Monday, September 29, 2008

Playoff Season

On the same day the Mets again squandered their playoff hopes -karmic retribution to the fans for making those dozen games at Veterans' Stadium in 1986 so unpleasant, the fabric of time shredded -twisting Fort Tryon Park in Upper Manhattan back to the 13th Century.

Traffic was frozen with people flocking to the last game at Shea, maybe just folks honking and beeping their way to Inwood and the Middle Ages.

Way back in the 20th Century I went to "Medieval Times" in New Jersey with a bunch of folks for Greg Fiering's birthday. Traffic was tough that day, too. Especially in the back of Aaron Cantor's van. We meshed not only with families looking for Robin Hood style feasts, but with legion New York Football Giants fans going to and from the Meadowlands (hopefully to witness their team face a crushing defeat).

At "Medieval Times" I learned that only vegetarians had utensils (and edible food) in days of yore. Everyone else just ate one big turkey leg.

Participating in Medieval Fayres is akin to Civil War re-enactments or roleplaying games. These occasions defy time. To varying degrees, they remove the player from our current temporal situation and put them into an alternate time frame- one in which all the events leading up to this point are nullified.

Sporting events defy time in a different manner. Most are tied to a clock, giving seconds an almost physical value- football, basketball, soccer, hockey all fall into this category. Time becomes a commodity.

Even in games with commodified time there is space heighten the power of the moment or remove the experience from chronology entirely- the basketball free throw, the time out, the various strategies of football coach to slow down or speed up the game. These events attract us, in part, for their ritualistic nature and their bubble-enclosed manipulation of the clock.

The experience in the stadium effects the attendants in fundamentally the same way as a church goer; not through identification and catharsis, not through the communal experience -but with the denial and restructuring of time as it becomes manipulated into what can be called "sacred space".

This is most evident in clock-free games -tennis, golf, baseball. Especially baseball with its loping pauses punctuated by moments of action, a game absolves the spectator from ticking of ordinary time and imposes a free form structure of 54 "outs" on the clock. Each of these "outs" contain at least one instance of (for lack of better word) conflict in which time is further magnified and taken further outside of chronology. With a full count, bases loaded and the game on the line the relationship between the pitcher and the batter intensifies. It may only be ten seconds of "real time" but within the confines of the game it could last all night. The game has moved from "Chronos", normal time, to "Kairos", time outside of time -time for reflection, time for god.

Our sense of this exceptional time, Kairos, was developed with theater. Theater rose as a religious ritual. The Middle Ages gave form to "Morality Plays" like The Castle of Perseverance, Noah's Flood (later made into an opera for children by Benjamin Britten), and Everyman. These trickled down the timeline into Shakespeare and the Renaissance writers -to Mozart on to Wagner and ultimately influenced the psychological framework of the motion picture.

All of that brings us to animation -the ultimate time outside of time, as a creator anyway. When animating, time become quantified -like in a football game. Each fraction of a second has a value. More than that, the animator takes themself outside the flow of Chronos in order to explore the nature of movement and gesture. This communion with time is similar to the pitcher/batter dual in which a fraction of second takes on the weight of a lifetime.

Here also lies the fundamental distinction between animation, puppetry (many forms of CGI) and motion graphics -animation is made outside of time, where the animator controls each tick of the clock; motion graphics are made by setting gestures on a stop watch and letting them flow into one another in real time.

The Stay Puft Marshmellow man was a guy in a latex suit, but if he were made stop motion -he'd be pure Kairos -a perfect partner for Gozer, even Ghostbusters gods exist outside of chronological time.

These photos don't fit the subject of the post, but I like them. Meat pies! No forks for meateaters.

In Ye Olde Tymes pissed off looking birds were a-plenty. Murray the Cat gives me this look a lot, too.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Trees! or The Longest Entry Yet!

We've done several projects with rock-n-roll ├╝bergroup "They Might Be Giants" starting with a film to the song "Dr. Worm" for Nickelodeon's Ka-Blam! all the way back in the 20th Century.

Most of them are pretty lousy, but two count as the only two pieces we've done that I actually like.

The recent Kim Deitch show at MoCCA reminded me how, a couple years back we were asked to do some work for They Might Be Giants Venue Songs DVD. They sent us the "Yes"-inspired track and asked for our thoughts.

We didn't want to go the Roger Dean direction (although looking at his work now I can see the merit of that approach -the work doesn't strike the pace we were looking for). But we wanted to keep it kind of trippy and kind of make a nod to the early 70s and most of all make it possible to produce for the pack of bubble gum and ball of rubber bands we were getting paid with.

So I called up Kim Deitch and pleaded our case. I drew up a really crappy storyboard and went to visit him with our reel and a basket of good intentions. Surprisingly he agreed to do it -with minimal conditions. 1) he got to keep any artwork he created -no problem 2) he drew the storyboard -even better.

Next we had to find an animator. The plan was to have Tony Eastman do it. Tony and Kim were childhood friends -both of their fathers were instrumental figures in UPA's heyday. So I was gambling on that to get him to do it for a couple sticks of bubble gum. But Tony's a smart guy and he knew how much work it would be and had much better things to do with his time.

So I called up Suzan Pitt and asked for recommendations. There was a scene in El Doctor that had a few dozen babies bouncing all over with the sort of rubber hose-inspired animation that Kim Deitch's "Waldo the Cat" asked for. That animator, Gerard Goulet, turns out to have also done the rubber hose ladies of Triplettes of Belleville, and all of the pigeons in "The Old Lady and the Pigeons".

(above) Gerard was the AD on Triplettes of Belleville and animated the rubber hose stuff.

He was more than happy to help out. But he lives in Montreal and a Chinatown bus ride would wipe up most of the budget, so we worked remotely. I sent him model packs, layouts, timed exposure sheets, etc. Pretty much the same as working with Tony from his Connecticut home, or Doug Compton in New Jersey, or Tissa David on the Upper East Side.

(above) Layout test

About six weeks later he sends the animation keys back. The work was rougher than I'm used to with maybe 5 inbetweens or more between some drawings (working with guys like Ed Smith really spoil a producer), but the animation was so nice and the camera in the first scene especially was so complex I was amazed anyone could do it.

(above) rough on Waldo

The assistants were Winnie Tom, Valerie Lisyansky, Christina Capozzi and Karen Squillaro. They inbetweened, did clean up, and helped out with the painting.

(above) Try giving this to a kid out of art school to figure out.

I did the compositing.

(above) AfterEffects project.

I tell people there are always a few ways to solve any problem or methodologies for getting something done. In reality, there's only one good way to composite drawn animation in AfterEffects.

Each drawing should stay its own file. If you have a sequence of drawings on the A level that run from 1 to 10 you'll should have 10 files in the folder named "A level". Do not, oh do not, combine them all into one file -unless you like to make an easy job difficult and potentially compromise the quality of your film.

Apart from technical reasons (file corruptablity, possible registration issues, simplicity of editing images/replacing/ignoring bad drawings, etc.) you're making a cartoon. The process should replicate the cel animation process as much as possible. Each "cel" should "exist" on its own.

You've got your "A level". Import it into AfterEffects as a sequence. Make sure your frame rate interpretation is the same as your composition. Drag the sequence into the composition.

Now you have one "piece of art" in the timeline for the entire "cel level". Use time remapping to sequence the art according to the exposure sheet. In many cases this becomes simple data entry. Frame 10 on the sheets calls for drawing 5 -go to frame 10 in the composition and type in 5. You can simplify this using linear keyframes (key drawing 1 on frame 1 and drawing 5 on frame 10 -voila! You're on twos!) or you can keyframe every frame on a hold if its a complicated exposure.

Repeat for every cel level.

I'll also make a composition called "build" or something. Here, it's just comp 1. This is the full raster size of the largest piece of art. That allows you to see everything while compositing.

After that, make a new composition, drag "build" into it, and set your framing and camera moves. Of course, you'll need to vary this if you're doing multiplane moves or anything that's not traditional drawn animation.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Sky Rings of the Mind

Here's a clipping from John Halas and Roger Manvell's 1970 book "Art in Movement".

I haven't seen any other reference to our friend Fred Mogubgub's film -not in any catalogs or reviews, certainly no film prints.

The methodology sounds like the process which results in the quality of his 1970s work we're familiar with. A multi-step production of layering in camera and intercutting media.

The design is the Chwast meets Steinberg look that was currency in the Nixon era. This type style has been resurrected in the last few years. It worked 40 years ago due to the rawness of the lettering and the juxtaposition of the colors -all individually muted from the limitations of the media and animation process, vibrancy developed through their interplay with one another. The clean edges and hot pinks we see today may be inspired by this Electric Company look, but present an aggressive style incompatible with the relaxed look the designs are based on.

Halas and Manvell's book is an interesting glimpse at the state of animation in 1970. It has bits on Carmen D'Avino, Japanese experimental animator Yoji Kuri, lots of folks from behind The Iron Curtain and even a few pages on Kubrick's work in 2001.

Friday, September 12, 2008

You Are What You Smoke

When I was a kid, my father would give me a dollar to go up to Shelly's Pharmacy and buy him a pack of Kool Menthols. Today that would be considered child abuse, I guess, and Shelly's would get picketed and shut down.

Shelly's has been shut down, I'm pretty sure. The woods that separated our apartment sized rowhouse from the drug store is now a full blown strip mall, and Shelly's from a one man pharmacy, to a seven store operation -now replaced by a Walgreen's or CVS or some other behemoth. Some corporation that would never sell a dutiful son cigarettes for his father.

My father passed a year ago today, on September 12, 2007 at age 55 after several months of cancer treatment.

We were about the same height, but you always remember great men as taller than they physically are.

There is much to say about him- about his life, his passing, about his ghosts that haunt corners of my conscience. But if he had to be summed up in a single word, easy: Kool.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Art Show - DOUBLE SHOT!!!!!

Who didn't love the "Double Shot" or the "Two for Tuesday" sets on classic FM radio?

At the very least you'd be guaranteed two songs in a row without commercial interruption. If it was a band you didn't like, you could safely tune out for five minutes and if it was -well, isn't that what washing the car on the weekend or playing cards in the back yard is all about?

TOMORROW, Friday September 12th 2008 we're going to have work featured in not just one -but two, yes two, fancy establishments of art showing.

First The Society of Illustrators is opening Politics 2008.

This will feature several of our "Naked Campaign" pieces for The New Yorker, as well as original art from the series -including a three foot inflatable globe with John McCain painted into it.

Moving downtown, The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) will be hosting a retrospective on Kim Deitch.

We did a short film with him for They Might Be Giants a couple years back. It'll be showing along with a promotional film John Kuramoto made for "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and a five minute film he made with his brothers and Tony Eastman when they were toddlers.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Last Days of Coney Island

The animation industry is loaded with coaster enthusiasts and sentimental folks who think the bygone of days of childhood were infinitely more magical than the grown-up here-and-now.

This weekend the crocodiles shed another tear as Coney Island's "Astroland" closed down for what looks to be the last time.

(above) No tickets here.

Saturday, braving Tropical Storm Hanna's approach, I took a final visit to the boardwalk attraction.

I'm not going wail over the "great loss" of "national treasure". I go to Coney Island two or three times a year, and honestly, I think the community and the beach will be better without the low rent, beaten down attractions.

Attractions like the "Topspin" are "fun" for their kitsch value and little more. Exchange the airbrushed Hulk Hogan for a perfectly rendered Donald Duck -how much charm does it hold? Is it something worth saving?

The rides in Astroland -like the Himalaya (above) or the Break Dance -played loud, joyless "dance" music. The decorations were fun (in a kitschy way). The evil pink creatures and their orange sidekick -godless offspring of jungle beasts and Japanese children's cartoons -even they don't seem to enjoy the amusements.

Astroland had a weirdness that sometimes went beyond kitsch- the giant apple face overlooks the kiddie caterpillar ride. There's clearly an "Alice in Wonderland" inspiration here, the scale of it much more pleasing than an overblown Disneyland attraction.

Note: The Wonder Wheel lurking in the background is landmarked and will continue to operate.

(above) The world would be better with trashcans like this on every corner.

When I was child in North East Philadelphia, the athletic club would sponsor a traveling carnival. It towed a dozen or so rides, scary shacks, dart games onto the ball fields bringing with them a visceral, palpable excitement. Here was something new come into our world, here was the chance to meet kids from half a mile away, the opportunity to cross paths with exotic strangers. All of the swing rides and coin pushes never added to half the fun that the mere anticipation of the carnival held.

(above) The Hydra from the scary house.

After Astroland is gone, luxury condos will most likely rise in its place. That's the way of New York City.

Maybe that'll clean up the beach -which is riddled with broken glass, soda cups, and the litter of sad-sack junkies.

Maybe the razing of Astroland will spark the revival of Coney Island as destination for middle-class New Yorkers who don't want to walk through grime and carnies to bring their kids to a public beach.

The rest of the city should adopt the signage of the "hoop shoot hustlers" of Astroland.

The robot looks like Lauren Weinstein's robot.

For many years Abetta, a garage on E. 1st Street and First Avenue in Manhattan had a sorry spray paint mural of Bart Simpson wearing a welding mask saying "Boiler Man, Dude!". It was great piece of urban color. Where was the outrage when 5 star restaurants and high priced apartments made him disappear?

* deference to Ralph Bakshi, whose film I hope transcends the undue sentimentality twentysomethings and other post-Baby Boomers have towards an amusement park that they never visited.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Moment of Death - Blurb/Review

Here's a blurb on "Moment of Death" from United Media syndicated columnist Kevin McDonough:

-- The "Explorer" (10 p.m., National Geographic) presentation "Moment of Death" presents a fascinating discussion about when we die, what happens to our cells, organs and consciousness while we are in the process of dying and invites conversation about near-death experiences and the nature of the soul.

In addition to provocative interviews with doctors, scientists and survivors, "Death" uses clever and often beautiful graphics and animation to make its points. Informative and thoughtful, this "Explorer" can even be called profound.

Monday, September 1, 2008



Airing Tuesday September 2, 2008 on National Geographic Channel at 10:00 PM

Part of National Geographic's Explorer series, Moment of Death investigates the medical history of death, our current definitions and experiences with it, and the possible future of death. Is it possible that one day only taxes will be certain?

We did several dozen shots, some animation, some graphics -all deadly!

Here's one, designed by Noella Borie, animated by Christina Riley:

We made this show with Mark Mannucci who contracted us to work on Curious -the show that netted us the Emmy nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Design and Art Direction for News and Documentaries.