Technical Animation: The Bridge Between Disciplines
21 May 2020 Developer Articles

Ever since the beginning of the video games industry, animation has remained a crucial part in creating engaging, dynamic and enjoyable experiences for players.

Whereas in the past Animators needed to make just a few pixels on our screens move – think Donkey Kong hurling a barrel at Mario way back in the 80s – now they are tasked with bringing thousands of polygons to life, and that could be to just make a character’s hair move.

As poly counts have grown, framerates have increased, and gaming technology has advanced, the need for a more specialist role that bridges the gap between Animation and Engineering has emerged, this has become the role of the Technical Animator.

Written in conjunction with Deep Silver Dambuster Studio’s in-house Technical Animation team, this blog examines the role of the Technical Animator, the ways in which they interact with other departments, the experiences and skills required to become one and more.

What Exactly is a Technical Animator?

A Technical Animator (or TA for short) is a professional that is both an expert in the use of DCC (Digital Content Creation) applications for the creation of rigs, skinning and tools for Animators, as well as the creation of animation systems and behaviours in the chosen game engine.

On top of that, a TA usually takes care of all the secondary systems related to animation in some way; such as clothes, hair and dynamic simulations, motion capture pipelines and audio-based facial animation.

However, studios and industries often interpret this role differently. For example, the film industry commonly refers to a TA as the expert of fur or cloth simulations. In other gaming studios, a TA may also complete the tasks of an Animator.

Put into simple terms, TAs at Deep Silver Dambuster Studios take care of all the technical requirements to support the animation pipeline, from motion capture to the moment the animation has been implemented in the engine and is running in the game.

They fill the gap between our Animation and Code department, which allows Animators to focus on animating without having to worry about intricate technical requirements and lets the Code Department focus on creating and implementing bug free, solid code.

By working collaboratively with both departments, our TAs ensure that the required level of quality for animation is always met.

How to Become a Technical Animator

At this moment in time, there isn’t a school or university course dedicated entirely to teaching students how to become a Technical Animator. More commonly, the likes of Riggers become interested in animation, or want to learn more about how animation is put together in a game engine and from there it’s a learning process to become a TA.

Similarly, Animators that are continuously trying to find easier and more convenient ways to complete or automate their tasks often decide to turn their hand to the technical side of animation full time.

At Deep Silver Dambuster Studios, we usually look for candidates that have a good base knowledge of rigging, Maya scripting (Mel and Python) and game engines’ animation systems (UE4 / Unity / CryEngine, for example). Some extra skills include: mocap processes and software (Vicon Shogun, OptiTrack Motive, Motionbuilder), dynamics (cloth mainly) and C++/C#.

As technical animation is a broad church, it’s uncommon to find people that can tick every box. We are therefore more than willing to evaluate and hire someone that lacks one or two of these skills as we know that we can help them acquire them.’ – Daniele Cattaneo, Lead Technical Animator at Deep Silver Dambuster Studios.

What Type of Person is Suited to Technical Animation?

TAs are born when there is a clash of interest between the two disciplines of animation and engineering. When the person is attracted to artistic side of animation, but also feels comfortable tackling technical challenges, and working as a constant problem solver.

Technical Animator at Deep Silver Dambuster Studios, Francesco Torelli shares his own experience on becoming a TA.

I specifically started out as an Animator during my studies, but for each animation I worked on, an opposing drive would make me wonder how I could improve the Skeleton Rig I was using, or how I could automate some tedious processes. I felt split between learning animation, and diving into the technicalities behind it, until I found out that there is actually a role that lets me contribute to both, and that is how I chose to become a Technical Animator.’

Why Technical Animation is Becoming Increasingly Important in the Games Industry

The standard of AAA games have drastically increased in the last decade where high quality animations and physical simulations are concerned. The TA’s skillset is critical in enabling Animators and Coders to produce a level of quality that was once exclusive to the likes of the film industry.

Producing a game also requires a variety of different specialist roles and departments working together. In the TA's case, they are capable of understanding artistic requirements as well as technical limitations and processes, this is a very important skill as it brings these various specialist roles together and makes sure animation features are developed whilst respecting the standards of all departments involved.

How Technical Animation Works with Other Departments

Technical Animators work very closely with Animation to provide them with the rigs, tools and a solid pipeline, which allows them to work efficiently on various type of animations (motion capture, keyframe, facial etc.)

Once the animation has been created and is ready to be put into the engine, they help make sure that it can be shown to the player in the appropriate way. This means TAs working with both the Design and Code departments to connect every player action to the appropriate animation, creating locomotion and procedural systems.

TAs also work very closely with Coders in developing various physical systems, from the movement of scarfs, cloaks and coats to the way enemies fall and interact with surfaces when they die.

Flexibility and problem solving is key to being an effective TA. On one side, Animators needs their workflows to be as smooth as possible, so they will present the TA with new challenges in order to become more efficient in their daily work.

On the other hand, Design and Code can pose some constraints on how features should be developed to work within the engine. A good TA needs to find a way to deliver the best-looking result, while considering all these individual aspects.’ - Francesco Torelli, Technical Animator at Deep Silver Dambuster Studios

Deep Silver Dambuster Studios has a dedicated and growing in-house Technical Animation team. Take a look at our Careers page to see whether we have any open vacancies and you could be working alongside our Animation, Code and Design departments soon.