August 8, 2008
Normally around this time I'd be gearing up for the annual SIGGRAPH conference; in fact, if things had gone as planned I'd already be in Los Angeles right now. But a number of things about SIGGRAPH and the way we're covering it are different, and I figured I should pass this information on to you.

A little over a year ago, I was selected to be the chair of SIGGRAPH's Computer Animation Festival. My first order of business was to restructure the festival, which was then divided between the theatrically screened Electronic Theater and the constantly running Animation Theater. The idea was to provide a new structure that kept the spirit of SIGGRAPH while more closely resembling a traditional animation festival.

Working out the overall framework and ideology was about as far as I got before the precursors to my leukemia started to hit in November. I'd started working out a few details here and there about the jurying process with my director, but that was about it.

Back during the initial meetings, I was concerned about how Frames Per Second was going to cover SIGGRAPH. After all, we'd been covering the conference since our days as a print magazine (I believe our first report was in 1996), but there was the issue of conflict of interest. I ended up sitting down with the people responsible for SIGGRAPH's media relations, and we worked out a solution that we're going to follow even though I ultimately participated far less in the process than intended.

This year our SIGGRAPH coverage will be handled by Janeann Dill (who wrote up a SIGGRAPH festival report with me back in 2005), but utterly independent of me. That is, nothing she writes about is discussed with me beforehand, and I won't be editing any of her blog posts, even for things like typos. (Any editing will be handled by Kino Kid.) In short, no editorial intereference from the guy who was on the inside. Janeann's posts will be as fresh to me as they are to you, and I anticipate enjoying them just as much as any other reader, as well.

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August 5, 2008

FlipBook for iPhone and iPod Touch from Josh Anon on Vimeo.

How would you like a simple little app for your iPhone that lets you draw and animate on the fly? Josh Anon provides with his Flipbook application ($9.99 at the App Store), a well designed piece of kit that allows you to create movement frame by frame. When you've perfected your masterpiece, upload it to, the sharing site built to display your animated treasures.


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June 27, 2008

I hate it—I mean, really hate it—that whenever an animated feature is reviewed, writers feel compelled to mention whether or not kids would like it. It's a testament to the fact that, regardless of what the individual writers, editors or publishers feel, the public at large still can't process the idea that adults might want to watch animated features for themselves.

Past responses to this prejudice have included making films that are most definitely not for children, making films that are mainly for kids but include nod-and-wink throwaway gags for adults, and making films that kids and adults can enjoy equally. These have worked to varying degrees, but they all carry with them a fairly standard idea of what children will watch and enjoy.

WALL-E is a bit different in this regard, because it expands the idea of what kids will find entertaining. When Cast Away was released eight years ago, a big deal was made of the fact that there was no dialogue for almost half the movie (in the literal sense; Tom Hanks's character did speak, but no one answered). A similar fuss is being made over the lack of dialogue in WALL-E, but the unspoken question is, will kids be able to sit still for a 103-minute film where the main characters rarely speak?

From the reactions of the kids in the audience (especially the ones in the row right behind me) on Wednesday night, the answer is yes. And in the same way that Tom Hanks's acting was credited for making the dialogue-free parts of Cast Away so compelling, the Pixar animators must be given props for the remarkable acting in WALL-E.

With one exception, none of the many robot characters in the movie can truly speak, and the two that do (WALL-E and EVE) pretty much only say their names, each other's names, and the word "directive." That means that every robot character has to rely on rigid bodies and eyes (or eye surrogates) to communicate and express emotion. Interestingly, WALL-E himself is among the least flexible of the movie's robots; he has treads instead of feet, a pair of rigid mechanical viewfinders instead of an eye-mimicking LED display, and unbendable arms with three flat "fingers" at the end.

In sum, the movie has to be carried by characters that can't speak and are all limited compared to human bodies, and the main character is in some ways the most limited. And it works, thanks to Pixar's careful application of animation's twin traditions of pantomime and bringing inanimate objects to life. There are several references in WALL-E to A113, an in-joke that refers to CalArts's old character animation classroom. In few other films is that gag as relevant as it is in WALL-E; the movie is such an accomplished expression of the pre-digital yet universal art of conveying emotion and story purely through movement that when human characters show up and start talking, they seem clumsy and inelegant in comparison.

So, yes, kids will like WALL-E, as will adults. And we have the art of animation to thank for that.

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June 5, 2008

There are a few things I didn't like about Kung Fu Panda.

First, I couldn't take all the fat jokes. Actually, not the fat jokes per se, but one line ("I eat when I'm nervous") adds a subtext to some of them. In the funny-animal world of Kung Fu Panda, it kind of makes sense that everyone would make fun of title character Po, as he's the only rotund character around, while being somewhat graceless and easily tired despite his designation as the prophesied Dragon Warrior. The problem is, that one sentence (and one the end of a later scene) ratifies some of the stereotypes surrounding real-life overweight people by suggesting that he eats so much due to a lack of control (i.e., it's his fault he's fat; weight becomes a character issue). But he's a panda. Of course he's round, and of course he eats a lot. It's like criticizing a frog for eating flies. The movie could have played out the same way without that element.

Second, when Po wistfully looks off in the distance at the film's opening because he dreams of being more than a noodle cook—exactly like in every other animated feature in which our frustrated hero yearns for something more than his or her dreary life—I wanted to scream and throw something at the screen. Enough, already!

And yet, much to my surprise, I enjoyed the rest of the movie. I say "To my surprise" because I'd barely gotten out of the lobby after Bee Movie when I realized I was sick of DreamWorks' apparently endless formula of using wisecracking New York humour. Same with the earlier Madagascar, where they were often joking about New York. It's a bad sign when side characters (the penguins) uspstage everyone else.

Ah, but Kung Fu Panda doesn't do that. It is a period piece, more or less, with all of the characters firmly entrenched in a village in China, much as in any live-action kung fu movie. And while much of the humour is verbal, it's equally physical, sometimes at the same time. In fact, for all of the brouhaha about Madagascar's cartooniness, I'd say Kung Fu Panda comes closest in practice to the Looney Tunes comedy aesthetic; that is, in making the timing and snappiness of the drawings as important as the timing and snappiness of the jokes, balancing quiet with loud, broad with subtle, and seen with unseen. Mix that in with crackling action scenes that can get laughs without sacrificing tension, and you've got—surprise!—an enjoyable animated comedy.

As much as I enjoyed it, though, I'm a little disappointed. The introductory scene, which is a tight bit of stylized hand-drawn animation, was so well done I was let down when we got to the CGI. As much as I enjoyed Kung Fu Panda as it was, I'd really like to see the movie they were hinting at.

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May 4, 2008
It's not that hard to create a first-person rollercoaster animation using CGI—I knocked off a half-decent one shortly after I first picked up the Softimage|3D user guide. But it is tricky to come up with a good reason to create a first-person rollercoaster animation, and trickier still to pull it off well. I think this ad for the Zürich Chamber Orchestra succeeds on both counts.

[Thanks, Steve Bass.]

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December 19, 2007
The latest WALL-E trailer has been posted on MySpace.

Don't forget to visit the Buy N Large website, based on the film's fictional company.

Did I mention I love robots? I love robots.

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November 17, 2007
Beowulf is no monster, but animation fandom seems to be welcoming it as if it were Grendel itself.

Robert Zemeckis' latest feature foray into the world of motion-capture moviemaking comes correct, despite any aesthetic predispositions and prejudices. Professor Z and his uncanny CGI-Men have lost all of the "dead eyes", much of the plastic skin, and most of the lanky posturing that infested previous big-budget, Hollywood attempts at motion-captured semi realism (Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Polar Express, Monster House).

Viewed in Disney 3-D with the oversized, specialized glasses (they fit over my small glasses), the effect is mixed, but mostly positive. Rapid foreground movement tends to appear blurry, but slower scenes crackle and pop with amazing detail. This isn't some chintzy Viewmaster effect. While humans sometimes appear flat, most objects (from pebbles and surging waves) have infinite depth. Even conventional, low-angle shots suck you in, before galloping horses trample over your head. The experience deserves at least one shot from any jaded moviegoer.

Beyond Beowulf's technical achievements is a far rarer achievement for North American animated features: It's a well-crafted, animated drama. With screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary brandishing their fine ears and pens to complement Zemeckis' cinematic sense, they bring brains and soul to this ancient story. The drama is less clumsy than Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, and more coherent than either Paprika or Tekkonkinkreet. It also has sharper wit, meatier dialogue, and stronger performances than all of them.

The storytellers are earnest enough to tell the tale with genuine emotion, but generous enough to play to the back of the room. Gaiman and Avary respect grand pronouncements and bawdy interplay. Zemeckis respects playful camera work, dramatic pauses and silent exchanges. Someone on staff respects blood and buck-nakedness, so the PG-13 rating is bent with glee. Crafty craftsman that he is, Zemeckis ensures that impalings and other impolitic protrusions are artfully obscured. Grendel's brutal assaults in Act 1 are bathed in an otherworldly blue firelight that strobes just enough to blot out the more gruesome deaths. The camera hurtles through spears and arrows instead of the bodies they pierce. Some naughty bits are obscured by foreground objects. Others are obscured by gold trim and dark shadows.

Which leads me to mention that a functionally nude Angelina Jolie facsimile appears in the movie. She may not be a thick-lipped, thick-hipped Ralph Bakshi goddess (like Elenor from Wizards) but she'll do. To wit, Ray Winstone has a gruff, Russell Crowe alpha-maleness mojo going, but I don't think he'll make anyone forget about Gerard Butler's Leonidas from 300. Sorry, these supposedly sensual elements of the story aren't fantastically nebulous enough to be smokin'.

What the performers lack in physical hotness, they make up in emotional presence. Unlike Tom Hanks in Polar Express, the actors don't have to pantomime excessively to get the performance across. With surprising nuance, the best scenes feature tiny smirks, darting eyes, and pained brows. These are not the wax puppets that you see in most video games. (God of War certainly didn't have the patience to tell a story with this much deliberation and visual detail.) Without the brilliantly rendered facial contours, we might miss the visual subtleties of Robin Wright Penn's notable performance, for instance. When her aged queen converses with a young mistress, the subtext in her face could only be captured by the finest character animators. Even the hammier performances of Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich grow on you, leading to incisive interplay late in the film. Don't judge these animated figures based on the motion-captured aesthetic offenses committed by past films. Watch this film and make the distinction.

Think of Zemeckis as a student of the Fleischer school of mimetic action animation, having completed his prerequisite study in Rotscoping 202 and The Animated Short Films of Superman. He's the art major with a computer science concentration, so forgive his literalism and obsessive sense of static detail. If Disney can develop a better multiplane camera to emulate live-action dollies and zooms, then surely the Z-man shouldn't be garroted for employing his own form of hybridization.

Silicon Valley has not yet crossed over into the Uncanny Valley, but it's getting pretty darn close to the down slope with Beowulf.

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November 12, 2007
This Wednesday, November 14, at 6:00 p.m., the Montreal chapter of ACM SIGGRAPH is screening the 2007 Electronic Theatre at the SAT. Admission is free and so is the popcorn!

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October 31, 2007
Three new podcasts this week, all focusing on the San Francisco Bay Area studio Little Fluffy Clouds. First, two shorts: their 2003 Au Petite Mort, which I favourably reviewed in my coverage of SIGGRAPH 2003; and Alignment, one of three ads they produced for IBM. Finally, there's my interview with Betsy de Fries and Jerry Van de Beek, who have been busily creating animated commercials since they founded the studio in 1996.

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My guests in this podcast are Betsy de Fries and Jerry van de Beek, who form the San Francisco Bay Area studio Little Fluffy Clouds. (And yes, they're named after the Orb song.) Little Fluffy Clouds has been in business since 1996, when the pair left the (Colossal) Pictures studio during its last days. The studio's been busily creating ads for a wide variety of clients since then.

Little Fluffy Clouds
Au Petite Mort
IBM: "Alignment"
Festival Watch: SIGGRAPH 2003
March 2006 issue of fps, featuring Little Fluffy Clouds' Today

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An animated Rorschach test is the backbone of one of three spots that Little Fluffy Clouds produced for Ogilvy's series of IBM commercials.

Little Fluffy Clouds
Trivers Myers Music

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October 29, 2007

A stream, a fisherman, a dragonfly, a fish: In Little Fluffy Clouds' Au Petite Mort (2003), these elements come together to evoke the waning days of summer, the circle of life, and just a little cruel irony.

Little Fluffy Clouds
Festival Watch: SIGGRAPH 2003

Image Credit: © Little Fluffy Clouds LLC

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October 10, 2007
Since Persepolis and Madame Tutli-Putli each screened at Cannes and won awards this year in May, they have appeared at animation and mainstream film festivals to acclaim. Montrealers can now finally see both films by attending the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, which begins today.

Animation seems to have taken on a more important role in the festival with more shorts than ever. However, a few might slip through the cracks if you aren't careful. The visceral Face lies in wait in Competition 1, on Thursday, October 11 and Wednesday, October 17th. Madame Tutli-Putli is showing during Competition 2 this Friday, October 12 and Tuesday, October 16. Selina Cobley's Crow Moon screens in Competition 3 next week on the 17th and 18th.

The National Film Board of Canada Stereo Lab is screening four stereoscopic shorts, which 2004 OIAF attendees might have seen, but this screening includes the premiere of a stereoscopic version of Theodor Ushev's phenomenal Tower Bawher.

Previously on fps
Festival du Nouveau Cinéma coverage
Persepolis coverage
Two Podcasts for Madame Tutli-Putli

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September 25, 2007
The Halo phenomenon continued unabated with today's release of Bungie Studios' Halo 3. I think it is inarguable that the most viewed animation today was seen by the countless fans who lined up to buy the Xbox 360 game and who ran home early or even took the day off (you know who you are) to play. The 20 minutes of cinematics in the game were completed by animators at the Montreal animation and effects house DamnFx. It's refreshing that their team has not been shy about their enthusiasm for being able to work on the character animation, something people tend not to think of when considering CG or in-game animation. The creators who will also have a presence at this year's ADAPT conference, including a special presentation by Bungie Studios' lead producer and cinematics director on the animation contribution to Halo 3 on Thursday, September 27.

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September 21, 2007
(click to enlarge.)

The single largest digital animation-related event in Montreal this year is the ADAPT conference, which began last year with a bang. The conference (Monday, September 24 to Friday, September 28) focuses on digital art production techniques, including animation and game development. Some highlights this year include keynote speaker Phil Tippett, returning guest Syd Mead, and speakers from Pixar, Sony Imageworks, Dreamworks and Industrial Light and Magic, among others.

Those looking for work in concept design and animation will want to attend the ADAPT job fair and master classes.

If you're in Ottawa this year for the Ottawa International Animation Festival, you can get a reciprocal discount for each event. Check their sites for details.

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June 7, 2007
Review by Mark Mayerson

Understanding how to use tools to reach a goal is the basis of the animator's craft. The trick is to know why you're doing something and sometimes a computer can get in the way. Character Animation: 2D Skills for Better 3D works both the 2D and 3D sides of the street, using drawings to get the reader to think about motion principles before tackling the complexities of software.

Read the review

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June 5, 2007
I have a soft spot for mythology and folk tales, especially when they're produced by individuals or small teams. Favourites include the Dust Echoes series and the films of Nick Kozis; now I can add Croatian Tales of Long Ago, produced by Helena Bulaja. Helena brought together animators from around the world to create eight Flash-animated shorts based on stories from Ivana Brlić Mažuranić's 1916 book of the same name, allowing each one to put his or her spin on it and add interactive elements. For me, the perfect matchup between story, style and interactivity was How Quest Sought the Truth by Nathan Jurevicius: the laid-back delivery, quirky style and fun but challenging (and completely optional) Flash games just clicked for me. But honestly, the whole project is a delight. You can check out segments for free on the project's website, or buy the CD-ROMs—which are chock full of extras, including the original stories—from the Web shop.

Last year, many of us in the northeast faced an enormous quandary: go to the 30th anniversary Ottawa International Animation Festival, or to the inaugural ADAPT Conference in Montreal, held the same weekend? Independent animation or the gorgeous art to be found in big-budget features? Konstantin Bronzit or Syd Mead? It was a dilemma of soul-crushing, garment-rending proportions. Fortunately, this year our spirits and outerwear are safe: the 2007 edition of ADAPT is being held immediately after Ottawa, so you could conceivably rush from one to the other. None of the master class topics have been announced as yet, but Syd Mead, Iain McCaig and Mark Goerner are already confirmed as guests.

Forgot to mention earlier that Laurie Maher and Jason Walker will be hosting the North American premiere of Madame Tutli-Putli at the Worldwide Short Film Festival in Toronto on June 13.

Coolest mug ever.

Do you create animation in SWF format? If so, you'll want to contact Adobe's Customer Research team; they're looking to collect SWF content to get an idea of what people are using the format for, so they can better support them. If you want to make sure animation is well represented, send the following to flashresearch [at] by July 6:
  • Your SWF or a link to your project or a screenshot of the project
  • A brief description (3 to 4 sentences) describing the audience and purpose of the project
  • Descriptive tags to categorize the project's content and purpose – Use as many or as few tags as you like, and feel free to make up your own. Some examples tags are included below.
  • Percent of all your projects that are SWFs
  • Percentage of time you spend writing ActionScript
  • Percentage of time you spend using the timeline
  • Your name
  • Your job title and company
  • Your phone number (so a member of the Adobe's customer research team can contact you for a quick 15 minute phone call if they need more information)
Adobe's sweetening the deal with $50 Amazon gift certificates given out at random for 1 in every 50 submissions.

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May 21, 2007
I've been remiss, because I haven't yet mentioned that Bitter Films Volume One: 1995-2005, the collected films of Don Hertzfeldt, is one of the funniest and most enjoyable DVDs I've watched in a while. You could make a convincing argument that shorts like Billy's Balloon (in which a rogue balloon beats the tar out of its toddler owner) and catchphrase-inspiring lines like "My anus is bleeding!" place Hertzfeldt's work squarely in the frat-boy demographic, and I'd have a hard time disagreeing with you. The thing is, Hertzfeldt combines delightfully deadpan dialogue with a minimalist (read: stick-figure) yet expressive drawing style and a real talent for planning technically elaborate sequences that fit the story without screaming "Aren't I awesome?" Dive in to the copious extras and you'll probably come away more impressed than when you went in.

Speaking of DVD compilations and independent animators, you don't want to miss Liquid Tales, the collection of Patrick Smith's work. In some ways Smith's work is the opposite of Hertzfeldt's—it's colourful and scratchy and distinctively rendered—but it's no less enjoyable or personal. But hey, what say I show rather than tell: check out Puppet, his latest film, on Yahoo.

I've always said that a key difference between live-action filmmaking and animation filmmaking is that it's possible, though unlikely, that a live-action director can shoot a ten-minute film in ten minutes, while it's utterly impossible for an animation director to do so. J.Walt Adamczyk, who contributed to our January 2006 issue, insists on proving me wrong. His Spontaneous Fantasia, a one-hour animated program that he creates live, will be showing in a 180° full-dome theatre at the Glendale Community College Planetarium for four days in June, for a mere ten bucks ($6 for the under-twelves).

Don't know how this book slipped under my radar, but it looks fascinating. Orwell Subverted: The CIA and the Filming of Animal Farm digs into the CIA's hand in the creation of Halas and Batchelor's 1954 feature adaptation of George Orwell's novel. Author Daniel Leab not only dug through production archives and interviews, but CIA papers uncovered through the Freedom of Information Act. By the way, you can get 20% off the rather hefty $55 list price if you call 1-800-326-9180 (it's toll free) and mention the code OSRC.

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