INTERVIEW:Get to know: Sol Brennan – Character TD at Insomniac Games
First off congratulations to you and the entire team on the news “Marvel’s Spider-Man is now the fastest-selling first-party PlayStation game EVER.” that is pretty rad, also Spider-Man was one of my favorites as a kid so it is even more awesome to get to talk with you about your work!
Let’s get started, a question we like to ask often is how you found your way into tech and animation and games. Were you always in to computer graphics and tech or did it happen as an AH-HA!
I was extremely fortunate as a child to have parents that were not only technology nerds – but encouraged me to use it. My older brother had a personal computer from a young age that we shared. I used to watch him play games and played with him where games featured co-op. We weren’t really allowed video game consoles as my parents wanted us to understand computers and how to operate them before we played a game so I grew up tinkering with technology and got my own computer (a Pentium II, if I recall) around the age of 7. I learned how to operate MS Dos and install games from floppies. I also had to debug and problem solve when things didn’t work – and the internet wasn’t easily available back then!
At the same time, I was always drawing. I would often draw video game characters straight from magazines or strategy guides.
When I was around 13, my mum gave me her Wacom tablet (once again – very privileged), and I started to draw on the computer using open source software like openCanvas and oekaki boards (online drawing forums).
I wasn’t sure I wanted to do art as a career – even though I would always sit through the credits on Disney films and read all the names going by. I was in a rut when my grandparents took me on a trip to the States to see family – San Diego to be exact! The dollar was cheap and I bought over $400 of video games to take home. One of these was Uncharted for the PS3. This game changed my world! I watched the behind the scenes credits and saw ‘Wow! People do this as a job!’. Seeing Amy Hennig talk was important because suddenly I realised ‘Hey! I could do this as a job!’. While my parents were super encouraging of everything I did I never really realised a women could make video games even though I spent my entire childhood playing them.
After that, I enrolled on a local college in Scotland for ‘Digital Art’ and the rest is history. My love for both technology and figuring out how things work, as well as my practise in traditional art made me gravitate towards technical art and rigging. As soon as I made my first biped rig I knew this was the role for me.
Can you share your learning curve and experience over the years as a TD going from finishing school to and getting your first industry job? So often students feel that school didn’t get them ready to work, is that your experience?
Oh yeah! Totally! While I did do a course that specialised in Games Development in my university – I was not prepared at all for a rigging role coming out. I barely knew what IK/FK switching was or even how to skin properly! I didn’t even know that most games (at the time) could not support blendshapes as correctives. Or that many engines had fairly limited vertex skinning counts (I didn’t even know that was a thing!).
When I took my art test at my first company (which was a 2-day onsite test) I started by using blendshapes and they had to course correct me. I didn’t even know! Looking back – I was totally woefully unprepared for the role. I was fortunate that they still accepted me and essentially gave me a 6-month apprenticeship in learning how to rig and skin. I’ve never seen such a thing since – so I’m super grateful for that.
I had also spent a lot of time sculpting, modelling, texturing and understanding the whole pipeline – whether I knew it or not – at school. And I had some fantastic friends in my last year of school who were in the industry and were able to offer me advice and help even in my first year on the job. I had learned python scripting in my last year too – which was a big bonus. These things helped sell me, I think. Cause while it was obvious I was super green to the job – I had a lot of working knowledge of how to create – I just needed some rules and standards established.
My advice to students out there – learn as much as you can while you’re at school! I know you feel like real experience on the job is more important (and it is, really!). But you’ll never have as much free time to study and explore again!
After that, it took me quite a few years to be comfortable in my role. Impostor syndrome was strong and I constantly double-guessed myself because of my gender. I was the only woman on the floor in my first company (it was across 3 floors). It took me until coming to the US and shipping my first AAA game before I started to feel more confident in my abilities. I’m not sure what the fix for this is. Everyone experiences impostor syndrome but the gender imbalance can feel really isolating. I encourage people (especially women, minorities and gender non-conforming people) to connect with some like-minded peers – whether they junior or not! I wish I had had more of that early on in my career.
Walk us through what your day or week looks like. How much time coding or pipeline work vs. rigging and character work are you doing for example?
It totally varies week-to-week, milestone-to-milestone, project-to-project. That’s the beauty of TD work! I’m always being challenged and learning new things.
Typically, I’ll get into work and check my email to check up on anything I might have missed from the previous night or in the morning before I arrive (we have flexible hours). I’ll make sure that if a new task or problem has arisen that I’ll talk to someone regarding it – whether it’s the person reporting it or another team-member who has more knowledge of it. Then I’ll start on my daily tasks. I often have one or two major things going on at once – while I’m also involved in planning and meetings for various other things. This can range to being in a design meeting where we are discussing ideas or mechanics for the game, a daily review, planning meetings for content that is coming down the pipeline or even longer scope things like improving our pipeline and engine tech and planning new systems.
However, a lot of my time is still dedicated to maintaining the rigs and (a little less) the tools, for animators and trouble-shooting their problems or issues. I’m much more character orientated than tools orientated generally – but this might change as my career develops! The fun thing about tech art is you have the power to often pursue what path interests you. Right now I’m mostly involved in rigs and character work – but in the future I could be really investing in our tools. It really depends on my aspirations and the needs of the project/company at the time.
Let’s Talk SPIDER-MAN!’
How long have you been working at Insomniac as a character TD?
Just a bit over two years now!
Tell us about your ramp up on the project. How you like to work, how much back and forth with animation was there, building on existing tools vs making it fresh etc.
I entered later in the project, in early production. A lot of standards had already been established. There was a lot of getting up to speed at the company. Insomniac has its own engine and we have A LOT of tools – both for content creation and publishing to our engine.
Honestly, there was a lot more back and forth from character art than animation! As a lot of our rigs were standardised – we had to solve problems at the character art stage rather than in animation. Also, because of the sheer number of content and characters in the game – we didn’t have a lot of time from animation for secondary or additional animation on the rigs. Much of our job was to make them do as little as possible when it came technicalities and leave the acting and performance to them.
That’s not to say we were perfect there! But we tried to limit the number of shots where they would have to fiddle with cloth controls or correctives and instead automated it through batch exporting or the rig itself.
At Insomniac, we also have a whole suite of tools built by many, many talented people over the years. We leveraged them to the max while we were working on Spider-Man – but we were constantly updating and fixing older tools to work more consistently or help speed up the workflow. This was a team effort and we luckily also had help from North Carolina on this aspect too! Specifically, we worked on caching and proxy tools a lot – to make our heavy cinematic scenes run faster – as well as our motion capture tools and pipeline.
How much stock Maya vs. custom inhouse tools or maybe runtime rigging in the engine are you using?
The tech art team on the whole tries to use Maya stock as much as possible. We have a lot of tools and scripts – but don’t necessarily rely on plugins or custom nodes within Maya.
Plugins can cause a lot of problems when working with outsourcers and require careful integration into our tools updates and installs so we don’t accidentally cause issues throughout the company. This isn’t to say we don’t use them – we do! We just make sure we are careful and introduce new ones as needed and ensure that their deployment is done correctly.
That being said, we do have a LOT of tools in-house developed in a range of languages from MEL, python, PyMel and the API. We’re currently going through a lot of our legacy tools and standardising them to PyMel/API since a lot of the scripts we have are quite old. But as I mentioned before, we have a lot of really good legacy tools written way back when that are still massively useful day-to-day – so it’s an ongoing process.
Do you have enough inhouse tools to use to build the rig or are you also scripting and or working with the tool team to get a rig done?
We have a fantastic modular auto-rigger in house that can build and rebuild the majority of our rigs with a simple button click that we are constantly updating and improving! It’s truly amazing!
On top of that, for special cases, we will do custom rigging ourselves that are build on the backbone of that system. Then, if a component is proven, we will add and write it into the system.
This system allows us to work amazingly fast and hop back and forth between the rig and joints with ease. Without it – I doubt we’d be able to rig nearly as fast across our multiple projects. It’s also very flexible – so its use isn’t just limited to Spider-Man!
We also work with our tools team for support on features such like run-time cloth and ragdolls. Our link with Core (our engine team) is super important to the team and we work as closely as possible with them to schedule out desired features and fixes during production.
Any tricks or trouble working with a character that has very visible texture patterns, I imagine deformations wasn’t easy. Can you share some insight into that as well as any other tricky problems that the game gave you or the team?
Being honest here – I didn’t really work on the most iconic and closely examined character at all – Spider-Man! That was our amazingly talented Sergio Sykes *(*Rigging Dojo Alumnus) – who is a wonder in himself. However, the rest of the team did work on deformations and correctives in a similar vein – so I can definitely give some insight there.
We managed a lot of the deformation through a balance of automated rig component (like our knees, buttocks and elbows). We would leverage both joint based deformation and blendshapes for this. Our joints did a lot of the heavy work, while our blendshapes would kick in to often fix things up and add volume back. This was honestly just trial and error. We worked with the character team who would supply us blendshapes. For characters such as the inner-demons, MJ or the labcoats – the cloth was ran through Marvelous Designer to give them a base and then we would ease out a lot of the irregularity in the shapes to prevent texture stretching and swimming edge loops. We also would ask for certain areas to be higher res that might be under scrutiny – as well as providing more UV space for areas that deform massively.
I wish we could say we had a magic bullet for it! We tried to standardise the shapes we produced so our character team knew what to expect – but a lot of it was education in how deformations worked and a lot of back and forth. It was definitely a lot of work!
Was the webbing something animators could control in Maya or pure in game programming…where was the line between animation and engine tech?
We had both! There were a couple of version of the web rig used in cinematics and combat animation for finishers and such. A lot of the traverse were programmatically spawned. Basically, any web that was an indeterminate length – either in combat or traverse – was part of our in-engine web system. That included the blending around buildings and it floating away once you move away. This was controlled by specified points on Spider-Man’s rig, and whatever he was webbing to.
Cinematics webs were animated with our web rigs – as we were able to get a lot more art-directed shapes and movement out of them there. And thankfully, our amazing team of animators were able to get the absolute most of these rigs to sell Spider-Man’s performance! I’m constantly in awe of what they are able to achieve!
What have you found , training wise to have been the most helpful to you growing as a character TD? Does Insominac have formal training support or inhouse mentoring?
Insomniac itself subscribes us to a TON of resources – including the GDC vault and a number of reference and tutorial websites. We also have in-house mentoring for people interested in other disciplines within the company.
Mostly, however, a lot of the training just comes from talking to the people around you! Everyone at the company is so ready and willing to share their knowledge and we have a whole library of in-house documentation explaining techniques and documenting specific parts of our pipeline. We also are equipped with cameras and headsets so we can easily call and communicate between the studios.
Any last tips or advice you can give to someone that wants to improve their skills as a TD?
I think, looking back at this, this was one of the hardest things for me to figure out in my earlier career. What’s really important is the ability to problem solve and communicate. If you have the luxury of working with people who are more senior than you – mine them for information! We LOVE to share! We have an intern program we run each year and I love teaching our interns about whatever they are interested in or maybe don’t quite understand yet.
Take apart existing rigs, reverse engineer scripts and challenge yourself to do things you don’t understand. And brush up on your Google Fu! While a lot of the solutions we develop are not tutorialised – often there will be a snippet of information online that helps you complete the puzzle you are trying to solve or inspires a new idea or technique.
Also – talk to animators! Find out what they want to do and make that happen. It’s hard to articulate what someone might technically want, but if you figure out WHY they want to do it – you can solve the HOW yourself. Never be afraid to ask questions or for help either. What we do relies on teamwork and everyone in the team should want to improve the product. Sharing information and ideas is the number one way to make things better. I know for a fact on Spider-Man most of the techniques I used as the core of a lot of my solutions were things I learned from other people!
Looking back on the Spider-Man project to where you are now, what are some things that you would tell yourself to change, keep the same, a worry that didn’t need to be worried about? A bit of post mortem slash time travel question 🙂
Haha – looking back… I don’t think I quite knew what I was getting into! So I’m glad for that – because it would have been a lot more intimidating!
I think the things I learned most…was actually that words are really powerful. Both for good and bad. I came in quite unsure of myself – and that could make people doubt me too. I also sometimes can be a little careless with my words – which could inadvertently hurt people. This isn’t out of maliciousness – but definitely I try to think more carefully about how I talk and phrase things to people.
For example, in the UK (where I’m from) – it’s very common to make fun of yourself or downplay your abilities. Here in the USA – those can come across very negatively in a professional context, so I’ve definitely adapted my attitude there.
Rigging is hard – but working with people is harder! Trying to align everyone towards a similar goal and getting everyone on-board – or exchange ideas… that’s tough!
Conversely – I was always worried about my technical ability lacking. This is especially exacerbated by being a women – where you feel like your skills are always under scrutiny. What I did learn though was that everyone brings different skills to the table! I may not be the strongest scripter – but I’m pretty good at talking to people and making sure things are communicated. Another person might be a whiz at scripting – but have difficulty communicating ideas. You don’t have to be the best at everything! Lean into what you’re good at! If you’re at a good place – they will recognise that too and give you work that compliments your skillset! Then you can be learning the stuff you’re not so confident with at your own pace – without the pressure of people relying on you for it!
At Rigging Dojo we get a high percent of female students and some of our most successful students have been women. If at all have you faced issues or challenges that male peers might not have?
Totally. It’s hard to put a finger on it but, as mentioned previously, you can feel like the standards for being professional are a lot higher as a women – especially in more technical fields. You will often find yourself questioning your ability or battling imposter syndrome while your male peers won’t (as least outwardly). You also have to be a lot more careful about how you choose your words. Very little of this is conscious bias – the games industry as a whole is amazingly progressive on the development side – but it remains as a societal issue regardless.
There will be a lot of micro-aggressions that will make you question yourself or whether or not you are right for this career path. Talk to any other woman and I guarantee you they will have had or currently have similar feelings. Find yourself other women that you can trust at work and remember that you are here because you ARE good and ARE talented. You are also fighting against the odds to even be here – so congratulate yourself on that.
Also, don’t change yourself to ‘fit in’ at work. If you feel uncomfortable that you have to be someone else to be part of the team (as I once did) then this place is not for you. There are plenty of companies out there that should and will appreciate you as you are – and want more diversity in the workplace.
Then, once you are in a place you DO feel comfortable – use your power for good! Speak out if you can! Be an ally for other minorities! Spread your knowledge! Work to improve the workplace and industry if you can afford to.
Last question – what book are you reading right now or last finished?
Can we do video game? Haha! I wish I read more but I’m honestly quite terrible at it. I tend to read non-fiction or self-improvement books more than anything these days. Next on my wishlist is ‘Crucial Conversations’. I also have a lent copy of ‘Shaders for Game Programmers and Artists’ glaring at me right now.
Video games however? I’ve been on a JRPG binge lately. Something about those worlds I can just get lost in – no matter how silly they are. Last completed was the DLC for Xenoblade Chronicles 2. I’m currently playing Red Dead Redemption 2 and Diablo 3 on Switch.
How can people best find you online?
I’m most active on twitter! @wuffles You can DM me there or just follow me for stupid cat/dog pictures and occasional rigging knowledge.
However, my email is always open should you have any questions. I’ll always take the time out to help people or answer questions – especially other character TDs!
Thank you so much for taking the time for us.
Thank you! It’s been a pleasure!
Extra fun from Rigging Dojo
Free fun with Spider-Man
A long time friend and great TD, Kiel Figgins, released a free Spiderman rig with a cool web rig animation setup. Go give it a look and check out the character and support a fellow TD.
Download the rig (maya 2014) here 3dFiggins.com/Store
Includes Full Character Rig of Amazing Spiderman and a Web Rig/Tool