VFX and Ubisoft Montreal - A Conversation with Uri

VFX and Ubisoft Montreal - A Conversation with Uri Flamenbaum

A Long Form Interview by Angela Hanna Goulene - Journalist, Do a Barrel Roll

Video games: a form of entertainment that’s caused much controversy and discussion ever since the initial release Death Race in 1976. And ever since that fateful day, when people began crying outrage at depictions of violence in video games, the subject has remained controversial.

And yet, the more generations grow up with video games, the more they avidly defend them. Today, you likely won’t find a single Gen Y or Gen X member who wouldn’t stand up for video games against the older generations’ accusation on how said games have a negative effect on society, and how they supposedly cause violence and antisocial tendencies.

Of course, as we all know, media just loves the controversy. That one school shooter? Oh, he played this violent video game. That one psychopath? Oh, they got that idea from this other violent game.

And yet the media rarely talks about all the benefits that come with the rise of the gaming industry: for example, the fact that the global gaming market reached a value of US$ 98.5 Billion in 2017. 

In order to broach these negative stereotypes, I spoke with Uri Flamenbaum, a visual effects (VFX) artist at Ubisoft Canada. After all, who better than somebody directly benefiting from the rise of the video game industry to tackle the stereotypes that plague it?

As we sat on a terrace at the Old Montreal, I began asking Uri on his very own gaming experience, like when he first started gaming and what his earliest memory of gaming was.

 

Angela: So Uri, you work at Ubisoft, is that correct?

Uri: Yes.

Angela: What type of job do you do at Ubisoft?

Uri: I’ve been a Special Effects Artist for the past five years.

Angela: What exactly do you love the most about gaming?

Uri: That’s a broad question! What do I love the most about gaming… I’d say that, as cheesy as it sounds, I really love the whole exploration. It’s many mediums within one, so you have wonderful music, wonderful writing, wonderful world building and the gameplay experience. So, you can easily get lost in it hours at a time and that’s what I love the most about it.

Angela: When did you first start gaming?

Uri: The earliest memory I have of gaming – I’m gonna sound really old I guess *laughs* -- but it was on a Commodore 64. So that’s when I was like, five.

Angela: So, you completely grew up with gaming then! 

Uri: Yeah, I played a lot of PC games when I was a kid.

Angela: And have the reasons that you enjoy gaming changed ever since you were little?

Uri: They have, actually. I’m an immigrant here, so when I was a kid I didn’t necessarily know how to speak the language. So, basically what I was doing was passing my time without needing to interact with other people. Basically, Super Nintendo was like my best friend. Eventually I started falling in love with the world building. As cheesy as it sounds, I used to love playing these games, watching the cut scenes, stuff like that. I got more invested in them with time and grew to love the Art, too.

Angela: Out of curiosity, you said you were an immigrant – where are you from?

Uri: Brazil!

Angela: Do you go back sometimes?

Uri: I do.

Angela: Do you bring your love of gaming over there?

Uri: The world of gaming in Brazil is sort of … interesting, to say the least. It’s a very fun story. We can talk about it after but it’s very fascinating.

Angela: Darn – now I’m curious! Okay then, can you tell me how gaming led to your existing career path? Shouldn’t be too hard, in your case!

Uri: So, the thing about that is I loved two mediums: I used to love cartoons when I was a kid. I was obsessed with cartoons.

Angela: You and me both!

Uri: Yeah, so when I was a kid I watched Dragon Ball randomly one morning as a seven-year-old, and I thought “this is what I wanna do for the rest of my life”. Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be an animator. I wanted to do paper animation. But when I graduated college as a paper animator, the industry was basically done. There was no paper animation in Canada anymore, so my options were basically next to none. Basically, my only option was going to school as a 3D Animator in Campus Ubisoft, which was focused on gaming. What’s weird is that before that point I had never considered video games as a path. So, when I started doing animation and discovered VFX as well in that school I realized that this was a genuine possible career, and I haven’t looked back ever since.

Angela: You don’t miss animation?

Uri: Not at all.

Angela: So – who do you currently game with?

Uri: I game with my circle of best friends every lunch. So, it’s basically the five of us every lunch hour. We all work in different companies. I play a lot by myself, sometimes I play with my girlfriend and that’s about it.

Angela: Since you game regularly with other people, like you said – how exactly do you do it? Do you mostly do it online? Is it couch play?

Uri: Since my friends and I are in different companies we mostly play co-op games online, where we can actually all team up together. However, we do meet up sometimes after work and play couch co-ops. The same people that I play with online we also play couch co-ops.

Angela: Do you participate in any other form of gaming, like board games, arcade games, stuff like that?

Uri: Board games are amazing! I absolutely love board games, so do all of these friends I mentioned. We all play board games.

Angela: Which ones do you play?

Uri: My favorite is a game called Betrayal At House On The Hill. It’s about five people that go in a haunted house that’s procedurally-generated and just makes a giant haunted house. Eventually one of you has to turn on everyone else and there’s this spooky story that goes with it. Then the others have to either skip the house or try to kill the giant monster that’s coming out. Other than that we just play a bunch of random games, but that’s my personal favorite.

Angela: Have you had any negative experiences with gaming? And if so, how did you react to them? Did you overcome them?

Uri: Well there’s obviously the frustration of a very unfair, hard game … so those are, very big frustrations.

Angela: Oh yes.

Uri: Another one would probably be frustrations in the actual gaming industry. You feel like you’re either placed in a mold where you shouldn’t be placed and ranked where you feel like you shouldn’t be ranked. So, it’s a competitive field and sometimes they treat you unfairly and lean more towards favoritism, so that’s also a negative side of gaming, even though it’s on the production side.

Angela: How do you react and try to overcome these?

Uri: Okay, so if the workload’s a bit boring, just persevere! How do I overcome the other ones…?

Angela: By not throwing your console against the wall?

Uri: Yeah, by not breaking anything! Basically, it’s the whole dumb “take a step back and walk away” kind of thing where even if I spend fifty bucks on a game I’ll just put it away and be like “I’m done with you”.

Angela: In your opinion, what are the stereotypes or myths associated with gaming? And how can we debunk these myths?

Uri: Negative stereotypes? God, there’s so many! There’s like the stereotype that says that “girls don’t play video games”, which is clearly untrue. Stereotypes like “video games make you violent” – we have a discussion where you might get verbally abusive towards the game or somebody else online depending on how you’re playing but in no way, shape or form does that usually – and I mean, 99.5% of the time – mean that somebody will murder somebody else for it. I believe that people who do something like that already had pre-existing conditions. Another one is how we’re supposedly all just geeks that play in our parents’ basements, it’s untrue, obviously.

Angela: How do you think we can combat these?

Uri: Actually, what’s interesting is for instance the girl gamer aspect – Ubisoft is actually taking a very important stance on that, where they’re for example trying to increase hiring women, ‘cause right now we outnumber them five to one. Twenty-percent is not bad though, considering how it used to be. Before we used to have only one girl bathroom per floor because we had no real need for it. Now it’s balancing out a bit more, but our goal is to get to at least 40% women by the year 2020. It’s a very ambitious but positive step, and it’s also because these girls are out there, it’s just that we have to break this stereotype that only guys play and understand video games. It’s not true at all. So that’s one very important way to combat this problem.

Angela: I believe that girls also make up around 50% of gamers, so that’s why it’s very strange that it’s not reflected in the actual gaming industry.

Uri: It’s very balanced, that’s the thing. But, also, it’s a growing thing. Video games are relatively new so I guess I can imagine it wasn’t very well seen, or girls just weren’t very vocal about, but ever since the 2000s I feel like it’s been an up-going trend, so that trend is gonna disappear, eventually. Unfortunately, the violence linked to video games –

Angela: That one might last a while.

Uri: It’ll last a while because it’s the scapegoat for a lot of Congress people, saying that video games is the reason why nothing works in society, but … it honestly takes you a day in the world of video games to understand that video games don’t make somebody violent. Just because you had a bad experience with video games, it’s not gonna make you be more aggressive with somebody else in the long run. Maybe two minutes after though!

Angela: In that case you should generally just avoid angry gamers!

Uri: Oh yeah, at least let them cool down two minutes after they’re done playing!

Angela: In your opinion, how might gaming be used to help others find their passion or their future career path – kind of like you did?

Uri: I’m part of this program at Ubisoft where I try to encourage a lot of high schoolers that aren’t doing well in school and not finding interest in school. Something that these kids can connect with is video games, because they don’t see video games as learning thing, even though you are technically learning a lot of stuff in a video game. You understand how it works, the mechanics – there’s always things you can learn in it. So what we’re trying to do in this program is that we’re trying to show these kids that yeah, school’s tough, but if you focus on very specific tasks in school or if you understand how to analyze these specific aspects of school, they can be applied to video games and into making video games. My particular thing is to teach them how Math can lead to Special Effects. So that’s basically what I do in that program.

Angela: That’s a pretty great initiative! In that case, do you believe that gaming can be used to promote inclusion, acceptance, or belonging.

Uri: Oh, a hundred percent! Honestly there’s so many examples of it – I’ll use Overwatch to show what I mean. Overwatch is a game that I play a lot, and they have this system which they use to encourage your teammates, so that it removes the toxicity of the game. But it also makes people feel good about themselves. Like “see, even if you lost this game, these people think you did a good job.” It’s a very nice way of including people. One time I had really bad day. I was very sad that day and I was playing Overwatch at home. Even though we lost the game, I had a few people writing to me and saying “hey you did great.” It’s such a small gesture but it really came a long way and helped me feel good about myself. I feel like games can have that positive effect and help bring people together. I’ve had friends of mine that I met online and only met face to face much later. And that’s kind of cool!

Angela: It is, it’s really great!

Uri: So, I do think that games to a certain extent really will bring people together.

Angela: Well, you’ve already given us a couple of examples, but can you give another example on how Ubisoft has positively impacted the community?

Uri: Oh yeah, a bunch! As I mentioned I’m part of that initiative, so we just send people to schools once every 3-4 weeks for an entire year, for about an hour and a half or two hours, and we just talk to kids. All we do is show them how everything is awesome. Like “Oh hey you hated doing curves in Math class? Well guess what it can be applied to this stuff, which is awesome!”, and animation, etc. They love that stuff. We also have open house programs where we take in families who wanna see how the studios work, then they can basically talk to you as much as they want. So the parents and the kids will basically ask you how you get to this position, so I’m basically showing these kids that aren’t sure what they wanna do with their lives, I show them that they can make video games and that this is the city for it, I mean this is the best place for it. This is obviously Ubisoft-centric, because Montreal is honestly more multi-media, but as far as Ubisoft goes this is the perfect place for it. So yeah we basically show that there’s job opportunities for everyone. Even if you feel like there’s nothing you can do, but you still love playing video games, there’s a job for you right here in the gaming industry.

Angela: That’s pretty great! Especially since schools don’t really touch about some of these new jobs, like what’s in the gaming industry.

Uri: Yes, it’s very new. There’s a bunch of schools here that will show you how to do animation and stuff, but very few of them are very focused on how to do it properly. I teach one school for example and I’m one of the very few VFX artists that teaches in this city.

Angela: Which brings us to one of the last questions, namely – what do you see as the future of gaming?

Uri: As a media it’s already surpassing movies. The budgets are going higher and higher, the machines that run these games are getting more and more powerful. It’s getting to a point where this media is practically rivaling the streaming services and their budgets are rivaling movies. Honestly, we say there’s nowhere but up to look at. I tend to agree with that classic saying. It’s a growing industry and it’s very exciting to be part of it. I’m curious to see where else we can go. The technologies are developing so fast. You didn’t have VR like, three years ago. So, it’s exciting to see what’s coming next!

Angela: How do you think this can be leveraged for good? In a social, economic, educational, political perspective?

Uri: Well, it’s a lot of messages, right? Like I just mentioned it’s an industry that’s growing and growing, it’s not something that’s showing any signs of diminishing. So whereas 2D Animation, as I mentioned earlier, was in a steep decline when I graduated school, this is not. For example, my students right now are graduating in animation. There’s absolutely no animation jobs presently available at Ubisoft but it’s a very temporary thing. In a few months we’re gonna be hiring some, and that’s just us. There’s dozens of video game companies in Montreal. So in a social and economical way, it’s gonna affect a lot of people in Montreal. A lot of them are going to be affected by these multimedia and video game companies as a source of income. So socially speaking, you’re gonna be looking at an estimate at least one out of five people that have something to do with video game related jobs. That’s my personal estimate, but that’s where I’m seeing everything going. You have Ubisoft that’s targeting some 4000 people within the next ten years. You have Warner Brothers that’s still growing, Leidos that’s targeting large numbers as well, so it’s promising!

Angela: Thank you, Uri. Do you have any last words before the end of the interview?

Uri: That sounds like a threat, almost.

Angela: Yes – before you get shot COD style!

Uri: No, I think that’s about it. But thanks for having me! I really appreciate it.

Angela: No, thank you! I’ve learned a lot today – as I’m sure everybody else will!

 

As Uri’s helpful interview has shown, video games are far from being the menace on society that the media regularly portrays. In Montreal and Canada especially, video games are an integral part of the country’s economic growth. With it, many new jobs are created every day, thus turning what was once an obscure subculture into an important element of North American society. Not only that, but gaming clearly has a positive impact on society which brings us all closer together – both as gamers and non-gamers.

We all have different interactions, memories and ideas about gaming and its positive impact. Please consider sharing your gamer story with us by visiting our Contribute page.