We interview Keith Lango, a twenty year cg animation veteran, and discuss his experience in the animation industry and where he thinks it’s heading. Keith has worked on multiple projects such as Valve (Portal 2), Open Season 2, Team Fortress, VeggieTales, Ant Bully, Counter-strike Global Offensive, Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas (2004) and more! Keith has some great insights into the future of animation and talks about his experience working for different companies.
He also had a helping hand in making one of our favorite (meet the team: Pyro) Team Fortress 2 Short video. We’re really excited that he made time to chat with us! Be sure to check out question number 20 😉
1. Tell us a bit about yourself?
My name is Keith Lango. Born in Buffalo, NY, USA. Grew up in the rural suburbs.
2. When did you start your career and where?
In 1993, I started out as a graphic designer/layout artist for a self published real estate sales circular paper. From there I went into proper newspaper ad creation work, where I caught the bug for illustration and first saw a 3d CG render.
3) What made you decide that you want to be in this field?
While working at the main city paper in Rochester NY a co-worker showed a tiny 3cm x 3cm render of an Egyptian mummy head dressing that he had made in college. I was fascinated, so from there I went out and bought some software, upgraded my computer at home and started learning how to make CG images. This was 1994.
4) What do you enjoy most about your career?
The people I’ve gotten to work with. Some really great people and I miss many of them. Projects come and go, and “great” projects are over rated. It’s always about the folks I’m working with. They are the reason it has been rewarding.
5. What do you enjoy most about working with the people in your career?
6. How did you start at Valve Corporation?
Some old friends and previous colleagues of mine reached out to me when they heard I was living back in the US after a few years in Brazil. They said they’ve always been interested in having me as a part of the team. So they arranged for a visit/interview. They liked me, I liked them, the rest is history.
7. What is the environment like at Valve Corporation for you?
Valve treats their people exceedingly well- they trust us. So that has always been the most rewarding aspect of the place. Sometimes it can be a bit rough and tumble because of the lack of a clear hierarchy of command, but you learn how to listen, to really do your homework on your ideas and how to weigh feedback.
In the end it’s about what’s best for the product and the customers, so it’s important not to get too precious about your pet ideas. Distinct ownership of art and authoring is pretty much not gonna happen, so you need to learn how to let things go when it changes, but also feel free to suggest a change that makes things better without worrying about stepping on toes. Sometimes egos get in the way- it’s only natural. We’re human, all highly capable, smart people with a lot of talent and skill. But in the end we usually work it out and everybody can feel good about what we ship out to our customers.
8. Tell us about your work on P-body and ATLAS
Tristan Reidford was the primary designer for the co-op bots in Portal 2. He’s a super talented modeler/artist/designer- a far better artist than I’ll ever be for certain. The way he worked was to model and roughly rig out the various inter-working mechanics of the robots.
He liked to feel the mechanics as he developed them. What I would then do is take his rough rig, understand how it worked, make suggestions, tweak things a little bit and then re-rig it to be robust in a hard animation environment and also get it working in the game engine with all of its limitations and constraints (we determined that it’d be best if he could focus on design and creation and didn’t have to worry about how to solve in game constraints, gimbal issues, pole vector stability, animator control requests, etc.). So that was my role in the rigging & design. As for the animation, much of the P-body animation originated from my work, but again we all pitched in, tweaked and re-did things to make them better. The lines of authorship at Valve are always blurred.
Portal 2 DLC: Ending Sequence (HD)
I helped direct & produce thise fun short video in partnership with my friend and colleague Karen Prell
9. What other projects have you worked on that has had a big impact/success towards your career?
I guess the big ones were that I spent a little over 4 years at Big Idea working on 3-2-1 Penguins! and VeggieTales, worked on Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas for Disney, did some Gi Joe stuff, some Team Fortress 2…. to be honest I’m not sure any of the projects I worked on had much to do with my career. They were the wood we were chopping at any given time, but the real impact on my career has always been my colleagues, friends and co-workers.
10. What is the highlight of your day in the workplace?
Tough to say, each day is vastly different from each other. I am titled as an animator, but I do just about anything short of actual game code. It all depends on what project I’m on, where we’re at with the project and how I can help out. Any time I can pitch in and help make somebody else’s work day easier/better, or help get the project over a hump– those are the times I feel most valuable at work. Whenever I can do anything to move the needle toward the finish line or make my colleague’s work easier/better.
11. What was your favorite project thus far?
I’m always going to go back to 3-2-1 Penguins! at Big Idea, and it’s not about the project, but about the team. That team was small (only 13 of us) but so, so talented and skilled. Most of that team has gone on to do amazing things at the top of the industry. It was such an exciting time, we were young but skilled, we had a great vibe and a fun project. Looking back at the talent in that room it’s stunning how much was there. So many great artists.
12. Any specific mentors in your career you would like to give a shout out to?
I’ll always be grateful to Tim Hodge for helping me flesh out my understanding of story, pacing, character, directing, etc. We worked together a good bit at Big Idea back in the day, before that Tim was an animator & story artist at Disney Studios.
13. What was the best day you’ve had at work?
Tough to say. I’m always just glad when the team does well and customers are happy.
14. Are there any fond memories you have from your first day and where?
My first day at Valve was an interesting one. Someone walked me to my desk in the middle of the boisterous TF2 room, sat me down and showed me how to log in and then walked away. After that it was up to me to figure out how I could fit in and help. Coming from an industry that thrives on meticulous and exceedingly detailed control to such an open ended wilderness was nerve wracking but exiting at the same time. No nets, nobody to hold your hand, no one to ease you into anything, no menial job work to get your feet wet or get settled. It’s like jumping out of an airplane into a forest fire with an axe, a shovel and your wits.
15. Do you plan on expanding your skill set any further?
I have been exploring live action film making the last few years. I find that medium extremely fascinating. it’s very different than CG animation. Working with actors is an amazing experience, directing and shooting on set is CRAZY. The tactile reality of the equipment, the people, the light, the locations, the costumes and props– it’s so much more enveloping than sitting in front of a monitor for 8 hrs.
Having so many possibilities in the edit room with the footage is very rewarding. Animation has a lot of story telling and acting conventions that we get away with that just won’t work in live action. So it’s like learning how to walk again. It’s been exhilarating. After 20+ years in Cg animation I confess that the excitement and novelty of it has worn thin. So much of it is cookie cutter safe, it stays within its lane and the very nature of how the product is made determines & limits so much of how you as an artist can contribute to it.
Live action is much more open ended, so many more possibilities. And the immediacy of working with an actor in a given moment to bring a character or a moment to life- that collaboration, that partnership, the joy of being surprised and blown away by somebody else’s immediate contribution and talent… it’s quite the fun deal when contrasted the more factory like steady machinery of Cg animation production.
A short thriller about three lives crashing & weaving together in one fateful evening, but for one of them the events play like an old, familiar song… Created by Keith Lango, shot in 2014.
16. Do you have a funny or embarrassing moment you’ve had at work
My life is a comedy of errors.
17. How do you kick start your creativity every day? (Punch caterpillars, play Xbox, gardening,etc)
I like to sit and look out on nature, to be honest. I have found that the older I get the longer it takes me to wind up to speed in my day. My mornings are a slow, meandering time- like letting my mind and heart get marinating in the moment of the day. By afternoon I’m ready to get cranking on whatever’s on my plate. Night time is study time for me– learning, tinkering, experimenting.
18. What are the biggest factors in your career that motivate you to keep on doing what you do?
I want to tell stories. I got into animation because I love making interesting combinations of visual elements, but always in the service of a story. My first images and works were short stories. I’m not into the minutiae of animation- I mean I dig great animation, but it’s not what drives me. Animation purists actually kinda irritate me, to be honest. I’m perfectly fine doing mocap if it helps me tell a story (and at work I do a lot of it- as in personally performing it myself, then working with the data). That’s what I care about. Story drives what I do. So when I can be involved in the unfolding of a narrative then i feel like I have a reason to be doing what I’m doing.
19. What is the funniest moment you have had in your career?
The time my good friend and colleague Bryan Ballinger and I accidentally set off a food bomb in the Big Idea offices that shot a geyser of fermented Yoohoo chocolate drink 16 feet up and that splashed against the ceiling, raining down yeasty, chocolate death all around us. We were absolutely certain we would be fired. We weren’t. So it’s funny.
20. If you could say anything that you want to aspiring animators that are just starting out and pursuing a career in animation, what would you say to them?
Find ways to be an author and not just a cog in the machinery. I mean right now there’s definitely work in the animation factory and it will pay the bills, but you’ll need something to last the shifting sands of technology. Animation has always- from the pencils and paper beginnings- been a technological process.
Currently technology is rapidly evolving, opening doors and bringing content creation capability to the masses. So while it may seem discouraging to say so, I suggest that folks don’t focus only on animation as an end unto itself. Animation is not an end, it’s a means to an end. The end is the story. Motion will become commoditized and easier to generate, modulate, edit, stylize. Today’s high end mocap solutions will be in tomorrow’s living room. Today’s living room mocap solution will be on tomorrow’s cell phones. Varying motion styles will be like Instagram filters.
Dynamic retargeting solutions
Dynamic retargeting solutions are advancing in ways that will allow a person to take a human walk cycle, put it on a dinosaur and the biomechanical code under the hood will know how to adapt and solve it convincingly. This is not science fiction- this is happening now.
Very smart people are working on these things and they’re finding success. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Motion will become cheaper and more consumer generated. Performance authorship will shift away from animators at desks and onto actors in sound stages. And to be utterly frank- actors are better at it than animators are. They just are and it’s only our pride that tells us otherwise. So fine, get a gig in animation, but don’t look at it as the end of the road. It’s the beginning. Use animation as your foot in the door and from there learn all you can about what it takes to bring a full story to life. Learn what other artists & technicians do, how they do it, what goes into how things work.
Story will always be the magic sauce, the reason to turn on the TV or hit play on the device. Story will be a need long after motion has become so fungible as to be no impediment to art at all.
Thank you for your time Keith! All of the best and God bless!
Go and have a look at Keith’s Social Platforms!
Keith Lango Tutorial- Creating Good Poses