Meet ‘Joan Shark’, The Lead Animator Working On Assassin’s Creed

Categories: Workplace

Curious why they call her ‘Joan Shark’? Read on to find out.

Meet Joan Hsu, the Lead Animator at Ubisoft Singapore who has worked on various projects in the award-winning video game franchise Assassin’s Creed. 

Assassin’s Creed is an open-world action-adventure stealth video game franchise where players take the role of assassin through history.

“As a child, it was never my ambition to become an animator. I really wanted to become a veterinarian. But, it turns out, I’m allergic to animals.”

Growing up, Joan loved watching 2D animated films and anime to the point that her “parents were a little bit concerned.” She decided to pursue her love for anime and animation when she saw that the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore had an animation program.

On the advice of her lecturer, who, at the time, was part of Ubisoft Singapore, she pivoted from 2D to 3D animation and focused her modules on it. “I was really fortunate because I genuinely enjoyed it, and I was also thankfully good at it. So I continued honing my skills and took them with me to my career.”

Rejoining Ubisoft Singapore in 2020, she has since been promoted from a Senior Animator to a Lead Animator. She has worked on Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, ‘The Siege of Paris’, which recounts a fictional story of the Vikings’ most daring conquest to infiltrate the city of Paris. 

Bringing Animations To Life  

“Contrary to what people think, as a 3D Animator, I don’t actually draw daily.” Instead, Joan mostly spends her time using 3D software to animate the objects and characters in a game. 

To create the animations of a character swinging a weapon, for example, Joan uses a 3D model or ‘puppet’ to move each body part, creating a series of different poses and movements. 

“The coolest thing I’ve animated, strangely enough, is not a person. It was a great white shark. It’s something quite close to my heart.” Without the ability to use previous references of human 3D puppets that would help automate the animation, Joan had to spend many hours creating the animations for the shark from scratch. 

The amount of time and love she spent on the shark to make sure that the animations looked seamless and as realistic as possible, earned her the nickname ‘Joan Shark.’

Used in the harpooning mini game in Assassin’s Creed Black Flag, where players are able to explore the Golden Age of Pirates and stand among legendary pirates such as Blackbeard and Calico Jack, players are supposed to attack the shark by throwing harpoons at it. 

The animation was unique because it depicted a great white shark that players could see through the water. This meant that the team working on the project were able to program and show the shark doing different kinds of attacks with animations of the shark attacking the boat, making surprise attacks, and even jumping out of the water.

“When I first joined Ubisoft, I thought I’d just be doing human animations. So when I was given this opportunity to animate a shark, it was very different, something unexpected, and it was really fun,” said Joan.

Being A Woman In A Male-Dominated Industry 

Joan’s perspective on the lack of female representation in the gaming industry is refreshing yet logical: “A majority of women may not share the same interest in this field, as compared to men”, she shares. 

Coming from a girls’ school, Joan saw most of her peers sticking to the more traditional route of becoming doctors, lawyers, and even politicians. “It’s very rare to see friends and ladies in my generation take an interest in gaming or film. So naturally, when there is less interest in this area, it translates to fewer people taking up this career path.”

Being a woman in the gaming industry meant that Joan did not have many role models. Seeing her only two female lecturers work on important projects and great animation films inspired the mindset that women can still make their mark and rise in the ranks to achieve great things even though it is male-dominated.

Still, Joan feels that she has been “pretty lucky” in her career. When she joined the industry and started working at Ubisoft, even though there were very few women, they were still treated equally and given equal opportunities on projects.

Looking at the portrayal of women in games, things are changing quickly as well. For example, in Assassin’s Creed Odessey and Valhalla, players can select a male or female as their main character, based on their preference, where traditionally there would be no option, and the main character would be, by default, a male. With more and more games giving these options to players, it is a positive step in the right direction.

Valuable Advice For Aspiring Animators

With many aspects of animation within the gaming industry, it is much larger than one might think. From cinematic animations that are mini-films within the game to creature animations such as the great white shark that Joan designed, there are various areas that animators can specialise.

“Make sure you have a strong foundation of animation basics such as body mechanics, which is being able to animate the natural and realistic way that characters or people move, making it look believable to the audience. From there, you can learn to specialise in an area that you want to grow in.” 

The most important thing for aspiring animators is to find a mentor who can give them good advice, which helps them groom their animation eye so that they’re able to see where they can improve and how to make their animations look better.

Her key takeaway? “Always BUILD.

Build a strong portfolio that reflects the best work that you have. 

Understand your own style, whatever it may be. Be it stylistic, realistic or 3D Pixar types of animations.

Improve yourself by finding a mentor that is able to guide you and hone your craft. 

Lean on your strength by understanding what they are and using them on a day to day basis. This will help keep you motivated.

Don’t ignore soft skills like teamwork and good communication. Making a game is a highly collaborative thing. You don’t just work with the animators, you work with game developers, game designers, and you will have to do quality assurance with 3D artists as well.”

Joan learnt early on in her career that it was better to do the animations as broadly as possible and show the first draft to the director to get a sense of direction before spending long hours creating the final animation and design that might end up being rejected. This helped her save a lot of time and understand the director’s needs much better.

She also shares this advice with those that report to her. “Show me your progress as early as possible, even if it doesn’t look great. Because if I can help you, modify your animations earlier and save you time, and then you can be more efficient in your work.”

A Challenging Yet Fulfilling Journey

Reflecting on the time that she first joined, the most memorable aspect for her was being part of an international team of animators from all over the world with diverse and different backgrounds coming together to work on a project. They would bond over similar games they played, films they loved, and even go to each other’s places for dinner.

Her greatest joy and fulfilment about the work she does comes from the feedback she gets from her friends or players who appreciate the work put into designing a game. Especially when they share that a particular game she has worked on has excellent visual effects and hyper-realistic movements. 

Without an animator, the puppets would be static. With an animator, they come alive and transform into a character the audiences believe is real. There is a certain magic in bringing 2D animations to life.

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