What is your name and your current occupation?
First let me say thanks, Mike, for the opportunity. My name is Mark Behm and I’m an artist at Valve Software. We don’t have propper titles, so what I do depends on what I feel the project I’m working on needs and if I feel I am up to the task. Mostly I design or make assets and sometimes animate them.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
Before? I’d say a lot of my jobs IN the animation industry were fairly crazy. As a teenager I did enough manual and kitchen labor to build a healthy fear of spending my life swinging a hammer in a cold rain. Craziest? Hmm…I once taught a class on animal tracking.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
My first feature was as an animator on Robots at BlueSky. That was a huge learning opportunity for me. At Valve, I got to design, sculpt and texture all of the aliens in a little top down game we released for free on Steam called AlienSwarm. That kind of ownership was very fun for me.
How did you become interested in animation?
I grew up in the mid 70s into the 80s as SciFi was getting big. I saw Star Wars when I was around 7 and was surrounded by special effects, Frazetta, Boris Vallejo and Jon Berkey posters my whole childhood. I got the Illusion of Life for Christmas one year when I was around 9 and the big black ILM book another. My Dad was an artist and encouraged this obsession in all things art and special effects. I did a bunch of stop motion animation as a kid and slowly collected all the old 2d animation and illustration and art of books. I still have a strong nostalgic pull to fantasy and sci-fi art and media of all kinds.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I’m from the pine barrens of South Jersey – the hub of FX and animation. Despite my childhood obsession with special effects, my first love was always drawing and I assumed animation would be more of a hobby. I would just make stop motion monster movies on the side! Nobody from my area grew up to be an animator. I threw myself into the idea of being an illustrator at a pretty early age. I majored in Illustration, and after school, I worked as a freelance illustrator and then a multimedia artist at a small company near home. A few of us from that place went to see Toy Story and everything changed. I went an leased an SGI and a copy of AliasPowerAnimator (Maya’s Dad) and proceeded to re-teach myself to animate with purpose. It was just too magical not to pursue.
Later I found a series of old-school mentors as I freelanced in NYC as a commercial animator and eventually made my way to a studio doing story work at a company in Chicago – BigIdeaProductions. The whole time I was there, I worked on my skills and reel at night. I went from there to Blue Sky Studios. Then to DNA Productions in Texas, and on to PDI/Dreamworks Animation. Each hop was between 2 and 3 years a piece. Throughout that time I did a lot of freelance concept design work for games and 2d illustration. I started to realize I was enjoying this work more than my actual day job and so I started looking for an opportunity that would give me the chance to do more 2d art and conceptual work. Someone had contacted me from Valve a few years before and at this point I had a few friends working there so I started grilling them. I’ve been at Valve for close to 5 years, now, and it’s the best fit for me yet.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
There is no real typical day at Valve. Right now I am animating full time and will be for at least another 5 months. Before that I was doing concept art and zbrush sculpting for about 3 years. I’m in a room with 4 amazing animators and 2 of the funniest writers I’ve ever met. I often have that “my face is tired from laughing” feeling by lunch. When I get in, I talk with the other guys on my team to see where everyone is at. Then I decide what would be smartest to work on for the day and start into it. Sometimes that’s working on animation, sometimes on face shapes, etc.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
I love the sense of working together as a team to make a good product that I know the customer will love – I’ve been waiting my whole career for that. I love being surrounded by people who are better than me. I love learning new ways to do things. I like working with decisions evaluated by how they will affect the team and the product, not because Mr. X said so and well, he’s the boss.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
I don’t love polishing my shots. I don’t like slowing down because a tool is designed without the user in mind.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
Some of these change as new features come out and catch my eye, but these are my go to packages at work…
I paint in Photoshop. I sculpt in Zbrush. I retopo in Topogun. I texture in photoshop and zbrush. I do a surprising amount of poly-modeling in Blender. I animate in Maya.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
Hours and it’s affect on family, relationships and Repetitive Stress Injury. It’s amazing how bad the hours are, industry wide (complete management failure) and how prevalent the RSI is (terrible software design+terrible hours). It’s a real thing and has taken friends I know out of the industry.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
Definitely – at every studio I’ve worked at there seems to be some animation legend that quickly fades to a real live human being. I’ve learned as much by stumbling onto things or by asking the new guy who has some spark in his or her work I admire.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
I’ve lead an easy life in comparability with so much of the world and haven’t seen real suffering. The worst I’ve seen are consistently bad hours that kept me from my family. In these places where I could smell that this was a pattern, I’ve finished my current project/contract and said good bye each time.
Any side projects or you’re working on that you’d like to share details of?
I am always working on or learning something new. There’s a personal short that’s been hanging around for ages that I just won’t let die. I will always paint a few nights a week.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
I feel I have some sort of psychological issue with this as I can’t stop picking up new ones! And they always seem to be excessively weird hobbies, too. I tend to obsess about excellence in things that have no meaning whatsoever. My friend an I trade a high speed camera across the country and do miniature pyrotechnic shots. Each of us trying to one-up the best looking miniature slow-mo explosion the other got in their last round. Super power: Given a couple feet of 1/2″ pvc pipe, I can put a tack in the space of a dime from 30 feet. Time well spent as a child – I had found a few pvc tubes in my sister’s garage and spent the next 5 years walking my neighborhood after school with my 2 best friends marking everything in sight with giant spitballs. Issues.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Figure out how bad you want it. Be honest with yourself. If you really want it, then you do the work. And make no mistake, it’s hard work, especially when you feel like you aren’t getting it. If you want it, you’ll push through these walls. Nobody can teach you to draw well. Nobody can teach you to animate well. They can teach you the steps YOU have to work through to get there, but only YOU can put in the hours to do it. This comes as a huge shock to a lot of kids as most of what we learn in our early education is based on memorizing a piece of information, which you then own. Art won’t be that easy. It’s a struggle. It’s about repetition – at least for the first few years. And you can’t ever stop getting better because your peers will pass you by. But it’s worth every ounce of effort. Trying to break in? Stand out. Be excellent, but be special enough to stand out from all the other excellent work out there. What is your spark? What makes you different?