Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Animated Thoughts: ASIFA Central Retreat and Lotte Reiniger



Silhouette illustration for I want you
Illustration by Lotte Reiniger
As seen in my last post, we held our annual ASIFA Central members retreat in August. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to work on my public speaking skills, I volunteered to give a short presentation on Lotte Reiniger. But rather than offering the same lecture that I had for Women's History Month, I decided to revisit and recycle a portion of that work while adding new information that I don't see any other researchers focusing on.

Much has been said about Lotte's animation work. However, rarely meriting more than a mention or a footnote in books and articles written about Lotte is that around 1918 to 1919 she created 'silhouette' illustrations for a book of German poetry written by Gustav Hochstetter titled Venus in Seide: Ein neues Liebesbrevier (Venus in Silk: A Breviary on New Love), published in 1919.

Hochstetter himself, was an author, poet, humorist, and professor of Jewish-German origin. During his lifetime, he wrote over twenty books, of which, Venus in Silk was one. Tragically, Gustav Hochstetter would be swept up by the Nazi's in World War II. He was deported from Berlin to the Radinkendorf labor camp in Poland and then, on October 3rd, 1942, sent to the Thereisenstadt ghetto in German-occupied Czechosloakia. Gustav Hochstetter would die a year-and-a-half later at the age of 70.

Venus in Seide (Venus in Silk)
by Gustav Hochstetter

After coming across his name (and the title Venus in Seide) while reading Whitney Grace's book Lotte Reiniger: Pioneer of Film Animation, I did a little digging into the history of Hochstetter. Confident that he was a part of Lotte's history that needed to be told, I then tracked down a first-edition copy of Venus in Seide at a bookseller in Germany -- Chiemgauer Internet Antiquariat, owned by Frauke Strassberger. About a week later, a weathered, well read book arrived in the mail.

Then came the difficult part.

Researching Hochstetter wasn't too bad. There's enough information about him on the internet to pull together a couple slides about his life. The tough part was translating portions of Venus in Seide! However, between my next-to-useless two years of college German and my fluency in Google Translate, I was able to cobble together several complete poems in addition to captions for Lotte's illustrations.

My initial plan was to show Lotte's silhouette illustrations in my slides and perform an analysis of her static models for print compared to her dynamic models designed for animation, but I quickly became swept up in the excitement of translating Gustav's poems. What first was an attempt to put Lotte's illustrations into their proper context rapidly became a welcome obsession as I tried to get into Lotte's mind, imagining what this young woman must have been thinking when translating the printed word into an illustration designed to accentuate the poem yet showcase it's own sense of beauty without detracting from the richness of the printed word upon which it was based.

The following is one of my favorite poems (from the few that I've translated thus far). You can see Lotte's silhouette illustration on the right side; I recommend looking back at it from time to time as you read Hochstetter's poem. I'm sure you will notice, as I did, how well Lotte's illustration accentuates and reflects Gustav's words and that Gustav's words (in turn) accentuate Lotte's illustration -- especially since Gustav's poem speaks of features that you cannot observe in a black-and-white silhouette.

Eine muß die Schönste Sein
(One must be the most beautiful)
Poem by Gustav Hochstetter, illustration by Lotte Reiniger


One must be the most beautiful (1)

One must be the most beautiful
On the far earth:
Narrow foot, slender leg,
Most charming gesture;
Eyes should be sensuous
Sparkling like diamonds,
Bodice, shoes, hat and dress
A glove resting.
Teeth dazzling; Tied up fine
As in racehorses -
One must be the most beautiful
On the far earth

One must be the singer
This beautiful beauty,
Your charms a magic spell
sounds sing out,
That through his portrait of the world
Watches this golden wonder
He that holds his mirror
You, the most beautiful woman,
That, the song the melody
To indulge in her grace -
One must be the singer
This beautiful beauty.


Now, if you go back and take a close look at the poem in the image above, you can see one of the main difficulties in translation. The font used was this flowing, artistic typeface that obscured some letters, like the 'tsch' or 'sch' consonants. Additionally, the 'S' had at least two separate and distinct forms depending on whether they were capitalized or in lower-case. A magnifying glass was a most helpful tool as I deciphered the individual characters, typed them into Word (making liberal use of their German symbol library), then copied the poem into Google Translate and waited for the English result.

Google Translate itself is an odd bird. After using it to translate portions of several poems, I quickly learned that the algorithms appear to translate many of the words based in part on the context of the sentence -- which can be both helpful at times and very frustrating in others. More than once, I broke down a sentence into it's component words and looked through various definitions in order to translate the sentence into something that was both coherent in English AND maintained the spirit of the poem in its overall context. For someone who loves working on puzzles, I often found myself wishing for more time to translate just "one more poem" before the presentation (and also for a friend who could check my German to English translations).

When paging through this old text, it was very apparent that even at this young age, Lotte Reiniger had developed a skilled eye in creating very clear, very 'readable' poses for her characters as well as the ability to maintain proper proportions for her characters when cutting them from paper. One can only imagine the delight Hochstetter must have felt when Lotte agreed to create the illustrations for his book.

On the day this blog post goes live, coincidentally on Yom Kippur, it has been ninety-nine years since Hochstetter first published his book. I can't even fathom what must have been going through his mind as he lay on his deathbed, having been betrayed by his country and watched friends, family, and countrymen imprisoned and killed. But I think, I hope, that he would be pleased to know that there are people who are still reading his books and enjoying his poetry a century later.

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(1) translation by Charles Wilson

Friday, August 31, 2018

A Year of Animation: ASIFA Central 2018 Retreat

Gary Schwartz and Linnea Glas
During this past August, the annual ASIFA Central Animators Retreat hosted animators from all across the Midwest in Grand Rapids for a weekend of animated film, workshops, presentations and camaraderie. After working all by myself on each of the films for my 'year of animation', I decided to seize upon the opportunity to expand my skillset by working on a film as part of a team.

Every year at the retreat we all spend half the day working on animations. Sometimes it's workshops where we learn a new animation technique or share information, tips, and tricks on a technique we all know. However, this year, the workshop organizers broke us into teams and had each team working to produce an animation based on the same concept. So, each group started at the same point, but was allowed to interpret the project however they wished.

My team consisted of myself, Gary Schwartz of Single Frame Films, and Linnea Glas - a former student of mine from Huntington University - and the project centered on making an animation based on our visual interpretation of the following tongue-twister:

"On the moon, marooned baboons consume balloons to make cartoons."

Each group produced a distinct animation using their own visual choices and own audio recording of the tongue twister. Some used clay, others sand, still others found images. However, the three of us chose to do a "Gary Schwartz" cut-out animation. Y'see, during the year, Gary travels throughout the world and hosts animation workshops. One of his animation projects is using these stylized mouths to animate a line of dialog. So, we appointed Gary as our director and character designer, Linnea as our voice actress, model maker and animator, and I handled the technical side of the animation including camerawork and producing the X-Sheet.


Linnea working on the models

This was one of those great learning experiences as it allowed me to explore a facet of Dragonframe that I had only read about and tinkered with on a superficial level: incorporating dialog. While Gary and Linnea designed and created the cut-out mouth syllable models for our animation, I set to work processing the audio -- which consisted of loading it into an audio channel, identifying the syllables, and then making a mock-up animation using a stock figure that comes with Dragonframe.


Dr. Sock. Great concept, but they left out some syllables
when making this model so we had to improvise...

This was the result of my working with the "Dr. Sock" model, the sock-puppet monkey that comes stock with DragonFrame.



Once the audio was processed and the audio "animatic" completed, I created an X-Sheet that would allow us to select the correct mouth position models and line them up with the dialog. Afterwards, once Gary and Linnea had finished the models, I worked with Linnea (with Gary directing us) as she followed my X-Sheet and animated the mouth models.

Note the "syllable" column that lines up
with specific points in our audio track.

With a little under an hour left to produce our film, we quickly worked our way through filming the animation as Gary added input to improve the flow and visual variety of the animation (we were using a limited number of syllable models after all). And after the film was finished, Gary had the idea of adding one last set of frames with some soviet-era "dental models" that he picked up on his travels through Eastern Europe, followed by a quick fade-to-black. We all agreed that it added a really nice sense of surrealism to our animation.

Our completed film is as follows:



Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Animated Thoughts: A little nostalgia from Undergrad...

Back in 1993, I was working my way through college and was pretty much adrift with regards to both education and career path. My choice of majors in undergrad went something like: Pre-Med, then Pre-Med & Computer Science, then Computer Science, then Computer Science & English Writing, then just English Writing. And after receiving a rather pointed question from a friend regarding getting credit for all those computer classes I took, I stuck around for an extra semester and finally graduated with a B.A. in English Writing with a Computer Science minor after four-and-a-half years at Taylor University.

Me (l) and Chuck-Bill (r) back in 1992
when we lived on 3rd Morris
However, as computer animation had fascinated me since I first saw Tron, when my friend Chuck-Bill got a copy of (what we both vaguely remember was) Real3D, I finally had someone who could help me get all these thoughts out of my mind and onto the screen. For a year or two, I had taken the only computer graphics class offered by the university, had written some basic graphics programs in C++, had been dabbling with shareware paint programs as well as playing with POV-Ray (a freeware 3d rendering and animation program that required you to plot out everything using numerical coordinates and a scripting language before passing the reference textfile to the render engine so the images could be created). Yep. Times were tough back then... but I was still drifting without focus, until Bill told me to come down to Indy and see what he was doing.

After looking at the animations Bill was creating on his own, I was hooked! On several occasions during those final years of Undergrad, I'd race down to Indianapolis with some crazy idea. Bill would model a set and I'd animate a character. Then we'd start it rendering. We'd crash for six hours, wake up, get something to eat, go see a movie, play videogames, and on Sunday morning, I'd drive back to campus with an animation saved on a 3.5" floppy disk (or two).

Those were heady days filled with the excitement of limitless potential -- we clearly had no idea what we were doing or how the industry worked... but we were becoming animators, darn it! Computer limitations and lack of skill be damned!

The following three animations were the only ones of merit that we produced together during that time and were used in both of our portfolios when we applied to Grad School at R.I.T.

Originally rendered at 320 pixels by 240 pixels and 256 colors (I think), I like to keep them around and watch them from time to time. It's fun, and cringeworthy, to see how far you've progressed as both an animator and as a filmmaker.


"Dojo", the first animation we created was during the weekend of October 17, 1993. Since I was involved in teaching Karate at a local martial arts studio, I had this idea of a guy doing a martial arts routine. So, Bill created the sets for this film as well as did the camera work. Additionally he took a pre-made character model that came with the 3d animation package and gave him black "pants" and I did all the character animation. In our original design, the character was supposed to reach his last move, return to a standing position, and bow to the camera. However, I missed setting a keyframe during the last sequence and he didn't really bow correctly. Eh ,this was my first real experience with keyframed 3d animation using a graphical user interface, so I plead inexperience. Years later, I would revisit this idea during Marla Schweppe's stop motion and puppet animation class at R.I.T. when I made a "ninja cockroach" puppet and animated him through a short kata.


In April of 1994, I raced back down to Indianapolis with another idea: "Escher". This one was a simple camera rotation animation based on an M.C. Escher print. I think I did some posing on this animation, and I vaguely remember Bill and I working on the backgrounds together, though he made the rendered pictures on the walls. This would actually be a fun animation to redo using today's technology.



The "Studio 119" animation was created in May of 1993 as an opening promo for a Taylor University news program that they were trying to put together for the Journalism department. It never ended up getting used for anything more than a bit of pre-viz. They used an Amiga computer for the final copy and added some flair that we couldn't do using Bill's animation software (like having images of the newscasters fly in and out). But it was a fun project nonetheless. As setting up the text was pretty easy for this animation, Bill and I both worked on the camera fly-through on this one.

Unfortunately, my computer is being a little finicky. At the time, this animation was too big for one 3.5" floppy disk, so we used DOS's backup command to compress it across two floppies. And while I still have the two disks, my Windows 98 PC won't recognize the version of DOS used to compress the file. And DOSBox has the same trouble. As does my DOS bootable USB drive... so I'm rapidly reaching a point where I'll say 'screw it' and install a retro hard drive into my Win2K computer, reinstall DOS 6.21, decompress the files and be done with it.

But, for now though, I've got a copy that I digitized from an old portfolio videotape.

Bill made several other animations on his own, which he included in his portfolio when he applied to R.I.T., and which I still have on VHS. But I'll let him post those...

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