Thursday, June 30, 2011

Animated People: Erik Timmerman

Erik Timmerman
It has been eleven years since Erik Timmerman passed away. So, in memory of Erik, I'd like to share a story from grad school that illustrates how Erik would teach larger lessons about life in the context of the smaller lessons found in our class assignments.

We were all first year grad students, sitting in the classroom. But, being budding artists, none of us had taken the time to develop a thick skin regarding taking criticism of our work. I think part of it was also due to the fact that none of us knew how to properly provide constructive criticism. But, during our classes, this would lead to the usual hurt feelings, snippy comments, and oversensitivity when hearing the thoughts of people whom we thought either "didn't get it" or had their own ideas of what "it" was.

So. The assignment was to create a storyboard that described a scene where Don Quixote tilted at windmills. We had all produced our storyboards and Erik was expecting us to show them to the class for peer (and instructor) review before handing them in the following week for a final grade. Well, when Erik asked who wanted to go first, no one moved. We all sat there with this deer in headlights look. Erik prodded us a little further, but no one made a move. So, understandably frustrated, Erik dismissed the class for the day so we could finish up our storyboard assignment.

Afterwards, Erik and I retired to the Graduate Student's lab as he had some work for me to do. It was nearing the end of the quarter so time was precious and the work needed to get done--he wanted to give me detailed instructions. When I sat down, Erik shook his head and said how he didn't understand why everyone just sat there.

"Don't they understand that this is a chance to fix problems with their storyboards so they can get a better grade," he asked me somewhat rhetorically. I responded with a truthful, albeit lame, excuse about how everyone put a lot of work into our storyboards and couldn't handle the criticism from everyone. Erik looked at me and said the following:

"When you were a child, you said to your mother 'I want a cookie' and she gave you a cookie. And when she wouldn't, you would cry with tears streaming down your face until she gave you one. When you get older, if you asked your boss, 'I want a cookie', and if you didn't get one, you started to cry, he'd look at you like you're crazy."

The point being that the things you did when you were a child are clearly inappropriate when you're an adult. Sort of an Erik way of saying that 'when I was a child, I thought like a child, spoke like a child, acted like a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things.'

I said that I understood what he was trying to get at. And I think that he believed me because when I asked him to take a quick look at my storyboards, he did so and then gave me some sound advice on how to fix a couple of problems. Then we went back to work on the lab.

Although I'm sure he didn't know it at the time, that was one of those moments where Erik, in his own way, helped usher me into manhood--one of those many moments where it all started to make sense in my head and I could almost feel myself maturing mentally/emotionally in a real, concrete sense.

Erik died eleven years ago. And yet when I reminisce about him, he's still there, giving me lessons about life.

Eleven years later, he is still my teacher.

* * *

Photograph from Andrew Davidhazy's Retired Professors and past colleagues from the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences at RIT webpage.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Animated Thoughts: TAIS BunnyJam 2011

Tais SummerJam
This year's TAIS SummerJam had some very impressive work. The jury selected a good mix between narrative and non-narrative films. Additionally, there was also a healthy range of techniques--stop-motion, puppet, paint-on-glass, CGI, cutout and cel. Of course, when they announced the prize winning films, it reinforced the fact that I was attending a festival where my tastes were a little more in sync with the jury! I was very pleased that Jamie Metzger's film "Paso Doble" won the Jury Award.

My other favorite film from the SummerJam was "Tara's Dream" by Patrick Jenkins--a film created using the paint-on-glass technique which won both Second Prize and Best Animation Prize in the Toronto Urban Film Festival.

And last, but certainly not least, they had a series of BunnyJam films: 10 second films created and submitted from animators all around the world.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Animated Inspiration: Sumo Lake

Maybe it's because I grew up watching Godzilla movies and anime. Or maybe it's because I have a fascination with Japanese culture. But some films just make you sit there and go "Wow!" 'Sumo Lake' is one of those films. Greg Hofeld has constructed a fascinating new take on ballet that reminds me of how the elaborate fight sequences in Godzilla films were highly choreographed.

Sumo Lake from Panic Productions on Vimeo.
What endears me the most to this short animated film is that according to his website, Greg produced 'Sumo Lake' using the non-digital, Mark 1, pencil and paper. I smile inside when I hear the nay-sayers touting how traditional hand-drawn animation is dead. They obviously haven't taken a good look into the world of animated short films. Once you've watched this film, I urge you to visit the SumoLake blog and take a look into Greg Hofeld's filmmaking process.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Animated Inspiration: Food Zoetrope

Y'know, sometimes you look at a short film and think 'I wish I had done that.' Normally, I get this feeling when watching the festival promo films for Annecy that the students at Gobelins produce. This time, it's a pair of Annecy promos that were created by Alexandre Dubosc. Within these two short stop-motion films, Mr. Dubosc displays a fresh take on old animation equipment--namely the Zoetrope (albeit, turned inside-out).

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Animated Reviews: Kung Fu Panda 2

I only have two minor issues about "Kung Fu Panda 2". So, I'm going to get them out of the way before the rest of the review.

First: there was a little too much of 'Jack Black' bleeding over into Po's performance. Black's screwball mannerisms and witticisms can be pretty funny and they do add a certain humanity to Po's character.(1)  But sometimes it's just a little too much. (2)  So, I feel that adding in too many of them runs the risk of the viewer getting tired of the Black-isms really fast especially when some of them either aren't funny at all or are out of place. It kind of reminded me of the second live-action "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" movie where it was clear that they were hamming it up due to still being on an emotional high from the commercial success of the first film. I guess I just don't want to be abruptly pulled out of the fictional world that they've created--I want to see "Po" not Jack Black playing "Po". A minor quibble to be sure, and certainly not enough to spoil the rest of Jack Black's very solid performance, but it was there nonetheless.

The second issue is that the first quarter of the film seemed kind of muddled. Like they knew where they had to go in order to get to the main conflict, but needed to eat up some screen time with Po and the Furious Five so they could catch up to the background events that were taking place at the same chronological time. Once they reached the city? Man it was on and it stayed on until the end of the film! And there were lots of lovely little Easter eggs: like hearing Jean Claude Van Damme do the voice acting for Master Croc.

I absolutely loved how they expanded upon the relationship between Po and his adoptive father (Mr. Ping--expertly voiced by James Hong) and revealed questions about his past that had lain dormant in Po's heart. Like "Despicable Me", the "Kung Fu Panda" franchise is a giant advertisement for adoption--and in both cases, they work spectacularly! Another thing that I really loved is how they gave a little more screen time to the Furious Five--it made them more than just a part of the background vehicle for Po (a common complaint that I heard about KFP1, even though I personally don't agree with it).

Yet another thing that DreamWorks got right was taking time to develop the villain's character, motivation and backstory. One of my pet peeves is when villains are little more than cardboard cutouts. Okay, the super powered alien race is attacking the planet. Why? What's their motivation? Why would they travel halfway across the galaxy just to pick a fight with a technologically inferior race of beings? In both KFP1 and 2, the villains make sense. Tai Lung and Shen, though they don't get as much screen time as the rest of the cast, have clear motivations and reasons behind their actions. Yes, the reasons may be simple: revenge against a perceived wrong from a parental/authority figure. But the single minded way that the characters pursue their goals coupled with the backstory revealed to the audience fleshes out their character and taps into that deep dark part of everyone who has ever been denied something that they believed was rightfully theirs. Even though their actions and motivations may be morally wrong, we can identify with the villains on some level. And that identification helps take them from the realm of just being a MacGuffin for the hero and plants them firmly into the realm of being an actual character who struggles against the hero in their attempt to achieve goals that are as real and as logical to them as the hero's goals are to the hero.

After that, there's not much else to say: the character animation, backgrounds, sound and voice acting were all top notch--and after both KFP1 and HTTYD, I really expected nothing less. Once again, DreamWorks shows that they are capable of giving Disney/Pixar a run for their money!

I'm going to leave you with the following video of  the ending credits for Kung Fu Panda 2. This is one of the unexpected treats that we're seeing more and more in animated features: lavishly animated credits that are as beautiful and as artistic as the main film. Bravo to DreamWorks for continuing this tradition with KFP2!

1. To see an example where the 'Black-isms' work really well, review the scene in "Kung Fu Panda" where Po is trying to climb the stairwell and get into the temple!
2. To see an example where too many 'Black-isms' overload an otherwise solid performance, watch the often touching and brilliant film "Shallow Hal".

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Animated Inspiration: Train of Thought

Here's an enjoyable little student film that incorporates multiple animation techniques: Leo Bridle's 'Train of Thought'. A trend that I'm really enjoying is how animators (both students and independents) are putting together 'Making of' videos for their films. It's always interesting to see how people approach challenges during the production process as well as how they structure their films during pre-production. I'm a firm believer that these 'Making of' films provide us little seeds of knowledge that help us to solve our own production problems when the time arises on our own films.

The making of "Train of Thought"

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Animated Quotes: C.S. Lewis

"You are never too old to set another goal or dream another dream."

~C.S. Lewis