Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Interview: Costume Quest's Tasha Harris, Part 2

Last week, I got a chance to sit down for an hour with Double Fine animator and Costume Quest project lead Tasha Harris. The interview was long enough to break into three parts—in part one, she and I talked about how her cute-as-hell Halloween RPG came to into being, from studio head Tim Schafer's Amnesia Fortnight idea all the way through to Xbox Live Certification. If you've yet to read it, well, you totally should.

Tasha and I also talked a bit about her time as an animator at Pixar, and what it was like making the transition from movies to videogames. Part two commences in 3... 2... 1...

Tell us a little about your time at Pixar, and how you came to Double Fine.

I had been working at Pixar for about nine years. It's a great company, and I feel really lucky to have been there. I really enjoyed that time of my life, but after nine years I just felt like I needed to do something new. I felt like artistically, I was kind of in a rut.

What was your job at Pixar?

I was an animator.

So that was the first job you had out of college?

Yeah. Besides working for my dad at his steel company, yeah.

Where'd you go to school?

I went to Cal Arts; I studied traditional character animation. At that time, computer animation was just kind of starting, so I was doing hand drawing.

What was your career plan when you were at school?

I thought that I wanted to do TV animation, work on The Simpsons? That show was probably my favorite animated "thing," though Nickelodeon had some good cartoons at the time… I wasn't really looking to get into Disney-style animation. I was more of a fan of the more limited, kind of stylized stuff.

And that was sort of in the 90's right? That was when Disney was sorta peakig, with Aladdin, and The Lion King...

Right, and Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, that kind of era. But Toy Story had just come out when I was in college, so Pixar sent some representatives to our Job Fair/Portfolio Review, and they liked my film from my sophomore year and offered me a summer internship.

It was interesting because I had always grown up liking videogames and computers, so I was really interested in learning computer animation. It was like a merge of two of my interests. I felt like a lot of other animators were kind of scared of the computer a little bit, or at least, they were really attached to drawing. They weren't interested in exploring computer animation so much.

So I felt kind of like it was a happy coincidence… I was happy that they liked my stuff!

And did you take any computer animation classes in school?

No. I learned it from Pixar.


Basically, the summer internship was like a class. It was a training class, there was about ten people and we all learned at the same time. After that, I went back to school for one more year. So after my junior year, they offered me a job animating on a Bug's life.

Not a bad progression!

(laughs) So then, I decided to drop out of college. Yeah, my parents were not so happy about that, but…

So, you don't have a degree?

I do not have a degree.

Well done!

(laughs) I don't know if my parents would say that, but…

Heh. So, what movies did you work on when you were at Pixar?

So, I worked on A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, a short film called For the BirdsCars, I think, was my last film there.

And you were an animator on all of those?


What were some of the specific things you animated for those films?

I did a lot of work on the cowgirl character, Jessie, in Toy Story 2.

God, I love that character. She breaks my heart. Who was the voice actor?

Joan Cusack. Yeah, she did such a good job on the voice.

And that song! Oh my God.

Yeah (laughs), I know! I also had fun animating Boo, the little girl in Monsters, Inc. I tend to like animating cute stuff.

You know, the way she runs around, it's actually similar to how the characters move in Costume Quest.

I tend to like animating cute things, so a lot of times at Pixar, they would give me the cute character to do. And now, of course, my whole game is centered around how can I be as cute as possible...

Heh. So then you went to Double Fine. What prompted the switch?

Well like I said, I always really liked videogames. After a while working at Pixar, I felt like I wasn't learning anything new anymore. At Pixar you're just focused on your specialty, so animators are just focused on animation. Which is great for producing good animation, but after a while I kind of got bored of that, I wanted to learn other things and just kind of push myself.

And I always liked videogames… it was like I'd spend all day working on movies, but when I'd go home I'd play games and read videogame websites and stuff, and after a while I asked myself, "Why am I working on movies and not on games?" Because games are obviously what I really love.

So how did you make the connection at Double Fine?

 I met Tim through some other animators at Pixar.

That makes sense that the crowds overlap.

You know, creative people kind of end up crossing paths, especially in a small city like San Francisco.


So I met Tim, and I had played some of his old games like Grim Fandango and Full Throttle and had really liked them! I knew that he did funny, more stylized stuff, which was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to get into.

The other thing was that Pixar does their specialty, they do family-friendly, cute, sort of Disney-style films. That's sort of their thing, and I kind of was interested in doing something else. And Brutal Legend, to me at the time, it was totally something else.

And also, learning the process of game animation, and that whole thing… that was kind of what spurred me to move.

Between animating for film and animating for games, what was the biggest change in the actual work?

The biggest change was that I had to do everything a lot faster.

How so?

Well, at Pixar, we'd have I'd say probably an average of a week to do a single shot, where at Double Fine it was more like a whole SERIES of shots. Like, we'd have a whole cutscene to do instead of just a single shot. You have to look at the big picture more and not spend so much time noodling a little piece of your animation?

I was really used to kind of concentrating on a small piece of animation and getting that perfect. Getting, you know, the eyelids to look perfect or, like, the finger-animations to be all smooth. But in games, you have to do it a lot faster, especially at a small company!

I was going to say, the size must be pretty different, right?

Totally different. I think there're 100 animators at Pixar now, or maybe more than that, but at Double Fine, on Brutal Legend there were maybe ten. And, animators do character rigging and character modeling, so I got to learn a lot of that. So that was the other big difference; I was doing things that I had never done at Pixar.

On Brutal Legend, you were lead animator.

Right. I mean, not when I first went there. First, I was just an animator for a while, to learn the pipeline, and learning everythign first. After a while I took over as the lead. I guess it was maybe a third of the way through the project.

How was it running a team for the first time?

The main thing was just learning to do these new things. Especially working at a small place, you do a lot more different things. And then also, you have to work a lot more with the technical side of things. Just problem-solving, like, getting your animations to look right in the game. Working with a gameplay programmer to get everything working correctly is TOTALLY different that on movies… you don't really have to think about that.

You know, if we had a bug or a problem, Pixar had a whole team of people dedicated to solving it, so animators can just concentrate on their animation! They don't have to worry about technical things. But at Double Fine we definitely have to, every day. It's a lot more challenging in some ways, but I like that challenge, because it keeps me interested.

Coming up in the third and final part, Tasha and I talk about the little touches and pop-culture references that make Costume Quest so much fun, as well as her thoughts on making games that are more inclusive, and what the future may hold.
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