A Gambit for 2021

One of the meanings of the word gambit is “a remark to open a conversation,” so I want to use this one to start the year off right (posted by Amy Charlotte Kean):

Amy-Charlotte-Kean_Queens-Gambit-quote

I’m further inspired by the use of persevere: “to maintain a purpose in spite of difficulty, obstacles, or discouragement: continue steadfastly.” And despite everything going on in the world, that’s what we’ll do. Hang in there everyone!

PS: I’m having fun on a Friday night animating this:

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Inspirations Everywhere

I uploaded the original animatic for The Price at the start of 2013 with the intention of leaving it online for a few months in an effort to express my gratitude for the patience of so many who were waiting for the final film. The description on YouTube mentioned that it would only be available for a limited time, but a strange thing happened as the days continued to tick relentlessly past…

The comments.

You can look through them (if so inclined), but along with many kind and encouraging words for the production itself, there came expressions of gratitude and thankfulness for the way the story provided hope and even an emotional catharsis for some viewers. These have continued to appear over the (now 7) years it has been online, having been viewed over 85,000 times.

I started reading through them the other day — as a group on the site itself rather than individual email notifications — and realized I hadn’t responded to the majority of these comments! I decided to do something about that, and once I started, I just couldn’t stop; it was truly overwhelming.

Here is a sampling:

Julie Dawson: “I sought this story out today on hearing the news that RBG has died. I am so grateful for all the ‘Black cats’ who give everything they have to protect the rest of us in our ignorance.”

Mónica Álvarez: “It is a good story and a great adaptation. Today I read this story to my students for Children’s day.  Thank you for sharing.”

johnmburt1960: “Just shared this with my 12-year-old. Very glad I got the chance.”

Sans Souci Blogs: “Oh did this ever get to me. It is magnificent in every way. Please don’t remove it! It is perfect in every way. Mesmerizing. As a cat rescuer it really affected me. Bravo!”

Shannon Sutter: “I loved this story. I once had a black cat that resided with me. She showed up and I took her in just like in the story. I believe she warded off evil as well. RIP   “Blackie”, I sure miss your presence on my porch.”

Akios Munre: “Is anyone else crying? Because this was truly beautiful.”

Black Jill: “I cried…I Just… I’d have done something, anything, to keep it from coming back and hurting that cat. I have three cats with me now and all I can think about is cuddling with them now.”

Of course, all of this is because of the sheer emotional power of Mr. Gaiman’s extraordinary tale.

It remains stunning to me that even in its “rough draft” form, this little film can tap into that power and reach people in significantly personal ways. And that’s the magic behind inspiration — it can come from anywhere (and usually, right in the nick-of-time).

As I was working through these comments, I happened to click on a link to the Olan Rogers channel. (Many of you might know him from his uproariously funny “Story” videos, the most famous of which is the absolute gold-standard for silliness called “Ghost in the Stalls” that will have you ugly-laughing and saying things like, “I’m scotch… tape!”) I hadn’t been there for a long, long time, and was curious to see how he was dealing with the whole pandemic-thing, so I watched his video called “Keep Moving.”

I wasn’t prepared for such a raw, emotional experience that was transparent and extremely brave. I hope you’ll watch it in its entirety, because the point he makes in sharing both the good and tragic things that have befallen him brought me tremendous feelings of hope and assurance (even though one of the saddest moments is when he describes the passing of his own feline friend, “Starscream”).

All I’m trying to say is that the inspiration for you and what you need right now is out there, so keep looking and you’ll find it, I promise.

Stay healthy, happy and hopeful.

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Resolution, Aspect Ratios & 4K

I’m excited to share a brief announcement and another image with you, but wanted to explain some nerdy-techno-thingies first:

Back in the early 2000’s, the video editing, visual fx and compositing work I did pushed the capacity of my computer system to its knees just to create an image that was a mere 640 pixels wide by 480 tall (which was the standard resolution for TV monitors). The screen proportions were 4:3 (also expressed as 1.33), making the image much more boxy that what we’re use to today. Suddenly High Definition (HD) came along, boosting those dimensions first to 720 x 480, and then to 1920 x 1080, the “aspect ratio” widening to 16:9 (1.78) and looking much more cinematic. And those standards have continued to evolve: digital projection at 2K (2560 x 1440) was a marvel in theaters, and now you can even watch YouTube videos on your smart TV at 4K (3840 x 2160)!

Resolutions

For The Price, I started the project aiming at BlyRay-level HD resolution (1920 x 1080), but then upgraded my game plan (as time marched inexorably along) to create the final images at 2K resolution (so it would look its best when projected on a theater screen).

After some tests, I am excited to report that a 4K version will be available when the film is released! Because all of the images are created digitally from scratch, upscaling them and maintaining visual fidelity is much easier to achieve than someone using traditional film or video at a lower resolutions. Here’s an example (rendered at full 4K):

TP-109_Devildog-Revealed_4K

One of the things that helps is adding an overlay of film grain to the otherwise “pristine” digital image. I love the look and feel of film stock, and this analog patina (made from actual 4K film samples) blends everything together and adds that “extra something.”

Now, for those uber-nerds out there, you may have noticed the literal image dimensions of this frame are 3840 x 1634. The image isn’t as tall to purposely emulate my favorite cinematic aspect ratio,  2.35 instead of 1.78 (sometimes called “Cinemascope” or “Anamorphic”).

Of course, while I am thrilled by all this and wanted to share, none of it really matters to anyone until they can actually watch the movie, so… back to work!

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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:

TP-027-B_animatic

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.

TP-027-A_01

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

FurryFace_01

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:

Anthony_J_Crowley_01

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

Pennywise-X

(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

TP-016-A

into this

TP-016-A_Arrival_01

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.

A-New-Home_01

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…

Troll-Me_01a

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.

Troll_concept_01

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.

Me-sculpting_02a

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.

Eyes-and-clay_01

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.

Sculpture-detail_01

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.

Demolding_01a

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.

Airbrushing_01a

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.

Clawmaking_01a

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.

Haircombing_01

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.

Troll_Body_01

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.

SAAB_cropped

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)!

E3D-Mini_01

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:

Fearless_TP-013

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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:

Sanctuary_01

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:

Desktop_01

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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