Teamwork makes the dream work.
It’s an overused adage, but one that remains vital to video game development, as teams of animators, programmers and the like synergise to create awesome experiences for us gamers. It's also one of the driving principles for Cheong Teik Mun, lead animator of Passion Republic, who recently worked on the latest instalment of the widely-successful third-person shooter series, Gears 5.
“As lead animator, I oversee the animation department, and also work closely with the project leads who handle on-hand projects and liaise with our clients,” Teik Mun said. Together, they lay out the projects’ timelines and team’s direction, making sure everyone and every aspect stays aligned, among other things.
“Ask anyone at the company and they’ll say that I’m always busy talking to someone,” revealed the seven-and-a-half-year video game veteran with a chuckle. “I invest a lot of time communicating with the team to ensure they’re happy with their work, and to instil leadership so that we stay solid as the company expands.”
With an impressive portfolio of AAA video games that’s bound to grow, Passion Republic would need to educate future staff to maintain the quality of its services. Fortunately, teaching seems to be second nature to Teik Mun. A guest lecturer at The One Academy (where he graduated from) who also did a workshop at Level Up KL 2018, he admitted that teaching newcomers - his hardest responsibility - happens to be his most rewarding task.
“You have to understand their perspective so you know how to motivate them,” Teik Mun explained. “Great leadership is teaching them how to use their strengths wisely, to work smarter without overworking.”
It’s unsurprising that the lead animator has plenty of wisdom to impart to his disciples. Aside from having worked on the likes of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, Teik Mun’s last project isn’t the only Gears game he has worked on.
“Our relationship with The Coalition (Gears’ developer) began when we worked on the cinematics of their debut game, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition,” relayed Teik Mun. “We built a good relationship with them during the nine months we worked with them, so much so that they approached us again for Gears of War 4, which we were more than happy to do.”
Beyond cinematics (in-game cutscenes) for Gears 4, Teik Mun and his team broke new ground by also working on its gameplay animation, which he believes strengthened the relationship further.
He explained, “Gameplay animation is extremely interactive (as players control the game). We needed to work closely with The Coalition to understand how the gameplay works and align our animation with it, so that it blends and looks good from every angle.”
From the way Teik Mun talked about animating games, it’s as if he was born to be in the industry. Ironically though, he actually comes from a TV commercial background, having joined Passion Republic when it was a studio for commercials in its first two years.
“I only got interested in games after we made the big switch to work on them,” he said, reminiscing how he started understanding games at an in-depth level. He’s been acquiring all the knowledge he can, so that the team can create art that goes well with the game. He even began playing them to help with the process, citing Red Dead Redemption 2 as his current favourite.
There are times when the lead animator had to get his hands dirty to learn. For example, Teik Mun recalls a high-profile project that he and a fellow lead animator struggled with, as they had no experience working on a particular aspect of animation the job required.
“We just kept doing it again and again until we figured it out, because we really wanted the job,” the 29-year-old said. “We finally got it, then we taught our teammates what we learned so they could do it, too.”
It’s still hard work, but the unusual transition has, indeed, paid off for the studio.
“Everyone, especially fresh graduates, can’t believe they can work on large-scale overseas video game projects right here in Malaysia while being able to see their family, speak their language, and be proud of doing what they love,” said the young lad from Ipoh. “This is something we want to implement across the industry.”
“Plus, working on games gives us more time to create better quality work, which aligns with our vision at Passion Republic.”
And what is that vision?
“To always create the best art we can that inspires, while maintaining a fulfilling career with good work-life balance,” Teik Mun answered, saying the approach transcends games.
It’s amazing that such prospects can already be found here in Malaysia, and it’s not unlikely that local studios will be able to produce AAA video games in the near future, which Teik Mun dreams of being a part of.
“I want to take away the mindset that only international studios can develop AAA games,” he said. “I believe that Malaysia has the talents to create good and inspiring games that gamers would love.”
You heard that? There’s no better time to get into the thick of the video game industry than now. And if you’re seeking to do animation for video games, the weekend-lecturer had this to say:
“Animation means designing movement not just for living things, but objects as well. Pay attention to how humans move and have a solid grasp on character animation before moving on to more creative aspects, such as creatures.”
Plus, even if you don’t like playing video games, you can still be a part of the scene!
“But you have to love games and understand their mechanics, perhaps by watching people play. So, when you animate, you can make sure it connects well with the gameplay,” Teik Mun concluded.