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!


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.