The Early Years – Over a Decade of Tech Art

Being still mid-30s, I don’t get to throw around the word “decade” a lot when reflecting on my life. When looking back on my career and a decade* of Tech Art, things feel a little surreal for me.

In this post I look back on the beginning of my career as a junior animator, and how I moved into Tech Art.

I was hired at Bossa Games (previously Bossa Studios) for nearly 12 years ago as an Animator. I began as a contractor with the help of Twitter, and following the right people at the right time…


Image showing Monstermind logo with 2D illustrated giant ape roaring at the viewer with it's fists in the air

Our first Facebook game Monstermind I joined Bossa as an animator to help bring the cartoon b-movie city builder/destroyer to life. I’d just graduated from my MA in Animation & Sound Design from Norwich University College of the Arts, so I was a bit of an unknown quantity.

Whilst digging in the Monstermind archive I found my original animation tests, so I decided to share them. It’s always interesting seeing seeing old work, and the work which started my career. I’m still somewhat amazed I got the job between this and my portfolio…

Looping animated gif of a CG t-rex skeleton walking on the spot from 8 different directions
The first of my two animation tests for Bossa before being hired as a contractor for Monstermind. A simple walk cycle.
Looping animated gif of a CG t-rex skeleton performing a tail-strike attack against a grey block from 8 different directions
The second of my two test animations for Bossa, this being a tail-whip attack.

We shipped Monstermind with just a handful of artists, so I wasn’t just animating. Even from the start I’d helped to set up primitive rending and compositing pipelines (sprites) for the game, rigging, help direct outsourcer direction and asset processing, and generally muck in with everything – as is the way with startups.

And now to ramp up the self-indulgent descent down memory lane, some gifs from the game.

Loop of the giant ape monster clutching is throat and slowly falling over in a comedic manner
Giant Ape’s defeated animation
Loop of a green robot short circuiting before it's head pops off, leaving a comedy spring in its place
Destructoid let us use their mascot as a monster for the game… I imagine this is how robots die
Giant lizard giving an overly dramatic performance, swapping between poses before finally falling on his face
One of the ideas behind the game was the monsters were just people in latex suits, not actually monsters. Lizartor’s actor wanted to really show his range…
A later monster in the game, and technically more complex. This was a fun one.
Black and white, heaviliy vignetted clip of a giant bi-pedal lizard delicately holding a tank by it's barrel, and flicking it into it's mouth. It proceeds to chew, and swallow the tank.
I also helped with some marketing assets for some initial trailers. This clip was playing on a TV as a segment in a news report about monsters attacking the city.

Monstermind sadly didn’t last on Facebook, but as my fist game in the industry, I’m still immensely proud and fond of what we created. Also winning a BAFTA for it, and being present with the team at the awards ceremony will continue to be a highlight of my career.

Photograph of game developers dressed as smartly as is possible, in a ballroom in the London Hilton. 

11 standing along the back, the other 6 of the team squatting in front. 

3 of the 4 founders holding one of the 3 duplicate trophies awarded to us.

Mixture of happy and awkward expressions.
The original Monstermind team (the whole of Bossa) after winning “Best in Browser”

As a project it introduced me to games and all of the quirks, excitement, and heartache of the industry. I’m also not 100% certain if this is where I learned my “plug every gap” work ethos, or if this just happened to fit.

Merlin: The Game

2D illustrated image showing a stylised rendition of the cast of BBC's Merlin. 

In the top right, the game's log, and the bottom right a "BAFTA Nominee" badge.

Our first realtime 3D project, and to date for me no experience with engine work or code. Merlin: The Game, based of Shine’s BBC TV Series, was built on Flash and it’s Stage3D (Molehill) tech.

Whilst my role during Monstermind was more then just Animator, I regard Merlin as the start of my Tech Art career. Having become the studio’s de facto rigger aside, this is where my journey with MEL script began.

A young programmer and myself – two pretty green developers – began by assuring management that we could create a pipeline from Maya through to the game in a matter of weeks. For reasons which allude me 11 years later, we decided upon ID Software’s MD5 format. It might have been the pre-existing open-source importers for flash, or the exporter for Maya – perhaps both – but it’s ascii format made it possible to wrap my head around it.

Fortunately at that stage in my career I didn’t have to write the exporter, I’d have failed. We did however have issues with it which required me to finally concede defeat and start learning MEL. Part of me wishes I could remember what the issue was, but knowing now I could write my own exporter from scratch, I’m glad I’ve saved myself potential embarrassment.

Not that anyone 1 year into their Animation career should ever be expected to know how to write a 3D model and animation exporter, but I’d still foolishly be embarrassed at how simple the issue was.

2 weeks (and weekends) later, plus every leg of my 2.5 hour commute to London spent learning MEL, we had a rigged and animated character rending in our new flash-based MD5 viewer. I can’t speak of the developers trials on this front, but I don’t want to diminish his achievement here by not acknowledging it.

This set the pace for the project. Giddy with my newly found super power, this is when I started my Tech Art career, and the start of the Bossa Art Pipeline. I began (if I hadn’t already) to standardise all of our rigging and created a custom export script to remove the animation rig and bake the animation down to joints.

A Realisation

In the meantime Bossa hired it’s second animator, and within a week of working with her I’d realised that animation was not my calling. Apart from her starting on Monstermind, producing animation far better then my own (sadly these animations never shipped), her passion for her craft also far outshone mine.

I still find this realisation funny, I remember being told by a university lecturer in my first year of my BA Hons (animation) that I should be doing the BSc Hons (tech animation) instead, and I wasn’t cut out to be an animator.

Young hot-headed me saw red, decried this – respected veteran of industry who now lectured students – opinion as garbage. How could she know what I could or couldn’t do. Especially since I then got a job as an animator, proving her wrong! … or not.

Arguably if I’d have heeded her advice sooner would I be a better or worse Tech Artist, or would I be further into programming by now? It’s impossible to say, but having an art education is still a foundation of my practise. I still regularly draw on composition, photograph/cinematography, colour theory, principals of animation, and even usage of media studies modules with topics like semiotics, if only less formally.

Towards the end of Merlin my focused moved more to rigging, support and implementation tasks. I still produced some animation, but most of it was cleaned up 🥲.

Next time…

First experiences with Unity, Educational games, vision holding, and cancelled projects.