Tuesday, December 30, 2008

year's end, and all that ends with it

I am pleased to report that "The Incident at Tower 37" has, thus far, been submitted to 16 festivals worldwide. Shortly that number will be 18. Producer Daniel and I have been carefully planting these seeds; for the next two weeks or so I will be tuning out and letting them (hopefully) take root. Many thanks to Evan as well for his continued support in all things sound-related.

With all this planting I hope to report on many sprouts in the spring, though I have to confess that if it goes really well we're going to be scrambling come March to get exhibition copies where they need to go. Let's hope that's the kind of trouble we encounter.

Still trying to secure some audio mastering help with the film. I've got a call out to one shop in NYC but since we don't have something on the books yet I'm open to suggestions. My hope for mid-January is to get the mastering completed, make the final color corrections, and get the transfers made to all the formats that we might need.

Have you had any great/awful experiences at particular festivals? Please share. We are going to continue submitting throughout 2009 and would like to target those fests that may be particularly interested in our film.

Also, I'm so close to this project I've lost sight of what the outside world might want to hear about it. If you're reading this and would like to see or hear anything from the past three and a half years of production on this film, let me know. And, of course, when I can be sure that posting it online won't impact its festival status I will do that. But for now, I can't offer the film itself. Coming soon to a festival near you, I hope!

See you all in 2009.

Monday, December 15, 2008

perched on the edge

One of the curiosities that comes with living close to Smith College is the periodic screaming that I get to hear. I'm not talking about individuals, nor a little post-party crew making its way back to a car parked near our house. I'm talking about the whole quad lighting up with the shrill and fierce yells of what can only be women in serious pain or pleasure. Since it's the heart of final exam time, it could be a little of both.

Anyway, tonight I feel a bit like joining in the chorus. The pleasure part. 'Cause as the shrieks rail out I'm finalizing the festival screener DVD for Tower 37. The last touch for the DVD was the credits, which now seem pretty firmly in place. Tomorrow I should be trying to convert the HD Apple PRORES version into something watchable on a standard def DVD.

By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, we're going with "The Incident at Tower 37" as the official title.

One other interesting thing going on these days (now more on the pain front): I've been following the release of Delgo with serious fascination. Here we have an independent animated feature out of Fathom Studios in Atlanta that took somewhere between 9 and 12 years to make (articles online seem unable to concur on the date the film was begun, ranging from 1996 to 1999 in what I've read).

Since I've of course thought a hundred times over about how the Tower 37 production process would scale to a feature (yes, I'm considering it), the fate of Delgo is one I will follow closely. The biggest issue I see is that while Delgo is an independent animated feature, it had a production budget (according to wikipedia, today) of around $40 million. So independent it may be, but it's heavily dependent on a massive box office revenue if it wants to recoup its costs. As of today, that's not looking very likely (boxofficemojo reports a half million on opening weekend, despite it appearing on over 2000 screens).

My latest back-of-the-envelope calculations (based on Tower 37) project a production budget an order of magnitude lower than Delgo's for a 90-minute feature of the same quality and complexity of T37. Yes! So, agents and production studios, if you're looking to invest in an independent animated feature that doesn't have to win the lottery at the box office to succeed, you should contact me. Bitfilms is your spot.

And if you don't contact me, please don't hang up on me when I try to contact you.

Friday, December 5, 2008

the last shot!

Well, the final shot is rendering this weekend. u5_14, the big crowd shot and the one that will keep our linux farm warm for at least the next 24 hours. Probably more.

Here's a sample of the in-progress lighting:

There's still lots to be done even once the expensive layers are rendered (by expensive, I mean the ray traced reflection, refraction, and shadow layers for the thousands of creatures). Specifically, I know we need a better terrain treatment in the back, plus, the grime and water will need some re-painting to not overlap with the creatures (and to feel more thoroughly dirty).

For this curious, this shot is a combination of 3D rendered elements, 2D paintings projected onto 3D geometry, and pure 2D elements. The camera move is a slow boom down that ends with the framing you see here.

Some of the creatures are hand-animated, others are archived RenderMan RIB files from a long tread cycle sequence.

Next week we will be doing credits, and then festival submissions will begin the week after. It looks like there will be a wrap party in NYC in February, perhaps one in Los Angeles in March as well. If you're crew, watch for an invite! I also expect that once the first DVD is sent to a festival I'll be having an impromptu wrap party here in Northampton. Or many. This has been a long time coming.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A small lighting challenge

I thought I'd share a challenge that I'm giving my Animation I students in class tomorrow. Inspired by a similar exercise I was given back at Pixar University, the task here is to take the starting scene file and light the scene to match the target image. No shader changes allowed!

The target image isn't anything fancy, but matching it does require one to be comfortable with some very important basics of digital lighting. I'm thinking in particular of three-point light setup, using light linking (or whatever your software calls it) to direct lights to shine on only certain objects, creating soft shadows, making lights cast specular independently of diffuse light, and a few other things I'll keep quiet until the exercise is over.

The starting image (i.e., if you poke render after opening the scene file):

The target image:

The starting scene file can be found on my course website.

Please try it yourself if you're curious. Post your results and discoveries, too.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

white noise podcast II

Need free soothing sounds for crying baby (or babies)?

Sleepless parents, we are back.

Here you will find an hour of computer vent fan noise, lovingly recorded* and looped by me to soothe your child. Or yourselves. Or your Thanksgiving guests.

This has NOT been tested on any children at my house, but it's hopefully a nice alternative to complement the vent fan noise from my last podcast post.

The 82 Megabyte MP3 file can be found here.

Please let me know if you find these useful, curious, or just plain weird. Any suggestions for future recordings?

* confession: Lovingly, yes, but it was a quick-and-dirty recording. If it isn't up to your standards for quality, apologies.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Today's mail, and some Catch background

The TriggerStreet prize for Catch came today, and it is a lovely modern little thing. Compact. Solid. Heavy. Here it is next to the Sevincer prize I mentioned a few days back:

I love the contrast. Two prizes as different as the festivals themselves. And they're both great.

The TS recognition has me thinking about Catch again for the first time in a while. So I thought I'd share some of the film's history while I still remember this stuff.

Did you know? I made the original model of the girl's head in Sculpey on top of a Corona bottle:

I never really thought about preserving the sculpt, yet it's still mostly intact. She's hardened up and has lost half of her hair, but she's still sitting atop that bottle.

The tree was based on an awesome gnarly (as in, gnarled) tree I drove by in Amherst:

The squiggly line treatment that outlines her during the second half of the film was done in the following, rather involved way: Once the shots were animated in Maya, I rendered a high-contrast version in black and white in addition to the colored pass that you may recognize from the film. Then, I printed out the high-con images frame by frame, flipped them over and traced her outlines in pencil on the back of the sheets. Chris and Dan helped immeasurably with this work! Then, I scanned the drawings back in and composited them on top of the color pass.

Here are images from each of those steps:
The high-contrast output from Maya.

The pencil, re-scanned in (but not yet registered).

The "paint" pass (for the character).

The final composite frame.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What's up with CS 286, Animating Fast?

Pre-registration for spring courses is now well underway at Hampshire. I was hoping I could spend January focusing on the syllabus for my new class, Animating Fast, but the pre-reg flood of questions has forced me to begin sooner.

This post offers information for potential students of Animating Fast that I fear was either missing from (or ambiguous in) the posted course description:
The tools and techniques of three-dimensional computer graphics (CG) have supposedly ushered in a new era of animated filmmaking. However, computer animation remains prohibitively slow (and therefore expensive) compared to its real-world counterparts of film and video. As a result, instead of seeing an incredible variety of CG features, the last decade has provided essentially only two types: the high-budget visual effects blockbuster and the high-budget children's movie. Why? Is it really impossible to make computer animated films quickly and cheaply? In addition to answering these questions, this course seeks to identify, develop, and use tools and techniques that provide order-of-magnitude efficiency gains in computer animation. Topics covered will include machinima, various forms of performance and motion capture, interactive digital sculpting, machine-assisted proceduralism, and others. Prerequisite: one or more courses in computer animation, computer science, and/or electrical engineering. This course satisfies Division I distribution requirements. PRJ, EXP


The course WILL focus on 3D computer animation. That is, we won't be studying 2D cel animation, Flash animation, claymation, etc., except for how they might inform our investigations into doing 3d computer animation more efficiently.


My goal for this course is to assemble a group of focused, motivated students who share a common interest in "debugging" the current practices of the computer animation industry. In fact, the techniques I teach in my own animation curriculum are exactly those that we will put under the microscope.

This is not the class for a student looking to learn more about computer animation. It is expected that if you come to the class as a student of computer animation, you will have substantial animation production experience behind you. In other words, you will already be a mature computer animator. You will have a fairly solid generalist's understanding of production, and you will know how and why it is "hard."

I am also teaching Computer Animation II this spring. Many students are seeking to take both Animation II and Animating Fast. Except for very few exceptions, I think that being enrolled in both courses is a mistake. Take Animation II first (and/or come talk with me about your case in particular).

The class will involve a substantial amount of group work and will rely on engaged discussions (that's why it's happening in the afternoon). If you are not comfortable participating in discussions, this is probably not the right class for you.

I will not be lecturing about the topics I list in the description, instead, we will build our reading list as we go based on the results of our conversations and investigations.

Some of you caught on to my use of "machinima" in the description. I'll tell you now, this will not be a machinima production course. Yes we may study some of the ideas and practices of machinima, but it will likely end there.

I seek to mix engineers and artists together. If you don't have a strong track record of working well with others, this isn't the class for you.

If you come to the class from the engineering side, it would be great if you also had some background in computer graphics and/or animation. If not, then it's even more important for you to be a very competent and independent programmer who can comfortably work with new languages and systems as necessary.


The jumping off point for the class is the aforementioned collection of animated features for kids and visual effects blockbusters. We will use our knowledge of them, along with other films we unearth, to define the visual and narrative space of the medium as it stands today. We will then use our understanding of the industry pipeline to identify all the places where we could increase efficiency within that space. Finally, we will collaboratively and creatively innovate to directly address some of the inefficiencies.

For me, the most exciting part of this class lies in the previous sentence. I want artists and engineers to be putting their heads together in the service of something that would seem impossible given the time and/or resources we have available. For example, "animate 60 seconds of a naturalistic 3D character (with lip sync) in one evening." Yikes, right!? Yes. WHY does this seem like an impossibility to many of you? WHAT makes it currently impossible (or not)? Could we do this if we were to throw away our existing 3D production pipeline and make a new one? That might be exactly what we have to do.


I think you can't make an informed decision about this class unless you know what we're going to do and what will be expected of you. Hence this missive.

More people signed up than I thought would sign up, and I honestly don't see the qualities I write about here in everyone who did sign up. This course will fail if people walk in expecting to be spoon-fed information, it will fail if people expect to work in their own little holes, it will fail if people don't come in energized to explore, discuss, identify, experiment, collaborate, create, and solve.

Please consider all the above and re-assess your participation in the class. Anyone interested in discussing their possible enrollment with me is encouraged to do so! The sooner the better.

Friday, November 7, 2008

An accolade for Catch

It was well worth the wait. A year and a half after TriggerStreet.com announced Catch as a finalist in their (now called) 2008 Short Film Festival, they announced the winner, a great little documentary named Parallels.

It surprised me to find that unlike the last festival, they added a first runner-up award. I learned that Catch took this one when I got a simple email from the TriggerStreet operations team with the subject line of "Congratulations!"

Upon hearing about this, my son smiled and proudly bellowed out, "you got second place again!!" He was referring to last year's 2007 Sevincer Animation Festival in Brattleboro, Vermont, in which Catch received the Sevincer Prize. I really need to post a picture of the trophy (by Cynthia Houghton) because it was the coolest trophy I ever received. I haven't received the TriggerStreet award yet, but in all honesty Cynthia's prize will be hard to beat.

Anyway, I think it's interesting that a site like TriggerStreet, primarily populated by narrative fictional live-action short films, has once again awarded its highest honor to a documentary (another Canadian documentary at that). I also feel a great sense of pride (wow, it's been a prideful week) at having our films be the only animated films that made it to the "festival nominee" phase in TriggerStreet's history.

"Our" films: yes, it's too easy to give all the credit for a film like Catch to the person whose name appears in these articles and on the awards. So thanks again to Evan, Chris, Dave, Dan, and Ryan for their work on this project.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A digression on pride

I was proud of my country today, for the first time in my life.

I have always admired the founding documents and the values on which this country was built. I have always known I was lucky to be American. But for 38 years I have often felt apologetic for my country, embarrassed by it, sad for it. When I've felt surges of hope, they've been dismissed almost instantaneously, followed by the scary realization that more than half of the population of "my" country (or at least of the voting population) has shockingly different values than I have:

My "fellow Americans" admire chumminess over intelligence, gut over careful thought. They would rather listen to 2000-year old testimonies of hearsay than hear what's going on in front of them right now. They believe a lifetime of suffering for others is not only tolerable but inevitable for the success and comfort of the lucky. They believe in breaking up families and denying children loving parents if those parents don't have the proper mix of genders.

I was born after the moon landing, after Martin Luther King Jr., after Jackie Robinson, after the allied defeat of the Nazis. Instead of heroes and major events of national import, I have lived to witness 9/11, the Challenger disaster, the Iraq war, steroids in baseball, the rapid ruin of the planet from our over-consumption and blind burning of fossil fuels. I've seen a major economic collapse. There's been genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur without significant American involvement. American successes have been driven by greed and capitalistic forces during my lifetime instead of a desire for better lives for everyone.

I was very proud of my state of Massachusetts in 2004 when it claimed that allowing only heterosexual couples to marry was unconstitutional. I am excited by Al Gore's 10 year challenge to "Repower America" from July of this year. If we can actually get there, I hope to be celebrating the accomplishment with my (then) teenage son and daughter.

Today, however, the whole country spoke loudly with a voice that, finally, sounds a little bit like my own. A voice filled with hope, eager to pursue real challenges in order to benefit more than just a handful of citizens. Today we are a country that wants to lead by example, not by waving a fist. We elected a man for president who could have been another man's property in this country until 1865 and couldn't legally vote until 1868.

Laws alone don't do it, though. Racism didn't just go away because there was a new amendment. Like unfavorable genetic traits, the ignorant, harmful, dangerous ideas of the past must be bred out of the population. Barack Obama in the (formerly!) White House is so much more powerful than a law on paper, it is a demonstration, an example. After all, it's harder to justify a racist rhetoric to your children when the elected leader of the country is black! This isn't the choice of a few lawmakers in Washington, this is the voice of millions of people.

I want us to ride this wave. I want to see other things in my lifetime come from the focused efforts of like-minded Americans. I want to see us give health care to everyone. To beat cancer. I want us to figure out a sustainable way to feed the population good, healthy food. Our national goals should exist on a plane separate from capitalism. I am eager to direct my tax dollars and time towards matters of great import, and I'm damn happy the country spoke as it did today.

I'm proud of my country.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


A student told me about Animata and I've been intrigued by it ever since. This latest tutorial finally helps me understand the interface a little bit more, but I'm going to have to wait for Animating Fast in the spring to really check it out in earnest.


Friday, October 10, 2008

Thanks for the review

Well, apparently someone watches the movies people post on imdb. A few months ago I uploaded Catch, thanks to some offer between withoutabox and imdb to get a jump on that new feature. Today I checked it out to see if they were counting views (they may be, but they don't seem to post the counts anywhere easy to find).

Anyway, somebody reviewed the film a few weeks ago. The review made me laugh; it's kind of evidence of how screwed up the animation industry is. The bulk of the review's criticism is that, "it lacks the polish of a studio offering," and, "there was so much more that could have been said with a larger budget and a longer running time." Uh, yeah. It's like saying that a bicycle is pretty cool but damn, if it had an engine and four wheels it would be a really cool car! Such a neat frame design and colors and stuff, I'm just really sorry it's not a car.

What I'm tempted to call the best part of the review is this zinger: "As it is, it's worth seeing but that's about all." First of all, when someone tells me a movie's worth seeing I take it as a good sign. Though apparently, based on the rest of the review, it's also worth taking time to bash in comparison to a hundred million dollar studio movie.

But wait! There's another hidden compliment: "My fantasy is that the folks that made this nice short get more money so they can make this film prettier, longer and more fully address media messages to girls." So maybe, just maybe, the idea is also worth investing in. Hmm.

For what it's worth, I'll gladly accept money in order to help make this reviewer's fantasy come true.


We had a great Foley recording session today at Hampshire, run by Bruner in the library basement. Set up was quick, and we were recording squeaky chairs and crinkly suits and cracking glass all day long. Thanks to all who came and brought their creative energy (and their weird sound-making devices, like the Whole Foods box of cookies and the little yellow handbag).

For your listening pleasure, I'm posting one of our glass takes. Somewhere in here we're going to try and extract the sounds of stressed glass breaking due to pressure. Heck, I don't even know if we're going to use this take but maybe one of you can benefit from it.

I was the guy smashing the glass in this particular recording, and it makes me laugh to listen to it because at the end I kind of slipped and dropped the plates I was holding into the bucket. When everyone is tuned into every subtle pop and crack, a chaotic blast like that is quite the room shocker.


Only two computer crashes, and no glass cuts. A very successful day!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Deadline: Thanksgiving

We're targeting Thanksgiving for completion of this beast. To get there, the production effort continues this term in a number of ways.

First, there's a team of three working to fix the high-priority CBBs and color-correct the show. This includes returning to Maya for some lighting and animation changes, but also a lot of post work like sky painting, tracking out problems, adding flourishes here and there, etc.

One of the issues facing this team is that up to now we've worked entirely with H.264 files for everything. Now that we're building what is the truly final picture cut, we need something lossless. I dug a bit, hoping for some progress since I used the QuickTime Animation codec on Catch for this same output phase, but it doesn't look like there have been many advances in lossless encoding. I'm going for now with the QuickTime PNG codec for editing in Final Cut. If anyone has suggestions of a better route, I'm all ears.

Anyway, what this codec thing means is that every shot needs to be, at the very least, re-collated into a lossless movie. That's easy using the HELGA system, but then I have to drop in the new movies on top of the H.264 movies in FCP. Short of copying over the old movies, does anyone know of a great way in FCP to bulk-replace a bunch of clips with a bunch of other clips?

Here's a shot that's been transformed by the CBB effort:

The custom sky and color tweaks finally give this composition a bit more of the vastness the shot always needed. And now the colors of the tower and the office match the surrounding shots, too.

Another line of effort surrounds music and sound. I recently heard Evan's latest which now includes live cello, guitar, and piano, and I'm very excited about the direction the soundtrack is going. The difference between the live recordings and the sampled/synthesized instruments is phenomenal. Also, we have a Foley recording session scheduled at Hampshire on October 10th which should be fun and allow us to flesh out the audioscape quite nicely. I believe we'll be open to (quiet) visitors - contact me if you'd like to come by.

Finally, producer Daniel is preparing for festival submissions from his new location out on the West Coast.

That's all for now!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

it is down to 2

A lack of images in this update, necessitated by the fact that I'm finally on vacation. The summer production effort is over, and there are exactly 2 shots still needing to be lit. I would have used an exclamation point back there, but I'm using a German keyboard and apparently the Germans, besides switching around z and y, also seem to shy away from the exclamation point.

I'm probably going to try and find a few independent study students for the fall to address the CBBs and get these final two shots done. Anyone interested should get in touch with me directly.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

bitfilms and youtube

Thanks to the (relatively) new "watch in high quality" youtube option, I've decided to go ahead and put some bitfilms stuff online. Here are two old films, embedded for your viewing pleasure...



Sunday, August 3, 2008

13 instead of 10

Ouch. Not our best week, at a time when we need to stay pretty sharp. We finished two by last Wednesday, but then we hit a bit of a sticking point. My DSL connection from home has also been acting up; combine that with the complexities of even our simplest shake comps, and it effectively eliminated my ability to final shots from home. I feel like I'm back in the 300 baud days. Click... wait. Click... wait.

This is a fairly typical shake node graph for this show, from shot u7_22 which I hope to final shortly. Some static layers, some animating layers, some paint. What is killing me is that each FileIn node in this graph takes years to transfer from the disk at Hampshire to my machine. Even with "aggressive" caching set in shake, when I try to go back and forth with the arrow keys to ferret out pops and such, it becomes unusably slow.

I'll post again early next week with some final frames. I'm expecting a run of finals within the next 24 hours, including the 900-frame first shot of the show. Hoping to get us to 10 left as soon as possible.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


Trying not to let myself get behind. With a good little surge on Friday, we have only 15 shots left. Some of these are real nightmares, but our momentum is good.

We had another full-film review on Friday with our esteemed guest Chris Bishop, who's been there with me since the beginning of this show in 2005. The list of CBBs (Could Be Betters, a term from back at Pixar) keeps growing, to be sure, but many of them are starting to look positively trivial up against some of the remaining shots.

Monday we should hit another big milestone: the 100th final shot. It's the last piece of low hanging fruit out there for us, and you bet I'm plucking it!

This week we popped the cork on 32-bit TIFF renders. Yes the files are huge on disk, but the compositing in shake is just so much better. Is it worth it? Too soon to answer. We'll use it sparingly for now, only when we can really use that extra range.

I'm pleased to present this final frame from u7_07, when Leed (the main aquatic character) dives down to avoid the fate that awaits his human counterpart. And just to honor Mr. Bishop's return, I've also included one of his original boards for u7_07:

How far we've come!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

17 left

I'm late in posting... oops. We were actually at 19 last Friday and we're cranking to get to 15 by this Friday. That would have us back on track for 5 a week.

The numbers are looking good, as are the images. We're finishing some of the underwater shots right now. Here's a frame from u7_06, which finaled yesterday. There's a lot more "god fog" underwater action when it's in motion. This will have to do for now:

Three more underwater shots are pending. I'll add some stills when they're finished!

Friday, July 11, 2008

23 shots left to light...

A huge week! We got seven shots final, going one over what we needed to do for the week (and coming awfully close to hitting eight). A large chunk of the Operator-on-water shots were included in this set, including his penultimate shot in the film. Here's a frame from u7_17 (note to self, uploaded at full-res with the "large" setting from Blogger, we'll see how it comes out on the other side):

Note this shot doesn't actually feature the water surface, but it does have some fake caustic reflections which aren't even visible in this frame. Sorry about that. But the water itself in these scenes has been done with a Maya ocean rendered both with the Maya Software renderer and with RenderMan Studio for reflections and refractions. We accomplished the latter by using a MEL script which Brian Kendall started and I touched up that molds a polygonal mesh to fit the displacing surface of the Maya ocean. Each frame of the molded mesh is saved as a blend target so it's easy to animate through the molded surfaces. The final touch is a RenderMan subdiv attribute attached to the poly mesh.

Okay, I convinced myself to put up a frame from u7_11, which is almost final, that shows this hybrid water surface solution more clearly:

So things are moving ahead very well. We're almost at the point where every remaining shot presents some kind of super challenge, but I feel that our efforts thus far this summer have us primed to solve whatever problems come up fairly efficiently. Next week will feature the film's opening shot, a 1000+ frame monster that is finally poised to finish in lighting after some layout tweaks I made yesterday. Next week also features some underwater shots, including atmospheric lighting effects being worked on by Hampshire College student and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Intern Will Colón. Is that a long enough title for you? :)

Thursday, July 3, 2008


A good week, as they all need to be from now on. We finished 5 more shots. This week I'll feature a frame from u7_19, one of the shots we just finalized today:

This shot, from late in the film, shows the tower finally starting to give way. Water begins to spray out from the many cracks that have formed, and its collapse is inevitable.

This shot includes a hand-painted sky layer, animated particle sprays, a hand-painted (and then replicated) fence layer, rendered tower, cracks, pipes, and terrain, and some shake heat shimmer inserted near the base of the fence and the horizon. The jagged glass edge at the top was another 2D effect, as was the slight rippling of the water surface up there. Kudos to Will for that master stroke. At least five different people touched this shot in effects, lighting, and compositing.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

animating fast: inspiration

The other night I saw Michel Gondry's Be Kind, Rewind, and I think it serves as a good inspiration for the upcoming spring Animating Fast class. Their Lion King rendition was particularly funny. Maybe this film will be the first assigned screening? Their technique reminded me a little of the production methods used in Dracenstein by Tom Priestley (a fellow TriggerStreet.com submitter).

Thursday, June 19, 2008


I've been having a lot of fun watching the Big River Show lately. It's Bill Bowles's latest adventure, this time a trek down the Mississippi river in an old pontoon boat. Check it out and enjoy.

I am such a fan of fresh media like this.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

calling anyone and everyone

In the last few days I've had many thoughts related to distributed production. The biggest most productive phases in Tower 37's production were of course when a class's worth of students (and, when available, alums and others) were cranking away on the project. Anyone following the history of this film should know by now that my advanced animation courses at Hampshire are built around the idea of collaborative production, with students in the course becoming contributing creative crew members on a substantial film project.

This is a great model for bringing to life independent animation work that lies beyond the capabilities of an individual, and I have argued elsewhere for its merits as a pedagogical strategy as well. But this began as a single-class endeavor with my first film in 2002, and has obviously grown way beyond that.

Over the course of this production there have been four periods during which the crew was greater than, say, 5 or 6 people: the fall of 2005, spring of 2006, January of 2007, and fall of 2007. In other words, we've had to adapt frequently to crew changes. This means bringing folks up to speed quickly and ramping them off the production quickly as well. There's been much more of that than I hoped for, and it's taught me a few big lessons.

I can't get into them all here, but a clear vision for the production (as in theme, story, etc) coupled with easy-to-follow standards and protocols equals a fairly low "crew change" cost. These of course are coupled with a set of tools that permits remote work at odd times of day on multiple platforms, which HELGA already offers us.

Where this is all going comes from answering this question: what if the crew was ever-changing, with perhaps people coming on for single production tasks instead of long stretches of time?

Check out the Open Source Cinema manifesto. I wouldn't say that I'm adhering to every point in the manifesto, but I've enjoyed watching The Basement Tapes grow and evolve as a project and I think there's a lot to learn from this approach.

Anyway, I'm thinking that my next production should be structured so that anyone can jump onto the film's site, grab one of the many production tasks that are available, and contribute. This would require some new HELGA infrastructure to better encapsulate bits of the film into easily download-/upload-able archives. It would also help to use the most ubiquitous production tools possible, with Open Source being perhaps the most desirable.

What's nice about this is that it doesn't preclude the same semester-based approach to production, it simply opens up the project to a larger, more distributed crew. Details would have to be worked out, obviously, such as how people can find assets that are available, get them, work on them, get feedback on their work, and ultimately get their finished assets back into the project.

Perhaps I will be able to explore this approach in more detail during my upcoming Animating Fast class in the spring.

down to 35

We are down to 35 shots left to final. Will is on his own for the next two weeks as I travel through California, but before I left we lined up a whole slate of shots for him to attack in my absence. Those were all shots that, pretty much, could be solved with our existing lighting infrastructure and lighting/compositing strategies. Of course, what that means is that when I return we'll be left with a pile of what we casually refer to as the "hard" shots.

What makes a shot hard in this film? The biggest difficulties probably relate to water, and we have our fair share of splashing, pouring, dumping water shots to contend with. But we have other issues, such as the shot with a few thousand versions of Leed swimming around (hard because we have to keep them from looking identical AND because we have to get them through the actual RAM-limited render process). There's a file which doesn't even open in Maya any more, and we have to try and repair that one. There's the film's first shot which is hard because it's 1000 frames long and features a huge scale change that has to happen seamlessly. Another way in which water is challenging is that we have three shots that occur under water, and thus we have to figure out a nice way to simulate light coming down through a reflective/refractive surface from below.

But I like our chances. I am almost finished with my responsibilities from the spring term, and thus I will soon be able to focus more on these challenges.

Monday, June 2, 2008

a long-awaited Tower 37 (nee Uprising) update

So the 10-minute CG animated short I've written about here before (Tower 37, formerly called Uprising) is actually nearing completion. Which is a good thing, 'cause it's basically its third anniversary this summer. Three years ago I was working on the story and the reel, now we're down to 44 shots left to finalize.

You might get some kind of perverse enjoyment out of reading prior posts about the film, especially those from late summer 2005 when I thought we could actually finish it in just one term. Ha. Well, over the three years it ballooned to 11 minutes, and now has been trimmed back down to below 10. There are 114 total shots as of this writing. But I do see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Bit Films Intern Will is currently leading the lighting/compositing charge, and I'm doing what I can as my other responsibilities allow. I think we are much more efficient with a small crew than with a large one, and I hope to update with some regularity as our number of remaining shots drops.

If you're interested in reading about how I structured a collaborative animation production class around this project, or if you want to learn more about the film itself, you can download a PDF of my MFA thesis and knock yourself out. Or just watch the movie as it stood a year ago when I got the degree. The site hosting the thesis keeps telling me people are downloading it; I'd be curious to hear from those downloaders what they think about it all.

Here's an image from shot u2_01. It is 1/3 of the final full resolution. I'll start adding more images to my posts if this works and if people seem receptive.

For those interested in the technical specs, this film is being made using Maya 8.5, RenderMan Studio, and Shake. To a lesser extent we also use After Effects, the Maya Software renderer, and hundreds of custom scripts (mainly written in TCL).

Tower 37 is using the HELGA system (developed at Hampshire College) for production management and web-based render/comp spooling, asset management, and job tracking. I will update this post or blog with a HELGA link as soon as one is available.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

memorable verbal family blunders

My kids have been pestering me to log all of their funny little sayings and doings before we all grow up and forget them. I think it's a great idea, but the idea of putting them onto a file on my computer, only to be lost and forgotten about, devastates me. So, pardon the tangent and enjoy some of my family's oddities.

"Napkins Farms": Noe's way of saying "Atkins Farms"

"Heliclopters": Jordy's term for the cool little spinning seed pods that come down from our backyard Maple.

"Goblets": Noe's way of saying "goblins" (after watching Labyrinth with me and Jordy).

"Bookmoork": Jordy made a bookmark by hand back in kindergarten and added an extra O. Now we all call 'em bookmoorks.

From the "taking me too literally" department:

Noe (in the car): "Dad, look at me!"
Me: "I can't, I'm driving, I have to keep my eyes on the road."
Noe: "If you keep your eyes on the road, a car will come by and squish them!"

Thursday, April 17, 2008

white noise podcast

Back when my daughter had trouble sleeping (which is LONG in the past, she's the best sleeper in the house now), we used to leave her next to the oven vent fan in her carseat. It was the best source of white noise we had in the house, and it seemed to have a soothing effect on her.

When we traveled, though, we couldn't bring our oven fan with us. Except -- we could! I recorded an hour of it, burned it to a CD, and it was one of our most important baby things to remember when we went anywhere ("Bottles, check. Formula, check. White noise, check.").

I always thought it would be great to publish a white noise CD for frustrated parents and others (my mom sleeps with a white noise machine, after all). But now I have an even better idea: the White Noise Podcast.

A little googling shows that "white noise" also seems to be a genre of heavy metal, which I find it funny to think about babies trying to fall asleep to. So there's competition for the name.

Another funny aspect about this podcast is that it will be an interesting test of audio compression algorithms.

I put the first 55Mb file up: the tantalizing hour-long vent fan recording we used for Noe. Watch this spot for future updates. Enjoy, and happy sleeping.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

summer computer animation internship

I'm considering offering a bit films summer production internship. It would have to begin as an unpaid internship, but the benefits (I think) would be fairly tempting for those curious about becoming computer animation professionals:
  • experience in a high-end, industry-grade production environment
  • exposure to tools such as Maya, Shake, RenderMan
  • access to a 100+ processor render farm
  • work experience on a major independent short film project
  • the opportunity to live and work in or around Amherst or Northampton Massachusetts!
I'm floating this idea here to see if I get any feedback on it. Would anyone find this tempting, or does "unpaid" = nobody? Any ideas for how I might promote this position and attract good applicants?

If it were to start this summer, my current show (Tower 37) would need compositing and/or lighting interns. Heck, if you read this and are curious, get in touch.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Software recommendations for kids interested in graphics

An old friend asked me for advice yesterday about graphics/design programs for her 11-year old son. I was pretty stumped! So I posted the question on an animation mailing list I maintain and got a few responses. I'll use this post to collect them for future reference.

Thus far I'm a bit surprised not to have more kid-specific stuff here, but I'll list it all anyway (highlighting where appropriate the super kid-targeted software).

I'm also going to name a few things that I learned about when we recently got our XO Laptop.

Squeak (kid-oriented, free): a media authoring tool that lets you do paint objects, then build simple scripts for them so they move around procedurally.

Cosmic Blobs (kid-oriented, commercial): neat-looking kids modeling package.

Not specifically kid-oriented, but these are free:

Blender: free high-end 3d software
Wings 3D: free high-end polygonal modeling tool
Seashore: free 2D painting/design software

Not specifically kid-oriented, and not free:

Bryce: commercial 3D software
Photoshop: commercial 2D painting software