Archive | March, 2013

Bill Plympton & Winsor McCay

22 Mar

I attended an Animation Master Class last week featuring one of my favorite artists: legendary indie-animator Bill Plympton. It was hosted by the Pittsburgh Toonseum and Point Park University. I was swamped with work and it was the same day as the traffic-disrupting St. Patrick’s Day parade downtown but I am so glad that I dragged myself out of my slug-like mood and attended. I left with an inspired soul, a sore gut from laughing too much,  and a copy of Winsor McCay’s “The Flying House” on DVD.

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I was introduced to Plympton’s work back when I was pretty young. His work was the most memorable of the disturbing, twisted shorts I used to be afraid of, yet absolutely mesmerized by, on MTV’s Liquid Television.  I also urge you to check out his Oscar-nominated short film, “Your Face.”

 

Bill had some great quotes that were especially meaningful to me (and I’m doing the best I can to remember his exact words here…):

“Why would I pay someone else to help me to finish my animations faster? It’s what I love to do, why spend money to take that joy away from me?”

“It’s great to have heroes that inspire you… but make sure they aren’t wrong heroes that you are looking up to.”

“Make your work SHORT, FUNNY and CHEAP. Those are my three rules of a successful film.”

“When I see that a short film at a screening is 20 minutes long, I already hate it. I don’t want to risk wasting 20 minutes watching something that could be crap. If it’s 5 minutes long, then that’s perfect, I can sit through 5 minutes of crap.”

“If you want to make an experimental film about your personal struggles, that’s fine, but no one will buy it. Comedy is much, much easier to sell. If you can make an experimental film about your personal struggles that’s ALSO funny? Then you have something.”

Another important thing I took away from the class was a new appreciation of  Winsor McCay, one of Plympton’s heroes whom he talked about at length during the class. McCay is perhaps most popular for “Little Nemo,” a weekly comic strip published in the early 1900s. He’s also one of the very first animators and his 1914 short “Gertie the Dinosaur” preceded any character animation that Disney or Fleischer did. Plympton showed us his restoration project of one of McCay’s animated films, “The Flying House.” Originally a black & white silent film, the work was restored, colorized and supplied with voiceover, music and sound effects by Plympton and his team thanks to Kickstarter. The result is a beautiful and funny masterpiece able to be experienced in a new way. If you’re interested, you can buy the DVD here.

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Marvel Super Heroes: What The–?!

21 Mar

I just checked the dates and it’s been just over four years since Marvel.com first released an animated short of Marvel Super Heroes: What The–?! BaZONKers!

 

In February, 2009, I had been working at Marvel Entertainment as an assistant video editor for a few months when the call went out for new video content ideas for Marvel.com. My coworkers were aware of my previous animation work from my ToyFare days, and when actor Christian Bale had his infamous on-set blowup, it sparked the perfect idea to use the oddest Marvel character we had – M.O.D.O.K. – in a stop-motion animated Marvelized parody video of poor Bale. I quickly learned an intense amount of video production and animation tips and tricks during this one small project. My fellow Marvel.com video editors Jason Harvey and Ramon Olivo introduced me to the wonders of After Effects and how to use green-screen correctly. I owe them both many, many thanks for taking the time to teach me about visual effects, working with hi-resolution video, audio tweaking, and so much more.

When we got the greenlight to begin production on more What The–?! episodes I suggested that Jon Gutierrez and Sean Collins, two former Wizard colleagues, be brought on to help write and pitch gags like we did together for Twisted ToyFare Theater. Jon G. gets credit for suggesting we call our web-series “What The–?!” which is a reference to the classic “Marvel: What The–?!” comics that were published in the past. They were just full of ridiculous Marvel parodies and, I think, the birthplace of Spider-Ham. Also on board at the start of What The–?! were two Marvel employees who performed improv comedy at Upright Citizen’s Brigade and the Magnet Theater in NYC: Peter Olson and Jesse Falcon.

When I had my first recording session with Jesse (who voices about 90% of the characters in What The–?!) I had no idea what to expect. I was told that apart from his job as Director of Product Development at Marvel, he was a voice actor and comedian but I was blown away by the awesomely insane, screechy, nasally voice that Jesse screamed into the microphone as we recorded in Joe Quesada’s empty office. And so were the Marvel employees in the surrounding vicinity. When Jesse had finished yelling his lines, we opened the door to reveal Tom Brevoort and Nick Lowe with baseball bats in hand, ready to defend themselves against whatever creature was surely to emerge from our “recording booth.” Thus our M.O.D.O.K. was born.

Over the course of the last four years the What The–?! crew, including John Cerilli, Ryan Penagos, writers Mark Basso, Josh Sky, Justin Aclin, Alejandro Arbona, and Tom Brennan, worked on over 50 shorts. Early on, Marvel.com Editor Ben Morse took on a bigger role as Producer of What The–?! and continues to do a darn fine job of it to this day. Most recently, writer Todd Casey (of ThunderCats fame) has become largely involved in the writing of What The–?! and I think we have some of our greatest episodes ahead of us, waiting to be shared with the Internet.

If you want to check out more about the history of What The–?! the awesome Caleb Goellner of ComicsAlliance interviewed Ben Morse, Jesse Falcon and me in a 3-part article here:      Part 1          Part 2: Jesse Falcon          Part 3: Ben Morse 

I’ll slowly be posting recaps of older What The–?! episodes with as much neat, behind-the-scenes info like audio outtakes, storyboards, and in-progress footage that I can scrounge up. Hope you enjoy!

Marvel Legends

20 Mar

Ohhhhh, Marvel Legends. The heroin of action figures that pulled me back into collecting just when I thought I was out. But this line of super-articulated, amazingly-detailed toys was more of an inspiration to me than a hobby.

These new Marvel toys were far different from the ones I was obsessed with as a child and they caught my eye when they hit store shelves, even though at the time (around 2002-2003) I had lost a bit of interest in toy collecting (except for PlayMates’ World of Springfield Simpsons toys, that is…) and had even less interest in comic books. But I broke down when they released Beast and Gambit, probably my two favorite X-Men characters. Individually-articulated fingers! Opening jaws! Cloth jackets! Simply irresistible…. Thus began the destruction of my wallet and wall space that would last all through …. what day is it today?

Upon graduating high school, I was just beginning to focus more on animating although I never imagined that one day people would pay me to play around with toys. I had used my Star Wars, Simpsons and Dragonball Z toys in some animated shorts in the past but the level of articulation and detail in these Marvel Legends made me want to up my game and really see what I was capable of doing with these new, talented actors at my disposal. The GIF below represents the first animation that I was “proud” of making. It was made on my dorm room desk, freshmen year of college, 2003.

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Possibly around 2005 or so, I decided to re-enact a scene from The Usual Suspects using members of my growing Marvel Legends collection. It was just a test to see if I could draw mouths on the still frames that would sync up with the audio. I still hadn’t yet had the epiphany that using a digital still camera to shoot the frames would be much simpler than my method of choice at the time: Recording a few seconds on video tape, stopping the tape, moving the figures, repeat until done. Then, I’d capture all the footage on my computer and save each frame of video whenever it would change as a JPEG that I would then drop into a sequence in my video editing program, which I think was Sony Vegas… ridiculous. I also still hadn’t gotten the hang of securing my light source and camera to eliminate that jumpiness from frame-to-frame. But it was good practice for the process of animating mouth movements and facial expressions that I use all the time now.

Twisted ToyFare Theater

20 Mar

 

I remember the first issue of ToyFare that I owned: Issue # 8, April 1998, found in a Toys R Us and [my parents] bought it [for me] immediately. It had an awesome “Days of Future Past”-esque cover with Boba Fett standing next to a bunch of extremely-detailed “Wanted” posters and I’ve been hooked ever since. Well, that is until the magazine was shut down but that’s another story. It was great to check out premiere images of new toys coming out, sure, but what kept me reading TF was the humor. This issue (and many other older ones in my collection) are now mere scraps of paper held together with Scotch tape due to the number of times I read them, giggling at the word bubbles over and over. They’d get soaked when I’d take them with me to swim practice and they’d get torn when I carried them around in my backpack at school. But the best was Twisted MEGO Theater (later renamed Twisted ToyFare Theater,) the fumetti precursor to Robot Chicken.

I managed to maintain my relationship with ToyFare up through high school and college, maybe only missing a few issues here and there. When  I applied for an internship with Wizard Entertainment (the comic book magazine company and publisher of ToyFare Magazine) after graduating college, I didn’t think I’d actually get it. But, who knows where I’d be if then-ToyFare Managing Editor Adam Tracey (who, like many MANY of the fine folks I met at Wizard Entertainment, is now a dear friend and fellow member of the LAW: L.ife A.fter W.izard)  hadn’t selected my resume and allowed me to be one of Wizard’s three or four interns that summer.

Thankfully, I was living alone in New York during my internship with absolutely no life outside of work. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to take on the extensive after-hours job of putting together ToyFare’s first animated version of a TTT strip and my first real go at professional animation. It was a Marvel-centric strip called, “Bathroom Blitz,” where MEGO Spidey walks into the Baxter Building looking for a bathroom and Mr. Fantastic mistakenly thinks he’s come to join the team. All the ToyFare guys were on board and helped me out with voice work. Zach Oat was Mr. Fantastic, Jon Gutierrez voiced The Thing/Silver Surfer, Rachel Molino voiced The Invisible Woman, Adam Tracey portrayed The Human Torch and Justin Aclin was Spidey. It was a lot of work, a lot of fun, and most importantly: People at the office thought it was good and funny. So I got to make more. But a lot of credit goes to my supervisor at the time, Dan Reilly, who really pushed for me and helped persuade Wizard to pursue more video content. Dan frequently put the videos I worked on ahead of a lot of his other responsibilities and had my back the entire time I worked at Wizard. In retrospect, I’ve been kind of spoiled in my career so far by having many supportive, cooperative bosses.

Our first episode that was publicly released was based on an older TTT strip involving CHiPs. We picked this one because it featured the least amount of “popular” copyrighted characters. I remember there being a long period of time spent determining which TTT strips we could animate and not “get in trouble” because of the properties featured within.

 

I took on almost every aspect of production for this first episode which helped me immensely to become a more independent and proficient animator. I recorded the voiceovers, edited the soundtrack, and pared down the original TTT strip to better fit a video representation. It was also great to have more Wizard folks on board as voice actors, including Rickey Purdin, Matt Powell, TJ Dietsch, and Kiel Phegley. I wish I had saved the raw audio of those recording sessions because I’m sure there were some great outtakes.

Looking back, the pacing of pretty much all my ToyFare animations is soooooo slowwwwww. That’s the thing that bothers me the most. I do see a bit of improvement in the facial expressions with each episode and I also have to remember that I didn’t even know what After Effects was at this point. I was using solely PhotoShop and Final Cut Pro to animate. That second-and-a-half shot at the beginning of “CHiPs Ahoy!” where the General Lee lands and the two cycles follow took me about half a week to complete. Ugh… and trying to greenscreen in Final Cut is a fool’s errand. I had no concept of color correction or how to secure an action figures feet so that they can walk somewhat realistically (see: Ponch walking toward KITT at 0:55)  But I do like how KITT’s spinning license plate bit turned out and animating Danny Glover’s face was fun. The whole scale of it was actually pretty epic. Multiple sets, a dozen or so different characters, more than a handful of visual effects… I must have been a madman to take that on. But I’m glad I did. I learned so much during this chunk of early professional animation work through trial and error, it was absolutely indispensable. It also sparked my professional relationship with many other ToyFare alums whom I still work with today.

Introduction to Animation

20 Mar

This seemed like a good topic for my first real entry: My very first attempt at stop-motion animation. (Or, at least the earliest instance I could find.) I was going through some old VHS home movies and found this:

 

I can’t be sure of when it was made, but I assume around the mid-90s. It looks like I taped over one of my Star Wars fan fiction videos in which I cast my collection of Kenner’s Power of the Force action figures (released in 1995.)

I do remember animating this, though. I was in my mom’s basement workroom, set up on a table beside her as she was no doubt working on one of her many, many crafts that she has painted, sewn, sculpted, built, beaded and brought to life throughout her career as a craft artist. So, with all this artistic material around me (Sculpey clay, fake flies, rubber stamps, blocks of wood, googly eyes, everything and anything) I was inspired to cast a head out of clay and use my dad’s video camera (which at the time was about as big as a suitcase) to record the character’s actions. I have no idea how I got the idea to record a very short clip of video and adjust the character in between frames in order to create animation. I wouldn’t even know that the process was called “stop-motion” or”stop-action” for years to come. I honestly don’t remember where I learned the method, whether it was something that dawned on me or something I saw on Reading Rainbow, or something a friend or relative taught me, don’t know… But, I hope that I have improved somewhat in my skill since this early attempt.

Grrrrrrreetings!

20 Mar

Hello, friend! You’ve managed to stumble upon the site of Alex Kropinak: stop-motion animator, video editor, and toy collector. What follows will be an updated list of my newest projects, a look back on some of my past work, and maybe some GIFs thrown in, who knows? Hope you follow along and I’d love to hear what you think of my stuff. Until next time!