We Interviewed Kiel Figgins - Character Animator at Digital Domain

Posted at Jan 2nd, 2014 by AnimDesk.

Kiel Figgins - Character Animator at Digital Domain and a Freelance Animator

Kiel Figgins is a Freelance Character Animator who also works at Digital Domain. Kiel has been involved in big blockbuster features films such as ‘X-Men: First Class’, ‘Ender’s Game’, ’47 Ronin’, ‘Wrath of the Titans’ and many more.

Kiel was born in Maine, USA. Growing up, Kiel has moved around the states through Orlando, Dallas, San Francisco and finally ended up in L.A. Ever since drawing monsters and creatures, Flip Books and making simple animation with old computer software, Kiel found his way into the animation industry after watching the cinematic ending of the game, Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness.

Starting his way at TKO Software, Kiel slowly moved upstream, paving his way through different projects and companies, until finally securing a spot in Digital Domain, working as a character animator for various films and projects.

Kiel Figgins - Character Animator at Digital Domain

Thank you very much Kiel Figgins for this interview, we would like to start with you by telling us about yourself. Where are you from?

I'm originally from Maine, but my career has brought me through Orlando, Dallas, Austin, San Diego, San Francisco and finally ending up in Los Angeles.

What do you love to do when you're not animating? Any hobbies? Extra passions?

Outside of animation I enjoy running, hiking, drawing/sketching, reading science fiction, and movie trailers even if I don't watch the movie.

There's something about those three minutes to sell the viewer on a compelling story and get them interested enough to go out and see the film.

Were you involved with animation while you were growing up?

I drew a lot of flip books on the corner of my text books at school and eventually made my first digital animation in the fifth grade with a slideshow program, HyperCard.

I found that if you drew a new frame with the mouse, like in MSPaint, and played the slideshow at one frame per second, it looked like it was moving.

I also played with a lot action figures growing up. 'Transformers', 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles', 'G.I. Joe', 'He-Man' and so many others constantly pitted against each other.

Whenever I have to explain my job to someone very young or old, I use the analogy of 'playing with action figures inside a computer'.

Growing up, did you draw a lot? What style did you like the most? Did you have a favorite film?

I drew tons when I was younger. My notebooks were filled with monsters, aliens, robots, space marines and all the rest. I don't think I can put a finger on what style I liked the most, but anything sci-fi/fantasy, more comic book or graphic novels.

Favorite film is a tough one as I've always been big into movies, but I'd go with 'Jurassic Park'.

Where did you go to learn the art of Animation? Which School was it?

I would say I'm largely self taught, as I started animating in the late 90's as a hobbyist.

I also took an independent studio at the University of Maine Orono to learn Maya and received an Animation degree from Full Sail in 2004.

When did you realize that you wanted to become an Animator?

Disney animation was a big part of my childhood, so I knew the term Animator, but never really put a real focus on it.

Originally, I wanted to do Graphic Design, and then it was Storyboarding, but the real defining moment was watching the ending cinematic Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness.

After seeing those Orcs fighting Knights, I watched the credits roll and saw 'Cinematic Animator' and went from there.

Did you have a natural talent or you always had the skill to draw and animate?

Kind of a chicken and the egg scenario, I've been drawing for a long time as a hobby since I was young, but I've also been classically trained in art school.

As for animation, I'd probably lean more on stick-to-itiveness, as my first animations were straight up awful, but hey, you have to start somewhere.

What was your first project you ever worked on? How did you get it?

My first professional project I animated on was a game called Leisure Suit Larry: Pocket Party for a game studio in Dallas called 'TKO Software'. The game was for a phone (Nokia N-Gage) with a screen so small, that most of the animation was 32x32 pixels, simply tiny. The characters were 200 polygons or less with mittens for hands.

The Lead Character Artist saw the personal work I was doing in school in the animation forum on CGTalk.com; The animations were all very short, action clips of robots, bugs, and acrobatics. he liked what he saw and sent me an animation test.

Three weeks later, I was living and working in Dallas.

Tell us a little bit about Digital Domain, how did you end up animating for them? What steps did you take to get there?

Digital Domain is a premier Visual Effects studio based out of Venice, California with facilities around the United States and Canada. They've worked on such films as 'Titanic', 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button', 'Tron: Legacy' and many others.

I'd actually applied a number times previous, but it wasn't until 'Tron: Legacy' was wrapping and people started taking time off, where one Animator who was supposed to move onto previz for 'X-Men: First Class', took an additional few weeks off.

Since they needed the position filled during that time, I was called in on a monday for a tuesday interview and ended up working tuesday afternoon.

Kiel Figgins - Character Animator on X-Men: First Class

Ironically enough, while I was doing different variants on how the super villain's power could look (he could absorb kinetic energy by splitting his body apart and slamming back together to become stronger), I kept thinking, “Man! I would not want to be the one to have to animate this shot.” A few days after my contract, I was called back in for another interview, to animate those very same shots I laid out.

Digital Domain did effects for the movie, 'I, Robot' and when that film came out, I was blown away. After learning more about the film, and learning that Digital Domain played a hand in it, I started keeping up with what projects they were working on, watching their job board to see when they were hiring and what skills and programs they were looking.

When I found out that they were working on the soon to be released 'Tron: Legacy film', a few friends and I created a short piece based in that world, in an attempt to catch their eye.

What is a typical day looks like for you at Digital Domain?

A typical day starts around 9a, you get in, check emails and last nights renders for notes. Work through your assigned shots, addressing what notes were brought up through Leads and Anim reviews.

Before noon, there's Anim Dailies, where the animators from the show meet to review the progress with the Anim Leads and Sups. Feedback is provided on the animation that's in progress, as well as reviewing the latest round of renders to verify that the animation holds up and is working correctly.

More work, lunch, and back to work till you leave. Sometimes you're called in for Show Dailies where all the work is reviewed on the big screen with the entire team.

What part of your job do you like best and why? What makes it so awesome in your eyes?

Narrowing down what I like best is pretty difficult. I really enjoy working with the team that made movies that inspired me, so even playing a small role on their current projects is a thrill.

The real kicker is seeing a shot go from your grey scale animation playblast, through lighting and look dev, surrounded by effects and finally layered together in comp. Seeing that finally product is simply incredible.

Do animators collaborate with each other at the studio? Do you guys also hang out after work?

I've done a number of projects with coworkers outside of the workday. Typically, small scale more experimental pieces. Outside of projects, I'll often show my latest personal work to my Leads and coworkers to get their feedback, as well as staying in touch after the shows over for other job opportunities and industry events.

About once a month or so, a few guys from the studio and other ones in the area will grab dinner and catch up. It's a great community and lets you know what else is out there.

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

I worked on an Android commercial of an actor's eye transforming into a a robot eye. The project was really fun, had a great, small team, and the end result was really cool.

The icing though is that I had bought an Android phone before working on the project, and was really pleased with it, so it was fun to work on ad for a product I owned and enjoyed.

What's your animation workflow looks like while animating?

Typically, I start by sketching a line of action, really loose lines and arc that define the characters core or spine angle. I try to at least think of a few significantly different ideas, under the belief that your first idea is everyone's first idea.

Once I have a few ideas I think will work, I'll take cube to represent the character and quickly block in the ideas to see if what I sketched will hold up.

I use a cube, or very low res proxy, for real time playback as well as to mentally isolate the core performance from the secondary and complexities of the rig.

This also makes it possible to quickly playblast the shot, as it's very important to few the timing of the animation in a separate program, and not based on the playback within the 3d package.

I'll then begin to block in the core motion of the character to verify the framing for the shot with this proxy cube. I'm more focused on timing and flow, not so much on pose.

Now that I know the idea will work and have a good idea on the flow, I start laying out the main, storytelling poses.

I know a lot of Animators work in stepped, however, I work in a similar yet slightly different fashion where one pose = one frame.

This process again, lets me isolate the poses from the timing to make sure the poses read next to each other.

Since I can quickly toggle one frame to the next, I can tell if an in between is needed and quickly add it between those two frames. After the storytelling poses are laid out, I spread out the stack of keys to the placement of my proxy character.

The next phase is pretty much, 'Address the most offensive aspect'. If the timing is off, slide the poses. If the feet are sliding, lock them down, and so on.

There's a lot of reviewing what works, what doesn't and focusing on small areas for finesse and how they play into the larger picture.

After the body performance is solid, I begin work on the secondary and how it would react to character.

Typically, I work straight ahead on this. As most secondary doesn't define the performance, like straps, chains, I like to have the performance pretty well locked so that these elements can react accordingly.

As the animation notes get smaller and smaller, I start focusing on the pure details of a piece, the accents you'll see if you're really looking.

Through out the entire time I'm animating a shot, blocking through polish, I'm constantly orbiting in the perspective camera.

I'm trying to make sure the animation works from all angles, as if an actor was performing on set. This keeps me in the mindset of not cheating a pose too soon or too heavily, as it can bite you later if you need to redo an animation because of a cloth or VFX reveal.

Which cool methods and 'tricks of the trade' do you use the most when animating?

When I'm working with video reference, I leave it looping on my second monitor while I work. The idea is to see that moment that really captures the appeal of the footage and making sure thats transferred into your animation.

Since I use a tablet pen, I've moved the timeline to the top of the ui under the shelf, to reduce the strain/curl in my wrist.

As goofy as it sounds, I try to not lift or shift my hands when I work, so I've, remapped most of my hotkeys to be accessible by only my left hand. 1 is first frame of the timeline, 2 is previous frame, 3 is next frame, and so on. I did this not only so my focus can remain on the screen without looking down to find the keys, but also to not put additional repetitive strain on my elbow by crossing the keyboard.

Work in small frame ranges, 20- 40 frames, not the entire timeline when polishing. Really focus on the details in that section.

I try to work in the perspective camera as long as possible before doing final polish/finesse for the render camera. I want the animation to be physically accurate before I accent it. This also helps when simulations (cloth, or smoke) are involved, because having the animation kicked back once it's been approved is no good.

Loosely Animate 5-10 frames before the start of the frame range as if the action is continuing when the scene starts. This helps with first frame simulation on dynamics and motion blur. It also helps you mentally not start all your motions at the same time once the frame range starts.

What are some of your favorite games and/or films you're proud to have been a part of?

Being a huge fan of the original Tron movie, I was very excited to work with the Tron: Legacy director, Joseph Kosinski on his latest film, Oblivion.

Also, growing up on comic books, working on X-Men: First Class was really exciting. Getting a chance to animate Magneto, was really cool.

Do you find yourself playing a game or watching a film you've been apart of at home, or at friends place?

Not to often, I've seen a commercial I've worked while I was at a bar, but by the time you point to it, the spots over.

I was on an airplane though, and the guy next to me started watching X:Men - First Class on his laptop and I got pretty excited. When my shots came on I wanted to say something, but I figured that would make for an awkward flight for a complete stranger.

In retrospect, do you look for imperfections in your work?

When I see finished work on display, either on TV or in a theatre, you get so wrapped up in the experience that the shots pass right by and onto the next one.

Compared to production where you see the same clip on repeat with unfinished elements where you can really see the construction, in its final form any imperfections that might have been there are pretty seamless when seen as a whole.

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

Since I use Maya as my primary software, I've customized my UI quite a bit over the years. The biggest goal is utilizing the most screen space possible while moving my hands the least.

Kiel Figgins - Maya UI Setup Kiel Figgins - Character Render

You can see how I've adjusted the default UI to accomplish this:

I've moved the time slider to under the shelf. Since all the other options are there, I find this useful. Plus it reduces curl strain on my wrist, since I use a Wacom pen.

I don't keep the Graph Editor open at all times, though I use it often. Coming from a web design/graphic background, I'm all too tempted to make my curves smooth and pretty, when in reality, that tends to motion too swimmy and lacking in offset.

To prevent doing this, I keep the GE hidden, and bring it up only when I see a bump or hitch in the performance. I use a two panel stacked layout in my main viewport. So when I tap the spacebar, the perspective camera is the top panel and the GE is the lower.

I can adjust the curves as needed, then go back to full screen in perspective view. The audience doesn't see your keys, only your performance, so I try to keep that in mind when I find myself spending too much time in the GE.

I've hidden almost all the UI elements except for the channel box and timeline. I don't really use shelves anymore, as most of my tools and processes are located in my own custom tool window, called KF Tools.

On my second monitor, I keep a small collection of custom tools that I've built, since I use their functions often while animating. As well as a torn off copy of my render camera so I can keep what's being seen in mind at all times. I'll also keep my reference looping here as well.

These tools include:

Project Tool: Toggle quickly between anim viewport settings and playblast settings, along with selecting the top node of references.

Selection Recall allows you to define and recall selected objects on the fly without creating set in the scene.

Saver is for saving with various settings such as +1 which will increment the current file from say, v04 to v05. It saves time than opening up and renaming the file.

Channel Zero sets the selected controls back to their default values. When I'm animating, I use this often to make sure I'm not pushing the character too far off model.

KF Tools is a collection of all the tools I've written and use for all aspects of 3d. All the tools are listed in their own categories and contain a brief description.

The other part of the goal is to reduce how much my hands move. Typing, looking for keys, taking your hand off your pen/mouse or home row takes up time, but more importantly distracts you from looking at your character.

With that in mind, I've remapped the keys around my left hand to be more animation related.

  • ` = enables the timeline drag so where ever I drag my mouse the timeline changes
  • 1 = jumps to the first frame of the timeline
  • 2 = previous frame
  • 3 = next frame
  • 4 = toggles nurbs curves on/off
  • 5 = toggles wireframe/shaded
  • q = starts/stops playing the timeline
  • d = opens my animation marking menu with other common features such as aligning objects, inserting keys, animation transfer and others.

Have you experienced in non-mainstream tools like Blender, XSI, LightWave before? Why do you think they never caught up to Maya in the industry?

When I first started out, I used 3D Studio Max, Truespace 3D, POV-Ray, Lightwave, pretty much anything I could get my hands on. Eventually I started working in Maya and have stayed in that for the majority of my time in animation.

I believe Maya has a such a deep rooted base in the major studios that there would have to be a monumental benefit of switching to a new software to negate all the customization and pipeline already being used.

Do you think Mocap will eventually take over key animation to the point we don't need animators, only actors?

Mocap is an amazing tool/process, but there will always be a need for Animators. An Animator's job is to not only create the motion, but also to enhance the performance.

While actors in suits provide a tremendous foundation, building upon their years of training, it's still up to the Animator to make sure that performance is applied to the character in a believable way.

Even beyond actors, there are elements that need to be done by hand, such as extremely dangerous stunts, bizarre creatures or mechanics. Again, the actors may provide a base, but the heavy lifting is done in animation.

Lastly, stylistic or visual preferences will continue to broaden as tools become more widely available. Filmmakers and Game developers will continue to develop characters that intentionally don't move like people, this could be because of the character designs are cartoony or that they are after a certain aesthetic.

Do you think being a freelancer has its benefits in the industry compared to being a staff animator?

Freelance usually offers a bit more money and a bit more choice in projects. One benefit though of freelancing in multiple studios is you can quickly increase the size of your network of people you've worked with or those that can keep you in the loop if a project is coming up.

Another benefit is to increase your exposure to different types of work environments, as you may discover that you prefer working in smaller shops with a more casual atmosphere with a bit more say on the project or at larger, more structured studios with less direct influence on the project.

Being mainly a freelancer, how much time do you spend at work? Can you work from home?

Being freelance or staff, I haven't seen that much of a difference in hours worked. Typically the day starts at 9a, ends at 7p with an hour for lunch.

As a freelancer, you're more likely to be called in on short notice for pick up work, or 911 projects like bids or pitches, so those can involve weekend work or longer hours.

About third of my work comes from remote projects. Mainly, I'll work for a studio in house for a couple of projects, build up a reputation and then assist them with future projects during my nights and weekends.

Tell us about the animation workshop that you did (or are doing), when did it all start?

I started doing workshops in a relatively small scale, mainly when I went home for the holidays, I'd speak at the college I went to. They were pretty straight forward, mainly about pursuing a creative/entertainment career, less about actual 3d or animation.

Over the next few years, that hobby grew into speaking at several schools and programs on a variety of topics, ranging from animation, workflow, finding work, and production pipeline.

Atop of speaking to the students, I've also been fortunate enough to review their senior thesis, portfolio and current works and provide feedback.

While going through school, I reached out to a few Animators saying that I really enjoyed their work and asked if they had any advice for someone in school.

Those that replied had great information and encouragement. So when I'm contacted by someone, I do my best to reply to their email in a timely fashion, although that's not always possible, and answer their question and look at their work.

I still remember the feeling of getting a response when you're not expecting one, that I enjoy passing that along.

Which do you find more satisfying, teaching animation or working on animated games/films?

The satisfaction from teaching and production is apples and oranges for me. Seeing your work on the big screen in a crowded theatre is a real thrill and great sense of accomplishment.

However, seeing students really take hold of what you're presenting and watching their skills grow, develop and finally 'make it' as an Animator is also very rewarding.

I still have emails and letters from students I've helped over the years thanking me for assisting them and really, that's a hard feeling to compete with.

What are you thoughts of the general 'work instability' that a lot of animators talk about?

As contracts become shorter, it's important to have another project lined up before the current one ends.

So many talented animators I know assume that they'll be rolled onto the next project and when that doesn't happen they're in a tough spot. So talking with other people on the team, including those outside of animation is important to building a broad network.

Also, keeping your reel, resume, and website up to date will allow you and your work to see more people's desk.

Another big one is even though you're an Animator, having any other relatable skill set will make you more marketable. This skill set doesn't need to be as developed as your animation ability, but having a working knowledge in another field will help.

Can you rig your own characters? Than you'll be more appealing to smaller studios. Can you do previz/layout? Than you have a chance of getting onto a project sooner at a larger studio.

What is your favorite 2D or 3D animated films and game of all time and why?

My favorite animated film would probably be Pixar's 'Wall-E'. There so many aspects of the film that I enjoyed, but how they showed such personally in a non human character is really top notch.

My favorite game would be a toss up between “Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee” and Blizzard's 'Starcraft'. Both had amazing gameplay and storytelling, but it was the character design and visual style that really kept me coming back.

From the weird creatures that inhabited Abe's Oddysee, to the three distinct races in Starcraft, there was always something new to look at.

What is the most difficult part for you about being in the animation business?

I'd say the most difficult part of being in animation would be either the time spent versus how long the work is on screen or the sheer number of hours spent sitting.

You can easily spend weeks on a shot that could be cut or an element that's only on screen for a moment covered by smoke and blur. So trying to explain to someone that doesn't work in the industry that you spent so many hours doing so few seconds can be tricky.

As for the sitting, I enjoy running, hiking and generally being active, but after the time spent in the car for the commute tacked on top of a ten hour work day, you spend a long time in a chair.

Have you ever had a character/scene that was too difficult for you to animate?

There have been very difficult characters and shots to animate, but in the end, you make it work.

Usually, it's a process of breaking down the idea into smaller and smaller pieces and finding solutions to make those work.

Often this involves working with other departments to see if a better solution can come from them, as it may be more straight forward for a Compositor to blend two elements, than 3d trying to.

Which game(s) or film(s) was that on? And how did you tackle that problem(s)?

On the X-Men: First Class movie, I was tasked with the sequence of Shaw containing the blast from a grenade and crushing it down while absorbing the energy.

While the character rig was provided, I worked on developing how to show the absorbing of energy while animating the character's performance. So starting off with a sphere with a few noise deformers, that gave the size and scale of blast for effects to start working with and a base for the performance to press against.

Once the general performance was signed off, smaller details such as tremors in the fingers were added. The absorbing was handled by sending deformers down motion paths that ran down the finger from the tip, up the arm and into the chest.

These deformers had controls to control falloff, influence, speed and frequency. This gave the body the appearance of energy moving through it, so that was given to the Cloth team to run their simulations.

Once those sims were done, it was giving back for more absorbing effects through the fabric as well as spot fixing penetrations and stray verts.

One that I can recall was for a commercial several years ago. It was a demon character putting on a sheepskin suit. Since we didn't have the time or resources to do a cloth sim, this ended up being fully hand animated.

The end result was created by placing around 200 joints in the sheepskin suit while in T pose to match the character and then constraining them to the rig. Each joint had a control allowing rotate, translate and scale, along with a blend channel saying to constrain to either the world or the appropriate rig null.

As the demon steps into the suit and pulls it up, each joint was hand animated into place then the constraint to the rig activated so the skin would then move with the performance. The fingers/hand flaps were FK chains, as were the ears.

What do you like the most, to animate a character or a creature?

Creatures for sure! There's something about animating a big creature thrashing around that so exciting and rewarding to work on.

Really conveying the weight and motivation on a creature that probably doesn't have speaking parts is also a really fun challenge.

Who is your ultimate Mentor during your early stages?

My first job coming out of school, my Lead was Chris Adams. I worked under Chris for about a year and what I learned during that time really went on to define my approaches in 3d.

Working under someone who was technical minded, but also truly vested in getting the best performance was an amazing resource.

During that time I was able to see how to approach complex creature animation, work with in tight time constraints and construct animation friendly rigs.

I still stay in touch with Chris now for feedback and general curiosity as to what he's producing.

Do you think animating a game is more fun than a film or the other way around?

Animating in games and films have their own types of fun. Games allow you to animate such a variety of characters, actions and styles. The sheer volume of creatures, robots and amazing character designs in games is amazing, so getting a chance to bring them to life is great.

When animation in a feature allows you to take an animation as far as it can go and really make the viewer believe it's on screen with the actors. When you can finally hit that level of detail and polish and pull it off, that's a great time.

Have you ever thought about going solo? Becoming an animation entrepreneur and create your own stamp in animation history?

The idea of starting my own studio has been brought up a number of times over the years, but never fully materialized. I've continued to work for myself through remote work and personal projects and I enjoy that time.

However, being a good Animator doesn't necessarily make a good businessman. So, having my own studio is less about being able to create believable motion, but rather finding and maintaining consistent work, developing relationships with clients while slowly moving from small projects to more high profile ones.

My career goals are to create believable performances for on screen characters. To achieve that, I would much rather be a cog in a well oiled machine, if it means producing the content most appealing to me.

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

2D Animation and 3D animation are two different tools made for different purposes. I really don't see it as one verse the other, but rather two mediums to better tell stories.

As 2D will never be photo real, so it's not practical for productions that wish to incorporate live action elements. 3d, on the other hand, will have difficulty matching the 'classical appeal' of hand drawn animation, as an artist can convey so much with the flick of a brush.

3D Has cross platform benefits in such fields as games, engineering, medical and countless others. This increases the demand and availability of 3D software, which also increases the talent pool.

The more artists able to use 3d software will drive the price down in creating the work, which in turn will make 3d a more appealing medium for future projects.

Tell the audience and us a little bit about your latest projects, what are you working on as for 2013-2014?

I've worked on a number of projects that are hitting the theaters at the end of 2013 and into 2014, such as: 47 Ronin, Maleficent, Ender's Game. So I'm very excited to see the final cut of each of those.

As for personal projects, there's a few on the horizon. One is a Transformers influenced piece which I started after hearing there was going to be a Transformers 4, being a huge fan of that franchise and all.

The other is a dialog piece using George Longo's model called 'Astro'

If you could choose to work with any artist (past, present) from the animation business, who would it be and why?

If I had to choose a single artist, I would say Peter Chung. His work on 'Aeon Flux' really sparked my interest in animation and the style still sticks with me today. He continues to make really memorable performances and camera angles.

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

Probably the most important advice I could give is to have a goal and work towards it, daily. Having this overall goal will allow you to focus your efforts instead of spinning your wheels. While working on it, in some fashion, on a daily basis, keeps the work fresh in your mind.

Your dream job is a lot of people's dream job, so having some sort of path to get there is important. Outside of honing your animation to be in vein of the content you'd like to produce, I'd recommend the following:

  • Go on IMDB.com and search for your favorite animated or vfx movie
  • Scroll down to Cast
  • Click on 'See Full Cast'
  • Scroll down to the Animation section
  • From there, start researching each name listed. Google or LinkedIn each person to see if they have website or online presence.
  • If they do, see if they have a resume or work history. From here, you can see the path that other Animators took to get where you'd like to be.

This should give you an idea of the steps, stages and time it took for them to get there.

If one would like to find more about you and your work where would he go?

You can find out about me and my work on my website: 3dfiggins.