Presenting at GDC 2017: A Postmortem

Once a year thousands of people, from all over the world, gather in San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference. Every aspect of game development is put on display where the community can share and learn from each other. Business, art, community development, writing, leadership and so many other facets of the industry are covered. It's a significant investment in time and money for companies and individuals to attend this yearly event. Many would argue it's worth every dollar. In recent years the organisers have added bootcamps before the conference begins for specific roles in the industry. These day long bootcamps dive deep into a specific craft with speakers from the industry sharing their experiences on the current state of the art and how to navigate the future. These bootcamps add even more value to the conference as well as to the price tag for admission.

I had been given the opportunity to speak for 1 hour as part of the visual effects bootcamp. The dedicated role of a visual effects (vfx) artist in the video game industry is relatively new. There are very few schools that offer programs to equip students with the multi-disciplinary skills needed to fulfill the role as a vfx artist. It's not uncommon for a vfx artist to find her way into the role after working in the industry for a couple of years. The bootcamps are a way for our fledgeling community to come together and progress the art form as a group. The things that you see on screen that result from the work of a vfx artist include muzzle flashes on weapons, explosions, fire, the destruction of buildings and the magical effects that surround a player in a fantasy game. To achieve this a vfx artist is expected to have a solid artistic background in design and animation, the technical skills to understand and sometimes write code, and have a general working knowledge of the other artistic disciplines that make up a video game studio.

For my presentation, "Zip! Thwack! Ping! Animation Principles of VFX", I set out to show the connection between the principles of animation and the work done by visual effects artists. I believe these principles are one of the building blocks required to create great work. To date, there are still very few resources online or otherwise that make a direct connection between the principles and vfx in games.

My goal was to provide a resource that students and industry veterans could refer to as an introduction or a refresher of the principles that make for good visual effects. In the previous year a talk had been given that covered the art and design principles of vfx. My presentation would focus on animation. Another aspect and just as relevant.

The principles of animation aren't new. Disney developed these principles in the 1930's, refining them on movies like Snow White, Fantasia and Dumbo. It's one of the first things an aspiring character animator wanting to work on a Pixar film learns. But I couldn't be sure that my audience would have the same background and so I took it upon myself to spend some time covering the very basics before moving on to showing examples that made a direct connection between these principles and actual visual effects.

For the presentation I spent just over a third of my time covering these principles. Then I expanded on these principles by showing simple ways that artists could practice these concepts without getting lost in the details or the technology. Our craft relies heavily on computers and software to create the final product. I reminded the audience that pencil and paper is still a great place to test ideas. I had noticed in my own experience that even when people were familiar with the principles they would dive straight into making the final product without testing out their ideas in a way that allowed them to iterate and fail quickly in the search for the best approach. So I spent another third of my time building a bridge between the principles and the final product by showing ways to get a rough idea of the final outcome.

That left me with only a third of the time to show actual examples of visual effects in games and how the principles had informed their final look. I chose to show a few examples that I thought covered the most common types of effects and the different ways the principles were employed. Speakers are asked to leave 5 to 10 minutes at the end of each presentation for questions and answers. I was so excited to engage with my audience when the time came. Except not a single person sought out a microphone in the presentation hall. I knew then that I had missed the mark. My fears were confirmed a couple weeks later when I received audience feedback the conference collects after each presentation.

Based on audience ratings my presentation was ranked 17th out of 28 in the art track. 305 out of the 435 in total. Definitely below average.

Some of the comments included:

"Valuable for any vfx artist but especially beginners."

"Was a bit too basic for my needs."

"Good talk for beginners."

"I really like the theory and concepts, but I feel like we need more real world examples."

So if my initial goal was to connect the dots between 2 separate but complementary fields where did I go wrong?

Let's look at who it was for. I think there were 2 potential audiences. Students and those new to the craft. These are people who are hungry to learn with little experience and limited references to draw on. For them it's important to start from the basics before jumping to the final outcome. They respond to language that is jargon free, preferring references to more universal themes.

The second potential audience are industry veterans looking to add another arrow to their quiver. They have enough previous experience to understand the basic concepts and jargon surrounding the business. They want to see real world examples showing how this new piece of information might help them. But they can connect a lot of the dots themselves.

One of my failures was in trying to provide to both audiences at the same time. The more experienced artists had no need for the first 20 minutes of the talk and could have benefited from a shortened middle section allowing for more time to be spent on final examples.

In hindsight this is clear. The conference and the bootcamp is primarily for industry professionals. My presentation only partially aligned with this. If I'm presenting established ideas then it's my job to remind these veterans of the role these ideas play and possibly introduce novel ways of using and relating to these ideas. The experienced artist should have been who this was for first and the beginners second.

What I had done was constantly simplify my language with the beginner audience in mind. I would fully flesh out basic concepts so that I didn't lose the less experienced.

If I were to do this again here's how I would change my approach. I would create 2 videos for the first 2 parts and release those online. There's less of a need to share this information with a live audience. Then in the presentation, as I've mentioned already, I would do an abbreviated version of the first 2 parts providing links to the videos and spend the rest of my time focusing on real world examples using language that assumed the audience was already familiar with some of the basic concepts. I'd focus on the novel ways these ideas could be used in the hope that by the end of the presentation people in the audience would come away with something to think about and possibly even engage in the question and answer portion of the talk.