UPDATE: You can keep up to date on this project from Alex Zemke's new Twitter.
The geekier side of the Internet has been fair abuzz since test shots of Alex Zemke's upcoming animated short Companionship, based on the award-winning and impossibly excellent video game series Portal from Valve, were revealed. The shots bring the protagonist Chell to life, infusing the mute, determined queen of the portal gun with warmth and humanity.
"Well, of course, the game is phenomenal, and I was obsessed with the sequel the instant it was announced," said Zemke via e-mail.
Zemke, who's had a hand in projects like the latest Smurfs film and the Uncharted games, had been looking for ideas for test animation to add to his portfolio. At the time all he was working on was facial animation and cleanup duty on motion capture. Then he ran across this graphic. The initial idea was to do a simple animation of Chell tripping into a portal and ending up caught in a constant loop of movement between them.
Right away Zemke realized that the prep work that would be involved in this was much too complex for a simple sample, and decided to expand it to what he thought would be a 90-second animated short. Then he posted his concept art in his DeviantArt page and interest just exploded.
Originally working from a borrowed model called Sally, Zemke has been able to take the short in a much more ambitious direction than his talents alone would've allowed.
"Now that there's so much more attention, though, and because time proved the Sally rig to be fraught with issues that would bog down production and lessen the final product, Chell is now in the process of a full-body makeover. Her topology's been fixed, her face is nearly done being reworked to resemble Chell (instead of Sigourney Weaver) and the next step involves her being rigged properly, from the ground up, by a feature film pro. It's been a treat to watch her transform into a truly professional-grade rig, and I expect great things from her!"
Zemke now has the help of many top technical experts for Companionship. What started as one man's project now includes artists proficient in FX, lighting, rigging, texture and other areas of production. A composer with a solid background in film, television and games recently joined the team to provide a score that hopes to echo the stellar work Mike Morasky did in Portal 2. No word on whether some up-and-coming pop songwriter will provide a quirky credit song to compare to the hit "Still Alive" by Jonathan Coulton.
Even a voice actress has joined the team, though all she will be providing are grunts, breathing, gasps and sobs. Like her video-game counterpart, Chell will remain mute throughout the course of the short. Indeed, the story contains no spoken dialogue at all. In Zemke's words, "Even the turret keeps its trap shut."
Which means that missing from the short will be the famous sarcastic, passive-aggressive digs by the robotic head of the Aperture Test Facility, GLaDOS, or the megalomaniacal and idiotic ramblings by GLaDOS's usurper Wheatley. Instead, the film will focus on Chell's relationship with the companion cube. In the original game, Chell used the companion cube to solve GLaDOS's malicious tests, and was forced to burn it to complete the final one. The act comes across quite harsh, and GLaDOS hints that the cubes are sentient and feel pain, and even remarks, "I think that one was about to say, 'I love you,'" upon incineration.
At the end of Portal 2, Chell is reunited with the companion cube after GLaDOS throws her out of the facility, slightly scorched but none the worse for wear. In the official Portal comic The Rat Man, it's implied that the cubes can talk, though the comic's protagonist, Doug Ratman, who is responsible for the mysterious graffiti found in both games, was a diagnosed schizophrenic.
Portal has already had one amazing fan adaptation, Dan Trachtenberg's Portal: No Escape starring Danielle Rayne as Chell. Trachtenberg's vision was a grim action adventure somewhere between The Matrix and Cube, and featured human guards rather than GLaDOS and turrets. Regardless, it was an ambitious project that proved that Portal could be more than just a video game.
Companionship promises to be more lighthearted than No Escape, though Zemke makes it clear that audiences can still expect to see Chell pushed to her physical and emotional limit at the hands of the testing facility.
"I really liked Dan Trachtenberg's short a lot, but I was relieved that his take and my take were both so different," said Zemke. "If his had been similar to what I was picturing in my head, I might have just given up, seeing as it had already been done. But the two stories couldn't be more different. So yes, mine is far less grim, for the most part. There are emotional highs and lows, though, and Chell will go through a dark spell."
Hopefully Zemke's film will explode in the same way that Kevin Tanchroen's Mortal Kombat: Rebirth did and allow him to take Portal to some amazing places as Tanchroen has with Mortal Kombat: Legacy and with the new, licensed Hollywood film he is supposed to be helming. For now, Zemke is just hoping that he doesn't receive a cease and desist letter from Valve. Famously fan-friendly, Valve is unlikely to take such an action if Zemke plans merely to release the film freely on YouTube.
A release day hasn't been set yet, but Portal fans are eagerly awaiting something that could possibly be the best video-game adaptation ever done.