“At the end of the day, the gaming industry is challenged with making a functioning piece of software work. It’s where engineering and art clash. It can be beautiful, but if it’s not fun and doesn’t work, then nobody wants to play your game.”
– Jerome Solomon, newly-appointed Assistant Professor in Digital Art & Animation at Cogswell College, regarding animation and gaming in a professional environment.
Cogswell sat down with Jerome Solomon in his second week of teaching on campus.
Cogswell: You have worked with a lot of the heavyweights–ILM, DreamWorks, EA, Rhythm & Hues. You have a computer engineering degree and a Master of Science and we’d like to know how you got on the animation and game development path?
Jerome: Really, I’m a computer graphics geek. I’ve been fooling around with computer graphics since I was in the third grade. I did my undergrad at UCLA in computer engineering but I took one graphics class and that really sparked my interest. So I went on to Georgia Tech because they have a graphics, visualization and usability lab and were one of the 10 or 15 schools at that time that really got into developing and pushing the graphics forward. There was a professor and head of the graphics lab there named Jim Foley, who is one of the founders of computer graphics. I went there because he was there.
Cogswell: Tell us about your career path before entering the teaching arena.
Jerome: I interviewed with a number of different companies and I got a position at Rhythm & Hues. There, I did a boatload of different things and worked on a number of different films. Babe was probably the biggest and the most popular one because that was Oscar award-winning. Working on Babe, I never looked at a pig’s mouth in so much detail in my life. It’s some of the weird things that you do in this industry. In that film there were live action pigs that we made talk and the process was really to do the head and mouth replacement in order to make that happen in CG. I worked there for a number of years and then I worked at DreamWorks on Shrek 2 and Madagascar.
Cogswell: It seemed that your initial trajectory was film, what happened after DreamWorks?
Jerome: After DreamWorks, I moved into the gaming industry over at EA. I worked on The Godfather game and Tiger Woods ’07. After that I worked at ILM but partnered with a company called LucasArts and led a crew doing the cinematics for the Star Wars Force Unleashed game.
Cogswell: What are the differences between working on animation for film and then working on animation in a game?
Jerome: The biggest difference between working on animation for film versus a game is that when you’re making an animation or film, you’re basically creating content that’s going to eventually turn into a set of images and sound that’s going to play in the theater or in front of an audience. But when you’re making a game, you are working on a living, breathing piece of software. So the artist by definition – because they work very closely with the engineering team so that the games can function – have to be people with some technical chops in order to work in those environments.
Cogswell: What class are you teaching this semester at Cogswell?
Jerome: I’m teaching an introduction to Python scripting, a programming language that has become an industry standard in the gaming and animation communities. Every art creation tool that we use here at Cogswell has some type of scripting language that’s layered on top of it. It becomes important for artists to be able to program or write small scripts in order to be efficient with their work. It’s very technical.
Cogswell: Proficiency in these languages sounds critical.
Jerome: Yes, it is a critical skill. If an artist shies away from doing some minor scripting to fix an issue, then it slows things down while you wait for someone else to do it for you. That’s the difference between the artists who are very effective versus those that aren’t. That’s why I say that this school is uniquely positioned because it has project-based learning where this happens naturally while the students are in school instead of having to learn it when they start working.
Cogswell: We’ve touched on some of this, but let us ask you these specific questions. What are the specific differences and the challenges between working on a film and working on a game?
Jerome: On a film, you can fix almost anything because at the end of the day if you have to paint each frame by hand, you can. On a game, it really has to work. And it not only has to work from one camera viewpoint, it has to work from all camera viewpoints because the camera can move around. This creates a whole other level of complexity. In addition, games have to be fun and run fast, right? You have to process so much information in real time. With a film or animation, you can render overnight or for several days. You can’t do that in a game. It has run on a person’s phone. It’s a living, breathing, piece of real-time software.
Cogswell: Some of the game schools might have a two-year degree or some type of certification versus an actual degree. What are your thoughts on that?
Jerome: I think this boils down to the general education classes that naturally come with a Bachelor’s degree. I had a senior development director at Electronic Arts who I had asked to look at some curriculum tell me, “Wow, the most interesting class here is this English class or this speaking class where students get the opportunity to get up and speak,” because you can want to design a great game, but if you can’t communicate that to anybody, then where does that leave you?
Cogswell: Lastly, a lot of people reading this will know you from SIGGRAPH. What will you be doing for 2014?
Jerome: I am going to chair the animation festival at SIGRAPH for 2014.
Cogswell: Jerome, thank you for taking the time to speak with is at such length. We are all truly excited that you are on board at Cogswell!