We Interviewed Brett Pascal - Technical Animation Director

Posted at May 17th, 2014 by AnimDesk.

Brett Pascal - Technical Animation Director

Brett Pascal grew up in Calgary Alberta Canada, and has been working in the animation industry since the year 1999. He landed his first game related job at Electronics Arts Canada in 2001 and stayed there until 2005. He has since left to work on Turok, and later on found other work for the next 8 years or so until he found himself back at EA.

Brett nowadays develops workflows, content, tools and plugins for the well known and acclaimed Frostbite 3 game engine, which is known to power several of EA's big hit games such as Battlefield 4, Need For Speed, Dragon Age: Inquisition and many more.

When not animating, Brett enjoys sports such as golfing, playing hoops, squash and floor hockey as a way to balance out all the sitting in front of a computer all day long.

Brett Pascal - Animation Games Director

Thank you very much Brett Pascal for this interview, we would like to start by asking from where are you? And how do you summaries the growing up part?

I grew up in Calgary, Alberta Canada. If you don't know the area, It's basically like if Dallas and Denver had a baby city. My childhood was good. I had hardworking parents who supported me well. I think they prepared me to have success, but i really wanted to learn about things on my own accord. In that sense, my adolescence was anything but a straight and narrow path. My parents at a certain point I think just trusted that the good job they did raising me early on would eventually kick in.

What are some of your hobbies or Passions outside of the world of animation?

I love hanging out with my wife and son. We go running together, and we try to get to this amazing place on the ocean here in BC called Tofino... We boogie board and surf together there. Aside from that, I really enjoy all aspects of sports. Watching, playing (a few) and following.

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

I used to draw cartoon characters and sports pictures all the time as a kid. I drew lots of Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Magic...etc dunking, and my favorite goalie Reggie Lemelin (nobody will know who this is) making glove saves. The cartoon characters I tried to copy most were the loony tunes guys, pac-man (which seems silly to copy a circle) and Disney characters like Pluto and Donald.

I always loved cartoons and drawings, but never thought about art at a higher level. Quite frankly I've always found the definition of Art a bit too subjective. Going to an Art gallery when I was younger and seeing a painting with a stripe on it made it seem somewhat ridiculous to me, but over time I grew to understand that maybe the subjectivity is what makes it interesting even if some art seems ridiculous or pointless to me.

As a teenager I developed a taste for graffiti art, and I spent a lot of time drawing in that style. Eventually I tried getting some pieces up, but my sketching skills didn't translate to the spraycan very well.

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

My Dad won an Intellivision at some work party when I was a kid... so I played tons of this game Space Armada, Baseball, Hockey, Burger Time, Donkey Kong...etc. My cousin had an Atari, and another friend had a colecovision so between those 3 places, I got to play lots of stuff. I got an NES years later, and played tons of Mario, Zelda, Blades of Steel, Contra, Jackal, Spy Hunter, Bases Loaded...etc. I never had a console again until Genesis.

When the PSX came out I rented one a few times, and had buddies who had them so I played those, but the next console I bought was a PlayStation 2 and that was when I was working at Electronic Arts so I got a company discount on it! When I was a teenager I spent time at this arcade called "Lazer Illuzionz" or something. The name had lots of z's I recall.

I played lots of street fighter, Mortal Kombat and did lots of other stuff around that mall it was located in that had nothing to do with games.

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

As kids, my cousin and I loved making little flipbooks of stickmen army dudes wasting each other, with paratroopers dropping in and blood staining the battlefield. It was mostly flipbooks with no real intention other than to make each other laugh. It was nothing serious.

I really wanted to be a sports broadcaster... I would call table hockey games when I played with my friends, and I loved the thought of being the guy who calls hockey games or basketball games. I also wanted to be an architect, but my grades prevented me from advancing in important subject areas to gain access to the right colleges.

I went to college to take basket-weaving essentially, and started taking labor jobs and jobs in the auto industry for lack of better ideas. I eventually quit college and started selling cars. I always kept up drawing somewhat along the way, and a year into selling cars (but mostly drawing to pass the time between customers) Animation sort of found me.

There was a school in town offering 3D animation for the first time. Lucky for me there weren't many people doing it when i found it because I certainly wasn't qualified to be an animator with my skill level at that time. I benefited from some very patient and helpful colleagues on whose shoulders and hands I leveraged upward growth.

Which school did you go to? And what major did you take there?

The animation school was called Applied Multimedia. They've since gone away, but really they just taught us software. I was bummed out a little because we studied Power Animator 8.5 and Maya 1.0 was released RIGHT when we were finishing the program. Luckily again through a classmate, I found a small program teaching Maya in Vancouver and getting in there got me more time to learn Maya, but also tons more about animation.

The story of the school I went to in Vancouver is also interesting... they had a class for 5 people in a music school called Trebas Institute and they accepted my application, but apparently it was only for in-province students.

When I got there to start, they wouldn't take me or my classmate because we were from out of province. Having sold most of my stuff... loading the rest in a van and driving out to Vancouver to live, I wasn't in a position anymore NOT to be accepted... so we managed to argue and get a 48 hour window to find an apartment, and get proof of provincial residence. This meant we had 2 days to get a place, and a driving licence with the address of this place. It was crazy, but we managed to pull it off. It was pretty sketchy in more ways than 1, but with those 2 things we got into the school.

What was your first professional job you did once accepted to a studio?

The first job was at a studio called Sirius Animation (also long gone... haha) and we were working on an animated series pilot. I worked for free for the first 3 months transferring animation from old rigs to new rigs. That studio was doing pretty much everything wrong in hindsight, but for the first several months it was great... especially after 3 months when I started getting paychecks.

How did you end up Animating, Directing and working in the Games Industry, and why not films?

At the time I got in I was BARELY qualified to animate at all, and in those days the fidelity of game animation was still behind film. I loved playing games, but at first I really was interested in trying to work in feature films. Initially I looked at games as a stepping stone, but as the pipelines got better and the possibilities for quality improved, I started to fall in love with the rapid iteration process of blocking and testing and polishing.

By the time I was maybe good enough to jump from games to film, I was pretty well rooted in Vancouver, had a family, and was also enjoying the work. At that point it didn't make sense to change. I'm glad in hindsight because i'm in games at one of the most crucial points in the mediums evolution I think. Gen 4 is going to bridge a lot of quality gaps.

How did you end up working for Electronics Art? What steps did you take to get there?

I got my first job at EA by sending in VHS copies of my terrible demo reel over, and over, and over. One day I got a call and then an interview. The interview was basically an audition where I worked a full day on an animation embedded in the team. At lunch I asked the lead for feedback on my reel... He hadn't seen it ?.. Turns out sending in all those resumes and reels must have paid off.

My resume was on the pile the recruiter was calling from. I got the job and a month later I got a rejection letter from EA. I figured I'd better keep it quiet in case there was some mistake. I think it proves that there's certainly an element of chance in one's career.

This time coming to EA was much different. They called me, there were many more steps in the interview process including a couple of phone interviews, and multiple in-person interviews, and the entire thing took about 3-4 months to fall in place.

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

Being on an engine team is fresh ground for me, and its more technical than anything I've done before. EA has a community of Frostbite developers, and animation is no different. The community is comprised of all animators, tech animators and animation engineers responsible for creating the content in all EA games using the engine.

My job is really 3 parts (no particular order):

  • I help to anchor the Frostbite animation community as far as collaboration, and communication.
  • I help drive tool and workflow development
  • I still animate example content to expose teams to those tools workflows and features.

It's quite a lot to manage, but it's a great challenge. I function much better with too much to do than not enough.

What are some of your favorite Projects you're proud to have been a part of at EA, and why?

I'm proud of 3 projects that I've worked on most... First, when I was at EA the first time, I worked exclusively on the Dunk Competition feature for NBA Live 2005. I'm proud because there was a group of 3 people, (me, a designer and an engineer) and still to this day it was the best collaboration.

Next, Turok. Hands down that made me an animator for real. I learned so much from the animators there, we had such a good crew and such cool stuff to work on. At the time I knew it was good... and I was thinking all the time that I hope I fully realize how good this is cause it won't last forever.. haha.

Third, the game "Company of Heroes 2". It was so great to walk into a studio that is defined by a certain type of game, and work on that type of game with them. I've never worked on a team that understood a genre and execution as well as that team did. Aside from maybe Blizzard, where else do you go to work on RTS.

Finally I got to work on a game with an 80 plus meta-critic rating. Its not everything by any means, but good critical review for the game broadly is very satisfying.

You moved around different games studios, such as Propaganda Games, United Front Games, Why? Was that due to projects came to an end or layoffs?

I have moved around quite a lot, but I've usually stayed at studios for at least 2 years, and only on 1 occasion have I left before the project I was on shipped.

Each time I've left it's because another opportunity presented itself actually. I have always been interested in trying new projects and different genres to face new challenges in terms of animation and the technology we use to make it.

What is a typical day like for you with regards to your job nowadays?

The pace at this job is immense! First, I get up between 5:30 to 6:00 everyday. My wife is a teacher in a school for children with learning difficulties and so we sort of split the days responsibilities where I run the morning, and she runs the evening. So I make lunches, breakfasts, drive my son to school, and usually get into work around 8:00 to 8:30 AM.

The first hour or two is usually catching up on communications with the Frostbite team in Stockholm as they're wrapping up their day (9 hour time diff). There are usually a few stand up meetings in the morning and next thing you know it's lunch. If I have time, I'll go to the gym, play floor hockey...etc and take the dog out for a walk (we can bring dogs to work at EA).

Then after lunch, that's when the work sets in. I'm constantly between Maya/Mobu, our engine animation tool, and the engine editor itself. I might be setting up characters, animating cinematics, helping a game team with an issue or a feature, or I might be animating characters... the list really varies.

I usually don't go home until 6:30 or 7:00 PM, and if there's OT required, I like to still go home same time, see my family and then go back or login remote from home.

How do you test yours or others animations' while a game is still in development? Do you have a meeting where you play the game? How is it being done?

I typically break animations into 2 or 3 phases depending on how well i know the animator, and how much I trust their judgement. I like to review the reference, or just the idea in general. As much as possible it's good for an animator to pitch their idea and you begin to develop a sense of each others tastes.

Once we're locked in, I need a basic block-in as fast as possible featuring the most prominent poses in the sequence. That would be the second phase... and at this point I would DEFINITELY test in game. This way we can get the designers started on hookups if they're doing it, and if not, it's a good time to get the animator to do it.

We would test at the animators workstation. On Turok we mimic'd the dailies procedure from film and reviewed every morning in a group. I think this is great. We also had a web based system for dailies which allowed animators and artists to submit work online for review by any game team member anytime. That kind of exposure is great for a team.

What parts of animation do you like best and why? What makes it so unique in your eyes?

I love how multilevel the discipline is. You can be the Actor, director, cameraman, editor... you can wear so many hats. The skills that apply in animation with regards to image composition, pacing, timing...etc are also great to open doors to editing, and live action acting, directing and shooting as well. Then in games, we also get exposure to scripting, rigging and code... it goes on. The craft itself could swallow years of your life to get good... but then having other avenues to explore is exciting to me.

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

Much like everyone else I really switch the workflow to the shot or move. I learned layered keying, but felt limited by it. Then I sort of learned how to block (I think it could take years to get that dead right) pose to pose, and I found that it opened up so much time, and such quick prototyping.

The problem I had was that I found it very difficult to just pose to pose and polish, I always thought it was so obvious that i had pose to pose animated. I was sometimes dragging keys from the poses forward or back to offset timing... but that really destroys the integrity of the pose and loses something. Great animators don't have that problem. So I started to incorporate more straight ahead for really intense physical interaction stuff.

The problem there was it took to long for a designer to see how it was going to work hands on. So now I find that i pose to pose block a few poses in as a placeholder, but then sort of throw it away and straight ahead.

Which games character you had most fun to animating on? Did you put some of your own personality in that character(s)?

I definitely had the most fun on Turok. I don't think I necessarily put any of my own personality into it, but I poured lots of physical effort into the reference I used for most of it.

Tell us a little about the tools that you are using, what are your preferences?

I try to use as many things as possible. I love Maya for key-framing, Mobu for motion capture, After effects for editing, Unreal has great animation trees, Unity has great character creation workflow, Source Filmmaker has great editing tools and the recording functionality is such a huge time saver for creating master shots..

In my role it's important to see whats going on in a lot of packages so that we consider a broad spectrum of workflows when developing stuff for our tool set. Frostbite is powerful in many ways, but has lots of room to grow and improve.

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

Thats tough. I'd say if I could play any game right now, it would probably be God of War. I just love the rhythmic combo system, the brutality, the effects. It's a great game to play for a couple of hours and just vent.

If I could watch any movie, I think i'd watch Tarzan. The sequence with the panther was ridiculous, the tree-branch surfing was so impressive... I pretty much didn't even notice the song and dance numbers. It was also a movie that came out around the first year or so of my career and left a massive impression on me.

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

I never really got too into anime at all, aside from maybe Ghost in the Shell. I really liked a game called Catherine. I won't go into details on it, but it's great, and worth looking up.

What is the most difficult part for you in the games industry? And do you think feature animation is easier, or the other way around?

Neither could be easier I don't think. Film has really been contract based for so long, and I've been lucky to be on full time at all the studios I've worked at.

I know tons of people who work contract steadily, and I'd say that has to be generally the hardest thing about both. What's tough about the games industry I think is the end of console cycles. The earth gets pretty scorched, and studios are pretty conservative about the projects they fund.

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

You have to find a way to animate every character you get. Hardest one to use though had to be the 4 legged dino/cat creature we had in Turok.

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

I would hands down say that from an outside perspective, it was Chuck Jones that really made me want to draw and animate, even if i didn't know it then. I saw his signature in the credits enough, but didn't connect it necessarily.

But within my own career:

  • For broader entertainment, direction, and editing: Mike Ferraro (my director on Turok)
  • For pure animation quality : Cam Fielding (worked on Turok together)
  • For "get it done with what you have" : Nathan Hocken (worked on COH2)
  • For learning how to direct others : Ryan Leeper and Jeremy Brown (Turok animators)
  • For learning how to use a computer : Chris Gottgetreu (went to AMTC together)
  • For Animation technical know how : Steve Wrinch and Goosh Solsona (Turok engineer and TD)
  • All these people helped me in some aspect by being honest, patient and sharing an interest in making cool stuff.

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

I think it's so silly to say one art-form is better/worse than another. Good animation is good animation to me. Besides, (for now) you look at all animation on a screen, and a screen is 2 dimensional.

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

I don't think you can say anyone deserves more or less credit. I think from a business standpoint it's obviously much harder to be indie, but in that case I think you get someone involved who is equipped in that capacity.

It's not like your lead designer or animator or artist is doing that job, so in a sense we're all doing the same thing. And really, what we make is commercial art whether you work for an indie or a large publisher. I certainly do respect the creative freedoms that an indie would offer, but I think there are challenges in both environments.

Do you find yourself playing a finished game that you've been a part of? How does it make feel knowing you were a part of that process?

It wasn't until Turok that I really appreciated just what shipping a game means. Its incredibly hard to do. I think for animators, or at least for me, I've played each game SO much by the time it shipped that I was usually pretty gassed as far as playing it again. But that said, it doesn't take away the sense of satisfaction shipping leaves with you.

Do you criticize some of the shots, scenes or some parts of the work you've done or directed on?

Every piece deserves some criticism and could be improved. I'm more likely to criticize the animation work than the direction.

Decisions are easy to look at in hindsight, but good animation is always good animation, so if you miss the mark the only way to make sure you don't repeat is to be critical of it and hold yourself to a high standard.

Tell us about the time you've spent as a mentor at Vancouver Film School, how did you end up tutoring there? And what was the feeling like teaching?

I was contacted by their program director, and offered the opportunity to spend a few hours a week working with the students in the Maya program.

It was a great first exposure to mentoring. It wasn't teaching as much as counseling students through their projects, showing off some tips and tricks, and just talking about my experiences in the animation industry

What are some of the key things you've learned about yourself while mentoring animation to students?

I've developed a deeper sense of appreciation for my good fortune. It's easy day to day to forget how good it is to have a job you like going to.

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

I really love talking about animation. It gives me energy even when I'm getting worn down from the load of both positions.

Can you tell us how did you end up teaching and mentoring on iAnimate.net and why them?

Richard Arroyo got in touch with me after finding me on Linked-In. When he approached me, we had a great conversation about how the program works, and I was sold.

They (iAnimate.net) really let an instructor drive their workshop in the direction that they feel is best. Of course we work through it with the iAnimate crew, but the sense of ownership I have over my workshop is something I think makes the program great.

When I'm invested, my drive hits a higher gear. I was also humbled when I saw the list of instructors in both the games and film tracks. So many quality animators here.

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

I really like meeting with people face to face, but the zoom system we use at iAnimate is pretty slick. I've grown to enjoy the virtual classroom quite a lot.

What exactly are you teaching at iAnimate.net? Can you explain to the readers what can they expect from coming to your class?

I teach games workshop 3. In the workshop students build an interactive battle sequence (sort of like the big chained kill sequences in God of War).

They learn a lot about cameras, planning and reference, and how to think more about their animation before animating. In the end we usually have some fantastic work to show for it.

Have you ever had a student that had trouble understand your teaching methods? Is it something you address personally?

I can't say I really have, but I've had some that question more than others. I basically sum it up to say that Animation is very hard.

There are a number of ways to tackle it, and I have personally found a few key ways to generate work I think is of a good quality standard.

If anyone has another way to approach it, I have no issue with that, unless they are using IK for arms, or they aren't hitting quality

What are the progress rates you see in your students, when they start the course and when they finish it? What are your impressions?

I've seen some pretty immense growth. Usually the growth is in the area of staging their animation.

How do they approach shooting it with the camera, how strong is the shape in the motion, and how clearly does each frame read. I think they grow mostly from thinking so much more about how they're creating their work.

I know that was the biggest boost for me personally in my own work.

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

The hardest part is staying within the time frame I have for feeding back. It's hard for me not to go deep into the sequences, and my reviews usually run well over time.

Do you think nowadays, online schools mass produce animators or even overflowing the market with animators?

I think there is still the same number of high quality animators in comparison to the poor animators. The ratio will never change. The market ebbs and flows and inevitably there are periods where the market might be a little flooded... but that usually corrects, and usually the poor animators weed themselves out.

Why do you think more and more young artists tend to go to online schools rather than universities or colleges?

I think it boils down to access. On iAnimate you have access to some of the top animators in the world. If you go to your traditional local animation school, you get the instructor who lives there.

They may be good, but the odds of getting better feedback increases 10 fold when you attend online and have access to guys like we have.

What are your impressions in terms of animation quality and performance in the games industry?

The quality in games is fast improving. In generation-4 we're going to see the gap narrow mostly in the quality of the volume retention as the consoles open up the GPU's and developers start streaming in tons of data for faces and other deformations.

That will be the biggest leap. Otherwise, we just keep getting more and more bones, and the gap narrows with each new console generation.

What are the main challenges in animating for next-gen consoles? More power means better animation?

The challenges are more technical in terms of how to best use the available processing power and memory. Power doesn't necessarily mean better animation if you don't know how to leverage it every way possible.

What do you think of the latest layoff in the industry? Every animator talks nowadays about the current job instabilities. What are your thoughts about it?

I know in my experience surviving roughly five rounds of layoffs, the reason each round of layoffs happened were fully the responsibility of the teams I worked on. We made poor decisions, were late, or didn't sell enough units. When this happens, jobs are lost.

Nowadays, contract employment is the standard working situation, and there are times where there is no work. If you know this, and you still get into it, then I assume you're comfortable with it? It's always hard when it happens, and it's worst when it happens to people you've worked with closely and developed relationships. Usually though, the really talented people find their way back to great situations. I have faith that great people will always find work.

Which artist(s) would you like to work with again if you had the chance?

I'd love to work with Cam Fielding and Mike Ferraro again. These are the 2 people who taught me the most about what I do, and they're great dudes.

Tell the audience and us a little bit about your latest projects, what are you working on as for 2014?

I shipped Company of Heroes 2 just last year, and now that I'm on the Frostbite team at EA I'll be helping ship some great games in the near future like Dragon Age 3, and Mirrors Edge 2.

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

I'd just say work hard, don't fall in love with your stuff, and be willing to change anything. Always make decisions with the best intentions of your shot, project or team.