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Breaking In - Micah Zahm

The work we do at Bungie is a blend of arts and sciences – a delicious recipe that combines ingredients of imagination and engineering.{{more}} Our development floor is a chaotic kitchen where form is mixed with function.  While everyone at Bungie is a creator, some of our chefs specialize in bridging the gap between the technical and the aesthetic.  That sort of work requires a cornucopia of skills, and (according to this guy), a lot of school…

Who are you, and what do you do at Bungie?

Hey Seventh Column! I’m Micah Zahm, one of the technical artists on the rigging team.  We make the tools that Bungie uses for character animation easier and faster to use. We handle anything from setting up character rigs and painting weights, writing automation, batching asset reports, to speeding up any workflows for our character art and animation teams.

You sound like exactly the sort of smart, energetic fellow that we love to lure into our service at Bungie.  What do you do with your life when you’re not turning motion capture data into living, breathing characters in our games?

I’m a pyro, but in a good way! Though I don’t have my pyrotechnics license yet, I do help setup fireworks shows around our area. I’ve worked on the Bellevue fireworks display the last two years, and I’ll be doing it again this year.

Were you one of those kids who got grounded for starting fires in your neighborhood?  Actually, don’t answer that.  During your formative years, did you exhibit any aspirations beyond the exciting field of celebratory arson?

Growing up in the Midwest was boring, so there were a lot of video games in my life to pass the time.  I always wanted to create things and work in video games.  At first, I thought that meant being a programmer.  During college, I found that really meant creating art for games. Ultimately, I landed somewhere in the middle.

It sounds like you’ve wrestled with some self-discovery on your way here.  Tell us more about that collegiate epiphany, and the steps you took to land on our team.

First there was school, lots of school. This was made worse when I switched my degree from computer science to fine art, but it paid off. During my senior year, I got hired at ArenaNet and worked there for two years before Bungie snatched me up.  Having a solid foundation in programming and art from school and some real production experience at ArenaNet got me well prepared to jump into action at Bungie.

Let’s delve deeper into your soul-searching as a student.  What motivated you to change course?

The first school I went to was the Milwaukee School of Engineering for a year to study computer science.  I didn’t like it there, so I took a year off to come up with a new plan.  I came to the Seattle area and attended DigiPen for two years, again studying computer science.  It was great but programming just wasn’t the right path for me.  So, I took another year off, got some art together, and applied to the fine arts program at DigiPen.  After four more years, I had my bachelors in fine arts.  There’s probably a lesson here about how finding what you love to do can take a long time, but it’s so worth it when you do!

Knowing that is half the battle. Were you able to hold onto some of what you learned about programming?  Or was the first phase of your schooling a total wash?

I use most of what I learned on a daily basis. To make awesome tools, you need an understanding of how artists work. You only get that by doing the work yourself.  You’ve got to be able to design and write the tools.  You also need a strong eye for anatomy and motion to setup characters.

You have a great set of skills to aid us in our task of bringing brave heroes and strange invaders to life in our new universe.  How did we find you?  Or, how did you find us?  How did we find each other?

I’ve followed presentations that Bungie has published, and I’ve tried to implement their ideas in my own work. Right from the get go, I was able to talk about what I understood of their systems and my experiences implementing my own versions of them. I applied because a friend’s brother that works at Bungie told me they were hiring. So, knowing people definitely helps.

Knowing people can be the other half of that battle. Of course, being invited to the interview is the beginning of the war.  How did you survive your time with us as an applicant?

Maybe this is a strange answer, but I had a really good time during my interview.  Getting to chat with everyone about the work I love to do was fun for me.  Most of it felt more like talking to old colleagues than being grilled as part of an interview.

You’re doing an enormous disservice to our readers.  The Bungie Interview is no simple meet and greet.  It’s a dreaded interrogation – a ruthless proving ground of professional aptitude! This is your chance to provide the uninitiated with a warning about the trials for which they should be prepared.

If I had to say, in general, having to think quickly on my feet.  A few of my meetings during the interview involved solving hypothetical problems on a whiteboard for situations I had never put much thought into before.  Despite the good interview, I actually turned down the first job offer I got from Bungie.  I must have left quite an impression because a few months later they got ahold of me out of the blue with a new offer that solved my reason for turning down the first.

You played hard to get?  Not bad, smooth operator.  Now that you’ve succumbed to our seductions, what’s the best thing about being in bed with us?

This is cheesy, but it’s a tie between seeing the relief and joy of an artist when I deliver a tool to them that will keep them on schedule and seeing the excitement of fans over what we’re making. 

That excitement is just starting to ramp up. There are many days to come in which we’ll be releasing new details about your work. Describe for us, if you would, what might happen to you during just one of those days.

If I was lazy at home, I’ll begin by scrounging up a small breakfast from the kitchen.  The next thing I do is look at which tools were having problems the previous night.  If any of the problem tools are my responsibility, it’s time to do some fixes.  If not, it’s bouncing around between helping artists, developing new tools, or setting up and weighting characters. There’s plenty of chatting with my team and the art teams about how everything is working, who’s working on what, and how we can make anything that we’re working on better. And, I can’t forget the occasional board game over lunch.

Of all the days you’ve spent in our studio, which one was home to your proudest moment?

Not long ago, I came in over the weekend because the character team was going to be implementing something that would ruin some of the work we had just spent two weeks on.  It would have been at least a few days of lost work if I tried to fix the problem after they started.  Over that weekend, I got a new system in place that would preserve our work while they made their destructive edits.

It sounds like your job requires you to learn on the fly. How do you plan to keep those problem solving skills nice and sharp?

Each year since graduating, I go in and consult with students at DigiPen working on their junior and senior projects.  I also do some game development on my own time for fun working in Unity, both programming the game and doing the art for it.  Running through the entire process really helps you get a sense of how everything needs to come together.

Since you’re into mentoring, share with our community some words of advice on how to break into this crazy industry.

Love what you do, never say ‘that’s good enough,’ get critiqued, and iterate! Passion shows no matter what field you want to get into, and so does having a positive outlook on what you do.  If you come home after a full day and want to continue to do the same work on your own projects, you’re on the right track. Keep your bar for quality high.  Everything matters, the modeling, lighting, staging, texturing, camera framing, etc. And finally, iterate on your work. It can be hard showing work that you know isn’t done to people and have them critique it, but it’s far better to get this feedback before you feel you’ve completed the work. You’re going to find changes, so get them out of the way early and often when it’s easy to make them.

That’s a wealth of insight from the trenches, sir.  If you’re not done sharing just yet, please sort these virtues: Experience, Work Ethic, or Talent?  Rank them in order of importance to your role.

Work Ethic, then Experience.  I don’t believe in talent.  Anyone can become amazing at anything they do if they have a passion for it and work at it long enough.  To me, someone that works hard and learns quickly is more valuable than someone with experience that’s stuck in their ways.

If this is the sort of hard work you dream about, be you a constant reader or a first-time visitor, Bungie can be a place where you find the challenges to keep you unstuck in your ways. But, like we said, there are many cooks in our kitchen, and you can read about every variety of them in the Breaking In archive.
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