Animator Chris Morgan on Communication
Chris Morgan is a Lead Animator at Steamroller Studios. They work on a variety of projects, but primarily are known for their video game animations on titles such as Tomb Raider, Dauntless, and the extremely popular Fortnite.
We talked about delegation, growing in a studio environment, portfolio building, and the importance of communication as an artist.
CM: As an animator, I am responsible for creating the motion in film and games. I'm currently Animation Lead on a high profile project involving high-quality animations of various actions, but primarily dances. This project has proved to be both challenging and extremely rewarding!
As a lead, I do a lot of the delegation, making sure that my team is hitting the mark as far as quality and what the client expectations are. I also do the majority of the interactions with our clients. Which brings in a whole slew of new problems as a creative.
Me: Before you got into lead animation, were you on someone else’s team? What do you feel the difference is as you moved up?
CM: When I first started at this studio and at previous studios as well, I was on somebody’s team and their leads told me what to do.
I miss it sometimes because when you are at that level, you do a lot more of the animating!
As a lead, you spend a lot of time making sure that your team is doing what they need to do, making sure their animations are what they need to be, and managing interactions with the client – so I have very little time to handle my own workload, and because of that I delegate a lot of the animating out.
Me: To offset that, when you say you don’t have a lot of time for your own workload, are you working extra hours? Or have you found an outlet in your personal life where you find time to say, “at least I get to work on this project of my very own?”
CM: I do tend to work extra hours, it is just the way the game industry is, unfortunately.
I'm grateful that the studio I work for has a really good balance for that. They focus on the health of everyone at the studio, and they don’t try to work everybody to the bone.
Typically if I am putting in extra hours, it is because it is something I decided to do. Like when I want to get that personal animation time in, I do put in extra hours.
It’s stuff I enjoy doing, and it’s nicer when I am able to put in extra time, because then I am usually there on my own, and I don’t have to worry about my duties as a Lead – it lets me focus on actually animating.
Me: Are you animating characters? Objects? Scenes that are moving? What is your primary focus?
CM: For this particular project it’s mainly characters.
Most of the stuff we do in the studio is either character or creature-based. We’ve done projects that involve vehicles and objects, but primarily it is character and creature-based work.
Me: I’m curious about this because I have talked with various 3D modelers and character artists. What do they need to give you that makes it easier or harder to animate the final characters?
CM: Definitely in regards to character artists, designing characters or creatures or weapons, or anything like that, in a way that fundamentally just works.
I have had to animate countless characters and creatures in the past where they had these big pieces of armor or strange physical characteristics that just don’t allow for proper movement.
In regards to character modeling or modeling in general, to just make sure that edge flow is created in a way that allows Riggers to get the geometry to accurately deform so that we don’t have to fight how things are bending, folding, and moving.
Me: How much back and forth is there once you get a character concept or 3D character? When you begin to animate it, if there are problems do you send it back or do you modify it yourself?
CM: We have had a few projects where we have been able to handle that stuff in-house as well. We worked on a project called Rend that I led, and we did the rigging for that.
The client sent the character models with the textures and we rigged it ourselves. A few of the smaller little tweaks that we needed done for the models we did in-house, but there were times when we had to send them back as well, because there were things that were a little bigger that needed to be adjusted to make it a little easier for us.
There can be quite a bit of back and forth. With most of the projects that we’ve had, we haven’t had a lot of input during the concept phase. When we get it it is usually at that modeling phase or the rigging phase.
So, for the projects that we do the rigging on ourselves, it is a little easier because we can see how that model is and request adjustments if necessary. When the characters are already modeled and rigged for us it gets a little trickier, and sometimes there just isn't the time or budget to go back to the modeling phase.
We often have the opportunity to bring up any issues with the rigs and get those issues tackled. All of these things are also very dependant on how far into development the current project is.
Me: How do you tackle an animation process? Are you thinking about cinematography? Do you draw and layout storyboards? Or do you play around and see what looks cool?
CM: Honestly, it depends on the situation and project.
For my current project, the ideas are pretty much in place, and because it’s a game it’s not like we are animating a scene – it’s more of an action or a dance or something.
So for something like this we go strongly based on reference. Usually, it’s reference we either find on the web or even shoot ourselves.
Everything we do is very heavily referenced. Even the stuff we animate that’s outside of the realm of what’s humanly possible, it’s still heavily based on reference.
For projects where we work on a short, for example, we do lay out some sketches to try and figure out motions.
Me: Where do you feel like you get the biggest amount of creative freedom in these various projects? Is there a phase where you get more of your own thoughts in there, or does it vary by project?
CM: For some projects, we do what the client has in mind. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t able to be creative though.
We take their ideas and push it as far as we can take it, still remaining in what their thought was, but pushing to make it better and be creative in that sense.
I’m grateful for where I work for because the studio is always open to everybody’s input, and we’ve had quite a few projects where a lot of our individual ideas have been able to play out and that’s pretty cool.
There’s been a lot of instances when we throw around ideas and brainstorm together.
Me: So you’d say it’s all about finding the right environment in your work. It’s about finding the right company and company mentality that really allows everyone to thrive.
CM: Oh yeah! Definitely. It’s crucial.
I’ve worked for a few companies and I don’t feel like I’ve ever been in a bad place. I have really enjoyed everywhere I’ve worked, and they’ve all had different vibes to them.
The studio where I am at now is definitely an environment that’s set for creatives to thrive. We are all super supportive of each other, even though yes there is a hierarchy with Animators, Sr. and Lead Animators, etc. – everybody is willing to learn from one another, which I think is awesome.
There is no rivalry or anything like that. I think it’s essential to have an environment like that to creatively thrive.
Me: These questions are for up and coming animators - What would you tell them to look at when considering a studio to work for?
CM: Look at a studio that works on things that you are interested in. You want to be passionate about the projects that you’re working on. Because you don’t want to fall into a trap where yes, you’re animating, but if you are working on something that you’re not really pumped about, it can have a toll on you after a while.
Make sure that you find a studio that has a good environment. Chat with people that you know have worked there or that are working there. Chat them up on Linkedin.
Make sure you introduce yourself when you do that, though, because it’s weird when people chat you up and you have no idea who they are or why they are talking to you.
But do write to them and say, “Hey, I’m so-and-so, and I’m interested in potentially working for your company. I was curious if you like your studio, and what you like about it.” Stuff like that.
The majority of the time, you’ll find that people are pretty receptive to answering questions like those.
Location is important. You’ve got to make sure that you are comfortable with where you might potentially be living.
Me: What do you think someone needs in their portfolio to be picked up by a studio? Particularly if it was Steamroller Studios?
CM: We like to see a wide range of work in portfolios and demo reels. We do a lot of creatures. Having something with quadrupeds is pretty important. Make sure that you have a variety of solid work.
With your demo reels, make sure you put your strongest stuff first because if you start out with weak stuff we might not get through the whole thing.
Me: If you could design a dream project, what would it look like?
CM: That’s hard! Growing up when I was learning how to animate, I saw myself going into film. But the more I’ve worked in video games the more I’ve grown to love it.
I enjoy the interactive quality of games. I think my dream project would be some kind of game, and creature-based for sure because I really love animating creatures! Big hulking creatures, super fun stuff that is really hard to nail as an animator. But once you get it, it feels really nice.
Something that people can enjoy play through with an interesting storyline and immersive animations with an environment that is alive.
Me: Outside of technical skill, what is one skill that an artist needs to engage to succeed in the long-term as a professional?
CM: Communication is super important.
Knowing what to say, knowing how to get your ideas across, knowing how to tell someone that you’re not understanding what they are saying
Communication as a whole is super important if you are planning to progress up the leadership ladder, understand that you will have to talk to clients a lot and you have to be able to learn people and learn how to interact with them and understand them.
Everyone is different so learning how to communicate with a wide variety of people is important.
If your lead is giving you a note, and you don’t understand that note, and you don’t communicate that to them, then it’s just going to be a downward spiral.
So it is important to learn how to have that back and forth throughout your career.
Looking for more? Chris Morgan works for Steamroller Studios - We tell engaging stories through high-end animation. Perhaps you'll be the next to join their team of animators.
The first step of communicating better with anyone is to be in better touch with what you are hearing, taking in, and thinking - before worrying about what you're going to say to someone else.
If you want to up-level your intuitive knowing and connect that with your ability to speak your truth - I've got your back. Learn more here.