Ubisoft Winnipeg has recently appointed new Managing Director Michael Henderson to lead their work in developing the technology and tools used by Ubisoft’s global teams to create immersive, believable worlds. The studio was originally launched in 2019 with the goal of supporting the more than 40 Ubisoft studios working on popular series such as Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, Far Cry, and more. We sat down with Henderson to find out more about his background in animated film, his passion for telling stories through technology, and his vision for the team over at Winnipeg. And his dog!
Can you tell us a little about your background?
Michael Henderson: I’ve spent the last 20 years or so in feature animation and visual effects, primarily at Disney and Dreamworks animation studios. I joined Disney right out of college, and spent a few years in their core technology group, working on their internal production pipeline systems for animation. When I joined, it was my team’s responsibility to start moving them towards computer-generated animations, and getting computers into the pipeline from the start of a project. But my desire was to go into production, so I moved over to Dreamworks Animation, where I started in the production engineering team – the people who built the processes and workflows for productions.
I worked my way up into technical supervision, then moved into the world of the studio, where I was able to travel around the world to places like India and China, opening international studios there before I came back to the United States as a production executive. That role was a continuation of my efforts to bring the worlds of production and technology together.
After that, I came up here to Winnipeg in December 2019. I did a tour of the studio and talked to the team here, and it seemed like a perfect fit for me, with the team working on production and technology and trying to find synergy between those two things. I came on board as Director of Technology, and this year took on the role of Managing Director for the studio.
What made you want to shift from film animation and visual effects to games?
MH: There are a couple of reasons, one is that I worked through this boom era for feature animation; the 1990s through to the 2010s was the second golden era for the animation industry, with animated films being some of the highest-grossing in terms of box office. It was an exciting time of growth, and it was super fun to be a part of an industry experiencing that, having to constantly keep up with and reinvent technology to meet the demand. I was looking to what is booming now, and it was clear to me that it’s the games industry; every year, people are playing more and more games. Companies are creating incredible products that wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago, and I knew that it was what I wanted to be a part of. Secondly, I’ve been playing games my whole life, so it’s one of those lifetime goals coming true, really.
Are there many parallels between your past work in film and your new role?
MH: There are definitely parallels that I’m continuing to see. In my previous roles in film and animation, my focus was making sure that these different organizations with often very different motivations and goals were working together to make the movie, enabling artists to create something incredible. That was my motivation and what excited me, when you can sit back and say that you and your team enabled a team of artists to make an incredible movie. There are a lot of similarities in the work we’re doing at Winnipeg, our mandate being to push the boundaries of tech innovation to enable our game creators at Ubisoft to make even more incredible games, and that completely fits into my motivations and what I like to do.
What is the role of the Winnipeg team within Ubisoft?
MH: It’s what brought me here to Winnipeg; it was a big decision for me on what I wanted to do next. I went to all the tech companies, all around the world, and I came here because our role is to create technology for the productions of Ubisoft. What we do differently at our studio is, we partner with productions and work at their pace. We want to make the most enabling, most exciting technology we can, but also be able to deliver that on a scale where studios can use that tech to make their games. I love the pace of production and the deadline-driven environment, and I love that here at Winnipeg, we’re dedicated to working at that pace as a technology studio, and I think that’s what really differentiates us.
What would you say to someone without a background in games who may not see video games as a viable career move?
MH: For me, I think it’s something where you can find tangential similarities between visual effects and games. People would be surprised how similar the problem sets we’re solving in games are to the film industry. The products are very different, but the production experience, the technology challenges, and the experience of working in a production studio are all very similar.
There are definitely differences: for example, in film, our target was to make one frame of film every two days, but it almost doesn’t matter how long it takes to make a frame, as long as it looks the way you want it to look. In games, you have to be making 60 frames a second, so there are technologies used in games that are well beyond what is necessary for film. Technologists can see that as an additional challenge; games these days look unbelievable – almost real – and you have to do that at exponentially faster speeds.
Here at Winnipeg, we recruit a lot of people from web tech, and we have tremendous success with people from that area. Game production is solving hard tech challenges, and it’s also solving hard artistic and creative challenges. For programmers, if you’ve solved those challenges making apps or websites, then those same core problem-solving abilities transfer over really well. It’s the confidence to know that, while it can seem daunting to try and crack into the games industry, it’s really worth it, and there are a lot of transferable skills and knowledge.
What qualities and expertise does a managing director for a studio primarily focused on tech need to bring to the role?
MH: Experience in technology is of course valuable; it’s helpful to be able to jump into meetings and know what everyone’s talking about. But I think the most important thing I’ve found is relationship-building. This studio is built on the foundation of working in collaboration with other studios, and maintaining those healthy, positive collaborations with game productions and other studios is a critical component of the role.
What is your ambition for the studio as managing director?
MH: I want to grow. We’re a new, smaller studio at the moment, which brings all kinds of advantages. We can be adaptive and agile. We can incorporate new, positive things into our culture more easily than a bigger team, perhaps. But at the same time, we have a very ambitious growth plan for the studio, and I’m looking forward to moving that ahead. The other ambition is – of course – our tech. Our studio is founded on the idea of innovation, and I want us to always be looking ahead to what the next breakthrough could be, and how our teams can create it and bring it to our productions.
One of the goals of the Winnipeg studio when it was opened was to empower other Ubisoft teams to make better games. How do you achieve that?
MH: It’s three-fold. So in these partnerships we have with other studios, we have mandates that are tackling some of their biggest tech challenges – they have a creative need for technology that doesn’t exist, and we’re enabling them by building that technology. But there’s other ways we do it, too; we have tools teams here, and oftentimes in production, everything needs to get done but not everything can be done. Sometimes what gets cut are things like tools for artists, creating efficient workflows for them and enabling them to work effectively and efficiently. We build tools for them to help with that, when the teams themselves maybe don’t have the bandwidth or time to focus on that area. We have UX designers who work with our co-dev mandates to make sure we understand how artists work, so they can work with what we build for them effectively.
As I mentioned, one of our foundational pillars is innovation. There are some technologies where we start working on them before anyone has come to us with that request. We have great ideas; we believe in bottom-up ideation, and any one of our team members can pitch a new idea for innovations. Then it goes through a pitch process, and if it’s approved, we invest in it and build the tool. Then we go to productions and show them what we have and how it can help them with what they’re building.
How much of the tech and tools you build come from within the team, and how much is based on other teams’ needs or requests?
MH: We value both sides of this tremendously. For our co-dev mandates working with active productions, a lot of that is design coming over to us, and we help them solve that with new technologies. But likewise, our innovation pipeline builds things from our own team members’ expertise that we then take out to productions.
Are there any unique challenges that come from working with so many Ubisoft studios all over the world?
MH: Something that’s been really interesting for me is how Ubisoft works at such geographical a broad geographical spread with so many studios around the world, and how well it works. Previously at Dreamworks, we had a small handful of studios, and it was very challenging to keep everyone in sync, aligned, and moving in the same direction. When I arrived here at Ubisoft, I discovered there are something like 50 studios, and thought it would be impossible – but learning how Ubisoft does that has been really elucidating.
I think it’s a unique challenge for every studio at Ubisoft, but we have a lot of smart ways to solve that, with co-dev groups – on the big productions and for the studios – whose job is to maintain those relationships. There’s also a surprising amount of autonomous decision-making for studios. Studios understand the HQ strategy, and are allowed to make decisions that feed into that. All the strategies put in place are impressive, but I still think it’s a challenge for us and all the studios that are focused primarily on co-development and collaboration.
Has the new generation of consoles provided any opportunities or interesting developments? Is it a big change?
MH: Ultimately, a new generation of consoles means more power, more processing, more memory, faster disk access. All these things are enabling factors for game design; they all allow developers to do more, show more, render better, however they want to spend those things. As we move into better technology, we can have games that look amazing, but with even greater depth and more possibilities. As we build better tools and provide developers with new technology, it opens up their imaginations to gameplay experiences that they can create. We’re building the tools for them to run these new experiences on, and we have more and better hardware to work with these days, and that’s really exciting.
Can you talk about any specific developments that have come out of the latest console generations, and how Winnipeg is helping Ubisoft stay ahead of the curve when it comes to innovating with the new hardware?
MH: Well, we’re currently working on a project with tremendous ambitions in every direction, and it’s a really exciting partnership, because the technologies we are working on are technologies that in some ways the new generation can handle, but in many ways even this generation isn’t enough on its own. As we work with those productions – which are far off right now – we’re able to create these technologies that require things like cloud infrastructures to process, and can’t necessarily be processed by a single console or PC. So it’s really pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, and we’re already working on things like that for projects far into the future, which is pretty exciting.
As someone who has spent a lot of time in places like India, Hawaii, and California, was it a big change for you to move to Winnipeg?
MH: It might surprise you that my answer is, it’s colder here! But I love it here. I have mostly lived in warm-to-blisteringly hot places for most of my life, but the grass is always greener, right? When you’ve lived in deserts your whole life, you’re always thinking, “Wouldn’t seasons be nice?” I’ve been here now from summer through winter, and it’s been really great. I’m enjoying the more temperate climate. It’s been really cold lately, and maybe that’s not the best part, but spring will be great, and it’s nice to have that change in climate instead of just one season all year round.
Now, we’ve saved the most important question for last: how is your dog handling this move?
MH: There are a couple things he’s had to adjust to moving out here; I take him to dog daycare, and I call it his job. So he has work to do too. He loves his job quite a bit, though, which is great. He didn’t seem affected at all by the cold weather here until a few weeks ago when it got really cold. Then he walked out and just froze in his tracks completely. But he is fascinated by snow. He loves digging in it and rolling in it, since they don’t have much of that in Hawaii.
His name is Samui, which is a name that came from a place I used to love to visit while I was living in India. It’s a small island in the Gulf of Thailand that was just a few hours’ flight from where I was living in Bangalore, so I named him in remembrance of those relaxing weekends spent on the beach in Samui, unwinding from the chaos of urban life. He’s a world traveler, too, and he’s gone with me to China and Hawaii.