JuanCarlos Larrea, Lead Animator for the Gameplay Character Team, lends his talents to make playing Halo a truly immersive experience by carefully crafting gameplay characters true to the Halo Universe down to the smallest detail. In this Employee Spotlight, JuanCarlos leads us through the logic behind his team’s work, and also shares his love of soccer, singing, and art – as well as his dedication to challenging himself by continually stepping out of his comfort zone.
Iva: Welcome to the Employee Spotlight for awesome 343 employees! Please tell us your name and pronouns, as well as your job title.
JuanCarlos: I’m JuanCarlos Larrea and I go by he/him/his. My title is Lead Animator and I focus mostly on the gameplay character side.
Iva: Give us some insight into what you do here at 343.
JuanCarlos: I lead a team that’s responsible for gameplay animations for non-playable characters. We create all the animations you see on a character when they fight you, or when they are patrolling in the game. We do everything from vehicle hijacks, to hit reactions, to melees, to evades, you name it. As a Lead Animator, I make sure my team has clear direction, ongoing feedback, and appropriate scope for their work. We work closely with multiple teams. It’s a big collaboration between animators, character modelers, riggers, design, and devs to make sure our characters feel right in the game.
Iva: What’s your Halo origin story?
JuanCarlos: I first went to Ringling College of Art and Design to study 3d animation. After graduation, I worked as a Junior Generalist at Nick Digital Labs (Nickelodeon) for a year. From there, I was hired at Maxis as a Gameplay Animator, and that’s really where I started animating full time in games. Throughout the years and different studios, I kept working on personal acting pieces on the side. The mix of gameplay and the acting pieces I did on my own eventually opened the door to work at Insomniac.
There, I started to understand what making a game is about (not just animating). We were doing everything from gameplay to cinematics, from stylized animation to mocap. This forced me to interact with more teams than I was used to and, at times, I was completely outside of my comfort zone. I grew a lot during my time there and I gained valuable experience in storytelling.
That prepared me for my first role at 343, which was as Lead Vignette Animator. At that point, our responsibility was on storytelling moments that were not part of cinematics. Some of what we worked on was environmental, like ships flying in the background shooting at each other. Other stuff was a bit more “in your face,” like when you first see Promethean soldiers in Halo 5. They appear in front of you, and before you could shoot them, they would “bamf” away leading you into a cave. (“Bamf” is the way the soldiers travel quickly between two places, almost like teleporting.) We did a lot of things like that to introduce characters. It’s a great way for the player to learn about them before they meet in combat. That was my team’s focus during Halo 4 and 5.
Cinematics and Vignettes eventually merged into a Narrative Team where I was lead for a bit. Then, life happened mid-way through Halo Infinite production. I had to ask to step down so that I could have time to focus on family and health. 343 was very understanding of my situation and, once we had a replacement for my old role, I moved to the Character Gameplay Team in a Senior Animator capacity. After a year, the opportunity to become Lead Animator for character gameplay opened up and I’m nothing but thankful and honored the team put their trust in me again.
Iva: That’s great that you were able to focus on family and health when you needed it.
JuanCarlos: Yes, it’s something I’m very thankful for. My manager and 343 understood what my family was going through and they were very supportive. They allowed a change that gave me the time and flexibility to focus on family and myself. I feel very lucky to have had that support.
Iva: When you look back on your career (including Halo Infinite, as it’s so close to being wrapped up), what accomplishments are you most proud of and why?
JuanCarlos: It sounds odd to say, but it’s the personal growth I’ve had through all those projects. I’ve learned a lot from each one. There’s always something or someone that humbles you and that pushes you to become better. This covers everything from being a better animator to being better at building strong work relationships. Growth is ongoing, but I’m happy with the progress so far, and I’m also happy that there’s so much more room to keep learning and improving.
Iva: You’ve worked on some impressive projects (EA/Maxis, Insomniac, etc.). What trends have you seen in your field? Do you have predictions for where the gaming industry is headed?
JuanCarlos: Trends are hard to predict and, unfortunately, I don’t have the ability to look into the future. But even without knowing, there’s a constant that always stays true for animation and gaming: characters need to be believable and enjoyable to interact with. They need to have a purpose and they need to fit believably within the rules of their universe. This allows for players to connect with your game and feel immersed in it. Trends can change, but the requirement of building relatable and believable characters doesn’t.
Iva: What’s your favorite Halo Community moment?
JuanCarlos: I love that 343 partners with Make-a-Wish. I’ve been lucky to have been part of some of the things we’ve organized, and I loved meeting the kids who have come by the studio. These are kids and families who are going through difficult times and being able to give them a unique, meaningful experience means the world to me. We’ve shot mocap with a few of them so that they can see themselves as Chief. Some have sat at my desk and I showed them how we animate a character while letting them play with our rigs. All those experiences have been emotional and I’m happy we can do something to try and make their days a tad brighter.
Iva: What’s your favorite thing about working at 343?
JuanCarlos: The people. I work with some very talented folks who I respect greatly.
Iva: Walk us through the process you employ to ensure that a character you animate is true to lore in movement, culture, etc.
JuanCarlos: Now that I’ve been with 343 for almost 10 years, I’m pretty familiar with how the characters move. But I do remember when I first started and I wasn’t as knowledgeable about our characters. I installed and played a few Halo games to get refamiliarized with them. I watched a lot of videos online and looked for what is unique to the characters. But ultimately, what really helped me understand our characters were my coworkers. A lot of people who work at 343 do so because they love the game, so they know the lore extremely well. During reviews, they will let you know when something is not right. So that’s how I got to know our characters. Nowadays, we create character pages internally where we have examples and descriptions of the characters. The Elite has a page with descriptions and images and videos for reference. When we work on new characters, new pages and descriptions will be added. I find this very useful, since it’s the easiest way to show a new animator what their target is.
Iva: How do you use character animation to convey personality?
JuanCarlos: Conveying the right personality boils down to understanding your acting choices. You must understand what makes the characters who they are, physically, emotionally, and mentally. There are things you can do with one character that would not look correct in others. For example, Grunts can flee the player because of fear. That alone is something you would never see an Elite doing. Elites are tougher, more agile, and very precise warriors. We also use physical traits to accentuate who they are while in motion. Grunts are a bit of a comedic relief and they can be funny and a little awkward due to their proportions. They are very top heavy, with short legs and long arms. This makes them slower, and they have to maintain a wide stance to keep their balance. That’s a very specific choice for them because their purpose in game (their combat design) and their anatomy work for that choice. Again, that kind of movement and posing would never work on an Elite. It would feel very obviously out of character.
Iva: Halo’s artwork has been a key element that has set it apart since the beginning. What is it like to work on a game with such an impressive legacy?
JuanCarlos: It’s a big responsibility but also incredibly inspiring. In each step of production, you see something that makes you go “wow” and you can’t wait to get your hands on it from the first concepts of new characters, environments, vehicles, etc., to seeing them get modeled and then come to life in game. There’s a certain bar that’s expected from us, both from within the studio and from our community. So, you know you’re going to have a lot of eyes on your work and you better not disappoint.
Iva: If someone wanted to pursue a career like yours, what skills (including soft skills) are essential? What advice would you give that person in terms of education and career path?
JuanCarlos: The first thing would be to learn animation. There are plenty of places where you can learn that from colleges to classes online. The tricky part is that it’s hard to learn well. It’s art, so it takes dedication, years of practice and training. Soft skills are very important, too, since you need to be able to take and give feedback well, so knowing how to communicate is important.
Iva: Who is your favorite Halo canon character and why?
JuanCarlos: I like Cortana; she has a lot of complexity in her story arc.
Iva: Which Halo canon storyline is your favorite and why?
JuanCarlos: Maybe it’s because I’m so close to it, but I really like the story in Halo Infinite. There’s some great character exploration and we see relationships develop in a way that’s very relatable and human.
Iva: What’s your earliest gaming memory?
JuanCarlos: I remember being little and my dad got us an Atari. My family played Pac-Man and kept trying to beat each other’s score. I was little enough to not really understand numerical values well, so my score, according to what I made up, was always either “a hundred thousand” or “a thousand one hundred.” Both were low scores and not real, but I was happy and proud to say that was my score to beat.
Iva: What games are you currently into and why?
JuanCarlos: FIFA is a bit of a vice for me. I love soccer and it was a big part of my life growing up. Now I have weekly FIFA tournaments with a group of friends and it’s always a great time (even though we end up stressed out and yelling at our players). We’re a very competitive bunch. That’s not the only game I play, though. I tend to switch games as soon as I finish one. I just finished Guacamelee 2 and just started Control.
Iva: Share your journey as a soccer fan. Which teams do you support?
JuanCarlos: The two teams that can ruin or make my day are the Ecuadorian national team and Barcelona Sporting Club (club from Ecuador, not to be confused with Barcelona FC which has no affiliation). Currently, the Ecuadorian national team is third in the South American World Cup qualifiers and it’s letting me dream about seeing them in the World Cup again. As much of a fan as I am of those teams, I do enjoy watching good matches regardless of who plays. Because of that, it’s very typical for the Premier League, Ligue 1, Champions League, Copa Libertadores, etc. to be on multiple screens at home whenever they are on.
Iva: Singing is one of your hobbies. How did you get interested in that?
JuanCarlos: I’ve always enjoyed music. I started with piano in high school and then moved to guitar. I was never great at them because I was mostly learning on my own and, usually, after a little bit of practice, my hands would hurt. This was before I learned about my connective tissue issue (Hey, it rhymes!). As the pain progressed and I had to do less, I needed to find things I could still enjoy and do.
Singing was never my strength (It still isn’t. I’m not good at it.), but it’s something I realized I enjoyed even if I was very embarrassed by it. I decided to embrace it and take lessons. It was a bit of a struggle to feel like I’m being loud and not really singing, but more like screaming, in front of someone who tries to correct me. It didn’t help that there was a dog next door who would start howling when I was “singing.” Eventually, I got better and no longer made the dog howl. Or maybe the dog moved away and I still suck at it. Who knows?
Iva: Tell us about the 2d animation you do in your personal time. What inspires you? What subject matter/genres do you enjoy?
JuanCarlos: As a 3d animator, 2d always looked intimidating. You can’t just repose something with a rig; you have to redraw. Anywhere you place your line is a very specific choice. It’s so easy to draw something that looks off-model or that doesn’t maintain volume. I figured I would learn a lot by just taking little steps into 2d animation as the concepts are the same, but the way your brain thinks about things is a bit different. It’s never a question of “can the model and rig deform in the way I want it?” but rather, “can I draw this the way I want it?” That removes constraints, but it also adds a big challenge, which is that you need to get better at drawing. It’s a different skill, but it’s very complimentary.
Just like singing, I don’t consider myself good at it yet. Also, just as in singing, the intimidation eventually became joy. It’s very stress free now because I do it at my own pace and I don’t put pressure on me. It also makes it easier that I can do it from my phone, so it’s easy to just draw while I watch TV.