Developer Interview: Chachris Panjatevakupt, Senior Animator for Zecha Tactics

In Part One of this two-part interview, Chachris Panjatevakupt, the Senior Animator for Zecha Tactics, goes into detail about the game animation and reveals what went into creating the Zecha Tactics teaser trailer.

Can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do at Bit Egg?

My name is Chachris Panjatevakupt. I’m Thai, and an animator at Bit Egg. I am currently working on animation for the upcoming game, Zecha Tactics. I do both rigging and character animations. This includes working with Richmond (Art Director, Zecha Tactics) to design suitable animations for the game.

We try out stuff. Things break. We fix things and redo the rigging 100 times. It’s fun stuff! 

What’s it like working on the current project, Zecha Tactics?

At the moment, we’re still in the early stage of development. It’s super expansive because we really don’t know where the borderline is going to be. At some point in development, there will be things that we can do and things we can’t do, but at this point, it’s just creative freedom to think and develop the process. We just shoot in the dark every day to see what works. 

With your expertise in animation, you give life to so many characters. What’s special about being an animator developing video games?

Video games are different. You’re not a filmmaker, you’re a gamer now. So you play a lot of games to understand what you like and dislike about a game’s animation and how it feels. By feel, I mean responsiveness and interactivity with the player. You start thinking about more than just getting the point across the screen like you would in the animation industry.

Now you have to think about frame data – this number of frames creates this amount of reactivity, and creates this amount of feedback. Could that be too fast or too slow? What’s the purpose of these animations? You think about the player more than the artistic process. You also think about the technical difficulties you may come across, and you make compromises.

This is the first major original game by Bit Egg. Is this the first time you’ve taken the lead as an animator on a game?

Yes, and it’s totally nerve-wracking! First time for everything. I’m not sure how it’s going to turn out. I hope it turns out great. But at this point if anyone has any good tips, please tell me. Help!

Truth be told, I am not the kind of guy that has a lot of work discipline, which is why I seem to be fit for the pre-production process. I’m brainstorming and trying things out. I can’t focus on something for too long. I get tired. I get bored. So I’m the perfect guy to experiment and try new things every day. Once we figure out how to move forward, then someone else can do that.

What’s it been like animating mechs for Zecha Tactics? Are there differences in animating mechs compared to other characters you have animated in the past?
“The Animator’s Survival Kit” by Richard Williams

You take those really good “Animator’s Survival Kit” books created by brilliant Disney animators, and you burn them and push them away. Now you don’t know anything about animation and have to learn from the ground up how to make it work. Because every time we try to do stuff like the book says, it looks wrong for animating mechs.

The character should move slowly and have good follow-through? Wrong!

Create an anticipation that is suitable for the body language? Wrong!

With Zecha Tactics, we have to make the animation as robotic as we can, which is the opposite of what you learn in school or on other projects.

Editor’s Note: We love “The Animator’s Survival Kit” by Richard Williams and frequently reference it for our (non-mecha) animations! It really is an excellent book!
Link to the official website

Pop’n Tanks! (1999) on PSX
So do you have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to animating mechs?

There are surprisingly better references in older games with more limited technology. Old games like Pop’n Tanks!, the PS1 game. They had huge limitations, but it’s the best example. So rather than reinventing the wheel, you study more of the past. It’s like being an archaeologist, studying older animation where there were tons of limitations.

Many people discovered Zecha Tactics through the teaser trailer you animated and directed. Can you talk a little bit about that teaser?

We had a lot of meetings regarding what we wanted to be in the showcase. It was originally supposed to be just a few seconds long, just copying what’s in old anime, just to see how it looks.

Zecha Tactics Showcase Teaser

But I’m not a great person that knows how to follow directions, so instead of that, I created a minute of animation. And then they said, “This is great! What did we assign you to again?”

We began with two goals for animating the mecha. The first was to make sure they didn’t move like humans. The second was to make them look heavy.

[Mechs] are more like big bears ice skating. You won’t see them do rolls or do spinning jumps like actual athletes.

Chachris Panjatevakupt

We ended up with a mech that really emphasizes having a huge weight on the torso and a really balanced feeling. So in the video, you see that the mechs don’t move their torso so much. They’re more like big bears ice skating. You won’t see them do rolls or do spinning jumps like actual athletes.

During the planning process for the teaser, I would chat with Richmond, the art director, about how we wanted things. We have similar taste in animation and in games as well. I like retro stuff. He likes retro stuff. I like Gundam 08th MS Team, he likes MS Team. I like Cowboy Bebop, he has a whole box set of Bebop. He’s a bigger nerd than me. So it’s not hard at all to guess what we want to do.

The Zecha Tactics teaser trailer really set the tone for the game with its cel-shading and smooth animation. What exactly were you trying to capture with the tone?
Mechs moving in harmony

We want the game to respond quickly once you make a decision, so the teaser is meant to capture that. In the teaser, you see four mechs moving together as a team like a really well-orchestrated formation. It’s meant to capture that feel of harmonic flow.

I’m also a big aviation nerd. I really like formation flying. So I guess I subconsciously applied that at some point.

What was the inspiration there in terms of aviation? 

The Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy aviation team. They fly really tight formations, just a few centimeters apart from one another. They do all these moves while trying not to kill one another. That kind of harmonic control they have.

Blue Angels’ formation flight

In formation, the Blue Angels draw contrails in the sky. So when it comes to the desert setting of the teaser, it had to be a trail in the sand. I was trying to form beautiful contrails with nice curved lines in the sand, showing their teamwork through their formation.

It didn’t carry through to the end though because they eventually go off on their own ways. I couldn’t exactly capture that feeling I wanted, but I’m glad it turned out the way it did.

Zecha Tactics looks like it draws inspiration from 80s and 90s mecha anime. Did you look at some of those anime for inspiration as well?
Patlabor (1989)

I watched Patlabor (1989) religiously, and my favorite Gundam is also The 08th MS Team.

The thing that I took from them is the realistic aspect of how mechs interact with the environment. In MS Team, they have this episode where they were fighting in the desert and they found a trail of glass. That told them that a laser beam was shot in the area, and the heat from the laser beam actually turned sand into glass. One of the mech’s feet actually broke down because the interior got filled up with sand and they had to fix that. When they opened up the exterior armor for the mech to fix things, they touched the metal part and it was super hot.

As a person living closer to the equator, that’s super relatable. If you live in an area where there’s a lot of sunlight, you actually see the street glowing. It’s so bright. Everything is so bright that it feels hot just looking at it. And the mechs are made of metal, so they’re even more relatable.

Were there any technical challenges you faced making the trailer? 

The terrain is curvy. So the way the mechs move on top of the sand would be a real pain to animate by hand just to make sure their feet didn’t clip into the ground. So I created a vertex curve to make a path for them, and then assimilated them, so they acted like a spaghetti curve, just dumping a spaghetti curve on hot sand on the ground. I could then have the characters move along those lines, so it was a really nice path for the mechs to follow.

Applying effects to the scene also came with a lot of technical difficulties. The dust effects were originally made to just stick at the mechs’ feet. The dust wasn’t supposed to linger around, but I wanted that contrail, so I got help from others on the team to do a lot of tweaking back and forth to make sure it actually lingered and looked right. It’s still a far cry from what we wanted, but that’s all we could manage in the time we had. We hope to improve on that in the final game.

The amazing animation was the main focus of the teaser, but can you talk a bit about the sound?

I tried to create original music for the trailer, but it turned out to be really sad music. To quote Richmond, he said it sounded like a funeral. I was trying to go for an ironic Evangelion feel, with beautiful contrails while they’re trying to kill each other.

However, that wasn’t what we were going for. So instead, I tabled that music. I still needed to add some kind of sound to it, and I remembered the intro from Metal Slug. The intro was a tank track cutting in between silence.

Metal Slug’s intro sequence

Since that was basically the limit for what I could do myself, I was trying to orchestrate silence in contrast with the sound effects. It turned out that I put in a lot of sound effects anyway, so it wasn’t quite orchestrating silence anymore.

What has the experience in animating and directing the trailer been like overall?

I feel like I got this creative freedom all to myself, along with additional support from others on the team to help create assets to fill my demands. Instead of feeling like I was directing, I felt more like I got a sandbox all to myself to play around with while also receiving a lot of external help from more experienced people on the team.

It was precious. There was this certain level of pressure, but it was a dream project.

Those are the closing thoughts from our senior animator. Tune in for Part II of the interview, where Chachris Panjatevakupt offers a deep dive into the technical design behind the animations for Zecha Tactics.

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Interviewed by Egg, Community Coordinator for Bit Egg Inc.