Grad Jeff Unay: Facial Animation for Hit Movies and Games

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The key to realistic digital characters often lies in the face. The subtle muscle contractions around the eyes, mouth, and forehead that sell the idea that you’re looking at a living creature and not a collection of polygons. The art of facial manipulation has been the inspiration behind 2003 Computer Animation graduate Jeff Unay‘s decade-long career, where he’s been helping to bring new levels of expression to popular film and video game characters.

Jeff began his career at Raven Software in Madison, Wisconsin, where he worked on the models for the hit first person shooter Quake 4. It was right at the start of an animation technique called normal mapping, which allows for more intricate surface detail while still delivering low polygon counts. For Jeff it meant new sophistication for the ways his characters could move and react.

“When I saw the level of geometry and complexity – I hadn’t even seen it in film before,” he says. “That’s what got me interested in working on Quake, and what I was hoping to do was try to create even more detailed deformations in the faces. I picked the techniques up quick because I was really into it, and I was really proud of the work we did on that game. Having that experience actually led me to getting on my first film.”

Following his work on the Quake series Jeff moved to Berkeley, California to explore animation for film at Tippet Studio. His first projects were Hellboy and Catwoman, where he was able to start implementing more elaborate facial rigs. Not having to worry about file size constraints, the increasing realism he and the other animators were pulling off started to get noticed by other visual effects studios throughout the industry.

Not long afterwards Jeff was recruited by the innovators at Weta Digital, where he would apply the techniques he’d developed to a pair of projects that would break even further ground in face work – Peter Jackson’s King Kong and James Cameron’s Avatar.

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“Joining Weta was one of the most exciting opportunities I’ve ever been given,” he says. “I remember one of the animators came by and saw me working on King Kong’s eyes. He said ‘How does it feel to be working on a creature that’s going to make the entire audience cry?’ That was one of those moments that made me realize just how important the face was, and that building facial systems is very creative role. With a film like Avatar, you end up asking yourself questions like ‘How does a Na’vi look when it smiles?’ There’s a lot of room for interpretation and it comes down to the artist to figure out what’s right on each face.”

Shortly after wrapping Avatar in 2009, Jeff got a phone call that would bring him back to video games. The offer was from Valve Software, the influential gaming company that received attention for their facial animation on the classic sequel Half Life 2. Valve isn’t just about games, however, and the role has also allowed Jeff to weave his passion for film in between animating characters for titles like Portal 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and Dota 2.

In fact, he’s now behind the camera capturing the human impact of the projects he’s helped create at the studio, and has recently produced their acclaimed 2014 documentary feature Free to Play.

“My interest in Valve was about the ability to do more than what I had done, so I started with facial work but then there were also opportunities to get into filmmaking,” he says. “I never thought I’d ever be able to do film at Valve, but they asked if I’d be interested in shooting the first-ever million dollar video game tournament. We thought it was going to be a short film, but I came back with all this footage and it turned into Free to Play.”

“Film is always what I’ve been passionate about from the start, and then I also like the possibilities you have with games – so this has been a nice fit. Valve is a place that if there’s something you’re interested in, and they’re interested in, you can do it. I’ve always felt very at home here and the opportunity to do so much has been a dream. Looking back, everything I’ve done in this industry has been different, but in their own positive ways. I really feel fortunate for every step.”

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