Blanket Fort Chats: Laurene Desoutter
“Blanket Fort Chats” is a weekly column featuring women and nonbinary game makers talking about the craft of making games. In this week’s post, we feature Laurene Desoutter, a Paris-based 3D animator most recently known for animating for Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
My name is Laurene Desoutter. I’m 24 years old and I just finished my studies in a 3D Animation school in Paris, France. Before that, I went to a high school specialized in Fine Arts. Since I was a kid, I’ve always been passionate by drawing, playing video games, and reading history and fantasy books. I kind of always knew I wanted to do something related to that when I grew up.
How did you get involved as an animator working in games?
Well, since I was in a 3D animation school, part of our assignment was to find an internship in a animation-related studio (movie, advertisement, game) for at least 6 months. Although [at school] we learned all the steps of producing an animated movie — like designing concepts, modelling/texturing characters and environments, etc. — my thing was definitely the concept and animation parts. So when I heard that Dontnod Entertainment was searching for a 3D Animator Intern, I applied for the position right away! That’s how I got started.
What’s your earliest memory of playing games?
Hmm…I think my earliest memories of playing games was when I was about 5 maybe? My father and uncle would always play Soulcalibur at home during the weekend. I remember the first time my dad allowed me to use the controller and play a round with him, I just started pushing all the buttons in order to beat him! It was so funny, I think it was literally the first time I ever played a video game.
Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process?
When you animate a character, whether it’s realistic or a more cartoony one, the first question you have to ask yourself is “Who is this character?”
So usually, the first stage for me is to find who exactly is the character that I’m animating. How old are they? Where do they come from? What kind of personality traits do they have? When I’m able to know all the characteristics of the character, I concentrate then on the scene itself. What are they doing? From there on, I search for visual references. It can be from a movie, or a game, or from real life.
When it’s a realistic animation, I tend to do the references myself (or with my coworkers if needed), using my phone to shoot the scene/moves needed. That way, I have all the tools to start my animation. I then use my references and all the information I gathered to try to make the character the most alive and believable as possible.
Does your creative process change when you’re working on games versus working on another medium?
Well, whether it’s an animated movie or a game, the early stages of the animations are the same. In both cases, we have to search for references, and know our character perfectly. But the animation process itself is really different.
When you’re animating for a movie, you animate by shots. So your animation depends on the timing and framing of the shot itself. You can animate the full body, like the face only.
In a video game, things are different. If you’re creating a gameplay animation, you will be animating the whole action. And you have to make sure that your animation can blend with the others perfectly, in order to create clean transitions while the player is playing.
If you’re creating an animation for a cinematic, you will often have to animate the whole scene, and the whole body. But you’re not creating the animation from scratch, since you already have the actor’s motion capture data.
We absolutely love Life is Strange, one of the games that you worked on. What did you get to do on it?
When I started working at Dontnod, the first episode of Life Is Strange was already done, so I started working on the game from the second episode. My work was to animate characters, animals and objects/vehicles on the game.
What was the process like animating for it?
At first I had do read the lore of the game which determines the “universe” of the game and the main narrative arc. I also played the first episode in order to put myself into the game a bit further and understand how it was working. Then each animator had between two and three different scenes ( game levels, to be precise) to animate. Part of our duty was to work according to the instructions of the directors and level designers to make sure that our animations were fitting into the level. We also often had to work with the environment and camera artists to make sure that the scenery and animations worked together perfectly.
Were there any challenges you encountered or things that took longer to figure out when you were animating for it?
Well, the biggest difficulty for me was working with the motion capture data — particularly on long scenes (sometimes more than 2500f, which is quite huge). It was something I never did before. It took a little while to get all the tips and tricks to make good animations while using my time efficiently.
All I did up until then was animations from scratch. Using existing data, cleaning them, and making the animations as perfect as possible without changing the raw animation too much was a big challenge for me. But in the end, experience is the key! My fellow animators helped me a lot, and as I kept animating on the game, I got better and better. In the end, animating with motion capture became something I was familiar with.
Is there one thing in the game that you’re really proud of that maybe players won’t realize at least initially?
Hmm…probably the fact that at the end of each episode, the will of doing something even better was even stronger than before. I don’t really know if it’s really visible from a player point of view, but as developers of the game, we really were pushing our efforts and skills further to make the next episode EVEN BETTER. We really didn’t want to be complacent and just keep the same quality. We really tried to make the best experience possible for the players and worked even harder at each episode. That’s something I’m really proud of.
What’s been the most challenging aspect you encountered?
For us animators, I guess the most challenging was of course the deadlines, and the compromises we had to do according to the other teams. Sometimes, decisions on a particular scene/level was helping other teams, but gave us a lot more work or difficulties. And sometimes it was the other way around. So compromising in order to balance the work on each team was sometimes a bit of a struggle. But we always found a way to get through it, at some point! :)
On the flip side, what has been the most fulfilling experience you had?
For me, the first thing was to see my work in the game itself. It’s a real bliss to be able to see your work — a part of the “puzzle” during the production — becoming a whole with the work of the other teams, and giving a real identity to the game. It’s really hard to explain, but the first time I saw my animations with the background, the lighting, the music, the voices and woven into the story itself…it was something magic. It was so different. And, it really made me happy to be a little part of this whole thing that is Life is Strange.
Also, I really loved animating LiS characters. I loved giving them life, I loved their personalities. Part of our job was to make them unique, to make them real, and for me it was a wonderful job.
Each time I read LiS reviews or players comments saying that they loved the characters, that they felt real, I feel so proud and so happy that our work made it to people’s heart. That they could like them, or hate them. That they brought emotions to them. For me, it’s a really, really, fulfilling experience.
Are there any games that you feel have really pushed the boundaries of the medium?
The first game I think about is The Last of Us. I think this game is a sum up of what we want to create, as adventure game developers. I could talk for hours about this game, but I really think that it’s a really good example of a good adventure game: with an entertaining gameplay, a great story, a very interesting universe, realistic and truly believable characters, and absolutely stunning graphics. I really think Naughty Dog taught the whole game industry a lesson with this game.
Do you think there are things that games (as a medium) do better than other creative mediums?
I don’t think games are better than others, it’s just different (though it’s still a great medium!). It’s rare to hear people watching movies, or playing an instrument for 12 hours in a row. But hearing about people playing for hours without being bored is not that surprising. I mean, even I did it myself! But what I like is the fact that games can pick up into other creative mediums in order to create something new, unique and still entertaining.
If you could go back and give yourself advice when you were first starting out, what advice would it be?
“Play a bit more games and train yourself on motion capture!” haha. I guess that would have really helped me back then!
Thank you, Laurene!