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SporeDay: Interview with artists Kate Compton and John Cimino – Answers

Posted by ballightning on August 5, 2009

MaxisCactus has posted the answers from the Interview with Kate Compton and John Cimino, enjoy!

Thanks for submitting and voting on your top questions! John and Kate sat down to share their thoughts on the questions you came up with. Read their answers below.

Q: What was your motivation for working as videogame designers? – Cartoonworks, Irlydontknow, Perryplatypus
John: Well, when I first decided to go to art school to become an animator my motivation was all about storytelling. I had always really enjoyed drawing and I loved the thought of making my own short animated films. After working in the industry for a few years as a more traditional 2-D animator I wanted to make the leap into 3-D. An opportunity came up to work with one of my good friends Bob King who was the art director for the Sims games at the time so I jumped on it. When I started at Maxis I was on the Sims for a few months when the opportunity to work on Spore was presented to me. The team was very small and the game had barely even started, but when Will and Ocean described it to me I was blown away by the scope and ambition. I was especially intrigued by the ability to design my own avatar and have him take over a planet. This game has been so much fun to work on that I’ve been here ever since and I’m very happy that Galactic Adventures has given me the chance to help design something that enables people to create both games and make little short films!

Q: Could you describe a typical day in your job? – CrazyShyness
John: Hmmm, A typical day for me at spore? One of the things I love about working on this game is that my job constantly changes. One day I’ll be animating a creature swinging an axe, the next I’ll be designing icons in flash, and then the next I’ll be creating some concept art or animation for a future project. On especially awesome days my job is to simply to make cool content for the game. Typically though, I come to work, sit at my desk, and churn out animation files. Once I’ve finished one of them I’ll test it on multiple creatures to see how it generalizes, test it in game and then check it into our pipeline to be hooked up. Our office is a pretty fun place to work, on Fridays for instance we all stop work at 4:30, head down to the common area to mingle, eat pizza and play video games. Not a bad gig.

Q: What makes a good Technical Artist? – Rulycar
Kate: A good sense of timing, being able to look at a real-world effect and break it down into its components. Take a look at any explosion (I find youtube is a good source). What color is the smoke? Does it fade from black to white as it rises? Does it throw out flaming shrapnel or just sparks? Is there a fireball and how long does it last. Every type of explosion is different, so if you’re making an exploding oil barrel, it should look different than a grenade explosion. I love going to pyrotechnic festivals like Burning Man or the Oakland fire festival, because I get new ideas every time (next time, more green fire!).

Q: What makes a good Animator? – Rulycar
John: A very good question with no easy answer. I recommend you read “The Illusion of Life” by Disney masters Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas which is probably the greatest book ever written about animation. It says that to become great you need to incorporate the 12 principles of animation. If you can master the 12 principles below and incorporate them into all of your animation you will definitely be very, very, good.

1. Squash and Stretch – the ability to give a sense of weight and flexibility to objects.
2. Anticipation – the ability to prepare the audience for an action, and to make the action appear more realistic.
3. Staging – the ability to direct the audience’s attention, and make it clear what is of greatest importance in a scene; what is happening, and what is about to happen.
4. Straight Ahead Action and Pose to Pose – “Straight ahead action” means drawing out a scene frame by frame from beginning to end, while “pose to pose” involves starting with drawing a few, key frames, and then filling in the intervals later.
5. Follow Through and Overlapping Action – These closely related techniques help render movement more realistic, and give the impression that characters follow the laws of physics. “Follow through” means that separate parts of a body will continue moving after the character has stopped. “Overlapping action” is when a character changes direction, and parts of the body continue in the direction he was previously going.
6. Slow In and Slow Out – The movement of the human body, and most other objects, needs time to accelerate and slow down. For this reason, an animation looks more realistic if it has more frames near the beginning and end of a movement, and fewer in the middle.
7. Arcs – Most human and animal actions occur along an arched trajectory and animation should reproduce these movements for greater realism
8. Secondary Action – Adding secondary actions to the main action gives a scene more life, and can help to support the main action. A person walking can simultaneously swing his arms or keep them in his pockets, he can speak or whistle, or he can express emotions through facial expressions. The important thing about secondary actions is that they emphasize, rather than take attention away from the main action.
9. Timing – in reality refers to two different concepts: physical timing and theatrical timing. It is essential both to the physical realism, as well as to the storytelling of the animation, that the timing is right.
10. Exaggeration – is an effect especially useful for animation, as perfect imitation of reality can look static and dull in cartoons.
11. Solid Drawing – The principle of solid — or good — drawing, really means that the same principles apply to an animator as to an academic artist. The drawer has to understand the basics of anatomy, composition, weight, balance, light and shadow etc.
12. Appeal – in an animated character corresponds to what would be called charisma in an actor. A character who is appealing is not necessarily sympathetic — villains or monsters can also be appealing — the important thing is that the viewer feels the character is real and interesting.

As far as I am concerned the best way to master these principles is to practice, practice, practice. I recommend drawing all the time. Another great way to learn is to film yourself acting out a scene and then watch it frame by frame to see how the motion is broken down.

Q: Do you have any tips for manipulating animations based on body shape / parts positioning in the creature editor? (We already know about the centipede /camel type animations) – GoodGame
John: No, as far as I know there are no other hidden animation quirks like the poly-pod technique. For those of you who don’t know if you have a creature with 7 legs or more you can change its gait by adding and subtracting detail parts. When you do this the characters will choose from one of 5 different walks including the camel and centipede as was mentioned. Whenever I make a creature I tend to try and build something that will animate the smoothest. I find a normal biped creature who is slightly lurched forward with a bit of a hunched back works the best. I also encourage people to make sure that their creature appears well balanced in order to get the most bang for your buck. One way to check this is to look at your creature from the side and try to imagine him holding that pose for an hour. If it looks like he’d be uncomfortable doing so it might be a good idea to readjust his feet so that they are centered under the bulk of the character’s weight.

Q: Do you have any tips for getting more precision out of the shapes in the creature creator? Do you use special scripts/computer accessories when you ‘draw’ into the creator? – GoodGame
Kate: Nope! No special magic! We use the same tools as you guys. I do have one tip that I like to use, especially for humans and equine shapes. When I attach legs, I’ll scroll down the vertebra that they’re attached to until it’s as small as possible. This helps the legs sink into the body, rather than looking pasted on, and it creates a more natural looking hip.

Q: Kate, your creations in the building editor are amazing. I have not figured out how to rotate the base pieces and I believe it would be a lot easier to make props, buildings, and eggplants if I knew how. How do you do this? – cHoKo
Kate: It takes a little bit of effort to work around the system. I have to place a connector block, and then place a base piece on top of it. Then you can rotate the connector block and the base will rotate with it. If you drag the base piece off, it’ll keep its new tilt. Make sure it has the orientation you want before you drag it off: after it’s off the connector piece, you can’t tilt it anymore.

Q: When creating your Adventures, what are the steps and processes that worked best for you to put your storyboards into action? – (Example: Did you create the Acts, Goals and creature AI first, then build the environments around it or environment first
John: When it’s my own adventure that I’m making from scratch I prefer to get the basic story sorted out in my head then flush out the details as I’m building the environment. I find as I’m setting the landscape of the adventure, designing buildings, and creating characters, ideas start to present themselves and influence the story. I try not to get too detailed with all the polish items until I like the game play. That way it’s easier to change everything if need be. Once the adventure is working and fun, I do a polish pass where I add lots of visual effects, shrubbery, waterfalls, sound effects, and music. For the Robot Chicken adventures I was working off of a script so the process was a little different. A level designer would build in all the Acts and AI with very basic placeholder creatures and environments. Once it was working well they’d hand it over to us artists and we’d do an art pass to make everything a bit prettier.

Q: When you made the adventures with the producers of Robot Chicken what were your opinions on their ideas? – Cartoonworks
Kate: I realized that a lot of their humor was about the use of profanity, violence of some sort and puns. We couldn’t let them use profanity, so they doubled down on the other two. After we finished the first version of each adventure, we asked them to give us some more “inspect” text for all of the objects, and they really went crazy with the punning. I love puns, so I was happy. My favorite is the “Apes of Wrath” line at the end of Bloody Sundae.

Q: How exactly was the cube planet made? Do you have a planet editor that’s separate from the adventure editor where one day you made a cube? – 20147024
Kate: The cube planet was made in the original terrain editor which was used for the space planet. It was made like the Earth, moon, and Mars planets, in that I had to make a special cube-map (one big texture), rather than making it out of individual stamps like most of the planets. I had to do a bit of geometry to get the exact right shape.

Q: Would you be supportive of Glass Paints? – E25dusk
Kate: I think it’s a really neat idea and would make some really neat buildings. Unfortunately, it’s just not something that most computers could support in real-time. Graphics cards can render a scene really fast when they can ignore any geometry that’s behind some other part of a scene, like a tree behind a house. If any part of that house can be transparent or translucent, it has to draw the tree as well. That’s an oversimplified answer, but it really does make a difference, and it’s one of the reasons that you see transparency so sparingly used in games. When you’re rendering in Maya or Blender, taking that extra time doesn’t matter, so when you render the Collada exports, you can give them really nice crystalline rendering.

A: Kate, will dungeons of spore EVER actually be released?? Please??? – Picarius
Kate: I keep putting in a few hours here and there on it in my scarce spare time at work. Unfortunately, as with most for-fun projects, it’s really hard to get the dedication (and the week of uninterrupted work-time) to get it to a finished state. I’m glad that I had such a hard original deadline because it gave me something to work towards. So the short answer is no, but the long answer is….maybe, but don’t hold your breath.

Q: Have either of you doodled anything recently? If it’s not related to upcoming Spore-goodness, mind giving us a peek? – kaploy9

On the left are two pages of Kate’s meeting notes. On the right are some cards from a cupcake card game she’s developing just for fun.

Q: When you’re practicing drawing you’re supposed to sketch from real life. Or so I was taught. How do you practice making things move realistically? – Coryn
John: Yes, that is very true, drawing from real life is extremely important in learning how to draw more realistically. When I was in college I would go to life drawing sessions as often as possible and now that I’m in the industry I still try and sketch whenever I can to help polish my skills. One break through I had as a student comes to mind. When you’re trying to draw more realistically try not to think of what your drawing as line but as areas of dark and light. I recommend getting some gray drawing paper and some soft black and white colored pencils. Try and recreate what you see by using the gray of the paper as the mid-tone, adding shadows and highlights with your pencils. Sometimes we add lines to our drawings that are more representative of what we see rather than what is actually there. I found that if you avoid abstract lines and instead softly draw in different patches of light and dark it makes it much easier to create more realistic drawings very quickly. I hope that’s helpful!

Q: What inspired you to invent Clark and Stanley? Were you surprised they became the iconic aliens that they are today? Cimino will you make another Clark and Stanley adventure? – wretlind, Coryn
John: Ah yes, the infamous Clark and Stanley. I must say, I was very surprised and flattered to see how popular they became. It never really crossed my mind that players would try to make their own versions of C and S, but now that I look back it makes sense. Those adventures are super easy to make and can be highly satisfying. What inspired me? Hmmm. If I had to think of one source it would have to be the web series “Happy Tree Friends.” Before I worked at Maxis I spent a few years animating those cuddly animals getting slaughtered on a daily basis. I suppose creating cute characters getting killed now comes naturally to me. The original Clark and Stanley was actually one of a handful of test adventures created to show Robot Chicken the types of things they could do with GA. My producer Kip asked a few of us artists and designers to put together some adventures to pitch to Seth Green and the gang down in LA. I thought it would be cool to show them that you can make funny little short comic strip style adventures that have very little game play. So I started brainstorming and then remembered a few weeks before that I had made a test adventure that had a meteor crashing onto a planet. The effect was somewhat amusing so I decided to implement that into a quick and funny sketch. That’s when I came up with the idea of the “Clark and Stanley Go Stargazing” adventure. Everyone at Maxis seemed to enjoy it so I went ahead and created “Clark and Stanley Go Camping” and “Clark and Stanley Go swimming.” If you’re sick of seeing hundreds of Clark and Stanley adventure clones clogging up the Sporepedia, I apologize! Will I make more? Anything is possible.

Q: Have you seen the “famous” (infamous) creatures of the Sporum? (hug monster, Fibea, Susan, etc.) – Zstar20
John: Haha. Yes, I have seen the hug monster. He has a cute and creepiness that reminds me a lot of the infamous Pedo-bear. I think with Galactic Adventures players will have even more opportunities to make their creatures famous or infamous, as the case may be. The ability to frame a story around your character gives you a great chance to make your creature something people can truly identify with. I look forward to seeing many more creatures who, like Clark and Stanley, get so overexposed people start to hate their guts. 

Q: I’ve seen all of the maxis-made creatures, and I certainly don’t mean this in a way to offend. But how come y’all never make creatures that stand out like a body with glowing heycorns or a massive beast covered completely in knurldowns? – Conswella
Kate: I made most of my creatures right before Creature Creator shipped, and so we didn’t know what the creator was capable of. A lot of the most striking creations are made with techniques that you guys invented. Now, when I make creatures, they’re usually to go in a mission, so I need background creatures that don’t stand out. Sometimes, though, I do use techniques I learned from Sporepedia creations. For example, I made the bill in the How a Bill Becomes a Law adventure out of Shellshards, after the 1950s robot show how to use them to make square shapes.
We also tend not to make creatures or buildings that max out the complexity meter. I think this is due to the training that we get as programmers and artists: more polygons is BAD! BAD! BAD! This gets hammered into us over and over, and at least for me, gives me a vague sense of uneasiness whenever I max out the complexity.

Q: Do you two plan to make more Maxis adventures? – VelociBlade
John: I’m somewhat busy working on my next project at Maxis right now but my producer did mention that they might want me to make some more adventures. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to go back to GA and make a few more. They are so much fun to create!

Kate: I do. I really enjoyed making my series of educational adventures, Protein Synthesis and How a Bill Becomes a Law. I have a few ideas for more, like an adaptation of The Old Man and the Sea, and Plato’s Cave.

Q: Where do you see Spore in 5 years? – Domflame
John: I’m not sure I can answer that completely without giving stuff away. But in five years I would expect Spore to still be taking advantage of the massive amount of player creativity that is out there just waiting to be harnessed. Ambiguous enough for you? 

Interview Details:

Kate Compton is an associate technical artist at Maxis. Some of her contributions to the project include creating the effects in Galactic Adventures, sculpting the core Spore and Galactic Adventures planets (including the cube), and designing the original Spoffit.

She also teamed up with Robot Chicken to help create the Bloody Sundae adventure, and made the Dungeons of Spore April Fool’s game.

Some of her other Adventures include How A Bill Becomes a Law and Protein Synthesis. Her notable creations include the Obama and other US Election 08 Candidates, and the Alex Trebek UFO.

John Cimino is a lead animator at Maxis. He’s was responsible for designing and creating all of the animation for the advanced emotional behaviors in Galactic Adventures. He designed the creature parts for Spore and Creepy and Cute, many of the rigblocks in the Building creator, and many of the Spore objects, such as huts, tools, and found objects.

He also designed the achievement icons and the creator play mode animations.

Some of his adventures include the original Clark and Stanley adventures, Welcome to Dancetopia,Robots vs Dragons, and he contributed on The Meaningless Turtle as well as several Robot Chicken adventures.

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3 Responses to “SporeDay: Interview with artists Kate Compton and John Cimino – Answers”

  1. BoyMac said

    Wow, is that MaxisKate?

  2. […] S&#112or&#101Day: Int&#101rvi&#101w wit&#104 artists Kat&#101 Co&#109&#112ton and Jo&#104n Ci&#109in… […]

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