Testing, Testing…

 

Computer - Stock (Edited)

We’ve all been there – you submit a job application (or are headhunted by a studio) and they’re really interested, love your work and think you’re the perfect candidate, but, umm, would you mind completing a quick test? I know some people flat out refuse to co-operate with any kind of testing policy, considering it demeaning or a waste of their limited spare time. However, a test isn’t always simply a test of ability, but a measure of your attitude. On this basis alone, I’d consider very carefully before refusing to participate in this increasingly common step on the road to recruitment.

 

Of course, you could argue that the team contemplating hiring you should be experienced enough to glean from your CV/resume and portfolio or showreel whether you’ve got the requisite skills. This is true – to an extent. Whilst it’s highly unlikely that someone who has held a very senior role for many, many years lacks the expertise that their CV suggests; for less experienced candidates, at least, I’ve had prospective employees be somewhat economical with the truth, right through to making wild, unsubstantiated, claims regarding abilities that they have no knowledge of whatsoever. Some potential hires are even underhand enough to rip sections from other people’s showreels and present them as their own – fortunately, this devious behaviour is usually spotted fairly quickly. Word gets around and the actual creator of the animation generally gets wind of this and kicks up a big fuss (and friends and acquaintances pile in too!) as artists always recognise their own work and often that of their colleagues past and present. Nonetheless, not everyone is honest and upfront about their lack of experience in a particular area; for this reason, I did start setting tests for prospective hires, but – and this is a big but – the tests are always a reasonable length and all assets, script, and so on, are supplied.

 

I believe this is fair; a candidate who is serious about joining the company, who genuinely has the skills that are essential – and who is passionate about the quality of their work – is generally agreeable to performing a brief test of ability. I’d never set ludicrously lengthy tests, those that go beyond the realm of the job description or require masses of time spent sourcing assets; for a simple animation test, I’d supply the character rig and model, plus any necessary tools. Neither would I expect an applicant to take time off work to come into the studio; any tests should be available to perform at home and should accommodate the potential recruit’s current commitments. Moreover, so long as the candidate has fulfilled the brief, I wouldn’t demand a constant flow of petty alterations, for instance, due to a slightly different interpretation of the script. Actually, a spark of originality always bodes well and insisting on enforcing a series of unnecessary changes is a guaranteed way to put your potential new recruit off the studio and through the doors of a competitor.

 

What about taking tests myself? Well, I have to say that I don’t really mind – so long as it’s not ridiculously time consuming. Like most people in the games industry, I have a very tight schedule so spending absolutely ages working on an animation or cinematics test is a pain to fit in and is no more indicative of my ability than a test with a much shorter turn around. In fact, it could be argued that performing a test within an allotted amount of time more accurately reflects the pressures of working in game development! One behemoth of a tripartite test took literally weeks to perform and the company provided absolutely nothing – no script, no character models, nada. Ultimately, I actually enjoyed writing the script and all the rest of it; however, due to concerns regarding the company’s stability, I declined their offer. Okay, my decision wasn’t based on their approach to testing – but I have to say that the studio didn’t exactly endear themselves to me by imposing a test that monopolised my every spare moment for several weeks. If you set tests that are a lengthy as this, then you seriously risk sending the message that you don’t value the candidate’s time.

 

However, this situation is fairly unusual; in my experience, I’ve found studios generally to be rather apologetic and somewhat tentative when asking if I’m happy to submit to testing. I don’t find it a problem; I have the skills listed on my resume and am happy to put my money where my mouth is. Yes, I’ve been in this business a long time, but if all candidates are required to be tested, even if it’s merely a formality for more experienced candidates, then there’s little to be achieved by being difficult and stroppy. It also gives you a great opportunity to suss out your potential new employer – if they make absurd demands at this stage, then what are they like to actually work for? After all, the recruitment process is a two way street and you are also determining whether a studio is going to be a good fit from your perspective too.

 

In a nutshell, tests can be a useful tool is assessing technical and creative ability, but also an applicant’s enthusiasm – gauging both aptitude and attitude. If they feel that testing is beneath them, then will they exhibit the same behaviour once hired and are asked to pitch in with the rest of the team? Equally, is the studio setting the test reasonable in their approach towards you at this early stage? If not, then you may want to look elsewhere. Testing can be a real eye-opener on both sides, but, generally, the best candidates are those who willingly agree to and actually enjoy this aspect of the process. Attitudes towards testing vary from individual to individual and everyone is quite within their rights to object, but I don’t believe that a blanket refusal is particularly helpful to those wishing to become part of the team and, to be honest, I’ve certainly found that the best animators usually love to animate at any given opportunity and relish the chance to show off their awesome skills!

 

Also featured on gamasutra.com

 

 

 

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Animation Insider Interview

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Ages and ages ago, Mike Milo (the guy behind the awesome Animation Insider website) invited me to be interviewed. I found it a really fun experience and if you fancy reading it, then my thoughts and ramblings can be found here

From Donkey Kong to the Silver Screen

From Donkey Kong to the Silver Screen: The Past, Present and Future of Game Cinematics

From Donkey Kong to the Silver Screen: The Past, Present and Future of Game Cinematics

For all you cinematics enthusiasts out there, I’ve written an article for gamedev.net giving a brief overview of the subject – past, present and future. I plan on writing further articles that examine the best techniques and methods to seamlessly integrate cinematic sequences and gameplay and which allow for a truly immersive experience. If there’s anything you’d especially like to see included give me a shout!

Check it out here:

 

KSR – a selection of shots!

2014 has been a busy, but interesting year, for me so far. After wrapping up at Rare, I did a short stint at Axis Animation and then moved on to a great movie project. I can’t reveal what I was working on at Axis or Pinewood as they’re top secret, but here’s some of what I was working on with Microsoft:

 

 

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Wowing your audience…or how to create a showstopping showreel

showreel_image1

Showreel, demoreel; call it what you will, but this is your first opportunity to get your best and strongest work out there and into the public domain. People frequently ask me what I look for in the perfect reel (is there even such a thing?!), so I thought it might be handy to collate a few of the hints and tips I’ve learned along the way.

In these days of job uncertainty, conversation regularly turns to showreels; most folk seem to be either working on – or more often than not – planning on working on their reels. Procrastination can be an absolute killer here; I know of people who’ve been in the preparatory stages for a year or more. Whilst taking time to plan and to get things right is commendable, it can get to the point where maybe you don’t need to play Plants vs. Zombies or catch up on four seasons of Breaking Bad right this minute. I know it can be daunting; whether you’re a seasoned industry veteran with reams of work to whittle down into a two minute snapshot of your career or a shiny new graduate looking for your first big break, it will all seem far less overwhelming once you get going. Go on, make a start RIGHT NOW! Okay, maybe finish reading this article first, but then begin your reel – make it your job for today.

Play to your Strengths

It sounds obvious, but open with your strongest pieces. It’s a cliché that potential employers must sift showreel_image2through hundreds of reels, but it really is true. Make sure yours stands out from the crowd – often it’s that first 30 seconds, which determines whether or not you’ll be a successful candidate. If employers don’t like what they see immediately, they aren’t going to sit through five minutes of dross in the unlikely event that there’s a hidden gem four minutes in. It also implies that you aren’t able to identify your best work – does a candidate who can’t even determine their own strengths really have enough knowledge to compete in an oversaturated market?

Planning & Editing

As your reel needs to have a great start, it also needs to finish on a high note. This is where planning comes in; try to tell a story or identify a theme – something to make the whole piece gel. Careful editing can pay dividends here – much better than a slapdash selection of clips hurled together with little care for structure or timing. Take the time to carefully lay out your shots – this is your opportunity to show who you are as an artist and as a creative individual. I can certainly tell the difference between reels produced by confident artists who are comfortable with their own style and those who are trying to learn by rote or who lack passion and enthusiasm. I will reiterate: your reel shines a spotlight on your personality and conveys so much more than just your animation/art/modelling skills to a potential employer.

The Long and the Short of it

showreel_image3Length: seriously keep it short and sweet. Much better to show two minutes of gold than five of mediocrity. When you initially plan your reel, just include all your strongest pieces – length doesn’t matter at this stage – and then edit, edit, edit. Remember to consider not just which clips you want to keep, but also how they relate to each other and the length of each. This helps to maintain the flow and keeps things interesting. When you’re done, your reel should be around two minutes maximum, definitely no longer than three – and that’s pushing it.

Sound and Vision

Music selection is another key area that’s so easy to get wrong. Not everybody likes to hear music, but I certainly do (providing it’s not irritating!). Selecting a great piece of music can provide a fantastic foundation to work from. What mood does it convey? What pace does it set? These are important aspects to consider – is it action packed and contemporary or more humorous and cartoony? Try and edit to the beat of the music – or identify key moments and time your clips so you have strong visuals that are highlighted and complemented by the right soundtrack. For instance, if your music builds to a crescendo then you want your visuals to follow suit – don’t waste an opportunity to wow your audience.

Working in cinematics, I find movie trailers an immense source of inspiration and take a narrative showreel_image4driven approach to my showreels. If your reel relates more towards character modelling or environment art, for example, then you’ll probably want to take a slightly different approach. For instance, the pace may be slower as you might opt for lingering shots to enable viewers to appreciate the details of your work. Either way, find an angle that suits your individual style and that’s imaginative and original. Once you’re happy with the general layout, music and length, take some time to refine and polish your work. If your showreel looks sloppy and hastily flung together, are employers really going to trust you to put maximum effort into your work?

My Top 5 Tips

1. Ensure you have a strong beginning and end (these are what most viewers will remember).

2. Length – keep it to around 2 minutes max.

3. Music – make sure it’s not irritating or distracting.

4. Edit, edit, edit.

5. Contact details – make sure we can get in touch easily.

Good luck! Loads of you have been sending me your own work to review – keep them coming! If you have any questions or would like some feedback on your reel then I’d love to hear from you – contact me via martinmcbain@hotmail.co.uk

Also featured on Gamasutra.com

 

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To Eurocom and Beyond

eurocomHaving spent 12 years of my career at Eurocom as Cinematics Director/Lead Cinematics Animator/Lead Animator, I’d worked on 18 gaming titles, liked and respected my colleagues and enjoyed daily access to cutting-edge motion capture technology. Life was pretty good.

23rd November 2012 began like any other day at work with coffee and general chit-chat about the approaching weekend. Things changed when we were unceremoniously summoned mid-morning to a meeting only to be informed that Eurocom had run out of money and was going into administration. The shock was immense; was the company that I had, for over a decade, worked round the clock for and for whom I had sacrificed weekends, holidays and other special occasions really going under? We knew, following an earlier wave of redundancies, that there were problems, but I truly thought – or at least hoped – that we’d weather the storm. I suspect that with so many studios closing their doors that many of us were wary of fleeing somewhere precarious only to end up in an even worse situation. We’d stayed put only to have the world come crashing down around our ears.

Knowing that the jobs market had changed over the past few years, we stumbled, blinking, into this brave new world where short term contracts had become commonplace and openness to compromise and relocation were absolute musts. Many of us were exhausted, jaded and wanted to get out of games for good. Then something amazing happened: the industry rallied round and supported us – studios got in touch telling us about their vacancies and so many people wished us well. The games industry is global, however, we are a small, tight-knit community who are genuinely saddened to hear of lay-offs and studio closures; it is very touching to witness this first hand. Enthusiasm restored, spirits lifted, the hunt for new jobs was on.

I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been offered work very quickly and am back doing what I love. Weirdly, although I had prepared myself to move wherever was necessary, Rare (Microsoft Game Studios) is actually closer to my home that Eurocom was so my commute is now shorter and more pleasant than before. Although I am not averse to relocation – far from it, I’d love to see more of the world – I do feel for my former colleagues who are currently living hundreds of miles away from their families. It must be dreadful to only see your wife and children at the weekend; even when working crazy hours there’s still the chance to give your family a hug and a kiss before work and after. Fortunately, we are in a position where we can move as a family and commit to a new life in a new location if need be.

So, six months on, we have come through a very dark time and survived. Financially it was tough for most: no wages paid for November and even those fortunate enough to gain employment straight away generally had to wait until after Christmas to start their new jobs and then to the end of January to be paid. Effectively no wages from the end of October 2012 to the end of January 2013 – and we were the lucky ones. We seem to be hearing about more and more closures and lay-offs, sometimes on a daily basis, with no respite. Hundreds of people being plunged into dire financial situations and without savings or very generous friends and family it can be utterly terrifying. It is very much sink or swim and that’s a hideously stressful situation to suddenly find yourself in. Nonetheless, it can happen to anyone, the days of a job for life are well and truly over and nobody’s role, no matter what company you’re employed by, how experienced you are or what position you hold, is totally secure these days.

What does the future hold for the games industry? I wish I knew for certain, but I fervently hope that things pick up once the new consoles are released and that the tax incentives are implemented and make a real difference. I just hope that it isn’t too little, too late…

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