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From the lobby of the WTC

Nathan Strum


Remember the movie Escape from New York?


Near the end of the film, there's a scene where Kurt Russell and everyone is running through the lobby of the World Trade Center.


That was actually shot where I work - at CalArts, in the Main Gallery. The only thing I'm not sure of, is if they made it messier for the movie, or cleaned it up for the movie. (That's a CalArts joke... ;))


Anyway, it's 3:50 AM Sunday as I'm starting this blog entry. I just got home from the Character Animation Open Show, which ran last night. Seems to me I've mentioned it before. It's all of the films the students of our department created this year, run back-to-back. A couple of things were different this year though...


First, we were able to hold the show in the Main Gallery - a large, open performance/exhibition space right inside the main hallway going into the building. This is a big deal for us. Originally, we used to hold it it in the college's theater (The "Bijou"), which holds maybe 120-150 people. Charitably. But we would pack that room out to the point where the fire marshall threatened to shut us down (something about tripping over burning bodies in the event of a fire or something). So a few years ago we moved the show into the cafeteria. Much bigger, but we instantly filled that up to overflowing, and if anything, was even worse. Since it was free-form seating, there were no aisles, and no way for people to get in or out of the middle of the room, and people jammed themselves in there as tightly as they could. It's a closed-off area, so it got very uncomfortable, claustrophobic, and smelled like a locker room. Also, it was tucked off in the corner of the building, and only had a couple of entranceways, so passers-by couldn't stop and watch the show. They'd stand 10-20 deep in the doorways if they stayed at all, and most turned around and walked away.


So after trying for a couple of years (long story involving Institute politics), we were able to move into the Main Gallery. Plenty of space for people to spread out, to move in or out, and best of all - for people to just stop by and watch as they walked through the main part of the building. A lot of people did just that, too. We had to keep bringing out more chairs during the first hour. If I had to guess, I'd say there were as many as 300 people there at any given time (and we "only" have 139 students in our department).


The second change was how the show ran. Usually, it has just run straight through, beginning to end, with a few short 10 - 15 minute breaks. This year though, there was an issue.


Since the Main Gallery has several adjacent performance spaces and other events happening, we had to split our show in half, and leave a four-hour gap in the middle of it. This was a big concern of the students all year long, and we weren't sure how it would work. It seemed awfully disruptive, and broke with a long-established tradition. We were already trying to figure out how we'd get an uninterrupted block of time next year.


It's at this point, I'd like to mention that our students turned in about 7 1/2 hours worth of films this year. So with short bathroom breaks every couple of hours, you're looking at 8 hours - minimum.


Have you ever tried to sit through 8 hours straight of animated short films (or any films, for that matter)? It's agonizing. No matter how good the later films are, you just want them to be over. Our show usually started at 8 PM, and ended after 4 AM. By that time most of the audience were either zombies or had gone home. It was more of an endurance test than fun.


This year, we started at 2 PM, ran until about 6 PM, then started up the second half at 10 PM and ended just before 2 AM.


Much to my surprise (and probably everyone else's) - the break turned out great. Everyone I talked to afterwards really liked it. And not just the break, but the fact it was four hours. This gave everyone the chance to catch a breather. Go out and have something to eat, or play dodgeball, or just hang out with friends somewhere and clear their brains out for part 2.


Also surprising, was that everyone came back for part 2, and more to the point, nearly everyone stayed. They enjoyed the second half of the show, and really liked being done at "only" 2 AM. Also, being in the Main Gallery made the entire show much more enjoyable, for the reasons previously mentioned. It was no longer the endurance test, but the end-of-the-year "hey we got our films done" celebration it should be.


So next year... we'll do it again. At least, we'll sure try to. Again, getting Main Gallery space isn't as easy as it should be. But we've got an established success in there now.




Well, I finally got some sleep. It's around 7 PM, Sunday evening. This is the first solid sleep I've had all week. In the last stretch, except for a quick half-hour nap here or there, I was up from about 9 AM Friday morning through about 6 AM Sunday morning, until I finally managed to get to bed. From Monday through Saturday, my best guess is that I worked 86 or 87 hours this week (20 on Monday alone). It takes that much time to gather up all of the student films (as digital QuickTime movies), get problems corrected with them (incorrect formats, and so on), put them together in Final Cut Pro, then go through the whole show and balance the audio between films so they all play at a listenable level, then output the show to BetaSP tapes, and then get the Main Gallery set up with what we need to project the show, and then take the whole thing down afterwards. And also in there, I have to make the programs for the show, make judging forms for the faculty, set up for their screening of the show in another room, and probably a bunch of other things I'm forgetting.


Monday was the day films were due (at 5 PM). That deadline got extended to midnight-ish. I spent a lot of that day helping people with last-minute problems, and then just trying to keep all of the films straight as they were submitted to the server. Then I had to check all of the films to make sure they were in the right format, and send out e-mails to those who needed to fix things.


The next several days were split between keeping track of the new versions of fixed films coming in, even more late films coming in, and trying to sequence the show, and doing paperwork (entering film names, student names, run times, and so on). I was able to automate some of the paperwork this year, and have some ideas that should streamline the process next year. But keeping track of all of these films and their current status takes tons of time, and it's one of the worst parts of the job. But it's absolutely necessary to make sure the show goes off without forgetting somebody's film, or using the wrong version, or some other mistake which would inevitably bring some student up to my office at the end of the show in tears. It's happened before. Not fun.


Sometime around Wednesday night, or maybe it was Thursday, I began mixing the show. This is basically just audio damage control. Trying to make everything play at a reasonable level. The soundtracks for the films are all over the map in terms of volume and, to be frank, quality. In all fairness though, and for reasons I won't get into, it's not really the students' fault. For the past couple of years, there has been a big hole in the curriculum, and we weren't aware how much of a problem it was until only recently. We are working to remedy it. At any rate, this means I have to try and balance everything out, so students aren't straining to hear one film one moment, and then are deafened by the next. I also spend more time than I should making spot fixes. For example, if a student film is too quiet overall, but I can't bring up the volume of it because there's one sound (say a gunshot) that is already too loud, I'll go in and lower the sound of the offending effect, and bring up the rest of the film, so you can hear the dialog. I ended up doing a lot of that this year, and it takes time.


Also, at the last minute, I ran into some issues that there was no time for the students to fix. As I was mixing the sound, I noticed several films were out of sync. Way out of sync. In fact, some had their picture ending before their sound did. It only showed up in Final Cut Pro - not in QuickTime Player. (Incidentally, we always tell the students to check their final film in Final Cut Pro, since QuickTime Player does "weird stuff™" when playing back.) So their movies were actually "okay" as QuickTime files, but there was something weird with their video track. My best guess, is that they output their films using After Effects' "Export QuickTime Movie" option, and not by going through the Render Queue. The Render Queue renders out each video frame as a unique frame, but QuickTime can also support still images of varying durations, and this is something that Final Cut Pro (being a video editing program) wouldn't like. Each frame has to be unique. So my guess is Export QuickTime doesn't make unique frames for every frame. This is something I'll have to look into. The solution was to take these films (there were probably six or eight of them) and take them through the Render Queue in After Effects, and re-render properly formatted QuickTime movies. The thing is - if you loaded one of these weird movies into Final Cut Pro, it would tell you they were fine. They'd just be way out of sync, and some of the video might even be missing. So even if students might have checked them in Final Cut, but they didn't watch them all the way through, they never would have seen it. Anyway, I caught them all and fixed them. One more thing to add to the list of "things I learned this year, to make next year go smoother".


Finally, on Friday evening, I was able to output the whole show to tape. We don't run the live shows straight off a computer (yet) since tapes are easier to move around to the three locations where we had to show the films this year (the Main Gallery, the faculty judging, and a screening in the Bijou this afternoon), and Betacam tapes are a known, reliable medium. And actually, the Main Gallery and faculty screenings were running at the same time, just offset by a couple hours, so we really had to move the tapes around a lot. The catch, of course, is that I have to spend a minimum of eight hours putting the show on tape. It runs in real-time, so I get to sit there, for another eight hours, watching every... single... film... again. I have to make sure everything works. The films are in sync, the audio is acceptable, there are no glitches, and no forgotten films or other problems.


After that, I set up the faculty screening, made the programs and judging forms, and probably some other things I forgot, and finally went home Saturday morning around 8 AM. I was home just long enough for about a half-hour nap, a shower and change of clothes, then back to work to start setting up the Main Gallery and getting the show started, running tapes back and forth from the two screenings, and falling asleep in front of my computer a few times in my office. :roll:


During the break, a few co-workers and I went out for dinner. It was so nice to have a real meal, and not fast-food for the first time all week. Then, I had to go back, and make sure the second half started up okay. Went home and rested for a few hours (finally!) and then came back around 1:30 AM to help tear-down everything after the show ended. And that gets me back to the beginning of this blog.


Every year, I absolutely dread this week. It's always like this. Admittedly, I could just slap the films together, and let them run however they turned out. Let the audio be all over the place, and the sync be off. It would take far less time. Probably less than half. But the problem is - I was a student here. I know what it's like. I remember sitting in an audience and hearing people respond to my film. In the end, that's what this is about. There's nothing in their time here as thrilling as sitting in the midst of an audience as people watch their work up on the screen. There's also nothing quite as terrifying, until they hear them respond the way they can only hope they will. The last thing a student should have to worry about is, "why is my sound so quiet" or "why is my film out of sync - I swear it was right when I checked it". My job, in essence, is to facilitate the students' abilities to make their films. And yes, I do more work than I probably have to. I'm dead tired, I ache all over, my patience has been pushed to the extreme, and I'm not paid any overtime for it. I hate this week as its happening.




When I get to stand back, and watch the students enjoy each others' work, when I get to see how successful the move to the Main Gallery was, when I hear people laughing and applauding and cheering and having that release, that moment that their entire school year has been building up to, when I get to see students smiling and congratulating each other afterwards, when someone comes up to me and says "thank you"...


... it's worth every single minute.




Just don't tell anyone... I've got a reputation as a cranky old curmudgeon to uphold. ;)


So here are some pics:


The start of the show. One of our recent grads - Justin Wright - passed away this year. So we ran his student films at the start, and dedicated the show to him.



A shot of part of the crowd. It was actually pretty dark in there, so these were taken with a very long exposure. The big tall thing on the left is a scissors lift, where we placed the projector. The screen is 12 feet across.



Another shot of the crowd, from the main hallway running through the building. It's all open to the Main Gallery, so everyone could see what was going on. There's even a walkway up above, and people watched the show from there.



A shot of the crowd during the first hour or so of the show, taken from above and behind the screen.



And again, this time just a couple of films before the end of the show, around 2 AM. Aren't animators cute when they're asleep?



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I started several, but only completely finished one. It was an environmental piece about a spotted owl and a lumberjack (played by a bear). The bear was destroying the owl's natural habitat. So of course, the owl's only recourse was to attack the bear.


With a chainsaw. :)


I also started work on one about a time-traveling cockroach battling an evil time-traveling dentist, and in my last year, one about a dog and cat left behind by a vacationing family, who have to trek cross-country to find their way home.


By stealing a car, and running afoul of the law.


Sort of "Homeward Bound" meets "Thelma and Louise".


Unfortunately, while I was in production on that one, the Northridge earthquake hit, and the school shut down for a month, before re-opening in temporary quarters and hobbling through the rest of the school year. I lost all momentum (and interest) in working on my film. By the time I got back into it, the school year was basically over.


I did work on a couple of other pieces though. A group of us produced some live action bumpers for the Open Show in my second year (think of a low-budget, afternoon kid's cartoon show gone horribly wrong), and then in my last year, I directed an animated introduction for our Producers' Show (which is a "best of" show, shown to the animation industry).


I wish I'd utilized my time better, and had managed to finish up one of my other films. But you live and learn. Actually, it's not at all uncommon to see works-in-progress more often than completed pieces. But that doesn't excuse me from having done it. :roll:

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I started several, but only completely finished one. It was an environmental piece about a spotted owl and a lumberjack (played by a bear). The bear was destroying the owl's natural habitat. So of course, the owl's only recourse was to attack the bear.


With a chainsaw. :roll:



That sounds hilarious! How long was it? If it's impractical to post, how did it turn out? The owl do away with the bear?

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Could you Quick Time it for a blog entry, or is it considered school property?

All students own their own work. The school keeps copies of them in an archive, and we post some of the films online, although nothing's ever been put in writing about us having permission to do so.


One of these days, I'm wondering if that's going to cause us some trouble. :roll:


That sounds hilarious! How long was it? If it's impractical to post, how did it turn out? The owl do away with the bear?

It's a little under two minutes. Let's just say the owl exacts appropriate payback.


I might consider posting it... it's pretty old work though, and like everything I've ever drawn, I've never been really happy with the way it turned out. :)

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So tonight is our Producers' Show, which I've also written about before. I spent 43 hours over the first three days of this week putting it together, and wrapped up the last of it around 4:30 this morning before going home and catching some much-needed sleep. It's now just about 3:30 in the afternoon on Thursday, and I'm finishing up the back-up copies of the show, which should be done just after 4:00 PM. The sound check at the theater in North Hollywood is at 5:00 PM, so that's cutting it a little close. But it only takes maybe 20 minutes to get there from here. The show itself starts at 8:00 PM, and will run for just under two hours. I've never needed the back-up copies of the show yet, but I figure the one year I don't go to the trouble of dubbing them, is the year something catastrophic will happen.


This is a faculty-selected "best of" show, for members of the industry, as well as students. We always pack the place out, and end up having to turn down hundreds of requests for tickets. Afterwards is a catered reception, where students can meet people from the studios and alumni can catch up on old times. I usually see more people I recognize (whose names I can't recall for the life of me) than I can count. For me, until the show actually starts, I can't quite relax. Even after the sound check, I never quite know if it's going to work when the time comes. Once the show starts though, it's out of my hands, and all I can do is sit back with 600 other people and watch it, and for the first time, really enjoy the films.


We have a number of studios who sponsor the event and help pay for it. It's a little strange because it all seems so commonplace, and they just happen to be the places my friends work at. But when I step back and look at it, it reads like a "Who's Who" of animation studios: Disney, Pixar, Cartoon Network, DreamWorks, Rhythm & Hues, Laika, Sony, Blue Sky and Disney TV. We've also had other studios sponsor us in the past, some of whom no longer exist, and some who have just flaked out on us because, well, they're losers.


(I would like to point out, that if there are any industry types out there reading this, of course I didn't mean to call your studio a loser. I was referring to someone else's studio. We'd love to have you come back and give us more money, anytime.)


I'll post an update once I get home tonight, assuming I'm still reasonably coherent.


And within the next month or so, we'll have the films up on our brand-new website for your viewing enjoyment.


See you in 7 or 8 hours...

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Well, it's about 12:25 AM, and I'm beat. But I'm home. I left the theater about a half an hour ago, and the show went very well. The projector wasn't adjusted quite right so some of the lighter films were a bit blown out, but nobody complained, so maybe I was the only one who noticed. (Note - I use the term "film", but they're all videos.) The place wasn't quite packed to capacity, but I'd say maybe 20-25 empty seats out of 600 ain't bad. The audience loved the films, and that's the important thing. Lots of happy faces afterwards. I ended up talking to some people I hadn't seen in years (including some whose names I actually remembered), and some I see every year. All were very complimentary on how far the films have come over the years. We don't just make funny cartoons anymore. It's a very diverse show now.


Anyway, I'm glad it's over and done with, and that it went well. I decided to skip the after-party at the Castaway that Pixar throws every year. I went a couple of years ago, and just remember standing around trying to hear people over the din, ruining my own voice trying to be heard back, breathing in entirely too much cigarette smoke, and being bemused at the site of a bunch of drunk animators. Not my thing. Besides, all I want to do now... is nothing. :cool:

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