Alex Zemke: Animating Ellie's Kiss in The Last of Us and Portal: Companionship
Because it bears repeating every time the subject is brought up, The Last of Us was the best game of 2013. Recently we saw the story continue in the downloadable expansion Left Behind, an inspiring addition to the main story that was so good that it's prompted me to replay the whole experience over again.
Left Behind follows Ellie in two time periods. One occurs after Joel is severely injured in Salt Lake City and she is forced to fend for both of them while holed up in an abandoned mall in the dead of winter. These constitute the action portion of the expansion, offering up a chance to explore a new battle mechanic that allows you use baiting the infected with distractions to take out human raiders.
Outside of the action was a flashback to one last wonderful night between Ellie and her friend Riley. Riley had left the youth center where they were all training to be soldiers in order to join the rebellious Fireflies. Guilty that she had left without saying goodbye, she visits Ellie in the dead of night and they break into a different old mall and spend the evening playing video games, perusing an old Halloween shop, and dancing together. Ultimately, the two share a tender and unexpected kiss right before the infected flood in and they're forced to flee.
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"Yeah, a lot of people were caught off guard by the kiss," said animator Alex Zemke, who worked on the sequence from when Ellie stopped dancing to when Riley fired her gun. "The day after release I saw people gushing about it, and it was great to see it go over so well. I wish that it weren't such a controversy, and that so many people weren't trying to pretend it was anything less than what it was, but it's a worthwhile step forward in how game characters are treated, so I'm very glad to have been involved with that scene.
The sequence took a couple of months to complete, which is a long time for game animation, but SCEA wanted to get it just right. Zemke saw huge changes made over the course of animating, and animated multiple versions before the team landed on a performance that conveyed the right tone for the moment. An incredible amount of tweaking went into perfecting the finer points of the shots. Little eye darts, the almost imperceptible twitches around the mouth and eyes to showed off the conflicting emotions underneath.
This kiss come to be a pretty major step forward for same-sex portrayals in video games to life. Zemke had been in contact with people involved with the game at SCEA from the first moment he heard about The Last of Us, pleading to find a place in the production. Conflicts on scheduling almost prevented him from joining, but an animation supervisor finally managed to sneak Zemke into the animation work in the closing months of the development, even scheduling work on the kiss sequence specifically until Zemke could return to San Diego to take a crack at it.
Last year was a big year for Zemke, whuch also saw him take a lead animator role in Puppeteer, a small release that was among the most inventive and beautiful titles of 2013. The Internet probably knows Zemke better from the stunning images that showed up in 2012 of his animated Portal short film Companionship. Though the Internet isn't lacking in the Portal shorts department, none of them quite can the elegant, almost Pixar-quality of those first looks at Zemke's baby.
Then there was silence.
According to Zemke the project was almost scuttled by its own initial success. At first Companionship was meant just as a small personal project, but the wave of interest generated by media attention to his stills brought in a flood of names keen to be involved in a high profile project.
"It was only intended to be a tiny little personal project, but then all these different people showed up, with all their various skills and all their enthusiasm, and I got totally carried away," said Zemke. "I thought I needed to grow the project to accommodate everyone, and that was a huge mistake. Its scope and scale grew quickly, got way out of proportion, and became unmanageable. But I was still so excited about it, so confident that we could do it through sheer numbers and force of will, that I didn't recognize that everything was out of control."
Once 2013 rolled around and paid game animation work was forcing Zemke into working 12-hour days, six-day weeks, and driving 160 miles a day they made no headway, no matter how hard they spun our wheels. Toward the end of the year he was forced to admit that expectations on Companionship were just too high, and decided to take some time off to get some perspective
"Now the film is scaled way back down. It's simpler, more streamlined, and far less technically ambitious," said Zemke. "Which is nice, because I'm finally enjoying working on it again! For a long time it was just a constant source of stress, which it never should have been. Live and learn!"
Here's hoping that we'll still see Companionship one day soon. If his work on Left Behind is any indication, the result will be well worth waiting for.
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