Cyrus Lam: The Wacky Life of an Animator in Ubisoft Singapore!

Animation Director Cyrus Lam tells an incredibly inspiring and heartfelt story about how he got where he is today.

Like so many of us here, you love art, you love video games, and your incredibly boring desk job is eating you alive. And it’s probably because you’re (day)dreaming of working on some of your favourite games one day! You have no clue where to start, and you’re a little scared to make a leap of faith. That’s ok – one of our most experienced Ubisoft Singapore veterans is here to show you the way. 

Animation Director Cyrus Lam has been in Ubisoft Singapore for a whopping 9 years, and has an impressive portfolio of several AAA games under his belt. He tells an incredibly inspiring and heartfelt story about how he got where he is today. 

Hello Cyrus! Tell us more about yourself! 

I’m Cyrus Lam and I’m from Hong Kong! And yes, I’m proud to have been with Ubisoft Singapore ever since it started. Together with the studio, I’ve come a long way, and I’m now an Animation Director. My daily work includes handling and deciding on the style of animation, quality control for in-game animations and cinematics and directing actors for motion captures – which is just as hilarious and fun as it sounds. 

What projects are you working on and what do you love most about them? 

PHEW, I can finally talk about our big secret – I’m currently working on Assassin Creed Origins and Skull & Bones! I’m super excited because both projects are beautiful, epic worlds. Assassin's Creed Origins has gorgeous artwork, appealing character designs and intriguing historical figures. And Skull & Bones is amazing because it’s our studio’s first completely new IP, it’s proudly led by us and it’s an amazing game to play as a team.

What is the animation department in Ubisoft Singapore like? 

The animation department is a CRAZY playground, because hey, it’s good to be a little insane sometimes! We won’t even be at our desks half the time. We'll go act in front of the mirror, recording references for ourselves (don’t worry, we’re not narcissistic…or at least we hope! :P). We also play lots of games – because guess what, playing games is real work in Ubisoft Singapore. And not just video games either, but things like paintball gun or getting onboard a real ship in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag to study motion on sea. When we’ve got all our references, our team will sit down and figure out how to replicate the motions in our game in a natural and believable way. 

How did you manage to get where you are today? What kind of skills did you need to build up along the way? 

You’re gonna be surprised, ready? The truth – I haven’t studied after secondary school! I have no educational background in art either and I’m like a zero-to-hero movie main character who has tried everything – I’ve been a store cashier, assistant clerk, porter…even a barber! And on one lucky day, I came across an animation company hiring an animation trainee. Thus, I stumbled into animation by accident.

When I got in, I began to realize that my skill at that time wasn’t enough to fulfill my dreams of being a supervisor one day, so I became very determined to level up. I worked on my animation whenever I could and kept practicing in my spare time. You’ll be surprised how much you can learn from watching movies and playing games when you’ve got a critical eye, keenly watching out for tips and details in movements and motions. Other than this, there is no secret, really - being extremely hardworking was the secret. 

Now that you’ve gotten us all hyped about your past, tell us more! What was young Cyrus like? Was life really difficult back then? 

OK! Let’s start from the very beginning. I’m was born in Hong Kong, Kowloon City, and I grew up in a traditional wooden house! Both my parents were blue collar workers. It was rare to see my parents – they were always working, even on weekends. It was rare to even have a meal together or celebrate a birthday. Those days were lonely.

When I got older, I became a delinquent – sort of! Man, I’m not proud of those days. I would stay at arcades till late. I even got into fights a few times and ended up at the police station! I must have been a huge nuisance to my parents. 

When I turned 13, I took up a job as a maintenance worker, fixing rooftops. My father and brothers worked the same job, carrying cement and brick up by the stairs all the way to level 62! Under the searing sun, we labored until our hands were chaffed and bleeding. I remember wanting to cry then, but I’d look at my father’s back, and remember what he told me. 

“Everyone has a dream,” he said. “Dreams are hard to realize, there will always be many obstacles. My dream is to have my own company and build a better life for my children. So I’m gonna put in 200% effort, persisting until the day I make it a reality.” My father did eventually found his own company, and these words became my source of inspiration and strength. 

Even when I became an animator, life was seriously tough. I took on multiple jobs and worked from 8.30am to 4.00am (with barely enough sleep!) just to make ends meet. There were so many times I’ve thought about giving up, but I would think of my father’s determination and face my toughest moments with a smile. After all, I have a huge dream to achieve – a vision only I can see, a future I only I can make a reality. I couldn’t give up then, and I’m so, so glad I didn’t. I’m giving my younger self a pat on the back! 

What advice do you have for someone who aspires to do animation for video games?

If you aren’t already a gamer, be a gamer! You want to work on video games after all, right? But that’s the easy part, you should also brush up on gaming-related industry and market knowledge and be familiar with the tools we use in this industry. Engine knowledge is also a crucial part of any game developer’s arsenal of skills. It’s because you always need to think about small but important details like how to integrate your animation into the engines and how to setup animation graphs to make animation blending smoother. 

And you definitely know this from personal experience; animation quality is a very important element people’s perception of a game! In the past, people believed that the quality of animations in games is inferior to that of CG feature films. Times have changed, guys. Game technology is growing crazy fast and the quality of in-game animation is just as dazzling as CG films. It definitely pays off to work on your technical skills to reach that level! 

But most of all, you need to have deep passion and enthusiasm, you need to have a fire to learn, to succeed, to overcome the most daunting obstacles, to be the best you can be. If there’s anything I’ve learnt from my rocky start in life, it is this: don’t underestimate the power of daily work. Success is fairer than it seems, it always comes to those sow and toil. Don’t let little setbacks tell you otherwise. 

So to all those dreaming of becoming video game animators – I wish you the very best! If you want my story to become YOUR story, today is the day! Take on the challenge: I’m come so far, and so can you. I’m here rooting for you!