Wednesday, December 23, 2009

An Essay on the Amazing

I've been reading a book called Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. It's a story set in Georgian England (think Jane Austen) about a couple of magicians trying to bring magic back to England. Not prestidigitation magic like Houdini or David Blaine, but real magic like Merlin or Harry Potter. Early on in the book one of the magicians is asked to perform a feat of magic. When he does, the witnesses are amazed at what they see. I, on the other hand, was less than amazed.

The reason I bring this up is that I've been thinking about how common amazing things seem to us now days. With the constant advancement of visual effects, we routinely see things that previously could have only been imagined. The result is that, to be impressed, we need to see something even more amazing than before. We become accustomed to Hollywood explosions, spaceships, and magic. I've tried to imagine how I would feel if I witnessed, in real life, the amazing feat of magic from the book. I think I would be initially impressed, but then would quickly bore of it. I have begun to wonder if I will ever be truly amazed again. I am, we are, desensitized to the “amazing”. Now, desensitization is usually a bad thing, and “amazement” desensitization has some negative aspects too; You can't help but to be disappointed when you see the Space Shuttle's replacement, the Ares & Orion Constellation space craft.

Reality just doesn't meet our higher expectations. But I believe our desensitization actually pushes us to constantly raise the bar of “amazing”. That means we end up advancing our technology and probing deeper into our imaginations to bring it to life.

I obviously have a special interest in, and love for, movies and their visual effects, but I think that if you think about it, even you, can think of something from a movie, or a movie itself that amazed you enough to put a little tick mark in your life, marking that as a standard by which to compare all things “amazing”.

Think about it. Go ahead. Think of any movie that you remember having ground breaking effects. For me, I think of the water tentacle in The Abyss. That was the first time I had seen something like that that didn't look like a puppet or some had drawn animation.

Next I think of the liquid-metal guy from Terminator 2. Both movies were visual effects benchmarks.

Then came Jurassic Park. That movie raised the bar to the stratosphere. Here we had realistic dinosaurs. They had realistic flesh, movement and weight. No longer were dinosaurs to be portrayed by jerky stop-motion puppets. If it could be done with dinosaurs, why not everything else. We were convinced that computers could do anything in movies. We all began to wonder how long it would be until live actors were replaced by computer generated characters.

Since then, visual effects have continued to get more and more realistic, more and more amazing. There continues to be films that mark the memory as having amazing effects; The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc. But we haven't seen anything raise the bar to the extent Jurassic Park did – until now.

Before I go into that, I want to take a couple of quick tangents. First, a bit of history of our amazement, followed by a bit of science of what amazes us.

Film has been around for over a hundred years. Animation was there almost from the beginning. One early benchmark of “amazing” was Winsor McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur.

Watch the film here if you want. It's about 6 minutes long.

This was hand drawn animation in black and white. It was the first combination of live action and animation. It was so amazing that the audiences thought it was real! Can you believe it!? They were convinced Gertie was a real life dinosaur. I often wonder how the people could be so stupid as to think that Gertie were real. That was 1914, skip ahead to 1993 and compare Jurassic Park, and now I begin to understand.

The people of 1914 were reacting based on the experiences they had had in their lives. They had seen other silent films staring real humans, but even then, they were in black an white and didn't really move the way we do in real life. They knew those were actors and bought into the illusion film presented, filing silent films in the “Acceptably real” category of their mind. Now they see Gertie, also black and white, not quite moving right, and staring with a real actor, and it fits neatly into the same “Acceptably real” category.

In 1993, our experiences had already added color and sound to film. Practical special effects (latex monsters and miniatures) were standard. They didn't always move right, or the lighting was a little off, but despite all that, we filed them in our “Acceptably real” category. Now comes Jurassic Park with digital visual effects. The dinosaurs seemed to move as realistically as the human actors. The lighting was correct enough that they seemed to actually exist in the world of the movie. Suddenly our “Acceptably real” category emptied itself to make room for the new reality. The category began to fill up again as movies continued to reach or surpass the standard set by Jurassic Park.

Now a change in direction. A bit of science. The Uncanny Valley. From Wikipedia:
The uncanny valley hypothesis holds that when robots [and computer generated humans] look and act almost like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers.

So basically, humans can be represented in film very crudely, and we accept them as appealing. The closer they get to looking and acting like humans, the more appealing and acceptable they become. Eventually they get to a point where they are very close to real humans, but rather than finding them appealing and believable, they are ugly, lifeless and revolting. What happens is that initially, with the less than perfect human representations, they are far enough from reality that our subconscious minds overlook the shortcomings, chalking them up to the fact that they are really not real. Some good examples are the characters in The Incredibles. Their proportions are characterized enough that they couldn't be real, but we never question that they are supposed to be humans, and we feel comfortable sympathizing and empathizing with them. We accept them as people.

As you get closer to reality, like the characters in The Polar Express, or Beowulf, where the characters look very much like humans, and seem to move like humans, you reach the deep uncanny valley. Suddenly your subconscious mind can't see and obvious signs that these aren't supposed to be real, so it no longer overlooks any shortcomings. On the contrary, it goes into defensive mode, constantly alerting you that something isn't right – someone is trying to deceive you – warning, these humans are not to be trusted! They are not what they appear! It's extremely difficult to name what it is exactly that sets off the alarms, and that much more difficult for the artists to overcome. The audience can only identify that the characters creeped them out, or seemed to be zombies. As visual effects go, we have reached the edge of the uncanny valley, and some are falling in.

On the other side of the uncanny valley, you have humans characters so real that we fully accept them as real. It's never been crossed.

Ok. Now back to my original line of thought, visual effects benchmarks. The bar has been significantly raised, a new historical benchmark set. And I was completely caught off guard. The movie is Avatar.

Going into the film, my expectations were low. There was so much hype for this film that I knew it could never live up to it. I had heard that they used motion capture for the animation. That is the process where they put the actor into a full bodysuit covered with dots or ping-pong balls. They record the motion of each dot then plug it into the computer generated character, thereby recreating the actual movements of the real actor.

It's the technology used on the Polar Express, Beowulf, and the new Christmas Carol. So basically it's the technology that pushes you into the uncanny valley. I expected to be offended by $500 million zombies. I had seen the trailers, and thought the characters were ridiculous. They were supposed to be “real”, but they looked like cartoons. It looked to me like this was an animated film, not a live action film with visual effects. The characters were lanky blue cat people with giant eyes.

I was so wrong.

I kept trying to pick out the negative things in the execution of the animation. I kept looking for the zombies. After 30 minutes, I gave up. I was completely awed by the detail and depth of Pandora. The Na'vi people were odd at first, but within minutes, I completely bought in. They moved so completely realistically, that I found myself fighting with the notion that these are really actors in make-up, not computer generated characters. Their skin had pores, and you could feel the slight translucency, the depth of the tissue, the life in the cells. The facial expressions were completely convincing.

It's difficult to point out how beautiful it all was. One thing I can say is that by the end of the film, anytime the humans were on screen next to the Na'vi, It was the humans that I found disappointing. I almost didn't believe in their reality.

Did it cross the uncanny valley? I don't know. Probably not. It's definitely not in the uncanny valley. I mean the characters really are lanky blue cat people, so our subconscious mind surely is overlooking things. All I know is that when the film was over, I felt a little depressed when my practical mind broke the news that, as cool as it looked, the Na'vi were not real. I was actually disappointed by that fact, as irrational as it is. So it may not have crossed the uncanny valley, but it sure felt like it.

Since I'm talking about the movie, I may as well address a criticism I have heard about it. That is that the story is weak, simple, familiar. That it is just “Dances With Wolves” in space. Well, yes it is just Dances With Wolves, but last I checked, that was a good movie. A good story. Sure it's simple, but it's not weak. And it is familiar, even Pixar's “Cars”, is just Dances With Wolves on four wheels. By choosing a story that is already established as a good one, James Cameron could focus on all the visual effects while being comfortable that the story was sound. Most big effects films focus on the effects try to force some story elements in between.

Avatar is without a doubt, the most visually amazing film I have ever seen. I mean, It forced me to write all this down. And even more, it convinced me that I can still be amazed.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Different Perspective

It's funny how your perspective can change under different circumstances. I used to be pretty hard on my kids for being wild. They would run, jump, whoop and holler, and I would yell at them and tell them to calm down.

Now we own our own home which doesn't share a wall, floor or ceiling with any other resident. After making the kids tiptoe around the house and making them go outside if they had to burp, sneeze, swallow, breathe, or do anything else in the past year that would make a sound louder than 1 decibel (so as not to prompt a visit from our grumpy neighbor), Val and I decided to let the kids be wild for a week to get it out. I figured they would be extremely annoying while Val and I patiently counted down the passing of the week. It happened a little differently than expected.

They have been wild. They have competitions to see who can scream the loudest. They climb everything in and outside the house and jump off it. They never ever walk - ever. They run full speed everywhere. This was all expected. What wasn't was how much fun I've had watching them finally get to be kids. The other day I was working in the yard and Mia was riding her scooter around our driveway. I told her she could go ahead and ride in the street if she wanted (remember we live in a cul-de-sac). She looked at me like I was crazy and didn't know weather or not I was teasing her. I told her it was really fine, but she should just watch for neighbors who might drive out of their driveway. Her eyes got as big as softballs and she let out a siren-pitched scream that rattled my bones. She scooted down the driveway and all the way across the court to to the other side then immediately back and then back again, siren scream never stopping except to add a few "ho hos" and "hee hees". She was in heaven. Soon she figured the scooter was too slow so she pushed it off on it's own back up the drive way and began runnung back and forth. Xander came out all excited (because he seems to be the only one who can tell the difference between Mia's screams of joy and screams of anger without seeing her face) The two of them ran back and forth and around the circular sidewalk.

I just sat back and laughed at how much fun they were having.

Another time, I came in the house and found CJ and Xander on the floor beside each other and Mia on the couch jumping over them. The second she landed, one of them would get up and trade places and have their turn. I told them to stop it right now! I explained that they could really hurt someone if they didn't jump far enough. Mia made a comment about how she is good at jumping and already knows she can jump far enough. I agreed and encouraged them to see how far they could jump from the couch without someone under them. So they did.

I just sat back and laughed at how much fun they were having.

Just before we mowed it, Mia's job was to rake the leaves in the backyard. She was so excited. She grabbed the rake and raked a pile about two feet square and about 5 leaves high. Then she dropped the rake and JUMPED onto the pile yelling woo hoo! I thought it was hilarious that she was so excited because she knew she could make a pile of leaves to jump into. I helped her scoop the small pile into the trash can and she raked a new pile to jump into before throwing those away as well. She did it over and over.

I just sat back and laughed at how much fun she was having.

Growing up, I hated mowing the lawn. I also used to be amazed at how my dad would spend hours on Saturday doing yard work. I was not looking forward to the day I would have to be responsible and take care of my own yard. I have my own yard now. It has a lawn and bushes and two big trees. I bought my first lawn mower. It looks like a hot rod! It red and has a sleek modern shape. I started it up and only had to pull the rope one time! I kinda couldn't wait for Saturday so I could mow the lawn. CJ thought it was pretty cool too. She said "Hey, how about you let me mow the lawn and you could pay me like a dollar or something"


Now before I go on, I should explain that it crossed my mind that I'm probably ripping my own daughter off by paying her a dollar for this work. Then it occurred to me that right now the work is worth a dollar to her. Eventually it won't be enough so I can raise it up to five (probably two to start)and she'll be re-motivated. No use in jumping to far ahead in the payment plan yet.

So I taught her about how to mow the lawn. I had her go around the whole yard looking for sticks and rocks. Then I explained some safety stuff and started it up. I pushed it around the perimeter, pointing out sprinkler heads and high spots to watch out for. After a full circle, I figured it wouldn't hurt to take her around one more time before I let her try on her own. I was having fun taking care of my own lawn. Then we came to a tree and I showed her how to get around it. Now it was her turn. She took over and pushed it down two stripes. I asked if it would be ok if I went ahead and finished this part because it got tight in one corner. So I finished that off. I let her mow another stripe then took over again and asked if she would feel bad if I just finished the back lawn. She let me.

She sat back and laughed at how much fun I was having.

Easiest dollar she ever earned.

When we moved to the front. I once again did the perimeter, but then handed it over to her to finish (It took her about five minutes to be done). Mia was out watching us. I asked her if she would sweep the grass cuttings from the sidewalk back onto the grass. I offered to show her how, but she insisted she already knew. And did she ever.

Now you get to sit back and laugh at how much fun she was having.

So it turns out that I love that my kids get the freedom to be kids now. It makes me happier and way more patient. I also like to tke care of my own house. Huh. Who would have guessed?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

He's Done. Finally.

Here's a project that I have been working on for about a year. That sounds like a lot, but I only worked on it for a few minutes here, a few there. I think the total actual time was probably more like 20 hours.

Anyway, here's the process.

It all started when a neighbor was throwing away a perfectly good globe that only had a collapsed southern hemisphere. I looked at the northern hemisphere and, naturally, the first thing I thought was "Hey, that looks like R2-D2's head!"

The next thing I did was find a few good pictures of R2-D2 for reference. The diameter of the globe is 12", so with that measurement, I brought the images into Illustrator, tossed on a grid, sized the images so the diameter was 12 units and, ta da! I could now figure out the correct dimensions of everything else. I drew up a few schematics and moved on to construction.

First, I needed materials. I searched for 12" diameter cylinders for a few weeks. I considered 5 gal buckets, but they were not exactly the right size and they had a bunch of extra plastic around the top. I looked at plastic garbage cans, but they almost always tapered a bit. Finally, I thought of a sonotube. It's a cardboard tube used for making concrete pillars. We used one when we built the Thanksgiving Point water tower on the Lehi pioneer-days float 7 years ago. A quick visit to Home Depot, and I had a 12" diameter cardboard cylinder. It was 4 feet long, and I only needed 15", so I cut it down to size. Incidentally, if anyone has any cool ideas of what I can use the remaining tube for, let me know. It's now in 2 pieces.

For the legs I chose my best friend, foamboard. 3/4 inch. I also cut some circles and glued them into the tube and the dome for extra support. I used a poster mailing tube for his neck.

With help from the R2-D2 builder's group online, I got a template of R2's skin. I scaled it down and simplified it a bit.

I covered the cylinder with white poster board and struggled with what to use for the outer skin. I considered more poster board, but it was so thin that you really couldn't see the depth. I tried styrene plastic (1/16"). This stuff is amazing, and I will use it in future projects for sure. The cool thing about it is that first, you can cut it with an exacto knife (straight cuts just require a simple score and break), and second, you can heat it up with a hot air gun (or oven) and it becomes pliable, within seconds it hardens into the new shape. I actually covered the back half with it and cut out all the shapes. In the end I decided that it wasn't going to work. Although straight cuts are easy, if they are on the interior surface, you can't easily snap them off so you have to make a zillion cuts. I ripped off the plastic and went with craft foam.

The sheets are smaller than I needed, so I had to piece together 4 sheets to cover him. But talk about easy. I was able to glue it down with elmers glue and cut out all the pieces in just a couple of hours (compared to about 4 hours on one side - and needing to use super glue, with the styrene).

As for the details on the body, I built them out of foamboard and styrene plastic. For his face, I used parts from old camera lenses, video cameras, water bottles, and plastic Easter eggs. The feet are also constructed out of foamboard but I used 3" tires from a big RC Mercades and wire hangers for the axles.

Then I spray painted the head silver and the body and legs glossy white (the foam stood up just fine, though it didn't get very glossy). Next I hand painted the metallic blue and a bit of silver where needed. I connected his legs to the body using toilet paper tubes.

True fans may notice that he isn't actually 100% finished. He's missing the battery packs on his inner feet with cable connecting into the foot. I will be using several toilet paper tubes for those, so I'm waiting for the inventory. Once I got him this complete though, Val wanted him out of the house, so he lives in my office at work. For now he sits on my couch, but I have the idea brewing of building him a proper "place". Maybe a simple pedestal, or maybe the top of an X-wing fighter - wait why not a full sized X-Wing fighter! Well, no hurry, the idea will come eventually.

Oh, And he made it to work in time for Halloween, so here he is in costume.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

...The Highest Form of Flattery

Today, instead of going down to San Diego with my friends to catch the BYU vs SDSU game, I decided to do something with my family. We went to the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin and Art Festival. It was a lot of fun - way more fun than the totally predictable outcome of the football game.

To get to Half Moon Bay, heretofore referred to in the local gangsta speak as HMB, you hop on hwy 92 and drive west until you come to the ocean. I let Valerie drive because she tends to get car sick on windy (as in very winding - not as in very blowing) roads, and 92 is super squiggly. You know you're getting close because you pass a field of pumpkins.

Then you pass another, and another.

And then you pass 2 more.

And then you pass another.

And another.

And, you guessed it:

A bunch of metal dinasaurs.

Once we got there, we followed the crowd to an empty field with a guy taking $5 to let you park. He had no uniform or anything, so for all we know he was some homeless guy who once asked someone for five bucks, and upon seeing him receive that money, everyone else decided he's the guy to pay.

Anyway, we walked from the parking field down the main street and came to a booth run by some organic snack food company. They were giving away free samples so Val and her friend Lora (who brought her family too), grabbed as many as they could carry and started stashing them in every nook they could find in our strollers. As we continued walking down the street we noticed that there was a line of people a block long waiting to get the samples. We totally cut in front of everyone!

After deciding that we may have a couple hundred people mad at us, we decided to get lost in the crowd, so we visited all the craft booths. It was your average street festival type of set up - times 3! Tons of booths selling paintings, photos, jewelry, pottery, puppets - all the stuff you expect to see - just a lot more of it.

There were several new ideas that we saw though. (Disclaimer: "New" to me. Maybe its all some ancient art that you already deem obsolete, but it was new to me) This is where I derived the name of this post. We took pictures of everything and I am sharing them here with you all because I'm sure you'll flatter the artists by imitating them - or by just flat out stealing their ideas.

The first is probably not that new, but I saw a bunch of people walking around with their new purchase, and I don't remember seeing this exact implementation.
It's vinyl nonsense signs on glass or Plexiglas in a frame. You can fit a lot more nonsense in a picture frame!

Next, we have framed pictures made from polymer clay. They are dimensional, but still pretty shallow so they don't feel like deep shadow boxes. Some are matted a different levels so it feels like it all belongs together, rather than a matte on one plane and the image on another. The style totally reminded me of Mom.

Next are quilted quiet boxes. They had quiet books too like the ones that have a pocket on each page where you hide a soft little animal. These boxes were the same idea - just in box form.

The last craft is these cool "crazy" bird houses.

So after loosing the mob in the craft booth crowd, we checked out some of the other sights.

Giant pumpkins!

Giant pumpkin carving! (And No, I don't mean pumpkin carving being done by larger than life people.)

Soon it was time for a potty break. If only we could find a toilet.

It turns out that the toilets were the only place without a crowd.

While there we made a discovery.

Apparently the toilet was haunted.

That's a joke (though they were very scary). It's a little funnier when you follow the signs to the actual haunted house and find an outhouse at the beginning.

We took all the kids (except Zoey) through the "Family Friendly" haunted house. It was pirate themed and all the scary actors were kids, so it was just right for even Xander. A little scary - but not too much. The kids all loved it the most out of the whole day.
I think I did to.
Well, that and the fact that BYU was able to win even without my support.
Not going to San Diego was definitely the better choice!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Like Father, Like Daughter... sorta.

It's October! That means it's almost Halloween! My favorite time of year! Time to Decorate!

When we moved to California, we were moving into a teeny tiny apartment with no storage space. We had to make some sacrifices, so I sold 90% of my Halloween decorations. It was fine at the time, but every Halloween since has been a bit depressing when it comes to decorating. Last year Val was so depressed about it that she and the kids made a bunch of decorations for the house. After Halloween, she bought a few decorations at the post-Halloween sales for us to use this year. One thing she got me was a 3 foot articulated skeleton.
I like skeletons.
I named him "Bones" after my last 3 foot articulated skeleton who got "garage sold".

Tonight we decided to decorate the house for FHE. I broke out the 3 - no, the 2 - no, our only box of decorations and we went to work. 30 seconds later the house was decorated with a giant spider on the chandelier, window clings on the window, my funeral dirge playin' skull on top of the book shelf, and three porcelain ghosts on another shelf. All done. But wait! where is Bones?

Why, he's (or rather "she's", as I have been informed) playing with Mia!

Mia has adopted Bones as her friend. Bones sat next to her on the tiny couch. They played dress up. They danced and did gymnastics. Bones is having the best time ever. Mia likes how big Bones is - almost as big as her - yet she can carry her around like her own baby.

The picture at the top of the post is where Bones was left when Mia went to bed. tucked snugly in the corner (Mia's Happy Spot), with a box for a pillow and another box in case she gets bored.

It's nice to see how my love of Halloween and scary movies has rubbed off on my kids. I first noticed it when warning Xander that a movie is "kinda scary" convinces him to watch, even if he has to stop his tantrum first. They love movies like Coraline (Mia wants to be her for halloween), Nightmare Before Christmas, The Corpse Bride, Monster House, and the "scary" Harry Potters.

My kids aren't strange or creepy or goth or "Wednesday" like (think Addams Family). They are cheerful, pleasant, happy kids. In fact, they are fascinated by the pretend nature of scary things. Maybe I'm raising a brood of future visual effects giants!

One can only hope.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Crafty Nonsense Signs

So I was looking through my brother's wife's blog Poppies at Play last night. It's pretty amazing, all the craftiness she does (and her blog followers too). One thing that seems to be really popular all around, and to be honest has been popular for years, is the idea of putting vinyl lettering on a painted slab of wood. I call these nonsense signs. Well, I thought I'd get in on the action. So I've analyzed the concepts and would like to offer some better ideas to all those crafty folks out there.

The biggest thing I've noticed is that the words you put on the boards don't have to mean anything - hence the name nonsense sign. I don't mean use gibberish, I mean use any words you like.
Here's an example I found on the internet. It's a pretty cool idea. Make a bunch of oversize scrabble tiles and lay them out on your wall. The only problem with this one is that the words have no connection to one another (other than the physical cross-word connection).

Here's my update to the idea. All of the words have a meaningful connection to one another. In fact the placement to the names relative to each other may have profound meaning and should cause you to ponder.

The next idea is to choose a quote from somewhere. Here's one from the internet.

Duh! Apparently you should find a quote that states the obvious. To make it better, choose a useful quote, like this one from Yogi Berra.

The next idea is to take 2 unrelated words or phrases, put one in big bold letters and the other in small, skinny script, of contrasting color, directly on top of the other. The most common usage of this is a last name in bold and the phrase "families are forever" as the subscript. This is great, but be more creative! Pick words that are interesting to you like this.

Next we have this - and it's really fun. It's simply the last few words from a book. This is a poor example because the ellipses should be in front of the phrase indicating it is the end fragment of a sentence. But the idea is to not use a full sentence, but instead the last half or so. The best part is that the ambiguity of it's meaning is it's appeal.

Here's my version. I took the last words directly from "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"

Three more Ideas to go.

Choose a few random, alliterative nouns, and place a cute symbol between them. Here's one from the internet.

And here's my better version.

Next we have this.

It's a gerund with it's descriptor (the adjective). What the heck is "Country Living" supposed o mean? It doesn't matter! Here's mine.

The last one is the most minimalist. Simply use a single word. The best kind is is an imperative verb - like you are commanding someone. Andy made a big sign that said "Gather". Here is mine.

I hope I've inspired you to go out and buy a vinyl cutter and some wood and start making nonsense signs of your own!