Animex 2013

The Animex Festival. One week of inspiration, enthusiasm and pure awesome. The most amazing speakers, incredibly talented and passionate students and a chance to get back together with some very good friends of mine.

I've just got back from Animex 2013 and I have to say, it was one of the best yet. But then it was always going to be - as the 10th anniversary of the Game component, it had to mark the occasion in a spectacular fashion.

Each year, Gabby manages to wrangle some of the top people in the industry to come along and pass on their wisdom and experience to the assembled masses. Actually, it doesn't stop there - if you can show me a speaker who doesn't leave Animex with their mind blown, I'd be very surprised. This year was no exception.

The Schedule

One day, you too could be immortalised in the Panelator
Due to the ever-increasing popularity of the festival, Animex has doubled up - retaining the single 'track' system, ensuring that an attendee won't be forced to miss a talk due to a scheduling conflict - repeating the talks in two venues over two days.

I was due to moderate a panel on Indie Games Development after Richard Franke (Magic Notion) finished talking about his experiences on the Burnout series. Well, I say 'moderate' - I merely set the ball rolling with the Panelator 5000 and took a step back. Hopefully, the insight offered by the likes of Ella Romanos and the legendary Ken Wong was enough to inspire and inform the audience about starting up your own studio. Likewise Ben Morris and Rex Hancox - a pair of Teesside alumni, embarking on that very adventure themselves.

The afternoon saw another alumni, Janus Kirkegaard, talk about his experiences at IO Interactive whilst trying to avoid involving nuns in any way. Then returning speaker and all round good egg, Wyeth Johnson talked about being Epic. One year, he will realise that he really should stay for the whole week...

Straight from the Source

Closing out the day was one of the most mind-blowing things I have ever witnessed. Bay Raitt.

You've seen his work. He created Gollum's face for the movies. Actually, that does him a dis-service. Are you familiar with edge-loop modelling? If you've ever tried to model a face, you've probably used this technique. Well, that's all him too. It also seems that his process for adding normal maps also ultimately resulted in the creation of tools such as ZBrush and MudBox. Quite a legacy, I'm sure you'd agree.

Then, having been scooped up by Valve, he set about creating Source Film Maker. Oh, and hats - lots of hats - but to avoid turning this post into a sales-pitch for SFM, suffice to say that his realtime demonstration of the tool blew our collective minds in such a way as to leave us buzzing for days after.

As is always the way with these things, he's also a really nice bloke.

The Lounge

If you ever need a reason to come to Animex, it's the Lounge events. No other festival gives you such access to the speakers and the chance it gives you to network and acquire knowledge is second to none.

The evening starts with all of the speakers on stage for introductions - a process which has evolved beyond a mere name and title to include preferred beverage, thereby ensuring that students have a suitable ice-breaker and the speaker never runs dry. 

At this point, I have been known to show off a bit by demonstrating my dubious karaoke skills. This year, however, I felt something special was in order. I summoned my Norwegian Army to the stage and they performed a birthday song for Gabby and Animex Game.

My Norwegian Army also did me proud by smuggling in an inordinate amount of Smash! Special thanks to Mo, Henrik and Dead Guy for keeping me supplied. Now we just need to work out how I can import the ice cream version...

The Lounge also saw us conduct the first of two charity auctions, raising over £1400 for the Alzheimer's Society. Again, the generosity of the students was incredible, spending over £100 on a T-shirt or, indeed, £45 on Aliens: Colonial Marines...

Day 2

Once my panel obligations were complete, I was able to hop tracks to catch the other strand, starting with my good friend Rhianna Pratchett. As you have no doubt seen in a previous post, her and I occasionally disagree on story's importance in games. What is beyond doubt is that we both agree that it hasn't been done right in the past and that if you're going to do it, bloody well do it properly, professionally and don't just slap it on as an afterthought.

My intention to sneak in a bit of an afternoon nap was brutally denied as Eric Baldwin then threw down a fascinating insight into the development of Uncharted 3's trailer.

An emotional Journey

After that we rolled straight into Austin Wintory - sorry, the Grammy and BAFTA nominated Austin Wintory - and his thoughts on music. Thankfully, I had the opportunity to chat to him in the bar the previous night, so I managed to get most of my crying out of the way beforehand. Nevertheless, prudence dictated a supply of tissues should be close to hand, just in case...

As you've already seen, Journey is easily one of the best games that I've played in recent years, nay, ever, so an opportunity to find out more was not one to be missed. Its soundtrack forms the backdrop to my working day most weeks.

I love giving presentations or demoing my stuff to an audience. For me to do that, I kinda need my stuff to have been created beforehand - whilst my presentation tends to be very much ad-libbed, the technical stuff can't be and I can struggle to show what I actually mean if it's only in my imagination. Austin's not like that. With a keyboard, he actually performs his talk. Like Bay before him and Karen Prell's puppetry from last year, the word 'talk' is insufficient to describe the spectacle we witnessed. I'd liken it to Benjamin Zander's TED talk.

Day 3

Plasticine is your friend
Day 3 for me is Workshop Day. Everyone else got to attend Jim Zubkavich's Comic Books track whilst I spent the entire day, locked in a room, brainwashing students. We normally start with random materials and attempt to make a series of games. Then, because it's me, points are awarded for the best games and the group with the highest score at the end get a prize and can claim to have 'won' my workshop.

Highlights for me included seeing how the groups managed to deal with having to get up and pitch their games - a nerve-wracking prospect at the best of times. But the guys handled it very well and hopefully picked up  some useful tips.

The evening also gave me a chance to check out Udon's gallery for the Akuma Origins graphic novel and be introduced to Marv Wolfman. Heard of him? No? He invented Blade. As a writer - he even has a hat to that effect - I was expecting my usual, Prachett-esque discussion on story in games. Imagine my surprise when his opener was "It's all about the gameplay". We're going to be friends...

An unlikely turn of events

It's fair to say, I do enjoy introducing people to games (Spaceteam!) and other things (Smash!) and the Animex speakers are no exception. Back at the hotel bar, I managed to talk them into a couple of rounds of the Mafia game. This is something I've used in my workshops before as it's an excellent icebreaker for the teams. We even managed to rope in a complete stranger who happened to be standing at the bar as we were re-arranging all of the furniture.

Once the first game was done, Zub offered to host the next, giving me a chance to actually play the game. It may surprise you to learn that this was to be my first ever game of Mafia as a player. How well would I do? Would I actually have an influence, would my knowledge of the game be of any use at all or would I just get murdered / lynched in the first round?

First night and a curious outcome. The stranger (or "Steve") was targeted by the Mafia, but was saved by the Doctor - a 14:1 shot. I immediately claimed that Steve must be a civilian, as it would be ridiculous for the Mafia to target their own on the first night.

After the next night's murder, Eric Baldwin decided to reveal himself as the Sheriff and point out that, in fact, I was wrong and Steve was mafia. At this point, I re-iterated the point that to rely on a random Doctor saving would be just silly for the Mafia- therefore Steve must be a civilian.

Eric was immediately lynched, and I was murdered shortly afterwards.

One of the best things about this game is that, even if you're knocked out in round one, it still makes for a fantastic spectator activity and it's all down to dramatic irony. As it happens, it turns out that I was both right and so very wrong.

I was right, in that it would be an incredibly unlikely sequence of events that could see Steve being Mafia. I was wrong in that those events had actually happened - thanks in equal measure to a rather ambiguous mafia target selection process and a slightly drunk narrator. From that point on and with Steve's innocence, unimpeachable, the result was never in doubt. The only thing to make it complete would have been to have one of the other Mafia reveal themselves as the Sheriff and speed along the demise of the remaining villagers.

Lounge Part 2

Day 4 was a relaxing one as the festival turns its attention to animation, film and visual effects. My next involvement would be at the Lounge event that evening, reprising my role as chief auctioneer. Again, some crazy money was raised - over £1600. Pick of the crop was a small Monsters U sketchbook that Stuart Sumida had been toting around and filling with sketches from all of the speakers. To give you an idea, that meant that this one little book had doodles from some truly stellar names, featuring all of the characters like Fry, Bender and Lela, Axe Cop, Batman and the Skullkickers lot. It went for £420 - a new Animex record, and all to a great cause.

Day Trip

Man up, Eric! You can take him!
The Friday saw me don my tour guide hat and take an away team to York. This, in turn, enabled me to spend some quality time with Bay, Eric, Marv and David Au of Futurama fame. Like most North Americans, they found York to be a delightful place and clearly straight out of Harry Potter. As if on cue, it even started to snow as we reached the top of The Shambles...

Highlights of this trip include Marv finding a gallery with a Marvel exhibition, the fudge and chocolate emporiums and Eric finding his true calling as a rather timid Viking warrior.

Wrapping it up

Friday also ends with the Wrap Party. I'd love to write more about it, the after party at Sumo and the after after party in Badger's room.

But then, the mystery would be lost, and we don't want that now, do we?

Animex is always special to me, but this year felt like the bar had been raised. I haven't covered everything and this post has already gone on for far too long. I had a chance to talk to some truly stellar people at the very top of their game. Ethan Nicolle, for example - the co-creator of the awesome Axe Cop.

Gabby, Satish and Zub did an amazing job of bringing the festival together and, along with the rest of the Animex behind-the-scenes staff like Angela, Mandie and Stewart, ensured that the whole thing ran smoothly. I'd like to thank each and every one of them for allowing me the honour of attending again and putting up with me for an entire week.

It's been a humbling experience - and it's not often you'll hear me say that...


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