Leisel Madureira is an animator at Gunfire Games, the innovative Austin-based game studio behind VR titles such as Chronos, Dead and Buried, From Other Suns, and Herobound: Spirit Champion. Prior to joining Gunfire Games, Ms. Madureira served as an animator with KingsIsle Entertainment and and associate animator for Vigil Games, where she worked on Darksiders and Darksiders II. Among her past and present coworkers, she’s renowned for her creative ability to convey subtle actions and nuances in characters, as well as her endurance during crunch weeks before game launches. Notably, she studied 2D and 3D animation at the Art Institute of Dallas.
Ms. Madureira graciously agreed to a 30-minute interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
[OnlineEducation.com] Are you a gamer? If so, which games made you fall in love with the medium?
[Leisel Madureira] I am. Early on, my cousin had a Nintendo that I wasn’t allowed to play. I thought, “Oh, what is this?” and I would watch her play it. My parents did a lot for my brother and me, but consoles were kind of expensive, so growing up, I would play my friend’s Sega—Sonic was an early game—and I really liked the Sega Disney games because they were animated, and based on art from the actual animators. At the time, I was also in love with animation, especially like Disney movies. Actually, I wanted to be a Disney animator and it didn’t even occur to me that I could be involved in games.
A big game for me was Final Fantasy 8. That was my first Final Fantasy, even though for a lot of people, it was Final Fantasy 7. For me it was Final Fantasy 8 because I really wanted a PlayStation 1. I’d clip out pictures of Target ads showing the console and game together. I had no idea what a JRPG was, so when I played it for the first time, it was amazing. I had no idea they created games like that with narratives; I was only aware of platformers, so that was a big deal for me. I guess it was around that time in school, when they were like, “Okay, think about what you want to do when you get older,” and I thought, “I want to be a TV animator!” But I realized that that was kind of dying and might not create a job where I could count on making money…
[OnlineEducation.com] There are so many other platforms and mediums now. So you turned to 3D animation?
[Leisel Madureira] Yes. When I was in school we learned 2D animation and then 3D. I realized, “Okay, I probably won’t be a 2D animator,” and that, “Oh my gosh. Games are a thing!” I found out that it was actually something I could pursue. At the time I was playing Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy 10, and friends were playing Silent Hill and stuff like that. I knew working in games would keep me local because there were a lot of video game studios in Austin; I grew up in Austin. I liked the idea of working for a smaller studio where maybe I would have more input or influence over the creative process. That was really appealing to me.
[OnlineEducation.com] How long have you been with Gunfire Games?
[Leisel Madureira] Two years.
[OnlineEducation.com] And the studio is developing VR games, right? Can you tell me about that?
[Leisel Madureira] Right now it’s a mixture. We released Chronos and now it’s Darksiders III and some other projects that I can’t mention.
[OnlineEducation.com] Do you typically do the environments like the world-building, or do you do the characters? A little bit of both?
[Leisel Madureira] I’ve only really worked with characters. As far as VR goes, one of the biggest characters for me was in Chronos—a mini-boss. It was this priestess with a staff that you had to defeat before being able to continue into the next room.
[OnlineEducation.com] How did you develop her?
[Leisel Madureira] Typically, by the time it gets to the animator, the concept art has been established for it. The rough idea of how this character is going to play in this area has been sketched out. So when it gets to me, sometimes it’s more direction like, “Hey, this is what we want from her: we want her to do this strike or attack, and she will behave in this manner.” Oftentimes it’s between the animator and designer. The designer will say, “Okay, this is an idea of what we want,” and we’ll work on these tasks with some back-and-forth to see what works and what feels good.
It’s all about getting a character to feel right when you’re fighting. It’s technical and it’s art because it needs to feel good, rewarding, and challenging. That’s not something that just works out in an equation or something.
[OnlineEducation.com] Who’ve been your greatest mentors in the industry?
[Leisel Madureira] I worked under a couple of really awesome leads. With how much money the industry makes and how big these companies are, it’s a surprisingly small workforce. I worked at Vigil Games—that was my first studio—and I work with a lot of the same people currently. My lead now is Chris Mead and he’s a really awesome animator and technical artist. He just built our rigs and stuff like that, and he’s just really awesome. My husband, too. He’s amazing. He’s also an animator, and he’s also very good; he’ll critique my stuff as well. Anyone I’ve really worked with directly I respect.
[OnlineEducation.com] I want to turn to the demographics of the industry. Working in VR and gaming, are you typically one of the only women in the room, or is it more of an equitable gender distribution?
[Leisel Madureira] It’s definitely a pretty male-dominated industry. We’ve hired more women than when I started, so that’s been nice and I think it helps to have those different perspectives. It’s interesting though… I’ve been lucky. All of the guys that I’ve worked with are awesome people.
Especially with how popular video games are, you would wonder, “Hey, why aren’t there more women in the industry?” Looking back to when I wanted to get into games, I didn’t even think it was an option. Even more back then, it wasn’t really something that a lot of women thought about. Now, I think we’re seeing more women interested in it because it’s like, “Oh yeah, I’m a nerd.” When I was in school, a lot of female nerds kind of kept to themselves. They didn’t seem to find each other like male nerds did. They’re coming together now, so there is more of the feeling that you can be an animator or game developer. There are just a lot of challenges along the way that may prevent them entering into the industry.
[OnlineEducation.com] For women and minorities in particular, what do you think are the major challenges? And why is there still an underrepresentation of certain groups, in your opinion?
[Leisel Madureira] I would guess it happens early on. I’ve heard this: “Hey, we want to have a more diverse group, and we want to hire more different kinds of people, but we’re not finding them.” Obviously, it’s not against minorities, and it’s not that women aren’t interested in games—of course they are. I think it just has to do with who can afford to go to these schools? Who has these connections? Who lives in certain areas where they have things like companies or developers that can hire?
I had a friend who didn’t realize that girls played games. She stopped playing games because she was around a group of friends who were like, “No, girls don’t play games. You need to grow out of that.” Then, when we became roommates, she realized, “Hey, this is something I can still do,” and now she’s a bigger gamer than I am. I think it’s just exposure and knowing what your options are; for whatever reason, that occurs very late for women and other minorities. So it’s just when you’re set back from that early on, it makes it more difficult to get used to it and to be visible. And that’s the thing: it’s important to be visible to people that could hire you.
[OnlineEducation.com] Do you think there are any other unique challenges that women face when getting into video games? And have you ever faced any discrimination in the industry?
[Leisel Madureira] I’ve been really fortunate. I think a lot of it is internal. It’s like, “Oh, I don’t know if I’m masculine enough to pull off this masculine animation because a lot of the characters are male.” If I’m insecure about that, it shows. It’s not often, but if anyone picks up on that, then it’s like, “Okay, you don’t have enough confidence for this.”
There are internalized perceptions—not necessarily prejudices—but rather preconceptions about people. I haven’t personally encountered any straight sexist or prejudiced behavior because I am female. Oddly enough, I think a lot of that is internal. That’s just in my case. I’ve just been very fortunate to have been working with a lot of the same people; I choose to work with these same people because they respect me, and I have a lot of respect for them. I am definitely aware that sexism exists, and I think that’s why it’s beneficial to have more women in the workplace so they can encourage each other because maybe their experiences are similar. They can create more of a voice together.
[OnlineEducation.com] What advice do you have for women who want to become animators in video games and VR?
[Leisel Madureira] Talk to people. Connections are important. I was just really shy growing up, and I still am to a certain extent. Talking with people to get that exposure—being seen, working hard, building your skills. It’s not just passion; it’s not just hard work; it’s not just luck; it’s all of that, and it requires a lot of risk, also. You’re putting yourself out there. Reach out to people because that’s the hardest thing: getting into the industry. As long as you work hard, people will remember that and they’ll want to work with you again.