"What they don't understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you're eleven, you're also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one." (Cisneros 47). Although this animated short will go on record as the result of a semester long creative thesis, in actuality, it draws from over twenty years of personal experiences, observations, and meditations.
Atari introduced the 800XL, its third 8-bit computer, in 1983. (Atari Historical Society) My father brought one home and hooked it up to a small television. I was five at the time and have had at least one computer in my possession ever since. In the mid 80s, games consisted of two dimensional graphics, if any, and rudimentary beeps and boops made up the soundtrack. As the computational power of microprocessors grew, three- dimensional graphics appeared. Sound cards were added to the mix and fully digital compact discs became the audio storage medium of choice. As a direct result of my life being closely intertwined with the digital revolution, this animated short has been created in a three-dimensional, computer generated fashion, along with a CD quality, stereo soundtrack.
During the winter break of 1998, I went back home to New Jersey and visited some friends of mine. While at one of their apartments, we watched a movie, The City of Lost Children. The film contained a small scene, fairly inconsequential to the plot, where a man on one side of a locked door, attempted to get an old skeleton key that had fallen on the other side of the door. For some unexplained reason, that scene logged itself in my memory. A few months later, that insignificant scene, with a little extrapolation and imagination, seemed like it could serve as the focus of a short cartoon.
This idea germinated due to a three-dimensional computer generated animated short called Red's Dream, which I had seen in 1997. Pixar had created this five minute animation as a fantasy of what happens when unicycles dream. Like many of Pixar's other short animations, the main character was not a human, animal, or otherwise living organism. To me, this epitomized the magic of animation, the power to bring otherwise inanimate objects to life. Together, the scene from the French movie, and Pixar's convincing ability to bring life to inanimate objects, set the framework for my animated short.
The main character in this animated short is a skeleton key which can move of its own free will. In order to create this key character, I purchased a few old skeleton keys through eBay, a web based auction. One of the common attributes of the keys I received was a pair of large holes at one end. These resembled eye sockets. Another feature shared by all the keys was a chunky piece of metal at the opposite end of the holes. This could pass as a foot. The character started to take shape with a clearly defined head and foot region, the shaft providing a slim body; however, it was still missing something. It had no arms, no mouth, no nose, and looked fairly bland in general. To remedy this, I decorated the key with four narrow, curved, rods at the head. While the key remained inanimate, these could pass for ornamentation. When the key came to life, it would have two arms and wispy antennae-esque appendages. These four rods on the head, in addition to the holes for the eyes would have to server as the main conveyors of emotion. "Pupil size is also affected by your emotional statefor example, if you are excited by what you see, your pupils get larger." ("Facial Animation" 56) The combination of the eye holes acting as pupils, with no irises or "whites of the eye", and antennae-esque appendages acting as hair that could stand up straight, droop, and sway at different speeds, would provide an interesting challenge in bringing emotion to the key.
With the main character conceptualized, the next plan of action dealt with fleshing out the story. The main action of the story was to take place when the key avoided capture from behind the door; however, why the key was in this situation in the first place and what happened afterwards had yet to be determined. The most obvious reasons a person would be struggling to retrieve a key from behind a locked door were a lockout or a burglary. For the purpose of this animation, the burglar option was used. Now the story consists of a burglar attempting, unsuccessfully, to get a key from behind a locked door, but what happens after that? I decided the burglar should eventually open the door, without obtaining the key, and then the key should find a way to capture the burglar, or at least alert the police to the situation.
Now that there was a rough idea for the story, an appropriate soundtrack needed to be chosen. Unfortunately, due to copyright restrictions, if I ever wanted to publicly use this animation, unless I could get the rights from a company, I had to use non-copyrighted music, or music for which I owned the rights. Being in a punk rock band, it seemed obvious to use one of the songs we had written. The final selection is titled "Rafa Won't Move Out", and is the first track on our Wish We Had A Van album. The song was chosen for the timing and rhythm, not for the lyrical content. The song is two minutes and thirty-five seconds long. This seemed like a reasonable amount of time in which to tell the story, and at the same time, short enough to complete all the necessary animation to cover that period. In addition, it had a clear introduction, body, and ending segments, which would work well to introduce the viewer to the setting, cover the main actions, and then have the ending and credits.
"The most important and creative aspect of animating a character has nothing to do with 3D. It's planning: using storyboards, pose reels, and exposure sheets to plan every movement before hitting your 3D animation program. With proper planning, not only will you eliminate the element of guesswork from animating a character, you'll nearly always come up with better ideas and a more polished final product." ("Big Plans" 59)
At this point the project went from the conceptual to the visual, albeit only via quick sketches. I drew the first storyboards during classes in the spring of 1999, and kept tinkering with ideas throughout the rest of the year. A turning point occurred in the summer of 1999. One of the books I had brought on a vacation trip was Franz Kafka's The Castle, which describes the never-ending quest of K, a surveyor, to complete an unknown job. One of my favorite aspects of Kafka stories is the lack of solid, personal identification the reader feels toward the protagonist. In this book, the main character does not even have a name, and the tale is absurd, with no resolution, no happy ending, no struggle (other than general frustration) for the reader to hold on to. Not only is the reader unsure of what is going on, but many times the main character has no clue as well. When K arrives, he spends most of the novel searching for this Klamm character, and gets little or no help from the peasants. This style of telling a story with just a strange description of events, filled with ambiguity, that happen around a random person, is exemplified in the final version of my animated short.
In order to start the user off disorientated, the first story board detailed the camera flying through a fog at night with no distinguishing objects in sight. After a few seconds of flying, the camera would come upon a lone house with a flashlight beam visible through the window. This would pique the viewer's curiosity, which would them be partially appeased as the camera flies into the house through the window; however, nothing would be visible except the flashlight beam, moving as though someone were looking for something. The beam would then focus on a doorknob, which would be locked. The camera would rotate down so the viewer could witness a newspaper sliding underneath the door. Then the shot would jump-cut to the other side of the door. Up to this point, the viewer may have an idea as to what is happening, but would be unsure. So far, the animation has only provided a framework, with no clear or obvious point.
All of a sudden, after being in almost total darkness, the viewer finds him or herself in a brightly lit room. The skeleton key is visible, and soon becomes the focus of the camera. The key shakes a bit as if being nudged through the keyhole, and then is pushed out of the keyhole, falling onto the newspaper that had been slid under the door. One of the questions the viewer probably had, why the newspaper was placed under the door, has been answered; however, the identity and motives of the entity remain unknown.
The viewer never actually finds out what the entity outside the door looks like. In addition, the main character, the key, never speaks, nor is its name revealed. Much like the kind of story a reader receives in The Castle, the viewer witnesses a few events that transpire in relation to an arbitrary character, the key, and nothing more. No attempt is made to cause the viewer to identify with the key.
Instead, the next scene, where the key attempts to avoid capture, targets the primal fear of capture and loss of freedom. This is analogous to the frustration portrayed in The Castle, and serves as a minimal idea for the viewer to grasp on to in the absence of character identification. Although the viewer knows nothing good or bad about what being lurks behind the door, the fact that something is attempting to seize the key causes the viewer to root for the key to avoid capture.
The key makes its way underneath a table. At this point, the original scene from The City of Lost Children has been played out and "new" material must be added on to complete the story. I decided the entity outside the door needed to enter the room in order to continued the story. Without the key, the being would have to pick the lock or break down the door in order to gain entrance. Since one of the main aspects of cartoons is their tendency towards silliness and exaggeration, I created a storyboard in which a giant wooden mallet knocks the door down.
At this point a biped, otherwise undefined, walks across the fallen door into the room. In order to provide a way out of this situation for the key, a cordless phone and television remote control fell to the ground due to the force of the giant mallet. They key hops over to them and dials 911.
Once the operator answers, because I have not provided a method of oral communication for the key, it panics. With nothing else to do, the key jumps onto the television remote and powers on the TV. While the television has certainly had an influence in the way I think and act, a certain daily comic strip, "Calvin and Hobbes", which I read faithfully from the mid-eighties until its untimely demise in the early nineties, had a much more pronounced effect on me, and explains why I still sometimes see the world through the eyes of a six year old. In a particular "Calvin and Hobbes" comic strip, Calvin is sitting in front of the TV and Hobbes reads from a paper, "It says here that by the age of six most children have seen a million murders on television." Calvin replies, "I find that very disturbing! It means I've been watching all the wrong channels." This comment about the amount of violence on television, pokes fun at statements such as this: "(In response to) 'TV doesn't make anybody violent.' Maybe not, but it does help justify punching a wife, hitting a kid, kicking a dog -- or accepting being beaten as 'normal.'" (National Coalition On Television Violence) Being a huge fan of "Calvin and Hobbes" I wanted to have the key "save the day" via antisocial behavior on TV; however, I did not want the key to do this on the first try. It must flip through a few channels first, so I could make some subtle remarks about the media.
My intent was to cover the broad spectrum of television programming, which is analogous to the content found in most other forms of media. If one can find it on TV, it can probably be found in a book, on the Internet, or on the radio. The program that appears on the television first is that of a rhinoceros walking through a field. I portrayed it as educational programing, complete with narration about its characteristics. Once the key realizes the rhino will not help his cause, it jumps on the change channel button. The next sequence contains some traffic on a bridge, with the only sound being the monotonous sound of driving cars. This represents all the boring, uninteresting content on television. Again the key switches channels. The next scene is that of a pornographic film. While most of society tends to look the other way concerning this subject, I feel it is an integral part of our society as it spurs technological growth such as VCR's and e-commerce, and appears in all media forms, print, Internet, and television. Still changing channels, the key comes upon a mother attempting to comfort her sobbing daughter, which represents the so called "family programming" aspect of the medium. The key changes channels again, and happens upon a woman in a bikini shooting an AK-47 automatic rifle into the air. Not only does this clip represent the absurdity of television, and media in general as the video clip in the animation was downloaded off the Internet, but it serves to alert the 911 operator that there is an emergency. The audible sound of the gunshots causes the 911 operator to assume a certain situation as gunfire holds a certain stigma, analogous with danger, in the minds of most people. This is similar to a scene from the movie Home Alone where the burglars assumed the audio of Clint Eastwood on a TV was an actual man threatening them from inside the house they were attempting to rob.
Now that the police have been alerted, the scene fades into a shot of the top of a police car with its lights flashing and sirens blaring. This in turn fades into a shot of the key standing on top of the fallen door and jumping back into the keyhole as it returns to its "natural" inanimate state.
With the animation of the story laid out on paper, I went back over the storyboards to figure out what camera movements would be necessary in order to properly frame the actions. I had taken a film theory class in the spring of 1999, and of the many directors we analyzed, Alfred Hitchcock stood head and shoulders above the rest. One of his films, Rope, held particular interest concerning its experimental camera movement and editing techniques. Rope contained no conventional cuts as it attempted to appear as one continuous shot. In order to do this, Hitchcock had special cranes and lenses built that gave him greater physical and optical range. He also would zoom into objects so as to create a "featureless frame", cut, and start the next shot with a zoom out of a similar featureless object. This method give the illusion of a continuous shot. (Hitchcock 77-78) Since the camera in the animation software was completely virtual, I could use that style when appropriate.
In fact, the first nineteen seconds of the animation appear as one continuous shot; however, they are made up of two completely different scenes. The first eleven seconds takes place outside of a house in a dense fog. The last 1/24 of a second, as the camera enters the window of the house, the frame is filled with black i.e. a featureless frame which suggests darkness. The next 1/24 of a second is another frame filled with black, which appears the same as the previous one except that the camera is now in a different scene. The house, fog, bushes, and grass, do not exist in this virtual set. The only objects in this scene are: part of a wall, a door, a hand, a newspaper, and a flashlight. Subsequent frames show the flashlight beam moving around as the camera continues moving forward at the same speed it flew through the window. When composited, the two shots appear as one smooth action.
The virtual camera also allowed for full freedom of movement when inside the main room. This coupled with all the objects being computer generated gave me the ability to mimic a new special effect shot found in movies such as The Matrix, Wing Commander, and Titus. These movies use a process called Timetrack.
"Timetrack visual effects cameras photograph scenes from an array of different points-of-view. The resulting images, taken from a series of positions in space, produce the illusion of virtual camera movement when sequenced as a motion picture. If the entire array of images is recorded simultaneously the 'virtual camera' appears to move relative to a subject which appears stopped in time."
In the 3D animation software, this effect can be replicated easily by moving only the camera while keeping all of the objects in the scene stationary. Therefore, at the point when the key flies out of the keyhole, I "froze time" and had the camera circle around the key nearly 360 degrees in two seconds before the key actually began falling to the ground. This special effect was used in place of the traditional animation convention, as when Wile E. Coyote or some other character walks off a cliff but does not fall until it has looked down. ("Fast And Furry-ous")
The next interesting camera movement happens when the mallet knocks down the door. When looking closely, a viewer will notice the key ducking its head, putting its hands up for protection, and a phone and remote control falling to the ground; however, much of this action is secondary to the violent camera shaking that takes place. For one of my critiques in an Architecture class, as a character test, I animated the key dancing in place. I had targeted the camera to the torso of the key; therefore, as the torso gently bobbed back and forth, the camera moved a little as well. Several of my classmates mentioned that the key seemed extra lively because the camera was not completely still. It was only then that I realized how useful the camera movement was in conveying the feeling of a shot. In order to make the smashing down of the door all that more powerful, I fiercely shook the camera as the mallet came crashing down on the door, and a short time afterwards.
With animation and shot framing completely thought out, it came time create a list of necessary objects and visualize them. "Consider also the limitation of using computer graphics as a medium. It is not practical to create certain types of animation such as ebb and flow of water, patterns of longhaired, free-range buffalo for use in documentaries." (Murguia 38) I had three major scenes, an outdoor shot, a hallway shot, and a room shot. For the outside shot, I modeled half an exterior of a house. I gave it the minimal attributes, just so it would be easily recognizable. It had a door, a window, a roof, and a few shrubs. A few of the scene's features draw from my life experiences. The shingle pattern and color of the house closely resemble that of a house I lived in from 1988 to 1992, and the shrubs are actually just cropped photos of plants, which I took in February 2000, at the UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens.
The shot in the hallway consisted of a partial wall, the same door that was in the last scene, a newspaper, a hand, and a light source. This scene strongly stresses the notion that only what is visible to the camera needs to be modeled. Due to the only light source being that of a flashlight, only areas that become illuminated need to be created. For this reason, I only modeled a hand and not a whole person or creature. This is also why in the previous scene, only half the exterior of the house needed to be created as the camera never saw the other side. The lighting setup was done, not only to minimize the amount of modeling, but also in an attempt to force the viewer to use ancillary sounds, such as footsteps or the crumpling of paper, to more completely formulate an idea in his or her mind.
In the main room, due to the the near 360 degree rotation of the camera in the special effect shot described earlier, a complete set of accessories had to be modeled in order to round out the space. Even though many of the objects did not enter a shot for more than a fraction of a second, that particular moment would have looked wrong without them.
One object in particular, the lamp which sits atop the glass table, comes into view for only eighteen frames, ¾ sec, while the camera circles the key; yet, many hours went into its creation. Originally, it was to be an accurate model of a lamp in my girlfriend's parents house. After successfully re-creating the shape, the lamp looked boring. None of the texturing I tried looked right on the lamp, so I stopped working on it. A few days later, while at a poster shop in Berkeley, I happened upon some prints of works by Salvador Dali. One of them, Daddy Longlegs of the Evening-Hope!, caught my eye. There was a melted violin/cello in the right-foreground of the painting. The smooth, warped shape seemed like it would work with my lamp. I immediately went home, pulled and pushed at the lamp's body, tilted the lampshade slightly, added a glossy red and white swirled texture map, and the lamp looked perfect.
In direct contrast to the lamp, the cordless phone comes into the camera's view for an extended period of time. It also fills up most of the screen at times which meant that all the texture maps such as the numbers and label needed to be extra large so as not to appear jagged in the final rendering. The phone was modeled after the one in my room, and originally had a label with the glg20*s logo (glg20*s being the name of my band) and the statement, "Fuck Pac Bell." This crass statement stems from a dislike of the horrible service and reliability provided by the phone company. When I showed a sample rendering to my father, he suggested that I obscure the Pac Bell with the respective phone numbers from the alpha-numeric keypad. I did; however, "Fuck Pac Bell" contains eleven letters, and a phone number with area code only contains ten. Therefore, the number on the phone, (382) 572-2235 actually spells out, "Fuck Pac Bel," but I figured it was close enough.
Some of the other objects in the room, such as the television and the glass table, were constructed in the style of cutting edge design as seen in Design Culture Now, a book highlighting some of the more current and respected designers and architects. Others, such as the dresser and the chair were shaped to fit in with the TV and table. The reasoning behind the odd color scheme of the dresser drawers was to highlight the colors that make up a pixel on a computer screen, red, green, and blue.
One aspect of the room which appeared in nearly every frame was the wallpaper, so I took special care and consideration when designing it. Because of the contemporary look of the furniture, I did not want the wallpaper to contain a bland pattern, it needed to be unique. After checking out numerous online wallpaper stores and finding nothing of interest, I decided to go to a bookstore to find a book on making paper. I found a book titled The Art and Craft of Paper which had a chapter on how to make "organic" paper from parts of plants. The pictures in this section caught my eye and I went home to recreate the rough, splotchy look of the "organic" paper on the computer. Once the texture had been completed I used pastel colors so as not to distract the viewer's eye from the action that was to take place inside the room.
The time had finally come to turn this project into an animation. It was already the beginning of April, and with my project due in little more than a month, I needed to optimize my time.
"One way to save time when doing animation is to animate in cyclces. A cycle is simply the same sequence of keyframes repeated. Think of somebody riding a bicycle. The feet on the pedals undergo a regular, cyclical motion. After you've animated one rotation of the pedals, you can simply copy the keys to create as many repetitions as you want." (Mastri 198)
With that in mind, I created two hop-cycles and a panting-cycle. The first hop-cycle was a slow and deliberate hop where they key re-balanced himself and set up for the next hop. This was to be looped when they key dialed 911, and also to start a continuous hopping segment. The second hop-cycle was a quicker loop meant to continue the first hop-cycle and move the key over larger distances such as when the key hopped off the newspaper, or from the door to the table. "Corpses never blink. Don't let your character go too long without a blinka few seconds is the maximumor it will start to look dead." ("Facial Animation" 55) Since my character did not have eyelids, the panting-cycle, where they key leans forward and back as if breathing heavily, was created as a transition sequence to be used at times when the key would otherwise remain motionless. The rest of the animation was keyframed by hand, similar to the way master cel-animators draw specific frames where actions transition and the apprentice animators fill in the rest. The only difference in this case was that the computer acted as the apprentice animator, filling in the motion between keyframes that I positioned.
Once the animating had been finished, it came time to render the animation. I rendered each frame, 155 seconds at 24 frames per second meant rendering 3720 individual images, to a separate numbered file so that if the computer crashed, I could resume rendering at the next frame. The average time it was taking to render a frame ranged from five minutes to three hours depending on the shot and speed of the computer. Due to this, I not only used the two computers I owned, but I borrowed two computers from friends, utilized one of the computers at my work, and built a third computer for myself. During the last week of April, there were six computers all rendering nearly round the clock.
Aside from the standard options of anti-aliasing, the process of reducing pixelation of the images, and shadows, I told the renderer to calculate the camera's depth-of-field. I had utilized this feature when animating so as to keep the focus on the action and leave the foreground and background a little blurry, just as non-digital cameras do in real life. This worked fairly well in most cases; however, during the scene where the key changes channels, the result was less than desirable. I had planned to have the television be blurry in the background, with the key in sharp focus in the foreground. Once the key turned on the television, the plan was for the depth-of-field to smoothly transition to having the TV in focus and the key out of focus. This effect did not come out as clean as I would have liked. The quality of the depth-of-field is a factor of the software and will hopefully get better in later releases.
With all the frames rendered, the last step is to bring them into a compositing program to add the sound, text, effects, and any scene transitions. The first thing I did was lay down the soundtrack and sound effects such as footsteps and wind. Some sounds I created by myself using a microphone. Examples of these would be the "woosh" of the coat hanger as it passes under the door, and the sounds of the telephone. All the dialogue i.e. the 911 operator and rhinoceros narration was also recorded straight into the computer via a microphone, and then processed a little (pitch raising, addition of static) so as not to sound exactly like myself.
The next post-processing task was to add the video clips onto the television, and to crop them so as to go along with the key changing the channels. Once the videos were lined up properly, they looked a little too clean. I added a scan-line effect on top of the images to give it the look of television captured on video. (ScreamDesign)
At one point, I did have some explanatory words pop up on top of the police car, notifying the viewer that the burglar was indeed caught; however, it got edited out of the final version. "When pictures carry the weight of clarity in a scene, they free words to explore a wider area." (McCloud 157-158) I did not feel the words added anything substantial to the animation, and after further consideration, the scene spoke well enough on its own.
One advantage of digital creation is its ease of modification. In traditional films, if a director wants to change a scene he or she has to reassemble the cast and re-shoot. On the other hand, it is so easy to change digital images that the temptation to tinker is almost irresistible. Already, in showing the work to friends and relatives, I have received numerous suggestions about the length of various scenes and the possible insertion of more sound effects. However, I am comfortable with my creation in its present form. It draws on my life experience thus far and makes use of the most up-to-date technology available. My future work in this field will in turn draw on my experience with this project.
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