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.

* * *

Monday, April 30, 2018

A Year of Animation: Sand Animation

So, once again, I let myself get too busy to work on an animation until the last two weeks of the month. I came up with two great ideas (which I'll probably do later on this year) but they required a bit more work than I had time for -- one being hand drawn and the other stop-motion, but both integrated sound effects and required some precise timing, read that: a much better planned out and detailed dope sheet.

In actuality, it was one part being really busy and one part "eyes bigger than my stomach". So, with time running out, I turned to a tried-and-true hands-on technique: sand animation.

Years ago, I ran an animation class for kids and adults at the East Lansing Rec Center and one of those days covered sand animation. The following is an example animation that I created and showed to the class in order to show them what you could do at a most basic level:

Just a simple morph from one shape to another (yes, the nautical motif that I've been working with over the past couple months is coincidental).

I'm a big fan of Corrie Francis Parks' sand animated films, most notably her award winning film: A Tangled Tale, the first hybrid sand/digital animation film. As such, I've spent a lot of time watching her sand animations over and over, studying her techniques and observing her Making of... video in order to unlock every little tidbit of knowledge from her production process as well as reading her book Fluid Frames: Experimental Animation with Sand, Clay, Paint, and Pixels (if you don't have it, it's available on CRC Press and Amazon.com in both hardback and paperback forms).

Setup for this film was a little different from works I've done in the past and it builds on the techniques I've been exploring over the past few months. After setting up my light table under my DSLR downshooter setup, I taped the usual sheet of tracing paper over the light table to further diffuse the light bulb and reduce the effects of 'hot spots'. However, taking a page from Lynn Dana Wilton's book, this time I also taped a blue lighting gel over the tracing paper in order to give the scene that underwater color. This is a departure from Corrie's setup. As you can see from her Making of... video on Vimeo, Corrie didn't use gels in her animation, preferring to animate on her light table with the set white(ish) background and then handle color in post.

As I wasn't really up to doing a lot of post-production work on these shorts, I stuck with the motto: "the more you can do in pre-production, the less you have to do in post", hence, the lighting gel -- that and I thought it might be something fun to experiment with. One of the things that I miss from college is that "experimental energy" where everything is one big sandbox that you can play in and try things out before gathering all your experiences, successes, and failures together as foundational material when you create your thesis film. More on that train of thought in a later blog post, I think.

As you can see from the animation, it was just a simple morph. Everything was shot on one's and I didn't deviate from the basic timing very much. What I thought was fascinating though was the fluidity of the sand. Yes, yes, I know "fluid frames" and all that. But as I was moving the sand with a small paintbrush, the structure of the sand really lent itself to an ebb and flow much like you would see in fire or water.

The original idea was to make the blob morph into a sea anemone, wave it's tentacles around, and then morph back into a blob. I had even studied my friend's salt water aquarium in order to see how the water current would affect the tentacles. Well, when I started moving the sand around, making the body and adding little buds that would sprout into tentacles, I found myself more fascinated with making the sand flow downward in waves -- seen mostly in the bottom half of the figure.

Not much else to say. I liked the blue gel background, though I did keep the blob of sand in the middle of the screen partially to mask a "hot spot" created by the florescent lights in my light table.

I would like to do two other tests with sand animation, but one where I have a flat plane and I'm simulating waves surging and crashing in the ocean and another where it's a campfire burning in the middle of the screen.

* * *

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Animated Thoughts: Another reason for ASIFA

In 2015, I ran an animation workshop at the annual ASIFA Central Animator's Retreat. The workshop I had designed for that weekend was all about traditional under-the-camera techniques and had us playing with multiple tactile, hands-on  animation techniques: paint-on-glass, sand, hand drawn, cut-out/silhouette, and clay.

One of our attendees was a college illustration major (GVSU, if memory serves). While the rest of us played with sand, paint, and clay, she sat there with colored pencil in hand, focused intently on her drawings. When we broke for lunch, everyone left the lab and raced to grab some food before returning in the afternoon to finish our films.

Having seen what she was working on, and knowing that she wasn't one of our student members, I figured I'd take the chance to say 'hi', hopefully get a little feedback on the workshop, and maybe recruit a new member for ASIFA Central.

I caught up to the young lady on the sidewalk as she walked towards the bus stop, complimented her on the drawings she created, then asked her if she was coming back in the afternoon to film her artwork.

"No", she replied. "I was thinking about maybe getting a job in animation, but this is too much work."

And there it was. Another valuable reason for the existence of ASIFA.

With that one workshop consisting of four hours of the young lady's time, she was exposed to a hands-on experience with animation and discovered that she didn't want to expend the effort that it would take to become an animator--or at least a classical 2D hand-drawn animator.

In my mind, that had to be one of the most valuable four hour blocks of time that the young lady had ever spent during her whole college career. She obviously has skill at drawing and character design. But she discovered that she didn't want to animate. Now that she knows what she doesn't want to do, she can focus her efforts on finding her niche within the industry and concentrate on that career path instead of spending a priceless amount of time and money on what would be for her a career dead-end. Maybe she'll end up a character designer for animated films. Maybe she'll become a storyboard artist. Maybe she'll eschew animation altogether and go into storybook illustration. Opportunities within and without the industry abound for those who can draw.

I'm a big fan of minors. If I could have majored in minors when I was in undergrad, I think I would've gotten a lot more out of my college experience. It certainly would've prepared me for graduate school far better if I could've done a quadruple minor of art, computer science, English writing, and film/video production. But if I had access to a group like ASIFA back during those days, I definitely would've been able to learn more about my craft and focus my studies on those facets of the animation industry that interest me and that I'm good at.

Sketches where she reused the notecard for another animation.

I still have her drawings from that day--she never returned to claim them. When I see those notecards sitting there in my studio, I often wonder: 'how much trouble and heartache did that young lady avoid just by spending four hours at a free workshop?'

Knowing that we at ASIFA Central helped her narrow down choices for her career path makes running workshops worth every minute that we spend with students (of all ages).

It's too bad she left. Here's the other animation she was experimenting with.

* * *