A Senior Cinematic Animator Sani Spectra has told us about her becoming an Animator, talked about the Nexus feature in Far Cry 6 she worked on, and explained how she became a mentor at CG Spectrum.
Hi, I am Sani Spectra, Senior Cinematic Animator. I studied fine arts, 3D animation, and visual effects at the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. I worked for Pixar, Sony Playstation, and Naughty Dog’s AAA game, Uncharted Thief's End. I worked at Digital Domain on a VR game and currently, I am at Ubisoft and just shipped the much-awaited AAA game Far Cry 6.
Getting into Animation
I come from an art family and have abstract art as my background. As a kid, I was always into Disney and Pixar movies. I watched them over and over, plus the making of and the art behind them. I love the craftsmanship behind each movie. I watched the making of Lilo and Stitch, Lord of the Rings, and even Finding Nemo several times. I love the way each artist puts lots of work into making these incredible movies and bringing them to life.
My first gig right after graduating from university was a Pixar Internship. It was an amazing experience. I wouldn’t have asked for anything better than that. I learned a lot about animation and was lucky and blessed enough to be able to sit in the same room with another animator to see Pete Doctor giving notes to animators on Inside Out shots.
My biggest inspiration for game cinematics would be the Last of Us. I love everything about that game from the storytelling point to the gameplay mechanics.
I would say the most challenging project which helped me get to the next level and was a huge turning point in my career was Uncharted 4: Thief's End. Mainly because I was coming from a keyframe background and transitioned into game cinematics and mocap animation. Uncharted 4 helped me a lot to understand cinematics and the craft behind it. I loved it to the point that I have stayed in games ever since and not looked back.
Joining CG Spectrum
I knew about CG Spectrum already, and they reached out to me to become a mentor. I started off with one 3D animation class. I knew this school had high potential in shaping new talent for the industry. What makes them the right match for me is the fact that we both are dedicated to making animation more accessible and clear to everyone around the world, and having industry experts critique shots and share their knowledge.
It is hard to find a good school, and I wish I had one like this when I was a student. So right now I am even more dedicated to mentoring my students and teaching them everything I wish I had been taught. Motivating them at the end of each term is what I make it a point to do. I don’t want my students to have the same reel as every other student. So I try my best to motivate them to prepare for the industry standards. Teaching is rewarding for me. I really take each student seriously no matter what level they are in.
Examples of 3D animation work by Spectra's CG Spectrum students: Paulius Dambrauskas (Ritual of Tremors), Kirsty Graham (Dog Box), and Thomas Butler (Walk Cycle).
Advice for Beginners
The core things a beginner should focus on when getting started with animation are observation and creativity. Think outside of the box. Observe your surroundings and draw inspiration. Aspiring artists tend to underestimate the power of observation. The more you observe the more authentic the choices and you get the audience connected to the character in the game or film.
Tips to help beginners learn the fundamentals: develop strong observation skills and understand the motion rather than blindly animate for the sake of animating. You want the character to feel right. This is achieved by having the body mechanics and the weight nailed through technique and observation. Always shoot references and collect tons of references that support your shot. Having strong planning and understanding of where the character is coming from and being clear on the purpose of the shot is important. Use scripts to make your workflow faster as well. Make sure you learn basic gesture drawings. Gesture drawing is a great tool for animators especially; in a very short period of time, you’ll develop an eye for strong posing and line of action.
What are Companies Looking For?
I would say companies are looking for people with creative ideas and a good work ethic. Skillset can be taught but creativity is something that is not taught. You develop it over time the more you think outside of the box and have more authentic ideas. It's all about the choices. When I was hired at Pixar I was hired because I had amazing polished shots. It's about the acting choices and the creative ideas I had. I am sure a lot of companies are looking for creative content rather than mere skill sets. When it comes to the game industry it is best to have a blend of artistic and technical skillset.
The next thing companies look for is the ability to learn new things and challenge yourself, which in the end can be beneficial for the company.
To stand out with your reel and personality, the best practice would be to make sure that your reel doesn’t look like every other reel online. This means trying to modify the characters and adding some clothing, tweaking the blendshapes of the face, and trying to create a new character out of an existing character. When you are doing a basic walk cycle, always think about the personality of the character, where they are coming from, and why they are walking. The purpose of the walk is more than just walking for the sake of the walk cycle.
Working on Far Cry 6
My experience on Far Cry 6 has been amazing. I worked on a feature called Nexus. It is the interaction mode. Lots of acting and character study and facial animation. When the player reaches the mission givers, they go into a special feature called “Nexus” – that’s the feature I worked on. I was on the mocap shoots, taking the mocap data and selecting the right movements and acting choices for the mission givers, and enhancing and adding in the new nuances to the animations. We have to study the character and know exactly what the mission is about in order to make the right choice with the acting and animation. I sat with the mission writers and story team to understand the character.
The most challenging part was setting up the mocap shoot and planning things out. The actors are being paid so you want to optimize the time you have with them. So good planning and knowing exactly what you want from the actors and from the shoot is very important. Other than that, it was so much fun to be on the shoot and then work on these amazing characters and integrate them back into the engine and see what you have crafted.
Ubisoft has always tried to implement an efficient way to work with the mocap data. They have introduced procedural animation with their earlier games and we are still having a blend of the traditional approach. I think game animation is heading in a direction where the possibilities are unlimited. The stuff Unreal Engine and Unity are showcasing is incredible.
You might have already heard this saying that the more mistakes you make, the more you learn. I think that is true. It’s not the mistake you focus on, it’s the experience and that you at least gave it a try, and in the process, you took something away and learned a lot more from it. If you never tried and never failed, there is no scope for growth. So it is important to cultivate a mindset to always try and learn things and make mistakes, and look at your failures as a stepping stone to success and something much more valuable.
From my experience, I have made tons of mistakes and I learned a lot from them. This applies even in your day-to-day life, like how you plan things, and sometimes they don’t go as planned. How can you see things in a more positive way and turn the situation into an advantage?
The industry is rapidly growing and you have to keep learning and keep up with the technology. The biggest advice I can give beginners is to always be hungry to learn and never stop their creative growth. Sometimes people get lazy once they get into a comfortable job and they lose motivation. They stop trying things and stop making mistakes because they are comfortable and don’t want to risk them.