Friday, December 31, 2010

Animated Thoughts: The Year in Review - 2010

2010 was a good year for Smudge Animation, a very busy year, but a good year.

The year opened big with a new project for Thistle Threads/FabricWorks out in Boston. Building upon the 18th century goldwork project from 2008, we started a series of web classes designed to teach historic needlework techniques which would require me to perform both website development as well as animate twenty-eight silk and gold stitches using Adobe Flash.

In March, I had the pleasure of listening to my sister give a presentation at R.I.T., my alma mater. While driving Tricia around Rochester, hearing her speak, and showing her the initial animations that I created for the goldwork class was an enjoyable experience, the high point of that weekend was having the chance to spend an evening with my former professors – a tradition I hope I can keep to as often as possible.

April found me returning to Toronto and the community I have grown to love and be a part of. Having spent the past two years attending their workshops, I ended up becoming a full-fledged member of the Toronto Animated Image Society and followed it up with a workshop on Pixilation with animator, author, and instructor Bryce Hallett.

May saw me in England. Working with Thistle Threads, I took photographs and helped scout out museums for a tour that Dr. Nguyen was giving in September. Had a day off during those two weeks and spent the entire day in Paris. The tour was very nice, I loved the city and I understand why people save up their entire lives to take a trip there, but the Musee d’Orsay was really the best reason for me to be there. I have loved Monet and Renoir's paintings ever since high school, so to be inches away from the originals, close enough to examine the angle of the brushstrokes, well, it was as close to a religious experience as I have ever been.

In June, it was back to Toronto for the annual TAIS summer screening where I had a short film entered in their SummerJam. Then back home to continue working on the goldwork animations. In July, I spent some serious time in Washington D.C. photographing rocks and gemstones and butterflies at the Smithsonian--basically working on my photo reference library. Then I skipped back to Toronto to see the Best of the Ottawa 2009 festival. Toronto was entertaining, the films at the screening were decidedly less so.

August saw me driving back to Indianapolis for GenCon. I took some seminars to work on my painting skills, touched base with a couple clients (and delivered a CD catalog product), then a took quick walk over to the Indianapolis Zoo for some quality time in their butterfly house for the continuing work on my photo library. Then it was back to Toronto where I spent half a day taking care of my nephews while Dr. Nguyen worked with the curators at the R.O.M. The rest of the time was spent working on the Historical Needlework classes with Tricia. Thank you wireless internet access in the hotel room! Am confounded how much more efficient Trish and I are when we're working on this stuff in the same room at the same time. Might have to reconsider moving to Boston.

September was a truly busy month. I worked with Tricia to produce several videos for the Jacket Tour of England and Scotland while continuing with the web development and animation for her classes. The videos would be shown on the two tour buses while the attendees were on their way to the museums. It was some conversion to PAL work on a couple of her previous videos but the rest was putting together a lot of pan-and-scan slideshows. Given that Tricia took the women on the tour into the parts of museums that most will never see, many of them described the tour as a 'once-in-a-lifetime' experience.

As Fall turned to Winter, things started to ease up. I took my bi-yearly trip to the Ottawa International Animation Festival and my yearly trip to the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema. November was a good month for animated feature films as I also go to run down to the Detroit Film Theatre to see “My Dog Tulip.”

When I look back at the year, I see a lot of work in the historical side of animation, but not a lot on the forensic side or teaching. Due to the recession, there just weren't a lot of forensic animations to do. And I was just too busy to teach. I wanted to kick start my 'Get Animated' program but it simply didn't happen. It seems that when one area is busy, the other sides of the equation are slow. It's good for my blood pressure, but leaves me feeling like I'm falling behind in the others. For 2011, I'd like to see the scales balance out somewhat--do some more teaching and practice more forensic animation. I'd like to achieve some balance in the new year.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Animated Thoughts: Attitude of Gratitude, Part Three

NOTE: This is part three of a series. Part one can be read here and part two can be read here.

Since Erik Timmerman's untimely death on June 30, 2000 and Marla starting her own program at R.I.T. (with her taking up the role of Director of Visualization), Carl "Skip" Battaglia and Stephanie Maxwell fell into the role of being my mentors--whether they realized it or not. It started out rather casually with my seeing them every other year at the Ottawa International Animation Festival.

I'd always bump in to Stephanie either on the way into the Friday or Saturday evening screenings or in the theatre itself. We'd talk for about a half-hour about what projects we were working on as well as how the program at R.I.T. was developing, then I’d ask her for some advice for a project I was tinkering with, she’d give me her latest business card, I’d ask her when she was going to release a DVD of her work, and we’d part ways until the next festival. A DVD of her animated films was released in 2008 and is distributed by iotaCenter, by the way.

My path to Skip was a little more roundabout. Like with Stephanie, I only had one class with Skip during my time at R.I.T. but that class had an impact on me. Both of their classes opened my eyes to a broader range of animated film and developed in me an appreciation for non-narrative and abstract animated films. After seeing an obituary in a newspaper for Carl Battaglia, my heart sank as I thought about how I had lost another professor. Well, after checking in with R.I.T., it turns out that a different Carl Battalglia in Rochester, New York had passed, though Skip would later tell me of stories how random people would walk up to him and exclaim “Skip! You’re alive!” This, I think was the real wake-up call for me. Erik’s death had left me in a kind of stupor where I got on with my life, my work, and my hobbies. As the years passed, just like Stephanie, I’d see Skip at the Ottawa animation festival, we’d chat, I'd buy a DVD of his latest film, then we'd go our separate ways. Other than yearly Christmas cards and bi-yearly Ottawa trips, I drifted away from these three people who had such a profound influence on my life. So, in 2008, I resolved to do something about it. I started to e-mail Marla, Skip and Stephanie on a more regular basis, usually just to say ‘hi’ and tell them what I was working on or ask for a quick bit of advice on filmmaking. And in April of 2010, an opening presented itself.

I received an e-mail from my sister, Tricia. She had been invited to speak at the Rochester Institute of Technology about how she was applying Fourier transforms to her work in historical embroidery. Well, if my sister was going to speak at my Alma Mater, then I was going to be there. After taking some time off of work, I drove out to Niagara Falls for the night. The next morning, I made the ten minute drive across the border to the Buffalo airport and picked her up. After a hour's drive to Rochester (followed by a a lunch meeting where we shop talked about the online class we were working on together), I had the singular pleasure of seeing my sister speak about the Plimoth Plantation jacket project, in addition to the work we did for the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Bard Graduate Center for Decorative Arts.

The next day, I dropped Tricia off at the airport and drove back to Rochester. That night, I did what I should’ve done years ago, and took Marla, Skip, and Stephanie out to dinner just to say ‘thank you for helping me get where I am now.’ At this point in my life, I may not be where I want to be in my career, but I’m further than I had ever dreamed possible that first day at R.I.T. when Erik stood up at the front of the classroom and said the phrase which would define the following three years for me: “Grad school is not about how little you can do, it’s about how MUCH you can do.” More than many other people in my life, it was this handful of professors at R.I.T. that showed me how to refine the tools that made my career possible—the tools that have gotten me this far and will carry me well into the future.

So we ate, we drank, we talked about our personal projects, what I was doing for my jobs, what changes had come to R.I.T. since my graduation, and we shared our memories of Erik. After dinner, we parted ways. Marla and Stephanie went home, Skip and I watched a film at the Eastman House, then we drove back to his home where he showed me his studio, we talked about his current film, and he showed me his production methods for animation. Between Tricia and my professors, I couldn’t have asked for a better trip. With all the great things that happened to me in 2010, the only event that surpassed that evening with my professors was a trip to England with Tricia two months later (but that's another story). The next morning, I checked out of my hotel and made the seven hour drive back across Canada to Michigan.

(Skip, Stephanie, Marla, and me)
So I guess the point of this three-part run down memory lane is just to encourage others (and to remind myself) to take the time to thank the people in your life who helped get you where you are. While I did thank Erik "for everything" before he died, I did not get to spend the future years with him that I wanted to--thanking him over and over again whenever the Spirit brought him to the forefront of my consciousness and reminded me to call him up, give him an update on where my career (and life) is, and say those two simple words: 'thank you'. I consider myself blessed that I have that opportunity with Marla Schweppe, Carl "Skip" Battaglia, and Stephanie Maxwell.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Animated Inspiration: The Deep

I'm going to take a break from the usual holiday themed animations to share this video that illustrates the genius of stop-motion animator PES. Clearly influenced by Jan ┼ávankmajer (watch his film Dimensions of Dialogue to see what I mean), PES has created a beautiful short film combining stop-motion animation, found-objects, and replacement animation with a moody, etherial soundtrack. This is one of those non-narrative short films that gets everything right, in my opinion. Would have loved to see this on the big screen at Ottawa this year. I think it would've fit in nicely considering the sensibilities of the typical animators who attend. I honestly wish I could say more about this film, but at the moment I'm just awestruck at how well each and every detail integrates into the whole film.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Animated Reviews: Tron Legacy

I don't think that there's any way I can give an objective review of "Tron: Legacy" as the original "Tron" was the quintessential film of my youth. Back in 1982, my father took me to see "Tron" at the Meridian Mall East 4 theatres. The movie "Tron" is one of the main reasons why I became a computer animator--yes, there have been other inspirations over the years--"the Mind's Eye" series of films, for example, along with countless Anime and Disney films--but "Tron" remains the first.

I went into the movie theatre cold. Rather then read previews and look over spoilers, all I did to prepare for Tron: Legacy was listen to the Daft Punk soundtrack and read the graphic novel that describes what happened in the period of time  between the first "Tron" and "Tron: Legacy". I have to admit, no matter how much I enjoy Daft Punk (and how excited I was to hear that they were doing the soundtrack), when I actually heard what they produced, I was uncomfortable, partially because it was so different from their "Interstellar 5555" album--"Tron: Legacy" has a much more heavy industrial feel when compared to the pop/disco/dance club feel of their earlier work.

So, knowing that there was no way that the sequel could ever live up to any expectations due to the impact that the original has had on my life, I was free to experience "Tron: Legacy" as more of a stand-alone film.

All-in-all, it was a good sequel. Like all sequels, it has its flaws. But the positives outweighed the negatives. I would have liked a little more time on the game grid, a story that was a little more solid, and even though it was handled very well, I don't like 3D films. But the acting, visuals, VFX and animation were very good. I liked the '80's culture references and the soundtrack fit the movie perfectly (the Daft Punk cameo was amusing).

I think that the original Tron was a roller-coaster ride because it broke new ground. But by the time "Tron: Legacy" screened, we'd already been through "Ghost in the Shell", "the Matrix" films, and "Technotise, Edit and I"--really, we've been set up to be a little deflated with that 'been there done that' feeling. That's kind of why I feel that if they made the script just a smidge stronger, it would've made a really big difference. But in the end, I feel I got my money's worth out of "Tron: Legacy". I'll go see it again several times before it leaves the theatres and Disney is guaranteed a DVD sale from me next year--I just hope they put a ton of 'making of' features on the disk. :)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Animated Quotes: Reg Hartt

One journalist, writing a piece on me said, "I was told you are crazy: that you actually kick people out of your programs for talking."

I told them, "I do not think people go out to public events such as concerts, dance, lectures, movies and the theater to listen to members of the audience talk during the presentation."

"I never thought of that," the person replied.

~ Reg Hartt, quoted from his monthly Cineforum e-mail, dated Monday, December 13, 2010

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Animated Inspiration: Simon's Cat 'Santa Claws'

Christmas is right around the corner, so here's an early present from Simon Tofield: a Christmas themed 'Simon's Cat' animation. *<[:3

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Animated Inspiration: Arctic Holiday

Since Christmas is on the way, here's a Grickle!

Graham Annable has a twisted sense of humor that can sometimes meander a little too far into the abstract for my tastes. But with this animation, he shows off his good sense of timing with a solid set-up for a short little gag film.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Animated Inspiration: Paths of Hate

Wow! Just based on the visual style of the trailer, here's an animation I can't wait to see! Made by Platige Image, the Polish studio that created 'Fallen Art'.
PATHS OF HATE long trailer from Platige Image on Vimeo.

The first thing that I noticed about this film's trailer is the similarities to the 'Gremlins' sequence from the original 1981 'Heavy Metal' movie.

Both films attempted (and succeeded) in portraying animation using a rendered-in-ink, comic book/graphic novel visual style. The interesting thing is that both films started from a 3d foundation. Platige Image's website states that they created 'Paths of Hate' as a 3d modeled and animated film and rendered as a 2d animation. The 'making of' section of the 'Heavy Metal' DVD illustrates how the B-17 sequences were filmed off of a detailed physical model and then rotoscoped in the 2d visual style. So, pretty much the same conceptual foundation, just two different technological approaches to the final product.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Animated Reviews: Tangled

'Tangled' left me feeling like I was watching an olympic class swimmer holding onto the edge of the pool because he's scared of venturing out into the deep end.

I really enjoyed this movie, really enjoyed it--except for the the song-and-dance numbers. They seemed too forced and just didn't fit the mood of the film. Everything else was spectacular--story, voice acting, animation, sets, character design, everything! Like 'Princess and the Frog,' when Disney stuck to the story, I was hooked! However, as soon as someone started singing and dancing, I was bored out of my skull.

I hope Disney makes money with 'Tangled' and I hope they make more films, but I really hope that they return to my personal favorite period of time in their cinematic history: when they broke out of the "Disney mold" and made films like 'Atlantis,' 'Emperor's New Groove,' and 'Lilo & Stitch.'

One thing worth mentioning, something that I don't think is coming through clearly in my review, is that I'm not anti-musical. There's definitely a place for the 'Rogers and Hammerstein' animation--Disney has already proven that (which, for me, started with the 'Little Mermaid' since I don't remember seeing the pre-80's Disney films in the theatre). But just like comedy, song and dance numbers are difficult to pull off well--as anyone who has watched 'Anastasia' and 'the Swan Princess' can attest to. Both were cute films with relatively engaging stories, but the song and dance numbers either didn't seem to fit or lacked a certain spark.

The only song number in 'Tangled' that I thought was seamless was when Flynn and Rapunzel are sitting in the boat right at the time of the lanterns being launched. And I didn't have a problem with the dance scene in the marketplace (don't remember if anyone was singing during that dance number). All the other song-and-dance numbers felt jarring. Honestly, it felt like there was someone in development with a stopwatch, counting time between scenes with dialogue and scenes with story progression who was just waiting to say "okay, we've  hit the five-minute marker. The quota for non-singing dialogue has been met, it's time to throw in a dance number." I felt the exact same way with 'Frog Princess' but didn't think much of it at the time due to the fact that I don't like Jazz. It wasn't until I saw 'Tangled' and had the exact same problem while watching the film that I realized there was a marked difference between Disney's older films and their current efforts. And I'm not exactly sure where the transition starts since I haven't seen 'Brother Bear' or 'Home on the Range'. As this transitioning issue is rather difficult to articulate at the moment, when 'Tangled' comes out on DVD (and I add it to my collection), I think I'll do a side-by-side comparison with 'the Little Mermaid' to see if I can pinpoint exactly what is bothering me about the recent Disney musicals as compared to their older films.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Animated Thoughts: Attitude of Gratitude, Part Two

NOTE: This is part two of a series. Part one can be read here.

(Marla Schweppe)
If Erik Timmerman was my surrogate father during my time at R.I.T., then Marla Schweppe was definitely my surrogate mother.

Marla has two qualities that I quickly learned to appreciate:

1. No matter how busy she was, she always made time to look at my work and encourage me to do better and to be better than I was.

2. She was never afraid to point out that I was full of crap when I was.

It may sound flippant at first, but the older I get, the more I have come to appreciate honesty. I can easily find dozens of people who'll tell me what I want to hear, but someone who tells it like it is with the point of making you better at what you are attempting, well, that's an increasingly rare thing. Marla didn't just look at my work, she took the time to study it and she knew me well enough to know where I was cutting corners, or not living up to what I could produce, or just not pushing hard enough against my mental/emotional/artistic boundaries.

Marla has this little technique that would always snap me right back into reality. Whenever I got into that argumentative rut--usually about some task that I didn't think I was able to pull off--she'd just agree with me and follow it up with 'so what are you going to do?' Those two sentences turned out to be a surprisingly effective tactic. It effectively left me with nowhere to go and confronted me with the end result of what would have been an hour's worth of arguing in the space of one minute. And in almost every case, it provided a moment of clarity (as I usually stood there with that 'deer-in-headlights' look) where I could see the absurdity of getting worked up over an issue when I should have been brainstorming possible ways around the problem.

A major theme of my time at R.I.T. was unlearning years of learned behavior. Both Erik and Marla did a masterful job of shepherding me around those ancient emotional landmines that had stymied my efforts towards personal growth. As I look back over my notes from their classes, I have to say that I learned far more from those ten or fifteen minute, one-on-one meetings where they would close the office door and confront me about my learned behavior and point me towards a direction of maturity. To Erik and Marla, the role of a professor was always more than just teaching animation in the classroom, it was about being a mentor, surrogate parent, confessor, cheerleader and psychologist to a bunch of overgrown kids whose enthusiasm often outstripped their artistic ability and emotional maturity.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Animated Inspiration: Simon's Cat

Just because, here are two more Simon's Cat short animations, one decidedly cat-like and one more cartoony:

Monday, November 15, 2010

Animated Quotes: Joe Murray

"There's a show inside you that only YOU can do, that no one else can."
~ Joe Murray (creator of Camp Lazlo and Rocko's Modern Life)

Source: Interview, Jeaux Janovsky, November 12, 2010

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Animation Workshop: Pixilation

On the weekend of April 10, I drove to Toronto with my friend Jonathan to attend an animation workshop presented by the Toronto Animated Image Society. In keeping with my 'more time animating' mantra, I've been trying to take every available opportunity to learn and practice new animation styles and techniques as well as visit with other animators--whether they be in workshop groups or independents that are tooling away on their own films. Here in Michigan, we animators are spread out over a large distance with no real opportunities to meet up together outside of the yearly ASIFA/Central meeting or occasional ASIFA/Central meet-and-greet where a couple of us hook up to do something animation related. It's this sense of community that I really miss (and think that we are really missing out on). Yes, yes, I know "you should build your own community in Michigan." I'm working on it (more on that at a later date).

So, back to the TAIS workshops. Since I've been enjoyed the works of Norman McLaren and had never learned much about Pixilation--even though I've really enjoyed the works of PES and Oren LaVie--I figured that it was time to learn a new style of animation. Enter Bryce Hallett of Frog Feet Productions. Bryce is an independent animator who studied animation at Canadian powerhouse Sheridan College before striking out on his own to create Frog Feet Productions. In the past, Bryce also created the illustrations for Ellen Besen's book "Animation Unleashed".

Bryce demonstrating the art of pixilation.

As a member of TAIS, Bryce was kind enough to give us a brief history of the pixilation technique, show us examples (explaining how the animators performed some of the trickier sequences), and then provide us with a list of his own tips, tricks, and things to watch out for when we attempted our own pixilation movies. And then we were off to the parking lot with cameras, tripods, props and human puppets.

Despite the limited time we had during this two day session, everyone had the chance to work both in front of and behind the camera. And we all had the opportunity to see an idea of ours played out (mine was the butterfly animation above--an idea shamelessly stolen from an animation test that Jessica Bayliss performed while in college). Some of us worked through simple ideas designed to learn technique, some filmed one-cut gag films (like mine), but one group made an entire vignette about a boy and his ball which included multiple scenes, all filmed without having to delete frames from the camera and re-shoot.

By the time the workshop ended, not only had we all learned a new technique, but we had also had the opportunity to do two things that are so often lacking when working on client work: play and experiment. The TAIS workshops are like one big sandbox where you can play with your friends and nothing you do is wrong so long as you create, edit, revise, learn, and create again.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Animated Inspiration: Simon's Cat 'The Box'

Simon Tofield is back with his cat. Sometimes Simon's work makes me laugh out loud, sometimes it's just a chuckle, but I always find something amusing about this series--probably because I love cats.

Looking at this from an animation standpoint, I love the cat's smooth motion and split-second expressions. Watch when the cat tips over the box from marker :45 to :46. In one second, a maximum of fifteen frames if he's drawing this animation on twos, the cat goes from being compact with limbs tucked in to spread eagled to being compacted again, albeit in a box. The amount of motion, body language, and expression that takes place in just that one second is enormous--to say nothing of the timing necessary to pull off that gag. Mr. Tofield is simply a master at drawing these split-second expressions that parody a real-life cat's reflexes.

Also observe the layered actions at marker 1:33 when the cat pops out of the box--first one ear and then the other as the head moves and the eyes look around. Mr. Tofield draws the cat--moves the cat--not as a single entity but as a series of individual parts. Observe the motion of the cat's legs at marker 1:50. There's no symmetry in the motion, which is intentionally jarring to our expectations but breathes more life into the cat.

As an added treat, check out this animated commercial for Felliway, a diffuser spray for cats. Not a Simon Tofield production as far as I know, but amusing nonetheless.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Animated Reviews: Megamind

Based on the trailers and the spoilers, I went into "Megamind" expecting to be disappointed. As I've probably mentioned before, Dreamworks films are really hit-or-miss for me (a similar experience to Disney's dry spell back in their early 2000's, "Home on the Range" era). However there was a lot in this film that was very likable. There were very few pop-culture references or excretory jokes. And though I'm not a big Will Ferrell fan, he gave a solid performance as Megamind that didn't seem influenced by his SNL or film performances, but rather was a new character he created just for this film. The animators at Dreamworks know their craft, so the modeling, animation, and special effects were done well. The timing on some the dialogue versus the mouth positions looked a little off in some scenes, but after seeing the same thing in Disney's "Bolt", I'm wondering if that's just a quirk of the sound system at the theatre. After "Kung Fu Panda" and "How To Train Your Dragon", I didn't really expect anything less from the animation--which leaves story. This story had some really nice surprises in it. While at the surface, it's a redemption story encapsulated in the Superman mythos.  But if you dig deeper, it's really a morality tale warning us that what we want isn't always what's best for us--sort of a "it's the journey, not the destination" idea--or maybe just a fulfillment of the old adage 'God punishes us by giving us what we want.' In reality, He's probably just trying to get us to grow as human beings, but that's a discussion for another blog.

The only thing that fell flat was the overreliance on music. Some of it worked, since it highlighted Megamind’s pompous attitude. But it got old really fast. And the dance number at the end left me wondering if they didn’t know how to end the movie so they threw in a dance number. I was squirming in my seat when they did this with "Despicable Me", but at least there, it kind of made sense in the greater context of the film's previous scenes. Here, it just feels awkward and out of place.

Other than those two quibbles, I thought it was a very fun movie. Liked the character development. Thought the fish was very amusing. Enjoyed David Cross's voice acting. And really enjoyed the relationship dynamic between Metroman, Megamind and Roxanne. Don’t know if I’d go see it again in the theatre, but will probably pick it up on DVD.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Animated Inspiration: Fer Fer

From the school that brought us Vladimir Kooperman's "C-Block", this rather touching animation is from Sheridan College student Chris Darnbrough. The sound levels are kind of across the board, so sometimes it's really hard to make out what the characters are saying, but the staging, character design/animation and pacing of this film is such that you don't really notice or need dialog. I think that he could have made the characters mumble intelligibly in a tone that was appropriate for the scene and it would've worked just as well--the characters' expressions and body language really carry their emotions and intentions.

All things considered, it's a quality film. And much like "C-Block", "Fer Fer" makes me look forward to seeing what this talented student produces next.

Careful, the ending is a real tear-jerker.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Animated Events: November at the Detroit Film Theatre

This month, there are two animation programs coming to Michigan. The first is a series of animated short films and the second is an independent animated feature film. Both will be shown at the Detroit Film Theatre, the theatre attached to the Detroit Institute of Arts. So if you need to take a break from planning for the Thanksgiving holiday (or someplace to recover from the Thanksgiving holiday), take a couple of hours and support a local venue that is one of the few places we have in Michigan where we can see independent animated film.

Nine Nation Animation
Detroit Film Theatre
Screenings on November 6, 7, 12, & 14

  • Saturday, November 6 at 7:00 & 9:30 p.m.
  • Sunday, November 7 at 6:00 p.m.
  • Friday, November 12 at 9:30 p.m.
  • Sunday, November 14 at 4:00 p.m.
Program Description from the DIA/DFT website:
"A cat and mouse carry on a dysfunctional relationship sometime in the future. Two blue collar workers dissect the meaning of “normal” as the world disintegrates around them. A matchbox succumbs – much to its regret – to the allure of a cigarette. A handful of people recall various encounters – triumphant or terrifying, euphoric or everyday – with a universally unforgettable human rite of passage. Nine Nation Animation presents a selection of imaginative and cutting-edge award-winning short films from some of the world’s most renowned festivals, including Cannes, Berlin, Annecy, Clermont-Ferrand and others. Nations represented include Norway, Turkey, France, Ireland, South Africa, Sweden, Belgium, Croatia and England. This bracing, thoughtful, sometimes hilarious program is recommended for persons over 18."

My Dog Tulip
Detroit Film Theatre
Screenings on November 19-21 & 26-28

  • Friday, November 19 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Saturday, November 20 at 7:00 p.m.
  • Sunday, November 21 at 2:00 p.m.
  • Friday, November 26 at 9:30 p.m. 
  • Saturday, November 27 at 9:30 p.m.
  • Sunday, November 28 at 4:00 p.m.
Description from the DIA/DFT website:
"Based on the celebrated 1956 novel by J.R. Ackerley (We Think the World of You), the deeply touching My Dog Tulip is the first animated film to ever be entirely hand drawn and painted using high-definition paperless computer technology. Though the middle-aged Ackerley had never previously been known for his love of animals, he nevertheless decided to adopt what he described as an “intolerable” 18 month-old German shepherd with whom he quickly fell in love - in spite of her erratic and often inconvenient behavior (sometimes seen in vivid detail), as well as her distinctly canine tastes, attitudes and appetites. Absorbing, visionary and bittersweet, My Dog Tulip comes as a gently breathtaking surprise, enriched by a memorable vocal characterization by the great Christopher Plummer as Tulip’s devoted owner. Featuring Isabella Rosselini and the late Lynn Redgrave."

Film program images and text descriptions are quoted from the DIA/DFT website, are copyright their original owners, and are used here for promotional purposes only.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Notes from the Ottawa International Animation Festival 2010

Last week, I made my bi-yearly trip to the Ottawa International Animation Festival. Compared to OIAF 2008, this fest wasn't exactly what I'd hoped for, but it certainly had its moments. Here are some of the highlights: 

Going to Ottawa. Plan is to leave at 7 a.m. Have to wait for my brother. We don't leave Michigan until noon. Made it to Toronto by 7 p.m. Walked to dinner. Walked back to hotel. Got an e-mail from Skip Battaglia. Planning to meet up with him at the festival. Trip is off to a shaky start, but I'm okay with it. Turns out Mom needed to borrow my car while I was out of town. Since Ted was late picking me up, I was still in town to help out Mom.

Bummed around Kensington Market before the final leg of the trip to Ottawa. Found a good book on the history of Canadian Animation in a used book store. Strangely apropos given where I am going and what I'm going to be doing when I get there. My brother and his girlfriend have been bitching at each other non-stop since we left Michigan. Think I might make the trip to OIAF 2012 by myself. Arrived in Ottawa at 10 p.m. I think staying at the Novotel Ottawa was a good choice as it's right across the street from the Arts Court Center. Going to seriously cut down on the walking. Will be nice to not be sweaty from walking all over Ottawa when I get to the screenings and workshops! The plan is to pick up my pass in the morning, spend the afternoon touring old hangouts in Ottawa, then watch 'the Illusionist' and a competition screening in the evening. Ottawa Fest, day 1 begins!

On my way to breakfast, I watched a bunch of kids get into a mob fight over by the Rideau center before it was broken up by cabbies and onlookers. Can't shake the bad vibe that I'm getting off of this city. Met Jerry Beck on the way back to the hotel and Mark Simon at the evening screening. Got the chance to quickly tell them 'thank you' for the positive influence they have had on my career. Bumped into Gary Swartz and then had three nice students chat me up on a street corner. Turns out David, Angela and Brianne are Dave Baker's students and recognized me as I walked by. Really nice kids. Very polite. Was sorry to hear from them that there's not going to be any Kalamazoo Animation Festival International next year. Might be interesting to put something together in East Lansing if I can find some funding. Made a mental note to talk to Dave about the Cartoon Challenge when I get back into town. With Ted owning his own screen-printing business, it would be nice to help out with t-shirts for the students who show up for the competition.

So far, two lackluster screenings and two great screenings. Saw Skip Battaglia last night and met Candy Kugel. Had one fantastic conversation with former classmate Glenn Ehlers. After talking to him, I'm feeling a little better about my plan to get CTT+ certified and do some teaching. Maybe I can even get the 'Get Animated at ELRA' program off the ground. On the way back to the hotel, I bumped into a drunk animation student from Algonquin College. Helped him find his bus and we shop talked all the way. He encouraged me to find a way to enter my forensic animations or historical animations into competition screenings. Odd experience. I thought I was supposed to be helping him, not the other way around.

The festival screenings continue to be hit-or-miss for me. There a lot less that interests me than I had originally expected. The Indie Japanese films have been pretty disappointing. I was expecting something like 'Atama Yama' or 'La Maison en Petits Cubes.'

Overall there's way too much of the pointless artsy-fartsy films in the program. In my sixteen years of going to Ottawa, I have never see so many people walk out of screenings halfway through the programs. Am hearing a lot of grumbling from people. The bad vibe is still going around. The two International animation screenings were pretty good and 'the Illusionist' was amazing. But the first two competitions were roughly 50/50 between good and tedious. However, my mood about the festival has shifted to the positive ever so slightly. Though I wish my brother and his girlfriend would stop the bickering. It's getting really old, really fast!

When I look at the people I've met so far, I can really see the hand of God guiding me on this trip and hearing Him quietly telling me to stay positive and soldier on. The one major thing I have gotten from this trip is that I should not let my current level of drawing skills hold me back. Yes, without question, work to improve them and work hard on improving them. But the number of films I've seen that look like they were made with skills at a level comparable to (or less than) mine is enormous. I think that the real difference is that they're doing it, whereas I am not. Am left wondering if I'm using all my billable freelance work as an excuse to not produce my own short films (and open up myself to to the eventual criticism that comes when you put yourself out there).

I feel like I'm suffering from a credibility crisis. Even though I've got some great work under my belt, I still feel strangely inadequate. Maybe it's just that I don't have work that I can show in festivals? Funny how I help out a drunk student who won a festival competition and he's encouraging me to submit my work. Hope Ben got home okay. Seemed like a nice kid. That whole event felt like one of those "you may not realize it now, but you're going to need to hear this for later on when the doubts creep in" situations.

Feels odd with all these students here. Heard that a college in Massachusetts brought 100 students to this festival! Skip said that there were thirty students from R.I.T. It's good that there's so much interest and that they're here--hopefully learning and networking. Seems bad that it might be harder to bump into people I know. Even worse that there doesn't seem to be enough workshops that would help the kids further their careers.

Tonight's screening was better. Bumped in to Heather Kenyon. Wish I had more time to talk to her, but at least I got that consolation prize after I didn't get to get into Jerry Beck's "Inappropriate for children" screening. The festival's new 'ticket system' is rendering my $200 festival pass worthless. They really need to find a bigger venue for some of these events! Another common complaint I'm hearing from people around the festival.

Am waiting for a screening at the National Art Center and had a creepy guy with this 'helter-skelter' look in his eyes ask me what government agency I worked for. I'm on my guard for the rest of the day as I have visions of stalkers carrying large knives following me around the festival. Still, it was a good day. The International showcase screening was enjoyable. Got some good info from the voice acting workshop. Even got to see the good parts of the Ed Norton version of the Incredible Hulk on television while I sat in my hotel room eating dinner. The best part of today was hooking up with Martine Chartrand, Madi Pillar, Patrick Jenkins and Steven Stanchfield at the Caroline Leaf workshop. I love the shop talk and camaraderie in the NFB/TAIS outfits. That membership and the time spent in Toronto has really paid off. Again, the competition screening was lackluster. Think the competition screenings three and four were the best this year. The most positive part of this trip continues to be the people.

Funny story: it's my last screening here in Ottawa before making the ten-hour drive back to Michigan. I'm standing in line at the Museum of Civilization wondering what the hell were they thinking holding an event THIS far away from the festival proper! But, this is the Disney/Pixar lecture on how they made 'Day & Night' and 'Tic Toc Tale', so it's sure to be a crowd pleaser. There's about twenty-five people in line before me and about fifteen behind me when the first busload of festival-goers arrive. I look up from my iPhone just in time to see Jerry Beck as he cuts in line right in front of me to stand with three of his friends. As he does so, remembering how polite he was to me when I met him on Wednesday morning, I throw him a smirk. He mouths the word 'sorry.' I then get to spend the next thirty minutes eavesdropping on one of the foremost animation historians in the world as he talks about the current state of the animation industry, how changes in technology are influencing animation production and distribution, and what new DVDs are coming out by the end of the year. I'm amused by how he whispered 'sorry' to me as if I was going to be pissed at him for cutting in line. Yeah, like I'm going to narc him out and miss the experience of a semi-private Jerry Beck lecture! Not going to happen folks! :)

As I made the ten-hour drive back to Michigan and reflected on this festival experience, I have to say that it was the people that made the difference for me. Pulling a number out of my hat, I'd say that 95% of the competition films I saw were completely forgettable--so I can't argue with those who have negative opinions of the competition screenings without being a total hypocrite. But the people that I met and talked to, the community that I'm a part of, that was what made this year's Ottawa International Animation Festival an experience worth having. 

I go to Ottawa every other year knowing that Chris Robinson's sense of humor and the festival selections will be hit-or-miss for me. I accept the fact that my tastes are just not part of the mainstream animation festival culture. But I also know that there's always something there that I'll enjoy if I look hard enough. In this case it was the Illusionist, the International Screenings, the workshops I attended, and reinforcing the friendships that I've made with animators at the NFB and TAIS. In the sixteen years I've been attending OIAF, this was the first year I that I really felt like I was a part of the community--not just an attender who occasionally sees someone he knows from college. Perhaps I'm just looking for something different than everyone else, but that sense of community was easily worth the time and money I spent last week.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Animated Inspiration: Toy Soldier

 This animated spot for Cartoon Network Latin America was produced by Vetorzero.
Once you've watched this film, head over to their website and take a look at the wide variety of animation styles that they have produced and highlighted in their demo reel.

I'm constantly encouranged when I see studios producing professional quality animated films that are comparible to anything that we're producing here in America. This is doubly so because in many of Vetorzero's examples, they are bringing a distinct Brazillian voice to their productions. While some of their work is obviously for the American market, the rest has the feel of a production house that is successfully injecting their own unique culture into their productions even while working on commercial work for their clients.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Animated Inspiration: Ice Creams

Okay, I just love these dialogue-free animations. This is due in part to how they are more accessible to a wider audience that doen't speak the language of the animator. The other reason is because they force the animator to really show off their skill at translating body language into their character animation. Definitely watch this animation by UK's Bird Box Studio in full-screen mode to get the most out of the character animation.

At its core, this is a short gag film, but what really sells it is the motion of the characters. Not only do they have mass but they have believable motion that is specific to the person. The little girl is slower and a little unsteady in her own skin, almost bordering on being overcautious. The little boy's motion is energetic and innocent, bordering on foolhardy. And the father is quickly overwhelmed as he tries to be everywhere at once. Just watching how the characters move, my suspension of belief transitions seamlessly into the animated medium and I'm left believing that the animator saw something like this happen in real life--and all it took was a few simple exaggerations to create a funny and absurd film.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Animated Inspiration: Animated Evolution

Here's a bank commercial with animated origami animals. There's two things of note here--one that I focused on and the other that was pointed out by a friend.

One: the denominations of the bills are increasing through every stage of transition from one model to the next, so kudos to the animators for the attention to detail (and thanks J'Ben for pointing this out). It's a very nice and subtle touch to both the models and the film.

And two: after the first model, the animators use a series of moving camera angles and close-ups on a particular body part to mask the transitions from one figure to another. I'm assuming that this is done due to the excessive complexity of one paper origami figure folding and refolding into another more complex origami figure. It looks like one of those "we can do it, but not in the time and budget allotted for this project, so let's try this instead" moments in filmmaking. And I'm not knocking it. It works and works well for this animation. I have to think that the animators went through several renditions of this commercial as they had this incredible, very complex idea and needed to bring it down to the realm of what they could achieve with the resources they had. My first year film at R.I.T. was like that. I had a great idea for a motion comic (before motion comics were the big thing) but lacked the skills to pull it off in the time we had for the project. Ultimately though, through an honest evaluation of my abilities (and a little tough love), Erik helped me choose a concept for a short animation that was better suited for both my skill level and the time we had to complete the project. 'The Chameleon' ended up winning second place at that year's SMTPE/RAVA festival, so Erik's opinion certainly held true on that project.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Animated Events: International Animation Day 2010

Free Screening of International Animation Shorts to celebrate

International Animation Day is a global event to celebrate the art of animation. In over 50 countries, on all continents,  people mark October 28th as the birthdate of animation as they screen, share and celebrate international animation art.

At Grand Valley State University: Two Screenings:

Allendale Campus:
Wednesday, October 27, 3-4:50 PM
154 Lake Superior Hall

Holland Campus:
Thursday, October 28, 7-8 PM
Room 130

For more information: contact:

Deanna Morse
Jennifer Peterson
Gretchen Vinnedge

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Animated Thoughts: Outsourcing

Fellow ASIFA member, Gordon Peterson, posted this link to a news article on the L.A. Times' website. While the full one-page article is worth reading, it basically says that outsourcing is one of the main factors that is killing Japan's anime industry. Lets set aside the fact that rampant piracy of anime properties is one of the other main contributors adding to the worldwide decline of anime (especially shows broadcast in Japan, where a show can be on television one night and be subtitled and streamed over the internet by the next day... y'know, now that I think about it, is it any wonder that the creators of "Cat Shit One" have blocked audiences in the U.S.A. from watching this series on YouTube--a series which they themselves uploaded!). Anyways, it would appear that the Japanese are suffering from the same effects of globalization that we American animators have been suffering from for years. Namely that production houses are going out-of-country to take advantage of cheap labor in an effort to increase profits through lowering costs, rather than coming up with better and fairer methods of generating revenue from their animated properties.

Now I freely admit, as an independent animator, I work outside of "the industry." So I have not experienced first-hand the trials and tribulations of working in either broadcast animation production or theatrical animation production. However, as someone who has lived and worked in Michigan for the better part of my life, I have experienced first-hand the economic downturn of the outsourcing that is rampant in both the automotive industry and the computer programming industry. I actually left computer programming for good when the industry shifted major assets to India in the late-90's/early-2000's. Having seen what outsourcing did to manufacturing in Michigan, seeing call-centers shutting down, and watching contracts for computer programming dry up, well, I saw the writing on the wall and shifted into another career while I could do so on my terms (for the most part).

Pundits on NPR are constantly saying that once manufacturing leaves America, those jobs won't come back. I don't know if that's true or not since we're seeing some call-center and computer programming jobs (two staples of the Indian service economy) start the long exodus back to America. Could we then expect to see a return of animation jobs to America and Japan? Well, I'd be willing to bet we'll see it in Japan long before we see it in the United States. Reason being: Japan has a history of protecting their cultural 'treasures' through their Cultural Property Preservation Act. There are currently a number of artisans in Japan (for example: potters, sword-forgers, and paper-makers) that preserve the historical Japanese techniques of producing said items of cultural value. These so-called 'living treasures' are really artisan-curators of the techniques that Japan wishes to preserve. Given the rich history of Anime, I can easily see Japan taking the  necessary steps to preserve the history of their animation industry--whether it will cause a rebirth in the industry or just turn it into another niche market in the historical sector, only time will tell, but I'm cautiously optimistic.

As for here in the United States, where oftentimes profit is seen as preferable to preservation, it looks like private funding of historical and cultural preservation is far more prevalent than using public funds to save our history. While most of it wasn't directly related to animation, I did do a lot of travel this year--mainly to museums and locations of historical interest like the Smithsonian, Gettysburg, Stonehenge, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Musee d'Orsee (places that revive those creative juices and offer people like me opportunities to drum up some future business). I would encourage people to take time out to visit museums, particularly ones where you can see men and women practice production techniques that have historial and cultural value, much like those seen at Plimoth Plantation, a not-for-profit, living museum, which houses blacksmiths, embroiders, furniture makers and other artisans who preserve manufacturing techniques from the American colonial times.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Animated Inspiration: Nokia 'Dot'

So those cool cats over at Line Boil posted this animation last week, and after watching it, I couldn't wait to share this film and its "Making of" video!

So here's the story: animation directors Ed Patterson & Will Studd (who both have worked for Aardman Animations in Bristol, UK) formed a company called Sumo Science. Recently, they took a Nokia mobile phone and a microscope adaptor (which was invented so that medical personnel in remote regions could take detailed pictures of blood samples and transmit them to hospitals for analysis) and created the smallest animation ever. One of the fascinating things about this animation is how they created the main character. As you'll see in the "Making of" video, the character was 3d modeled in a computer, then 'printed' using a 3d resin printer, hand painted, and mounted on wire so they could position it in the animation.

I won't spoil the rest of the story, but suffice it to say, both the animation and the "Making of" video are well worth the time spent watching them.

Nokia 'Dot'

Nokia 'Dot' from Sumo Science on Vimeo.

"The Making of Nokia 'Dot'"

The Making Of Nokia 'Dot' from Sumo Science on Vimeo.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Animated Inspration: Plankton Invasion - The North Sea Crab

You got to love it when the little guy gets to work on a project of his own design. Joeri Christiaen (who was an animator on the Academy Award nominated film 'Triplets of Belleville') came up with an idea called "Plankton Invasion."

As the story goes, three villians (two starfish and a jellyfish) have left the sea in an effort to increase the world's temperature, melt the polar ice caps and cover the planet with water--thus enabling the sea creatures to take over the world.

PLANKTON INVASION, the web series : The North Sea Crab from THURISTAR on Vimeo.

The character design and animation in these short webisodes are both pretty solid, as is the editing. The vignettes are a pretty humorous series of gags that are usually dealing with the scale of the operation versus the size of the villains. This webisode, the North Sea Crab, is second in the series of five on the Plankton Invasion website, but all are worth watching.

The best news of all is that the creators of the show, are working out a deal with Canal+ and VAF! to bring this internet series to television. Hopefully, we'll see it in America soon.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Animated Inspiration: Garra Rufa (Doctor Fish)

Normally, I highlight a lot of student films from Europe--mainly due to the quality of the films that the students are producing. However, this week we're coming back to North America with a film produced by a group of students from Ontario's own Sheridan Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning. Sheridan has long been a bastion of animation studies, churning out talented individuals who enjoy careers at top studios in both the American and Canadian film industry. With the following film, you can see why.

What I love about this film is that there is no dialog and yet the intent of the story is clear. Timothy Chan and his fellow students animated the characters in 'Doctor Fish' using a visual language of motion and expression. As you look at the body language and facial expressions, there is no mistaking what is going on in the lives (and minds) of the animated characters. As you watch the film, take note of exaggeration in the characters' motion. This is a beautiful application of the principles of animation found in most textbooks. And while it may look like comical overacting in a live-action (or motion capture) production, it works perfectly in animation.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Animated Thoughts: Attitude of Gratitude, Part One

I received a call in February from a student at R.I.T. He was making the rounds, calling alumni for donations. And while I wasn't able to give at that moment, I assured him that in March, I'd have a check sent out to R.I.T. for the Erik Timmerman Memorial Scholarship. But one of my statements surprised him greatly. When this young man asked me what I thought of my time at R.I.T., I simply stated that it was the greatest three years of my life before or since. Y'see, it was at R.I.T. that I grew the most as a human being. It was at R.I.T. that I met four people who would have a profound effect on my life--two during my time there and two afterwards.

I almost didn't go to Grad School. My grade in my major was a solid 3-point-something. However, my overall GPA was closer to 2.5-ish. But I had been working on little animated films with my friend ChuckBill and had written some short stories, all of which I sent on to Erik Timmerman. The story he told me when I started grad school was that there was some serious debate as to whether or not they would accept me in the M.F.A. Computer Animation program. Given my grades, the board wasn't sure that I could handle the workload--especially given that I'd be moving from a semester system to the high-pressure quarter system that R.I.T. uses. But, as Erik told the story, he said to the board: "I've talked to this guy and read some of his writing, he can handle it. Let him in." And I was accepted to the roller coaster ride that was grad school.

(Erik Timmerman, circa 1988)
Erik Timmerman was the first 'father figure' in my life who believed in me. Erik made me feel like I could accomplish anything. He was loud, in your face, and bombastic--but he never gave me any reason to think that he didn't love me, didn't believe in me, didn't think that I couldn't accomplish anything I put my mind to--and I loved him for it. Erik was honest with me about my failures. When I was overreaching, he'd tell me so and then would help me bring my imagination back into the scope of what my skills could accomplish (with just a little extra above the bar so I would reach higher, stretch, and grow both as an artist and as a person).

As I approached graduation, Erik paid me perhaps the greatest compliment he could have--he pulled me into his office and said that he was going on sabbatical for medical reasons. R.I.T. was looking for someone to take over for him while he was gone and he said that I should throw my name into the ring. Well, I'm ashamed to say that I never did. Although I knew the material, I didn't think that I was experienced enough to teach his classes. Erik said he understood and smiled at me in that way that he always did, the way that communicated, "you might not think you're ready now, but I think you are, and I think that when you're realize that you're ready, you're going to be excellent."

Erik once told a classmate of mine that Spring was a sad time of year for him. As Elouise would later write in her blog, Erik said that "Every year, all these students leave...and I am still here. I don't think they remember me."

Erik was the man who taught the first animation class at R.I.T. He was the man who started the computer animation graduate program at R.I.T. And he was the man who gave many students a chance to live their dreams. One day, Erik may well just be another name on a memorial brick and a footnote told to students on their first day in the animation program. But his presence will continue to be felt by future generations of animators who graduate from R.I.T., whether they knew him or not.

* * *

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

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Animated People: Satoshi Kon

It's always sad when people pass away, but it hurts doubly so when it's a gifted member of the animation community. Today, anime director Satoshi Kon passed away in his home at the far too young age of 46. Kon was the director of several animated films including "Perfect Blue," "Tokyo Godfathers," "Paprika," and "Millenium Actress."

I first encountered his work when I purchased the initial release of "Ghost in the Shell: Innocence" at Best Buy and it came in a shrinkwrapped 'double feature' package with "Millenium Actress." After getting my GITS fix, a few weeks later, I watched "Millenium Actress" and was transfixed by the ingenuity that I saw on the screen. The story is about two documentary filmmakers who are interviewing a famous actress nearing the end of her life--a time when her career had been over for years. Satoshi Kon found a way to integrate the actress and the interviewers into the flashback narrative structure that kept the story from becoming an endless series of flashbacks bookended by talking heads. While perhaps not one of his more well known films (due to it's non-traditional, non-typical Anime story), "Millenium Actress" set the stage for his 2006 film "Paprika," a mind-bending, visual feast of storytelling that proved how Hollywood should be looking East for inspiration and more complex storytelling.

Satoshi Kon died before completing his film "The Dreaming Machine" and the world of Animation lost more than a director, it lost a true visionary whose films rank on a level with Katsuhiro Otomo, Osamu Tezuka, and Hayao Miyazaki.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Animated Inspiration: Despicable Me

I'm going to preface this review with two facts about myself:

1. For years, a running joke I've had with my friends is that when I grow up, I want to be a supervillan so diabolical that the U.S. Government would gladly pop a nuke on American soil to get rid of me. Yep, I grew up reading a lot of comic books (that are all currently bagged, boarded, and cataloged for the eventual day when I either give them to my kids or donate them to a library).

2. I have never had the desire to bring a child into this world. Ever. But rather, I have longed to be in a place where I could adopt a couple of kids. Don't know why I feel that way, that's just how it's been for as long as I can remember.

So. As I'm sure you can imagine by now, "I" was the target demographic that the directors were thinking of when they made this film.

I've watched 'Despicable Me' three times now--twice in 3D and once in 2D, once by myself, once with parents and sibling, and once with parent and two nephews under the age of 10.

Each time I watched the film, I laughed, I cried, I marveled, and I reminded myself that this film was animated by the same French studio that brought us the surprisingly decent 2008 film Dragon Hunters (based on the animated series of the same name). 'Despicable Me' is the first feature-length animated film from Blue Sky and Fox veteran Chris Meledandri's studio Illumination Entertainment and he opened with a strong success.

All told, as far as animated films went this summer, I liked 'Toy Story 3,' I really liked 'How to Train Your Dragon,' but I loved 'Despicable Me!'

One of the biggest surprises for me was that Mr. Carell's voice acting and comic timing in this film was supurb! I'll admit it: I'm not a Steve Carell fan. At all. Nothing against him, I just don't find him funny (and the fact that I lived through a real world version of 'The Office' for several years doesn't work in his favor). Needless to say, I was cringing when I heard who was going to do the voice of Gru for this film. But after the movie, I left the theatre extremely satisfied by Mr. Carell's performance and looking forward to the character and dark humor that his voice acting will bring to Gru in Despicable Me 2.

Another thing about this film that I loved was how Gru's three daughters weren't caricatures or exaggerations of children, they acted like little girls. I was giggling inside as I recognized bits and pieces of my friends' children in the dialog, mannerisms, antics, and actions of Margo, Edith and Agnes. And as the following trailer shows us: in the end, it's all about the minions!

At this point, enough people have posted reviews about 'Despicable Me' and it's story, so I won't waste anyone's time with another breakdown on character and plot points. Rather, I'm going to link to a pair of articles found on Animation World Network's website. Both interviews discuss the ins and outs of producing this film, which I hope students looking at a career in animation will find useful.
The main point that I think we should take away from these two articles is that there is no singular way to take your education and experience and get your films produced. As animation students look towards an uncertain future in an uncertain economy, we should be continually learning from the examples of others and using their experiences to forge our own paths--and hopefully, the end result will be to see our own ideas on the big screen.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Animated Inspiration: Fuggy Fuggy

The Brothers McLeod continue to amuse me with the sometimes witty, sometimes slapstick mishap adventures of their short film character "Fuggy Fuggy" who continues on his never-ending quest to become a Ninja. Here we find our intrepid hero(?) coming up with an unorthodox solution to a difficult problem. As is usually the case, Fuggy Fuggy often finds himself in situations where, at first glance, the solution is straightforward. However, as is often the case, things don't turn out the way the progagonist expects and he either resigns himself to his fate and tries again, or gets comically frustrated and tries again.

In that regard, Fuggy Fuggy reminds me of the vaudeville-style Looney Tunes characters (Daffy Duck, Wil-e Coyote, Yosemite Sam, Sylvester the Cat, Porky Pig, etc), especially from the Chuck Jones-era of cartoons. While it's not a 'principle of animation' per-se, Fuggy Fuggy shows us how "characterization" is very important in animation. At their essence, the Fuggy Fuggy short animations are "gag" films. Like Wil-e Coyote and the RoadRunner cartoons, the story isn't deep, there isn't any major plot, just a series of jokes, gags, and pratfalls. However, it's the character that keeps us coming back. We identify with the main character and his frustrations and we cheer when he overcomes the challenges--laughing most when those solutions are as unorthodox as the challenges themselves.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Animated Inspiration: Roboto!

Here's a cute little short produced by local Michigan animator Gary Schwartz and animated by a group of local teens. This film was created through ASIFA International's Animation Workshop Group and uses a variety of techniques from stop-motion and pixilation to hand-drawn animation.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Animated Thoughts: Always Give Something Back, Part 1

Back in April, I was invited by Ferris State to review portfolios and give advice to students of their Digital Animation and Game Design program. The following is some advice that I gave the students (and some advice I wished I had the time to tell them):

You are going into a field where the competition is incredibly fierce, both locally and globally. So you need to stack the deck in your favor. The three best ways I have found to do that are: 1. know someone on the inside, 2. adopt a professional image, and 3. commit to mastering your craft.

1. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

Go to animation festivals and get involved in animation societies. Just to name a few in the Great Lakes region: we have the Kalamazoo Animation Festival International, the East Lansing Film Festival, the Ann Arbor Film Festival, the Toronto Animated Image Society’s Summerjam, the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema, the Toronto International Film Festival, and the Ottawa International Animation Festival. Branching out a little you can find dozens of animation festivals in other States and countries. While festivals like ELFF, AAFF, and TIFF don’t specialize in animated film like the others I mentioned, they do show animation and will often have special programs dedicated to animated film.

If you are serious about working in the industry, then there’s no excuse not to visit at least one festival with several copies of your portfolio and a stack of business cards. And that festival is the Ottawa International Animation Festival. Think about it: the second largest animation festival IN THE WORLD is only a ten-hour drive from Lansing. It will cost you $45 to get an enhanced Michigan driver’s license which will allow you to enter Canada by car, bus or train (in place of a passport/passport card). There are inexpensive youth hostels to stay at right down the road from the festival (or several of you can pitch in for a hotel room). The Ottawa fest is held every year, they’ve got student rates on their passes, and they’ve got a student category so you can submit a film for competition. They even have student portfolio reviews with some of the larger studios. When you’re there, you can meet industry professionals from Disney/Pixar, Starz, Nelvanna, Dreamworks, Laika, and many others—including dozens of smaller studios in the US and Canada.

Here’s the trick: while you’re standing in line to see the films (or waiting to get some grub at the animator’s picnic) you turn to the first person you don’t recognize and ask them one of the three most common questions:

1. So when did you get in? (translation: when did you arrive at the festival?)
2. What’s your favorite film so far?
3. Are you screening anything this year?

There’s your icebreakers.

So there I am in 2008, at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. I'm first in line to get into the evening competition screening and I'm standing there with my brother and his girlfriend. About fifteen minutes before the doors open, the festival organizers march a gentleman right in front of us and ask him to wait there. Eh, it happens. He had a film in the competition and they needed him to be in his assigned seat shortly before the program started. No worries. I glanced at his badge and the resulting conversation started out something like:

"Excuse me sir, are you THE J.J. Sedelmaier?"

"Why yes, yes I am."

Charles Wilson, J.J. Sedelmaier, Ted Wilson (l to r)
Over the next fifteen minutes, I had a wonderful conversation with a veteran animator who was genuinely interested in my forensic and historical animation work as we discussed our careers. When we were done, my brother asked for a photo, Mr. Sedelmaier graciously obliged, then he asked me for my business card and gave me his. Folks, it is THAT easy to meet people in these festivals.

If you want to work in this field, don't shirk those interpersonal skills. Take a Dale Carnegie course, join ToastMasters, take public speaking classes, spend time meeting new people whenever you are stuck standing in line at the grocery store. Interpersonal skills are often neglected by students as they focus on their studies (or are surrounded by people who just don't 'get them'), but they will pay dividends if you keep them polished, whether it's getting a job, talking to clients, or just communicating with co-workers.

One of the criteria by which I judged students was their presence. I asked myself one simple question: would I feel comfortable putting this person in front of a client? In our minds, we're larger than life. But looking at ourselves outside of the little worlds we construct for ourselves, we look a lot different--sometimes dramatically different. More on that in part two. For now, jump on the internet and start looking for animation festivals around you.