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Finest Employee: Ray Crook

Chris Remo Chris Remo

An image from the Double Fine archive.

Many people work at Double Fine Productions, and they are all individually the best, which seems physically impossible but is easily understood when you are here. Because that is true, we are going to start profiling some of our excellent people for you here on this website. First up is lead animator Ray Crook (he was promoted today!), who has been a Double Fine animator for more than a decade, and whom I tried to mug with this terrifying laser pistol, until Ray realized it was just the microphone I was using to record the interview.

An image from the Double Fine archive.

You’ve been here much longer than most people.
It was 11 years in April.

That’s almost the age of the studio. [Double Fine recently reached its 12th anniversary.]
Well, I’m going to quit on my 12th. Tim promised I’d get a golden watch then. Well, maybe he didn’t promise. But he said.

You’re just waiting around for that?
Yeah. I want the golden watch.

Okay, so you’re an animator.
Yes, but at Double Fine the animators tend to do different things as well. It’s a small company, and culturally we’ve all tended to do different things. So I do some character rigging, character modeling, and animating. Some of the animators also do texture painting. Most animators have multiple skills, because the teams are small.

An image from the Double Fine archive.

Ray being a big old nerd with his son Elliot.

Yeah, it definitely feels like a more multidisciplinary studio than most.
Right, so on Double Fine Adventure there’s one animator for preproduction—me—so I’m also doing rigging and some simple modeling.

You’re pretty new to the Reds [codename for Double Fine Adventure] team—one of the most recent additions.
Yep. Lee [Petty] had already done a lot of visual experimentation with [Nathan] Bagel [Stapley], and it was time to start getting the animation pipeline in place. I’m working mostly with Oliver [Franzke], who’s implementing that. It’s fun! So far, so good. We’ve been putting up some of those animation tests for backers.

What did you work on before Reds?
I worked on Psychonauts and Brutal Legend of course. On Amnesia Fortnight, I worked with Nathan Martz on the prototype that became Once Upon a Monster, so I was on that game from the very beginning, which was cool. I also worked on the downloadable content for that in more of an art director role, which was a good experience.

Then I worked with Lee on the AF prototype of Stacking. I feel bad for Lee about that, because it was hard for him to find animators who wanted to work on his game. And it’s nothing against Lee! It’s that the Russian stacking dolls have no limbs. So it was a challenge, because you had to get personality out of a super simple shape with just two parts, a top and a bottom. Actually, in animation school, they make you animate a flour sack, to try and coax personality out of something really simple, but even that has multiple areas of articulation. With the stacking dolls it’s just one point of articulation.

It’s funny, because that’s something I really loved about that game, that these really simple models had so much character to them.
Yeah, it actually turned out really well. Dave Russell led the group that animated that. I think during the Amnesia Fortnight period of the project, we proved we could get personality out of something so simple. But it’s still fun to have arms and legs and a mouth and eyeballs that move around. I like to do a lot of eye work.

I worked on Costume Quest as well—they needed some extra combat animation, so I pitched in. There’s an unannounced project Kee Chi is leading too, and I did some work on that. And I don’t think anything I did on Iron Brigade actually made it into the game, but I’ve touched most projects somewhere along the line. Except The Cave. I kind of want to do one animation for The Cave, just to get my mark in there. I don’t know if I have time, but I just want to do one thing.

The Cave is your white whale.
That’s so weird you would say that. Were you listening to our conversation over lunch?

No. What?
[Producer] Gabe [Cinquepalmi] was saying how going to see Louis C.K. is his white whale.

Okay. When you were in animation school, was your focus 2D or 3D?
Well, we did both. You start out with traditional animation, maybe to weed people out, before they let you touch the computer. You also had to learn basic modeling and rigging skills before you started animating. But Dave Russell and I worked on a short film together in school, and I used that to apply for my job here as a rigger. They didn’t need an actual animator at the time. But once I got in and did rigging and modeling, eventually I got to animate a cutscene and from there I got to do more animation.

What made you want to be an animator? How did you end up here?
I grew up in Ogden, Utah, and I remember asking an art teacher in junior high, “What if I want to do special effects? How can I do that?” I think everyone who saw Star Wars as a kid loved special effects. I loved Fangoria and I had all these Freddy Krueger posters, which kept my sister away. So anyway, my teacher said, “Uh, I think you have to go to California.” So that was the end of it, because California was far away.

When I got to college, I got into an accounting class, and I hated it more than anything. I couldn’t even get through Accounting 101. I couldn’t figure it out. So I withdrew. I ran into a friend who was out in California studying animation, and he told me about it, so I flew out there to check it out and I said, “I have to figure out how to do this.” But I had already been accepted to this internship in Japan to study information technology, which I was not interested in. I was a horrible intern, because I didn’t know how to program, but I met some great friends.

Anyway, I came back and decided to go to art school at Cogswell College in California, and I loved it. When I was almost done at school, they did a gallery showing for Grim Fandango, and I was blown away by it. I didn’t know who Tim was at the time. Growing up I played PC games like Wing Commander, and MechWarrior, and Duke Nukem, and Dark Forces, which blew me away, but I hadn’t played Tim’s games. So I played Grim because of that show, and I was really affected by the world.

Then one of my instructors told me about Double Fine, which was started by that guy who made Grim Fandango, and she gave them my name. They called me, and I showed up with a red bowtie on because my wife said I should wear a tie. [laughs] I had lunch with the whole company, and [artist] Scott Campbell also had a friend who just came along who asked me questions too for some reason. And they called me back. I lucked out.

An image from the Double Fine archive.

Double Fine artist Razmig Mavlian made this illustration of Ray’s interview. From left to right: Chris Shultz (still a Double Fine employee), Eric Ingerson, Gaurav Mathur, Tim Schafer, Ray Crook. Raz explains: “I was working at LucasArts at the time and Chris Shultz told me about a new employee. I was fascinated with Double Fine so I asked Chris to describe this person. Chris gave me some physical characteristics and I drew what, in my mind, was this man. He described him as looking Austrian or German so I gave my drawing some lederhosen and made Ray speak with an accent. What I drew that day is almost exactly the way I draw Raymond Crook nowadays. Not much has changed, and he still looks Austrian/German every time I draw him.”

You were telling me earlier you had a story about your NES.
Oh yeah. My friends had an NES so whenever I went over to their houses, all I wanted to do was play Super Mario Bros., or Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. So one year my sister was going to get an NES for Christmas, and I knew where my parents hid our presents. So I would stay home sick from school, and I knew where the presents were hidden, and I would get it out, and undo every single little bit of packaging and all the twist-ties, and play it all day long, then I would put all the packaging back on and wrap it up and put it back under the bed. I did this for months. So I was already an expert at Super Mario Bros. 2 before my sister even got it for Christmas.

That’s really impressive!
Yeah. Nobody ever found out. And now my son is eight years old, and he loves video games. As an adult I know that I do actually have to go to bed and not play video games all night, but I have to remember that he has the same impulses I did at his age. I want to be like, “Just read a book!” but he just wants to play Plants vs. Zombies. So I have to remember he has all those same feelings I did.

I wasn’t allowed to have video games as a kid, but my mom had to learn how to use Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect for her job, so she brought a computer home and I would secretly put PC games on it. The first game I played I think was this gorilla game that came with QBasic.
Yeah, it makes you feel empowered to have that experience.

Having been here so long, what are your thougths on how Double Fine has changed over the years?
I hate it!!!

No, just kidding. There’s a culture here that’s almost like family. I know people who go to work who have nothing to do with the people they work with, but here I really enjoy hanging out with people after work as well. I think Tim tries to look for that when we hire people—finding people who would get along with the group. It’s part of the culture of the company.

As far as how it’s changed, the biggest change was going from one big project at a time to multiple small projects. We used to have one big animation department, with seven or eight animators who all sat together on the same game. On the small projects, it’s harder for us to feel like one animation department, but we still try and get together as animators for lunch or occasional outings, to get that feeling of being a core animation group.

Another change is that some of us are old now. When I started, Tim wasn’t married—very few of us were married. I didn’t have kids. Now a lot of us have families and we’re fat and I’ve lost hair. So, I’ve changed, I guess. Physically. [laughs] I got hired here right out of school, so this has been my whole career in games. I don’t actually have any plans to leave.

Even after you get that gold watch?
Oh right, I forgot about that. Yeah I’m definitely out of here after that. I can’t wait for that, Tim.

Do you have any weird hobbies or anything?
Hmmm… What do I like?

You apparently like the Millenium Falcon, because you were pointing to that big Millenium Falcon model.
Yes. That belonged to Tasha [Harris], one of our animators who used to work here [and now works at Pixar]. I think I still owe her $100 for that. Don’t put that part in. The animators built it together. It’s something like 5000 Lego pieces.

I also like to skateboard, but I’ve had trouble finding other Double Fine people to do it with. I think they’re afraid. So I do it with my son.

An image from the Double Fine archive.

From left to right: Chris Shultz, Dave Russell, Raz, Tasha, Ray. Producer Gabe Cinquepalmi recalls: “That was a big event. It took them months.”

Do you do art outside of work as well?
I like to paint. I’ve been doing watercolors lately. I go to figure drawing as well. It’s good to touch pencil and paint to paper. And there are a lot of great artists here, so it’s good to be around that.

I don’t play any music. I tried playing the piano when I was 21. I was like “I never took lessons. Maybe I’m a musical genius and I just never tapped into it!” After eight months I realized I’m not a musical genius.

I always wonder about that. Like, are there born genius pole vaulters who were just never introduced to the sport so they have no idea?
Yeah, there’s probably a bunch of them out there. Probably the greatest pole vaulter in the universe was just never handed a pole. You might be the greatest pole vaulter in the universe. I’m not the greatest piano player, though. Now I know.

I was a music major in college and I’m also not the greatest piano player. That’s hard to be.
Yeah, but you can play it. You were playing it at that bar we were at. That’s better than me.

Well, you’re a better animator than I am.
I better be! I’m a professional!

What’s your biggest regret?
Not getting my Eagle Scout. That’s my biggest regret in all my life. I’m just putting that down for the record. People think I’m an Eagle Scout because I can build fires really well.

That lie is coming crashing down.
I’m ALMOST an Eagle Scout. But I have the fire skills. Also, if anyone wants to take me surfing, please take me surfing. I want to try surfing.

An image from the Double Fine archive.

The sharpest-dressed animation team in the industry photographed at the 2006 Annie Awards after Psychonauts was nominated for Best Animated Video Game.

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