Monday, July 04, 2016

More Thoughts on VR

I attended a one day conference on VR & Film, sponsored by SIRT and ETV Film Inc in mid-June.  There were hardware and software demonstrations, but I was particularly interested in the talks, where people involved in creating virtual reality explained the storytelling issues they encountered.

Having worked in cgi in the early years, I'm confident that the technical problems of VR will be solved over time.  My personal interest runs more towards how VR is going to communicate with audiences as a narrative medium.

Pretty much everyone agrees that VR has a resemblance to theatre in that the audience is free to look where they wish.  The stage has various techniques for directing the audience's attention, lighting being a major one.  If only one part of the stage is lit, the audience will naturally look there.  Jeff Preyra of 360 Storylabs pointed out that with a 360 degree camera, it was impossible to place lights, as they would always be visible.  For this reason, he felt that the future of VR storytelling would be motion capture avatars in cgi environments.  The virtual lights in cgi are invisible to the camera, so in a cgi environment, directors could still control lighting.

Preya felt that establishing shots would have to be longer as the audience would naturally want to look around an environment and take stock of who is present before watching whatever dramatic action is going to unfold.  This makes sense, though when returning to established locations it shouldn't be necessary and if you want to surprise the characters and the audience, you could start the action of a scene immediately to prevent the audience from knowing everything that was present.

Preyra also felt that musical scoring didn't work in VR.  As the viewer was in the scene, any music needed to have a visible source.  I'm not sure about this.  In the early years of talkies, there was music under the opening and closing titles, but none during the film unless there was a onscreen source such as a radio, phonograph or visible musicians.  However, by 1933, just a few years after talkies became the dominant form of movies, King Kong had dramatic scoring by Max Steiner throughout the film.  By the late 1930s, composers like Steiner, Newman, Korngold, Waxman, Hageman and Tiomkin were hard at work scoring films throughout their run times.

Ian Tuason of CFC Media Lab said that cameras could only move in straight lines, as any change in the camera's direction might clash with head movements of someone wearing a VR headset.  This makes sense on the face of it, but again a look at film history leads me to believe that it can be done.  Films in the 1930s and '40s routinely shot in ways where the camera's position operated separately from the camera's view.  In other words, the camera's location would physically move while the camera itself would change what it was pointing at.  What was standard, however, was someone moving on screen that gave the audience a focus.  So if a camera was tracking through a restaurant before stopping at a table where the main action was to take place, the camera would follow a waiter while it was moving.  In a VR situation, if there is an obvious center of interest on screen, like a character, the camera could move, changing it's spatial and angular relationship so long as the audience has a reason to stay focused on that character.

I feel the same way about cutting to a closer view.  If the audience is looking at a speaking character, cutting to a closer shot should not disorient the audience any more than it does in a conventional film.

The next five to ten years are going to be very interesting with regard to VR.  No doubt gaming will be a leader, as it's a natural for putting a player inside the game.  But just as games have evolved cut scenes to provide the player with narrative information, VR is going to evolve storytelling grammar in order to do the same.  Once that grammar exists, we'll find out if VR is going to be successful with audiences as a storytelling medium or if it's just a fad like stereoscopic 3D.

For my earlier thoughts on VR, go here.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t

Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art, has a new book called Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t.  It's a quick read and a master course in story construction.  Until June 30, 2016, it's free in a variety of digital formats, including .pdf.  You're not required to leave any personal information in order to get a copy.

Here are two quotes that jumped out at me that will give you the flavour of the book.
"Nobody wants to read your shit.

"What's the answer?

"1) Streamline your message.  Focus it and pare it down to its simplest, clearest, easiest-to-understand form.

"2) Make its expression fun.  Or sexy or interesting or scary or informative.  Make it so compelling that a person would have to be crazy NOT to read it.

"3) Apply that to all forms of writing or art or commerce.

"When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, your mind becomes powerfully concentrated.  You begin to understand that writing/reading is, above all, a transaction.  The reader donates his time and attention, which are supremely valuable commodities.  In return, you the writer must give him something worthy of his gift to you.

"When you understand that nobody wants to read our shit, you develop empathy.

"You acquire the skill that is indispensable to all artists and entrepreneurs -- the ability to switch back and forth in your imagination from your own point of view as writer/painter/seller to the point of view of your reader/gallery-goer/customer.  You learn to ask yourself with every sentence and every phrase: Is this interesting?  Is it fun or challenging or inventive?  Am I giving the reader enough?  Is she bored?  Is she following where I want to lead her?"
And this:
"A real writer (or artist or entrepreneur) has something to give.  She has lived enough and suffered enough and thought deeply enough about her experience to  be able to process it into something that is of value to others, even if only as entertainment.

"A fake writer (or artist or entrepreneur) is just trying to draw attention to himself.  The word "fake" may be too unkind.  Let's say "young" or "evolving."
"To get over it, the candidate must grow up."

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Muhammad Ali and Darwyn Cooke

No doubt you're wondering what these two have in common and why I am writing about them in an animation blog.  I'll get to that.

2016 has been a tough year for celebrity deaths.  Two that have hit me hard are the recent deaths of boxer Muhammad Ali and comic book creator Darwyn Cooke.  Both of these men widened the frame of reference for their respective fields through their work and their words.

I have no idea when Ali became politically aware, though he may have been from birth.  In any case, after defeating Sonny Liston and winning the heavyweight championship, he changed his name from Cassius Clay, telling reporters, “I don’t have to be what you want me to be,  I’m free to be who I want.”  Later, he resisted induction into the U.S. military, refusing to fight in the Viet Nam war.

While there were certainly great African-American athletes before Ali -- Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson come to mind -- the times forced them to tolerate the racism they experienced and they confined themselves in word and action to their respective sports where they avoided controversy.  Ali refused to just be a boxer and with his religion, politics, and taking his bouts to other continents, was an example of how a person could define himself regardless of how a dominant society attempted to keep him in his place.  Ali was an outstanding athlete, but his impact owes as much to his life outside the ring as in it.

Darwyn Cooke grew up loving comics and managed at a young age to get a story published by DC.  In those days, before Fedex and the internet, the fact that he didn't live in New York City pretty much ended his comics career right there.  While he was no doubt disappointed, it ended up enriching his work.

Cooke spent time art directing music and fashion magazines as well as running a design studio.  In doing this, he gained experience in the commercial art field, dealing with clients and absorbing aesthetics from fields other than comics.  He then went into TV animation, working with Bruce Timm on the influential Batman: The Animated Series, a show that also brought in artistic influences from outside comics.  It was at this point, after a decade and a half outside the field, that Cooke finally made it into the comics world.

Like Ali, Cooke was determined to define himself.  He did so in terms of the design of his work and his treatment of the subject matter.  Too many of the people in comics had graduated from being fans directly into the industry, and had a very constricted view of what comics were supposed to be.  They had little to no experience in the wider business world.  Comics art of the period was overly detailed and fussy.  Fan-favourite art had a lot of lines in it.  Cooke had a cleaner, more direct style that was counter to what comics were doing artistically and he was comfortable with incorporating modern graphic design.  In terms of content, as former fans-turned-writers aged, they continued to write comics for themselves, taking characters intended for children into questionable areas of sex and violence.  Having worked in the real world where he did business with women, Cooke treated his female characters with far more respect than those in other comics from DC.  He also insisted on heroes being heroes, not psychopaths.

So what's this got to do with animation?  From my perspective (and you're free to disagree), animation in theatres and on TV has gone stale.  Too much of it is the same.  The insularity is due to producers who imitate successes to line their pockets and artists who immerse themselves in animation while growing up and then graduate into the field.  Ali and Cooke each brought some of the wider world into their professions.  They enlarged their fields with their life experience.  Animation needs that.  Though the cost of production discourages it, animation needs to open up to more points of view.  It's not just a question of a more diverse workforce or adding characters of colour or varying sexual orientations to the films.  Animation needs to challenge what the audience thinks an animated film or TV show is supposed to be, the same way that Ali challenged how people looked at athletes and Cooke challenged how comics should be done.

In 2016, giants are passing on and leaving holes in our lives.  While celebrating their accomplishments is appropriate, we should build on their lessons to create accomplishments of our own.

Friday, May 06, 2016


The greatest danger in pitching ideas is not rejection.  While rejection is common, the one benefit to rejection is that your idea remains your property.  The greatest danger is finding a buyer, and that's dangerous because in exchange for getting your idea produced, you will generally lose ownership and control of the very thing you created.

Mike Valiquette of Canadian Animation Resources is now associated with Startoon, a competition to find an animated property worth producing.  This competition is different, because they make no claim to your ideas if you don't win.  This is in direct contrast to most other competitions, where the contest runners have the right to use your work forever in any medium simply because you entered.

It's too soon to know if this will result in a successful project or if the winning creator will feel satisfied at how he or she is treated, but it is encouraging that someone is willing to do business in a more creator-friendly way.  Watch Mike's pitch below and find the complete details here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Canadian Content, Regulations, and Audiences

Canada's federal government is interested in revisiting rules and funding regarding Canadian culture.  In the TV business, broadcasters and cable channels are required to play a certain percentage of Canadian content daily in order to guarantee local producers access to audiences and give audiences access to local content.

As broadcast and cable were the only ways to get a show into homes, the old regulations focused on distribution.  A producer needed a letter from a broadcaster or cable channel in order to qualify for money from various funding bodies.

These days, broadcast and cable have become less relevant with streaming and torrents.  In effect, the audience has left the building and advertisers are going with them, leaving the broadcasters and cable channels with shrinking markets and dubious futures.

The question is whether the government will be smart enough to understand this and resist vested interests who will fight to preserve their positions. 

With distribution available to everyone now, through Netlix, YouTube, etc, the focus should turn to creators.  The problems creators face are financing production, earning enough to live on, and making the audience aware of their work.

While I am obviously biased in favour of creators, I'd be the first to say that those who can successfully engage the audience are a rare breed.  Many can write, draw, direct or act, but only a few can hold an audience's attention. 

Everybody can sing.  No doubt with lessons and practice, everybody could sing better.  But only some people sing well enough to sell tickets.  I teach around 150 animation students a year.  While there are usually a dozen who are genuinely good animators, there are rarely more than one or two with the ability to engage an audience.

The challenge for the government is setting up a system where those creators with the ability to engage an audience can survive economically, and the audience can be made aware of their work.

If creators succeed, government support should be withdrawn and the money and resources put towards discovering other people.  If people fail, they should be barred from reapplying for a period of time.  Too often in the past, people succeeded by working the government's system rather than creating successful products.   That ends up being a wealth transfer from tax payers to mediocrities.  Avoiding that and discovering new talent should be the focus of any revised set of cultural regulations.  It's a big challenge and I hope that the government gets it right.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

TAAFI - The Toronto Animated Arts Festival International

 After a one year hiatus, the Toronto Animated Arts Festival International (TAAFI) will resume on April 22 and run through April 24.  The Friday and Monday will feature workshops with industry veterans such as Eric Goldberg, Samantha Youssef, Michel Gagné and others.  The weekend is dedicated to screenings from around the world, including the world premieres of the features Spark and Nova Seed.  Other guests include Marv Newland, Audu Paden, Michael Rianda, Stevie Vallance, Willie Ito, Jerry Eisenberg and Tony Benedict.

Early Bird discount passes are available until March 22.  The website, with more complete details, is here.