Get to know: Kaye Vassey Technical Animator at Epic Games

Kaye Vassey is a veteran of the feature animation industry, working on such franchises as “Shrek,” “Madagascar” and “How to Train Your Dragon.” She is currently a Senior Technical Animator at Epic Games. Having worked on “Fortnite” most recently, Kaye has been writing and drawing the online comic strips “Legend of Bill” and “The Gnome Syndicate” for a total of six years and is in production on her first graphic novel for Month 9 Books.

For more on Vassey and her work, visit Kaye Vassey Art & Animation on Facebook
or @kmvassey on Twitter and Instagram.

Let’s get started, a question we like to ask first is how you found your way into tech and animation! Was it always an interest or did you get into it later in college?

I decided when I was around 10 that I wanted to do three things…be an animator, be a comic artist, and make video games. So, as a kid, I concentrated on art, but also kept up my academics as a way to keep my parents happy. When college rolled around, I was accepted to many art schools that ended up being too expensive, and as a result, made my own art degree at Clemson University in SC. I took all my required art courses but filled all my electives with computer programming, film, and other courses I thought would be helpful to my goal.

Had you been programming and doing other tech work on your own because you wanted to make games or did your first encounter with it happen in college?

I had always played with my family computer, hardware wise, but I didn’t actually get into programming until college. In fact, unlike many high schools now, in my time, there were no computer classes. My art teacher had a Mac and Photoshop version 1.0, and I got to play with that, but that was about it. Once I got to college I started playing with POV-Ray, and that really opened my eyes to the need for programming.

Can you share your experience from school to first job? So often students feel that school didn’t get them ready to work, is that your experience?

Hmmm…did school get me ready for my first job…NO!! Right after college I moved to Orlando to pursue my goal of becoming an animator at Disney, only to find out I actually wasn’t great at drawing compared to all the other applicants. So, I ended up getting a job creating graphics and animation on the Hollywood Studios backlot area for all the TV shows Disney was making in Orlando. I worked very hard on my portfolio and eventually got the opportunity to work with Disney animators, as an assistant animator, on a movie called Eight Crazy Nights. From there, and through making great friends, I moved to Chicago to work with Big Idea Productions on their movie, Jonah: A Veggietales Movie. As they were closing down, and through great friendships again, I moved to San Francisco to work for Dreamworks Animation at the PDI facility. I was there for eleven years before making the jump to games at Epic.

So networking, networking, networking right? What allowed you to push through the setback of finding out you couldn’t draw well enough and keep going to find that first job without giving up?

That was one of the most beneficial setbacks in my life. It really taught me about being humble and having to continue to work to achieve a goal. I was able to push through all that with determination to succeed, and youth…I think being young and hungry helped as well.

And related, what was your second big jump from a feature film Mega Studio like Dreamworks to Epic Games like?

Honestly, it was tough. Jumping over to Epic was an eye-opening experience. I was coming from a large production driven machine to a smaller “just get things done” studio with a lot of success behind them. I had to adjust the way I approached my work to better fit in with the way Epic makes games. The tools and skills are very similar across film and games, but the day-to-day practice is different enough that you have to approach the transition with an open mind and a lot of humility.

So many people have a “grass is greener” view of game vs. film, what are some things that still stand out as different for you, not good or bad really, could be but maybe something you miss or that is missing between the two?

I think the biggest thing is planning versus spontaneity. The films of the animation industry tend to be planned way in advance. They are often written, story boarded, and in a preproduction phase for quite a while. In games, the power to be agile and respond to current trends and events is of much greater importance. This fact means that your to-do list may change daily, and you have to be prepared to switch tasks and roles at a moment’s notice.

This can be overwhelming to many people, or even students trying to learn with us at a faster pace. Can you give some tips or talk about your workflow or approach to handle this?

Handling the agility requirement is really personal growth and making sure you can adapt. Just like any talent, some people have it naturally, and others have to work at it. I always have to work at it, like many things in my artistic life. I think it’s about recognizing that overwhelmed feeling and taking a minute to walk away and organize your thoughts and feelings. Take a walk, breathe, and come back ready to tackle the issue at hand.

Epic Time:

Can you walk us through what your day or week looks like? Are you rigging or what does an Epic Games Tech Animator do?

I have been with Epic for five years now, and have worked on Fortnite since I started at the company. That being said, my day contains a lot of different things. I go to meetings, answer any questions from newer hires, work on dynamic sims, rig, spec out pipelines and processes, etc. Every week is full of adventure and opportunity at Epic.

How is your job structured, are you assigned to a game team or on a central tech group?

I am specifically assigned to projects, like games, demos, etc.

Has your work as a crowd TD and animator helped as you moved to Games? Alt/ Has having done animation before moving to the tech side helped you?

Absolutely!! Being able to understand the job of character animators and the reasons behind any requests they may have helps to foster a good relationship on the team.

How has your workflow progressed or advanced from when you first started out, any big “wow” wish I knew that moments?

Oh wow, yeah! The team at Epic is full of so many talented artists, you can always learn something new. I really believe the key to that is understanding that you can’t possibly know everything and you must keep that humility I mentioned above.

A common thread among Character TDs having to get up to speed on new pipelines, tools and workflows…what is your approach to do this effectively.

I like to break things and then ask questions of others to help me see what I did wrong. At PDI, we had the “ten minute rule”, which said that if you are struggling and getting breakages in tools and pipelines for at least ten minutes, ask someone for help. I still follow that.

Awesome- Same here, we like to get in and break things and try to make sure our students know being stuck is fine as long as you ask questions, there isn’t much point in the struggling silently, team work for the win!

Can you think of an example, something you thought was going to be a great fix or process and it turned out to be not so simple, or maybe it worked better than expected?

Oh wow, there are so many instances where my best laid plans went off the rails. I think that’s going to happen in technical animation. The real test is how you bounce back and approach the problem with what you learned. Failure is a great teacher. I would say that one process ended up working well that I had a small hand in creating was the facial animation sharing system for the game.

Can you share some insight into that as well as any other tricky problems that you encountered on Fortnite?

Actually, you should check out my talk from last year’s Unreal Dev Days on YouTube. I go over all the high level tricks we use to make Fortnite technical animation unique.

What have you found , training wise to have been the most helpful to you to grow as an artist?

Mentorship and humility. I always look to my mentors and trust their advice on most things. The growth happens when you take what they’ve taught you and then spin it to make it your own.

How do you foster this in the studio now, do you or does the studio continue to work to help grow your skills or encourage cross training, lunch and learns?

The studio has quite a few training options for artist growth. We do lunch and learns, show and tell meetings, and also have reps from different software companies come to talk about their new versions, etc.

Any last tips or advice you can give to someone that wants to improve their current skills to get their first job or move between film and games?

Practice, practice, practice. Look where you want to be, find out what engine and tools they’re using, and put in the time to learn. It’s not easy, but it’s totally worth it.

We have heard you draw a comic strip, what else can you tell us about that or other interesting things that you do to balance life and tech.

Well, my background is traditional art, so I just can’t let that go. For years I was the artist on David Reddick’s Legend of Bill comic as well as my own Gnome Syndicate comic. Once that got to be too much with the graphic novel, I had to choose the graphic novel. I hate not being able to accomplish everything I want to, but I’m still going to try. Your readers can catch both Legend of Bill and Gnome Syndicate at gocomics.com.

At Rigging Dojo we get a high percent of female students and some of our most successful students have been women. You have a dual view on this on top of another layer of challenges, starting off male in the industry and transitioning to female.

Yes, I did begin my career presenting male, but have been transitioning and affirming my gender for almost two years now, and you’re correct, it’s definitely a different perspective. As a male, in a male dominated industry, it’s interesting to have your privilege stripped away as you become more feminine. When I decided to come out, I knew there would be challenges, and I decided that it was something I would just have to face. I had to stop running away from myself. So, in December of 2017, I gathered together the TechAnim team, and told them I was transgender. I was super nervous, but knew it had to be done. Luckily, my team embraced me, and has supported me to this day. It’s my opinion that Epic has the greatest team of technical animators in the industry, but I may also be a bit biased. Hahahaha. Obviously there is a lot to this story that I can’t quite fit into this answer, and I’d be glad to tell it sometime. In fact, I’d love to see more representation in the industry as a whole, and see that celebrated at gatherings like GDC.

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

I just finished The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss.

How can people best find you and your work online?

The best place to follow me is on Twitter, Instagram, and Twitch at @kmvassey. You can also follow my art page on Facebook, Kaye Vassey Art & Animation…but I warn you, it’s not too current because of…well, you know…work. 🙂

Thank you so much for taking the time for us.

It has been my absolute pleasure!!

© 2019, Epic Games, Inc. Epic, Epic Games, the Epic Games logo, Fortnite, the Fortnite logo, Unreal, Unreal Engine 4 and UE4 are trademarks or registered trademarks of Epic Games, Inc. in the United States of America and elsewhere. All rights reserved.

P.S. Reminder that September starts of Rigging 101, Face Rigging 101, API C++ in Maya and we have several available mentors for Apprenticeships 1-to-1 personal training so apply now.

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