Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Haunted in A-113

This time of year always makes me think of Cal Arts' Halloween parties.  They were the wildest, most bizarre galas only a school of artists could conjure.  The parties were exclusive to students and alumni, who could bring two outside guests.   Locals were always trying to crash the party, keeping the old men in yellow who were CalArts Security running all night.

In October of 1985, the Character Animation Dept. had its own 'haunted house' tour in the now trivially-famous room A-113.  They created a maze of horrors through which I found myself getting totally lost, even though I had been in this room hundreds of times as a student.

Sue Nichols, center, as a gypsy woman, Juliet Duncan, right as a dead woman, and Dave Cutler wearing a voodoo mask, behind.   Halloween, 1986.   
Sue Nichols was one of the student masterminds behind the haunted house.  She told FLIP:

"We did those Haunted Houses for ...what...3-4 years...? (Yah, I was around after graduation to see the tradition carried on.) Best room ever was the year we ended the maze with Jim Reardon in a small dark room with a baseball bat and bullhorn. People would rise up out of the maze into a seemingly safe room.  Jim would blow the rrrrrreally loud horn as Rich Moore flashed a light on him and opened the door.  The scared people fell out into the hall ... right into the middle of the line of people waiting to go in.  Screaming people falling over themselves to rush out of the haunted house put the waiting virgins into a state of panic!  They were in the right state of freak before they even entered the maze.  Anything we did would make them scream after that.  Awesome idea!  And of course the screaming people had to save face and never admitted that they jumped at the sound of a horn.  They made the house sound scarier than it was to the line of waiting guests.  Egos make great PR.

Dale McBeath and I made a graveyard on top of desks and made people crawl into a grave and through a maze underground.  As you climbed down into the grave, Juliet Duncan (dressed as a dead woman) sat up in her coffin and screamed right into your face.  She also played a dead bride with Dave Cutler as her butler one year.  They made you crawl under the wedding cake table into a room of mirrors."

My own most vivid memory was crawling through a tunnel (think Bruce Willis in Die Hard) toward a 90 degree corner around which a strobe light was flashing.  Dan Jeup was ahead of me, crawling along, laughing at how cool everything was.  Ten feet from the corner, an evil gremlin stepped out from around the corner and stood in the strobe.  

"What the hell is that?" Dan laughed.  

The creature had long pointy ears and a head full of wild hair.  It had a square body and tiny little legs with long, pointy nails on its feet.  "What the hell IS that?"  I said.  It appeared to be real - not a mannequin or prop.  Was it a chimp in a costume?  

"What the hell is that?"  Dan and I said in unison.

Then the thing began to run toward us!  "Oh shit!" Dan shouted, putting it in reverse.  He slammed into me, and I slammed into someone behind me and we were all freaked out for a second until someone shouted "It's Broose!  It's Broose!"  

Broose Johnson was a student with prosthetic legs.  He had simply removed them and was walking on his hands in costume.  It was very effective.  He ran right up to Dan's face, paused, then casually walked back around the corner, leaving us in a dark tunnel that now smelled like farts.  

Sue recalled Broose's antics:

"Broose loved taking off his legs for this haunt and played a monster running around several times. I think he was a broken statue one year too." 

Brenda Chapman played the Bride of Frankenstein with Alan Smart as the mad doctor.  She recalled the tunnel:

"They brought in live bugs and cockroaches and put them in large clear plastic boxes the you had to crawl over to get away from Broose. Really creepy! If the fire marshal had found us out, we would have been shut down. Once you were in the maze, there was no other way out but forward."

Sue Nichols elaborated:

"We also had a room devoted to bugs one year. Spiders, I believe. Filled the floor with packing popcorn and draped spiders on cobwebs everywhere. Under a strobe, the room crawled!!! Simple yet effective effect. Loads of fun, fond memories."

To truly appreciate these productions, just consider the talent pool involved; Sue, Brenda, Broose and the whole gang herein mentioned have all had very prolific careers in animation.  It's true "ya hadda be there", and I'm glad I was. 


Read about the CalArts party in "THE Halloween Party" from the original FLIP.  

Georgia Woods, Bullying, and Cyber Mentors

I have been doing some teaching lately at Bucks New University and I came across this excellent short film done by a recent graduate of their Animation and New Media course. The film is by Clare Hunt and is narrated by Georgia Woods, a 13 year old girl who was subjected to cyber bullying at her new school.
The film packs a surprisingly strong punch for a student film and it shows how animation can be used not just to entertain but to tackle important social issues. I also love the simple animation style - which does exactly what it needs to do.

--- Alex

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sandy and Me

Hurricane Sandy landed on my town last night.  Port Norris, New Jersey sits at the Delaware Bay, on the southern edge of the state.  It was a once prosperous town due to the robust oyster industry.   But since the mid 1950's, it has been known mostly for "the good ol' days".  I grew up here and credit this town for my blunt manner.  "What the hell do you want?" is just our way of saying "Hello." in good ol' Port Norris.

Moore Studios building, before and after renovations
Not an animation mecca by any stretch, I found myself moving back here in 2004 to help care for my aging father.  I bought a commercial building for studio space and renovated the 1890 structure with modern conveniences like central air conditioning, heat, and plumbing.  Yes, plumbing.  And because it is in an area with no municipal water or sewer,  I had to pony up for a well for water and a septic system for you-know-what.

During the renovation process, an old timer - a very old timer - stopped me in the post office to ask, "Are they going to make you put a toilet in it?"

"Yes."  I said.

The old timer shook his head incredulously.  Back in his day, the local septic system was a stream called "Dickey's Ditch" that snaked through the town.  It runs directly behind many of the old commercial buildings along Main Street, including my studio.  What was then a place to pee is now protected wetlands.

After a complete overhaul, I set up shop and have worked on features such as Coraline, Despicable Me,  and The Lorax with a half-mile commute from my house.  I cannot underscore how great it is to work without daily visits from an art co-ordinator, throwing me out of my drawing zone to ask me how my drawing is coming along.

Sandy, last night, a little past high tide.
Yesterday, Sandy came to visit.  At about 10:30 last night, an 18 foot wave came charging up the bay and over  into Port Norris, flooding Main Street.  There had not been a flood like this since the '50's, with water cresting about a foot high on the ground floor of the studio.  My house was on higher ground, undamaged (whew!).  Water had receded by morning, and I found Sandy had curiously rearranged things inside the studio.  I had a large plastic storage bin full of animation papers dating back to The Nightmare Before Christmas - all personal stuff saved from these productions.  The bin was tilted against the wall, perilously close to tipping.  Had that happened, everything in the bin would have been wrecked.  I immediately move the bin upstairs (duh!).  Had I stored this stuff in a cardboard box....ugh.

Let that be a lesson for youse!

Evidence of Sandy's visit.  A very dirty girl. 
All in all, it could have been much worse.  A half-mile south of the studio is a clam processing plant under eight feet of water.  Holy Clamato!  My first floor is a soggy mess right now, and Moore Studios has temporarily relocated to a corner of my bedroom.  Stealing a nap at work has never been so easy.

My Dickey's Ditch over-floweth.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Animation as Propaganda

As we approach election day, the airwaves have been blackened with rhetorical flack as the two parties try to pick off what undecided voters remain.   But of all the political propaganda I have seen this fall, this short, Why Obama Now is the best.  WHY?  Because the filmmaker, Lucas Grey, took one of President Obama's stump speeches and illustrated it in animation.  And while this may not sound interesting, it is very well done.

The still frame is very misleading - this is not another silly Jib-Jabesque cut-out photo face thing.  Grey uses the medium of animation to visually sell the President's views on economics.  The graphics - a stylized animation reminiscent of U.P.A. - is a perfect counterpoint to Obama's monotone delivery.  Grey not only animates the content of the speech, he adds material to support the speech as well.
It's as intelligently done as it is skillful.   You may not agree with the viewpoint, but I don't think anyone could argue with the quality of the short.

Why Obama Now is another great example of the magic of animation.  Ideas are communicated with stripped-down, simplified visuals that entertain as they inform.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Double Negative lays off Bond Workers

"You're fired"
According to the London Evening Standard, Double Negative, which did a lot of work for the latest Bond film SkyFall, is laying off staff. These days the word in London seems to "Vancouver", as projects and jobs get exported to Canada, which offers a Producer tax credit of 40% to film-makers who carry out their work there. Add in some regional subsidies and you can finance over 50% of the value of your film courtesy of the Canadian tax-payer.

According to Double Negative: “The number of people we will be making redundant is not significant. From time to time we need to grow and contract to reflect the needs of the films we are working on. Our policy has always been — and will continue to be — to hold onto people where possible."

And there is a lot of truth in this. Big projects come and go, companies expand and contract. DNeg took on hundreds of people a year and a half ago to crew up the epic John Carter, a film that - for reasons I don't fully understand - no-one wanted to see.

Meanwhile Soho visual effects artists wait for the next big project, wondering if they should be applying for a Canadian visa.


Monday, October 15, 2012

Memorial for Tissa David in NYC

A memorial for Tissa David, who worked on many animated films including Raggedy Ann and Andy will take place at the Academy Lighthouse Theater in New York City on Tuesday October 23rd at 7pm. 

The program will include five speakers and will include clips from the many films that Tissa worked on, including: Eggs, Everybody Rides the Carousel, Cockaboody, Raggedy Ann & Andy, Candide, The Soldier’s Tale, The Red Shoes, Lyle Lyle Crocodile, The Marzipan Pig, The Dancing Frog and POE.

Where: Academy Lighthouse Theater, 111 East 59th Street, NYC

When: Tuesday, October 23rd, at 7pm. Admission is free

--- Alex

A dispatch from the bizarre alternate universe of the PGCLTHE

Last week I began part-time study for a PGCLTHE, that is to say a Post Graduate Certificate of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. Not a very snappy title for a course but, If you want to teach in higher education in the UK, at least in the public sector (which is almost all of it), this is a piece of paper you must have.

I have been teaching animation in schools all over the world for over 15 years and I adore it. I love seeing the light come on when students start to "get it", and the sense of achievement that they get from having successfully done something they thought they could not do. And I think I have figured out pretty well by now what works and what doesn't. 

However I have absolutely no formal training in teaching and in order to teach at a university I am required to have a PGCLTHE. So I have to admit I joined up slightly unwillingly. Still, I was looking forward to my first class, hoping that I would learn plenty of new stuff to make me a better teacher. 

The odd thing is, the PGCLTHE doesn't seem to be about teaching at all. In fact, I am not at all sure what it is about. During a 3 hour lecture I didn't understand anything the instructors said. Actually, it was worse than that. I thought I understood, but it turned out I didn't. The things I thought I knew turned out to be completely wrong. It was as if I had stepped into an alternate universe.

The class was about digital portfolios. The instructor, Julie, asked the class if we knew what a digital portfolio was. Well, I thought easy stuff, and put my hand up. "A digital portfolio is a website or a blog, showcasing your best work" (We animators know about these - we all have one). Yes, said Julie, enthusiastically, that's right. "And what is it for?" Well, "to get a job", I replied. "yes", said Julie, but in a tone of voice that meant "no".

The digital portfolio, Julie explained, was to be our first exercise, - to build one. Excellent, I thought smugly, I already have two websites, a blog, and an online animation school. This will be a doddle - I have already done the work.

Except that it turned out that an online portfolio or blog was not what Julie was talking about at all. It finally dawned on me that what she meant by a digital portfolio was something entirely new to me - something called an electronic academic portfolio, or "eApp" - a sort of internal invitation-only site where I am supposed to write "dimensions and "documents" which "cross reference one another" with "tags".  

"I'm sorry Julie", I said, "but I have no idea what you're talking about".

"Well..." Julie began, looking a little anxious that I was being so slow. At this point Jim, the course leader, took over. "It's about professionalism", he explained. "It's your professional journey". But what is it for? I asked, baffled. Patiently,  Jim tried to explain. "It is about your "learning and teaching philosophy". "It maps what you do", he said. "It logs your journey". "But what goes in it?" I asked. Jim tried to explain again, talking to me as if I were very young and very dim. He used the word "professional" a lot, and made round inclusive gestures with his hands. I still didn't understand though, but I stopped asking questions because I could see I was getting on their nerves.

Later on I went through the online documents to try and figure it out. As it turns out, here's an example of the sort of thing that is supposed to go in an eApp:

1. Articulate an overview of professional practice from curriculum design to differentiated delivery with reference to scholarship & pedagogic theory.



2. Demonstrate a capacity for sustained reflective & evaluative discussion of teaching practice & for action planning for educational development needs.

I mean, I don't know about you, but I'd say that, whatever teaching is or is not about, it has nothing to do with demonstrating a capacity for sustained reflective & evaluative discussion of teaching practice & for action planning for educational development needs.

What it definitely does have to do with is:
1. Knowing your subject
2. Being enthusiastic
3. Preparing your classes
4. Talking in a clear voice so people can hear you
5. Not talking down to your students
6. Being patient.

After the class, from which I emerged totally depressed, one of my colleagues said to me: "Alex, the thing you have to understand is this: If those that can, do, and those that can't, teach, then those that can't teach - teach teaching."

--- Alex

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

"Rocks in my Pockets" trailer.

by Signe Baumane

Rocks In My Pockets is my first feature.  I used to call it "a funny film about depression" but it is more complicated than that; funny, sad, then funnysadfunny.  Honestly, how can depression just be funny?  If I had to put the description of the film in one sentence, it would probably be:

"A silent killer from my family's secret past is trying to get me. Will I survive this fight?" -very dark and dramatic!

We just finished (3 hours, 32 minutes, 12 seconds and 6 frames ago) a trailer for the work in progress, and I wanted to share it with you....

WORK IN PROGRESS TRAILER from Signe Baumane on Vimeo.

We were going to have a Kickstarter campaign in September, but things didn't pan out as intended (too busy with making the film ). We do need money for post-production, so we will postpone the the campaign until January, 2013. It would be great if you could click on 'donate' button on the film's website,, but if you can't it, would be amazing if you could help to spread the word about the film. Show the trailer to your friends, post it on forums, help us to connect with the mental health community.

Or simply give us a feedback on the trailer -
1) does it intrigue you? does it make you want to see the film?
2) how does it flow? is it too long? too short?
3) do you have enough context to connect with the trailer/film's message?
4) do you understand who these creatures are - one in the water, the other in  forest?
5) do you care for the 4 women?

We are going to make another trailer in January, for the finished film and we want to learn from your feedback. If you want to read about the making of it, here's a bit on my blog:

And read more about Rocks in my Pockets in FLIP!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Drew Barrymore Gives Birth to Olive

In 1999, I had the honor to direct Matt Groening's Christmas special "Olive, the Other Reindeer".  It was based on the book by J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh, who based the character Olive on their dog of the same name.

Last Wednesday, Drew Barrymore, who voiced the title character, gave birth to a girl and named her Olive!  I, for one, think this is very cool.  As the Christmas special was concerned, Olive was Drew.  The charm in her voice brought so much character to that  bizarre-looking little dog.  

A few years after making the special, I saw Drew at the Dresden in Hollywood.  I said, "Hey Olive!"  and her face lit up.  She clearly loves this character.  

Congrats Drew!  And Happy birthday, Olive!