Channeling Zombies, The Last of Us, and Art with Paul Davies

What made The Last of Us so good? Part of the reason was the incredible animation. Paul Davies is an Animation Supervisor at Sony Computer Entertainment America and directed a huge chunk of the fully-rendered cinematics for The Last of Us, working with Naughty Dog animation leads Shaun Escayg and David Lam, as well as a talented team of animators at Sony. Their job was to convey the emotional interactions and nuances of the characters. Animation is described as the “rapid display of a sequence of static images and/or objects to create an illusion of movement,” which makes it sound almost like a magic trick. Only, there’s so much that goes into it including the aesthetics, the technical acumen, the tools and super computers, as well as a whole lot of work and talent to make the magic seamless. Animation is art to the next level. I’ve worked with Paul, first at LucasArts, and most recently, on films like I Am Legend and G-Force. He's one of the most talented guys in the industry so I was thrilled to talk animation with him. Having worked on projects as diverse as Iron Man 2 to Watchmen to Escape from Monkey Island, and most recently, The Last of Us, I wanted to know where he got the inspiration for his animation, or to put it another way, how did he channel the inner zombie in him?

Channeling Zombies, The Last of Us, and Art with Paul Davies

Inspiration for animation comes from everywhere. As an animator it's always important to tell the story in an interesting (and whenever possible super cool) way yet still be clear and natural. You have to put yourself in the character or creatures shoes to figure out the core of the performance. Then you have to come out and look, as your audience would, at your foundation. What's going to keep the viewer's attention? Understanding the story, character/creature, the world of the story and thinking "how do I wow the audience?" leads you to explore ideas of that nature. You get inspired by the things you have seen that wowed you and a desire to do as good or better within the framework of what you're working on. On I Am Legend I was lucky enough to be on early and our small team (at that point of the production) got to experiment with how the infected humans would move. We tapped into everything from footage of animal predators behavior in various situations to parkour free runners doing their urban gymnastic magic and even footage of ourselves "wil'in' out" or as the kids say "turnt up." Without the booze of course... Fast forward to The Last of Us where the roles are much more defined. We gained great inspiration and direction from the video of the actors filmed during the mocap shoot. We only veered away from what they did if we could not get a good angle, if we were directed to do otherwise or if there was nothing captured for the particular shot or sequence. We soon got a sense of what was right or wrong for the characters, even if it was not in keeping with the actors' performances. So in a way, at that point the existing animation was also inspiring us!

Channeling Zombies, The Last of Us, and Art with Paul Davies

The Last of Us Cinematics were incredible for the amount of emotion that takes place in the interplay of the characters. From the bond developing between Joel and Ellie, to the strangely chilling encounter with David in the snow, to the hope represented by Tommy and his group, digital characters were brought to life in a way that made us forget we were playing a game. This was crucial in involving us in the gameplay as we empathized with the plight of the characters in ways that immersed us into the narrative. I asked what were some of the most important aspects of creating that sense of realism in the facial animation.

It was clear from the beginning that the heart and soul of this project was the relationships between the main characters and how this incredible journey affected them. And oddly enough how they affected the journey. Our main focus was giving the characters a sense of presence. We wanted them to always feel alive and for the intent of their performance to be clear. We put a lot off effort into maintaining natural eye lines between characters and between characters and their objectives, i.e. looking at things or looking off into space while deep in thought. That last one tends to be really tricky. If a character was lost in thought we did everything we could to make that feel natural with eye direction and eye movement. It was important also to have the faces move believably. Careful attention was paid to maintaining connectivity between regions of the face as they moved. We strove to have all facial movement feel naturally muscle driven. At the same time the focus was more about the feel of the movement and less about being specifically anatomically accurate. We gained so much from studying the footage of the actors on stage and our own occasional video pick ups and we focused on getting the essence of that onto the screen.

Channeling Zombies, The Last of Us, and Art with Paul Davies

On top of his animation, Paul is an incredible artist whose sketchbooks I love. I asked if he could tell us about them, for example, his favorite character, least favorite, etc. Based on his answer, I am hoping for more:

I am so happy to hear you love my sketchbooks! I am sorry I have not made more. Keep in touch. I am planning a new one for next year! Ugh! Now it's in print so I HAVE to get it done!! I honestly don't have a favorite character to draw or sculpt (these days I digital sculpt in ZBrush more than I draw - I'm still not as comfortable with creating in ZBrush as I am creating on paper though - but I'm working on it). I love to draw and sculpt women and the occasional monster. Every piece I do is a new adventure. If I find I am doing too much of the same thing I look for photos or art to motivate me in new directions.

Channeling Zombies, The Last of Us, and Art with Paul Davies

Every character has different types of movement. Study the musculature of a dog, or watch people with different weights walking and see how varied they are. Animation is not just about digitally recreating motion, but the many facets of life. Animators have to combine their knowledge of science, anatomy, and physics to emulate reality. Having animated almost every type of creature and machine there is, I wondered if there was a dream animation project and a favorite type of character to animate?

Channeling Zombies, The Last of Us, and Art with Paul Davies

I love Sci Fi and Fantasy so my dream project would probably be a combo. And it would need to have a nice balance between acting and action... Animating Massimiliano Frezzato's epic Maser series immediately comes to mind... As for my favorite thing to animate? That's a tough one. I'd probably say otherworldly creatures because it's all about making the unbelievable believable. The wilder the creature design the bigger the playground. When you're animating something people have never seen before you get a nice bit of wiggle room because there is nothing to compare it to exactly, yet you remain somewhat grounded because you still have to respect real world physics and movement characteristics that the viewer's subconscious craves.

Animators are a fun, imaginative bunch, so I asked Paul what a world run by animators would be like.

Assuming we'd survive the chaos of an animator run world, and assuming we could actually control all aspects of the world, cuz that's what we'd want to do, I'd guess an animator run world would be more whimsical and more lively. Somehow there'd be giant robots, floating cities, talking monkeys, unicorns toaster kitties with rainbows projecting from places they shouldn't and we'd all be able to squash and stretch to absurd degrees. Or it'd all just be the Matrix and we'd all be a more successful crew of the Nebuchadnezzar...

Channeling Zombies, The Last of Us, and Art with Paul Davies

You can follow Paul at www.podaart.blogspot.com/

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Peter Tieryas blogs at tieryas.wordpress.com.