Sunday, December 31, 2023

Animated Thoughts: End of the Year Introspection

The year has come to an end and once again I find myself looking both backward and forward. What projects have I completed? What would I like to accomplish in the coming year? Well, in addition to updating my history class for it's new format, there were two main projects I worked on this year that I'm particularly proud of.

The first was a cookbook for my nephews. One graduated from high school and the other from college. So I spent over six months talking to my mother and other relatives in order to gather recipes that have been in the family for generations--a number of which my nephews would have tried out when they came to visit. Each recipe had a story (or just an anecdote) on why it was in the cookbook as well as snippets of our shared history. I also included as many stories of our family history as I could find--even going so far as to trace our family tree back seven generations, which included the geneology work performed by relatives who had done much of this research in the years leading up to my project. 

Sadly, due to the Bolshevek Revolution and the Vietnam War, I couldn't go back very far through the Shemko and Nguyen/Pham lineage since most of those records have been destroyed. But, we do have some very detailed records of the Wilson, Crotty, and Shults lines. One big surprise was the work that my cousin's family did in discovering who my Grandpa Wilson really was and where he came from. I never knew that six generations back, we have an ancestor who immigrated from Italy to Ireland. 

Well, I honestly doubt that the cookbook will mean much to my nephews right now, at their current ages and where they are in life. But in about fifteen to twenty years, when they have kids of their own and they start fielding questions of what it was like when they were kids and 'where do we come from', I think the Family Heritage Cookbook will mean something really special to them.

The second project was no less of an achievement, one years in the making and that has been on my mind since being furloughed during the economic crash of 2008.

On more than one occasion, I've stated that I want to make more films that are fun and uplifting. A lot of this comes from my work as a forensic animator. The rest comes from my trips to Ottawa. The Ottawa International Animation Festival is a very inspiring experience and yet at the same time it's a very humbling experience. I see the works of filmmakers like Michèle Cournoyer and Andreas Hykades. They are entertaining on one level, thought provoking on another, but overall they make me confront the fact that I don't yet have the ability to handle serious topics with the skill and delicacy that they do. I know that we shouldn't compare ourselves to other people, but I often find myself listening to podcasts and audiobooks about serious subjects (like the Rape of Nanking or the history of Russia) and wonder how I would portray such events in animated form--an attempt to convey the tragedy and the horror of the event without it devolving into a spectacle that robs the event of its meaning.

This all leads into the other thing I'm proud of this year: convincing my boss to let me do a little internet advertising towards our existing client base. Yeah, yeah, I know, how does this relate to the above, bear with me. I've worked for Investigative Mechanics for over twenty years now. During that time, I've been filming car wrecks (and animating a few) in order to document evidence for court cases. Sometimes, I even get to make these 'mini documentaries' that explain technical issues to non-technical judges and juries.

And for at least the past fifteen years, through the good and bad economic times, I've been trying to convince my boss to advertise the company. As he's somewhat old-school, he's always balked at my ideas, preferring to gain new business by word-of-mouth advertising through satisfied clients. However, we've got a rather sizable library of cases that we've worked on and some are pretty interesting. So, when I pitched the website update and redesign this year, I took a little time to write-up some cases and animated the following video about one of our more interesting cases -- complete with some new animations to explain the issue we discovered.

Now it's one thing to produce a short like this one: dry, technical, but interesting to its target audience. It's another thing entirely to produce a film that can tackle a more difficult subject and make it appeal to a much broader audience. This is where I really admire filmmakers like Cournoyer and Hykades. I've watched Hykades' film "The Runt" many times over the years and discussed it with a fair number of people. I keep coming back to the 'rite of passage' theme of guiding a boy into manhood by teaching him the lesson that 'for him to live, something must die'. Most people I've spoken to are stuck on being horrified by the death of bunnies. They stop there and don't seem to consider the deeper lessons that Hykades may have been trying to reveal to his audience--some that he may have learned as a boy himself. Cournoyer's film for the NFB "A Feather Tale" with its themes of sexual fetishism and objectification is a little easier to find common ground with people who've watched it. We tend to see the same themes in the metaphorical imagery of a man who objectifies his wife told through the visuals of a farmer and a chicken.

I'm honestly not sure if producing films like the aforementioned is a goal I should be working towards or if I should stay in my lane. Though films like "A Feather Tale" may not have the immediate payoff as a comedic animated short film does, I suspect that the serious animated film may have a longer term payoff as it's meant to affect us at a deeper level. Bears further thought.

I remember sitting in a Toronto theater in 2014, watching the annual TAIS Summer Screening. They had put out the call to their members for the yearly anijam. That particular year's topic was "robots". So I banged out something quick over an evening and submitted it. That night, knowing that I couldn't match the artistic skills of my fellow animators, I went for a simple one gag story with a 'subversion of expectations' event thrown in for good measure.

And it worked.

The crowd got a good chuckle out of the ten second animation and I heard someone in the audience say that it was clever. I had taken my roll of the dice and it paid off.

There are a lot of funny stories in my past that I'd like to share to a wider audience. But there are also some serious and poignant ones as well. The first step to take is to write them down--which I've been doing for several years now, if for no other reason than to get them out of my head. As I close the book on the 2023 projects and look at my free time for 2024, I'm left wondering which stories I should invest my limited time and energy into: those that will make people laugh in the moment or those that will make people think over the long term?

Well, enough rambling. Happy New Year, everyone. Time for me to get back to learning the latest upgrade to Moho Pro.

* * *

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Animated Events: Miku Expo 2023 VR

Well Miku Expo 2023 VR was last weekend and I have to say that it did not disappoint. Afterwards, I was left with a lot of fond memories of seeing Miku for the first time at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit back in 2014 and then the full Expo in Toronto two years later. While the in-house experience they've been doing since the lockdowns is definitely different from the "live" performance, I have to admit that I do like watching a show in the privacy of my own home and not having to deal with travel and crowds. But, as in 2024, Miku Expo will be coming to Detroit, I do see a short road trip in my future.

The program was streamed live on Twitch and YouTube, however only Twitch had the opening act. Like last time, the concert was shown three times and there was a pre-show of Miku videos and commercials. This was followed by a show of one of three musicians. I was in a videoconference so missed out on the opening act but did get to catch the pre-show. My favorite video was the thoroughly enjoyable "Music Like Magic!" by OSTER project, music video by Milo, with visuals that looked like cut-out animation -- though was most likely digital cut-out. Fortunately for all, since this was the official music video for MIKU Expo Europe back in 2018, the video was still online:

This year's performance took place in a virtual circus setting complete with castle and ferris wheel. I have to admit, I found the patchwork of colors and shapes to be a little busy, visually. But after the first couple songs, the setting changed to this fantasy underground venue complete with crystals and an on-again/off-again field of grass and flowers--a setting I much preferred.

The setlist they followed was as follows:

  • Knife, Knife, Knife - KIKUO
  • Acceleration (Breeze Remix) - Clean Tears
  • Frauline=Biblioteka - nyanyannya
  • Literacy - wotaku
  • Midnight Surf - asicacamosica.
  • 1+1 - doriko
  • wanterlast - sasajure.UK
  • vivid - YuyoyuppexUtsu-P
  • Karma - CircusP & Creep-P
  • Ego rock(long ver.) - Three
  • Shindeshimautowa Nasakenal! - WONDERFUL*OPPORTUNITY!
  • Plaything - Mizu
  • Tell Your World - livetune
  • imaginary love story - Synthion

So a lot of songs I haven't heard but some classics that I love, like "Tell Your World".

The music for the show was performed by the following musicians:
  • Nao Nishimura - Keyboard
  • Yuta Sasaki - Guitar
  • Hikaru Yamamoto - Bass
  • Masafumi Eno - Drums
Miku Expo sounded like it would be really fun to watch in VR, but unfortunately I'd need to wear  my eyeglasses in order to see the mini screens in the headset. Pretty sure it would end up being a rather uncomfortable experience based upon the animated VR short I saw at Ottawa this year. Fortunately though, Miku Expo 2024 is going to be showing in Detroit, so there's a definite possibility that I'll go back to watching Miku and friends in person.

* * *

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Animated Events: An Afternoon at the DIA

It was October. The leaves were red, orange, and gold here in Michigan.

I had handed out midterms on Friday and they started to drift in -- a number of my more diligent students finished and turned in the exam the very next day. But as we headed into the holiday season, I knew that time was going to be more precious than ever. Grading forty-three midterms, followed by grading two separate writing assignments in November and a third quiz-based assignment in December, followed by the final exam and submitting course grades lay ahead of me. Then there was International Animation Day, the Grand Rapids Comicon, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and finally, my birthday on New Year's Eve.

I had to face the very real fact that I wouldn't get to visit the Detroit Institute of Arts until January. Not being able to visit an art museum isn't a Greek tragedy in the grand scheme of life. But considering how much I work during the week, I do enjoy getting away from it all for an afternoon of solitude, a little exercise, and some artistic inspiration. Recharges the internal batteries and all that.

So, with the weekend open, a friend and I drove down to Detroit for a good lunch and an afternoon of cultural enrichment. After we finished up at the DIA Café, Jon and I went our separate ways. He wanted to visit the DIA's library and do some research. I wanted to drift and look at some familiar pieces of art--see what was still there and what had been changed since my last visit. I was not disappointed.

Hanuman, early 1900's
Unknown artist

The first stop was the "hall of puppetry". The exhibit had been swapped out since my last visit. Some of the puppets I had seen before, but this time there was an interesting note in one of the placards dealing with the puppeteer making a puppet transition from one size to another during the performance and it explained a little technique. When I think about how Lotte Reiniger made transitions in direction or movement on the z-plane, how the Indian puppeteers handled the same issue was very thought provoking. Worth some further research... and testing... and I wondered how I could integrate that information into my lecture on the history of puppets... or the assignment on Lotte Reiniger.

Painting from an Album of Landscapes
after Old Masters, 1619
Shen Shichong

Then it was off to the "hall of Chinese paintings". There's just something about observing the complexity of the simple designs seen in both the layout and the brush strokes combined with a skillful use of the 'white of the paper' that I find so appealing. I once heard that during Mao's "Cultural Revolution" the communists tried to destroy China's history. How many priceless works of art and literature that represent the great history of the Chinese people are gone forever? Course, for that matter, how many were destroyed during World War II? Or when Rome fell... or Constantinople...?

Fruit Piece, 1849
Robert Seldon Duncanson

Having no plan in particular, nor any special exhibits to visit, I walked upstairs and revisited some artwork that I'd seen many times before. This time though, feeling no rush to be anywhere or do anything, I sat there and tried to observe the paintings with new eyes and from different angles. My patience was rewarded as I noticed details in the paint/brushstrokes on the pineapple in Duncanson's "Fruit Piece", details meant to simulate light and shadow and reveal texture. Then there were the speckles on the strawberries, obviously meant to represent seeds--or the individual painted drupelets that made up the raspberries. So many small details that make up a greater whole.

The Veiled Lady, 1872
Giovanni Maria Benzoni

Before I left the museum proper, I had to take some more photographs of the 'Veiled Lady'. Still breathtaking... not just the ability to make marble look transparent, but also the folds in the fabric and the detail on the woman's clothing.

It really makes me wonder how long it took Giovanni Benzoni to learn and master the skills necessary to create such a statue.

Mont Sainte-Victoire, ~1904-6
Paul Cezanne

Feeling a little tired by this point, I had a light dessert at the Kresge Court and did some reading. I've been jotting down notes about a fantasy setting that's been on my mind for the better part of five years--writing from the first-person perspective like Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, as if I was writing a travelogue of my experiences while I wander through a strange and wondrous land. I honestly don't think that it's something that I'd ever publish. It's more the act of creation and having something special for me to read and reread that I'm enjoying. A roommate of mine once wrote several novels in the time we lived together. They were all set in the universe of a game we played and from the perspective of the main character and the mercenary unit that my friend played. One day I asked him if he was ever going to submit them for publication, after all, he had been a playtester for the game, he knew the right people to talk to. But he said 'no'. Writing these stories was something that he did for himself. I didn't understand it then, but all these years later, I think I get it now. Sometimes the story is so personal that you want to keep it all to yourself rather than put it out there, be it published as official canon or as fan fiction. Jeff was right: sometimes it's all about 'creating art just for the sake of creating art'.

* * *

Saturday, October 28, 2023

International Animation Day 2023

 Happy International Animation Day!

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Animated Thoughts: Return to the Ottawa International Animation Festival

Fall was here.

The travel restrictions had ended. And yet I was on the fence about going back to the Ottawa International Animation Festival.

Since 1994, I had only missed two festivals (though I made sure to collect the program books for those two years). As time had progressed, a Fall trip to Canada -- usually with a brief yet enjoyable layover in Toronto or Niagara -- had become a welcome routine. As we entered September, I still hadn't decided whether or not I wanted to go, but I reserved a hotel room just in case. I could cancel the reservation up to the day before the festival so I was in no danger there either way.

While I had attended the virtual OIAF festivals during the lockdown, and had scheduled other events during that time to ensure that I would have my own "Ottawa" experience, I had to face the very real fact that I wasn't the person that I was before the lockdowns. I had been broken out of my routine and saw what other things were out there (1).

But I received an e-mail from a colleague who asked me if I was going to the festival. And he was someone who I've wanted to hang out with for quite some time now, so the die was cast and the festival pass was purchased (2) and I waited patiently for the trip.

September 20, 2023

Day one of my triumphant return to Ottawa!

It turned out to be a ten hour drive to Ottawa. Would have been a nine hour drive, but the traffic in Toronto was pretty tough to wade through. However, time flew by as I was talking with Jim Middleton the entire way. We discussed film, animation, music, the state of the animation industry, vintage film and sound equipment, and teaching modalities.

We arrived in Ottawa around 8:30-ish. Plenty of time to pick up our passes before they closed at 9 p.m. and then check into the hotel. After a tasty dinner at the Aulde Dubliner, it was off to the opening night party. We saw festival Artistic Director Chris Robinson and chatted up fellow animator Pilar Newton-Katz. Didn't see anyone else that we knew. The Pub 101 was packed with students. Jim and I then walked around the city and reminisced about places that had closed down and were overjoyed a the larger number of places we remembered that were still there. Was looking forward to having a crepe and a Beavertail at the Byward Market that weekend.

Over dinner, Jim listened to one of my animated short ideas. He was very encouraging. I think that having a set of completed storyboards before the semester ends is an achievable goal. Would be nice to show something to the kids--let them know that I do produce something other than animations of car crashes. And maaaaybe have something for next year's International Animation Day... and TAIS Summer screening. Heck, would be nice just to have something non-technical and artistic to show. I honestly never realized how difficult it would be to complete a short film when you're working full time. Makes me appreciate the work my professors back at R.I.T. did all the more. Seemed like every other year, either Stephanie or Skip would have a film in competition.

September 21, 2023

Was a nice start to the day. Everyone is pretty friendly. Met up with some regulars (and ASIFA members) Gary Schwartz, Josh Harrell, Brooke Keesling, as well as Pilar while Jim and I were at the Chez Ani, waiting for the first event of the day: "Dots, Lines, Washes: Animating Ink". Should be a fascinating presentation. The presenter was introducing the films. I was hoping that she'd include some technique in her opening presentation and I was not disappointed.

The whole screening was good -- would've been better without all the stupid students looking at their stupid phones though. You paid to be at a festival, sitting in a theater where you came to see some beautiful art... and you're surfing the net and texting your friends instead of watching the films. I don't understand people. The program opened with Ryan Larkin's Walking. Still a solid film even after all these years. She also showed a clip about Disney's ink and paint process as well as how they did background painting back in 1938--I didn't realize that the backgrounds in Snow White used watercolor. You can see the segment she showed in the linked video at time marker 3:22 to 4:28. But the whole video on YouTube is worth a watch: How Walt Disney Cartoons are Made, 1938.

There were three other films that really spoke to me from the program: 1947's Boogie Doodle, by Norman McLaren, Feeling from Mountain and Water, a 1988 film produced by Te Wei, and lastly, a clip of some animated shrimps done in the style of artist Qi Baishi. The linked video shows Qi Baishi painting shrimps and shows a clip of the film at the end. The film clip we watched was from Three Shrimps, 1950, but the video on YouTube is 'Rare video of Chinese painting master Qui Baishi painting shrimp.' Such beautiful films. I made some notes so that I could go back later, track them down, and watch them again.

Saw Lynn Dana Wilton on the way out. Was real sorry to hear that she had been ill, but she's looking very rested and healthy. Wish that the two films she submitted had been accepted to the festival. Would really like to see more of her work. I had seen on LinkedIn that Lynn posted a link to an anijam she participated in. Would love to know what segment in the overall film was hers.

After a short conversation, it was off to the World Panorama. I could already tell that it was going to be a great day of screenings. Every program I really wanted to see was that day--including the Canadian and Canadian Student Panoramas. Once I'd seen those screenings, everything else that week would be gravy. There were some really decent films with amazing technique--especially a direct-on-film short by Richard Reeves titled Intersextion (the trailer for which you can see below)--but the one thing I noticed which seemed to be lacking from a lot of the films I saw that afternoon was "story". Jim noticed the same thing. We were left wondering if colleges are still teaching story in these animation schools. I must admit to being a bit spoiled in that regard. Back at R.I.T., Erik's philosophy was 'it all begins with a story'.

After dinner, we went to the Salon de Refuses party. Got the chance to catch up with Toronto animator James Murray. Met a student (Joshua) who recognized the "Stop motion" t-shirt I was wearing. Turns out a professor of his was one of the people who started the Montreal Stop-Motion Festival. Small world. Went inside the venue and it was packed, but not packed enough to prevent me from meeting 'the' George Maestri. He seemed surprised when Jim and I talked about reading his articles in Computer Graphics World back in the day and owning/using all of his books to study 3d CGI character animation.

George, if you ever see this, I wasn't kidding about owning your four books and how fascinating they have been.

Some are still available on Amazon... just sayin'

On the way out of the party, we bumped into Brooke. Once again, her husband was out camping in "redwood country" while she was giving panels and doing some networking at the festival for her company. The solitude he was experiencing sounds really lovely. For years now, I have been living vicariously through stories of him going camping out in the middle of nowhere with some books to read and peace and quiet to enjoy. I hope to meet him in person some day. Sounds like one of those really chill guys who you can hang out with and swap travel stories over a pint. Course, maybe next year I'll follow his example and head out to the wilds of Northern Michigan with a couple books and my camping gear (and a crate of bug spray).

Heading back to the hotel room, I saw Linda Siemensky on the elevator. She's working at a new company. Hope it's a good fit for her skills and talent. Reminded me that I hadn't yet seen Glenn, my friend and fellow R.I.T. alum. Wondered if he was going to make it this year? Didn't see our fellow grad school alum Sarah either. She was usually there shepherding a bunch of her students from the university over in Buffalo where she teaches.

Friday, September 22, 2023

Wow what a whirlwind of screenings and people. Saw Barry Sanders while in line for the morning screening. Wonder how many of the Toronto animation crowd were at the fest over the weekend? Afterwards, Jim wanted to get his steps in, so he and I walked to the picnic where we chatted with Gary, Brooke, Josh and some nice girls from a school in Philly. This was the two girls' first OIAF ever. I handed out lots of free info for job hunting. I'm a little disappointed in myself. I didn't take a photo of the festival cake... or cupcakes... I don't know what they had for dessert at the picnic. At that point, I was a little tired of fighting Canadian yellow jackets over who was going to drink my soda so I opted for enjoying a brisk walk back to the hotel and taking a delightful nap before the evening screening.

The nap after the picnic served me well. I was awake and alert--enough to see Joan Gratz standing there in the aisles right before the screening. Had a nice chat with her before the films started playing. Joan was a pistol as always, but unfortunately she had to deal with a number of delayed flights on the way here. This prevented her from arriving in Ottawa until later in the morning. She ended up dozing a bit through the screening. I couldn't blame her. Regardless, no matter how much or how little, it's always a treat to spend time with her.

The World Student Panorama afterwards was very impressive. There's a number of films there that I want to rewatch and analyze--once the films finish their festival run and the kids put them in their online portfolios (hopefully). A very Canadian-themed dinner with Jim consisted of poutine and Beavertails. And lots of conversation about the state of education--and how to be better teach students.

"Yeah, I really missed these!"

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Saturday morning. Weather was beautiful. It was such a nice walk to the National Arts Center for the professional development panels and the job fair. Saw Bryce Hallett and Lynn there with an animation stand--two more friends from Toronto. Took lots of notes at the morning session about thriving in tough times. A lot of good info, much of which will make it into some of my future lectures.

Stopped by the cosplay drawing area at the NAC before having shwarma's for lunch. I really need to get better at drawing! Could've spent more time there and I'm pretty sure it would've been very productive. At the beginning, I was struggling and producing nothing but crap. So I took a step back and started looking at action lines. I'd draw an ellipse for the models' heads then work my way down their spines to their legs -- all following the line of action in their poses. Within a couple drawings, everything started to open up. Then I focused on proper proportions and a bit of perspective. The gains came much faster. My arm loosened up and I shifted from drawing with my wrist to drawing with my whole arm. More gains were immediately reflected in the quality of my drawings. Didn't want the moment to end but had to get to the competition screenings. I took a number of photographs so I could go back and do some more drawings off of these models later on.

Before leaving the NAC, I had the chance to chat with Bryce and Lynn. It was far too brief. Afterwards, I made a mental note to attend the TAIS Winter screening if at all possible. Have missed my friends in the Toronto animation community terribly.

Bryce Hallet (l) and Lynn Dana Wilton (r)

The competition screenings were pretty much what you'd expect. Chris has stated to me that he programs the competition screenings "rhythmically". It has felt to me and colleagues that the screenings have a "thematic" sensibility--i.e. one screening is usually predominantly humorous, another dramatic, one that usually deals with human sexuality, and so on. After hearing from Chris about his process, I'd actually like to hear more about his methodology--programming "rhythmically" sounds pretty fascinating. I've only put together some private screenings for my friends or ASIFA events, so my experience is limited and it's usually based upon building a program based upon a variety of techniques and across several periods of time. This year, I was informed that the competition screenings were based on the theme of 'gender-based violence'. Honestly, had I know that going in, I would've skipped all the competition screenings and spent the entire day at the NAC sketching cosplay models and going to the panel discussions. A lot of good technique overall, but just not to my tastes. There definitely were some really good films in competition though, like Living the Dream by Director Ben Meinhardt.

And A Crab in the Pool (directed by Alexandra Myotte and Jean-Sébastien Hamel) was a very heartfelt look at two children coming to terms with their mother's battle with breast cancer--see the trailer below.

But my favorite film from the entire festival was the the OIAF "Sponsorship Reel" film by Chris Dainty and his crew. It's not on YouTube or Vimeo just yet, but Chris posted it on his LinkedIn page. It's worth a watch!

Watch it here: Dainty Productions on LinkedIn.

Seeing that little beaver flipping pages as he animates just gives me a chuckle every time. Chris and his team perfectly encapsulated the feel of an animation festival in Canada.

After the screenings, I had a decent meal at Level One -- but not until I had tried out the "Caves" VR exhibit. Was nice to know that my new eyeglass prescription allows me to see Virtual Reality, though it was a touch uncomfortable trying to wear VR goggles and my glasses at the same time. Saw Jim on the way in to the Saturday Night Party. Went to the 'drink and draw' event and did a little more sketching. Continued focusing on line-of-action and proportions. Continued to see immediate results, but still see so much room for improvement. Before I left, I had the opportunity to talk with José Pou from this morning's 'surviving in tough times' talk. We were on the same page in so many ways: especially about how these downturns in the industry are opportunities to hone your skills while you're looking for your next gig. That and there's no shame in delivering pizzas or doing some other job while you're out there looking for that dream animation job.

Then it was off to the hotel. Caught up with Jim. Ran a load of laundry and started to pack for the trip home. Felt waves of nostalgia over the past couple days. Saw some great people. It was well worth coming to the festival this year. The only epiphany I had was that many of the films I watched kind of reinforced the fact that I really want to make films that are funny and uplifting. Sort of follow the Bill Plympton model of 'keep it short, keep it funny'.

"Just a fraction of the booths at the job fair."

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Technically I wasn't due back to the office until Tuesday morning. But during the drive to Ottawa, I got a call from the office that the e-mail wasn't working. I recognized the error message. It wasn't good. Nor was it something that I could troubleshoot over the phone. I told them to use their tablets to access their e-mail directly from the server and I'd fix it when I got back. When we got to the hotel on Wednesday evening, I looked up some possible solutions online--and also found a couple refurbished computers from Micro Center if I had to do a full replacement. We got back to Michigan around nine-ish in the evening. Jim left for home. I ran to McDonalds, grabbed some dinner to go, and drove straight to the office. Three hours later, and the computer problem had just gotten worse. I fixed the problem (sort of), however, doing so required me to re-register the business versions of Microsoft Office--and the boss's computer wouldn't talk to the Microsoft servers. I went home, somewhat defeated. The next morning, I gave the boss the options: buy a new computer and I'd transfer all the software and data or I could call Microsoft and see if they could help. In short order, I was driving down to Detroit with purchase orders for two computers. So. Not the best end to my vacation, but it certainly had it's moments. And I have to admit, it was nice to have that three hour drive down to Detroit and back.

I did a lot of thinking about the trip during that short drive. Still don't know if I'll get to go back to Ottawa next year. But it was definitely worth attending the festival this year. Figured the best course of action was to start saving up money now so that if I decided to go, everything would be fully funded and all I would have to do is make some reservations and buy a festival pass.

* * *

1. For a couple years now, I've been planning a future trip to see some of the world's greatest art museums. I have already visited the Musee d'Orsay, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Boston Museum of Fine Art, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the National Art Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. On the list of museums to see are the Louvre, the Hermitage Museum in Saint-Petersburg, and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

2. And a rental car reserved as my car has over 285,000 miles and I wasn't going to push my luck.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Animated People: Carl "Skip" Battaglia

Carl "Skip" Battaglia, Stephanie Maxwell,
Marla Schweppe, Me. (l to r)

So it's Fall and I'm back teaching again. 

One of my colleagues said that I should consider working on a film during my spare time and then showing it to my students on the last day of class. Sort of a "hey, I did this over the past four months in my spare time, think about what you could accomplish." Well, as I was shuffling through the backlog of stalled ideas and "y'know, if I ever get the time" sketches, I came across this little gem from my former professor Carl "Skip" Battaglia. Back in 2008, I was toying with the idea of an abstract animation but it didn't fit into the mold of narrative animations that I was used to using when designing films. As Skip is an accomplished animator who is very knowledgeable about experimental techniques, I reached out to him:

Hi Skip,

Hope this letter finds you well. It was a real treat to talk to you and your daughter at Ottawa and see what you've been working on for the past year. Sorry that you didn't win the award for experimental/abstract animated short film, but was very happy to see your film in the competition. Well, after watching your latest film (and reviewing your Skip's Pics DVD), I've bumped up an abstract/experimental-style animation on my list of projects. The entire short animation deals with the techniques and artistic style that I'm learning about in my Oriental Watercolor class this semester. However, as I'm working through the planning stages of this film, I'm finding that the traditional treatment-script-storyboard-soundtrack method that I use to plan films just isn't lending itself very well to abstract expression. I'm getting kind of frustrated trying to get a film to fit into a mold that it wasn't designed for. So, I was wondering if you could suggest a couple of books that you use to plan your films that I could read?

Thanks Skip, and see you in Ottawa '08. Hopefully by then, I'll have a couple of films to run alongside you and Stephanie. And please give your daughter our best from me and Ted. Hope she does well in her final class. =)


Charles Wilson

This was his response:

Hi Charles:

There are no hard-and-fast books in experimental design for animation.

I read philosophy and poetry, study painting.  I have always listened to a lot of musics, including experimental, free jazz, South American, and African.  My notebooks and sketches provoke some things.  Knowledge about film continuity (which you have), animation production, storyboarding (pay attention to the vectors of movement; I arrow them in/over in red pencil) are helpful as the storyboard will come directly in response to your premise for the film.

Sometimes I begin with a rough idea, then score a musical track via ProTools to give me a scratch soundtrack to animate to for the sake of rhythm, tempo, drama -- and to have a timed track to give to a composer later.

Thinking historically, the books which have been most helpful are/were:

Rudolph Arhheim, "Art and Visual Perception."

H. Marshall McLuhan and Herley Parker, "Through the Vanishing Point."

"Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind."

books on graphic design, painting process...

... and everything I teach, and films I've viewed.

I'd also think about designing the film in reverse or out of sequence from your usual methods.  It would enable a new approach (which seems to be what you're looking for).

Good to see you.  Let me know how this goes.

Get loose!


Now, as I'm currently composing a short book on the importance of mentors for my nephews, I could go off on a rant about how important it is to maintain professional relationships with your professors after graduation and how important mentors are in your career. But to be honest, the main reason I posted this e-mail is because Skip has since retired and I want his knowledge to be shared with a much wider audience.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Animated Thoughts: Surrealism and Afternoon Tea at the FIA

So I've been keeping my eye on events at the Flint Institute of Arts. No matter how much I enjoy an afternoon at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the FIA is a little closer and while both the collection and the building are smaller, there are still very interesting things to see and do.

Case in point: this past month, they had two exhibits that were of particular interest to me. The first was "Beyond Dreams: Surrealism and Its Manifestations", an exhibition of surrealism in art. The second was "the Art of Refreshment", examples of cutlery and ceramics in food service.

Surrealism for me is one of those on-again/off-again interests. Dali always seemed pretty odd to me, but in a darkly good way--especially the short film Destino that he worked on at Disney. Man Ray's work was always visually thought provoking. And I spent a fair amount of time looking at the work of René Magritte as I was forming ideas for the visual style of my MFA thesis film. I ended up going in a different direction for my thesis, but I remember making a 3d animation using Electro-GIG 3D-GO with a distinct Magritte feel to it. The reference to Magritte is still there in my notes from March 21st, 1995. The animation was of a guy built out of simple primitive shapes that was running across a blue cloudy plane suspended in space against a blue cloudy backdrop. The "primitives" guy was also textured with the same blue sky and cloud pattern. I remember sitting there trying to finish it before the deadline with fellow animation grad Leah Bosworth sitting beside me and pointing out controls on the interface that would've taken me hours to figure it out had I been working on my own.

I've also come to enjoy watching abstract animated films--mainly as a result of instruction by Marla Schweppe and through the films and instruction of Stephanie Maxwell and Skip Battaglia. So whenever I see an exhibit like "Beyond Dreams", I like to review those old lessons from my time at R.I.T. as I appreciate the artwork.

One of the things that I thought was most useful was that the curators had put up a 'Glossary of Surrealism' listing that defined several terms which were applicable to this art movement. Just a little something extra there to educate some and refresh the memories of others. It was appreciated.

As I walked around the exhibit, unlike last year's fantasy art exhibit, I had no real goal other than to look at whatever caught my eye. "Metronome" was one of those images that I just found enjoyable. There was nothing profound about it, it was just visually appealing, especially with it's use of light and shadow.

Metronome, 1990
by Scott Fraser

This one, "Moving Skip Rope" by Harold Edgerton was of particular interest given that I'm an animator--and I really wish that I had been able to get a better picture, the lighting and the glass just worked against me. "Moving Skip Rope" is a photograph taken using a stroboscope flash which produced an image that was reminiscent of Muybridge's motion studies. The resulting artwork below is a dye transfer print.

Moving Skip Rope, 1952
Harold Edgerton

Then there was "Personnage" by Man Ray. This was another one of those that appealed to me as an animator. It reminded me of those early 1980's CGI animations where all the characters were made out of basic primitives (or the assignment that I produced back in '95).

Personnage, 1975
Man Ray, 1890-1976

Afterwards, I sauntered across the hall to view the "Art of Refreshment" exhibit. There was a lot of beautiful glasswork in this exhibit but also some ceramics and some metal, ivory, stone, and silkwork.

There really weren't any moments that provoked epiphanies in this exhibit, I just found it enjoyable. You could see that there was a lot of thought and skill put into making these mundane objects remarkable.

Some of the ones that really caught my eye were the following.

So, while my trips to Flint may not be the events like what I experience in Detroit--a day of appreciating art along with a nice meal, followed by some drawing in the galleries--but what the FIA does have over the DIA is this luxurious library of artbooks with chairs and sofas that you can lounge in while reading. I'm reluctant to share photos of it because it's one of those 'best kept secrets'. I closed out my trip by spending an hour paging through books filled with historical pictures of Chinese and Japanese brushwork. Lots of food for my imagination.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Animated Events: Capital City Comic Con

Well, C4 has come and gone. As I was running a tabletop miniatures wargame at a local store, I didn't get to be there as long as I would have liked on Saturday but the time I was at the con over the whole weekend was time well spent.

Back in the day, like 2002-2004, two gentlemen ran a local gaming convention called "Foundation". My brother and I would run wargames at the con and for those two years we were a top draw with some showcase events like tournaments, how-to-play events, and a paint-and-take table. Well, sadly Foundation came to an end but years later one of them joined up with some other friends and started the Capital City Comic Con (C4).

I'll admit it, I really enjoy the convention experience: looking at the artwork, doing a little shopping, playing some demo games, but my favorite activity is attending panels and lectures to learn more about my field of study. There's just something special about being able to talk to people who are out there forging their own paths and willing to share their knowledge and experience.

This year, the two foreign comics panels were especially interesting. There's some fascinating history about comic books that you don't often hear about. The first panel was more about valuation, rarity, and pricing for the collectors market but the second was a more in-depth history of the foreign comic book market running back to around the 1930's and '40's up to the present day. It's probably due to a fair amount of myopia on my part, but I was surprised to see how the foreign market had a lot more nuance than just simple one-to-one translations of existing books. Apparently during the '70's, when Marvel was just trying to survive, it appeared that foreign writers and artists had a lot more freedom to make changes to the content of the books and covers. There were also changes made due to foreign censorship and sensibilities--and word translations that work in English but not in other languages.

One of the more interesting things I noted was how the German imprint for the Amazing Spider-Man was called "Die Spinne". Y'see, back in 1986, Marvel published the Spider-Man vs. Wolverine one-shot crossover with the "High Tide"storyline. In it, Peter Parker and Logan team up while in East Germany. As he didn't bring his black bodysuit, Peter has to buy a Spider-Man costume from a store. On the back of the outfit, in the middle of the spider logo, are the words "Die Spinne"--English translation: "the Spider". At the time, I was never able to figure out why it was there. And the suit actually showed up years later in another comic after Peter and Mary Jane got married. She moves into his loft apartment and they start paring down the extra costumes so she can have some room for her clothes. The first suit they pull out of the closet is the German suit from the crossover issue.

So, some thirty-plus years later, after learning about the German imprint of Amazing Spider-Man, why the suit from Spider-Man vs. Wolverine had the words "Die Spinne" printed on the back all made sense. And I have to admit that it was a pretty neat Easter egg at the time for all of those in the know back then.

Another standout for me over the weekend was the indie comic production and self-publishing panels. These weren't as well attended as I they should have been, but the small numbers did lead to some very interesting interactions between the crowd and panelists. In both panels, they were very interested in hearing about my animation work, as much as I was in their graphic design and publishing experience. Still, I would gladly have sacrificed some of that interaction if it meant that more kids who want to get into comics would've been able to hear some of the great advice and experiences that the panelists were giving away.

Well, as with any convention nowadays, the cosplayers were out in force. I found one of the X-Men walking around: Cyclops, from the early 1990's--one of my favorite periods of time where Marvel was producing some of the best written, best drawn issues of the series; due in large part to folks like Chris Claremont, Mark Silvestri, and Jim Lee.

And you know you have to get a photo when you purchase a poster for Arcane and you walk around the corner just in time to come face-to-face with K/DA Ahri! As much as I love to see K/DA or True Damage characters from League of Legends, I have to admit that I'm a little crestfallen that I don't see more people cosplaying the characters from Arcane. You see Jinx and Vi every so often, but the costume design was so amazing, I'd love to see a Jayce or Mel Medarda walking around in formal outfits.

"I'll show you what I'm made of
Rise to the occasion
Got fears, but I face them, oh-oh"

While it's my policy to purchase something from a vendor or two and some art from the independent artists/writers if at all possible, I did stick to my budget for the con. Though I have some regrets when I saw some of the amazing artwork that was for sale at the silent auction. Think I'll set aside some extra cash during the year just to bid on an illustration or two next year. Or, maybe spring for the VIP ticket and attend the "Drink-and-Draw" event to do a little creating of my own.

"Yep, He is Groot!"

In the end, Capital City Comic Con is a great example of a local convention. With so much attention going to larger cons like Gen Con or San Diego Comic Con, it's refreshing to see local cons like C4 who are able to provide an excellent experience in our home towns. I'm already looking forward to next year (and planning out my budget).

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Friday, June 30, 2023

Animated People: Erik Timmerman

Blue Cactus
The Blue Cactus Bar & Grill

One of those Ottawa International Animation Festival experiences that remains near to my heart is when I bumped into Erik at the festival back in 1996. He was going to have lunch at the Blue Cactus Bar & Grill with graduates Ted Pratt, Bill Trainor, and a young lady whose name I don't recall.

I do remember that while taking the graduate computer animation program classes, she moonlighted as one of the models for the figure drawing class to make a little extra cash. She rode a motorcycle and she kept calling Erik "E.T.". Both she and Bill were working at Xerox at the time. At the festival's closing day party, she and I sat outside the building and talked for a little over an hour -- well, she talked mostly. Nice enough girl, but hard to get a word in edgewise. Lot of life experiences packed into a few short years, that one.

Bill was wound a little tight but a decent enough guy. Didn't talk much, seemed lost in his own thoughts most of the time. He was the Grad Lab Supervisor before me and had helped me recover and distribute a Director Lingo script that allowed students to automatically export Director image frames from the computer to an optical disk recorder. Oddly enough, I still have the script file in my archives. 

Strangeness in the Night by Ted Pratt

Ted Pratt was a good guy (still is, afaik, we haven't talked in a couple of years). When Erik introduced us, I immediately recognized his name from the R.I.T. demo reel that the department sent me during my senior year at Taylor. It was a VHS tape that had Ted's student graduate film Strangeness in the Night, among others. At the festival's closing picnic, Ted was very encouraging, reassuring me that "yes, there were jobs out there for graduates and I'd have no trouble making enough money to pay off my student loans."

Shadowpuppets by Chuck Gamble

I still have that VHS tape and ended up digitizing the films for my R.I.T. archive project years ago--including films like:
  • Chuck Gamble's Shadowpuppetswhich was the first ever computer animated student film shown at the SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater; 
  • Christopher Walsh's UaguziHe went on to animate the flying dagger in 1994's the Shadow after graduating from R.I.T. and still works in the VFX industry;
  • Hikmet Safuoglu's trippy film within normal limits, which was animated to the equally trippy song 'I Robot' by the Alan Parsons Project;
  • Elouise Oyzon's beautiful first year film conjugations. She went on to teach at R.I.T.'s School of Interactive Games and Media. I still see her occasionally at the class reunions;
  • And the delightful Ignorance is Bliss? which M. Shan Yeung animated to look exactly like a Chinese ink painting.
Ignorance is Bliss? by M. Shan Yueng

I once asked Elouise if she had a copy of her graduate thesis that I could show at a class I was teaching. She said that it was all on an old computer. She wasn't even sure if she could recover the film anymore. And while I was sad for her, I was doubly glad that I had preserved that VHS tape. I have to wonder, how many people will get to see these beautiful student films from the early years of computer animation (1990 to 1993)? I once tried to get copies of these films uploaded to RIT's student film archive "SOFAtube". Unfortunately my efforts were unsuccessful, a victim of university politics.

conjugations by Elouise Oyzon

Each one of these films was produced by students in the graduate computer animation program that Erik founded at R.I.T. Each of these films has Erik's fingerprints on them. How many students entering R.I.T.'s graduate animation program will see that plaque on the wall with Erik's name on it and wonder who he was or what influence he had on the films we produced during his tenure?

Back to Ottawa: 

As the five of us sat there at the Blue Cactus, it wasn't about work or school or imparting any great lessons about life or anything like that. At that moment, Erik wasn't just my professor or my mentor, he was my friend. He talked to all of us as you would talk to friends. A couple days later, we'd all go back to Rochester and fall back into those roles of professor and student, but for that moment, we were just a couple of people sitting at a pub talking about animated films like we'd known each other our whole lives.

When Erik was undergoing chemotherapy, he didn't want any of his students to see him or the toll that the treatment took on him. But fortunately, Ted Pratt didn't listen. Since he lived a short ways away from where Erik was convalescing in Berkley, Ted drove out there to see him. While I knew Erik was sick, I had no idea to what extent. He didn't talk about it much. I tried to keep in touch with him and sent him a 'get well soon' basket of fruit and veggies, which he appreciated. He had moved out to California by then. His college girlfriend was taking care of him during his chemotherapy and Erik wanted to be closer to his children Erica and Kristofer. While still in Rochester, I helped him translate a computer program he had written in BASIC to something that would run on a PowerPC. He wanted to update a film he had made years earlier. It was all about spirograph drawings animated to a jazz soundtrack. He and I never finished it. Producing an experimental animated film while he was on chemo was a tall order, but I still feel like I failed him. We could produce the images he wanted, no problem, but we just couldn't get the PowerPC to talk to the optical disk recorder. Erik left for Berkeley shortly thereafter.

That was some of the last contact I had with him. We exchanged a couple e-mails after that but I got busy with life over those two years and Erik was undergoing a regimen of treatments and healing. Then, a couple months after messaging me that his cancer was in remission and he was feeling optimistic about the future, I got the e-mail from Marla about Erik's death.

To say that her message hit me like a ton of bricks is an understatement. My friend was gone and I was left with only six years of memories. Now don't get me wrong, I'm very thankful for those six years. But the point of my rambling is this: the things that we thought were important at the time more often than not end up being inconsequential when compared to every lost moment that we could have spent with our family and friends.

Social media has brought many evils, but it's also done us a great service by allowing people to transcend time and distance in order to reconnect. Physical letters are fine and all, but they cannot compare to the conversational nature of an e-mail or instant messaging. So I encourage you to savor those moments in the now where you can talk to people you care about. And take a moment to contact those who have drifted away, even if it's just to say 'hi, how have you been?' Some day, you may find yourself longing for those precious moments where you can hear your friend's voice one last time.

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