Barbara Bernad is a veteran animator who has been creating games since 1999. Starting as an intern, she eventually worked her way up to Lead Animator. Barbara was Lead Animator on IO Interactive’s Hitman video game series and was also a voice actress on both Hitman: Contracts and Hitman: Blood Money. Recently, Barbara has branched out as a producer on game trailers. As a freelance game developer she tends toward jobs that require story development, product development, and storyboarding.
Recently, the Art Career Project contacted her in order to share her experiences in the business and to impart some wisdom to the budding animator:
Barbara, what inspired you to pursue a career in video game development and in 3D animation in particular?
Originally I set out to be a fine artist. You know, with the big ‘A.’ My high school was a specialty art learning institution. In addition to the normal high school education every week, I also had one full day dedicated to drawing only and other related creative classes, so I had to go to school on every Saturday for 4 years just to keep up with ‘normal’ school work. Then I went to university and I mostly concentrated on photography and illustration. In the 5th year of my education I went to study in another country as an exchange student. There I enrolled in a 3D course and it just blew me away. After years of ‘still’ images, I could make my pictures move! After getting my M.A., I went back for one more year of school to concentrate more on animation, and this is when I realized to what I wanted to devote my professional life. My origin is European and, at that point over there, if you wanted to do 3D animation, you ended up working for ad agencies making jumping toothpaste tubes and stuff like that –or you could join this new thing called game development. I had some friends who made a prototype for a sci-fi game in school, and I thought that was pretty cool. I was inspired by the way in which we were using our imagination in a totally new way. I was lucky to get an intern position with an up-and-coming game studio in 1999, and I haven’t really looked back since.
Please describe the many aspects of your work and, in particular, the process of 3D animation.
In games, we have really two kinds of animation: The game play animation and the cut-scene animation. Game play animations are short and mostly looping animations that the game engine will choose through game logic (Correspondent note: Game Logic refers to a process used to highlight and correct absurd plot lines, mechanics, and glitches that are found in video games). These play one after one another. For example, there would be a run-start animation (one that doesn’t loop), then a run cycle, then a run stop, then an idle animation, then maybe a talk animation, then a walk start, then a climb up wall, and so on. This will look like one continuous movement but is made of short chunks.
Then there are the cut-scenes, which are for all practical purposes just normal animated movies. But no matter which one I have to make, I usually do some research, see how certain things and their movements look in reality, or I may simply stand in front of the mirror and act it out. There are times in which I may video record myself in order to see the mechanics of movements.
In game development we do these two animation types in parallel. Mostly we start with the short ones and keep on doing them and refining them throughout production. The cut-scenes we start later, when the story and dialog is written and storyboarded and all is ready to be animated. We tend to be perfectionists and will continue to work on them until somebody takes it forcefully away from us at the end of the production. At this point, we also have to think of camera animations and, depending on the size of your studio, the visual FX and anything else that moves like vehicles, objects and, of course, the faces of our characters.
Game animation departments are not as compartmentalized as film animation. We often have to deal with scripts, dialogs, voice recordings, and the people who design all the sounds for the cut-scenes.
As most of our readers aspire to success such as yours, please be so kind as to detail the education and early pertinent experience you received to prepare you for this career.
From 1990-1994 I attended the Secondary School of Visual Arts, Hungary. This was a 4-year long education where I studied drawing, typography, illustration, and photography as my specialty beside the usual curriculum of a high school. Photography became very important later on as it helped me to create better animation camera rigs and aided me in my composition and lighting work.
From 1994-1999 I studied at Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design in Hungary. The university allowed me to grow exponentially as an artist. I met with people, both teachers and students, who became instrumental in my development. I also have to mention how important it is to study art history. I learned so much just by looking and analyzing what other people have done before me.
I next attended the Danish School of Design from 1998-2000. It was in Denmark that I started to concentrate on 3D animation. Coming from a more classical art university, I enjoyed the freedom of exploration, but I still believe that having a good foundation in fine art (drawing, composition, light-study, sculpting) was the key for me to be able to actually enjoy this freedom.
Please elaborate about the period in which you labored as an intern and how you, if applicable, worked in areas outside of your area of design to sustain yourself as you worked your way up.
For the first six months of my carrier I worked as a non-paid intern. Then for another six months I earned about 1/3 of the salary of my co-workers. I was the only woman and the only foreigner…
Also, in one of the game companies I worked for, I ended up building levels, setting up sound and scripted events, which while being technically a part of development, was way out of my expertise. Sometimes we have to take on extra responsibilities and get out of our comfort zone.
Speaking of “comfort zone,” would you please address your experience as a woman in this industry? In your experience are there many (or any) women who work alongside you in this profession?
I think during the last couple of years the amount of women working in this industry has grown exponentially, yet it is still a curiously low number. It has all sorts of reasons, non-family friendly long hours, the ‘geeky’ male-oriented atmosphere, and a generally, non-supportive environment.
But for years I was alone and now there is at least good 10% women at most companies I have worked for. I find that very encouraging, and it is great working with the girls. They do have different perspectives on things, and that can be very helpful. In my opinion, we are also better at multitasking if things get messy close to the finish.
Without delving into gender issues, game development is a male dominated industry. You need a little thicker skin to get by without getting upset too much. I won’t lie, it is not always easy. Mostly, it is just like any other place where creative people are trying hard to work together, but sometimes it becomes like a frat-party. There will always be ‘funny’ people who need to comment on skin color, nationality, religion, or one’s gender, though most of one’s colleagues are going to be sensible human beings with a little extra flair for cat pictures, action figures, and comic character babes with big boobs, LOL.
What are some of your favorite or, perhaps, most noteworthy projects?
I have worked on the whole Hitman franchise, which was the project where I kind of grew up as an animator. Probably the second installment was the most memorable for me; it was the first time I was trusted with cut-scenes of my own without supervision. Still, I would not be interested in seeing them right now; they must be terrible looking animations by today’s standards. But it is okay to look back and say that I could do it much better now; that I grew as an artist and became a better animator.
We understand that you now live and work in Singapore. Why there?
Most of us, working with games, move a lot. Especially since the whole industry has become fairly unstable with people losing their jobs more often. Basically, you just go where the next project takes you.
So Singapore is where I am right now and this is my 6th country. Though, this time we moved here because my husband got a job, at Ubisoft Singapore as a VFX artist.
Any additional tips for the aspiring animator or game designer?
I would have very different tips for animators and game designers. So I’ll stick with animators.
Animation is a difficult genre. Especially in the beginning; it can be rather frustrating –you have to train your mind and hand at the same time. In games where we have realistic animation, often the best you can expect is that nobody notices your animation. It means that it looked believable enough so nobody gave it a second thought.
Go out and look at people on the street, the way they walk and talk, the way they move their hands. Go to places where people go jogging. Look at how the proportion of their body affects their movements. Go to the zoo or any other places where you can see animals. Pay attention; make sketches, watch videos, practice, practice, and practice some more.
And last, find a couple of people you can trust. You will need a second set of eyes to look at your animations.
What do you see as the future of the gaming industry and in entertainment generally?
If I could even guess the future, I would see it as being like waves, ebbing and flowing. Like how all the big companies fell apart after 2008, and developers went indie to work on games with a smaller scope and budget. Some of them became really successful creating a new generation of game companies. However, now the big ones also realized there is money in mobile games, and they are slowly taking over. There will be an eventual downfall again as the market becomes over-saturated. People now expect games to be free, which puts us into a difficult situation as bread and milk is not free. But people will need entertainment, and hopefully the economy will get better and people will be able to afford to pay for games again.
I also believe that on the artistic side of things games will reach and, probably on occasion, surpass movies. Of course, while there are technical similarities between the two genres, they are not the same. The linearity of movies are making them more readily available, and from a pure story point of view, are easier to make. But even now, no big budget movie is made without the extensive use of computer graphics, which is how we always made games.
What are your plans for the future?
This is a difficult one. I think I would like to have my own company, even if it is a little one, and work on smaller projects but with more creative freedom.
Any other thoughts that might help a person along this kind of career path?
During university I had a spell when my drawings were just not good enough. I felt like I wasn’t developing fast enough. I couldn’t pay attention. I was falling apart, and I thought I would never be a good artist –or any artist for that matter. I was impatient. Upon complaining to my drawing teacher he said: ‘I am not a better artist than you. I just have 30+ years more experience, and you cannot hurry time. So be patient, you will get there!’
Your Correspondent’s final thoughts:
As Barbara so well explains, if you have a burning desire to be an animator, then like any artist, it is absolutely essential to have an education and to always practice your art. If you are not obsessively drawing and creating, then perhaps this might not be the career journey you should embark upon. And keep in mind that a budding artist in this industry must be prepared for internships, most likely unpaid, and long hours devoted to the craft. In conclusion, your correspondent believes that any goal you might have is attainable if you have a keen eye, a skilled hand, a proper education, and the willingness to never give up.