Interview with Video Game Animator David Pumpa

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Animator David Pumpa has helped bring many popular video games to life. David gives us some valuable insight into the world of animation, tells us how he achieved his dreams, and describes one very important coin flip.


Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am a Senior Cinematics Animator at Bend Studios in Bend, Oregon. I have a BS in Computer Animation from Full Sail University and have shipped eight AAA video game titles including The Order: 1886, The Last of Us, and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.


When did you first become interested in game animation? Why did you decide to pursue it as a career?

I kind of became an animator by accident. When I was in high school I was in love with cartoons and video games and wanted to be an animator, but I thought that goal was unrealistic. After high school I spent six years going to three different colleges and trying as many majors as I could, but I wasn’t doing well due to a general lack of interest. I had almost given up when I discovered my community college was offering a new game design program. I figured “Why not?” and gave it a try.

I worked harder in those six months than I had ever worked in my life.

I loved everything about what I was doing. Programming, designing, artwork, generating ideas and working collaboratively. But while I was thrilled at how much I was excelling, it became obvious during this time that I would never be able to get a job from this program. The teachers knew nothing about the industry and the college had no idea what was required to be a functional game developer. So I left that school and got accepted into Full Sail.

Full Sail was great because it had multiple majors for game development, but I didn’t know which one I wanted to do. I had decent skills in both programming and art but there wasn’t really an option to do both. So I flipped a coin. Two months later I was in Game Art learning all the different artistic disciplines. But once again I had to make a choice. There were seven art disciples to major in and I didn’t know which one I wanted to do. It wasn’t until a passing instructor looked over my shoulder while I was animating something and said “Hey, this is one of the best animations I’ve seen in this class.” Of course it was just an Intro to CG class but that was enough for me to say “Welp! Guess I’m going to be an animator!”

Two years later I graduated with the second best demo reel in my class and was the first in my class to land a job. It didn’t even occur to me that I had accomplished my high school dream until two years later.


How did you learn the skills to be animator? What can a young person do to learn and explore animation?

Animation is a fun skill to develop, but time consuming. To improve I needed to practice 4-12 hours every day, read books on animation, acting, anatomy, composition, and storytelling, and watch and study cartoons, film, and video games. Which is all a pretty fun way to spend a day.

But while becoming an animation professional is hard, it actually isn’t difficult to start animating on your own these days. There are a lot of computer programs available for animation like Photoshop, Flash, Adobe Animate, and Toon Boom, as well as free 3D programs like Blender. Plus there are TONS of free available resources for artists and animators online. On top of that there are new school programs and camps that specialize in CG and animation coming out every year. I wish I had as many options available to me when I was in grade school.

Outside of computer programs and camps there are other ways to get ready for a career in animation. Learning to draw and pose characters is an essential skill that every animator needs to know. Getting involved in extracurricular activities that help you understand motion is also really important. Sports, martial arts, gymnastics, and dancing are good ways to learn how your body moves. I was a black belt in Tae-Kwon-Do, ran track, played tennis, and shot archery and it’s all helped me deliver a believable performance in my animations.


David’s recent animation reel:


What was your first animation job? How did you get your foot in the door?

My first job was at a small studio in San Diego called Pendulum. I was an intern working on video game cinematics for larger companies. I was first notified about this job through Career Services, who had sent my resume, reel, and credentials out to them on my behalf. I had never heard of them before, but when they asked for an interview I gladly accepted. The interview went well but they wanted me to do an art test using motion capture. I panicked because I had only used motion capture once or twice 12 months earlier, but I smiled and said yes. They thanked me and said I had 48 hours to complete it.

I used every minute of that 48 hours.

When I finally turned it in, more caffeine and sugar than man, it didn’t take them long to get back to me. Apparently I understood motion capture a lot better than most people because they said my art test went way beyond what other people did. Two weeks later I moved across the country in a little Hyundai Elantra to start my new life as an animator.


What’s a typical day of work like for you?

10:00 am – Read emails, industry news, and catch up on social media to see what other animators are working on.
11:00 am – Meetings that involve brainstorming, getting new assignments, and peer reviews.
12:00 pm – Lunch
1:00 pm – Animate
2:00 pm – Animate harder.
3:00 pm – Animate like crazy.
4:00 pm – Go out for coffee and then some more animating.
5:00 pm – Get my work reviewed by my supervisor and turn in my work for the day.
6:00 pm – Go home.

Animation is a group process. There are many people I need to deal with throughout the day to make sure the stuff I create shows up in the game. So it’s not often I get to spend an entire workday laying down keyframes.


Is there any aspect of your job that you find particularly awesome?

Creating. There is no joy greater than producing something from nothing. Every time I see an animation of mine show up in a trailer, on a website, or on someone’s pc or console it gives me a thrill. This is compounded when I’m working with a group. One person can build a shack, but 1000 people can build the pyramids, and it’s always a pleasure to be a part of that. I’m not even picky about what it is I’m creating, so long as I can build something great with others.


What’s been your favorite game to work on and why?

Oddly enough, The Order: 1886. It was a game that got mixed reviews and it was a tough project to get through but the CINEMATICS were phenomenal. I got to work on a lot of great scenes for that project doing things I especially love. So it turned out to be very enjoyable.


How do you learn and stay on top of new techniques and technologies?

If you’ll notice in my previous answer, I said I spend 10:00 – 11:00 reading emails, industry news, and social media. That’s how. I spend that time talking to other animators and reading about the latest tools and industry news because staying current is extremely important. This industry advances quickly and I learned early on that if you’re standing still, you’re falling behind. Large game companies are usually really good at staying on top of the latest software as well. They have direct contact with software developers and we will frequently get representatives that keep us abreast of new developments.

Conventions are also a good resource but don’t occur as frequently. Siggraph, GDC, and E3 and good conventions that throw the latest trends, ideas, and tech right in your face. They’re also great places to network so you have a lead on your next job.


For kids interested in pursuing a career in video game animation, what should they expect? What should they not expect?

Expect to work hard. Not just hard, expect to work harder and longer than anyone else around you. The video game industry is very popular and there are a LOT of people that want to get in. Because of that companies have the luxury of picking only the best of the best from the throngs of students who think “really liking video games” is enough of a credential to land them a job at Blizzard.

Don’t expect to play video games all day. Animating is really fun, but it’s still a job. We have tight deadlines and little overhead to work with so we spend every minute we can producing content. Have I played video games at work before? You bet. On slow weeks or at the end of a project we’ll all play each other in some competitive title and talk trash in the office. But it’s a rare occasion. We’re also expected to play the game we’re currently working on to make sure that our animations are working in-game. But that’s less about fun and more about getting the job done.

Expect to have fun. Animation is probably one of the most entertaining jobs in the world. You get to create cool things, learn a lot of neat tech, and produce content that millions of people all over the world will love and enjoy, which is a fantastic feeling. Is it all sunshine and rainbows? No. But I always look forward to going to work each day and frequently have a smile on my face.

Don’t expect to get rich. Animation is fun, but cool jobs frequently have the downside of not earning much. Don’t get me wrong. I live comfortably and I’ve never worried about money. But I’m not looking to buy a mansion with a matching yacht anytime soon.


What skills or experience do employers look for when hiring an animator?

There are a lot of different traits employers look for. The first thing they look for is animation skill, which is reflected in a candidate’s demo reel. Next they look for required experience which may be between 0-12 years, followed by software proficiency. Then they start looking for traits that set you apart. Do you have a specialty? How are your communication skills? Are you organized? Can you do things other than animate? Finally they check your personality to see if you’d be a good fit for the team. Sociability, calm demeanor, a good sense of humor, clean language, hygiene, and manners can all factor into this. Lastly, they check if you like video games. I’ve recommended people that had all of the above qualifications and then some, but still didn’t get the job specifically because they didn’t play video games.


Any other advice for aspiring animators out there?

The last major thing I can emphasize is networking. In the end, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. I’ve worked on 10 different projects, four different companies, and released 8 games, and I never applied to ANY of them. I’ve landed every project I’ve been on by talking to people I know. Social media, classmates, coworkers, and family are all people who can potentially set you up with your dream job. If you’re not in college and want to get a jump start on networking, here’s what you can do.

Don’t be a jerk.

It’s seriously that simple. Don’t piss off your classmates, don’t yell at your parents, don’t cuss out teammates and friends when you’re playing video games online. Just be a pleasant and fun person to be around. Those positive habits and behaviors will eventually translate to you having a robust network of professionals that will ensure continuous employment. I landed my job working on The Last of Us because of a guy I met on League of Legends. No joke. I’ve also refused to recommend someone for a job because they slacked off on a group project in college. It all affects how people view you.


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James Knutila Editorial Lead
James joined the Tech Rocket team in 2016. He writes about the intersection of technology, design, and education.
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