Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Song of the Sea

Thanks to reader/commenter Matt Pidgeon, I was pointed to this production blog about another feature film being developed by the Cartoon Saloon- the same folks behind The Secret of Kells. The blog doesn't have a lot of artwork on it yet, but what's there already has me very interested. The picture above says so much. I'm amazed at how these guys weave all those graphical elements into what they do. These celtic touches seem to whisper to the audience that something deeper is happening here. I've been in so many story meetings for features and long form DVD projects over the years and one of the driving themes in American animated film is being absolutely clear about absolutely everything. No mystery allowed. If something comes into the story it must immediately be clearly understood as to why by even the simplest of audience members. Explain everything, and explain it again- just in case. I undersdtand the advantages of laying out clear character goals and desires, but that's not the only valid way of telling a story. The result is a narrative flow that is akin to following a series of known facts leading to a climax. How much more interesting- and rewarding- would an animated feature film be if instead of following a trail of revealed facts in pursuit of a goal clearly established in act 1 we instead follow a trail of unknown mysteries trying to answer a greater mystery presented in act 1? What I can pick up on the the story about Song of the Sea reminds me of The Secret of Roan Innish a bit- which is one of my favorite films. I just love that sense of mystery and magic that all these films seem to so easily have. It lends a sense of timelessness, substance, texture. American films just don't have this at all. We're big, boom, bold, brash and (for the most part) very temporary. American animated films are like cotton candy at a county fair. Which is OK, but sometimes you want something a little... different.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Secret of Kells

I am absolutely loving everything I see about this film. I don't know how, but I very much want to see this film. Heck, I don't even know if it will be distributed in the US. Here are three sequences of it on YouTube. I don't understand French, but I understand what's going on. Certainly a real testament to the storytelling involved.

I love the sense of design, detail, suggestion and scale here...

This sequence is just amazing to me...

The imagination in the animation in this one is just fantastic -- in the truest sense of that word.

I don't know how much this film needs to make worldwide to break a profit, but I sure hope that it does because we need more animated films like this.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Otto's journey

Exploring the possible manifestations of an idea of mine is usually the most fun part of the process. I enjoy the journey of finding that one thing that just 'fits'.  Recently I've gotten a lot of very good feedback regarding my character Otto. For a character who's never done anything yet he really seems to hit a note with people. And when I made him I knew I'd found something. He just felt right. Any deeper analysis would be counter-productive. I'm just happy to have settled on it. It took me long enough. Making appealing characters is not easy. At least not for me it it isn't. It's hard work to hit that elusive, magical sweet-spot. Just look at various CG forums and see the character designs there and you'll see that for every one good one that had appeal, there are twenty (or more) that just somehow miss the mark-- either by a little or a lot. So for the sake of documentation (and to prove that I'm no master by any means), here is the checkered development history for Otto.

About 3 years ago I made this guy...
Ugly. His hands were too detailed (knobby knuckles) compared to the simplicity of the rest of the character. That 'visual harmony' thing at work again.  And the big space between his small eyes and smallish mouth just ruined the emotional flow of the character. Not appealing, really. So I simplified the hands, added a nose to try and fill in the space on his face and came up with this....

Better, but I still wasn't satisfied. Plus he had lots of rigging issues and skinning problems I didn't want to deal with ( I HATE skinning). So I scrapped him and decided that what I wanted to do was to try and recapture the soul of this guy...

This was a character I'd made for some animation tests about 7 years ago. Unfortunately he was lost in a hard drive crash and so no version of this rig exists anymore. But I wanted to get back to that gummy, fun, round shape. So about 18 months ago that effort eventually became a character I call Garfo.


He's cool and all, but I never felt that I had found the right 'fit'- that sweet spot of appeal and fun. There was always just something about him that felt a little.. lesser. I did do some motion tests (which I will share in a little bit- maybe as soon as next week) and found he had some significant issues under the hood as far as his rigging went. So earlier this year while I had him on the operating table to solve some of those core rigging issues I figured why not see if I couldn't tweak him to be just a little more appealing, see if I couldn't get closer to what I really wanted. After a few hours of messing around that's when I finally hit upon this, Otto.

As soon as I got him I just smiled. He made me happy to look at him. I did try some additional tweaks, but they were gilding a lilly, so I just undid them and settled on him. But since I want him to live in painted worlds and not CG modeled ones (skinning is not the only CG task I hate. Modeling and texturing are on that list. And lighting is close to being on it). So I wanted to "back away" from some CG aspects of his appearance so that he could fit better in a world that was painted and not rendered. A little material and shader work netted this look, which I thought fit really well with the style of backgrounds that I want to employ going forward.

Finding this background style has been a multi-year story of its own. I'll share that here some day, too.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

One more...

One more Ringling undergrad film, by Gianna Ruggiero. This one has some technical glitches in the playback. Stuff like 8 minutes of black at the end and it hangs up during playback sometimes. Still, it's an interesting study in the mix of media and finding a harmonic style using CG as a tool. Usually the CG-ness only becomes apparent in the motion, but even then it doesn't feel out of place.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Dog and the Butcher

More visual harmony from another Ringling graduate film, this one by Jonathan Holt. I really love the look of his shaders here. Not just the painted textures (though they're wonderful), but  the actual way the shading on the surfaces works. It's not flat, but it's also not highly specific in its gradation of light and shadow. It definitely works in pushing things back into a more interpretive space. As a result he has found a lot of leeway in making the motion less than literal. I think the style of the motion fits the visual style of the film perfectly. The way the dog walks is really whimsical. Lots of appeal.

While the general story telling in Ringling films is not nearly as kinetic as the French school Gobelins' works (it seems nearly every celebrated Gobelins student film in the last 5 years is built around a hyper-kinetic speeding chase through some environment), Ringling continues to steadily turn out some very nice student work. In the past much of the focus has been on a more typical CG approach, but it seems in recent years there's been a shift away from that toward more artistic visualizations. This is a tribute to the great work that the CG Animation Dept. head Jim McCampbell and his faculty are doing.

monetizing "Sita Sings the Blues"

Over on Cartoon Brew there's an interesting, intelligent and civil debate regarding Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues- and specifically the challenges of making any money from a feature film that is given away freely via a Creative Commons license.

Copyright is at a crossroads. The very foundation of its power has been destroyed- namely, the ability to control when, where and how a work of art is experienced by the public. The crack in the armor of copyright has existed for decades. People have been making bootleg VHS tapes or DVDs of movies and cassette tapes and CDs of music for 30 years. But the internet has taken this crack and blown it wide open into a massive gaping wound. People now have a cheap and worldwide distribution channel to send those copies - at high quality- all around the world with a few simple clicks. Pandora's box is open. As a broadcast and distribution system the internet is over 15 years old and still nobody has found a way to successfully tame this beast. By now it is beyond control. Tip at those windmills all you want, Don Quixote. They will not fall. Content will find it's way 'out there' no matter what. From the perspective of building an audience and a following you couldn't ask for a better scenario. From the perspective of making money, you couldn't ask for a worse one.

There are probably a billion internet users in the world- all consuming media and just about all of them doing so for free. The internet has tattooed the idea onto the cultural subconscious that media is free for the taking and requires no tangible expression of value in return. We can try to find a way to change this (and lots and lots of folks are really trying), but I'm about 97% convinced that it is a lost cause.

So what's left? The business model for creatives in an online world consists of a few loosely connected constructs. Selling artifacts of the creation, selling some kind of a personal experience or relationship with the creator and basically relying on the charitable kindness of strangers. Will this be enough? Ancillary merchandise is indeed a money maker, but is it a core money maker? Is it enough to keep the business moving forward as an uninterrupted going concern, making new works of art and being a viable entity in the marketplace? I have my doubts. If this were a viable core business model then Disney would issue free admission to every movie they make and set up toy stands and trinket carts in the lobby and pay the theater owners from those proceeds.

Currently the most common (and successful) business model comes in the form of parlaying our personal reputations as creators into something people really value (ie: PAY FOR), while we make our art in our spare time. Nina's monetary success or failure with SSTB is a very big test case. The real litmus test for me will not be if she makes a nominal profit from SSTB. The real test will be whether or not the funds from SSTB will afford her the opportunity to make another film in the near future, and then another after that. The world is a better place when Nina Paley is making films, not when she's doing 'other things' to pay the bills. I'm pretty sure she believes the same. I spend the bulk of my time running a teaching business for animation, and precious little of it actually animating or creating new films. 15 years ago as an aspiring animated filmmaker I worked a day job and animated on my films at night. Today I still work a day job and animate at night. I just like my day job better now, that's all. ;) However my concern is that the internet will reduce filmmakers, artists and creators to perpetual hobbyist status. We'll all end up virtual street performers, our PayPal Donate buttons the digital equivalent of a hat on the sidewalk.

Monday, May 11, 2009

"Anchored" is quite harmonious

An example of a short that has pretty solid visual harmony-  Ringling senior thesis film by Lindsay Olivares.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Oxygen is cool

I love cleverness and this piece has it by the bucket-load.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Visual Harmony

As a teacher, I often find myself in search of new terms to define things about animation that haven't been talked about very much. One such item can be summed up like this:

The visual style of rendering, light, shadow, detail, texture, material, shape and form as expressed in an animated world (regardless of medium - 2d, CG, stop-mo, paper cut out, oil on glass, etc.) demands a harmonious matching in the design and motion of the characters that live within that animated world.

Always the one to try and boil things down into simple to digest nuggets, I've settled on the idea of calling this principle Visual Harmony. It's instinctually understood by just about everybody (even those not trained in animation), though I don't see a lot of discussion about it. Some cursory searches on the topic (or other similar ideas) yields very little. I'm not an art historian so those of you who know about such things are more than welcome to ed-yoo-kate me on any theses, papers or books written about the subject that I have missed. All I know is what I have discerned with my own eyes and this thing I've discerned is definitely present. 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.

Over the years here I've talked about all manner of things related to how animated film and motion work together. Recently I've written about the general preference for CG films to engage in a kind of exaggerated naturalistic motion. Aside from some controversial suggestions about the future methods for best obtaining that style of motion, I want to point out that I'm not for or against the style itself. As people like to say these days "It is what it is." In fact if we look at the salient technical and visual developments in CG over the last 20 years we can pretty much conclude that exaggerated yet naturalistic motion style (and character design) pretty much has been demanded. Anything else would have been 'wrong'. The driving force was this unspoken, ill-defined concept of visual harmony. 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.

From the very beginning the chief developments and advancements in Cg have been to recreate some aspect of nature. Today we like to remember Pixar's first short "Luxo Jr." for its quaint story telling, but those who go back a little further remember all the excitement over the chief technical accomplishment of that film- self shadowing. Technological advancement in reflecting some aspect of the world around us with varying degrees of versimilitude was Pixar's big selling point in those early short films, and still remains a stated goal with their current shorts. Thus as these visual abilities matured they demanded ever increasing refinement in all other visual elements in order to maintain that strong sense of visual harmony- including the motion. The motion simply must "match" the visuals. This is why old classic Golden Era cartoons from the 1940's can get away with motion styles that - if transliterated without interpretation- would look absolutely out of place in your typical, "hyper-real", textured, shaded, lit, detail oriented CG film. Folks have tried to marry the two with limited success. The reason for the lack of pleasing result is simple- the two styles are not harmonious. You can't put new wine into old wineskins. The stuff's gotta match. From the start CG has this domineering way of making everything look 'realish'. Even if you dial back the textures the very shading algorithms themselves create a kind of realish-ness. Early NPR efforts (non-photoreal rendering) rang a sour note because we had a type of simulated rough analog visual medium (oil paint, pastels, etc.) being employed in expressing very smooth animated motion on 1's on models that did not vary in volume or line width. The dis-harmony was very apparent, which is perhaps why NPR never quite caught on. When viewed as a still the visuals said "hand made". When seen in motion too many elements said "brought to you by a machine". The stuff just didn't fit together. So far the most successful adventures in defining different motion styles in CG have been done by reducing visual elements. Pocoyo removes everything but the characters and primary props. The reason this is successful is because the motion does not need to live in harmony with any other visuals. In musical terms they can just sing the melody because there are no other parts to be sung. It's an extremely clever solution. Another successful result was Marc Craste's Pica Towers from earlier this decade. By removing color and subtlety of shading (much of it is very stark with little gradiation in values) he simplified the visuals which allowed him to employ a more limited motion style. The result was immediately satisfying to behold. The harmony was a mystery to me back then and it is no less striking today.

For me this is more than an academic exercise. I want to make quality animated products, using CG, but I want to do it in a way that actually lets me make more films faster, in a more fun and interactive manner. But the fact is that the predominant CG feature film style (as first defined by Pixar and subsequently copied by everybody else) is orders of magnitude too complex to pull off with anything less than a veritable army of artists, animators, technicians and machines. The style complexity - reflected in its realishness- absolutely demands visual harmony on all levels. 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'. In the past we've made the mistake in thinking that this complexity was itself quality. This is a false dichotomy which has been bashed into our heads for almost two decades now. 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. If you want to make something of real quality, then make something harmonious. In this light many of the 'rules' and 'principles' that have lorded over animation fade into their proper place. The limits are removed and whole new possibilities emerge.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Interesting article on Tex Avery

From the TAG blog...

Bright Lights Film Journal article reviewing Tex Avery's career.

A little over-wrought on the verbiage, but kinda cool. The writer does a fairly good job of summarizing a lot of how the overall style of cartoons developed back in the day. His observations on the evolution of the Disney style are quite solid. He contrasts this evolution to the way Avery turned those conventions upside-down for comedic effect.