We Interviewed Dave Johnson - Character Animator & Art Director

Posted at Jan 2nd, 2016 by AnimDesk.

Dave Johnson - Character Animator

Dave Johnson is a character animator and an art director at Microsoft Game Studios. Before Dave became a director he studied the art of animation and he's an alumni of AnimationMentor.com, Motivarti, the Art Institute of Seattle and iAnimate.net.

Dave's list of games credits include "Ryse: Son of Rome," "Age of Empires - Online," "Homeworld: Cataclysm," "Ground Control," "Kameo: Elements of Power," "Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts," "Viva Pinata," "Alan Wake," "Kinectimals," "Beards and Beaks," and "Toy Soldiers," just to name a few.

When Dave is not directing or animation, he enjoy being an Avid Animation film fan, a devoted and beloved Father and Husband, an amateur golfer, and a Podcaster.

Dave Johnson - Art Directory and a Character Animator

Thank you very much Dave Johnson for this interview. We would like to start with you by telling us about yourself?

Sure! I am currently employed as an Art Director for Microsoft Studios, working on the next installment of the "Crackdown" franchise, which we teased at last year's E3.

Before that I was an Animator here at Microsoft Studios, and my work has made it into several titles we shipped, and also a few that we didn't.

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

I'm from Washington, in the upper-left corner of the United States. While I live in the Seattle-ish area now, I actually grew up in the central part of the state. My Dad had a cattle farm that housed over 2,500 cows; so my teen and early adult years were spent throwing around more than a few hay bales.

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

I was a massive fan of comic-strips. I liked comic books too, but comic-strips like Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes and "The Far Side" were what I loved. So I was almost always drawing my own strips.

My first franchise was a strip called, "Harold" about a boy and his pet snake. At the time, I was a boy with a pet snake. Bet you can't guess where I came up with the premise...

Late in life I almost made a career out of comic strips with a web-comic I had called "Dog Complex," that was offered a syndication deal. However that deal happened almost the exact week that my offer from Microsoft came in, and I went with them, as they paid about a zillion times more than a syndication deal does.

For the people who "make it" in comic-strips, there is great money. For everyone else, you can't afford a cup of noodles.

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

Yes, yes, and yes! I owned an Atari 2600, an NES, a Super NES, a Genesis, etc. I loved games even back when they were insanely difficult and frustrating. I'm not proud to say this, but I broke more than a few controllers over frustration back in the day. I'm either a calmer guy now, or I don't play such hardcore games anymore. In either case, I haven't broken a controller in a LONG time.

I give my Mom a hard time to this day, because she always came into my room saying, "Go outside and do something. You aren't going to make a living playing video games all day!" Turns out I did okay...

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

Well I have always loved Disney animation. I Saw any major release from them in the theater, and also used to collect their stuff; I Went to Disneyland with my wife on our honeymoon. I'm a nut!

Dave Johnson - Illustration of a zombie attack

The problem is that I could never draw like their animators. Not even close. I'm okay at illustration, but their on a whole other level.

Then came Toy Story...

When that hit, I was amazed that you could animate without drawing, and I got excited

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

I went to a school called The Art Institute of Seattle, and my major was in Computer Animation.

I was working full time at Microsoft by that point, so the workload was intense to say the least. I'd get up at 6:00 AM, head to work, get off at 5:00 PM, drive to the Art Institute, attend classes from about 6:00 PM until about 10:00 PM, stay behind to work in the lab until 11:00 PM, get home around midnight, and go to bed.

This repeated for 3 years! remember at one point I was so exhausted that I was driving home one night and realized I was totally out of gas in my car. So I stopped at a gas station, went in and paid, came out and drove away. I was 5 miles down the road and realized I hadn't actually pumped the gas into my car! Turned around and drove back, and the station attendant said, "You know... I thought it was odd that you paid, and then just drove away..."

So yeah... I was tired by the time I graduated.

What was the first studio/program you sent your reel to?

Upon graduation, I got a reality check. In my school, I got good grades, because I tried hard and turned things in on time. However I never thought to look outside my "bubble" to see how my work compared with others working in the industry at the time.

So I had my reel review upon graduation and they invited a TON of heavy hitter companies to the graduation. I just assumed they would come in, look at my work, and then go into another room to arm wrestle over who got to hire me. Turns out I didn't get a single offer!

So I sent it out, again rather foolishly, to a bunch of companies like Pixar, thinking I had a shot. Again... not even one response back.

It was only after I started to ask why, and check my work against others that I realized that holding a diploma doesn't mean instant job. I still had a ton of work to do to get there, which I eventually did.

What was your first work you ever worked on professionally?

Well if you mean as an Animator, I'd probably say it was a game called Toy Soldiers for the Xbox 360. As an Illustrator, I got paid for lots of little doodles here and there, and even worked for a sign company for a short period of time

How did you end up Animating and working for Microsoft?

I started at Microsoft as a Tester, just to prove my Mom wrong about not being able to get paid to play video games for a living. Then while being a Tester, I went to The Art Institute. When that didn't land me an art job, I just reserved myself to thinking didn't the skills needed, and I was going to be a lifelong Test Engineer.

It was only once an independent short from Blur came out called "Gopher Broke" that I got the itch to be an Animator again. It was such a fun and wonderfully animated short, and it gave me the spark to approach one of our art directors there, Kiki Wolfkill. Awesome name aside, Kiki is now one of the Studio Heads at 343 Industries. At the time, she was an art director in our publishing group, and she hooked me up with one of her peers.

He basically said, "Look... if you're serious about this, then we're going to set a schedule. I'm going to train you for a year, and if you hit every deadline I ask, we'll talk about bringing you on." Halfway through that process, he said he had heard about a school called Animation Mentor that I should look into. I did, and was accepted into the 2nd class ever at that school.

Upon graduation, and I had the skills to be an Animator, and that same guy pulled me from Test to Art, where I have been ever since.

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

I've transition to art director, which has been my role for about 3 years now. As I mentioned in my introduction, I'm working on the next installment in the "Crackdown" franchise. It's going to blow people away. I guarantee it

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

One that sticks out was Alan Wake. Remedy was the company that made the game, and they needed some raven and dog animations. I remember getting to do a bunch of animations of ravens flying full speed into a solid object. For a while on my reel I had this really macabre section of bird deaths... I eventually decided it was best to leave those off.

Toy Soldiers was also a blast. "We need a soldier throwing up", "We need a soldier getting shot and flipping over backwards", "We need a soldier singing to his troops." It was always something new and fun.

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

Oh man... the answer changes from week to week. Some weeks I work 60 hours. Some I work the typical 40. I've got 2 young kids now, so I try to work way more of the latter than the former. In my younger days, we used to all have couches in our offices, and we would spend the night at work, so that we could continue crunching away into the wee hours of the night.

How do you test your animations while the game is still in development?

There are a number of ways. Your first line of defense is the play-blast that has been around forever. Spot check timing, etc. From there you drop it into the engine, sometimes in an event viewer, sometimes straight into the build. There you can see how your animation blends in and out of others, and solve for how the code handles things like vertical movement and such. It really depends on the title

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

I really do love taking a character in a default bind pose and bringing that character to life. There is nothing better than hearing someone talk about, "I loved when [your character] looked at the camera and gave that little smirk. It reminds me of my friend who does that same thing..." It's amazing when they start talking about the character as though they are alive, because that means you've truly connected with them.

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

It's a pretty proven system. Storyboard the sequence if it hasn't already been done for you, shoot so much reference that you want to cry, block it out based on your reference, and then refine, refine and refine. I refine until the Animation Director rips the scene from my cold, dead hands!

Do you add a lot of your feelings into the characters/shots that you animate? Can you give us an example?

It's hard not to. I tell my students in the animation class I teach to never animate angry, unless the character happens to be angry in the scene. Whatever emotion, your feeling has an odd way of dribbling into your animation.

It goes both ways though. The amazing animator, Ken Fountain, who works at Blue Sky Studios now and was one of my Instructors at iAnimate.net told me, "Animate a laugh. You'll know it's working if you play the animation, and as you watch it you can't help but smile yourself!"

You do other stuff than animation, how did you end up in the storyboard, directing ..etc ?

It wasn't a deliberate effort, but it just became one of those things I had a knack for. People would present a "problem" here at work like, "We want to show off this guy in this scene, but he's not reading well as a bad guy." I'd then go off and noodle around on some storyboards, and more often than not, I'd show them and they'd be like, "That's it!"

I'm a highly collaborative person, so I really do love pulling people together to work as a team. In this interview, I've had to use a lot of "I" and "me," because you're asking me the questions. However at work you will rarely if ever hear me use those terms, because it's a team effort. It's "we" and "us" who create this work

Tell us a little about the tools that you are using (or used), what's your preferences? What are your favorite tools?

I'm so basic. I've been asked this in the past, and people are always so disappointed by my answer. It is Autodesk Maya and Adobe Photoshop, and rarely anything else. I'll animate in 3D Studio Max if the project dictates it, but otherwise I'm pretty boring. I've dabbled in ZBrush and have the utmost respect for that tool and the people who use it, but I always fall back to Maya.

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

Oh man... I love anything Naughty Dog Studios does. They have such an amazing way of bringing characters to life. So for games, it's anything by them and probably Insomniac.

For film I'd say The Incredibles. Brad Bird is an absolute genius, and can do no wrong in my eyes. He is to animation what Martin Scorsese is to live action. Iron Giant... same thing.

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

I grew up in an age where we were watching Japanese animation without even knowing it. Shows from my childhood like "Transformers" were very much in that style, but I just didn't know what I was looking at.

In my adulthood, I definitely gravitated towards the American style. I'll watch a Miyazaki film any day of the week with you, though.

But I love some foreign animated films outside of Japan and America as well. "Triplets of Belleville" and "The Illusionist" instantly come to mind.

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

The competition! Man... the Animators out there today are so good! Great people, but holy cow do you have to keep sharp to keep up with them!

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

That's such a tough question. In the glory days of Disney, Animators like the Nine Old Men were rock stars. A few rock stars like Eric Goldberg and Andreas Deja are still around today, but animators are now a massive list of people at the end of a film, and you rarely know them by name.

As far as a true mentor, I'd say Ryan Wilkerson who plucked me from Test to Art, Ben Rush who animated several films at DreamWorks and was my Director on a short film called "Lucy," my CG Supervisor here at Microsoft, Paul Amer, and my Animation Mentor... uh... mentor, Ken Fountain.

Along with this I'd say watch any and all animation lectures given by Ted Ty. I've never seen a person dissect animation on such an intimate level, and make you understand what it takes to get a truly special performance from your character. Never had him as a Mentor directly, but he's greatly influence my work.

2D vs. 3D what are your thoughts on this endless battle? Why people seem to be fighting over these media?

Good animation is good animation. People railed against 3D Animation just like anything else because they thought it would put 2D Animators out of business, and in some cases it did. However 2D and 3D are just two different types of brushes, and you can paint a beautiful painting with either.

Doing games animation, which you think in your opinion is more fun: Games, or film?

If you had asked me 10 years ago, I would have said film. Mainly because the things being done in film weren't possible in games outside of cinematics. Now you can do whatever you want in either, though games are still a bit hampered by rendering power at times.

I'm good with either one, as long as there is an interesting story to tell!

Have you thought about creating your own game? The thought of doing an indie game crossed your mind?

Sure. It crosses everyone's mind who work in games. I've done some smaller apps with a buddy, and we released a couple of them. However the commitment to making an indie game is one I just don't have time for right now with a young family. I love my kids, and would rather spend that time wrestling around with them. Some day though...

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

It's kind of like I said above. Good animation is good animation, and a good game is a good game. I've played some stellar AAA games, and I've played some stinkers. I've played some amazing indie games, and I've played some that I shut off after 3 minutes.

What kills me is knowing how many quality games on a platform like the iPad go largely un-noticed, simply due to the volume of releases. I can't imagine killing yourself for months (or years) to release a game that really is special, only to see it sell for 10 copies. Same goes for a platform like Steam. I love and use both, so don't read too much into that response, in regards to competition with me or my company. ;)

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 be better about asking for open an honest feedback in those early days. Now I am really good about sharing my works-in-progress with the right people to get me the feedback I need, but in my early days I played it very safe.

What I always tell my students is, "If you always show your animation to your Mom, she'll always tell you that you're amazing and that she's proud of you, but it won't make you a better Animator. To really get good, you need to learn to take criticism."

Do you find yourself playing a game that you've been a part of? How does it feel? Do you criticize some of the shots/parts of the work you've done?

Most of the time I don't touch a game I've worked on. After a year or two of working on a title, I'm usually pretty sick of it by then.

How do you balance between work and personal life? Creating titles must be overwhelming and challenging

Work and life balance is always tough in our industry. What I try to do is cherish the moments with my family, and always put them first. Sometimes the people writing the check don't always feel that way, and a deadline is a deadline, but I do my best. I've been very fortunate at Microsoft, in that I have a pretty solid balance now.

The main thing is that you HAVE to get up from your desk and see life. Hikes, walking, seeing movies, painting in the park, etc. will all make you a better animator. You have to experience life to animate it.

Tell us about Art Institute of Seattle, how did you end up tutoring there?

I worked with a guy who eventually became the head of the animation department there. He knew I love to teach and lecture and asked if I wanted to try it out. I had a blast, and have been teaching ever since.

I teach an Advanced Animation class there, where I try to not only teach the students about Animation, but about the industry as well. I try to help them avoid some of the mistakes I made.

What is the hardest part for you when you teach and lecture? is it the practical or theoretical side?

Please don't think I take teaching lightly. I do it one night a week, so I'm no expert. That being said, I find both aspects fun and rewarding. I love showing a shortcut on a keyboard that cuts your workflow, but I also love talking theory behind why creatures do what they do.

I'm way more right-brained than left though, so if things get too technical, duck and run for cover.

What are your thoughts about online animation schools compared to traditional animation schools?

Love'em! ;) I've gone to Animation Mentor, iAnimate, Motivarti and Schoolism. I love them. They get you specialized training in your profession of choice. If you know what you want to do in the world of art, there is a school for it. The ones mentioned above are fantastic.

Would you rather teach or animation/direct? What do you find more satisfying?

I love both, but if I had to give the edge to one, I'd say teaching if it paid better. I love mentoring students, and seeing them "get it" for the first time. There is no better feeling than watching their eyes light up after that first playblast of their animation.

Tell the audience and us a little bit about your latest projects, what are you working on as for 2016?

As I've mentioned a couple of times now, I'm dedicated to Crackdown here at Microsoft. Outside of that, I'll continue to Illustrate on various projects, and you can hit 3Dave.com to see those.

Dave Johnson - Illustration of a Monster dinner date!

If you could choose to work with anyone from the industry (past or present) who would it be and why?

John Lasseter! The guy just seems like such a creative and passionate guy. Pixar work aside, I'd just like to hang out with him for a day and soak up as much insight as I could. Past him I'd honestly say either Walt Disney, or Brad Bird.

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


Look outside your bubble! See what others are doing and at what level they are doing them at. If you aren't at that level, it doesn't mean you give up or quit, it means you need to work harder to get there. Don't stop until you do.

Outside of that, seriously... Have Fun. We make games, film, and television shows for a living. There are a lot worse things you could be doing. Yes, deadlines, and Managers, and contracts and all of that suck, but we get to do something pretty cool. Have a good time doing it, and don't sweat the small stuff.