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‘Everything’ Creator David OReilly On The Hard Truths Of Moving Away From Animation

David OReilly’s shorts have had a lasting impact on the animation community. Please Say Something and The External World are two of his groundbreaking pieces, and the director is now equally known for the subversive ‘Alien Child’ video game sequence in the Spike Jonze film Her, and the ‘A Glitch is A Glitch’ episode of Adventure Time.

But despite the popularity of those works, OReilly says that animation has been a tough field for him to continue in. That’s why the filmmaker has moved into games, in a big way. After his breakout hit, Mountain, OReilly set to work on a new game called Everything. It’s hard to explain exactly what Everything is — OReilly describes it as “a procedural, AI-driven simulation of the systems of nature, seen from the points of view of everything in the Universe” — but it’s clear the aesthetics introduced in OReilly’s animated shorts remain present in the game.

Cartoon Brew caught up with OReilly on the eve of Everything’s release on Steam to find out more about his shift from animation to games, why he found animation so hard, and what went into making Everything the ethereal experience that it is.

Cartoon Brew: Can you talk about your move away from animation into games, including Mountain, and then into Everything? What led you down this path?

David OReilly: I became fed up with animation for several reasons. Even though my work had a big impact, I kept going broke making film after film, and even doing high profile jobs was not very sustainable for the kinds of projects I wanted to do. In animation you tend to always be getting shafted by people. People just love shafting animators all day long for some reason. And very few really appreciate what you’re doing.

I also know many people who direct animated features or have their own TV shows and they’re not exactly happy people, which is to say, most of them are miserable. So it started feeling like a dead end. At the same time I started playing with game engines and getting ideas in that direction, so I just followed that.

A screenshot from "Her," which included this fictitious interactive game called Alien Child created by OReilly.
A screenshot from “Her,” which included this fictitious interactive game called Alien Child created by OReilly.

In terms of your short filmmaking, can you talk about some of the challenges you faced doing that kind of work, both from a technical and financial perspective? Do you see games as a viable alternative to animated short filmmaking?

David OReilly: Making shorts was always an uphill battle, but I had a lot of fun doing it. I earned and spent huge amounts of money doing jobs to make things that I released for free, and I would probably do it again if I could, but you really don’t get credit for it. You quite literally have zero credit from doing it. People assume you’re getting free money or grants, which for me was never the case.

The difficult truth is that the vast majority of interesting animation is experienced by people as random internet junk, and not this incredible artform it might be to you. So I made Mountain which was a completely different direction, and it became the first time I made any real money with my own work. And I wound up spending it all again, so clearly I haven’t learned very much.

In Everything, the player explores a diverse world of 'everything', from animals to planets to galaxies and beyond.
In Everything, the player explores a diverse world of ‘everything’, from animals to planets to galaxies and beyond.

For Everything, was there a moment when suddenly you knew what this game should be? How did it come up in your mind, and how did that change over time?

David OReilly: The initial outline for Everything is basically the same as what you see in the final game. The entire idea came very quickly one day; it’s a very simple thing but it took years to pull off – and it definitely evolved over time and took directions that could never have been predicted.

Every single aspect of the game was created from scratch so there’s hundreds of little stories of how systems were created and started affecting each other. It’s a really organic process compared to filmmaking; they are really very different processes. That’s a whole book I’ll probably never write.

The gameplay is unlike most other titles. Moving around occasionally involves a somersaulting animal with little or no rigging built-in. Players can even let things run on 'Autoplay'.
The gameplay in Everything is unlike most other titles. Moving around occasionally involves a somersaulting animal with little or no rigging built-in. Players can even let things run on ‘Autoplay’.

It feels like you have really switched up conventional game-making. You can almost choose not to play the game and just observe. How did you balance the mix of gameplay, simulation, and storytelling?

David OReilly: I just follow my intuition on what will or will not work. It’s not too different with animation; you need to make a million decisions and know how to move on. I try to make the best thing I can possibly make, and I rely on people being open minded when they approach my work.

In every project there are certain rules I have to break in order to accomplish the bigger ideas, and this will sometimes repel people, but if you can get your brain to go along with it, you’re in for a good time. I think the whole joy of animation, or games, or any kind of art, is in getting your brain to go along with things, be they concepts or stories or even the shape of a nose or eyeball.

Each player's experience inside Everything is intended to be unique.
Each player’s experience inside Everything is intended to be unique.

How easy or hard was it to translate what you knew from your other film projects to game development?

David OReilly: Every skill I ever learned in animation has carried over to games – from the technical side to how I run production. There’s certainly a lot to learn, but also a lot I was prepared for. I’ve always felt that the basic level of discipline required in animation makes a lot of other things easier.

Like, how drawing the human body makes every other kind of drawing easier. I have always found this to be the case, the level of skill required to animate a character walking across a room saying some lines is greater than 90 per cent of other creative tasks that actually exist in the world.

Everything is currently available for PS4 and Steam.

  • Anonymous

    I myself have been laid off from animation studios 4 times because the production was put on hold because of story problems. It’s very disappointing that there are people above me that can’t do their jobs correctly and I suffer the consequences.

    • Fluffydips

      It’s also sad those people are miserable and can’t make the actual project they set out to create. The corporations won’t take risks at all, which only causes safe stories with no meaning. The animation industry is in a serious rut right now and I can’t think of anything that could save it. Better stories perhaps.

      • ea

        I said it before and will say it again: let’s start a new studio that makes animations that take risks. We should get the funding from different countries, companies and individuals, by all means necessary.

        • Fried

          If Laika can barely make it work even with Nike money backing them, I can’t see anyone else from the States who isn’t a billionaire getting it to work. There are people who are trying to get out of the system, problem is they all move to Canada (Or elsewhere) in order to make it work because it’s just not economically viable here. The second problem is that these more risk-taking projects end up taking way longer of a time since they’re essentially being made with skeleton crews, so some of the things you want do exist, they just won’t be out for another two – five years at the most.

          Until then, if you’re just speaking exclusively of the States, there is the still the indie and student scene which is bumping with activity to keep yourself busy with more experimental or a variety of narratives. Though I do get that it gets very exhausting only being able to watch short after short and rarely getting anything longer than 20 minutes to enjoy.

          • Troy

            I agree on the two points. On the point about indie and students, I believe indies have a higher chance due to the fact they have a more clear plan to their goal than students who can only learn within proximity of animation capitals, as freelancers are difficult to get ahold of to show them the ropes.

        • Fluffydips

          Nobody wants to fund animation though. Animation is a very cult-following type of deal. It’s like it’s own community. If you can find enough of “our people” to invest, then great. I’ve been interested in investing in a Minnesota based animation studio but I just don’t see the strong support. I’d love animation to break free from Burbank with some new talent.

        • GW

          I’d like to see this happen. I for one don’t believe it’s impossible. The reason that it’s not impossible is that there’s simply not enough good animation aimed at adults. I don’t mean young adults but people over thirty who either don’t have kids or whose children have already grown up. But there’s something that needs to be done first. There needs to be an animation web forum for people who like unusual types of animation to congregate whether they’re fans or creators. That way there will be some place where there’s a guaranteed audience for anything that people like.

  • Troy

    Hm….

    That is one way of stating the direction Animation is going and those who express opinion are silence in such reports. Whether it came from warped sources or bias is hard to peg if it is like a drop in a bucket.

  • markac

    Finding myself in a place where your work is this incredible artwork is a strange feeling. As well the fact that I undergo similar route, nowhere as near in terms of quality or impact (hey, it’s Poland baby!), but still: do the project involving 10 years of everyday work&learn routine + big money invested, and hear the silence after the movie finish playing. I guess that in myperfectworld the ratio between artist and public should be kept 1:0 as a natural proportion.
    Good luck!

  • Draško Ivezić

    I doubt that animators are miserable, it all comes to the question in what kind of lifestyle you are into. If you are into expensive lifestyle with houses and yacht, then animation is not the best career choice. But if you are into creating something new and unique which stays in humanity forever then you appreciate this privilege that you can talk with your honest work directly to your audience. Entertainment is a difficult job, animation even more difficult, because it costs so much to produce something. Reading David mentioning how animation puts him down because he can’t make enough money makes me wonder what kind of money he imagines to be enough. I know plenty, and this includes myself, who live modest but decent life from independent short films: we pay our bills and we keep on doing it. Saying that, I bought the game at once and I feel happy about it and I feel privileged to share experience of wonderful David’s art with other players worldwide. What he created gives me hope in art and humanity.

    • Fried

      Speaking from slight experience (Though not as heavy as David’s), even if it was living decently enough, a lot of artists get emotionally exhausted working for ten years and still having to live the same way you did when you started. You naturally want some sense of progression and be able to afford more than just a couple of luxuries a year. Even if he earns $40k a year (Which I have no idea), if he has been making $40k a year independently, which is fantastic, for most of his work life, he wouldn’t still want to be at that point with how much his reputation has bolstered since then.

      He also lives in LA so factor that into his finances.

    • D

      I work in animation myself, and I’ll admit, I don’t live in the best of places in animation, so I don’t how people make a living in France or in America, but I live in Quebec Canada. In 2D, the biggest companies still pay their animators per frame, and depending on the serie (the difficulty, amount of characters per scene, the amount of corrections you get…) it becomes harder to make a living, even as an actual employee rather than an independent animator. Corrections are not paid, and even in pre or post production job, overtime is not paid either. Some of my colleges and myself have been paid under the minimum salary, meaning under 10$/hour, on some occasions. The average amount of time animator stay in the industry before leaving and doing something else is 7 years. We’ve had animators fresh out of school end up having burn-outs because they worked more than 50 hours a week and still couldn’t make ends meet. And cherry on top, the only 2D company that employed permanently instead of contracting and paid per hour and not per frame just laid off half of its employees. And then we’re told we shouldn’t expect better conditions because ‘you love your work right?’ Well, yeah, but I think we love not starving even more.

    • that’s funny. how can you doubt about other people’s feelings? you can’t measure other’s people’s life based on your own experience.

      just read the top comment on this article and you will see about how an animator got shafted by the industry. it’s not about yachts, it’s about having a sustainable job and get a decent work/personal life balance.

    • Draško Ivezić

      Ok, I got on a wrong angle here, I am talking about author work, not work for hire in the industry. If you are author, artist, writer or indie film-maker (like David), you will find your audience eventually and this will create some sort of recognition which in return can create some business (there are different routes how to sell your work, lets not get into details). If your career is only to work on other people projects, well, that is tough. Especially if this is your only job. I come from a country where every animator takes a lot of work as illustrator, designer, comic author or even graphic designer (if they are not lucky to get hired permanently by Art Academy teaching animation). And I am grateful on every dime I make. In Quebec you can at least find a daily job in animation (no matter how bad is paid), unlike in my country where number of permanently hired animators = zero. There are some contracting animators working if there are some short films in production and that’s it. But if you are author/director, like David is, you have much more maneuver of your choices.

  • Loved this, thanks for posting it. Ya. I’m a big fan of David O’Reilly’s work, and pleased he’s expanding his horizons. I’ve worked in animation for the last 10 years and recently experienced a bit of videogame work; perhaps it was the particular videogame company’s culture but the gaming space felt a LOT more alive, more cutting-edge creatively, more where new stuff’s being discovered and people are making it up as they go. Interactivity adds another layer of immersion with the audience, where animation by itself can feel fairly passive by comparison.

  • Really excited to play the game. David’s animations are works of art.

  • Marc Hendry

    it’s kind of sad to read that he’s dissatisfied with animation, his shorts are brilliant

  • Lloyd

    I thought this could be of interest to others reading this thread: David Firth’s Patreon vid
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jyo-wVLXI5A

  • rafdesign

    It saddens me to read this interview. For Oreilly and people who struggle in the animation world.
    Animation is a great art form. We’ve become so used to see a kind of animation, driven by the studios, that there is basically no viable place for unique and different kind of animations. People brains have become formatted: animation must be 3D a la Pixar.
    I must admit that I like Pixar movies too and I became used to the aesthetics and scripts. But I remember watching David OReilly shorts years ago, and they always left something special in my mind. I wished I could have pay for his work.
    We have SO much content everywhere, on TV, on Netflix, on Youtube, etc. People can’t digest so much. Animation takes a team and a vision in order to flourish. It’s a hard financial market.

    But I think there could a better solution: imagine if something like Patreon was everywhere, easy, fast. If you could after watching a Youtube video, and if enjoyed, you could send some money, a few cents or… even just one cent? Millions of view adds up in the end.
    Redistributing money directly to artists for their work is hard and complicated in a world where either we expect things to be free… or to pay $25 bucks for a Disney bluray.
    Anyway, not sure if my comment is going anywhere…