Get Thee to the Library

I’m thinking of getting a driver’s license. That’s not to say I’ve never driven a car, but only a few times in questionable circumstances under the intense looming gloom of the surveillance state. I don’t know if you ever seen people driving in this country. They don’t know what they’re doing. And yet, licenses.

When I get my license, I plan to drive to Rockland County to visit Ed Smith.

Ed Smith (right) with Vincent Caffarelli, early 1990s image from http://www.michaelspornanimation.com/
Ed Smith (right) with Vincent Caffarelli, early 1990s
image from http://www.michaelspornanimation.com/

I told him this last month. He responded by telling me something that happened over half a century ago. John Hubley was moving to New York (from under the cloud of Hollywood McCarthyism). I found it hard to believe that a guy from Los Angeles hadn’t driven a car, even harder to believe that LA once had a state of the art public transit, but I’m writing the footnotes, just going with it. So Hub, he’s calls him “Hub”, rings up Ed and says “take me out driving”. So he does. I think there was a punchline here but I’ve forgotten it. To me, the point of the story is that Ed Smith is the guy you call when you something done.

I can’t yet drive a car, so a couple weeks back I took the bus to the New City Library to see some drawings of Ed’s they have on exhibit, and to visit with Ed who was there for the afternoon. He’ll be there again this Sunday April, 23rd. The man’s a brilliant treasure, seeing him is worth more than the bus ride.

Here’s a bit he wrote for the show.

“Scrambled Leggs – Or, ‘Life as I Know It,’ by Ed Smith

I created these drawings in ink directly from my mind to the paper without preplanning, research, models, or penciled-in guides. There are no erasures or white-outs.

Outside of my workaday animation, I tried to find my own style. I emulated other artists, but not to my satisfaction. As time went on, I continued my animation on other people’s projects. Much had to be done under pressure, demanding tremendous numbers of drawings and impossible deadlines. Often, I experienced long periods of unemployment. During and after these trying times, I relaxed by drawing. I found pleasure in doing so, not for a job but for myself.

Much later, when I look at them, I saw things in them which gave them more meaning and nuance than I had purposely planned. Perhaps the difficulties and forced efforts had relieved the pressure of the right side of the brain, the conscious guardian of thought, and allowed the left side, the creative side, to emerge.

Sometimes we think too much!

_________

This reminds me of my most re-told exchange with Ed. We were doing a commercial in the style of Ed Koren.

Ed Koren drawing

He sends in his animation -exquisite work. He had done every drawing, every little hair and line, in ink perfectly on model. No work left for an inbetweener or clean up artist. So I asked him, “You do all those little lines in ink without any underdrawing, what do you do when you make a mistake?”. “Well,” he replied, “I’ll let you know when that happens.”

A minute later he described the various techniques he used to salvage drawings. He threw most of them away. It’s not until now that I realize, twenty years and twenty recounts later, he understood that if one part of an animation drawing isn’t working the whole thing won’t work.

The New City Library is a quick drive, if you can drive, across the Tappan Zee Bridge or very nice Sunday trip via Rockland Coaches.

Cache Cache

Our friends Cache Cache will be presenting another evening of farm to table dinner and locally grown and harvested film this Sunday. (click through the link for tickets -you won’t regret it)

We’re making the opening title film for them.

Here’s a peek at the first scene.

We still have a few more shots to go, but we should have it finished by the dinner bell on Sunday.

Build America

chalkboard animation

This spot went live last week.

We did it with the good folks at Fly Communications.

Build America Mutual “Blackboard” from Ace & Son MPC, LLC on Vimeo.

We animated the chalkboard stuff IRL (in real life, if you don’t know) capturing into Dragonframe and ultimately having it composited with the kids in AfterEffects.

Kelsey Stark drew everything. We figured the timing out first and had the help of a projector to make some of the trickier scenes less trick. Just like The Sistine Chapel.

Behind the Curtain

We’ve had the great fortune over the past years to work on a few dozen projects.  Some small, some long, some under-financed, some grossly under-financed.  We haven’t yet been forced into taking on work out of desperation (but if someone calls up with some extra zeros on the start up check, we’ll consider it), and such it’s been a privilege to make contributions on just about everything we’ve been contracted.

Sometimes, though, working on a project -you step back and arc of the work bending towards greater places than you could have imagined.

For the past several months we’ve been working on a series of oral histories chronicling the lives of a family displaced for their homes in Eastern Poland by at the onset of the Second World War.

Kelsey Stark drew this layout.  It became superfluous in the edit and was never animated.
Kelsey Stark drew this layout. It became superfluous in the edit and was never animated.

 

Sarah Kamaras is producing and directing the films about her family.  She made this “behind the scenes” video which is pretty good despite the questionable character of its cast.

A Look Behind the Animation: “The Podkamieners” from Sarah Kamaras on Vimeo.


 

What I Liked About Mike

I would never call Michael Sporn that -“Mike”. Other people did, and he seemed to have no problem with it but to me its like calling a high school teacher by their first name after graduation.

Last month I bought a new guitar tuner. Now, I’m worse at guitar playing than I am at drawing or animation but at least I try to stay in tune. The shop only carried one brand -“The Snark”. “Like the Lewis Carroll poem,” I said, and went into a lecture on doggerel which concluded with “and there’s an absolutely fantastic film of it by Michael Sporn.”
hunting-of-the-snark1
The next week I showed the film in class at University of the Arts.

It is a magnificent film.

Michael animated it himself and produced it over the course of several years. His cannon is full of excellent work but even amongst them “The Hunting of the Snark” stands out. The artist’s lyricism pervades the film, its lighthearted and whimsical but smart and emotional. It testifies to the power of a singular vision.

From my first encounters with him, I thought he was a cold guy -and I wasn’t crazy about some of the stuff he was doing at the time. We were both working on the same specials for the great Amy Schatz at HBO and I thought our stuff (directed by Maciek Albrecht and Santiago Cohen) was much better. And then I saw some of the work he did with Tissa David -“The Red Shoes”, “The Marzipan Pig” -and discovered that he was one heck of a filmmaker. Then I began to speak with him socially -not just about Letterman and John Hubley but film and literature -and learned that his coldness was shyness and that he was an unusually open and generous person.

He read more than anyone in animation. There’s no doubt in my mind to that. A book a night he once confessed, largely due to insomnia.

He was generous with knowledge.

He gave opportunities to young artists and kept alive the work of those who came before them.

He was tasteful and opinionated and didn’t mind when someone disagreed with him.

He built a legacy of beautiful, intelligent films and encouraged us all to do the same.

His friendship made me feel like I belonged in this world, like I had something to contribute.

I hope to contribute a small fraction of the good he brought to us all.

Christmas Storyboards

I’ve this great notebook for several years. I picked it up in London and have only used it off and on. It’s called the “Bushey” from Charles Roberson & Co. I can’t find a US reseller. While I done crazier thing than order a stack of sketchbooks to be shipped from across the ocean, I’m not sure if I have that store of crazy in me at the moment.

Anyway, I found these rough boards for “Sympathy for the Fish” when I was flipping through recently for blank pages.

It’s interesting for me to see how closely they resemble the end product.

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Kelsey Stark is largely responsible for the animation on this. She always brings a high measure of artistry to my crappy ideas.

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In making this film, we basically went from these drawings to slightly tighter boards cut against my voice track.

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I’m pretty sure I scribbled these boards on the subway -not that that’s any excuse for the lousy drawing.

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It’s a writing/script based film -though I think the images play an important role in working against the narration and adding information that’s not said -so the boards, by and large, stem from the script.

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Because of this, I had figured out the picture for the most part while writing.

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We only wound up cutting one antic with the doctor -in the board he picks up a few items before the wire cutter, ultimately it’s just the one.

model

These are some of my rough design concepts which Kelsey turned into something very nice.

We’ll have a new holiday themed film ready in a couple weeks.

2013 Ottawa International Animation Festival – Day One

An overriding excuse -I’ve been busy lately.  In bed at 3 am, out a 7 am (or later and earlier) kind of busy.  This, of course, is my own fault.  Trying to accommodate the world.

Multi-week sleep deprivation is a similar sensation to attending a film festival.  A soft cloud develops around your head, sunlight grows a sharpened edge, a long red light seems like a good time for a little nap.  Rollercoaster programming of a good festival, though, will make you angry and elated and raise you out of the even-keeled funk of the working world.

The festival in Ottawa unfurls so that it’s possible to be slowly drawn into the movie-haze unaware, in my current state I hit it in full fog.  The Television Animation Conference precedes the film programming by a day.  This is mostly dull stuff about animation as a product.  Movie making as money making, producing art as though it were manufacturing widgets.  But still, there is always something interesting.  Yesterday that was a panel that included Titmouse impresario Chris Prynowski.  His work as an animator is impressive and his studio produces work that exceeds the quality of any other making series for American television.  As a speaker he’s engaging and articulate.  He’s honest about the process and clearly know what he’s talking about.  A lot of people hide behind abstractions and broad figures when discussing work -it hints at a mere surface understanding of what it takes to make something.  Prynowski’s self-effacing discussion of the top to bottom details of his operation is possibly the most engaging thing I’ve seen at any TAC.

canadian-museum-of-nature

This year the event is being held at the Museum of Nature.  It’s a nice venue.  Cocktail parties surrounded by dinosaurs.

Two screenings in the evening: the French/Belgian feature “Approved for Adoption” and the competition shorts #1.

Approved for Adoption

It might be a new “thing” in European animation, and it’s not a good thing, to “toon shade” CGI models so they look like something from Xtranormal.com.  There was a short in competition that did the same thing.  It’s made even worse by the drawn sequences in the film that are generally pretty attractive (same is true for the short).

For me, the highlight film of the short program was Edmunds Jansons’ “Choir Tour.”  The story is no great shakes but the design and animation are both terrific.

choir-tour-003

 

The look utilizes contemporary drawing tools -likely Illustrator or Photoshop or some such thing in a pleasing and expressive fashion.  The animation is idiosyncratic and exploits the design.

Julia Pott’s “The Event” also ran.  There’s a lot to like about this film, and I’ve seen it several times.  It holds up (and in some ways improves) with repeat viewings.  I wish I could pinpoint why it leaves me a little cold.  It’s a good piece, though.  Strange to say, it felt a little out-of-place in the program.  Usually an apocalypse like this would be one of many in a competition selection- last night it felt like the only one.

Joanna Priestley’s “Split Ends” is attractive.  It feels like some of the graphics within it could form the basis of an interesting film.  She’s working in shape and abstraction to the point where they near representation.  Maybe this experiment will get pushed further in a future work.

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)

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:

c04drawing

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 to the Drawing Board

A film will generally work if there is a philosophy behind. If there’s a set ideas which define the approach. If the execution of those ideas corroborates the surface content.

image

I’m generally looking for methods of creating tactile work without generating too much landfill. That’s an aesthetic principle.

In this production about the jettisoning of the Articles of Confederation for
the U. S. Constitution, we thought it would be appropriate to put the chalkboard to use.

In part, it’s a play on Social Studies class, but fundamentally the approach suggests an important editorial content that plays with and underscores the content of the script. The Constitution was written with mutation in mind. It
was crafted to flex to the concerns of 13 distinct constituents (one of whom never even bothered to send delegates. Jefferson famously felt that every generation should craft its own governing documents.

More than its open structure and loose bounds on the social contract, the U. S. Constitution did not emerge from an Enlightenment-free vacuum. It was informed by many systems and orders and opinions that preceded it.

It’s like a chalkboard.