This section of the documentation focuses on the actual thesis piece - grey. My prose here will take on what can only be described as a "stream of conscious thought", which I use to serve two overlying purposes. The first is the idea that this documentation will help others understand the research, production time, and thought that went into the creation of this piece. There are a lot of aspects that deal with the content and define the character of the piece. This should enlighten the reader to some of those characteristics if not all.
It should be known that animation is probably the most anal retentive art form. You basically can't get to one step without going through a necessary former step. There are no short cuts. Throw technology into it and you get a very complex and often impersonal medium that has been criticized for it's lack of artistic merit and plasticity in its product.
The second purpose is more introspection and reflection. I've
basically committed the past several months to formulating a story and
then spent the better part of two and some odd months producing it to show
in front of my peers and critics. At this point it would probably
be best to step back and take a look at the work that I've sweat and toiled
over. There were many things that I had to fight and struggle against,
both within myself and in my surroundings. This will also be a chance
to confront those issues and question whether in retrospect I would change
Grey was never the initial subject for my thesis work. It was the summer of 1998 and I had decided that this was going to be my final year at UIC. Before I could officially graduate, I was required by the College of Architecture and the Arts to either create a thesis project or submit a thesis paper. Being of the creative nature and also understanding that my lack of writing skills would probably diminish any paper I would attempt (as I'm certain you've seen thus far), I decided that the thesis project would be the way to go.
I had in mind an idea that I thought was fairly interesting and somewhat unnatural for the medium of computer graphics. Then again, associating natural and computer graphics is an oxymoron to begin with. The idea of the computer as the "other" has been a widely held belief, if not overtly stated, by the traditional arts community. And with such a notion, those who actively engage in computer related arts are looked upon almost as second class citizens. In their defense, I will state that electronic media artists have not really helped themselves to any degree. We appear content to live a life apart from the art community and apart from the commercial mainstream. It can be generally regarded that we are "too arty" for the mainstream and "too commercial" for the arts community. It then becomes a constant struggle for the electronic artist to balance content and commercial appeal.
My first stab at this, the thesis project and the balancing act, was a piece that would attack a speech given by Reggie White. Reggie White a future Hall of Fame football player for the Green Bay Packers, invited by the Wisconsin State Assembly to give a speech. It was assumed, that White would talk about his various charities and philanthropy for which he is highly credited. Instead, the speech became a platform for White to blatantly cast stereotypes upon various members of the community, and to verbally and publicly condemn homosexual behavior as a sin and thus alienate a section of the public. Couple his remarks with the understanding that White is also an ordained minister and the severity of the remarks extends beyond the scope of social commentary.
It was my belief that the comments made by Mr. White did more harm than good. White is a respected member of the Wisconsin community. His charities, help hundreds of kids throughout the state. Thus he is looked upon as a role model for his community. What does his actions say about the way people should be represented? How does this all affect the kids who are now faced with the dilemma that their role model has now made comments that the general public looks down upon?
It was my intent to go into the community and interview kids between the ages of 8 and 13. From these interviews I was hoping to find out what they thought about the whole Reggie White situation. Whether or not they cared, was also something to be discovered. At this time, I was introduced by Judith Kirshner Dean of the College of Architecture and the Arts to Ifa Bayeza Creative Director of the Chernin Center for the Arts at the Duncan YMCA. We worked out a deal that called for me put in some time volunteering while she acquired kids for me to interview. Through one reason or another, it never materialized (the interviews). This was the beginning of the end for this project. Throughout the upcoming weeks, more and more flaws in the idea would manifest itself. One of the main flaws was that the project required me having to do research in human nature and areas of child psychology. Both, subjects that I wasn't very knowledgeable in and didn't have the time to commit toward learning. Since people go to school for many years in this field I felt it wouldn't be very prudent for me to attempt this. I also felt that I didn't want to invest all my energies in the research when the production would be difficult enough. It also seemed to be very cliché filled. More importantly it seemed that the piece was more live action based rather than animation. It all culminated in a committee meeting from hell, where I was unable to come up with a basic thesis idea.
Upon understanding this, I was rather distraught and discouraged about what I wanted to do. It was the end of the fall semester and I found myself in an awkward position. The apparent flaws of my idea couldn't hide one basic component essential for animation to work - a story. I'm, in essence, a storyteller, and animation is my medium to tell stories. My previous idea didn't have a story to tell. There were a lot of ideas that swirled around in a void. Nothing tied it all together. Nor did the previous idea and subject matter work toward my strengths as a story teller. I had to develop or find a story from literature and animate that. In the end, I did both.
I came back from the winter vacation and found myself in the same situation that I had previously been in. No real story, no real ideas, no real thesis. At this point I was asked by Hisham Bizri, another student in the graduate program, to help work on his thesis project, a film entitled "The City of Brass", an adaptation of a story from the Arabian Nights. It was during this week long period that I would inevitably construct the basic plot line for what would become Grey. In between setting up for shots, I reconstructed the Good Samaritan parable and added a contemporary angle to it. By the end of the week of shooting, I had completed my first draft of the new project. I was excited, maybe a bit too excited.
The next step was to create a storyboard for the animation. Upon it's completion I decided that it would be a good idea to update the committee as to my progress. Surprise would be a good way to describe their reactions. It wasn't so much the nature of the story, but the enormity of the task. I was fairly confident in my abilities, but I think in some regard, my committee wasn't quite convinced that the time frame I was commanding would allow me to finish at the designated show time. The story itself was a lot better in terms of composition, plot and character development, and more importantly, content. This was a doable project, and one that I felt was comfortable for my skills and talent.
Once the initial storyboards and sketches were completed, it became prudent to concentrate on creating the environment and characters. The environment became an essential part of the animation. Establishing a location was crucial for the flow of the story. I went through numerous different designs for buildings and for the area. After creating and scrapping a number of different ideas, I settled on creating a space similar to Bladerunner. The environment would consist of a city scene at night. There would be a hazy fog built in, foreshadowing a possible storm of some nature. I had in mind a very "Batman: The Animated Series" feel to it, where the buildings were more silhouettes and shadows, rather than actual "physical" objects. They hopefully blended the two styles.
The characters themselves are fairly simple. There are two groups - the "Rounders" and the "Anglers". The Rounders are spherical in shape and form, and reside in the city. In fact, the city much like the Rounders are curved and smooth edged. There are no rough surfaces or hard edges. This goes further as the vehicles are also smooth and appealing to the eye. The city is a reflection of the inhabitants. The Anglers on the other hand have a very rough and hardened exterior. Their exterior is both difficult to look at and conveys a threatening appearance.
These physiological differences are intended to produce a psychological as well as visual separation in the viewer. The goal is to convey a sense of difference between the two characters. Our minds tend to favor a smooth object over one that has edges. The characters reflect this and expand it to an extreme. Design principles suggest creating a smooth fluid approach as opposed to a hard edged look. I think that the idea of fluidity in art has always been one that's been favored and promoted.
One of the first decisions that was made dealt with the issue of color versus black and white. Black and white was a no-brainer decision. Too many decisions would have had to be made when dealing with color. A color scheme needs to be established. This must also be maintained throughout (though in many of the works that are computer generated color is not an issue that was addressed). Shaders became much simpler to effectively use. Frankly speaking, color is not one of my strengths. I've always been a pen and ink/lead pencil artist. I create with tones of dark and light and find that color creates more problems than it solves. To make my life easier, I again chose to work with my strengths, in this case it was the decision to work in black and white.
Working in black and white also affords me the opportunity to play with light much more effectively. Grey is a piece that I wanted to give a film noir look and appeal to. Lighting would be a critical element to achieve this. The problem with computer graphic animation is that it all looks hokey. Too plastic and too fake. Well, I already solved that problem when I open with a shot of a futuristic city. Add to this the general characteristics of the figures and a suspension of disbelief is established. The viewer is, rather should be, aware that what they are seeing is not real, but a fabricated story. With that established, a certain degree of manipulation of light can be quite effective. For this aspect, I turned to German Expressionist films. More recently I took elements from Mitch Butler's "The Smell of Horror", who created an exquisite piece fully generated with the computer.
Lighting also poses a greater problem than modeling does in terms of technological limitations. The problem resides in the nature of rendering (the process by which a computer generates an image). Generally, the more lights you add, the longer the length of time it will take to render an image. It became a test of wills, in some ways, trying to balance the number of lights to sufficiently and effectively light a scene with rendering time. This was eventually achieved by playing with the different types of lights available and understanding their impact on render performance. For instance, depending on the type of rendering method (raytracing/raycasting - to be discussed later), let's assume raycasting, a spot light may take more time than a volumetric light to render, but a volumetric light will not cast shadows whereas the spot light will when raycasting.
All this leads to the talk regarding rendering. This is an issue in computer animation that is probably the worst aspect to encounter. It's not all that creative an area as far as what you can do with it. It's all about compromise. Figuring out what parameters do what is probably half the battle of animation. Each parameter seems to have an exponential effect on the length of rendering time. Changing one also seems to affect all the other parameters. It is precisely this combination of characteristics that drive animators insane, because it means having to go back and change something in the piece to compensate and hopefully decrease the rendering time. Trial and error have never found a more suitable home than in computer graphics.
There are three different types of render engines in the software package I was using. The most common is raytracing, and is usually in all of the different 3D modeling and animation packages available. Raytracing is also the most expensive as far as time is concerned. Since it attempts to recreate photo realistic images, it spends the most time calculating such variances as reflection and refraction of light off and through surfaces. The next lower is raycasting. This is similar to raytracing except that it offers about 60% of what raytracing offers. As such it's a lot less costly but doesn't give as much in return. The third is called hidden line and basically attempts to create a "pencil test" 2D animation. It hides the wire frame models and spits out outlined animation. Grey called for a compromise and as such demanded that I render my scenes through raycasting.
The subject of editing is one that posed a major problem. In the past, I would develop my scenes exactly as my storyboards demanded. Upon their completion, I would import them to a editor and just add fades and dissolves where necessary. There was little thought involved in editing. The importance lay in putting it together and dumping out to video. Ideas and concepts of storytelling weren't involved. I had already accomplished that from the previous storyboarding. I didn't realize that there were many factors and issues to be addressed when creating an edit.
My initial attempt at editing my piece was a learning experience. My edits were haphazard, and didn't make sense. I didn't take into account the nature of the storyline nor the mood. For what I thought was going to be a dramatic piece, was quite slow and monotonous. Pacing was an issue that troubled my piece as well. I talked with my advisors and with several peers, then went back to redo and add scenes. Show time was rapidly approaching.
The sound was an aspect that I knew would be taken care of externally. During my undergraduate years at Syracuse University, I met and befriended a music composition major by the name of Sean O'Loughlin Coincidentally he happened to be in the fraternity that I eventually pledged and became a member of. The two of us collaborated on several animated works through the course of our friendship, and this would be no different. His style is semi classical with a contemporary angle similar to that of John Williams and a few other film composers. Many of our previous collaborations were spent with a twelve pack of beer, a piano, and me describing what I wanted as I gave Sean a random length of time that I felt would be sufficient to edit with. He would then take a swig and compose some fantastic measures of sound that would amaze me. Since his move to California, things would be difficult in repeating the process of our past collaboration. Instead, I took the first cut and sent him a copy of the videotape. About a week and a half later I received the tape. The timing of its arrival couldn't have been more perfect as I was rendering the final scenes. With both the sound and visuals at my disposal, I was able to put together the second cut, aka the "show cut", over the course of a few nights.
Later that weekend, Tom Frisch and I had our premiere and reruns of our thesis show.
After taking some time off after the thesis show was completed, I decided that it was time to get back to re-editing the piece one last time for my final critique. There were still some ragged areas in the piece and some poor rendering and editing of certain scenes. The flow wasn't quite there and the sound seemed to dominate more so than the visuals. Discussing this with my advisors, drew many of the same conclusions. This was fine. I had intended all along to work on the piece after the show. I felt that at showtime, it was about 65-70% done. It was show ready, but, it wasn't ready to be the final statement of my career at evl. We're hoping that this cut will be a better gauge of my talents and abilities.
Now that you have some understanding about the process involved, let's get to some aspects of the piece itself. I suppose this is as good a place as any to discuss my motivations for what I did, and why I did what I did. I may be best to take this scene by scene and go at it from that point.
We then cut to an Angler standing in front of its vehicle. The
vehicle is much like the Angler. It is very rough looking and angled.
The only thing peculiar about the scene is the smoke rising from the hood
of the vehicle. The Angler stands before it wondering what to do.
The vehicle is damaged in some way, and unable to be immediately fixed.
The Angler walks away and past a couple of Rounders. The Rounders
look at the Angler and continue to stare as it passes by. An Angler
in this city is rare and quite out of place, like a fish out of water.
Little does the Angler suspect that others are watching.
The figures all motion away after the Rounder's final assault. Before it leaves, however, it leans down and grabs a medal that was on the Angler, then turns and leaves with the rest of the Rounders.
It then gets up, walks to a nearby waste bin and proceeds to throw out
the blockhead. This is the point at which the decision has been made
to reject the violent and evil ways that the gang had pursued. It
looks at the medal then stashes it, and walks away.
It staggers into the middle of the street right in front of an oncoming
vehicle. The vehicle narrowly avoids hitting it. The vehicle
pulls over, and from inside a Rounder looks out. The Angler reaches
out with a weak arm and pleads for help from the motorist. The motorist
looks back inside the vehicle and motions the driver to proceed.
As the vehicle pulls away, the motorist throws out what appears to be change.
This area is one in which I wanted to attack the Christian religion
and people who claim to be religious followers. i myself am a born
Roman Catholic, and have made a decision to follow its precepts.
I have a problem with people who seem to only acknowledge their faith when
it suits them (Sundays, Easter, Christmas), but fail to signify it when
people in need (homeless, beggars, etc.) approach them. The same
people that I see on a Sunday at church sitting in the pews acting all
sanctimonious and holy ar the same people that look the other way when
a poor person asks them to spare some change. I have to admit that
I myself am slightly hypocritical and get caught up in it as well. I
recognize this and make it a point to try and carry some extra change whenever
possible. My point is this question, "What if the church showed the
same lack of caring that we show one another?"
The Rounder kneels beside the Angler, holding its head on its arms. It raises the head. This action awakens the Angler. Slowly opening its eyes it looks into the Rounders face. The Rounder soon pulls out the medal and places it on the Angler's chest. The Angler appears grateful as a look of contentment washes over its face. The Angler raises it's arm and the Rounder holds it.
The ending is a bit ambiguous and lacking in any real closure.
There is no succinct ending. Nothing really plays itself out.
In its defense, I will add that I'm quite content with this.
I like the ambiguity that is presented. Much in the way many Japanese
Animation and Manga, where endings are unclear and muddled, grey offers
the same idea. I think I want the viewer to decide for themselves
whether or not closure was attained. Does the Rounder need to do
more to make up for its sin, or has that lone act of kindness been enough?
This is the essential question at the root of the project, "How much penance
is enough?" Many films, shows, artworks ask the same question and
when it comes right down to it, it's up to the individual to decide for
One could argue that I didn't do as much as I could have. That
I didn't take a chance or risk anything. To a degree I will say that
I probably could have tried to push it further. I agree that to an
extent, the piece is on the conservative side. In my own defense,
I must say that this is a step in the right direction. My evolution
as an artist is still happening and this is a step, albeit a big one, but
nonetheless a step. I'm not interested in pleasing anyone but myself,
and in the end that's all that matters. My next project will hopefully
meet and surpass the standard that I've set for myself with this piece.
Regardless of where I go from here, I can say that it all started with
a black and white computer generated piece called grey.