Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Animator extraordinaire Bert Klein emailed to let me know about a live action documentary about his father, David Klein- the inventor of the Jelly Belly jelly beans. It looks like an interesting bitter-sweet tale of success and ruin. They have a site dedicated to the film. An excerpt from the site explains the story...
Candyman tells the amazing true story of David Klein, an eccentric candy inventor from LA, who in 1976 had a once in a lifetime epiphany and came up with the concept of Jelly Belly jellybeans. These colourful beans came in numerous shockingly realistic flavours and were a radical new product. They became a pop culture phenomenon and revolutionised the candy industry. It didn't hurt that no less a personage than Ronald Reagen, president of the USA, proclaimed Jelly Bellies as his favorite sweets. David's eccentric personality and peculiar sense of business led him to give up the business just as it was about to explode. He has struggled with bitter regrets ever since. Jelly Belly has grown into a billion dollar enterprise, and the company has deliberately erased him from its history. There is no room for a flaky genius like this in the modern corporate world. The movie is all about both sides of the American dream. It tells how Klein lost his beans, but kept his soul.
Here's the trailer....

It will be playing in Slamdance (the truly indy film fest that runs on the other side of town from Sundance) in 2010. I'm eager to see it when I get the chance.

new animation blog/site-- Speaking of Animation

Got a little blurb about this in my inbox from one of the founders of the site, Jacob Gardner. Looks like it could be a nice one to follow.


Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas, everybody!

Been kinda slow posting on the blog here the last month or two- I've been super busy with that thing called life. But I wanted to take a moment and wish everybody a blessed and wonderful Christmas. All the best & God bless!

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Well what do you know...

Interesting article in the Wall Street Journal on how Nina Paley has managed to make $55,000 so far since releasing her film Sita Sings the Blues for free. Her revenue stream is quite varied, itself evidence of a fair amount of work on her part to monetize the film. So no, it's not the artists (unrealistic) dream of simply making a film and waiting for the checks to come in the mail. One of the first rules of being an independent filmmaker is that you must work as a business-person. Not as dreamy or glamorous as the artist dream, but it is do-able. Is $55k enough to make a living from just making films? Depends where you live and how often you make new ones. At the very least it makes the effort somewhat financially viable on its own merits.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Tough sledding

Slow, slow progress on the Otto & Schmitty front. Between the new job, wrapping up the APT class, finding a new home for the family and traveling there's been no time to get any new shots done. Oh well. The schedule is opening up and I'll be able to get some stuff done. Thankfully the project was built to go fast when it is worked on, so even just a litle time spent yields decent progress.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Look, the Gobelins chase animation meme- now in anime!

I think I've written this before (maybe not), but more than a few of those popular Gobelins short animated student films all seem to share a single element: the crazy, out of control speed chase/run/fall. It's been this way for at least 4 or 5 years now. Go ahead, look 'em up. It's a repetitive trope, but it has certainly been a good one if you want some popularity. One even was nominated for an Oscar. Well, the concept has flown from France to Japan-- somebody has made an anime short employing the same central concept. With panties.

Kinda like the love story angle, though.

Eye Like Pizza- short film in prod

Animator Jeff Robinson is working on a neat looking little short film project titled Eye Like Pizza. He has a production blog here. The image above is one of his main characters. I like the look. Jeff tells me it's gearing to have a "classic-cartoony vibe". I'm all for that. He's got a quick little motion test he put together in this post.  (note: Jeff- make this stuff embedable!)

Looking forward to seeing more soon.

Really cool video

Sent along by Paul Campbell and the crew at Corgan Media Lab. Great mix of CG onto live action.

On Innovation

Via TechDirt.

Monday, November 09, 2009


Influences are a funny thing. They are rarely cohesive. I think it'd be very sad if one's influences all come from the same pot of fish. Sometimes a person finds themselves surprised by what influences them. And sometimes others are surprised, too. In some form or another- whether in large or small measure- influences tend to keep showing up in a person's work over time. Here are a few of mine, in no particular order....

The Muppet Show

Looney Toons

Woody Woodpecker

Benny Hill


Strange Brew (The McKenzie brothers film)


Snoopy Come Home

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Rowan & Martin's Laugh In

Monty Python

Richard Scarry's books.


This is the stuff that I saw as a kid or a young teen and it stuck with me for some reason. As you can see my slice of humor runs a bit off center from the usual animated fare served up by ol' Uncle Walt. I like verbal humor every bit as much as visual. However it has to be character driven and intelligent, not just self aware pop culture references that the viewer can congratulate themselves' for recognizing. Shows like the Muppet Show, M*A*S*H, and SCTV had a grown up flavor of humor without being needlessly obscene. Benny Hill was winkingly raunchy, but in a tamed down sense. Laugh In was an odd 1970's thing, but I loved the various character sketches. It too had a bit of a naughty streak, but it never crossed line into crass. It was what Saturday Night Live was, only not live, and nearly 10 years before SNL. I liked it better. The Peanuts shows & M*A*S*H greatly influenced my sense of what it means to have a story with some heart and humor at the same time. Woody Woodpecker was just energy exploding all over the screen, pure visual joy. Meanwhile the various Looney Toon shorts were burned into my cerebral cortex from infancy. They too had smart verbal humor at times, very sharp, not dumbed down or condescending. I remember being a 5 year old kid sitting and getting lost in Richard Scarry's books for what seemed like days at a time. The characters were so simple, but extremely appealing and expressive. His illustration was whimsical without being cloying. I never grew tired of looking at them and even today when I see one I'll take some moments and travel back and get lost in them again. For lack of a better word, they're just magical.

Oddly, I was never inspired by Disney films. As a kid they bored me. The only ones I remember liking were Song of the South and 101 Dalmations, and even those were hit and miss. It wasn't until I had become an adult and a professional animator that I looked at Disney films more closely. They still don't really influence or inspire me, even though I can appreciate the craftmanship involved. I can admire them for what they mean historically and technically, but they still don't do much for me. Go figure.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Marc Craste presentation

A nice little video of a presentation by one of my favorite animation directors. His thoughts on design and simplicity around the 7 minute mark pretty much capture my own ideas on the subject.

Thanks to Frank Ladner for pointing this out to me....

Thursday, October 22, 2009


Michael Sporn has a nice interview of the creators of a new indy short film, Pups of Liberty. It's a great read for those of you interested in how indy shorts usually get made (one word: slowly. heh). I had a chance to work with one of the creators of the film (Bert Klein) for a short while when I was working on Disney's Mickey Mouse Christmas show. Bert's a real gentleman and super talented. One of the nicest people you'll meet, very positive and encouraging. I'm glad to see this project coming from he and his wife. It looks pretty neat. Here's a trailer.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Economics of Abundance

Watch it a few times if it doesn't make sense at first. It's not an idealistic outlook, merely a realistic one. It's actually pretty optimistic, but realistically so. Which is a good thing because we don't live in a world washed with unicorn tears.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Thanks, shows, and head colds

First up- thanks to all those who have commented, tweeted, emailed, called or sent notes tied to rocks through my windows about my impending move to Valve. You guys make me blush as you're all too kind. Some folks have asked, so I'll restate it here: the VTS monthly video tutorials will continue. The Animation Personal Trainer (APT) courses will go on extended hiatus for the forseeable future. The APT requires a good deal more time and effort than the VTS, and since I'll be "at work" all day I don't think I'll have the time to properly devote to it. However, as in all things related to my life, I reserve the right to change my mind should conditions prove favorable to a future APT session. So... who knows?  heh.

As for the Otto & Schmitty project? It's still on. It's on like Donkey Kong, brutha. I'm about a third of the way through animation/rendering episode 1, titled "Date Night". It's about Otto's never ending quest for love. I'd be further along on it except I've had a nasty cold the last week. I doubt it's a piggy flu, but it has been gnarly enough to make it hard to sit at the 'puter and get anything done. All the cold meds made it hard to think and stay at it. I have no idea how other creative folk can work under the influence of pharmaceutical "enhancements". heh.
Anyhow, I'm about a week behind schedule. But the show must go on- and shall. Look for the first episode of the Otto & Schmitty Show sometime in early December.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

"I solve practical problems..."

Why am I posting this, besides the fact that it's really well done and funny? Well, because I've accepted an offer to be an animator at Valve Software in Bellevue, WA, creators of the above linked Team Fortress 2 and Half Life game properties (among others). I'm quite excited about the opportunity because even though the position is titled 'animator' it's really more of an animator/TD/CG generalist/creator type deal. I'll have opportunity to spread my interests across a broad spectrum of roles and tasks- something that I find really intriguing. As much as I understand the whole "focus only on animation" mantra that's preached among animators these days, I honestly get bored doing just one thing for months and years on end. I like a challenge and I love learning new things. As such the switch to the interactive side of media is a whole new deal for me- which is exciting. I'll have a chance to work with and learn from the best- the roster of artists, animators, designers, technicians and programmers at Valve is beyond impressive. It's gonna be cool to see where it all goes and I'm thankful to have the chance to play along.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

NHS short film promo

I liked this. Has a neat UPA vibe to it, but it's not hiding the fact that it's CG, either.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sunny's toon-shading breakdown

Former APT student Sunny Kharbanda (featured here and here on this blog) has a new post up on his blog. This time he goes pretty in-depth into how he developed a different kind of toony shading (but not a specific toon shader, per se) for this recent cartoon inspired animation work in Maya. I love his thought process. Definitely take some time to check it out, and then (if you're interested) see how you can expand upon the idea with your won twist.

Ward Jenkins' step-by-step

The talented and friendly Ward Jenkins of the Ward-O-Matic blog  has posted a wonderful in-depth look into how he does his illustration work. It's a great little read. I enjoyed it and even learned a thing or two.

(follow Ward's Twitter here if you like)

Mayerson on pitching TV shows (via David Levy book review)

Mark Mayerson has walked the road, so I value very much his imput on the folloy of pitching an animated TV show to the animation networks these days. His review of David Levy's book on the topic is a good read- as is David's book. They come at the same topic from two sides. Levy takes a more optimistic view of the process. Mayerson, not so much. I have been involved in the pitch process a time or two and I found it bemusingly messed up. I had good talks with the development execs, and they didn't reject my idea but invited me to press on with the development. I never seriously pursued it because early on I could tell the system was rigged to maximize my pain and minimize my remuneration. No thanks.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

D3D podcast interview of me

And old friend of mine, Henk Dawson (he himself is a very fine illustrator who works in CG) has a new feature on his site- a podcast! He's had some interesting interviews already. Notable guests would be Bryan Ballinger (he of Ballinger fame) and Tina Price (she of the Creative Talent Network and Disney notoriety). You should check them out. And then after you've had your fill of erudite and insightful conversations, have a listen to Henk's latest podcast where he interviews yours truly. Hey, somebody's gotta inhabit the low end of the bell curve, and that exactly why I'm here. Anyhow, if you're into podcasts, interviews or listening to the dulcet sound of my voice (described by some as a cross between a howling cat and a jackhammer), then have a listen.

Big thanks to Henk for letting me play along. :)

Cacure San Valentine -- short film

A fun little short by Luis Angel Villalobos. I love the texture and hand made paper look of this. The timing of the animation to the music is neatly handled. The characters have simple expressions, but they read. This is another great example of finding the right match between visual style, motion and story.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

"Yellow Cake" by Nick Cross

Saw this over on the Cartoon Brew, but I liked it so much I wanted to re-post it here. The background paintings in this are absolutely fantastic. They're just great. The story is a little dark, but it rings true. Overall it's a great and satisfying effort by a lone filmmaker.


Saturday, October 03, 2009

And coffee...

Yeah, I know it's dumb to rip off the Obama Hope poster. That's sooooo 2008. But I still like it. It's an interesting study in iconography. Simplify a character down to their base elements. One image, one word that captures who they are.


The world looks with hope to the one thing that can save the morning...

Thursday, October 01, 2009

This is a perfect example of "stupid"

A bunch of college students has been told they can't gather together as a Disney fan group to watch Disney films- of which (as noted) they are big fans. Why? Because allegedly any showing of a DVD (bought at a store with money that went back to Disney, mind you) to a "large" group of people is copyright infringement. To show to a "large" group of people you need to secure a "display license", which is not what you get when you "buy" a DVD. What number of people in a gathering is the tipping point? 10? 20? 50? If you have 49 it's OK, but that 50th person gets you nasty letters from the legal department of a giant multinational conglomerate receiving tax dollars as subsidies? What if that 50th person sits in the hallway? The sheer stupidity of this is mind boggling. It's intellectually bankrupt and it's business suicide.

This is why the old models of the entertainment business are dying and will die. Like a slow lingering illness that eats away from the inside it may take a while, but it's a done deal. The death rattle can be heard down the hall. The only way to keep the old business model alive in a world where people can get content pretty much for free is to punish your fans. And those fans are your customers. I wonder how many thousands of dollars in Disney merchandise those college kids have bought collectively? How many trips to a Disney theme park have they taken- or planned to take? No, they may not be paying the proper license fee to watch a DVD as a group, but they're Disney fans. Logically who else would gather as a group to watch? So this action by Disney has no intended target other than the very people they should be catering to. Instead they're bullying them. There's no doubt Disney has made tons of cash from these kids over the years. This, my friends, is terrible customer service. As a businessman there's one thing I learned and it's this: the very air of life for your business is your customer service. You can even have an inferior product or product at a lower price point and still thrive if you have amazing customer service. Old media systems must rely on lawsuits, coercion, threats and cease & desist orders in order to survive. Not a one of those methods gives the fan (who in one way or another is a paying customer) the warm fuzzies about your company or its products.

There's an old, old law in the Bible. It's not followed in today's society at all, but there's a principle of fairness behind it. It's the law of gleanings. Basically God said to the people : Don't go back over your fields a second or third time to gather every last bit of grain that you may have missed or dropped. Leave it for the poor, the hungry, the downtrodden. Don't be a greedy jerk and squeeze people for pennies. Be gracious and generous and things will go well for you.

Disney's squeezing people for pennies after they've already milked them for countless hundreds or thousands. My prediction: things will not go well for them.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What is content and what is its value? -- Part 2

First, a big thumbs up thanks to my friend, the brilliant Hamish McKenzie (if you're a Maya animator/rigger and you're not using Hamish's fantastic ZooTools then you are living a life of needless pain and woe) for sending me some links to TechDirt, a blog that covers a lot of things about content, copyright, new age and social media based business models, etc. 

In my last post I noted that I have drawn the conclusion that content (music, photographs, art, film, video, stories, etc.) is of no direct economic value outside of it's physical storage/delivery mechanism or the exclusive group experience of it (concerts, cinema, plays, etc.). This is a conclusion that a brief inspection of history itself seems to support. And as if that weren't enough, now in the digital internet age that limited value has become even less valuable- the point of direct economic worthlessness. The reason is simple- in the digital era there is no scarcity of digital files. The copy of a file does not diminish the existence of the source file. It is, literally, an infinite element. And anything that is (practically) infinite in availability is by nature economically worthless in a direct sense. Fair value for labor and all other "moral" constructs have no bearing. It's not a moral issue, it's a simple gravitational one. Let go of something, it falls. Whether that's right or wrong is irrelevant. Make an infinite supply of something, its value drops to zero. Scarcity is what creates value. Any efforts to impose scarcity on digital content in today's world is a Quixotic quest, doomed to only increase the sales of Maalox to those who tip at these infinite windmills. Kids, the genie's out of the bottle and we cannot put it back in. Reality dictates we learn to function in this new paradigm. (for a much more thorough dissertation on the impact of infinite supply on the economic value of a work of content, read this excellent TechDirt post. Read the linked posts that preceded it as well. For some this will be old hat, but many of us are still arriving at this dinner party.)

Commenter Ian asked a good question on my previous post: Is this depressing or liberating? (and by "this" he means the understanding that digital content is without inherent direct economic value)

The answer, I suppose, lies in how you see the world. I've been in both camps- depressed and liberated. For the last 4+ years I've been fortunate enough to be able to make a living as an independent content creator with my VTS animation tutorial videos. There have been good times, but for the last 2 years or so there's been a steady erosion as unauthorized copies of my videos have become more available on the internet. I won't lie:  unauthorized file sharing has put a sizable dent in my business, forcing me to consider alternative ways to feed la familia. However this is NOT a post whining about how people are stealing from my kids, etc. etc. etc. I knew 4 years ago when I started the VTS that file sharing would ultimately result. It's why I never bothered with copy protection or any of that stuff from the very start. I knew it was a waste of my most precious & limited resource- my time.  While I'd certainly prefer that people pay for the valuable (I think) info on how to be a better animator contained in my VTS videos, I won't waste energy complaining about those who don't. Nor will I waste energy trying to stop them, either. Instead I'd rather focus my energy on adapting and moving forward.

In the spirit of embracing things as they are and not as I wish them to be, I've begun to make some new animation tutorial videos and putting them up on my YouTube channel for free. (some direct links here, here, here and here). A few folks have stumbled across them, but I haven't promoted or mentioned them here on my blog yet. I figured this is a good time to introduce them. I think they offer some good info- and they're free. Share 'em as you see fit. I hope they help folks out. I'm still producing new VTS videos each month for those who want something more (we're currently working on a very complex James Brown inspired dance sequence utilizing video reference). And you can still purchase over four years' worth of back issue VTS videos for even more in depth info on being a better animator. But I'm going to mix in more of these free videos, too. I'll make more as I get the time- but my time is going to become even more scarce in the coming days and weeks.

More on that in a bit.

What is content and what is its value?

Friend and colleague Thom Falter (see his site here) sent me this article lately and I've been mulling it over. It's written by a software developer turned venture capitalist named Paul Graham. It's on the nature of publishing, content and physical delivery media. It's really a great read and his logical assessment of the history of publishing and content strikes a true note to me. A few excerpts...

In fact consumers never really were paying for content, and publishers weren't really selling it either. If the content was what they were selling, why has the price of books or music or movies always depended mostly on the format? Why didn't better content cost more?

Almost every form of publishing has been organized as if the medium was what they were selling, and the content was irrelevant. Book publishers, for example, set prices based on the cost of producing and distributing books. They treat the words printed in the book the same way a textile manufacturer treats the patterns printed on its fabrics.

People will pay for information they think they can make money from. That's why they paid for those stock tip newsletters, and why companies pay now for Bloomberg terminals and Economist Intelligence Unit reports. But will people pay for information otherwise? History offers little encouragement.

What about iTunes? Doesn't that show people will pay for content? Well, not really. iTunes is more of a tollbooth than a store. Apple controls the default path onto the iPod. They offer a convenient list of songs, and whenever you choose one they ding your credit card for a small amount, just below the threshold of attention. Basically, iTunes makes money by taxing people, not selling them stuff. You can only do that if you own the channel, and even then you don't make much from it, because a toll has to be ignorable to work. Once a toll becomes painful, people start to find ways around it, and that's pretty easy with digital content.

Those are just a few highlights. Go read the whole post- it's an extremely lucid read. My take away from this is pretty clear- content has little to no inherent monetary value. The monetary value is in any delivery mechanism that allows people to distract themselves in a manner that fits their personal experiential tastes and preferences. What they actually distract themselves with is, as the author puts it, "undifferentiated slurry".

Monday, September 28, 2009

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Odosketch is going to swallow my free time

Just saw this on the Drawn blog. Odosketch is a free online sketching tool that's fast, fun and pretty capable. I whipped this up...

Why bother with something like this when I have Painter- a far more capable program which I spent hundreds f dollars on? Well, it's the light, limited and online nature of it that I like. When I have to do anything by hand I tend to freeze up. It's too daunting. Art becomes serious and I get timid. But Odosketch is inviting. It's online. You do it in your browser. It's the ultimate in throw away ethereal media. You can't take seriously anything you draw online in a web browser for free. You just can't. That's very freeing. For me at least. The interface is butt-simple, too.

Monday, September 21, 2009


An old trick in the world of limited budget 2d animation is to cycle through two to four drawings for a hold. This way you can chew up the scene footage with as few drawings as possible. The result is animation that kinda squiggles as it holds, maintaining the illusion of life more by an expression of energy than literal movement. This is very cost effective and the image stays alive due to the cycling. Since the animation stays so rough the audience accepts it for what it is- as well as whatever other limitations of the animation that come along for the ride. It's surprising what an audience will take in and filter through once they perceive the internal rules of an animated universe- a task that takes perhaps all of two seconds of viewing. Certainly I think this attitude of getting by with the least possible effort can be way overdone, but in the right balance I think there's real potential for cost savings without surrendering richness. The richness just comes in a different form, that's all. Nina Paley used this technique in Flash while making her solo feature film Sita Sings the Blues. You can see what I mean in the very first scenes in the following segment of the film....

It's rough as heck, but it totally works. In fact, it more than works. It thrives on a level that is completely different than if it were tied down tight, tightly polished and had the holds all animated in like a typical big budget Disney 2d film. The rough look has a kind of vibrancy to it that actually adds to the film. I don't have a fancy explanation for how it works- I just know it does.

Since I have these little stories I want to make, but I don't have a huge budget (natch: I don't have any budget) to hire an expensive team of animators and CG technicians, I keep looking for creative ways to leverage lessons and tricks from other mediums of animation into my little CG toolbox. I've lost years of effort trying to be a one man band making short films employing the big-studio CG film style. Those were lessons learned the hard way. So I've been messing with this squiggly thing for a few years now (off and on). It's taken that long to find something that works. Due to the rigidity of the meshes and well established visual norms CG just doesn't like to do this sort of thing. And nothing looks worse in CG than a cycle- of any kind. So I'd try something, but it'd look like crud- like some kind of mechanical or technical error rather than a purposeful artistic style. So I'd leave it for a while and then come back and try something different after thinking of something in the shower. More failures each time, each coming closer to what I wanted but couldn't see in my head because it just wasn't being done anywhere else. CG is so picky when it comes to the imagery it makes. There's so little margin for error it seems. It's too demanding, too rigid an artform at times. But like Edison and his silly light bulb, I kept at it. I finally feel like I got it. Here's my version (watch it in HD for a better look. Or best yet- here's a link to a full res QT)....

This is really fast to animate because I'm using flat out 'dead holds' on the controls and letting the squiggly part keep the scene alive. I hit a pose and that's it. I hold it. No 'moving holds' or overdone overlapping business. This 4 second scene took maybe 15 or 20 minutes to animate (compare that to 4 sec. per week doing it the "right" way in feature films). In fact I over-animated it at first out of habit, so I had to go back and rip out the moving holds I had started to build in. I tell you, the hardest part is de-programming myself from doing CG the "right" way. It's not as easy as it sounds to embrace simplicity and then trust it. Anyhow, here's a screen grab of my f-curves to show the dead holds on the major controllers... (click to see it larger).

This is what it looks like without the squigglies....

You can see that it's super dry and just goes dead without the squiggles. The squiggling really keeps it feeling vibrant. So yeah. I'm really, really happy with where I've ended up with this.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Laika no longer a CG feature film studio

This is an interesting twist.

Last December Laika whacked about half of its CG film studio staff as their second animated feature hit development issues. Now 10 months later they decided that CG isn't their cup-o-tea at all. So they gutted the rest of their CG film crew, only keeping a few CG folks around for FX and for their commercials division. For better or worse, Laika decided that they didn't want to be a CG feature film studio, focusing on stop-motion instead.

From a business standpoint I can see the logic. The CG film side of things is a pretty crowded racket. You have the big boys in Pixar/Disney, Blue Sky, Dreamworks, Sony-- and you have a bevy of independent efforts released under various monikers like WB, Universal, Focus, etc. Laika faced an uphill battle establishing a brand for themselves as another one of the third wave CG studios releasing films like Tale of Despereaux, 9, Planet 51, etc. In my view I'm sure that the leadership at Laika views brand recognition as a key goal. These are the same people who brought you one of the most successful global brands in Nike. They know the power of brand and they know how a strong brand buys you a good bit of wiggle room. (see: Cars. ahem). With the success of Coraline Laika was positioned in an interesting place. In business when your brand is not the leader of the pack you have two choices. You can work like a mule and with deep pockets, persistence and some luck find your place among the best in your field (a track that Sony Pictures Animation is hoping to find traction with on their 4th film). Or you go find something you do that is a bit different, but you do it better than anybody else and focus on making a go of it with that. It's hard to imagine Laika "out-Pixar-ing" Pixar, but it's completely reasonable to see them carving out a viable, successful place in stop-motion- which is their heritage. But even better- it's hard to imagine a place like Pixar "out-Laika-ing" Laika. That's nothing to sneeze at.

I wouldn't be surprised if there was a cultural aspect, too. In speaking with some folks who worked at Laika before the lay offs it appears there was a less than subtle rivalry between the stop-motion crew and the CG crew. This isn't surprising, many "old media" artists and techs look down on CG. Not all of them, but it's not a rarity that's for sure. We all know there's no shortage of 2d animators who will bend your ear for hours over a coffee (or fill blogs) about the inherent limitations/failings of CG. Some of the complaints are valid, some are misguided efforts to make a square peg serve in a round hole and some are merely the jealous grumblings of those threatened or displaced by the popularity of CG films. It's a culture war that simmers barely under the surface of the animation film business and it will for decades to come. At its soul Laika is a stop-mo shop since it came from the Will Vinton studio. It's not too surprising to see the leadership there decide to embrace that going forward once they found they didn't need to fall back on the popularity of CG to make a viable go of it as a feature film studio. With the benefit of hindsight I get the sense that perhaps Laika looked at developing their CG film slate almost as a hedge against their stop-motion titles not doing so well. It's reasonable to think that the success of Coraline emboldened them enough to drop that hedge and go full press for stop-motion. So now we can add Laika to the short list of Aardman that is a proven feature film stop-motion studio. Certainly a less crowded arena in which to stand.

Then there's the human side of it all. It's a bummer for the folks who got laid off. I had a good number of friends affected by the first Laika whack-job and I know of others who probably got the axe this time, too. Getting laid off in a one-horse animation town like Portland is rough. There's not much else for you to do there, so you gotta sell the house, move the family and shamble on down the road to the next gig- provided you can find it. If these folks bought homes in Portland in mid/late 2006 (when Laika did a bit of ramping up in CG staff), then they're double trapped because home prices in the Portland area have taken a pretty big hit. The animated film biz is very, very transient and being on "permanent staff" is no guarantee of stability. Big Idea, DNA, Blue Sky, Laika, Disney- they've all either gone out of business or had major, major staff reductions of permanent full time workers who thought they were above the rough and tumble world of ramped up/down contract hires. I find it ironic that at the time when there are more animation jobs in film, fewer and fewer of them are attractive to the aging CG workforce. In the end this skews the workforce to younger, more mobile people with less experience and a willingness to work lots of hours- much of it unpaid OT. As people age, grow families and desire stability the experience is getting squeezed out of the labor pool. In the end this only hurts the studios and the films as well. The medium doesn't have a chance to capitalize on past experiences and lessons learned- technically, productively or creatively. So the same ground gets re-hashed and the same mistakes get made year after year, just the faces change. It's a cruel business and here's hoping folks can find a place to land that works well for them not only creatively, but for their families as well.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Cartoon CG fun

A former APT student of mine, Sunny Kharbanda, has really been diving into the whole 'cartoons in CG' experimenting. It's a lot of fun seeing him find new things. Since we're both tinkering in this area we communicate a lot, sharing what we find works, what doesn't, etc. Sunny just posted on his blog about his process for developing the backgrounds to work with his animation tests (you can see those here and here). Cool stuff. Check it out.

Friday, September 18, 2009

"9" = not a bad little money maker

Shane Acker's "9" had its brief stand as the only animated feature in theaters last week. This week Sony's Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs lands at your local cine-plex. "9" opened on an odd day (a Wednesday), but take away the few extra days and it's first weekend did a tidy little $10mil. So the film will probably yield in the $35-40mil range domestically, probably another $30-40 over seas. Add in home video and such and I think the producers have a nice little return on investment brewing. It's not an empire making block buster like Shrek or Ice Age, but it'll be a decent little money maker. Which is not a bad thing. "9" is not your typical animated film. Whether you like the film or not (and it has had some mixed reviews) the fact that it hasn't been an absolute bomb like Delgo or Battle for Terra is a good thing. Like those other films, "9" veers from some pretty well established patterns for success in animated fare. This will hopefully embolden other producers to be willing to green light projects that stretch the boundaries of the animated feature film market. The world will always make room for the big boys' stuff (well, until they don't), but I think as time goes by the broad viability of the feature marketplace will rest more and more with the second and third tier offerings.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Facebook is.... profitable??!

This is actually kinda big news. It's been the very (very) rare online social networking site that has actually made money from it's core business (as opposed to getting bought out by a larger firm). Maybe YouTube won't be far behind? I wouldn't hold my breath- the capital infrastructure costs for serving up all that video is orders of magnitude larger than FB's bandwidth needs. Still, if the independent content creator is to have any shot at making a serious go of it they'll need these online communities to actually make money-- for themselves first, then share the love with the content creators.
Baby steps.

Monday, September 14, 2009

New APT Session for October 2009

It's time for a new Animation Personal Trainer session.

This next APT will start the week of October 12th and run through November 13th. I am accepting student registration now on my Animation Clinic online store. As always spaces are limited and students are taken first come-first served. Registration will close on Friday October 2nd.

Important Note: This will be the last APT for quite a while.  At this time I don't plan on having any APT sessions before the summer of 2010 due to my work schedule. So if you've been wanting to get in on an APT session, then this next class starting in October will be your last chance for perhaps a year. 

I have a dandy FAQ if you are filled with questions about the APT. If after reading the FAQ you still have questions regarding the APT, then you can always feel free to email me.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Another painted CG short

This one is a little more cohesive than the previous one I posted.

There's some neat use of projections that I think is very clever. The end result is the geometry is free to move, but the painter's control over what part of the whole image has which color, tone, value, etc remains. For an example of what I'm talking about, watch the top of the merry go round as it spins in that first shot. The geometry is passing through the painting as the top spins, but the painting is not stuck to the geometry. If you watch carefully you'll see this technique is the very foundation for this style of look through out the short- even on the characters. This is a great way of getting a consistent sense of the painting being alive without it feeling like it's just a painting plastered onto a puppet. The normal 'rule' in CG is to avoid having geometry swim through a texture, but for this kind of stuff it's a great trick.

Schmitty Walk cycle

Watch it in HD if you like. It's extra tasty at full rez.
This is just a generic walk for Schmitty. Walks are like chicken broth. You don't ever eat plain chicken broth, but it's the basis for a lot of tasty recipes. Walks should be adjusted for moment, character, emotion, physical limitations, etc.
On a technical note I'm exploring some new techniques for mixing up the shading texture as well as distressing the mesh silhouette in order to make a more "hand crafted" feel. I'm working on some other tests that will show that better which I hope to share soon.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

More painterly CG

Another Gobelins effort. I like the shading, especially the active line within the objects defining light and shadow on the form. The clouds & FX are cool. The backgrounds are handled very well, but in the darker moments the characters get lost against them- something typically avoided when one employs an emotional palette as opposed to a literal one. The stark shadows work well. I think the animation, while good at points, could have benefitted from being dialed back into limited frame rates and not full on 1's the whole way through. It's that same bugaboo that has plagued NPR CG for the last decade. Looks like a nice painting until it moves. It's that visual harmony/cohesion thing again.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Monetizing online media

There's a good read over on the CinemaTech blog if you're geeky about how the business will remain viable in 20 years. A snippet observation....

Picking up the theme of targeting, Miller suggested that advertisers will pay more for online ads as behavioral targeting increases (targeting ads based on what you do online and interests you express), though he admitted that online ads may never achieve the same prices that network television commands.

Miller touched on the idea that the costs of content creation may need to go down in this new world, if advertisers aren't paying the prices they once did. (That's a point we discuss pretty frequently here at CinemaTech.)

Mind you TV ad revenues have been dropping steadily in recent years. This budget squeeze on content creation has been one of the big driving factors behind the rise of the reality show. They're cheap to make. Aside from privacy concerns, the notion that even targeted ad revenues online won't fetch the same bid that TV spots go for should be troubling for mid-sized (or smaller) content creators. TV animation has seen production budgets for 22 minute shows drop to less than half what they were 10 years ago. If the online world won't even pay that much for ad space, then the reality is that as a whole (with some notable giant exceptions) this industry is going to have to learn how to make stuff for a lot less money than they currently spend. I'll let the intellectually intrepid among you deduce what that means for the hoi polloi in the trenches/cubicles.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cartoon games

I love where games are headed with these more toony looking projects.

This game play trailer made me smile....

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Replace the animator? I agree. 100%

Another storm brews among animators.

In a fluff piece promoting James Cameron's new film Avatar, the director and producer make predictably outlandish statements about the importance of their film, the height of its artistry and the momentousness of their accomplishments. So far, par for the course.
Of course there's the usual noise about performance capture and yadda-yadda. But the line that seems to be getting animator's undies in a bind is this....

Landau says. "Our goal on this movie was not to replace the actor, it was to replace the animator. If you think about it, what a great actor does and what a great animator does are antithetical to one another.
"A great actor withholds information. Dustin Hoffman in All the President's Men can sit there and do nothing. No animator would ever allow that, they would put in a twitch. So our objective was to preserve Sam Worthington's performance and have that be what you see in those characters."

The general reaction from animators? A predictable call to arms and an overriding sense of indignation. "Insult" is a word I've been reading a lot. But why? Here's where I think the real truth lies in this...

"We pitched to people that we were preserving their performances," Landau says.
"We said, 'Look, what we're doing is the 21st-century version of prosthetics. No longer will you have to sit for hours and hours in make-up for you to give the performance of the Grinch or the Godfather. We're going to do it with CGI (computer-generated imagery) but it's going to be you, it's not going to be somebody's interpretation of you."' 

Actors, like animators, care about their craft. They have professional pride and they're (usually) very good at what they do. They don't like the idea of people messing with their performances, as if somehow their performance weren't enough. Having 'animators' tweak their performance is insulting to the actor. Really. How do animators feel when they see somebody (usually in another department like finishing or FX) took their shot- without their knowledge- and changed it for some reason? Here's a hint. WE FREAKING HATE IT! So what allows us to think we have the right, nay the responsibility, to do the same to the actor? Just because it's rendered? If I'm an actor I hate that some guy gets to torque my performances around.  In films like Avatar motion captured CG effects are not really about animation and it's not about animators. It's about what Landau says- it's 21st century prosthetics. It's the new age version of foam ears that Leonard Nemoy wore to play Spock. Avatar is not an animated film. It's live action.

I eagerly await the day when mo-cap technology gets so good that animators won't be stuck wiping the poo from the data or twiddling the performance because the director can't keep his hands off it and trust his actors. I say get the tech good enough to let the live actors do their job. It'll be a good day for actors and it'll be a great day for animators because then we'll finally be left with only one option- do what animation alone is great at doing. The impossible, the fantastic, the wonderful, the exaggerated, the un-mocapable. When mo-cap tech gets so good that you don't need to shoot video reference of yourself and then copy it to get a scene, but the directors can just get the actors to act (which is often what they'd prefer if given the choice), then we'll finally be done with this nonsense that says that the final arbiter of good animation is how closely the motion can hew to live action. Will there be fewer jobs for 'animators' once the tech gets that transparent and good? Yeah, probably. Will the jobs that exist for animators be more interesting and rewarding? I like to think they will be. Because then we'll be animating and doing the impossible and not cleaning up after somebody else's performance. No sane person would ever attempt to use mocap to do anything like this....

Meanwhile, we spend so much time in animation trying to re-create this...

They're both great, but in completely different, practically incompatible ways. The actors' performances in the second make it amazing. No animation could top them. Ever. The animation in the first makes it amazing. No live action or mo-cap could top that. Ever. I personally can't wait until we can just accept each kind of greatness for what it is. But I'm weird that way.

Sipermann's Herr Selig

Look at this and tell me it doesn't just ooze charm...

I love Harald Siepermann's blog. He doesn't write much- most of his posts are just images of his character design efforts. That's more than enough. His stuff is masterful and I look forward to his posts. I found his little Herr Selig character work to be so tasty I almost blogged about it the first time. But now he's added another post with some earlier sketches in the development of the character.

Yummy! It's an example of a style of character that I just really, really enjoy looking at. So simple, so expressive and fun. And before anybody asks- no, Otto is not based on this character. I had already settled on Otto before I ever saw these. It's just a kind of synchronicity thing.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

We were about due for one of these

Heh. About once every 7 or 8 months there erupts in the animated blog-o-sphere some tempest in a teapot. We seem to need the occasional controversy over what is good or bad animation, blah, blah, blah. It's like some kind of collective bowel movement of the id or something.

What's the latest hubbub that I've been watching bubble up over the last few days in my Feedreader? A poster for an animation festival. Some people like it. Others don't. Then they argue with each other. How fun!

What do I think of said poster? I dunno. It's OK I guess- if you're into that sort of thing. Not my cup 'o tea, really. But that's OK. I don't need to explain why any more than I need to explain why I don't like mangoes  (which I don't). And it's OK if others like it. They don't need to explain why, either. People like what they like. Why? I don't know. God made us all unique with different tastes. It's all a wonderful part of the tapestry of life. But that's the problem with arbitrary taste. It's, well... arbitrary.

If nothing else this will help divvy up teams if we ever have an animation community dodge-ball game. 

Friday, August 21, 2009

Take THAT, vile box!

I love stuff like this.
Think far enough outside the box and you forget there was even a box to begin with. This is an excellent example of using what's available to you in an innovative and imaginative way to get something visually unique. There's more than one way to render a CG cat.

Saw this over on Lucas Martell's Pigeon Impossible blog. Congrats to Lucas on a recent festival win, too.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Bill Plympton stuff

A hat tip to Tim Hodge on sending me this nifty write up on a recent Bill Plympton master class in Toronto. He found it on Nancy Beiman's groovy blog. If you don't know who Bill Plympton is, then you need to go find out at his Plymptoons site. This guy is the ultimate indy animator. He has his own style, he is prolific and he makes a decent living doing what he loves. Friends, you just can't beat that with a stick.
An excerpt from Nancy's post...
Here is PLYMPTON’S DOGMA, three points for successful short film productions:
  • SHORT. The film should be five minutes long at the maximum. It’s harder to sell a 15 or 20 minute film.
  • CHEAP. Digital production and Flash make production costs reasonable. My average is $1000.00 per minute; HOT DOG cost $5,000.00 per minute.”
  • FUNNY. Audiences want a laugh. It’s easier to sell.
This guy is a short film making machine. By his own account he gets up at 6am, and draws until 6pm. He cranks out about 100 drawings a day to get his films made. He makes a feature film every three years pretty much by himself. (note to self: never accept what somebody else defines as 'impossible'). I found it fascinating that he doesn't throw drawings out, but that he just keeps working them until they're better. All the smudges and erasure marks add life. While Plympton's subject matter isn't for every taste, and some find his style a bit rough around the edges (which I think makes it great) you just gotta admire his ability to get the stuff done and dictate his animation on his own terms.

Machinarium-- very cool looking video game

This looks more than cool. The design and imagination are a treat for the eyes.

You can see it humongo sized at the home page for the game. They've got a pre-order offer, too. I think I'm gonna buy it, not for the game play probably as much as the chance to just get lost in this little world of theirs.
Here's a short pre-view of the game, it's due for an October release.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

one APT spot remains

A spot has just opened up in the next APT class due to a student needing to back out for personal reasons. If you're interested in taking part in the next APT class (it starts next Monday and runs through Spetember 11) then send me an email and let's see what we can work out.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Somebody else is on the visual harmony train...

David O' Reilly (whose stuff I just wrote about earlier this week) has an article on the Illustrative-berlin blog. In his article he expounds on his thoughts on the vital necessity of creating an animated world that is cohesive- that obeys its own rules where every element fits together into what he calls "aesthetic harmony". An excerpt...
My central belief is that the key to aesthetics is coherence. In 3d we essentially create artificial models of worlds, I contend that what makes these worlds believable is simply how coherent they are; how all the elements tie together under a set of rules which govern them consistently. This coherence spreads to all areas of a film; dialogue, design, sound, music, movement etc. Together they create a feedback-loop which reaffirms that what we are looking at is true. The human eye wants this aesthetic harmony.

It felt like I was reading my own thoughts played back to me. Earlier this year I wrote about the necessity of Visual Harmony, and how this visual harmony is the primary (sole?) determinant of the audience's perception of 'quality' in animated works. Here's what I had to say back then...
Basically, visuals and motion and shapes and forms all desire to be in harmony. When they are not then a discernable (if not defineable) dischord occurs. ....

Once you ramp up one area of the visuals into a higher order of complexity (say, lighting or texturing) then all other areas need to rise accordingly to maintain that harmony. ...

Drop the level of complexity in any area and you create a sort of "off-key" feel to the animated film. General audiences understand this. When the visual harmony is well done they immediately perceive the animated film as having 'quality'.... There is such a thing as animation that lacks complexity or realism or literalism but yet still has a high degree of quality, simply because all the pieces 'fit'. So complexity or literalism is not the equivalent of quality- visual harmony is.

It's very rewarding to see somebody else "getting it". Read O'Relly's article. You'll find quite a bit of neat stuff in there.

A very quick Otto test animation

I whipped together this quick junky little test today between meetings, tasks and errands....

For some reason YouTube cut off the last second or so. I'll need to re-upload it. Meanwhile here's a larger Quicktime version you can right click and Save As if you want to frame through it.

I do apologize that it's so short. Like I said, it's just a test- there's no story or really any character here. The goal was to just try and see how far I could push the smearing, do some Tex Avery eye popping, try out some different background styles and work out ideas on how I can use simple motion graphics to plus the emotional element in a subtle way. Scrap paper stuff, really.

The actual animation took me maybe an hour or so, the backgrounds took longer because I tried like, oh, I dunno-- 43 different varieties of styles? I probably spent 3 hours on the motion graphics stuff alone, much of that was just learning how to use After Effects' particle systems again and then trying a hundred different combinations to see what I liked. It's been years since I've touched that stuff. The audio editing was pretty quick, a half hour or less. Anyhow, just thought I'd post it in case anybody was interested. There'll be more to come, hopefully with more of a story & character to it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The online video biz...

Just read this insightful post over on the TAG blog (TAG stands for The Animation Guild- which is the California union for animation artists).
In the post we read some thoughts from Jay Roth, the leader of the Director's Guild of America (the union that reps all the big film directors in Hollywood). He has some really interesting things to say about the business of content and the online trends. Some excerpts interspersed with my comments...

The DGA wasn't convinced, based on its research, that there were big profits coming from the internet. At the time of our study ('05-'06) most thought that the iTunes model was going to dominate. But since '05, Hulu has decimated iTunes. People are downloading 1/4 the content from iTunes that they were purchasing four years ago. Most individuals would rather watch content for free on Hulu than buy it on iTunes ...

I found this bit of data to be fascinating. When it comes to movies or video, iTunes has become basically irrelevant. It still dominates the online delivery of music in many ways, but for films? Pfft. Big media companies actually like this development. Why? Because they own Hulu and they always chaffed at the dominance that Apple held over iTunes. Roth again...
74% of the revenue earned from theatrical features comes after the features end their run in theaters. 50% of the money from television product happens after the initial plays on t.v.

This is another piece of data that I'd always suspected was true, but never had numbers for. Think about that 74% number for films. If you've ever wondered why studios keep making seemingly failed animated films after such disasters as Valiant, Space Chimps, etc. now you know why. If you spend $20million to make a low budget animated film and it pulls only $11million in theaters, it still a long term money maker because that $11million only represents 26% of the ultimate money the film will make. DVD, overseas markets, TV showings and other licensing deals make up that big 74% number. So that $20million 'flop' that only pulled in $11mil in theaters may have made upwards of $40million when it's all said and done a few years down the road. Really, really interesting info. Roth continues...

More television is being watched today than ever before, and it's being watched on televisions and computers. Yet even now, two weeks of viewing on Hulu equals one hour of viewing on network television of American Idol.

One hour of a single show on just one network has more viewer hours than a full week of an entire online channel, Hulu. Extrapolate those numbers across all channels, nations, networks and online sites and you'll see that the internet is still far behind TV when it comes to pulling concentrated audiences. This explains the cost structures of TV ads versus online ads. If you want to make a big splash (ie: recoup your significant investment costs for making professional content) then film and TV are still the ways to go. But the gatekeepers aren't out of the woods. Here's what Roth thinks will be the mortal wound to content creators...

Finally, the biggest issue out there as I see it is internet piracy. This is the biggest threat to the industry, Legal recourse is costly, time-consuming and ineffecitve, but if means aren't found to counter piracy, where content can be stolen with the push of a button, then it will mean economic meltdown for out industry, for digital theft destroys downstream markets (where most of the money is now made.) There are companies like Google who have an interest in keeping free access the way it is, but it threatens creators' rights and creators' product. We'll need to balance internet rights with on-line protections. This will have to be done legislatively, administratively, and through public opinion ...

Roth is absolutely on the money. This is one reason I think that online video as it currently is structured (YouTube, etc.) is unsustainable. The only question is when the tipping point comes. Professional content is the food that feeds the beast of free online video
, but if piracy and free content continues on its logical path into the future then free online video will mindlessly cut off its own food supply. The blood and guts of YouTube- the real revenue generating videos- are professional content clips. Even so, five years after YouTube started that's still not a profitable business model (YouTube has never made a single penny of profit- ever). Add in piracy and eventually you suck all the oxygen out of the system. Information is free, but delivering it to a lot of people at once costs money. It's been this way since scribes wrote out papyrus scrolls. Scribes gotta eat. If everybody demands professional content for free, then making professional content, with decent production values and professional level execution in every area, becomes practically impossible. Yes, the technology for making professional level content is cheaper than ever. Doesn't mean much, really. Pens & paper have been low cost for centuries and by now we've clearly learned that low cost inputs are no guarantee of worthwhile outputs. The low cost of inputs merely means the barriers are lowered to allow the occasional diamond in the rough to emerge, but by and large your trained, skilled professionals who have a lifetime career invested in mastering their craft are going to make the best stuff. Even the odd diamond like Nina Paley's film Sita Sings the Blues is what it is due to her career where she worked as a paid professional on bigger budget projects. For all the hype and hope of a new paradigm of production and distribution, Sita is the work of a professional animation artist, whose career and skill development was subsidized by "old media". It's not the random result of a thousand monkeys with Flash. Professional level content is the stuff that people actually want to steal or watch for free. It's just reality. What happens when the world of content is reduced to a giant collection of videos of people lighting their farts on fire or lipsyncing into a webcam? What will the world think of the free film and video utopia then?

The old adage still applies-- you get what you pay for.