Game Animation mentor and Telltale Games animator Shahbaaz Shah has done it all! He’s worked on film, visual effects, commercials, and games—so naturally we sat down to ask him about all of those experiences and what makes game animation his favorite! Learn more about the industry and about what makes game animation the bee’s knees.
Animation Mentor: Tell us a little about yourself and your journey – what inspired you to become an animator?
Shahbaaz Shah: When I was a kid I was a huge 80s action movie junkie and a gamer back when the Commodore 64 was still legit. When I got out of high school I had some experience in graphic design but I wanted to pursue acting. That idea lasted only a few months before I realized I needed to seek out a more stable career path. That summer I watched Shrek and the Final Fantasy movie, and I realized that somehow I hadn’t considered that creating animation was an actual job. It seemed like a mix between my interests in art, acting, and video games.
AM: You’ve worked in film, visual effects, commercials, and video games. Woah. Tell us a little bit about how animating for video games is different and what made you gravitate toward games.
Shahbaaz: I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience so many different facets of animation. There’s a great and at-first unseen bonus to working in games as an animator, which is the element of interactivity. I really enjoy the concept and the experience of creating animation and testing it in a game engine. I realized that this interactivity gave a new perspective to the art of animation, not only how we react to it, but how we interact with it. I was immediately hooked.
Designing interactive experiences with animation quickly became a very rewarding creative experience. Telltale has been a great place for me to contribute my diverse experience and pull from the different styles of animation I’ve worked on in the past which has made my experience in games even more grand.
AM: What’s your favorite thing about working at Telltale Games? What’s your favorite character that you’ve worked on?
Shahbaaz: My favorite thing about Telltale would without a doubt be their talented and hardworking employees. I feel challenged and inspired every day to learn and improve on my craft.
Continuing to study all areas of animation and understanding how games are being made today helps gain more confidence in your decisions and abilities.
The other answer to that question would be the style of the gameplay Telltale is known for. My favorite games of all time would have to be The Secret of Monkey Island as well as Maniac Mansion. I grew up playing the classic point-and-click adventures, and it is very humbling to work for some of the same people who worked on these titles. Working for a company that is delivering great interactive storytelling and keeping the spirit of those games alive is a childhood dream come true.
Another childhood dream come true was getting to animate Batman for Batman: The Telltale Series. I would say he has been my favorite character to animate so far. Even though it was very challenging and a ton of work, if at the end of the day your biggest complaint was being burnt out on animating bat punches and bat kicks, it seems like a pretty cool “problem” to have with your job.
AM: What advice do you have for students looking to get into the video game industry? Is there a specific set of skills/mindset they should work toward?
Shahbaaz: The advice I have for students when it comes to skills would be to study, practice, and challenge themselves with body mechanics. Fortunately there are so many resources and reference available to students to today to dive deep into gaining better body mechanics skills. Also being active yourself is a great way to be more proficient in your work.
I enjoy the experience of creating animation and testing it in a game engine. I realized that this interactivity gave a new perspective to the art of animation, not only how we react to it, but how we interact with it.
In the games industry it can be very difficult to navigate your career as an animator if your body mechanics are weak. Cycles are important to learn and practice and your best ones should certainly be showcased on your reel. These are easy to create quickly. The key is to think about making them stand out and paying attention to the physicality of the character as well as accurate body mechanics. Aside from cycles, however, body mechanics can be worked on through a number of cinematic type tests where a character is traversing or interacting with an environment, a prop, or another character. Finding challenging actions that create animations that impress from not only a body mechanics perspective but also from a creative perspective can set your reel apart from others.
The other part of this advice would be to truly be a gamer. Even as animators we are in the business of gameplay and interactivity, and being knowledgeable about your industry and enjoying its products can greatly improve the enjoyment of your career in this industry. We work hard and we play hard.
AM: If there’s one animation tip or technique you’d share with someone wanting to animate for video games, what would it be?
Shahbaaz: There are a great number of tips and techniques I could recommend that could help the aspiring game animator. (The Animation Mentor workshops are full of them! ;)) However if I would try to answer this with a single tip at this moment, it would be to just simply learn to animate quickly without compromising quality, principles, or mechanics. Each person has different ways of speeding up their workflow whether it’s working in a mix between step key and straight ahead, pose libraries, and third parties plugins and tools, or custom hot keys. These are all great ways to improve on your speed, but I would also encourage animators to constantly work on their craft. Continuing to practice and study all areas of animation as well as studying and understanding how games are being made today helps gain more confidence in your decisions and abilities.
One of the great things about our workshops is the opportunity to experience and experiment with the process of animating and interacting with your animations in a game engine. This is another level of experience and knowledge that will greatly benefit you in your aspirations. Working hard and keeping your passion for not only animation but for games is a great way to keep pushing towards creating a rewarding career in this exciting industry.
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