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…

Animatic_sideByside_01

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.

TP_004_sequence_01

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.

Porch_Wireframes_01

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).

Porch_TextureMaps_02

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?

E3D-Bricks

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.

E3D_Porch_CoolShadows

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 …

About Xtopher

Director of The Price, and Owner/Creative Director of Silver Fish Creative, LLC.
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30 Responses to Brick by Brick

  1. Tad says:

    As difficult as the project has been, I know that you have faced some of the ultimate adversities that life can throw at us during this same timeframe, and that you have passed those rubicons with your humanity intact… and that’s a beauty that neither canvas nor symphony nor opus can match. I’m inspired by your passion and your perseverance!

    You’re getting plenty of love from me and the “cathouse” that we run here in New Mexico! And don’t sweat the bricks… soft worked pretty well for Cezanne! All the best to you, and yours!

  2. Lorena says:

    Thanks for the update! I love learning about your production process, and I am happy to wait for what I know will be a fantastic film!

  3. Jon Schjelderup says:

    Good to hear from you! :)

    Having dabbled a bit with 3D art, I know all too well how texture maps look fake up close. Love the way you saved it, though, looks fantastic! I would have just faked it in Photoshop. But then I only do still images.

    • Xtopher says:

      Thanks Jon! There are still some Photoshop fixes in the film because of the hybrid-type of animation — basically I’ll use whatever will work for a particular shot.

  4. Trevor R says:

    I empathize. Definitely feel like one of the late bloomers. I have had a respectable career in tech, but an anonymous drawn-out parallel life as an aspiring creative.

    So glad you remain persistent. This “little” film is your Great Pyramid of Cheops. Bricks indeed!

  5. Debbie says:

    Is there any way to unsubscribe from the updates and still be notified when the finished film is available?

  6. martha hart says:

    I’m a late bloomer too! Published my first book in my mid-forties. Now working on a long-term (emphasis on LONG) project, obsessing over details in order to get it right. Patience, determination, sometimes being easy on yourself — all are needed.

    Here’s a quote from my favorite art critic/cultural observer/writer, Robert Hughes: “The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.”

    and a quote from me: “The last mile of the marathon is the hardest.”

    Go for it … and thanks for the updates!

    • Xtopher says:

      Wow, good for you, Martha! I appreciate the inspiring thoughts and wish you stamina, success and joy in your own pursuits — we wouldn’t be committing so much to these projects if ultimately we didn’t really enjoy creating them, would we?

  7. Jordi Kroon says:

    Thanks for the update. It’s a long process, but I am always happy to see you’re still working on it — and that the end result will be ever the better for all the time spent on it.

  8. Liz M says:

    Listen to your wife. :-) In my opinion, the little things are even more facinating than the big things, because I love to see the attention to detail that goes into the animation. And in the end, those lots of little things will add up to one big beautiful film.

    • Xtopher says:

      Wise words Liz! :) She has valuable objective insights and shares them with compassion and sensitivity (I’m very fortunate to have a best friend with that combination of qualities). I am going to get more involved in posting images on Instagram as well (some of my older kids want to give me a hand with that), so we’ll all be doing our best to get the information flowing!

  9. Casper says:

    Thanks for the interesting update. How far in the production process are you now? 70% done? 80% done? 90% done?

    • Xtopher says:

      Thank you, Casper. I’m 100% submerged into the production process, but as for giving any sort of accurate estimate on when it’ll be finished, I can’t say, other than as soon as possible. Hang in there with me, man!

  10. Always love to see these. Am familiar with all of this through being at least passingly familiar with a lot of game design stuff, but it’s particularly cool to see concrete examples of it in your work.

    Continually sending you all the goodwill I can from the California countryside. Always nice to hear from you, Christopher.

    • Xtopher says:

      Hey Michael — it always brightens my day to hear from you as well! And believe me, I am soaking-in all the goodwill I can get my hands on, so thank you for sending some my way! I was just reminded of this quote today, so I’m passing it along to you:

      “There is no adversity capable of stopping you once the choice to persevere is made.”
      – Jason Kilar

  11. Trina de Joya says:

    Honestly, I’m going to be a bit sad when the movie is done, because i LOVE these updates. The level of detail you are working on is insane. These are “small” (seeming) elements that one takes for granted when watching a major studio production (e.g. Pixar), and those movies are made by a team of HUNDREDS, compared to your ONE. It’s like WOW, so cool, I had NO idea all that went into one little moment that occurs onscreen in seconds. Just think, all of these kickstarter folks who’ve been following your blog notes are going to be immensely geeking out on a whole ‘nuther level when we see these (“Ooooh, the eyes! Those basement stairs! OMGOMG the bricks!”) =)

    • Xtopher says:

      Ah Trina … you make me laugh! So very nice to get a dose of pure enthusiasm like that! Thank you, thank you, thank you. :)

  12. Lynne Taylor says:

    I have always gone with the great Robert Benchley: there are two kinds of people in this world; those who divide people into two groups and those who don’t. You are neither a prodigy or a late bloomer. You are an artist and you gotta do what you gotta do for your art. (Though I am really looking forward to my movie!)

    • Xtopher says:

      Of course, you are exactly right, my friend — who wants to be defined (especially in such a broad manner)? And I so appreciate your understanding something that is hard to put into words (which is why I borrowed some of Mr. Gladwell’s). Your patience and positive energy inspire me, Lynne!!!

  13. Pat Kiewicz says:

    After shivering in a dark and powerless house for the last two days it was a treat to find an update.

    • Xtopher says:

      What?! I’m glad you liked the post, Pat, but very sorry to hear about your predicament! Everything is back to normal now, I hope?

      • Pat Kiewicz says:

        We had a lot of company in the dark here in Michigan. Big winds snapped off trees and power poles cutting power to as many as 1000000 households and businesses, some for more than a week!

  14. Peaches Chrenko says:

    Love love love this story and I’ve told lots of folks about it! As a beginning filmmaker I’ve been so inspired by it since I found it in 2013. Would you mind if I posted the youtube link for the Original Animatic in a FB Group I ‘m a member of called “The Virtual Cinema Appreciation Group?” Or if you wanted to post it yourself either way I know everyone would be as intrigued, spellbound an inspired as I am! The focus of the group is storytelling through all types of animation except traditional. I am Peaches Chrenko aka Zola Chrenko and am on FB under both names. You’re welcome to email me :)

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