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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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.

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