Thursday, July 31, 2008

Naked Campaign - McGaffin

I'll admit, I'm not crazy about the content of this edition of The Naked Campaign for The New Yorker.

The art, as always, is great. The conceit, as usual, is great.

The imagery in the edition is some of our strongest and most cinematic.

The commentary, though, is a little weak and the excellence of the form masks that.

If you watch our earlier piece, Reality Bites, Brodner rightfully attacks the campaign coverage for focusing on stupid things -lapel pins, saluting the flag, late night misstatements, etc.

This was a sharp, smart film.

In our latest piece, we engage in the same "gotcha" reporting that we earlier condemned.

So McCain still says "Czechoslovakia", big deal. Most people over 30 do, even those of us who know the difference between Serbia and Montenegro. Does that really change anything about the way the guy would govern?

The greatest shame of this is that the graphic idea is great, I just think it was wasted on weaker content.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Moment of Death - Post One

Next time you find yourself looking forward to dying (like I do almost every second), consider that medical science doesn't really have a clear definition of death ---the one thing that is certain; its a process that may take as long as hours.

I imagine those long minutes stretch into years, much as the most complicated dreams happen in a few seconds.

Perhaps those minutes seem longer than our natural lives. Perhaps you're going through them right now.

Some of these questions are addressed in the upcoming National Geographic special "Moment of Death" (premieres September, 3).

We did a few dozen animation and effects shots, similar to our work for WNET/Thirteen's "Curious" but cooler.

One of the sequences is an illustration of a woman's "near death experience". We wanted to avoid the white limbo look often used to show these things, so we experimented with several looks.

above: Going for a Stan Brakhage inspired look, we painted on two inch artist tape.
This original piece of art is about 25 feet long.

above: This is another using footage of the actual Near Death Experiencer and give her a wispy, flowing brush line body.

Tune in September to see how the sequence finally turned out! (It doesn't use either of these treatments.)

Monday, July 28, 2008


Summer of 1989. I was taking Chemistry in summer school so I could take a History elective during the school year. Mr. Feighan's teaching method was to use his young son Keith as an example to every problem. That summer, Keith was obsessed with Batman.

He wasn't the only one. Every day Bill Leetch wore a different Batman T-Shirt to class (in summer school, there was no dress code, anything but a jacket and tie would get you immediately sent home in the regular year). So Mr. Feighan would rip on him for it, and so would all the other boys. We would all mock him, but really, the excitement we all a had for Batman was so thick that in the days leading up to the films release chemistry took a back seat to stories of Keith as Batman and speculation on how exciting the movie was going to be.

Even though I coolly feigned disinterest this whole time, I was there at midnight sitting between Dan Barry and Tom Palermo in a buzzing packed movie house. The anticipation was so great that even if Carly Simon popped out of the screen, pulled off her face to reveal Cthulu himself who in turn was destroyed by a flesh and blood Caped Crusader before our eyes we would have been disappointed.

Years later, I know its unfair to put those expectations on any work, least of all a men-in-tights chronicle. Tim Burton's film holds up as what it was meant to be -a good looking piece of fun, a piece for Jack Nicholson to chew the scenery, a vehicle for a soundtrack by Prince, and the kind of wholesome "Biff! Bang! Pow!" entertainment teenaged boys need on a hot summer night.

Now we've got Batman VI: The Dark Knight breaking box office records and turning critics to their thesauruses for superlatives. What is it about this picture that resonates with us at this moment?

The superhero movie should be a pretty easy thing to make. No explanation is necessary, not because of some Jungian collective or "hero with a thousand faces" that is wired into our thought systems -but because we've all seen it a thousand times. When we see Eastwood working his farm at the opening of "Unforgiven" we know his story, we know that he was a gunslinger and we know he's now an old man. We view this in the continuum of films and television we've seen thousand times. What makes "Unforgiven" extraordinary is how Eastwood uses that as a springboard to create not just one moving character in William Munney, but a whole cast of players who's parts elucidate dark corners of the human condition.

Beauty is a matter of size and order, and therefore impossible either (I) in a very minute creature, since our perception becomes indistinct as it approaches instantaneity; or (II) in a creature of vast size -one, say 1,000 miles long- as in that case, instead of the object being seen all at once, the unity and wholeness of it is lost to the the beholder.
Poetics, Chapter VII

Maybe it's unfair to critique a film whose middle 45 minutes were project while you were thinking "can I hold it much longer?". A film that you missed part of to take a hop into the men's room to prevent permanent bladder damage or a grown up version of first-grade public humiliation. This is why kid's films are 75 minutes -children have small bladders. Guys in tights = kid's film, right?

Apparently not.

In our cultural obsession with youth and childhood we have started to elevate the fantasies of childhood to the lingua franca of adult philosophies. Of course, teenage fantasies don't have the vocabulary to discuss the complex shadows of adult morality -everything is heroes and villains. It's a safe place for thinking, where it's easy to make a moral choice. The Dark Knight gestures towards these moral shadows but still portrays them with shining absolutes.

Its big screen adaptation of the Milgram Experiment shows that whatever choice you make, ultimately a masked man will save the day. That the choice between saving two people in jeopardy comes down to saving both as long as your team can get there fast enough. And ultimately, that the most righteous man alive will always be the most righteous man alive -until he isn't, then he's bad to the flesh burnt bone.

Maybe this is why the film is so critically and financially successful. We like these overt gestures towards moral ambiguity -that makes it seem adult, but love the essential dichotomy of right and wrong -that comforts us in our age of uncertainty and tumult. Maybe this is why Heath Ledger's Joker has been getting such well-deserved praised -he's a character that, for a time, stands outside the film's system of black and white. But even he, ultimately, is turned pure "bad". Chaos, it turns out, is public enemy number one in Gotham and that's what the Joker loves.

Chaos, it turns out, is what the audiences love too. It what we love as teenagers, turning up the stereo too loud, staying out past curfew, and sneaking wine coolers down to the railroad tracks.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Zip! Bow! Wow!

I've been meaning to post a review of Batman even though I haven't seen it yet, but I haven't gotten around to making up anything good.

Hopefully next week, I might even see it by that time. I'm really looking forward to some nice "POW!" "BANG!" "POP!" graphics for the fight scenes.

So I haven't seen Batman, unlike the rest of America. Partially, because I don't really care about men in tights all that much. When I see a superhero picture I like to moazy on in after a grueling day of making schedules and budgets for jobs that never happen. If a movie is sold out days in advance, it's unlikely that I'll be a ticket holder.

The other reason is that we're pretty busy.

Above is a logo animation we made for On The Leesh, an independent production company run by awesome people. A couple years back we did the titles to their short "What Are The Odds?" (below)

If you get past the crappy, crappy YouTube compression, you'll see some pretty nice animation by Ed Smith. Ed has an encyclopedia of great talents as an animator. Under the letter "D" is "dog". I've never seen anybody animate dogs -all shapes, sizes and varieties -with such personality and skill.

The "On The Leesh" logo was animated by Christina Riley. She does a good with dogs too (even though its hard to compete with Ed Smith). The dog's playfulness with the film is "realistic" and he's got a fluid energy.

One thing that's tough about this type of design -and Flash animation in general -is the difficulty of tracebacks. In frames 40 through 50 of this animation, the dog's body is on hold while his tail wags. Given the energy of the character (and the furriness of the pup) you'd like a little bit of something going on with character. In a silhouette character, that redefines the shape and alters not only the mood of the character but can cause a jitter on feet and hands that makes the character slide.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Art Show

(above) On the Edge of the Woods, Saul Chernick

A few months back R. Sikoryak recommended art journalist/curator Jill Conner get in touch with us for a show she was curating.

She was putting together a show called Loaded at The Phatory on E. 9th Street featuring work by Saul Chernick and Ernest Concepcion. Both artists have strong figurative images and an almost aggressive form that is particularly fresh in today's gallery scene.

Anyhow, she wanted to put together a few nights of animation to bring folks into the show and put the paintings in a new context.

I don't claim that our work is "art" by any stretch of the imagination. We do commercial work and work for hire, I'm proud of the stuff we make but it is expressly not "art".

I was a great honor to be featured in the same show as guys like Saul Chernick and Ernest Concepcion as well as video pieces by Jim Torok, Brian Dewan and Brent Green.

Here's a shot of the show.

That's Jill's reflection in the window.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Award Season

I haven't won an award since taking back-to-back "Best Actor" in the Philadelphia Fire Prevention Play competitions of the early 1980s.

"Award-winning" is just too embarrassing an adjective. It's what people use when their work has obvious flaws -"but, hey, it got an ACE award".

By and large, we do commercial work. The award for these gigs is the paycheck and a job well done. They are created for a specific purpose -whether it's to illustrate a song, teach a kid how to use the potty, or sell toothpaste. Beyond executing that purpose, there's no call for further acclaim.

With that preface, our work for WNET/Thirteen's mini-series "Curious" has just been nominated for an Emmy in "Outstanding Individual Achievement in a Craft: Graphic Design and Art Direction".

I'm glad they liked the work enough to nominate it. It's a really interesting show and has a lot personal resonance for me.

Here's the link
to their press release.

This is one of our favorite clips from the show:

In an upcoming post I'll explain how it was done.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Social Scene

The closer to depressed I get, the more I go out.

The more I go out, the closer to depressed I get.

This wicked spiral must be twirling beyond control to go out with animation folks. But the short notice visit of the lovely and charming Heather Kenyon from California was enough to get me out. To Bleecker Street, no less.

When I actually socialize with animation folks, its pretty fun despite the stigma.

Maybe it was just a good crew on Friday.

(above) from left Justin Simonich, Xeth Feinberg, David Levy (too fast for the lens), Heather Kenyon, Will Krause.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Summer Reels

Not to brag, but if there was a Nobel Prize for sample reel our DVD would be on the short list.

The content, I think, is pretty good but the form is what makes it great.

For the past year, we've been making seasonal reels. Since the high days of summer are upon us, I thought I'd share the centerpiece of our DVD.

A sample reel has to do several things. First, it has to display your work. If it doesn't do that one thing its useless. As a production company, that makes building a reel easier, because our work is the whole process. The process is encapsulated in the end product, so we can just show finished pieces.

In addition to showing your work, the sample reel has to tell people who you are. It needs to show your voice as a craftsman and individual.

For example, our DVD is very musical. We have several menus with different soundtracks. These selections offer an insight into our company's personality.

The design of our disk is uniform. Every part is coordinated with every other -the cover, the insert, the label, the menus. These all match the website, too.

The content of the disk is presented in a clever but not a difficult or obscure way. This encapsulates how our studio works when its functioning well. Personally, I don't mind being difficult or obscure. Brian tempers my urge (part laziness, part optimism) to keep things complicated, and our artists contribute points of view and ideas that help bridge the barrier between complexity and simplicity.

If anybody would like a copy of the full DVD, send me a note and we'll drop one in the mail.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


I can't draw.

Too bad, because I think I could be a decent animator if I could.

Just as a my inability to draw hasn't stopped me from trying to animate (let's face it, 80% of animation is just tracing anyway) it doesn't stop me from keeping sketchbooks either.

Last week I found an old notebook in a drawer. The book is about 3 inches by 5 inches, I could use that as an excuse for the crudeness of the drawing...

I can tell it's around ten years old because there are notes for the Hockey Monkey shoot and an address for Ivan Abel in Malacky, Slovakia.

There are lists and notes on meetings and ideas and poems and most importantly pages upon pages like these:

(above) Before Meerkat Manor there were lemurs. I probably saw a National Geographic story while Kris Kross was on the radio.

(above) One of probably hundreds of pages of cats. This is from before I lived with Murray the Cat. Now all the cats wear boxing gloves.

(above) Upon close inspection you'll see that the pig is wearing what appears to be a badge. What's he saying to the fox? Is that taxi? Does it have lasers for headlights? I wish I knew what I was thinking.

(above) "Law" has some sort of --thing --on his head.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Up On The Roof

Sunday To Do List:

Finish rough storyboard for music video: check
Contact sheet and schedule for Comedy Central: check
Prepare reel for Monday meeting: check

Go up to the roof and take pictures:

(above) This one's for the tourists. Notice the Chrysler Building in the back, whispering "I'm the real star of the skyline". The water towers bellow "Not so fast, it's us".

(also note, I'm not such a bad photographer. The sky isn't overexposed -it was really this gray and overcast).

(above) Soon all the great structures of New York -like the Con Ed building on 23rd Street -will be obscured by high-rise condominiums. Sixth Avenue has been transformed in the past five years by these Soviet-style architectural monsters. The disease is spreading down 28th Street.

(above) Will the capitol of our new neighbor be adorned with white-glazed terra cotta?

(above) Water tower village.

The Drifter's song "Under the Boardwalk" was bigger hit than "Up on the Roof" even though they can be easily confused musically.

"Under the Boardwalk", lyrically, is complete fantasy. Maybe this wasn't the case in 1964, but by the time I was born the subterranean side of the boardwalk was populated with addicts and lunatics. You picture someone dragging a drunken girl down there to strangle, not to lovingly caress.

Its significant of an urban/suburban cultural divide. We use music, in part, as an escape. The suburban bourgeoisies (how ironic) that populate much of America are drawn to the fantasy created in "Under The Boardwalk" and ignore the frightening reality of the lyrics.

If you've lived in New York, however, "Up On The Roof" captures an emotional reality. The roof is a forbidden place. It's a magical escape. It's dangerous. It's beautiful. It puts you in the heart of the neighborhood, yet completely removed from it.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Call THAT macaroni

A day late for the anniversary of our independence from the Great Britain, my pal the very great Brian Dewan sings the oldest known version of "Yankee Doodle Dandy".

Brian, if you don't know, is an artist and musician. He plays tiny things like autoharp and big things like Crostwaite Musical Stones.

He's also responsible for the cover to They Might Be Giants' Lincoln and scads of other awesomeness -including the creation of homemade electronic instruments with his cousin Leon.

Enjoy your independence, Americans. Everyone else -take up arms in the name of Liberty!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Pro parva pro bono melior est

Imagine asking an electrician to fix the wiring in your house for free. Or calling the plumber to fix your backed up toilet out of the kindness of his heart. Or going to the supermarket and seeing what you can get for the grand fee of nothing.

These are things that people actually need to live in modern society. Nobody needs animation, we do it in large part to pay our electricity bills and pay for groceries. Ignoring the obvious and fundamental fact that even the simplest animation (at least when we do it) takes a lot of time, resources, and skills of highly trained individuals and just look at the plain economics of it. If you can't afford to buy a new 60 inch HDTV, don't buy it.

During the course of a seven day calendar week we get asked maybe three or four times to do something for nothing.

But your idea is going to be seen by hundreds of thousands of people, you say? Have each one them give you a dollar then we'll talk. It'll look great on our sample reel, you say? Have you seen our sample reel? Look in the Encyclopedia Brittanica under "awesome" it has it's own chapter.

Sometimes, for whatever reasons, we'll do some of this pro bono work. Whenever we've done it with someone who we don't know it's never worked out. Maybe it's because we don't care as much. Maybe its because we're used to dealing with professionals and professionals know that this is an expensive field and our time has value.

On that point, professionals will usually pony up some cash. It might not be a lot of money, but the simple gesture of paying makes a huge difference (and, hey, money changing hands makes it a legal transaction even without a contract).

Here's some art we did for an incredibly nice guy who wanted to add some animation to a short was doing for a gay activist organization.

He didn't have a lot of money to make the film, and needed to sell the idea to his sponsors. Like a pro, he figured out what he could afford and set aside a small piece of money for some designs to pitch to his client.

These are some (along with the one at the top) that we came up with.

Ultimately, they decided to keep animation out of the film. But they came to the decision based on actual designs that were created by professional artists and worked up in a professional way. Even though the animation didn't happen (and if it did the money would have barely covered production costs), it was a positive experience because the guy we were working with realized that our time and labor has value and budgeted his film accordingly.