We Interviewed Keith Lango - Animator at Valve Corporation

Posted at Oct 21st, 2013 by AnimDesk.

Keith Lango - Animator at Valve Corporation

Keith Lango is an icon in the world of Animation; he is currently an Animator at Valve Corporation and a Former Animator at Blur, "Big Idea" Animation and VFX Studios. Ever since he decided to learn animation and CG all on his own, Keith has working in every field of animation, from freelance, to animator to director to teaching and creating his own animation company.

Keith was born in a small suburb of Hamburg, Buffalo (New York). It wasn't until he was around his twenties when he decided to give animation and CG a chance; he took a loan and bought a computer and software to learn everything at home, failing countless times until he learned everything right.

Keith has been involved in animating movies and 3D games such as "Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas" by Disney; "Portal 2", "Team Fortress 2" by Valve Corporation; Associate Director on an Oscar nominated film and more.

Ever since doing animation, Keith has been doing animation tutorials; selling tutorials at his store; teaching the art of animation online, to students.

Thank you very much Keith Lango for this interview

Sure. Thanks for having me along for the interview.

We would like to start with you by telling us about yourself, where are you from, and how do you summaries the growing up part?

I'm from the small suburb of Hamburg, outside of Buffalo, New York in the USA. Right near the Canadian border. I could see Canada from my house across Lake Erie. I was born in the late 60's. Childhood back then was a lot different than now. But in general it was good. In the summertime Mom would kick us out of the house in the morning and then at the end of the day around sundown we'd hear her call out across the neighborhood for us to come home. The world outdoors was our adventure, filled with delights and dangers alike.

Did you use to draw a lot? What kind of style you liked the most?

I doodled, mostly. There was a time when I really tried drawing well and I copied a lot of work I saw that inspired me. I was quite good at seeing the drawing and emulating it, so much so that my parents really thought I had talent. I'm not sure I did, but they thought so. I did endless copies of old World War II war correspondent artist charcoal sketches from a military art history book that my Dad had. But honestly, I was pretty woeful at drawing something of my own from scratch.

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

That came later in life; it probably wasn't until I was 26 that I thought I could do animation. I got started doing some CG work when I was 23 or 24; I was already married with a kid and another one on the way. I was working several jobs to put my wife through nursing school. When she graduated and started work as a nurse it was my turn to go to school.

In the end I decided I would give myself 4 years to see if I could make a go of it as a CG artist/animator. There was no school for this back then and the Internet was pretty much nothing. So I took out a small loan, bought a computer, some software and got to work on my own. I made mistake after mistake, learned everything I could and just kept trying to get better.

There was no school, and the Internet was non-existant, so I took out a small loan, bought a computer, some software and got to work on my own.

Did you go to art school or you always had a natural touch to art?

Nope, no art school at all. Completely self-directed learning.

What was your first work you ever worked on? Which studio was that?

Gosh, I can't remember exactly. The first CG art I got paid for was probably an illustration for a magazine Ad. Freelance. Most of my early career was freelance, doing CG illustration, some CG for video, flying logos, interactive environments for architectural firms, etc. I got clients anywhere I could.

The first studio that I worked for was a place called "Safe Passage International". It wasn't really an animation studio, it was an airline security-training firm and I made CG graphics for their training materials. The first honest to goodness animation studio I worked for was "Big Idea" in Chicago, the VeggieTales folks. But by then I'd been doing CG animation stuff for 6 years.

How did you end up animating for Walt Disney Animation Studios?

Well, I never worked directly as an employee for them, but when I was employed at Blur Studios in LA we were hired by Disney to co-produce the "Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas" holiday DVD. So that's the extent of my official involvement with Disney. I did talk with a Disney Channel development executive once in 2002 about putting together a pitch to make a kids TV show out of my short film "Lunch", but I decided that probably wouldn't be a good fit for me, so that never went anywhere.

Did you work on other project(s) while being there?

At Disney's? Well, like I said, I never worked for them directly. While at Blur I did help co-direct their Academy Award nominated short film "Gopher Broke". I worked with Jeff Fowler on that, helped get it from story pitch to working animatic, etc. Then I left LA for Dallas and he oversaw the production and did a great job. The rest is history.

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

I really enjoyed working on "Portal 2" at Valve and also "3-2-1 Penguins!" at "Big Idea". I also had a great time collaborating on writing the screenplay for "An Easter Carol" with Tim Hodge at "Big Idea". Those projects were great fun, I learned a thousand new things, had great teammates to work with, and had wonderful opportunities to grow. They were both such cool properties to work on. The customers loved the end results.

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

For me at Valve there really is no such thing as a typical day, which is why I enjoy the job. I get bored easily. I'm an animator by notoriety, but I am a CG generalist, really. I love to do anything from writing to rendering and everything in between. At work I get a chance to do all of it at one time or another.

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

Hmm. Looks like I just answered that. Heh.

What's your animation workflow look like while animating?

First I'll listen to the soundtrack of the dialog (if it's an acting shot). Then I plan quite a bit. But the thing is, I don't have a single workflow. It depends on the kind of shot it is.

If it's an acting scene with a stylized character I'll work one way. Lots of poses, breakdowns, in-between keys, etc. I work a lot like a 2D animator for those kinds of scenes.

If it's a more naturalistic character design that needs more subtlety and humanness to the motion I'll do video reference and work from that, working the body part by part and emulating the motion I see in the video. If possible I'd rather get in a mocap suit and just perform it and use that as my blocking pass.

If possible I'd rather get in a mocap suit and just perform the motion. At Valve I get to do that.

At Valve I get to do that, which is a real treat. I don't know of any other studios that let their animators just walk into the mocap studio, set it up, suit up and act out their shots and send the data to their desks. But we do that at Valve and it's actually pretty darn cool.

Let's see... oh. If the scene is a crowd scene I will think of overall texture of motion and not focus on any one thing too much. So I copy and paste and modify F-curves like crazy in scenes like that. Animate the COG up and down, then copy/paste that translate Y curve to practically every other controller on the character, offset it, shape it, scale it, etc.

On crowd scenes it's not about being exact, it's about getting the texture across. If you're exact on crowd scenes you end up being stuck on that shot for weeks and the animation director would rather use me to get other things done. So I try to get those done well, but not take forever worrying about how precise the blinks and pinkie toes are.

And if it's super stylized cartoon animation I will work straight ahead sometimes, half mixed with heavy planning. It all just depends.

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

2D is probably "Iron Giant". 3D would be "The Incredibles". Brad Bird is just a very, very good storyteller. To me that trumps everything.

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

I didn't grow up on anime; it just wasn't widely available to us in the US in the 70's. We had three TV stations that went off the air at midnight and that's it.

A new Disney movie would come out in theaters every 5 years or so. There were no VHS or DVD's. Nothing. Just TV. And all I watched on TV were Warner Brother's shorts. Those had a huge influence on me. I think there are a lot of really interesting choices in Anime. I love their willingness to embrace quietude in their stories. I like how they will boil things down to their core elements at times.

I have a lot of respect for it as a style and a choice, but it just doesn't scratch any of my subconscious itches. Probably because during my formative years I wasn't exposed to it.

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

The overall job insecurity. We've moved a ton. I've had way too many different employers. It's not easy on a family to pick up and move every two years chasing the next job.

Second behind the instability would be the hours. Working 60, 70, 80 hours a week for months on end is not healthy. But the business seems to expect it. If my current job demanded that of me I'd quite tomorrow and do something else for a living. It's just not worth it anymore. Thankfully they don't make us do that at work.

Have you ever had a character that was too difficult to draw? Which movie/project was that on?

Well, for me every character is too difficult to draw. Like I said, I'm not the most gifted draughtsman.

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

I don't really have any one person I can point to. I did not dream of being an animator as a kid, so I had no childhood animation heroes. They all were just names in animation history articles that I read after I had already become a pro animator.

Of all the guys I worked with I think I learned the most from working with my good friend Tim Hodge. A very talented artist, storyteller and a gentle soul.

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

Is this still a battle? What are we fighting about? Railing about market forces is like Don Quixote fighting windmills. The market is what it is; audiences want what they want.

You can complain, but what's the point? You just end up cranky and unemployed. Adapt, or don't. It's your life. If you don't like doing what the market wants, do something else.

Nobody in this world owes you a job doing only exactly what you want to do and nothing else. Complaining about 2D vs. 3D, or (more recently) hand keyed vs. mocap; it's a waste of energy.

Nobody in this world owes you a job doing only exactly what you want to do and nothing else

It's like not carrying an umbrella to show the rain how wrong it is to ruin your day. Rain doesn't care and in the end you're all wet. If you want to make a living in this business, then do what they pay for, If not, don't. Wow, I sound like a crusty old dude, Heh. But it's what I think.

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

I've been using (Autodesk) Maya since version 1.0, so I guess you could say that's my main tool. I also rely pretty heavily on the whole Adobe Creative Suite of products. Been using them for decades. But really I'll use whatever it takes to let me get the job done quickly.

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

Prefer in what way? Watching? I don't care one way or another. To be perfectly honest, I find most animation to be a pretty tedious affair these days; specifically the TV shows and feature films getting made. It's all so homogenous that it bores me to tears.

I don't care what the visual method is. 2D, CG, stop motion, puppeteering, live action, whatever. I'm a storyteller at heart. Tell me a good, unique, layered, interesting and compelling story with interesting, real, relatable characters that you make me care about and I'm all in.

I don't care if you use food scraps and a zoetrope to do it. Give me formulaic cookie cutter work because it's what made money last year and I'll skip your show. Frankly, I've been skipping most animated films since 2006.

Please tell us about the time you started teaching animation online? When did it start?

I suppose you could say that I first started teaching animation online when I started putting free tutorials on my website in 1999. I didn't start offering my services for hire as a teacher until 2005. By then I'd written dozens of tutorials and people were asking for more. So it seemed like a good time to offer something more in depth in exchange for money.

What was/is the revenue from teaching animation online?

Depend who you are and what your goals are. I always wanted to stay small and personal and not hire any other teachers, so I certainly did not make anywhere near as much money as I could have. Plus I knew that there was a growing market of animators in the emerging economies of India, China, South America, etc.

For those folks typical US or European pricing would be too much. So I priced my training to allow folks in those emerging markets an opportunity to get involved. But I was able to make a living for a few years from it, so it's not like I did poorly.

The bigger online schools with many teachers can make very good money once they get going. Given the continuing demand, as well as generalities regarding their revenue and expenses there is plenty of room for profit in that business model. I'm confident that they're doing well.

What are your thoughts about online animation schools such as Animation Mentor, iAnimate ...etc.?

They're very good programs run by smart, dedicated, experienced and talented people. They do a fine job of training animators in a particular style of animation that is currently in demand amongst employers.

Their success speaks for itself, really. Students obviously value what they do and think it's a fair exchange, or else they wouldn't pay the prices. It seems to be working out reasonably well for all involved.

Did you consider joining forces with them and teach at one of their schools?

No, not really. When I was teaching I really enjoyed doing it differently. I felt like there was a place in the market for someone taking a more boutique approach to the task. Plus, I was probably a bit too maverick to bother putting up with. Heh.

What are you most enjoying when teaching animation online?

Well, right now I don't really like teaching online that much. I stopped teaching online in 2011. The digital distance makes it difficult to keep the engagement and the personal teaching connection with the student.

The reason I decided to stay smaller and more personal in my approach was that I am highly relational. I value the relationships more than the task at hand. In the end teaching online really makes it difficult to make the connection that I want to have between the student and myself when I teach.

Teaching online really makes it difficult to make the connection that I want to have between the student and myself.

So much of non-verbal learning is lost online; the ability to observe a student at work, to sense their body language, to read the signals of confusion they don't even know they may be sending. Stuff like that.

Teaching and learning at its best can be a very deep experience. Online feels shallow and thin in comparison. So now when I teach I pretty much will only do so when I can be in the same physical space as the students as they work. It's so much more rewarding and effective.

Where do you see the animation business heading?

I am sure this is where most people will get mad at me, but I see more mocap and I see that technology getting easier, cheaper, faster, better and more flexible in style emulation.

I see the tech moving away from big, outsourced specialty systems to desktop systems, just like the move from mainframe computing to PCs in the 70's and 80's. And then I see the technology getting better about emulating different motion styles, like a kind of Photoshop motion filter.

Want cartoony motion? Hit the cartoony filter, then tweak. Want some stop motion randomness? Use the stop-mo filter. Heck, I've even done these kinds of formula experiments myself on mocap data with pretty surprising results; and I am nowhere near the smartest chicken on the farm.

Other very smart people are looking into solving these problems and they're going to find the answers. There's just too much money to be made not to.

Many animators now shoot video of them moving and then base their motion data on that. Why not just capture the raw data in the computer and use that? It's not even close to hard to do anymore. Working with mocap data in 2013 is not like it was in 2003. People are already doing this. Heck, I've done it.

At Valve we have a mocap room that any animator can use anytime. We've made it pretty straightforward for them to go, turn it on, calibrate it, get suited up, get themselves in the computer and see themselves as a CG skeleton in real-time on a big screen.

With just a little bit of extra work we can pipe that over to Source Filmmaker on a different computer and TV screen and see ourselves walking around as any character we want to be in a "Team Fortress 2" game map in real time. Then we can act, do many takes, get multiple actors in the scene, etc. All of it, Live. Real time.

It's more like shooting film than animating; and it's awesome! If the actor/animator knows how to move like the character they're playing then the end results can be strikingly good. But then this brings up a new skill: Acting.

Then the question becomes, if we're going to record human motion to author this, why not use somebody who is good at acting? Like professionally good? The animators who will survive and have creatively rewarding jobs will be those who are the best actors with their actual bodies or are the best storytellers.

The animators who'll survive and have creatively rewarding jobs, will be those who are the best actors with their actual bodies or are the best storytellers.

The delineation between live action digital filming and animation will be blurred even more than it already is. This isn't just about the "Hobbit" or the latest blockbuster superhero stunt double stuff anymore. It's going to get into rendered narrative family films, too.

It's not an "if", but a "when". So if you've got some kind of hang up about using, doing or working on captured motion data then you will have much smaller employment prospects in the years to come.

Yes, there will always be fantastical creatures that require hand animation, but like all the choice shots now those tasks will go to the best of the best animators. Anything bipedal that emulates human emotion in the service of telling a story to people (I.e.: 80% of all animation done in the western world) that will start as captured motion data.

I see this being the default way of doing business within 10 years. Hand keyed animation in CG will be as specialty as 2D hand drawn animation or stop motion animation is now. There will always be work in hand keyed, but probably not as much of it and not a lot of it at the highest budget points.

Sorry, but that's what my crystal ball says. Of course I'd love to be wrong. A lot of people would love for me to be wrong, too. Heh.

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

I'm still happily employed at Valve, and I expect that the project I'm working on now will see the light of day sometime next year. I can't really talk about it now, though.

As far as my own personal creative projects, I just released a 33-minute live action short film that I wrote and shot last year, called "Worth".

I directed, acted in the lead role and my very talented daughters helped out a ton in shooting, acting, story, etc. I had some help from some other talented friends as well, including my buddy, former student and fellow animator Jason Stansell.

I learned a ton on that project and I seriously caught the live action filmmaking bug. I am currently writing a screenplay for an indie live action feature film I'd like to shoot sometime in 2014 if I can line up some additional financing.

I also have another live action short that I'd like to squeeze in there if I can, mainly to learn and keep growing. On the animation side, I am scheduled to teach a 2-week short film production course at Anomalia in the Czech Republic late next summer.

I am currently storyboarding, and doing look development tests for that animated film. The goal is to have everything ready for the students when the course kicks off next September. So, yeah... I'll be busy as usual.

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

Hmm. Off the top of my head I guess it'd be Brad Bird. Mainly because, as I mentioned before, he's a very skilled and talented storyteller and above all else I aspire to be the same.

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

  • Definitely learn a single employable skill right now. Yes.
  • But don't rest on that.
  • Avoid becoming obsolete.
  • Don't fear change, don't fear technology, keep an open mind and see where the opportunities arise and never, ever stop learning new skills.

Ask yourself, "Why do I want to be an animator?", Is there something deeper there that you aspire to and animation is your path to expressing that desire? Tap into that and let that guide you as you go.

Learn new skills that allow you to express that deeper desire, and learn them with the same enthusiasm and passion you had in learning how to animate. Skills are replaced by technology all the time. It's the way of the world.

Some clever Jack or Jill is always trying to invent a better way to do what you do. And they'll succeed if it can be analyzed, boiled down and processed into specific actions or formulas (which describes an awful lot of the animation I see lately).

But creative problem solving can't be invented around. And I'm not talking "Gee, how do I make this character's fingers seem like they have weight?" That's not a creative problem. Sorry to those who think it is.

No, a creative problem is "Hey, we have a whole new technology here, but we have no process for creating content for it. How do we want to do that?" Or "Old systems of distribution are falling apart. What new opportunities are here to get our work out to people that we could not have done 10 years ago?" Or "We have this rich, immersive world, but now we need interesting, rounded characters to fill it out? Who are these characters? What are their relationships?" And those are the low hanging fruit opportunities.

There are endless other ones for the creative thinker. So above everything else be a creative thinker who solves problems. And don't be hung up on nostalgia. Use whatever is at your disposal to do it.