What is your name and your current occupation?
Alex Zemke, character animator.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
I spent 4 years as a DJ on a Top 40 radio station in Minnesota.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
The Uncharted series, for certain. I worked on both 2 and 3, in two separate studios, doing cinematics. I also loved being on the Killzone 3 team.
How did you become interested in animation?
I was always interested in animation, since I was a kid. Unfortunately, when I was younger I was extremely good at convincing myself I would never get to do the things I liked, so I didn’t actually try for it until later in life. But I’m here now!
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I’m from Southern California, born and raised; in fact, we’re raising our family in the same house where I grew up! I attended Animation Mentor while working full-time at a hotel, spending every free moment studying and working on assignments.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
There’s no such thing as a typical day at my job. Days range from 8-12 hours long, and the schedule can change over lunch. Most of my work is in video games, and the work I do can be motion capture cleanup, face animation with lip sync for dialogue, or it can be full-body, fully keyframed character animation. We work with high quality character rigs, low-quality character rigs, and sometimes things that can barely even be called rigs at all. We have projects where we get to take the time needed to get the performance just right; there are projects that are rushed, and see us working long hours for weeks or months, pushing to do the best we can; and we have projects with deadlines that seem impossible, and require as much creative problem-solving as actual artistry to get through production.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
Working on ambitious, almost foolhardy projects that take risks to tell a solid story, whether it’s a film or a video game, makes my job so much more enjoyable. Those are the projects I’m the most proud to say I worked on. The bland, middle-of-the-road projects that are just going through the motions… they make going to work feel more like a chore instead of an experience.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
The world of professional game development is a lot less organized than you might expect. Developers are constantly trying to push things further, take on new challenges, move in new directions. As a result, even studios with several major titles under their belt are often unprepared for what their new project will require in terms of programming and man hours. As a result, difficulties at the conceptual stage become problems in the production pipeline. Delays create bottlenecks, and work piles up while the deadline continues to loom. So the enormous rush, and horrendous overtime, tend to land on animation’s shoulders because we’re the last stage of that production. I love animation, and working in games, but I don’t know anyone who looks forward to three or more months of 12-hour days plus weekends. The pay is nice, but it comes at a personal cost.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
High-end PC’s, Wacom tablets, and Autodesk Maya. Every single day. If I’m not animating, then I’m working on my short film in my off time.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
The downtime. It’s a fickle, often unstable industry, and the lack of job security is really the most negative thing about it.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
Hahaha, nope! I’ve met some great animators, I’ve managed a very nice shot myself here and there, but I’ve yet to have that moment!
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
I failed miserably in a personal business, and bankrupted my family. But it was only then, when I’d hit my lowest point and had nothing more to lose, that I could finally picture trying for my first love: animation! So that difficult time was actually the turning point, and the start of my career!
Any side projects you’re working on that you’d like to share details of?
Currently I’m working on a fan film based on the Portal game series. It’s called Companionship, and there’s actually quite a lot of places to go online and read about it 🙂
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
I used to juggle, does that count?
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Find a focused course for what you want to do. A lot of schools out there give a broad exposure to the filed, but rarely get beyond the introductory level of the individual disciplines. So if you want to be an animator, find a school that has a deep, focused animation curriculum. And if money is a concern, then go online. There are multiple online schools that teach only animation (and do so very well), and they’re far less expensive than a traditional school.