Even if by now he has a track record that will make a lot of (game) animators turn red with envy, like most, he came from humble beginnings. Jonathan started out with a degree in Design & Animation and, thanks to some keen insight, had no problem landing his first job straight away, working on a Tom & Jerry videogame over at VIS Entertainment. “Although my art school taught us all forms of animation from traditional to stop-motion, towards the end of the course I realized the future of animation was in CG so I made an effort to learn as much as I could in that area only and produced a game-like film,” he says. “At that time, a new game studio opened up just down the road from my college, and I somehow convinced them I was the right guy for the job.”
Undoubtedly, his passion for games had something to do with his succeeding as well. “I have always loved games and grown up with them.” In his hometown of Dundee, Scotland, Jonathan was blessed with an active development scene, due to factories producing homebrew-friendly computers being stationed there, “hence a lot of kids my age got a hold of them early.” From an early age, he made art on whatever computer he owned, ultimately falling in love with the magic of animation. He started out copying popular games of that time, “such as Street fighter II and basically learned from practicing that over and over again.”
Fortune Favors the Brave
But Jonathan isn’t one to sit still and is always looking for a challenge. “After four years working in the same place, I wanted to broaden my horizons. I always say ‘fortune favors the brave’, so I first traveled to Japan on something of a pilgrimage to hand my work into studios there, visiting Nintendo’s HQ in Kyoto and talking my way into an interview with HR.” With the realization that you need to be pretty much fluent in the language to work there, he turned his attention to Canada and ended up having a secret meeting with BioWare “I never told anyone I was going, in case it didn’t work out”, and found his place there rather quickly. “BioWare impressed me, and I guess I did them also. Perhaps due to their efficiency, I was living and working there for several months before any of the other studios even replied to my applications.” After impressing them with his work on Jade Empire, they gave him a lead position on Mass Effect. He also added experience in the field of quick, responsive action games where BioWare at that point had little.
However, being a skillful rookie at a company like BioWare meant he had to prove himself. “As with any new position regardless of seniority, when nobody knows who you are, you have to start from scratch in order to make an impression.” As one of only a couple of the leads on Mass Effect that weren’t originally on Knights Of The Old Republic, he had to “work very hard to be able to stand at the same level.” But because of the transition period from the Xbox to the Xbox 360, and his taking to the new creative possibilities that more powerful hardware brings, he only boosted his value as a team member. Add the fact that “at that time, BioWare was primarily a story/design studio so their art/animation experience was only starting to improve,” and it’s clear that Jonathan got in there at the right time, presenting skills that complemented the team as a whole.
An Animated Soul
His success at BioWare wasn’t enough to keep him from moving to Montreal, though, and he left the Mass Effect team for personal reasons. “It was actually for a girl – I never wanted to leave the Mass Effect team, but some things are more important than work.” Reluctant to let him go, BioWare tried to supply a solution. “Before leaving BioWare, they investigated setting me up with a perforce depot so I could keep on working, but legally, it wasn’t possible due to my foreign status.” Due to this fact, he made the switch to Eidos Montreal, to work on Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Though he cared for the animation team at Eidos, he quickly made the switch back to BioWare as soon as Electronic Arts bought them up. Since they had a legal entity in Quebec, it was now possible to work for them from Montreal. Going back to BioWare from Eidos was tough, but his reasons were clear-cut: “The project was not in sync with my values. It was clearly not an animator’s game, and I feel unused when that’s the case. Clearly, it was the right decision as I made Mass Effect 2, its DLC, and was well into Assassin’s Creed III before Deus Ex released.”
His leaving BioWare a second time was for professional reasons. “After completing Mass Effect 2, I was becoming increasingly frustrated in being so distant from the core development team, and found there wasn’t such a challenge in doing another sequel to Mass Effect.” So he moved to Ubisoft after being “blown away by Assassin’s Creed II and how the scope of the game just kept getting bigger and bigger, while still maintaining some of the best animation quality I’d ever seen.” When they offered him a chance to basically come up with all-new animations for Assassin’s Creed III, he just couldn’t turn them down. Jokingly, he adds that by that time, it was “the only studio in Montreal I hadn’t worked at, so it would be rude not to give them a shot.” Moving from company to company and from place to place seems to be a recurring theme in Jonathan’s life. Perhaps not being able to sit still and animating simply go hand in hand.
But not everyone thinks of moving regularly for your career as a good thing, though. Jonathan would like to contest that. “I’d argue that moving regularly is the best thing anyone can do for their career. My move to North America was the biggest decision of my life, and one that has paid dividends. It allows you to see many different ways of working and gives a better perspective on what quality is. In my opinion, people who have only ever worked in one studio, even those who have been consistently successful, probably don’t know why certain approaches work and others don’t.” Aside from these advantages, he’s also grateful of having experienced different company cultures, which have taught him “why treating your team-mates as you would yourself always works out. Creatively challenged, happy and empowered employees create the best results every time.”
To him, relocating definitely is the ultimate way to grow as a game developer. “The world is such a small place, and we’re in such a young industry that there are opportunities everywhere if you’re willing to relocate.” He understands that it’s different if you have a family of your own, but he feels some people settle too easily for too little. “I’m not willing to accept crappy projects and/or pay and working conditions just to avoid having to move from my hometown.” The actual growth comes from assuming more responsibilities, pushing you out of your comfort zone, “which, for a time, can be incredibly stressful, but I don’t believe one can grow by taking the path of least resistance, and it pays off every time. I find games to be something of a meritocracy where hard work and determination are noticed and rewarded – and if it’s not, you’re working in the wrong place. Nothing worthwhile ever comes from taking it easy, and if you’re willing to give it your all, the games industry can be an incredibly fulfilling and rewarding one.”
Animating the 3rd Assassin
At GDC, he talked about the animation work done for Assassin’s Creed III presenting his “initial charge, which was to refresh all the animation in order to re-establish Assassin’s Creed as a leader in the animation field, and the amount of pressure that that entailed”, breaking it down into several areas like navigation, combat, climbing, tree-running and cinematics “and what we chose to do in order to achieve this mandate.” Thankfully, Jonathan likes to make his presentations very visual to illustrate his craft. “As an animator, I hate sitting through a presentation that isn’t at least 90 percent videos.”
When thinking of Assassin’s Creed III and the animation work involved, it’s hard to imagine it not being overwhelming, which Jonathan agrees on wholeheartedly. “The animation team for Assassin’s Creed III was a magnitude of size larger than any project I’ve ever worked on previously, perhaps four or five times, in several different studios around the globe.” Many of those involved had worked on the previous games, but even so, not one member of the team was able to take a “business-as-usual” approach to their work. In the end, it all worked out beautifully, “and the entire animation team is very happy with the results.”
Jonathan is probably equally as happy with the insights he’s gained over the course of the game’s development. “Working with a new team has taught me many different approaches that I never considered before, from animating at 15fps when you know you’re going to compress animations anyway, to creating vast amounts of transitions to cover all possibilities, to relying on physics in order to give a more fluid but reactive feel for the character.” He’s clearly excited and keeping a close eye on the future. “With a new generation of hardware around the corner, we’re about to experience greater freedom from constraints like memory and rig/skeleton limitations, so now our challenge will be a question of cost and manpower,” he says. His enthusiasm is simply contagious as he looks forward; he knows what his next step will be. “We’ll be looking into solutions for procedural generation of content and a greater reliance on physics in order to take away some of the burden from animators.” Animators afraid of being put out of a job can let go of their fears, though, as Jonathan explains. “We’ll only be trying to remove as much of the less interesting actions and aspects of game animation; there will always be a need for skilled artists to bring characters to life.”
Vlad Micu is managing editor of Gamesauce.org. He previously has been a freelance game industry professional for over five years and traveled around the world while running his company VGVisionary. Starting VGVisionary during college, Vlad was able to work independently as a pr & marketing consultant, event manager, industry journalist, speaker and game developer. He just returned from Bangkok, Thailand, where he pursued his dream of making video games as the game producer at arkavis, an up and coming casual game studio.