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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