Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Dean Yeagle's "Melange" at Book Soup

posted by Steve
FLIP featured artist Dean Yeagle is doing a book signing tonight!  Originally published in France, "Melange" is an 128 page overview of his career including many of Dean's Playboy cartoons.   If you're in the Hollywood area go see Dean at Book Soup!    His feature in FLIP was its most popular page ever.  I wonder why.......
Anyway, the book signing starts at 7 tonight!

Book Soup
8818 Sunset Blvd
West Hollywood, California

And buy a book!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Jerry Rees' Home Movies of Ward Kimball

Back in the day, Rebecca and I were delighted to receive an invitation to attend a gathering at Ward Kimball's house.  Kelly Kimball was there of course.  Brian McEntee and Chuck Richardson were there.  Ward and his crew fired up full size steam engines and gave visitors rides back and forth across his property.  What a blast!  And what a shock it must have been for people passing on the neighborhood street, seeing steam engines racing toward the fence, then slowing at the last moment and edging up to the bumpers at the end of the tracks.  Most of the day was spent chatting, eating and riding the trains.  But Ward saw several of us peeking at the building where he kept his vast collection of miniature trains.  He let us in and asked "you want somethin' to run?"

He fired up several trains at once and got everything chugging.  You could tell he was having a blast!  Boy did his eyes twinkle...

Later that day he wanted to see the tapes I'd been recording.  He said he liked the footage better than the stuff a news crew had staged and shot earlier.  He found it more candid and fun.

That VHS tape has been sitting on a shelf for a whole lot of years.  After intending to digitize it for a long, long time, I finally gave it a shot.  Some of it is still in decent shape.  But there are segments lost to tape degeneration.  I could kick myself for not doing it sooner!  But over the next few weeks I plan to go back and salvage as many scenes as possible - both the big trains, and the miniatures - and post it all on my site.

The piece I shared today was just the first test (before the digitizer broke!).  I've ordered a new one and will be back at it in a few days.

Hope it made you smile!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Another great place to study animation - the University of Kent at Canterbury

I have been doing some teaching lately at the University of Kent at Canterbury, where my old friend David Byers-Brown runs an excellent Msc. in Computer Animation, a course which he built from scratch. It's a one year graduate course on a 1960s campus a short cab ride out of beautiful medieval Canterbury, where David's students are producing some amazingly sophisticated work. David and I worked together many years ago on The Thief and The Cobbler; he animated lots of excellent shots of Zig Zag the Grand Vizier, and later went to work for ILM where he seems to have mastered most of the elements of digital film-making. His students are not just trained to be animators but rather emerge with all-round skills in Maya - an excellent training for work in the visual effects industry in London. You can see their website here - check out in particular the excellent short film "The Raptor Hunter", created and animated by the very talented Dariusz Szczuraszek. - Alex

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Saga of Bjorn - bad pitch, great film

Now and again I teach animation classes at the wonderful Animation Workshop in Viborg, Denmark, a school which I think offers one of the very best English-speaking undergraduate animation courses in the world. The school has a great spirit, marvellous dedicated staff, and produces excellent work. A couple of years ago I was working there as an artist in residence when one of my students, Benjamin Kousholt, pitched me his idea for a student film. It was all about Vikings. "Oh no..." I thought, "here we go..."  Vikings? (yawn) Going to Valhalla? (double yawn). I thought: When will these Danes stop banging on about Vikings? It's like the Norwegians and their forest trolls - time to stop digging through the cultural attic in search of antique furniture and do something new.

How wrong I was. Benjamin and his team of animators and visual effects artists put together one of the best student films I have ever seen. It's beautifully designed, well animated, very funny, and has over a million hits on YouTube. I salute their hard work and a wonderful result. - Alex

Monday, January 23, 2012

Toaster Tales #1: A Replicant in BladeRunnerland

posted by Steve
Mr. Hollywood with James Wang and Rebecca Rees in Taipei.

It was January 28th, 1986, and I had just arrived to work on The Brave Little Toaster at Wang Film Studios, a.k.a. Cuckoo’s Nest.  I had been put up at the China Hotel, and must have arrived on the weekend as the studio was closed during my first full day there.  After breakfast at the hotel, I took a walk to check out the town. 

I was just 23 years old, and found the city of Taipei to be like the land of Blade Runner. The buildings, the lighting, the smells, and the noise let me know with no uncertainty that I was far from the animator's safe haven of Burbank. Taipei was very loud, and on the eve of Chinese New Year, firecrackers went off constantly throughout the city, with rolls running the height of three story buildings.   Most all signage was in Chinese, rendering me illiterate. American fast-food was there; Wendy's, Pizza Hut (with ketchup in lieu of tomato sauce on their pizza) and of course, McDonald's.  As I approached a life-size, fiberglass Ronald McDonald on the sidewalk, a small boy puked a strawberry milkshake at his feet - a National Geographic photo-op missed.  It was all so intensely bizarre and exhilarating, I strolled around like a Replicant, drawing stares for being a strawberry-blonde haired, green-eyed freak. 

Day one in Taipei.

Walking past a large, shiny department store, my green eyes caught a bank of TVs in the showcase window with footage of what appeared to be the space shuttle exploding.   I stopped short,  taking a closer look next to a couple of locals.  The footage was on a thirty second loop, the shuttle exploding, then back intact, then exploding, then back intact.    The locals were talking about it, but in Chinese, so why was I eavesdropping?  I went into the store to hear the TV commentary.  It was an American news report dubbed in Chinese.  I could hear a familiar voice (Brokaw?) reporting, but Chinese translation transposed on the tape made it very difficult to decipher. The Chinese news also added musical score for dramatic effect.  Really.  

Hours later, I met up with some of my American Toaster crew mates and learned that the shuttle had, indeed, exploded killing the entire crew.  Every January 28th since, when reminded of the disaster, I flash back to the front of that Chinese department store and that bank of televisions, luring people to come shop with a loop of the Challenger exploding during Chinese New Year. Shin yen kwai le!  

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Alex is Eggstatic

Last week I found myself painting a one meter high fibreglass egg for a charity egg hunt - The Big Egg Hunt - launching in London in february. You can see their website here.

It's a bit like last year's Elephant Parade in London - different artists paint the eggs (or elephants) and, after they have graced the capital with their presence, they get auctioned off for charity. The charities this year are Action For Children and Elephant Family.

The funny thing was - I've been working digitally for so long that I can't really remember how to use paint properly anymore. So I had to beg a favour from an old friend of mine - Clarissa Parish, who is an awesomely talented muralist who specialises in huge commissions like cruise ships and hotels. Here's her website:

She had to bail me out of trouble on various occasions when I threatened to screw the whole thing up. Eventually however with her help I managed to get the egg safely to its "nest" in Clerkenwell, from where it will move to a yet-to-be-disclosed location in London. - alex

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Augmented Reality Without Mushrooms

"Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one."
 -"Big AL" Einstein

Last month, I was shown this video by my old pal Jerry Rees. 

My head fell off.  A week later, I saw this one, below (skip to about 1:30 to get to the interesting stuff).  

Now, I’ve been around long enough to say I’ve been around long enough.  And for the first time in years I saw something animated that really blew my mind.  How do they do it?   Jerry explains “Augmented Reality” and his work with AMUSME, a start-up new-tech company he has been working with as Lead Creative.

Jerry Rees: 
"Augmented Reality (AR) is a process that allows web cams and/or smart mobile devices to show you a live image of what is actually there (the Reality part), plus an added element that isn't actually there (the Augmented part).  Software locks the Augmented element to the scale and perspective of a preordained marker in the real space.  This "tracking" to the marker is essential in making the added element seem to be part of the physical world.  When you move the marker in Reality, the Augmented element moves right along with it.

Old school tracking markers used to be blocky black & white symbols.  We now use image recognition.  This allows the app to "recognize" almost any image, such as a face or a logo and launch the software.

The term Augmented Reality is used pretty indiscriminately by many companies, often referring to a flat overlay that doesn't track, or just a link to a traditional website or video playback. 

We are excited to push the AR envelope with true 3D animation that tracks the real world and includes original music and sound.  We aim to create involving experiences and we aim for high quality.  Since AR places extreme limitations on the amount of data that can be streamed live, we are constantly exploring work-around strategies to elevate the sense of production value.  One day soon, cloud computing and hardware advancements will work together to remove most of these limitations.  Until then we valiantly joust!

When planning out the Augmented Reality pieces, I start with sketches.  I storyboard the expected attitudes and action.  My storyboards for Owney included plans for him to sit up and beg, catch a little envelope in his mouth, toss it back to you, bark, trot and run.  The idea was for updates of the app to feature Owney doing more and more interactive tricks - to display more and more personality.

Our Maya animator Jeff Clifton started building Owney in 3D, keeping in mind his required activities.

I rendered a pose test cycle to establish a cadence for Owney's trot.  I gave this reference video to Jeff as a timing guide for his animation.  I also gave it to our composer, Ian Rees, as a timing guide for his music.

Looking at historical photos I painted the flat Owney fur textures for Jeff to wrap around the Maya model.  This was the only fur solution available to us since Augmented Reality cannot yet handle the heavy data required to move thousands of fur strands.

Jeff sent me animation dailies married to Ian's music, and we tweaked various drafts.

But Jeff's challenges went far beyond traditional animation.  He had to collaborate with the software techs who were providing us the playback tools which track our animation to the physical marker.  Not only were there strict restrictions on the amount of data, but different tracking software uses different rendering environments as well.  So Jeff had to keep simplifying the data load while laboring to preserve the quality of our character.  And he had to work within the software language parameters of each vendor.  Not easy.  But he has become a top practitioner in essentially outsmarting the medium - especially as we followed up the Owney AR release with other projects such the JFK stamp, a dynamic Captain America movie promo and more.  Randy Cartwright has become an invaluable consultant, brainstorming with Jeff on best new methods.

A web portal allowed us to view tests on how smoothly the animation moved in the AR software environment, how well the sound stayed in sync, and how well the animation locked to the physical marker as you moved it around.  There were a number of trouble-shooting passes to smooth things out.

Once we were happy, the Apple apps team ran Owney through his paces.  He got a clean bill of health!

On some of the projects I've used Photoshop plus 3D layers in After Effects to do a more elaborate animatic of how the final experience should appear.  This process has allowed some of the textures and layers I build during pre-viz to be incorporated as hybrid aspects of the Maya model and the final app.

Currently my directing duties at Imagineering are keeping me from participating full time, as I did for the first year of our AR venture.  But the AMUSME team is going strong and I keep throwing in my two cents until I can dive back in!  We've started collaborating with computer science faculty members at various universities.  So many breakthroughs are just about to happen and we are poised to secure a perch on the front of the next wave.  Fun will be had by all!"
Jerry and Stephen Michael Schwartz wrote a 69 page version all based on newspaper articles vetted by Smithsonian.  Free at the iTunes app store for iPad.

For those without an iPad there's a web version link.
Fred Cline did awesome illustrations in the classic Golden Book style.

And there's the companion Augmented Reality Owney we released earlier:

And finally, here's a video Jerry did of the "Owney" theme, using Fred Cline's illustrations.  The song was written by Stephen Michael Schwartz, performed by country singer Trace Adkins

-posted by Steve

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

How Long Does It Take to Produce a Great Piece of Animation?

Animation takes too long. Animators spend days or weeks (months even?) polishing our work. If I look back on the shots I am most proud of, they are usually scenes that took forever to get right. I have a sense of achievement looking back on them - but I've mostly edited out the pain that went into them.

So it's a pleasure to come across work which didn't take weeks of graft to perfect. Evgenia Golubeva is one of my super-talented ex students from the character animation course at Escape Studios. Evgenia animated a short film titled "Hold Me Clothes", a stop-motion film written by her, and animated in just one day at a film festival in Italy.

Hold Me Clothes is sweet and funny and completely charming. Her work is a reminder that good animation is as much about storytelling and an eye for comic timing as it is about polished technique. Congratulations to her on a delightful film. - Alex

Sunday, January 15, 2012

How Long Does It Take to Become a Good Animator?

Animation is a complex craft and it takes a long time to master. The only exception to this rule - the only animator I can think of who seems to have emerged into the industry fully formed - is James Baxter, whose first animation test I still vividly remember seeing on "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?". It was a short test of Thumper the rabbit shaking his head and looking up at the camera - and it was so good that it immediately earned James a spot on the animation team. It also made me think I would never, ever have the skill to become anywhere near as good as that. 

Twenty years later not much has changed, except that these days I do a lot of teaching - especially at the excellent Escape Studios in London - and I spend a good deal of time trying to figure out what should go into a really good animation course. How does a school get its students completely up to speed - ie to a professional level of skill - within the shortest possible period of time? Many students seem to emerge from 3 years of animation study at prestigious schools with only basic skills, which most likely says more about the quality of training they received than it does about them.

At Escape the animation courses are just 3 months long, which is a very short space of time to cram in as much as we possibly can to make the course as effective as possible, to get the best possible results. This means we can't spend long on any individual exercise - no more than a day or two. One week max for the final acting exercise. In a way it's a good thing - everyone works like crazy and we don't waste any time. Every hour of every day is precious and the challenge is to figure out the fastest and most efficient way to get the best work done. Here's a link to the latest student reel - most of the students here had absolutely no knowledge of Maya before they began the course.

Editor's Note: In September 2012 Alex launched a new online animation school - Animation Apprentice, incorporating many of the lessons learned at Escape Studios and elsewhere, with a view to bringing high quality animation training to students all over the world.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Return of the Hunched & Goofy

Last March, I got an e-mail from Alex Williams.  He had a proposal - that we should team up and relaunch my e-zine FLIP as a blog. This is it.  

Alex lives in London.  That's a picture of us during my family vacation there in August 2010.  He took us out for some spectacular Middle-Eastern cuisine.  It was Ramadan, so we had the place to ourselves until dusk.  I had just posted my final issue of FLIP as a webzine, and we talked about it a bit that night among a myriad of other things in the rambling conversation you have with someone you see once every four or five years.  My wife, Donna, was running for local office, and Alex introduced her to the poster that would become her campaign mantra:

This was something Churchill had posted around town when the Nazi's were bombing the shit out of London.  Donna co-opted the slogan and would win the election, beating our own local version of Boss Hogg.

I first met Alex in Los Angeles in 1998 - a cool, sophisticated cat but not in the phony L.A. way.  He's very intelligent - was once a barrister in London (or was he a solicitor?).  Besides being an animator, he does a comic strip for The Times in London called"Queen's Counsel".  When he proposed teaming up, I thought he'd offer a great counterpoint to my South Jersey tactless manner.

For you readers, expect to read more of the types of articles done in the original FLIP.  Bookmark the page if you like it, and join our Facebook page too!  We're not posting comments as they tend to be inane and give my site viruses, but if you have something valid to add or contribute, send us an e-mail. And please - spread the word!

- Steve