Saturday, March 31, 2007

T-U-R-T-L-E Power

Tonight I finally went to see the new TMNT movie, which I'd been really interested in checking out. First impressions are, it's about what I expected. It succeeds at giving some fun action sequences, and bringing the turtles back together (in the world of the movie, and in ours). The story left something to be desired, but it was fun, a great nostalgic ride down memory lane for those of us who grew up with the saturday morning cartoon and 3 live action movies.

I was actually pretty impressed by the animation. When you compare it to other animated versions of the Turtles, especially the 80's cartoon, it's leaps and bounds ahead. From the trailers I could tell that the martial-arts and action would be the strong points--the timing and weight really are great, and they pull off some very complicated stunts that surely would have had me scratching my head if I had to sit down and animate them. I was surprised to see that there were also a few times where the acting, even on Casey and April, were very expressive and hit the emotional core of the dialogue straight on, and those moments entertained me more than anything else in the movie, (often spurring a slight laugh of appreciation from me, probably confusing the people sitting around me). Now the lip sync and mouth shapes of the characters, were definitly weaker. The ironic thing was that in the human characters the mouth shapes weren't exaggerated enough, and in the turtles I thought the mouth shapes were mostly over-exaggerated. But it still beats the lip "sync" of those Henson costumes in the old movies ;)
So all in all, I had a good time because there was enough for me as an animator to appreciate, in the action and even in some of the acting. The movie's biggest downfall is of course that it really fails to bring any heart into the story. It has potential for it, because the movie centers around an emotional divide between Raph and Leo (Mikey and Donnie don't really do much), but most of the plot lines and emotional changes are explained away in dialogue in an obvious attempt to talk down to the kids. The interesting thing is that when movies are made "for kids", there are these visable attempts to make sure every plot line is absolutely clear in words. Ya know what, I think kids are smarter than we give them credit for, and if you give them a story with a strong emotional core, they will react to it and appreciate it, whether or not they fully understand the deeper meanings. But honestly, had I seen this in my Ninja Turtle fan days, I know I would have absolutely loved it.
The humor attempts to retain the one-line zingers that the Turtles are known for, but it didn't succeed in giving me more than some chuckles. Not so long ago I watched the original Turtle movies, and they still made me laugh more than these jokes did (Don: "Yeeah...Yea-Yeeeeaaah!" in the 2nd movie). Overall there is a consistency that picks up from the other movies (Raph and Leo don't get along, Casey and Raph are friends), and even a nice nod to the other movies at the end--(if you look closely, on Splinter's shelf you can see the cracked TGRI ooze canister). What they need to do for the sequel, and yes I'm sure there will be one, is to take the believability from the live action movies--put the characters in our world, one we can recognize, not a generic cartoon world--and give recognizable traits to the human characters (make Casey Jones the tough and not so sleek guy he is here, and April more than jack-of-all-trades sidekick). And don't forget the other characters! Michelangelo and Donatello really don't deal with anything personal.

I can't end yet without talking about one crazy shot at the final battle sequence. I don't know how long this shot is, but it starts with the camera behind the Turtles, April, Casey, and Splinter heading towards the huge crowd of Foot Soldiers (yes, another CG crowd), and continues to follow them as they kick and fight themselves around and through the crowd, leaving one character and picking up on another as it goes, until they finally end up on the other side of the crowd. The camera is constantly moving and following the action, and it never cuts! I can only imagine the meetings about this shot, not only in terms of logistics of animation and camera work, but also in terms of rendering the incredible number of characters. What a headache!

Go for some entertaining animation, cinematography, and nice renders, just don't go in with high expectations for an engrossing story. Enjoy the walk down memory lane, and the fact that the turtles actually look pretty good!

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Eric Volz

I'm not a politically charged person. I usually don't even pick up on things like this because I never know if I can trust the source, when it comes to random things on the internet. While I really want this blog to be about animation, it is a blog after all, so allow me to deviate from the plan for this. Read on to the other posts to see what I normally post about.

**I should explain a bit. It's about an American who supposedly was wrongly accused of a murder in Nicaragua. His family and friends have pretty hard evidence and many witnesses.

This is a pretty insane story. There's a group on Facebook and a MySpace page devoted to the cause. Here is the official site:
I don't know all the facts. I just think it's something worth spreading around.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Brad Bird is crazy

I can't remember where, but somewhere in my news reader I found a link to this video. It's a panel of Ed Catmull, Alvy Ray Smith, Andrew Stanton, and Brad Bird, talking about the origins of computer animation (and consequently Pixar), and much more. It's long, but if you have an hour to kill sometime this weekend, come back and watch it! Watch it in shifts if you have to, but it's really great.

Brad Bird is the craziest animator I've seen :P He's sort of like Robin Williams in the spontaneous way of how he talks. I can't help but crack up whenever I see him interviewed! In some ways I can imagine how hard it must be to work under him, I'm sure he's every bit as picky as Walt Disney was. On the other hand, I can see his talent as a director by how he communicates his thoughts with such specificity and physicality. The guy knows how to communicate a story, whether it's The Iron Giant or the meal he ate last week.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

AWN reports on Framestore NY, Geico

Check out this article about Framestore NY on AWN! It's instigated of course by the VES Award that FS-NY just won for last year's Gecko spot, "Chat", but they go on to talk about making the spots they made this year too. Two of the ones they talk about, "Local" and "Seconds", were ones I worked on. I see "Seconds" on TV quite often now, (the one where he's riding an escalator, talking about how little time he has to say everything he has to say in a commercial), it airs back to back with "Puma", which I did not work on.

It's nice to see Framestore NY get some recognition. I was surprised when I found out that they really haven't been in New York for that long, and have been doing 3D in commercials for even less time than that. Sometimes they seem to have the "little brother syndrome" when compared with Framestore in London, I met people around New York who didn't even know that Framestore had a studio here! But let me tell you, they do cool projects, everyone there is friendly and extremely talented, and they care about the quality of what they produce--(in terms of both animation and lighting/rendering). Oh, and there's the "little" fact that I never once had to work a weekend for them in 4 months (and I think I only had to work late once). This is a testament to the production management and scheduling, and staffing up of crew to meet the demands of production. It was not a slow time at the studio at all.

I finished that gig at Framestore last Friday, but not before scoring 66,909,000 points in Simpson's Pinball, and consequently landing 2nd place on the scoreboard (if you've ever played that game, you know how hard it is)! I think people thought I was a pinball nut, cause I played that every day at lunch with other guys there (and sometimes after work). Don't get me wrong, pinball is not all that I care about, but it was another element that added to the enjoyable work environment. Here's to a great four months, and to all the friends I made there!

Monday, March 26, 2007

Freelancer's Guide #3: Health Insurance wake-up call

So I subscribe to the Freelancer's Union blog in my feed reader, and they posted a link to this article, from the New York magazine, which talks about how many young workers in New York are uninsured, and a few horror stories from people who found out the costs of not having it. It's quite a wake-up of those stomach twisting articles that make ya realize you've been ignoring something important. It's 7 pages long, but if you're uninsured and working like me, you'd better read it. The last page at least offers some further info, places in NYC that offer low-cost help to uninsured, as well as some lower cost insurance options (such as through Freelancer's Union, which I'm going to be checking out).

There's really nothing more I can say--just read it.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Ratatouille, new US trailer

While the Asian trailer tugged at the heartstrings a little more than this one, I still can't wait to see the movie! Pixar, Pixar...thanks for always giving us something to look forward to!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Freelancer's Guide #2: Estimated Tax Payments

*UPDATE 2/14/10** Much of my previous information on freelancer taxes, business tax deductions, and estimated payments are quickly becoming outdated, or may no longer apply to many freelancers in the animation/vfx industry.  See this post for more information:

Estimated tax payments were almost a complete mystery to me, until yesterday when I was completing my return on Turbo Tax Online, and their handy help files had some info on it. There's no direct link to those help files, but I found a couple pages online from Turbo Tax's tax tips. They should clear up a lot of your questions (and mine!)

Estimated Taxes FAQ
Determining Estimated Tax Payments

If you'd rather have every possible info on the topic, which is not a bad idea just to be sure, check out what the IRS has to say about it here. That page seriously outlines the whole thing in detail, lucky there's a table of contents that you can sort through to see where the main info is at.

If you are brand new to this whole idea, estimated tax payments are generally required of you if you are freelance, because taxes are not taken out of every paycheck. This means that you estimate the amount of taxes you will owe for the current year, based on the past year's return, and pay quarterly estimated payments. If you don't do that, you get an underpaid taxes fine at the end of the year. That is about all I knew about it until Turbo Tax taught me more! Turbo Tax apparently even has a service dedicated to helping you make your estimated tax payments, which I will probably be using. Note: If you plan on using it to pay your taxes at the end of the year, you need the Home and Business version. It's more expensive, but has everything you need. If you use Turbo Tax Online, you don't have to pay for it until it is complete and you are ready to file and/or print your return. So far, the federal parts of the service seem more helpful than the New York state sections, but it still beats trying to figure out how to read the forms.

A lot of people have an accountant, which is actually not a bad idea, especially when you get to the point of buying a house, etc. But until then, tax software is probably the best bet to help you get them done.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Freelancer's Guide #1: The Good, the Bad, and the Taxable Income

*UPDATE 2/14/10** Much of my previous information on freelancer taxes, business tax deductions, and estimated payments are quickly becoming outdated, or may no longer apply to many freelancers in the animation/vfx industry.  See this post for more information:

Welcome to my first ongoing topic! I've only been freelancing in New York for a little over a year, but I've already been asked a few times about it by people considering it. Seeing that my knowledge of freelancing thus far has come only through the generosity of the friends I've met here, I decided it's time to spread the love and make a resource for anyone considering going freelance (or starting out freelancing) in NYC. Since it's such a huge topic, I'm gonna start out with what I would consider to be the first questions people have, and then continue on in later posts with specific topics.

Knowing how to be smart when freelancing is probably a skill only learned after years of experience, and part of the reason for that is because nobody really openly talks about it! The other reason is that I do think it takes experience to fully understand the complexities, and because of that, I can only offer you what a year's worth of experience can understand. So if you are reading this and think you know more than I do about freelancing, you may be right--so post comments to add your advice!

The Good
People go freelance for various reasons. Some don't want to be tied down to one studio, some like the flexibility of being able to take time off. Others, like me, freelance because that's about the best (and nearly the only) way to stay employed in New York. My perspective on freelancing comes as a newcomer to the industry, gaining experience and exploring this thing called commercial animation.

1. Experience
Probably the thing I like the most about freelancing in NYC is that it has truely shown me how various places function day-to-day. What the work environment is like, how production is managed, scheduling is made, how teams work together. I've come to realize that some people, even those who go to a big LA studio straight out of school may never get to see the industry in a broader scope, and only know what it's like to work in a large feature animation/vsfx house. I've freelanced at 4 studios so far, and every one of them has been very different from the last. Freelancing makes sure that you don't get stuck in a bad working environment, just because you don't know what a good working environment is like.

2. Networking
In NYC, the local industry is even smaller than the animation/vsfx industry as a whole. Meaning that once some of your friends start dropping your name as an available freelancer, your odds of getting a gig are fairly good (if you have patience). Studios will hire you for a gig, and if you don't screw it up, they will probably call you back when they need more manpower later. Of course you still need to have the skills shown on your reel to be hired, but networking is what will get you the initial email. You also need to not be a jerk. Seriously. Also, you have a great opportunity to meet a lot of people at every place you work--an opportunity to make friends, not just expand your business network.

3. Flexibility
It is nice to be able to say to yourself "I wanna go home at Christmas for a week", and be able to do that (providing you are not booked somewhere then). You can take some time off whenever you want to see the family, go on a trip, etc. In the fast paced world of advertising, these breaks allow you to build up your energy again to tackle the next round of stomach-churning client notes. If you'd rather work from home, you have even more flexibility, even so far as working late and sleeping in until 12pm. I have chosen not to do remote work thus far, because it takes a lot more self-discipline, and I would also rather be working with other people than on my own.

4. The Pay
Freelance pays well--if you ask for it. This is a double edged sword, and will also be explained further under "The Bad". But as far as the good, it is possible to make much more by freelancing than by getting a salary as staff. Freelancers in New York usually get paid by the day. This is a whole 'nother topic, and is best saved for a post of its own. Note: This does not mean you will be living in the lap of fact, you probably won't.

5. Tax Deductions
Since freelancers are "self-employed", they are their own business. That means that there are plenty of tax deductions you can legally take if they come from expenses due to your career as a freelance artist (your business). Computer equipment, books, demo reel/portfolio materials, etc--if it's honestly related to your career, you can deduct it as a business expense. Save your receipts.

The Bad
1. Downtime
What some call flexibility, others call a lack of job security. If you freelance, there will be chunks of time when you actually would rather not be on break or "between gigs", because moths are slowly setting up home in your wallet. As the industry as a whole becomes more and more based on the "project-hire" plan, most everyone will probably see downtime more than once in their career. The ironic thing is, if you are smart, freelancing can teach you how to anticipate and prepare for that downtime, while other people who suddenly lose their job are freaking out because they haven't put together a demo reel in 2 years, and haven't saved up any money. So while downtime is in my opinion a bad thing, you may benefit from it in the long run (again, if you are smart).

2. Uncertainty
This is the broader picture behind the "downtime" info. The uncertainty of a freelancer's life goes beyond job security (this is probably the umbrella topic where everything under "Bad" can fit. When you are working gig to gig, for a couple months at a time, you really can't know where you're going to be 6 months down the road. You may not know if you can get home for Christmas until a month beforehand. I learned quickly that I could no longer plan my year, trips home, etc, because I had no idea where I'd be a few months down the road. While you may no longer feel you can plan those things, you also need to be able to plan for the short term. You need to save up your money so that when your current gig is up, you have some padding to pay your rent and bills while you find another job.

3. No Benefits
Health insurance is up to you and your pockets. Planning for the long-term is something that has recently become apparent to me, and while I am still learning this myself, I do know that it is very important. When you don't have a company 401k or other retirement plan, it up to you alone to be in charge of your retirement money. While you may make some good money in the present, it will do no good if you have not prepared for that time when the paychecks aren't coming in. Even though I am in no way close to retirement, this is the time when people like me have to be saving the money that is being earned.

4. The Pay, and your taxes
You don't get taxes deducted from your paychecks. This may seem small to you now, but when you are paying your quarterly estimated payments or filing your tax return, you'll realize how much better it would be to have that taken care of automatically. Estimated quarterly payments are made so you don't get hit with a fine at the end of the year for not paying taxes during the year. Amazing how that works isn't it. You will also need to either get an accountant, or figure out how to file your taxes as a business owner and personally. Turbo Tax has a home business version that helps you take deductions that you qualify for, but eventually the time will come when it is better to get an accountant to do it for you. You are smart if you open up a savings account at your bank, and save about 1/3 of each paycheck for New York and federal taxes. If you don't, you run the risk of not having that money when you need it.

Also, you will need to know what to tell studios when they ask what your "day rate" (amount of $ you charge per day) is, as that will be what you are paid for your hard work and sweat. This varies depending on your experience, and on how well you can negotiate. This will be discussed in its own post sometime.

5. The "Hold" System
The hold system is apparently something that was seemingly invented in New York to "hire" freelance artists. It goes like this--you get a call or email from Studio ABC in Manhattan. They've seen your reel and they like it, they say they are in need of an animator, and ask if you are available. If you are, they say "Great, we'd like to put you on hold for April through June".

On hold? What does that mean?? Am I employed or not? Technically no, if you are just on hold, you are not being paid, and not working. A hold is nothing more than a sort of verbal agreement that *if* a studio needs you to come in to work, you have told them you are available to do it, you are sort of "on call" for them. Do not confuse this with being "booked". If a studio gives you a start date and says you are booked from April 2nd through June 15th that means that they are obligated to let you work those dates, you are hired for those dates. This unfortunately is a grey area for some people, and another "Bad" part of freelancing--you may need to make sure that your employer knows the difference between being booked and "on hold". Yeah, I don't like the hold system either. But there are ways of it working in your favor, as will be better explained in a post dedicated to this topic alone.

Phew, that's a lot of info, and a big summary in which I'm sure there are numerous holes (and is by no means complete). But I will expand upon these and other topics later. The industry in New York is healthy right now, and the more you know about what it's like to work here, the good and the bad, the better you can prepare yourself and make an educated decision on if it's right for you. I myself am very grateful for starting out my career freelancing, because it has helped me to make new friends quickly, given me experience on some fantastic projects, and taught me that every studio is different.

For more information and great advice on freelancing in New York City you should definitely pick up "Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive" by David B. Levy. Highly, highly recommended.

Also check out the Freelancer's Union. It is a great resource and advocacy group for freelancers that started in New York, and is now spreading to various cities across the country.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Spread the Fred

Finally something cool I can post from my favorite podcast! The music video of The Jimmy Swift Band's song is well done, the animation is pretty good and well drawn--which is nice to see in an "anything goes" indy shorts venue. Although I think the puppet motif has been done a few too many times in animation, the great design makes up for it. The 2nd short "What About Lunch" is alright, but didn't strike me as all that entertaining. I like the art direction of the music vid too, although I there's not as cohesive of a story as in my favorite music video from CF, "The Wizard Needs Food Badly" (Episode 36). The Wizard one is by Ghostbot, which does the E-surance flash commericals. I like flash animation that's done with good taste, design, and attention to represent physics, even if in a limited manner.

You can now watch old episodes all on Channel Frederator's website, and download episodes for free on iTunes! Do it!

"Wizard Needs Food Badly", music by Five Iron Frenzy, animation by Ghostbot

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Psyop--an inside look

I found an interview with people from Psyop, talking about how they started, what they do, etc. Psyop is developing quite a name for itself around NYC, the most frequent question when I tell people where I've freelanced is "How did you like Psyop?" I can't figure out who was actually interviewed for this article, but it's obviously one of the heads.

The pictures make me laugh a bit because they remind me of the photos I used to see of buildings in SCAD catalogs, that conveniently crop the pictures at strategic places, so as not to show the neighborhood that the building is actually in :P But hey, I put my best foot forward on my promo material, so I guess they do too.

Posting about Psyop has gotten me to think that maybe I'll talk more in future posts about my experience freelancing in New York. So many people are totally unaware of what the industry is like here, and at present it looks to be very healthy, with some great work going on in commercials vfx. Also, freelancing is a totally different world than having a steady job somewhere, and maybe I can dive into the pros and cons for anyone who's considering it. It's opened my eyes to the fact that every studio is unique in atmosphere, projects, people, and just about everything else. But I'm thankful for getting the chance to see what it's like to work in different places. I could get into more now, but it's best saved for later ;)

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Nathan Sawaya--Lego Artist

While flipping channels, I somehow caught something cool on CNBC tonight. They were interviewing this guy, Nathan Sawaya, who used to be a lawyer in NYC. At some point he quit his 6 figure job, to work at LegoLand for $13/hr (cause he had won a contest by Lego, to find the best Lego builder in the country, or something like that). But after he won, he decided to quit and build Lego sculptures. Now he freelances in New York, selling these things for hundreds or thousands of dollars a pop! Check out his site, amazing stuff:

All because he's loved Legos his whole life! Cool story eh?

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Lasseter article in the NY Times

Check out this great article in the New York Times about how Lasseter is running the show at Disney now. It talks a lot about the infamous story revisions of "Meet the Robinsons" that happened when Lasseter took the throne.

By the way, be sure to check out my Google Reader widget in the right column, where I share different things from my reader box that I don't have time to post about, but are well worth the look! I share more items there frequently, or at least as frequently as I find something that I think everyone should read :) If you click the 'Read more...' link at the *bottom* of the widget, you can look at all of the shared items on one page.

The Geck is back!

Keep an eye out for a couple of the Geico Gecko ads I worked on at Framestore, now airing! "Decisions" (the Gecko standing in a theatre lobby, talking about the decision of how to buy insurance from Geico--"online, over the phone, or just pop by the local Geico office"), and "Seconds" (the Gecko riding an escalator, trying to explain to everyone how tough of a job he has). "Puma" is also airing, (the Geck talks about choosing a mascot other than a gecko), but I did not work on that. The last one I worked on was called "Local" but I don't think that's aired yet.

On "Decisions" I animated the shot when he says "Then o'course, you got a decision to make, ainya?" And on "Seconds" I animated the first shot--"You can't even, *imagine*, the pressure..." We had quite a few animators working on these spots, there were a total of 7 spots that were divided between 2 teams of animators.

"Seconds" was my favorite of them all, because it is quite different from the other gecko ads. In pretty much all the ads, his job is to promote the 3 different ways to buy from Geico. But in this one, it's an almost pure character moment, where the geck is just trying to convince everyone that his life isn't as easy as it seems! It was a great opportunity to finally delve into as much emotion as we could get away with. The tough thing about animating the gecko is that he has a very reserved range of motion that the animators have to adhere to, but I think we were able to sqeeze a little more expression out of him this time around while still keeping him in character. Sometimes it was actually a nice challenge to try to keep him as expressive as possible, while still keeping the action as small as the client wanted. It's surprising how much so little can do at times. It's too bad we don't have a "deleted scenes" reel though, there was some great acting by my coworkers that didn't make the cut. Such is the life!

I'll definitly be updating my website once I get the render frames from Framestore. In the meantime, if anyone happens to see them on YouTube, let me know!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Cool Bugs Bunny

Found this clip over at Animation ID--a blog worth frequent visiting if you haven't been there already. (Link in right column under "Watch more") This clip was an example of Ken Harris' animation at Warner Bros. I think Bugs looks the best here ("Frigid Hare") of any cartoon I can remember, and I love the subtle acting that is rarely seen in the old Warner cartoons that usually relied heavily on the gags. Bugs' legs in the wide shot swim crazily, but I think the medium shot is gold. Clear poses, and a great little heartfelt moment that gives Bugs an unusual moment of compassion. I just think the poses are so expressive and natural, and the drawings have so much appeal here.

Frigid Hare 2
Uploaded by thadk

You can see Thad's post and comments on this and another clip via my little Google Reader widget on the right ("Ken Harris--Frigid Hare").