Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Our Story Thus Far

I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains, far, far away from civilization as we know it. The experience of a boy, a collie, and miles of surrounding mountain forest ignited my imagination.
I began writing comic books at the age of four. I couldn’t read or write yet so they were picture-books. My Mom still has several of them. I’ll scan them for a website some day – it’ll be a hoot. One was about a giant monster that looked like a walking mound of hair that attacked an army base. Another was about an Octopus in a bathtub. A bit later, I learned how to write a little, and word-balloons made their debut. At this point, I started a bi-monthly serial called Halloween Funnies. The cast consisted of a skeleton, a mummy, a vampire, a witch, a Frankenstein-monster, a bat, a spider and a werewolf. It was pure slapstick – a disjoint series of sight-gags and puns. I was around five then. By six, I had matured to the point of having a serial strip that involved an actual plot. Animal Club was a monthly comic book I did for quite a few years. They were a group of forest animals that protected the herbivores from the carnivores. Kind of a forest police squad. Their captain was Baldie Eagle (I had yet to realize eagles are quite carnivorous). Also in the Club: Harvey Hare, Sammy Skunk, Mort Mouse (and his Hispanic friend, Rico Rat), Porky Porcupine, Barry Beaver and a bunch of other crazies. Later I killed Baldie off and they were led by a tough-talking, cigar-chomping Gnome named Gned. It was a blast, but the only audience was the neighbor boy and myself (and sometimes my Mom). Eventually I did a graphic novel that was a space opera in the Star Wars vein, called Galactica. Strangely, all the space-heroes were also forest creatures (the Stormtroopers looked like an army of robot rabbits). Eventually I was writing more than drawing. An example of my pre-teen novels was Behind the Black Hole, a wacky land of shmoos and fauns and shoefly pie in the spirit of Alice in Wonderland or Phantom Tollbooth. These novellas were mostly script, handwritten longhand in print (not cursive) across sheets of typing paper (without rules – I became a natural at creating straight lines of text freehand). There were never re-writes: it would have been too much erasing. To this day I try to make my first draft my final draft (to the horror of probably every writing teacher that ever lived). So the pictures I drew appeared only every other page or so, appearing “inline” in the page of text (much as in the original Alice editions). Soon these pictures, too, disappeared and my books began to consist entirely of handwritten text. Notable works from this period were of the high fantasy and space opera genres, with a couple of dystopian future tales I would later find out belonged to the Cyberpunk genre.
This all happened before fifth grade. Around this time, I discovered Dungeons and Dragons, and for a few years all my creative energies were channeled into Dungeon-Mastering and writing ridiculously elaborate campaigns in role-playing fantasy worlds.
I came out of this period a cynical little punk, too cool to write or draw for a few years. This took me through my oh-so-cool high school years. Much wasted time.
Then something wonderful happened. I made a few enlightened friends, experimented with altered states of consciousness, and by the time I was starting college my zest for life had returned in a big way. And with it, the creative spirit. I suddenly found so much beauty in the world that I dropped everything and became a visual artist, creating hundreds of wild paintings and drawings, assemblages, found objects, installations, and orchestrating happenings and performances / public spectacles. I began writing again, mostly beat poetry, and reading e.e.cummings and Omar Khayyam (remember that for later). Anyway, I was doing poetry slams, group shows with other neo-surrealists (we called ourselves the New Epicureans) and cofounded the epicenter (little e), which was sort of an artist community but sort of nothing at all. It defied description, but all the local papers liked to write about it, caricaturing it as a generation X / slacker thing. Actually, all of us would have probably preferred having jobs, but they weren’t handing them out back then. It’s a GenX thing. We all had to wait for our thirties to get in on the game. Looking back, I don’t mind, because there was nothing more liberating that being poor, ungrounded, and free to emote.
Still I knew I had to be a storyteller, but no idea how to make it pay. Some of my friends tried to get serious about the gallery thing (we were told that was the only option for us artist types) but I couldn’t stand the thought of spending the rest of my life around all the conceptual snobs that ruled that scene. I found more inspiration in animated films and graphic novels than in the stuffy soundproof vacuum of a white-walled gallery, but still it never occurred to me that one could BE an animator.
I went to Graduate School in Savannah because they were reputed to have a great Computer Art program. I thought the challenge of using high-end software might add some more dimension to my artwork. And I wanted to see it move. It took a long time to get familiar with all the tools and processes, but finally I felt I was ready to go to Hollywood and try my hand at being a grunt in a special effects house. Instead, I ended up working at a startup video game company for a few years. I learned a lot, but it wasn’t where I wanted to be. Then it dawned on me: I wasn’t going to be truly fulfilled until I came full circle and got back to storytelling. Not that games don’t have that, but there are so many layers of technical process you never really feel like it’s creative at all. I knew films were where I needed to go. Ideally, animated films. Ideally, Pixar. I went to SIGGRAPH in 2004 to shmooze Pixar. The throng around their booth was so massive I couldn’t get near them, so I wandered over to a nearly booth: Disney. I had no idea Disney was experimenting with CG animation, so I hadn’t even considered them. But I saw a couple images: one from the ill-fated American Dog and one from Rapunzel Unbraided ... these caught my attention. They were CG all right, but they looked so ... painterly ... the painter in me suddenly felt a connection. When I got home I sent out only one demo reel: to Disney. (Don’t worry – I did my time – I had previously sent out hundreds of demo reels to game companies, not fully realizing my cartoon style was NOT a desired trait in that industry). Shockingly, this demo reel brought me a series of phone interviews, followed by a series of in-person interviews, followed by my being brought to LA to help make animated movies! In retrospect, the obvious culmination of my previous exploits, yet I had always considered it too far-fetched to be an option.
Starting in Graduate School, I began developing the storyboards for my current short, The Ballad of Sinister, based on an epic poem I had written during a single stream-of conscious sitting some ten years earlier. It’s a sort of homage to my high-fantasy beginnings, but also to Omar Khayyam, and works as a parable for the human condition. I decided to take the job at Disney based on their track record for supporting employees in the making of personal short films. About a year after starting at Disney, I fell into a ragtag bunch called Shorts Club, which is an attempt by Disney Management to formalize this independent movie-making. This has proven to be both a blessing and a curse, but the blessings outweigh the curses, and I feel lucky to be in an environment of such unbounded creative energy. I’ve got a self-imposed deadline of 2010 to finish Ballad of Sinister; mainly so that I can get busy on bigger, even more grandiose films. The hardest part for me was learning how to stay focused on one project for so many years, with all these other potential projects constantly running around in my head. I keep reminding myself that the difference between the dreamers and the doers is finishing something.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Ruminations on Art and Sacrifice

On Art

As Rainier Rilke once advised a young poet, “ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?” If you’re lucky, the answer is “no.” However, if you’ve received the curse of being an artist, nothing will ever fulfill you but the creative act. If I may add my two cents to Rilke’s sage advise: make sure you really have the curse before you invest yourself in it; because, for all the sacrifices your art will demand, it will ultimately be its only reward. A pragmatist would advise against artistic endeavor. Only a hopeless romantic would pursue it. If you are fine with that, welcome to the club!


Sacrifice

The time has come for us to talk about sacrifice. We all knew going into this that making animated films involved a certain degree of sacrifice. I’ve been working on BOS for a decade now, off and on, and it’s interesting to note how major life choices have already been influenced by this affair. I’m currently accepting a lower-paying job with steady hours instead of a fancier job with fancier hours in order to make this side-project possible. I’ve even avoided job opportunities that seemed perfect for my career and family because the relocation would’ve disrupted the production of this monstrosity.


Plays Well With Others

One of the things that drove this endeavor from the beginning was the realization that this particular story carried the potential to be an excellent group project; filled as it is with all manner of set pieces, fantastic worlds of high imagination, interesting lighting and animation scenarios. It presents the opportunity to practice the myriad disciplines of CG animation in every conceivable way. I’ve always dreamed of forging some sort of group effort to create artistic expression beyond the capacity of the individual. My early experiments to this end involved the founding of a nonprofit art community (the aptly titled Epicenter – go New Epicureans!) and getting involved with all sorts of group projects in graduate school. But this film project would be the first one of this scope, with its fifteen minutes of running time. The maxim in the animation industry is “a million a minute” ... every minute of feature-quality animation costs a million dollars to produce. If I took the legit route this would be the fifteen-million-dollar experiment. But I’m going the guerrilla route; zero budget (but zero pressure from producers!) Asking for volunteer help wherever I can get it, insisting that participation pays itself back in FUN; the fun to be had working with others on an animated film. The concept doesn’t seem too bizarre where I come from; in my old starving-artist daze, we all worked through our passions without a passing thought of ever getting paid. It was accepted that art was something you sacrificed for, that never gave back, and we were cool with it. But this notion is an uphill battle in the unionized film industry. People in this town expect to get paid for their artistic contributions; which makes this a hard sell in Hollywood.


Major Studio

I should take this opportunity to mention that I work in a major Hollywood animation studio. You’d know the name if I said it. Let’s just say it’s probably the second one that just came to your mind when I said “major animation studio.” I’ve done my best to recruit from among the ranks there, but in this racket the personnel are already overworked; most of them are working nights and weekends anyway. Many offer verbal support. Not many offer their nights and weekends. I’ve had the best luck with interns and students, who are always enthusiastic and eager to work on a group project. They aren’t as jaded and desensitized as they will be after five years of overtime, so it’s a good time to seize their talents. The situation in these cases seems to be pretty symbiotic; they genuinely need the experience, and I genuinely need the work done. So it works out. I’ve been able to get some visual development, some models and some textures done recently; and it makes the entire project so much less lonely when you start to get the contributions rolling in. It even lights a fire under my ass, feeling the momentum to pick up speed on production. Most importantly, it lends a richness to this virtual world, with different points of view able to bring a fresh outlook to the table. I’m very excited about the quality of the work that is starting to be produced for the project, and tickled pink that I’m not working in isolation any more. In the coming weeks I will focus some blog entries on the trials and tribulations of collecting and motivating teams, which is a pursuit just political enough you’ll want to avoid it for the typical three-minute short; but anything more ambitious and it becomes inevitable. You need a team to keep the momentum alive.


The Length

About the length of my film. Someone asked me the other day why I chose to do a fifteen minute film. Actually, it’s the most common question I get about this project, so I trotted out a well-rehearsed answer. I figure: making animated movies is hard. Why kid yourself into thinking that a three-minute short is going to be easy? It’s not. It takes months, years of prep time, and an entire pipeline infrastructure to be designed in support of it. Yes, even for the simplest film. With that degree of investment at stake, why not double or triple the time you put into it, delaying the rewards, sure, but ending up with something really powerful at the end? At the most, I’m only investing the time it would have taken to make five three-minute shorts. I’d rather go for the magnum opus.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Gesture In 3D

As promised in the previous post, I now offer a few examples of the quest to get a hand-drawn look into CG animation.

Photoshop:

  • Make a black and white image in Photoshop
  • Select the foreground color with magic wand
  • Make Work Path (paths palette menu)
    Tolerance
    2 to 4 pixels (2 will make more control points, 4 will make less)
  • File > Export > Paths to Illustrator (set to work path)
    You can put the .ai file into the "data" subdirectory in your prop's project folder (Example: /TBOS/prop/foliage/data). Remember to give it the .ai extension (if saving on a Mac)

Maya:

  • File > Import (Option Box):
    Type:AI
    Use Namespaces, resolve all nodes with this string: nameOfElement
  • In the next dialog, cruise to the folder where you saved your.ai file
  • Select transform (group node) containing all curves in Outliner
  • Planar Tool (Option Box):
    Linear, Partial, Polygons, Quads, Count (standard fit sometimes)


  • Edit Mesh > Extrude
  • Subdivide to see smoothed results (Proxy>Subdiv Proxy)
  • Once these shapes are in 3D, they can be used to cast shadows, throw silhouettes, wire them up with Maya hairs and blow Paint FX "Grass Wind" or "Tree Wind" through them, mold them in the round with Soft Modification Tool or Nonlinear deformers, etc.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Drawn Out

AAAAhhhhh, computers. They've made our lives so easy. Now when we make animated films they look like complete crap during every iteration, through department after department, until they finally emerge lit and rendered at the very end of the production cycle. Huge research efforts aim at getting some life into those early stages of development, but to no avail. Your first 3D animatic always looks cold, lifeless, dead. You have to keep going back to the original hand-drawn conceptual art to remind yourself how cool it's GONNA look, so many many months from now.
In traditional animation, coolness flowed freely onto the page at the deft touch of the skilled animator’s hand. If you've ever seen these initial pencil tests, the "rough animation" pass, you know that there was life in the project from the very first flipbook. Often these rough, scraggly lines had more life and energy in them than the final cleaned-up inked & painted result! Point is, the momentum of a project could build on the excitement of seeing kinetic energy at every dailies session, as people packed into the director's office to see each new scene burst to life: scribbly pencil lines weaving in and out of each other in that 24 fps dance of unbridled gesture. Gesture is the key word here: the graceful arcs of the character's movements are flung to the page through the actual arcing gestures of the animator's hand swooping over the light table. There was an immediacy, a gratifying fulfillment we sorely miss, adrift as we are in our CG world. Today, our first glimpses of our characters are of boxy gray stiff manikins, floating ghostly, droid-like through a barren landscape of polygons. Thus our quandary: now that machines have made life so easy for us by freeing us from having to hand-draw our own animation, how do we artificially get that hand-drawn look back into it? And I’m not talking about the toxic plasticity of toon shading, either. I’m talking about GESTURE. About what Michael Mattesi would refer to in his excellent life drawing manual, Force (http://www.drawingforce.com/) as “the artist’s opinion about the subject.” This opinion is conveyed subtlety, through nuances of line and form. The hand-drawn gesture.

In the next weeks I hope to explore this problem at length, offering some clunky band-aids in the meantime, and opening the discussion for the dreamy “gesture toolset” of CG’s future.

Friday, October 12, 2007

A Small Problem

How, with such an innocuous thing as this computer, can I make something larger-than-life? That’s the hardest thing for me. Back in the day, I painted on huge canvases: I specifically painted in large format for a reason. It was easier to take it seriously if my creation was larger than me. Painting a “work of art” that was physically smaller than me made no sense: isn’t art a shot at immortality? Don’t you want it to outlive you? Shouldn’t the image be more recognizable than you, more grandiose, literally larger than life? I was never one for collecting precious trinkets, so I didn’t relate so much to tiny art, as some of my peers did. This is the primary reason why digital art is hard for me: because it’s so small while I’m working on it. Sure, I know that when I’m done it can be projected onto a two-story movie screen, or printed up billboard-size, but it’s hard to feel that, when while you’re working on it you’re hunched over a glowing monitor pushing tiny pixels around inside a 22-inch box. I pray for the day a wall-size monitor can be affordable - preferably a Cintiq-style pressure-sensitive monitor that I can paint on. Standing up, with sweeping arm gestures. The return of mural-making. Is that asking too much?


What am I listening to as I hunch over my tiny monitor today? Lizard, King Crimson 1970. Almost a concept album: Peter Sinfield’s cryptic lyrics hint at some kind of Medieval Circus metaphor throughout. Musically, the album presents the perfect marriage of Prog-rock excess, psychedelic wackiness, and Jazz-tinged orchestration. Yes’s Jon Anderson makes his falsetto cameo, while Gordon Haskell’s warbly voice carries the rest of the album through layers of electronic distortion (years before Perry Farrell exploited the same technique to famously bolster his own warbly voice). All in all, my favorite Crimson album. Makes me smell the incense of my old painting studio.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Valley of the Shadow




This screenshot shows the main valley in which most of my film will take place. That distant village is Sinister’s parent’s town. We are looking through a mountain pass that is the main road to this village on the edge of the wilderness. This entire set is built to scale, a few miles across, but the resolution imported into Maya is low, about 200,000 poly triangles. Patches of higher-level terrain will be brought in anywhere close to the camera. The master high-res version is a Mudbox file, which is a nice sculpting package that pushes and pulls surfaces like clay. I tried Vue, which has a realistic terrain generator, but it was too realistic. I need to stylize this landscape so that every design conceit is congruent, from characters to props to terrain and atmospherics.

For you Maya geeks out there I included a shot of my modeling shelf across the top so you can see what tools I use.

After I “scout” a shot of the film, animating the camera through this low-res version of the landscape, I add simple geometry for the set dressing and then reference each of those proxies out to separate Maya files so I can construct the models in context and then reuse them in other shots.

Let me just say that I’m as giddy as a virgin on prom night, finally able to render this monstrosity in 3D after restraining myself for so long while I engaged in over five years worth of 2D pre-vis work. I think it will pay off, since I know what I’m doing now. When I initially started the project, I got excited and made dozens of props and sets in 3D before I even had a style guide. None of that early work can be used, now, since the look of the film has solidified to something completely different than what I first had envisioned. That’s okay, though, I chalk it all up as a good learning experience.

The anticipation was worth it, because I’m having a blast finally constructing the world that I’ve spent so much time dreaming about. This is the honeymoon before the headache; soon I’ll be butting up against the limits of my processing power, and then the rabid quest for hardware upgrades will begin.

Till then, I dream in low-res.

On WinAmp at the moment: Tomahawk’s Mit Gas.

Stay Sinister, y'all. Serious up.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

One for the Weirdos

If I’ve seemed disturbingly quiet these last couple weeks, it’s only because my daughter McKenna was born August 19th. Now I’m a Daddy twice over. This puts a little pressure on finishing the film within a couple years: before she’s old enough to notice my negligence! Seriously, though, she’s awfully cute. I’m thinking of modeling her ... there’s a baby in my film.

During all the birth-day hubbub I managed to show my Father-In-Law the story reel. He’s a Bishop, so it was interesting to get his insight on a film such as mine that deals with large moral issues. He noticed right away the religious and mythological influences. To my great relief, he seemed to genuinely enjoy it. I worried a man of the cloth might take offense seeing that there’s an evil priest in the story. This fact had provoked concern among some who had previously viewed it. Believe it or not, for every archetype you exploit you’ll find a few offended by it, and even more worried that it might offend others! In fact, you’ll find far more people worried about offending others than actual offended people! I vote that, as storytellers, we stay above the fray. Our job is to tell stories that delight, inspire and provoke. Provocation is essential for effective audience engagement, so don’t shy from it. Unfortunately, this means people will be offended. That’s part of it. To avoid being offensive is to avoid engaging your audience.

One fellow at work expressed his displeasure in the story, citing that it cast “normals” in a bad light. He considered himself a “normal.” That was an unusual take on it, and has provoked much rumination on my part. Mainly, I’m amazed that someone exists who considers himself a “normal.” We’re all weird, aren’t we? Or don’t we all assume we’re weird? How does one identify himself as “normal,” when there’s no such thing outside of a storybook archetype? I think it’s a cultural universal, the fear of weirdness, both within and in others. This lends Sinister a potentially universal appeal. That is, I think the same ratio of people are bound to like it across cultures and demographics. And probably as many will hate it. My only hope is that I can find key people that support it among the elite demographic that can get it produced and distributed. After that, who cares who likes it? I know the occasional weirdo will, and that’s enough for me.

This one’s for the Weirdos! And McKenna, who’s normal.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

MoCap, Mo Crap

Judging from their omnipresence at this year's SIGGRAPH (Aug 5-9 in San Diego) this may be the year of MoCap.

MoCap, or Motion Capture (or "The Devil's Rotoscope", depending on who you ask) is the application of ping pong balls all over an actor's spandex bodysuit, supposedly to embarrass them when the "behind the scenes" DVD extras come out. These magical ping pong balls somehow deliver spatial information to a computer, from which at the push of a button an actor in a blue bodysuit is transformed into a seven-headed fire-breathing hydra. Furthermore, the computer automatically composites, scores and edits the film, sends it to theaters and reviews it for the New York Times. And we can all go home.
Seriously, though, great strides are being made to evolve past the ping pong balls and blue spandex. This years' crop seemed more accurate and less awkward than ever, as is to be expected. This trend will continue until usable animation data can be seamlessly extracted from any actor or other moving material within an arbitrary frustum (camera's field of view). At that point, even effects animators will be crying foul play, as CG data for fluids and particles can be gathered from real fluids and particles.
Currently the focus is on character animation, the field that feels most immediately threatened by this technology. Most guys I work with hold to an ethic that animation is all about subtle exaggeration, something the computer can't deliver. However, implicit elsewhere at SIGGRAPH were demos and lectures indicating startling advancement in artificial intelligence, with computers able to follow basic rules of design and composition to spit out abstract expressionist paintings and believable Haikus. Why wouldn't they be able, fed the basic design rules of cartoon animation, to deliver a convincing Bugs Bunny performance better and faster than Chuck Jones’ brightest HomoSapiens pupil? I was being only halfway facetious when I spoke of the computer's ability to edit the film and write the review.
It comes down to this: for every automatable task, humans will probably be outshined by computers in the near future. And this includes so-called creative tasks, since creativity can honestly be derived from a finite set of rules and grammars (the wildcard of novelty being one of them). But does this mean the animator is going away? No more than painters went away when photography showed up. You see, there are two reasons we do things: 1. because we have to, and 2. because it’s fun. Even when we don't have to do our animation, the field will still thrive because it’s fun. It will still have a raging, avid audience. Because it is difficult and laborious to hand-craft animation, it excites and inspires the audience. An audience always wants to see evidence of hard work. Tell them an animation is hand-crafted, and an audience will always appreciate it more, even to the point of forgiving some technical flaws. Pixar is on to this, boasting in the credits of Ratatouille that no MoCap or other "shortcuts" were used in the making of the film. But in fact, MoCap as it stands today is not a shortcut. A fad, if anything, that will make the movies using it appear dated in a few years. Remember when drum machines briefly replaced human drummers in mid-80s pop music? Have you gone back and actually listened to Bananarama or the Jets recently? At the time of this writing, MoCap is extremely expensive and time-consuming to wrangle (it was estimated by those involved that Polar Express took twice as long to animate because of all the complex MoCap data than if they had hand-animated it from scratch). Why, then, is this unwieldy, laborious juggernaut the moment's hot item? Well, for one, investors get excited about these "bleeding edge"-type technologies, the ones that appear to be the "next big thing", like MoCap, dot-coms and drum machines. If you get in early, you get rich, so the conventional wisdom goes. So Zemeckis is a rich man, having so embraced MoCap to his investor's delight. And these investors are told (correctly) that soon, very soon, MoCap will cross the line and become less expensive than traditional (keyframe) animation, delivering better results, faster. Thing is, and we all must remember this; MoCap is not a direct competitor to keyframe animation, but rather a supplement - and in this, the Rotoscope analogy is correct. You can use roto correctly, as Disney's Nine Old Men did, or you can abuse it, as Ralph Bakshi did. Now his films look dated. Soon most major animation and effects companies will be using some form of Mocap, be it full-body systems or small hand-gesture input devices at the animator's desk. It is in the way that it's utilized and integrated that will separate the proverbial men from the boys.

The Expo Floor being set up

Rundown of SIGGRAPH: MoCap aplenty, lots of chat about image-based this'n'that, film and game integration, and touch screens.

Autodesk had a party on an aircraft carrier. Tickets were so limited that only two types of people got in: the VIP set and the college fanboys who had nothing better to do than camp out all day waiting for the mad rush when tickets were passed out. The SoftImage party/riot was equally infuriating. Speaking of MoCap, I went to Zemeckis's party, which was nice; ran into a couple of Pixar blokes who seemed to actually be considering a job there. Don't tell their boss.
All in all, SIGGRAPH is the Expired to Comic-Con's Tired. I'm not cool enough to know what's Wired. But it is still the most legit of the geek conferences, where collaboration and learning can actually transpire.
One more item. Will somebody please inform the art schools: stop bussing all your students there to stand in long lines with their resumes. I've known only one person to ever get "hired" at SIGGRAPH, and he would've been hired anyway. The best way to have your demo reel stand out from the crowd is to NOT throw it into a gigantic bin of thousands.

Glad conference season’s over. Back to work.

On the iTunes this week: Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Pop Art

I spent the weekend trekking to and through in the postmodern Mecca that is Comic-Con. It’s no wonder it has become the most popular convention in our time; in this era of storytelling, this is the storytelling convention. Mythology, our lifeblood, transcribed into superhero sagas, swords-and-tights swashbucklers and space operas. The new shamanism. The Hero’s Journey come home to roost. Of course there were the ubiquitous Klingons, Stormtroopers and Jedis. Even caught sight of a Hobbit or two. Pirates are back big thanks to Depp’s channeling of Keith Richards (is that rumor even true?) Not since Robert L. Stevenson was the pulp fav have Pirates so dominated public imagination! At least four corset booths! (Not far from our house in North Hollywood: a Pirate Lifestyle store, with waistcoats, breeches, and weekly potluck hummus brunches for the bodice jetset.)
My first time at “the Con,” and I realize: this is the central gathering of the tribes in our postmodern and increasingly Story-centric society. Everything is a story in the postmodern world: the white noise of advertisements fill the airwaves and blot our retinas; the unfolding epics of videogame and television franchise carries its message even to the watercooler oasis where we gather the next morning to share our accounts, taking part in these grand hero-epics. We’re told that the next stage will be fully immersive media, with unprecedented levels of audience participation, even to the point of the audience/storyteller line dissolving. (We’re seeing the forebears of this trend with MySpace and YouTube). If it strikes you that this must be an exciting moment in World History to be alive, then the place to fully realize this is Comic-Con, where it all comes to a head. You see, normally, we can’t walk around dressed like an elf. For some, it’s hard to even admit you read about elves, draw elves or think about elves. But at Comic-Con, your inner elf can hang out for all the world to see. And no matter how outrageous you are, you’re never the most outrageous in the room.
I stood in a grand hallway filled with all my heroes this weekend; from the elders of Mad Magazine to the crackups from the Lowbrow art scene to the subtle alchemists of the graphic novel. I saw what all my heroes looked like, and was surprised to see that even they have pimples.
Comic-Con bills itself as a celebration of the “popular arts” ... which I take comfort in. Having a so-called “fine arts” background I was reminded why I turned my back on that world. Art isn’t something that is hidden in private collections and secretly traded among snooty intellectuals; real art is consumable, packaged in plastic and affects World Culture in immediate and irrevocable ways. The Popular Arts – I presume they refer to illustration, animation, writing, product design and filmmaking – were celebrated in full effect this weekend. And I return to my drawing board drained, yet rejuvenated.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Edge Loops


This installment of my prodlog will dwell obsessively with edges. Edge loops and edge rings. That beautiful symphony in wireframe that covers all CG surfaces like a topological roadmap. When you’ve been modeling for 48 hours you begin to see this mesh overlay on everything in the house. I begin squinting at the cat, figuring out his ley lines, swooping between his haunches and up and around his ears. I speak of the polygon edges that create everything in the CG world, arranged elegantly in concentric rings around power centers on the model: latitudes around the eye sockets, longitudes radiating out along the laugh lines. In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams toys with the hypothesis that the universe is made of math; and after peering into this Cartesian abyss for so long, I’m beginning to see it as such, be it truth or madness. I think these concentric rings are corrupting our science. Astrophysicists have gone so far as to extend this vision of lines into models of spacetime: the refuted & recently disputed String Theory being the latest misconception based on our starting to see the world as the computer sees it: as a convoluted, twisted and perturbed yet meticulously organized grid.




I especially enjoy modeling with polygons, the first and still the best “surface type” in computer science. I had NURBS shoved down my throat back when they were the Holy Grail. Thank God that fad has passed. Modeling with NURBS is like wrestling with a ball of chicken wire – remember that grade school crap, doing the chicken wire sculpture as a primitive armature for your paper mache Halloween head? I usually ended up with tetanus from the wire-ends and blood blisters from the tinsnips. No, I prefer the chunky precision of Polygons: like a stained-glass mosaic with all of these edge rings as the lead solder. But unlike anything that stained glass can do, at any point you can smooth it to create a curvilinear surface from the poly cage. I love all real-world processes as much as the next guy. In art school I did my time wandering around smelling like turpentine (among other ... substances). But I’m convinced nothing beats the simulacrum that is Computer Art for depth and variation. Do you realize this is the first time in human history that we can create an image of anything the mind’s eye can envision? And then some. How can everyone not be excited about this? I sometimes wonder why, in the wake of this revolution, people continue to be doctors and lawyers and salesman and such. I mean, thank God, ‘cause who would fix the roads, but why isn’t everyone dropping what they’re doing and becoming a Computer Artist? Seemed like a no-brainer to me, sometime around Myst. Toy Story cinched it.


Back to the edge loops: it’s no wonder we came up with lines as a representation for basic form when we began building 3D universes: ever since Albert Hoffman’s experiments (hell, ever since the first monkey found the first mushroom) these sort of ring patterns have been observed in the fabric of all matter. Particularly when creating the human body, the activity I’m currently engaged in, the essential surface landmarks are all linear: wrinkles, the striations of underlying muscle, the vein networks in the skin. Check the paintings of visionary new-age painter Alex Grey: http://www.alexgrey.com/




So I’m building the main model for my lead character for the third time. But I’m taking it slower this time, observing the “harmony of the lines”. Particularly when your goal is to animate the model, careful attention needs to be paid to these concentric ring-patterns, so that every wrinkle falls in the right place in the torque of body contortion.


On the workstation iTunes this week: Peanut Butter Wolf, early Peter Gabriel (the “untitled” years) and Prince’s “Graffiti Bridge” (1990), which is, by the way, the most perfect album ever created if you shave off the awful first two & last two songs. I just listen to the middle section. I don’t think I need to tell you not to see the movie. Don’t see any of Prince’s movies. Just buy the soundtracks. That last tip was free of charge.

Till next time I want to kill an hour,
Northifus Rex

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Layin' it all out

Geekspeak alert: I’m currently immersed in the netherworld of 3D pipeline nuts and bolts, so this week’s rambling entry isn’t for the faint of technobabble. You’ve been duly warned.

I’m constructing the layout of each shot of the film with simple proxy objects in 3D. This not only serves as the 3D animatic for visualizing camera moves, but will become the skeleton for the actual scene files themselves. My workflow involves banging out every shot quick and dirty and then using Maya’s reference editor to send each piece of proxy geometry out to its own scene file to be modeled separately, all the while maintaining a live reference link back into the finished scene file. Looking into ways to “layer” proxies so that levels of detail can be toggled in the master scene file. More on this later.


Work is slow. Much needed: A Maya utility to tell the size of an object (in world units) simply by selecting it. A heads-up display can tell you “distance from camera”, but a bounding box size would be even more useful. The attribute editor gives a bounding box size, but they are in local units, subject to construction/deformation history, so not necessarily accurate to world units.
Note: Don’t tell me about the distance tool. Lame.

Tip: when building objects in place (as in set dressing), geometry/normal constraints are invaluable. You can create any organic surface as a ground plane, and as long as you geo/normal constrain your set dressing objects to it you can drag them all over the surface and they’ll stay aligned to the surface. (Note: for this reason, you should make all geometry derive its origin from the bottom of the object.)
Also (surprisingly) handy: turn on “Interactive Creation” under the primitives menus to create proxy geometry right in front of camera. (Make ground plane surface LIVE for this.)

Also, Maya is set up by default to work on very small objects, with a home grid of only 12 cm! I like to go under grid options and make length and width 1000, grid lines every 200 units (and set to red or some other identifiable color) subdivisions to 20. (So gray lines fall on 10 cm increments, aka decimeters.)

My lead character is 6.5 ft. tall, or 200 cm, so having gridlines at 200cm works well for visualization. 200 cm can be known as “1 sinister long”. As in “how many sinisters long is that trebuchet?”

This little yank is gonna get the metric system drilled into my psyche if it kills me. Public schools suck, what was all that stuff we heard in grade school about the fast-approaching conversion to metric? I’m waiting ...

For ease of use, also go under Windows>Preferences and in the Camera section set up the default far clipping planes to be some ridiculously high number like 100000. Otherwise every new camera you make will have to be adjusted manually. Also note: camera settings can be saved as presets in the Attribute Editor. Use this instead of referencing in some master camera rig. Easier, more flexible.

Needed: script for 1-click snapping of any object’s pivot point to 0,0,0.

Things that are cool: render layers in Maya, especially the “occlusion”, “shadow”, and other such passes included as built-in presets. As my lighting/rendering pipe coalesces, I’m thinking of MEL scripts to automatically set up a standard set of passes for each shot, so that all of these layers can be tweaked individually in a compositor. Speaking of compositors, Shake is what I’m currently familiar with, but I’ve had luck with Fusion and Combustion in the past. Advice, anyone? It would be nice to find one that reads layered Photoshop files, since Maya has the cool feature of being able to render all of these passes into a layered .PSD file. Much more research needed here.

What are we listening to while we work? “666” by Aphrodite’s Child, an obscure prog-rock concept album from 71-72 (based on the book of revelation). Masterminded by none other than future new-age music guru Vangelis (!)

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Time and Timecode

06:03.07

The Sinister Symposium was this week. It was a sort of open house at my workplace for the Ballad of Sinister, and it was the first screening of my story reel before a live test audience. As I mentioned, I work at a major animation studio, so it’s the best place to troll for comments on the subject of storytelling in general and animated filmmaking specifically. The reviews were generally positive, a few negative. The negatives all had one thing in common: the perceived dark tone of the project, which boils down to a matter of taste. I like a happy movie as much as the next guy, but this one is not happy. When a story like this deals with timeless truths I see no need to candy-coat things, so I’m resigned to the fact that this project will never appeal to those who demand rainbows and smiley faces for their entertainment value. The sincere nature of this project is bound to garner mixed reactions; to me, a sign I’m doing it right. If my story ever gets watered down to the point where absolutely nobody has a problem with it, then it will be insignificant– a fate worse than just plain bad.

My story reel is now locked for the time being, That is, I will cease noodling with it long enough to use it as a blueprint to get some actual production work done. Now I’m buried under the staggering weight of bookkeeping. Already I have a shot list, and I’m stepping through the entire fifteen-plus-minute story reel and marking it up with the timecode of every cut between shots. This is important, because the next step will involve creating discreet timelines in my 3d application for each shot of the film. (I am defining the basic building block of my project as The Shot – a discrete camera cut. This neatly translates to one Maya file per shot.) I’ve decided to lend a twenty frame padding at both the beginning and the end of each shot to allow for crossfades; in editing the story reel, I discovered I favor this technique. Once I’ve done this, there remains to create a more granular breakdown in the form of an X-sheet per shot. An X-sheet breaks down the shot to its most fundamental landmarks in terms of audio-visual syncing: every major action, every sound effect, every phoneme of dialog needs to be marked with its exact frame numbers and timecode so that everything fits nicely together during animation. And, yes, I am using frames, not footage. Lots of folks at my workplace still count things according to footage, belying their analog upbringing. This is unfortunate, since a foot of film is 16 frames, which does not correlate to seconds (24 frames) or any other unit that would be familiar to anyone outside Hollywood. I’m glad the trend is to go with timecode rather than footage in this brave new digital world – but I still run into the old footage stalwarts at work – in fact, our production management infrastructure is still footage-based! King Henry I would be honored to know how we still canonize his 12-inch peds – even in a film-less world where the concept is increasingly irrelevant. Old habits die hard, I guess.

After I mark up the reel, I’ll create every shot as a blank Maya file and begin the 3D animatic – the first 3D pass using proxy geometry, rudimentary lighting and no textures. The skeleton provided by this pass will evolve into the finished film as I replace each element with finished product, one by painstaking one. Much to do, so I’ll quit procrasti-bloggin.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Scratchin ‘n’ Scorin

In animation there’s such a thing as a “scratch track.” So named because it often has the aural clarity of fingers scratching on a chalkboard. What it is, simply put, is temp music, temp sound effects, and temp voice. Those three components of cinematic sound are sometimes necessary to edit to, so even before you hire your voice actors, foley artists, or music composers, you need something there as you edit your story reel. Often this scratch track contains copyrighted or otherwise ripped-off material, and it is important to remember your sources so that later you can do a clean sweep, replacing all those temp sounds with original material. Not trivial.

I’ll be pitching my boards to the whole studio next week so my scratch track has to convey the essence of each scene. Half the theatrical experience is audio – in fact, sound has even more of an effect on audience perception than visuals – so don’t make the mistake of making sound your afterthought. Too often in animation the sound isn’t up to par with the visuals (Pixar notwithstanding). Some major animation studios don’t even have an in-house audio department. Like, most of them. Carl Stalling is spinning in his orchestra pit. It’s a shame, because as we caress the lump of clay that is the story reel into the sculpture that is the finished film, we allow queues from character animation, staging and lighting to influence our editing decisions. If the sound is similarly labored upon we would find it to be just as influential in these decisions. Perhaps more pointedly so, because the art of film editing has its roots in musical composition, a form that has been around for thousands of years. All of the film techniques of montage, juxtaposition, timing and syncopation have their forebears in sound compositions, and as audience members, we are trained to accept, anticipate and appreciate edits mostly through a intuition imparted upon us through music.

The soundtrack is of particular importance to a story reel (or animatic), which is a storyboard played back in time with a scratch track. Important because, since the animation isn’t done yet, much of the action is described through sound effects while the storyboard frames are held. These temp sounds will also provide the audio landmarks for animators to time their action to. I’m currently having fun doing a little sound design for my reel. I have been reading a pretty good book on the subject, “Sound Design” by David Sonnenschein, and he lays down the rule “less is more.” That is, the audience only perceives up to two sounds at a time, so any more than that is clutter. That’s great advice, but I’m a clutter junky, so I can’t resist mocking up my soundtrack with layers of audio goulash. I’ve found you can get away with it provided you follow the same figure-and-ground rules you learned in art school. There needs to be a background: usually an environment (I have lots of pastoral landscape backdrops, so lots of wind and twiddling birds), and atop this there needs to be some “hero sounds,” at least enough to describe each central action on the screen, but even some that are “set dressing,” i.e. not story related but there compositionally to break up the monotony of the backdrop. I find it especially fascinating that everything I learned as an illustrator and a painter can also be applied when designing sound. Seems awfully coincidental at first, but on closer examination, the two are related (audio and video). In fact, they are the same thing: wavelengths. Our ears detect wavelengths at the low end of the electromagnetic spectrum, and our eyes pick up wavelengths in a higher range. So sound and visuals together provide the unified cinematic experience of, well, cinesthesia, because they are both ripples in the same pond.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Of Rollovers and Raglan

Well, it’s been a week since my last rambling installment. I managed to peter away the entire week updating the website. It looks kinda groovy now, but I can’t help but think of the ten thousand things on hold while that’s going on. So now I turn my attention back to the story reel, which is overdue for an update, and you’ll see the website fall into neglect. This guerrilla filmmaking stuff is like spinning plates.

So my attempt is to document the entire process for posterity. Maybe some of it will be interesting, you never know. This week I added a section on what goes into making a CG short film - www.balladofsinister.com/short.html - complete with charts and graphs. Geek out on that, won’t ya? Other goodies: there’s a links page, book recommendations, and the Sinistore (don’t wait for your next trade show! Get some SiniSwag today!) Anyway, it’s at cafe press: http://www.cafepress.com/sinistore . Sinister Raglan Hoodie, anyone? Impress your friends!

Here’s the thought of the day:

When we look back on all that we’ve done, won’t it all look kind of ... Photoshopped?

And the book recommendation of the day (couldn’t make the list on the SiniSite because it’s not about animation ... and we can’t have that, can we?):

33 1/3 vol 17: Zoso (actually four symbols .. anybody got that font?) by Erik Davis.

Actually anything in the 33 1/3 series is pretty stylin. Amazon it.

Enough! I’ve got work to do, and so do you!

Til whenever,

xxxoooxxx

Erik

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Hero's Journey

“wrap around” to the beginning of the next. (That sentence was continued from my last blog entry, used to signify the essentially cyclic nature of reality.) But enuff with the metaphysical gris-gris. Here’s the scoop on my new short film, The Ballad of Sinister.

I decided to go the road more traveled on this one, milking the old hero’s journey paradigm for all its worth. Sinister is a cloaked freak out to prove himself in a landscape of pain and terror. Ay, aren’t we all? With or without the cloak? The jury’s still out on if it’s a hood and cloak he wears or if his strange accoutrements are parts of his deformity, what with his ambiguous character design. You can check out how our protagonist looks, and see other previsualization art, at the vanity site for the project, www.balladofsinister.com. Don’t mind the broken links when you get there: it’s a work in progress. In fact, I just threw it up a couple days ago. But my intention is to get the framework there, so that, as production ramps up, I can update it with new and even more exciting content, thus building anticipation toward the release date.
Ah, release dates. Let’s talk about that for a minute. Anything I promise in terms of a release date is bound to be wishful thinking at this point. Here’s a very preliminary summary of the task ahead:
50+ unique characters
22 unique sets
28 sequences
122 shots
---and these numbers only stand to grow as production unfolds. So you see, it is an ambitious project, for a short. At a runtime of fifteen minutes, it is rather long for a short as well, but considering it is an “epic,” fifteen minutes is amazingly fast to tell a complex four-act story. I’ve been told to shorten it, by everybody (including myself), but there are two problems there: 1) it’s an epic. Epics are concerned with changes over long periods of time. Hard to give a sense of time passing and give justice to a subtle evolution in three minutes or less. 2) I’m bored with short shorts. In my spare time, I paint. And I can’t be bothered with small paintings either. I need to paint big paintings (5 ft at least). If it’s small, it doesn’t seem to justify the effort. So here’s my ironic justification for such a long short: even a short short would be tedious and difficult to make, so if you’re going to go that far, why not go one step beyond and create an epic? At least you’ll have something substantial to show when you’re done.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Synesthesia, or, If Mondays Are Blue, Can Thursdays Be Sort Of Mauve?

The Free Online Dictionary has this to say about synesthesia:
syn·es·the·sia
also syn·aes·the·sia (sin'is-the'zh)
n.
1. A condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another, as when the hearing of a sound produces the visualization of a color.
2. A sensation felt in one part of the body as a result of stimulus applied to another, as in referred pain.
3. The description of one kind of sense impression by using words that normally describe another.

All good sixth-grade essays begin with a definition ripped verbatim from the dictionary, so why not a Blog? Paleez, at least I didn't use Wikipedia, gimme some cred. Anyways, here's a related term:

syn·is·the·sia
n.
1. The condition of taking on a personal animation project entailing the creation of over fifteen minutes of cg animation, including over fifty characters and thirty-nine sets.
2. The mixing of the senses that results from the ensuing lack of sleep.

So now you know my horrible secret. I've been living with it for a while now. I've been in pre-production ("development" in Hollywood parlance -ed.) for oh, bouts five six years now. In that time I've built (and scrapped) hundreds of models and textures, storyboards and concept designs. I'm to the point now when the spaghetti is beginning to stick to the proverbial wall, so this blog is an attempt to be a wall to stick some of it to. Hate to be selfish and all, but in that respect, this is kinda for me. But if you're a voyeur, and I know you are because you're on Blogger, you probably like hearing people like me talk to myself about what's troubling me. So I'll try to make it interesting for us.

This is the first post for my Short Film project. I haven't even told you the name of it yet. Or shown you anything. I'll save that for next time.

And now, in honor of Pink Floyd's seminal effort The Wall (which holds spaghetti quite nicely, so too does it excellently blur the senses), I will end this post with an unfinished sentence that will