Evolution of Animation: From Knockout Kings to Marvel's Spider-Man 2 - An Interview with Animation Director Robert Coddington
What does an animation director actually do and how has animation technology advanced over the years?
Marvel's Spider-Man franchise benefits greatly from the great feeling of moving through a virtual New York that simply sweeps you away. We can thank a team of talented animators for this great feel, and at Insomniac they were led by Robert Coddington, who has been working on games for over 20 years and has worked on several big brands. What does an animation director actually do and how has animation technology advanced over the years?
What is your job as an animation director?
One of the main things that I do is help make a team that can make the kind of experiences that we make. I came to Insomniac; I was hired to work on Sunset Overdrive about ten years ago, and then we moved from that through the Spider-Man titles. And in that time, we've been growing animation-wise and tried to create the best team we can to really level up not only the gameplay experiences but the storytelling experiences.
So I have a set of skills that sort of got me here, and it's useful. I do some things hands-on, but more so lately it has become about just putting talented people in a position to succeed and ensuring they have the resources they need. They can create and iterate, and then making sure that all of these creative people in the animation department are making something that belongs with each other and is a cohesive vision.
You've been in the field of animation for many years; what attracts you to animation?
I think all of us love animation as children; it's just such a huge part of our lives. I wasn't sure that I was going to be good at it, so when I went to school, it was to do practical model making, which is more like sandpaper, airbrush, making ships for Star Wars, or whatever. And of course, at that time, this was in the early '90s, mid-'90s, they were like, "you should get into the computer," and I didn't even have a typewriter. So anyway, I started taking those classes to be on the computer, and they were like, "well, if you're going to do computer animation, you have to take 2D animation," and I was like, "well, let's stop you right there because I'm not good enough."
And they said, "You have to take it." As soon as I started doing 2D pencil animation, flipping paper, and getting my in-betweens done, I loved it. You had to shoot your stick figure character or whatever on Super VHS with this big button. When I saw the first thing I made in motion, even though it wasn't good, I loved it. I didn't want to do anything else, so I focused on 3D animation. Toy Story was out, and I wasn't sure if that's what I would do or if it would be 2D. But the world was rapidly moving toward computer animation, so by the time I finished school, the gaming industry was booming, and that's what a young kid could get a job doing.
And then as soon as I got into that, there was this problem-solving of building out sets for characters, and so I think the first game I ever got was a boxing game called Knockout Kings, and just making him able to lean, making him able to move in different ways. I'm not really the big sports guy, but there's something about making all the little pieces that made you want to do more of it, you know. So I think it started as just building sets for characters, and then I moved on to Medal of Honor, and I was doing little sets for soldiers so they could hide behind things, and so I fell in love with that, but then along the way in there came directing actors on the mocap stage, cinematography and editing and cinematics, and bam, that's what I love, so I kind of got a name for doing that among people who do it, and then I was lucky enough to get to Insomniac and work on Sunset Overdrive, and that turned into the Spider-Man titles, and I'm sorry that was such a long answer, but that's what I love!
How did the animation evolve from Knockout Kings, which was your first game, to Marvel’s Spider-Man 2?
Okay, so obviously, the power—because we're talking about going from the launch of PlayStation 2 to the launch of PlayStation 5. Back then, there weren't that many joints in a character; the bones would stop at the ankle, and nothing beyond that point. You were lucky if you could roll the thumbs over. In some cases, like in action games, you would have to model it like a Star Wars figure with the gun in the hand or their regular hand. You'd be lucky. I remember things like not being able to animate the eyes, so you'd just turn the eye texture flesh color to simulate blinking. It went from being very crude-like, and no matter how hard you tried, there were so few joints in the body that it was really challenging to create great animation. Some people were managing to pull it off, but it wasn't easy. So, that was one of the first things that improved.
Obviously, facial animation has gone through the roof since then, and then even in the early motion capture, you couldn't get the face performance at the same time, you would have to capture the body and then they would have to go sit in the booth and try to act along with it, which inherently made it a lot of work and kind of wrong. It was just never going to be a lifelike performance, so you would do a ton of hand-keyed work to try and make that feel natural, but that would be slow.
So, and then also back then you were lucky if the stage could do two people at a time, sometimes three. So anyone else on stage would be a stick with a piece of tape for an eye line, and you'd have to shoot that second. Maybe you could play back the audio, and they could sort of act along with it. So obviously, with the real-time technology, you can see characters that aren't there, and we can have so many more of them on screen. Of course, running their facial animation at the same time, so it has gone from being very crude to feeling like you're on a Star Trek ship sometimes when you're shooting both.
And in terms of animation improvement in the Spider-Man series, what did you improve since the first game to Miles Morales and finally this one?
There is a lot. I think it feels like there's more happening. I mean, the characters are deeper, and there's a bigger difference, and the fluidity, I think things feel even better. I think it felt good already, but like when you played it, it just feels a little faster, and it feels like the player responds better in that. You know, that's everyone from our engineering team working on that to our traversal team working on that. And obviously, we can allow the player to go faster because the PlayStation 5 can show you that next area sooner. So I think all those things come together, and it just feels bigger and faster and more epic, and it's got more details, it feels more lush because it is.
Okay, we have two main characters in the same game with this one. So how did you approach to differ these two Spider-Men? How did you make them be their own person in terms of animation and moves?
We took that very seriously from the moment we got the opportunity to do the Miles game. We had someone dedicated to that right from the start. We wanted to ensure that Miles wasn't just a photocopy of Peter or something; he had to be his own distinct character. We took this task seriously, assigned dedicated team members to it, and iterated until Miles had his own unique identity. So we have two Spider-Men who are intuitively playable in the same way if you want to play that way, but they definitely feel different. They have a different look, and there's not a ton of magic involved; it was a lot of hard work and attention to detail from the team assigned to that specific task.
Yeah, even Peter changed with this new game. What is the inspiration for altering Peter's moves and animation when he's in this new Venom suit?
I think this differs depending on who you ask because we empower a large team of animators to all work on solving the problem, and then we create a cohesive vision. So, depending on which animator you ask, they might give you a slightly different answer. To me, if you're a fan of skateboarding, there's the way that Tony Hawk skate. There's this sort of similarity between Peter and Tony Hawk in terms of controlled mathematical harmony. It's pretty similar; we have the nostalgic poses, and the form follows from here with style. If that could happen, then maybe this is how it would happen, and these are the principles that we apply to Spider-Man.
But when it comes to how we are going to make that less like the Peter we've already shown you and more like something deeply different, like he's losing himself, and I don't know if there was a specific reference that we arrived at, our team has become very adept at Spider-Manning, and they're able to experiment and come back with variations in how the attack happens or even in the posing, which might seem a little darker. Even if it's something as subtle as this pose versus that one, you know, what really is the difference? Maybe it's just 10 degrees on the arms, a slight change in finger positioning, and a tilting of the head. So it might not sound very exciting when you hear about these things, but it's all these little choices that make it different. And, of course, this is complemented by having different dialogue and a really cool suit. These performances by Yuri come through, and I think when all the pieces come together, the acting, the animation, and the look, it works.
Did you draw any inspiration from the Sam Raimi movie or from previous animations involving Venom?
We, our team is influenced by everyone and it doesn't even have to be a Spider-Man movie if it's relevant. When it comes to still images, we have a large bank of whether it's perched or swinging or in the air or fighting, there'll be hundreds of images that sort of I need a good perch, so, you know whatever it is, you're gonna see like hundreds of options that might work for what you need it to do.
We take inspiration from everywhere, and because we have so many people empowered to sort of dream up what something might be, what might be true for one animator, the one person might be all about a Raimi movie and then somebody else might be like pure comics, but as long as it comes back and functions how it needs to function, it looks like art of stuff, it's good.
Okay, we've seen Peter, we've seen Miles, we've seen Lizard, and he's surprisingly agile, let's say. So, what can we expect with Venom, the real huge Venom?
We want you to play the game a find out.
So, no teasers?
What do you think about AI and how AI technologies can help you with your work in animation in the future?
So far, we haven't used it, and we're keeping our eye on how those tools might be used in the future, but so far, we're not commenting on it.