Author Archives: Ace

Aliens

We’ve been having some server issues which seem like they’re finally resolved.  So everything should be back online (the site migrated to another server leaving the blog behind, but now it’s all straight).

The intervening month has been berry busy.

We made a series of music videos for Grouplove totaling around 12 minutes of original animation.

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Kelsey Stark directed a bunch of animators including Casey Drogin, Taisiya Zaretskaya, Liesje Kraai, Christine Wu and Leah Shore.  Now she’s off to Iceland to make a film, while not gracing her with her presence she is gracing us with a blog of her adventures:  http://thorgeirsboli.tumblr.com/  Don’t be surprised to find beautiful things therein.

Here’s the full video:

It’s an explanation of these little films: www.grouplovemusic.com/toonlove

I recommend taking twenty minutes or so to watch them in progression. It’s nice that Kelsey was able to inject some real emotional moments into these character studies.

Next week we’re heading to Ottawa for the animation festival. “The Honor Code” is screening in competition. Internet-willing we’ll have daily accounts.

Permanent Chill

Some time in the early 80s, my preteen years, when my father subscribed to the over-air cable alternative WHT, I must have seen a weekend or late night broadcast of “Harold & Maude”.

I don’t actually remember seeing the film.  A decade later, Alex Reshanov and I watched it. Though I had no recollection of previously sitting through the film I knew the whole thing.  Not only had I known the film, it had made clear impressions on my still forming mind.  Like the atheist seeds planted by “Jason & the Argonauts” (which I clearly remember watching over and over), “Harold & Maude” provided a vocabulary for my constant thoughts on death.  In another way it voiced legitimacy to my habit of forming close friendships with older woman.

Gail Levin with Roz Chast at WNET recording for "Need to Know"

Gail Levin with Roz Chast at WNET recording for “Need to Know”

The first of these matron pals was my Great Aunt Betty who took me to every Phillies game for years and taught me to wear a seat belt.  Aunt Betty was the second person I knew to die.  Her passing brought me more shame than sorrow.  Shame that I wasn’t there, shame that I didn’t really know her at all.  What could a 12 year old boy know of septuagenerian spinster anyway?  We know so little about ourselves, how can we know about others?

My latest Ruth Gordon -and the best since Aunt Betty -died yesterday after a long spell with cancer.

Gail Levin was a great friend.  For at least a half-decade we spoke nearly every day.  Though she was effusive with affection, Gail was not a particularly “open” person (with me, at least) and I liked that a lot.  Her story came together piecemeal over edit sessions, movie screenings, art shows or shoots.  I once presented her with a painting that abstractly depicts two men setting sail on a trans-Atlantic journey.  “You know I crossed the ocean in a sailing ship…”

Gail behind camera at our studio with Dewald Aukema shooting Steve Brodner for "Cab Calloway: Sketches"

Gail behind camera at our studio with Dewald Aukema shooting Steve Brodner for “Cab Calloway: Sketches”

A few people have asked how old she was.  I have to laugh and say “I have no idea!”  She interviewed Hal Ashby, I know that.  She interviewed hundreds of interesting people and was really, really good at it.  When her sickness made it impossible to travel, a colleague went in her stead to conduct an interview.  Watching the footage together, the subject was stumbling for a name -an old Hollywood agent -the interviewer didn’t know (neither did I).  Gail immediately shouted it out to me.  The interview subject, an old guy himself, deflated with his failing memory.  That moment I learned that a good interviewer needs more than good questions.   She was able to get people to speak deeply and honestly.

I’m having trouble speaking deeply, but I can honestly say that I loved her a great deal, and will miss her even more.

Just as she could produce the right fact at the right moment, she also had a way to find commonality with people- everyone’s kindred spirit.  Maybe it was Frank Loesser or basketball or just a kind word at the right moment, Gail was a person who immediately made life a shared experience.

Gail and I worked together for only six or seven years.  In that time, both her parents died, my father died, the Phillies won the world series (her Boston days left her a Red Sox/Celtics/Patriots fan- though she also like goofy Eli Manning too and took up for the Phillies with me). We worked on 16 contracts and developed a bunch more -many productions, like The Naked Campaign, involved multiple films.  Whether she asked for titling of a work-for-hire film like “Two World, One Planet” (please note we had nothing to do with titling in this trailer -Gail would have been appalled) or more intricate design, animation, and effects sequences in “Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides” or “Cab Calloway: Sketches” she approached our work together holistically.   People were not making parts of a film or doing a “job”, everyone provided a voice and the results -when successful -would be a rafter shaking choir.

Picture of Pictures within Picture

Got a call the other from a woman who had been friends with Fred Mogubgub’s wife, Virginia.

She’s has this painting that she loves and was wondering if we could help her find a good home for it.

 

Looks pretty amazing.

Interested parties out there in internet should drop us a line and we’ll get you in touch with the current owner.

Sneak Preview

Had a few screenings of excerpts from Elliot Cowan’s feature film “The Stressful Adventures of Boxhead and Roundhead” yesterday.

bigscreen

 

We ran the twenty or so minutes 5 times throughout the day, for audiences of around 6 at a time on the big 10 foot 4k projection screen at the studio.

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We had a mix of producers, directors, writers, animators, actors and activists show up throughout the day.  Pictured here was an animator-dominated screening, with a producer/writer thrown in for good measure (though most of these animators can add a few “/” slash titles too).

You’ll see Elliot fielding questions and filling the gaps between the set pieces shown.  Turns out everybody hated it and he’ll have to start over from the beginning.

 

 

Close To You

 

 

 

Saturday night in Easton, PA, Maciek Albrecht had a rare screening of his 1995 film “Close To You”.

closetoyou01

Maciek may be the greatest  confluence of talent and hard work I’ve ever met.  “Close To You” is a 40 minute film which tells a tale that all young city dwellers can understand -falling for a face in the crowd you may never meet.

It’s good to see an animator address real human circumstances, but the greater achievement here is the graphic stylization.  (These still are cel phone snaps, so the quality of image is pretty poor)

closetoyou02

 

The film is primarily produced in the most painstaking production methodology possible.  Animated on paper, then cleaned up in with color pencil (multiple lines per drawing), rendered with several passes of airbrush and then mounted on cel.   Maybe the technique was slightly different, but not too far off.

More animators should heed their artistic inclinations and create work with such graphic ambitions.  I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have worked with Maciek on several films and he has never let the parameters of project prevent him from developing new ideas.  He’s never said, “Oh, the budget on this so low we have to do it with symbols  in Flash”.  Sometimes the approach might become a little cumbersome for the confines of a contract, but those things can always be figured out.

closetoyou03

 

The screening also served as a fundraiser for a new project.

He’s got a crowd-funding campaign going.

His studio doubles as a gallery (and it’s a great studio, with a soundstage, shop, edit room, and held up by, in part, by the column to his old Oxberry), and after the screening they had art from Close To You on sale.closetoyou04

Most of these set up were $75 or less.  Each is a perfect example of the craftmanship and precision that goes into animation production.

I got as many as I could afford.  Not only are they beautiful, but this is an artist who should be supported by anyone who cares about animation, who cares about film and art.

closetoyou05(above: greater-than-life-size painted cut outs of the film’s characters)

Fantagraphics

The Fantagraphics website looks like it crashed -or slowed to a slug’s pace, at best -around 4:15 Eastern Time on June 19.  People across the globe checking to see if it was true, and it’s undoubtably true, that the founder and frontman for the great publisher has passed.

I didn’t know Kim Thompson, never even spoke with him.  I’ve had dealings, both passing and substantial with other members of the Fantagraphics team over the years, but never the boss.  Here’s a link to the press release announcing his death.

Even so, Mr. Thompson’s work, more accurately, the work that he published (work that no one else would have put in print, let alone printed so beautifully, 25 years ago) had an impact on me equal to Superman’s fist on Lex Luthor’s face or some other hack metaphor from the spandex cartoon lexicon.

I never read comics as a child.  I actively disliked them.  The first comic I saw was a Richie Rich comic in which the eponymous hero lorded his wealth over his neighbors.  The second I saw was Scrooge McDuck.  It’s hardly worth explaining how the latent Marxian in my seven year old body responded to this corporatist propaganda.

eightballDeep in the recesses of my mind I thought: “this is a format to celebrate the wealthy.” Even R. Crumb comics which I first saw late in high school were too hippie-bourgeois for me.  Then I saw Dan Clowes’ “Eightball”.  This was something that spoke to me -pissed off, mysterious, poetic, irreverent.  Right next to it was “Love & Rockets”.  I may have been a little late to the game on that -the saga was entering its second decade by the time I first read it -but that only cemented my growing interest in the artform.

Fantagraphics books were my introduction to comics, and I truly doubt I would have ever cracked one open if not for Clowes’ Lloyd Llewellyn.  And I probably would have never met very many great people and dear friends if not for Fantagraphics.

A few years back they even began reprinting Carl Barks’ Disney comics, so I’ve now come to terms with the despicable Scrooge McDuck.

So thanks, Mr. Thompson.

Imagine

A few weeks backs we finished up this advocacy film with Pendragwn Productions.

The YouTube compression is pretty harsh here, but it should give you the gist.

They liked our work on “The Honor Code” and wanted have a similar emotion and style to this piece.  It seemed appropriate, so we didn’t try too hard to push in another direction.

A bit of evolution from “The Honor Code” to here, the design and animation are tighter in this piece.  That’s part process, part schedule.  Here we produced in a traditional cartoon fashion.  Layouts, extremes, inbetweens.  Clean up.  Digital paint.  Much of the earlier production was animated straight ahead in ink and all the painting was rendered by hand, on paper, creating a much looser, rough dynamic.

This film was textbook production process.  From storyboard:

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To layout:

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Kelsey Stark created the designs and layouts.

To animation:

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Doug Compton handled the animation, Kelsey, Casey Drogin and Liesje Kraai came in on  the inbetweens and clean up.

The inbetweening was done digitally, drawing in Photoshop with the Cintiq.  It’s a bit of a cumbersome process, but Photoshop was the best option we had to get the line quality we want.  It also offered decent options for coloring.  There is probably some software that’s better suited to handling this style (I think of Paul Fierlinger’s beautiful work with TV Paint) but the Adobe suite is something we already have and everyone knows how to use.  We needed to clean up Doug’s drawings to match the line style of the inbetweens.  His pencil work was very tight and very close to the digital replication.  Not close enough,   just based on the nature of pencils and scanners.  If we inbetweened on paper, we would have painted over his originals without clean up.

To color:

c04paintMarina Dominis joined the team to help with clean up and painting.

The animation was produced in around four weeks.

Back from the deadCENTER

oklahomaSpent a long weekend in Oklahoma City at the deadCENTER Film Festival where “Christmas Day” ran twice in a short film program.

The festival itself is well run (even though they ran out of goodie bags by the time we registered -that’s more probably more indicative of its popularity than anything else) and offers a good mix of intelligent programming.  “Intelligent programming”, for example, our film was featured in a series called “Love, Sex and Death”.  Leah Shore’s “Old Man” was a stand out in the stand out program called “Vamps, Ghouls & Haunts”.  These themes make it easier on the audience and are offer a fair platform to the films by presenting them in a league of related work -even if they are just third cousins, twice removed.

audience

 

Festival director Lance McDaniel told me that most of the shorts programs were already reaching sell-out by the first day.  Our first screening pretty much filled up the 100 plus seat multiplex theater despite the fact that only two filmmakers were in attendance.

statue

Despite Oklahoma’s well-known primitive stances on human rights issues like gay marriage and the gleeful ignorance of some of their highest elected officials, it’s clear that some strong civic voices in the state are pushing back in an effort to build a community which is representative of the 21st Century.  This has begun with a successful urban renewal project that includes renovated parks, a river walk in the style of San Antonio, a botanical garden and arts outreach programs.

Not insignificantly, the festival inaugurated an “Equality” program this year.  A few of these films were produced regionally.  The entire program, especially the the local films and moreover the audience response was moving.  It gives hope that universal access to equal rights under the law may not be as far down the pipe as certain lawmakers would like.

library

The projection and venues (I was in three venues and six screens -the Festival taking over half of well-run multiplex) were all good.  The library, pictured above, had a fairly small screen in a very nice lecture hall and the blu-ray image spilled off it.  Despite that the environment was appropriate for “Out of Print” -a documentary on books and their future.  That film, edited by the always brilliant Tom Patterson, took the “Best Documentary” prize in a field that included some very stiff competition.

party

There were jam-packed parties every night in different locations.  But I’m old and they were too loud and too crowded so I didn’t spend much time at any.  The kids would have loved them.

I had a good time, met some great people and saw some exceptional work.  This is definitely a festival for serious film makers.  A more than worthwhile experience.

The Long Silence

We get (hopefully) frequent calls about prospective work.

Often these potential clients will want something for nothing before committing to the contract.  This might simply be a detailed budget and creative treatment or it could be as much as a bit of animation.

We’re always happy to prepare creative briefs and business plans, very seldom will we do “test” animation.  It happens, I guess, maybe every couple of years if the stars are properly aligned.  We’ve done pre-contract tests for a fee.  This makes sense for both parties.   After all, a “test” under compromised budget conditions won’t give an accurate representation of what the ultimate product will be.  Even a token amount can be sufficient to demonstrate greater ideas for a production.

There’s a middle ground of free development which we regularly walk before a job is awarded: the design.

Creating original artwork before an award can be difficult to avoid.  Sometimes you’re trying to make a sale, and it’s a minimal investment.  Sometimes the potential client pressures for it (I’ve found that roughly 90% of the people who pressure you for original artwork before a contract are questionably trustworthy).   Point to style references, past work, verbal descriptions -sometimes these come up short.

These are a couple drawings that Liesje Kraai did a few months back on a potential project.   Not only were these asked for, but we were even asked to make some revisions when they revised their prospectus.

NJOY_style_sketches05

 

Let it be noted that I think “whiteboard animation” is largely, uh, questionable from both a visual and narrative point of view.  “Whiteboard animation” was something they (for some reason) found interesting.  So we did our best to oblige.

NJOY_style_sketches06

Surprisingly, after barely acknowledging receipt of our 6 drawings, we never heard from the prospective client again.

Masks

A few weeks back we took a trip to Lancaster to photograph some Mexican masks for a Sesame Street project.

Bob Ibold, who runs Masks of the World has a fantastic collection and was extremely gracious in sharing it with us.

Here are few masks that didn’t make the film.

coolkid

 

This guy has a great face, but his beard was too long.  And we shouldn’t be encouraging beards.

cow

 

Looking at it now, the cow could’ve worked with some touch ups.  She’s a little on the worn side.

clown

 

Most of the masks we used came from Guerrero where there is still an active mask-making culture.  Many of the masks are made for the tourist trade, these are sometimes higher quality -and almost always more ornate -than the carnival masks like this one.

cat

 

This is a tourist mask.  Mirrors for the eyes.  Too heavy to wear.

redcat

 

This mask is from a different region (Hidalgo?).  We wanted to use him in the Sesame film, but we all felt this coyote was a little devilish.

basement