Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Animator! Carpe Diem! (Part 3)

Carpe Diem! 
(Part 3)

Sachi showed me into a small office and gestured vaguely towards the work piled upon an animation desk. 
“Take a look at the scene,” she said. “See if you can figure out what it needs. Nobody’s touched it since the animator left this morning. We’ve got to finish it by 10am tomorrow and get it to camera. Okay?”
“Okay,” I answered, sitting down at the desk.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” said Sachi. “Want a coffee?”
“Yes, please.” 
Show business, there really is no business like it. 
That morning I’d been at the right place at the right time and showed up with my demo reel, looking for a job. Now here I sat, at another man’s desk to finish his scene. 
A scene urgently needed in a timely manner.
Aha! It’s always better to be lucky than good! 
I rolled through the scene. It was an action scene of a big, burly guy throwing a body into the trunk of a car. I rolled through it repeatedly, trying to visualize it, get familiar with it, seeking its essence. It was quality work. The drawings were solid… the animation smooth and fluid. 
I breathed a sigh of relief. It was a good scene to show what I could do. The animator had used a system I could understand and the drawings were interesting without being too difficult. 
By the time Sachi returned with the coffee I was feeling confident I could finish the scene before the deadline, provided I could work all night.
“Well, what do you think?” asked Sachi.
I sipped my coffee. “Yeah,” I said. “I think I can handle it. It’s a fun scene, and it’s mostly done. All I have to do is not mess it up.”
“Good,” said Sachi. “Anything you need?”
I mentioned working all night and asked if that would be okay. Sachi nodded, saying, “Sure, a few of us will be.”
“Mind if I use the telephone?” I asked. “I’d like to call my wife and let her know what’s up.”
“Help yourself.”
Sachi left me to it, and after telephoning I began working on the scene. It was interesting in that the drawings were done straight onto frosted cels with colored pencils. Not graphite on paper, as I was used to. One had to be precise and clean with the drawing, rather than my usual scratch and search technique. I had never seen a frosted cel before and I quickly learned I had to be careful, as any erasing would leave smudges, destroying the drawing and meaning time lost in making another. Also, when handling the cels, soft cotton gloves had to be worn to avoid fingerprints, but I had used gloves before and was used to that.
I got down to work. After a while, I fell into a rhythm and began enjoying myself. I love animating. More than that I love making movies. And if you love doing something, it’s hardly work, is it? When I first started my working life, back at the Ministry of Works in New Zealand, we worked in muddy ditches at the ends of picks and shovels with our muscles and our backs and the sweat of our brows. Physical work! Dangerous and manly, with plenty of cursing! I wondered what the ghosts from my past would think of me now, sitting here in New York drawing little drawings in a Broadway film studio built to resemble a child’s playroom. For sure I knew, wherever they were, my ghostly workmates wouldn’t think that sitting on your ass drawing little pictures with colored pencils was anything remotely like working. 
Rest in peace, brothers. Your work is through.
I stopped for a late lunch, ducking out for a slice of pizza, a bottle of Rolling Rock and a cigarette. The beer was a most appreciated luxury, but I was working now and could afford it. A further luxury was a second cigarette, sitting on a bench in the sunshine, resting my sore leg and watching people go by. 
Funny how much friendlier New Yorkers looked after I’d had a meal, with a full belly and a job to go back to. 
Back at the desk working, I had an idea. The action by the burly guy when preparing to throw the heavy body into the trunk of the car (in animation, this preparing type of action is called anticipation) could be exaggerated more, or ‘pushed’ as we call it, to good effect. The body that was supposed to be heavy would have a much better chance of looking heavy this way, and the viewer would have slightly more time to appreciate what was happening. It would mean making the scene longer to accommodate the extra time that the action would take (a few tenths of a second), something that wasn’t always possible in a tightly edited film, so I would have to check with Sachi about it.
“Okay,” she agreed. “Let’s try it and see what it looks like. But, for now, don’t throw out any drawings and don’t change the original X-sheet. We can shoot it both ways and see which we like best. We’ll change the sheet later if it works out.”
I got down to work again and the hours flew by. I couldn’t see the day ending and the night beginning from the windowless office, but the tempo and noise of the busy studio during the day was gradually replaced by an eerie quiet. 
Around five in the morning, that dreadful hour after working all night when everything is gray and uncertain, including the animator, I struck a drawing I couldn’t get right. It should have been a simple drawing, too, making it all the more frustrating. I tried over and over, wasting cel upon cel, but still it wouldn’t come. I was tired. I decided to take a break. It would do me good to get up and stretch my legs for a bit, to focus my eyes on something further away than the end of my arm, maybe have a cigarette and another cup of ... 
“Coffee! Hey, Rusty, wake up! Fresh coffee.”
I had fallen asleep at the desk. 
“Huh? Who?” I lifted my head from my crossed arms on the desk, blinking in the strong light of the Luxo lamp, which I had neglected to turn off. “I wasn’t asleep,” I lied, and I heard Sachi laugh. My mouth tasted of pencil shavings and pink erasers. The side of my face was hot where it had been exposed to the drawing lamp.
“Coffee?” repeated Sachi.
“Oh, yeah. Thanks.” I accepted the hot coffee with gratitude. “It’s been a while since I’ve pulled an all-nighter,” I said. “Working, that is.”
Sachi smiled and asked how it was going. She looked fresh and awake.
“What time is it now?” I asked.
“Two more hours, no more,” I promised.
“Perfect!” she said. 

To be continued…

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Three More Zen Poems

Three More Zen Poems

“Zen Only Takes a Minute”

Good morning, fellow traveller.
Or afternoon, if that applies.
Care to join me 

In a little zen?

Okay, get comfortable.
Empty your mind.

Now, take a deep breath.
Hold it…
Breathe out.

Breathe In. 
Hold it…
Breathe out.


Think of nothing 
But your breathing

Breathe In… 
Hold it…
Breathe out.


Feel better?

Perhaps for a moment
You’ve stilled the monkey noises
In your head.

That was easy, wasn’t it?
Zen only takes a minute

To learn.

A lifetime to master.

“No Internet, Plenty of Zen”

No internet this morning.
But surprise surprise we didn’t panic.
Our world didn’t collapse.

After all, we’ve still got our health
And our golden house 
With rocket car in the garage.

There’s a nice
Zen garden in the back, too,
Just a few steps from my office,

Where I’ve spent many happy hours.
So, I put my computer to sleep
And went outside

With an eye of zen
(Which is to say an eye of love!)
To take photographs

Of flowers and plants 
And things from nature,
So close at hand.

Because beauty is everywhere,
If we would just see it.
Like zen is.

Hmmm, no internet, eh?

Think I’ll knock off
And head for a garden.

See you tomorrow.

“Morning Zen”

With the morning sun 
I feel my zen rising.
I suppose I’m a morning person, 
As they call it.

But really I’m just a person.
Morning, noon or night.
I have my victories and defeats.
Like you do.

One day I’ll be dead.
Then it won’t matter 
Which was which.

And if it won’t matter 
Which was which after I’m dead,
Why would it matter now?


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Animator! Carpe Diem! (Part 2)

Carpe Diem! 
(Part 2)

Sachi stopped halfway down the corridor.
“Well,” she said, turning to me. “Today’s your lucky day!”
“Oh yeah?” I answered hopefully. “I like the sound of that!”
I had just been interviewed and had shown my demo reel, hoping to land my first animation gig in New York with the company Sachi worked for, Broadcast Arts.
Now we stood chatting in the corridor.
Sachi said they had a problem, and maybe I could help. Nothing to do with White Cloud bathroom tissue, the job they had called me about which started next month. This was something else, an emergency, but if I did well, then the White Cloud job was as good as mine.
“An audition, eh?” I answered. “Sure, if I can help.” 
What else was I going to say? 
“Call it a chance to prove what you can do,” answered Sachi. She explained that the animator who had been working on the scene, after working more than two days and nights straight, told the boss (Wolf) to shove his deadline, and had gone home to get some sleep.
“I totally sympathize with the guy,” said Sachi. “The hours on this one were murder and getting worse! But, you know art directors, we had to change something at the last minute and now the schedule’s all screwed up! Wolf! He took this job knowing the deadline was crazy. Hope he’s charging them plenty.”
The problem was, said Sachi, they needed the scene now. Right now.
I nodded my head. Sounded like animation in America wasn’t any different from animation in New Zealand… a job fit for lunatics, optimists, geeks and dreamers.
I’ll let you decide which of those I might be.
“I want to ask you something,” I said to Sachi. “I wouldn’t want to steal someone’s job or anything like that. He went home to take a break, right? And here I am, in the right place at the right time. A miracle! You know, like those old movie musicals, where the star twists an ankle and the understudy, in this case me, gets his big chance!” 
“Yeah,” laughed Sachi. “That’s pretty much it.”
My life wasn’t about making movies, I told Sachi, my life was becoming a movie!
“Let’s hope it’s not a tragedy, where we all die in the last act,” said Sachi, and we laughed together.
We had stopped in the middle of the corridor and people streamed past in either direction. The buzzy energy of the studio was very positive, and I felt myself becoming energized too, and swept up by the rightness of the moment.
Now was my chance, I must seize it!  
“Don’t worry about John,” said Sachi. “You’re not taking his job, you’re helping him out.” She looked me straight in the eye for a moment, before adding, “If you can do the work like you say you can.”
“No worries there,” I bragged, trying not to look worried. 
What else was I going to say?
“Hey! Sachi!” Up rushed a young man wearing lab coat and white gloves. He nodded to me before turning to Sachi, saying, “Wolf says where’s the polarizing filters for the big Mitchell? He was sure we had some and I can’t find them anywhere!” 
He didn’t look very well, kind of clammy and quivering. But you see that a lot in the animation business. His gloved hands (he wore soft white gloves for handling cels) were trembling slightly and he had that odd, greenish cast one gets from lack of sleep and too much caffeine. He must have been a camera operator, I figured, because he was looking for polarizing filters for a Mitchell, which is a type of animation camera, and he had an X-sheet (exposure sheet, the guide to how a scene will be photographed) on a clipboard under his arm. With a deadline approaching he’d probably been working long hours, too, like everyone else. Maybe longer. Hours of tedium alone in the dark, adjusting the camera incrementally and photographing cel after cel, frame after frame, painstakingly building up a movie one-twenty-fourth-of-a-second at a time.
Camera operator. I’d done that too, when making my own films. You had to be crazy to do it. Crazy, and geeky because it requires an incredible amount of focus and accuracy.
“We need the polarizers for 18B!” he explained excitedly, adding, “It’s the scene with all the elves!” as if that made all the difference.
“Okay,” said Sachi. “Take it easy.”
He appeared to be a geek on the edge of exhaustion, green and trembling. Just wait till the rest of you starts twitching, I thought. Better ease up, brother, or curl up somewhere and get some sleep. 
I recalled how my dad, exhausted after a ridiculous number of hours on the job, would curl up under his Disney animation desk and take himself a well earned snooze. (He had proudly hauled that desk from the Disney studio in Burbank, where he’d spent seven years animating, all the way to New Zealand when we immigrated there in the 1960s. Later, in one of life’s strange twists, at my dying mother’s request I became my father’s apprentice, and learned animation from him.) When, from exhaustion, his eyes could no longer see and his hands could no longer draw, dad would curl up in the spacious footwell of the giant desk, the chair rolled back out of the way, and have a nap.
“Call me at three o’clock, please, son,” he’d say before closing the door to his office. “I’m going to get a little shuteye.” Inside, he would lift the phone off the hook (purely habit, for who was going to call at three A.M.?) switch off the Luxo lamp above his drawing disc and lastly, turn off the music he always had playing as he worked. 
He would pause for a few seconds with his hand at the recording machine, listening with pleasure, before turning the volume down and off with a soft click.
My father loved music. Country and western music, mostly.
You’d think that I, after listening to my father’s music all those years while I learned animation at his side, would love country and western music too, wouldn’t you?
Well, you’d be wrong.
It was a bittersweet day for me when for the first time I stayed awake and carried on while my father had to succumb to exhaustion and take to his desk for some sleep. Yes, I was proud of myself for having the strength to carry on where I saw my father stumble, but I was also sad because I had crossed an invisible line I knew I could never recross. For the first time in my life, my father seemed smaller than me. 
I hadn’t seen the line or even noticed the crossing of it, but I knew I would never think of my father in the same way again. 
“Okay,” said Sachi to the young cameraman. “Tell Wolf I’ll be right there.” 
He hurried off. Sachi leaned against the wall and breathed a deep sigh. She was tired, too.
“There’s no business like show business,” I said, trying to indicate I understood.
“How would I know?” laughed Sachi. “I used to be a school teacher. Now I work in an insane asylum!”

   To be continued…

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Animator! Carpe Diem!

Carpe Diem! 
(Part 1)

New York City. Winter, 1987.
What I like to call, with a laugh at fate, my starving artist period. You know… no work and no money… when things look black and you’re wondering if you can hold on… 
When it’s art for art’s sake because that’s all there is.
Yes, at times it’s tough to be an artist! Don’t worry, though, we weren’t actually starving all those years ago.
But we did go to bed hungry a lot.

Punctually at ten o’clock on a Tuesday morning, I passed through the elevator doors of the sixth floor and stood before the reception desk of Broadcast Arts, 632 Broadway, New York, New York.
I finally had an appointment to introduce myself and show my animation reel to someone.
Who knows? Maybe I’d finally get a job. 
“Yes? May I help you?” enquired the receptionist.
“I’m here to see Sachi,” I said. 
“Please have a seat.”
It was a relief to sit down. My leg was sore again. To make a few dollars I’d been working as a messenger for Empire Messenger Service, and all the walking I did delivering packages up and down Manhattan had aggravated an injury I’d sustained in a motorcycle crash years before. It didn’t help that I’d arrived downtown early and wanting to waste time had idled along Bleeker Street, looking at the store windows and nervously smoking cigarettes.
I rubbed my knee and tried to forget my nervousness. Or should I call it stage fright? At last, I thought, a chance to show my work… my first break in America! 
But what if they didn’t like my work? Or didn’t like me?
What if I flopped? 
I’d shown my demo reel (or versions of it, for one must keep it up to date) hundreds of times over the years, on three different continents, but never had it seemed so important as now.
Relax, Rusty, I said to myself, don’t get excited. What’s the worst that can happen? You’re already penniless and hungry and out of work. 
I looked around at the unusual reception area. It was gaily painted in primary colors giving a childlike effect. Oversized toy soldiers stood at attention along the wall and giant teddy bears dozed in the corner. One of Pee-Wee Herman’s customized bicycles [the original Pee-Wee’s Playhouse was produced at Broadcast Arts] leaned against a papier-mâché tree whose boughs held cotton candy clouds and cardboard birds… 
“Hello. I’m Sachi.”  
Up strode a small woman with a big smile and wild, raven hair. We shook hands and she led me into a nearby conference room. Inside, four other people were already seated at a large table. 
I shook hands with everyone. Upon the table were stacks of drawings and storyboards, ashtrays and coffee cups, attesting to their morning’s work. I relaxed a bit. It felt natural to be in a film studio’s conference room again, with its atmosphere of artistic commerce, crushed egos and deadline hysteria.
“We’ve got some thirty-second spots coming up where we might be able to use you,” said Sachi. “They start next month. Are you free?”
“I’m free right now,” I answered.
“Tell us about yourself.”
I told them about myself.
“Let’s see what your work looks like,” said Sachi when I’d finished. As she inserted the tape into the bulky player, we turned in our chairs and faced the large TV at the end of the table. Up flickered my work.
This was the part I hated. Sitting there in silence as my tape played. Your demo reel must speak for itself. Anything you say will only sound like an excuse. There’s nothing for you to do but sit there silently smiling like an idiot, yet somehow projecting plenty of self-confidence. 
So I sat there smiling, trying not to look as if I’d seen the thing ten thousand times before. I always saw its flaws. They laughed at the appropriate places, I noticed, a good sign. 
It’s when they laugh at inappropriate places you begin to feel the flop sweat forming…
As the tape played, I surreptitiously looked at Sachi. The expression on her face was hardly uncontrolled admiration, more like preoccupation, as if behind her eyes        she had larger things on her mind. I tried to peek at the others to see their reactions, but the angle was bad and I couldn’t see. I didn’t want to be obvious, although I don’t know why. I felt like shouting out, “I did that! Me! What do you think?”
My demo reel was patterned after a music video. I had edited about fifty pieces of film together, mostly from TV commercials I’d made, to match some non-copyrighted, up tempo music. Nothing was in context and the whole thing was only two-and-a-half-minutes long. I spent weeks editing it to the music. Then I’d transferred it to high quality video. It was quite professional looking.
“Yah. Okay. I see enough,” said Wolf, who had been introduced to me as the production manager, about a minute into my tape. Perhaps it was his accent, but I couldn’t tell from his comment whether he liked what he had seen enough of, or not. 
It’s true, though, it only takes a few seconds for a professional to tell if your work is any good. 
Ask any animator. 
After pronouncing that he’d seen enough, Wolf turned his attention back to the pad of storyboard blanks on the table in front of him, doodling with a soft pencil. He looked up now and then at my work on the TV screen.
No one else said a thing, and after what seemed like an hour, my two-and-a-half-minute demo reel came to an end.
“Whataya think?” asked Sachi to the table. “Wanna see it again?”
“No need,” said Wolf as he doodled.
“Pretty good,” said Diane, a director. She smiled and asked, “You do all that yourself?”
“My father did the backgrounds and we shared animation duties… but it’s my work,” I explained.
“It’s nicely edited,” said the editor.
“What harm can he do?” came from an assistant director. “If he’s as good as his tape?”
“What about this other thing?” said Sachi. “We’ve got to have it by tomorrow morning or camera will freak out! I say give him a chance.”
“I repeat, what harm can he do?” said the assistant director. “If his work’s no good, we don’t have to use it.”
“And we’re no worse off than we were before!” added the editor.
“Yah. Okay. Do it.” said Wolf. He looked at his watch, stood up and held out his hand. We shook. “Tanks for coming,” he said and disappeared through a side door. 
The others wished me luck in an offhanded yet not unfriendly way and bent down to their work.
“Follow me,” said Sachi, handing me back my tape.
We exited the conference room and walked down a corridor, passing cubicles where stressed-out occupants sat drawing at animation desks or jabbering furtively into telephones. 
You could feel the tension in the air. 
A deadline was looming.

   To be continued…

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Zen and the Wisdom of Blueberry Cookies

Zen and the Wisdom of Blueberry Cookies

I suppose I’d better confess
Right up front
That I’m not sure 
What blueberry cookies have to do with it.
Not yet, anyway.

Maybe we’ll find out before the end of this poem.
Maybe we won’t. 
That’s the reason I write these poems;
Anything can happen
In my search for zen!

So that I might,
Respected audience, 
Set it before you.
As I’m doing now.

To amuse or instruct.
It doesn’t matter to me.
I get paid the same either way.
(As the actress once said to the bishop.)

Yes I was sitting here, unpaid, thinking,
“What’ll I write about today?
The stupid deadline is tomorrow.
Where is my doggone muse?

Where is my zen?”

And in came my wife
With some blueberry cookies.
“Yummy! Yummy!” I thought.

But this poem isn’t about my wife,
And how yummy she is.
Which believe me is plenty!

It's about zen.
And whether we'll find any
Before this poem has ended.

“Thanks, gorgeous!” I said,
Admiring her figure
With a one-eyed leer.
“Your cookies sure look good!”

“Now, Rusty,”
She answered firmly
In her southern-belle drawl.
"Never mind all that!
Aren’t you supposed to be writing?"

Then, laughing at my lasciviousness, 
(And delighted for the 10,000th time
That I find her so attractive) she added,
"Oh no you don't!
Not this time!
What about your deadline?
Keep away from me!”

Then with a giggle she ran from the room
And left me to my cookies…
And my deadline… 
And my writing…

So, here we are.
Me, you, my wife’s cookies,
And the memory of her playful presence 
From a moment before.

All interconnected!
All flowing together 
In a wonderful karmic river
With love to guide the way.

The zen of it!

Well, I think
That’s all we have time for today.

I hope, having read this poem,
You feel better instructed in the
Mysterious ways of zen!

Don’t bother to thank me.
As I said before,
I get paid the same either way.

I fancy a few more tasty cookies.
Think I’ll go surprise my wife
With a funny little idea I’m having.

Goodbye, friends!
See you next week.
I hope.