We Interviewed David Lam - Lead Cinematic Animator at Naughty Dog

Posted at Oct 27th, 2013 by AnimDesk.

We Interviewed David Lam - Lead Cinematic Animator at Naughty Dog and Instructor at iAnimate.net

David grew up as an active kid, full of energy that often ran into things, sometimes, even trees. He quickly channeled this energy into sports and martial arts.

Little did he know this paved the way for his career in animation where he became obsessed with action and combat scenes. His career now has span nearly 10 years in games, film and commercials as a character animator.

David has worked on numerous top notch titles for game studios such as Activision, Lucas Arts, Bungie and Naughty Dog where he was worked on “Uncharted 2” and “Uncharted 3”.

He has contributed on films for VFX studios, Weta Digital, Sony Pictures Imageworks and Digital Domain. More recently, he completed work on the new exclusive PS3 title, “The Last of Us” as the lead cinematic animator / supervisor and is currently an animation instructor in the Games Workshop for iAnimate.net.

Thank you very much David Lam for this interview, we would like to start with you by telling us about yourself?

I’m an animator working in video games and film. I’m currently living in sunny SoCal and working at Naughty Dog as a lead cinematic animator and we recently wrapped on "Last of Us”!!

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

I was born in NYC and raised in Dallas, Tx, yeehaw! I grow up a pretty active kid, playing sports, riding my bike, practicing martial arts, running around and even once running into a tree! I’m sure I was a handful for my parents.

In school, I was pretty witty and sometimes smart ass but studied really hard. Being a first generation Asian American, my parents were pretty strict with education (and I’m glad they were!) I remember my goal everyday was to work hard enough in class so that I never had to carry any textbooks home haha. It worked out very well for me until high school.

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

Yes, actually. I drew a lot! It started in 4th grade with drawing "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and soon after my classmates were all in awe and asking for drawings from me! From there on out I started to draw a lot of superheroes from Marvel and Image such as Wolverine, Spider Man and Spawn.

Once I got into high school, I enjoyed still life and portraits more than anything (little do I know, it was foreshadowing my career in animation years later).

I stayed away from the super hero stuff and focused more on pencil and acrylic painting, not sure why though :)

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

Well, I think my interest in video games, martial arts and action movies as a kid lend itself to being a game animator, which tends to be more action and violence but I’m not a violent guy, I swear haha.

Did you go to art school or did you always have a natural talent for animation?

No natural talent! Haha. I took an in indirect route into animation. Well, being Asian American, I had to go into something more technical, believe it or not, I enrolled into Computer Science at The University of Texas at Austin, which is probably the hardest thing I could've done haha.

So 3 years into the program, I'd realize programming was not for me and I was able to find and enroll in an animation class in the fine arts department.

At the time (2001) the class was still new and we were using a program called Lifeforms (don’t think they are around anymore). My animation was TERRIBLE!! But I figure, what better way to combine my previous art skills with my current programming skills? A year later, I graduated and made my way to Parsons School of Design in New York City to study design and animation, boy was I excited! And the rest is history.

Why did you decide to animate and work on game titles instead of films?

Well, there are pros and cons to every industry and the same applies to film vs. games. Film, obviously is higher fidelity and the renders are beautiful and nothing can compare to it. And the goal is to tell a story for the audience to watch.

Games, on the other hand are about the player's interaction, so as you can imagine the workflow is a whole other beast. So there are different pros to working in games as an animator: more interaction with different disciplines, more input creatively as an animator, quicker turnarounds seeing work in engine rather than pre-rendered.

What was your first work you ever worked on professionally?

It was a TV show on the “Discovery Channel” called "The Art of War: Alexander the Great". It was my 1st job in Glendale and I was hired on as an animator.

It all happened so fast! I was interviewed on a Friday, hired that day. I started on a Saturday (which is not a good thing) and was thrown into crunch.

I was interviewed on a Friday, hired that day. Started the next day.

I had to work 4 weeks straight (no days off!) It was tough but I was excited. I was animating one on one fights and it was everything I dreamed of!! Plus I met some really cool people that taught me a lot and showed me the way!

How did you end up Animating for Naughty Dog? What steps did you take?

Well, it sort of just happened and fell in place. A few years into my career, I wanted to get more into cinematics and realistic animation so I started working more in cut scenes at Bungie, Blur and then eventually landed at “Naughty Dog” which was a great fit for what I wanted to do and what the company offered.

They wanted someone to work on the more action oriented in game moments to create that snippet of a movie like experience during gameplay, in and out of game moments.

What does it look like working there? What’s the atmosphere like?

People aren’t afraid to aim big! Haha. Lots of creative, talented people and most importantly, dedicated people. It takes a lot of muscle and hard work to make a game and people aren’t afraid to put in the effort and time. And obviously it’s only worth it if you're making a great game.

No one wants to crunch on a bad project. With the company's great track record, people work hard knowing it’s for a good reason!

Do you play the game’s demo a lot while still animating it? How does the process of animating a game looks like from an animator’s perspective?

Yes, I’ve played a lot of "Uncharted 2", 3 and “The Last of Us” while animating and working on the title. It's a part of the job and plus its always fun to take a break and relax and enjoy your work haha!

Which project(s) did you work on while being there?

"Uncharted 2", "Uncharted 3" and recently "The Last of Us".

David Lam - Lead Cinematic Game Animator

What are some of your favorite games you’re proud to have been a part of?

The 3 above! But to be honest, every game I worked on has been special. I’ve learned so much from each game and equally important, I’ve met great people, friends that I still connect with till this day.

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

As a lead in cinematics, my day to day changes quite drastically. My main priority is to make sure the animation team can move forward with hitting their quotas and to help ensure there's no showstoppers or bottlenecks.

So I’m on the floor a lot doing my rounds with my guys and each department taking care of any dependencies. This includes giving direction/feedback on animation, reviewing character and prop rigs, working with the lighting team and basically alleviating anything-stopping cinematics.

What part of your job do you like best and why?

When a shot gets finalized and approved and when I interact with people, it’s the people, the camaraderie, and the team effort that makes everything possible.

What’s your animation workflow look like while animating a game?

Huge topic and something I can write pages about. Its very different and this is something we cover in the Games Workshop in iAnimate. You'll have to sign up to find out!

Do you use mocap a lot during your animation process to make animation more believable?

Yes, we use "mocap" as a first pass / blueprint for body performance. It captures the subtle and nuances performance. From there we want to embellish the performance and fix common mocap issues.

Tell us a little about the tools that you are using (Maya? 3D Studio Max? XSI?) What are your preferences? What methods do you use?

We use Maya and we have a lot of propriety animation tools. Also, we have game engine related tools to make the game. In terms of Maya, we relied heavily on animation layers, clips and Trax editor for prevising/editing sequences and zooShots for setting up cameras.

Being a leading animator, what are the challenges you face while developing a game?

  1. Maintaining quality. We're a small team so it’s difficult to get all 90 minutes of cinematics at film quality.
  2. Dependency with game design. We're making a game so story/cinematics and design are very interdependent so making sure both sides are in congruent is very important and a challenge.

What are your thoughts on the upcoming PS4 and XBOX One’s capabilities for animation? Have you used higher resolution textures? Better shaders? Smoother animations?

Can’t say much here, I rather not get into PR trouble :)

One thing that really bugs me, is that even up to this day, round objects (i.e., wheels, muscles, eyes…etc.) are never round, they all made from polygons. Why? Does it really save a lot of real time rendering computing power?

What you're experiencing is most likely LODS (level of detail models). We have different LODS based on distance from camera so we can save tremendous amounts of memory.

We don’t want to have a super dense character in the background and vice versa. The transition between different LODS causes pops sometimes, but most people have solved this.

Have you animate a game for Apple’s iOS platform? It seems the later is a platform that is well worth mentioning in the world of gaming.

Yes, I have. I’ve done some work for some friends and Yes, iOS and Android games is a booming industry and on the move.

Do you think animating a game is more fun than a film? What are you thoughts about the two mediums?

To be honest, it’s where your passion lies, if you're passionate about games, then work in games and vice versa. There's a notion that film is better than games, I don’t think that’s fair.

They are totally different beasts and you work in different timelines, workflows and criteria’s. If you're able to do both, then imagine the possibilities? You'll be versatile and have much more opportunities.

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

My favorite game is “Final Fantasy VII”. It’s a classic! Favorite animated film is "Finding Nemo"!

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

Kojima and Metal Gear Solid!

What is the most difficult part for you about being in the animation or game industry?

Unfortunately, working in games is challenging and sometimes long hours, which is tough and a compromise on you and your family. So appreciating the time spent with the family is very important.

Working in the games industry is challenging and sometimes takes long hours, which is tough and a compromise on you and your family.

As for the business, it’s for hire model and its good to understand that.

Have you ever had a character that was too difficult to animate? Which game was that on?

There are challenges in every project you work on. Working with your teammates and being open to feedback is key to overcoming issues.

Who influenced you the most? Who is or was your ultimate Mentor?

My parents, they are hands down the most influential people of my life as a child growing up and now as an adult.

Have you ever thought about creating your own game for fun?

Yes!

Would you ever consider moving to film in the future? Or making games is a passion for you?

Yes, both worlds are great. Why not do both if you can?

Tell us about iAnimate, what make it different than other online animation schools?

We have a feature film and game animation program. We have live lectures and reviews so there's more interaction with students and we're at size where it’s still intimate and personal with each of our students.

When did you start teaching in iAnimate and how did you get there in the first place?

I started teaching about a year and half ago. It sort of just happened, Richard Arroyo (a friend of a friend) had reached out to me about teaching a new games workshop; something 1st of its kind and rest is history!

What’s the hardest part in teaching animation from your perspective?

Each student has his or her strengths and weaknesses and understanding that each student is different. So you have to approach each student differently. Getting the best out of each student is the challenge and the goal.

Have you ever had a student(s) that were way off the path of animation and couldn’t bear to tell that to them?

You find a student's strength and channel it in the right direction.

How a session on iAnimate looks like? Everybody is well known with AnimationMentor’s style of teaching.

With the Games Workshop, we focus heavily on body mechanics and realism.

Which amazing animators have you had the chance to work on at iAnimate or in your professional life as an animator?

Every instructor at iAnimate is amazing!

Do think online animation school produce animators in masses? It seems the market is overflowing nowadays.

Well, iAnimate is taught by working professionals and we have a prerequisite for students. We give students all around the globe access to our pool of instructors I know in fact there's brick and mortar schools with no prereqs and tend to be taught by non-professionals.

I do think there are young animators getting into the animation industry, purely to work at the biggest and established studios such as Pixar or Blizzard and its a misconception that those are the only studios worth working at making it feel overcrowding because animators are applying all at the same places. There are a number of other great studios out there that are fun and creative

2D vs. 3D what are your thoughts on this endless battle that going on for years?

I didn’t know there was an endless battle.

If you could name one 3D game and one 2D game that you like the most, what would they be?

Final Fantasy VII” and “Contra”!

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

I’m now working on “The Last of Us” Downloadable Content (DLC).

If you could choose to working with any artist from the game industry, who would it be and why?

It would be to work with my good Lucas Arts buddies from the past, unfortunately due to different career paths and goals, we're all working at different studios now :)

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

I like to tell people that its not where you work or the studio that should define you, it’s the process and journey of animating regardless where you work, that’s the most important thing. In the end, we are all animating and it’s the individual people surrounding us that make it worthwhile.