Sunday, September 27, 2015

Some Thoughts on VR Storytelling

I am not an expert in virtual reality and frankly haven't been following it that closely.  However, it's beginning to pop up more and more, so I've started to think about how it might affect animated storytelling.

You've probably seen the video of Glen Keane drawing in three dimensions.  I've just seen a video from Occulus Medium about sculpting in a virtual reality.  I don't doubt that video games will take advantage of VR before any other form of animated storytelling, but how will stories that are not interactive accommodate themselves to VR?

The simplest approach will probably be to let the viewer wander through a scene, looking wherever he or she wants to at any given moment.  This is the closest to what now occurs on the stage.  When watching a play, you are free to look where you wish.  There are many directorial tricks to influence where the audience is looking, but there's nothing to stop an audience member from staring at a performer's shoe for the entire play.

(Will the hardware will track head or eye positions?  We move our eyes much faster than we turn our heads.  Besides speeding up the audience experience, tracking eyes will prevent the feeling of vertigo when the entire world spins while you turn your head.  Will the viewer glide through the scene like a film camera or will the viewer have to walk or run to keep up with the action?  Both have emotional validity, but will the action scale itself to the viewer's ability to keep up with it?)

There are two issues with giving the viewer the freedom to wander through a scene that I see.  The job of director exists specifically to shape a story visually and direct the audience to what is important at any given moment.  If you give the audience the freedom to look where they please without strategies to influence where they look, you could end up with stories that are less dramatic or comic than intended, simply because the audience is not catching the important action.

The other issue, and one that will be common to all forms of VR, has to do with increased production demands.  Right now, if you cut from character A to character B, character A does not have to be animated so long as he is off-screen.  With VR giving the viewer the ability to look where he pleases, character A must always be alive in case the viewer is looking in his direction.  This will require more animation for each character in a scene and may also require more background animation (wind, water, etc.)  If the characters will truly be present in the story, and not just on some kind of breathing cycle or other nondescript movement, this will require more work and larger budgets.  It will also force animators to learn how to have characters listen, something live actors learn early on, but that animated films typically avoid except for reaction shots.

Another alternative to this would be something similar to directing live action TV dramas from the 1950s.  Imagine that every character has a virtual camera focused on her as well as a camera that covers the master shot.  The viewer could switch between cameras, choosing who to look at.  The danger here, as above, is that on a first viewing the viewer doesn't know where the story is headed. She might miss important details or emotional moments.  Will a story have to be viewed multiple times in order to fully understand its dynamics?  And once understood, will the viewer have evolved a preferred way of experiencing a particular story that will be different from other viewers' approach to the same material?  Imagine a shared VR experience where you are looking through the eyes of the person next to you, experiencing how they experience a story.  Then you switch places.

Another possibility is the subjective camera where the viewer is in the story.  This edges more into an interactive approach, where characters would address the viewer, even if the viewer's responses were prerecorded audio.  In this way, it would be possible to be in the film as whatever character you desired and see the story through their eyes.  On additional viewings, you could take the part of another character.  Would Star Wars be more or less interesting if you could take the part of any of the characters and see the film through that character's eyes?

While videogames have been around for decades, there is still a separation between games and narrative media.  With VR, will they bleed into each other more?  Besides playing a character, will the viewer have hands to interact with the environment?  And if so, will the viewer be able to influence the story based on actions taken?  A hit or a miss with a weapon could have a major impact for how a story unfolds.  With each action taken, a parallel story possibility exists, perhaps making this approach far too expensive to produce.  If it turns out "these ARE the droids we're looking for," or the trash compactor kills one or more characters or the death star doesn't blow up, you have three other movies.  Multiply that by every fork in the story and how long would it take to produce the film?

Eventually, conventions will develop.  There's no reason that red means stop and green means go except that we all agree on it.  There's no reason that a right mouse click does certain things compared to a left mouse click except that we've been trained across various software packages to accept this.  Just as there are storytelling conventions in film, such as the cut and the dissolve, VR will inevitably develop its own conventions so that audiences feel confident as to the best way to experience a story.  What those conventions will be and how long they will take to develop is unknown at this point, but that's the next frontier.  People look back in wonder at the development of animation in the 1930s and the development of cgi in the '80s and '90s.  The next explosion of creativity in the animation field is going to be the development of VR as a storytelling medium.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Pete Williams and Undergrads

In August, Pete Williams, the creator of the MTV and Teletoon series Undergrads, gave a fabulous talk at Animatic T.O. relating the history of creating the show and getting it on the air.  It was a warts-and-all presentation, where Williams was forthcoming about the mistakes he made.

He has a lot to teach anyone interested in selling a TV series.  Until you've done it, you don't really know all the pitfalls and gotchas, so take advantage of the his experience and watch the presentation.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Tulips Shall Grow: George Pal vs. the Nazis

The Library of Congress National Film Registry invited me to write about the George Pal Puppetoon Tulips Shall Grow.  It is one of the most dramatic of Pal's animated films and the first American animated cartoon to be explicitly anti-Nazi.  The historical circumstances behind its creation include Pal's history as well as Hollywood's dealings with the German market in the 1930s.

If you're unfamiliar with the film, you can watch it below.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Jack Kirby's 98th Birthday

August 28 would have been Jack Kirby's 98th birthday.  While Kirby has been gone since 1994, it's still a day to celebrate for a variety of reasons.  First, Kirby's influence on popular culture is probably larger than it's ever been.  The Daily Herald reports that movies featuring characters created or co-created by Kirby have grossed $6.7 billion world-wide.  That doesn't count TV shows, toys and comics that are still being made based on his work.

Another reason to celebrate is that this is his first birthday since his estate received a settlement from Marvel and Disney for his creations.  While the amount is unknown, one hopes that it was significant given the earning power that Kirby's creations are still showing.  Marvel, which for years downplayed Kirby's role, is once again celebrating him now that the legal battles are over.

Charles Hatfield, author of Hand of Fire, an analysis of Kirby's work, has curated an exhibit of Kirby originals at the California  State University Northridge Art Galleries that runs until October 10 entitled Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby.  If you're in the area, I would urge you to see it.  As powerful as Kirby's work is in print, the originals are more forceful.  Hatfield says, "The catalog is a monster: 20 essays on Kirby, most of them short and punchy, interleaved with more than a hundred images, most shot from original art. It's a joint publishing venture between the CSUN Art Galleries and IDW, under Scott Dunbier's eye and with design by Randall Dahlk, who designed IDW's incredible Kirby Artist's Editions. It's in production even now."

If you are in the mood to immerse yourself in Kirby's drawings, Tom Spurgeon at The Comics Reporter has put together an online gallery of his work that spans a good portion of his career.  And if you're looking for a more personal reminiscence, you can't go wrong reading Mark Evanier, who had the great fortune to work with Kirby and know him for around 25 years.

As powerful as Kirby's images are, single images don't address his strength as a storyteller.  I've just finished reading Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate by Brian McDonald.  It's an excellent book on story structure and one of the best books on story creation I've ever read.  In his first chapter, he talks about structure in a way that illuminates Kirby as a writer.
Often when I listen to how people evaluate stories, I hear them talk about dialogue.  When they talk about "the script" for a film, they are often talking about the dialogue.  Or when they mention how well a book is written, they most often mean the way the words are put together -- the beauty of a sentence.

When people speak of Shakespeare's work, they almost always talk about the beauty of the language.

These are all forms of "visible ink."  This term refers to writing that is readily "seen" by the reader or viewer, who often mistakes these words on the page as the only writing the storyteller is doing.

But how events in a story are ordered is also writing.  What events should occur in a story to make the teller's point is also writing.  Why a character behaves in a particular way is also writing.

These are all forms of "invisible ink," so called because they are not easily spotted by a reader, viewer or listener of a story.  Invisible ink does, however, have a profound impact on a story.  More to the point, it is the story.  Invisible ink is the writing below the surface of the words.  Most people will never see or notice it, but they will feel it.
Kirby often worked with collaborators, sometimes by choice and sometimes not.  However, in telling the story pictorially, he was writing the story.  The contents of each panel, the continuity from panel to panel, the choice of "camera" distance and angle, the composition, the character poses, the facial expressions, the use of black ink, etc. all told the story before the dialogue was added.  As McDonald would say, it was the story.  As distinctive as Kirby's images are, it is also his imagination and his storytelling that make him worth remembering and studying.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

R.I.P. Richard Cohen

Feb. 3, 1952 - Aug. 20, 2015
Richard Cohen, an artist who contributed to the early days of computer animation and digital visual effects, passed away on August 20 from a cardiac arrest.

I first met Richard in the summer of 1984 at Sheridan College.  At the time, they had a 14 week summer course in computer graphics.  Richard was already an established illustrator, having done covers for Heavy Metal magazine.  He had also hung around Ohio State University, one of the hotbeds of cgi development at the time.

One of Richard's illustrations

Richard and I stayed in touch after the course and he was hired almost immediately by Pacific Data Images in San Francisco.  Later, he worked for ILM on films like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Death Becomes Her.  Other work included matte paintings on The Hudsucker Proxy, Starship Troopers and The Santa Claus 2.  His IMDB listing is woefully incomplete, as so much of the early days of cgi were spent on company logos and TV commercials, work that IMDB doesn't track.

By 1999, Richard was teaching visual effects at Sheridan College, the same program that he had taken 15 years before.  He also taught painting in the Art Fundamentals program.

Richard had amazing taste and a strong sense of design.  He and his wife Ria bought a house on the Niagara escarpment in Grimsby, Ontario, that was something out of an architectural magazine.  It was the kind of house you'd see pictures of but never expected to see in person.  It was also exquisitely furnished.

In addition to art, Richard was heavily involved with woodworking, making guitars and furniture that were professional quality.  He was intensely focused when he found something he was interested in and stopped at nothing to get the results he wanted.

Richard in his workshop with a guitar in progress

In December of 2009, Richard had a stroke which resulted in a limp and losing the use of his left arm.  As you can imagine, that was a major blow for someone so interested in creating both digital and physical things.  In more recent years, as a result of the stroke, he developed chronic pain which no medication seemed to control.

He was an outgoing, boisterous guy who, as I said, could be intensely focused.  My wife and I shared many dinners with him and Ria and it's hard to believe that he's gone.  I'm going to miss his booming voice.  He's survived by his mother; five younger brothers; a daughter, Mara, from a previous marriage; and his wife Ria.  He's to be buried in San Francisco.

In 2001, Richard's special effects students collaborated on a film called The Artist of the Beautiful.  Richard was the artist in the film and it's the way I prefer to remember him.
THE ARTIST OF THE BEAUTIFUL from Noel Hooper on Vimeo.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

No Spec Work

I've written about creator rights.  I'm especially against contests, which are all over the internet and a really pernicious way for companies to solicit work for free.  Here's a great comic by Maki Naro about the problems of spec work and here's Mark Evanier on spec from the writer's side, but it still applies to anyone creative.