Darren Graduated from the BA (Hons) Animation course in 2008. Since graduation, he has worked as an animator for Cambridge University Press, producing educational material, and in a freelance capacity. He is currently Lead of the Animation Resource team at Rockstar Games.
We caught up with Darren to discuss what he is up to now, his favourite aspect of the course and his advice to current students.
Before university I'd never animated a thing outside of a few small flipbooks and playing with a zoetrope as a child. Creating my first pencil-and-paper hand-drawn animation (which was as mediocre as a tap running and filling up a sink) was always going to be exciting, but I look back at my memories in the old basement, surrounded by other like-minded students, working late before a Christmas break, with real fondness. Being in a creative space where others are trying out their own ideas is incredibly inspirational, and really helped push me on. In the final year, the rest of the students ended up being an amazing support network, where everyone was helping each other to succeed. We'd all worked together for years by then, so providing feedback, brainstorming ideas, listening to suggestions and so on all felt natural, and really helped prepare me for what life in a real production team is like. Not only that, but I met some of my best life-long friends on the course. The best man at my wedding was also on the Animation course, and we work together to this day.
Early on the university gave me the opportunity to experiment with so many different tools that I felt overwhelmed at first, but over time this really helped me figure out what I wanted to do. If the focus had been too narrow from the start, I might never have done so!
I really enjoyed the experimental animation module, which encouraged experimenting with a new technique/media/material each week and then showing my results each lecture. This inspired creative thinking and helped me familiarise myself with the deadlines expected in production work.
I'm Lead of the Animation Resource team at Rockstar Games. I spend most of my time creating tools to assist animators, supporting our motion capture pipeline from pre-production through to post, maintaining scene files and animation assets, as well as managing a global team to meet our project needs. This role is almost an exact match for the career goal I had when coming out of university, though getting to this point was not straightforward!
Post-graduation I moved into a role as an animator for some Cambridge University Press educational material, then worked in a freelance capacity for a while afterwards. The freelance work dried up, so I did stints as a restaurant manager, waiter, telesales person, mortgage customer service adviser, and QA (in that order) before landing in the Animation Resource team at Rockstar North on GTA V in late 2012. From then, the scope of my responsibilities and size of the team has shot up dramatically, with my most recent credit as a Co-Ordinator on Red Dead Redemption 2. I get to spend most of my time doing exactly the things the university helped me realise I wanted to do in my career - provide animators with tools that improve their day-to-day, investigate technical issues, and give support and feedback to others.
I knew I wanted to work in games animation as soon as I played Crash Bandicoot, but I had no real idea how or where I'd fit in. I learned from my time at Wolverhampton that I was really more interested in helping other animators in their craft than doing much animation myself, and decided I probably wanted to be a Character Technical Director. In final year I put together an action plan that outlined several routes I could take to get there. So I spent most of my time creating models and rigging in Maya, looking for forums to connect with others, researching new tools, fixing technical issues, and also doing some animation, all whilst looking for opportunities. I hit plenty of setbacks over the 4 years between graduation and my first games industry job and worked in several unrelated roles before I got into the industry as QA at Rockstar North. That experience in QA really helped me gain a wider understanding of large-studio development, and the experience has been invaluable throughout the 10 years I've been at the company.
Despite QA not being the preferred route in my original action plan, it's been a great way in. I would always encourage anyone that feels inspired enough to study animation that they stick with it for the long haul. Make no mistake, the industry can be tricky to break and even stay in, but I've seen talented people give up too soon.
Try to get as much feedback as you can as often as you can and pay attention to it. Your course members and lecturers are great assets, so spend time around them! At the very least you'll find others that are like-minded and easy to get along with. More likely you'll be inspired to be even better around them.
Don't be too attached to what you think you know. Approach everything with an open mind and, especially early on, try new approaches, media and applications. You'll be surprised by all the things you'll learn, and you'll see lots of paths that you didn't even realise existed, so long as you're open to looking for them. The industry is ever-changing, the tools we use in our craft never the same for too long, but the core skills you'll develop will serve you well no matter what comes in the future.
The university helped me to recognise what my career goals could be and set me up with a plan and the knowledge to achieve them. Stick to your goals and you'll be armed with the knowledge to achieve yours.