Moving Pictures: the Art of Animation in Games

The Panel

  • Sarah Hayward, Lead Cinematic Designer
  • Dan Plunkett, Senior Cinematic Designer

Cinematic design is less about animation, and more about game design. The cinematography, how a character behaves or moves, the pacing of shots, and more all complement and contribute to the organicness of a video game. That's the job of the cinematic designer - to make pixels simulate life.

But while this panel was about the technicalities of creating life through cinematography and animation, it also shed light on the fun of creating the small quirks of animations. Like using a desk for Cullen's romance.

The Team

Not all cinematic designers are animators, and instead, focus more on game design. 80% are cinematics, where they handle all of the cinematography and ways that characters behave or move. In Dragon Age, they're responsible for the war table, as well as the pacing for choice wheels. Cinematic designers have to know the toolset and the engine well, in order to work with streaming and scripting. With scenes that have multiple actors, the question lies in "how do you fill out crowds really quickly?" and replicating NPCs organically. For Dragon Age: Inquisition, the team had 14 cinematic designers and 7 cinematic animators.

Hayward and Plunkett come from different backgrounds. Sarah Hayward previously worked on Mass Effect, and says that from ME2, the process is more seamless despite the cinematic design tools not changing. Dan Plunkett worked previously for Victory Games (Command and Conquer series), and states that while his previous work had to deal with C#, nowadays visual design is greatly different. Having a timeline with characters in a curve editor, where they can just set keys, is much easier and much better.

The Process

"How do you find the right combination of steamy?" Each character is very different from each other, including but not limited to gender/race, and has a special quirk. With the re-addition of multiple races in Inquisition, the spectrum of romances can vary from one version of animation (Elven female with Solas) versus multiple options (every possible race and/or gender with Josephine). 

  1. The writers show up with "this is what happens" to the cinematic designers.
  2. In the office, the cinematic designers block out the scene. It's only a rough idea for the blocking and staging, such as what assets to implement (like Cullen's desk or Bull's necklace). 
  3. The pre-production side may include storyboards, as in drawing the steps of the scenes one-by-one, or posing models in Maya. Boards are usually planned, but sometimes they just jump in for mocap. They consistently ask themselves, "Is this risqué? Not enough?" as they want to make sure the scenes work, but won't "scar anyone for life".
  4. They take the script to the mocap (motion capture) studio. For the romance mocap, it was fortunate that the two hired actors were in a relationship together. Fun fact: there was an Iron Bull hat to replicate the horns. Made sure no animators would show the Inquisitor being be stabbed the wrong way.
  5. Set the lights and the timings for all the scenes.
  6. Get the rough draft and put it in front of the voice actors.

Actualizing Animation

A lot of the best scenes and character beats come from the writer challenging the cinematic designer, and the cinematic designer challenging the writer. In Mass Effect 3's Citadel DLC, the writers told the cinematic team that the tango could not be done. A general "What?" was had, and the scene was done anyway. With enough warning and timing, Hayward says "there's nearly nothing I can't do".

However, budget and technical challenges can be significant hurdles. Inquisition itself had "so many conditional tracks" for the different romances and races involved. Every race and every gender has different variations for movement: kiss, sit, hug, etc. Every key, every line...some of them were individually done. Matter of fact, the game was delayed "literally 8 hours" when finally going on the game disk, because of a Qunari neck-bone that apparently changed so badly, players would kiss right through a Qunari's face. In any case, there is a lot of room for personal creativity, and in evoking emotion and ideas without saying a single word at all.

For animating characters' lipsync in the world, some use a different library of animations. Pose groups. As they are not happening in cutscenes, the timing has to sync with the gameplay. If an animation loops continuously, it looks weird. Lip flap is not hand-animated, but handled by a procedural system to analyze the voice data. The further away from the camera, the less high points in the facial animations. 

Since the development of Jade Empire, tens thousands of animations exist in Bioware's library. A lot goes into memorizing all the naming conventions for all the very generic names. The library has been refreshed consistently over the years due to different rigs and tool upgrades.

From the Q&A

What's it like translating someone's face, like Miranda's? (Original Actor: Yvonne Strahovski)
Back during Mass Effect 2, the technology to track face movements wasn't there. They captured the look by scanning the actor faces, which was a challenge on animation. 


Mass Effect Citadel DLC

Citadel's original idea was Mac Walters's, which was met with internal screaming from the cinematic designers and level designers. (Loved the idea, scared of the execution)

In the cocktail party, the scene where Kasumi was on Jacob's back during the pushup scene was actually from the mocap actors relaxing. The cinematic designers ended up using the scene.

The party itself was difficult to orchestrate, as the conditions of deaths and pose groups were harder to coordinate. What if someone's dead? Or uninvited? The designers had to keep the party feeling organic, even when people were dead or not present.

Favorite Scenes?

Sarah Hayward

  • Leviathan DLC, where Doctor Ann Bryson was possessed was highly collaborative between the cinematic designers and writer.
  • Fenris ripping out Danarius's throat, especially because Mark Meer was gargling Danarius's death. 

Dan Plunkett

  • The Western Approach battle scene (Adamant Fortress), which took 29 shots and lots of iteration.
  • The Empress death, which took 38 shots. Had to be very careful in making sure the game ran within memory constraints.

"Happy Accidents" while making a scene?

Yes, because when being a cinematic designer, a lot goes into playing fast and/or loose with a big work load.

  • Fenris, where he threw a bottle at the wall and smirked back at Hawke. The turn was unplanned, but they kept it in anyway. This particular animation was not the only one while creating DA2 - it was like Fenris had a mind of his own.
  • Grunt's level in Mass Effect 3, while talking to the Rachni queen. When the Krogan heads started talking along? It's technically impossible - the system wasn't supposed to let that happen. The spasming wasn't supposed to happen. The game isn't supposed to have more than one VO talking at a time, and this broke the system anyway.
  • Fear demon - the medium shot with the fear demon flying back during the Templar quest line.

Funny Animation Bugs

  • Characters would do a Hermit dance (think an old-timer Klondike miner).
  • Cullen punches a bookcase, during his personal quest. Things would disappear after the punch.
  • Male Elves would get the Dobby effect, where the eyes go huge and nose comes out.
    Russian dancing - a human's butt would end up 3 inches from the ground.

Out-of-character Animations

  • Solas's walk, after the Inquisition sings "The Dawn Will Come", was 500 times more ridiculous. It looked like he was prancing.
  • Josephine used to have a very manly strut. Elbows and knees out.
  • The Zombie head in Leviathan DLC was just for fun by one of the cinematic designers. There was even a Roomba for the head.


Building off each other’s ridiculous ideas...that’s how you make a video game.
— Sarah Hayward