A couple months ago Alex Zemke debuted some artwork from an upcoming Portal animated film, called Companionship, which is based on the popular video game series, that he is developing. I recently had the chance to take Alex away from his busy schedule and got him to open up about his work on the animated film.
Of course, Portal: Companionship isn't the only thing Alex has worked on. His previous credits include animation work on The Smurfs, G-Force, and on the video game side of things; Killzone 3, and the Uncharted series. He's apparently also worked on something that he's not allowed to tell me about...yet. Either way, the man knows what he's doing and virtually set the Internet on fire when word of his Portal animation spread.
Jordan (TMP): What inspired you to take on a Portal animation/film in the first place?
Alex: Well initially it wasn't a short at all! In fact, it was only meant to be a single shot to do in my spare time so I could add something unique and cute to my animation demo reel. But there was so much work involved in dressing up my old Animation Mentor rig to look like Chell, that I didn't want to waste it all on a single shot.
So one shot turned into a sequence, meant to show off some cinematic know-how while suggesting a larger story that really didn't exist. But then that non-existent story started to get interesting. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do it, and it quickly reached that point where I was just too worked up over it to turn back! At the time, though, it was only meant to be a 90-second little arc, not very fleshed-out story or even a character study. Just a cute little bit.
A friend had dressed up his female character in a Chell costume so I could get a less exaggerated look for her, and after a long time spent getting her all dressed up, building props, etc, I just wanted to see how things were coming along. So I posed Chell in an extreme action pose (reference: Iron Man 2) to test how well her new costume held up under stress; tossed in a few props, mocked up some fake scenery, and played with lighting and render settings until I had something I liked.
I hadn't posted anything on my deviantART account in quite a while, so for the heck of it I put up that test render. And just like that there was a ton of attention online for it! Or at least, what I thought was a lot of attention at the time. Because she looked all action-y, and the brief story arc I had in mind really didn't involve that, I got to thinking about all the key story elements it didn't have, and how much of a letdown it would be to people to have the story not even be a story. So I went back to the beginning and reworked everything. Now it's likely to clock in between 7 and 10 minutes in length!
Jordan (TMP): What challenges have you had in animating a character in a game who never speaks? Has crafting that personality been difficult?
Alex: I love to talk. A lot. All the time. I used to be a late-night DJ where all I did was try to get across a story with nothing but words. So it's hilarious to me that whenever I come up with a short film idea, nobody ever has any lines! (My student short starred a mime, of course.)
It's always tricky to tell a character's story without letting them simply come right out and explain it, but I love that extra challenge. I grew up on animated shorts like that, and I don't just mean the Road Runner cartoons. As a kid I went to tons of animation festivals, and I gobbled up recordings on things called Vee Eych Ess tapes. I've always enjoyed that simple elegance, the way a character could tell the audience everything with a look, a gesture, even a pause. It was all in the movement, all in the timing. It was very pure. You can't get bogged down in a lot of blatant exposition if nobody's allowed to speak. I guess Chell was a natural fit, really!
Jordan (TMP): What would you say is your biggest influence for the design of the characters and world?
Alex: Well, the obvious answer would be the games, in particular the second one. The less-obvious answer would be exposure and resources.
At the outset, I had to take whatever I could get, and concede to my very limited options. It was very nearly a one-man effort, and my skills outside of animation are severely stunted. Chell was just a costume on a pre-existing character rig. I kept the chambers simple and few, repeating them over and over in the story both as a storytelling device and as a way to cut down on the workload. The lighting style was based on my very limited skills in that area and the initial Chell rig's tendency to look like an understudy for The Incredibles.
Since the explosion of interest in the film some weeks ago now, however, this production has gone from fewer than five crew members to well over fifty! Dozens of people, with widely varied skill sets in the field, have volunteered their time and effort; now the limitations on what this film can look like have been greatly expanded, and it will be all the better for it.
Richard Terry Clark has done a drastic overhaul of his original character model to more closely resemble Chell, and her rig is getting a truly professional setup now from feature film rigger Scott Englert, so that she can manage the kinds of acrobatics needed to survive in the world of Aperture's testing facility. There are too many eyes on the film now to cut any corners.
Most of the environments in this short are designed directly from the in-game test chambers. We aren't trying to mimic the atmosphere, though. We're shooting for a more stylized feel to the colors and lighting, with gleaming-fresh test chambers instead of rusty, crumbling ruins, overrun by vines. We need the setting to be a bit warmer and exaggerated in its feel compared to that of the game, to fit both Chell's cartoonish style and the tone of the story.
Jordan (TMP): How does this story tie into the games?
Actually, it doesn't tie in at all! This story is entirely independent of the storyline in the games. It doesn't happen before, after, during or in between them. Instead it rebuilds the world of the second game, takes a few liberties for the sake of storytelling, and then tells a very different, and decidedly human, story of a Chell who struggles with life as an Aperture test subject. I can say that it begins with her first time entering the facility, and chronicles the effects of a very, very, very long time spent alone in there.
Jordan (TMP): Can fans expect any cool Easter eggs in the movie?
Alex: Absolutely. Even hints at a possible sequel, if the film's reception supports that.
Jordan (TMP): What is your ultimate goal with this film? Would you like to get picked up for a feature (like Kevin Tancharoen did with his Mortal Kombat short)?
Alex: Well who wouldn't like that? But I have no plans for anything magically amazing to come about. My ultimate goal for this film is to get it seen by as many people as possible.
Jordan (TMP): You've worked on other games and movies as well, besides this Portal film, what can people look forward to seeing your work in next?
Alex: Aww man, I have a great answer for this, too! Stinking non-disclosure agreement! But as of July 3rd I could tell you exactly what film I worked on for nearly four months earlier this year, so there's that to look forward to!
I suppose we'll just have to leave off with that big tease, but from the sounds of it, things are shaping up quite nicely for Portal: Companionship. We appreciate Alex taking the time out of his busy schedule to speak with us, and as we get more information on this anticipated project we'll be sure to share even more with you.