Wednesday, November 24, 2010

My Old Dad

I visited my dad today at the assisted living community where he stays.  I stop by there usually once or twice per week.  He has adjusted seemingly well to the facility, which offers a lot; activities, a lot of staff and outings.



When I arrived, he was in a group, which consisted of about eight other residents and a staff member who was walking them through the various news items of the day.  The staff person had a dry erase board and was putting news items into categories onto the board.  The columns included, “politics,” “environment,” and “finance,” among other things.  



I sat down in a couch on the perimeter of the room and the instructor noted to my dad that he had a visitor.  He got up slowly and creakily, and eventually made his way over to the couch I was sitting on.  He has difficultly understanding sentences and needs them repeated for clarity and he forgets that I know the staff and asks if I’ve met them each time I visit.

Seeing him now makes me think of when I was a kid trying to imagine what my parents would be like when they were old.  I think I got the physical part right; the slowness, the rigidness and the hard of hearing.  But I never really imagined such a cognitive drop off in both of my parents.  It's just not something I would have thought of as a child or a teen.

And so I look at my dad, sitting there on the couch with me at age 82, and I think to myself, he’s very sweet, he’s very gentle, and he’s, well, very old.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Animation Tug of War


I was at an animation expo this weekend, and sometime during the course of the few days, a veteran animator and his wife happened to be in a conversation with another ex-Disney employee and me.  The discussion had started around the recent death of Roy Disney and his pet project, “Fantasia 2000,” which I worked on.  We talked about the freedom that working on the bite-sized segments of “Fantasia” allowed us in adjusting schedules as needed, moving plans around, and letting the artists expand their creative abilities. 

We were in a separate building for most of that production, and as a result, were not in the midst of the heightening pressure and the rabbit-breeding paced growth of VP’s in the division at a time when the feature animation department ballooned to about 2000 employees over two huge buildings.  The bottom line is that we were protected by none other than Roy Disney himself.  Roy wanted the project to be finished the way he wanted it, which was carefully, and not to anyone else's pocket watch, and Eisner knew not to push back.  There was even an artist who used to bring his dog to work with him. 

The animator said in our conversation that he missed those days of having that kind of freedom, and he mentioned a philosophy he developed in his many years of working on projects.  He framed his experience of a balance needed in production in this unique way: 

“In animation, there is always a struggle between the artists, who want to take as long as they like doing their work and putting forth their opinion into a project, and the management, who want to quantify every bit of the process and finish as soon as possible while putting their opinion into a project.  That conflict is necessary; both sides need to be pulling equally, but not winning.  If one side wins, then everyone loses.  Right now, management has won.”

I wholeheartedly agree with this animator whom I respect a great deal.  If you imagine the artistic extreme, that is, a slow, meticulous animation department that is compulsive about not letting the artwork continue down the pipeline, but rather keeps re-doing scenes an ignores scheduling guidance, the enterprise becomes unworkable. 

And then if you imagine the other extreme, in which artists are so rushed to make a weekly quota that they lose all enjoyment of the creative process and are unhappy with their own product, the conditions become unbearable.  It seems that the pendulum has swung well over to the latter since about 1995. 

Hopefully, with a market more saturated with so many varying forms of animation, and not just two companies fighting it out to dominate the industry as was the case just before year 2000, a healthier balance can be attained sometime again in the future.  I hope so.  I want to be there on the day that dogs are allowed to hang out in animation buildings again.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Rocky Mountain High, Colorado


In 1994, my friend Eric had planned to do high-altitude snow hiking and tenting with a group he had recently found.  He asked if when his week of trekking was over, I might join him for some skiing in the town of Telluride, Colorado.  We would stay at a hotel and just enjoy the few days.  I said, "yes."

As the trip arrived, I packed my skis and polls into a black flight bag and left my little Manhattan Beach apartment.  I had a trick at the time for parking at LAX.  I would drive to a neighborhood in El Segundo, park my car, and then take a taxi for five dollars to the airport.  None of the taxi drivers were very crazy about this scheme of mine, especially on the return trip when these drivers had waited quite a long time in the airport taxi pool to find that their customer was going 2.1 miles.  But rest assured, I tipped them all well at the time.

I flew from LAX to Denver, and then took a small prop plane to a local airport outside of Telluride.  I remember stepping out of the plane and into a diorama of snow covered mountains and feeling very cosmopolitan. 

The road to the hotel was not short, but it was enjoyable.  I decompressed from my big-city life during that ride.  As I arrived at the hotel before Eric, I noticed kids on the ice-covered asphalt hanging onto car bumpers as they drove by, allowing them to sneaker-skate down the road.  It was something I hadn’t seen before.  “I’ll be they do this a lot in the Mid-West too,” I said to myself.


I checked into the hotel and was given a key to a room that was on the second floor, and whose corridors were on the outside facing the street.  As I unpacked my bags, Eric arrived looking tired and a bit on edge.  I asked him how his week had gone, and he said that it was very exhausting.  Eric had always had a plan in his mind at that time to become a mountaineer and ice-climber.  So he did a few of these trips where he could feel like he battled the elements.  My idea of a vacation has always involved a hotel in some form.

No sooner did Eric settle in than he started looking truly bad and uncomfortable, and he reported feeling light-headed, and then nauseous.  He became panicked that something was really wrong with him.  I thought he was just overtired.

After a time and his insistence in finding a doctor via the hotel room yellow pages, we walked to the local medical building just three blocks over, where somehow on a Sunday night at 6:30pm, there was a doctor there.  She was just finishing up and was able to take Eric in after a bit of waiting.

Eric had to sit atop a gurney while I sat in a chair.  It was a strange set up.  I recall that he kept making these short, downward sigh type sounds, and I felt for him because he was so anxious.

As it turned out, the doctor deduced that Eric had descended too quickly off of the mountain that afternoon for being somewhat dehydrated throughout his excursion; this group he was with had been ice-camping at some very high altitudes.  But in addition, Eric thought he might have had a reaction to having eaten out of aluminum pots and pans for a week.  I came to the conclusion that it was probably all of these things along my overtired theory, mixed some anxiety he had had about something over the past few days; I never figured out what it was all about. 

The remainder of our trip went well though, I am happy to report.  Eric became more relaxed and regained his normal sporting and humorful demeanor.  Together we skied on some of the most beautiful country I have ever been in.  I recall looking down one slope onto the little town of Telluride below and feeling that I was in any number of storybooks.  It was a very enjoyable few days. 

On the afternoon of our departure, Eric and I went to the airport together, but were on different flights.  Eric was living in San Francisco at the time, and his flight would leave about an hour later than mine.  He planned to do some reading in the tiny airport waiting area.   And so as my plane was ready to board, I shook Eric’s hand goodbye with a bit of melancholy as we did after all of our mini-adventures, and I boarded my aircraft.

As the light propeller plane gained speed, and then altitude, I watched the snow-packed, tree speckled mountains drop away as I sailed into the sapphire blue Colorado sky.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Awaiting The Green

I was walking out of a copy store with some fliers I had gotten done the other day, when I noticed drivers on a busy street during rush hour sitting in traffic in front of me.  I had a perpendicular view of everyone halted during a red light; each person forced to stare at the back of the car, truck or van in front of them.  All were probably lost in thought of what they still had to do that afternoon and what they were planning for the evening, the week, whatever.  It’s amazing how much of this momentary thinking goes on while gazing mindlessly at a well-worn black plastic license plate frame with “Sun Valley Dodge” emblazoned on it.  Or a bumper sticker that says, “Jerry Brown for Governor,” "McCain/Palin," or on some very dusty cars, "Ross Perot," that's partially peeling off.

And so I wonder, with this opportunity of accumulated millions of hours of people's staring, spacing out, and potentially having ideas suggested into their minds by all sorts of companies wanting to advertise to them while stopped in traffic, how long will it be until advertising is sold on the back of vehicles?  Not with just those big car decals we’ve all seen for companies where people get paid to drive around with a huge Domino’s Pizza logo on every surface, or ads in the back windows of taxi cabs, but rather with full-on moving text and light displays, akin to those you might see in Times Square or Tokyo, appearing on the back of cars’ windows via some translucent electrical technology.  Additionally, global positioning satellite knowledge of where you're reading it, making the content more pertinent to you logistically, could be baked into the ad instantaneously.

The light display might scroll, "Here you are sitting at Sepulveda and Wilshire Blvd at 4:15pm on a Wednesday afternoon - did you know that your auto insurance likely doesn't sufficiently cover you? Have you even checked lately? Make your next right and stop in at ABC Auto Insurance for the lowest quote anywhere," followed by a simple GPS map and art of a happy driver waving his hand.  The law would probably prohibit these things from illuminating when cars are in motion, but perhaps they could kick on when the auto’s brakes are locked and engine idling for more than ten seconds, such as at traffic signals.

I’m not advocating this at all.  Like we need more distractions on the road and additional input into our already overwhelmed brains about how to get your teeth and undies to be the whitest they can be, why the Nasdaq has plummeted in the last forty minutes, or which law firm will get your ass out of trouble if you happen to be reading the ad intoxicated, and then subsequently get pulled over by police; "If you've been drinking and are reading this ad, we'll be expecting your call in about ten minutes.  866 555 BAIL...remember the number 866 555 BAIL!"  But it does surprise me that so much time is spent staring at the backs of other people’s treasures and heaps and yet, no one is really taking advantage of this open advertising space (and time) financially.  Or maybe I should just say that I’m thankful for it.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cedarmont Kids - Rise & Shine (Arky,Arky)

Waking up this morning, I thought of this song, which we used to sing in the mornings on the bus ride to day camp. Our counselor, an energetic young woman, would lead us in it with gusto and lots of clapping.  And we were indeed woken up by the time we got to camp.

Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Children of the Lord
The Lord said to Noah:
There's gonna be a floody, floody
The Lord said to Noah:
There's gonna be a floody, floody
Get those children out of the muddy, muddy
Children of the Lord

So Noah
He built him, he built him an arky, arky
Noah
He built him, he built him an arky, arky
Built it out of gopher barky, barky
Children of the Lord

The animals, the animals,
They came in by twosie, twosies
The animals, the animals,
They came in by twosie, twosies
Elephants and kangaroosie, roosies
Children of the Lord

It rained and poured
For forty daysie, daysies
It rained and poured
For forty daysie, daysies
Nearly drove those animals crazy, crazies,
Children of the Lord

The sun came out and
dried up the landy landy
The sun came out and
dried up the landy landy
Everything was fine and dandy, dandy
Children of the Lord

Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Children of the Lord

The animals they came off
They came off by three-sies three-sies
Animals they came off
They came off by three-sies three-sies
Grizzly bears and chimpanzee-sies zee-sies
Children of the Lord

Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Children of the Lord.

That is the end of,
The end of my story, story
That is the end of,
The end of my story, story
Everything is hunky dory, dory
Children of the Lord

Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Rise and shine
And give God the glory, glory
Children of the Lord

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Perspective Smash-Up


With all of the discussion about the missile launch or airplane condensation trail that was left behind this past week, I was reminded of something that happened several years ago. But before I tell this story, let me explain first, why I could see it as very likely to be an airplane condensation trail, for this will lead into my memory.

If you sit in your living room and look up at the junction of where a wall opposite you meets the ceiling on the other side of a room, and then imagine a toy airplane coming in your direction along the ceiling from that intersection, the plane will look like it’s taking a path towards you and over you.  Your three-dimensional vision, with enough light, will describe to you it’s true path.

Now imagine that there is a large piece of clear glass between you and the toy plane, positioned on a parallel plane to the opposite wall (meaning that the glass is flat in front of you as you are sitting up), and that while the toy plane is moving as described above, your job is to draw it’s path using an erasable marker or your color choice on the glass.  As the airplane gets a good number of feet from where it started, your drawing will look like a line going up, and maybe slightly sideways if the plane’s path isn’t perfectly angled towards you.  There's just no other way to draw the perspective of an object coming towards and over you onto a two-dimensional surface, but "up."

Why do I use this example in talking about the missile sighting?  Well, actually, it just popped into my head as a way of describing a phenomenon I’ve seen several times before.  Driving north on the California 99 along the San Joaquin Valley, an area which can be very clear at times and in which because of how flat the land is, one can see airplanes leaving con-trails way off in the distance, I have seen con-trails that look like they are rising up, or even going in the opposite direction than I later figure out that they are headed. 

The reason is that, especially when talking about great distances, one has less ability to calculate perspective.  The eyes’ parallax is ineffective, and so any information on distance needs to be gathered from other indicators such as resolution, overlap, texture, light, shadow, haze and probably a few more things I am not thinking of.  The result at these great distances is that objects will look more flattened, as if on a piece of glass, than if they were closer.  Weather conditions and time of day can vary greatly to decrease depth perception.

In addition, and this is the part that will lead into my anecdote, the longer the lens on a camera, the shorter depth of field you end up with.  When a camera is completely zoomed in and focused on infinity on a far object, the result is a flattening of everything in the field.  Any sense of depth is pretty much obliterated.  We’ve all seen images of, say, someone on a motorcycle on a desert road heading towards the camera in sweltering, rippling heat, and yet, the motorcyclist never seems to get any closer to us, but rather appears to stay attached to the background.  Yet you know they are moving because the guy’s hair is blowing back, the cycle's tires spinning, and the bike is reacting to bumps in the road.  That’s an example of the flattening that happens with a really long lens; a telephoto lense.

The news crews on helicopters have some of the most powerful zoom lenses that are made.  One of my good friends, Chris Tyler, is the son of the man who invented the original TylerMount for helicopters and owns TylerMount Camera Systems, and another friend of mine, Stan McClain, who owns FilmTools, is a veteran helicopter cameraman, and believe me, they have both told me about the strength of the various cameras that can be attached to, or riding in a helicopter.  They have to be very powerful for shooing brush fires, freeway chases, steak-outs, and other events that they cannot get close to.

My guess is that the CBS cameraman who was shooting the images of the missile from the helicopter the other day zoomed way in on the subject at a time of day when the sun was nearing setting, which often increases flattening of things near the horizon; all of this happening many, many miles away, again increasing the effect further.  So the path of the airplane coming towards the camera way off in the distance was similar to the path you drew on the glass with your erasable color marker.

Ok, now onto my memory. 

Back in 1986, one summer when I was living in the USC dorms, it was a cool, very clear night.  There had been a dry wind blowing through the Southland.  I turned on the television, and on the news was a breaking report that the Santa Barbara Pier was on fire; like big-time on fire.  At first there were no images, but then within a few minutes, the news cut from the anchor’s face to a black screen that showed blip of what looked like fire in the center. 

The anchor said that they had gotten a helicopter with a cameraman up from the studio in Los Angeles and on it’s way to Santa Barbara.  What fascinated me was how clear the images were on my television only about ten minutes into it when the pilot was over only about Santa Monica or Malibu, albeit at a high altitude to be able to see a direct line up the coast to Santa Barbara.

The anchor periodically mentioned the location of the helicopter from which we were seeing the image, and I was amazed that when the chopper was over, say Oxnard, the image was getting about as clear as I could imagine it could get, even so much as showing fire reflecting off of the seas surrounding the pier when the chopper was still miles away.  As I said, it was a very clear, windy, and dry night, so the conditions for long distance photography were, I am certain, close to perfect, and yet, this experience illustrated to me just how powerful the news cameras were even at the time.

So again, I must think that the video camera that was used to photograph the missile, or airplane con-trail, or whatever it was the other day, was extremely powerful, and in that respect, was extremely capable of flattening images as a byproduct of that focal power.

Of course I don’t know for sure.  Maybe it was some really bad people playing with old Russian missiles from the black market, launching them from a boat or submarine into the sky just to know that they could be mischievous and stealthy.  Or maybe it was an alien entity getting a sense of where the threshold would be for igniting our atmosphere before they cook us all up (“It’s a cook book!!  IT’S A COOOK BOOOK!!!”  …did you ever see that “Twilight Zone” episode?)

But then again, it might just turn out to be the simplest answer.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Pencil Test of a Lifetime


I just discovered a blog about Glen Keane's art tonight.  I was at Pres Romanillos' tribute at the Disney Lot tonight, which was wonderful and heartfelt, and it got me thinking of his mentor, Glen, and what a master he is.

I remember that when I was working on Pocahontas, doing a lot of overtime as a Production Assistant, Glen asked me to stay extra late one night.  I had plenty of animation scenes to shoot tests of, which back in the day were a way for the animators to see how their animation was coming along.  These were called rough pencil tests.  We would shoot the rough animation onto flat light board using a down-facing video camera,  and then we would record the appropriate section of dialogue and or music onto the test.  This would give the animators a real-time sense of how their animation scene was working in rough form.

I had finished a whole stack of scenes that night for various animators due the next morning, when Glen threw down a stack of drawings rubber-banded in extra long cardboard onto my shooting table.  He said, "Fred, take care with these; I drew them all in charcoal, so you have to be careful not to smudge them.  And just let me know when you're finished."  He then went back to his animation room to do some other work while I shot the test.  I wondered what he had meant by "charcoal," but had felt too stupid to ask.

After all of these years, I still remember that it was the rough pencil test for Sequence 14, Scene 108.  I undid the rubber bands and cardboard that were holding the scene together, and in front of me were fifty or sixty charcoal drawings on extra wide paper.  "Oh, I see," I said to myself.  "He really did draw everything in charcoal instead of pencil."  I had never seen animation done like this in my short time in the industry.  Glen had drawn the close up of Pocahontas during a song called, "Colors of the Wind," in which the camera starts close on her face and then pulls back to reveal her full body as the wind is blowing her hair and she dances slowly as she turns her body.  Glen had drawn this camera move into his animation; something only the likes of Glen and a few others such as Eric Goldberg really knew how to do well.

As I shot the scene there on the black framed test table with four bright lights illuminating the animation paper surrounded by the darkness that permeated pencil test area, I watched Pocahontas' face and hair come to life like an ocean as the charcoal drawings boiled and flowed in front of me.  I was flabbergasted.  In that moment, I truly learned what the magic of animation was; the art of making two simple mediums, charcoal and paper, erupt into emotional life like a visual song. 

When I finished and had watched the animation three or four times completely stunned, I went and got Glen from his office, who walked with me back to the pencil test area, and I showed him the tape of his animation.   He said, "Well, it doesn't look too bad."  Hyeah, right!  It was perfection; a mind-altering genesis that I had been the first to witness, and yet he was probably seeing a thing or two he could fix in it.  This was a night and an experience I was never to forget.  The funny thing too was that since I was pretty new in the division, I had been aware that Glen was supposed to be a "good animator," but I really didn't have any concept until that night when, right then and there, I experienced his mastery and his humbleness firsthand.

If you click on the blog link below, you will see in the right margin a list of characters.  Click on Pocahontas and you will find a few of these drawings that I shot that night in 1994; one towards the top, and two or three way towards the bottom.  They are the ones of Pocahontas that look like charcoal is almost bleeding sideways from right to left.  Click on the thumbnails to expand the pics.  Just take a look.