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Getting Into Gaming

Three game designers working for Sucker Punch and SCEA discuss how they got to where they are today.

Travis Kotzebue's career path started with a love for comics and cartooning. Now, he's an animator/illustrator for Sly Cooper and the Thievious Raccoonus.All Sly Cooper images © 2002 Sony Computer Entertainment America, Inc.

Travis Kotzebue's career path started with a love for comics and cartooning. Now, he's an animator/illustrator for Sly Cooper and the Thievious Raccoonus.All Sly Cooper images © 2002 Sony Computer Entertainment America, Inc.

With the gaming market continuing to rise and technology enabling even greater productions, Im here to say it again, video and multi-platform gaming is where its at. We asked the animators of Sly Cooper and the Thievious Raccoonus and The Mark of Kri to give us an idea of what theyre up to and how they got to where they are.

Travis Kotzebue

2D animator/illustrator of Sly Cooper and the Thievious Raccoonus for Sucker Punch

Originally I was into comics, cartooning and illustration. In art school I took one animation class, Intro to Animation, and that later led to my first job, doing Flash animation for Disney Online. That was where I was really able to study a lot of great source material from the feature department at Disney. I kept doing comics and animation for myself, as well as a few other companies, then went on to Sucker Punch.

After a few years of working with more kid-oriented stuff, I found myself working on some freelance illustration here and there, sharing a work studio with a couple of the other artists from Sucker Punch. As production on the game really sped up, it became apparent that another solid traditional animator, a character-minded, pencil-to-paper type guy, would be useful with the game being so heavy on the traditional art/animation look. So, they were nice enough to think of me, and I have been doing animation studies, character designs and environment concepts ever since.

I never thought I would work in video games because I am too computer-illiterate. It was just coincidence that they wanted another person with my skills, and it seemed cool to me, so I guess I fell into it. I always liked playing games since I was a kid, but I wouldnt call myself a hardcore gamer. I am mostly into the art side of games. I dig things like the Oddworld games; games which are really lushly illustrated and rendered.

Even though he considered himself computer-illiterate, Travis Kotzebue found that his pencil and paper skill gave him an advantage in landing a job.

Even though he considered himself computer-illiterate, Travis Kotzebue found that his pencil and paper skill gave him an advantage in landing a job.

In my own experience, working in games is a kick, because with Sucker Punch, I just draw out a bunch of stuff -- some cool, some goofy, some god awful. Then I work through the drawings with the 3D animators, who are the real killers. Its awesome collaborating with those guys, to see key frame sketches and character studies turned around into lush animated characters and movements. They have to deal with all the technical headaches, and they come through with all the beautiful stuff.

Working on Sly Cooper and the Thievious Raccoonus, for me, the whole thing was just being a fan and a follower of the great traditional animators. I always loved the stuff coming from the big American studios, everything from the old Hanna-Barbera stuff, the Chuck Jones, Warner Bros. cartoons, the funkier design styles of smaller pieces like Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, and, of course, the full-motion character-driven features. Then, theres animations obvious tie with comics. My favorite comics guys are those guys whose panels capture one crucial moment in time, one action -- where the pose theyve drawn looks like it could be the one animation keyframe drawn to really express the movement or mood. Thats what I try to express in my animations and motion studies -- the maximum amount of mood of movement, and trying my best to deliver the funniest or the coolest drawings I can.

The slowdown in the animation industry motivated Erik Medina to consider work in the gaming business. Now he's lead animator for The Mark of Kri. All The Mark of Kri images © 2002 Sony Computer Entertainment America, Inc.

The slowdown in the animation industry motivated Erik Medina to consider work in the gaming business. Now he's lead animator for The Mark of Kri. All The Mark of Kri images © 2002 Sony Computer Entertainment America, Inc.

Erik Medina

Lead animator of The Mark of Kri for Sony Computer Entertainment America (SCEA).

I originally went to school for traditional animation, and my only goal was to become a feature film animator. I always loved to draw, and spent all of my time at life drawing workshops, zoos, and going to places where people congregated, so I could observe and draw them in their many different emotional and physical states. After about 3 years I started doing a lot of freelance work, and then some commercial work to make ends meet, but I was still only getting small bites from the "big" studios. At that time there was an unfortunate wave of layoffs in the animation industry that pushed me to entertain an invitation to my friends' work where he made video games for PlayStation. After visiting the studio I realized the similarities between video games and feature film animation, and realized the potential that the industry was showing; and so chose to accept the offer to work here at SCEA.

I first started playing games as soon as I could ride my bike to the closest bowling alley, and played games there like Phoenix and Space Invaders. I continued to play arcade games for years, pretty serious at times (I dominate at MK2), but I never put video games and film animation together in the same category. Again, I never thought that these industries could be related until I visited my friend at the SCEA San Diego studio. After seeing how games were made I recognized the similarities between entertaining people with film and entertaining them with an interactive medium, and I was hooked.

This industry could be the next frontier of animation. Technology has only recently (the past 5 years) become able to truly take advantage of animation as an art form and animation frame restrictions are now less inhibiting, allowing us [animators] to really get into what we do best. This is an industry that I strongly encourage all animators to explore.

Erik Medina instantly recognized the similarities between film animation and video games when he first visited SCEA's studio in San Diego. Here's a screenshot from The Mark of Kri.

Erik Medina instantly recognized the similarities between film animation and video games when he first visited SCEA's studio in San Diego. Here's a screenshot from The Mark of Kri.

Suzanne Kaufman

Suzanne Kaufman has been with Sucker Punch Productions for almost two and a half years and is responsible for animating and modeling characters. In addition, she models environments. Her official title is "senior art monkey." (No joke!) In Sly Cooper and the Thievious Raccoonus, Suzanne created the enemies in the game's first two worlds. Prior to Sucker Punch, Suzanne worked at Microsoft, where she assisted with Combat Flight Sim I and II. Before that, she did special effects for Fox and Universal.

After college, I interned for Dynamic Realities, a company creating special effects plug-ins for Lightwave 3d. After the internship, I decided to move to Los Angeles to get into film. On the drive cross-country, my car nearly died in Albuquerque. While stranded in Albuquerque, I took a tour of a studio called Free Range Digital. It was run by Brad Carvey, inventor of the video toaster and brother of the comedian Dana Carvey. The tour turned into an interview, and by that evening I was offered my first job in animation. I spent the next two years doing animation for Discovery Channel, Universal and Fox. It was a great place to learn. Most of my game experience was gained at Boss Games Studio, Microsoft and now at Sucker Punch.

Suzanne Kaufman of Sucker Punch finds inspiration in classic animation. She created the enemies in Sly Cooper and the Thievious Raccoonus.

Suzanne Kaufman of Sucker Punch finds inspiration in classic animation. She created the enemies in Sly Cooper and the Thievious Raccoonus.

I originally started out like most kids born in the '70s, wanting to work on Star Wars and doing special effects. I was probably seven or eight years-old when I first got hooked on Pong. When I was doing effects for television, the director made most of the creative decisions. During the effects work, I freelanced at night for a game company out of New York. They gave me complete creative freedom and that really sparked my interest in animating for games as a career. When I moved up to Seattle for the lifestyle, I wanted to work in a more creative environment and games seemed like a great choice.

I find a lot inspiration from traditional animation. I am a huge fan of the classic Looney Tunes cartoons and new shows like Mucha Lucha! and Samurai Jack. I spend a lot of time at work playing our game, and others, for inspiration as well. At home, I try not to play too much, but I still do. I think my other hobbies such as photography, traditional animation, illustration, climbing and reading keep me fresh with new ideas. I love what I do. It is a great time to be doing game animation. It is moving in a fantastic direction.

Joan Kim is the general manager of Animation World Network. Previously as a post-production coordinator at THX she oversaw the lab print quality assurance program for feature releases. She received her B.A. in English Literature from UCLA and continues to pursue an education in computer graphics there.

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