The Secrets Behind South Park’s Pain-Staking Animation

by Ben Reeves on Oct 21, 2016 at 09:00 AM

Before joining Ubisoft as a senior animator for South Park: The Fractured But Whole, Lucas Walker spent six years working on the show itself at South Park Studios. As one of the primary liaisons between the game and the show, Walker helped make sure that The Fractured But Whole looks as authentic as possible. However, the show has a brutal animation process that is hard to emulate in the game. During our conversation with Walker, he talked about why The Fractured But Whole was so challenging to animate and how close Stick of Truth actually got to emulating the show’s aesthetic.

Since you were at South Park Studios for Stick of Truth’s production, what did that process look like from outside the game studio?
Obsidian [animated Stick of Truth] in Flash, and the South Park show is done in Maya. If you were to try and have a South Park animator animate in Flash, you would just be told, “No,” but that’s all Obsidian was doing with that game. I don’t know the logistics behind why they didn’t have Maya. With this project, we wanted to be much more collaborative. Ubisoft is its own entity, but it is acting as an extension of the interactive hand of Matt and Trey. They want that kind of community development. When I got pulled on, I was the only artist on the project for about six months, so you’re trying to figure out how to get South Park’s assets into a game engine.

Do you think they nailed the look on Stick of Truth? Or could you tell the difference?
I think that Stick of Truth is a really solid game. I think that the animation, for the most part, really sold what South Park is. Everyone who played it thought it looked just like an episode. Granted there were South Park animators and some of the directors and producers over there that could tell the difference because they have 20 years of experience with those characters, but those are such subtle things that the consumer is never going to see. I think Stick of Truth really hit the mark in a lot of ways, but I don’t think it was as accurate as it could be only based on the fact that it was based on Flash and didn’t use the actual rigs that they use for the show. I think the process of actually using the rigs [from South Park Studios] is one of the main things that will tie this new game even closer to the show.

We heard that was a hard process.
Yeah, building this engine from scratch so that we could use assets from the show was a year of headaches. It’s understandable why Obsidian didn’t want to go that route. We just wanted to be able to collaborate more seamlessly with South Park, so we had to put down the foundation to do so.

Lucas Walker (left) is all smiles as he works with his animation team

It’s kind of crazy because it’s such a visually simple show–
You see, that’s what I want to correct, because each one of those characters is actually like 10,000 pieces of geometry.… Every single color of every single line, and every single shadow is an individual piece of geometry. That’s how they animate the show. In a rig you have no less than four views: left, right, front, back. You can also have special poses, but each of those poses has a special replacement animation, so you can hit a slider that turns off one piece of geometry and turns on another. In the front view alone, we might have 12 different hands, and those 12 hands exist separately in each individual pose. So the mounds of information for each character quickly stacks on top of itself.

It sounds kind of like stop-motion animation.
Oh, it’s exactly like stop-motion. When I trained new animators, that’s what I try to tell them to reference the most. Traditional 2D animators do the best with the South Park style…It’s almost the exact same process as stop motion, it’s just done digitally.

How do you guys square that away with the quick turnaround time of the show? Because that seems like the most labor-intensive form of animation combined with the loosest production schedule.
We’re just really good. (Laughs) We’re very cocky. That’s true that it’s hard, but the animation is timing, so were selling the movement based on comedic timing. Also once you get used to these rigs and the style of animation it gets easier; they are set up for speed.

From a layman’s perspective, would you say this game is more challenging to animate than a traditional video game?
Yes, absolutely. The reason for that is, as animators, were all trained to have the fundamentals down. I did a lot of 3D animation before South Park, but getting into South Park you have to really know the fundamentals, because we have this very restricted set of rules – very specific things like you blink before you speak and your head always turns before the body – those sort of things. As an animator, you have to exist within those rules, but at the same time, Trey will be like, “Give me a spin kick.” And you’re like, “Wait, what? He doesn’t even have two legs. What are you talking about?” Some nights you’re there until four in the morning. But that is one of the biggest hurdles for new animators, specifically game animators who do a lot of video game animation and mo-cap restructuring.

There’s a term kicked around at South Park all the time, and that is, “that looks too floaty. That looks too digital.” Well, of course it looks digital, it’s in a computer. But it’s more complicated than that. It’s deftly a joke, but I tell animators sometimes, “Make it crappier.” It’s super disrespectful to say that, because South Park’s animation is really, really good as the kind of animation it is.

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