Gratitude & Hope

For all of us, 2020 has been upside down, backwards, and totally unexpected in far too many ways.

While we may be reeling from upheaval, confused at so much contradiction and upset by the rampant contention, shining through everything dark and dreary are the positive and hopeful moments that never fail to arrive just in time.

We see that pattern all around us; the warm promise of a fresh spring always follows the harsh, gray oppression of winter. Yet when things are at their bleakest, it feels as though they may never pass.

This reminds me of the moment in The Price where the narrator is thinking through possible causes for the trauma being visited upon the Black Cat each night, and says, “We wondered who he was fighting? Racoons? A rat-tailed, fanged possum?”

Here’s how I chose to depict this part of the story when I first created the animatic:

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I thought having him look out through his office window as the camera moves in from outside the glass would help convey his concern over whatever external force was causing so much torment for his feline houseguest.

When creating the final images, I decided to add raindrops to the surface of the glass, starting the shot tight on them as they trickle down like tears, and then racking focus to reveal our narrator inside.

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TP-027-B_Who-he-was-fighting_01I like the juxtaposition, with the colder lighting outside and the more inviting colors within.

I suppose that is where some of my optimism has come from recently. Despite the grim goings-on in the world around me, the mandate to stay inside has renewed the deep affection and appreciation I feel for my family. The disruption of everyday schedules has led to some unique and unscripted moments that have helped to strengthen our bond, and to value familiar relationships more fully.

My gratitude at the pure generosity of Neil Gaiman (who recently celebrated a birthday) and the persistent positivity of Cat Mihos are lights that keep shining on this project even on my darker days.

As always, I am grateful for the many messages I continue to receive that are brimming with cheerful encouragement and kindness, despite the hyper-extended production timeline of this little film. Even those whose comments have been somewhat less than polite on this point still reflect the care and passion of fans who just want to see this version of Neil Gaiman’s beloved story (already)! I thank you for your continued faith and patience, and promise that I am one of those passionate/perturbed people myself!

Stay healthy and safe, and hold your loved ones extra tight; spring is coming.

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A Furry Face & Two Birthdays

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I thought you might enjoy seeing the full size, hand-painted texture map used on the close-up model of The Black Cat. (Click on the image to see it full-size.) There are different layers that can be added to manipulate the look of the fur and to reveal the progressively damaged and wounded state of our hero as he continues to wage his lonely battle throughout the story.

Today happens to be Mr. Neil Gaiman’s birthday, which by happy coincidence he shares with my good friend (and sound guru) Rob King. Rob will be helping with the audio design and mix (when we get to that point), and is featured in this production Videoblog, “The Recording of Neil.”  He has been a constant source of support and encouragement throughout this project, is a master craftsman and a legitimately great guy!

The first time I met Rob was to direct a voice-over recording session for a video game I was working on. Forgetting to compensate for the different time zone, I arrived at his Sherman Oaks, CA studio from the airport an hour early. Realizing my error before actually knocking, I figured I’d wait on his porch and watch the rest of The Fellowship of the Ring on my laptop. I had barely pushed ‘play’ when I heard the sound of a door being cautiously opened behind me. To Rob’s credit, he appeared unfazed as I began my stammering explanation of who I was and why I was watching Hobbits on his steps, then graciously invited me to step inside; the rest, as they say, is history.

The happiest of birthday wishes to both of you fine gentlemen — may you watch a fantastic movie and eat something truly wicked!

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Just Keep Swimming…

I hope everyone had great fun this Halloween season! My fifteen-year-old demonstrated impeccable taste in selecting his costume this year… behold, Anthony J. Crowley:

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A rather dashing young man if I must say so; I myself cut somewhat less of a debonair figure:

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(That took about 2 hours to apply, and instantly caused frightened children to scatter in a 5-mile radius in every direction.)

Now, I want to share a few things with those who have been patiently waiting for an update.

First: I love The Price.

This project has been a non-stop series of small miracles for me (including the more than 2000 made possible by the enthusiastic kindness of strangers via Kickstarter), not to mention a few gigantic ones  (like spending time with Mr. Neil Gaiman, and being able to call Cat Mihos my friend).

Second: as you are well aware, this film is taking a long, long, long time to make.

That was never the plan, and yet here we are. Clearly, there are frustrations (on both sides of the fence), and a swamp filled with doubt and anxiety that requires careful navigation to steer clear of while staying hopeful, creative and productive.

One evening not long ago I began re-reading Coraline, and in the forward to the 10th anniversary edition read about Neil’s own struggles in writing one of his most beloved stories:

“I stopped writing [Coraline] when we moved to America. (I had been writing it in my own time. It didn’t seem like I had any “own time” any longer.)

“Six years later I picked it up and continued from the middle of the sentence I’d stopped at in August 1992

“I started it again because I realized that if I didn’t, my youngest daughter, Maddy, would be too old for it by the time I was done. I started it for Holly. I finished it for Maddy.

“Now I was writing Coraline again, I still had no time, so I would write fifty words a night in bed, before I fell asleep.”

His account, and similar stories from other artists I admire, bring much needed light and encouragement to keep moving forward each day, no matter the conditions or the challenges; it’s like Dory says in Finding Nemo, “Just keep swimming!” (Given that our last name is Salmon, this has become our mantra.)

Many have asked that I share a completion date, but I have been reluctant to publicly draw that line in the sand given the unpredictability of this project. It remains a labor of love, and while there is a timeline I am striving to maintain, I would rather provide a happy surprise when it’s finished than disappointment at a missed deadline.

Still others have questioned if all this work is actually necessary, given that the animatic version (made years ago) tells the cinematic story already. While I appreciate the overwhelmingly positive reactions to that proof-of-concept, the best way to explain what all of this time and effort are for, is that I am turning this

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into this

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Thank you so very much for all your patience and support; please know I am following Neil’s example, working each and every day until the film is finished. Now, back to work…

 

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Happy Birthday Neil!

I thought this image would be appropriate to share on Neil’s birthday; working on the shot had me thinking once again about the generosity and  compassion (towards both animals and people) that were clearly evident during my visit to Castle Gaiman.

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As this is the first feline you meet in the movie, it was important for him to be adorable enough so that the audience would understand why the narrator can’t refuse to take pity, and invites him to stay.

That in turn meant that the reaction of my cinematic version of Mr. Gaiman (as he opens the front door and sees this furry face looking up at him) also needed to convey the same level of warmth and welcoming I had felt while there, in great abundance. Getting these emotions to “read,” along with maintaining the desired balance of stylization and realism has been among the most exciting challenges of this project.

And to Neil (himself): our thanks for who you are and what you do — more than ever, it is no small thing to have someone to look-up to.

Best wishes for a most excellent birthday!

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The Trouble with Trolls…

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Photo by: Avery Salmon

From time to time I take on freelance projects to help keep the lights on, and several have proven to be both extremely challenging as well as genuinely exciting. Given the recent Halloween festivities, I was prompted to share something fun and thought a brief post about making this little guy might be just the thing.

As was mentioned in Videoblog #4: Digital Sculpting and Design, learning to make rubber masks and creatures was one of several rather unique pursuits of my misspent youth.

Troll_CU_01This creepy critter is something I developed for a successful YouTuber (whose upcoming project must remain undisclosed for the moment). It’s essentially a hand puppet created using many common mask/creature production techniques.

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The first thing I did was find an innocent animal plushy with the right type of fur to use as a base for the puppet’s body, then Photoshop-ed a new, ugly mug in place of its decidedly cuter face (adding some wicked black claws for good measure). This part of the process is especially fun, and I gleefully combined elements of both Mogwai and Grinch until an appropriate troll-like visage was achieved.

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Once the design was sufficiently repulsive, I began to sculpt the charmingly grotesque features in oil-based clay. The basic size was determined by the need to have a hand fit inside to operate the finished creature. A variety of fangs were made from oven-hardening clay, but the eyes took a little more ingenuity.

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I found some glass forms in a craft store (meant for making those photo/magnet baubles you can display on your fridge), then created the desired iris/pupil/sclera in Photoshop, printed them out and glued them to the back of the glass using clear adhesive.

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After positioning the eyes and teeth, the skin and all of its detail was sculpted in clay. In the above photo, I’ve started detailing part of the face; you can also see where the lower jaw was separated from the rest of the head to facilitate sculpting the interior of the mouth more easily.

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Once the sculpture is finished, a plaster negative mold is made. The clay is removed and several coats of liquid latex are poured in (allowing time to dry between each). When the desired thickness is achieved, the rubber casting is dusted with talcum powder (to keep it from sticking to itself) and carefully peeled from the mold.

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After trimming away the excess rubber from the edges, eye holes and back of the throat, acrylic paint mixed with latex was used to color the face with a series of washes to get the layered tones I wanted. When this part was completed, the eyes and teeth were attached.

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The claws were made from the same material as the teeth. They were attached to wire armatures and placed inside the existing toy’s hands and feet, cutting the single pieces of fabric into three separate digits and gluing everything back together with contact cement (a puppet-maker’s best friend). To help connect the claws better, I wrapped the tips of the fingers and toes with soft foam strips, then used cotton and latex to build up the rough anatomy of the knuckles, palms and soles (a fairly crude technique, but since those areas wouldn’t be seen much, it made sense to save time doing it this way). After a thorough drying, everything was painted. The poseable interior armatures also included a threaded mounting point for rods that could extend out and control each of the limbs.

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The hair for the head was made from a multicolored yarn brushed-out with a pet grooming tool, and then straightened with an old flat-iron. I glued swatches onto the rubber head in overlapping layers and punched-in small tufts along the hairline using a homemade tool.

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The face was then attached to the body with a lined passage for the operator’s arm that went from its back up into the head. I also created a fabric ‘esophagus’ that allowed him to ‘eat’ objects directly through the mouth. The teeth, gums and tongue were coated to give them a permanent shine, and there you have it … a custom-made troll puppet to haunt your dreams!

Clearly, this project represents an awful lot of work, but also a tremendous amount of fun. Taking a break from the digital world to get my hands covered in clay, paint and glue again — even for a little while — takes me back to where these dark fascinations began; I hope you enjoyed this demented detour! :)

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Opportunities & Automobiles

With the crisp autumn air and distinctive smell that heralds the change in seasons, my thoughts have turned to my visit with Neil at his splendid Castle Gaiman. Sifting through memories both spellbinding and surrealistic, there is a moment  I still feel pangs of regret for.

One day, we traveled through some strikingly pretty country in Neil’s car to attend an event for his good friend and assistant, Lorraine, and her  roller derby team. As we drove, I asked him a few questions, but was leery about ‘taking’ too much after he had already generously invited me to stay in his home and spend a few days tagging along (for a more detailed explanation of my concerns with overstepping boundaries, see this blog post regarding an experience being on set with Stephen King).

Driving-with-Neil

(This photo was taken by the one-and-only Cat Mihos, who arranged my trip and then selflessly sat in the back seat despite my feeble attempts at chivalry.)

One thing I asked was what he thought of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. He responded that after the first film, he chose not to watch the rest; having lived with his own vibrant visions of Tolkien’s world for many years, he wasn’t ready to replace those imaginings with someone else’s version of Treebeard. I can respect that wholeheartedly, but since those are my all-time favorites, I couldn’t think of a whole lot to add at that point in the conversation. He was listening to various musical selections (clearly enjoying himself, even singing along occasionally), and a sense of having encroached upon a very, very busy man’s pleasant afternoon drive began to creep over me.

That might seem odd to some of you, but I’ve had the chance to see firsthand how much his fans can ask — even demand — of him. By nature, Neil is a generous and kind man, and I didn’t want to take advantage of that; I still don’t.

He drove a Mini Cooper  that day, a fitting choice of vehicle (I thought). Back when I created the original images for the animatic of The Price, I used a SAAB for the car in a scene where the Narrator returns home from working on his latest book to find the mysterious Black Cat ragged and “almost unrecognizable,”  sitting on the front porch like a weary sentinel.

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When it came time to render this shot in 3D, I decided to go with the Mini instead, and had a ton of fun setting-up the materials and animation rig (check out those Minnesota tags)!

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Looking back, it feels as though a rare opportunity was squandered that October afternoon by not allowing a more natural moment to just … happen. I was too worried about the author-fan scenario and withdrew myself somewhat out of fear that I might become a nuisance or irritant — one more fan with his hand out (despite the fact that he remained friendly and exceedingly hospitable throughout my time there).

Fear is a dangerous thing when we allow it to dissuade us from moving forward on our chosen paths, sowing its dark seeds of doubt and insecurity. I will do my upmost to bear that in mind while continuing to craft this little film that I so dearly love; here is one final image to help with that:

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Behind-The-Scenes…

For some time, I have wanted to get (a lot) better at sharing some of the ups and downs of production in a more spontaneous way. After exulting in a triumphal moment with my wife Glynis and detailing the various obstacles I had to overcome to get there, she suggested making a brief video so I could do the same with all of you. As one who has learned by sad experience the peril of not heeding a spouse’s wise words … well, here it is:

And for those of you who may want to take a closer look at the set I refer to during the video, here is a render:

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Now imagine the same scene without all those books … not even remotely close to the real thing (trust me), nor would it be the right thing. All of the many ‘props’ required to dress the set are searched and selected with care; look at how the items on the desktop convey information about the character who spends so much time here:

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From the tea cup and fountain pen to the contrast of using both a note book and a computer, all of these details help tell the story. That’s all for now; I hope you enjoyed my little rant and quick peek under the hood! :)

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Happy Halloween!

Yes, I know Halloween was yesterday, but I didn’t get this post ready in time (big surprise there). I seem to over-complicate things more often than not, so I decided to just write a quick note and add a cool new image to let you know I am still alive, still working away on this little film, and still extremely grateful for the chance to be doing so.

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A few weeks ago, I had the unique (if last-minute) opportunity to fill-in for an absent ‘break-out session’ presenter during a Digital Media department conference held at a local university (UVU). With about 45 minutes warning, I grabbed my laptop and made my way through truly horrendous campus traffic to the large auditorium with only moments to spare. The keynote speaker was cinematographer/DP Munn Powell of Napoleon Dynamite fame (who was thoroughly entertaining and informative); after a brief interlude I was privileged to share with about a hundred students the process of getting started with The Price, including my initial emails with Mr. Gaiman, the Kickstarter campaign, Comic Con, and everything else to this point. I had a wonderful time, and enjoyed talking with several audience members afterward. It seemed to be well-received, as the department chair, Arlen Card (brother to author Orson Scott Card), asked me to come back and do it again for a larger, more diversified group tomorrow morning. (I’ll let you know how it goes — hopefully they’ll record it, and if they do I will post some of it here.)

My thanks again for all of the kind messages and positive encouragements; they continue to provide a powerful curative for those dark and discouraging thoughts that try to squirm their way into my heart from time to time, and stand as a reminder that there are many others besides myself who haven’t lost the faith.

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Brick by Brick

Brick-By-Brick_01Hey everyone — it’s good to be back (finally)! I’ve mentioned before that many of my friends (along with my wonderfully patient wife, Glynis) keep reminding me that I don’t always need to have some big, fabulous thing to show in order to create a post here. While knowing they are right, I continue to struggle with feeling a lack of anything genuinely interesting to display or speak about … then the time between these updates grows longer and longer, and all my anxieties along with it. It’s a vicious circle I am (still) determined to break, even if that means sharing something that didn’t work right, or to express a hope/frustration in a line or two.

I hope your holiday celebrations were warm and wonderful, and that this year has been good for you thus far. With so much of the negative being emphasized in the world right now, it’s more important than ever to stay aware of the positive and be grateful for all that we have.

Like many of you, the grinding process of working towards long-range goals can make it easy to slip into self-recrimination, allowing devastating sentiments to cloud the precious creative drive we depend upon as artists. I discovered a welcome antidote for those pernicious feelings while reading an article by one of my favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell. A celebrated contributor to The New Yorker, Mr. Gladwell has written several fascinating — and hugely successful –books (Outliers, The Tipping Point, Blink, and most recently David and Goliath) that each had a profound effect upon me, resulting in much reflection  and a renewed sense of curiosity about how things may actually work (as opposed to how we sometimes, mistakenly, think they do); his TED talks are highly recommended as well.

In the article Late Bloomers, Gladwell begins with the story of a young, aspiring writer named Ben Fountain whose seemingly rapid ascent from obscurity to literary darling is revealed to have actually transpired over the space of eighteen years — most of it spent working away at his kitchen table.

Although the focus of the piece is to ask why we equate genius with precocity, I found great comfort in the way he describes two different artistic personality types.

First there is the prodigy, a fresh, young creator that just blows-up right from the start; in cinematic terms, think Orson Wells, who created his masterpiece Citizen Kane at twenty-five, or Steven Spielberg setting the world on fire with Jaws before even turning 30. Then there is the late bloomer, who takes a much longer and protracted time to develop their style and produce the works they would eventually become known for. A  great example of the latter is Alfred Hitchcock, who made seven of his greatest films (including Rear Window, North by Northwest, and Psycho) between the age of fifty-four and sixty-one! (Insanity!)

Can you guess which side of the line I lean towards?

If you read the article, you’ll notice that many of these late bloomers continue to work on and refine their art throughout the lengthy process of its creation. And although some of the attributes he lists for this creative type don’t fit, I can identify all too well with this familiar methodology,  and wanted to share an example from The Price to illustrate…

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Near the beginning of the animatic (the simplified, rough-draft of the movie), I choose to introduce the audience to the narrator by having a stray cat approach the front door of his home. Using storyboard illustrations, this was accomplished with cuts between the feline visitor and the opening door.

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In the actual film where the camera is free to move about the 3D ‘set,’  I devised a more immersive shot; we glide up the steps and across the porch, past the stray, and push-in close to look up at the door as it opens (a point-of-view similar to the cat’s). I was thrilled with the effectiveness of the move, but then noticed a glaring issue … the bricks looked fake!

To explain:

The model of the house was made with a minimal amount of polygons, the building blocks for 3D images. Simply put, the more polygons in a given object, the more complex and realistic it may look — but the computer has to work harder to ‘draw’ or render them onscreen. With limited computing power, that becomes a vital issue.

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All of the brightly-colored lines in this image make up the triangular shapes of the polygons, and they act like the frame for the model of the front porch. These digital frames are covered with images called texture maps, using a technique similar to wallpapering. Below are examples of some of the textures used  (many of which were made from photographs I took while visiting the legendary Castle Gaiman).

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To keep the poly-budget down to a reasonable level that my computer won’t choke on, many details have to be ‘faked’ with texture maps and another type called a ‘normal’ map (the name doesn’t make any sense at first, but we aren’t going to go into that right now). The seemingly bizarre coloration of the normal map tells the computer how to light a flat object — like a smooth, featureless wall — so it looks like rough bricks with sunken grooves of mortar.

These two maps go a long way toward making it appear as though the house walls are actually made of bricks … until you get to the hard, sharp-edged corners … and the jig is up. Illusion shattered — it looks like wallpaper!

While that may not seem like a big deal, by having the camera move in this close, the lack of edge detail becomes extremely distracting! The whole point of the shot is to focus anticipation on seeing who is opening the door, not the limitations of my PC, right?

To go back and rebuild the porch walls with individually modeled (and textured) bricks would have been a huge, labor-intensive job, and defeat the purpose of keeping the assets lean in the first place, so … what to do?

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Using the Element 3D plugin for After Effects (which didn’t even exist when I started this project), I developed a way to build very low-poly bricks and insert them into the existing model only along the edges that were giving me trouble. Look at the difference with those bricks in place…

…and then without.

And in the final shot, those bricks even cast a shadow across the door, adding one more  detail that helps keep the illusion onscreen alive.

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Back to Late Bloomers, I could empathize with some of the artists Mr. Gladwell talks about (like the great French painter Cézanne), and was grateful to note that several of them endured adversities similar to my own. Here is a particularly uplifting passage:

“On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all. Prodigies are easy. They advertise their genius from the get-go. Late bloomers are hard. They require forbearance and blind faith.”

Gladwell then states the extremely vital role that patrons play in allowing these types of artists the time to be able to develop and produce their work.

“That word [patron] has a condescending edge to it today, because we think it far more appropriate for artists (and everyone else for that matter) to be supported by the marketplace. But the marketplace works only for people like … Picasso, whose talent was so blindingly obvious that an art dealer offered him a hundred-and-fifty-franc-a-month stipend the minute he got to Paris, at age twenty. If you are the type of creative mind that …  has to experiment and learn by doing, you need someone to see you through the long and difficult time it takes for your art to reach its true level.”

That brings me to all of you, and the overwhelming surge of gratitude I feel towards everyone who has believed in my vision and generously supported this project, who continue to send so much encouragement and … yes, love.

“Late bloomers’ stories are invariably love stories, and this may be why we have such difficulty with them. We’d like to think that mundane matters like loyalty, steadfastness, and the willingness to keep writing checks to support what looks like failure have nothing to do with something as rarefied as genius. But sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.”

I can’t say it any better than that. My deepest thanks to everyone (beginning with Mr. Neil Gaiman, my family, and to each one of you) for allowing me to make this little film, to honor a story I fell in love with and can’t get out of my mind/heart until it can be shared with the world.

It’s been a long, cold winter, but spring is coming …

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Legs & Layers

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I’m preparing a new Video Blog that illustrates some of the various hybrid animation techniques being used in the production of The Price, and wanted to share a screenshot as a quick preview — stay tuned!

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