Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Avatar -A New Era of Cinema?

Read on below to see my additional comments.....

Well, almost everyone I know has been to see Avatar by now, James Cameron's new 'masterpiece' of futuristic, psychedelic, action-packed movie magic madness. So I can safely write about it without blowing any surprises for readers, (I hope) If you haven't seen it yet, I won't really give any of the story away here, so don't be afraid to read this...

I hesitate to say how much I really enjoyed this film because, well, it seems really fashionable for writers to be professional critics, and expose whatever flaws a movie might have. This film has plenty of flaws. What film doesn't? If you've tried directing a big budget blockbuster film lately, you know just how difficult it really is to even begin to approach 'perfection'. Something tells me, not many who read this will have directed any big budget films lately. He he....sure!

I love this movie.

And I've heard every conceivable bit of criticism you could possibly throw at it. But it's beautiful, it's even visionary. Regardless of the countless subtle ways it may have been improved, regardless of the occasional corny moments, or lame attempts at humor when it really didn't need it....

It's gorgeous, and flawlessly put together from a technical standpoint. I cannot remember one single scene that really stood out as far as anything not quite working. The character animation, the special effects animation, and the compositing is all so beautifully done, that it was easy for me to completely abandon my critical animation artist side, and just let go, fall in, and enjoy the ride.

This is just the beginning of this report....I have alot more to say about this film, stay posted!

Now I have actually seen this movie twice, as an incredible number of other people have done. I can hardly believe how many people I have spoken to are going back for seconds and even third viewings. Pretty phenomenal reaction to this film. Seems folks can't get enough!

Myself, I went to see AVATAR first in regular old-fashioned 2D mode. I wanted to watch it first as a regular movie, without the added distraction of the 3D glasses and effects. And that first viewing was extremely satisfying. I liked it far more than I expected to, and I was ready to go see it in 3D as soon as possible....

So I just got back from the 3D screening, and I actually have to say, I enjoyed it more without the 3D effect. Although the 3D is certainly fun, I still found it somewhat of a strain. It was distracting. It had many glorious moments, but overall it took me OUT of the story more, it really did. Surely everyone won't agree, but I urge you to watch it in 2D and see what you think. Something about the 3D glasses makes me feel like my eyes are straining a little bit, especially when there is a cut to a new scene, I found my eyes had to readjust for a few moments, and that distracted me severely a couple of times.

So I certainly can see cinema going more and more frequently with 3D, it is SO MUCH better than it used to be, and hopefully it will continue to get better. I am hoping to someday go to a 3D film and not feel that subtle eye strain. Only then will the 3D effect work 100% for me.

Back to the film itself.

You know, I am hearing so many people complain that the story is contrived, the whole 'Tree of Souls' thing is corny, they say, and the whole 'Save the Rainforest' idea has been done.

But this is our story people! The story of so called modern man, conquering the 'New World'. That is our legacy, that is who we are here in the new world, and if we don't learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. Telling this tale over and over, it is something that desperately needs to be done, lest we 'progress' ourselves right in to extinction! The idea that the 'undeveloped' countries of the world were inhabited by 'savages' that we needed to teach how to be 'civilized'. Folks, there is nothing civilized about what we have done all over the world, to indigenous peoples, and to nature itself. Civilizations who understand the delicate balance of nature around the globe, have been slaughtered and laid to waste, their history, culture and languages destroyed. They are the civilized ones! WE are the savages. No amount of technology and so called progress can mask the fact that we are ignorant, destructive savages, completely out of touch with what is really important in this miraculous journey we know as our lives.....

And we need to learn that. Now.

We are like lost babies, just like she says in Avatar....like stupid stumbling babies, with big guns to protect our fragile, misguided egos. We are an absolute mess, with all our glorious technology, we are just becoming more and more depressed, more and more disconnected from Life, Love and Truth. The more we surround ourselves with consumer gadgets and toys, the less we are able to wake up to the call of the wild.

Somewhere perhaps, in our futures, there is a place for technology and Love to work together, but technology without spiritual wisdom is a frightening dead end road, that is swallowing our souls. We all need to connect with the 'Tree of Souls' or we we will eventually see the beauty and magic of our natural world taken away from us and extinguished from our ability to perceive it, in a nightmare of darkness.

I see a film with a story like this as a clarion call for mankind to wake the hell up. Exploitation of resources and billions spent on developing bigger better weapons to protect us from ourselves.....in our hearts and souls, we know where it will take us. Reformat your hard drives into the tree of souls people. Unplug the iPod and listen to the wind.....

James Cameron is just trying to remind us that the alarm clock is going off, and it's time to wake up!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

R.I.P. Roy Disney

Today marked the passing of Roy Disney, Walt's nephew, and the last truly great man (as far as I'm concerned) to carry Walt's legacy. I had the great privilege of meeting the man, several times actually, during my 8 years working at Walt Disney Feature Animation. I first met him back in 1994, when I had just started working for Disney, moving to Florida after living in Ireland for three years. Since Roy owned a house in Ireland where he spent time each year, we had something in common, and we talked for a while about life in Ireland, and also about the history of animation. He was extremely humble, warm and engaging, and I liked him a great deal. The fact that he looked a lot like Walt, made it that much more interesting to talk to him. But what made the greatest impression was the complete and utter lack of bullshit that came through. He took a genuine interest in every artist that worked at Disney, and he made it abundantly clear that he admired and respected any artist who made it into the Disney studio. Read on and I will tell you who Roy Disney really was....

In the next 8 years, while I was working for Disney, I watched in horror as the studio slowly transformed itself from an incredibly supportive, creative, and exciting place to work, into a faceless corporate entity ruled by fear, lies, and the 'bottom line'. By 1998 the studio had decided on an extremely aggressive production schedule, that would have us releasing a brand new feature film every year. My take on that strategy, was that they would shoot themselves in the foot by saturating the market. And on top of the 'one feature film per year' schedule, they also began to release a ridiculous number of poorly animated direct-to-video sequels of their great classics, even further saturating the classical animation market, as well as degrading the public perception of the 'Disney Quality' that they had come to expect.

Although I was still pretty happy to be working at Disney, and we were starting production on what turned out to be the most enjoyable production I have ever worked on (Lilo & Stitch) I was disillusioned by the overall direction that the company seemed to be headed in. The 'president' of Disney animation at the time, Tom Schumacher, was in my eyes, literally dragging the studio down the tubes with his creative meddling, and bizarre production decisions. I watched aghast as tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars were thrown away on ill-conceived productions that were not followed through after countless millions were squandered. But when the studio started to falter and box office numbers began to slide, it was the hard working artists who took the brunt of it, even though they had seen the folly all along and had been trying to raise the red flag. Blame was put everywhere except where it belonged, directly on the shoulders of the profit driven suits who were making all of there decisions based on fear and greed.....

Then in 2003, Roy Disney resigned, and sent an incredible letter to Michael Eisner and the Board of Directors. In it, Roy echoed my exact sentiments of where the company was heading. Here are a couple of quotes from that letter:

"consistent micro-management of everyone around you with the resulting loss of morale throughout the Company"

"The perception by all of our stakeholders-- consumers, investors, employees, distributors and suppliers-- that the Company is rapacious , soul-less, and always looking for the "quick buck" rather than long-term value which is leading to a loss of public trust"

"The creative brain drain of the last several years, which is real and continuing, and damages our Company with the loss of every talented employee

At that same time, Roy partnered with Stanley Gold and created the SaveDisney.com website. I'll keep this short, you can 'read all about it' all over the internet, but in short, over the next several months, Roy brought down Michael Eisner and ultimately Eisner was shamefully ousted from the company.

This all happened at precisely the same time that I left Disney and returned to Canada, to raise my son far away from the stifling corporate culture that was apparently strengthening. On my way out, I spoke to my colleagues, imploring them to get out while the getting was good. My warnings were almost word for word the same words that I read in Roy Disney's letter just months after my leaving.

And that was when I knew, that Roy was the real deal. A man of principle, willing to stand up, with his family, and fight the likes of Michael Eisner. My respect and admiration for him are of the very highest order. He was the last gasp of the true Disney legacy.

And so today I mourn a great man, and I pray that there is somebody in charge, somewhere in that massive corporate engine that is the Walt Disney Company, who can steer the behemoth in the right direction. With 'The Princess and the Frog' just coming out, it looks like the dream of the Disney Legacy, making marvelous, timeless cartoons, might actual live on. (I haven't seen the film yet, review coming shortly) And I believe that without the strength, conviction, vision and character of Roy Disney, the company may never have gotten back on track again.....

Blessings to you Roy, and to your family. As animation artists, we will carry your torch, forever. We will keep the light table fires burning, we will flip the pages, we will be true to our creative selves, and we will not allow corporate blindness to drive the creative engines of animation....

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Elemental Magic Volume 2!!

Well, I have finally gotten the full green-light from my publisher, to move forward on my next book. It will be a far more in depth study of several key effects elements, and I will get in to a great deal more detail than I was able to in 'Elemental Magic'. In my first book, I was trying to touch on such a wide variety of effects elements that I was unable to get into as much detail as I really wanted to, although to its credit, 'Elemental Magic' got into effects in far more detail than has ever been published before.

The feedback from 'Elemental Magic' has been overwhelmingly positive, and I was delighted how happy animators all over the world, professionals and beginners were, to have an inspirational reference book opening up the 'secrets' behind animating the elements. The thirst for this knowledge is certainly out there, and I have had many requests for more of the same, but with requests for specific effects, such as splashes or fires, to be explained, illustrated and even animated, in step by step detail.

For that reason, my second book will include a DVD, which will feature live action footage of the author (that would be me...) actually animating in real time, and explaining, step by step, the reasoning, logic and creative process going into every stroke of the pencil, frame by frame. Design, timing, physics, stylization, perspective and drawing technique, will be demonstrated and explained with an on-going dialogue with the viewer. Clips from workshops and lectures will also be included, as well as clips of the actual animation effects drawing I have created live, in front of the camera, shot in sequence, so the viewer can see the work in motion. These will include various different frame rates and timing signatures, so the viewer can see clearly, how much a single frame (at 24 or 30 frames a second) can make or break a series of effects drawings.

I am just starting the work on this book. It's completion and release is scheduled for early 2011, which seems lake a long ways off now, but I know the time will fly by. I am currently holed up in a small home/studio, in a small town on Vancouver Island, where most of the work will be done. It is quiet, secluded, and peaceful. My social life here consists only of taking care of my aging Mother, Tommy, to whom this second installment of 'Elemental Magic' will be dedicated.

So please, send me your thoughts and ideas, and as many inspirational emails as you can! Requests for information on specific effects elements to be included in the book will all be considered. Visits from my friends and colleagues are more than welcome, as are links to cool web sites, and invitations to visit warm tropical places, or attend earth shattering cultural events.....

My purpose with this book, is to share, and spread creative energy into the world. I've discovered so far, that having a book published, unless it's a best seller, is not the road to riches. But the positive feedback I have received from friends, colleagues and 'Elemental Magic' fans the world over, is more than rewarding. It tickles me to my core, and inspires me to do more. so there you have it, and here it comes!

Stay tuned!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Continuing Saga of 'Organic Animation'

Well special effects fans, month after month seems to go by with out a new post here on the Elemental Magic Blog, and I think it's time to remedy that! I really need to get into this whole blog thing, and I'd like to get a lot more traffic to the sight, and a lot more feedback too! This is necessary practice too, as it looks like I will soon be hosting an animation blog on the AWN site (Animation World Network). For those of you who don't already know, I wrote a column for AWN Magazine for almost three years, entitled 'The Animated Scene'. They have changed the look and content of the AWN website a great deal, but if you dig you can still find most of my columns.


So somewhere in that slick new look for AWN, my new blog will be featured, and linked to everything else in the animated cyber-universe. Damn, the next thing you know I'll be 'Twittering'. Blog sounds bad enough, but 'twitter'? And with a limited amount of text...God forbid that anyone spending hours a day online should actually have to read anything longer than a freaking paragraph. Even the paragraphs have to be abbreviated, or the texting generation will lose interest.

Well, forgive me, but I'm going to try to keep some kind of literary standard going, even though I'm an uneducated bum, air force brat who never graduated from anything......even though I can't stand academic snobbery, I am even more put off by the use of 'u' instead of 'you' and all other forms of text abbreviations, acronyms, and sloppy, just plain lazy English. I could live with the silly American habit of dropping letters out of words to simplify them, as was done with words like colour (color). But must we continue with this gross simplification of the English language, until all we can do is sit staring at the sunset, a bit of drool leaking out the corner of our mouths, uttering the last known human word....."Awesome..." Is that it?

And you know where I see it most? Right here in the cozy little world of ANIMATION. I mean, why say something as long and complicated as 'motion capture' when the quick and clever 'mo-cap' says it all? Centre of gravity? C.O.G. baby!! In fact, to talk to a current pipeline technical assistant or visual effects pro, one might mistakenly assume they are actually allergic to forming entire words, such is their zeal for clipping and shortening everything into a snappy 2 or 3 letter buzz phrase......

Hell people, I am almost illiterate compared to what passed for a real writer only decades ago, and now I am stuck here whining about the oversimplification of the English language....why....that's AWESOME!!

Well, to hell with all that. I'm here to carry on about animation, what it is, what it isn't, what it could be, what it should be, etc, etc....In a universe of opinions, I throw in another one, just in case there is a gap in the fabric of animajournalism....I had better fill it up! Of course, opinions are as useful as tits on a bull, but then you know, from the perspective of a calf whose Mom has just gone to the slaughterhouse, tits on a bull might not be such a bad idea after all! So surely there's a wayward animation calf out there, too far away from Mama's milk, that could use a little animation wizardry to suckle on! Far out. Good then. Let the breast feeding begin....

It's all Elemental, and it's all magic. It's all organic, right?

What think you?

A Little CGI Elemental Magic

These CGI splashes were created using a combination of Maya and Realflow software. Some were created first in Maya, using particle simulations to create a splashing effect. The particles were then imported into Realflow, and covered with a 'mesh' that wraps a material around the particles. The mesh was then brought back into Maya and shaders applied to it to create the final 'look'. Other splashes were created using the particle simulations in Realflow, combined with a collision object created in Maya and imported into Realflow. The Realflow particles were made to collide with splash-like shapes, creating unique and watery splash effects. The same meshes were then applied and rendered back in Maya....

The surface ripples were created in Maya, using a pond surface with animated spheres to create wakes and ripples.