As an Art Lead at Microsoft, Floyd Bishop chronicled how to create expressive characters and their setup in Unity at Casual Connect USA 2018. He advised, “Use every part of the buffalo.” To learn more about how you can make this work for you, be sure to watch the video of the full session.
Floyd Bishop is a computer animator with more than twenty years experience working in film, television, commercials, web series and video games. With more than twenty IMDb credits to his name, Floyd is currently an Art Lead at Microsoft, working in AR, VR and Mixed Reality. Recently Floyd described to Casual Connect what it is like to be a computer animator and insights he has learned along the way in this career.
Casual Connect: Tell us about the work you do at Microsoft. How did you come to work there?
Floyd Bishop: At Microsoft I lead up an Art Team, working on Mixed Reality – augmented and virtual reality – projects. My focus is more on the technical side of things, with a specialty in Animation, Rigging and Visual Effects.
CC: What is your favorite thing about your job?
Floyd: I’m always encountering new technology and seeing fresh ways that the average person can use this technology to do more of what they want to be able to do: inform, educate, explore and lots more. It is an exciting time to work in the technology and gaming industry.
CC: How have your past career experiences been helpful to you in your current position?
Floyd: Prior to joining Microsoft, I worked in many different entertainment industries, including film, television, video games, internet web services and print. The art training I got with my BFA in Communication Design has been very useful in each, even though the technology I’m currently involved with did not exist when I was in college.
CC: How did you become involved in the game industry? How did you make your start? What do you find to be the most fun part?
Floyd: I started out doing graphic design, working in the Art Services department of a technology company, and then moving on to creating page layout for vitamin catalogs for another company. I began training for animation on my own – I’m a completely self-taught animator. In a short time, I found myself doing character animation on the feature film Ice Age. When production wrapped and the studio ramped down, I started doing animation for video games as a freelance job. There was a lot of work, the projects were fun, and the pay was great compared to film. One of my bigger clients, Sony Entertainment of America, ended up hiring me full time, and I moved to San Diego. I’ve been working in games in some capacity ever since 2003. Seeing people get wrapped up with the characters and stories in the games I’ve worked on is a big thrill. Free Realms was a game that I worked on for six years. I still see people talk about it fondly online even through the servers shut down several years ago.
CC: What are some of the challenges you have faced in your current career? How have you overcome these challenges?
Floyd: Technology moves at a very fast pace. Layoffs are all too common in the industry, but I have been actively expanding my skill set to stay current and valuable. I take on new challenges with enthusiasm, and I have been fortunate to always find work.
CC: What do you think will be the next big trend in the industry in the upcoming three to five years? How are you incorporating this trend into your future plans?
Floyd: I think there is going to be a much larger push in virtual reality and augmented reality. Technology will start to cross pollinate, with content being catered to the user based on what they are doing in other areas of the online world. The convergence of work, play and leisure will continue, and we will start to see someone’s online presence become nearly as important as their real-world appearance. Microsoft is in a great spot for this kind of convergence, and I’m excited to play a small part in it all.
CC: If you do play tests, what was the most interesting reaction to your game? What was the game?
Floyd: I worked on a game called Rise of the Kasai for PlayStation 2. It was the sequel to The Mark of Kri. The main character is a barbarian type character and you get into many melee type battles. We had technology where the bodies of the enemies would blast apart, allowing you to chop off limbs and such. It’s pretty bloody stuff.
Anyway, to save memory and keep performance up, the body parts would flop away and then disappear after a little while off screen. Well, when we first implemented it, one of the feet wasn’t set up correctly, and it would chase you around the screen. We affectionately called it “ghost foot”. We all had a blast during the internal play tests, trying to get away from ghost foot. The bug got squashed before we shipped, but it was a lot of (unintentional) fun.
CC: What have been some of the most effective tools for supporting developers at your company?
Floyd: I work at Microsoft’s main campus at Redmond, Washington. Microsoft is pretty much its own small city, with food service, a bike shop, a hair salon, and much more. You literally never have to leave the campus for normal errands you may need to complete. The focus on work/life balance has been the best of any place I have worked. While the occasional long day comes along, I have been told many times to pick up a task fresh the next day, or to be sure to take some time off. Not being constantly stressed out is a huge relief, and it makes it easier to focus on the things that matter when you are in front of your desk.
CC: How have you handled constantly changing technology? How have you been able to incorporate it into your business?
Floyd: Much of the new technology I work on is top secret, often for many years before it is made public. As a result, I cannot get help from an outside company if I run into an issue. Luckily, Microsoft has some incredible tech people who I have seen work minor miracles when getting things set up and working smoothly.
CC: What’s the secret to creating expressive faces?
Floyd: A lot of it has to do with the eyes and how the character’s face responds to the environment and other characters around it. A dead face can kill an otherwise expressive character.
CC: What is one of the unique challenges to using Unity to create expressive characters?
Floyd: There are many aspects that go into getting a character set up to be expressive. It is a lot like baking a cake, where things often don’t come together until the last step of the process. Until then, it’s a whole lot of broken while you get everything into place. Blending animations and using masks to give you a great range of acting choices requires a lot of set up, but the payoff is well worth the effort.
CC: How has the VR category changed during the years you’ve been involved?
Floyd: I started to dabble in virtual reality in the late 1990s, with VRML (virtual reality modeling language). At that time, computers were much slower, and the VR results were less than immersive. It was mostly flying cameras and lots of boxes and grids. Fast forward to some of the work I’m doing daily on devices like HoloLens and MR headsets, and I can barely believe it has come so far. I once broke an early Vive controller by setting it down on a virtual table and letting go, sending it crashing to the floor. It was at that moment that I realized I had been successfully tricked by technology into believing the virtual was reality. It has been an amazing twenty years of progress.
CC: What is your favorite VR experience?
Floyd: Being a gamer at heart, I really enjoy Robo Recall. If you have not tried it out, you need to! The way they are using personal space, room scale performance and teleportation through the world they have created has already raised the bar of the entire industry.
CC: What will drive the VR industry over the next twelve months?
Floyd: With entertainment and gaming already being served in VR, I think the work being done on the Firstline Workers and Educational fronts will really be the second huge wave of VR. Training people, allowing them to meet up and learn things in VR will be transformational things over the next year.
Catherine Quinton is a staff writer for www.gamesauce.org. Catherine loves her hobby farm, long walks in the country and reading great novels.