Sunday, December 16, 2012

"NOBODY CARES" - A Community Art Installation

I recently had the great privilege to work as a teaching artist for a group of 7th and 8th graders as a part of the Frist Center for the Arts "Stop! Take Notice" community art installations in Nashville. To launch the program, we introduced 4 groups of teens and pre-teens from centers throughout the city to the socially-motivated art of the Carrie Mae Weems retrospective on exhibit at the museum.

Weems has created decades of art in the form of photography, on its own and in juxtaposition with text, that challenges the viewer on issues of race, gender, and our social fabric. In 2011, after the gang crossfire death of a 2 year-old in her neighborhood, she created Operation: Activiate, exhortations on violence (eg. "Killing a man doesn't make you a man.") that directly engaged with her community as posters, lawn signs, billboards, newspaper ads, and even matchbook covers at the local bodega. She helped establish "Safe Zones" where children who felt threatened could find haven. Art left the gallery and met reality head on.

For "Stop! Take Notice" we asked that the student artists discuss an issue that they felt had the greatest impact on their community and to create a public interactive artwork that fostered a dialogue about that issue. My group, from The Oasis Center, was the youngest of the bunch and yet we faced issues of mortality together as they wanted to delve into the impact that violence had on them. They introduced me to this aspect of their lives; what streets they can't walk down, parents moving their family due to repeated break-ins, and losing family members to gang violence. Their after-school teacher entered her line of work in part after discovering that a goofy high school associate of hers had grown up to become a now-imprisoned gang leader with a body count he would boast about.

And yet, they are still kids. They were quick and funny and absurd and caring and catty and loved their snacks. When it came time to give their experience a form they were utterly creative in their approach. Although I helped to continue the conversation, all of the decisions and direction were theirs over meeting once a week for several weeks. The artwork would be a piece that was a memorial to those we lost, the ways in which violence has taken from us, but also a memorial to the living, the potential loss we still face. It needed to be colorful to capture attention. Rosario proposed the idea of floating messages on balloons. No, how about fortunes in fortune cookies? Piñatas?


They would make piñatas. In the center of the exhibit would be a destroyed piñata of the Earth spilling candy as well a memorials to people and ways of life taken through violence. Surrounding the Earth would be a constellation of self-portrait piñatas of the students, fragile vessels also containing candy as well as slips of paper listing the qualities that the world would miss if that student were ever killed or ruined by violence. They would invite viewers to add messages of their own.

It was messy and fun and the group took pride in decorating their work. But the seriousness of the piece was always behind the surface. It was Guadalupe who reminded the students that they should consider those who have fallen, the loss and hurt they felt, as they took whacks at destroying the Earth. The kids also pointed out the inherent contradiction in doing so.

Last bit: what to call it? Inspired in part by a SpongeBob Squarepants online meme, the group decided on "Nobody Cares." Not intended to be glib, but, even surrounded with teachers and parents and community leaders that care about them, this is what they wanted to give back as a response to the violence they face and the potential they stand to lose. It was as smart and audacious as they are and we can only strive to meet their challenge in creating a world that they deserve.

I know teens and pre-teens often get a bad rap for being lazy and disrespectful. But, this group showed me how sharp and sensitive they can be. They had innate BS detectors and the way they joked with each other showed how much they "got it," digested it, and spit the world back at itself. Their teacher Vanessa cared deeply for them and they knew it. Even when they would get rambunctious they were hemmed in by their desire to not let her down. I am better for having met them and sharing in their lives if only for a little while.

Below are some pics of the process along with the exhibit write-up and the final installation.

Nobody Cares 
mixed media, 2012
This interactive work of art was created as a part of the Frist Community Art Project: Stop! Take Notice! with the intention of connecting the surrounding area to themes present in the work of socially motivated artist Carrie Mae Weems.
The group of young artists at the Oasis Center chose to address the role that violence plays in defining their experience of their community. Each artist is represented by their own hand-crafted piñata, a vessel that contains not only candy but also documents that detail the unique qualities that they bring to the world; gifts that would be sacrificed if they were ever the victims of violence.
These piñatas surround the debris of a destroyed piñata representation of the Earth. The remnants include written messages about the impact of violence in the community and memorials for those we have lost to violence.
Please participate in adding to this artwork in two ways:
- You may write about your own distinct gifts on the slips of paper and insert them in the open piñata next to this sign. 
- You may offer memorials to people who have been hurt and taken by violence or accounts of how violence has affected your life by writing them on the slips of paper and including them among the pieces of the destroyed piñata.

Only revealed to me after the breaking of the piñata, the above message stopped me cold. It reads: "My uncle who was a dancer was stabbed to death, because he was homosexual. He was a professional dancer."

The above is me, as SpongeBob, by one of the kids.

Friday, October 26, 2012

ELMO THE MUSICAL _ Magnetic Dreams Studio

Magnetic Dreams 2012 Demo Reel from Magnetic Dreams on Vimeo.

Since moving to Nashville, I've been working with the local animation studio Magnetic Dreams as Art Director on a number of Sesame Street-related projects, specifically the new Sesame Street segment Elmo the Musical. Shot entirely on green screen, Magnetic is responsible for creating and compositing the fully computer-generated environment, effects, and any additional characters, like Velvet, Elmo's theater curtain companion. 

If you check out the reel above, you can see that Magnetic, co-owned by Mike Halsey and Don Culwell, brings the highest level of skill to a diverse array of projects and animation techniques. They've turned Marvel's Iron Man and Thor "motion comics" into mini blockbusters, designed motion graphics for videos for musicians like Taylor Swift and Shakira, and conjured creature and special effects for the feature film AFTER. Magnetic Dreams’ working relationship with Sesame goes back a few years now, on CG-animated projects like Twiddlebugs and Super Grover 2.0, and Elmo the Musical is the next great step forward.

I've said before that my favorite part of working in a studio is how everyone's contributions go into making the whole greater than the sum of the parts. As I showed in previous posts, the look of a given episode often begins with Photoshop style frames by myself and freelance artist Astrid Riemer and storyboards by Rick Ritter. But, the team at Magnetic goes way beyond those initial designs to make them a reality for Elmo to play in. Since movie or TV credits rarely give you any real insight into the work people do, I thought I'd use this post to shout out some of my favorite contributions from the crew here on the first few episodes of Elmo the Musical so far.You can find pictures and bios for the following artists on the Magnetic website, here.

(Barnacles from SEA CAPTAIN: THE MUSICAL, CG models by Tim Crowson)

The creative director, Rickey Boyd, is also a Muppeteer who basically brought Nashville animation to Sesame Street and vice versa. He’s part of the Sesame family and he couldn’t be more attuned to the needs of a shot at both ends of the camera and production pipeline. But, I'm mostly in awe of how he can channel the spirit of the Muppets, with on-model Muppet anatomy, into his hand-drawn character designs.

(Barnacles from SEA CAPTAIN: THE MUSICAL, design by Rickey Boyd)

(Unused Asteroid character from PIZZA: THE MUSICAL, design by Rickey Boyd)

Producer, John Hamm, steadies the ship with brightly colored schedules. On the creative/technical end, John works with Layout Artist Craig Simpson and Visual Effects Supervisor Julian Herrera to integrate the footage and camera movements of the live action shoot with that of our CG environments. Julian is initially on-set at Sesame in Queens to problem solve on the front end and record set data with the placement of tracking markers. All of this was best realized in a shot from CIRCUS: THE MUSICAL in which Elmo walks a plank, bounces from a trampoline, and leaps through the air as the camera whips around to capture his crotch-first landing on the head of a cactus. It's a living...


Our CG department is responsible for modeling, texturing, lighting, and rendering all assets for the show. My first literal "Wow" moment was when I saw my style frame for the "Temple of Spoons" come to life in the model by CG Lead Tim Crowson.

("The Temple of Spoons" from GUACAMOLE: THE MUSICAL, Concept Art by Michael Lapinski)

("The Temple of Spoons" from GUACAMOLE: THE MUSICAL, CG by Tim Crowson)

Tim alternates leading episodes with CG Artist Brad Applebaum. Brad modeled most of Pizza the Musical, especially the rad spaceships but I think it's cool to note that he's responsible for problem-solving the iconic opening to the show along with Motion Graphic Director, Rhea Borzak. I cannot wait to share more work from future episodes by Tim, Brad, and the rest of the CG Team, including Yannick Amegan and Lyn Lopez.
(Opening number from ELMO THE MUSICAL, CG by Brad Applebaum)

Our Compositing department is responsible for bringing everything together, from the unsung art of keying out the green screen footage and rotoscoping (particularly Melissa Cowart) to color correction to the final lighting changes and visual effects.

Rhea Borzak leads the team and is an accomplished artist in her own right, designing the backgrounds for the infamous Katy Perry/ Elmo video and short Sesame films like this magical firefly spot for the letter "N." On ETM, Rhea created and animated the playful squiggles, bursts, and pops that illustrate Elmo's thought process.

(ELMO THE MUSICAL, motion graphics by Rhea Borzak)

The next few images should give you an idea of the extra artistry that the Comp team brings to each episode. In order to emulate the aesthetic and devices of a Broadway musical, I'll often design special lighting for the musical numbers. Compositor Joel Robertson was the first to master this challenge head on for GUACAMOLE: THE MUSICAL.
(Special Lighting from GUACAMOLE: THE MUSICAL, Visual Effects by Joel Robertson)

PIZZA: THE MUSICAL was our space epic. Judd Eschliman, Justin Burks, Josh Stafford, and Joel Robertson were responsible for animating the deep space effects below:

Abdel Pizarro had already shown his goods as a CG character animator on our direct-to-DVD video game parody movie Elmo's Alphabet Challenge but I didn't know he was also a natural Compositor and effects guy. He cooked up the lasers and force fields for PIZZA and composited Elmo's "Golden Shoes" dream world for ATHLETE.

(PIZZA: THE MUSICAL, Special Effects by Abdel Pizarro)
 (Dream Sequence from ATHLETE: THE MUSICAL, Visual Effects by Abdel Pizarro)

Remember what I said way back at the top about the "whole being greater than the sum of the parts?" Well, this shot below is a little bit of gravy that added subtle character to the entire meal. As scripted, Elmo's flying up and down in his AIRPLANE:THE MUSICAL plane. But Josh Stafford decided to play with my chubby marshmallowy clouds by having the wing nick one with a rubbery recoil and a strafing trail of mist. It's the sort of whimsy that Kevin Clash brings to his performance of Elmo and I love it when our artists infuse moments with as much charm.
 (AIRPLANE: THE MUSICAL, Visual Effects by Josh Stafford)

Perhaps the greatest challenge we face on Elmo the Musical is to model, texture, light, and animate completely computer-generated characters so that they believably interact with and live in the same space as Elmo and the other Muppets. Velvet the Curtain appears in every episode but there are guest stars that present their own challenges. Designed and Animation Directed by Rickey Boyd, the goal is to create characters that look Muppet-crafted and convey some of what makes puppeteering so endearing and yet employs the dynamism the script calls for with CG Animation, and rigged to do so by Technical Directors Harry Han and Jeremy Estrada.

Sometimes, an Animator has to bring a slab of rock to life, as Jamie Coakley had to do with the singing and dancing Rhombus of Recipes...
 (The Rhombus of Recipes from GUACAMOLE: THE MUSICAL, Animated by Jamie Coakley)

... and sometimes, an Animator has to perform an elegant dance number with the stumpy flippers and trunk body of a whale, as Andrew Lee Atteberry had to do with Moby Pink.

 (Moby Pink from SEA CAPTAIN: THE MUSICAL, Animated by Andrew Lee Atteberry)

If you've made it this far, I think you can appreciate how much work, talent, and thought go into each moment of a deceptively simple looking show. And, that's not to mention the even more invisible contributions like that of Human Resources and Accounting Guru Lisa Halsey, Editor Victor Albright, and our IT team of George Friend and James Ramsden.

Lastly, the entire crew at Sesame has taken 40+ years of experience writing, scoring, singing, designing, educating, and performing for children (and adults) and created a perfection distillation of all those skills and poured them into vibrant mini-musicals of Elmo's imagining. 

It's all a part of Elmo's imagination, we just work for him.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

FEEDING GROUND _ NYCC 2012 Effective Pitches Panel

New York Comic Con is here again but this will be the first time in a few years that I won't be attending. I'm already missing old friends, the meeting of new people, and the little tingle you get from all of that paper drying out your lungs.

FEEDING GROUND co-creator and co-hort, writer Swifty Lang will be representing us signing at the Archaia booth from 3-4PM on Friday, October 11th.

He will also be included as a presenter and the following panel:

How to Prepare an Effective Submission
Friday, 10/12 5:15-6:15pm, Room 1A06
Want to pitch your idea as a graphic novel? Archaia editors and a pair of Archaia creators—Feeding Ground’s Swifty Lang and Pantalones, TX’s Yehudi Mercado—show what should go into an effective submission.
Our publisher Archaia, and in particular our Editor-in-Chief Stephen Christy, have pointed to our NYCC 2009 Pitch Book (cover above) as a great format, both in style and content, for other aspiring creators to follow when pitching their ideas. We were one of very few books that they signed right on the Con floor.
Now, you can NOW download the whole Pitch Book PDF HERE

There's video of me talking through the process at the NYCC 2011 Panel on my YouTube page HERE

And, I went into some discussion of the particulars of the pitch book in a previous blog post HERE

Good luck, all - have a great Con and score some free posters for me.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

SESAME STREET _ Concept Art 02

Pop culture parodies are a staple of SESAME STREET. I art directed two recent bird-centric additions to the genre that appeared in the premiere week for Season 43: BIRDWALK EMPIRE and the PIZZA episode of ELMO THE MUSICAL (that stars a chicken in the guise of Darth Vader).


A send-up of the HBO Prohibition-Era crime drama set on the boardwalk of Atlantic City, NJ. Except this version is populated with gangs of chickens and ducks and adorned with birdhouses instead of the beachfront palaces. Although it was fun in itself to create designs to closely match the period-specific art direction, the real treat was designing for one of the few episodes that Muppet godfather Frank Oz performed in this season (he's Clucky Luciano).

Here it is:

(and in case you've never seen the opening to BOARDWALK EMPIRE)

The spot was produced for Magnetic Dreams by Julian Herrera and our editor Victor Albright shot the footage of saltine packs in the surf while on a trip. I'm especially proud of the opening and we heard through the grapevine that show's cinematographer dug our take on his work. You can get a closer look at my style frames that influenced the final CG models, below:


In this episode of Elmo the Musical, Elmo imagines he is a "Pizza Delivery Astronaut" who must face a chicken dressed as Darth Vader in order to deliver a pepperoni pie to the classic Muppet "Yip Yip" Martians.

Here's a clip, you can find the whole thing HERE:

The challenge for this one was creating an outer space that felt both iconic and new and retained our theatrical touches while exploiting special effects and 3D camera moves. Plus, with a script calling for Star Wars references, I wanted the designs to contain some pretty specific Easter Eggs.

Here's a look at some of my Photoshop style frame backgrounds, including the one featured in the clip above. The visual effects were achieved by the J-Team (Judd, Josh, and Joel) of our compositing department.

The script called for this specific Star Wars reference (modeled and lit by Brad Applebaum) but I also threw in some additional SW design shout-outs. The special effects for the ship were designed and animated by Abdel Pizarro. Notice too that the same chicken played "Clucky Luciano" and the villain here. On the Sesame set, they refer to him as "Stunt Chicken."

And here's a close-up of Elmo's dashboard, just because we barely see it in the episode.

Friday, September 21, 2012

ELMO THE MUSICAL _ Concept Art 01

I have a confession to make... I never liked Elmo. I was too old for him when he became a regular and then star of Sesame Street and saw him as a juvenile pretender to the Grover throne. I was so wrong.

For the last year, I've had the privilege of working as Art Director at Magnetic Dreams Studio on a number of Sesame projects, the centerpiece of which is the launch of a new interactive segment featuring Elmo's imaginary Broadway Show, appropriately titled ELMO THE MUSICAL. Shot in front of blue screen, it's our job to create the entirely computer generated environment of Elmo's direction. I'll go into detail about the process in future posts but just want to say here what an honor it's been teaming with an animation studio and Sesame crew working at the top of their game.

With his great humanity and innovation, Jim Henson was my artistic idol growing up. With the Muppets, Jim and co. created what amounts to another living, breathing, sentient species for us to share the planet with. Now I can say how fulfilling it is working with Muppeteers Kevin Clash and Rickey Boyd as they bring as much wit, talent, and attention to detail to their work. I've been immersed in Elmo and I am in awe of the subtlety, humor, and, most of all, heart, that Kevin imbues in his creation. I now love the little guy and it's my great pleasure to help create a world for him to play and learn in.

ELMO THE MUSICAL premieres with this 43rd season of Sesame Street on Monday, September 24th 2012.

Here's a great short "making of" documentary that includes the show opening and gives you a great idea of all the work that's gone into it.

My various logo concepts for the show, Sesame went with the one on the top left that Magnetic was already in the process of developing when I came on.

The premiere episode is "Guacamole the Musical" in which Elmo is an explorer chef (think Indiana Jones in a chef's hat) in search of a legendary Guac recipe. Below are my style frames for the "Nacho Picchu" and "The Temple of Spoons" locations, followed by their fully composited CG models.



Tuesday, September 18, 2012

SESAME KINECT _ Background Design

Today saw the release of SESAME STREET KINECT, an interactive experience for the Xbox and the first project I worked on with Magnetic Dreams studio in Nashville.

Below you can see some of my background designs for segments of the game. The first is a rough Photoshop comp that I created as reference for the 3D modeling team on an Abby short called "Poodle Parlor."

For the following bunch, I actually painted these backgrounds in Photoshop (first time in a while) with a digital brush from the studio that I've fallen in love with. They comprise three environments (a circus, farm, and swamp) from a game in which kids are prompted to throw a Muppet ball at Elmo.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

ELMO'S ALPHABET CHALLENGE _ Concept and Background Art

Growing up, no other work of art made more of an impression on me than The Muppets in all of their incarnations and Jim Henson has always been an idol of mine for the imagination, wit, and compassion he brought to his work. With that in mind, I've been very fortunate this past year to hook up with Mike Halsey and Don Culwell's MAGNETIC DREAMS Animation Studio in Nashville to work as Art Director on a number of Sesame Street-related projects. Not the first I worked on but the first out of the gate, the direct-to-DVD movie ELMO'S ALPHABET CHALLENGE was released this week.

Directed by John Hamm (not to be confused with the slightly less debonaire Mad Man) and with creative direction and character design by Rickey Boyd (a Muppeteer in his alter ego) ELMO'S ALPHABET CHALLENGE applied Sesame's classic sense of parody to a number of familiar video games as Elmo, Abby, and Telly are sucked into the game to battle an impy elf through the entire alphabet. All said, it was a feat to assemble what were essentially several mini-movies in totally different styles, each with their own set of challenges. After about 2 years of working out of my home studio, it's been rewarding to work in studio with such an incredibly talented bunch and I always get a thrill seeing everyone improve a work across the production pipeline.

As Art Director, I did a good deal of the concept art and on-air background art for the project that I can give some insight into the different segments here (click on art thumbnails to enlarge them). EAC was a huge team effort and I'll be shouting out other artists as I go. You can also learn more about the whole team, complete with head shots, HERE.

Confession: I had never even played Angry Birds before illustrating this parody background. With two lost days of addictive "research" I tried to cook up something that didn't look like any of the seemingly infinite number of game environments. The BG is designed to account for levels of atmosphere for the objects to fly past and to also allow for parallax between the layers of tropical foliage. This one was animated in Flash by John Hill.

Here's a preview:

This scene is a cel-shaded spoof on Just Dance with motion capture choreography at the core of the animation (animator Andrew Lee Atteberry needed to play down his slick moves in his role as A.B.C-More). For this one, I proposed a number of backgrounds and ran some test animation of the lights to the music in After Effects. "Q, Q, Q!" The soundtrack rang in our heads for weeks. On these Sesame gigs, I try to sneak in nods to classic Sesame shorts when possible. Hard to tell because we went monochromatic here in order to pop the characters, but, can you place the homage that the background pattern is referring to? 

A comp of 2D Photoshop assets in a 3D environment that's meant to evoke the art direction of the Super Mario world. We transition from the more fantasy pastoral landscape to industrial as the tension mounts. The real treat was being able to lay out the modular assets in side scrolling maps of the scene like those form the old Nintendo Power magazines. Long-time Nickelodeon co-hort Astrid Riemer was also an asset builder on this one.

Here's a preview:

PAC MAN Parody
Somehow this little bugger with all of its pixel specificity proved trickier to work out than some of the others but Elmo's "Muncha-Muncha!" line delivery was particularly cute. Astrid made the changes to the multiple levels. To the kids watching, I'm sure this looks as archaic as hieroglyphics. Jason Parish designed the pixel art objects.

This is a collage mock-up of the stage, guitar neck, and other elements for the Guitar Hero parody that I constructed and lit in Photoshop. I'd say this is an example of a scene where our compositing team went above and beyond in terms of fleshing out the shots with their own lighting and atmosphere. Jason Parish designed the alphabet icons.

I can't seem to locate my Photoshop collage/painted style frame for this one but, trust me, it was awesome. Below is a detail of the back plate I did for the CG environment that was modeled by Brad Applebaum (who, along with Craig Simpson and Jamie Coakley Jr., was also responsible for the design of the MARIO KART parody). I particularly enjoy this scene for the work of animators Abdel Pizarro and Matt Egler who I also got to share Qdoba and a cubicle bay with during the project.

Here's a preview (Spoiler Alert - it's for the letter "Z," the end of the alphabet and climax to the Challenge):