Animation Festivals, After Effects & Amazing CalArts Films

Jeanette Bonds, a good friend of mine from CalArts, spent the last few months as a programmer for the 2012 Platform International Animation Film Festival that took place two weeks ago at the Redcat Theater in downtown Los Angeles.  Today she told me that animation film festivals actually check the online views of submissions during the selection process.  Apparently, the higher the online view count, the more likely the film is to be selected.  I must admit I was a bit surprised to hear this because I always thought festivals would shy away from accepting films that had premiered online out of fear that people would be less interested in seeing the film at the festival if they knew they could just watch it online.  If that was ever the case, it certainly seems to have changed.  For example, my friend Drew Christie had his film Song of the Spindle on Vimeo.  But, when it was selected into the competition at Sundance, they simply asked him to take it down and make an Official Trailer.

During my first year as an MFA in the CalArts Experimental Animation program, I finished an animated short film entitled The War ProfiteersThe film was made with hand-drawn characters that were digitally cut-out in Photoshop CS5 and composited and animated in After Effects CS5.  When I finished the film, I decided to follow in Drew’s footsteps and I made a trailer before submitting it to festivals.  At that point I was still afraid the festivals might reject it if they knew it had already premiered online, so I went ahead and submitted while keeping it password protected on Vimeo so I could show it to family and close friends.  Lo and behold, it was rejected from nearly every festival I submitted it to anyways.  At first this didn’t really come as a much of a surprise since I’d heard how difficult it can be to get into that first festival, and besides I was only submitting to the most famous international animation festivals so the competition was probably pretty steep.  But, at the same time, it still seemed strange that after 30 submissions not one decent festival would take my film.

While trying to convince myself that getting into festivals wasn’t all that important, I started thinking more and more about why the selection committees were so turned off by the film.  It went over farily well at school and was even accepted into the CalArts Experimental Animation Showcase where it had it’s first theatrical Premiere at Redcat in LA.  And, despite the film’s rather violent and racy content, this led me to believe that people were being honest with me when they said they genuinely liked it.  In fact, when I started talking to people about all the festival rejections, many faculty members, friends and fellow animators, who’d already toured the festival circuit with their own work, were surprised to learn that the film was rejected by so many festivals.  So, in order to better understand this, my girlfriend Grace Nayoon Rhee, who’s hand-drawn film View was exhibited in over 40 international festivals, sent The War Profiteers to Nobuaki Doi, a Japanese journalist, who writes extensively about world animation.  This is what he had to say about it…

“The film reminds me of the attraction of Disneyland (The Haunted Mansion) and some fantasy films made in Hollywood mainly because of the sound. For me the good thing in short animation is that you can rule everything by your own law with the maximum delicacy. The film uses so called digital cut-outs and their movements seem to be made digitally. The problem is that you can find the same rhythm of the movement in many films all around the world. This phenomenon is very strange because animation is the art of making movement and each animator and each film should have an unique rhythm. Of course there is no need to animate everything by hand (for example Phil Mulloy uses digital movement very effectively) but it would be nice to think more consciously when using digital movement. The same can be said with the camera movement, I think… It can distract the viewer’s attention because the movements are too smooth. Of course it is possible that the filmmaker didn’t put importance to such elements. So please forget it if my impression is beside the point.”

Although it pains me to do so, I must agree with Nobuaki.  As I said earlier, The War Profiteers was made almost entirely in After Effects and perhaps it’s true that the movement is too digital  and smooth.  In fact, Nobuaki’s response was one of the main reasons I created the Hand-Drawn and Organic Looks Tutorials, which share several methods for making digital animation done in After Effects and Photoshop look more analog.  However, at the same time I feel like it would be a pity if my film’s failure in the festival circuit was simply due to the quality of the movement.  I’d like to think there are other causes such as the content, the pacing and the length.

At the risk of making excuses for my work, I must admit that The War Profiteers was a huge learning experience for me as it was the first film I made entirely in After Effects.  Even though the program digitally interpolated the in-betweens from keyframe to keyframe, it still took me a year to make it and nearly a week of invading several computer labs to finish rendering the film.  I did all of my renders on over 12 6-core Mac Pro towers at a time and since the film was created in one long digital camera move I wasn’t able to render out individual shots as I finished them.  Unfortunately, I had to wait until the film was entirely finished and I rendered out chunks without changing the camera move or animation so that the pieces would fit back together. And, after I spent a week doing one full render that had some glitches in it, I was forced to go back into the labs and do it all again.

I believe it was the day after I started my second render when I noticed my friend Oliver Franklin Anderson using the Wiggler plug-in in After Effects to add a slight bit of jitter to all the keyframes in his film Hollow.  I loved the quality it gave the movement and I remember telling him, “Man I wish I’d put that on all the keyframes in my film.”  Now that I look back on it, the thought of going into my hideously complex After Effects project and adding wiggler to every group of keyframes on every single layer of every character in every comp, gives me a headache.  But, maybe Nobuaki  was right and I should have at least wiggled the camera.  Having said that, I think it’s important to mention that Oliver used Wiggler and his film has definitely been much more successful in the festival circuit than mine.

However, this brings up an interesting point.  I’ve noticed that in the art world there tends to be three kinds of people, those who believe technology is the future, those who prefer to stay “old school” and those who are able to tastefully mix the old with the new.  While interning at Adobe last summer we went to a great talk with Russell Brown, the Sr. Creative Services Manager at Adobe.  The talk was more theater than anything, and his main point was that, “You shouldn’t let technology get in the way of a great idea.”  He then proceeded to reenact his first appearance on the Today Show with stick puppets and an overhead projector just to prove that we didn’t need a computer to watch the video on youtube.  The result was hilarious and it made me rethink my creative process.  For instance, If I really wanted The War Profiteers to have natural movement, than I should’ve shot the film under a camera, or at least pushed After Effects to wiggle my keyframes for me.

Interestingly enough, another CalArts graduate and acquaintance of mine, Einar Baldvin, also animated his film Catatonic entirely in After Effects only he moved the digital cut-outs frame by frame by hand the same way you would when animating under a camera.  I love this film and the movement looks amazing.  I remember I tried an early animation test this way before starting The War Profiteers, but I thought it was too time consuming and I gave up.  I don’t know all the details of Catatonic’s festival life, but it was just in Platform Film Festival.  However, Einar told me that he isn’t really working in After Effects any more though and his latest film Baboon is entirely hand-drawn and has been accepted to several top-notch festivals including Annecy and Ottowa.

During an intermission at Platform, I also talked to a recent CalArts graduate named Kirsten Lepore to hear her opinion on submitting to festivals.  She highly encouraged me to put my film online saying that, “some films just aren’t festival films.”  Kirsten made an extremely successful film during her first year at CalArts called Bottle that now has 1.2 million plays on Vimeo and received the Vimeo Community Choice Animation award.  Since then she’s been getting tons of offers for freelance work.  In her case, I’d say she’s a perfect example of how the internet can be a venue in itself.

On another note, Bottle is a stop-motion film that’s shot entirely on location and animated by hand with very minimal digital effects or compositing.  However, if you watch the film closely you’ll notice that as the sand man is animated along the beach, the waves move like real live-action waves.  But, if the film was animated on location in stop-motion then the waves would be coming at a different timing every frame.  I’m not sure, but I’m pretty positive that Kirsten used After Effects to mask out the sand man and composite live action waves in the background as she animated her puppet along the beach.  I think this brings us back to what Russell Brown said about not letting technology get in the way of a good idea.  She used After Effects only for what she needed it for.  In other words, if we use technology for what it does best, we’ll get the best results.

So, in honor of the The War Profiteers online premiere, I’ve decided to pretend this post is my own miniature festival selection.  Here I would like to celebrate the work of my friends and colleagues by sharing some of my favorite CalArts films that I think use Adobe Software in an especially tasteful manner.

Like all her work, Grace Nayoon Rhee painstakingly animated this entire film by hand.  It was then scanned and edited in After Effects with minimal compositing.  For the last shot where it’s raining triangles I made her a really quick 3D camera move in After Effects with some solids and masks and she rotoscoped over it by hand to get the crane shot to look right.  In the end there were so many triangles to draw, I also helped her render a bunch of them in charcoal.

Kangmin Kim was an MFA3 when I was an MFA1 and we all knew that he was one of the most amazing stop-motion artists at CalArts.  His film 38 – 39° C has since received over 300,000 plays on Vimeo, become the “Vimeo Staff Pick” and remains one of my favorite stop-motion films of all time.  It was made entirely by hand with paper cut-outs and replacement animation in real 3D sets made of paper.  He then edited the film in After Effects and composited small textures, motion lines and accents on the movements.

My friend Quique Rivera Rivera made this stop-motion film before coming to CalArts for an art exhibition called “Carry on: Puerto Rico Inspected.”  It’s also animated entirely by hand, edited and composited in After Effects.  His most recent work has become even more advanced and his compositing skills have increased ten-fold.  Keep your eyes peeled for the online premiere of his newest film El Delirio del Pez Leon.

I saw The Pirate of Love at both the CalArts Showcase last year as well as the Platform International Film Festival and I was blown away during both screenings.  It’s currently in festivals now so only the trailer is available for public viewing, but I highly recommend checking this film out when it goes live on the internet.  That said, Sara Gunnarsdottir has an extremely personal and unique way of compositing her hand-drawn work using After Effects and Photoshop.

Ethan Clarke‘s work is also hand drawn, but he if I understand correctly he does it digitally using a tablet and colors his work digitally as well.  The amazing thing about Ethan’s work is that he has a tendency to push the 3D capabilities in After Effects to the next level.  For example, the trees in the forest from Drifters are incredible and his usage of the train windows to reframe the story as they’re driving through the forest give the film a totally unique graphic-novelesque quality.

Meejin Hong‘s Sugarcoat was an extremely experimental production with rhythm and editing that I love.  If I remember correctly she utilized countless different techniques including, but not limited to, hand-drawn animation, direct techniques, projection mapping, motion control, cell animation, live-action, After Effects, Photoshop and Flash.

Sean Buckelew is now an MFA2 at CalArts, but he was still working on this film as an MFA1 and I believe it’s been in production for over 2 years.  The film is over 20 minutes long, it’s entirely hand-drawn and rendered with colored pencils.  Due to festival submissions only the trailer is visible, but if you watch it closely you’ll notice heavy After Effects compositing, digital camera blurs and Photoshop work on the image sequences that make up the character animation.

Ruah Edelstein is an incredible painter and she utilizes both Photoshop and After Effects in a way that very much inspired me when I first came to CalArts.  I think she has an amazing way of making her paintings move and layering up images to create dense impressionistic atmospheres.  In this film I’m extremely taken aback by her use of photographs, which appear to be digitally painted over and altered, or possibly just digitally layered over other organic textures.  Some of the shots from this film have been very inspirational for the project I’m working on at the moment.

The Corporate Eggspert is hilarious.  I had no idea what to expect when I saw this in the 2011 CalArts Showcase last year and I remember laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes.  I knew Melissa Piekaar for two years during the times we spent working together in BB4, the stop motion building at CalArts, and her puppets were always hilarious, but I never saw any of her animation until this film.  What I love the most about it is the mixture of mediums.  It starts in live-action with heavy, made-cheesy-on-purpose After Effects work and then goes into this awesome stop-motion world where the comedic timing completely shifts from the insane live-action world.  Then in the end, the egg jumps out into an After Effects composition so kitsch and cheesy you can’t help but break down in laughter.

Jason Carpenter is possibly one of the best advocates for Photoshop and Flash productions.  His film The Renter was an entirely paperless production.  Before animating, he did a rough animatic in Flash and then created the backgrounds in Photoshop and did all the animation digitally on the computer.  To date, The Renter has won 18 awards/nominations and has screened at more than 85 film festivals worldwide.  It’s a Staff Pick on Vimeo and has 49,poo plays.

Jeanette Bonds made 14.7 psi using one photograph of stars duplicated layered and dissolved on top of itself in After Effects.  According to Michael Ashley Schulmann, “Jeanette Bond’s composition of shifting light and movement against a perfect singular droning sound wonderfully immerses the viewer in a new environment that entertains the mind by causing one to continuously guess the visualization: Are you 37,000 feet up or 1 inch away? Is it a field of stars, shifting sands, millions of people hurrying, a flurry of bubbles, a journey, a drift?”

Calvin Frederick‘s Bermuda is probably the only film I’ve listed here that utilizes absolutely no computer generated effects or compositing.  The entire film is an in-camera illusion created with, projections, mirrors and the wonderful CalArt’s motion control rig, which was used on Star Trek the Next Generation and Deep Space Nine before it was donated to CalArts.   The Motion control rig is a gigantic camera arm  designed for programming and repeating stop-motion camera moves.  It runs on DOS and once you learn it, it’s sorta of like animating a gigantic After Effects camera in real-life 3D space.  Calvin has since become a master of operating the Motion Control rig and he’s taken over teaching the workshop at CalArts.  I included this film here to back up Russell Brown’s ideas about not letting software get in the way of a good idea and also because Bermuda is ironically one of the most digital looking films I’ve posted here.

Manuel Barenboim is a close friend of mine and I was amazed as I watched this film grow during my first year at CalArts.  Here Be Dragons was animated using physical projections of digital and hand-drawn animations on landscapes and plants.  The dinosaur like creatures were rotoscoped over real footage of animals and altered in Photoshop using a Syntique tablet.  The lights that come and destroy the creatures are made of animated and colored After Effects masks and the characters are destroyed by animating displacement masks in After Effects.  This film is a true hybrid between the digital and the analog.

Moises Jimenez is a master of After Effects.  He had ways of using scripts put 2D layers together to create 3D objects back in After Effects CS5 before ray trace rendering came out.  If you look closely, you’ll notice the pack of cigarettes in the living room is animated using this technique.  When I asked Moises why chose to create this entire film in After Effects and not use a piece of 3D software he told me, “you know, you just work with what you got man.”

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5 thoughts on “Animation Festivals, After Effects & Amazing CalArts Films

  1. I’ve certainly learned that festivals are always a crapshoot, but this brings up some interesting questions. I’m just starting out on this journey again with a new film, and the online vs. holding back is certainly something I’m not sure how to deal with. But I think I’ve found a sweet spot between the organic and digital world with my sand animation, so maybe that will help.

    See http://www.atangledtalefilm if you’re interested.

    And holy smokes! What a line-up of films you’ve listed here! I’ll be watching these for a while. Thanks for the post!

  2. Pingback: Festival Success & Updated Links « Animation, Filmmaking, Techniques & Tutorials

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