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Breaking In - David Helsby

At its core, Destiny is a first person shooter. That means that you’ll explore this big, beautiful world from the point of view of the hero. We’re putting you at the center of the action. To make sure that your hands-on experience is as awesome as it can be, we look to this guy.

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

DH: My name is David Helsby and I’m an Animator. I work with a team of amazingly talented designers, artists, and engineers. Our goal is to provide the best-feeling first person experience possible. My primary job is creating first-person animation for Destiny.  If you can shoot it, fire it, reload it, throw it, or cast it, I’ve got my hands in it.  

Our hands as well, it would seem. Aside from giving form and movement to our actions, how will your efforts impact us as the player?

DH: The work I do provides responsive gameplay feedback that supports the player’s experience in the game.  My goal is to create first person content and features that look and feel great without getting in the way of the player feeling like a badass.

Tell us about the man who holds the puppet strings. When you’re not making sure that our Guardians will know what to do with their hands, what are you doing with yours when you’re not in our studio?

DH: There’s a world outside of these walls?! Spending time with my family is at the top of my list.  To stay at the top of my game, I actually spend a lot of time doing whatever I can to increase my own knowledge and skill as an artist.

We’ll talk about deepening your skillset later. First, let’s start at the beginning. While animating the avatar of a video game might have been hard to imagine at the time, did you know you wanted to create art as a lad?

DH: When I was younger, I wanted to be a treasure hunter.  Seriously, I was obsessed the idea of underwater salvage and exploring sunken ships.

Fortunately, Bungie provides you with frequent access to lost loot without the dangerous inconvenience of swimming with sharks. Did you study treasure maps in school? Or had you discovered your artistic tendencies by the time you went to college?

DH: I got a BA at Central Washington University and later went to Vancouver Film School.  While there, I took their program focused on hand-drawn animation. The principal rules of animation are the same across all mediums and topics, so I use them whenever I approach a new animation.

Where have you had the chance to apply those rules?

DH: I’ve had a lot of jobs prior to my time in the game industry.  Sales executive, Longshoreman, Dock and boathouse construction, Teaching English in Europe, among others.  My first gig in the industry was working for a company that made web games.  We had really short production times (six weeks to make a game)!  I had to learn to work quickly and concentrate on what really matters to the player. This was a great first experience making games because, no matter how big of a project you are working on, you’ve always got a finite amount of time to put out the best product possible. 

How did you begin the negotiations for your transfer from their world to ours?

DH: I was persistent. Bungie is where I wanted to be and I never gave up. I’m also very tall.

Working here might be a roller coaster, but we don’t make a lot of decisions based on height. Seriously, now, how did you score an invitation to sweat it out for a day in one of our interrogation chambers?

DH: I had a friend who was working at Microsoft Game Studios and he introduced me to his Art Director.  The Art Director took a look at my demo reel and told me that there was some good stuff but he wanted to see more.  I went home and spent the next month making more animations based on his suggestions.  When I sent it back to him he was shocked. He said I was the only person that had actually taken his advice and made new work for him. He hired me and I met some amazingly talented people and worked my ass off until my contract ended. I went to work for another studio, but a few years later I heard there was an opportunity at Bungie. I applied immediately. Lucky for me, some of the same great people that I worked with at Microsoft had made their way to Bungie. They remembered me and gave me a shot. I think if I had to put this into a piece of advice it would be to remember that it’s a small industry. If you get the opportunity to work for a game studio concentrate on giving your best effort every day and treat everyone with respect. I guarantee you’ll see those people again.

Let’s rewind that story to the part where we gave you a shot? That was a decision reached after a day-long struggle to size you up. What was the hardest part about your interview with Bungie?

DH: I think answering all of the questions that Sage Merrill, our sandbox design lead (aka “The Beard”) had to ask. Bungie’s interview was easily the toughest I’ve ever been through. It was definitely a rite of passage.

Now that you are here, what is the best thing about working for Bungie?

DH: Working with smart, passionate people.  We all have the same goal of creating a game that isn’t just well executed but is a game that we all want to play.

Describe how a day in your life at the studio might unfold.

1) Travel to the studio on the back of a Unicorn.  
2) Have breakfast 1 on 1 with Jason Jones.  
3) Drink magical elixir to increase mental and physical stamina.
4) Take wacky reference video of myself for new animations.
5) Animate.
6) Get animations in game.
7) Iterate
8) Iterate
9) Iterate
10) Celebrate! (go home and sleep)

We’re going to assume that some of the items on that list are totally false. What keeps you focused on the true parts?

DH:Putting in that extra effort, knowing that you can squeeze in just a little more fun for the player is what keeps me going at 2 am. Also, producers will sometimes bring you waffles at 2 in the morning to help you keep working. Thanks Richenburg!

Put yourself in that moment when you’re supercharged with creative energy after a fresh dose of coffee and waffles. If you were to hurl that the energy at the hardest part of doing your job, what would be your target?

DH:The biggest challenge about what I do is creating good-looking animations within the tight constraints that make a video game fun and responsive. A great example of this is authoring a good melee or punch animation. In real life, if you’re going to throw a punch, you might have some type of anticipation or wind up before you throw that uppercut or right cross.  In a first person shooter, once the player hits the button, that punch needs to be flying towards its target immediately. Removing that anticipation is the tricky part because that anticipation is what tells your brain what’s going to happen next. Solving visual problems like this is the hardest (and most fun) part of my job.

What’s been your favorite solution to that problem? Do you have a punch that has landed more squarely than the rest?

DH: Seeing my work front and center during the E3 demo, and seeing people react positively, was definitely a highlight of my career.

We made some big promises on that day. If they weren't already, the people who are waiting to play Destiny are expecting big things from us now. In the same way, Bungie demands that we also evolve and improve over time. How do you do that?

DH: I find that figure drawing is one of the best ways keep my core art skills sharp.  I also animate at home, study filmmaking, and paint.

You’ve grown up to fill an interesting niche that didn’t exist when you were planning your deep sea adventures. If someone put your job on their treasure map, what clues would you leave for them to follow?

DH: Persistence pays off.   Figure out what you want to do in this industry (and be specific about it!).  Do the research on the best place to learn this skill.  Once you’ve learned don’t give up if you get turned down.  It took me over a year to find work after I got out of school.  Keep practicing your craft and creating new work and don’t get discouraged!  Also remember to get feedback about your work from friends, fellow student, and gaming professionals if they have the time.

We’re glad that your persistence paid off, David. We’ll let your hands return to their important work, so that our hands can get in on the action someday.

What sort of treasure are you hunting in your career?  Is it something listed on our careers page? While there might not be a map that leads to a job making games, we do try to help with some stories about how members of our team plotted their course. You can find a trove of them in the Breaking In archive.
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