Woohoo! This is the second post in our series about the wide world of career paths for animators! Sometimes in this industry it seems like feature film is the holy grail, but we have so many mentors and alumni who’ve found great success beyond film. In this series, we’re sharing some of their stories.
Here at Animation Mentor, we are LOVING Guerrilla Games’ Horizon Zero Dawn. It’s fun. It’s unique. It’s gorgeous, and it’s extremely well-animated. We’re so excited that one of our own alumni, Niek Neervens from the Netherlands, was an animator for our favorite character, Aloy! Read on to learn more about Niek’s journey and what it’s like to be a game animator. Oh, and be SURE to check out Niek’s reel from the game!
-The Animation Mentor Crew
Animation Mentor: Did you always want to be a video game animator? Tell us a little bit about your journey from Animation Mentor to Guerrilla Games.
Niek Neervens: Nope, and for a long time I didn’t know what I wanted as a profession. I didn’t even realize that being an animator or a game developer was something you could do as a job.
Before I started Animation Mentor I attended four different schools and never made it past year one, spent six months in a Chinese monastery practicing Kung Fu, and sold tents and other outdoor equipment for another three years.
Looking back I do realize that my love for movies, video games, and drawing were a constant presence in my life. I guess I just had to walk down a few different paths before I finally chose to pursue the things that I loved and made the decision to be an animator. And when I did, I just felt this was the right thing for me, and I haven’t regretted this decision a single day of my life.
So after 18 months of working my ass off and trying to soak up as much information as I could at AM, I was lucky enough to get hired at a VFX studio in Amsterdam. I mainly worked on TV promos, a Dutch movie, and some short informative movies for a museum. Even though I really enjoyed working at this studio, I still knew this wasn’t my dream job, and I had to look for other job opportunities.
What I love in video games is that you can interact with your animations, move your character around, and feel the impact of your spear when you take a swing at an enemy. It’s awesome.
During my courses at AM I got in contact with some Dutch students who were working at Guerrilla Games, and every two months in the course of a year I asked the guys at Guerrilla if there was a job opening. One day he finally said yes! After a successful interview I was hired to start working on Killzone Shadowfall. Four years later I’m still here and can honestly say I haven’t had a single day where I didn’t feel like going to work.
AM: As an animator, what compels you about video games vs. other mediums like feature film or TV?
Niek: I don’t have that much experience in big TV or film productions so I can’t really make a fair comparison.
But what I love in video games is that you can interact with your animations, move your character around, and feel the impact of your spear when you take a swing at an enemy. You can really feel your timing and spacing! It’s awesome 🙂
Four years later I’m still here and can honestly say I haven’t had a single day where I didn’t feel like going to work.
AM: What kinds of projects were you working on at Shosho before Guerrilla Games. Was it a big shift going to video game animation?
Niek: I’ve worked on TV promos and some short informative animations for a museum. The budget was usually tight so we had to work efficiently, and I learned to be quick and get animations approved with the least amount of work, so iterating on your animation wasn’t as big of a deal since you didn’t spend too much time on them yet. By working this way you had more time for a polish pass.
This workflow still helps me at Guerrilla. You get your animations in game as quickly as possible so designers and other people can play with it, test it, and give feedback. Because the animations are still unpolished I can make changes pretty easy, and luckily Guerrilla cares a lot about the animation quality. We get a lot of polish time to make our animations look awesome!
The things that really differ between VFX and games to me is the way you look at your animations. In a video game most of the time the player can orbit the main character 360 degrees so your animations have to look good from all angles. Also, with gameplay you always have to keep in mind that your animations start from a certain pose and end in a certain pose so you don’t get weird glitches during gameplay because your animations don’t match.
One other thing is that a player expects responsiveness, so you have to get creative if you want big anticipations and long settles at the end of your animation.
AM: What was your favorite part about working on Horizon Zero Dawn? What was the greatest challenge in animating Aloy and what did you learn?
Niek: My favorite part was that the whole studio really worked as a team. Right from the start you felt that people had so much love for this project!
The biggest challenge when animating Aloy was finding the balance between movements based on realism vs. some traversal aspects that would be pretty hard to do in the real world. I mean, she tackles robots, jumps huge gaps, and rappels 30 meters down a rope facing the camera. So, getting that to feel real was pretty challenging.
But in the end, by combining motion capture and hand-keyed animation for the more extreme moves, I think we can be pretty happy with the end result!
AM: Is it fun to play the games you’ve worked on, or do you just find yourself thinking too much about all the behind-the-scenes stuff?
Niek: To be honest, this is the first game I’ve actually played after working on it. During production we were pretty focused on getting the in-game animation to feel good, and we didn’t have time to see everything that other departments were working on. So when the game was released, playing around and discovering all those things that so many people poured their heart and soul into was really fun and inspiring!
AM: How did Animation Mentor help prepare you for your career?
Niek: It helped me to get a good understanding of the basics. I learned that asking for feedback is the best thing you can do. But mostly it taught me that if you really want a career as an animator you have to work your ass off 🙂
AM: What advice do you have for students interested in going into video game animation?
Niek: I still remember what my mentor said in class 1, and it’s such a great piece of advice that still sticks with me today: “Your competitors are not your fellow students, but are those who are already working professionally.” That made me understand the level of quality you have to attain if you want to get a job in this industry. That and a little bit of luck 😉
I had to walk down a few different paths before I chose to pursue the things I loved and made the decision to be an animator. And I haven’t regretted it a single day of my life.
Also, stay inspired and always keep your animator’s eye open! You never know when you might see something that inspires you: a small gesture that someone makes when picking up a cup of coffee can be enough to get your animation senses tingling.
Be sure to check out our first post in the series:
Animation Career Paths: Creating Legend Quest, the First Aimated Netflix Series from Latin America
And these other great posts:
Are You Meant to Be a Game Animator?
How I Got My Dream Job: A Q&A with Alumnus and Framestore Animator Usman Olomu
Want to learn from professional game animators?