Category Archives: Don’t Fear the Sitter

One More in the Can

I completed another scene tonight. I started it on Saturday, so the total time was five days. Actually, yesterday I only worked on it for five or ten minutes, so I probably could have finished it yesterday if I had had the time. But sometimes you have to take some time to have a nice evening with a friend. Life isn’t all about work, after all.

Something I didn’t mention is that a couple weeks ago I did, in fact, record my voice actress Tara. I just had to get some extra lines, alternate takes, alternate wordings, and non-verbal vocalizations. Some of the takes were pretty interesting as she repeatedly grunted or whimpered in interesting ways. We were laughing pretty hard at times because of how much it sounded like the audio track from a pornographic movie. I’ll probably only end up using about 1% of what we recorded that day, but that’s exactly according to plan. I just wanted to get lots and lots of takes so I would have lots and lots of options when assembling the soundtrack.

Tara’s great to work with. She’s got a perfect voice for the characters and she responds well to directions. Not only that, but we also get along really well. After the recording session we went out to dinner along with the two friends that were with her. I had a really good time with them, with good conversation and so on.

I still haven’t even listened to the recordings we made. If I had been a Responsible Student I would have listened to them the same evening, while the session was still fresh in my mind. Well, I guess I’m not a Responsible Student. I’ll survive.


The verdict is that I didn’t need to worry about the binoculars. If you want proof, look at this. Pretty cool, huh? Oh, and just to be clear, the girl with the binoculars is Sarah and the voice you hear is her mom, off-screen.

So the total time to animate that scene was about two weeks, I think. It’s a little frustrating that it takes so long. I mean, it looks good, but two weeks for two seconds? That’ll have me finishing this film in like six years! So yeah, my process needs to speed up a bit.

Here’s a cool bit of news: I’ve been invited to submit Fried Ham to the New York International Childrens Film Festival. Apparently the word is getting out 🙂 It’s not a guaranteed acceptance, but at least they’ll waive the application fee. Now I just need to get around to actually submitting the thing.

My All-Time Biggest Animation Rant

So that binocular prop? It looks really good animated. Like, maybe too good. Watching the animation I just did on it, if I didn’t know better I’d say it was done in a 3D animation program.

Which brings me to one of my all-time animation rants: Films should be internally consistent. The reason this is an animation rant and not a film rant in general is that it’s much more a problem in animation. For the prototypical example, watch Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. In the scene where they’re dancing in the ballroom there’s this shot where the camera circles down from the chandelier, where the chandelier is rendered in glaring 3D glory. Most people, when they watch this scene, say “ooh, look at that! Computery! Pretty!” Not me, though. I say “Augh! Computery! Internally inconsistent!”

The problem is that the moment that chandelier comes onscreen the audience is jerked out of the story and what should be a touching, romantic moment. Instead of being happy that Belle and the Beast are falling in love, the viewer is distracted by the computery imagery. It just doesn’t fit with the hand-drawn look of the rest of the film.

That’s not the only part of the movie that used computers to help out on complex animation, but it’s the only part I notice. That’s where the key factor lies: if I don’t notice then that means they did it well. I have no objection at all to using 3d software in animation if it fits in with the overall look and doesn’t distract the viewer. It’s a fact of filmmaking — and animation in particular — that much of what we do as creators is to keep from reminding the viewer that they’re watching a film. If they suddenly remember that they’re watching a film then they separate themselves from the story and it ceases to do its job of envelopment and engrossment.

Consider this: when you’re watching a live-action movie and a special effect comes on that’s obviously computer generated, do you go “ooh ahh oh!” or do you say “jeez, that’s cheesy”? For example, take the original Star Wars Special Edition re-release (please!). George Lucas was kind enough to put in several new shots that used computers to render Mos Eisley and Jabba the Hutt. Did you really believe that Jabba was there in the room with Han? To me he looked like he was slapped in with masking tape and elementary school paste. The moment that scene started, I was like “oh, they did a computer generated Jabba this time. That looks pretty bad.”

Now think back to the first time you saw Return of the Jedi. Did you think “oh, Jabba’s a big puppet”? No! He looked freakin’ real! He was big and fat and slimy and disgusting. He was a villain you could be scared of.

Again, this isn’t to say I’m against computer effects in live action movies, either. A perfect example of how to do it right is also one of the first movies to use computer effects extensively: Jurassic Park. Those dinosaurs were totally believable. In fact, the computer-generated ones were probably more believable than the animatronic ones. That’s how to use computer animation in live action movies.

So back to my original point: maybe the binoculars look too 3D. The characters are relatively flat, with no shading or anything, so it might be one of those things that’ll pop the viewer out of the moment. That would be Bad.

P.S. I assert that no matter that Merriam-Webster and the OED assert, “computery” is a word.


I just wanted to share a little drawing I made tonight. This is the first prop I’ve created for Don’t Fear the Sitter. I think it turned out really nice, though I worry that it looks a little too 3D. Does it fit with the design of the characters? Probably a lot depends on what the backgrounds end up looking like. I still haven’t figured out the final look of the film. I suppose I should mock up a “visual style” prototype one of these days.

Excitement and Distraction

The other day I brought the current version of my animatic to work and showed it to Craig McCracken and Lauren Faust. They’re the producers on Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends and Craig is also the creator and director. Actually, I think Lauren had a lot to do with the development of the show as well. In fact, I’ve heard that Frankie might be modeled after her. Purely unconfirmed rumors.

Anyway, I was excited and nervous to show them my work, because I have a huge amount of respect for both of them. Craig is the one who created and directed The Powerpuff Girls, for instance…. Anyway, I did, in fact, show it to them, and they seemed to have a very positive reaction to it. Specifically, they said it was really funny (they actively laughed in a few places, which is always a good sign especially in small groups of people) and that they were surprised by the twists. They also seemed very impressed with the one little bit of animation I’ve completed in Flash, which was in place in the animatic. They said they really liked the lineless look of it (there are very few outlines on my characters, which isn’t the most common thing in the world of animation).

So that was a real boost. I came away from that meeting being really energized about working on Don’t Fear the Sitter — so much so, in fact, that the next day at work I had a hard time concentrating. “I want to be at home working on my own project,” I was thinking. Hooray for enthusiasm 🙂

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to do any work on the project — at least from an artistic standpoint. I’ve been spending a lot of the last few days working on setting up a revision control server on my old computer. This is something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time. I used revision control on Pink & Ain’t (my undergrad project) and it saved my butt once or twice.

“But David, what is revision control?” I hear you asking. Basically it’s software that keeps a sort of master copy of everything I’m working on and keeps track of all the changes to all the files. It lets me say “hey computer: give me the file ‘scene_12.fla’ as it was on October 19th at 2:33 PM.” Even if I’ve completely changed the file since then, the revision control software will give me the file exactly as it was on that day and time. The practical upshot is that if I ever make a mistake and save over something that I didn’t mean to, it’s not a disaster. I just go back to the last time I committed a change and grab the old file. It also has the added benefit of acting as a data backup of the whole project, in case my hard drive crashes or something (that’s why I’m using a separate computer to run the revision control setup).

Anyway, setting all that up involved first getting my old computer back up and running again (which was significantly easier than I expected), installing Linux on it (again, easier than I expected), installing the revision control server software (significantly harder than I expected — some things about Linux haven’t changed since I last used it in 1996), setting up a home network (which involved buying a new router since I couldn’t find the one I bought about a year ago for just this purpose), and finally getting the two computers to talk to each other in just the right way so that I can get my revision control up and running.

It’s been nearly a week now since I started the process and I think I’m finally finished. I got the project imported onto the revision control server and I think I’m ready to get back to work. That brings me to the next problem.

Well, it’s not really a problem in the grand view of David’s Life, but it’s a small problem in the petit view of David’s Animation Project: I’m leaving for Balkan music and dance camp on Saturday morning. So now that I’m all set up and jazzed about getting some work done, I go away and frolic in the redwoods.

Well, life goes on. Balkan camp is a Good Thing. I look forward to it all year and I’m practically bouncing in my seat in anticipation. David’s Animation Project will have to wait a week or so. It’s possible I’ll have Monday the 3rd off from work, so I might be able to work on it lots then.

One final thing. I’ve been thinking about setting a target delivery date for the final film of Don’t Fear the Sitter. Deadlines help focus the mind. So here’s my thought: the whole thing finished by Prom (the UCLA animation show) next year. That’s just under a year from now. I can do it if I set my mind to it.

Acting! Genius!

This post was actually supposed to go out last night but I had some technical difficulties.  I guess Myspace doesn’t figure Firefox is a good enough browser for them to fully support on their Blog entry form — I had to resort to Internet Explorer in the end.

Anyway, imagine the date of this entry is June 14th.

I got back in contact with Tara Ricasa tonight. She’s the actress who did the voices for the two main characters in Don’t Fear the Sitter. I was afraid that her contact info would be out of date, since the last time I had any contact with her was more than a year ago. It turns out she’s still in San Diego (she was a student at UCLA when she recorded for me but went home to San Diego after graduating). It’s a good thing that she’s still nearby.

You see, soon after my big recording session last year I realized that I would need another session with her. I guess it’s pretty common in animation. After assemblng my animatic with all the freshly-recorded voice parts I realized that it was missing all the little bits — the grunts, yelps, whimpers, screams, and other vocalizations that aren’t explicitly called for in the script. Like, when Jenny gets knocked over by the cops, if she makes a little yelp then that’ll help emphasize the impact.

There are also some lines that I’d like to re-record that just didn’t come out right for one reason or another. Mostly it’s that the inflection isn’t quite right or that I wasn’t able to get the levels right in the recording studio.

For the cases where the inflection wasn’t right, I guess I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to micro-manage a little more. I hate to say that — I want to let the actors do what their jobs without me telling them every little detail of how they should perform a line. In the end, though, they don’t understand the story and the situation like I do. Or maybe I need to get better at explaining what’s going on? I don’t know. I imagine it’s different for live-action actors or voice actors who record simultaneously with the other actors in the scene. They have more to go on — being able to see the set, being able to play off the other actors, and so on. I recorded all my actors one at a time, mostly because of logistical reasons. In my ideal world I would have had them all there in the same room, feeding off each other’s energy.

In the cases where the levels weren’t right it’s mostly because we were recording something loud. I couldn’t seem to figure out the settings on all the equipment to get a good loud scream or yell or whatever. No matter what I tried, the recording always clipped, causing distortion and a useless sample. There has to be a combination of settings and microphone that will allow for loud recording. Actually, the possibility that the microphone was the problem just occurred to me recently. Maybe the one I was using was one that’s good for quiet stuff but not loud? Wel, I happen to have a vocal microphone for live performances that can probably handle loud sound just fine. After all, it’s designed to have a singer belting it out at the top of her lungs straight into it, isn’t it? That’s my theory, anyway. I hope it plays out that way in reality….

I’ve got the animatic hovering at about 5:07. I’ve got it down pretty compact now. I even had to increase some of the timing because I had reduced it too much. In a way it’s nice to have that happen, since that way I really know it can’t go any faster. I’m not sure what more I can do apart from some outright cutting of scenes. I haven’t totally ruled out that possibility but first I think I want to show it to a few people and get some feedback.

Turnaround and Software

Lately I’ve been working on the turnaround for Sarah, the other main character in Don’t Fear the Sitter. Since I finished that one scene with Jenny I figured it would be a good idea to move on to the next character. I get more of a kick out of animating, but this is definitely a required step of the process. I figure it’s a good idea to spread out the production process so I’m not always working on the same sort of thing.

The way I’m creating this animation, as I’ve said before, is very similar to how we do it on Foster’s. I’m making a basic set of models that will be what I use for most of the animation. That’s what the turnaround is for — it’s the artwork that I’ll turn into the models in Flash.

Actually, I just recently saw a demonstration of this software called Toon Boom Solo. Oh. My. God. It rocks. But, of course, that’s based on what I saw in the demo, which was a presentation designed to make the program look good. But based on what I saw, it will do almost everything I’ve wanted in an animation program for years. Anyone who’s ever heard me rant about the state of 2D animation software can attest that it hasn’t been up to my standards, at least in a reachable price range. And even out of my price range it probably wasn’t — I just never got to try those programs out, so I couldn’t decide if they were up to snuff.

Anyway, as I said, Solo seems to have almost all the features I’ve been crying for all these years. It’s got two big counts against it, though: price and ease of use.

Price: $3000. Well, if it really works like I want it to, I’d be willing to pay that much…. Plus, I might be able to get an academic copy after all this film I’m working on is probably going to end up being my MFA thesis. That would knock the price down to about $500, I think.

User interface: The user interface looks like it’s really hard to learn. Anyone who’s ever heard me rant about user interfaces can attest that I have high standards, so it’s frustrating that this cool program should have a bad one. On the other hand, I also recognize that some of the most powerful software is only powerful once you learn to use it. Maya, anyone? EMACS? Vi?

All that said, I have no way of testing Solo to know if it’s really worth my time and money. Enter Cartoon Network. It seems that the higher-ups of the Foster’s team are considering switching to Toon Boom Harmony (the multi-user collaborative version of Solo) for the whole production cycle of the show. They’re probably going to do some tests to see if it lives up to everyone’s hopes and dreams, and then… who knows? We’ll see, I guess. Anyway, if my work switches to Toon Boom then I’ll probably end up getting a copy for myself at home. I just don’t know if I want to switch over DFtS. It would make a lot of things a lot easier, but at some point you just have to go ahead and make your film. There’s always doing to be something better on the horizon. I’m already in the process of going through one software/process change. Do I really want to change again? Yeah, probably not.

Slow Going

I’m really close to being done with my first scene for DFtS. I’ve been working on this one little scene for so long that it feels weird to be almost done. I keep scrubbing through the Flash file trying to find things that need to be finished/fixed but I’m finding fewer and fewer things each time.

Part of the point of doing this scene was just to test out the model I built for Jenny. I set it up in the way that I though would be the most useful but there are still occasional glitches. I’ve found a few things that are wrong — as small as a pivot point in the wrong place or as big as needing to make a bunch more drawings just to make one little thing work. I would explain in more detail what I’m talking about, but I think that would go a little beyond the scope of what I want to get into. Suffice it to say that I’m testing a lot of the preparatory work that I did and mostly it’s coming out all right.

Animating this model is definitely different than doing the ones at work. It’s pretty much a matter of character design. I designed my characters with traditional drawn animation in mind, and they work well for that. There’s an inherent quality to the method I’m currently using, though, that’s conducive to flat action. If you watch an episode of Foster’s you’ll notice that about 95% of the action is parallel to the camera plane — that is, right/left, up/down. It’s rare for a character to move toward or away from the camera. So the characters I designed for the traditional method feel a little constrained by the 2D world of Flash.

Maybe I should have redesigned my characters and storyboard to fit in with this new medium? Well… I didn’t wanna. That would have been soooo much work. So there’s some amount of pushing and pulling, then, to get my animation to match my original vision. It makes me start to wonder if this process is really going to save me time in the end. So far I’ve animated about ten seconds and I’ve been working on it for like five months. Now, admittedly I was working on it almost full time while I was still in school, and I’ve been kind of sporadic about working on it at all lately, but still.

But, really, life is a grand experiment. We’ll see how it goes.

Twitchy Animation

I worked on some animation a bit last night. I’ve been having a hard time motivating myself to work on DFtS. I guess I’ve been pretty busy lately, but even when I have free time I seem to be more likely to watch a movie than work on animation.

Part of it is that this scene I’m working on seems to be going rather differently than the stuff I do on Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends. I think the difference is that that show is storyboarded with the medium in mind. That is, they make it so that it will animate well in the 2D Flash world of Foster’s. I boarded my film assuming I would do it traditionally, though, so it has lots of non-orthogonal poses and movement. In fact, there are one or two scenes that I’m going to have to come pretty close to animating traditionally. There’s this one that’s a low-angle shot of some people running and sort of jumping over the camera and I don’t know any way I could do it with stock models. So that’ll be kind of fun to figure out.  (Go to the end of this post to see some pictures with moderate spoilage.)

I discovered something recently by watching this animation. Flash is really good at twitchy movements. You can kind of fake movements if they happen in few enough frames, and they still look really good. Watch that animation and you’ll see what I mean – all the characters move in a very twitch way, extremely pose-to-pose. Again, we run into the problem that I didn’t board DFtS specifically for Flash. My story has many places where slower movements are really the most appropriate. Now, since the scene I’m doing right now is one of those, and it involves a head turn (notoriously difficult in Flash), I’ve had to eschew tweens entirely, doing the whole thing on twos. If I try to do it on ones it’ll just take way too long to make it look smooth, and even then it’ll probably look muddy.

Interesting fact for the day: sometimes animation looks better on twos than it does on ones. Sometimes when I’ve animated something on ones I’ll go in and take out every other keyframe and it ends up looking a lot better. I figure it’s because the human brain can fill in the gaps on viewing better than the animator can on creation. Sometimes it’s better just to trust in Mother Nature and use our built-in tools to make something look good.

Here, look at what I’m talking about (Warning: spoilers! scroll down to see the pictures):


Okay, moving on.

In general, once I feel like the storyboard is at a good place I decide to move on and start making an animatic. In the case of Don’t Fear the Sitter I was actually limited by school – I had to have a finished animatic, using specific required techniques, by the end of Fall term. As a result I moved on to the animatic stage a little sooner than I otherwise would have.

It’s both a boon and a curse to have deadlines. The advantage is that it gets you to actually finish the thing. The disadvantage is that sometimes it makes you turn in a product that isn’t as good as it might have been. In this case it was mostly a good thing. I was planning to finish the project by the end of the school year, so I needed to move on and get to animating the thing as soon as possible.

For anyone who doesn’t know, an animatic is like a cross between a storyboard and a movie. At its most basic level, you create a movie with each storyboard panel displayed in sequence and timed out. You can get more advanced than that, though, actually moving around the characters in crude cut-out-style animation. The more in-depth you get in making the animatic, the better idea you’ll have of the timing of the final animation. Of course, if you go really detailed you’ll start to get diminishing returns and it would be better to just move on and start animating.

The first thing to do when starting an animatic is to scan in all the storyboard pictures. I have probably fifty pages of storyboards, but luckily the UCLA Animation Workshop has a sheet-fed scanner, so I basically just give it my stack, press a few buttons, and come back in a few minutes. Then I have to crop the images to make them easy to use in Premiere, the program I use for putting together animatics.

At school they have certain programs that they teach, and if you want to use different ones you’re on your own. For this class they taught Apple’s Final Cut Pro video editing software, but I wanted to use Adobe Premiere, since that’s what I used at home. It would have to suck to come in to school any time I wanted to work on my project. Most of the other people in the program ended up getting Apple laptops and Wacom tablets and doing most of their stuff on those. I was all proud because I’ve had a Wacom for years, having bought it in 1996 when I first went to the University of Oregon. In fact, it’s so old that when I bought a new computer I had to get a special part just to be able to connect it because the connector it uses is pretty much obsolete.

After I scanned and cropped all my storyboard images I opened up a new project in Premiere. Premiere is a video editing program, but I would be using it mostly to arrange still images in a timeline. After my first draft of the animatic I would actually break up the images a bit, making characters move around and stuff like that. I put a bunch of sound effects in and recorded myself speaking all the lines.

That was actually one annoying thing about the process. I put myself speaking the lines into my animatic, and then when I showed it to the class they all laughed at the absurdity of hearing my voice come out of a 14 year old girl. Yeah, understandable, but it distracted them from critiquing the actual animatic. I wanted them to laugh at the jokes, not at a silly little artifact of the creative process.

Next: casting and recording voice actors.