With a career spanning nearly twenty years working on hit games and movies such as Fable, L.A. Noire and Legend of the Guardians, Dean Finnigan brings a huge amount of experience to AIE.
Now a 3D Animation teacher at AIE’s Sydney campus, Dean [pictured above, second from the left, at our recent Graduate Showcase event] shares that experience and insights into building your own successful animation career.
How did your interest in art and animation begin?
I was always drawing at school, especially in my math books which were all transformed into flip books showing stick men in various adventures. I remember these early characters were pretty tortured souls, having to jump from great heights down the page, perform death defying stunts or run away from crazy monsters or rolling boulders.
I was always watching cartoons and animated series as a kid and totally submerged in the fantasy lands they were creating. The games industry was in its infancy but then along came the Atari 2600 which was a great introduction to some amazing games. The classic Williams arcade machine Defender absorbed all my money growing up.
Later, we owned early PCs such as the Vic- 20 and Sinclair Spectrum, where I would spend days and days typing out games whose entire code were printed out in full in early games magazines. This combination of stop-motion and 2D animation along with the early games and consoles developed that passion early.
When I did leave school, I did a foundation year in Art and Design, which was that eureka moment for me. I am so grateful I did a traditional arts course that focused heavily on drawing skills and gave me great foundation knowledge and keeping a sketchbook is something I still do today.
What were some of your formative animation influences?
The skeleton scene from Jason and the Argonauts [the 1963 film]. Yes I am that old!
I still love watching this sequence again and again. I was absolutely mesmerised by the life and character they all had in abundance, all created by the skill of the animator [Ray Harryhausen], and yes, one of the greats. I can't tell you how many films I've watched literally frame by frame to understand how this character is so amazing or what is it about that movement that is so inspiring.
How did you score your first job in the industry?
After I realised I wanted to get into the industry, I started doing lots of research as to what companies were looking for in terms of artists. I used this as the starting point for my portfolio.
Portfolio is the key to everything in this industry and I worked solidly for about a year to get it to a standard where I was confident to start applying. This meant lots of late nights, weekends and trying to get feedback from as many creative people as I could to keep pushing and get the quality high.
Of course there were a lot of knockbacks at the beginning, but I tried to contact the companies that turned me down for even more feedback. One thing you have to remember about feedback is that it can be soul destroying. You've spent loads of time working on something that you feel happy with and someone starts to pick out what's wrong with it. But you always have to remember this is not a personal attack. Critique is such a massive part of what happens on a day to day basis in studios. Just listen to what is being said, then push your work even further and take it to the next level.
To cut a long story short, eventually it paid off and I started work for a games studio in London.
What did you discover about animation in your early career that you had no idea about before you started working?
Animation is really hard work! Working in studios allowed me to learn from some great people I've had the pleasure to work alongside, and also being pushed outside my comfort zone.
What you think is finished work, you soon learn that it's nowhere near. It's a real learning curve to go that extra mile (or ten) to get lots of detail in there.
At the same time you have to feel comfortable with being transparent and learn to share your work often and early. Don't hide work just because you feel it's not finished or not to the polished quality yet as you will miss out from great feedback and critique.
One of the greatest things about working in a studio is asking colleagues what they think. Nuggets of amazing advice come your way that you would never ever think of and allow you to push your work in all kinds of interesting directions.
You've worked in games and in film. How have you had to adapt your skill set for each?
In the early days - and I’m talking up to the late 1990s - there was real separation of games and film. Games were often considered to be the poor cousin and not taken as seriously as film at that time. In those projects, animation was twelve frames per second and we were limited to animation not exceeding more than 20 frames or so. Games are always about maintaining a good frame rate while trying to keep the quality as high as possible and this was quite difficult early on.
Today, there is very little difference in the skill set and in fact lots of artists cross over all the time. To be able to move between games dev, film projects, then TV commercials and high-end cinematics is great for the sanity!
I think as always, it is all about being a great artist that is constantly upskilling and improving and having the technical knowledge to get the highest quality as efficiently as possible. This is true for frame-rate in real-time projects or getting good render times on pre-rendered projects.
How did you end up at the AIE?
Moving from junior to mid to senior and lead on various projects, you begin to spend time developing the team around you. Building teams for games or cinematics, I found I was doing a lot of mentoring of all levels of artists and enjoying this side of the work just as much. This was a natural fit coming into AIE which is really concerned with getting young artists as highly skilled as possible both creatively and technically.
I am blown away by the quality of the game artists we have and their technical expertise develops very impressively. So in return, I get those extra levels of energy that they all have in abundance and it constantly feeds my passion for learning.
What is your personal approach to teaching?
When I was starting off in the industry a long time ago, and I was being annoying and trying to get help from all kinds of people - remember there were no courses around at this time - one artist from EA in the UK offered to mentor me for free. I was overwhelmed with his generosity and asked him why he was doing it. He said that perhaps later on down the track, I would possibly be in a position to again share some knowledge back with him and this is how the industry works.
So it was that selfless attitude that I still remember today. He definitely prepared me to get my first job and offered lots of advice and shared lots of his secrets. I like to think that the classroom is pretty dynamic and absolutely works both ways. We work on cool projects with the students and share knowledge back and forth and we are all constantly learning.
Lastly, what other advice do you have for current or prospective AIE students?
This is a really competitive industry. This has become a cliche but it still rings true: "Good enough is *not* good enough!" Doing the bare minimum is going to get you nowhere.
We have fantastic facilities at AIE, with great software and passionate teachers with a lot of industry experience. Students should take advantage of all of these and this incredible learning environment. You should be proactive, be dedicated and challenge yourself to develop your creative and technical expertise. Look around and see what films, games and artwork inspires you, knowing that by the end of the course you need to be competing with these people. It won't come easy, so experience AIE to its fullest.