We caught up with CD Projekt RED lead animator Tomek Zawada at the Bradford Animation Festival recently to speak about how they brought the world of The Witcher to life.
As the lead animator, what are your roles? How does it differ from being a regular animator?
First of all, there are way more responsibilities. You have to watch out for the quality of animation on the whole game and of the animators obviously.As well as organizing charts and stuff as well, unfortunately!
What is it that first made you interested and excited about animation?
Well the animation! Putting life into things, it’s like you raise a child or something: obviously the slope is smaller, kind of fake. You can put emotion in it, put some personality into the characters – that is the most exciting thing.
Could you explain the process of animation to us at all?
Motion capture is a very popular method: you record the movements of the actors. There is a studio of eighteen or more cameras around and they will record the movement of the actors, then you modify that and put it in the game. That’s the most popular for human characters. I love the “Hand Key” animation method, it’s all made by you, there’s no recording or anything like that.
It all starts with the concepts. The concept artists make concepts of the characters for the animation, the modellers are making the models and texture and stuff. Usually we have the raw model, that is not moveable or anything – just mesh with some textures, no detail or anything like that. The first thing we have to do is create a skeleton: it has to be as close to the real human skeleton, or if it’s a monster then it’s a bit more creative.
Once you have the skeleton made you do something called skinning. You get the pieces of mesh and attach them to the skeleton, to the right bones. So when you move the skeleton, the right spots of the mesh start moving.
Then the animation starts. There are a few methods, but two of them are the most popular. Pose to pose is like the traditional 2D animation: you make poses of the character that you feel fits the character, then you make the movement between the poses – think tiny movements adding up to make one fluid movement – so that’s the most popular way.
I actually love the other less popular way called layering. What you do is you take the character, you don’t set up the poses right away, and you start moving the whole character, kind of like you’re playing with an action figure. So the whole thing starts to move without setting up the poses yet. What it gives you is the ability to set up the movement with the right timings and the anticipation of everything really fast. You have the feel of animation really fast, so you can put it in the game right away. The designers and developers can experiment with that while you begin to polish off the game. So for games, the layering method is really effective. This is the method we used for the Witcher 2.
When using that method, did you encounter any real major difficulties?
Yes, it’s actually way more difficult than pose to pose. When using pose to pose, it is way easier to imagine the movement of the character, so you can set up the right poses right away. That is the method teachers around the world tell you to use in the beginning – I actually started off using that method, but I found it lacking in some functionalities. So I switched to the layering.
Is this a really exciting time to work with CD Projekt RED?
It’s a perfect time, there are two huge projects in the stage of pre-production so there’s a lot of design going on, not just visual design, but for all of the games being created now. It’s a perfect time to get in.
Are you sad to not be working on The Witcher anymore?
I don’t see the point – there’s no reason to be sad or anything like that, because we still have a lot of contact with the fans from the Witcher community: there’s still a lot going on with The Witcher still. A lot of people around the world are interested in the game, and we’re getting a lot of e-mails and post mail, so there’s still a lot going on.
Have you actually seen anything of Cyberpunk 2077?
I can’t tell much. It’s going to be sandbox, it’s going to have more of an RPG feel – even more than The Witcher 2 – because there’ll be character development and different specializations. Everything is set up in the night cyberpunk reality, that’s all I can say really.
Is it interesting to see the company go from a fantasy game like The Witcher to Cyberpunk?
It feels great, actually. Some people looked forward to switching to something different because they were doing fantasy games for around 10 years. So there are a lot of great ideas in there already, but actually most of the team working on Cyberpunk is a new team. The core team of the Witcher series are focused on the fantasy game, and the team for Cyberpunk is being built right now.
Is there any advice you’d like to give anyone really keen or interested in animation?
Yeah, the games industry is greater for animators than they could think of. When you think animation, you instantly think of animated movies usually, but the actual work on the animated movies is a lot stricter than games. In movies you have a tight script, the director and there’s usually a team working on one character so you have to keep to one style of animation, so there’s way less freedom in animation than in games. For example, in an RPG game you get a character to animate by yourself, so you can have whatever you want as long as it fits.