Friday, October 3, 2014

Words of Advice from Ishu Patel.

Words of Advice from master animator Ishu Patel. These sage words first appeared in an article by Nikita Banerjee Bhagat in "Animation Reporter". Read the full article here. Mr. Patel quite openly tells about his research and production process. Each of his films is a unique innovative exploration of technique, held together by thematic exploration.

Here's hoping I can convince myself to follow this advice!

For those who are determined to go forward on their own, I would give the following suggestions when making a personal, experimental, independent film: 
1. If you plan to create your personal film using only software, avoid being “used” by the limits and look of the software, and instead put together original organic images using the software solely as the digital vehicle, much as celluloid film was used as the “vehicle”.
In other words, protect your creative process from the pre-determined results of a powerful piece of software. Lots of animators are now creating “under-the-camera” animation using SLR still digital cameras mounted above the artwork to capture the images. Appropriate software then makes it possible to pull it altogether as a film. The results are stunning.

2. Put your maximum effort into pre-production concepts, visuals, story boards, and make many animation tests before committing yourself. Don’t fall in love with your first efforts, rework it all, and often.

3. Don’t be satisfied with making a “thin” film, strive for richness, for levels. Push the boundaries of your music and sound ideas,your visual ideas, and even the concept itself. Completing a film is such a massively long and painstaking project, that you want it to be brilliant when it is finished.

4. Don’t be influenced by recent trends, software capabilities, TV shows, cartoon characters, etc. Go to the Primary Source – your own experience, thoughts and instincts.

5. When you are in production, turn off your cell phone, put up a firewall against intrusion of any kind and finish a full day’s work at one time, rather than interrupting your day to run errands. Be your own watch dog, be-cause no one else will be. No multitasking. Your mantra, written above your work table, can be, “Work hard. Talk less.”

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Painted Pixels, Shifting Sands

Dear Friends,

Please join me for the opening of my first solo show on February 1, 2014 at the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center in Big Sky, MT.

The evening will include a gallery, talk, live sand animation demonstration and film screenings in the shiny new theater. It is open to the public, so invite your friends!

The show will be up until February 15th, so if you can't make it to the opening, drop into the gallery and check it out.

More details here:

Thursday, December 19, 2013

2013 in Review

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the sandy animator!

It has been a year full of fluid frames. In recap, I would love to share some of my favorite projects from 2013. Above is the annual Christmas greeting from Women of Vision. If you are in a hoiliday sort of mood, you can see the past year's cards on Vimeo.

A Tangled Tale goes online!

The sandy fish from "A Tangled Tale" have been swimming around the globe to festivals far and wide and finally came to rest online for public viewing. I had the great joy of travelling to Annecy, Hamburg, Vienna, Palm Springs, Brooklyn, Napa and South Dakota with the film. It's been a jet setting year!

Hana Sasaki makes her debut.

Kelly Luce is a dear friend from the MacDowell Colony. We have weathered power-outages, falling trees, kiwi parades and Japanese interviews together. Kelly released her debut collection of fantastic short stories this year and I was so pleased to create her book trailer.

Postcards from the Chilkoot 

In 1898 thousands of gold-hungry men and women flocked over Chilkoot Pass to get to the Yukon goldfields. In 2012, I hiked the trail as Artist-in-Residence on the Chilkoot Trail. Here are a few memories of the trail.

More exciting things are in the works for 2014. Until then, have an animated holiday season!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Animation on the Range - SoDak Animation Festival Review

If you want to draw a bunch of animators to a small college town on the eastern edge of South Dakota, the most compelling enticement is obviously pie and ice cream. SoDak Animation Festival in Brookings, SD, knows the straight path to my heart.

The festival is the combined effort of animator and professor Cable Hardin and the enthusiastic animation students at SDSU. In the middle of endless fields of corn and soy, the local and student community gathers to celebrate visiting animators and their films from around the world, culminating in the presentation of the Golden Cowbell Awards.

Pie at Lange's Cafe
Brookings is not an easy place to get to, but those who make the effort will be welcomed with MidWestern hospitality. This festival really has its heart in the right place. Cable Hardin, the festival’s founder and head of the animation program at SDSU says, “Without the filmmakers present, it’s just a bunch of movies”.

100% of the (very reasonable) entry fees are collected in a filmmaker travel fund to help cover some of the travel costs for participants. This is so rare in the US and it’s a smart way to entice budget-conscious animators to make the trip to Brookings. Our small group of animators and festival guests were chauffeured around town by hard-working volunteers and treated to home cooked meals, local brews and a special outing across the prairie in search of pie and pipestone.

The Saturday animation workshop.
I know what this kid wants for Christmas.
I was on this year’s jury so I had the opportunity to see every film in the festival. The majority were solid pieces of filmmaking, mostly narrative and character driven with a few more experimental works thrown in to keep things spicy. Techniques varied from highly polished CG to traditional cel and stopmotion I could tell it was a program meant to be both enjoyed by the public and inspiring to the next generation of animators studying at SDSU. Only the family program lacked a high ratio of well-crafted animation eyesores. Kids don't seem to mind amateur stopmotion as long as there are fuzzy animals and dragons.

Aside from the winners, which are listed here, some of my favorite films were:
Astigmatismo by Nicolai Troshinsky
Beautiful, imaginative cut-out film with mind-blowing in-camera effects.
Dents de Lait by Julie Charette
Subtle observation of a young boy working through a great loss.
Khachaturian Meets Dali by Kirill Fessenko
As strange and wonderful as the surrealist himself.

Cody Walzel (Breadheads), Ann Mendenhall and Stephanie Son (Bird and Fish) were there in person to accept their awards, but as an extra special treat, the other award winners sent in some very creative acceptance speech videos, bringing a little bit of France, Taiwan, and London to the awards ceremony.

One of the things I enjoyed most was the panel discussion on All Things Animation. The other panelists were Steven Hunter from Pixar, Eric Say from NBC graphics division and Jeff Hayne at Mill Creek Entertainment. Sitting on comfortable couches in front of a full house, we had a lively discussion on our respective roles in the industry, fueled by an endless stream of questions from audience.
SDSU students animating sugar during the festival

The conversation was peppered with personal anecdotes from Steve’s work on Nemo, Incredibles and Brave, Jeff’s mission to revive his favorite childhood cartoons for modern audiences. Eric revealed that millions of Americans don’t know that their Monday Football experience is sometimes entirely dependent on an unathletic animator running down the hall with a tape seconds before broadcast. We spoke about commercialism vs. creativity, the changing nature of distribution and funding, risk-taking and balancing personal work with making money. The thoughtful questions and the stamina of the audience told me they truly appreciated the combined breadth of experience in front of them.
Thanks SoDak, for a great festival!

The evening ended with the presentation of cans of Thank You® Chocolate Pudding and packets of meat sticks from the campus meat lab (also home of the gummy bear brats) were nearly as good, especially when Steve tore open the meat sticks and began dipping them in the chocolate pudding. Mmmmmm… really, it wasn’t half bad.

If I have sparked your interest in SoDak, the FAQs on the festival website offer a further glimpse into the lighthearted spirit of SoDak. They are worth reading, just for kicks.

The festival is likely going biannual, so there will be no festival next year, but come 2015, don’t overlook this little gemstone in South Dakota. The ice cream really is amazing.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

What is this HATCH thing anyway?

HATCH is constantly redefining itself. 10 years ago it started in Bozeman, Montana as a film and music festival with a mentorship component and it has branched out into an an expansive canopy of creativity in a perpetual state of hatching. It is part TED-talk, part think tank, part summer camp for creative minds. It’s not exactly a conference and not exactly a festival, but after 10 years, it is settling into the undefinable HATCH Experience. I guess the reason we all have such trouble explaining it is because you really do have to experience it to fully grasp its significance. Now, after my second “HATCH Experience”, I feel I am starting to “get it”.

I used to have one of those kids chemistry sets. This is how I really learned the meaning of the word catalyst. I could mix a little of this and a little of that in a confined container, drop in a bit of another bit and something cool and unexpected would happen. Usually it involved changing colors, maybe some percolating bubbles. I always hoped for something really cataclysmic - like the giant bang and black cloud of smoke that would clear to reveal my with my hair standing on ends and a sooty ring around my safety goggles. Alas, that never happened in my parents’ garage, but it happens all the time at HATCH.

Our periodic table includes entrepreneurs, artists, hackers, inventors, CEOs, do-gooders, designers, groundbreakers… I could go on and on adding to the volatility of the HATCH identity. There are infinite opportunities for collaboration between HATCHers and equally infinite potential outcomes. All the guests are hand-picked by HATCH founder Yarrow Kraner, a mixture of creative success stories, untested “Groundbreakers” and local Montana innovators - a different mixture every year with no agenda other than to engage. We are, essentially, Yarrow’s human chemistry experiment.

The individuals who are invited to HATCH are all people who make stuff happen - whether on a daily basis or over years of struggle. Regardless, they are people with resumes. Yet remarkably, HATCH is an ego vacuum. I can’t say if it’s a “Check them at the door” scenario or if Yarrow has a sixth sense about ego-less people, but the four days are permeated with active listening, engaged networking, and sincere encouragement and mentorship. There’s no way to differentiate a keynote speaker from a local volunteer other than by spending some time in conversation. Impromptu collaborations abound with a tendency towards beta-testing crazy ideas on-site. For example, this year groundbreaker Nick Campbell set up an installation/performance of three electric guitars played by falling sand. I mean, why not?

I’m still mulling over the talks and conversations from the last few days, trying to glean every grain of effectiveness from my Hatch Experience. I am inspired by seeing so many people dive into an unknown entity with such abandon and it gives me much needed courage as an artist to keep forging on along my own path. Despite it’s ambiguity, HATCH is doing good in the world. It is worth supporting. And if an invitation ever happens to drop into your inbox, dive in recklessly. You won’t regret it!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Animation Block Party - Festival Review

The United States has long been in need of a professional, internationally-minded animation festival. What better potential to fill this role could a festival have, than being located in one of the most accessible and international cities in the US, New York? The Animation Block Party is, according to its website, “the premier animation festival on the East Coast”. It’s also the only animation festival on the East Coast, and while there were some very enjoyable moments to my visit this past July, I can’t in good faith recommend any animator that isn’t local to spend the effort and money to attend.

The festival is centered in one of the creative hotbeds of animation, Brooklyn, NY, where many independent artists, designers, and fashion-conscious hipsters call home. From the bit of festival history I knew and the programmer’s choices, I gathered that the festival was a bit “bootstrappy”, with a crew of volunteers and a hearty focus on their local crowd. All this could have the makings of a vibrant, small festival. However, there were a couple red flags. One was the somewhat hasty and impersonal nature of the correspondence surrounding my festival acceptance and attendance. Emails lacked critical details, like the addresses of festival venues, which made figuring out how to get around unfamiliar Brooklyn a bit of a headache. No help with finding accommodation was offered, which made me think that the festival really didn’t expect out-of-town visitors to bother. Also, I found out that some of the established movers-and-shakers of the NY animation scene, like Bill Plympton, Signe Baumane and Amid Amidi*, don’t bother to support the festival with their attendance. But, since I like any excuse to visit to New York, I decided to go and see for myself.

The first serious criticism I have for ABP is that they do not offer filmmakers a festival pass. My film was in competition and the festival offered me 2 free tickets to my Saturday afternoon screening, which also included entry to the party that night. I was also invited to the special filmmakers meet-n-greet mimosa brunch. That all sounds very nice in writing, but the brunch consisted of Dunkin’ Donuts and mimosas at a trendy clothing store in Brooklyn. Oh, and the trendy clothing store happened to be having “Mimosa Saturday” at all their locations around the city that day. As I tried to avoid spilling my free mimosa on the neatly folded $30 T-shirts surrounding me, I couldn’t help feeling like we were a group of freeloading college students instead of professional filmmakers networking at a festival.

Back to the lack of a festival pass. I can understand that a festival has a budget, especially in a place like Brooklyn where venue fees must be killer. There were plenty of local films programmed in the festival, and maybe ABP was worried about lost revenue if they gave all these locals free passes. But the practical result of me not having a festival pass was that I didn’t actually go to the festival. I went to my screening and bought tickets to another screening for me and my guest. A few of the other screenings looked interesting, but for the two of us, the price tag quickly became too high.

There is nothing wrong with low-budget. I’ve been to grassroots film festivals. I’ve stayed in people’s homes, watched a DVD copy of my film crappy projectors in a school auditorium and thoroughly enjoyed the enthusiasm of a small crowd of film-lovers. At those festivals I feel like everyone appreciates the creative work that goes into making a film and having a filmmaker present is a privilege. At ABP I felt like I was an expendable commodity. There was no Q and A or even a stand-up-and-bow for any of the attending filmmakers. I’m pretty sure the festival could’ve cared less that I was there.

Because I didn’t actually go to much of the festival, I can’t speak with authority on the quality of the films. The first night, an outdoor screening of shorts, was jointly sponsored by the incredibly popular Rooftop Films Summer screening series. The line-up was full of strong films, including some festival award winners like Dan Sousa’s Feral, and Ainslie Henderson's I Am Tom Moody. I also really enjoyed Kalte by Reda Bartkute and Passer, Passer by Louis Morton. I left the screening with high hopes that this trend of high-quality animation would continue. The second screening I attended disappointed me because about half the films lacked a sophisticated application of the principles of good motion. There seem to be many, many designers and artists who are getting into animation without fully understanding that is is the art of movement. Having a pretty design that moves is not the same as carefully choreographed and patiently executed movement. More and more often at festivals I feel like I am sitting through a series of glorified Powerpoint presentations.

However, what really shattered my experience of ABP was watching my own film at the festival. There is no better way to destroy a filmmakers spirit than to completely ruin her work of art before a public audience and make no apology.

How do I begin to explain how terrible the film looked? If you took a polaroid of a Picasso, then printed it in a newspaper and THEN blew that image up to a wall-sized print, that might come close to the degradation my film suffered. There were so many compression artifacts the credits were illegible.
How my sand fish felt after Animation Block Party

After the screening I cornered Casey, the festival director and asked him to explain what could possibly have gone wrong. He said they probably took the DVD submission copy of the film, recompressed it to a new format and then blew it up to DCP. What??? I asked him why the festival didn’t request an HD file from which to make the DCP. His response was, “Well, I think we sent an email out at some point and if we didn’t hear from you we just used the submission copy.” I went back and checked my ABP email thread and spam folder for that email and found nothing. I also asked every filmmaker I talked to that night, and none could recall such an email (and several were worried about what their films were going to look like since they had not sent in a replacement copy either). There was no follow-up, no cross checking and seemingly no one technically savvy enough to look at what was going up on the screen and realize it was sub-par. My film was not the only one that looked degraded and compressed.

Casey’s brief apology was hardly reassuring that something like this would not happen again, “Well, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Most people probably didn’t even notice.” After the festival, I tried to follow up with an email to him, in hopes of washing out the bad taste in my mouth (I really want to like ABP!), but received no response.

After the screening I was so steamed up that any thought of going to see another show was out of the question. My husband and I got a beer and late lunch, then walked to Prospect Park for the rest of the day. By the time the evening party rolled around, I had cooled off enough to want to talk to some of the other animators and compare experiences.

Adding a corpse flower to the communal drawing wall.
And  this, at least, lets me end on a positive note. Brooklyn does know how to construct a unique party, and the 10th Anniversary Party at the BAM Fischer had a casual throwback atmosphere reminiscent of a G-rated frat party. Carnival games, a 10ft long foosball table, 4-person Pacman, and a massive drawing wall were all clearly designed to bring strangers and friends together and break the ice. Someone must have run to Costco for the party food, which included, giant bowls of Doritos and Cheetos, chocolate covered pretzels and those irresistible brownie bites. The real ice-breakers were the bottomless mixed drinks by Brooklyn Gin and Brooklyn Brewery. One thing the festival did get right was their sponsors. There was a decent crowd and some decent conversations to be had. We didn’t stick around long enough to see if the DJ (or drinks) would eventually draw people to the dance floor. We were too eager to ride our CityBikes back to Williamsburg and hang out with some old friends.

In summary, perhaps my experience a ABP was just a fluke, but I will think twice not only about attending, but about sending them my films in the future. ABP is not anywhere near the premier animation festival our country needs. The animation industry in the US is so large and our geography is so expansive, is it unrealistic to hope for a gathering place where animators can intermingle professionally? We may not have the right culture to create an Annecy or an Ottawa within our borders, but I hope there is still room for defining our own quality forum for the independent voices of animators.

*CORRECTION Amid Amidi has expressed his support for the festival and its intentions, explaining his absence in the comments.