We Interviewed Simon Unger - Lead Animator at Robotoki and a former Animator at Electronic Arts

Posted at Sep 16th, 2013 by AnimDesk.

Simon Unger - Lead Animator at Robotoki Game Studios

Simon Unger is a 12-year veteran animator in the video game industry. He is currently a lead Animator at "Robotoki", an independent game studio located in Los Angeles, California and a former Animator at Electronic Arts.

Simon worked as an Animator on some of the most popular games (which released on various platforms) such as: "NBA Live", "MVP" and "Hitman: Absolution".

Simon grew up in Vancouver, Canada. He started his career as an animator for "Mainframe Entertainment", creating 3D shows like "Reboot" and "Action Man". With the aid of his friend, and worker at EA, Simon found himself working as an animator on sports games and franchises.

As of 2013, Simon is working on the future game release: "Human Element".

Simon Unger - Lead Animator at Robotoki and Former Animator at Electronic Arts

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

Thanks for having me! My name is Simon and I am the Lead Animator at Robotoki in Los Angeles.

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

I am originally from Vancouver, BC, Canada. I moved around a lot when I was younger, but the one constant was always art. I was fortunate to have a fantastic art curriculum in my high school and some extremely supportive teachers. I was able to trade out a lot of my academic classes for things like photography, ceramics, commercial design, and even computer graphics, programming, and animation. This was in the early to mid 90's and was very progressive at the time.

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

Drawing was pretty much all I did growing up. If I wasn't on a skateboard or a snowboard, I was at home or a friend's house drawing. None of us received formal training so we started by copying all of the artists we looked up to. For me, that started with MAD magazine and Don Martin's comics. After that, I moved onto Todd McFarlane, especially his work on the Amazing Spiderman (and Spawn). Towards the end of high school, we were all really into graffiti and the wild styles coming out of New York and Europe and were trying to emulate them (much to my parent's dismay). I don't really have one "style" of art I prefer, but I tend to gravitate towards people who are excellent at their craft, rather than just trying to say something or be seen.

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

Right around the same time I realized I wasn't going to be a professional snowboarder. I always loved cartoons growing up and drew flipbooks all the time without really thinking of it as "animation". In our high school computer lab, we had one machine with a 3D program on it (maybe it was 3D Studio Max?). My friend and I taught ourselves how to use it and animated some primitive shapes bouncing around. We were hooked and decided to pursue it once we graduated.

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

I went to the Vancouver Film School in 2000 and took the 3D Animation and VFX course. It was a really great, well rounded course that included classical animation, life drawing, color and film theory, and even sculpting and life drawing.

I don't think anyone has a natural talent for anything, but more of an affinity towards specific things which allows them to focus on it more than others. Animation, like any art form, requires commitment and patience to learn and improve on and if you're not naturally interested in it, it just feels like work.

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

I originally wanted to work in film. I've always been drawn to storytelling and getting an emotional reaction from the people viewing your work. When I graduated, film was really the only venue to do that. But, when I finished film school I realized the same thing that most students do; Pixar wasn't going to send a limo to pick me up and whisk me off to Emeryville.

The great news is that over the last several years, video games have become a very powerful storytelling tool and the quality bar is rising all the time. With even less constraints on the new generation of consoles, this doesn't look to be changing any time soon.

when I finished film school I realized, like all students, that Pixar wasn't going to send a limo to pick us up.

What was your first work you ever worked on professionally?

My very first professional animation job was at a company called Mainframe Entertainment (Which re-branded itself as "Rainmaker Entertainment"). They were mainly focused on TV and direct to DVD films and were best known for their "Reboot" (CGI Animated Action-Adventure) series. I got picked up right out of school and started working on a show called "Action Man". I also worked on a show called "Heavy Gear" for a little while.

How did you end up Animating for Electronic Arts? What steps did you take?

The friend who got into 3D animation with me in high school was working at EA at the time. I went to visit him one day at the studio and met his team and art director. The studio was really impressive and the animation work they were doing actually looked like a lot of fun. I showed them my student work but didn't think much of it until I got a message on my answering machine a few weeks later offering me a job there.

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

I started on the baseball team on a game called "Triple Play". EA decided, thankfully! to reboot the baseball game series and call it "MVP". I worked on those games every year until 2006 when we lost the MLB license to 2K Games. Our awesome development team got broken up and we all went to different games and even different studios. The animation team went to work on the "NBA Live" franchise. I did a few of those before finally leaving, to go work for Square Enix in 2009.

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

"MVP" Baseball 2005 is definitely a highlight. It was one of the best teams I've ever been a part of, and the game came out exactly like we wanted it to. It's still rated as one of the best sports games ever made.

Hitman: Absolution is another one. The animation team put so much of themselves into that project and I feel like we really made something special.

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

That's the best thing about this job, there is no "typical day". Every day is different. We get to solve new problems all the time, both creatively and technically, as well as hang out with some really cool people.

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

That's a tricky one to answer. Nothing beats the feeling of shipping a project, but as far as day to day stuff goes it's seeing the work on screen. It never gets old seeing animations look good in the game.

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

Regardless of 'in-game' or cinematics, we rarely have a lot of time to spare so I like to see stuff as early as possible in the game to avoid throw away work. Few ideas or animations are right on the first iteration so I want to uncover those mistakes as soon as possible and learn from them. If it's mocap (short for "motion capture"), we cut it up, set the speed to what we think feels right, and throw it in the game. If we're key-framing it, we just block it out and get it in there right away.

Seeing your work in context as soon as possible will give you more clarity on what works and what doesn't and help you make better choices on what to improve. The best pipelines allow for rapid iteration. Bad animation in games is usually a result of not enough time, not poor animators.

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

I've been working with motion capture for so long that Autodesk "Motion Builder" is usually my go-to application. For key framing, I like to use Autodesk Maya. I'm not a fan of 3D Studio Max (which is mostly used for making games), though I know there are some die-hard fans still out there.

Do you think animating a game is more fun than a film? What are your thoughts?

I don't think one is more fun than the other. I'm sure if I had gone to film I would be a far better animator than I am right now from focusing solely on that. That said, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to learn so many other things. Working in games, especially smaller teams, let's you wear many more hats and try out other disciplines. So in that respect, I guess working in games are more fun.

I'm sure if I had gone to film I would be a far better animator than I am right now from focusing solely on that.

How did you end up animating for Robotoki? Why didn't you stay at Square Enix?

I saw a post on Robotoki's careers section, looking for a Lead Animator. The description of the project and the company's values and culture really resonated with me. I had spent almost thirteen years working on large teams at big companies, the idea of a smaller studio who put their employees first sounded amazing.

How different is animating for Robotoki than Electronic Arts? Is it the titles? The people? The place?

It's all of the above. There are good and bad things about working at a larger studio like EA, but it's difficult to compare to a smaller team. There is a lot more camaraderie on a smaller team. We're also very proud and protective of the culture we are building at Robotoki. It's something really special.

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

My favorite 2D film would have to be Akira. I wore out the VHS copy I had as a kid from watching it so much. There are others that are "better", but it made such an impact on me when I was younger that I continue to reference it to this day. Plus, that giant teddy bear scene when Tetsuo is in the hospital is still one of my favorite scenes in any movie ever.

For 3D films, I would have to say "Tangled" by Walt Disney Studios. There isn't a bad character in the whole movie and they all have so much appeal. Glen Keane and the rest of the animators on that film are just ridiculous. No matter how many times I watch it, I'm in awe of the work in that film.

There are some very close seconds though. For 2D: "Iron Giant" and anything from "Studio Ghibli" or "Don Hertzfeldt" are amazing for completely different reasons. For 3D: "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs", "How to Train Your Dragon" and "The Incredibles".

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

I am in awe of the draftsmanship of the traditional Japanese animators. My 2D animation instructor in school worked on "Aeon Flux" and his line quality was amazing. Those "Akira" pencil tests that came out not too long ago did my head in.

As far as storytelling goes, I tend to shy away from Japanese animation. I love their stories and the depth, but the way they're told doesn't always resonate with me. That said, many "American" games and films don't do that great of a job either.

Honestly, I would love to see the countries that we typically outsource to start to develop a voice of their own. The animators I have worked with in India and China are insanely talented and have such a rich storytelling history to draw from. A well-made, animated Bollywood film would be fantastic!

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

Being in a lead role, the hardest thing is not animating as much. As the team size and scope of the project grows, you have to move into more of a management and director role and give some of the control over to the other animators. It definitely has its rewards as well, but that would be the biggest drawback.

Of course the hardest thing about being in the games industry (or the entire entertainment industry, for that matter) is the instability. Many of us who started when we were a lot younger now have families to take care of. It's a scary thing to be following your dream not knowing if you'll be able to put a roof over your kids' heads the next month.

As team size and scope of a project grows, you have to move into more of a management and director role and delegate control over to the other animators.

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

"Agent 47" from the "Hitman" franchise was easily the most difficult. Any character who is already established and has a history is a challenge because it is so easy to break the preconceived notions about who that character is and how they're supposed to act or move. It was so easy to go "off-model" with "Agent 47", especially in a game we were trying to convey a personal journey of a character who was essentially a killing machine and had the personality of a cardboard box.

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

I have been so lucky to have really amazing people come into my life at various stages and teach me so much. There are too many to list them all, but I would love to mention a few.

In film school, we were all paired with an industry mentor for the final term. I was lucky enough to get the insanely talented and diabolically genius Jason Osipa as mine. He was so generous with his time and taught me much that I still use today. He even got me my first job out of school!

When I was at EA, I had the amazing Neil Eskuri as an Art Director for a couple of projects. Just being around Neil makes you better via osmosis. I didn't just learn a lot about art and animation, but also how to be a better lead and human. I still ask myself all the time "how would Neil handle this?"

My third big influence was Keith Lango. I took a short "personal trainer" class with Keith that only lasted a month, but I learned so much in that time. He changed the way I see animation and it was like a light bulb turned on in my brain. If he ever starts those classes up again, sign up immediately. You can't put a price on that much awesome.

Lastly, I was so lucky to grow up with a ridiculously talented group of friends. We challenge each other a lot and most of us ended up working in the game industry, which is pretty crazy. I'm so inspired by them.

Have you ever thought about creating your own game? Or even creating your own company?

Definitely! I have a few game ideas rolling around in my brain at all times. The great thing is that I now work at a place where I can make those things happen.

As far as starting my own company? I don't think I would ever want to run a game company. There's too much I don't know and I'm not a salesman. An animation company though...

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

I have so much respect for both but at the end of the day they're just vehicles for telling a story. Saying one is better than the other is kind of a silly argument. There is a place for both and it really just comes down to which is best for the story you're trying to tell.

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

I didn't like digital art for the longest time, but I'm warming up to it more lately. If I were to hold two identical paintings, one traditional and the other digital, I would still think the traditional one was a greater achievement. There are so many tools and shortcuts to help the digital artist. The act of creating art from a physical media is still much more of a "craft" in my mind. I'm not saying the artistic sensibilities of the person who made the digital version is less than the other, only that I respect the process of traditional art a little more.

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

For 2D game, I would have to pick Street Fighter III: Third Strike. It's perfect and awesome and I will never get tired of playing it. I miss arcades so much because of this one game. I will make my own arcade machine one day so I can play it forever in my garage.

As far as a 3D game, it would be a tie between Tribes and SKATE. I can't count how many times I played tribes until the sun came up. SKATE is in the same boat. I was at EA when they were making it and I finished the game twice before they even hit beta. I did the same for SKATE 2 and all of the SSX games as well. I remember getting in trouble once for playing SKATE too much at work. I was addicted!

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

I'm currently working on "Human Element". It's still early days and we're defining what this game is about a little more each day. It's going to be immense and awesome, I can't wait to see where it ends up.

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

That is a hard one. I have met so many incredible animators over the years that it would be impossible to pick just one. I want David O'Reilly to make a game and to be on that project.

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

Be humble and don't be a jerk. Everyone you meet has something they can teach you and they will never forget it if you treated them like crap.