Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Boredom & Chocolate

So, today I was eating a Fun Size Twix bar, and like the frugal chick I am, checked their website hoping to find some kind of coupon or special where I could buy a gazillion of these delicious chocolate caramel cookies for really cheap. I had no such luck, but I was led to a website where I could make my own M&M character. I had so much fun making my M&Meme that I made one for Naveen as well. Then I took a screencap of each character and threw them into a Photoshop file to make a "VS" battle screen.

Let's hope someday soon I'll have my mind on something a bit more productive.. still retaining the wackiness though. Cuz let's be honest...

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Waking Sleeping Beauty - Special Screening at BAM

On jolly green St. Patrick's day, I was in New York again, weaving through a sea of barely-legal drunk people dressed as leprechauns and other lucky blokes.

Blokes.. I don't know why I got all British just then, please excuse that.

I window-shopped around in the morning in the fashion district, and thought about putting together a bogus photography project called "I want to be a mannequin." I'd need a nicer camera and a little more direction, perhaps.

At any rate, I was there not to get drunk, but to make my way around town people-watching during the day, eating appetizers at my favorite spots, and making my way over to the much quieter Brooklyn for the evening hours to enjoy a very special presentation at BAM: a screening of Waking Sleeping Beauty intro'd and followed by a Q&A by the director, Don Hahn, the producer, Peter Schneider, and the writer, Patrick Pacheco.

The film was wonderful, with humor-filled but very touching narrations, news clips, and even home movies shot on the Disney campus illegally. There were very few if any talking heads, just a voice over storyteller and a lot of original archival footage. Don's direction relied on the idea that the audience would forgive grainy footage as long as they felt engaged, and at least for me and the audience I sat in that night, that theory was all too true. Apparently Disney was all too happy with the production of the documentary and not only approved but also provided distribution of the film. For anyone not in-the-know, it is about the comeback years after being beaten out by a CareBears movie, all the way until computers started coming onto the scene (and before all the traditional animators were ultimately fired). For ten years, people pulled together and recreated the sense of magic originally discovered and popularized by Walt Disney. It had been a few hard years that no one really wanted to bury the dead, making executive decisions based almost solely on "what Walt would've done." The rising action occurs with the late Roy Disney and the addition of Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner, and greats like the late and clearly amazing Howard Ashman and of course animators like Glen Keane and all the rest. The film is as much or more about relationships and the business and politics of animation than the art of animation itself, but it was all held together by the desire to do something great, to lift up the company and to survive. It's a fantastic, inspiring story in that way.

See a clip from the movie at the Animation World Network:

Don and Peter stayed for a Q&A period after the show, introducing Patrick as the outside journalist they hired to help balance the writing and shaping of the story the two of them knew so well. They all spoke fondly about Howard and his heartbreaking story as well as how key he was to the rebirth of Disney in the early 90s. They also shared how special and emotional it was having Roy's last interview on camera included in this movie. They talked about Michael Eisner not wanting to do a current interview, but lending ideas and older interview tapes to be included.

One interesting question was if the magic of Disney was still alive for them, having seen the internal struggles and ugliness of the business, and they responded with a resounding yes, that especially seeing and hearing an audience react to their creations is what reinvigorates the magic for them and encourages them to keep moving forward. Don answered, "You never get tired of that, even though you're a magician of sorts, and you know all the trick work. You never get tired of going out in front of an audience and hearing them go 'wow!' And that's very much the same thing with animation. And I still marvel that it works."

They also addressed the new age of Disney since Bob Iger made the deal with Pixar, and how the culture has been quite good in the past few years now that John Lasseter is back working both studios, translating Pixar's success and happy-go-lucky feel into the Disney environment, making for a really good time for animation. This is especially true because Don credits John as being "the biggest proponent of 2d animation on the planet" despite his ironic and historic career in computer graphics animation. Aside from Princess And The Frog, there is apparently a Winnie the Pooh feature in the works, so traditional animation may be on the rise again. But as Don said and as many agree, it isn't about the technique nearly as much as it is about the story.

Another question was if there were any problems they encountered making this movie in terms of Disney not wanting to show bits and pieces of their internal strife. Don also answered that there were times the three of them wondered if the film would see the light of day, but also that part of Disney's legacy is preserving its history, and that was well recognized during the making of the film, which allowed the inclusion of even the illegally-recorded home movies on the Disney campus shot by folks like John Lasseter. They had to call in a lot of favors, asking for these hidden gems, including an Apocalypse now reenactment involving nerf-style weapons, which the animators did in the early days after Walt's death, thinking the studio might go under. Mothers sent in news reports taped off of television in which Jeffrey in the limelight got mauled by a lion during a promotional shoot. Animators and directors submitted controversial caricatures, including one of Howard roasting someone during a meeting, and other caricatures which were popularly drawn around the studio - especially during caricature shows that were encouraged on April Fool's Day and would result in 400-500 public drawings. The shows served almost like a hazing ritual, in which case, if you didn't show up, you really didn't want to see the extent of wicked ways your colleagues would depict you. Moreso than from the Disney company, they had a lot of internal debate about what should be included in the film, such as Eisner jokingly wanting a better introduction at a eulogy, Roy not allowing Michael to promote Jeffrey, emotional warring over getting and giving credit, and other uncomfortable moments. And as Patrick pointed out, "Hollywood is just high school with money," so there were a lot of those moments.

They talked about union compensation as well as voice over royalties a bit, such as how one line out of a little Blueberry character in A Bug's Life translated into staggering residuals of around $27,000.

They also addressed Disney's chapter turn in 1994, citing Michael Eisner's heart attack, the earthquake knocking out the studio, creating Lion King in garages and basements, Lion King grossing a billion dollars in the box office, Frank's death, Jeffrey leaving Disney, and the subsequent money/bidding wars with animators being stolen away to emerging competing studios as Disney's time as a monopoly came to an end. Therefore, they felt that this point in time would be a good place to end their documentary.

Small snippet of the Q&A:

I was able to capture a little video on my phone about the three of them chatting about making the film. Also I made a point to catch Don and thank him for his eye-opening documentary, and win some encouragement from him as well: I had gone into a bookstore earlier in the day and picked up a $3 Little Mermaid Golden Book, which he signed, "To Laura - Enjoy, & Keep Animating! Your Pal, Don Hahn." Peter also scribbled his name on it as they were all leaving for a late dinner. I was so very lucky to see this, and would encourage everyone to try to make it to a local screening. It's an enlightening piece of animation history you don't want to miss.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

It happened in a nap tonight...

Our home was apparently attached to the airport. It was a futuristic world, and we were living in a cozy, small house attached to an airport, apparently. We were getting ready for Raj & Kristin's wedding, packing our bags for the flight, and we became very sleepy, so we took a nap. When we woke up, we continued putting together our bags, and in a flash I was afraid that we had missed our flights. It was around 8:45 at night, and sure enough upon looking at our tickets, our flights had been scheduled for 8:45pm. Our hearts sank! For a moment we didn't know what we would do. We called his mom and apologized profusely, but she wasn't angry at all, just groaned and said she would call the travel agent to figure it out. She had apparently been napping too, or sleeping for some reason: even though the time difference in her direction would make it earlier in the day for her, it was supposedly night time in Hawaii. I told Naveen to keep packing, and that I would take our tickets to the counter and see if I could do anything about the situation. So I ran through the airport, which looked a lot like a huge high school hallway, and burst out the doors at the end of the hallway, and I could see what the planes looked like.

I had never seen anything like it - this one was only going to Charlotte, North Carolina, as I could hear by an intercom, but it was still a double-decker plane with a really amazing lift service onto the second floor, from the outside (in actuality though, this particular lifter would be terribly inefficient to load people aboard the upper floor one by one from the ground, but it still looked really cool). People were standing in security lines to board the plane. I got into another line that appeared to go back toward the building, where there was apparently a service counter. I climbed onto the first few steps, and over this half-wall I saw one area that looked a lot like a living room with these high-quality metallic chairs (looking like folding chairs but actually permanent fixtures to the floor and far more comfortable). At the immediate area where I entered, there were people sandwiched next to each other, but even so they all looked extremely comfortable in their smaller, but red-cushioned seats.

I saw a lady with a clipboard in a casual red polo shirt uniform, and walked toward her, feeling my eyes red. Half forcing some tears for sympathy (not one of my actual skills), I held out the tickets and explained frantically that we needed to get to Hawaii for my brother-in-law's wedding, and I didn't know what I would do if we missed it. The lady was very calming, appearing to be Hawaiian herself with a very round, dark, beautiful face and flowing black hair. Looking at me with a very motherly, caring face despite her youth, she assured me that everything would be all right, and that there was nothing to fear. We would make it, I just needed to breathe deeply and sit down. But suddenly, I realized the seats had buckles, and through the windows I saw movement. She looked perplexed, and said. Well of course we're moving, you're going to Hawaii! A relieved but strangely and simultaneously panicked sensation came over me because Naveen was not there yet with our bags. I frantically messaged him using my phone. Thankfully, despite seeing me doing this, the lady in the red polo shirt did not force me to immediately turn my phone off as she could see how distressed I was. She gestured to me that I should be more discrete, so I held the phone lower on my lap as I told Naveen I was on our plane, that he could catch the next one and it would be okay, and that he should not forget the shoes that matched my dress or some things I had left in another room and hadn't placed in the suitcase yet.

In a bizarre twist, I realized I was wearing not pants or a regular dress, but the huge pillowy slip I had worn under my wedding dress, with an unpleasant cake frosting stain on the butt (which doesn't exist on my actual slip). I thanked the lady in the red polo shirt for helping me, and left our seats to go to the area that looked like a living room to order myself a cocktail.

Bizarre what unfolds in dreams. :)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Texas plane crash solved nothing

I wanted to wait a while (it's been about a month) before posting anything on this subject, because it's clear we don't have all the facts, and truthfully I haven't read everything available about what happened, nor do I really want to. But after reading a few articles about the Texas plane crash (including this one),there is something that I wanted to say.

I don't really want to make commentary on the man who piloted the plane, since plenty of people seem to be doing that. I never knew him and I have no expertise in psychology. What I do want to address is the highly-publicized excerpt of the suicide note which read as follows:

"Nothing changes unless there is a body count. I choose to not keep looking over my shoulder at 'Big Brother' while he strips my carcass, I choose not to ignore what is going on all around me, I choose not to pretend that business as usual won't continue; I have just had enough.... Sadly, though I spent my entire life trying to believe it wasn't so, but violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer."

The real truth: the Texas plane crash solved nothing.

It makes me think of those boys at Columbine, or any similar act of home-grown terrorism or self-justified act of violence. These acts may be catchy and heroic for those who feel truly troubled by something, and thusly there should be worry of copycat acts. People are affected by (and can identify easily with) the struggle and pain brought on by national and even international financial crises.

But I think it is important to consider this was the voice of someone who gave up. He uses the word "sadly" when he talks about violence being the only answer, but really the statement in itself is what is sad. There is no doubt what he has done was impactful and draws alarmist attention to the hardship of America's striving lower and middle class people. But the "sad" idea that only a body count will inspire change is only perpetuated by those who want to make a statement about giving up. There is absolutely nothing heroic about that.

Someone who wages their own personal war against the government by crafting dramatic situations, damaging property, and finally killing themselves and others is not a hero, or a mascot, or a leader of any kind. These people will only lead others to death and destruction.

True heroism (in this political or social arena) is born out of a person's ability to be revolutionary without this kind of needless destruction. A hero is someone who ventures deep into the roots of the problem and studiously crafts structural improvement. A country, which is home to millions of people, should never be likened to such a problematic building that requires demolition to fix or begin again. A human being, who becomes sick, is not taken away to be executed.

We need to be the doctors of this society. Everyone who has as much as a roof above their heads and dinner on their table has a responsibility to advocate change. We are a nation of dream seekers. It's a beautiful country in which to chase your heart's desires, but right now there are too many people who are chasing just to make ends meet, and too many of these people are not the same people who at one time owned six cars or five homes or a small island somewhere for vacationing.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Animators on Facebook

As a handful of you know, I've run an Animators group on Facebook for the last four years. It was very active while a lot of us were recently out of college; however, as many of us got jobs, the group got a bit stale and, quite rightly, we began to lose a handful of our 150+ members.

Recently though, I've had some time to revamp the group, and our numbers are on the rise again, which is driving me to encourage further participation and bring a special element to the group to lend hope and motivation to our aspiring animators.

I've been thinking it would be nice for the Animators Group to get back into mini-interviews (it's been a long time since we've done them). I'm going to try to do one per month, and after a few solid months I'll see if there's time to do more beyond that.

Without further ado, we have a real treat - an interview with Stephen Wong of Pixar Animation Studios. Please enjoy, and come see us at the Animators!


Stephen Wong, character animator, Pixar Animation Studios

Hi Stephen, thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions. It looks like you got your start in CS and then moved into animation. What inspired this transition? Have you always wanted to work in animation?

I was always into art but had never considered it as a career, so I just kind of walked into computer science thinking it sounded sort of interesting. 6 painful years later, after endless math and science classes, and a few co-op stints with IBM, I found that I really wasn't very passionate about programming, but I was passionate about filmmaking, animation and visual effects. The idea of art school was always in the back of my head, whispering to me. I was working at a tech startup at the time, and the company was struggling a bit, so I decided I might as well give art school a shot and see if I had what it took to be an artist in the movie industry in some capacity. I studied illustration and traditional animation, then got lucky attending a couple of advanced computer animation classes taught by some Pixar animators, and I knew right then animation was what I wanted to do for a living.

What did you think of your time at GIT & AAU? Pros/Cons?

To be quite honest, Georgia Tech was a pretty painful experience for me. But it did teach me how to think analytically, learn to adapt quickly, and realize what my pain tolerance was. But in all seriousness, it's an experience that strengthened me mentally, and for that I'm grateful. The Academy of Art was a great experience (I wish I could have stayed in art school forever). I learned so much about the fundamentals of art, animation, how to learn and grow from other artists around you. Of course, art school is a bit sink or swim, and you learn pretty quickly that grades don't really matter as much as what your portfolio says about you and your work ethic. I went to every drawing workshop I could possibly attend, and spent many sleepless nights working on my animation reel.

Shortly after graduation, you jumped right in and worked on the Sims 2 EP for a few months. How did you land this first animation job, and what did the experience teach you?

If I have one word of advice for people trying to work in the industry, it's to not be picky about your first job! Just get one, any one, and prove that you can work on deadlines, and work with other people. I honestly didn't do a whole lot of animation at EA, even though I was hired in that capacity. I mainly got stuck working as a graphic designer on the user interface and drawing little icons (endless icons...), and then occasionally animated when they had an opening for me. But I worked as hard as I could, met a lot of great people, and used that experience along with my personal demo reel, to land my first big animation gig at Bluesky.

Right after working at Electronic Arts, you quickly moved over to Blue Sky, then ILM, Pixar, Tippett, and back to Pixar. How have you been proactive in getting your animation jobs? Did any of these companies (or recruiters or agents) find you, or did you apply yourself to getting each position?

You always hear about the importance of networking in school, but you never really fully understand just how important it is until you start looking for work. Outside of EA, pretty much every job I ever got was through someone I knew from school or from another company, recommending me or handing my reel in for a position that was open. And of course, having a demo reel that shows that you have a solid understand of weight, timing, performance and appeal is critical. Only show things that present the best of what you can do, and from within that, show your best stuff first. I've seen reel reviews where each reel gets about 6 seconds of viewing before people decide to either keep watching or hit the eject button. When in doubt, show friends and colleagues and ask for their brutal honesty. A 30 second reel of top-notch work looks a lot better than a minute long one with mostly good stuff and a couple of average pieces.

As far as being proactive about getting jobs, I normally try and pay attention to what projects are ramping up and consequently who is hiring animators for those projects. And it doesn't hurt to be decent at interviewing. They're looking for people who are passionate about what they do, and good at it, but not cocky. But you also can't be so passionate that you come across as a fanboy, people don't like that either.

You completed a lot of shots while you were at Blue Sky. What were some of the challenges you faced moving into feature film animation?

The biggest challenge coming from school to feature film animation is being able to consistently hit your deadlines while trying to do your best work on every shot. Unlike school, you don't get to scrap shots that aren't working out that well, so you've got to be able to adjust to notes quickly, and bring strong efficient ideas to your shots. Typically you've got a week from beginning to end to finish a shot, which doesn't give you a ton of time to explore different ideas for a shot. Honing in to a good idea or being able to scrap an idea you have that probably isn't going to work, is critical to any animation job, but especially true with feature anim. If you have a hard time taking notes and critiques in school then you had better learn how to, or you probably don't belong in the industry.

While you were at Tippett, you got to work on the Spiderwick Chronicles. What characters did you animate on that feature? What did you like best/worst about Tippett?

I mostly animated the little goblins running around terrorizing the kids, but also had a couple of shots with the character Hogsqueal. As for Tippett Studio, the place is amazing. It's one of those old school fx houses that has so much rich history in regards to visual and special effects, and one walk through the garage/workshop is like a trip through fx film history. Maquettes and models from Jurassic Park, Robocop, Hellboy, Starship Troopers adorn the walls everywhere, and there's a great energy and collaborative nature to that place. I had a great experience working there.

So far, you've worked with Pixar the longest. What is your favorite thing about working there? Least favorite?

It's crazy to think I've worked at Pixar the longest, but I guess that's true! There's a lot of great things about working there, but I guess my favorite is just how fun the work environment is. They really try and make the studio feel open and relaxing, so that you're able to put all of your creativity and inspiration into your work. I seriously have fun every day, even when production gets crazy, because you're constantly inspired by all the great artists working there. And everyone has the same goal there, which is to make great films. Least favorite? Hmmm...they didn't give us President's Day off, does that count?

You have a fantastic Ratatouille reel. What was your favorite shot to work on during that production?

Thanks, I came on half-way through the production but it was incredible to be able to work with Brad Bird, even for a few months. I suppose my favorite shot was my first close-up shot of Remy looking up at the TV, more for sentimental reasons than anything else, since it was my first big shot on the show.

What are your most favorite animated productions, and who are your favorite animators?

I love the Jungle Book, Spirited Away, anything with Wallace and Grommit, and of course, as generic as this is, The Incredibles and Finding Nemo. The animation in those movies is still mind-boggling to me. There are too many great animators out there to name, it wouldn't be fair.

If you had any advice to give an aspiring animator, what would that be?

Anyone can be an animator. Like anything else, it takes time, dedication, a good eye, lots and lots of passion, and a little bit of luck. I know animators who used to be cops, worked at coffee shops, doctors, musicians. The thing they all have in common is a love of filmmaking and storytelling, and a goofy sense of humor doesn't hurt.


A very special thank you to Stephen for taking the time to answer these questions. Happy animating, everyone!

Florida Times Commercial

Congrats to SpeakeasyFX on completion and delivery of their latest commercial, this one for the FL Times. You can check it out here.


Florida Times Union "Origami" from Michael Wiehart on Vimeo.