Monday, December 31, 2018

A Year of Animation: LEGO stop-motion edition

The LEGO Arc de Triomphe Architecture set
For the final film in my "Year of Animation", I chose to do a stop-motion animation. I'd been thinking of time-lapse video for a couple months now but never found the right location or date to really produce something worthwhile... and technically it wouldn't be "animation". I'm currently working on (redoing actually) a direct-on-film animation as part of my R.I.T. film archiving project, but it won't be done in time for this post, so... a stop-motion animation.

Years ago, I taught an animation course at the local community rec center and in order to visually teach the students the differences between frame rates, I animated the assembly of a simple LEGO model. So, knowing now what I learned then, I thought it'd be fun to revisit that idea.

Here's the film from back in 2003 played back at 3 frames per second. The individual frames were captured using an Olympus digital camera, hence the flicker as the camera readjusts itself between each shot.

For the new film, I chose the Arc de Triomphe Architecture set because it was one of the few LEGO sets with a location that I've actually visited--granted it was in a tour bus and we drove around it before going to the Eiffel Tower, but I "was" there darn it!

A view from the bus back in 2010

After looking at the Eiffel Tower set, I just didn't think that it had enough pieces and it had too much visual uniformity to make the animation interesting. The Paris skyline set is nice, but I wasn't feeling it. I'm just not too into the skyline sets, which is why I passed over the New York, Chicago, Paris, and London skyline sets. I liked the Louvre Building Kit, but I've never been there. The London Tower, Big Ben, Lincoln Memorial, and White House sets were a little more than I wanted to spend and they don't have a Musee d'Orsay set for sale (I actually would've expanded the budget to get a nice Musee d'Orsay kit). And unfortunately, there's also no LEGO set for the Toronto skyline or CN Tower. Oh well. Like I said: the Arc fits the bill, so that's the set I selected.

Need to rearrange the studio, this was way too cramped!
My setup was a little more complex than the other animations I've created for this 'Year of Animation' series. Before filming, I jumped on Amazon and picked up a pair of light stands and a set of four sandbags to hold them in place (had to get the sand from Home Depot) and borrowed a tripod from work that was sturdy enough to hold my DSLR camera -- which was tied into DragonFrame 4 on the reliable MacBook that I use for demonstrations.

Good ol' Dragonframe on my TravelMac.
After assembling the LEGO set and studying the instruction manual to determine how I would film its assembly, I came up with a shotlist to make things easier and then disassembled the set--separating the pieces by color into small plastic containers. That original shotlist actually involved some close up shots using my iPhone, but when it came time to film, I discarded that idea. There just wasn't enough room to maneuver around with two tripods, two light stands, my laptop on a portable t.v. tray, and all the little plastic containers that I had used to separate the LEGO pieces. Eh, I can always go back and refilm those two sequences if I want to.

The animation is as follows:

I could play with the frame rate and add the aforementioned close-ups in order to provide a little variety and boost the "interesting" factor, but in the end, this was just for fun and I learned what I wanted from the experience. Which raises the question: what did I learn from my Year of Animation and all the films I created?

Well, there were some great triumphs, like when the project inspired me to go through all my RIT films and materials, enabling me to recover almost everything I had lost from a hard drive crash over a decade ago. And there were some new experiences, like working on a team with Gary Schwartz and Linnea Glas on our ASIFA Central tongue-twister animation. But throughout it all, this project highlighted how much work goes into producing an animation, even a small one. So future projects should never be taken lightly -- speaking in terms of the amount of work they take to complete. But my main takeaway was how personally fulfilling it is to put in all that effort and watch the completed film. The playback is truly the payback.

Now, on to the next project...

LEGO, always good for a fun animation

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Thursday, December 27, 2018

Animated Thoughts: TAAFI 2018 - part one

I'm going to end the 2018 festival season with a report on my visit to the 2018 Toronto Animation Arts Festival International - part one. And I call it "part one" because they tried something different at TAAFI this year: splitting it into two festivals. I originally published most of the following article in the Fall/Winter Newsletter for ASIFA Central. But now that it has been distributed to our membership, I've enhanced it with some additional thoughts that would be more to the tastes of my readership and republished it here. Hope you enjoy and have a Happy New Year.

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Another Festival Experience
by Charles Wilson

There are a lot of great festivals in Ontario, like the Ottawa International Animation Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, and even the Montreal Stop Motion Festival in neighboring Quebec. However, there are also some smaller festivals out there in Canada that are worth a look. For example: the Toronto Animation Arts Festival International, where I spent the first weekend in November.

The Toronto Animation Arts Festival International will always hold a special place in my heart.

Back in 2014, after seventeen years of monthly payments, I had finally paid off my student loans. And as I wanted to do something special in order to celebrate my newfound financial freedom, and since I had been previously invited to TAAFI by friend and fellow animator Ben McAvoy (one of the co-founders of TAAFI), forty-eight hours after sending in that final payment and seeing that "$0.00" balance on my account, I found a cheap hotel, bought my festival pass, and hightailed it to Canada yelling "Freedom" at the top of my lungs as I crossed the border.

A view of the CN Tower from the Corus Building's parking lot

Four years ago, TAAFI was a weekend event filled with presentations from industry insiders, short film screenings (and the occasional feature), a robust artists alley where students and professionals sold their art, a relaxed figure drawing arena where you could hang out and draw models, and the ever entertaining Nelvana bouncing ball party on Saturday night -- where I first saw the Cybertronic Spree.

This year was different. As I encountered Ben in the Corus building down by the harbor on Saturday morning, he stated that the responses which they had been receiving indicated there was so much to see and do at TAAFI that it was becoming a little challenging for attendees. If you wanted to see a film screening, it meant that you would miss out on one, or more, of the industry insider presentations (and vice versa). So this year, the leadership of TAAFI decided to test out an idea: break the festival into two dates and hold them several months apart.

TAAFI part one: the Industry Animation Conference

This worked out well for me as the first weekend of November was the newly christened "TAAFI Industry Animation Conference" filled to the brim with the industry presentations I love so much. And as always, TAAFI did not disappoint!

Fred Siebert, founder of Frederator Studios
The opening keynote was headlined by none other than Fred Siebert who delighted us with stories about how he fell into a career in animation almost by accident.

My schedule then followed with a presentation from Jessica Borutski and Dan Haskett, both discussing how they deal with the challenges of character design. For those who don't know, Jessica is the Canadian animator whose work includes Ren and Stimpy's Adult Party Cartoon, the Looney Tunes, and Bunnicula. And you may know Dan Haskett from his character designs seen in this little arthouse film produced by Disney called "The Little Mermaid". Yes, Dan is the man who did the initial designs for Ariel, Sebastian, and Ursula. And Belle for Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

Evolution of Character Design
(l to r) Barry Sanders: moderator, Jessica Borutski, Dan Haskett

Before the presentation, I even had the chance to catch up with Jessica, whom I interviewed for International Women's Month back in 2011. I honestly hate to take up too much of her time when we see each other at festivals/conferences, but I simply love hearing about what projects she's working on (Bunnicula was a recent favorite show of mine).

Saturday was also filled with presentations about the state of the Canadian animation industry which left me interested in checking out the web series Gary and his Demons and the show humorously named Captain Canuck -- both sardonic looks at the horror and superhero genres respectively. Fun fact: The Canadian comic book industry imploded shortly after World War II due to the lifting of trade restrictions and the imposition of censorship. So when "Captain Canuck" debuted in 1975, it became 'the first successful Canadian comic book' since 1947, according to Wikipedia anyways.

One of the most interesting presentations for me personally was the "Indie Creator Spotlight" where Mike Valiquette (owner of both Toronto's Go Lucky studio and the Canadian Animation Resources blog) moderated a roundtable discussion with freelance animators Hector Herrera and Gyimah Gariba, and independent creator Joel MacKenzie about how they built and maintained their careers in the Canadian animation industry. There's always a fair amount of information that's universal to being an animation freelancer all across North America, but what's always fascinating is learning how each country's animation industry developed and is sustained. For example, Hector mentioned how he emigrated to Canada because of the lack of overall financial support and opportunities for animation in Mexico. There was a little discussion about the National and Provincial grant structure in place for artists in Canada that doesn't exist in the United States (or Mexico). And as always, there was talk about striking the balance between paid client work and your own projects. As I said, all-in-all, it's always a fascinating discussion to hear.

The last presentation for the day was "The Big Pitch". Moderated by animation director Barry Sanders, two teams presented their ideas for animated shows to a jury consisting of Jessica Borutski, Jen Oxley, and Linda Simensky. The winner was Hamin Yang, a scriptwriter who was working on a pilot for his show idea. For those interested, Hamin's show is about an aging movie star who wants to be in the reboot of the show that launched his now flagging career. But in his misguided quest for a treatment that would make him young again, he ends up becoming a white man trapped in a young Chinese man's body. The rest of Yang's pilot was a funny and touching series of events as the main character learned the trials and tribulations of navigating Hollywood as an Asian. Hamin Yang filled his time telling stories relating frustrations with Asian stereotypes, dealing with the hypocrisy in PC culture, and the problems of trying to find an Asian woman who is interested in dating an Asian man -- most of which made it into the animated clips seen in his self-financed pilot. Afterwards, I had to congratulate him and thank him for pitching a show that I found immediately relatable given that part of my extended family is Vietnamese.

Eh, it's November, why not put out the lights?
My Saturday ended early as I skipped the annual Bouncing Ball party -- was fighting a sore throat so figured a couple extra hours of sleep would do me some good. But, I couldn't make a trip to Toronto without visiting at least one of my favorite haunts. Dinner was at Marche's followed by a quick diversion to the plaza next door where they had already started preparing for the Christmas holiday.

Dan Haskett

Sunday began on a very strong note as, for two-and-a-half hours, Dan Haskett detailed his career in animation working on such varied properties as the Little Mermaid, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Looney Tunes, Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure, and the Simpsons, among others. Soft spoken and engaging, Dan punctuated his presentation by drawing characters under the camera and gifting students and professionals alike advice from his forty-two years of life spent working in animated film. The day was even moreso enjoyable due to the fact that my friend, and fellow R.I.T. alum, Glenn Ehlers drove up from Buffalo for the day. And I also had the chance to have lunch with Toronto animator (and former International Women's Month interviewee) Janice Schulman. Festivals. Always better with friends.

Linda Siemensky: moderator, Jen Oxley,
Austen Payne, Michelle Melanson (l to r)

Later that morning, TAAFI brought Michelle Melanson, Jen Oxley, and newcomer Austen Payne to the stage for a discussion on women working in the field of animation, ably moderated by Linda Siemensky. Austen, the youngest of the group, talked about facing the challenges of breaking into the industry as a young woman. The more mature Michelle and Jen discussed the work/life balance especially when you want to have a family but still maintain a career. All the while, Linda would interject stories about what the American animation industry was like for women ranging from the 1980's to the present day.

The rest of the day was a blur as attendees shuffled from one lecture hall to the other in order to hear about building an animation career in the Canadian market and working (and surviving) as an independent animator -- which involved bringing back Joel MacKenzie for the closing keynote to give out some wonderful career lessons that he'd learned over several years of producing animated shorts, like: "You can't control other people's tastes but you can know your own" and "Get a lawyer".

After saying my goodbyes, when I got into my car and left Toronto for the five hour drive back to Michigan, I was already constructing plans for making the drive back in February for TAAFI part two: "the animation screenings".

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Sunday, December 23, 2018

Animated Reviews: Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki

I miss the Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema. It was the only festival in the world dedicated to feature-length animated films. Being a three hour drive away in Waterloo, Ontario AND held annually the weekend before Thanksgiving, it had become a favored tradition every Fall that I would use to close out the festival season -- and it would allow me to see some animated features that I would never get the chance to see otherwise. Unfortunately, the WFAC did not survive the economic downturn and in 2013, closed their doors forever.

This loss has left a vacant place in my heart as during the five years I attended, some of the best anime I've ever seen was at WFAC: Redline, Genius Party, the first two Evangelion relaunch films, and the Anime Mirai presentations of Pretending not to see and Li'l Spider Girl.

So, during the last two months of the year, I try to find some animation to feed my soul as the cold and dark winter months can wear on the psyche something fierce. Starting in 2014, this usually meant finding something at the Detroit Institute of Arts, usually on my birthday. Last year, my friend Chelsie was in town (she's teaching English in Japan and was home for the holidays) so I took her to see Boy and the World at the Detroit Film Theater -- which, for some odd reason, the DFT is showing again this year on December 31st. Having already seen the visually beautiful yet gut-wrenchingly sad story of Boy and the World (twice), I looked for something... else.

Mamoru Hosoda's Mirai wasn't showing anywhere that I could get to in time as I can't make it to Ann Arbor's State Theater to see a 6:30 p.m. movie after work. No big deal, I wasn't really very interested in seeing it to begin with, but the beautiful draftsmanship and cute story would've made a nice diversion, after all, Hosoda's film Summer Wars was well worth the hours I've spent watching it over and over.

So I continued my search -- which was quickly rewarded by the Internet. As it turns out, GKIDS was showing the documentary film Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki at the Lansing Mall's Regal theater on Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. Being only twenty minutes away, I would have more than enough time to get there after work.

The trailer had described this documentary as a man from a (almost) bygone era of hand-drawn animation in Japan struggling to find a place in an industry being taken over by CG animation -- if there even was any place for someone like him anymore.

I walked out of the theater over an hour later with the realization that, having been a professional animator for twenty-one years now, I think I got far, far more out of the film than the rest of the people in the audience.

When I arrived, I was the only person in the theater. Would've loved a "private screening", but it was not to be. Over the course of a half-an-hour, while I tried to ration my five dollar bottle of water (that anyone could get for a buck at a grocery store or a service station), people started to drift in. I could hear them talking about their favorite Miyazaki films and which one was their first. And as the pre-show slideshow displayed the Ghibli Collection of BluRay and DVDs now for sale on the GKIDS website, they counted off what films they had seen from the completed Studio Ghibli library.

And that was par for the course for this documentary. I would look around occasionally, taking note of the blank stares of the people around me. And when the show was over, no one got up and left. As I (and the couple next to me) left the theater, still no one else moved, no one said anything. They just stared at the front of the theater with the 'Fathom Events' logo splashed across the screen. Just out of curiosity, I stood outside the theater door and played with my smartphone for several minutes until people started to drift out. The comments I heard were the same as before the movie: their favorite Miyazaki film, what Ghibli films they had seen, etc.

Note how Miyazaki has his pegs at the top of
the page and flips his pages from the bottom.

As I said, this film was more about Miyazaki struggling to figure out if his career was finally over -- if there was anything left for him to do in an industry that is rapidly embracing CGI over hand-drawn animation. And as the septuagenarian used his short film Boro the Caterpillar to explore the current state of CGI animation, and if he himself could adapt to the new paradigm, he was also exploring the idea if he should fade away into the sunset or rally his strength for one last film.

Preliminary sketch of Boro with watercolor
Throughout the doc, they didn't shy away from the many facets of Miyazaki. we saw glimpses of the "Perfectionist Miyazaki" and the "crotchety old man Miyazaki", neither of whom had any difficulty speaking his mind. But we also saw the heartbroken Miyazaki as he counted off friends and colleagues that he wanted to work with again but couldn't because they had died. It was these glimpses into both the working and the personal life of Hayao Miyazaki that took him from the realm of "Miyazaki the legend" and showed us the real humanity of Miyazaki the man.

Using a plant to puzzle out the film's setting
As an animator, this documentary was a glorious look into the process of how an animation legend creates such visually spectacular and beloved films. I often found myself wishing that they'd held a shot on Miyazaki's storyboards a little longer or spent a couple more minutes looking over his shoulder as he drew keyframes for Boro the Caterpilar by hand -- easily outclassing the 3d animators who were tasked with the monumental job of translating Miyazaki's vision into a 3d modeling and animation program (animators will be amused at the scenes where he repeatedly points out the problems with the caterpillar's motion and sends the poor 3d animators back to the "drawing board" to try again). It was this facet of the film that I think the rest of the audience missed. Not that it was a step-by-step look into the Studio Ghibli production pipeline, but there were subtle little nuances in his process that I'd like to see again.

Trying to get Boro's motion right
My only complaint about the documentary is that they didn't show the Boro the Caterpillar short at the end of the show. I understand that 'Boro' is being saved for screening at the Studio Ghibli museum, but since we saw this short film in varying states of production during the documentary, that would have been a nice payoff. No, the big payoff came right before the doc started when they announced that Miyazaki would be working on another feature-length animated film.

Later on in the show, he stated that he'd rather die working on a film than die being bored at home. Both Osamu Tezuka and Satoshi Kon died before finishing their last projects. Let's hope and pray that Miyazaki doesn't suffer such a tragic fate.

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1. Theater photo copyright Charles Wilson
2. All other photos and videos copyright GKIDS/Studio Ghibli/NHK and used with permission.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Animated Thoughts: A small victory, but a victory nonetheless

I DID IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Can't explain it other than it being a gift from God.

So there I was, sitting in front of the computer, listening to a lecture on YouTube on my iPhone, and pretty much wasting time because I didn't want to go to bed yet.

To set the stage: the other weekend I was e-mailing back and forth with the creators of the old SGI 3d modeling and animation software ElectroGig 3DGO. We were trying to open some images from an old animation that I did over twenty years ago and convert them to something usable on a Mac or PC. Unfortunately, we didn't get anywhere, but one of the things we tried was going through a bevy of compression algorithms to see if the image files that I had were 'zipped' before I copied them off of the server.

So, as I sat there, avoiding going to bed, I tried to load up one of the 3DGO image files using a RAR program to see if I could unpack the file. Didn't expect it to work, but I was tinkering. And it didn't work.

But, just for the heck of it, I did a search online about unpacking an old DOS backup file from the older 'Studio 119' archived animation that Bill Thomas and I made back around 1993-ish.

By chance, I found a forum post that I had skimmed before and this time I read it in depth. The suggestion was to 'look at the files with a hexeditor and if the first two characters are the characters "PK" then use the free 7-Zip program to unpack it.'

Well. I did, and it did, then I did, and volia! the Studio 119 animation Bill and I created is now unpacked in all it's 320 x 240 FLI format glory!

After over a decade, one more "lost" animation has been found and reclaimed.

Merry Christmas to me!!

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Friday, November 30, 2018

A Year of Animation: Giant Robots

Back in Grad School, we had a class called Photography Core. It was split into three sections across three quarters -- yes, we were on the quarter system back then. Well during the second section (Winter quarter), Erik took the better part of the quarter teaching us several principles of animation. I wasn't getting 'animation on a curve'. At all. So, after screwing up the first attempt at the assignment, when I talked to him about it in his office after class, Erik held up an imaginary gun and then acted out the motion of a gunslinger pulling the gun from the holster and raising the gun -- all the while explaining how the elbow bent during the motion and worked with the shoulder's motion as opposed to locking the elbow in place while making all the raising motion of the gun come from the shoulder alone. He compared how a gunslinger would perform that motion in real life and then exaggerated for an animation -- which led to a discussion on acting in animation and why these extra motions and exaggerations were important in animation. With my newfound knowledge -- though I must admit, I still didn't grasp the concept fully -- I took another stab at the assignment and came up with the following animation:

So, since I've been too busy to make a brand-new animation for November, I decided to tinker with an old one. The original animation had the robot taking a step, firing the gun, lowering the gun, firing a rocket, then raising and firing the gun again, and then lowering the gun -- obviously, different from the above.

As part of my grad school records and films reclamation project, I exported all of the above frames from Macromedia Director to Windows bitmaps. At that point, the animation was "saved" and I can import the frames into any editing program I wish, be it Premiere or whatever comes next a couple years down the road.

This was an interesting exercise. Copy-and-pasting frames to the end of the animation in order to make it longer was easy enough. But in order to get the animation to compile to an mp4 using the H.264 codec at the best resolution possible for an 8-bit image with a gradient for the background, that took some trial and error to get it right.

And that little bit of knowledge will serve me well when I decide to make mp4's of the other animations from Photo Core II or my Spring film "the Chameleon" from Photo Core III.

Oh, and I was on an Enya kick back then, so that's why the title card uses the "Enya" true-type font.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Animated Thoughts: Festival Season - Ottawa International Animation Festival 2018, part 2

The trip to Ottawa continues... in Ottawa.

Wednesday, September 26

Early breakfast at Marche -- would hate to break with tradition after all. The trains were running slow but all-in-all, no worries. The restaurant wasn't busy. The food was good. I would leave Toronto with a nice meal and a nice memory. Getting a little extra sleep the night before definitely helped my mood greatly. Then it was off to Ottawa.

Overall, the drive through Ontario was pleasant, until I hit that wall of rain on the 417! Fortunately, it didn't last long, but it was bizarre driving through sunshine and seeing a literal wall of rain in the distance with this clear delineation between the sun and the rain.

Arrived at Les Suites and as per usual, I immediately walked to the Arts Court to get my pass. Gary Schwarz and Brooke Keesling were there picking up their passes. Went to check into my hotel suite and there was Barry Sanders and his wife Caroline. Yup, I'm at the Ottawa International Animation Festival!

At the evening screening, I saw Kelly Neall and said my hellos. Then, while standing in line, was at the right place and right time to meet Nina Paley in person -- I spent the better part of a month this year trying to see if bringing Nina to the ASIFA Central annual retreat would fit into her schedule. Unfortunately, it wouldn't work for 2018, but maybe 2019...

Afterwards, I sat down in my favorite seat at the Bytowne Theater for the first competition screening, collected my thoughts, and one of the best parts of the fest occurred: my old classmate Glenn Ehlers walked over and said 'hello'. It's always one of the moments I look forward to most as it has invariably been twelve months since I last got to hang out with my friend and talk shop. We keep in touch over social media, but it's never the same as having a face-to-face conversation with your friends.

Thursday, September 27

Rose early so I could make it to the 'Selling and Distributing Short films' roundtable discussion. While a very invigorating discussion -- it was filled with lots of ideas and suggestions -- still, no one seems to have a clear idea on how to monetize short films in a self-sustaining fashion. Although he wasn't in attendance at the discussion, I still think that PES has the best plan that I've heard presented at these panels at Ottawa: do a limited amount of commercial work to finance your private projects.

Then off to the Stacy Stears lecture at the Arts Court. It was pretty interesting. I'm always amazed when I hear that people are still filming on an Oxberry in 35mm film! I like the visual stylings of Stacy's films, though the narrative structure is a little more loose than I prefer. While waiting for her presentation to start, I saw Joanna Priestley and had the chance to introduce myself and thank her for the lovely cel from All My Relations that she sent me back in 2016. She gave me her business card and both a postcard and a photo from her new film North of Blue. Afterwards, I hiked down to the Bytowne Theater to see North of Blue on the big screen.

North of Blue
It was sixty minutes of "wow!"

An abstract film of flowing motion and color all created using Adobe Flash. North of Blue really showcases what Flash can do in the hands of a master animator.

The film was visually stunning and I loved the soundtrack. I can't wait to add it to my collection of films by Joanna.

Unintentionally, Bryce Hallett and I followed her out of the theater and we all got in line for the next screening together so I got to chat Joanna up a little more. She seemed touched when I handed her my smartphone, which displayed a photo of the framed cel she gave me two years ago, and told her about how I had used it in my blog to describe some of the great perks you can get by supporting the film projects of women animators. I handed her my Women of Animated Film promo card. Hope she likes the website and all its interviews. Then, while we were talking, a woman jumped right behind me -- literally jumped -- and exclaimed "Joanna Priestley!" It was Nina Paley. The two laughed about how they had followed each other's work but had never met in person. Then they rushed around the corner for a quick lunch before the next feature screening started.

Nina's film SederMasochism was pretty good, visually at least. The story and soundtrack did feel a little choppy in some places. Being a fan of her work, I felt a little guilty about that mental critique until she publicly admitted during the Q&A session that her heart just wasn't in this film in the way that it had been during the production of Sita Sings the Blues. Nina stated, that she just wanted to finish SederMasochism and move on. As her late father provided the voice for the God character, I could see how working on the film would be an emotionally draining experience for her.

The rest of the evening consisted of me trying to get a meal at Level One before running out to the airport to pick up a friend and then bring him back to the party at the Arts Court.

I had actually been planning that part of the festival for the better part of a year.

Many months beforehand, I told friend and fellow animator Pilar Newton-Katz about my friend Steven Leeper, formerly of Big Idea -- the creators of Veggie Tales. Well, being a megafan of Veggie Tales, she was blown away that I knew someone who worked on that show.

When we got there, the party at the Arts Court was too crowded, so I took Steve to the Avant Garde bar across from our hotel to meet up with other animators there -- including Pilar. We spent some time with festival regular (and TAAFI co-creator) Ben McEvoy. We hung out with my fellow R.I.T. students Glenn Ehlers and Sarah Hanson, as well as the Villa Maria College crowd. Then I had the chance to introduce Pilar to Steve. As expected, Pilar totally geeked out for the better part of a half-hour as Steve told her story after story of his work with Phil Vischer on Veggie Tales before the studio closed.

Watching that meeting alone was worth the trip!

Friday, September 28

Mmmm... annual festival picnic cupcakes...
Went to the morning shorts competition with Steve. Was kind of helping usher him back into the festival scene. Didn't take much, just reminding him of the venues, really. He's a natural with people so he navigated the social scene at the OIAF like a pro.

The picnic was fun. After we arrived, we had lunch with Glenn and Sarah. And I got a good education listening to all three of them comparing notes about their respective college programs. Lots of good ideas there that I'd like to integrate into my workshops.

Bryce came over and sat with us after Steve left to mingle with friends, new and old. Then I met two girls from Pratt -- illustration and design majors attending the festival in the hopes of getting career ideas. Once again, I'm always impressed by how polite and gracious the Pratt students are.

Afterwards, I finally got to meet Corrie Francis Parks face-to-face. Lots of shop talk was had: the festival, our current film projects, and what's up with ASIFA (and our respective chapters). For years she and I have been working behind the scenes at ASIFA, trading e-mails back-and-forth as we try to get our work done, so it was really nice to finally meet her in person.

Afterwards, the noise was starting to get to me, so I took the bus back for the Canadian Panorama. It was very enjoyable as always. Richard Reeves' Twilight was a beautiful experience of direct-on-film animation.

David Fine & Alison Snowden's Animal Behavour was hilarious. It's well worth a watch!

Animal Behaviour (Trailer) from NFB/marketing on Vimeo.

And I absolutely loved Samuel W. Bradley's Space Between Stars which he created at Guru Studios.

SPACE BETWEEN STARS ★ TRAILER from space between stars on Vimeo.

The new OAG GAO building
My head still swimming with images of Space Between Stars as I walked over to the new Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG) building next to the Arts Court and after a few false starts, found the auditorium for the Stacey Steers retrospective.

I swear I've seen her work before but I can't remember where. Maddening! The third film with the bees was so familiar, but she's never had a film screened at the OIAF.

Afterwards, I asked her a question about the use of color across her films. She had a really good answer too -- first use in the second film was to help keep audiences clear on which character was whom since the actress was taken from different movies and had different costumes. After that, it was a natural evolution to add more color in her films and enhance the visual style/viewing experience. Am always leery about asking questions, a lot of angsting beforehand wondering if I'm asking something that should be obvious or that I assume is obvious to those more experienced or at least less isolated than I.

EdgeofAlchemy_dream seq vimeo 1 from Stacey Steers on Vimeo.

Closed out the day by going to the World Student Competition screening. Some good stuff, some... not to my tastes. But a lot more hits than misses.

Saturday, September 29

Saturday is my usual "favorite day at the festival." I just love the professional development seminars. Caught the "You've got the Gig..." talk. Good info, most of it I've heard before, but I recorded the talk on my phone so I can listen to it later. Sat with Gary Schwartz and chatted a bit about ASIFA Central (we're both on the board of directors). Had time to kill afterwards and was feeling a little adventurous so I grabbed some lunch at a new restaurant down on Daly Avenue. Japanese/Korean fusion. Bulgolgi prepared like sushi. I plan to come back at future Festivals!

Ah, sushi the way God intended it to be prepared:
no raw fish at all, just stewed beef!

Went back to the National Arts Centre and bumped into the two Pratt girls from the picnic. Was able to show them where their next event was. Right place, right time with the right info I suppose. Strange how the NAC didn't feel this 'maze like' back in 1994.

More serendipity: decided to be fashionably late to the Disney careers presentation. Ran back to the hotel and while waiting for the elevator, Nina Paley showed up so I got to chat with her on the way up. Then on my way back to the NAC, there was Joanna Priestley, so had a short chat with her. Another example of the "Ottawa experience". Then at the NAC, there was Steve Stanchfield from Thunderbean Animation. Tells me about a clay animation by Virginia May that he just digitized -- the George Washington film. Asked me about how we're doing at ASIFA Central. I envy those in California, Toronto, Vancouver, and New York somewhat. So many animators in such a small area. So much shop talk to be had. So much camaraderie.

Sat through Mindy Johnson's "Ink and Paint Girls" presentation. There was lots of good historical information there. Can't wait to finish reading her book. Met her afterwards and had a good chat. Turns out we both know some of the same folks in Women in Animation. I gave her my card and told her about my Women of Animated Films blog. Hope she finds it useful.

Before leaving the NAC, I noticed J.J. Sedelmaier standing by himself. So, I went over and chatted him up. He's trying to get his animation tool exhibit into more museums in the future. I really hope it happens. Would really love to actually see it. The weather was too bad to make the trip to Wisconsin when they hosted his exhibit across the lake so I couldn't go. The Detroit Institute of Arts is very friendly to animation. Wonder if they'd host Mr. Sedelmaier's exhibit in Detroit?

At the OIAF, they encourage you to draw on the walls.

Sunday, September 30

Last day of the OIAF. Went to the Canadian student screening with Steve then took him to the airport. Was somewhat crestfallen due to losing one of my Chinese fans the other night. I do have a backup, and it was only two bucks, so... won't be too hard to replace. But I really liked this one, it had a peacock on one side painted in rich colors. Is probably gone for good, but still, would be nice to find it before leaving town.

Walked over to the screening room at the OAG and watched a couple films from the previous night's Shorts Competition 3. Even though a screening station was open, I decided to watch Shorts Competition 5 in the Bytowne Theater -- bigger screen, more comfortable seats. Was a good decision because I bumped into Bryce on the way out. We went to the market and had a yearly Beavertail and talked about the Toronto Animated Image Society before heading off to our respective screenings. After Comp 5, I went to the Emma de Swaef screening -- they showed Oh Willy before This Magnificent Cake. Superb animation technique. Granted, I still have no idea what she's trying to say with her films, but they're certainly entertaining.

Afterwards, I went to the Keg and had a nice meal for my final night at the Fest. Decided to skip the "Best of the OIAF" screenings and went to the party instead. Spent some time with Gary Schwartz giving advice to a freshman at Algonquin College. Then said my congrats to Chris Robinson on another wonderful festival. And that was it. Went back to the hotel and got some rest for the drive back home.

Ottawa remains my go-to animation festival. More than nostalgia from my R.I.T. days, more than a place to watch the latest and greatest films, the Ottawa International Animation Festival has become a real community for me. And one that I relish every year.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Animated Thoughts: Festival Season - Ottawa International Animation Festival 2018, part 1

September arrived, and with it came my yearly trip to Canada for the Ottawa International Animation Festival.

However, this year was going to be a little different as I had spent the prior year saving a little extra money each month so that I could take some extra time off of work and spend it in Toronto before the festival. Every year, I like to drive to Toronto on Monday or Tuesday, spend a day relaxing in the city, and then drive to Ottawa on Wednesday. It breaks the nine-hour drive in half so I have at least a day to unwind before the festivities and I can always find something to do in Toronto that allows me to mentally shift gears from work to festival mode.

This time, the extra money was set aside so that I could spend five days in Toronto exercising those artistic muscles that never seem to get enough of a workout during the year. For those five days, I had lined up a solid schedule of events that would allow me to feed my artistic nature through a mixture of cultural events, animation research, and hands-on animating while I was in town.

My plan was to look at a rare book of animation at the University of Toronto, spend time at Toronto's cultural landmarks doing sketches, and then spend a day at the TAIS offices doing some test animations on Lotte Reiniger's trick-table for a silhouette animation that I'm working on.

But, things rarely go according to plan...

Friday, September 21:

"Packed the night before, actually got some rest, woke up early, got all my pre-trip preparations finished and left the house on time. But, I completely forgot my glasses on the way to get gas for the trip and had to drive back home. That should have been my first warning. Five hours later, I would be pulling onto Ontario Highway 427 in Toronto when I realized that I had left my sheet of blue Plexiglas at home. Doom on me. I had only planned on testing my fish models and their motion, but I still wanted to do it right with the nice blue background. My downshooter setup at home can handle what I want to animate. And as much as I would've loved to do the whole film on Lotte's trick-table, time limitations wouldn't let that happen. You can only animate so much in a single day. I'm planning that one-half of the animation will be completely CGI -- heck, I might do all of it in CGI. Dunno at this point. But it would be nice to test my idea on Lotte's table. Just wish I hadn't forgotten the friggin' blue Plexiglas!

Checked in to the hotel. Ran a couple errands -- like replenishing my brother's supply of artisanal mustard from a vendor at the St. Lawrence Market. Then hightailed it to the Art Gallery of Ontario for a presentation on Ethiopian Orthodox Christian artwork from the first century. The presentation itself was okay. However, I actually found myself enjoying the historical and archeological part of the lecture more than the art. But the real highlight of the AGO visit was making the most welcome discovery that they had a painting by Claude Monet hanging on one of their galleries! I made sure to get pics of 'Charing Cross Bridge, Fog' before I left.

Charing Cross Bridge, Fog
Claude Monet
Then it was off to dinner... then a trip out to BMV where I found a nice used book on Disney's 1930's animation concept art. All-in-all, a good first day."

Saturday, September 22:

"Had a really good time today, even though I upended my day for it by sleeping in and skipping my lunch plans in Kensington Market. Instead I went straight to the Dragon City Mall DQ for my yearly Cherry Arctic Rush.

Then it was off to the chocolate tasting tour hosted by Tasty Tours. Isabella kept us moving as we hiked through the city to visit six chocolatiers in Downtown Toronto over by the fashion district. On the way, I met three young ladies doing a private Lolita fashion shoot. They were a little upset when one of our party took pics of them, but I think it all blew over when I complimented them on their outfits and chatted them up about a friend who is part of the Lolita fashion club back in Michigan. My cred was firmly established when I asked them if Twylite Creations over in Kensington Market was still open. As I walked away, I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd met them before. Eh, my work with historical needlework takes me to some interesting people and places.

Another highlight was how Isabella took us through some alleyways with a lot of cool graffiti art and gave us time to take pictures. At every chocolatier, we got food samples -- always a different sample: gelato, truffles, macaroons, etc. -- and some tidbit of knowledge or history about the chocolatiers in Toronto or the chocolate making process. Strangers when the tour started, all twelve of us were joking around like old pals by the end of the tour. And as the tour came to a close, we were presented with a going away present: the Toffle, an exclusive truffle created by Tasty Tours. One part truffle, one part butter tart... I could eat a whole box of these in one sitting, if only they'd sell them outside of the tour.

Mmm... the Toffle! :o
If only they would sell these in bulk!

Afterwards, since I hadn't eaten anything all day, other than chocolate, I had to get something more substantial. Off to Wahlburgers I went -- since it was on the way to my next two attractions: the Aquarium and the CN Tower.

Wouldn't sit still for a picture.
Guess he was feeling a little crabby...
Really not much for me to say about those experiences. During the visit, I took lots of photos, spent a fair amount of time looking out on the city at night while thinking about life, enjoyed the cool weather, then went back to my hotel to do my five sketches from the Aquarium photos."

Sunday, September 23

"Had to swap out events on Saturday. As they were predicting rain on Tuesday, I drove out to the Toronto Zoo instead. The weather was gorgeous so it seemed like a good idea. Spent the better part of three hours walking around and taking pictures. Got to play with a caterpillar. Did some sketches and took a lot of great photo and video references of the giraffes for my silhouette animation. We only have two zoos back in Michigan with giraffes and they're a bit of a chore to get to from where I live, so, best to take the opportunity now while I have it.

He didn't seem to understand the concept of a concrete path so
I helped him find a nice tasty plant before a bird found him.
After hiking through every paddock at the Zoo, I drove back into town and immediately walked to the E.J. Pratt library where they have a copy of Walking Shadows by Eric Walter White -- the only copy that I have been able to locate in the Great Lakes region. Couldn't see the book that day but set up a time on Tuesday to have it brought out from the archives: Tuesday at 10:14 a.m. -- right before I go visit the ROM.

After dinner, I visited another used bookstore and found another book that is on my burgeoning list of books I want in my collection: The Art of Disney's Dragons. Gotta love it when you find a book that wouldn't fit in your budget when it was released, but you find months later in a much more affordable form at a used bookstore.

After perusing my find, I spent the rest of the night doing my ten Zoo drawings."

Monday, September 24

"Wasn't exactly sure what to expect out of Monday. I got up and went to the TAIS offices over on Dufferin. Then, over the next four hours, I worked with my three fish models and animated the same scene six times -- this was on purpose mind you. All my prior work in silhouette animation has either been research or tinkering with ideas at workshops. This was the first time when 'getting it right' really mattered. So I started at square one: set up my scene until the visual style (lighting and color) looked the way I wanted, then I started experimenting with the motions to answer those questions that were mulling around in my head: how long should the scene last, should I film on ones, twos, or threes, how much motion did I want the puppets to engage in -- finding that tenuous balance before the secondary motion becomes a distraction from the overall scene -- these were all questions that I could only answer visually. By the sixth take, I had learned exactly what I wanted to learn from the experience and much more.

Combined with the photos and video that I took at the Zoo and Aquarium, I left TAIS finally ready to go from my shotlist to storyboards.

The rest of the day consisted of a quick nap, a long walk around the Eaton Center, a couple chocolate truffles from Godiva followed by an excellent meal at Ginger, a Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall restaurant that I will definitely be returning to. I really wish we had a restaurant like that at home! And to top it all off, that night, I accidentally cracked the screen protector on my iPhone. Doom on me."

Tuesday, September 25

"Skipped breakfast again, but was up just in time to get to the E.J. Pratt Library to look at their copy of Walking Shadows. The book was only thirty pages long, with four plates showing some models that Lotte created for her films but interestingly enough never made it on screen in the final edits. That trip was well worth the visit. I devoured the book over the next hour then immediately jumped online and bought a copy from a bookseller in California -- the only one in the States that I could find for sale. Another nice addition to my collection of antiquities from the history of women animators (click here to see how that all worked out).

Then, it was a quick stop at the mall to get my cracked iPhone screen shield repaired at the Apple store, followed by lunch at Marche, one of the few remaining restaurants from those family trips during the '70's and '80's. Nostalgia never tasted so good!

Afterwards, I hopped back on the yellow line and took the TTC back up to the Royal Ontario Museum where I spent hours drifting from room to room and taking lots of photos. Was a little underwhelmed by the special exhibit on spiders until I came across the display with the largest textile produced with spider silk.

Yupper. Nothing but spider silk.
Beautiful, and yet still creepy!
One fun exercise I engaged in while there was to take some time to study the dinosaurs and do a few mental gymnastics comparing them in size and scale to modern animals in an attempt to figure out how they would move. Here is where video references of giraffes, elephants, and rhinoceroses become very useful. But the real highlight of the ROM visit was watching about an hours worth of video presentations on various metals over in the Geology room -- all the videos were very good examples of motion graphics and I found myself spending more time picking apart the video editing and speculating on how they could have produced the motion graphics using After Effects than focusing on the topic of the video.

When the ROM closed, I went back to Marche for my yearly strawberry crepe. Then back to the hotel. After a quick dinner at Ginger, it was time to pack up. This leg of the trip was almost over. My only regret from the day was that I never did my ten sketches from photographs that I took at the ROM. Rather than feeling relaxed, I was feeling a little overwhelmed from all the walking and the handful of toxic people encountered on this leg of the trip. But, tomorrow would be another day."

Come back next week for part two: my yearly visit to Ottawa!

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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

A Year of Animation: Replay Entertainment Exchange

My little brother owns a used media store: CDs, DVDs, video games, stuff like that. Over the years, he's moved his store multiple times due to fire, flood, better parking, cheaper rent, etc., and he's finally found a location where Replay Entertainment Exchange will probably stay for years to come (I hope).

After his fourth move, I animated a couple commercials for him as a favor. Unfortunately, after each subsequent move, he would come to me and ask me to redo the end title credit with the new website and store address. Eh, it is what it is. He's family after all. And access to his store has helped me expand my DVD collection.

So, the animation for this month was to redo the end title for his commercials. Not much, I realize, but it needed to be done and I've been travelling so much this Fall, it hasn't left much time for anything else.

Here's the new end titles, it follows the progression of original titles, second edit, and the most recent edit:

And here's one of the commercials that uses it:

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Animated Thoughts: Father Knows Best

Well, I wanted to buy a book for my Women Animators research (and collection), but apparently the Lord had other ideas.

The only copy of Eric Walter White's Walking Shadows (an essay on Lotte Reiniger published in 1931) that I have been able to locate in the Great Lakes region resides in Toronto at the University of Toronto's E.J. Pratt Library. After having the librarians pull it out of the special collections and reading it during my trip to the Ottawa International Animation Festival, I immediately went online and purchased the copy on Amazon that a bookseller in California had listed for sale.

$303.49 is a little pricey for a 31 page essay with four photographs, however... the book was printed in 1931, the info contained about Lotte's process was very good, and honestly, when am I ever going to get the chance to own this book again?

Unfortunately, after arriving home from Canada a week later, I received a notice that the bookseller had refunded my $303.49 since they could not find their copy.

Sucks to be me. Or so I had thought.

Having read Walking Shadows, there was enough unique and interesting material in there that I still wanted to make it a part of my collection. So, for the following week, I poked around the internet when time permitted in the vain hope that there was a copy of this obscure 87-year old text for sale.

Then, about to give up the search, my stubbornness paid off! I switched my search from US based resellers of domestic and overseas books to directly searching UK booksellers' websites, and there one was. It's an old library copy so there's a little bit of wear, and they frustratingly put a sticker on the book's cover which caused a little marring when I removed it, but it's still in astonishingly good condition.

Best of all, including the 5 to 8 day priority shipping from the UK, the final cost was $41.96 USD (which also includes the international transaction fee on my credit card).

Far, far better for my women animators research budget than the $303.49 I had been willing to pay!

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Sunday, September 30, 2018

A Year of Animation: Oh Canada!!

So I've got this idea for a silhouette animation, but I'm having trouble getting it off the ground. Well, sometimes you need to just dive right in and do some experimentation to get the project moving forward -- priming the pump as it were.

In this case, since I was going to be in Toronto for a couple days before attending the Ottawa International Animation Festival, I rented out the "Lotte Reiniger Studio" at the Toronto Animated Image Society for the day in order to play around and get a feel for this animation -- and draw a little inspiration from Lotte's tricktable.

That day, I went through six tests, animating the same scene over and over until I reached this one:

A lot of what I was looking for was getting a feel for how long the scene should be, what frame rate I should film the scene at, whether this should be filmed on ones, twos or threes, and how fast or slow the fish should move. After doing these tests, and taking lots of photo and video references at the Toronto Zoo and Ripley's Aquarium, while I'm not ready to animate just yet, I'm definitely ready to finalize my storyboards and move to the animatic phase of my production.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Animated Thoughts: ASIFA Central Retreat and Lotte Reiniger

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

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

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

Venus in Seide (Venus in Silk)
by Gustav Hochstetter

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

Then came the difficult part.

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

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

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

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

One must be the most beautiful (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(1) translation by Charles Wilson