Dev Spotlight: Alexandra Zühlke
How did you get started as an animator?
My road to being a character animator started in 2004 when I was a digital artist. I would spend hours each day (and night) at my 2D drawing table, creating sheet-by-sheet animations. Thinking back on those times gives me a good feeling – I really cherished that period, and approaching animation from that place is fundamentally important to me.
Soon enough, it became clear to me that I wanted to become an animator because I had an intrinsic interest in observing and studying my environment - which, in my opinion, is the basic prerequisite for animating. After drawing thousands of individual pictures and making a very short film, which was created as a team, the journey continued to the computer. I thought it would make things easier, but instead it got even more complex. All the possibilities, technical capabilities, and programs... I was overwhelmed by Graph Editor (the most important 3D animation software) and wondered if I would ever master it, and whether choosing this path was the right decision. But over the course of my studies I continued to specialize in animation, especially character and creature animation. Soon enough, I got my first job working on a feature film, followed by commercials and various game productions in England and Germany, which was then followed by more feature film projects.
What was it like to work on Albion Online during its early development?
The question makes me laugh now, because I remember being asked to create a few simple animations for a small project called "Albion" – a project that was just supposed to last only a few weeks. That small project became a massive, complex game, and the few weeks stretched out into many years. For me this is an unusually long time to participate in a production, because I value change. The variety of Albion Online, and the great team working on it, is what has kept me around for so long.
The project had already been going on for a year or two when I came to it, and was being created in a small two-room apartment set up as a studio space. This was the perfect environment for me at that time, having just spent more than six months working on a film project, and I really liked the freedom and openness of the project. We were about seven people, but we grew steadily and soon moved into a new space. It's fascinating to see how the whole thing has developed and what has become of it. First there was only the male player character, later the female, then the wolf, then the bear, and on and on. The game grew and grew, and the characters became more varied and complex.
What is unique about animating characters and creatures for Albion Online?
I've found that the animation for a character or creature is only as believable and expressive as its character design and 3D model. Fortunately, we have Marcus Koch, our very talented art director, on our team. He always succeeds in capturing the fundamental feel and identity of a character in its design. Of course, the rest of the Art Department makes major contributions as well, but I work most closely with Marcus when it comes to refining the animations in detail. It's these small details, the ones that really round out the characters, that I love to animate.
Do you have a favorite character, creature, or spell animation from Albion Online?
There are so many characters that have sprung up over the years that it's hard to name just a few. Some of my all-time favorites are the Giant, the Undead soldier's walk and combat idle, and the Marketplace and Captain NPCs.
What is your general approach to animation, and what specific steps do you take to make animations feel more natural and lifelike?
First I try to understand the character or creature, particularly its role in the game and the reasons behind its outward appearance. Thanks to our longtime collaboration, Marcus and I understand each others' viewpoints (relatively) quickly, and from there we try out wild, exaggerated animations to make the character express itself and take form. Along with the Game Design team, we work out the exact technical details such as timing and animation lengths, either right away or in iterations. Once I have all the important information together, it's all about arranging it all and letting it settle in, so I like to take a quiet moment to relax and become more involved in the role of the character. This often affects the way I see the world, and sometimes even affects the ways I act and move.
Certainly, the study of animation principles (on computers, on paper, and above all in real life) is a basic requirement, along with understanding the tech and observing the world with a discerning eye. These things are certainly important, but for me it has more to do with being "in the moment" to create a state of flow in which the movements emerge on their own.
Once that state is achieved, it works unconsciously and I can focus on what is essential: to truly feel the character, and to express that feel through technology.
It's also important to animate in all three dimensions, to use the full spectrum of each joint in all directions, to rotate one axis less, another more. As a result, the possibilities of the rigs will be used to their fullest and the animations will not be stiff or rigid, but natural and lively. The animations become even more believable in the small details, which are not immediately visible, but show up in the overall motion. I try to keep an overall creative approach and to make sure the animation always works as a whole.
Stay tuned for more articles on the individual developers behind Albion Online in the coming weeks.
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