Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Animated Thoughts: Adventures in Animation

Life has been a mixed bag for me. I grew up bullied and abused. My weight has always been an issue. I've never been very lucky at love. And I feel like I've learned how to manage my money far too late in life to do me much good. But I'm willing to bet that if you conducted a survey of people and got honest answers out of them, nine out of ten would say similar things about their own lives. I believe that there's a tendency in humans to exist in a bubble whereby we see all of our experiences--good, bad and indifferent--as unique to us and us alone simply by virtue of the fact that we're the ones experiencing them at the time. And if that experience is negative, it carries far more weight than it otherwise would given our limited perspective of the experience--thus leading us to avoid similar experiences in the future where the negative result "could" occur.

I also believe that this unfortunate tendency causes us to miss out on those opportunities where God attempts to remind us of how blessed our lives really are.

Case in point: my nephew graduated from High School the first weekend in June. Which meant for me, a trip out to Boston in order to see him walk with his class. Given how hectic these trips out to the East Coast usually are, my natural reaction is to try to avoid them. It's pretty easy for me to get overwhelmed by the sensory overload caused by so many people making so much auditory and visual noise in such a confined space--so much so that it's hard for me to generate the emotional energy necessary in making such a trip. I usually come up with some excuse as to why I cannot make the event and offer my regrets for missing out. What can I say, I'm better in smaller groups.

But... he is my nephew, and I do love the lad, so off to Boston I went.


Factor in traffic and time spent crossing
the borders and it's about 13 hours one way.
My parents and my brother got some really affordable flights out there and back. Me? I made the 26 hour round trip drive to and from Boston.

What would make me choose a slightly more expensive 26 hour drive as opposed to a pair of more affordable two hour flights, you ask?

Well, I spent a day in Rochester, New York.

I was thinking of going back to R.I.T. for homecoming this year in order to do a special event outside of the Institute's yearly offerings for alumni and visiting parents. But David's graduation meant that I could have this singular experience five months sooner.

Some background is necessary.

Lotte Reiniger
German animator Lotte Reiniger created her first animated film: Das Ornament des verliebten Herzens (the Ornament of the Lovestruck Heart) in the Fall of 1919. First shown publicly on December 12, 1919, her film was a hit with viewers and soon was shown all around the world. Unfortunately, this black and white silent film would be lost to the horrors of World War II, along with many of her other early animated films. That is, until 2006 when a copy was found at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York. Realizing what they had, Lotte's film was slated for preservation and eventually a copy was made available to the viewing public.

That morning on the second of May, while we were surfing the Internet looking at flight times and prices, my mother reminded me of the fact that I didn't have to wait until October to see Lotte's film. I had already done all the legwork, so all that was left was to make a phone call to the curator and set up an appointment. Four weeks later, I was there, sitting in a dark room in front of a viewing station, watching an almost forgotten jewel of animation history.


Frame from Ornament of the Lovestruck Heart, Lotte Reiniger, 1919
Courtesy George Eastman Museum

I grew up watching cartoons. As a child, we had cable t.v. back in the '70's so I got to watch the first wave of Japanese animation hit the shores of the United States. I enjoyed the singular experience that was Saturday Morning cartoons -- replete with reruns of classic 1940's and '50's animations along with the then current crop of Hanna Barbara shows from the '60's and '70's. Through vacations to Toronto with my parents, I was exposed to the animated films of the National Film Board of Canada. And since my parents were fans of Monty Python, I never missed a Terry Gilliam cut-out animation.

But I didn't see the films of Lotte Reiniger until much later in life. Though I had heard of the Adventures of Prince Achmed and had seen pictures of silhouette animation, it wouldn't be until the 2000's when I started watching Lotte's films -- starting with Achmed. Up until then, all my knowledge about Lotte Reiniger had been academic, things that I had read from books here and there. I attribute my newfound interest in the works of Lotte Reiniger to a TAIS workshop back in 2013 where Lynn Dana Wilton showed us clips from Achmed and explained Lotte's process in puppet design and filmmaking.

Frame from Ornament of the Lovestruck Heart, Lotte Reiniger, 1919
Courtesy George Eastman Museum
Since then, I've marveled at the exploits of Lotte's silhouette characters and even moreso at the life she lived. If you haven't already, I highly recommend reading the many resources available about Lotte's life, times, and animation process. Some of my favorites are:

1. Shadow Theaters and Shadow Films by Lotte Reiniger,
2. Lotte Reiniger: Pioneer of Film Animation, by Whitney Grace,
3. The Art of Lotte Reiniger video documentary by Primrose Productions (part one is on YouTube), and
4. The restored version of the Adventures of Prince Achmed (it has a documentary about Lotte Reiniger as part of the special features).

As I'm currently working on a silhouette animated film as my entry into next year's Ottawa International Animation Festival, I am in negotiations with the Toronto Animated Image Society to animate part of the film this Fall using the "trick table" that Lotte used to make one of her films in Canada -- a workstation that I had the pleasure of examining and animating on earlier this year.

Lotte's "trick table" located at the TAIS offices in Toronto

And that speaks to the point of this blog post. It's so easy to let ourselves get wrapped up in the minutae of our lives with all its trials and tribulations that we miss out on the adventures that are waiting for us right in our backyard. I'm very fortunate that my meandering path through life has afforded me the opportunities to travel to the George Eastman Museum and marvel at a film that was, at that time, the cutting edge of animated film.

In a blog post earlier this year, I made the somewhat casual remark that 'life is full of adventures... if you know where to look.' Nowhere was that statement truer than when I drove to Toronto to see (and animate on) Lotte's trick table back in March. Or when I stopped by the George Eastman Museum in Rochester on my way to Boston in order to watch the only known copy of Lotte Reiniger's first ever silhouette animated film.

So to amend my previous statement: Life is full of adventures, and hidden blessings, if you know where to look and if you leave yourself open to them.

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Thursday, May 31, 2018

A Year of Animation: Some things lost and some things found

Carl "Skip" Battaglia, Stephanie Maxwell,
Marla Schweppe, me. (l to r)
My first experience with an Oxberry camera was in my Introduction to Animated Film and Graphic Film Production class under Carl "Skip" Battaglia.

Throughout the quarter, I had some great times while experimenting with these "old school" under-the-camera techniques -- even moreso because it was all non-digital, since up to that point in my education, almost all of the animation I had created was in the computer. Back then, Skip would give us the assignment, then we'd shoot our films during the week, watch them during the next class, and then he would cut the 16mm film stock into individual sections so we could take our films home if we wanted them. One of my few regrets from my time at R.I.T. was that most of those films have been lost, either during the class when I didn't pick up the film stock or during the time since I moved back to Michigan.

Fortunately, I still have a lot of notes and paper records from that class and even some models and cels. Admittedly, not some of the ones I really want, like the drawing I made for my direct-on-film project, but enough to reconstruct these films.

The projects that stuck out in my mind the most are listed below. I've recreated a couple of them using some materials from Skip's class that I still have in my files, and some were remade using all new materials using my notes as a framework. All of them though were recreated using present day software and equipment in order to make the production process a little easier.

Project 2 was a direct on film animation. I used clear filmstock and a fine-tip marker to create an animation where the "camera" panned left to right across a reclining nude woman from toes to head. Only, the shapely woman's figure had one of those 1970's smiley faces for a head. I'm still looking for the paper model I created for this assignment. I'm sure I kept it somewhere and, now that I own my own 8mm/Super8 film projector, I would love to recreate this direct on film animation just for fun. Would be an enjoyable way to spend a rainy afternoon... hunched over a light table... squinting through magnifying lenses... drawing a figure frame-by-frame... eh, it's not for everybody.

Project 5 was kind of a "trickfilm". Skip defined this project as:

"The production of a sequence approximately 10 seconds in length dealing with some aspect of color." (1)

I made the following film:


My goal was to make a play on the color reversal/retinal afterimage trick using a skull and both red and green colors. The viewer's attention would be focused on the movement of the eyes while the red/green skull image was "burned" onto the viewer's retina. Then, when the eyes finished their final move, the whole image was removed and the viewer was left watching a blank screen -- with the reverse image of the skull from their retinas filling up the screen where the visible skull image once was. The only thing I didn't do during the reshoot is the opening and closing fade to/from black that was part of the assignment.

Project 6 was intended to explore traditional ink-and-paint cel animation:

"The production of a sequence of approximately 10 seconds long involving a figure with movable limbs. The figure must be executed in the traditional ink and paint process." (2)

I remember being stymied originally, fortunately, it was Preston Blair to the rescue!


Money being tight back then, I skipped the whole "paint" element and went with good old reliable Sharpie markers! The original film had the guy walking in place -- set in the middle of the screen. But with access to DragonFrame some twenty years later, I used the onionskin feature to line up the character a little better and I even added a couple frames at the end where he walks off the screen.

Project 7 was a stop-motion film, described thusly:

"The projection of a sequence of approximately 10 seconds in length dealing with some aspect of type and typography." (3)

Decades ago, my sister sent me a small jigsaw puzzle with a funny "ransom note" on it. The plan was to write a date, time, and location on the back and then send it to the girl I was dating at the time, a few puzzle pieces at a time. When it was put together, she'd see the funny picture and then the date information on the back and we'd get together for an amorous rendezvous. Well, I don't recall ever using the puzzle for it's intended purpose. Thought it was too funny to give away so I ended up keeping it. In grad school, I would use it as the inspiration for project number seven.


I went into this project thinking that it would be "much" easier to animate in After Effects than it was under the Oxberry camera back in the mid-nineties... mainly because I'd be able to take my letters/words, attach them to motion paths, and then tweak the animation until it played out exactly like I wanted it. So I got to work, cutting out words and letters from magazines, just like I did back in 1995. But this time, instead of animating the pieces of paper under the camera, once the final image was assembled, I captured a high-resolution image of the completed note, and started to cut apart the individual text using Paint Shop Pro. They would then be imported as assets in After Effects and animated digitally.

Well it didn't take more than a few minutes until I realized the folly of doing this project digitally. It would take far too long to select the text, copy it to a new image file, and then mask out the background. After several unsuccessful attempts using Paint Shop Pro and Photoshop, I then abandoned that plan and instead wrote out the timing by hand, drew my motion paths on a couple images of the completed note, printed them out, and then drew the increments on the motion paths with a pen.

This "failure" turned out to be a very happy accident as I spent the next half hour using my printed images as a reference to create an identical set of "motion guides" in DragonFrame using the guidelines feature. Since DragonFrame allows you to specify the number of increments on your guideline (so you can line up your model from frame to frame), once those overlays were in place, I flew through the animation process in record time! Working under the camera was totally worth it in this case -- and I learned a lot about DragonFrame's onion skin and guideline features in the process.

A look at my downshooter setup

Project 8 was the last film I remember creating -- our final film project in the class. Here's how Skip described it in the syllabus:

"The production of a sequence of approximately 10 seconds in length through some experimental, non-standard process, e.g. sand, feathers, weeds, glitter xerography, wax block, rubber stamp." (4)

To this day, I still don't know what Skip meant by "glitter xerography", but I keyed in on the word "xerography". Having practiced the martial arts for years, I had a small library of books covering the many martial art styles that I've studied. Well, back then, you could find lots of these books with black-and-white photographs of martial art techniques and katas. So, armed with a book on Shaolin Long Fist Kung Fu, I went to the local Kinko's and Xeroxed a bunch of the pages. I then cut out the images of a Kung Fu kata and photographed them in sequence under the Oxberry. It didn't come out as well as I'd hoped, and the camera jammed near the end, but I got a good grade for the assignment, so it all worked out in the end.


This is one of those films that I think would've worked better digitally. Given the difference in size between some of the images, I would've liked a bit more flexibility in both scaling and aligning the images before finalizing the shot. In DragonFrame, the best I could do was use the onionskin mode and try to line it up as best I could. Additionally, I really would like the opportunity to change the frame rate on some of these individual images. With the exception of the first and last pose, everything was shot on threes -- as I did back in 1995. Given the fluidity of martial arts techniques, I think this film would've worked much better if some of the shots were two frames long, some were four or five frames long, etc. But, all-in-all, I'm pleased with the results.

Well, those are the films I remember producing in Skip's class. I wish I had taken better efforts to preserve the original films and the material used to create them, hindsight being 20/20 and all that. If I had, they would've been very nice mementos some twenty-odd years later. Still, it was a lot of fun rereading my notes from Skip's class and recreating these four animations.

One of my friends didn't enjoy their time at R.I.T., even though their education seems to have paid off rather well in light of the career opportunities they've been given over the years. However, every time we talk and the subject of R.I.T. comes up, they always seem incredulous about how fondly I remember my time in Rochester. I'm sure that if I mentioned how I was spending time recreating films from Grad School, they'd probably sigh heavily and make some remark about how it was twenty years ago so why bother. But for me, reliving the experience is worth a few hours of my time. I still have all my other films from R.I.T., and they still give me joy every couple of years when I watch them -- joy that goes far beyond the nostalgia factor. And how much I learned this past week about the under-the-camera production processes working with DragonFrame goes without saying (though I'm going to say it).

Another benefit of reshooting these films is what they taught me about aligning my DSLR camera with my camera stand, or using hotkeys in DragonFrame that allow for shooting multiple frames so I don't have to keep pressing the 'capture frame' button again and again and again (really good for those multi-frame holds), or the best placement of my side-mounted lights so that I get enough light to illuminate my images clearly but not so much as to wash out the colors.

As I was sifting through my notes, I came across some of the detailed plans that I wrote out for these films -- timing, frame to footage calculations -- information and rules that I can process and integrate into my current production workflow. I agree that we shouldn't live in the past, desperately yearning for a time gone by, but that doesn't mean that we should eschew all the lessons that we learned or ignore the new ones that are still there, hiding in our old textbooks, notes, and assignments just waiting to be rediscovered.

There's always something important to learn, or relearn... or find.

During the whole process of consolidating my notes and recreating these films, I located the only 16mm film from Skip's class that survived all those years: project #4--which I had digitized.

Skip described film #4 as:

"Production of a ten second black and white sequence using black and white still photographs. This is an exercise in recognizing abstract elements in representational images through the use of visualizing masks." (5)


Additionally, I also located my last two missing Animapasses from the Ottawa International Film Festival--one being the pass from 1994, my first OIAF. Not sure what I'm going to do with them exactly, but I'm leaning towards making a display that I can hang on my wall. As I've only missed one Ottawa festival since '94, I think a display like that would be a really nice momento from this period of time in my animated life.


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Footnotes:
1) Project 5: slate, guide, paper model, production notes from 1995. Paper eyeballs, DSLR camera and DragonFrame from current day.
2) Project 6: slate, guide, cels, production notes from 1995. DSLR camera and DragonFrame from current day.
3) Project 7: slate, guide, production notes from 1995. Paper models, DSLR camera, DragonFrame from current day.
4) Project 8: slate, guide, production notes from 1995. Book/paper models from identical book (Shaolin Long Fist Kung Fu by Jwing-Ming Yang and Jeffrey Bolt) purchased on Amazon.com. DSLR camera and DragonFrame from current day.

5) Project 4: Original footage from 1995 shot on 16mm film. Digitized at the local Camera Shop. Cost me $37. Was worth every penny!


Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Animated Thoughts: Archives

I'm a bit of a packrat. And though I try to pare down my possessions every year by getting rid of anything that I don't see myself using over the next year or two, it still feels like I'm drowning in "stuff".

Sometimes though, it does pay off.

About eight years out of Grad School, I accidently destroyed the hard drive that had all of the files for my student films, screenplays, term papers, and written assignments from R.I.T. When I realized what I had done, I was crushed. During the process of formatting a hard drive in order to install a new operating system on my computer, I typed a "1" instead of a "0" and so the program formatted my backup drive instead of my OS/Programs drive. Three years of hard work, gone forever, replaced by a series of "0"s in every sector.

Well, sort of.

I immediately turned to my backup backup copies: 3.5" floppy disks, iOmega Zip disks, even a pair of old SyQuest Bernoulli disks.


"Bernoulli disks, who remembers?
Between the Zip disks and the floppy disks, I was able to recover over half of my student films' original Macromedia Director files and all of the screenplays and written assignments (though I had paper copies of that work as well, so I wasn't too concerned about all of those files). Those now ancient disks also had most of the Director files for my first year film: The Chameleon. Most importantly though, in a rather uncommon flash of foresight, I had burned my M.F.A. thesis film Zero and all the files used to create it onto CD-ROM a couple years prior, so all of those files were intact.

Back then, in my desperate rush to recover data, I called upon Lansing Community College and asked them for help in the hopes that they might have a Bernoulli drive. As fate would have it, Program Director Sharon Wood said that they were replacing all of their Bernoulli drives in two days and if I wanted to use one, to come right in and they'd hook me up.

The Bernoulli drives held all but one of the remaining files that were missing from The Chameleon--that file was there, but it was corrupted so I couldn't recover it. Sadly though, I had no back up files for our Photography Core I group film: Mr. Big, nor the final "Animation Principles" film from my Photography Core II class. But, I had video copies of all and those would suffice.

Nothing spectacular, but it "did" win 2nd place
at the SMPTE/RAVA awards...
Looking at what I had lost, I then turned to the best VHS copy of the films that I had and digitized them before the VHS tapes deteriorated any further. All my films were there, so I quickly preserved Mr. Big and that last Photo Core II film.

Additionally... unfortunately... when I reformatted the hard drive, I had lost all the files for Stress, the first animated short film that I created after graduation and moving back to Michigan. However, even though the hard drive files were lost for good, "poor man's copyright" saved me. Y'see, back in 2000, I was operating under bad intel and had burned all those files onto a CD-ROM and mailed it to myself. Of course, that little procedure is a myth -- that of a sealed envelope with a postmark being proof of copyright -- and it certainly wouldn't hold up in a court of law (Yes, I know this "now"). However, that one act did give me a full backup of that film and all the associated files.

Eh, it's not bad. But, after watching it,
you can see why I didn't send Stress out to the festivals.

So in the end, despite the mistake and through all the drama, I lost nothing... sort of. Only a handful of files are missing, meaning that I can't recreate some of those films from the original files. And there's a term paper that I wish I still had. But as I have video copies of those two missing films (now digitized and archived), they're all still around in one form or another.

Fast forward a decade or so.

A couple months ago, I discovered by chance that Adobe was discontinuing Director, for good. After seeing those dreaded words "End of Product Lifecycle", I quickly downloaded the last trial copy that Adobe had released and made the unwelcome discovery that it wasn't backwards compatible with all the Director files that I had created back in the mid-90's. Well, at that point, the archiving bug bit me again. I pulled out my old Windows98 PC from storage and got it running, fished out my old copy of Director 6.5, and installed it on the now antiquated machine. The original plan was to export all of those old Director files as individual image files so that the next time the desire struck me, I could just import the images into Premiere on whatever computer I had at the time and make .mp4's out of them.

So, the task of archiving continued. This time though, there was a little gem hiding in plain sight. During this round of archiving, after reloading a bunch of disks to see what was on them, I made the welcome discovery that I had a separate backup of Director files from The Chameleon -- including the one file that was corrupted on the Bernoulli disk. So I can now go back and recreate that entire movie the next time the desire strikes me.

As you can imagine, I now have multiple copies of these files and movies all archived on DVD-ROMs (a full set is on archival Gold DVDs, which are supposed to last for 100 years). Course, as technology continues to develop, pretty soon, I'll have to find another compatible archival medium, cause how long are CD/DVD drives going to be around?

But for now, the archival bug has been swatted.

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