July 12, 2017

SCA Alumni Stories: Josh Scherr

After a trip to see Star Wars ignited an interest in special effects and animation, Josh Scherr ’97, honed his skills as a member of the first graduating class of SCA‘s Animation Division. Now, through his work on the Uncharted series at Naughty Dog, Scherr continues to push the envelope in the world of narrative gaming, first as an animation lead, more recently as a writer. He recently reflected on his work while providing helpful tips on breaking into the industry.

What made you want to pursue animation? I was born in 1970, which means I was seven when Star Wars came out, and I actually saw it in a theater. I remember I said at the time, “I want my own lightsaber,” and my parents had to gently explain to me that lightsabers weren’t real. I thought, “Well, if they’re not real, then what did I just see up there on the screen?” So that started my interest in film special effects, which later transitioned into an interest in animation.

What would you say was the #1 thing you gained from your time at USC? The ability to see a project through, start to finish. Making my thesis film with my partner Shawn Nelson was a great learning experience in that regard. I was thankful that USC structures things in such a way that you’re working in an honest-to-god production environment, with milestones, budgets for music and studio time, and so on. It forced me to confront those particular realities of production, rather than just making it up as I went along. I didn’t wholly appreciate it at the time, but it laid a good foundation for all my future work.

And of course, the resources were fantastic: not only the facilities and equipment, but the faculty and my classmates as well. In addition to the animation-specific curriculum, I also took some screenwriting classes and Bruce Block’s visual narrative class, which I still use to this day.

Did your thesis film help you get jobs post-grad? Absolutely. I used my thesis film as a calling card.

Back then, computer animation was so new, knowing the software was sometimes enough to land a job. The advantage I shared with my classmates was, not only did we know the software, we actually gained the technical and artistic training to go along with it. So when it came to our demo reel – which is how you land a job as an animator, then and now – we had a leg up over the competition.

What makes the narrative of a game different than writing a feature film? Unlike feature films, we don’t necessarily follow a three-act structure or have a typical running time. In some ways, it’s closer to developing a season of television in terms of the lengths of our games. The biggest difference, of course, is video games are interactive, which informs every creative decision we make. It’s vital that the game design, game mechanics, and story, support and complement each other. Flexibility and ongoing communication between the writers and game designers is paramount.

With games, players can make their own choices, interfere with the telling of the story, or potentially affect the outcome of the story. But I believe through that interactivity, video games can be more effective at creating a sense of empathy than film. With games, you as the player are the one having the experience, and ideally, you’re feeling the same emotions as the character you control.

You create all these amazing stories in your games; do you ever worry that the game might be too difficult for players to reach the game’s conclusion? At Naughty Dog, one of our goals is to ensure that everyone can enjoy – and finish - our games. We do that in a variety of ways, the most obvious being that we offer different difficulty levels. When you're playing on "easy," we allow more leeway in the combat sections, or provide hints earlier for the exploratory sections. But you must be careful not to hold the player’s hand too much, or they don’t feel engaged. During our focus tests, we can see when a player gets stuck in an area for too long, or if they seem lost. In those instances, we’ll often insert dialogue that helps nudge the players in the right direction.

Another thing we started doing with Uncharted 4: we consulted gamers who have disabilities and asked them what we could do to help. This included people with limited or no use of their hands, severe hearing loss, or other things that impeded their ability to play. We now have accessibility options that allow players to disable troublesome gameplay elements, remap the controller buttons, and other things that make it easier for them to play our games to completion.

What’s your proudest accomplishment? Being part of the team at Naughty Dog and having the opportunity to work on games that not only pushed the medium forward, but also garnered numerous accolades. You always hope you'll have a chance to be involved on one project like that in your career, but I've been fortunate enough to work on a couple of them now.

On a personal level, it’s when I transitioned from animation lead to full-time writer back in 2014. It’s not often you’re offered a chance for a career switch like that, especially while staying at the same company. I was very humbled by the trust they placed in me, and the change was a little scary, but creative director Neil Druckmann was very generous with his time and patience; it was a great learning experience. Okay, our team winning the Writer’s Guild Award was pretty cool too.

Do have any advice for your younger self? Or current students looking to pursue animation or gaming? For aspiring animators, things haven’t changed much. If you want to get a job, you need a good demo reel. Keep it short and focus on your best work, and put that at the start of your reel; often times, you’re judged by the worst thing on your reel. If you’re just starting out, there are tons of resources and learning materials online, plus Maya, the 3D animation software nearly everyone uses, is free for students. Back when I was at USC, 3D software used to cost fifteen to twenty thousand dollars for a single copy – so things have definitely improved in that regard.

If you’re interested in making games, best thing to do is just sit down and try to make one! Unreal, Unity, and Gamemaker Studio are free to use and have excellent resources and tutorials online. If you don’t have a lot of coding or art skills, or if you’re more interested in the writing side of things, the easiest way to get started is with Twine. It’s a simple way to create a choose-your-own-adventure style video game. It’ll teach you basic branching and interactive story structure, and it’ll give you a chance to see if this is something you actually want to do every day.

How much coffee do you drink in a day? I can’t do coffee anymore, makes me too hyper. These days, it’s mostly green tea. That said, I go through like a dozen packs of gum every day. People can tell when I’ve been working a lot because they’ll see a pile of gum wrappers on my desk. Better that than cigarette butts, I suppose.