Saturday, December 17, 2005

Observations: "The Runaway"

A while back I was sitting in a doctor's office, waiting for the doctor to return to my exam room. Naturally I was doing what we all tend to do while waiting for doctors to return: I was glancing at the collection of Norman Rockwell artwork hung on the walls. I'd seen most of the pieces before, but seeing that the doctor was keeping me away from animating, I decided to study the prints to see what could help me as an animator.

One favorite on display was Rockwell's classic, "The Runaway." It's such a deceptively simple image, and yet it's clear that Rockwell took great care to construct the image in such a way that your eye can't help but go where he wants it to go, which is to the facial exchange between the kid and the cop. Some of these guiding elements are related to the tonal values chosen for the setting and the characters, but there are also a number of things in the characters' poses that are good to study from an animation standpoint:
  • One of the biggest pose "guides" is the angle of the cop's right leg. Follow that up and it'll take you directly to the kid's face. Notice how the cop's gun is angled to nearly match the leg angle. Also notice the nice negative-space triangle formed by the right leg, the stool post, and the seat. That also helps the right leg to draw our eye.
  • To contrast that, notice the cop's left leg. Even though it's angled in the opposite direction, it has been posed in such a way that it doesn't lead the eye nearly as clearly as the right leg. There's no negative space associated with that leg, either, so that also helps put more focus on the right leg and where it's leading us.
  • The cop's right arm is angled similarly to the right leg. While it doesn't point directly to the kid's face, it does aim at the well-crafted negative space between the two lead characters' faces. Looking at the left arm, the forearm angle blends with the edge of the countertop so it doesn't really stand out, while the upper arm guides the eye up and over the cop's left shoulder toward his face.
  • Working with that upper left arm is the radio on the back wall. The cord coming up on the left, the shelf upon which the radio sits, and the little extra dangly bit of cord on the right all work to subtly emphasize that shape of the cop's upper left arm and shoulder, and guide your eye where it needs to go. In case that wasn't clear enough, that little dangly loop of cord to the right of the radio is pointing at the cop's head.
  • While the cop's eyes are clearly looking at the kid, the brim of his hat adds an extra bit of emphasis. It looks like it's pointing right toward the kid's eyes.
  • Check out the notebook in the cop's back pocket. The bright white silhouette of the pages points directly toward the kid.
  • Even the face of the counter man has some guides. The angle of his smile leads you to his cigarette, which is pointing directly at the kid's face. The very trianglar shape of his head also leads you into the heart of the action.
  • From a more broad perspective, compare the poses between the kid and the cop. While there is a little countering between the kid's hips and shoulders, his pose is essentially vertical, whereas the cop is arcing to the right. Combine that with the cop's bulk compared to the kid, and your eye goes to the pinnacle of the two poses, right to their faces. The angled bulk of the cop feels like a towering mass toppling in the direction of the kid, which further emphasizes the emotion of the scene.
  • While checking out the background info about this image on the site linked above, I was clued in to another guide: the stick on the kid's hobo sack. The site points out how the stick's diagonal angle guides your eye toward the stools, and from there up to the characters, but it doesn't mention exactly why the stick works so well. I believe it works because the right end of the stick was carefully placed out of frame. That only leaves the left end to act as a pointer into the scene.

Such carefully crafted poses that show you exactly where to look, and yet it feels so comfortable and "un-posed". Awesome stuff!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Artists and doubt, revisited

Just got word that my buddy Bill Jacoby has started a blog, and his opening entry touches upon a subject that I briefly mentioned a while back: art and fear. Bill is quite the insightful guy, and his comments really hit home as I read them. Definitely keep an eye on this dude!

While I'm at it, it's way past time I updated the blog list on the sidebar. I've found a host of interesting and inspiring blogs since I started this thing earlier this year, and I apologize for not sharing them sooner. More fun stuff to come as I find it!

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Relationships, emotions, and animation

I've had this kooky little theory floating around in my head for quite a while now. I've mentioned it on occasion to different folks, but have never taken the time to write it down in any detail (well, actually I have, but that's another story). Without getting to fancy-schmancy about it all, here's the gist of it...

I believe that every aspect of life, down to the tiniest detail, can be described in terms of two things: relationships and emotions. I believe that everything is involved in some sort of relationship -- whether it's social, physical, chemical, audible, visual, spatial, chronological, etc. -- and that the nature of the relationships that we're involved in affect us emotionally to varying degrees. It can be a bit of a deep concept if you really start to break things down, but for the purpose of this entry, I want to focus on relationships and emotions with regard to animation.

Animation is definitely an emotional art form.* We don't talk about its power to convey great logical concepts. We talk about is power to move us emotionally. Why are character and story always touted as being so important to quality animation? Because without carefully crafting those elements, the audience won't feel anything. If the audience doesn't feel anything, they'll move on in search of something else.

The emotions in an animated story are controlled through a wide variety of relationships. While we most often use terms that don't include the word "relationship," there's a relationship to be found at the heart of each concept. Here are just a few examples:

  • Pose: the spatial relationships between the different parts of a character's body

  • Staging: the relationship between the camera and the things the camera is viewing

  • Squash and stretch: modifying the relationship between the height and width of an object to change its shape

  • Timing: a chronological relationship between poses

  • Spacing: the relationship between the positions of an object in space over a given period of time

It can be difficult to find words to describe the relationships that are present in some animation principles (I gave up on "arcs"). They're definitely there, though, and here's the key thing to remember: By altering the various relationships over which we have control as animators, we consequently alter the emotional tone of the result.

When it comes down to it, an animator is just a specialized relationship counselor. My job is to understand the emotion(s) that the director wants to create in the story at any given moment, and then craft all the relationships at my disposal to create that emotional impact. All those relationships have to work in harmony -- or in other words, the relationship between all those individual relationships needs to work properly -- or else the resulting emotion won't be the right one for the moment.

So how can I use this kooky little theory when I'm working? Well, I personally find it a LOT easier to think about animation using the more traditional terms most of the time, rather than using the relationship-based breakdowns of those concepts. However, what this theory has helped me to do is to hone in on the emotions present in everything I do as an animator. As I'm planning out a scene, I make sure that I identify the desired emotions, and then make sure that everything I do -- poses, timing, spacing, etc. -- helps to feed that desired emotional tone. As I'm posing a character, I'm aware that the slightest adjustment to a head tilt or an eyelid level will change how that pose feels. When I'm reviewing a shot, whether it's my own or someone else's, it can be especially helpful. If there's something that's "just not working," and I can't easily put my finger on it at first, I'll break down the emotional impact that comes from each component; i.e. how do the poses feel? How does the timing feel? Spacing? Breakdowns? etc. This breakdown often helps me to isolate the part that's not contributing appropriately to the emotion that's required for the shot or scene.

An example of this kind of troubleshooting happened fairly recently as I was looking at an acting test that someone asked me to critique. At first I was tempted to comment on some of the technical issues that I saw with the animation. However, the more I watched the clip, the more I felt that the main problem was something deeper and more basic. The moment I started looking at some of the core relationships in the clip, the problem jumped up and started waving at me like Molt from A Bug's Life. "Oh! Pick me! Pick me! Oh! Oh!" I felt a little silly that I hadn't seen it sooner, but what was jumping and waving was simply the relationship between the dialog and the animation.

The animator had used a short line spoken by Kip from Napoleon Dynamite. If you've seen the film, you know how Kip talks...fairly mellow and soft, with a slight lisp, and a touch of a sing-song delivery to his lines. If you've never seen the film, you can still tell what kind of guy he is by the way he talks. He's a wimpy, soft-spoken, ever-so-slightly-arrogant nerd. The problem was that the animator didn't animate the character to be a wimpy, soft-spoken, ever-so-slightly-arrogant nerd. They pushed the confidence level a bit too high in the physical performance. There was a small moment that almost worked, though, and I think that's what threw me. It was off just enough to feel off, but not enough for the problem to draw attention to itself right away. It wasn't until I started picking apart the individual relationships that I found the culprit.

A similar example from a few years ago also comes to mind. I was involved in some discussion on the 10 Second Club forums following the competition that featured Anthony Hopkins from Silence of the Lambs saying, "I do wish we could chat longer, but...I'm having an old friend for dinner." One forum member commented that he didn't create an entry for that round because he really enjoyed doing humorous animation, and he felt that Hopkins' serious delivery wouldn't allow him to do something humorous. I got the impression that he equated humorous animation with fast delivery of witty dialog, so in my reply, I pointed out how it would still be possible to create a humorous clip using that very mellow line. It's all in the management of relationships.

As illustrated above, one relationship that must work when animating to dialog is the one between the emotional tone of the vocal performance and the emotional tone of the physical performance. It generally doesn't work to have someone talking very calmly but moving very quickly. If you try to do it, your voice will still give subtle clues that you're not acting as calmly as you're trying to speak. With a mellow delivery, there must be an equally mellow performance. So how do we create comedy from this situation? By playing with the situation itself, or in other words, playing with the relationship between the mellow delivery/performance and the specifics of what the character is doing.

The example I provided for this 10SC animator was regarding another entry from that round that used Hopkins' dialog. The animator of this other clip had chosen to have the character picking his nose while talking on the telephone, and eating the boogers he pulled out of his nostrils. When the character went to eat the little booger ball on his finger, he reared back quickly, and quickly thrust his finger into his mouth. It gave a very typical "Look, I'm doing something funny" feeling to the performance, which contrasted with the very mellow and serious tone of Hopkins' vocal delivery, and caused the clip to be less successful. I believe this same situation would have been absolutely hilarious, however, if the animator had gone for a very serious performance, and let the humor lie in the contrasting relationship between that seriousness and the absurdity of what the character was actually doing.

Imagine the character treating the snot-ball as if it were a delicacy, something to be savored. Picture him gently inserting his finger into his open mouth. His lips softly close around the base of the finger, and he slowly closes his eyes. After a slight pause, he draws his finger out ever so slowly, eyes still closed, and he leans back, an expression of pure ecstacy on his face. By leaving the vocal/performance relationship intact, what would make it funny would be the relationship between this very serious performance and the absurdity of eating one's nasal nuggets.

Relationships and emotions are inseparably tied together, and play a huge role in animation. The more I understand how the various relationships in animation affect the emotion of the end product, the more effective I believe I'll be as an animator.

* This also applies to many other things, like photography, music, painting, filmmaking in general, etc. I'm simply focusing on animation for this entry, so please forgive the ommission of these other forms of expression.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Observation from voting

It's interesting the way our minds work, and how we often react to things out of habit rather than really paying attention to what's going on.

I went to vote the other evening. At the place of polling, there were three lines of people waiting to get their ballots, with the lines dividing folks alphabetically based on their last name. Occasionally someone would trek to the back of the line and make sure that people knew about the division, as the o' so helpful signs were out of view once you rounded a corner and left the main room. Now, if I were describing this scenario as part of a fictional story I was constructing, I would most likely have the exchange go something like this...
Poll person: "What letter does your last name start with?"
Voter: "M"
What was interesting to note is that in all the exchanges I heard, the majority of them didn't go that way. Instead, they went like this:
Poll person: "What letter does your last name start with?"
Voter: "McIntosh"
Interesting, eh? I have a hunch that most people focused on the "last name" portion out of pure habit. Most of the time when we're asked about our last name, it's usually not just the first letter that someone wants to know, so it becomes instinctive to just rattle off our full last name.

That takes me back to the whole idea of writing this scenario as part of a fictional work. If we are so conditioned to instictively answer with our full last name, it would seem more natural to craft the story that way. The trouble is that during the course of writing, an author might not think about something like that. Because he/she generally isn't in the natural moment, or observing someone else in such a moment, the response that they write to that question will likely be logical, like the first version, rather than instinctive and natural, like the second version.

In terms of animation, what this experience reinforced to me was the importance of observation. We often think we know how a character will do a certain action or react in a certain situation, but in doing so, we're in danger of creating something that feels more logical than natural. By taking time to research and observe as we plan an assignment, we will often find things that might not have come to us if we'd gone purely on our own thought process.

An example of this was shared by Bobby Beck at the presentation he made here in Dallas during the Industry Giants event this past summer. He asked the audience to think about a child doing a somersault, and picture how that motion would look. He even did a somersault for us on stage, demonstrating the gut reaction that most of us would have if asked to animate something like this...just a plain ol' somersault.

He then showed us some video reference of that was shot while he was working at Pixar on Monsters Inc. In the clip, this little one- or two-year-old boy bent over and put his head and hands on the floor, ready to do a somersault. However, he had simply bent down from the waist, keeping his legs fairly straight, so he didn't have the leverage needed with his legs to push himself over. He shifted his feet from side to side numerous times in an attempt to finish the somersault, all the while balancing his upper body on his head and hands, and everybody in the audience just cracked up. It was hilarious to see, but more importantly, it was so much more natural because it was real.

It's entirely possible that someone could come up with the same idea if given enough time, but the point Bobby was making was that observation gets us to those instinctive, natural ideas much faster. And the sooner we can get to those great ideas, the sooner we can start putting those ideas into our work.

Observe, observe, observe!!!

Monday, November 07, 2005

More Escher and animation

I'm cleaning my desk (whew!) and found another one from a month ago that I should have posted. Great relevance for animation...
Whoever wants to portray something that does not exist has to obey certain rules. Those rules are more or less the same as for the teller of fairy tales; he has to apply the function of contrasts; he has to cause a shock.

More weekend thoughts from Escher

If this doesn't apply to animation, I don't know what does...

We hanker after the unnatural or supernatural, that which does not exist, a
miracle. As if ordinary reality isn't enigmatic enough!

The wierdest taste...

I swear, Taco Bell's pink lemonade has to be one-quarter Pepto Bismol. But I'm drinking it anyway.

That's all for now...

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Rest in peace, Maggie

Today was one of the saddest days I've had in a long, long time. So why am I sharing this instead of something more inspiring? Hang on for a paragraph or two and you'll see...

We've been watching the declining health of our beloved feline, Maggie, for the past three months. At first we thought it might just be age, as she was approaching eleven years old by our calculations. However, the vet suspected that a lump he felt in her stomach was some form of cancer. We couldn't afford the operation to find out exactly what it was, and x-rays were inconclusive, so we just took care of her as best we could.

She still ate, but her condition reached a point where the food would go straight through her in a matter of minutes, so she continued to lose weight. She did nothing but lie on the floor all day, although she would occasionally spend some time sitting in my wife's lap, purring softly. Early on we got some medicine for her, and kept hoping she would get better. As time went on, we realized the medicine wasn't doing any good, so we stopped administering it a few days ago.

Last night we talked a good deal about what to do, and decided that it was time to end Maggie's suffering. I delayed my trip in to work, and we took her to the vet first thing this morning and had her put to sleep. When you don't have kids, you invest a lot more love in your pets, and I was devastated at the thought of letting her go. As we said our goodbyes while she slowly drifted into an eternal sleep, I cried like I haven't cried in ages.

The reason I'm sharing this here is because Maggie was inspiring to me. She has been such a joy in our lives since we got her roughly three-and-a-half years ago. She was a very vocal cat, and there were times when she meowed in the oddest way, causing my wife and I to nearly fall over with laughter. We also discovered shortly after getting her that she loved to play "fetch" with her toy mice. She would bring one to us with a happy trill in her voice when she wanted to start playing, and if we played the game at night before falling asleep, we would frequently awake the next morning to find that the toy had been faithfully returned, and had somehow made its way under the covers. There were times when she would wake up my wife or I by licking our closed eyelids, and we knew that it was either time to play, or time to eat. As an animator, it was fascinating to not only watch her physical movements on a daily basis, but to notice her particular personality traits, which are forever locked away in the back of my mind for the day when I get to animate a cat. Maggie was quite a joy, and quite an inspiration.

The picture below was taken just a couple days after getting my new camera this past summer, while Maggie sat in one of her favorite spots, which happened to be in front of a special piece of needlework we received as a gift. When I began thinking of a picture we could share with friends and family as we announced this sad news, this image immediately came to mind. Maggie was and always will be family, and we look forward to seeing her again after this life is over. As my wife so eloquently pointed out today, heaven just wouldn't be heaven without our pets. :)

Rest in peace, Mags...

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

A couple bits of inspiration

Been really busy at work lately, but some fun inspiring stuff has come across that I gotta share:

Fancy Footwork
This guy's good! I hope I never get burdened with the task of animating something that complex, but if so, this'll be my first piece of reference material.

Funny Faces
The music isn't my favorite, but some of the faces these guys make are just KILLER! Live squash and stretch at it's best!

And then there's the Halloween costume of one Jason Schleifer.! Rock on, Jason!

Thursday, October 13, 2005

"The Disney Touch"

Just got turned on to the blog of Hans Bacher, an amazingly talented Disney alum. Upon backtracking through the recent posts collected for me by Bloglines, I ran into a very interesting piece describing how Disney "works" the stories that they turn into films. Quite an eye opener...

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Killer card stacker!

Just saw this over on Boing Boing. I've tried here and there to stack cards, but usually with horrible results. The shot of Bryan Berg next to a 25-foot stack of cards just blew me away. Quite a clever method he has for stacking them, but it's to be expected from an architect (although he claims he doesn't rely much on his architecture knowledge when "cardstacking").

And get this...this is his full-time job! Sweet! Then again, that's the kind of reaction most animators get. "You mean you get to make cartoons and movies for a living!? Cool!" Yeah, it is pretty cool. It's still hard work, but the "cool" part can't be denied. :)

Along the lines of my earlier "Find what you love and don't settle" post, here's my favorite part from his FAQ:
If there ever comes an opportunity for you in your life to take something
you love and turn it into your job, DO IT!!
Kudos, Bryan! :D

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

"Change Myself"

When I was first learning about 3D animation, I was using Lightwave on a Video Toaster system at the community college in the town where I grew up. I became a big Lightwave geek, and while I didn't do a lot of stellar stuff myself, I got caught up in all the cool stuff that other people were creating with Lightwave. One such piece was a music video made by Todd Rundgren for his song, "Change Myself." For some funky reason, this thing really inspired me. The song was cool, the animation was cool (or so I thought at the time), and it just all came together really well. I have a very different view of the thing looking at it now, but I openly and freely admit that it still holds a place in the nostalgic corner of my heart.

Anyway, while I was searching online for anything more I could find about the song and video, I discovered that Rhino Entertainment offers a streaming video of "Change Myself" on their site! Sweet!! Now I just gotta find Rundgren's "The Desktop Collection" on DVD and I'll be all set...

Wallace and Gromit clips!

Just got a note from a co-worker about several clips from Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were Rabbit that Dreamworks posted online. Sweet lookin' stuff from the folks at Aardman!! I'm partial to Quicktime, so here are links for the 640x346 QT clips (note: if you "save as," you'll just get a 1KB shortcut that opens Quicktime and starts to download the video). If you want other viewing sizes or formats, the article I was pointed to on AICN has several. Enjoy!

1: Launch and Activate
2: Bun-Vac 6000
3: To Pay or Toupee?
4: The Mind-Manipulation-O-Matic
5: A Bit More Alluring
6: Gromit Chases Were-Rabbit
7: Dog Fight

Frank and Ollie

I just love having a DVD player in my work machine. :)

I recently picked up the DVD Frank and Ollie, the documentary of legendary Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. I'd seen the presentation several years ago, but only recently got off my kiester to buy it. Having packed my lunch today, I sat at my machine and nibbled away while watching this new treasure. It was so inspiring to see these two in see their continued passion for see animators like Glen Keane and Andreas Deja rifling through stacks of original drawings and talking about how Frank and Ollie's work inspires see Ollie scooting around his property on a couple killer trains that he assembled himself...

...and that's just from the bonus features! I haven't even watched the main film yet! Dude!!!

Animation Dance!

Just caught sight of a post on the CG-Char forum about a new site: Animation Dance! The goal, according to site creator Katy Hargrove: "to provide an outlet for everyone interested in animation to get their groove on." :) Sounds like a sweet deal! It remains to be seen if I'll have the time/oomph to submit anything, but I'll certainly keep an eye on it. Kudos, Katy!

Sunday, October 02, 2005

The power of editing

There's a contest called "Trailer Park" in which editors are challenged to take footage from any movie and re-edit it into a new movie trailer. The trick is to spin the movie in a different direction than the original. The picture cannot be modified, but the audio track can be edited at will.

The winning trailer in the New York division of this competition was created by Robert Ryang, who effectively turned Stanley Kubrick's horror classic "The Shining" into a fun family film. The NY Times has an interesting article that includes a link to the trailer, but my original source pointed to a blog entry on The Tattered Coat.

There's a little more to this story, at least on my side. After finding the link in an online forum, I passed it to folks at work. Later in the day I heard back from a couple guys in the studio who know Robert Ryang. They had just been reviewing the re-edited trailer that morning after getting a note from Robert about it, and had no idea that it was suddenly a major subject of blog discussion.

The power of editing meets the power of the Internet. Gotta love it! :)

Saturday, September 24, 2005

"Find what you love. Don't settle."

Someone just bumped a thread on the Animation Mentor forum where Bobby Beck had posted a link to a speech given by Steve Jobs, which was delivered at the Stanford University commencement ceremony earlier this year (also available elsewhere in audio form). It's a great read/listen, as the speech has application for pretty much everyone, not just folks graduating from college.

Several points from his address rang true for me, especially when looking back and "connecting the dots" through various experiences I've had in the past. As I've gone through hard times, it's been difficult to see how those experiences could be of any real benefit down the road, aside from the standard "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" mentality. But in retrospect, it's often very clear to see how I flat-out couldn't have achieved Success X without suffering through Hardship Y.

I also appreciated Jobs' counsel to find what you love and don't settle for anything less. This especially hit home when looking back on my initial job search after graduating from school.

I had my heart set on getting a job as a character animator, and I recall several conversations I had with the school's alumni counselor about the types of job leads he was feeding me. One lead that sticks out pretty strongly was with a small company that took GPS data of golf courses, modeled and textured the courses in 3D, and used the results in booklets that golfers would carry with them around the course. I had a lengthy chat with this counselor about how this job was not even close to the direction I wanted to go, and he pushed back with the standard "You have to start somewhere" argument. I finally relented and agreed to go for an interview, which I arranged over the phone with someone at the company.

On the surface, the interview went pretty well. I got to see what the company did, I had a fine chat with one of their leads, and for a moment I felt like I could actually take the job if it was offered to me. But then, at the end of our time together, we watched my demo reel, which my interviewer hadn't seen yet. After viewing it, he commented about the fact that my reel was nothing but character animation. With that comment, my passion for character animation came to the surface, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

After hearing my comments, the interviewer asked me, "So why are you interviewing for this job?" Obviously there was no way I truthfully say that I had a passion for playing with GPS data for golf courses. The only other answer that came to mind was the one my alumni counselor gave me: "I suppose I have to start somewhere." Considering the way that came out, I think it was pretty clear to him that I wasn't really interested in the job, and it was pretty clear to me that I wasn't getting the job. Despite that, we managed to end the interview on a positive note, and I headed for home.

There were a few other similar experiences with other companies, and every time I couldn't hold back from telling people about my passion for telling stories through character animation. Despite the alumni counselor's insistence that I would most likely have to settle for something lower to start out with, I stuck to my guns. I refused to settle, and within a year of graduation I got my first job at Big Idea Productions.

I can even see how I refused to settle when it came to my initial dealings with folks at Big Idea. I had sent in my demo reel and expressed a desire to join the team producing their new 3-2-1 Penguins! series. I got some great feedback on my reel from the animators, including the suggestion to "Send it again in a year." That got me pumped, so over the next few months I worked out a plan that would carry me to the end of the year when I could apply again.

Just three months after that counsel, I saw that they had another opening for the Penguins! team. Looking back, I can see how I could easily have "settled" and continued to follow my one-year plan. Instead, I jumped on the opportunity and contacted them again about re-reviewing my reel. That led to a couple of animation tests, which led to an interview, which led to my first job. By not settling, I effectively whittled my one year plan down to five months.

I may not have had Jobs' speech to inspire me as I was going through these various experiences, but I'd heard similar counsel from other sources, both secular and religious. I knew what I loved, and I knew I would kick myself later by settling for anything less. I'm so thankful that I didn't settle, and continue to be thankful every day for the blessings I've received because I haven't settled. If you need a boost of enthusiasm -- or heck, even if you don't -- go check out Jobs' speech. Great stuff in there. :)

Friday, September 23, 2005

BOZ online

I heard at work the other day that the BOZ web site was going to go up soon, and found that it went live at midnight last night (I found this after finishing my first Animation Mentor Q&A...nearly two hours...what a rush!). The site has a good mix of things for both parents and kids, and for those who can't wait 'til next March to see some animation, you can order a teaser DVD from the site. I also learned something interesting from browsing through the site: BOZ is supposed to be in all caps (although they didn't explain why), so I'm trying to mend my ways and promote him/it properly. Go BOZ!

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The two-hour shot

A couple months back, we wrapped up production on "Aunt Fanny's Tour of Booty," a short film that's included on the soon-to-be-released DVD for Robots. The folks at Blue Sky Studios were neck deep in production on Ice Age 2, so they asked us to produce the short under their direction. It was quite a challenge cranking out so much animation in such a short time, and we all learned a lot in the process. One of the things that was reinforced to me was the importance of planning.

Planning has been a hot topic for animation bloggers these days, and it's also a hot topic over at Animation Mentor as so many folks are just starting to get their feet wet with character animation. While a lot of the talk is about taking the time to plan in sufficient detail through a variety of techniques, I feel it's important to mention that even when there appears to be no time to plan, it becomes that much more important to take what little time there is and plan anyway.

This point was most strongly driven home on the very last day of animation production for the Robots short. It was a Friday morning, and we got ready for our final video conference call with the Blue Sky team, full of confidence that the last shots were done, and looking forward to nothing but approvals. When the Blue Sky folks got on the line, there were the usual greetings and connection-checkings and such...and then things got interesting.

They announced that they wanted to add another shot.

This is the kind of thing that makes animation supervisors (not to mention producers) cringe a little bit, and I must admit I did my share of cringing when I initially heard this proposal. The key concern was that the shot had to be done that day. We had another conference call scheduled later that afternoon, which meant that there would only be about two hours for someone to animate the new shot so we could get it up in front of them for review. Despite the uber-tight timeline, we committed to it, and pushed ahead to look at the animatic for the shot. As we watched it, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the action and staging was constructed in such a way that it might actually be do-able in such a short time frame, even though the shot was four seconds long.

Because I was in the room for the initial presentation and had my eyes on the thing already, I decided to animate the shot myself. I knew that I wouldn't have time for thumbnails or video reference, but I also knew that I had to be really organized with how I tackled it or I'd spend two hours floundering around in Maya. So I began planning it out the only way I could at the time: in my head.

I peppered the Blue Sky folks with questions so I could get a really clear idea of what they wanted. As the animatic looped, I pictured the motion of the 3D characters through the frame. I even pictured (to some extent) how the motion curves would look in the graph editor. I tried to get the clearest possible vision of how the shot should look and what I would need to do to construct that look. When the meeting was over, we had a final quick bit of internal discussion about it, and I went to work.

Two hours later, the shot was done. We posted it for Blue Sky to review in our afternoon conference call, and thankfully there were only a few minor changes to make to take it to final. Those were done in short order, and the shot was approved and sent off to start lighting before the day was out.

Looking back, I know that planning made all the difference. Even though I was limited to asking questions and rehearsing the shot in my mind for maybe 15 minutes, that still helped a TON when I finally sat down and started setting keys on the computer. Without that little bit of planning, I would have been sunk.

"If you fail to plan, you plan to fail."
(For the morbidly curious, the shot in question is the very last shot in the short, after the credits...)

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Introducing Boz!

The clamps have been loosened just a touch on one of our core projects at Reel FX, so I can start spreading the news just a little. For at least the past year (and probably longer), we've been developing a new childrens' video property centered around a big green bear named Boz. The animation team got involved in Boz rig testing and look development early this year, and we went from there into production on some of the musical bits that will be incorporated into the videos. Just recently I've shifted into an animation supervisor role on the project, helping to take some of the load off the main anim sup, Tim Lannon.

The first videos in the series won't be released until the spring of 2006, but we're already starting to prepare some advance marketing materials which should be available soon. More details will be posted here as I'm allowed to share them.

Monday, September 12, 2005

New mentor at AM

Well, seeing that there's only a week to go before this kicks in, I suppose now is as good a time as any to make this announcement: I've joined the team of mentors at!

I got the invitation from Bobby Beck during a visit he paid to Reel FX when he came to Dallas back in July. I still have a hard time believing that this is happening, but I'm excited to get rolling and start working with students in the AM program. Everything I've heard and seen with regard to AM is just amazing. The students are all jazzed to learn; Bobby, Carlos, and Shawn are great (and hilarious) teachers; the mentors are all really great and talented people; the online school setup is really tight and streamlined (and still getting better!). I can't say enough good things about it...and the semester hasn't even started yet!!

Some time this week I should get more info on what class I'll be working with, who my students will be, when the live Q&A will happen, and all kinds of fun stuff. I'll try to post updates from time to time about how things are going. Woohoo!

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Why Dogs Smile and Chimpanzees Cry

I'm always on the lookout for interesting animation reference, and during a trip to the zoo a couple weeks back, I picked up a DVD titled Why Dogs Smile and Chimpanzees Cry. Originally airing on TV back in 1999, this two-part documentary shows some really fascinating examples of animals displaying emotions that many of us often see as exclusively human. Because animation is such an emotional experience (more on this in a later post), and because animals are frequently chosen as characters in animated films, it's great to see specific examples of how emotions are conveyed and expressed by different types of animals.

One of my favorite scenes is in the section about the mother-child bond, and features a mother dolphin scolding one of her offspring after a close call with a boat. Following the scolding, the mother and child then swim off, with the mother gently touching the young one's flipper with her own, which is described as being a sort of dolphin equivalent of holding hands. It's the whole "I still love you" thing after getting a serious tongue-lashing. Great stuff!

Considering that it's six years old, and the DVD only contains about 100 minutes of video (plus a bunch of still-screen extras if you feel like reading), the retail price seems a tad on the high side. Keep your eyes open for a used copy somewhere, and snag it when you can!

Career advice

The other day I received an e-mail from someone who had a few career advice questions regarding animation. I'll admit I didn't feel terribly qualified to offer such advice, but I did my best to answer his questions. In the course of composing my answers, some interesting thoughts came to mind that I felt might be helpful for others. I don't claim that these are the right answers for everyone, but they ring true for me based on my experiences so far. I've made a few adjustments and clarified some points further, but the core is still intact. Here's how things went (with thanks to "JP" for allowing me to share his side of the conversation)...
Do you think it would increase my chances of finding work if i devoted myself to creature animations and realistic motions as opposed to cartoony? Since from what I understand, most companies are looking for realistic motions?
It's a tough call. I've never tried to read the industry and aim for what's hot at a given moment, so I don't really feel I can give you adequate advice in that arena. It sounds a lot like trying to predict hot stocks on Wall Street. It's all a guessing game. There's no exact science to it. People drive themselves nuts trying to predict where certain trends will go, and from some of your other comments, it sounds like you're already starting to get stressed by that effort.

As for me, I tend to just do my best at whatever's in front of me, and let the future take care of itself. If I need to find work, obviously I work hard at that effort, but I'm not trying to predict anything. I just look for a company that does the kind of work that I would like to be a part of, and I aim for that. And while I haven't had personal experience with stocks, I've heard that similar patterns work well in the stock market, too. Find a company that you like, buy some stock in it, and stick with it for the long haul. If you need to change at some point, then change. Don't kill yourself trying to stay ahead of the game by guessing (which is all it really is) what the Next Big Thing will be.

This next question could be answered in a similar way...

On a different note, do you think I would increase my chances of finding work if I devoted my skills to video games as oppossed to film?
...and that way, sadly, is "I really don't know."

However, I do have a strong belief that you will increase your chances of getting work if you search for a job doing work that you like. Rather than ask yourself, "What skills are in demand?", consider asking yourself, "What do I most enjoy?" Or perhaps, "What type of animation am I strongest at?" Everyone has aspects of animation that they like a lot, and generally they do their best work in those areas. If you search for a job doing that, I believe (again, just a feeling, no solid data, but a gut feeling) that you're likely to have a greater chance for success.

I'm kinda in a pickle here. I'm asking myself, "Where are the most possibilities right now? What are people mostly hiring? What is hot on demand right now? Are there more jobs in film or games and if so, what style? Cartoony or realism?"'re playing the animation stock-market. :) Again, rather than stress yourself trying to find the "hot" path and follow it, find your passion and follow that. You're bound to do better work, enjoy it more, and go farther in the industry if you're passionate about what you're doing, and not just doing it 'cause it's the hot thing or the easiest job to get at a given time.

I noticed that you said "One has to kinda do animations geared towards a company he would like to work for." While I agree and don't have a specific comment about that, it got me thinking about a company that I wanted to work for, and how that particular company's place in my career goals changed recently. I think this has some bearing on our current discussion, and I hope this info will be useful for you...

When I started studying character animation, Pixar was one of my primary goals. I used to tell myself that some day I would work at Pixar, and I kinda tried structuring a path that would get me there. It wasn't really a concerted effort all the time, but still, I had this goal of Pixar in my mind.

That goal stayed with me for my first few years as an animator, but somewhere in the past year, things changed. I no longer have Pixar as a key goal in my career. I still think they're doing some of the very best work when it comes to 3D character animation, and it certainly would be interesting to be there if I had the opportunity. However, the core nature of my goal has shifted. My goal is no longer about being at a certain place, but about achieving certain things. It's not about where I am, but what I do. Even if I never get hired at Pixar, I believe I can grow and learn and reach a point where I'm doing what folks refer to as "Pixar-quality animation".

The only reason people talk about "Pixar-quality animation" is because it's a convenient reference point. When it comes to 3D feature-level animation, the folks at Pixar happen to be the ones who have pushed themselves the hardest and set the standard for everyone else. However, that doesn't mean that they alone can achieve that level of quality. It's equally important to remember that it's not the name "Pixar" or the corporate entity that achieves that level of quality. It's the people. The people at Pixar study and work and push each other toward success. It's what they do, not where they are, that makes their work great. When it comes down to it, the end product is not "Pixar-quality animation," or even "insert_animator's_name_here-quality animation". It's just quality animation.

With that understanding in place, my new goal is simply to be the best animator I can be no matter where I am. The cool thing is that this shift in thinking has actually lifted some weight from my shoulders. I'm becoming a lot less worried about comparing myself to work done at another company, or by other people. I just need to make sure I'm always growing, always learning, always pushing myself to do better than my last assignment.

It's not about where I am, but what I do.

Blogger's block

Wow...things seemed to be going pretty well for the first little while. Then SIGGRAPH happened, I came home, and...... plunk. (For the uninitiated, that's the sound of a an idea or concept colliding with some type of wall.)

The core problem lately seems to be a difficulty in accomplishing two little tiny things...
  1. deciding what exactly to write here
  2. finding the time to write once a decision has been made

I got all excited about rolling along with Illustration Friday and Photo Friday on a regular basis, but the fire didn't catch nearly as strongly as I thought it did at first glance. I thought of writing something regarding the passing of Joe Ranft, but came up with several excuses not to. I've got a big long piece I've shared with some folks in person that I wanted to share here with the wider community, but because of its very "big long piece" nature, it's not coming together too terribly quickly...

...and suddenly I think I know what's going on.

When I first started this blog, I said that I was going to try to avoid doing stuff here just because everyone else was doing it. And what do I go and get myself into not two weeks later? Illustration Friday. Why did I get into it? It wasn't because I found the IF site and felt a burning desire to draw stuff on a weekly basis. When I look back on it, I think it was largely because I saw Ward Jenkins' entries each week. Because Ward was doing it, and I wanted to do it, too. That doesn't necessarily mean that it's a bad thing to do -- heck, it's drawing, which I could definitely use a lot of practice in -- but without my own passion and drive for the idea, it was bound to fail. It kinda looks like it's failing magnificently at the moment.

The same goes for Photo Friday. I forget the exact place I ran across it, but I have a strong hunch that my reason for "joining the fun" was because I saw someone else doing it, and felt that it would be cool to have that little tidbit on my site. The initial desire didn't come from an internal spark. It was another "they're doing it, so I'll do it too" move. And sure enough....plunk.

So what about Joe Ranft? Why didn't I say anything regarding his passing? Frankly, I just didn't have a burning desire to write anything. Sure, I was sad...very sad. It was just not the type of sadness that moved me to put my thoughts down here. What was moving me was the feeling that because so many other animators were writing about him, I should write something, too...and I'm so glad that I didn't give in to that impulse. If I had written anyway, it probably would have come across as cheap and trite because I would have been simply following the crowd, rather than expressing true feelings from within. I respect and commend those who shared their thoughts and condolences in their blogs. They did so because they were moved to speak. I didn't feel moved in that same way, so I didn't write, and I sincerely hope that my silence wasn't seen as disrespect.

That leads up to the "big long piece," which is the easiest to explain: I definitely have a burning desire to share it, but it's just been hard to find the time.

So now we come back to the two little tiny things that have been so hard to do lately...

  1. decide what exactly to write here
  2. find the time to write once a decision has been made

Now that I realize what I was doing with some of these ideas/subjects, I'll be that much more careful about item 1. If you see it here, you'll know that it's something I really feel needs to be shared. If you see something elsewhere and don't see it here, it doesn't mean I don't have an opinion on the subject. It's just that my feelings didn't move me to type an entry. Nothing more, nothing less.

Okay, enough proofreading, Justin. Go to bed. There will be plenty of time tomorrow to write the other entries...

Saturday, July 30, 2005


Well, it is finally happening: I'm packing up and prepping for my first SIGGRAPH experience! Woohoo! :)

For a large portion of my time there, I'll be assisting with recruiting efforts at the Reel FX motorhome. We have a lot of fun stuff on the horizon, and we're looking to find some killer talent to add to the ranks. If you're interested in joining the crew, or just want to kick back a bit on Tuesday and Wednesday for Happy Hour between 4 and 7pm, stop by the "moho" and say hello!

On Wednesday, I'll be acting as MC for the CGCHAR @ SIGGRAPH "birds of a feather" event. There's a great schedule of speakers lined up, and serving as the announcer for such a mass of talent will probably prove to be both fun and terrifying all at the same time. Overall, though, I'm really looking forward to it!

Around that, I'll be wandering the show floor and going to different events as time permits. You know...typical conference stuff. I just hope my feet can handle it all. Gotta make sure I pack the gel inserts...

All right, gotta get rolling and finish packing. California, here I come!

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Photo Friday: Silky

Yeah, I know, this is just barely within the "Silky" week. But it fits. :)

My wife and I stopped in at a nearby nursery the other day, and I took shots of various flowers. I believe this one stuck out to me specifically because of the uber-soft texture of its petals. I tried at first to bring out more detail in the veins, but it ruins the silky soft feeling, so I've left it pretty much as-shot, with only a little sharpening to clean it up a tad.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Animators and telemarketers

Animators know voices.

Anyone who's been in animation for a decent length of time can attest to that. We're listening to dialog tracks hundreds and thousands of times. We can pick up on subtle cues in vocal qualities and speech patterns in a heartbeat. We know voices.

So what does this have to do with telemarketing?

I just got a call from some phone company trying to get me to switch to their service. The telemarketer ("the TM") on the other end started into his planned patter, and the moment he got rolling, I instantly knew I'd heard this dude before. It wasn't a week ago that this same guy called me with the same offer, and I remember that call only because of this guy's voice. The combination of his vocal quality and the pattern and rhythm with which he delivered his lines was so unique that he had unknowingly wedged himself into my head like no other TM before him. I knew this was the same guy. So I called him on it early into the conversation. It went something like this...

Me: "Excuse me, but you called me the other day, and I told you we weren't interested."

TM: "I don't think so, sir. This is the first time our company has called you."

Me: "No, trust me, you called me. I'm not just talking about your, specifically, called me. I remember your voice."

TM: "Believe me, sir, this is the first time our company has called you."

Me: "No, listen...I know your voice, okay? I'm an animator, and I listen to voices all day long. I remember your voice."

TM (trying to call my bluff): "Then what's my name, sir? Tell me, what's my name?"

Me (with no bluff): "Your name? I didn't write down your name, but I remember your voice. I know you were the one who called before, and I told you we weren't interested."

TM (trying again): "What's the plan I'm calling about, then? Can you describe it to me?"

Me (getting frustrated): "Look, I didn't pay attention to the details of the plan, all right? I said we weren't interested. But I know it was you who called."

At that point he was getting a tad frustrated as well, and decided it wasn't any use trying to get me to hear about his plan. He apologized for taking my time, said that he'd make sure nobody from his company called back again, and hung up.

Looking back on it, I probably shouldn't have pushed back on the guy so hard, but there's no way he could convince me that he hadn't called before. That voice, that rhythm, that confident was definitely the same guy.

Animators know voices.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Bobby Beck hits Dallas with a BOOM!

I had the good fortune on Friday to attend an animation masterclass tought by Bobby "BOOM" Beck, President and CEO of In a word: awesome! In two words: really awesome! In a few more words...

Well, it was just a wonderful opportunity to see Bobby talking so passionately about the art of animation. And it was all about the art. There wasn't a single technical tidbit in magic method for fiddling with curves in the graph editor, no insider insight into the best animation software on the market, no super-secret science to getting constraints to work just right. He did share one big, massive secret, though: the ultimate secret of great animation. And that ultimate secret is...

There is no secret.

All the tools and techniques that make great animation have been around for years. They're not the property of big companies. They're all around us if we just take the time to search them out and apply them with care and attention. I must admit, there have been times in the not-too-distant past where I felt I just needed to get my hands on something I didn't yet have...some nifty trick or process or idea that has been eluding me. And the embarrassing realization is that what has been eluding me is, in large part, the proper application of the stuff I already "know." Which clearly means I don't know it well enough yet. Which means I need to get in gear and push myself that much harder! Woohoo!

The cool thing is that, if someone had told me prior to Bobby's class that there is no secret to great animation, I would have gone anyway. As Keith Lango mentioned prior to the start of the class, and as Bobby also mentioned during the class, every opportunity to learn will present things in a slightly different light than before. You never know when something that someone says will be the final push to switch on a certain light bulb. But if you never take those opportunities, that light will stay off even longer. And as I mentioned in a previous entry, I don't want to ever find myself at a point where I feel I have nothing more to learn. There's always an opportunity to learn something new, even if it's hearing stuff I've heard a thousand times. Who knows...perhaps the thousand-and-first time will be the kicker!

Thanks for a great day, Bobby!

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Beauty in fireworks

I went to the fireworks show at High Point Park in Plano, TX, on the evening of July 4th. It was my first time taking photographs of fireworks, so in addition to my new tripod, I brought along a bunch of notes I'd found online regarding various camera settings. After taking 120+ shots -- over 80 of which were of the fireworks display -- I packed up and headed for home, excited to see how everything turned out. Not only did the shots turn out well, but one of them greatly surprised me...

Of all that footage, this is my absolute, hands-down favorite: the one that doesn't make me think of fireworks at all.

I didn't even notice the result after I took the shot, as I was concentrating on just shooting as much as I could (had to fiddle with my cam's menu for every shot...long story). When I got home and reviewed the results with my wife, we were stunned when we saw this. There are a few other shots from the evening that also remind us of flowers, but none as elaborate, or as clear, or as beautiful as this.


Monday, July 04, 2005

Photo Friday: Used

"What? Photo Friday? What happened to Illustration Friday? You've missed a couple Illustration Friday topics, and now you're switching gears to photos? What's wrong with you!?"

- The Voice Inside My Head

Short answer: I'm an artist. I'm being "organic." Leave me alone.


Okay, so late last week I bought my first digital camera (FujuFilm FinePix S5100...4 megapixels...lots of manual controls...beautiful!), and now I'm all shutterbuggy and stuff. My wife thinks that it's just the "new toy syndrome" that's doing this to me, and in a way she's right. Then again, I've had this secret, buried hankering for more creative photography for many a year now. Now that I have a with which to satisfy said hankering, I'm simply trying to make up for lost time. Is that so wrong?

At any rate, I'll probably go back and forth between Illustration Friday and Photo Friday as my mood drives me. As much as I love images in motion, I also appreciate the carefully crafted drawing or photo, and feel that experiments with both art forms are valuable ways to stretch my creativity. And besides, they're downright fun!

Wait a minute...I just admitted that drawing is fun (not just fun, but fun!). Better not let TVIMH catch that. He and I have had some downright nasty arguments on the subject...

Oh, and about the photo. My wife has a bunch of old SCA armor bits that she wants to unload, so I laid them all out on the living room floor to take a shot or two for use on eBay. Some of the smaller pieces were collected in an old, metal First Aid box, which instantly lept to mind as an appropriate subject for this week's PF topic. I took about a eight or ten shots from various angles (all macro), and finally cropped out this piece from one of the better images.

Digital cameras. Joy and gladness.

* deep sigh, goofy smile *

Monday, June 27, 2005

Desk toys do have a purpose!

Earlier today I was talking with the creative director on the current project about a staging problem with a particular series of shots. We threw ideas back and forth several times, but we still didn't have a clear picture of the staging of a key character in these shots. Even sketching the setting on paper didn't fully help.

Solution: toys!

We took several of my smaller desk toys and set them up to represent the key groups and characters we needed to discuss. To represent the camera position, I laid a little mini-bottle of hot sauce on its side. With these aides, we worked out the problem in a matter of seconds.

Vive la desk toys!

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Illustration Friday: Black and White

Lady Liberty - 1999 - scratchboard

Okay, so I'm not exactly sticking with my goal of drawing new images for Illustration Friday. I am still drawing, which is good, but when the topic of "black and white" was announced, this older creation immediately came to mind.

This is my one-and-only (so far) excursion into the world of scratchboard. It was an exercise for a class in illustration styles and techniques. While it could clearly be a lot better, I'm pretty happy with how it turned out considering I'd never used the material before.

Friday, June 17, 2005

I am a chestnut tree!

Several years ago, a friend sent me a sort of "tree zodiac" list, in which the year is broken up into groups of dates, and each date group has a corresponding tree. You find the group that contains your birthdate, and the tree associated with that group supposedly represents specific character qualities and traits that apply to you.

Now normally I'm not the type that puts a lot of trust or belief in these types of things, but I took a look at it anyway. I went down the list to the range where my birthdate fell, and I and found my tree...

A chestnut tree.

Hmmm....chestnut. Okaaayyyyyy....

I looked at personality profile for the chestnut, and was kind of surprised to find that many of the attributes did fit quite well with me. One particular attribute, though, left my friend and I a tad confused: vivacious. We both had a rough idea what it meant, but we were curious to know the specifics.

That night when I got home, I dug out my handy-dandy dictionary and looked it up. When I read the first word in the definition, I laughed my head off. I called the friend who had sent me the list.

"You'll never guess what the first word is in the definition of 'vivacious'," I said.

"What? What is it?"


There couldn't be a better match.

I am a chestnut tree!

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Escher and animation

I like to keep a page-a-day calendar on my desk at work, and this year I decided to get one containing the art of M.C. Escher. In addition to daily samples of his drawings and woodcuts and such, the weekend pages feature quotes from Escher, several of which hit home to me from an animation standpoint...
"The flat shape irritates me -- I feel like telling my objects, you are too fictitious, lying there next to each other static and frozen; do something, come off the paper and show me what you are capable of! So I make them come out of the plane."

"When, upon completion of high school, I became a student of the Haarlem School for Architecture and Decorative Arts, I came within a hairsbreadth of having the opportunity to become a useful member of society. . . . But the school also offered a course in graphic arts."

"There is indeed a great satisfaction in acquiring skill, in coming to thoroughly understand the qualities of the material at hand and in learning to use the instruments we have -- in the first place, our hands! -- in an effective and controlled way."

"That remarkable urge to obtain multiple images, for which I have no rational explanation, probably goes back to a primeval instinct. It has something to do with "Go forth and multiply..."

"The graphic artist's immaterial and purely spiritual ideal is the fruitful transfer of thoughts from one human being to as many fellow human beings as possible."

Wonderful stuff! I'll share more later as I come across them.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Illustration Friday: Summer

Harold has mixed feelings. He's happy that it's summer. He's sad that his hat is too small to protect him from the sun's burning rays.

Thus begins my venture into the world of Illustration Friday. I won't go into great detail on why drawing frustrates me, but it does. However, I know that I need to practice, even with uber-cheap little doodles like this, so I figured I'd give it a shot.

I scratched this out on a sticky-note at work yesterday. I didn't have a specific idea in mind when I began. I just started with the eyes and nose, then doodled my way out from there. Perhaps the sticky-note will be my surface of choice for all these weekly drawings. Hmmm....

Friday, June 10, 2005

Balance and Seward Street

I'm a relative newbie at this game called "animation," having only been in the business for four years. In that time, though, I've seen a hefty variety of attitudes about the the animation industry, and heard plenty of stories -- both good and bad -- about people, companies, projects, etc. I've also been thrown some interesting curves along the way, helping me to build my own collection of stories. I'll never forget attending my first company meeting on day three of my first animation job and finding that I was about to have my first brush with layoffs. *SMACK!* Hello, reality!

So after four years of ups and downs, I find myself blessed to be at a growing company, supervising a team of animators on a big project. In dealing with the unique joys and stresses of that responsibility (along with trying to figure out the ever-present problem of what on earth I'd like to do with my career going forward), the whole "balance" issue has been coming to mind with greater frequency and urgency. As though on cue, Jim Hull over at Seward Street posted a transcript of a great article about the importance of balance in an animation career.

One key aspect of this article is that it features examples of several successful animators who managed to have long, healthy careers despite the noise, chaos, and idiocy that's interwoven with the beauty, joy, and inspiration. While it's fairly obvious that balance is important, and it's not much of a stretch to think of ways that such balance can be achieved, having examples of folks who have pulled it off is an extra kicker, and a very welcome one at that. For me, at least, their presence helps to push the concept of balance from aspiration to inspiration, and these people become even greater heroes. They're not just successful animators. They're successful in spite of all the negative influences that can so easily cloud the mind and burden the soul. They've passed through the refiner's fire, letting the dross slip away while allowing the heat to appropriately refine them. They are truly great!

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Hilarious video

For this quick entry, I'm broadening the scope just a tad. This homemade music-video of a popular 80's song is just too funny to contain. One might even say that it's some way...I think...

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Artists and doubt

Just a quick thought I found in my archives...
The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize. -- Robert Hughes

It reminds me of a comment I heard from an animator friend several years ago. While I'm wild-guessing the exact words, the gist of it has stuck with me ever since...
Even the best artist has room to grow. If I ever get to the point where I think that I know everything, that I have nothing left to learn...I'm in deep trouble.

Monday, June 06, 2005

A Day In the Life of an Animator: Haiku

Some time in the late part of 2004, word was spread around the Reel FX office that we were going to be featured in some local business publication. As part of that project, the call was put out for folks to write little blurbs about what it's like to work at the studio, with the typical "day in the life" summary being specifically mentioned.

I tossed the idea around a bit, and decided to do the "day in the life" treatment, but compose it in Haiku form. I'll admit it's not pure Haiku (i.e. there's no mention of a season in each three-line verse), but it follows the Haiku meter restrictions, which was my primary goal. To date, the article has yet to be published, and I have no idea if my submission was even going to be included, so I'm taking the liberty of publishing it here first. (For what it's worth, the specific scenario described is purely fictional.)


A Day in the Life of an Animator

Walk in the front door.
"Good morning." Check for new snacks.
Up three flights of stairs. *

Animation room.
Three fellow pixel pushers
Share the tiny space.

Log in. Check mail. None.
What am I supposed to be
doing today? Hmmm...

Interesting thing,
Character animation.
Bringing stuff to life.

Today's task is to
Make a fat bear do a flip.
Google: Bears flipping.

Plan the shot a bit,
With the final goal in mind:
Three seconds a day.

Set the key poses.
Looks pretty good so far. Wow...
Lunch time already?

Gather the crew and
Walk to Tony Roma's. Mmmm...
Wedge salad and soup.

Back to work we go.
On to breakdown poses. Aargh!
Cooperate, knees!!

Three-thirty!? Curses!
Must work faster...focus, man!
Dailies are at five!

Four-fifteen: Almost
Finished...just a little more...
No!! The program crashed!!!

Four-fifty: Lost work
All made up, final polish
done. Off to dailies.

Please approve the shot.
What? He's flipping through a tree?
Where'd the tree come from?!

Set changes...again?
The set was locked! Okay, fine...
I'll do it over.

Pack my bag, head out
To catch the six-thirty train,
Look back on the day...

Interesting thing,
Character animation.
Bringing stuff to life.

Tedious? Perhaps,
But in the end, it's a joy
I would never trade.
* Before moving to our spacious new digs in a large converted warehouse, Reel FX occupied three of the four floors in a small converted coffee factory.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

The eyes have it

Several years ago I picked up a copy of The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes at a book sale. One day while reading it during my train commute to work, I ran across an interesting passage that reinforced a certain animation concept.

The Adventure of the Cardboard Box began with Holmes and Watson attempting to relax in Holmes' apartment on a hot summer day. Watson found the morning paper uninteresting, and found Holmes unwilling to take part in conversation. He tossed aside the paper and let his thoughts wander for a bit, when suddenly Holmes broke in and response to Watson's thoughts. Watson was stunned that Holmes knew what he was thinking, and asked him to explain...
"I have been seated quietly in my chair, and what clues have I given

"You do yourself an injustice," Holmes responded. "The features are given to man as the means by which he shall express his emotions, and yours are faithful servants."

"Do you mean to say that you read my train of thoughts from my features?"

"Your features, and especially your eyes."
As Holmes went on to describe the reasoning that led to his conclusion, it served as a testament to the wealth of emotion and thought that can be conveyed by the eyes alone: a shift here, a subtle squint there, the length of time that the gaze is held on certain objects, how and when the gaze shifts to new targets. When carefully orchestrated, the movement of the eyes and brows can speak volumes, even when the character isn't saying a word.

If you think about the amount of work that Doyle had to do in order to present Sherlock Holmes as a master of observation, he must have become quite an observer himself. I wonder what he would have been like as an animator...

Why this blog?

Truth be told, I'm still trying to figure that out. I think I'm getting warmer, though...

I've been looking for a slightly easier way to share the odd thought about animation, art, music, or whatever related stuff comes to mind. Rather than mess with manually posting new pages to my site and trying to organize them all in some fashion, I thought it would be easier to collect everything in a blog.

Before things get too far, I should probably offer some sort of disclaimer. I don't claim to know everything there is about animation, art, music, etc. I've still got a lifetime of learning ahead of me in all those subjects. From time to time, though, something will pop up that I feel would be useful to share with others. It could be an original thought, a discussion I've had that has helped to clarify a principle for me, or perhaps something I run across that's really inspiring. On the latter note, I should point out that I don't want this blog to become a copycat of other blogs. While I'll occasionally post something that someone else has also posted, I'm doing it because the subject matter truly inspires me, and I'm eager to share the inspiration.

At the same time, not all of life is inspiring. There have been days when the krunk and depression have been so thick on my heart that I've felt like throwing in the towel on animation and driving commuter trains for a living instead. I'm sure many out there have been in similar situations. When those days come up, I hope this will be a place you (and I) can visit that will help to revive the drive, boost the creative juices, and provide encouragement to press forward.

Thanks for stopping by!

Howl's Moving Castle

My wife and I had the opportunity to see a pre-release screening of this film on Friday night.

The raw verdict: Awesome!

The details: I must admit, I'm not a huge fan of anime, but I'm becoming a pretty big fan of Miyazaki's films. HMC is just plain gorgeous! I'm amazed at the amount of detail that Miyazaki crams into his scenes. The beautiful thing is that it's not just detail for detail's sake. It all serves the story, the moment, the character, etc. It all has a purpose.

And the! The variety of characters that he puts into his films is always amazing. Granted, this film is an adaptation of a young-adult novel, and I'm quite curious to see how the characters appear in the original book (my wife ordered it today, so I'll eventually be able to satisfy that curiosity). Despite that, it totally feels like a Miyazaki original if you look at the cast of characters, how they're presented on the screen in both design and animation, and how he treats them throughout the course of the story.

I could go on, but there's really no point. It's just an awesome film. Score another winner for Miyazaki!