Oddworld’s Inhabitants: Sean Miller, Animator

Oddworld's Inhabitants: Sean Miller, Animator [Hosted by Oddworld.com]

Date: October 2001

Interviewer: Oddworld.com

Interviewee: Sean Miller

Oddworld’s Inhabitants are as diverse as the world they’ve worked together to create. Here’s where you’ll find interviews and other informative articles spotlighting the many creative folk that work at Oddworld Inhabitants. Be they headline players or behind-the-scenes heroes, the Inhabitants profiled here all share Oddworld’s ceaseless dedication to bringing you the best worlds and games that you’ve ever experienced.

Sean Miller, Animator

Q: What’s your background (education, jobs)?

Sean Miller: I always loved storytelling, whether in books, or movies, or in games and the theater. While I don’t get to do much these days, I have been involved with theater since I was 8, starting with performing, and later directing stage plays for various community theaters, in NY and abroad, but it’s hard ro support a family on those kinds of wages. After wandering through many jobs, from Army cook and broadcast journalist, to convenience store clerk, to Kinkos computer services dept., even running my own small graphic arts business for a while, I eventually found a way to marry my love of storytelling, art, and acting. I received a BA in Computer Art and Animation from Savannah College of Art and Design, and have been here at Oddworld for the last four years.

Q: What kind of a place is Oddworld?

Sean Miller: Oddworld is a place that stretches the bounds of your creativity every day.

Q: Do you have any stories from the early days of Oddworld that you could share?

Sean Miller: When I was first hired at Oddworld I was a Wrangler, coordinating the artists and programmers to get the art in the game while doing some or the background art and animation. When I got to make the transition to Animator some months later, I was trained by two of the original Inhabitants, Animator Scott Easley, and Lead Technical Director Christophe Chaverou. It was tough. I was coming into a team that had worked tirelessly together to create the first game, and coming right out of school I had a lot to learn.

These guys’ styles were vastly different, and yet I was to learn, every bit as important. It was not only a lesson in animation, but also a lesson in diversity, flexibility, and insanity.
The Exercise: Choose and recreate a cycle from Edward Muybridge’s Human and Animal Locomotion using our hero, Abe.

The Objective: Learn Alias, while developing my animation skills.

Christophe’s style was a lot like learning to drive stick, technical, precise, powerful. For Christophe, the Technical Director, a master of timing and composition and scripting, the exercises had one purpose: To learn to see. “To be a great animator”, (you must imagine this in an outr-r-r-ageous French accent), “you must first learn to see,” he once told me during one of my first critiques. “I ask you do draw this coffee cup, and maybe you draw me something like this (pronounced “zisss”).” He draws a hastily sketched bowl with the general shape of a coffee cup. “You draw A coffee cup, you look at it, and you say, okay, that looks like a coffee cup, …but you did not draw THIS coffee cup.” He gestures at the cup, and proceeds to point out how the light reflects off of the lip, how one side is slightly misshapen, and so forth. You look at this coffee cup every day, and you don’t really see it. An artist must hone those skills of observation, and really re-learn how to see.

Of course this was pretty much how I had approached my first pass at the Muybridge cycle. I simply recreated how I thought it looked, doing a lot of eyeballing, and low-balling, if the truth be told. He then proceeded to demonstrate the errors of my ways, and I dutifully sopped it up like a dry sponge. On my second pass I paid meticulous attention to detail, excruciating over achieving rotoscopic precision of my analysis of the movement, concentrating on form, and faithfulness. Confident about my latest attempt I am ready for review, and I grab Scott, since they are training me together.

If learning from Christophe was about learning to see, learning from Scott was learning to FEEL. Scott’s style is more like learning to surf, more freeform, intuitive and organic, but also just as powerful. (Note: To the best of my knowledge, Scott does not surf, it is just a cute analogy in a pinch). Scott took one look at what I was doing, and said,” that’s nice …but …[long pause] a tad stiff, don’t you think? It doesn’t feel like Abe, it feels more like a trained athlete than Abe.” I had managed to capture the poses, but not the essence of the movement, not to mention character. Of course I was simply translating the image from page to screen, as Christophe had asked. Scott asked me to stand up, and perform the move. I won’t mention how silly I looked trying to be Abe doing a ballet pirouette. Scott began teaching me to analyze a motion, focusing on balance, and timing, and how that all blends together. Acting out the move, I began to see the errors of my ways! Armed with this, I dove back into my animation with gusto!

Before long I had recreated the animation for the third time, and Christophe comes in, and wants to have a look. “What, my friend, are you doing?” or something along those lines. “This is not the Muybridge!” I explain that I had done that already, and shown Scott, and he had asked for this. Christophe asked to see the previous version, “No you must first learn to see before you can interpret!”. Scott felt the sooner I was thinking like a character, the better, “No, anyone can make a guy walk, he needs to make him walk like Abe…” It went on like this for quite some time, iteration after iteration. I would make the cycle good for one, and then re-do it for the other. Scott continued to encourage me toward characterization, while Christophe hammered away at my technical and observation skills.

As my mother is fond of saying, “To make a long story short…” The final result, I am bit more insane, but a LOT better at animation. Pretty good trade off, I think. This kind of creative diversity within so close knit and talented a team is part of what makes us who we are. While we may differ on what we feel makes animation great, we agree that we want to make great animation, so we share our differences, and it always helps us to raise the bar, because in truth, there are so many facets to making great animation and art, that no one style holds the key.

Q: What is a typical day like for you?

Sean Miller: I spend some time each morning playing with my daughter before I come in around 10:30, and perform my coffee ritual. Filling my legendary Vat-0-Coffee™ with the coffee of the day, and a series of carefully measured of various flavorings to disguise the fact that it is really too big of a cup of coffee for any one person. I begin my coffee stroll, checking out the cool stuff that everyone is working on. After surfing through the 80 emails that have come in since I left late the night before, to see if there are any special concerns it is time to dive into work bringing the Oddworld characters to life. While the cream of the job is creating new character moves, much time is spent polishing up and revising animation that may already be done, and writing scripts to automate as many of the more tedious tasks like processing them for our engine. I also have to work with the programmers to get the animation in the game up to speed. Getting the animation to work within the structure of our game engine is one of the more challenging aspects of the job, from timing and flow of motion to making sure that they fit together in the context of the game. Lorne gives us a tremendous amount of freedom in bringing the characters to life. He requires a certain level of quality, and trusts us to bring it there. It is not enough to make a believable three-legged walk; it has to be a believable three-legged walk with personality, and a lot of that is left up to the animator. It really allows us to stretch our creative talents, and take ownership.

When we are ready, Lorne reviews them, and approves or asks for any revisions. A good portion of the day goes to processing our animation. This is where the fun ends, it is time consuming and tedious, but I’d still rather do an 18 hour day of this, than just about any other job. Another fun aspect of my job is that I get to flex my drama skills doing voices. I am currently voicing the Raisin, Headley the Vykker auctioneer, and various Glukkons and Sligs. So occasionally I get word from Chis Ulm, assistant director, or Michael Bross, our sound engineer, to come down and record some dialog for the movies, or lines for the in-game Glukkon™.

Q: Who are your biggest influences? Why?

Sean Miller: There are such ranges of influences that have shaped my art that it is hard to pare it down. Influences range from the classics of Golden Age Disney, and Tex Avery, to Pixar. Disney because they shaped the way traditional animation is made, from canonizing the principals of animation to telling stories in a way that appeals to 6 and 60 year olds alike. Tex Avery’s bawdy and often outrageous sense of exaggeration, sense of humor and comedic timing. Pixar, because as a studio, they have managed to seamlessly combine the art of animation with the CG medium. They consistently amaze me with their ability to make great movies that happen to be animated. Their stories and animation, while developed specifically to take advantage of CG, are so artfully crafted, that you cease to see them as animated films, and just simply enjoy them.

Q: What’s your favorite video game?

Sean Miller: Aside from our own titles? Counter-Strike and Starcraft are tied for me. Both have terrific game balance and gameplay that draws me back hour after hour. While counter-strike appeals to my twitch-reflex, it encourages teamwork and camaraderie with chat time in between matches. Starcraft, because for me, it is the definitive RTS game. I haven’t found anything else that draws me back time and again like these two games.

Q: What do you like to do when you’re not at work?

Sean Miller: Play with my daughter, Chelsea, and games-board games and role-playing games as well as video games.

Q: How do you feel about the video game industry?

Sean Miller: I am very excited about where the future of games is headed. We are on the cusp of a whole new level of entertainment through games. From console and PC single-player to broadband multiplayer, the technology is finally approaching a level where some of the more fantastic visions can be realized.

Q: What do you like best about coming to work? What’s the worst part?

Sean Miller: Getting to help create a universe of creatures, and bring to life an epic adventure story. It is a chance to fulfill my childhood dream.
The worst part is the long hours away from my wife, Rebecca, who is pregnant, and our daughter, Chelsea.

Q: Where do you see Oddworld in ten years?

Sean Miller: As one of the leaders in the entertainment industry. Our vision for the entertainment experience is going to help blur the lines between the different mediums. Oddworld’s creatures and epic story is one that can reach audiences from feature films, throughout the interactive media, and beyond.

Q: Is it true you can’t eat junk food?

Sean Miller: Of course not, in fact I feed my vitamins to the fish, and don’t get me started on Taco Be…uh…[tap,tap,tap] …is this mic on? Whoops!

Q: What is the longest day you’ve ever had at Oddworld?

Sean Miller: 38 hours, in the last days of Abe’s Exoddus.

Q: If you could change jobs with one of the inhabitants, who would it be, and why?

Sean Miller: Lorne. Who else would I want to be?

Q: What at Oddworld are you most proud of?

Sean Miller: What I have learned about myself as an artist. I am constantly amazed at how much I have grown, being part of such a talented team of artists and designers.

Q: Who is your favorite Oddworld character and why?

Sean Miller: This is a tough question. I’d have to say Elum, who, incidentally only makes the briefest of cameos in this one. Poor Elum. I loved the idea of a friendly mount/companion, and the animations with Abe and were so much fun to watch, they oozed character. The future of the Elum, while precarious, has a lot of potential-so keep an eye out and your fingers crossed!