We Interviewed Victor Chavez - Animator at Bungie

Posted at Nov 13th, 2013 by AnimDesk.

We Interviewed Victor Chavez - Animator at Bungie Studios

Victor didn't grow up planning to be a Character Animator. He studied Art and Graphic Design at the University of New Mexico before 3D Animation had really started. He then switched his focus to Civil Engineering and Information Technology. He worked on the side to obtain his MCSE certification which led him to eventually work at Microsoft as a Systems Engineer.

After finding himself unemployed after almost 10 years in the IT field, Victor decided to get back into doing something more creative and a friend of his suggested Animation Mentor. Almost two years later, after finishing extensive animation training, Victor started to explore the world of animation and found work at 343 Industries doing gameplay animation on Halo 4.

Victor then moved on to a different game company: Bungie. There, he’s working as a cinematic and gameplay animator on their upcoming title, Destiny.

Victor Chavez - Interview with Bungie Game Animator

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

Thanks for the invite! My name is Victor, and I'm a character animator at Bungie in Bellevue, WA.

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

I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico (where Bugs Bunny should have made that left turn) and I've lived in Seattle for the last 14 years. I knew I wanted to do something artistic for a career when I was a kid, but didn't actually get into animation until my 40's.

For my first career, I was an AutoCAD draftsman at a civil engineering firm for about 10 years. After that, I started studying computers and IT. I got my MCSE certification and moved to Seattle and started working at Microsoft – which was my second career. I was a Lead Systems Engineer in MSN Operations and I was laid off after 9 years in 2009.

That's when I decided to go back to doing something creative and went to school to study Character Animation.

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

I started drawing when I was about 6 or 7, but didn't really get into it until I was about 13. I had a friend that lived next door that was a few years older and he would draw a lot.

Between sessions of playing D & D, listening to 80's rock and reading comics, we would draw. At the time I was reading a lot of Conan the Barbarian books and into art by Boris Vallejo and Frank Frazetta, so a lot of my drawings had barbarians with broadswords and battle-axes.

Iron-Man by Victor Chavez Women Portrait by Victor Chavez

I would draw all the time – sometimes staying up all night until that piece was done. I was even voted 'most artistic' in high school (it was a small school). Lately I've been playing around with drawing on my iPad mini.

How and when did you realize that you wanted to become an Animator? It was the furthest away from IT and computers, isn't it?

True – it's very far from a career in IT and computer support. When I was laid off from Microsoft in 2009, I decided that I wanted to switch careers and do something more creative – but had no idea where to start.

I realized that 20+ years has passed since I first wanted to "become an artist" when I started college. I wanted to do something creative that also involved working with computers, but I had never considered animation as a career.

A friend recommended animation and the school AnimationMentor.com. A month later I was taking classes.

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

I started college as an Art major and had about 2 and a half years of studio art classes (drawing, painting, 2D/3D design, print making, photography, etc.).

Computer animation didn't exist yet and I didn't consider 2D or stop motion animation at the time. I hadn't done any type of animation before starting at Animation Mentor in July 2009 (graduated in December 2010).

Women on Bed by Victor Chavez

I've always loved animation and stop-motion films, but never thought of it as a career that people get paid to do.

When I first applied to Animation Mentor, they wanted me to start with a basic Maya "springboard" class instead of getting right into the animation courses.

Normally, I would recommend this as a good way to start, but I was unemployed and anxious to start my new career. I had a month to teach myself Maya, which I figured was more than enough time to learn the basics.

They said I could skip the Maya class if I animated a bouncing ball – by noon the next day.

I had never used Maya before. I installed the trial software and figured out how to animate a bouncing ball. I didn't know how to create a playblast, so I used my webcam to record a video of the ball bouncing on my computer monitor and emailed it to them by noon the next day.

They accepted my application and let me skip the Maya intro class. I started animation class a few weeks later while continuing to teach myself Maya.

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

When I first graduated from Animation Mentor, I applied everywhere – both game and film studios. Since I was trained in a method more suited to film but loved playing video games, I didn't really have a preference. Both had an appeal for me.

What was your first work you ever worked on professionally?

My first job out of school was at 343 Industries working on Halo 4 as a gameplay animator. I worked there for about a year before getting a job at Bungie.

Halo 4 Reload Sequence by Victor Chavez

Funny story about how I got into 343i (and there is a point at the end). I didn't get the job I originally applied for. I had applied for a cinematic animator position through their web site and never heard back.

I went to a contracting agency and they got me an interview for a contract position doing cinematic animation. After meeting with their lead animator, they were going to turn me down since I didn't have the experience or a strong enough reel.

They asked the gameplay animation lead if he wanted to talk to me. He happened to be available, so we chatted and he decided to give me an animation test. I worked on that for about 35 hours over the next 4 days and sent it in. They were happy with the results and made me an offer to do gameplay animation. Not what I applied for but turned out to be really, really awesome.

Now my point: Even if you have the talent, it really all comes down to timing, just like some people had already told me but I didn't understand.

If the lead gameplay animator weren't available at the exact time he was, I wouldn't have talked to him. If they weren't early into their production cycle and couldn't take a chance on hiring a newbie, I wouldn't have gotten in.

If it were just a month later, they wouldn't have wanted to take the time to ramp me up. One month earlier and they wouldn't have been hiring yet. Timing.

How did you end up Animating for Bungie? What steps did you take?

I knew someone that worked at Bungie ('knew' because he also attended some Animation Mentor classes and we had some mutual friends from school). He had posted the open position on Facebook, so I applied.

His recommendation may have helped me get a reply to my initial application, but then it was up to me. That process wasn't easy. They liked my reel enough to have me do an animation test.

I was crunching at 343i at the time, so I spend every other waking hour working on the animation test. After I submitted that, I was brought in for an interview that lasted about 7 hours.

A couple of days later I was contacted with an offer. The process wasn't that different from what I went through with 343 Industries.

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

The most creative and driven people I've ever worked with. They love what they do and they're really good at it. The people are all friendly and they have it setup so new hires are immediately made to feel like part of the family.

The office space is a huge open space (used to be a movie theater) and the Bungie founders have the same size desk as I do and they're out on the floor and in the middle of everything.

Do you play the game's demo a lot while still animating it? What does the process of animating a game looks like?

One of the lead animators used to tell me: "People aren't going to play this game in Maya. If it doesn't look awesome in the game, it isn't done yet".

Yes, you have to play the game – as soon as it's at a point to play – if you want to see what your animations are going to look like.

It also involves working with other teams to get everything working as it should: The designers that make the overall feel of the characters consistent and the engineers that make sure all the animations are seamlessly flowing from one to the next.

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

The new game is called Destiny. I spent a year doing gameplay animation and now I'm working on the cinematics team and helping with other animations that fall outside of the gameplay and cinematic areas.

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

So far, I've only been a part of two games, "Halo 4" and "Destiny". I'm proud of both for different reasons. I was a huge Halo fan when that first came out, so it was great to be a part of that legacy.

I think Destiny has the same potential and I'm really excited to see what gamers think of it (especially the long time Bungie fans).

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

Animate. Animate. Animate. I'm working on different things on different days and I feel like things are always changing. New bugs come up and different teams have to get involved with different issues (which is a great way to work with a bunch of different people). But, I spend most of the day animating in Maya.

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

The days I like the best are the ones that involve problem solving with different people to get the game looking the way we want it. It's especially great when I see something make it into the game that I helped solve or an animation I created.

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

My workflow is probably not that different than what most would expect. You always start with blocking and some sort of reference (if possible).

The time allotted for each shot can vary so you always have to keep that in mind. Some days involve a dozen different short animations and other animations can take weeks to complete.

It's a lot of iteration and making sure I'm on the same page as design and the animation lead.

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

Depends on the shot. Some gameplay animations are best done keyframe from scratch, especially if the motion is really short and fast. If we think the animation would look better and be done faster with mocap, then we use that.

Cinematics mostly uses mocap, but even that involves a lot of clean up and adding the details that mocap doesn't get. Sometimes I start a new animation using mocap, but by the time it's done, it's completely different and doesn't even look like the mocap I started with.

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

I use Autodesk Maya and a lot of proprietary tools and scripts.

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

I haven't worked in film yet, so I can't say one is more fun than the other. I'm sure they're both fun in different ways. I like gameplay animation because it's always different, it's what the player sees when he's playing and has lots of physical movement.

I like cinematics (and probably film) because it involves more "acting", dialog and usually comes with expressing some sort of emotion.

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

I grew up watching Loony Tunes (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, etc.) and Tom & Jerry, so those will always be on my favorites list for 2D animation.

For 3D, I like all of the Pixar films ('Monsters, Inc.' and 'The Incredibles' are my favorite), 'How to Train your Dragon', 'Nightmare Before Christmas' (favorite stop motion).

As far as why those are my favorites... any animated film that can make me feel anything for the characters on the screen is a job worth recognizing.

It really comes down to the story and the characters and if I can empathize with them. I can appreciate great animation, but if I don't feel a connection with any of the characters, it won't make the list.

My favorite games are Bioshock (all of them), Oblivion, Skyrim, Assassins Creed (all of them), Halo (all of them), Rock Band 3 (drums) – and right now, GTA V.

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

I can appreciate Japanese animation and love some of the Hayao Miyazaki films (artwork is amazing), but can't say I have enough experience with Japanese games/animation to have a preference.

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

Something that was a little strange for me to get used to was that the animation I saw in Maya wasn’t necessarily what I would see in the game. Sometimes I would work on just upper-body animations or weapon aim screens and the game engine would figure out how to combine multiple animations into one movement in the game.

Also, I’d have to work with the engineers and tools team to ensure the gaming experience is the best it can be for the player and it’s not always about the animation I see in Maya.

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

The first time I did an animation with Master Chief on Halo 4 was pretty intimidating. I had been playing those games for the last 10 years and millions of fans knew how Master Chief moved / acted / etc., so it had to feel right.

I couldn't let down all those fans or give them something that felt different. It was also my first job out of school, so I was already nervous.

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

Oh man... I think this can change every day. I work with some amazingly talented people and I'm learning something new all the time. All of my peers are my mentors. Some of the best feedback and critiques I get on my animations are from people that know nothing about it.

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

Heck no. I've had some ideas for something new or I think about how an existing game could be better, but I don't think I'd want to create my own.

I guess I also associate "create your own game" to something like telling a carpenter that they should start building houses for a living.

Sure, they're great at carpentry, but there's more to it than that. Making a game isn't just about the animation. I like the idea of being a part of a small studio and building something from the ground up, but I don't think I'd want to deal with every aspect of game development. I love animating and that's what I want to do (for now).

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

I would like to work in film just for the experience of doing it. I can't say I won't go back to games, but I'm very interested in working in film.

One of the things that drew me to animation is the acting. There's more acting involved in film than there is in gameplay animation (not including cinematics).

There's also something about seeing your work on the big screen that's appealing. Sure, millions will see my 'Saw' weapon reload animation on Halo 4, but I don't think it's the same thing and it's definitely a different audience.

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

There's a battle? :-) I think there are opinions about which one is more 'true' to animation now that computers are more involved than they used to be.

I think they are different mediums to reach the same result. The end product is meant to bring apparent thought and emotion from these lifeless objects and to make the audience feel something for the characters they're watching.

Is an oil painting any better or more beautiful than an acrylic painting? Does it matter what type of brush is used to paint it? The 12 principles of animation apply equally to both 2D and 3D animation.

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

If we're talking about arcade style 2D games, my favorite growing up was 'Gorf'. Not very popular, but I pumped loads of quarters into that game.

For a current console 2D game I'd have to pick Braid. One of the most beautiful and creative 2D games I've played in years.

For 3D games, I think this will constantly change for me. I'm having a hard time picking just one. I have a lot of games that I loved playing, but I only played it once and probably wouldn't play it again.

Many are about the first-time experience and the second time through doesn't have the same impact. I guess I'd have to go with Fable. That was awesome and I spent lots of time playing that. Great story, art style and gameplay. Just thinking about it makes me want to play it again.

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

Working on Destiny during my time at Bungie. I'm scheduled to be there until the end of January 2014. After that, who knows?

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

For me, this is more about the type or quality of animation coming out of the different game studios. There is some great stuff coming out of studios like Rockstar, Crystal Dynamics, Irrational Games, Naughty Dog – and so many more.

I don't know everyone in the industry, but I know there are some studios (and therefore the people that work there) that I would love to work with.

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

Animate. Do different types of animation and keep working on the ones you're having a more difficult time with. If a walk cycle just isn't working and you want to move on to a different shot, that's when you know you need to stay on it or even start over.

Get critiques. Even if they're just from family or friends and they know nothing about animation. If they see something that doesn't look right, they may not know how to explain it, but that's when it's up to you to see what they're trying to explain.

Grow some thick skin. If you want to improve you have to get critiques. Getting critiques involves hearing about what isn't working in your shot or getting advice about what could be better – and you don't have to take all of the advice you hear. Someone could tear apart your animation and list 10 things wrong with it. It's hard to hear, but this is good. I guarantee that your animation will be better.

If you see a job opening but you talk yourself out of applying because you think you don't have the experience – apply anyway. The worse that could happen is they say no. Plus, you'll hear a lot of no's (or silence), so get used to it.

A lot of it is timing. Even if a studio is interested in you, they may not contact you if they're not hiring for a few months and when they are ready to hire they may or may not look at old applications.

Network... Get on LinkedIn if you're not already. Keep an eye out for new openings using simplyhired.com or indeed.com. Keep a list of bookmarks for studios you want to work at and check back every few days/weeks.

Setup an RSS feed for the sites that offer it. Keep working on your reel and add new and better shots. Polish the ones you already have. Keep getting feedback.

Render and light the ones that are already polished. If you don't know how to light or render, then learn.

Update your web site and make sure you have links to it everywhere. Don't stop.

Also, I started animation school when I was 41 – never even used Maya before. There is no 'too late' to start something you have a passion for.

If you want to know more about Victor, head up to his website for his latest art works, reel and information.