From army to animation - With Sumo Sheffield's James Drew
You might have found yourself pondering your career at various points in your life – and sometimes that can leave you at a crossroad, scratching your head thinking of your next move.
But when you find that passion, it all starts to come together in a harmonious way, and the next exciting chapter of your life begins. It’s that passion that Sumo Digital encourages its people to embrace…
James Drew is one of those people. After joining the British Army as a teenager to escape factory work, he soon realised that there were more opportunities out there just waiting to be explored. After obtaining his degree from the University of Central Lancashire, he eventually crossed paths with Sumo Digital, where the 39-year-old now works as Principal Technical Animator with Sumo Sheffield’s talented animation department.
James sat down with us to talk about his journey, and how technical animation became part of his day-to-day life.
“I worked in factories for a year after school – I hated that – it was not for me, pressing a button with my incredibly active mind. You’re working all day long with nothing to think about, it was a living hell.
“In 2001, at 19 years old, I joined the army to get out of working in factories, that’s how much I didn't want to do that. I did that for a year and then in my early 20s I found out that applying to study at university was a lot easier as an adult.
“You could do a year’s access course and then go to university, so that was the path that I chose. I did a year-long course for art and design, and it was there that I started messing around with plasticine and then animating the plasticine for stop motion coursework.
“I then found out that stop motion was kind of a dying art, people were saying that if you want a job at the end of it, you’re going to have to do 3D, and I really enjoyed animating in 3D and setting up characters, so that was my path into animation.”
The rest was history for the 39-year-old as he went on to join Sumo Digital – a studio that could offer him career-defining projects and the chance to grow his skills. Reminiscing over the last 14 years, James recalls one of his early projects whilst working with the Sumo Sheffield studio, moving on to hit game franchises and award-winning titles.
“They had these stadiums on Virtua Tennis where there was a lot of advertising that needed swapping out and there was a lot of very repetitive work which had to go into it,” said James. “There were a lot of repetitive button clicks, and from that point on I decided that it would be useful to learn some scripting. From there I did modelling for three to four years and went on to work on LittleBigPlanet 3 where I started doing some more character set-ups.
“I have been working full time in technical animation for the last four to five years now, but before that, I did a bit of everything within the umbrella of the art department – a little bit of character art, a little bit of VFX and a lot of tech automation, which is more of a specialist art on the animation side.”
James described his passion for animation and what he enjoys about the industry, but what does the average day of a technical animator look like? What do they get up to in the bustling studio – or while working remotely?
“It depends,” he said. “A lot of the time it will be skinning characters or skinning weapons. This is also sometimes known as ‘rigging’ and it’s when we set up a character or object to animate - there's a lot of skinning that takes place!
“The most consistent work could be rigging characters and skinning characters, but they don't rig themselves – and you need tools to assist with this – so it takes far too long. So, we write tools and write code in mostly Python.
“A character needs a whole bunch of retargeting, and we need to do the same thing to 1,000 files. That's a job for tech animation, we can do that a lot more efficiently than an animator going in and manually opening up every file and doing the same thing over and over again. If it's a very repetitive task, they send it to us and will bang it out way quicker.
“But it depends on what stage of the project we run as well. Sometimes at the beginning of projects, we do a lot of R&D - we’re always trying new tools, new techniques, and new ways of rigging characters.
“Games are becoming more and more advanced for this generation; they have access to bigger and better gaming platforms. With the capabilities that they can run, it shows how important technical animation is in the industry right now with the level and the calibre of these bigger games… but I’m biased!
“The character fidelity is really important on the animation like when the client is moving into a level of realism where the animation is equally as important – because if the animation falls short, then that character looks worse for looking so good.
“It’s just as important because we unlock their abilities to create better animations. If you give them a good rig, they'll do better work quicker.
As with many other developers across the world, Sumo Digital has to hold some cards close to its chest when it comes to information on upcoming projects and potential announcements. But we asked James what has been the most challenging or fun project that he’s worked on… that he can talk about, of course.
“If I had to go back into the past, I really enjoyed working on LittleBigPlanet 3 and Sackboy: A Big Adventure,” said James. “I didn't do that much on Sackboy, but I really enjoyed working on the face setup. That was really expressive and stretchable, it was a really fun part.”
There are so many avenues to explore in the art department of a bustling video game developer, so what is it about technical animation that interests James so much, and had he considered alternate roles in the past?
“I've done a little bit of character work and a lot of work on environments,” said James. “But there's nothing that I enjoy more than tech automation. I like the problems and I like being involved with the characters.
“It's really rewarding when you start to bring that to life, we'll rig it and slap some virtual makeup on it and see it come to life straight away, it's great. I love the problems that come with it – like when we're building rig components for example.
“You get some good math problems to get into and I really enjoy problem-solving, so it's great for me.”
With technological advancements never too far away in this industry, we asked James how he sees technical animation evolving for game projects in the near future?
"I can see machine learning starting to play a bigger role in things,” said James. “Especially with motion mapping. Things get more advanced, and we’ve started putting a lot more bones and structure in characters as the years have gone on, but I think the next big thing is probably going to be machine learning.”
Spending 14 years with a constantly growing, award-winning company is always a promising sign and James is enjoying the daily goings on at Sumo Sheffield. But what is it about the company and the studio that he enjoys the most and the reasons for sticking around?
“I've always enjoyed the people here,” said James. “The people here have been great – from early on I worked with Andy Ritson [Art Director] and then I worked with Darren Oakes [Cinematic Director], and both have been really great. I've had enough variety here and it's kept me interested, and for the last few years, I've been really focusing on stuff that I actually really want to do.
“The fact that we have lots of games to work on has been good, I’ve been able to work on a few different things, but the people here have been the main thing. Also, Sheffield a great city, everyone’s been really friendly.”
If you’re looking to take your passion for animation to the next level like James, check out Sumo Digital’s careers page now for our latest vacancies.