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Tips for Experimental Animators Working Game Design Into Their Practice

Written by: Jamin Warren

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Time to read 6 min

Jenna Caravello on making the jump to games and what to bring with you.

"We see animators come into Unity, and they're like, 'I have so much I want to do and say, but how do I make peace with this problem of simulation and interaction?,” Jenna Caravello tells me from her office at UCLA. “‘What does interaction mean to animation?' It's a big existential question for animators: agency, involvement, where emergent play happens, and what kinds of mechanics we lean into as animators to make something that rides the line and speaks in a gray area between both modalities."

Jenna Caravello, an experimental animator and game developer, knows this challenge of straddling two worlds. She trained at SAIC and later experimental animation at CalArts before settling into her role at UCLA Game Lab. She recently shared her insights on how animation principles and craftsmanship can be combined with the interactive elements and agency found in games.

Caravello's unique perspective illuminates the challenges and opportunities that arise when merging these two disciplines. Here, in her own words, she outlines key aspects of her approach to embracing the intersection of animation and interactivity in game development and how her experiences can inspire and guide other animators who want to venture into the world of game-making.

Getting Started with the Physical

In Chicago, tape media was still very big, and it still is now. Everyone is recording audio to tape and distributing their tapes at shows. I made a little VHS tape level inspired by mushrooms. I can't remember at this point; I got into it at some point, but I don't even remember where that knowledge went. I had the idea of infecting Goodwill VHS racks with our VHS tapes that had short films made by local filmmakers all around Chicago. We’d put them on Goodwill racks and just leave them there or sell them at shows. It was wonderful. You could decorate the object, collaborate with your friends, and put something out into the world.


It was very much the object-orientedness of it, the artifact of it. Recorded media, when you have a little tape, is just this wonderful, flawed medium that speaks of what it is and how it was made. It also, at the same time, tries to tell its story or related subject matter. So whether that's music or video, all these things are coming together to get across this holistic kind of media experience.


If your game doesn't belong on itch.io, but you want to share it as a love letter, can you put it on a little drive and give it to somebody? Would you make a basket of them and go hand them out?

On Embracing the Intersection of Animation and Interactivity

I was already building this language of media as a memory and object-based container for memory and working with these ideas of hauntological objects as I worked on animation in Chicago. 


[SAIC] was really helpful because we could deeply analyze intention while experimenting with animation as a platform. I made a film that was a combination of animation and 16 millimeters about the end of the world and after the apocalypse. Half the people in the world have disappeared, but not really; they're just on a different plane, and sometimes you catch glimpses of them. Now, everybody has developed these modes of making symbols to communicate with those who are gone. 


We see animators come into Unity, and they're like, 'I have so much I want to do and say, but how do I make peace with this problem of simulation and interaction? What does interaction mean to animation?' It's a big existential question for animators: agency, involvement, where emergent play happens, and what kinds of mechanics we lean into as animators to make something that rides the line and speaks in a gray area between both modalities. I find it unendingly interesting, and I don't have any answers. 


I have a different kind of work ethic towards animating for games and playing games; the former involves a lot of asset wrangling and collection. The experience of animating is having an endless folder of files you are wrangling and adding to, and you keep working on this project for four years. Similarly, sitting in front of a game like Red Dead Redemption and trying to flip a bottle into a barrel for four hours - that kind of emergent play that is about using what's there in the game to get your desired result - is conceptually tied to being an animator, which is just grinding all the time.

A flying batnut
Animated still from Bat Nut

Pushing Boundaries with Game Engines

We're definitely seeing animators experimenting with the platform and bringing in their animations, and then trying to kind of decide what to do. There's this severe learning curve, right? So, if you're a programmer in a game engine, the assets may not matter as much. I teach students not to use assets as placeholders since that becomes an “aesthetic of necessity.”


Our understanding of games shapes our desire to make something that may share some affective look or aesthetic. And it is like a snake eating its tail. We've got aesthetics speaking to memory and games speaking to aesthetics. I've heard it said that 8-bit games, the way that we see them now, are a new kind of facsimile. If we were working with CRTs and looking at 8-bit games in that way, there was a different kind of aim for those graphics: to kind of mask and work with their limitations, and the look was very different.

Pulling From Your Own Experiences

Amber Row, the game I've been working on for a long time, is not easy to find. It means a lot to me that it's out there because I have been holding on to it and keeping it close. It's a piece about the death of my mother and how, you know, it can feel like walking around in the world is kind of a cheap facsimile of your mother, when she was amazing and so grand and so big in your mind.

Bat Nut is an interactive sculpture made from the cage of my bird, who passed away recently. And I think a lot about how we return to objects, and we can't forget or throw objects away if they're connected to death or memory. I just couldn't throw her cage away, and I was having all these kinds of dreams and daydreams that I had replaced my dead bird with this bat nut, which is like a satanic-looking water chestnut. If you've ever eaten one before, they just look like Satan's face, but it's nuts that it reminded me of my bird.

Everything I make is about collecting so that we remember and hoarding to have more of the feeling of remembering. In games, I find that managing inventories is just so much a perfect allegory for the experience of loss and mourning that it's inseparable in my head. These interactive pieces as part of “Easy, Ultra Fine” are a meditation on that connection for me.

"Everything I make is about collecting so that we remember and hoarding to have more of the feeling of remembering"

Learning What To Foreground

[Danish director Thomas] Vinterberg doesn't make his own camera, but I didn't make Unity either, you know? But he does choose what to put in front of his camera, and I also choose what's in my camera. As an animator, you realize that the agency of what you make of craft is sometimes, if you're not going to make your platform from scratch, it's the only kind of agency that you have, or it's the most agency that you have until you crack it open and start writing your shaders and rendering engines.

I also come from a perspective where I learned how to read by playing games. And so this is very much a feeling with 'Easy, Ultra Fine.' The pieces, in their unusability, give me a feeling that I had as a baby trying to figure out how to play Monkey Island, but I couldn't read what the objects were, and I couldn't crack these codes. Even though point-and-click adventure games are like, 'I'll use this with you, on you, and with you,' and there are no instructions, you just need help figuring it out. It's even harder when you can't read, but that kind of infinite possibility and infinite obscurity is something that I still lean into as being very interesting to me.

This interview was edited for clarity.