Friday, September 30, 2011

Huff Huff

A doodle born of video games on the brain.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

An exciting frame from an upcoming piece.

In it, I will be talking briefly about this face. If I can get my client work out of the way today I'll be spending the next few days making it. So stay tuned.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Work/Life Issue - Addendum

I wanted to add and reiterate a few things to my recent endless post about my own experiences with overworking/working stupidly. After writing something like that, you inevitably see things you wish you could add. However, I didn't want to increase the already mammoth length of that post. So here we go.

1. There are awesome studios, clients, producers and such out there. A lot of the discussion about working ends up being a worker vs boss fight. I reject such a simplistic narrative as an explanation for everything, though it rings true in specific situations. Bosses are people too. There's a wonderful line by Frank Turner that I think applies whenever you're tempted to talk about how an entire group of people are awful: "There's no such thing as rock stars. There's just people that play music, and some of them are just like us and some of them are dicks". Absolutely 100% true.

2. That said, as much as I will vocally support any studio that takes steps favorable to their workers (go, awesome people, go!), it is first and foremost the responsibility of the worker to make choices. A few weeks ago I had someone contact me with a job that would take weeks and pay very little. Instead of taking the job and then complaining about how unfair the whole thing was, I just said no. I lost some money there. That was the price, in real dollars I could honestly use. And whether I did that or not was my responsibility and my choice. Let's call for better conditions, but also let's take responsibility for ourselves. There is an issue, at least in my country, with people waiting for change to come down from the top. That happens sometimes and is very important, but it is always in response to a massive amount of change from below. And there's a lack of work being done there.

3. This boggles my mind, but there are some people who really like the breakneck, murderous pace of many studios. I want to reiterate to them: Cool. Go for it. I do hold that such practices are harmful for them and the industry as a whole, and many of these constantly-running people will find it hard to keep up that pace as they grow older and are replaced by cheaper and faster youngsters. Or they may find that, while is it super cool to hobnob and work with the biggest clients and most prestigious studios, they might want to spend at least some of their time off the clock, living their lives. But hey, it's their choice. We all have lines drawn over what we will trade to whom, and for what. The issue here isn't whether or not someone should have the freedom to do something. The issue is whether or not it's a good idea. And that, of course, is going to lead to some disagreements and discussions.

4. Also - you can make awesome work on your own, and there are jobs that don't require ridiculous hours for months at a time. Crazy, inhuman demands by an employer do not equal quality. Just because it cost more doesn't necessarily mean it's better.

Going steady

That's cool, right?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Making Things : The Work/Life Issue

In honor of the oncoming Halloween season, I want to tell you a horror story. It's a long one, so pull up a chair and settle in.

This was inspired by reading this story at the almighty Motionographer. (edit -I should point out, as I'm getting some traffic now from that post, that this whole diatribe isn't directed at Ash Thorpe. These are just my own thoughts and experiences on the subject. We're all in this together.)

In 2004 I was hired at my first animation job, at a small web startup in Altoona, PA. I know - the big time! I like to joke that neither I nor my bosses knew enough about Flash or animation to know that I had no idea what I was doing. I was playing in a ska band at age 23. My job before this was at a grocery store making $8 an hour. This new job paid little more, but it was an office job where I got to draw. Also, my office mate was a bandmate and great friend of mine. I jumped into it wholeheartedly.

Soon after I began, I was handed 2 things. The first was a video promoting some sketchy supplement that I doubt works. In fact, looking back on it now, the company's main clients were direct-marketing scam companies. I should have been tipped off when my 4 managers all tried to recruit me to buy and sell supplements from them, promising that they'd give me some "prime contacts" that were sure to buy. The video's concept resembled the somewhat obscure animated film Osmosis Jones that had recently been released. I was given a script and I got to work, learning Flash, the ins and outs of a Wacom tablet, and the making of things as I went. In fact, you want to see it? Yeah, you do.

I will warn you: it is hilariously, god-awful terrible. It is a master class in what not to do. I laughed out loud through most of putting this together tonight. I eliminated any mention of the company or their products, because I could totally see them suing me or something. Also, I discovered that doing so made the video about 10x funnier. Even without the product and enzyme names, you can just feel the absolute ridiculous bullshit seeping out of the screen.


  The lesson here: stay away from junk science and direct marketing.
The second lesson: Everyone sucks when they are starting out. You will improve with time.

As awful as it is, you must admit that it looks like quite a load on a complete novice. It was. I was swamped. It took me something like 5 or 6 weeks to make it, working 60 hours a week. Yes, you read that correctly. The reason for the long hours was the second thing - the company was launching an internet service, and we were all being asked to work 1/4 more hours (it was a 45 hour work week there normally) in order to get the service out by some trade show somewhere. 6 to 6. We would not be paid for these extra hours, but instead would have shares in the profits that would surely come rolling in. The math was this - there's a lot of people on the internet, and we only need like 1% of them to sign up for us all to be super rich. In my 23 year old head, that made sense. I was also dirt poor and was planning on proposing to my then girlfriend/now wife. I needed money and thought to myself that I was being very responsible, sacrificing now for gain in the years ahead.

I was also homeless at the time. I was crashing at a bandmate's house or my girlfriend's apartment and living out of my tiny red car. Bethany lived 90 minutes away from my work, and my bandmate lived 45 minutes away. I was doing a lot of driving. A typical day saw me wake up at Bethany's apartment at 4am, and drive to work. I would show up around 8 that evening. We'd hang out and then I'd be asleep by 10 or 11. Rinse and repeat. Staying at my bandmate's house was a little better, but not much. I slept in my car some nights. I barely remember that summer and fall. The road I had to take was a potentially treacherous highway through the mountains of Western PA. I was so exhausted all of the time that I would be honestly half awake, desperate to get to a bed or couch. I got a ticket for going 95 miles an hour down a mountain. It was expensive. To be honest, I was half asleep, the sun in my eyes. To this day I can't say how I didn't die that year. I gained a lot of weight, mostly from junk food and coffee. I started getting light-headed and seeing lights. I developed an ulcer that still bothers me from time to time. I got several more tickets and had some near misses when I fell asleep at the wheel. It was the worst time of my life, hands down. I lost the better part of a year and nearly killed myself, and for what?

Incidentally, that studio closed down the next year due to massive errors on the part of the managers and owners. But that's another, more bizarre and entertaining story. Ask me sometime.

Years later I made a similar mistake at my next studio job. Again, I was afraid of being broke and of losing the job before I had it. The first day there I was asked to stay late. I did. And I did it for the next 3 weeks. I worked every day of the next month, including weekends. I worked 48 hour shifts with no sleep. I was exhausted. I gained more weight. I began to get migraines. My bosses kept telling me that this is how it is in "the industry". And while I knew that they were full of shit, I was afraid. So I kept going. Eventually I had an emotional breakdown during my 40 minute commute home and almost wrapped my car around another guardrail. I kept telling myself that things would calm down, that the requests for extensive overtime would pass. They did not. And so I finally told them that I wouldn't be staying late anymore. Such talk was initially rebuffed, until I started leaving at 6 when my day officially ended. I started giving project estimates that matched actual work days. I started being a bit firmer about it. And you know what? Other employees started doing the same. And the bosses learned.

Incidentally, that studio also closed down the next year due to massive errors on the part of the managers and owners. But that's yet another, more bizarre and entertaining story. Ask me sometime.

In early 2010 I was doing a freelance gig at a local studio. Nice place, treated me wonderfully and paid well. It was across the river in Downtown Pittsburgh, which is an expensive nightmare for parking. I thought it would be a good idea to just make the 45 minute walk instead of driving. The first week was great, and then the requests to stay late began. And I complied. I was worried about our finances, and I knew that I needed a new computer as my trusty workstation was dying. If I just powered through, I could take care of bills and still afford a new computer. I worked on the project for 20 days. In the final week, I slept 2 hours a night on the studio couch and stayed up all night the final 2 days. My wife walked down to meet me for a nice spring walk home on the final afternoon. I was in the overdriven underslept hyper mode you get into when you are extremely fatigued. We began our walk home and everything was going fine until about the halfway mark, when we began to cross the 10th Street Bridge. From this point on I have no memory aside from a sudden splitting headache and some hazy visions of lights. Everything that happened afterward I have from my wife's account. I stopped walking on the bridge and stared at the water, forgetting where I was. Bethany took my hand and guided me a long. When we had to cross a busy street during rush hour, I apparently began to walk into traffic, saying that I could just walk down the yellow line between the cars. Bethany ran out and pulled me back. Later, I stopped at a building and began talking about the pigeons on the roof (they are my favorite bird) before walking off of the curb again. When we reached our apartment, I forgot where I was and what I was doing again and she had to convince me that this was indeed my house and I had to walk upstairs. I complained that I was too tired and really needed to go to bed. She finally got me upstairs and into bed, where I awoke 16 hours or so later.

I was pretty sick for about a week after that. When I was feeling better, we went for a walk around the neighborhood for some fresh air. I stopped by Commonwealth Press to see my friend Dan. He told me that I looked awful and asked what was going on. I told him about my ordeal at the freelance gig. I told him how it was terrible that they asked me to work so many hours and how hard and unfair it was. Dan just looked at me and said "Well, why didn't you just tell them no? Isn't it your responsibility to set those boundaries?". He has a talent for being direct. I sputtered. I had expected sympathy. I was kind of annoyed, to be honest. But he was right. I had all of the control in the situation. I chose to work those hours. I chose not to negotiate better terms or a more realistic timeline for the project. When it got out of control, I shouldered all of it and it nearly killed me, or at least nearly did me great harm. Dan was right.

In the end, I can tell you stories about terrible clients, horrible bosses and awful jobs. I have endless stories you wouldn't believe. Really. Just insane people. But I agreed to their unreasonable demands. I did it because I was afraid- afraid of being broke, afraid that they'd replace me, afraid that I wasn't good enough to warrant guidelines, afraid I would get some sort of reputation for being difficult, afraid of letting people down. It's that fear that makes people shells of themselves by 30. It's that fear that kills young, creative people with car accidents and heart attacks. It's the same fear that keeps workers the world over in terrible conditions.

It's true that in a lot of work situations, especially ones as fluid and user-unfriendly as those in the creative industries, you really have no control. There are clients who will ask or flat-out demand that you do ridiculous things. And if you refuse, there is a line of hungry people behind you ready to do those things. In those situations, you have to take control. You have to be willing to walk away. You have to be willing to say no. No one can make you do anything. That sounds silly, but it's true. You decide to work in the conditions in which you work. You're not a sweatshop worker in a 3rd world country with no other sources of income. You really aren't. You are not trapped. You have the ability to choose, to improvise, to be flexible, to say no.

Another downside to doing ridiculous, self-harmful things for clients is that over time it teaches them that this is normal. We see this all the time in creative industries. Why pay someone a living wage if you can pay a recent grad peanuts, knowing that if they refuse there's always a line up behind them? Why pay a designer for their time when you can simply crowdsource your logo and pick from the dozens of applicants who have just done free work for you? Why schedule projects so that your workers can see their families and live lives, when you know that there will always be someone like me in 2008, who was at the office every day for a month? Why stop taking if people keep giving?

You have to take control in the only way you can. You can't control the actions of others, but you can control your own. After that scary walk home in early 2010, I made decisions. I began using contracts. I set a hard day rate. I learned to say no. I set boundaries of time. I set expectations. And I worked like hell to be worth it. And you know what? I'm still here, still working, and happy. Do things still get crazy sometimes? Do I occasionally overbook or overcommit? Sure, I'm human. But those times are the exceptions and they are always on terms I agree to. I've had some wonderful, professional, respectful clients. I'll be honest - I'm not a super wealthy guy. My wife and I live simply, but we live well. I don't have an iPad, but I did preorder Dark Souls and will do the same for Skyrim later this year.. I don't have a crazy car, but I do rock a sweet PT Cruiser that is every bit the luxury car I could want. I don't have a snazzy DSLR, but my I have a decent point-and-shoot and know how to use Photoshop. We're not foodies like many of our friends, but we eat well and I make a great homemade pizza. My wife makes bread that is cheaper and 100x better than store bought. We didn't buy some hip breed of dog, but we do have the greatest domesticated spawn of a barn cat money can't buy. Our apartment isn't huge, but it's in a lovely neighborhood. We get by, and we do it well. And I actually see my family. We won't be here forever, and I don't want to sell that time away.

Setting boundaries means you have to become more creative, and work even harder. Because if clients can't get you as cheaply and can't expect you to work 60 hour weeks, you have to be worth it. You may not be able to live that fabled lifestyle of the hip, wealthy designer, partying at swanky clubs, living in your big downtown apartment, driving cool cars and buying all of the latest stuff Apple pops out this month. But you will be able to live, have relationships, and be happy on your own terms. And after a certain point, all of that other stuff becomes much less important to you anyway.

But, of course, that may not be your thing. You may want the 80 hour weeks. You may wear the circles under your eyes and the heart palpitations as some sort of badge. You may love telling stories about how crazy you are and how this is what the industry is like, brah. Godspeed. I hope you remain healthy and happy. I, however, will be working as well - and also hanging out with friends, being reasonably prolific in making my own stuff, petting my cat and taking long walks with my wife. I just think it's better for me this way. Your results may vary.

PS - Some notes on the cartoon I posted above: You may detect a slight authoritarian/quasi-racist vibe in the Joe's body sequences. This isn't all that strange, as the company was run by right wing separatists. They were part of a group that was going to get a bunch of people to move to South Carolina and secede. It was a bizarre year. The air was so thick with it that I honestly didn't pick up the comparatively subtle undertones in the cartoon until a year or so later. So awful. Seriously, feel free to mock and ridicule that short as much as you like. I'll join right in.

Oh, what, you want MORE discussion of this topic? Well, you are in luck!

Friday, September 23, 2011

I made a desktop wallpaper almost by accident

I was working on something else and decided to make one of the patterns a wallpaper. Download and enjoy the autumn-ness!

Potential WIP #4

Hey, you know what the great hard drive crash of 2011 DIDN'T destroy? Potential, which is still in progress after a crazy couple of months kept me away from it.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Post-Mortem - The Murf

Hey! It's a music video! And a fairytale version of our history as a species! And a look at time, life, survival and technology! ALL IN ONE!  And now I'm going to give you a somewhat truncated look at it, though I will be linking to a more in-depth going over of it.

First off, the single for this track is available for preorder here. If you're interested in a version that includes the video, click here. Support these dudes.

The awesome guys from Rendezvous contacted me two days before Christmas last year about doing a video for one of the tracks on their upcoming album. They gave me more or less carte blanche to do whatever I wanted with it. We settled on a concept in February and I got started. Five weeks later I was done. I was simultaneously also doing the first two episodes of Living In a River City, along with some other freelance work and putting together pitches (which I will post someday). By the time April rolled around, I was both exhausted and dying to get outside the apartment.

Initially, the video was going to be comparing and contrasting how quickly life moves in the universe - insects and small things living for days, people living for decades, and stars "living" for eons. I was reading a big book on evolution at the time, and wanted to do something involving the progression of life and how it marches on despite it's fragility. These concepts are in the final video, but it started taking on a life of its own.

I'm rather exhausted at the moment, so I will spare you a long, long, long writeup about everything rolling around in my head behind this video. My wife assures me that it's pretty easy to figure out what I was trying to do and say with it, and I'm trying to wean myself off of writing a short novel hammering home every point I'm trying to make in excruciating detail.  However, I did an interview yesterday with the nice kids at Motionographer where I talk about the video and the visual style in more detail. You can read it here. It's got lots of production stills and info. I will say that the sharp angles, the pixelly fires, square lens blurs and the mosaic overlays tie into the story and theme. It's not just a style (though it is stylish, if I do say so myself).

Anyway, other than a few texture overlays and some clouds I drew in Photoshop, the video is 100% After Effects. Never underestimate the solid layer. It will never fail you. As always, if you have any specific questions about how something was made, I'm all ears.

Here are a few reflections.

My wife came up with the whale-worshippers dance. I came up with the other one. COLLABORATION.

I felt bad killing the dinosaurs. Sorry guys.

Before doing this video I had never really done quadruped walk or run cycles. I might have in the distant past, but I certainly don't remember it. You learn something new everyday.

The humanoids in this are officially unisex.  If you'd like to pick specific ones that you think are guys or girls, be my guest.

I really liked the martian explorer. I want to do another short just about his awesome adventures. The guy is raising crops on MARS. Awesome.

You know who don't get enough credit? The people who jumped from cliffs in flying contraptions that completely and utterly failed. People laugh and call them idiots, but they were bravely trying to do the impossible. Eventually, some succeeded.

Welcome to my futurecity, where every elevated walk has a canal, and everyone had a weird hologram gadget. This shot was actually inspired by the neighborhood I was living in when I was making this, the south side of Pittsburgh. There are neighborhoods built on some very steep hills there and they have these endless walkway/stair combinations running all up and down them. They were built a century ago to aid the mass of workers walking to and from the steel mills that aren't there any more.

This was the first thing I did for the video, and it directly inspired the next short I'm doing.
This inspired this.

One of the things I do when I am very stressed and can't sleep is watch youtube videos of people playing NES games from my youth. I was very stressed at the time, and I think some of the first level of Battletoads crept into this circuit board design. Or maybe Marble Madness.

It must have been weird once fire became something people used often. Suddenly you notice that there's another camp on the hill next to you. And look at all of those people on the mountains. Not as alone as you thought you were.

 To wrap up:

This was an important project for me. Last year saw some big changes for me, which I have written about extensively elsewhere. Doing this story, in hindsight, was part of me realigning and rewriting how I view our past and our future. It was also the first time I did a short with no dialogue and no text. Trying to communicate emotions or humor or feeling that way was a wonderful exercise. It definitely makes me want to do more music videos, especially for instrumentals. Of course, because I made it, there are parts of it that I don't like as much. But overall I'm pretty proud of it. After 6 months of looking at it there just sitting on my hard drive, I'm interested in what you think. I hope you like it.

Lastly, go check out Rendezvous. The single for this song has several awesome remixes (one of which I am cutting a remix of this video to as we speak). Hagai and Itai are super-swell guys as well. Go check them out on youtube and grab the album they have coming out soon. I don't shill for people simply because I do work for them. They really are very cool, talented people who make good music. Go support them!

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Sneaky Peeky

This won't be out for a couple of months, but I was too excited not to post at least a censored preview.

New prints! For sale! Now!