Chris Myers graduated from the Art Academy of Cincinnati in 1999. He is now the Animation Director on Funcom’s upcoming DUNE game. Alumni Coordinator, Caroline Bell, sat down with Chris to learn more about his animation journey.
Q&A with Chris Myers
Q: When did you know you wanted to pursue the arts?
A: I had the art bug my entire life! In 2nd grade when asked what I want to be when I grow up I said: “I want to be a cartoonist”. From there it just went down the many paths of being an artist, sometimes it’s graphic design, sometimes it’s sculpting, but I always knew it would be art in one form or another. And I am sure you are the same and a lot of the AAC students are too. When you are growing up you just find yourself at your desk drawing or painting or whatever, so you have the bug. I always basically knew I wanted to be an artist, at some point it was just what discipline.
Q: What drew you to the Art Academy when you were younger?
A: The largest reason was to be surrounded by artists. I thought it was awesome that everyone fell under this umbrella, so even if one person’s discipline wasn’t necessarily to animation it was still under the art umbrella. It’s amazing when everyone you are hanging out with has a common link to art. It’s great because you are exploring these new artistic visions with each other, and you are all on your journey together it is also exciting to get random critiques from another discipline sometimes just when they are over at your house or studio.
Q: What was your takeaway from being a student at the AAC?
A: I guess it would be that I felt the Art Academy was setting me up to succeed. I had many friends who I still talk to this very day and some professors I talk to from time to time, so there has been a long-term relationship with the school. I was very fortunate to get an animation job two weeks before graduation at a local Cincinnati company.
Q: Were you always interested in animation?
A: My first major was drawing in college. I just knew I wanted to be an artist of some sort. There are so many people in their thirties and maybe earlier forties, and they say: “oh I saw Toy Story or Jurassic Park,” for me I was always playing video games. I can’t remember what exactly it was, but I started taking more and more computer classes and then thought: “oh I want to get into animation.” And AAC had an animation class which was a huge draw for me wanting to go there. By the time I graduated I was the first student to do a full 3D animation for my thesis.
Q: How did you get into the industry?
A: I spent four years working as an animator in Cincinnati. I then went to SCAD and received an MFA in Animation. From there I was hired at Activision in Los Angeles, and that’s when I started making the Guitar Hero games at Neversoft. I got on as an animator without having any video game experience and there I worked on five Guitar Hero games and four Call of Duty games. I started on Call of Duty as a cinematic animator, and that was exciting seeing the huge cinematics because you could be watching TV and see your shot in a commercial.
Q: What is a cinematic animator?
A: A cinematic animator is often working on the in-game movies or moments. They are typically the things in the game that you do not have control of and it is either a movie that is full screen or a moment that you see in-game that plays out no matter what you do. That is different than an in-game animator that is creating the entire locomotion system that the player uses to control the character. The entire locomotion system for a character can be thousands of animations and those are sometimes broken up by cinematic animation moments.
Q: How was your experience at SCAD where you received your MFA in Animation?
A: The master’s degree was exciting; I had worked in Cincinnati as an animator for four years and I just thought I wanted to pursue my career further to break into video games or film. I also thought it would be exciting to possibly teach someday and I knew having a Master Degree would add to that.
Q: Did you pursue any internships?
A: I had two internships in one summer. The first place was at The Human Element, and they were using the same 3D program the school was – Strata 3d. It was a few days a week and it was great! The other internship I backed out of because they just had me stuffing envelopes all the time and didn’t feel like I was learning anything. At The Human Element, I was paying my dues, but I was also being nurtured and taught.
Q: Tell us a little bit more about your journey in animation and working your way up, what is that like?
A: The journey in animation is compelling. Even on your bad days you just have to remind yourself what else you could be doing besides making video games. It’s the same with all artists, if you are having a bad day with your sculpture, you can just think, “man I’m getting paid to sculpt right now, this is amazing!” Art is a journey, and animation can be a tricky field to get into but, if you stay dedicated and go for it, it is achievable. It is about putting your time in and listening to your mentors; learn from them and keep an open mind. When I was working on my Masters Degree, I made a sign and put it beside my desk that said “somewhere someone is working harder than you”. This was always my motivation when I wanted to quit early for the night.
Q: Wow that sounds like a lot! How did you balance mental capacity and emotional capacity with the workload when you are starting, did it feel overwhelming?
A: The first two weeks your head is spinning, it’s like any new job, you have to learn all the new workflows. There are times, especially when you first start, where it is dizzying. After I was a cinematic animator for a few years I went on to an in-game animator, building the AI systems. For me, I thought this would be an interesting way to build on my career. And that did help because when you do want to become a lead or director you have more experience with both sides of the system. So, you know how the entire animation department works more as opposed to staying in cinematics for seven years or just AI animations for seven years, I split mine up over my 10 years at Activision. This helped me then move onto FUNCOM where I went from Senior Animator to Lead Animator to Animation Director.
Q: Favorite part about working for FUNCOM?
A: Well, my favorite part of working at FUNCOM in my current role is having my hands in everything that has to do with animation and helping set up the pipelines, and forming the animation department. My favorite part about the company, in general, is as a Norwegian company they treat their employees extremely well. They give you 5 weeks vacation, 100% health insurance paid, treat everyone with respect and try not to work you to the bone. It can always get intense making video games but they focus a lot on work-life balance.
Q: What is it like being an Animation Director on a project?
A: Well, it is an interesting transition as you move into a leadership role because you tend to do less and less art. You do more management and more running of the show, but it is a really exciting career progression.
They have roles like a principal animator for people who want to progress their career but don’t want to have to run the team, some people like going that route. One of the main things and difference of being a lead or director is you have your hand on the pulse on everything, so you need to make sure the hair is working, the cloth is working, the animation is where they need to be, and the rigs are coming along correctly. So, it is fun getting to work in all aspects of the animation team and making sure the train is running smoothly.
AC: Is there someone above you who is guiding you for the DUNE game?
A: It really depends on the different breakdowns at different studios. At Funcom, we have about seven Directors across the game and I’m basically running the animation pipeline and am responsible for the animation team. Of course, when everyone says: “oh that looks awesome!” and I can say oh that was Andre or that was Sean, then when something goes wrong it’s like oh no that was all my fault, and that’s what you need to do to be a good leader. An Animation Director will get guidance from the other directors, and everyone needs to make sure we are all heading toward the same vision. The Game Director, or Creative Director could see something and say: “Hey Chris, I was expecting this to be a little different,” and we may backtrack a little bit to make adjustments. It is always important that the directors are all on the same page. There is a lot of freedom, but you want to make sure you are not steering out of the lane of the other directors.
Q: Favorite Video Game?
A: The first HALO!
Q: Least favorite video game?
A: Oh my, well, I don’t remember the name of it I just remember it being horrendous! I typically tend to play the games my son is into because I like to play them with him or games similar to what I am currently working on. So, when I was on Call of Duty I played a lot of first shooter games, for DUNE it is an SOC game which is a survival open world crafting game. I don’t know what I can say about our current game, but SOC is open world so you can go anywhere but it is also survival, so you have to make sure you are drinking water and eating, then the crafting part is making and building things like houses or castles. It is really fun and amazing to see what all the players can build from what you give them.
Q: So, when is the next DUNE game coming out?
A: Well, I can’t say but what I can say is that a lot of people are working very hard to get it finished! We are hiring for 80 positions though, so if any Alumni are interested, they should check it out!
“I have a Master of Fine Arts degree in animation and have been in the animation industry for 22 years. For ten of these years, I worked for Activision/Blizzard in their Neversoft Entertainment and Infinity Ward studios. During that time I worked on two of the largest selling game franchises in history – shipping 5 Guitar Hero and 4 Call of Duty titles. This has given me the opportunity to work in almost every aspect of animation inside AAA games. I am currently the Animation Director on Funcom’s upcoming DUNE game where I lead the animation team at all 3 of our Funcom studios – North Carolina, Oslo Norway and Lisbon Portugal.
My short films have shown in the SIGGRAPH Animation Theater and film festivals around the world including Japan, Czech Republic, Italy, England, Poland, Brazil, Hungary, Bosnia and numerous festivals in the United States. My work has been featured in Computer Graphics World, Hewlett Packard advertising, and various books on animation including Secrets of Digital Animation: A Master Class. I have taught classes on animation, mentored students and lectured on various animation topics at a wide range of universities and organizations.”