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.

*  *  *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Animated Thoughts: Keeping up with the animation goals

Lotte's "trick-table"

As mentioned previously, for the year of 2018, I set a goal for myself to produce an animation every month. Again, nothing "festival worthy" or anything like that, just something to get me animating on personal projects, sharpen my skills, and expand my toolkit.

Well, February had me tinkering with one of my 3d animation programs but it produced nothing of merit. I wasn't worried about that since by the time the end of the month was coming into view, I already knew that I'd be in Toronto on the first of March at an animation workshop.

So the following is February's animation: my segment of the group animation that we created during Lynn Dana Wilton's Silhouette Animation Workshop for the Toronto Animated Image Society.

(background by Lynn Dana Wilton)

While working on this animation I had a couple thoughts regarding how to approach my segment:

Having made them in the past, this time I didn't want to create a 'jointed' puppet like the other attendees were doing. Rather, I had thoughts of the models in PES's stop-motion film: The Deep. In The Deep, PES combines replacement object animation along with stop-motion animation in the shot with the calipers (seen at 0:24 to 0:32 in his film). This conjunction of two animation techniques allows him to achieve the illusion of weightlessness: the use of slight movements using stop-motion animation provided the impression that his objects were "floating" in the ocean depths, and using replacement animation (by swapping out different sets of calipers), he changes what would've been a static, one-model character into a much more dynamic character. The addition of replacement animation in this sequence enhances the "illusion of life".

Additionally, there were six attendees at the workshop (including me), which meant that individual time with the animation workstation was limited. So, how could I approach the animation in such a way that I could maximize my animation time with a minimum of trial-and-error under the camera? Well, after creating my puppets and sketching out a rough dope sheet, I tested the motion on the table (not Lotte's trick-table).

Dope Sheet... kind of...

The motion looked okay in my mind's eye, but I still wasn't sure about the timing. So I turned to my trusty iPhone. I've got an app called Stop Motion Studio (which I used to create the time-lapse animation RITchie during last year's R.I.T. homecoming). Although I didn't have any camera stand with me to keep my iPhone steady, I was able to capture the motion clearly enough to test out my timing.

As you can see, the first test sequence was much closer to what I wanted. But, rather than assuming that I got it right on the first try, I animated the jellyfish a little faster in the second sequence... just to be sure. After that test, I decided to stick with the first one for my final animation (although I did tweak it slightly in the final version).

Well, not finished with the whole 'under the sea' motif, I decided to keep playing with the idea for March's animation.

As March is Women's History Month, and I post interviews with women animators on this blog, I decided to pair up with the Grand Rapids Community Media Center and ASIFA Central to present a day celebrating women animators--which included a Silhouette and Cut-out animation workshop.

After providing instructions and getting everyone working on their films, there was still enough time in the workshop for me to settle down and do a little animation of my own--my animation for the month of March.

I didn't follow any dope-sheet for the timing on the fish, choosing instead to wing-it. But I followed my earlier timing on the jellyfish, albeit at a faster overall frame rate--I was pressed for time and didn't want to leave the students to their own devices for too long.

All-in-all, if I played with this idea again, I would make the timing of the jellyfish totally independent from the other fish and much, much slower. Additionally, I'd take a page from PES's book and add one to two more models to the jellyfish--probably something that I could add as one or two frames in order to add a little more anticipation and follow-through to the jellyfish's action leading to the upward motion.

Might also switch to computer animation so I can play with the timing and run through multiple variations without having to go back and reanimate the figures by hand over-and-over. In my not so humble opinion, that's one of the strengths of computer animation: it facilitates rapid learning via the ability to cycle through multiple variations in a short period of time.

In the time it took me to animate the jellyfish in both films under-the-camera, I could've done multiple variations in Flash or After Effects just by copying-and-pasting the frames and tweaking the motion of the jellyfish, or the number of frames (filming on twos or threes), or both.

I love animating under the camera, mainly due to the tactile feeling of the models as you move them from position to position. And the greater challenge of tweaking the external lighting so you get the best possible shot. Frame-by-frame flicker removal and color correction is a pain in the ass though. Between that and my desire to do multiple tests for timing, it might lead me to do April's animation completely in the computer.

Food for thought...

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Sunday, April 1, 2018

Animated Quotes: Lotte Reiniger

Shadow Puppets, Shadow Theaters and Shadow Films

"You must not copy a naturalistic movement, but must feel the movement within yourself, for when you will have to animate an animal you must be that animal, moving as it does. The animation will always be stylised, but this stylisation must be true."
~ Lotte Reiniger
Shadow Puppets, Shadow Theatres and Shadow Films
pp. 101-102

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Women of Animation: Lotte's Desk

Life is full of adventures... if you know where to look.

I had heard from a friend of mine, Lynn Dana Wilton, that the Toronto Animated Image Society had acquired a light table used by Lotte Reiniger to produce her films during her short stay in Canada back in the 1970's (though Lotte called them "trick-tables").

Questions abounded: was this the desk that she used at the NFB? If so, did the NFB give it to TAIS, and if so, how did that come about? What did the desk look like? Did she have it built from one of her previous designs? Or from the diagrams in her book Shadow Theaters and Shadow Films? And most importantly, during Lynn's upcoming silhouette animation workshop, would I be allowed access to the desk in order to take photos and measurements?

Well, the only way to find the answers to my questions was to go there. So I registered for the event, gathered up my gear, made arrangements for lodging in Toronto, and drove to Ontario for the weekend.

Lotte Reiniger produced two films when she was in Canada. The first was Aucassin and Nicolette, which she created for the National Film Board of Canada. The second was The Rose and the Ring, produced for Gordon Martin and Associates Limited and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

This was the trick-table created for Lotte which she used to create The Rose and the Ring.

When I arrived at TAIS's production facility on Dufferin Street, Lynn escorted me back to Lotte's trick-table. She and I agreed that day: Lotte’s trick-table is both overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time.

It's underwhelming because it doesn’t look like anything special at first glance. But if you know the history of who it was built for, it leaves you standing there with a sense of awe. Lynn joked about how she was expecting little animation faeries flying around the trick-table. Personally, at the very least I was expecting a golden plaque with the words “Lotte Reiniger animated here” emblazoned on the side.

But there it was, and there we were. Face to table with a part of animation history.

Lotte Reiniger's Trick-Table

It wouldn't be until later that Lynn would introduce me to the table's previous owner: Jonathan Culp. Though it was over the internet, I had the pleasure of talking with him. Jonathan patiently fielded all of my questions regarding the table.

What he told me was how his grandfather, Donald Carman of Carman Educational Associates was one of the main people in bringing Lotte to the National Film Board of Canada back in the 1970's. Although, it was one of the producers of Lotte's two films, Gordon Martin, who had the table built for Lotte. Gordon was also a family friend of Jonathan's. And before they died, Gordon and his wife Patricia gave the trick-table to Jonathan. Patricia herself was an animation assistant on Lotte's film the Rose and the Ring and she created her own silhouette animation on the trick-table, titled the Princess and the Pig Boy. Though he didn't know for sure, he believes that the trick-table was built by the Martin family--however he's going to ask one of the Martin's children for more details in the not too distant future.

Well, Jonathan, being a member of TAIS, generously donated Lotte's table to the organization.

"Lotte Animated Here"

And there it sits. A piece of animation history that has been given a new life with a new generation of animators using it to create their films…

While everyone else was making their silhouette puppets--and during my turn to animate on the table--I was crawling all over Lotte's trick-table with a camera and a couple of tape measures, taking photographs and making sketches, measurements, and designs of her trick-table... my intention being for it to be the subject of a future blog post.

Well, rather than put together an elaborate puppet with hinged joints, I've had visions of PES's deep sea animation running through my head, so I decided to do a little substitution animation instead of using a fully-jointed silhouette puppet. That and I wanted to spend more time sketching and measuring the table.

After I left the studio that evening, I already had future plans running through my head.

Membership at the Toronto Animated Image Society, a Studio Membership, costs $50 Canadian per year. But with this membership level, it offers you the perk that you can rent their studio facilities to work on your own films. In this case: the "Lotte" Studio which costs $20 per day.

I’ve already planned a return trip to Toronto in the Fall. And as I’m a member of TAIS, I can rent Lotte’s trick-table for the day for the measly sum of $20 Canadian.

Life is full of adventures... if you know where to look.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Women of Animation: Want to know more?

At this time, I would be remiss if I didn't take this opportunity to point out two resources for news about Women animators:


One: My Women of Animated Film Facebook page.

There's so much information out there from so many sources that it's impossible to repost it on blogs. So instead, I use a Facebook page as a 'women animators' news aggregate. If you're on Facebook, check out my page: The Women of Animated Film (https://www.facebook.com/WomenAnimators/).

I follow a lot of animation news sites, individual women animators, and crowdfunding campaigns. And when something women animator-related comes across my news feed, I'll repost it on Facebook. So if you're looking for more up-to-date info, please feel free to visit, like, and subscribe.


Two: My Women of Animated Film blog site.

Rather than force people to sift through months upon months of my mad rambling about animation over on my Smudge Animation blog, I've created a repository blog filled with the interviews I've conducted (and some other posts I've found interesting enough to talk about). That way, you don't have to go sifting through years of my mad rambling about animation and pictures of butterflies to find the interviews that you want to read and share with future animators.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Women of Animation: Catherine and Sarah Satrun, Part 3

Well, I can't go any further with this interview without showing Catherine and Sarah's full animation demo reel which showcases the wide range of their character animation experience.

However, I would be remiss if I didn't point readers to Catherine and Sarah's individual YouTube accounts where you can view some of their older works, including student films. The Satrun Sisters have done us a great service by uploading and displaying many of their experimental works, like Catherine's film Clouds and Sarah's film Red. These are films where we can see them working with experimental techniques and physical media, work that feeds the experimental spirit that influences their more recent computer animation work like Mearra.

I'd also like to point out that this part of the interview took a very unique turn. Both Catherine and Sarah made some very poignant statements on what it's like being a woman working in the animation industry as well as how it's slowly changing--for them and the industry. They've shared with us a couple stories about some struggles that they have experienced within the industry over the past twelve years and what they've learned from such experiences.

Our final visit with the Satrun Sisters begins thusly:

CW: Given that the industry is now so heavily integrated with computer technology, how important do the two of you think it is (if at all) for students of animation to learn classical techniques and non-computer animation styles?

SS: Well, personally, we're of the viewpoint that it's good to have that traditional foundation. I know a lot of students just jump right into the computers, on the computer side...

CS: When students just learn the software, then their work is often stiff because they're only learning the program and they don't have a foundation in art. You really need a foundation learning the basics like the drawing--especially figure drawing--and stop-motion, paint-on-glass animation all of that "alternative animation" that's really freeing.

SS: Yeah, it helps you think differently, and also, personally, when we did the alternative strategies of animation, when we did that class where we learned paint animation, sand animation, scratch on film, all of those techniques, that was more freeing and it loosened us up. It was more about the arts. It was just that mindset that suddenly frees your mind for experimentation and just thinking outside the box and thinking differently. So you can take those skills--what you learned from that, even if you just briefly touch on that little thing--people who do CG and motion graphics, they can take what they learned from that to think differently and approach a project in a different way that they may not have thought about earlier and to maybe try different visual styles too that can be inspired from it.

CS: Also then with just drawing in general that helps... y'know, even if you're in computers you want to still be able to sketch out your storyboards and designs to present them to others and to communicate ideas and just to have better art and design skills. Color and composition are also really important to learn because you need to know how to make the animation appealing to look at, even if it's just text and logos.

Three Mermaids and Mermaid
(From the interviewer's private collection)

CW: It terms of women working in the field of animation, what do you think is the biggest obstacle to women who want to pursue a career in animation?

SS: Personally, things have probably changed over the years, but when we went to school, definitely in college and into our careers too we definitely found out that there were very few women. Per animation class, there was maybe one to three of us total for animation. And if there were three it felt like a lot. And even still currently in the industry from our personal experience there's very, very few women and then even--Catherine on one of your freelance jobs...

CS: Yeah, maybe around eight years ago or so. A freelance job at one company, there was no other female animators and I was just brought in for one week. So it was really weird because I had to work extra hard to prove myself. The only other women working there were more high maintenance types who took lunch orders and checked in on people. I didn't like the atmosphere of that job at all. Glad it was only for a week! A lot of time you witness that it's a guys world in a lot of companies. But I think that things are changing.

SS: And you have to work extra hard to prove yourself.

CS: And I've heard that offhanded from other friends who've worked outside of Chicago in other bigger studios that they say that the women there can't make any mistakes--They have to work extra hard to show that they can do the job, so that's still happening, unfortunately. So that's what we've heard. On our first day, on one of our jobs, a guy was explaining animation to us. He was explaining it!

SS: He was flipping through the pages going "this is an-i-ma-tion".

CW: Did he even know who the two of you were or what you were there for?

CS: Yeah, yeah, yeah! We were being introduced like we were starting, kind of thing, so... but he was still talking down to us. And then we come across a lot of attitudes of like 'oh you can't do it' or 'I'm not going to help you out' and 'you can't do it as well.

SS: I don't know if this is true, but we recently heard in animation departments it's about half women and half men. I think now it's changed a lot. But we also work from home a ton more, now that things are all digital. We're outside of the studios, so we're not experiencing anything first-hand anymore.

CS: We haven't personally had issues with that in a long time.

CW: Given how the industry is still changing, yet in the past wasn't the most welcoming place for women, if your daughters said that they wanted to work in animation, what advice would you give them?

SS: Honestly, it would be "just work hard" is the biggest thing. You've got to really work for what you want...

CS: Work hard, be passionate about it. Just dedicate yourself to it and make it happen...

SS: Be well rounded. Have other skillsets... as a backup [laughs]...

CS: Have your specialty skill, like your niche, but have other skills that offset it. So if your [specialty] skill is character animation make sure you have strong skills on the preproduction side of it too...

SS: Storyboarding, motion graphics. Any other skills you can acquire.

CS: You pick up these other job skills as you go through, so just being more well rounded especially in college before you get out. Make sure you have enough skills to survive in this industry and build up your confidence too, because having confidence is very difficult for a lot of people.


CW: What do you think is the most important thing that authority figures (parents/teachers/professors) can do to encourage girls who are considering a career in animation?

CS: What I just mentioned about the confidence. I think parents and teachers can really help their daughters and students to have that confidence to stand up for themselves and if that's what their passion is then go for it and don't listen to people who say you can't do it.

SS: And then speaking to that I would say like--it was a lot of times through schooling from authority figures, say you're interested in art, everyone's like "oh?" And they kind of scoff at it like: "oh, what can you do with that?" Or, "can you really have a career or job with that?" And even now people are "oh can you really actually do that?" No one thinks that it's possible.

Someone recently scoffed at it when we told them what we do. I don't remember the scenario but, it was weird. I think confidence is really important and telling people if you put your mind to it, you can do it. You just need more examples of women in industry as role models, pointing out people who are making it, that would be a big difference and good confidence boost to show you what you can achieve.

CS: The role model thing is very important. You need women role models. And giving them education, a solid foundation. As soon as they can, take some drawing classes. For example, we took a drawing class at the park district when we were in grade school. All it was, was just copying drawings, but that still improved our skills.

SS: At a young age, even copying drawings helped us learn to measure with our eyes to draw what we saw. That was really beneficial, having that encouragement when we were that young to be like 'oh look they are interested in art lets enroll them in some extra classes' and then we did that for a while. And that was very beneficial. So I would suggest doing that, extra classes...

CS: I would suggest to take any extra classes you could find anywhere. And then as they get older, like in high school and stuff, you can see if there are summer classes. We did a summer high school workshop at Columbia College.

SS: We were able to do the high school workshop right between, like right after we graduated and before we started our Junior College. But because we hadn't started college yet, we were able to do the high school workshop and then that helped, that was fantastic because we got to...

CS: It was our first animation class...

SS: Yeah, it was our first animation class. And then we wanted to say "yeah we love it and it's not just a hobby to us. We realized, "We can do this."

CS: It's a passion and it's a career field that you actually want to go in to. Test it out before enrolling into the entire curriculum.

SS: Yeah.

CW: I always tell students to get a stack of 3x5 notecards and just draw. Make a 30 second film. Or even a ten-second film. And usually that'll weed out a lot of kids. Just doing something as simple as a ball bouncing, it's like "well it takes this much work... I don't know if I want to do this."

CS: Exactly, it's not for everyone and you gotta know, you gotta figure it out early on before you go through the whole program.

SS: Especially in animation. I feel like there's a lot of people who are more fans of it than, like, dedicated artists. So, you have to have a very strong work ethic otherwise you won't succeed.

CS: Those people who have a very strong work ethic who are passionate about it, they make it further than other people who it might more just be a fan or a hobby.

SS: Parents need to see where their child falls in that. They need to encourage them, not just in art, but in all of your school subjects. You've gotta work hard and show that drive to do as best as you can. I think that is very important, that's down to the core of how hard of a worker you are. You have to have a strong work ethic to get through life.

Bedtime Fox

Thanks again to Sarah and Catherine for taking the time to share their experiences and history with us.

* * *
  • Portrait photo, artwork, and animations copyright Catherine and Sarah Satrun, used with permission.
  • Interview edited for length and clarity.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Women of Animation: Perks and Swag

One of the cool things about supporting animators (on Crowdfunding sites and thru their website stores) is the wonderful swag you can get. Yes, yes, I know: "virtue is its own reward" and we should be supporting these animators regardless of perks and rewards. But that doesn't change the fact that above and beyond the reward for being altruistic, the perks can be pretty cool!

So, I'd like to share some pictures of the wonderful products I've purchased, rewards I've been presented with, and gifts I've been given during my time supporting women animators.

Signe Baumane: Water spirit drawing/cel from Rocks in my Pockets

The "water spirit" from Rocks in my Pockets

Back when Signe and her producer, Sturgis Warner, were taking Rocks in my Pockets on tour, the closest it was going to screen to my hometown was Chicago. So, I enlisted a pair of friends who were familiar with the area and we made the five-hour drive to the windy city for a day of Chicago-style pizza and animation. I was already going to receive the DVD of her feature as a Kickstarter reward, but having seen sneak peeks at other venues, I really wanted to see her film in a large scale format. Well, Signe was floored that we made the ten hour round-trip drive to see her film. As a special 'thank you' for supporting her film, Signe gifted me a drawing from Rocks in my Pockets.

* * *

Joanna Priestley: framed "cel" from her film All My Relations

Paper cel from All My Relations

In 2016, I was working on my history of women animators class for Huntington University. One of the most fun aspects of the class for me personally was expanding my research by hunting down lots of DVDs. Many of these films I had seen in the past during my college classes or at festivals, but if you're going to teach a subject, it's really best to refresh your memories. One such purchase was the latest compilation DVD from Joanna Priestley. For supporting her work, Joanna was kind enough to include an original production "cel" from her film All My Relations.

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Samantha Inoue-Harte: 'Stitch' print

Also back in 2016, Samantha made a return trip to Michigan's own Alma Con. Well, for this visit, she brought a bunch of Lilo and Stitch artwork that she had produced for the House of Mouse. Sami had obtained a license from Disney to produce a limited number of these prints and sell them as a fundraiser for cancer research, to which she donated all the proceeds. Well, I really like Lilo and Stitch... and Sami... and it's for a good cause, so...

Now due to peculiarities of licensing, I can't post an image of the print, but suffice it to say, when you have the chance to support someone who is promoting a worthy cause, you take the opportunity to help out if you can. :)

* * *

Satrun Sisters: Fairy Sleep print

Fairy Sleep by Sarah Satrun

This was the first print that I purchased from the Satrun Sisters--the full story of which was printed earlier this week in part two of the Satrun Sisters' interview. A short while later, they visited the Grand Rapids Comic Con and I couldn't resist picking up two of their framed mermaid prints that would go along nicely with the fantasy art theme in one of my rooms.

Mermaid prints by Sarah Satrun

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Jessica Borutski - Foolish Kingdom t-shirt/Canadian Crest t-shirt

Foolish Kingdom by Jessica Borutski

Having been a fan of Jessica's work for years, when she started selling t-shirts with her delightfully subversive bunny on her website Foolish Kingdom, I had to have one!

Canadian Crest by Jessica Borutski
Jessica was also one of the first women I interviewed for this blog. For years afterwards, I'd see her at the festivals and say "hi" but I never had an opportunity to say "thank you for the interview" in a more tangible way until the summer of 2014 where she had an artist's table at TAAFI. So I was able to support her by purchasing one of her Canadian crest t-shirts. It never ceases to get a laugh and positive comments whenever I wear it.

Additionally, on Jessy's website Foolish Kingdom, she released paper cut-out dolls of her characters. So far, I've only got the I like pandas figures printed and assembled. But the mole and bunny from The Good Little Bunny with the Big Bad Teeth are on my list of things to do on a rainy day.

Panda 2 and Panda 1

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Monica Brujenes: Penguin & Peep Kickstarter rewards

Penguin & Peep! Little Moments by Monica Brujenes

The last animator I'll showcase is ASIFA Central's own Monica Brujenes. A year ago, Monica hosted a crowdfunding campaign to produce a cartoon book called Little Moments featuring her original characters Penguin and Peep. Some of the rewards you could get as part of this campaign included Penguin & Peep stickers, original hand painted art:

Penguin & Peep painting by Monica Brujenes

exclusive prints:

Exclusive Print by Monica Brujenes

and original autographed drawings in our copies of Little Moments.

Penguin & Peep ink drawing by Monica Brujenes

As I alluded to at the start of this article, yes we should be supporting women animators regardless of the perks--but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy the art that they create and make it a part of our lives. If you've clicked on any of the hyperlinks, you've been taken to these talented ladies' websites where you can support their work yourself. Regardless, I hope that in the future, you will all find a woman animator whose work resonates with you. And if you have the resources, take the time to support them financially. Every little bit of encouragement helps them as they produce their films.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Women of Animation: Catherine and Sarah Satrun, Part 2

I like faeries.

Maybe it's because of my mixed Irish/Scottish heritage. Maybe it's from having the 'Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy' segment of Fantasia being one of my earliest memories. But for whatever reason, and however you spell it, I've always liked fairys. So when the Satrun sisters offered a print with a visual style that reminded me of those early Disney and Don Bluth films, I had to own it.

Well, after the Post Office mangled the print, the three of us played e-mail tag as I sent them pictures of the crumpled package so they could get a refund from the Post Office and they sent me a replacement copy of the print--all the while being totally confused about which Satrun sister I was speaking to at any given time. A year or so later, I was finally able to meet them in person at the Grand Rapids Comicon... and I still got them mixed up. The phone interview months later didn't go any better. During the interview, I would ask a question and they would both answer while finishing each others thoughts. Needless to say, with their boundless enthusiasm and bubbly personalities, talking to Catherine and Sarah was easily the most fun I've had conducting an interview since starting this project! So I hope you'll enjoy part two of my conversation with the Satrun sisters as much as I did.

"Fairy Slumber"

CW: What's the industry like for animators in the Chicago area? To the best of my research, Calabash [Animation] is the only major studio out there.

CS: For character animation yeah pretty much and hand drawn type of 2d stuff, yeah, Calabash is pretty much it unless you do game animation or other more like corporate kinds of things. Like in terms of what we do, that little niche, it's basically just Calabash, that we know of.

Lately, we have been doing more corporate jobs, which is nice because we are doing a lot more storyboarding, character design, animatics, animation- The whole process! It's fun. Rather than just a few short scenes in a commercial. It's good to have a mix of different kinds of projects.

CW: As you've worked for studios and as independents, which do you prefer?

SS: They both have their advantages and disadvantages, so that's a tough one to answer. Working in a studio is nice because you have your one roll to do and don't have to worry about other things like the business side and meetings. Working as an independent for corporate jobs has been fulfilling because it's more hands on, and we have a lot more responsibility. I like the creation process from beginning to end.

CW: Why did you two decide to work together as a duo as opposed to going your own way in the industry? Do you have skillsets that balance each other out? Is it a clever marketing strategy?

CS: No, I feel like we're pretty even, and we sharpen each other's skills. When we work, because we both are always critiquing each other, we both go over, we overlap our work part of the time... How would you explain it?

SS: If one of us is stuck on something or tired of looking at a scene, the other can look with a fresh eye and point out how to improve it. That's important when you're working from home and don't have other coworkers in the same room.

It's really good, again because animation, it's all about teamwork. It's just natural. We never decided "we're going to work together" we never made that decision it just happened. Actually, as we've gone on we've found that it's common. There are other twins in the industry.

CS: Starting even in school, in art school, before going to Columbia college when were at Joliet Junior College getting our Associates in Art, we'd hear about other twins who have gone through, and at Columbia College we've heard about other twins who've gone through the program before and after us. And then out in the industry, we've met other twins who are in the industry who work together. And then even outside of animation other siblings, other twins and even triplets...

SS: In other career fields... We recently met two set of twins who are all writers and they work together.

CS: In other career fields, y'know, lot of times if that's what you're drawn to, if that's your passion, you do it. So it happens to be like: if two of you are doing it, it's a very collaborative field, so a lot of times it works out that they end up working together.

CW: Well, before you two the only twins I could think of was the Brothers Quay.

SS: Yeah, there's other animators out there, like the Bancroft Brothers. There's other siblings and twins. There's no point in denying yourself, like "Oh, well I'm not going to do this because she does that, I just want to be different." You're not going to deny yourself that opportunity in that--what your passion is. If your passion is the same then just go for it and don't worry about other people being judgmental, like "well, you should break apart, you should just do things separate" then, one of you is going to be denied an experience that both of you want.

When we do get jobs, when people first initially contact us, we do say we can either work together or separately--it depends on what they need, what amount of work that they need in their budget and timeline and all that. We can work separate. We have also worked separately on smaller jobs and stuff. But, usually with this field, workloads are higher so of course they're going to use both of us.

Mearra ~ Selkie from the Sea *

CW: So on a project like 'the Selkie from the Sea' that was definitely a project that you two both worked on?

CS & SS: Yes!

SS: Yes, that was.

CW: I'm hearing that was a lot of work there?

CS: Yeah, it just grew and grew and it changed. Omigosh, I still can't believe we did that, even though it was very limited and simple, it still was so much work.

CW: Do you ladies find it difficult to carve out time to do more personal work?

SS: Oh that is so hard.

CS: Yes. It is really hard to find time for personal work. We usually have to wait until between freelance jobs because freelance is so hectic when you have the job, you're just doing that all the time. So a lot of times we just have to wait until a project is over before we can really sit down and work on our own art, all of our own illustrations and everything.

We Are All Wonder Women

CW: You sell art and merch at conventions and online, take commissions, create and sell jewelry, all in addition to creating freelance animation, how important do you think it is to have multiple revenue streams as a freelancer?

SS: It's very important, especially now because freelance work is feast or famine so you never know how many months you're going to go without a studio or corporate job. So it's good for us to have multiple streams of income. Doing Etsy, doing commissions, doing conventions--which then leads to more commissions--all that stuff helps us pay the bills and keeps us afloat during the slow times.

CS: Sometimes a job will start but then suddenly due to business issues or financial issues or whatever variety of issues, a job will just suddenly fall apart. Like the whole job will be canceled. That's happened to us a few times. It's happened multiple times, actually... so it's essential to have other streams of revenue.

SS: Well sometimes like with [how] animation is so expensive if you have a job, and then like their client--it's always working through someone else--and like their client then starts to have to pay the bills for all this work and they're like "omigosh this is a lot and we can't do it". And there's like, y'know, a lot times there's like unexpected, just like weird things that happen...

CS: I think it's happened about four times to us...

SS: Yeah, like projects will just get like "oh we're not doing this anymore" because they either like run out of money or they decide they're going to do something different, or they said "oh now we're going to do it CG" or we're going to do it... there's so many different things that can happen to a project... so, anyways, it's really good to have backup for yourself. Be like: "okay, well, I'm going to do a whole bunch of commissions at this time or I'm going to create a ton of my personal art and sell it."

CW: Yeah, I understand, the project redefinition one is the one that gets me the most. I was working on a big project for the New York MET and they wanted three animations and we had already gotten the two spec'd out--we were working on them--and then they realized that "historically we can't reference this...we can't find a reference for this woodblock print animation that we want to do so we're just going to cut it." Still got paid well for the other stuff, but that was the one that I was looking forward to animating.

SS: And you just have to keep in mind that "it's just a job." Actually there's one time I did a whole video of something that I really liked. And, I can't go into it, but, it just got cut. And I'm not allowed to ever show it. And I really liked it a lot.

CW: It's a tightrope that you have to walk, especially when you're working with someone else's money.

CS: Yeah, I know. We've got to remember to keep updating our animation reels every now and then because you're not allowed to show work for so long and then you have to get permission and all that time goes by.

Catherine Satrun

Be sure to come back next week for the third and final installment with Catherine and Sarah Satrun as they impart some valuable advice for up-and-coming animators. But before you go, check out the animation work in Catherine's demo reel:

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* Due to privacy settings on Linda Marie Smith's Vimeo account, the "Mearra" video cannot be embedded. But please click on the link to view the promo video for Mearra ~ Selkie from the Sea featuring animation work from Catherine and Sarah Satrun.
  • Artwork and animations copyright Catherine and Sarah Satrun, used with permission.
  • Interview edited for length and clarity.