Composition and Contrast

Whether you are drawing a picture, staging a scene in a play, or taking a photograph, the way you choose to present the elements of your creation to an audience has a huge impact on how they will receive the message you are endeavoring to send.

As I was starting to put together storyboard frames for the animatic, one of the first images that formed clearly was this one:

AnimaticSlide_03

There are times when I struggle to find an interesting way to visualize a scene, but this one leapt fully-formed into my mind. It made me feel everything I was hoping to convey: trepidation, wariness, anxiety and a bit of mystery as well. Although it may just be a basement stairwell, at this point in the story the audience needs to feel like there is definitely something askew with the visit of this seemingly innocuous black cat. I didn’t try to over-think things when putting it together, but the lower, canted angle, strong contrast, and the off-center placement of the doorway at the top of the stairs all combined to create the tone I wanted. It remains one of my favorite shots, so when it came time to build the actual scene, I kept the composition intact.

Stairwell-to-Sanctuary_01a

 

I hope you are enjoying these images and insights as much as I enjoy sharing them!

Oh, one last thing: is anyone planning on attending the San Diego Comic Con in July? Just asking…

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A Change in the Weather

I don’t know how it may be for you, but where we live, the weather has been doing its springtime-schizophrenic-thing with great abandon this year! (I went camping with my son’s scout troop 2 weeks ago and froze all night long; now I can’t sleep in my own bed without the overhead fan spinning away.)

Thinking on these thermal vacillations  suggested an interesting detail to share with you: during my oft-referred to visit at Castle Gaiman, a roofing company happened to be effecting some repairs with a specialized truck that featured a platform attached to a crane/boom arm that could extend all the way to the top of the house (I believe they called it a “cherry picker”). With Neil’s kind permission, I had the operator take me up so I could shoot references photographs from a unique vantage point. I’m not gonna lie — it was a blast to ride in, and also an unexpected treat to experience high-altitude views of the house and property.

Photo by: Cat Mihos

One of the details I was excited to see in person was the distinctive weather-vane that adorns the tower at the front of the house.

CG_Weathervane_01

Although interesting in its own right, I wasn’t as keen about the design as I had anticipated. After reviewing the photos later, I still felt a bit disenchanted, and decided my Castle Gaiman would need to have something a little more…spooky.

So, I approached my friend, the talented designer-illustrator Dave Laub, and asked if he could take the basic idea and give it his customary Laub-ification treatment; here’s what he came up with:

WeatherVane_Design_01

Pretty cool, right? :) Needless to say, I was thrilled, so the design was given to master-sculptor Ryan Peterson, who translated Dave’s 2D concept into an actual 3D model. (For a more detailed explanation of this process and some examples of how it works, you can watch — or perhaps re-watch — this videoblog on Digital Sculpture & Design.)

You may be asking at this point: so, why all the fuss? The next time you are watching a movie, you might notice that alongside the shots you would normally expect to see, like close-ups when people are talking to each other, or establishing shots of locations that let you know where the next scenes are going to take place, etc., there are other, less obvious elements used to help move the story along. One of these cinematic devices is called a transition, which does exactly what it sounds like: helps the viewer make a transition from one place (or idea, or emotion) to another without getting confused feeling jarred out of the moment. I wanted to feature the weather-vane in a close up to serve as a transition point in the film, both visually and tonally; take a look:

Change-in-the-Weather_01aIt’s at this juncture in the story where bad things begin to occur, and which seem to be somehow connected to the Black Cat. I’m hopeful that this imagery won’t feel too “on-the-nose” to viewers, but will impart a subtle sense of foreboding.

Well that’s all for now; have a tremendous week! (And keep an eye out for those sudden storms…)

 

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The Basement

For this week’s post (yes, I am going to post something every week from here on out — even if it’s just a quick, frustrated blurb or scribbled drawing of some sort), I thought I’d share this image of one of the featured locations in the film: the basement.

The-Basement_01

This set was built using some of that new “tech” I was referring to in the last post, which allows me to move objects, lights and camera around in real-time, helping to dial-in an amplified, illustrative feel for The Price. No more waiting (like in the “Old Days”) for minutes/hours between adjustments while the computer crunches away — it really is such a huge artistic advantage! To compare, here is an image of the quick 3D set I cobbled together for the animatic:

Animatic-Basement

When developing the animatic, I realized this was one of the sets I couldn’t just “fake” with a simple image for the background, as I had to generate multiple shots from very different angles. Luckily, these renders were very simple, didn’t have any real textures or colors to worry about getting right (as the images were eventually turned monochromatic), and were only meant to get the general idea across. If you look carefully between the two versions, you can see that I’ve re-purposed some of the same models (although they have been upgraded significantly).

One last thing you may find interesting: to keep from going crazy, I sometimes amuse myself by adding little references to various friends and family members into the background of shots, like the label for this paint thinner can:

KodusStrip_01

(“Kodus” is a nick-name for one of my sons…and yes, the rest of my kids are watching very closely to make sure they don’t get slighted.)

At any rate, I hope you enjoyed this quick peek; have a great week!

PS: For the record, Neil’s basement looks nothing like this. It’s got a marvelous library, tons of comics, and is both inviting and comfortable in every way; that wouldn’t really work too well for the movie — I want my basement scary and mysterious! :)

Gaiman_Library

Photo by: Kyle Cassidy

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A Lonely Road

So, the bad news is that once again it has been several months since I posted an update here, and for that I am genuinely sorry. The good news is, I have a new image to share, along with a fairly extensive update… so let’s get started:

Morning-Mail_01

I chose this shot because it’s a good example of how an initial idea can change and develop over time. In the original animatic, this scene was very different:

Animatic_MailboxRain

I didn’t have much of the geography around the house worked-out beyond some grass, a bunch of trees in the distance and a road. In fact, if you look too long at this frame, you’ll find all sorts of things that don’t make any sense — but the point of the shot was, “Look! There’s a mailbox!” and maybe a little bit of, “Oh yeah, it’s rainy and gloomy too,” thrown-in for good measure.

I was never happy with the original shot, but didn’t have any clear ideas on how to make it better until my dream-like visit to Castle Gaiman. Turning off a dark country road to move slowly up the gravel driveway toward this eclectic home which had figured so prominently in my imagination over the past few years was beyond thrilling, and surprising as well. The trees lining either side were larger and more mature than I had pictured, and the driveway itself far longer.

These impressions recurred during the next two days as I walked around the property taking reference photographs. In particular, the view from either end of that driveway, with those tall trunks framing its length was quite striking. All of these perceptions were added to the jumbled pile of ideas rolling around inside my head. They eventually emerged as an idea for adding a wider establishing shot at this point in the film using a similar composition (along with fog for separating the layers of the image and increasing visual interest).

In terms of sharpening the cinematic language of The Price, intentionally cutting from such a wide shot down to a close-up of the letter received from the author’s distraught daughter is a bit jarring, and helps add to the building unease of the sequence.

Now, I also wanted to elaborate on the current state of the film and where things are headed.

I had an opportunity not long ago of attempting to do exactly this with my youngest brother, Jeff. Living almost 1100 miles away, I don’t often get to visit with my family; unfortunately, the reason this time was neither fun nor recreational (I’ll get to that a little later).

Jeff said he wasn’t exactly sure he understood what was happening with The Price other than production was taking far longer than anticipated, that I was stressed and agitated over its slower progress, and there seemingly wasn’t much to show for all of that work so far…

So I began talking, and about an hour later, he seemed satisfied — to the point when he stated enthusiastically that I should write something similar here in hopes that it might be helpful to those of you who have been waiting so patiently. So…here goes:

At the beginning of my Kickstarter campaign for this project, I had determined not to attempt full-blown animation as the cost, time, and manpower wouldn’t justify the production of a short film with no real chance of making back any investment. Besides, the style on display in the animatic seemed to be intriguing to viewers — having images that blended between poses like a moving graphic novel. That was an approach I could handle mostly on my own, and for a far more reasonable budget.

After years of fruitless searching for a way to fund The Price, Kickstarter suddenly appeared on the horizon, and I knew how this film could finally happen. 33 days and 2001 backers later, it was on!

Creation is a process of discovery, and you need to allow for some false-starts and dead ends as you make your way along an unknown and lonely road; sometimes, the way to find the right path is to go down all of the wrong ones first. As Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

To wit: the character models were designed and built with the intent that they be posed and rendered as single images rather than a series of animated frames. These digital sculptures, created by Ryan K. Peterson, were phenomenally crafted, but proved difficult to translate from the sculpting software into another 3D program that would create the hair/fur needed, allow each model to be moved into the requisite poses, and then rendered with the correct lighting and materials (for example, having skin with translucent properties). We tried multiple methods and insanely over-complicated combinations that all yielded disappointing and compromised results. Time was ticking away, and every road seemed to lead nowhere.

The sets and environments had their own issues as well. The model of the house was large and unwieldy, and getting it to render was also a royal pain! Using a traditional rendering pipeline meant having to wait for long periods of time (even hours, when you only have one machine working on it) before you can see if you placed your lights properly, had everything aligned in the shot correctly, or if the overall look was somewhere even close to what you had been aiming for. It was like moving things around in a darkened room, then having to wait for the lights to finally come on in order to see what you had done — argh!!!

In a full animation studio, there are many groups of skilled artists and technicians that focus on specific problems and details like these (not to mention the vast rendering “farms” created from hundreds of dedicated CPUs to crunch all of that data). I had just a few guys contracting with me to build/create the things that I couldn’t, and then I was to combine all of these custom pieces together myself. I began to realize that despite my initial, more modest ambitions, what I actually wanted now was to try and create a full-blown professional-grade product, only it had to be made by hand on a very limited budget.

Regardless, I was determined to fight my way through these obstacles, even as they continued to pile-up in relentless fashion.

Then, as time continued relentlessly by…something changed.

Technology.

Suddenly, the sculpting program we used introduced newly-developed tools, and partnered with a company whose ground-breaking renderer could import the files directly and render them quickly, right in front of your eyes. You could tell within seconds if the lighting design worked, and the model materials looked like they were supposed to, with hardly any major tweaking — it was mind-blowing!

Then, a whole new world of possibilities opened up with a program called Element 3D, created by Andrew Kramer and Video Copilot. This special plugin allowed 3D models to be opened in Adobe After Effects, the program I use for compositing all of my shots, and with which I feel extremely comfortable. What all of that means is I could now bring my house model into After Effects and light it, position and modify it all in real time! I had immediate results that would respond instantly as I changed parameters and settings, using the same kind of GPU magic that today’s highly sophisticated videogames also use. Having instant feedback so I could dial-in the look of these models was now a reality — and I could do it myself on my single (though admittedly, crazy-powerful) workstation. Light bulbs (Edison again) were literally popping-on in my mind like machine-gun fire!

And with these new capabilities came a slew of tantalizing possibilities as well. For example: do I really have to keep all of these images static? Wouldn’t it be so much more immersive to start the film by moving the camera slowly toward the house, past thousands of blades of 3D grass and right up to that tree trunk with those strange markings on it that reveals the film’s title? (If you haven’t already seen this shot, click here.)

Can you see where all of this is going? Imagine, after spending years of tinkering, trying to put a car together in your spare time with a bunch of custom-made components, you realize you now have the ability to build something more sophisticated, powerful and even more beautiful…but that means taking it all apart and then putting it back together in a new and different way. That’s the best metaphor I can think of to describe where things are. None of the parts that have been worked on so diligently have been cast aside or wasted, just used in a better, more advanced fashion.

I’ve stated this before, but it bears repeating here: even more than money, my Kickstarter backers have afforded me the rarefied opportunity to create something at my very best, A+ level. Because there is no paying client waving a glaring deadline in my face, I can listen to that aesthetic-driven voice in my head that sees a better way of putting things together. Trying to explain why an artist should pay heed to that voice is difficult — how can you quantify inspiration or justify a creative instinct?

Ultimately, the process of creation really is a lonely road, and always traveled for the very first time. It’s never easy to attempt an explanation as to why something looks “off” to me, or how I know when something else feels “right.” It’s like being asked where ideas come from — how can you answer that? All I know is that you need to start the journey with faith in that inner sensibility, then be willing to head down the unknown path alone, wondering at what you’ll find…

Of course, this process takes time. We all have lives to live, and life frequently requires things of us that we may not have accounted for.

Now back to why I was visiting my brother Jeff: he called early Sunday morning on the last day of January to tell me that our father had suffered a heart attack; less than an hour later, he called again to say that he was gone.

Dads-Funeral_02

Photo: Shain Walker

(I was going to share some things with you here about my Dad, but have decided to save those thoughts and precious memories for a later post.)

I stayed with my Mum for awhile after the funeral. She has a wonderfully resilient outlook, but now bears the burden of living alone and managing the small farm that our family enjoyed so much growing up. Life has drastically altered the rules for her, and yet she is finding her way along this new path.

That’s what we all do. My wife always refers to Dory’s refrain in Finding Nemo as our family motto: Just Keep Swimming. Sure, that sounds especially fitting when you consider that our last name is Salmon, but there is a profound truth to be found as well. You just keep moving forward, no matter what comes your way.

And often, those life events are joyful and glorious: last month, my daughter Shain (who took the marvelous picture above) was married to her best friend (a really great guy), the first of our children to do so.

Shain-and-Hogan

Above all, family remains the highest priority, despite schedules brimming with responsibilities and activities that demand our time and attention.

Having the chance to make this film in the way that I want to is a great privilege, one I feel immense gratitude for. The constant support and encouragement from the vast majority of you, including Mr. Gaiman, helps more than you realize, especially on those days when the obstacles loom large and discouragement tries to worm its insidious way into my heart.

But I’ll never give up. It’s simply not an option.

Neil said that I fell in love with The Price, and that really is the best way to put it. Of course I am anxious to have it finished — and I will always maintain that no one wants to see this movie more than I do! I constantly daydream of being invited to some sort of Gaiman-centric event one day in the near future and being able to show it to all of you, getting to feel your response in person. This project has been part of who I am as an artist for so long now, I will always feel a deep connection to this moving and thoughtful story of when The Black Cat came to stay.

So don’t give up hope; I may still be walking down that lonely road, but know I will be returning soon to share what I’ve found along the way.

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The Study

In an effort to post more frequently, I’ll spare you the lengthy epistle this time around, and share an image instead:Study_night_01Many details here were inspired by my visit to Castle Gaiman, but as with the layout of the other interior sets, I have taken many artistic liberties in order to capture the angle, composition and mood I’m trying to achieve. And for any of you CG-geeks out there, this entire set is built and rendered in real time (courtesy of Video Copilot’s Element 3D), all inside of After Effects — pretty cool, right? Hope you enjoy the sneak-peek — more to come!

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Gentle Reassurances

It’s been another long stretch between updates, and I have been meaning to share the following experience with you for some time:

NG Tickets

In April, I discovered  to my great delight that Mr. Neil Gaiman would be visiting Park City on the book tour for his latest short story collection, Trigger Warning.  After a call to my producer Cat Mihos to see if she might be able to help procure tickets (and who, as always,  delivered in spades), my wife Glynis and I headed up the canyon on a very pleasant Saturday afternoon, albeit with some nervous trepidation. While hers was more general in nature (like not knowing what to wear mixed with being excited to meet him), I had a more specific focus: I have had several “stress dreams” over the past few years where I am visiting Neil again (somewhere), and he refuses to talk to me or even acknowledge my presence! I know (from Cat) that he occasionally gets asked about The Price and its progress, and I never want him to regret telling CNN about the project and the Kickstarter campaign,

“For an author, it’s fun. Instead of selling the rights to my story, to actually kick in a few hundred dollars — but I don’t think I could do that if I didn’t trust Christopher Salmon to make a great little film.”

Given how long this production has taken, you can see why I was a little concerned at what he might say, face-to-face.

Well, I needn’t have worried. Once we arrived and gave our names to a very helpful staff member of the Park City Institute venue, we were escorted backstage to join a group of about 40 other people, who were milling about and eating snacks while awaiting their turn for an audience with Mr. Gaiman. Glynis and I took our place in the queue and watched him take his time greeting fans and chatting amiably with each one (I’ve noticed with amazement at how patient and genuine he is with people in general). After listening for a moment, my wife leaned over and whispered, “Wow, that voice…” She has become well-acquainted with its tone, timber and cadence, having heard his recorded narration of The Price on countless occasions (mostly as it issues forth with regularity from my basement cave/studio), but it is exponentially more mesmerizing in person. I kept stealing glances at him and noticed he looked a little different since I visited Castle Gaiman 4 years ago, most notably with the addition of a beard. At one point, he actually called out “Hello Christopher,” while finishing-up with his current guest. Then it was our turn.

I said hello, shook his hand and hugged him, and introduced my wife. She has a natural grace with people no matter the circumstance, and stepped over to him, saying easily, “I have to give you a hug as well!” Then while still hugging him, she said very quietly, “Thank-you for believing…” As her voice started to break, the moment became something tender and heart-felt. He hugged her back with genuine affection, and the last vestiges of my anxiety melted away completely.

We had a wonderful conversation (while several of the bewildered guests backstage looked on, no doubt wondering why they didn’t get a hug); I mentioned his beard (“I do some teaching at Bard’s [a College in NY] and so I needed to actually look like a professor for the students to take me seriously.”), congratulated him and wife Amanda Palmer, who are expecting a baby in September (“I’m absolutely terrified!”), and that led us to talking about families and sibling age differences. Then, in a more somber tone, he said he knew that our family had experienced some very difficult events recently​, to which Glynis replied, “Yes we have; but everyone has their own trials to go through, don’t they?” Neil paused and said thoughtfully, “It’s true, we all do.” Again, her response was perfect and seemed to acknowledge his sympathies without making things feel too heavy.

He then told me how much he has enjoyed everything I’ve posted about The Price, and surprised me by saying, “When you are finished with the film, we should get together and re-record my narration. I was very, very tired when I recorded it the last time, and once we have a copy in the studio and can play it back, I can read to match the feel of the film.” I was stunned, because that is precisely how I was feeling about the recording we made in LA at Rob King’s Green Street Studios — but I certainly wasn’t about to complain, or try and impose upon his good nature to do it all again! He said he watched the teaser trailer and remarked that the visuals were so good, he wanted to bring the audio up to the same level  (I think my grin was so wide at that moment it almost cracked my head in half). I was deeply impressed that he recognized the discrepancy and then kindly suggested we do it again, sparing me the difficulty of having to ask, all the while reassuring me that my sensibilities were on track. I promised him of my resolve to never give up, and had the overwhelming sense that he was very pleased with what I was doing and confident in what The Price will become. We took some pictures, said our goodbyes, then Glynis and I took our seats and thoroughly enjoyed the next 2 hours as he enchanted and delighted the sold-out Eccles Center audience. (You can listen to a recording of the event here.)

Neil_Backstage_ParkCity_2015_01

Later there was an after-party held in a local gallery where we had a chance to meet other NG admirers and talked with two different couples who recognized me and were following the progress of my little film (one was a Kickstarter backer, the other had attended a presentation I recently gave at the Life, the Universe and Everything Symposium). It was humbling and extremely gratifying to feel their enthusiasm for the project. Despite the occasional negative comments I get, having the opportunity to interact with people standing right there in front of me who are as excited as I am to see the finished film was uplifting and hugely inspiring.

I drove home that night wondering at how — just when your reserves feel as though they are about to run dry — these incredible experiences seem to come along in the proverbial “nick-of-time.” Personally, I don’t believe them to be coincidences. Getting those gentle reassurances was exactly what I needed… and now I pass them along to you.

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Something Shiny…

I know it’s been yet another long season of silence, but instead of me stumbling around an apology for not posting, let’s just get right to it: I am thrilled to share the following teaser trailer below, featuring the opening shot of the movie! (Some friendly advice: play it full-screen & crank the sound up!)

I wanted to show this for a number of reasons, but mostly because it fills me with hope and anticipation every time I watch it, and I think it will do the same for you. The opening of a film can set the tone for the rest of the story, and helps guide the audience into the experience. The idea of coming up out of the darkness and into a colorful, inviting world really appealed to me, and I felt it would connect viewers to this place that is the home of our story’s narrator, and imbue a sense of its value to him (it is called “The Price” after all).

As I mentioned in a previous blog, re-visualizing this scene was aesthetically challenging, but from a technical standpoint, this shot was a real beast! It represents the culmination of months of effort and experimentation to arrive at a solution that yielded the results I was striving for. Initially, the plan was to use the beautifully designed and created  3D models my team had developed to generate still images or poses that I could blend between, similar to the technique I had used for the animatic, but refined and unified visually. However, the more time I spent with these models and saw the enhanced possibilities of how much more could be achieved with them, I began to re-think my process and started looking for alternative methods I might employ.

Not unlike attempting to build a car from scratch, I had most of the parts I would need and examples of how others had built their vehicles; now I had to determine the construction process for my own unique creation, and see if I could get the thing to run.

Many times I have come to a dead-end, or had a piece not work the way I had thought it would. Sometimes I have had to stop and take things apart and rebuild them another way. And often, after hours spent working for someone else in their “garage,” it would be difficult to find the time and creative energy to crawl back underneath my own project and try to figure out, “Now … where did that piece go again?”

But when the pieces do come together, and you catch a promising glimpse of something shiny and bright, you feel that spark of genuine excitement flare-up and everything seems right again in the world.

I’ll end this with two favorite quotes:

“Never, ever give up.” – Sir Winston Churchill

“Shiny…”  – Malcom Reynolds

More on the way…

PS: Here’s a link in case you missed Mr. Gaiman’s delightful interview last week on NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show (two of my all-time favorite voices).

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Devil In The Details

One of the (many) difficult aspects of creating filmic images from a computer is being able to light things the way you would like. In the real world, you can use actual lights and place them relative to your subject to achieve the look and feel that good lighting can provide. Since the “actors” and objects in my film don’t exist except  as zeros and ones somewhere on  multiple hard drives, this process can be much more difficult & tedious.

Because the “rendering” of a character image (think of it as the way a computer creates or “draws” something) can take a long, long time, there are real disadvantages in creating the lighting wholly within your 3D program; as you might imagine, waiting for 3 hours to see how an image actually looks with the lighting you designed, only to discover it isn’t at all the look you were trying for…that process gets frustrating rather quickly and stifles creativity. You can literally go back and forth for days, making adjustments and tweaking things in the endless pursuit of matching what you see in your mind’s eye. (Makes me feel anxious just describing it!)

One of the great techniques I’ve discovered from my After Effects Guru Andrew Kramer (at Video Copilot) is being able to “re-light” an image after it has already been through the lengthy rendering process! The key is to create what is known as a “normal” map of your 3D model along with the regular image. In CGI parlance, a “normal” is a piece of information that tells the computer which direction in 3D space an object is pointed, so that lighting can be properly calculated. It is kind of a strange concept when you first think about it, but makes sense when you realize that it is all part of the telling the computer exactly what you want it to do. Here is an example:

Relighting_01On the left is part of a rendering with pretty flat lighting, where I wasn’t concerned yet with trying to create the stylized, moody lighting that the final scene would have. The center image is the normal map; although it looks like something out of a 70’s-era DoodleArt poster, the intense and varied colorations on the image “map” out which way each individual surface of the model is facing. The image on the right was produced by combing both of the other images in Adobe After Effects (the compositing/special effects/animation program I am using to generate all of the shots for The Price) and introducing new 3D lights to create the look I want.

This process is enormously freeing, as I can rework it at any time to conform to new ideas or scene configurations without having to spend hours rendering just to see if an inspired thought had merit or not. Pretty neat, huh? :)

Here is an image from the same rendering I thought might be helpful for keeping everyone in the proper ‘spirit’ this week. Enjoy, and have a safe & spooky Halloween!

Devil-in-the-Details

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On the Longevity of Dreams

First off, to make up for not posting anything for a couple of weeks, here is another creepy image to keep you in the All Hallows mood:

Night-Visitor_01

Speaking of,  you should definitely stop by All Hallows Read and watch Mr. Neil Gaiman explain how you can join in the fun.

I recently read  a comment from one of my new friends (who is also a backer for The Price) expressing his sentiments about not yet having reached some of the creative goals he has set for himself. In trying to find a helpful way to respond, I got to thinking of several instances while pursuing various creative endeavors of my own when I felt threatened by the dangerous notion that I wasn’t making the kind of progress I’d hoped for in realizing my potential (despite consistent efforts to do so). I can recall moments of feeling a distant strain of jealousy for others who had seemingly attained their artistic ambitions — that had somehow made it past the gate that was keeping me out, and were now running for the far fence at top speed. It’s almost a literal ache inside that draws my attention to a void clamoring to be filled and I can’t let it go. I’ve been wondering why we sometimes have to contend with these kinds of feelings and what causes them.

The answer I keep coming back to is this: our dreams don’t die.

I’m not sure where they come from initially, but after all I’ve seen up to this point in my life, it appears that they don’t ever fully dissipate. To illustrate this in any kind of meaningful way, I’m going to have to tell you a rather lengthy story: mine.

I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey at the age of 3 (reportedly), and as far as I can remember, I’ve always loved movies and wanted to make them one day…but how? That was the ever-burning question for me growing up (and still is, really).

I began by teaching myself how to draw the things I was seeing in my mind’s eye. It wasn’t long before I wanted to make the monsters and spaceships on my paper more “real” somehow; I read as many books and magazines as I could find, and this lead to model building (space ships with kit-bashed exterior detailing and tiny “grain & wheat” bulbs inside the engine exhaust vents that couldn’t be turned on for too long or they’d melt their plastic housings) and making rubber masks. Using oil-based modeling clay, I first tried to re-create a “Planet of the Apes” character. With exceedingly crude sculpting techniques I fashioned a simian likeness, poured plaster over the entire thing to make a mold of it, dug out the clay, then sloshed-around some liquid latex, carefully following the rudimentary directions I’d discovered in the back of an Elementary school library book. I could barely stand to wait until it dried fully before peeling-out the quivering result of all of those long hours of trial and error; but looking at it — an actual rubber mask — I thought it was still pretty neat (for a first try)! Then, peering more slosely at the off-white surface, I realized I had absolutely no idea what kind of paint might stick to rubber without cracking off the minute it flexed (my simple text plainly wasn’t of any use). An albino ape, perhaps? I sighed and resigned myself to having only a partially-finished ape creation sitting on my bedroom shelf until such time as I could discover a solution. (I wouldn’t have an Internet to search through for another 25 years or so.)

Of course, I had attempted to make films featuring these creations using the now clichéd Super 8 camera (thanks JJ) that my Dad kindly allowed me to borrow appropriate. Mostly pitch-black/out-of-focus, these 2-and-a-half minute “epics” were dishearteningly distant from the visions my head was showing me, and I knew there must be a better way.

Incredibly, my high school (and we’re talking all the way back in ’81) actually offered a Television Production class. Complete with bulky, Panasonic 1/2″ camcorder units and Sony 3/4″ editing bays, I began a new era in my creative mania. Most of the “movies” I made during grade 11 & 12 (as we say in Canadianese) centered around some special effect technique I’d figured out — like a chest-bursting alien fetus, or pulsating facial tumors that cracked open and bled on camera — you know, those kinds of uplifting, life-affirming things. :) I would stay late after school, sometimes far into the night trying to get these big, clunky machines to edit on the exact, specific frame I just needed to cut on; once, I left the editing room and went upstairs into the main hallway to get a drink from the water fountain only to be blinded by a police flashlight aimed directly into my face, with the requisite gruff voice warning me to stop moving and explain what exactly was going on! (Unbeknownst to me, the janitors had all left hours ago and dutifully activated the school’s alarm system — which I had apparently triggered twice already that same evening while slaking my thirst.)

What can I say? I just kept going.

Fast forward several years later, past a failed marriage and multiple failed attempts at trying to get into the film industry one way or another. I had done FX work on several movies far too crappy to name (well, one was so crappy, I just have to mention it: Troll 2, also known as The Best Worst Movie). I had tried pitching some of my own script treatments (complete with 1-sheet poster mock-ups and creature maquettes) to legendary low-budget movie mogul Roger Corman without success. (The day I arranged to meet with him, his mother fell ill and I was left with trying to impress some exec who seemed intent on getting me out the door as quickly as possible. Nice.)

Thankfully, my second crack at marriage was a game-changer, and many of life’s pieces started to fit together in new and exciting ways. I had gotten involved in the videogame industry, and began to see a potential in digital film production that appealed to me, especially with animation. I worked on several games, sometimes putting in absolutely insane hours for weeks on end until I wound-up sick as the proverbial perro. I learned as much as I could about non-linear editing, sound design, graphic design, 3D modeling and animation, and a million other ancillary things.

One day, I bought the book Coraline for my daughter, and worried that it might be a little too scary for her (but secretly, I kind of hoped it would be), I read it first. And I was astounded. Enthralled. Agog.

This — what’s his name? Neil Gaiman? — wrote something that was scary, funny, triumphant, haunting, and yet was actually uplifting and affirming as well! How was this even possible? I had been searching for some way to have my monsters, but not drown in horror, darkness and despair at the same time…and here it was, fangs and all!

Within minutes of Google-ing, I was crest-fallen to learn that the property had already been given to Henry Selick (of A Nightmare Before Christmas fame) even before the book had been published — geez!!!  Henry is an awesome guy, however (apparently, he likes my hair); I just wanted to be the one to make that movie, you know? (Insert sound of a single, large bubble popping here.)

Then a few months later, I was asked by a friend in the home video division of a major studio if I could create a short animated film for a national client to use as an “exclusive bonus” to be bundled with one of their upcoming DVD releases? Given the budget he mentioned, I thought it was indeed possible, and when I looked over the list of new film titles, Mr. Gaiman’s name popped-up in connection with two of them. This got several wheels spinning at very high speeds…

Upon a rapid search through Neil’s repertoire of short fictions, The Price came into sharp focus, and hasn’t left the scope of my attention since. (Needless to say, the deal with the big studio never went anywhere, and the story of finding a way to finally make this movie took several more years of twisting and turning before finally connecting with Kickstarter and over 2000 new friends!)

So, why am I sharing all of this backstory? To demonstrate my point, that once they spark into vibrant, flickering life and fill your mind with the light of glorious possibility…those dreams don’t abandon you (although an argument could be made that we may choose to abandon them).

To further emphasize this position, consider some of the things that have occurred in my life since being gifted with the incredible experience of having a successful Kickstarter campaign:

There have been multiple delays caused by tech problems that seem determined not to be solved, including both hardware and software crashes. I’ve had to address “personnel issues” within a very small team, resulting in strained relationships and less than usable assets. I’ve needed a full time job instead of relying on freelance income and the benefits of a much more flexible schedule, leaving less time to devote to the film. Familial responsibilities and events have also keep things rather interesting: we’ve had to deal with broken limbs (my youngest broke both bones in his forearm at the same time), my father almost dying from a degenerative nerve disease called Guillain–Barré syndrome, and the death of my wife’s grandmother. We’ve put one kid into college and 2 more on full-time LDS missions for our church (in fact, we went from having all 6 kids at home to only one in less than 18 months). You may already know that our eldest son passed away in August of last year, but in addition, our eldest daughter recently had our first grandchild, and earlier this year, my sweetheart was diagnosed with colon cancer, and had to have surgery.

I mean, I could literally go on and on (and I’ve certainly gone on long enough already), but all of these things are what make up the collective experience of life, right? That swift current of joy and sorrow, of triumphs, failures and foibles all keeps rushing onward, whether we try to stand there and scream our defiance, or choose to go with it instead and enjoy the journey of where it may take us. The ebb and flow of life is the reason I believe that our dreams remain with us. They may seem to get lost for awhile, or they might change a bit to fit our current circumstances, but in the end, they are what keep us floating back to the surface when everything else seems as though it has been conspiring to drag us down.

So, when I write something like, “Please don’t ever give up,” it is not a trite, sentimental admonition or a blithe, naive piece of optimistic fluff; it comes from many, many years of frustration, failed attempts and a veritable landslide of everyday events that seems bent on tearing-away and burying that shiny, brilliant thing I am holding onto so tightly, with both of my hands. Like a diamond, I think dreams are made of the toughest elements we possess: hope and the sheer willingness to do whatever it takes, for however long it may take us. You put first things first, and you carry on.  You love your family, be kind to others and trust in those God-given talents and inspirations that you were blessed with.

I am profoundly grateful for the connection that so many of you have felt to this project, and for your decision to be so generous, making it possible for me to develop The Price from the thing that has lived inside of my head and heart for all these years, into something others can experience. Because of your financial sacrifices and emotional investments, this has become your film now as well.

When you do finally sit back and watch The Price, I hope it will be with a shared sense of accomplishment and joy, without any tinge of remorse or regret for things not yet realized.  That is the real genius behind Kickstarter: it’s an act of communal creativity. When this passion-project is completed, and I write here that it was all worth it — all of it — you will have a shared sense of what I really mean. And even better still: your name will be on it!!!

Until next time, be happy & keep creating.

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Upgraded

I try hard to focus on the positive  aspects of this project taking so long to complete, and one of those has been the advent of new technology which enables me to use improved techniques in creating the imagery and style of animation for The Price. This week, I thought to share an example of this by using the logo sequence for my production company, Silver Fish.

(Sidebar: my youngest son asked me the other day, “So…where did you get “Silver Fish” from anyways?” He said this in a tone that was either mild disdain, or one of entreaty, as in: “Please don’t launch into a 24-minute explanation…just… keep it simple.” I took pity on  the wee-lad, and said, “Well, you know I like the color silver…and our last name is Salmon, so…”)

Below is the original sequence that I developed for the Kickstarter pitch video, and have used at the beginning of the Video blogs you can find here on the site:

The image of the fish (a stylized hybrid of the Lion and Anglerfish breeds) had been designed as a simple, 1-color graphic in Adobe Illustrator, then painted to give it dimensions and a metal-like appearance in Photoshop.

SFC-logo_bts_AI_PS_01

That piece of 2D artwork was taken into After Effects and warped to create the “biting” animation and some slight movements in the body to give the impression of it swimming. I then used particles and simulated volumetric lighting effects (a fancy way of saying “beams-of-light”) to make it seem as though it was all situated deep in the mysterious, oceanic depths somewhere.

With editing and sound design, the final piece had a playful/foreboding feel that was darkly whimsical, which was exactly what I was going for.

I use After Effects a lot in my work — I pretty much live there — so I was thrilled when a new plug-in for that program was released by Video Copilot, a 3rd-party developer lead by Andrew Kramer (an extraordinarily gifted teacher/tutorial host who is genuinely fun to listen to, uncommonly generous with his knowledge, and is also an all-around good guy). The plug-in is called Element 3D, and it allows me to bring actual 3D models into After Effects and utilize the power of advanced video card technology (also called the Graphics Processing  Unit or GPU, and is the part of your computer’s guts that make video games looks so pretty). I have a real monster of a video card, a GeForce GTX Titan; take a look:

GTX-TITAN

Element can let you see your model in real time rather than having to wait for hours until it “renders” a finished image. While this real-time method doesn’t have all the über-deluxe bells & whistles that traditional 3D rendering programs offer,  the advantages of immediately seeing if the lighting is right or moving things around in a scene to get the composition I’m after is hard to overstate.

So, starting with the same initial Illustrator logo graphic, I created a 3D version in Element (extruding and beveling the fins, teeth and main body of the fish), and textureing them with some of the professionally created materials (or “shaders”) available from Video Copilot to simulate scratched and worn metal.

SFC-logo_bts_AE_01

Once this stage was completed, I could actually animate the 3D jaw snapping shut while the fins flared & undulated and the eyeball flicked back and forth, as if searching for more prey…

Putting it into a new shot with animated surface “water” and a rock-strewn sea bed, more particle “floaties” and those omnipresent light beams, I was then able to animate the camera to show the actual 3D nature of the fish, rotating around and then pulling away after it attempts to grasp the virtual lens in its metallic maw. Check it out:

I added camera shake, bubbles, and motion blur (an artifact from real camera film exposures that cause fast moving objects to blur, and to which we as an audience have become accustomed to seeing; when we don’t, something about the shot doesn’t feel “right,” or seems “fake”) to heighten the impact, and even made some water distortion occur when the letters zoom the past the camera to form “Silver Fish.” I chose to have the word “Productions” appear in a more dynamic fashion and in a contrasting color for emphasis (I like the color orange quite a bit as well). The whole thing was then taken into Adobe Premiere Pro for editing and adding the sound effects — the process of putting all of the carefully crafted pieces together, which I enjoy immensely.

By comparing the two logo sequences, you can see how much more may be realized; it could be argued, of course, that both are equally serviceable (true enough), but I am vastly more pleased with the second. To me, it feels much more dynamic and epic in scope — and being enabled to add both increased dynamics and a broader sense of scope to the world of The Price can only make it an even  richer cinematic experience.

I hope this was interesting and not too technical (it certainly wouldn’t qualify as one of my son’s preferred types of answer); enjoy your week!

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