Dave Campbell has been animating at Media Molecule for a while now - but even after all this time it's still fair to say that for him, no two days are ever the same. Here, we chat to Dave about what he does at Mm, how he got into animation, and the similarities between animating a walk cycle and modelling a catwalk show.
Hi Dave! What do you do here at Media Molecule?
So at Mm I'm a senior animator, which involves creating characters, animation rigs, animating effects and using that logic system to drive any and all manner of movements. That's before cinematics, character based animations, even drawing and using the the painting tools. Anything that falls under the animation umbrella is something I'm very hands-on with.
So how did you get into animation? Was it something that you had been doing for a long time, or something that you decided would be an interesting career path?
I think it's something I've always been interested in, and I went to a careers fair where they advised that Wales - where I'm from - was a good place to be to study animation. It was a good place to be, as at the time we had two of the best courses in Wales. So I thought "I'll apply to that", and off the back of that I was very interested in getting into animation in films. But I quickly found that I could have a greater level of freedom animating in games, so I thought "I'll give that a try and see how that goes". I got a job - my first foot in the door came from a games careers fair where I shot my CV and my portfolio around. And yeah, I got my first job from there and I found that after a year of working in games, I was just having way too much fun to bother trying to break into the film industry. I thought to myself, "This is going well. I like this". And yeah, I've been animating games ever since.
Is animating games in Dreams different to animating other games in other engines that you've used?
Yeah, massively. One thing, and this is really cool as far as animation is concerned, is that we get realtime feedback every time. You can animate to a certain framerate in other applications. But the thing with that is that you usually have to compile them into an engine and then run an engine with everything else in at the same time, whereas in Dreams you're actively animating in that engine itself. So as soon as you press play you can see the timing of your animation playing alongside all your other aspects, alongside the music, and then alongside the physics and everything else that drives the game. So the feedback is more immediate in Dreams, absolutely.
What was the driving force that made you consider a career in animation?
I've always been interested in videogames and I've always loved movies and I think in life not really knowing what you wanted to do, going through school and things... I knew what I liked, and I wanted a career doing that sort of thing. And one of the lessons I was taught about animation was that it is effectively acting. It is, in effect, making movies, except you're on the other side of the camera - virtually, so to speak. So by animating, I'm projecting a performance through a character, or writing a story in these movies through the means of animation. That really interested me, the idea of telling stories in that medium. And that's what made me really want to just explore that avenue further and see what was out there, whether that be stop-motion animation, whether that be hand drawn, whether that be CGI, which is personally where I felt it rung a bit more true to me.
Nowadays there's a tonne of courses and ways you can learn about not just animation, but making games and making movies as well. Was there anything like that when you were looking to start to get into this field?
Not so much making games, but there were tools to learn how to animate. I think what benefitted me from learning it at university was that it pointed you to some specific applications to get started with. And that was really helpful to me, not just to think "Oh, I wanna do animation". There's this massive pool of learning resources which makes it hard to focus on any one area because you feel you might be wasting your time. So it was good to have someone to say, "This is the road we're gonna take to learn what you need to learn".
And that's something that I found a bit nostalgic with Dreams: it's an immensely good learning tool for animation. It has all these basic principles and tools there in the software, and it presents it in an easy-to-manage or an easy-to-digest form. And that allows any prospective animators to, one, either keep using Dreams to achieve what they want - or two, to apply what they learn in Dreams to to the wider breadth of virtual entertainment. So it's really, really useful in that respect. And I'm grateful to be able to help share that and instil a feeling of - when people, if they're thinking "What do I need to learn if I wanna make CGI animation?" - here, start with this. It's good to be able to help guide in that sort of way.
It seems like you kind of jumped into our next question, which is: what advice would you give to anyone that's looking to get into videogame animation?
Having a great showreel is key to that. But when you do put that reel together, be mindful of what you want from it and be mindful of what you want people to feel when they see it. I've seen a whole bunch of showreels of varying levels of quality. Yes, you have to make your reel as amazing as it can be visually, but there's only one you that can make your reel as unique as you can. A lot of what sticks out to me isn't necessarily the animations that you see - whether that be walks, runs or interactions - it's these little infusions of the person making those animations. And you see it in the work. I saw one showreel, for example, about someone animating takedowns of dinosaurs and that told me a lot about the person making it. I've seen other showreels which are pretty basic in comparison or just have your standard walking cycles and things, which are great to have, but animation to me is an opportunity to express yourself and that's exciting to see how people express themselves in a very, very highly polished showreel.
So, it's just as much about showing off your personality through the animation you're interested in, as well as showing off your talent for animation itself?
I think so. Yeah. I'd be wary in some parts. I mean, choosing, let's say, the biggest music track of the summer as the backing track to your animation is probably gonna make people think "Oh, I like that song", rather than "I should be looking at this work", so you need to choose a piece of music that fits in with your work. You want something that benefits what's being seen, rather than something that benefits what you're listening to, because it's all about what's being presented visually. It's about finding any way that a person can express themselves and show their journey as an animator.
I'm proud of my showreel personally, even though I know it's far from perfect, because it's the journey of where I've come from studying animation in Wales and from figuring out what I can do in CG and apply that all the way up to now, including examples of my animations in Dreams. So it shows a breadth of what you've done to reach where you are, and it's the story that no one else except that animator can tell. That's what makes it unique. So yeah, lean into your experiences and push it like crazy and have fun doing it.
Okay, now we're curious. What's in your animation reel from pre-Media Molecule times?
I believe one of my first animations was a standard walking animation of a character just walking on the spot to showcase the principles of weights and character in a regular walk. But I was doing extra things like having a character raise an eyebrow and look off to the side to give a little wink. Then they'd look back, carry on walking and just do something a little different. It was an okay walk cycle - this was from just before I graduated from uni. I had another animation of someone pitching a baseball and someone else swinging the bat and hitting the baseball into the other person's head, then falling down.
Those are very early examples, and I would cap it off at the end by taking an audio clip from a movie I liked and animating to that to showcase acting. Which if I look back now... I think hmmm, what could I have done differently? But it was great at the time to include in my reel. Gradually over time, these are examples that I've since taken out of my reel to replace with some things that I'm more proud of: examples of animations from games I've worked on, examples of things that I've made while being at Media Molecule making Dreams. It's an iterative process, a lot like like the people behind the animation. But it's a fun thing to look back on, see where you're at.
Definitely. That example you gave of those kind of walking animation sounds a little bit like a character going down a catwalk or something, posing every now and then.
Absolutely, yeah! Someone who's into fashion might want to stop the character walking and just strike a little pose, and then it turns and it's cool. It shows the walking cycle, which is something that we like to see in animation when people apply for a role. But it also shows a little bit of acting and a little bit of character study, which also helps show off your abilities.
Mm staff seem to have a lot of interesting items on their desks. What's on your desk at the moment?
I feel like I should apologise a little bit because we are in between studios at the moment, so I don't have as much on my desk as I would like, but I have two plants on my desk. I currently have, like, a fern which is growing alongside the monitor - and I have no idea what this other one is. I think it's a South African plant, which I own because you only have to water them once a week, if that, as they tend to look after themselves. I'm not the best horticulturalist, so if I'm getting a plant on my table, it's preferably one that can look after itself. So yeah, just a couple of plants there to give a natural sort of feeling to my surroundings.
Definitely agree with you there. We've probably killed more plants than we've successfully grown. So to wrap up, what are your favourite Dreams, and are there any that you'd like to recommend?
There's a vast catalogue of stuff I've seen from browsing the Dreamiverse but the ones that tend to jump out to me are the animations by byvsen. So pretty much anything involving Bo and Green Guy because I do like a good character and those are two really good characters that they can just base entire short films around. The fact that they made a series of animations based on those two characters was pretty incredible. What starts off as a short animated song snowballs into a full blown series of animations, which is hugely impressive.
Oh, and Noguchi's Bell is very, very cool - it seems to be the the closest thing we've had yet to a full-blown animated series in Dreams. The level of production value that happens in those episodes is kinda mind-blowing, and they're really well realised.
The top dream that I would recommend is anything involving the thumbs (Dancing Thumbs, Thumbs Train, Thumb's Song etc by arseny3d). I think if you search for 'thumbs' in the Dreamiverse you'll probably come up with the shorts, but they're essentially short character studies from one camera angle that the player can control loosely with their controller, and the range of emotions that they get out of what's essentially a thumb with two eyes attached to it is great. It reminds me a lot of, say, Creature Comforts, or something that Aardman would have made in their heyday and it has a very handmade feel to it as well. It's also using the puppetry effects that are very unique to Dreams.
I think when I look at animations in Dreams, what appeals to me is stuff that can be done in the software that can't necessarily be done anywhere else. And these little puppety thumb characters with eyes, it's like, yeah - that's good stuff that can only be done in Dreams. It's not something you would wanna see in your literal dreams, but on a screen in the software it looks like a million bucks. And like many things in Dreams, after you've seen it you're like, "What did I just watch?!"
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