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Get to know: Nina Fricker – Lead Technical Animator at Insomniac Games

Get to know: Nina Fricker – Lead Technical Animator at Insomniac Games

Let’s start off with some questions from our friend Izzy Cheng

Hi Izzy!!!

What is some advice you’d give to people getting into Technical Art or Technical Animation?

AH!! Where to start?? This is a topic I could talk about a LOT.

The main advice I give to aspiring character TDs is to work with a modeler and animator on some characters. This has a numerous benefits. First, the group will push each other to be better at their craft. The rigger is going to find areas where the model needs improvement to get good deformation. The animator is going to find problems with the rig that will require better weighting and controls from the rigger. Everyone can help critique performances. Find people who will really push quality. Ideally at the end of all of this, all three will have great demo reel pieces that each individual wouldn’t have been able to achieve on their own. Another benefit is that you’re basically emulating production. This is how it works in a studio, so getting this kind of experience, and more importantly, getting comfortable and adept at the iteration cycle between departments shows companies that you’re production-ready! Find a way to highlight this collaboration on your resume and demo reel. I’d love to see examples of how the iteration loop between everyone improved the end character and performance. Make sure to talk about this in your interviews! Let people know what animators hated in your rigs, and how you addressed their concerns. It eases my mind, as a hiring manager, to know that you’re comfortable receiving and responding to criticism.

As a veteran in the game industry, what keeps you from burning out?
I have a lot of interests outside of work that keep me balanced. I love to work out, cook, learn, garden. Work/life balance is really important in order to sustain a long career in the game industry. I have been incredibly fortunate to work for studios that take good care of its employees.

Do you have a favorite project you worked on at Insomniac and why?
Ratchet & Clank: Into the Nexus

This was my favorite because it was the project that I felt like the North Carolina studio really hit its stride. As a group we had gone through shipping a few titles together, and had learned to work and collaborate with each other incredibly well. In addition to the working relationship of the team, the project had a really fun plot line and character line up. Into the Nexus had two awesome female characters (Talwyn & Vendra) which was a great new challenge for me. They both had to deliver a wide range of emotion. The animators on the project brought out some spectacular performances from them which I’m still very proud of to this day.

What traits make a good *Lead* Technical Animator?

To me the most important trait of a good lead, regardless of discipline, is that your focus is on making your team successful. Going from an individual contributor to a lead required a major mental shift in what being good at my job looks like. This didn’t come easy after almost a decade of straight-up production work. I still struggle with not being able to do as much work myself. As with all aspects of my career, I’ve received wonderful guidance and mentorship from so many people at Insomniac. They’ve helped me realize that I make a big impact as a force multiplier through leading. This came in the form of CONSTANT reassurance that the success of my team was first and foremost and that my feeling of not doing enough showable production work was a normal reaction. It’s become very fulfilling for me to see the amazing things the folks on my team accomplish.

Great Questions from Izzy, thank you for that, now let us get to some of our own.

Were you always into computer graphics and games or how did you find your way into the industry.

I pretty much decided that I wanted to work in 3D when I was 12 years old. This was when I saw Jurassic Park in the theaters (yes, I’m old). The “Welcome to Jurassic Park” scene where we first see the brachiosaurus blew my mind. Eventually I saw a “making-of” for the film and fell in love with the magic of bringing digital characters to life.
Just a couple years later Toy Story was released in theaters. A full CG animated film. Once again, mind blown.
Around this same time, I had a wonderful teacher in middle school who taught AutoCAD to 7th and 8th graders. Back in the early/mid 90s, this was basically unheard of. Having access to his high-end Linux machines and learning this sophisticated software gave me confidence that I could make things on a computer and learn complicated concepts. I give him a lot of credit for my comfort level with technology at a very early age.
At this point I set a life goal of being a VFX Supervisor at ILM. Granted, at the time, I had absolutely NO idea what that meant. It was just a job title that I saw under the names of people in behind the scenes pieces, so I thought that’s what I was going to be when I grew up.
While in high school, a good friend of mine showed me how to use trueSpace 2 and Bryce 3D. We got both installed on my home machine which freed me to start tinkering around on my own. Also in high school, the cincher of my career direction came out in theaters. The Matrix. Up until then, being techy and computer obsessed was just nerdy. The Matrix was not only technologically inspiring, but it made me feel like being techno-savvy was super bad-ass! I very much wanted to be part of the vfx/cg animation world.
The combination of all these things led me to Full Sail to study Computer Animation. I wanted to get into a job where I was working on 3D characters as soon as possible. It wasn’t until I got to the Character Setup class that I learned that rigging was where I wanted to go with my career. This is also when games as a career started to surface as an option. I didn’t much care which area of entertainment I went into as long as it meant I could work on 3D characters.

Can you share your learning curve and experience over the years as a TD going from finishing school to getting your first job?

The transition from school (where I had both Rigging Dojo founders Brad Clark and Chad Moore as instructors) to my first job lasted roughly 3 months. In this respect, I consider myself INCREDIBLY fortunate.
While still in school, during my rigging class, I had a lab instructor who left towards the end of the course to work at a company called Turbine. Since rigging was something that really sparked my interests, I kept in touch with him throughout the rest of my time at Full Sail. I’d send him my group project rigs and he was gracious enough to give me feedback and advice when I ran into technical issues. Not long after I graduated, this lab instructor turned mentor was looking for an entry level rigger to join his team at Turbine. Thankfully he saw some potential in me and hired me to fill that position!
In my first couple years at Turbine, I learned a ton about the ins and outs of production. There’s so much more to being a developer than the specific craft you’re trained in. It was quite intimidating at first to learn all of that and a game engine. At Full Sail, we didn’t get any exposure to engines or production pipelines. I get the impression that has changed at most schools, and both are now a regular part of 3D programs.

What does your day or week look like now that you are on the Tech Animator side vs. more of a rigging or pipeline TD?

Tech Animation at Insomniac means supporting the rigging pipeline and Maya tools for artist, primarily animators and riggers, but in some cases other departments as well. As a lead, my main responsibilities throughout a week involve jumping around to a number of different things. Depending on what’s going on and where we are in production, things can change week to week. Here are some of the things that I do regularly:
Meet with various feature teams to evaluate progress, plan goals, collaborate on a plan of execution for the next set of goals, etc. It’s in this area that I get closest to our games. The work is very close to the heart of what our audiences will experience.
Meet with the riggers on my team to discuss their goals, both short and long term. This is also where I get feedback from them on how things are going on the team/project/studio.
Provide rigging support for projects. I generally try to stay out of important tasks because the amount of time I can spend on production work can vary greatly day to day. I’ll take on smaller rigging tasks when they pop up. This helps the people on my team stay more focused on the larger things they’re working on. I also really enjoy working on prototypes for a new idea.
Fix bugs both in the game and in our tools.
Work with other leads and the project manager to schedule. Because production is constantly changing and evolving, we evaluate and adjust on a weekly basis.
Collaborate with the character TDs in both studios on direction of our tools.
Participate in code reviews.

Can you talk about developing for VR projects vs. a more traditional game and some things you learned or overcame that might have been a surprise?

As a studio working on our 4th VR title, we’ve learned an incredible amount about developing games for VR. To me the most surprising aspect of working in VR is how easy it is to trick your brain into accepting what you’re seeing is real. Back on Edge of Nowhere development, we had areas of the game where you’d walk along cliff sides that overlooked steep edges. My hands would get really clammy and sweaty every time I ran across them. I truly believe that VR is something you need to experience first hand to really understand it. It’s a very visceral experience to have your fear of heights triggered just by playing a game. It’s an exciting medium to play in and we’re pushing the boundaries exploration in VR with our latest title, Stormland.

This is a behind the scenes teaser (I make a brief appearance):

And here is our trailer!

At Rigging Dojo we get a high percent of female students and some of our most successful students have been women, what has your experience been as a female in Tech and games?

I am extremely fortunate to have spent so much of my career at Insomniac where gender is a non-issue. My leaders and colleagues create a safe, professional and collaborative culture in which everyone is able to thrive. It’s not something I take for granted. What I find the most troubling is that women still only make up a small percentage of the industry. I think we’re hovering somewhere around 15-20%. I thought after 17 years I’d see a more balanced population, but the increase has been meager at best. This makes me sad, and it’s why I got involved with a mentoring program. The least I can do is play a small part in helping more women make their way into this line of work that I love.

You have been a mentor for artists like Izzy who we just interviewed, do you still do mentoring and what was that experience like?

Izzy and I were paired up through a mentorship program called Game Mentor Online which is unfortunately no longer running. It was an excellent program started by Women In Game International that I really enjoyed and wanted to continue with. Since it never came back online, I haven’t been actively seeking a mentoring program, but I would like to find one that has a similar structure and vibe to it. I miss it, and as mentioned above, it’s a way for me to help women break into our industry.
As a side note, Izzy was WELL on her way to a budding career as a Character TD when I started working with her. She’s incredibly smart, hard-working and relentlessly learning new things. I’m so incredibly proud of her! <3

If you could give your past self any advice on working, life and the games industry what would it be?

There was a long time where I was very self conscious and fearful of not knowing things. If a topic came up in conversation that I didn’t understand or wasn’t familiar with, I’d just listen and try to figure things out. It really weighed on my self esteem. On the outside I’d nod along like I was keeping up but, internally I was upset and convinced that I was stupid. I felt like a fraud and that soon I’d be discovered and fired. Eventually… we’re talking years… I had a bit of a mental shift. There came a point when I got so tired of feeling so terrible about myself despite my career still moving forward. I can’t remember the catalyst, but I started experimenting with speaking up. I tried it out a little, here and there, and saw no perceivable adverse effect. As time went on, I got more and more comfortable with putting myself out there and asking questions when something was raised or referenced that I didn’t know or understand. Now, I’m on the complete other end of the spectrum. I ask about anything I don’t know. Completely shameless.

There were a few surprising things that came from this 180 (okay, maybe not THAT surprising, but it was for me)…

1) Nothing bad ever came of it. Not once. No one ever shamed me or made fun of me or thought less of me. In most cases, people have been happy to explain and help me.
2) I learned a lot from my peers. So often people we’re more than happy to take the time to teach me.
3) A lot of people were in the same boat. So many times I’d hear echos from others of “oh yeah, I don’t know either”. There are even times when people who seemingly appear to nod like they understand will admit they don’t when the topic is cracked open! Why do we do that?! I think that showing vulnerability is difficult and uncomfortable, so we tend to do what’s more comfortable. We nod and pretend to know.
My advice to my younger self would be: Let your vulnerable and authentic side show. It’s okay to be imperfect and not know everything. We’re all in good company. Give your peers the benefit of the doubt that they’re more helpful than harmful.

Last question – what book are you reading right now or last finished?

I usually keep both a fun book and informational book going at once.

I just finished Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. I highly recommend listening to the audiobook version. Now I’m looking for something to read/listen to next. Any recommendations?
On the informational side, I’m reading Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz. It’s an interesting dive into the psychology of being wrong. This kind of stuff is fascinating!

How can people best find you online?

Twitter would be the easiest way, although I don’t post too often: @NinaFricker

 Thank you so much for taking the time for us.

You bet! The pleasure was all mine!

p.s. Want to see someone interviewed, let us know so we can talk with them! Our next interview will be with Sophie @ Insomniac Games California

A character TD/rigger on the awesome  title! Congrats!

Then next after her in our women in Tech Art series will be Julia Bystrova, Lead Character Rigger at Tangent Animation who just finished up work on the all Blender CG film from Netlfix called “Next Gen” by 

We hope to have more Blender training available this coming year as it expands and matures its animation and rigging tool set along with major UI improvements (Blender Rigging for Netflix Next Gen )

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