Cool Job: Computer Animator Brings Video Games to Life

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Josh Scherr, lead cinematic animator at Naughty Dog, a major video game developer, began learning about movie effects when he was about six years old. That's when he saw Star Wars and his parents explained to him that light sabers don't really exist. He turned his disappointment into a fascination with how effects are created. When he got his first computer in the 1980s, he began to discover the power of graphics. The subject remained a hobby until his graduation from Oberlin College in 1993, with an English degree.

How did you get into the professional computer animation field?

That was the same summer that Jurassic Park came out, which happened to be the beginning of the onslaught of computer graphics in film. At the same time, the University of Southern California's film school was starting an animation master's program. They had the technology at the school that was used to make Jurassic Park, which at the time was like a $35,000 computer and a $20,000 piece of software. I figured at the very least going to this program would give me access the technology. I moved out to Los Angeles and went through the program and pretty much started working right after that. I worked at Digital Domain in a games division. Then I went to Dreamworks to work on an early version of Shrek. And then I hopped from there to Disney and then did a whole bunch of freelancing and then eventually I found my way to Naughty Dog, where I've been for 10 years.

Can you describe what your job actually is?

I supervise, manage and direct the creation of the cinematics in the Uncharted series. Cinematic is a term used in video games to describe the non-interactive movie sequences that play between the game plays to tell the story of the game.

Are there significant differences between working as an animator on a movie versus working on a video game?

It's a very different environment. One of the reasons I've stayed at Naughty Dog so long is because--this is not true at every game company--we try to maintain a small company feel. The best idea wins. In a feature film, that's sometimes true. But there's a much greater level of hierarchy. And it tends to be a lot more political, too. It turns into, oh, who's going to get the really cool shot of the giant robot smashing through the window versus a shot of the robot just standing there looking tough?

A lot of people like feature film better because you tend to get to spend a lot more time on the scenes that you work on. By way of comparison, on average at Pixar an animator will need to complete somewhere between 4-8 seconds of animation a week, depending on the complexity of the scene. At Naughty Dog, we have to do between 15-20 seconds per week.

What are some things you love about your job?

I work with an insanely talented group of people. I love movies, I love video games, I love storytelling, I love animation and this job pretty much combines all of those things.

What makes your job particularly cool?

The thing that I've always liked about animation is that you can bring the inanimate to life. So whether you're animating people or little furry animals, or a desk lamp, there's just something inherently fun about it. And for me it's also about being able to do your own storytelling. I'm not a particularly accomplished artist--I can't draw very well--so using the computer to create my animation helps me out a lot.

What work are you most proud of?

I am most proud of Unchartered 2. There's the aspect of it that it got stellar reviews, and won 23 Game of the Year awards in 2009, and is considered by a lot of people to be one of the high points of video games in general. That's very, very cool. But honestly, the things that make me most proud of it are, I feel like I did some of my best work in my career on the game and I feel like my team did some of their best work on that game.

If someone wanted to get into computer animation, how would you recommend they start?

It depends. The cost has come down enough that people can get into it very easily. There are entire message boards and forums and websites dedicated to people who are not only working in computer graphics professionally, but also amateurs and hobbyists who are all posting their work up on the Internet for all to see and for fans to give feedback. It depends on the person, obviously, but having some kind of art training never hurts--whether you actually do that through college or through community college classes in life drawing or animation, all that can only help. Some people are just preternaturally talented in the stuff. But for the rest of us, there are also online schools like that actually operate fully accredited animation degree programs done entirely through online education.

Are there a lot more graduate programs specifically in computer animation now, than when you started?

There are a lot more schools offering graduate programs and undergraduate programs, too. There are some that have been around for decades, like the ones at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia or Sheridan College near Toronto, Ontario, Canada, or Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. But there are a lot of newer ones, too, some of which are fly-by-night and some of which are really, genuinely good.

Now that video games are your work, what is their role in your personal life?

It's funny, video games did used to be my hobby. And now, because they're my work, I actually don't play them quite as often as I used to. I find myself retreating to my other hobbies, which are reading and writing, hanging out with my dog and eating and traveling.

When you are playing a game, are you distracted by how it was made?

Oh yeah. It's almost like when I was a kid and I knew all about special effects, whenever I would watch a movie I'd be like, oh I bet they did that with a rear-projection blue screen. So in a weird sort of way it takes a little bit of the magic away.

What is the next step in your career?

I've certainly been enjoying myself here at Naughty Dog and at the moment I have no plans to leave. If I don't feel like working crazy hours any more, I am thinking about falling back into teaching.

How crazy are your hours?

At the start of a project, they're pretty normal. Then, at crunch time I could be working anywhere from 10-14 hours a day 6-7 days a week, depending on how bad it is. A crunch time might last anywhere from 2-4 months.

In the spirit of James Lipton, Bernard Pivot, and Marcel Proust, ends each Cool Jobs interview with the following questions:

  1. What did you eat for breakfast? Instant oatmeal
  2. Which day of the week is your favorite? Sunday
  3. Which day of the week is your least favorite? Wednesday
  4. What was the first job you ever had? Working at the Jewish Community Center summer camp
  5. What makes you angry? Intolerance
  6. What makes you joyful? My friends
  7. If you could have any job, other than your own, what would it be? Restaurant critic
  8. If you had the time and the money to study anything at all, what would you choose? History
  9. What did you want to be when you grew up? Astronaut
  10. Can money bring you happiness? No, but it doesn't hurt.

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