Brian Hayes is a graduate of the VFS Classical Animation program, but he’s now a Creative Director at Electronic Arts, one of the biggest game companies in the world. He also started out as a scientist. So how does that work – going from scientist to animator to a creative director of games, working on such popular titles as Def Jam: Icon, Fight Night Round 4 and Fight Night Champion? It sounded like an interesting journey, so we spoke with Brian to find out more about it.
Hi Brian, you seem to have had an interesting journey in your education and with the career path you’ve followed, can you tell us a little bit about that?
Brian Hayes: I wish it was more interesting. The road I took was largely a result of my not realizing or imagining the possibility of a career in an artistic field as a teenager. I used to draw constantly as a kid. I would say I was about a level 30 comic book nerd (maximum level being 50 at the time). I was one of the guys in school that was a “good drawer,” but I never really considered that a person could have a career as an artist, much less an animator. So I went to post secondary school for the one of the conventional things that interested me and I had a similar, middling aptitude for.
Sometime during my second year of university, I started really thinking about the future and realized that, even if I was capable of becoming a brilliant scientist (I wasn’t), it probably wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. So I started taking a lot of visual arts electives and somehow decided that Animation would be a viable way to make a living without having to wear a suit or a lab coat.
I was accepted at VFS in the Classical Animation program and after a lot of hard work and fun I was working as an in-betweener at Bardel Studios a couple weeks before my graduation. After that, I spent about a year working on an animated TV series. Around this time, the animation landscape started shifting more and more towards 3D and I found myself looking for other work to pay the bills while I worked on my portfolio and did small graphic design gigs on the side. One of those jobs was as a QA Tester at Electronic Arts (EA) and I’ve been there now for over 11 years.
Like I said, not terribly interesting — but I left out the part about the unicorns.
Oh, maybe we can follow up about them later. But for now, could you speak about ways that you think your science education informs your creative practice? How did you originally see your career developing when you first graduated? Is there a way that you can draw a contiguous line from VFS to EA?
Brian: The line might be contiguous, but it made a few turns. Again, to be clear, I wasn’t a great scientist. However, the fundamental principles of the scientific method can be applied to the creative practice of making games pretty easily. We start with the question of what kind of games people want to play. We can come up with several hypotheses based on existing information. We build prototypes and test those hypotheses repeatedly along the way to creating a final product.
It’s the same with drawing a character in pose. You hypothesize the best way to draw that pose and test it out. Analyze it and refine that hypothesis. Draw a better pose.
Maybe I’m just making an observation that is clear to everyone else already (in public and embarrassing fashion) but the scientific method isn’t a method for doing science, it’s a scientific approach to doing just about anything, and doing it well.
In the 11 years that you’ve been at EA, you’ve worked your way steadily from being a QA tester to an assistant producer, then associate producer, then full producer — now, starting about a year and half ago, you became a Creative Director — being at this company has been good for you, obviously — what were your original plans when you first went to work for EA, especially as it related to your VFS degree?
Brian: My original goal when I started at EA was to work at the same place for 12 months in a row. That was goal number one. I had considered the possibility that if I was able to teach myself some 3D animation, I might be able to cross-over into the hands-on artistic side of game development. My stumble into the production and design role was kind of unexpected, but has been very interesting and rewarding.
Would you say that aspects of your education at VFS, even though in a different discipline, helped you in the development of your career?
Brian: Certainly. We covered a lot of material in the Classical Animation program that has been very helpful along the way. We learned a lot more than just drawing a clean line. I’ve done a lot of work on the production side for gameplay animation and understanding the principles of squash & stretch, anticipation and follow-through has been extremely beneficial. Furthermore, the understandings of story-telling, visual composition and human movement that I gained at VFS have all been very useful throughout my career at Electronic Arts.
Do you think that your Classical Animation background has informed your approach to production or creative direction in the game design space?
Brian: To be fair, I consider it a minor disservice to others, including some of my former classmates, to even say that I have a Classical Animation “background”. That being said, I definitely think my experiences at VFS prepared me for the variety of challenges I have faced in the games industry. It has also provided me with a set of skills that have been useful at different stages of design, pre-production and production. I think it would be fair to say that if my experience with Classical Animation was more extensive, then the benefits derived would be also.
What do you love about the game industry? Do you see a new area in the industry that is on the horizon, and which you find exciting?
Brian: Internet message boards. I love the message boards, definitely. That was a joke. Seriously, I love the pace and the constant drive to innovate, improve and out-do what you’ve done before. There is always something new on the horizon to be excited about in this industry. Or something to be worried about. But worrying can be exciting. Nevertheless, if I was any good at seeing new areas in advance, I’d be a lot more successful and do a lot less worrying.
Do you still think about being an animator?
Brian: Rarely. But when I do, I can always look at my student film and know that I’ve made the right choice for everyone (chuckle).
Thanks a lot for talking with us, Brian — it’s certainly an interesting story, and congratulations on all your success!