Thursday, October 22, 2009

Lots of dead rabbits

Last night I watched two movies, though it was more like watching ten movies. They were Watership Down and Genius Party.

I will preface this post by saying that both of these movies are pretty fucked up. They are, however, fucked up in very different ways. For now, I will save Genius Party for a later post's discussion, where I will also discuss a few other assemblies of short films, which are popular in Japan at the moment but also are cropping up in the form of movies such as Fears of the Dark, a collection of French black-and-white animated shorts.

But for now, let's start with the British animation, Watership Down.

Okay seriously, where do I begin.

You could well be forgiven for hating this movie. Technically it's a masterpiece, but it is so confronting that audience alienation is at some point almost inevitable.
See the thing is, this movie looks deceptively cute. It's a story about a bunch of bunny rabbits. The backgrounds are rendered softly with watercolours, it has a quaint British feel, and has a large cast of rabbits full of personality.
That said and done, this is a terrifying film and it is not for children. I speak from experience because I saw it when I was very young (about five) and didn't see it again until last night. Nonetheless I have been having nightmares about particular scenes from the film to this day.

(Wondering what this is? It's a bunch of rabbits trying to get out of a burrow which is blocked by the dead bodies of other rabbits. Be sure to get a DVD for your kids today!)

The story (which is surprisingly complex and multi-layered for a seventies animated feature) tells of Hazel and his mad brother Fiver, who are sick of living in their warren with the other rabbits when suddenly Fiver has an omen of the hill nearby overflowing with blood. So we're off to a good start.
Before you know it, they round up a motley crew of other rabbits who wish to leave (the main thrust of the exodus being Fiver's terrible omen), and embark on a series of incredibly horrific adventures where they are hunted by virtually every form of predatory fauna in the United Kingdom, including west-country farmers.
Once they have braved the dangers of these predatory animals, they must contend with a sinister, almost faschist organisation of rabbits that they have stolen does from. These other rabbits are fucking viscious and probably scarier than any of the other animals in the film.

The movie was based on a book by Richard Adams, and I think it would be more palatable as a book than a movie for children. One of Anthony Burgess' complaints about the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of A Clockwork Orange was that unspeakable violence was a lot easier to digest in text than it was to view it on screen, and upon watching this movie I knew exactly what he meant.

So what exactly is good about this film? Well, in my humble opinion, just about everything.
While not superb to say, Disney standards, the animation in the film was quite good. There were no 'mistakes', and there was a vast amount of attention to detail to make the animals' movements naturalistic. Really the only thing bringing the animation down is a number of 'quickstarts' and 'quickstops' to the motion of the characters that may have benefited from some cushioning.
Anthropomorphism has been used to a minimum here, giving it a different feel to just about every other 'animal' animation I have watched.
The score was stirring and appropriate. The Art Garfunkle 'Bright Eyes' song should have felt out of place - indeed, that was my first thought - but I found myself fighting tears by the end of the song. The determination of Fiver is nothing short of tear jerking.

In terms of the story, it was bold and ballsy, and despite being quite 'in your face' with one disturbing catastrophe after another, I was glad to see a film from so long ago that had a story to tell and was determined to tell it no matter what. It's sure as hell not a film I'd be showing my children in a hurry, but ironically it is the epitome of what I would consider 'adult animation'. Not animations with lots of sex and gore and foul language, but an animation that was meant for grown men and women to enjoy.
Clearly, the investors (of which there were many) were very progressive thinkers in wishing to fund this project which was so wholeheartedly outside of the accepted animation norm back in 1978.
Apparently it made a killing, which goes to show that sometimes progressive animations can actually be successful.

We need more risk-taking. We need more "fuck you"s to the Disney model. I mean I like Disney movies as much as the next animation nut, but the stories are so weak, so boneless, so driven by formula. If you bitchslap them they will be in a wheelchair for life.
I'm not saying kids animation should be like Watership Down. Heavens no. But that doesn't mean animation plots shouldn't have a little more goddamn thought put into them.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Learning to animate 'too late'?

Perhaps some of you saw this on deviantArt or NewGrounds lately.
Well, I saw it about two years ago. And I saw it again about ten times before it was uploaded *anywhere* on the web.

It's the brainchild of a fellow called James Lee who is currently helping me with my own final film, The Rise Of Kaiser Fate (working title).
I am prefacing this post with that link so that you know that both members of this party know their shit when it comes to Flash.

At the beginning of the year I made a solemn promise that I was going to make something better than Tarboy but thanks to good old laziness and procrastination, that won't be happening - at least not until next year.
That said, don't make the mistake of thinking that James Lee and I are rivals (though at first that's kind of what I wanted us to be for some reason). Rather, we are friends, and he is one of the only people in Australia (or anywhere for that matter) who I can talk to at my own level about Flash.

Which brings us to the point of this post.

Why can't I use this stupid program?! I couldn't learn how to use this confounded thing if I had a billion years!!!

Well incidentally, I bumped into James Lee at South Bank yesterday and we got talking about my film and, eventually, why I was behind in it. He wasn't actually aware that I was doing a fifty credit point semester - which means I'm doing one more subject than everyone else.
This led to me explaining how I had to do some monster compositions in a nodal compositing program called Shake. If you don't have someone to guide you and try to learn the program in a vacuum of isolation, getting anything done is not only impossible, it's actually infuriating. I recalled having the exact same problem with Maya while I was at QUT and said, "it helps me understand why so many people find Flash difficult."

See, James and I are both at a point where using Flash is not an obstacle. We don't spend 50% of our time animating trying to figure out how to do this or that little effect in the program or struggling with the timeline controls. We spend zero percent of our time doing that, in fact. This is because we have both been using the program for a very long time - in my case, about ten years. That's more than most of my lecturors who teach the program.
I lamented that so many people give up at the drop of a hat these days not realising how much work is actually involved learning the project. It was then that James Lee suddenly distilled the problem so clearly. It magically made sense.

He casually said, "Well see, when you're a kid, anything you make in Flash is cool. You're quite content to make stickmen run around the room and fight each other-" (which is precisely what I started off doing) "-and the sense of satisfaction is there. But if you're an artist who's just gotten into uni and you've never used the program before, everyone is biting off more than they can chew and they are frustrated that they cannot make animations that have taken other flash animators five years to get to the point of doing".

This is such a perfect way of explaining it. Why the hell would you naturally assume your first animation (or second, or third, or hundredth) will look like one of Adam Phillips' Brackenwood cartoons?
When I first started using Flash, it was version four (before it was popular or useful in any concievable way) and I got a huge rush from making the crappiest animations. What was my alternative? Flipbooks in my excercise books! By those standards, Flash 4 was a godsend! What were the greatest flash animations on the web at the time? Stickdeath. Does anyone remember that?
Not exactly a whole lot to compete with.
Just take a look at some of my earliest animations, the ones I made before I knew what NewGrounds existed:

While I was growing with Flash, so was the world of online animation around me.
Newer, better animations began to surface - more complex ones that I suddenly felt the need to catch up to. If I was going to be in this game, I had to play to win. Every time I saw an animation that blew me away, I'd save it to my hard drive (a lot easier in the olden days) and study the fuck out of it until I could figure out exactly how it was done.
Suddenly I had to step up to the plate and really push myself. Every single animation I made was slightly more advanced than the previous one.

Suddenly I was actually winning fans! Mid high school, I was getting literally hundreds of emails from fans congratulating me on giving them some really good entertainment and great animation. It's funny really because I look back at what they were talking about and frankly it looks like shit. But it was pretty good at the time, as the Flash community was still growing, and me with it. I kept trying new things and pushing the boundaries of Flash. Before you knew it I was nesting things inside each other about fourteen layers deep! I still find it rare to come across other animators who work like this and it came purely from me trying to stay in the forward ranks of the crowd.
Before you knew it, I was in university and more people knew me as "the Flash guy" than my real name. Suddenly I felt a pressure to perform unlike anything I'd experienced prior.

"Engineered" was thus made for a university assignment, and it was a first for me in many respects. It was the first five minute animation I ever made - the first animation where I had ever done such a quantity of work in less than half a year - the first time I shaded absolutely everything from beginning to end with gradients - and the first time I regularly drew characters and scenes from different angles instead of flatly reusing them from previous scenes. And even then it looks pretty flat to my eyes these days.
This Flash was also a breakthrough for me as it was the first time someone challenged me to do something well outside what I thought Flash was capable of and I was actually able to do it.
My Canadian friend Jay, a gentle giant of a man who deceptively looked like someone who beat up five year olds for fun, saw that I was working on a scene where the robot and the aliens walked behind liquid-filled glass jars preserving various alien foetuses.

"Hey, y'know what'd be cool? They should like, wrap around the jars as they go behind it. Like they warp and stretch through the glass as it refracts them."
I looked at him like he had an arm growing out of his neck.
"Jay, do you have any idea how long that would take? In any case I don't even think it's possible in Flash."
"Are you kidding, man? You can do anything in Flash, you're a fuckin' wizard! I bet you could come up with some clever way of doing it."
I nearly exploded. "Jay, don't do this to me, the film is due in like four weeks, and what you're suggesting can only be done with Frame By Frame. It would take ages, it'd look like shit and it would just be a waste of time. You can't do it with some special trick in Flash. The only thing I can even think of that might come close is if I were to go into the panning graphic, copy and paste the shape of the jars, use them as masks, mask out the robot and aliens... stretch an additional graphic from left to right... hang on, wait."
He laughed and went back to his own animation. When he came back to check up on me, I had beaten the challenge.

These stills don't really do it justice, but it became one of the most popular shots of the film, and everyone who saw it dropped their jaw with shock. It looked great, and I would never had done it if Jay hadn't made me.
Suddenly, I realised that Flash is nothing but problem solving.
There's nothing the program can't do. Only the animator.
This led to a veritable avalanche of future work that was a lot more dynamic than anything I had done previously, because I knew that I could handle any shot, no matter how complex, given enough time and patience. The challenge is figuring out how to do it.

From here on in, the one big thing that has improved with my animation is speed.

Did anyone see Ill Fate: Ep. 2?

This film contains many of my best shots ever and it also contains a lot of crap that was stretched to meet the deadline. That said, I think it's still a pretty big achievement to animate five and a half minutes of complete animation in as many days.

Lately I have discovered my big challenge is to mix it all with Frame By Frame. FBF is a lot harder (like, a LOT harder) and more time consuming (like, a LOT more time consuming) than tweening, but it looks more impressive, plain and simple. I have virtually made a career off tweening but I don't want to be known as the best tweener around, because that's like saying you are the best high-jump athlete at an aero club. There was a bit of pretty adventurous FBF in Ill Fate 2, particularly the Kaiser running up the Collossus' arm (top picture), but I endeavoured to include more FBF whenever I could from that point on. Usually, however, I still end up balancing the scales to tweens simply because of time restraints. If you can make them look good, then hey, you have just spent a tenth of the time and the effort. It just won't look as good.

These days I tend to go for a mix. For some reason, the marriage between tween dynamics and the raw beauty of frame by frame is totally underused. Well hey, all the more for me, because I think it's a quirky and pretty unique look. It's simultaneously taking advantages of the restraints of Flash and giving them the 'fuck you'.

THE POINT OF ALL THIS is that I didn't just wake up one morning able to use Flash. Same goes for drawing, I spent several years learning to do both.
If you want to make it sound hard and brutal, I have been using Flash for one decade and I have been drawing for two. Do the math.
Don't be disheartened if Flash is giving you the shits. Don't worry about your animation looking like it fell out of a tree.
It's all about practice, and that's all there is to it. The only difference between you and me is that I got a headstart.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Seth McFarlane is a pretty creative guy

Okay, so you guys might remember the Simpsons if you're old enough.

Sometime soon I'd like to do a post on the genius of early Simpsons (particularly ~ seasons 3 - 10) and its eventual decline, but for now let's talk about this guy called Seth McFarlane.

Seth McFarlane saw the Simpsons and thought they weren't wacky enough. So he made his own version of them after being fired by Matt Groening for taking too long with his coffee.

Thankfully, our good friend McFarlane managed to successfully raid the bins in the Writers' Room before being ejected from the studio. He took with him the comedy gold that was simply too off-the-wall for the Simpsons. He also took with him many of the precious first-drafts of such episodes, allowing him to make several suspiciously familiar plots that may remind us of the Simpsons, except these versions are untouched by snarling, uncreative executives and therefore funnier.

Somewhere down the line, Seth decided one episode of Family Guy where Peter Griffin starts off hating illegal immigrants and ends up accepting them upon seeing their culture just wasn't enough. He had to make another series so he could use that golden script twice, before it lost its flavour.

Quite possibly the wackiest white nuclear family to hit American screens since the Simpsons, or dare I say, the Griffins themselves, the Smiths (how original! McFarlane must have poured through the phonebooks for that one) are not just your average animated TV family. They're, um... American. Very American indeed.

Seeing as how he is a boundary pusher of the most dynamic variety, Seth McFarlane realised he needed something new. A whole new show to capture the hearts of viewers worldwide. It had to be something different; a new concept, new issues, a totally new platform for dealing with them.
And so he made history with quite possibly the bravest move in Animation History.

This time they're black. Whoah, there!!