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Why Animators Should Care About The Recording-Breaking Debut of “Grand Theft Auto V” [UPDATED]

[UPDATE—Sept. 20, 5:20pm ET] Grand Theft Auto V has now exceeded $1 billion in sales in 3 days. No entertainment property in any media has ever achieved that mark in such a short period of time.

Publisher Take-Two Interactive reported that first-day sales of Grand Theft Auto V topped $800 million, a record for the video game industry. Actually, it’s probably a record for any cultural industry in history. To my knowledge, no piece of music, film or other art has ever made $800M in a single day. But if we wish to confine the discussion to videogames, the previous record holder was Call of Duty: Black Ops II, which generated first-day sales of $500M last November.

This fifth installment of GTA launched on September 17 for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. The sales figure is worldwide, although it excludes the upcoming launches in Japan and Brazil. The $800M figure equals sales of between 13-14 million units of the game, which is quite an acccomplishment considering that the last installment in the Grand Theft Auto series sold about 13 million unit over an entire year.

GTA:V took five years to develop and cost between $200-250 million, which is as expensive as any big-budget animated feature. Its earnings will easily top the highest-grossing animated feature of all-time, which would be the $1.06 billion gross of Toy Story 3.

It’s been fascinating to watch the ascension of games as a cultural force in early-21st century entertainment. It is an art form that requires new programming technologies to produce and new devices to consume, yet also relies heavily on traditional constructions like narrative storytelling and character animation. The latter is why we care, and why we will care for a long time to come. Even as immersive entertainment experiences displace older forms of media, the role of the animator only continues to grow in prominence.

Game publishers like Take-Two Interactive (and its subsidiary Rockstar Games which made GTA) obviously understand the value of graphics, otherwise they wouldn’t continually push to improve the complexity of their visuals and the nuance of their character animation. But there is still room for graphic improvement, and especially, greater believability in the character performances.

When will developers begin recruiting topflight feature film animators en masse and elevate interactive media to even more fantastic heights? The time when game producers start valuing the contributions of animators at least as much as feature film companies currently do can’t be far off, and competition for talent between game developers and film studios can only be a good thing for the animation community.

The following review of GTA:V not only provides a good sense of the gameplay, but also shows the incredible amount of animation that is contained within the game world:

  • Ant G

    the point of this hastily written article to generate traffic aside; animators do already work in the video game industry and a lot of people in the animation industry have worked on a video game before. The two industries are cultivated by the same culture of people; the manchild in all of us. However, the video game industry was able to grow past the “games are for kids” image it had in the 90s (now this image is just on Nintendo), and GTA was a large contributor of that image shift. So if there’s anything to derive from GTA’s success is, maybe its time the animation industry could break away from its kiddy image as well.

    • AmidAmidi

      Nobody suggested that animators don’t work in videogames. In fact, I’d suspect that more animators work in games than feature animation. The point is clearly stated, and that’s that game producers should be looking toward elevating the quality of their character performances by recruiting “topflight feature film animators en masse.”

      • “I’d suspect more animators work in games than feature animation.” Wait, what? Can you explain your reasoning to me?

        • Squid

          There are a lot more game studios than animation studios.

        • Christina Skyles

          Not Amid, obviously, but there are just far more game studios than feature studios these days. So, logically, there are probably more animation jobs in the game industry. Of course, this comes from my own observations from looking at job listings.

        • jmahon

          they need somebody to clean up all that mocap.

          haha, I’m kidding. But there are many jobs that require animation training in games, and many programmers and such need a little bit too. I mean, we’re not talking about full feature animation with squash and stretch and followthrough and that sort of thing that takes a few years of honing to “get”, but when you need a character to look good at every angle, some idea is needed I guess.

          • Hilarious. You could make the same joke about film and performance capture.

            “I mean, we’re not talking about full animation with squash and stretch and follow through that takes a few years to get.”

            Seriously? When was the last time you played a videogame? 1996?

      • No.

        [Comment removed by editors. Per our commenting guidelines, “It is OK to post with a nickname or alias, but your email address (which we will NEVER share publicly), must be a real, permanent email address. Comments with fake or non-permanent emails will be deleted.”]

    • g0nk

      If to grow past the movies for kids image, animation has to embrace gun culture and the hypersexualization of women like games did I rather it stayed in the kiddie niche. Sure, not all games are like that, but just like the article says look at what the biggest games are.

      • Chris Sobieniak

        Now you know how I feel.

    • D C Mahler

      was that first little snarky remark really necessary? what did you achieve by being a dick from the get go?

    • tjarmstrong


  • Matt Sullivan

    Funny. Just the other day I pondered working in games because it seems the American Animation industry is so anemic and unstable. Also, even when an animated feature makes over 100 million dollars, it’s still a “flop” Feh.

    800 Million. Staggering.

    • jmahon

      I can’t stand that- if a movie isn’t the Avengers, it’s considered a failure. Pacific Rim, a movie that garnered pretty much universal praise that everybody loved from so many demographics and countries across the world, was apparently wavering on “the edge of “failure” for a few weeks because it only made 200 million it’s opening weekend. Seriously?? It hasn’t even been released on DVD yet.

      I remember when I was a kid, making an animated movie didn’t require years of committee decision and supervision so as to absolutely maximize the amount of profit which watered it down into nothing- they just went for it, and you got movies like The Pagemaster or the like that are classics to us, even if they weren’t massively successful. You could never imagine something like that being made today. Today, people take chances on TV shows and you wind up with massive successes for really inventive and unique properties. But why is it, for movies, they have to be engineered to appeal to the widest audience possible and end up being so bland compared to what is on TV or what’s being played nowadays?

      I think part of GTAV’s success is that, alongside what everyone had come to expect, it was marketed like a playable HBO drama, so you had advertising opportunity for fans of TV, for movies, and for video games, all at the same time. Hell, even I want to play it!

      • IJK

        “I remember when I was a kid, making an animated movie didn’t require years of committee decision and supervision so as to absolutely maximize the amount of profit which watered it down into nothing.”

        Wow, you worked in the industry when you were just a kid? Amazing!

        But seriously, that’s not really true at all. The PageMaster wasn’t a film trying to take a chance, it was trying to cash in on Disney hits. Dreamworks and Warner Brothers 2D films were trying to compete to build their own “Disney”. Don Bluth was really the only one who took a chance by risking his own money for his projects.

        If you mean we don’t have enough “non big” studios releasing movies on small budgets to compete with big budgets, you’re wrong.

        Alpha and Omega
        Gnomeo & Juliet

        Planes is a big-studio, small-budget film so…

        Just because you’re not watching or enjoying these movies doesn’t mean they don’t exist. You talk about Pagemaster like it’s some masterpiece classic when at best it’s a nostalgic film. If you re-watch it now, it’s really not very good.

        • jmahon

          I knew someone would call me out on that, and not understand what I meant.

          What I’m saying is, Pagemaster wouldn’tve ever been released today, it’s too “small” of a movie. Those “small” movies were what inspired me to become an animator. We don’t need these massive spread-out animated film epics from 3 studios that have to cover so much at once because they HAVE to be smash hits, and that’s what they’re engineered to be. If someone was going to try and ape Dreamworks or Pixar by making a unique and beautiful movie, well then? Do it! And those movies you listed, if you’ll notice, aren’t all on the same level, or were made in other countries and then simply released in the US. Listing those films doesn’t really help your point.

          I know you understood what I was trying to say, and my argument still stands. And, yeah, I’ve watched Pagemaster recently, just to make sure that it was still what I remembered, and it was still a great, beautiful movie even as an adult. Though I guess maybe I’m alone in being one of those people who can enjoy films, and don’t want every single animated film ever to be Pixar’s “Up”.

        • Nik

          FYI: Gnomeo & Juliet was originally a Disney Animation Studios project but Lasseter shut it down and the film went over to Miramax and later on was shuttled over to Starz Animation in Toronto. The film was finally released by Touchstone. Starz (now Arc Productions) got final credit for the film but, at its heart, Gnomeo & Juliet was still a Disney project.

    • Marc

      Game industry is remarkably unstable as well. Just google game studio layoffs/closures.

      • Kevin

        This is TRUE! I was in a games for a short stint until our whole team was “let go.” I quickly got out of that industry, and since then have seen a slew of friends losing their jobs in a similar fashion.

        I noticed Animators weren’t really valued, and treated as a “means to an end.” Cleaning up horrible Mo-Cap that (based on the final compressed product in the game engine) would have been easier to just hand keyframe in the first place. In my case, it was a frustrating and unrewarding experience… I’m much happier now back working on acting and character driven performances.

    • Troubadour

      @Matt: and just think what it’s doing to our culture…

      If you have talent, use it wisely. Not for violence, sexism, bloodthirst.

      • Please. GTA is not all games. Never mind that movies tend to be just as violent as GTA if not more so and you don’t see anyone here going “Don’t use your talents on all those terribly violent special effects movies”.

  • Panda Polygon

    The top games animators will give the top feature animators a run for their money any day of the week, and great animators hop from one industry to the other frequently. Observe exhibit A, Cameron Fielding (DW to Valve):

    The problem with game animation is not a dearth of industry talent, it’s the presence of technological limitation. Because game animation must in run real time, animators are highly constrained. A feature film rig will be literally orders of magnitude more complex than a games rig will be, allowing feature animators to execute their performance and mechanics with fidelity simply impossible in games.

    Until recently, inverse kinematics (character foot or hand plants) wasn’t even possible within game engines. The last time a feature animator had to work without IK was during Toy Story 1. Game engines can’t use blendshapes, which precludes the possibly of the art directed facial shape specificity you expect in feature.

    There’s a reason the Blizzard Cinematics look the way they do, and their ingame animation looks the way it does. After all, these were made by the same company of animators:

    • Kevin

      You nailed it! The technology in games waters down the animation and instead puts the focus on textures and lighting, etc.

    • You’re definitely right about constraints in game animation, though: “no blendshapes in game engines”? Do you mean a special type of corrective blendshape or something? … because even the in-game example you linked has morph target based facial animation.

      Also I would argue the technology has advanced to the point where the constraint is not the tech but the design… figuring out how to weave the animation into something interactive yet fluid and emotive.

      In-game cutscenes don’t count, gameplay animation is the real frontier.

    • Hopefully, the PS4 can help with this problem. Check out this demo of The Dark Sorcerer running in real-time on the PS4:

  • alt animation podcast

    Id love to know how much hand keyes animation vs mocap this game is. I bought it opening night and havent been able to stop. The story is extremely engaging and when you switch characters you really do feel like you get in their world.

  • Andrea Murray

    If you’re expecting really high quality sprite animations akin to, say, Pixar animation then you really need to understand something about video games first; Many individual frames in a Pixar film will take an entire day to render, but gameplay has to be rendered in realtime. Plus, video games are an entirely different medium to film and television. Okay – you could make well animated sprites and cinematic cutscenes, but at the end of the day it’s a game. You’re not really there to watch acting.

    Thing is, animation in video games is bloody amazing these days and it only ever seems to get better. At the end of the day, a game can have beautiful animation and amazing graphics and still be terrible. At best, good animation should aim to supplement the gaming experience, not be the main focus (I wish the MGS games would realize that).

    • Jkg

      Have you played any Double Fine or Telltale Games ?
      The potential for acting is huge and the technology for real time rendering is evolving at lighting speed thanks to R&D within the game Industry.

      Yet due to time and budget constraint who would believe you could get 10+ hours of key frame animation ? These companies are not even big studios, and someone pointed that the indie scene do have that variety of animation styles AAA titles don’t have, to me the latter ressemble that of the VFX industry, with it’s mo-cap and hyper realistic animation. How different do you think this is ?

      I’m glad game companies are there for us animators and that we’re there for them, we do rely on each other. I’m just bummed that the average animator dismisses that Industry and its potential.

      I mean, how old is it compared to the movie industry and how fast is it evolving ? That itself is worth considering.

  • Dave M

    I remember meeting the creative director on id’s “Rage” at a convention in 2011, and he expressed to me that he would “give an arm and a leg” for even one more animator. As large as the games industry is, it seems that there is still a dearth of quality animators even at large, hugely-funded studios like id. So I wonder if it’s a matter of producers and directors historically ignoring animation quality, or a lack of interest by the skilled, film-style animators?

  • Game studios have great animators. Nuff’ said.

    So, how much of that 800 mil trickled to the artist and production team that made it happen?

  • siskavard

    If you’re only looking at the AAA studios then you won’t find much amazing animation, just mostly motion capture. If you broaden your view however into the indie gaming scene, you’ll find it’s full of a broad spectrum of animation styles.

  • bob

    People in animation do work in games… they go back and forth and also freelance at the same time.

    There are many things that result in the look of a game not being that of a feature film… not just hiring better animators… I suggest you look into that.

    And trust me, it’s not like people making games don’t value good artistic talent……… ?

    But yes, it is cool to see games progressing and it’s exciting to think of the future of gaming.

    Also, do you mean record-breaking? Not recording-breaking?

  • Stranger

    The average movie ticket is $8. The average AAA video game is $60. Hard copies sold don’t equal ticket sales.

    • Joseph

      That’s a good point. Gotta include dvd and digital sales i guess.

  • Steven Bowser

    Some games have better animation than others. I thought the game “Timesplitters: Future Perfect” had great cinematic animations in-between the missions. It still impresses me today, because most games use motion-capture, but that game was more cartoony.
    GTA doesn’t have the best animation that videogames have to offer.

  • [I tried to post this earlier but Disqus keeps eating my comments]

    This article seems really behind the times. Valve has been hiring film artists and animators for years (Bay Raitt, Cameron Fielding, Karen Prell) and a fair number of people alternate between games, film and tv work. Other studios that care about animation: Team Ico, Ubisoft, thatgamecompany, plenty more…

  • You’re right that as an animator you don’t get to 100% own a performance like you do in linear media. However, unless your programmers are also trained in animation they still need to work with animators to get movement that looks good. It becomes more of collaborative effort, yes, but animation is always going to be an integral part of making interactive characters move and emote.

  • AnthonyA

    Article title needs a fix: “…. about the _record_ breaking…”

  • The game does interesting things with gameplay animation (integrating dynamic physics and hand animation) but I don’t think anyone would hold its cutscenes up as the best of game animation (and let’s be fair: anything trying to be ‘realistic’ is always going to look like uncanny puppet theater, regardless of budget and time), so if you’re judging all of game animation based on that video review in the article, then sure.

    > I understand it’d be very labour-intensive, but let’s not compare the two.

    Your condescension is misplaced. Film animators get a lot more time to work on a tiny amount of animation and they don’t have to deal with interactivity. Not to mention real-time tech is only now starting to catch up (… but if you seriously believe modern games don’t require the same type of animation training that’s needed for film (plus an understanding of games if you want to work on something other than cutscenes) then you really don’t know what you’re talking about and there’s not much point in continuing this discussion.

    Incidentally, you seem to have missed the bit about ex-Pixar, Weta and Dreamworks animators working at places like Valve and Double Fine.

    • jmahon

      Valve and Double Fine actually animate their cinematics, trailers and cut scenes, though. Like I said: big, big difference.

  • For an idea of the challenges involved in gameplay animation check out: (skip ahead to Assassins at 30:49)

  • Oliver_C

    Never played any of the GTA games.

    But then again, I’m not interested in playing a game that rewards you for raping and killing prostitutes, and won’t allow you to roleplay a female character.
    And what’s this?! I never once dreamt people would remember ‘The Pagemaster’ fondly!

  • iseewhatyoudidthere

    “To my knowledge, no piece of music, film or other art has ever made $800M in a single day.”

    Um…movie tickets aren’t $60 a pop. Not a very good comparison.

    • alt animation podcast

      Its because people dont feel like movie tickets are worth 60 dollars a pop…

  • Foreign Devil

    AAA games are 98% mo-cap and more and more facial anim is mocap.. . . Aside from a nice paycheque. . I doubt you would get much satisfaction from cleaning up mo-cap and animating some random kicks and jumps that get integrated and blended into the mo-cap anim library.