Building the Future of the Gaming Industry with Ben Halstead

"I love using Toon Boom for all my finished animation because it is such an advanced vector program. " — Ben Halstead, Lead Animator: Beast's Fury game

Building the Future of the Gaming Industry with Ben Halstead

There are enough video games released each year that standing out from the competition can be a rather daunting task. Exploring new techniques while remaining faithful to the art is essential, and no one is more aware of that than the talented and hard-working Ben Halstead, the lead animator behind the upcoming video game, Beast's Fury.

For Halstead, the process of discovering character animation and fine art came about while earning his degree from the College for Creative Studies, as well as in the time he spent at the University of Michigan. With this foundation, Halstead began a career in the world of 2D animation with a focus on digital hand-drawn animation.

Not long after graduation, he moved to L.A. where he landed a job with a small film studio that was using Toon Boom Harmony. Having had a chance to experience the many features of the software, Halstead set about teaching himself to become an advanced user with the Toon Boom video tutorials and user guide.

We recently had a chance to catch up with Halstead and get an update as he prepares for the Game Developers Conference (GDC) 2015 in San Francisco. During our conversation, he explained his latest take on using 2D animation in his games as an artist.

There are No Rules in Animation

"In animation, people often tend to think of 2D vs. 3D as some kind of battle, where one of the two must be superior. I think we often forget that the end result for most forms of entertainment is a two-dimensional screen.

An animation teacher of mine used to say, "There are no rules, just tools." I try not to focus on which method of animation is "best" overall, but on what needs to be done in order to get my final vision in front of the viewer's eyes in exactly the manner I want.

Having said that, I generally find 2D animation to be the most challenging, the most rewarding, and the most direct form of visual expression. So as an artist, I prefer to draw things by hand whenever possible."

"Tradigital" Animation

Halstead and the Beast's Fury team have been using Harmony for character animation in their game, using a classic frame-by-frame approach that gives each character a beautifully nuanced look.

His preferred method of animation is paper-free "tradigital", animating everything frame-by-frame, with a constant aim towards cutting corners and speeding up his workflow without sacrificing quality, which he has been able to do thanks to Harmony.

Hidden Features in Toon Boom Harmony

Using Harmony's Colour Override module, Halstead and his team have discovered a way to add unique flexibility to their game by allowing remarkably adjustable character personalization…all enabled by a feature in Harmony that Halstead thinks all artists should know about.

"Harmony actually allows us to do something that, to my knowledge, has never really been done before in a 2D video game. When we're preparing to export an animation, we can separate the line art and the colour art, then connect the colour art to several Colour Override modules and dedicated Write modules to export each colour swatch individually.

When everything is ready, we export multiple image sequences for the colour swatches, an image sequence for the outlines, and an image sequence for the whole coloured character—all with a single click.

The fully coloured sequence is used to assist with animating the shading and highlights, while the sequences for each coloured region of the character are compiled into a single sprite in the game engine. The advantage of this method is that we can now allow the player to fully customize their own in-game colour swatches for the character without needing to rely on multiple sprites with different colours. Hypothetically, the number of possible colour schemes are nearly limitless, offering a new degree of character customization for the player."

Wishling character with bone deformers Wishling character with bone deformers

Cut-out vs. Frame-by-frame Animation for Game Development

For the Game Developers Conference, Halstead has been working with Marco Arsenault of Evil-Dog Productions to create a 2D game that would demonstrate the latest Toon Boom Harmony integration with the Unity® game engine. For this project, Halstead explored the use of cut-out animation since it offers the promise of very lightweight and reusable asset transfer into games.

We asked him to compare the frame-by-frame approach with the cut-out animation technique in Toon Boom Harmony.

Halstead explains, "Frame-by-frame animation definitely does take a long time to create. What I think some people might not realize is that Harmony is not the kind of program that restricts what you can do. Even a strictly frame-by-frame workflow can go much faster in Harmony, and by using the more advanced tools in this program, you can achieve the same look, or better, with far greater efficiency.

For example, with the right character rig, you can have hand-drawn artwork deforming in a natural way at the joints, joined together with kinematics on the deformers with perhaps some Auto-Patch modules to make it seamless, and Cutters on details like the face to allow an illusion of rotating in 3D.

Combine this with all the drawing swaps you need and the ability to template keyframes, animation segments, body positions, or entire rigs, and you can achieve a truly unique style of animation that has all the charm of traditional frame-by-frame combined with the subtlety and efficiency of digital software."

The Link between 2D Animation and Game Engines

Halstead has discovered that when combining cut-out animation with the capability to export into the industry's most popular game engine—Unity, there's a technical magic that happens that just can't be beat.

With Harmony's integration with Unity, game developers have a way create their art in an environment designed for 2D drawing and animation, and then export the results in a lightweight and reusable way. That bridge is accomplished by the Toon Boom plugin available in the Unity Asset Store.

As a result, indy gaming teams and gaming studios alike are putting Harmony into their pipelines to streamline production and increase the quality of their 2D game art.

The Future of Game Development Just Got Clearer

Halstead has embraced cut-out style animation because it has become such a powerful ally in generating 2D assets for game development.

"Once your rig is built, the animation process can move by so quickly and smoothly that it can truly be a joy to experience."

Once the animations are built, a new Harmony Previewer allows artists to see them in the Unity game engine without any need for programming. This workflow improvement acts as a bridge between game artists and developers. Assets can be visually verified for look and performance prior to full game integration. Once they are exported, the resulting Harmony game object in Unity provides a variety of controls for triggering the already verified animation cycles in-game.

With a skilled team stretching itself to the limit, Beast's Fury is sure to be a success, and we're looking forward to seeing what the future holds for Halstead as he continues to explore the unlimited potential of 2D animation in gaming.

About Ben Halstead

Ben Halstead is a digital animator with a passion for character animation. He is working in the LA area with his fiancée, Christina Harper, who is also an animator. They both graduated from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit with BFA’s in Character Animation, and they are currently working on a 2D fighting game called Beast’s Fury. He grew up in Michigan, and he always loved to draw. But he had a lot of other interests and hobbies too, so he spent some time exploring these other fields while he was at the University of Michigan. Eventually he realized that the one thing that consistently inspires him is animation, so he embraced it and transferred to the College for Creative Studies, an art college with a solid animation program. While he was a student there he met Christina, and after they graduated they moved to LA to experience the animation industry first-hand. They knew that it wouldn’t be easy, but there are still a lot of jobs in LA, so they went for it and here they are.

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