Kerry Roan is the Lead on the Camera & Lighting Editing team and works on special effects innovations on the Environment team at Harmonix. Before becoming a Lead Kerry got his start at HMX on the animation team. He has a knack for thinking creatively and systematically, two things not necessarily inherit in an artist. Kerry was part of the team responsible for facial & lip sync animation systems helping your avatars and characters hit their notes. You can see the results of Kerry’s influential animation & mo-cap work each week in the home page trailers of RockBand.com. To see more of his films and animations visit http://kerryroan.com. Kerry sat down with us to show some of his work and talk about how he got his start at Harmonix.
Fish McGill: Where did you go to school?
Kerry Roan: I went to Rhode Island School of design, I studied film & animation. It was through that program that I met Ryan (Lesser, Harmonix Art Director) as my After Effects professor senior year.
FM: What was on your radar when you were a student at RISD, specifically what did you imagine doing as an artist?
KR: I didn’t know, I still don’t know for sure. I was focused on learning skills, techniques and getting use to lots of the stuff at the time. I didn’t have a specific vision at the time, I still don’t. I’ve always loved motion & sound so I had to do film & animation. It was an easy choice, other than that it was very open.
FM: Were there particular things that inspired you to be a filmmaker?
KR: It was mostly music videos; they had all the elements I was interested in combining sound and movement moving together. I liked the idea that even though music videos are a commercial thing you can do all sorts of creative things with them. I never had any real major artists that I was always consistently inspired by, it was always changing.
FM: What kinds of films or film makers inspired you?
KR: I was raised on Star Wars of course, that was all practical special effects. That kind of stuff, stop motion animation, etc. Jan Švankmajer (was someone I discovered in school) I like that the number of techniques he used was fairly limiting but he produced a big body of work. Norman McLaren was a pioneer who made great stuff.
FM: Everyone at Harmonix has a different answer for whom or what inspires them, it varies from person to person.
KR: Yeah, you can find inspiration anywhere. It’s just one of those things where my path easily went down to my film & animation, more towards animation.
FM: I imagine you did a lot of drawing growing up if you moved towards animation. Usually people who study strictly film have a photography/writing background and you did both. It usually comes down to a lot of drawing (as a kid).
A selection from the sketchbook
KR: Yeah, I still am doodling constantly. Rarely is it stuff I want to frame or show people in any way. I am just always making, what I consider, throw away work. But it is still fun to look at that stuff and see where I am going, where I have been growing and see what interests me.
FM: Is (the stuff you are drawing) usually just in front of you?
KR: It’s all imagined stuff. I can draw or illustrate from life (a little bit). But I always wanted to avoid that as much as possible; life drawing was almost a chore. It was a way to develop skills and understanding so then I can do my own thing that is not from life at all.
A pair of characters from the sketchbook
FM: So you spent some time in Providence and got your degree. Was Harmonix your first job after college or was there a stop in between?
KR: There was a short period of freelance work with Peaches. He was working with a director looking to heavily incorporate animation into a low budget film. He was paying a group of us to make low budget tests. We knew it wasn’t going to work out, and it didn’t, but that was the only thing I did before coming into Harmonix. It was four of us working in an apartment; I was the last guy brought in and I was helping come up with animation techniques to blend with live action.
I started (at Harmonix) with Guitar Hero II doing lip sync work. I was brought on as the lip sync animator… it was a slightly-paid internship-like role.
FM: What changed about your role when you started on Rock Band?
KR: They realized, fairly early on, that the facial animations would have to take a major step up from what it was and that included facial expressions on characters and more complex lip sync. I was doing well and they brought me on full time so I was in a good position to take on more responsibility and more in depth animation work.
FM: What stands out from that first Rock Band game?
KR: The challenge of Rock Band facial animation and the lip sync was having four characters always doing something on stage. You need to organize things in such a way that you get the most for the effort you put into it. With the face people have a tendency to look really closely and to criticize it. It’s about bringing everything up to a level of quality where four characters are looking good over an hour’s worth of music.
FM: Were there tricks developed along the way to get the different expressions?
KR: We looked at a ton of rock and roll guitarist facial expressions. We tried our hardest to take those elements but have the expressions be neutral enough to repeat them over and over. It’s what you would expect watching lots of rock and roll footage to get to that point and try to match what we saw.
FM: A lot of the folks out there reading this story may think facial motion capture is done for every piece of animation, but in fact it is much more tailored and broad.
KR: Rock Band & Rock Band 2 have no mo-cap in the face. It is all hand done facial animation and lip sync.
FM: Is it a challenge working within the boundaries of Rock Band game development?
KR: I never have a problem with limitations, they focus you. When you work within limitations it is easier to make something that feels finished. It’s easier to say “this is good” and then move on. I think I picked this up when I was in school. Technically with computers you can do so much, but at the same time all of my favorite work in film is the old school stuff filled with tremendous technical limitations. It’s good to embrace the constraints/limitations from the start instead of shooting for the moon and not getting what you want. Thinking of the best thing you can do with what you have.
FM: When did you start to feel like you were successful with this eye focused approach? I imagine it must take a while to get a handle on this, eyes are really crucial.
KR: Towards the end of college I was aware I was getting good at that. When I had to pay attention to it professionally it made me aware of it even more.
Getting the eyes right on the in game characters is something I always pay attention to not just in our games. I pay attention to the eyelids, the pupil ratio and how everything lines up because unperceivable small changes will make somebody look absolutely different and it is really subtle stuff.
FM: Tell us about your sketches and how they influence your work on Rock Band.
KR: These are drawings where I would be in a meeting, just start sketching and come up with these. You can also see the stuff I doodle that is a lot of facial sketches and studies. I doodle naturally all the time.
I rarely go in to a drawing or a doodle of a face with an expression in mind. I usually start from the eyes and work from there, it happens naturally, a subconscious thing. The vast majority of artists here are inclined, even while in a meeting, to be making marks on paper. It’s a compulsive thing people around here do. Around here I always have a notebook. I’m inclined to start making marks and see what happens.