Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Annecy Animation Festival 2018

For one reason or another, I hadn't been back to my all-time favorite festival in a few years.  But thanks to the kind people at the School of Visual Arts, I was invited back to Annecy after a three-year absence. And perhaps surprisingly, it was all due to virtual reality.

They had gathered a prestigious panel of VR experts - David Eisenmann (senior producer at Google), Paul du Bois (staff software engineer at Google), Chris Prynoski (co-founder and president of Titmouse Animation), and the delightful Hsiang Chin Moe from SVA was the moderator.

I'll let you know right now, I was not the smartest guy in the room.  In fact, I didn't really understand much of what everyone was talking about.  But we capped off the panel with a short clip of my new V.R. work in progress, "One of Those Days".  You might remember my old colored-pencil short with this name, where you see a guy having a really bad day, from his P.O.V.   It seems tailor-made for virtual reality.

Every year, I enter a few of my new films to the prestigious Annecy Festival, only to get rejected, three years in a row.  But this year I sort of snuck in through the side door. 

Because of the growing popularity of the festival, we weren't able to see any of the films we wanted to see, they were all sold out.  So my wife and I decided to treat it like a vacation in the French Alps.  We spent time on the pedal boats on the crystal clear lake, visited the great restaurants and went to a few parties that I was able to crash. 

Inside the main gathering place and the Bonlieu Cinema was where they had the tables set up for signings with famous artists.  I asked if I could sit in, but the tables were all occupied.  But luckily I spied an empty chair in the back corner and snuck in there - soon enough I had a good sized crowd of autograph seekers.  Then I was ensconced like a crab and it was impossible to get me out of there. 

It's OK, because all the other artists welcomed me, like Richard Williams, Lorenzo Mattotti (one of the greatest colorists alive, who's working on a feature film) and of course the great director of the brilliant film "Mind Game", Masaaki Yuasa! 

with Richard Williams

with Lorenzo Mattotti
with Masaaki Yuasa !!

It was a wonderful week, and I hope I can attend again next year.

--Bill P.

with Mark Osborne and Bonnie Arnold

with Spike of Spike & Mike's Festival of Animation

with David Fine and Alison Snowden!

Monday, June 25, 2018

Trump Bites

I have another big announcement, you might have heard that I've been working on some animated political cartoons with a production company called 110th Street Films.  They're called "Trump Bites", and they combine my animation with real audio from our 45th President.  I hear he has "the best words..."

Well, the New York Times loves them, and just started running the first three on their "Opinions" page, and you can check them out here:

So now we have the go-ahead to continue and make some more.  But unfortunately, the money that they're paying is not enough.  So we've decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign so that we can make the best cartoons to poke fun at Trump. 

I'm so excited, I think this is just what this country needs - a kick-ass animated political cartoon about the worst President in U.S. history.  I have so many ideas, I don't know what to do first!  It's very ironic to me, I started out my career by doing a very political syndicated comic strip, and also caricatures of politicians.  Then I got into animation and I ignored politics for a long time, it just wasn't part of my work.  But now I'm finally combining animation with politics and it sort of feels like I've come full circle! 

You've heard of Laurel & Hardy, Martin & Lewis, Abbott & Costello and Beavis & Butthead - well, now we can add another great comedy team, "Trump & Plympton".  It's going to be historic.  Be part of political history and support our Kickstarter campaign.  Our goal is to get a nasty tweet from POTUS -

And you can be responsible for that! 

Please check out our campaign here:


Bill P.

Animation 101: Constructing a Story for a Short Film, Part 3: The Conflict!

Conflict hangs out in the same playground as Contrast, and it is possibly the single key element that creates a story. Without conflict, there is no story, only character and design (which can work just fine by the way, story can become a big pain.. but I'm not going to start on that).  Characters Create Contrast. Contrast Creates Conflict. Conflict also includes something very dear to animators, which is Motion! Take your "Image" that you carefully crafted, and simply put it into motion. There you will discover your conflict. It will be a lot easier if your original image has contrast built in, but if it doesn't, no worries.  One of my students, Maryellen Atkins, created an image of a ship inside a bottle. The moment she put this image into action we had a story. The ship is trying to escape.. it slowly moves back, then strikes the glass as the entire bottle moves forward. The ship wants freedom. The conflict is clear, it's trying break free so it can sail away in glory.

Maryellen Atkin's "Ship in a bottle"
I like to look at my image and ask myself what the opposite of that image would be, and illustrate that right next to it.  One of my students, David Huang, has been observing how people ride bicycles. One of his more interesting observations was a very relaxed rider. Let's use this as an example of finding the "Conflict" within his "Image"... there he is, riding peacefully along, riding with such a relaxed attitude that his feet aren't even on the peddles.. they are thrown up on the handlebars and he's in a full reclining position with his hands behind his head. Nothing can disturb this man. Not even.. BANG an impatient, dirty, noisy, massive public transit bus, filled with horrible impatient screaming people. It follows directly behind him, practically on top of him. Contrast of scale, mood, color, emotion, gracefulness, weight, cleanliness.. gentlemen, we have "Conflict."

At this point it's vital to stay true to your character. Contrast does not equal Contradiction! Another student I know created a character that was very poor and desperate, yet there he was sipping sake and smoking cigarettes! That is a contradiction. Better to support your character's personality with props and circumstance, rather than going against it. This will ultimately serve the conflict as you make each personality very clear. This same poor and desperate character will look even more poor and desperate when confronted with a wealthy, well fed antagonist.  Allow every element to feed into your conflict. If your character is starving, exaggerate his thinness, have him eating his belt, study how hungry people move, how they talk and walk. Illustrate the extreme opposite of this, and study that. Study how fat people move and talk, how they eat. Study Study Study. There is a world out there to observe and digest.

Conflict needs to build. Years ago, my screenwriting teacher called it "Upping the Stakes". I like to simply call it "build up" in preparation for a release. This is the volcano that is about to erupt. This is the bridge that is about to collapse. Push it farther, build up to an extreme, and hold it as long as you can.  Then, bring back some contrast. You're building, building, building... and then break to a quiet subtle action.. then back to building building.  animator PES used this trick when he animated commercials for Coinstar. PES typically gives all his objects a directive, a mission. He then builds on this showing a larger world of multiple objects all striving toward a similar goal, boldly moving and breaking through barriers. But then he will cut to a more quiet, individual moment, a character struggling to do what all the others are doing without effort. This character is the "Gimp" and brings contrast and emotion to the build up sequence. This break from a build up is a wonderful way to inject a bit of contrast at the very moment where everything is at it's most tense. PES did this again in his short film "Game Over" where we are led on a tour of classic video games, acted out by household objects. When we cut to a new game, there is a quiet mood (for example the deep two note melody of "Space Invaders") and each game sequence builds up until it's time to cut to the next game. PES brilliantly ended this short with pac man disappearing into a simple "Game Over".. (more on endings and resolution on next post).
PES's "Gimp" character for Coinstar
In a short film Conflict can often times be simple continuation and building up of circumstances, gathering up into a crescendo and a leading to a breaking point.  Your image of a single character walking.. he's joined by another, they pick up the pace, they are joined by another, and another, and more.. until hundreds of people are sprinting in practically one entity. The conflict here is the action itself, it's race against itself, and it's unsustainable pace. Everything must stop at some point.

Characters fighting to pull each other free from "Handshake"
 In my film "handshake" the conflict is clear, the two people are stuck together, and wish to pull themselves apart. I build this up, or heighten it, by illustrating that the harder they struggle the more entangled they become, this struggle then builds and builds. But Conflict doesn't always have to be so obvious, it can be subtle or even mechanical, or it can be the build up itself like I mentioned. Conflict is something that can be reinvented in new ways, and here is where your creativity and experimentation will pay off. There's a more intense personal conflict happening in Hisko Hulsing's "Seventeen." We see a teenager coming of age, and his conflict is the outside world of monstrous maturity. This world is represented by several factors, including prostitutes and thuggish co-workers. The main character is also struggling with himself, and the desire (or inevitable decline) to actually become part of this world.

Conflict can come in so many ways. Conflict is everywhere. It's in the picture frame that won't stay up, it's in the drunk man trying to focus his eyes, it's in the dented aluminum can standing next to a brand new un-dented version. Conflict is your "Image" put into motion, given a struggle, some type of circumstance that brings it away from the norm. What we've done here is establish this normal state, and then change it, giving it a challenge, a story. This conflict inevitably ends with the "resolution." And that is up next.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Animation 101: Constructing a Story for a Short Film, Part 2: The Image

Every idea comes from a single image, no need to worry about a story at this point, that comes later. This image is what the story is built around. It's the very first brick, but is not necessarily the foundation, matter of fact the first image can become a rather minor part of the final picture. What's important here is to start somewhere, and start with something that sparks interest and establishes emotion. More often than not, for animators in particular, this image is a hybrid of several observations recorded in your sketchbook and then fused with a personal emotional flare. For example, the way different people drive, the way certain woman walk or eat. Perhaps the relationship between a triangle and a circle (I can see right away that the triangle is upset that it can't roll around freely like the circle). Or, it can simply be two clouds with distinctly different shapes (perhaps one very large, and one very small). One of my Thesis students last year, Kai-sen Chan, came into class on the first day with a sketch of a cactus hugging a flower. Perfect! On that he built his film "Plant Story."
Kai-sen Chan's "Plant Story"
The image that a film is built around typically expresses some type of cleverness, intrigue, conflict(more on that soon) or irony. For my film "Puppet" the image that I based the story from was a quick sketch of a kid wearing a hand puppet, but the hand puppet had a very mean expression, as if he was about to do harm to it's creator. This image creates interest and is deviously ironic, and the panic that is building within the kid can be felt. In Konstantin Bronzit's masterpiece "Au Bout Du Monde", the image was most likely a single house teetering precariously on the sharp point of a mountain. The image evokes thought, as we have certain preconceived notions of what a house symbolizes (solidity, safety, home), and the idea that it is balancing on a graphic summit begs for further information. It's interesting to point out here that the "Image" doesn't necessarily have to be character based, it can be environmental.

Konstantin Bronzit's  "Au Bout Du Monde"
Very often a strong image that becomes an impetus for a film is something that doesn't sit right with the viewer, or contradicts the viewers typical definition of what they are looking at. Or, more on a basic level, makes us laugh. Peter Ahern's very first image for his thesis film "Down to the Bone", was a kid who is inside out. He built the film around this very funny image.

Peter Ahern's "Down to the Bone"
Even within non-narrative films, an image is created in the beginning. In Ishu Patel's film "Bead Game", he created a row of small beads, mimicking his sketches of the snow drifts in the arctic. This image captured what he wanted to communicate, which was the way particles move together to create broad smooth lines that reflect the beauty of the natural world. In George Griffin's "View-master" the image was a bunch of people walking and running. This image led him to intense study of the animated looped cycle, and that in turn steered his technique that dominated the overall message of his film.
From George Griffin's "ViewMaster"
In Koji Yamamura's film "Mt. Head", the image of a small plant or tree growing out of the character's bald head intently creates intrigue. When we see this image we ask ourselves why this is happening, as well as feeling the roots of the tree burrowing into the bald skin of the character. It's bizarre, and creates an emotional interest in the character.

Koji Yamamura's film "Mt. Head"
Furthermore, an effective image typically illustrates a strong contrast in several ways. Contrast, is of course, a very important element in practically every part of film making, and we will discuss it more later. For now, let's just say that we should all be searching for contrasts, and attempting to put it in every place we can cram it into. Use that imagination of yours to find wonderful contrasts everywhere.  A very large but graceful man, riding a very small and delicate bicycle could very well be more thought provoking that an average sized man riding an average size bike. Contrast equals interest. If we see a goofy clown, and an anvil falls on his head, we may chuckle a bit.. but take a slick business man and drop an anvil on his head, and it's an uproar. You see, we expect something crazy to happen to a clown, but a man in a business suit creates better contrast with that particular action. Vice versa, if a clown sat down at a business meeting and started talking serious business.. we would laugh.

One time I was talking to Bill Plympton about his creative process behind his most beloved film "Your Face". He told me that he was sitting on the subway in New York, and across from him was a man with a very small, very scrunched up face. So scrunched up that it looked like it was going to just keep getting sucked into his head, and then reappear on the outside, only to get sucked into the middle of his head again. And we literally see, very early in his film, this image true to form.  It's a theme that I love about his work. He divulges in his observations about people, pushing them further than mere representation.
Bill Plympton's "Your Face"
Another effective method of achieving this "Image" is through the use of audio. When I was creating my idea for "Masks" I had an audio track to inspire me. I simply played this bizarre track, and images would appear into my brain. The first image I drew was a group of masked men singing to each other, being watched my little people a fraction of their size, the men looked like they were in a trance, resonating the trance-like score created by Karl von Kries. Music can do this, it evokes imagery, and becomes a very visual medium when you listen to it in a certain manner. I'm sure Nick Park couldn't resist seeing animals in cages when he first heard the interviews of people talking about their lives in nursing homes. From that audio the visuals came. The essence of this formula can be exemplified in Walt Disney's masterpiece "Fantasia." The artists created the imagery solely based on the direction and feel of selected classical scores, and remained beholden to those musical scores. Audio in this way works as a device to give  the artist a frame in which to work, limiting where he/she can stray outside of that frame (for example, the Disney artists could not, in any way, change the music), and limitations can often be your friend and closest ally. "The enemy of art is absence of limitations" stated Victor Hugo.

At this point it's a good idea to ask yourself what the "Normal state" of your image is. Get to know your image so you can answer any questions about it possible. These facts won't be in your film, but knowing them will affect how you make it move, react, struggle, etc. The "normal state" of Nick Parks animals in a zoo, are just that.. animals in a zoo. The "Image" creates interest because there is a microphone in front of these animals. But it's important to know the state of these creatures prior to the recordings. In feature film making they call this "Establishing the norm" and you really can't move on into your inciting incident without doing so. Since we're concerned with making a short here, this process needs to be condensed a bit. As I mentioned in the introduction, the use of symbols is a great way to establish this norm, or instantly give the viewer a bit of back story on character. As just a quick example, a circle is instantly recognizable as an approachable, friendly entity. Where as a prickly star shape has more of an edge to it. The audience will subconsciously pick up on the long spines and lack of soft appeal, and you can take advantage of that preconception. Often times, in a short, the very first shot will establish this norm.  In Michael Dudok De Wit's film "Father and Daughter" the very first shot establishes the deep bond between father and daughter, illustrated by showing them riding bicycles together, the bicycle itself becomes a symbol of their connection and is used throughout the film, all the way to the end.
First scene of "Father and Daughter" by Michael Dudok De Wit. This image immediately establishes the deep bond between father and daughter.

So, go create that all important "Image", allow it to guide you on your journey to creating your story. Let this image work for you, and your story will grow rapidly in your mind. Allow the relationships and contrasts to ask questions about the characters and situations, allow it to establish the normal state, and suggest intrigue into what may be happening. Pay close attention to what the emotional state of your image is. If you don't know what the emotional state is, all you have to do is ask yourself what the character or object in your image is feeling. We all have these images within us, for various reasons. Who knows why we, as artists, feel the need to express these things and put those images out there. It's just what we do I suppose.  Animators are sometimes intimidated by starting a short film. This is typically due to fact that they are inundated with complex solutions to their ideas. We often look at problems and our first action is to add garbage to it, make it complex. This is not how story works. The short story is simple, wonderfully simple. This simplicity is summed up in your very first "Image." Stay tuned, next up is Part 2 of "Conflict!"

Monday, June 11, 2018

Bernard and Huey

I first met Dan Mirvish at the Slamdance Festival about 15 years ago, and I was charmed by his crazy, outrageous behavior. Besides being a terrific filmmaker, he's also a founding member of the Slamdance Festival.  I've been to that festival many times, and my greatest memory is the filmmaking seminar held in a giant hot-tub - not to be missed.

So a few years ago, he told me that he had discovered a lost manuscript for a possible feature film for Showtime.  After two years of production, he premiered the feature film last week at the Cinema Village East, here in New York.  Unfortunately, Dan couldn't be there, he had to be in L.A. for the West Coast premiere.

Filling in for him was filmmaker Paul Rachman and, as a great surprise, Jules Feiffer was there too.  "Bernard and Huey" is a take-off on two of his iconic cartoon characters from his "Playboy" years.  And I got to attend the premiere, it was great to see Jules again - my early film "Boomtown" was an animated short that featured his text that was all about defense spending and the threat of Russia in the 1980's.  It seems like we've come full circle -

"Bernard and Huey" is typical Feiffer, concerned with social status, artistic careers and sexual obsessions.  It's a lot like a Neil Simon play, with lots of witty dialogue.

Good work, Dan!  Good luck with the film!  And if you can't catch "Bernard and Huey" in the theater, please check it out on iTunes! 

--Bill P.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Animation 101: Constructing a Story for a Short Film, Part 1: Introduction..

The Short Film is a very different beast from it's more long winded counterpart. A short doesn't have the time to tell intricate details about characters, back stories, or environments. We have our audience for a very brief, very precious period of time, and we can't waste any of it. A short film is like living in a tiny New York City apartment, you own very little, and what you do own has it's place. Within this apartment there's very little room to indulge in anything that isn't vital, and often you are forced to get rid of a lot of stuff, in exchange for clarity and a de-cluttered living space. The art on your wall has to be chosen carefully, because, well, it's your only wall. The filmmaker must be brief with his/her short and stick to the idea and not stray, yet cannot rush anything or cram info in at all. Often times shorts use symbols more readily than features, symbols have preconceptions attached to them already, thus one more thing the filmmaker doesn't have to worry about, or spend precious time divulging. It can be a challenge to express a clear idea in a matter of minutes, but it can also be a very clear and concise vehicle of communication.  There are several types of "Stories" you can employ in your short, some don't concern story at all. In Nick Parks short "Creature Comforts" we see a collection of interviews from elderly care homes translated to animals living in a zoo. The interviews themselves are so interesting and filled with character that the story becomes a simple exercise in recording, hence the film begins with the levels of a recording device, that's all the information we need to get going.

It can be suggested that where a feature tells a story, a short expresses an idea. This idea is packaged in a complete manner, and wraps up in a satisfying way. People that know me know that I'm not a big advocate of story in general, or at least I don't share the obsession of overstating it's importance, I believe it is purely one of the key elements to making a short, but shares this importance with character, design/aesthetic, overall appeal, technique, as well as execution of that technique. Many of the cliche chunks of advice filmmakers hear all the time are even more important with a short. "Show don't tell", "Get in late, get out early", "The medium is the message", etc.. all even more important when we only have a handful of minutes to express our idea. The medium is truly the message, so choose your medium well. The content will likely dictate your medium, for example, JJ Villards epic piece "Son of Satan", features the gritty poem by Charles Bukowski. JJ employs a raw, gritty, and awkward line art as if out of his sketchbook. The style and medium matches the equally raw words of the voice over.

When I first started making shorts, over 15 years ago, I was hesitant and worried about my skills as a story teller, animator, and lots of other things, so I kept things simple, brief, and based on the idea. I didn't realize it back then, but I was on the right track from the start. Humility can help you in many ways! understanding your limitations and working inside those limitations is key. There's a world of creativity that lives and breathes inside your limitations, in other words, there's limitless ideas within your limitations of skill.

I knew I couldn't' draw that well, but I also knew I had a knack for weird abstract action, like morphing, and twisting. My first film was called "Drink", based on the simple premise that we have many personalities in us all. To express this I illustrated different people crawling and stretching out of each others mouths.

We see incredible short films all the time, but rarely do we slow down and ask ourselves "Why" they work. What mechanics behind your favorite shorts contribute to their success? I love asking the question "Why!" There is so much to learn and benefit from others victories. There are so many ways to do things, and of course you don't have to follow the techniques I've outlined below. These are methods I've found useful, as well as many of my colleagues. I've written this more for the struggling idea maker, the person having trouble getting started or wrapping it up. These are not rules, they are suggestions, and suggestions are designed to be twisted, torn apart, chewed up, and spit out. So with that attitude, let's begin. In the following days I will post a 4 part series on Constructing a story for a Short Film. Most material is drawn from my personal notes while teaching the graduate thesis program at NYU Tisch-Asia from 2009-2014.

Friday, June 1, 2018

First look at "Slide"

You may remember that I'm about to begin animating my new feature film, "Slide".  The storyboards are now complete - though I've sent a copy to Jim Lujan so he can polish up some of the dialogue and add some of the crazy humor that he's so good at. 

But the first 5 minutes of the film are without dialogue, so I can begin that animation now - and lo and behold, I now have the first bit of animation to show the world.

You can see I'm animating in ballpoint pen and it looks very cool.  Also, the color will be added much later.  Just to set up the shot, the film starts with our hero, the mysterious musician "Slide" lost in the desert.  The clip is on Vimeo but we'll also embed it here.  Enjoy!