a day?

Well, currently that varies depending on the kind of things I've got on my plate. As a director, you tend to spend most of your days running around reviewing things and being trapped in meetings (some good, some bad).

It's at the end of the day, when things are "quiet" that us director types get time to think and plan…or if we're lucky, do a little animating ourselves. Late nights are not an uncommon occurrence.

How do you test your or others' animations while a game is still in development?

Great question! They key difference between animating for a film/tv and a video game is that getting the results you're looking for is a LOT more complicated in games.

In film/TV, the relationship between the amount of hard work done to an animation and quality of result is usually close to a 1:1 ratio. Moreover, what you get after the lighting/rendering department is finished is almost always an improved version of what you submitted.

In games, which will shock many new animators on their first project, it can often be the exact opposite. Many technical factors can greatly reduce the final quality of the animation played in the engine (compression, gameplay mechanics, user input, problems with Ai, etc.).

The only way to ensure the highest level of final quality of your game animations is to constantly and rigorously test them in game while collaborating constantly with the other departments (especially programming and game design).

You might need to do something rather unconventional to the animation to make it finally look awesome in the game…you won't know until you experiment.

What parts of animation do you like best and why? What makes it so unique to you?

The best animators become obsessed over researching how something moves/works.

Animators can't just understand the surface layer of things, we often need to know exactly how they tick if we are to produce an authentic replica of what it is we're animating.

This part of the job enriches my life in many ways beyond my craft and has led to me adopting many new hobbies and interests.

What's your animation workflow look like when animating? Did it change throughout the years?

It's funny, because when I first learned how to animate in 3D, I had more of a ‘straight ahead' approach, which was similar to how I preferred to animate in 2D.

I liked it, but I struggled with quality consistency and it always caused problems when trying to get early feedback on a shot.

Since then, I've migrated to more of a hybrid pose to pose workflow of my own design that I've coined "Anatomy of an Action". It's something I teach at Dawson College in Montreal and at iAnimate.

Tell us a little about the tools that you are using (or used) since you started your career, what are your preferences? What are your favorite plugins?

From my own personal experience, I find that some people tend to get too caught up on software. They all do more or less the same thing and staying loyal to one in particular is never a great idea.

In the end, they are all a means to moving pixels around on a screen. The more software you know, the more marketable you will be in finding work.

What is your favorite 2D and/or 3D animated film(s) and game(s), and why?

There are simply too many to be counted! What I can tell you is what games I'm enjoying now and what movies I've seen recently that I really loved.

For games, I'm officially addicted to DoTA2. I love everything about it. But be careful! It's insanely addictive! you've been warned.

For films, I just recently watched ‘Frozen'. I was extremely impressed with that film, both technically and artistically. I had a few small complaints about the story, but over all, it's one of the best Animated films I've seen in a very long time. Go see it and tell me I'm wrong!

As for 2D animated films, I'm always a sucker for a Miyazaki's film. Don't you even dare to try and make me choose!

What are your thoughts about Japanese animation and games? Are you a fan or prefer good old American animation style and games?

I'm a fan of any and all animation. What I love about watching animation done .from different cultures is how much you can learn about people by the way they express themselves through a very rich medium such as animation.

There is an entire world of animation out there that people need to go discover that's not limited to the typical Japanese, North American and European markets. films. Crazy awesome!

What was the most difficult part for you while being in the games industry?

Probably, the learning curve required understanding how much work and collaboration with many departments it takes to make a game really feel good.

For me, a game's 'feel' is measured by the balance struck between the realistic quality of the game's animation and the game's responsiveness.

I often refer to the book Game Feel as a prerequisite to animators delving into game production.

Have you ever had a character that was too difficult for you to animate? Do you remember which project was that on?

I honestly believe that there are few things that would be too difficult to animate as long as there is enough time to make it happen and you have the right tools and support.

Who influenced you the most? Who is or was your ultimate animation mentor since you began your journey?

Jim Henson. Sure, he wasn't an "animator" but he was one of the best entertainers to ever walk this earth.

Many comparisons can be drawn between animators and puppeteers, especially 3D animators.

We are all in the business of performing vicariously through an inanimate object. He may not have mentored me, but he has certainly inspired me for as far back as I can remember.

2D vs. 3D what are your thoughts on this endless battle?

From where I'm sitting, the only battle fought and lost here was an economical one. The truth is, ‘Toy Story' came out of nowhere in 1995 and surprised everyone with a fresh new narrative structure and look.

It competed immediately with the well-established 2D industry by making 50 million more in domestic box office sales than Pocahontas that was out that same year.

Unfortunately, studios detected a trend and decided to divert more efforts towards developing the exciting new medium of 3D and started the systematic downsizing of 2D film production.

It's sad really, because I'm a firm believer that a 2D animated film could go toe to toe with a 3D animated film any day.

Now that the shininess factor of 3D has calmed down some, I think most would agree that story is the only true key ingredient to any good film no matter how it's made.

So bring back the 2D films already!

Being a director, which do you think in your opinion is more fun to direct: games, or films? And why?

Both are fun for completely different reasons. If I feel like focusing a lot of energy into the pure polish of an animation, film is the place to do it.

However, the challenge of making animation look great with many technological and production constraints is another juicy carrot for me.

I've often called game animators the MacGyvers of the animation industry due to how resourceful they need to be.

The thought of doing an indie game crossed your mind before?

All the time!

What are your thoughts about indie game developers? Do they deserve more credit than say, big budget companies?

I don't think so. They deserve a different type of credit. The big budget games made these days are beyond impressive. The Herculean effort of so many passionate developers that goes into making these games is immeasurable.

Lots of them are fun to play and the enormous scope and production quality is difficult to match. However, the current trend lately in the AAA game market involves fewer unique titles in favor of sequels of established brands.

Thankfully, indie developers close that ugly gap by producing niche genre games that would never be deemed economically viable by a big studio and therefore never made.

The indie developers deliver these riskier projects with typically shoestring budgets. It takes guts to put yourself and your ideas out there but the risk in doing so is rewarded with the freedom to think outside the box.

What do you prefer most, digital animation or traditional animation?

No preference, I love them both very much. I find digital animation easier in some ways because, although I can draw rather well, I feel that my performance choices are always handicapped by my draftsmanship.

On the flip side, I do miss being able to cheat my way through a scene. You have more control over the final image on the screen because you can draw it whatever way you want.

You want to break the character's arm on the breakdown to create more whip? No problem! In 3D you're much more constrained by what your character "rig" can or cannot do. This can be very frustrating.

If you could go back to the past, would you change anything in the way you've been doing animation? Anything that could make you become a better animator?

I'd bring an iPhone back with me so I could video record everything in front of me all the time and then study every meticulous detail.

Oh, and I would have taken as many acting classes I had the money for!

What do you like more, being a freelancer or being hired by a company? Are you a freedom fighter or 9-5 kind of guy?

Having done my share of both, I'd say that I prefer the life of a freelancer.

Big studios tend to be highly political. In my experience, when you come in as a freelancer, if you play your cards right you can avoid most if not all of the political distractions and just focus on having fun doing your job and making people happy.

If I can spend every day doing what I love and making people happy while doing it, I'll take the job!

Do you find yourself playing a game that you've been a part of? How does it feel?

I'm actually playing through ‘Batman: Arkham Origins' right now. It feels great to play through the game that I, along with the amazing and talented WB Montreal studio team, worked so hard on.

Besides, who doesn't love a good Batman game?

Do you criticise some of the shots/parts of the work you've done or directed on?

I have to remind myself that if I criticise my own work as a director, I would also be criticising my team.

Reaching a balance between obsessively striving for excellence and celebrating effort is the hallmark of any good director.

Any honest director, including me, will tell you that we could all be better at this.

How do you balance between work and personal life? Creating and working on games must be overwhelming and challenging!

This is much more difficult than many people are aware. "Normal" people will tell you the trick to having a healthy personal life is to not bring work home with you. Not physically. Not mentally.

The problem with this advice is that it doesn't work terribly well for people in the creative industries. Our creativity is very much a part of who we are, so it's difficult to turn that switch on or off.

I've looked for my switch, but I'm pretty sure I wasn't born with one. One needs to be disciplined to take time away from their creative endeavors and to simply enjoy life.

This is something I need to work on like so many artists friends I know.

Tell us about the time you've spent as an instructor at college, how did you end up tutoring there?

Teaching animation has been a part of my life for about 14 years now.

Having taught at a variety of post-secondary schools in Ontario including: Ryerson University, Centennial College, The Art Institute of Toronto and Max The Mutt College of Animation, Art and Design I now find myself teaching in the 3D Animation and CGI program at Montreal's Dawson College as well as at iAnimate.net.

I love what I do, but the only thing I love more is teaching others how to do it as well. Few things are more satisfying to me than watching the glow of inspiration in a student's eyes and the pride I experience while watching them accomplish their dreams.

How do you find the time to teach and work at the same time? Switching between them must be tiresome.

For me not being able to teach is a deal breaker. For years now, I've negotiated with my employers an understanding that allows me to teach during the workweek.

Most companies are wise enough to see this as an advantage as teaching the industry's future animators comes with perks for everyone.

The students get to be taught by an industry professional, that will teach them exactly the skills they need to get a job in the future.

The company I work for can hire my students when they finished school, knowing full well that they have the skills necessary for the job and a professional attitude.

Meanwhile, I get to have my cake and eat it. If that's not a textbook example of symbiosis, I don't know what is!

Can you tell us how did you end up being on iAnimate.net?

Richard Arroyo (one of the heads of iAnimate.net) and I go way back. When we got to talking one day about how Motion/Performance capture is so wide spread in both film and game productions yet resources that teach the proper skills are extremely hard to find we hatched a plan! Besides, once a guy like Richard has a plan, it's like being in the path of a tornado!

How different is it for you to teach online compared to teaching at college? Which do you prefer more?

Both experiences have their pluses and minuses but it's hard to deny the fact that online teaching has a serious advantage when it comes to connecting industry pros with students all over the world.

Many online students would not have access to the same level of information or networking opportunities at a local level.

In my Motion Capture Workshop at iAnimate, I had students from Mumbai, Dubai, London, Montreal and various cities in the U.S.A. In addition, the networking that goes on in these online classes go far beyond that which is between the student and the teacher.

Students in online classrooms are making connections with other young artists across the globe allowing them to share information and job opportunities in a ways that are unheard of in traditional settings.

What was the hardest part for you when helping, fixing, lecturing students?

The aspect of online teaching that took the most getting used to would be the odd empty feeling invoked by lecturing into a computer monitor. Most people would describe me as: ‘very animated', and a people person.

In actual fact, the people I connect with in a room fuels most of my ‘animated energy'. It makes sense then that my first class felt like I was teaching from inside a soundproof box.

Lacking the tactile feedback of live interaction, I feared I wouldn't be able to connect with the students the same way I was accustomed to in a traditional classroom. I'm happy to report, that after a few classes I got the hang of it!

Have you tried Sony's PS4 or Microsoft's "XBOX One" already while working on one of your latest projects?

I haven't the chance to work on a next generation title as of yet, but spending time with my very own PS4 is currently one of my favorite past times.

What are your impressions in terms of Animation quality and performance?

We never really know what a system will be capable of doing until about 2-3 years after launch. By then, developers have learned how to leverage the newly afforded horsepower offered by the new lineage of consoles.

Personally, I'm looking forward to finding out what kind of magic we can squeeze out of these machines.

Do you think Mocap is going to take over key animation? Does it mean the need for animators will decrease and the need for actors will rise?

Never! There will always be a place for key-frame; just as there will be for mocap.

The question should always be, "what is the best fit for the production?" There seems to be a disproportionate use of mocap these days and I fear it's because productions are failing to honestly answer that simple question.

Would your production benefit from the stylistic caricaturization of motion provided by key-frame animation or the authentic realism of motion akin to mocap? As a player is it important that my avatar moves exactly like my favorite basketball player complete with all their trademark moves? If yes, then mocap is probably going to be your new best friend.

Will your players prefer to bounce around with cartoon like glee from platform to platform and produce magic coins by slamming their heads into cartoon boxes? In this case, I'd like to introduce you to your friendly neighborhood key-frame. Or, maybe your game will offer players impossibly fantastic speed and grace as they run along the rooftops of ancient cities? If you're making a game like this, may I suggest you consider a nice sexy mix of key-frame and motion capture? So, even though the current trend is to over use motion capture, I don't believe that trend will stick.

People like key-frame because it's a departure from reality, which is exactly what people are looking for when they pick up a game and start playing.

If you could choose a different medium in animation, what would it be? 2D? Stop-motion?

Stop-motion has always fascinated me. I think it has something to do with the tactile nature of it all. 3D can feel a bit sterile at times. Sometimes artists need to get their hands dirty to reconnect with their creative juices.

Lastly, is there any advice you can give to an aspiring animation student or artist trying to get into the animation/games business?

Finding your first job can be difficult. The best advice I can give to anyone who is currently looking is to always do your homework regarding the job you "think" that you want.

If I had a dollar every time I interviewed someone for a game animator position who knew very little about games and/or didn't know the first thing about getting animations into a game engine, well I'd probably be writing this from a beach somewhere.

If you really want that job, prove it by learning everything you can about it for these 3 major reasons:

  1. It might not be the job you thought it was. After doing your research, you might find out that being a game animator doesn't' sound like a very good fit for you in the end.

    Maybe you're better suited for a different job all together. After all, you want to make sure you end up doing something that you will fully enjoy. Trust me when I say, you won't survive long in any production job if you don't like it.
  2. It will properly prepare you for an interview. Showing a keen interest and a complete knowledge of the day-to-day tasks of the position you're interviewing for will ALWAYS impress the interviewer.

    If you really want to impress the hell out of them, be prepared to talk about current industry challenges regarding animation. You can also throw in a few opinions on possible solutions for good measure if you want to see someone feint.
  3. You'll now know exactly what to put on your demo reel. What could possibly be the biggest advantage of doing this homework is that it will give you the answer to the question I'm most commonly asked.

    "What should I put on my demo reel to be hired by a game company?" Having done your research, you should now know exactly what game animators do every day and can now get busy making sure your demo reel proves that you know how to do all those things well.

    I've always told people hungry for a game animator position to learn Unreal and/or Unity Game Engines. They are free to download and there is a lot of community support for learning either/both.

    The day that an animator comes knocking at my door for a job, and during the interview they'll pull out a laptop and a game controller and tell me that I need to "play their demo reel" will be the same day that I hire someone before the interview is even finished.

    There is a lot to learn about getting animations into and properly tuned inside an engine. If you can show that you already know how to do these things well, you could be better than some of the animators currently on the production floor. That's a powerful position to be in during an interview.