Pulling the Strings: Nick Niebling

The most challenging part of the job, says Volition senior animator Nick Niebling, is setting his virtual puppets free. A perfectionist and true animation enthusiast, it is that sort of dedication to the craft that has helped Niebling build a thriving career in video games. 

Nick Niebling has been fascinated with animation for as long as he can remember. As a child, he recalls gluing himself to hours of Looney Toons cartoons and Disney movies, mesmerized by the way the characters moved across the screen. Determined to turn his love for animation into a career, Niebling attended Full Sail University, where he graduated with a Bachelors of Science degree in Computer Animation. After landing an internship at a 3D animation studio, he held several positions within the video game animation world where he gained extensive hands-on experience. Today, Niebling works as a senior animator at game development studio Volition, Inc.

Since entering the industry, Niebling has played an instrumental role in the development of games such as Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, Saints Row: The Third, and Silent Hill 5: Homecoming. His workdays are centered upon his true passion: bringing video game characters to life and coordinating their movements across the screen. “If you see anything that moves. I’m doing that. That’s an animator’s job in a nutshell,” he says.

Niebling landed his senior animator position through hard work, networking, and job searching persistence. Although securing his current position wasn’t an easy feat, he’ll be the first to tell you that landing your dream job is not an unobtainable task. “I absolutely love animation. I’ve been doing it for the past five years and I couldn’t ask for a better career. If you’re passionate about something, you can make it happen.”

Get In Media: Tell us about your role as a senior animator at Volition, Inc. What do you do on a daily basis? 

Nick Niebling: On a typical day, I get to work and take a look at my task list to see what needs to be done on the specific game I’m working on. I report to my lead and see if anything has changed or if I need some insight into an animation or character. From there, I start animating. Since I’m the senior animator, I get to have more control over my own work and I’m able to make my own decisions on certain things. I like being in the trenches animating and that’s what they let me do. 

Right now we don’t have any low-level people, but usually we have some contractors. Sometimes they’ll send their work and I’ll critique it and send stuff back out. Once a week, we all get together and critique each other’s work just so we can get some more eyes on it. I also work with programmers and designers to implement my work into the game. I get to do what I love and animate all day.

GIM: What are you working on currently? Are there specific games in development?

NN: Right now we are working on Saints Row 4 and I’m doing a lot of the character animations—all the different moves, blocks, jumps. If you see anything that moves, I’m doing that. I’m bringing the characters to life and making them look real.

GIM: Are there certain computer programs that you use to animate these characters?

NN: We use Autodesk 3D Studio Max for our animation work. You can load the character up and treat it like a puppet. We’ll have them move somewhere and then look at the time frame. In a couple seconds, we might have it move somewhere else.

GIM: Can you give us the quick glimpse of the lifecycle of a game? Who creates it and at what point in the process you get involved?

NN: Usually one guy will come up with the story and the basic idea of it, almost like writing a script. You write the script, then you get a few more people on it to help design the game and get things going. Depending on the studio, at this point, they might already have some animators on it starting basic walk cycles and getting some basic things done.

Once the concept is done, they’ll break it up into different levels and get different designers working on their certain levels. Once they have basic things built, they’ll need to see how the character is going to work in that environment. That’s when they’ll usually start getting higher up animators on the game. Animation is often still going on into the very last stage; we’ll always be tweaking things and polishing stuff. I’ll usually come on a little later after some other people are already staring the next game. When I get started, they’ll give me a description of what they want, but they also don’t usually mind us being creative with it. The programmers are doing the coding behind-the-scenes. They will then implement it in the game for us.

GIM: Does every game have a lead in charge of it?

NN: In most places, every game will have a lead animator who goes to the meetings, makes sure everybody has what they need, and makes sure scheduling is getting tighter. They really don’t get to do as much animation work. They are usually doing everything else so the other animators can be on the ground.

GIM: What other departments within the company do you work with?

NN: I typically work with programmers and designers. Sometimes I work with the sound people just to get dialogue for different scenes or to make sure certain sound effects are working properly.

GIM: What animation jobs/internships have you held in the past?

NN: Before working here, I was working at a studio in North Carolina called Vicious Cycle. I had a contract gig here at Volition, worked as a lab specialist at Full Sail University, and did contract work for Vicarious Visions in Albany, New York. It all started with an internship at Pendulum Studios in San Diego. It’s been a fun ride for the past five years.

GIM: What are the best and most challenging parts about your job?

NN: The best thing about this job is that I still get to be interested in animation. People can’t really look at me weird when I say, “Well. It’s part of my job. I’m gonna go watch Toy Story.” I get to animate, and depending on the game I’m working on at the time, it’s always something different. The most challenging part is letting an animation go. I always want to work on it more, tweak this or that, but I have to let it go at some point.

GIM: What’s your recommendation for people looking to pursue a career in animation?

NN: There are a lot of schools out there that have some great programs. My advice is to research the schools and find one that fits them and what they want to learn. Specific programs work better for specific people. Internships, mentors, and job shadowing are great ways to get a foot in the door and get some real industry experience.

GIM: Did you have any sort of mentor that helped you out with your career?

NN: I didn’t really have one person but more of a group of friends and former teachers. I had a really great core group of people going through school that would push each other and help when we could. To this day we still do.

GIM: What was the most helpful thing you did that prepared you for your career?

NN: I stayed in contact with people from school or other professionals I met. One of my professors got me my first internship. He was a producer there and he remembered me from school and knew I was a hard worker and didn’t mind taking a risk. I’ve had two other jobs that I’ve gotten because friends that worked at the studio whispered in people’s ears. They’ve liked my work and I’ve been pushed forward because I knew people there. Networking is very important.

GIM: What is the biggest challenge you’ve had to deal with in your career?

NN: Looking for work. When I was working as a contract worker, I would have downtime between jobs where I had to search for the next job and was applying to every place that I could find. It can get disheartening at times, continuously looking.

GIM: Can you give an example of a project that you’ve worked on recently that you animated?
NN: The last game I worked on before this one was Ben 10 Omniverse for Cartoon Network. Each animator was assigned a certain character. I got my character and a list of all the moves that he needed to do and from there I started from scratch. The guy is standing there and I have to give him all those movements—make him run forward, backward, execute kicks and punches—all depending on what the game needs. Some are as simple as Mario where he runs, jumps and throws a fireball. Other games get more complex with three different runs, four walks, three different standing idle modes, a plethora of attack moves… It all depends on the game.

GIM: How long does it take you to animate a game?

NN: The last project I worked on took six months to complete the game. This current project has been going for a year and a half year already, so we’ve got about another six months. A lot of it depends on the game you’re making and how fast they want it out the door or how much polish they really want to get into it. Some studios are very good at pumping out good games very quickly, others like to take their time to make sure every last bit is perfect.

GIM: Do you have any aspirations to help create or design a game?

NN: Sitting down and designing a game is not really what I’d like to be doing. I’d rather be animating. A lot of places give me the free range to animate what I want and with what fits with the character, so I get to create random off the wall stuff. That’s the sense of creativity that I’d rather do instead of sitting down and coming up with an entire game experience.

GIM: Aside from schooling and internships, what can people do to learn more about animation?
NN: There are certain websites I would recommend checking out. CGTalk is a great 3D forum. It has a ton of information and is filled with tutorials. You can also go to any bookstore and find books on animation that can help give you a basic understanding.


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