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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