December 3, 2021

12 Min Read

inside ubisoft

Bringing Emotion into Action: A History of Animation at Ubisoft

Have you ever paused to study the way the main character, Altaïr, walks in the first Assassin’s Creed game? I certainly hadn’t until Gilles Monteil, a senior expert in animation, encouraged me to look a little closer.

Monteil, who is currently based at Ubisoft Montpellier, started working at Ubisoft in 1997. When I reached out to him recently to talk about his career at Ubisoft and how he had seen his field evolve over nearly 25 years, I got a sense of the deep knowledge that comes from having seen 3D animation evolve from low-poly characters like Rayman in the 1990s to the highly polished and complex facial and body animations we see in games today. Throughout that time, Monteil has remained an advocate for artisanship in game-making. Even as technologies like AI, machine learning, and procedural generation take up increasingly large roles in game development, it is clear from talking to him that creating a polished, immersive experience requires a handcrafted touch.

Monteil is also a rich source of anecdotes and tidbits about the history of Ubisoft and its many franchises. Over the course of our conversation, he revealed that he was the one who performed the motion capture for Altaïr’s walk.

“No one walks like that, with the arms pulled back and the head tilted forward,” Monteil said of the animation work for the medieval assassin. “It was a choreography that I created with the animation directors on the game, Alex Drouin and Sylvain Bernard. We wanted to represent an eagle in the way the character moved, to communicate Altaïr’s bravery. It was entirely handmade.”

“I Didn’t Have Much Going on That Week”

Monteil was not headed for a career in videogames before he joined Ubisoft Montpellier in 1997. He had gone to mime school, had worked as a stage actor for over 10 years, and ran his own theater company, specializing in a form of modern, physical performance akin to contemporary dance. One day, he replied to an ad from the studio; he thought they were looking for actors to perform motion capture.

“As it turned out, the team was actually looking for cartoon animators, which I knew nothing about!” Monteil says. “But they needed people so badly that they actually offered to train me for a week on their animation software, and then see what I was capable of. I didn’t have much going on that week, so I said yes.”

The project the team was working on was Tonic Trouble (1999), which was being developed using the same engine that would later be used to create Rayman 2: The Great Escape. It was an important milestone in game development and the advent of 3D games, but Monteil had more immediate technical hurdles to overcome.

“I didn’t really know computers very well. Even using a mouse was new to me,” Monteil recalls. He was the first trainee to be “tested” in this way, but several artists were also given the chance to learn to become animators. “I had a friend who was fresh out of the National School of Fine Arts in Paris. On her first day, she turned on her screen when they asked her to turn on her computer!”

At the end of the week, the art director noticed Monteil’s work and asked him if he’d animated anything before. “I said no. He invited me to talk to the studio’s management, and an hour later I was hired,” Monteil says.

Three months after that meeting, Monteil was wearing several hats: director of animation, technical director helping build the animation software, and art director, supervising a team of 25. It was a time of rapid expansion for Ubisoft: Ubisoft Shanghai had been founded the previous year, and Ubisoft Montreal, which would become the company’s largest studio, was just opening. Six months later, Monteil was Ubisoft’s worldwide director of animation, helping teams in Shanghai and Montreal develop expertise in this field.

Monteil eventually moved to Montreal, where he worked for several years to help manage the animation studio and take on the role of animation director on projects like Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (2005). He found his way back to his initial interest in motion capture when he helped found the performance capture studio at Ubisoft Montreal.

During this time, Monteil was also building and training a team of animators in Montreal. Stéphane Desmeules, who now works at Ubisoft Montreal in talent development, joined the studio as a modeler at this time. He recalls the positive impact that Monteil had on the studio, with his unique vision of animation.

“Gilles recruited atypical talents, just like he himself had been in the beginning. He insisted on finding people who had experience in other areas,” Desmeules says.

Beyond hiring, Desmeules says, Monteil also impacted the field with his trainings and methodologies. “He encouraged artistic directors to move closer to reality, to studying how the human body moves in real life,” Desmeules says. “They started to film themselves to have references for animations, for example, which is a practice that’s still common today. He brought in a new way of seeing animation.”

Shut That Door

At E3 2013, Ubisoft presented a gameplay trailer for The Division, which included a scene in which the playable character takes cover by the side of an abandoned police car during a firefight, then stretches out his hand to close the car door as he sidles along the vehicle. It may look like a simple enough animation – and certainly a realistic one – but it had never been seen in a game before, and players noticed. The car door became a meme: the development team celebrated the fact that players closed over 7 billion car doors during the game’s closed beta, and the action of closing a car door while in cover even became an in-game achievement or trophy called “Shut that Door.”

For Monteil, the example of the car door is all about immersion. Animation sits at the heart of the player experience and the interactivity that defines videogames as a genre. It is animation that creates the movement and the sensation of a living, breathing, reactive world that the player can explore and play with.

“At first, everything that moved in a game was done by programmers, and the artists were basically in charge of backgrounds, which were still,” Monteil explains. “But as games became more complex and detailed, programming started to be incorporated into more areas, and those two specialties have to work hand in hand.”

Monteil details how that tension between animation and programming still exists in games today, with some games being essentially input-driven and others being essentially animation-driven.

“Looking at Assassin’s Creed, for example, up to Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, the games were animation-driven. So when you interrupted a movement – let’s say you stopped running or you took out a weapon – your character finished the animation of what they were doing and then started the next action,” Monteil says. “Starting with Assassin’s Creed Origins, the games are input-driven, which means the animations get cut short, but the character is a lot more reactive to player controls and the gameplay is that much faster.”

One challenge is that, as AAA games become bigger, more detailed, and more photorealistic, the volume of animations is constantly increasing. “There was a bit more of an artistic sensibility when I started in animation,” Monteil says. “But now that we have this huge volume, we have to build systems that allow animators to create simpler things like transitions between actions more quickly, so that they can focus on handcrafting more complex animations that will really increase the quality of the game.”

Going back to the car-door animation in The Division, Monteil talks about the amount of work required to make sure the animation is smooth depending on factors like the speed, the direction the character is coming from, how open the car door is, and more. A “simple” cover animation can in fact be made up of more than 1,000 different animations. “That kind of attention to detail is worth it, because players notice it and appreciate it,” Monteil says.

Movement Is the Raw Material

While realistic details like the car door in The Division can help create immersion for players, Monteil is not necessarily in search of realism in his work, and even balks at the technological search for a perfect recreation of physics in games.

“In my opinion, the challenge we have to resolve in game development is not physics or locomotion, it’s psychology,” Monteil says. “Just like in cinema, games cannot recreate reality exactly as it is, because that would be boring. We use symbols, shortcuts, and dramatization. What I’m interested in today is using animation to create more drama, personalities, stories… Emotions!”

Monteil gives the example of a stunt double that the team employed to play a young, agile character in a hoodie fighting against a burly, armed soldier in a recent trailer. In creating the choreography of the fight scene, the team wanted to have two different energies colliding: a small character who was struggling, and a big character who was more confident and solid. That was where the drama lay. But stunt doubles are so used to playing the same kind of very confident, physically strong characters that this one was struggling to act like someone weaker and smaller.

“Everyone knows how to move,” Monteil says, “but not everyone is able to change how they move and add that drama. And for animators, mocap is movement, it’s the raw material we work with.”

Sonia Pronovost is one of the animators that Gilles Monteil hired and trained in Montreal. She originally joined Ubisoft in 1999, when she was just out of animation school.

“I had learned to use the software, but Gilles really taught me the art of animation,” says Pronovost. “With his background in theater, he led me to consider things like body language.”

Pronovost eventually left Ubisoft to work in 3D animation in the film industry – including a stint at Hybride, a renowned VFX studio that would eventually join Ubisoft – to work on films such as 300 and Avatar. Pronovost found her way back to videogame animation and to Ubisoft Montreal, where she now works as a gameplay animator on projects including the Assassin’s Creed franchise and Roller Champions.

She traces her impressive career back to those formative early years in Monteil’s team. “Gilles was really my mentor,” Pronovost says. “He helped me progress enormously at the beginning of my career.”

Just Like Improv

Today, Monteil is back at Ubisoft Montpellier, working on Beyond Good and Evil 2. As an animation veteran, a lot of his focus is still on helping build up Ubisoft’s expertise in this area, by providing tools and trainings to fellow animators around the world.

One of the projects Monteil is working on now is to incorporate more emotions into the non-playable characters (NPCs) with a new performance pipeline to animate these characters. Right now, NPCs are mostly designed and animated as a kind of backdrop in game worlds.

“When you talk to them, they activate and become interesting,” Monteil explains. “But when you’re not interacting with NPCs, they go back to their AI patterns.” At most, they might move their heads in the player’s direction or cower in fear if someone takes out a weapon. Moreover, while many NPCs might look different, they usually act the same way.

Monteil has an innovative vision to increase interactivity with NPCs: creating more facial expressions, movements, and actions that give them personality. He is currently working on prototypes of NPCs that react to sounds or changes in the light, as well as NPCs who communicate non-verbally with the player depending on how they perceive them. An NPC might look at you suspiciously if you’re sneaking around, or take an aggressive stance and turn to watch you pass if they don’t like you. By using performance capture from actors who all look and act differently and stitching those animations together, Monteil wants to achieve NPC behavior that is more diverse and feels more real.

Perhaps harkening back to his roots as an actor, Monteil draws a parallel between videogames and improvisational theater. “The player is the actor,” he muses, “and there are rules that everyone must follow. If you follow those rules, you increase your chances of a positive experience.”

He speaks about how the world has to react to the actions of the players, just like an actor must react to the other actors in a scene, open to what the “world” around them is offering. “Improv is all about listening,” Monteil says. “And the game, too, has to be open to the creativity of the player, to avoid narrowing the experience. That’s the tricky part for developers.”

For Monteil, the goal of the videogame developer is similar to that of an artist: “To generate a maximum amount of emotion. To avoid making too many mistakes in a world of constraints.”

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