Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Dream of a New Film Community

Part of my original marketing approach, besides the usual press release channels and local ad placement, was the idea that 32TEN Studios would serve as a Marin Film Center: a focal point of young independent film makers, technologists, and educators.

Catherine Craig, a veteran camera operator and fixture in the Bay Area film community since the early eighties at Colossal Films, told me of Francis Coppola's early work in building this community around his own filmmaking at Zoetrope Studios, and later, his virtual community at which continues to sponsor writing and producing talent through workshop and festival.  Coppola, along with his friend George Lucas, revitalized Bay Area filmmaking in the late seventies when they each established companies in and around San Francisco.  Catherine's inclusion on our adjunct faculty board and our support of her film development was the first step in creating a new, living community around a facility in Marin.

Where better to locate our community than in the facility that Lucas built in 1981?   Lucas brought together his editing and sound groups and created a home for them in the form of Sprocket Systems, occupying 3210 Kerner Blvd. shortly after construction was completed in late 1981.  The original building rose two stories and surrounded a modern mix theater (C Theater) and sound stage.  Designed to be the largest sound stage in San Francisco, it was 31 feet to the grid, capable of 2000+ amps of power distribution designed around dimmer switches for precise lighting control.  The coved blue screen (cyclorama) was 30x60x24 and went through several iteration during its lifetime.  At one point, C Stage boasted the largest self-illuminating blue screen in the world, host to dozens of seminal effects film sequences.  Having been in D building for near two years prior to the stage build, Lucas had already created a working model shop, machine shop and had developed series of optical camera rigs designed to provide the compositing for his second Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back.

32TEN Studios was the logical place to start a new effort.  We just needed to get the word out.

After our opening party in March, co-sponsored by the Reel Directory, I gathered a collection of cards and began cold calling potential film community tenants.

I really wanted to find a small film school that would move into the first floor of D Building.  I found that in order to support special effects and visual effects production in education, the design plan had to include filmmaking at the core.  Without the intellectual property side of the equation, you ended up with the typical exercise patchwork quilt of software application.  Intellectual property development builds an ecology of collaborative exchange:  story drives concept design, concept design drives creature and effects design, which in turn, demands location and asset development, bid proposal, and the true value in collaborative creative decision-making:  the essential compromises and chalk-board planning that comes with the demands of limited time and budget.

Without core intellectual property creation, any effects training opportunities would be re-treads of what is currently offered in the mass trades and camp-on university programs.  Talking heads teaching software, no true creative collaboration across the trades, and not compelling enough to attempt in a market already saturated with this sort of specialized post-production mediocrity.

This was the true genius of Lucasfilm in the 80s and 90s:  the collaboration between the stage, the model shop, the machine shop, the art department and the production accountants (producers).  Talk with anyone that worked on shows during that time, Marty Rosenberg VFX DP, Greg Maloney Optical, Lorne Peterson Model Shop, Greg Beaumonte Camera Engineering, or Udo Pampel Machine Shop, and all speak to the off-the-cuff design of effects that had to be completed, that had never been attempted, but were, in a way, guaranteed completion in one way or another.   There was a sort of structural confidence that grew out of past production successes.

So where would I find a partner?  Before I could correctly market an education program that was truly unique in that it mimicked the current market process, I needed this intellectual property generator.

I called several digital film schools in the Bay Area, and all were married to their current locations.  These programs were not in the business of special effects or visual effects image making, and for good reason.  They all lacked the facilities to support it.

One program, the Berkeley Digital Film Institute seemed a good candidate.  I had met BDFI's founder, Patrick Kriwanek after leaving the Academy.  Coincidently, Patrick had been involved with AAC as the first Director of its Film Program in the early 90s.   Like me, he was unhappy with the administration of the Academy and started his own company in the Saul Zaentz Film Center in Berkeley.   We talked for several months about relocation to our spacious facilities in Marin, and the added benefits of a large sound stage, sound mix and screening rooms.   Ultimately,  Patrick felt that Marin was too remote for his small, fluid group of film students, choosing to stay nearer the student population centers swirling around UC Berkeley.

You may recall that my efforts to reach the major trade schools in the Bay Area via SF/SIGGRAPH was well on its way to its ultimate demise, but for several weeks there, things looked promising as I cold-called schools, went on tours, and attempted to fashion relationships that would provide project work as a design base for miniature training, environment work, green screen and simulation.

I was in for a big surprise.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Small Studio Education

It's not like it hadn't been tried before:  create an educational program around a working studio, providing real-world production training alongside professional contracting.  I created a similar model at the Academy of Art, but without the studio space.  The strength of this training concept lies in tying creative delivery to deadlines, a better equivalent of the current marketplace.  At 32TEN, we'd set personal portfolio goals for each attendee, and then go about solving for them around our studio production calendar.  The best of both worlds.

Funds tied to studio overhead on the for-profit side would be invested in developing additional stage assets, like high-resolution cameras and DIT stations, lenses, and additional lighting packages which could then be used on the educational side.  I figured that this would be the best way to jump-start a training program without acquired start-up funding.

So that was the plan.


Educational programs are measured by several metrics: access to professional facilities and equipment, program design strength, and faculty.  In order to retain access to industry professionals without providing retainer, I conceived of the Artist in Residence Program at 32TEN Studios.  I would offer office space for contracting in return for faculty performance.  I immediately identified several artists that would benefit from the arrangment:  Catherine Craig, a long-time industry veteran who was in the final stages of writing her independent film, Michael Malione, a mathematician and coder who helped develop Renderman for Pixar and was involved with ILM Training for some years, Sean Mitchell, a professional DP and film director who was in the final edit and post on his mini-independent film, and Jennine Lanouette, a screen-writer and educator in Story Development.   Part of this team would include an affiliation with Michael Buffington, a professional concept and storyboard artist who I had a close relationship with via the Illustration Department at the Academy.

My evil genius plan was coming together, all within the first month of company launch.  I had the facility, the faculty base, a larger network of independent contractors in my phone book, a solid design plan, and access to a rather well-developed educational region in the Greater Bay Area.

All that I required now was a marketing strategy.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The First Year

A flurry of activity on the main stage.

32TEN Studios' debut in January of 2012 was significant in that it will serve to map the future of employee-owned boutique studios looking for significant roles in the 21st century entertainment marketplace.  From the very beginning of the process, our colleagues wished us well, our family and friends supported us, and our partners shouldered an enormous task to get us where we are today.  In the face of what Scott Ross termed "the race to the bottom" in competitive bidding and wholesale tax break offshoring, we soldiered on, crafting a network of regional creative community and finding new avenues of collaboration.  We were challenged with revising the 90s post-production formula to find a hybridized approach that would appeal to production budgets while retaining one-take perfection in client deliverables.

We added facilities management in theater and stage rental,  intellectual property development on the story side, full-featured art department solutions, educational outreach and strategic technology and transmedia partnerships in the hopes that 32TEN would serve as a new community of hand-crafted creatives in the Bay Area, historic home to west coast film making.   Our location, the dog-eared and gently-used home of Sprocket Systems, center of the post-production special effects world for thirty years, filled us with a sense of artistic responsibility to the continuation of a craft that has been slowly moving toward the Digital Apocalypse.

We've had so much help on this road, from the VES and President David Tanaka and the Board, Ami Zinns, former Oakland Film Commissioner, Scott Smith of CAM/D, Tim Morgan and Tommy Cloutier of IATSE Local 16, Tereza Flaxman of SF/Siggraph our beloved Office Manager, Stephanie Taubert to the countless student volunteers and interns that got us into December, 2012, the end of our first year, facing the most challenging of experiments in modern production start-ups.

Geoff Heron's team prepares a pyro set for the current project.

This blog has been dark for almost a year.  I'm writing again at the insistence of my former student and biggest fan, Kristy Barkan, an east coastie who dreamed big and wanted a larger role in the digital entertainment world, and due to her stage background, consistently entertained us with her VFX project deliveries.

Kristy thought that I should start writing again, and I agreed, as I feel that there has been a significant change in the craft to warrant finer analysis from the trenches, those trenches soon to be the location of many of you who are about to graduate or have graduated and are still seeking your first break.

There are some great blogs out there still, many of the original voices have not gone dark, finding ways somehow to juggle the responsibilities of independent contractor loads, family schedules and industry perspective.  There's really only so much time in the day before you flatten.

 Thanks Kristy, I hope this lasts.

Focus and Lack Thereof

I wanted to share my early visions of the educational programs within the wider 32TEN Studios business plan.  These are significant for those of you who are just realizing that the bonanza years of post-production are over, and the new market is a global one, and not only relegated to film and television project work.  Still the Grail of practical and digital creatives, film and television will be supplanted by trans-media and portable distribution systems, in both technology and intellectual property.  Through some analysis of my process over the past twelve months, you'll be better equipped to side-step some of the hurdles that I faced and hopefully see new solutions to some of the issue that still plague me today.

I had established some important goals in order to jump start a professional development training program at 32TEN:

1. Reach out to local art schools to establish our community presence.

It was my hope to forge a bond between the students attending the various two and four-year accredited trade school in the region, stepping outside the narrow confines of curriculum and short-time adjunct faculty vision, and craft a truly unique regional artistic collaboration between school, with 32TEN serving as the philosophical hub.

My first (and only) attempt to create this structure failed.  I carefully organized a SIGGRAPH/SF grand invitation for the major content school in San Francisco:  SFSUAAUCCAECD, and AI/SF, notably missing SFAI, as I didn't realize they had a film program.)  We were to get together as a new collaborative student and faculty force, sans silly trade school administrators with their pervasive flyers and promotional bullshit, just artists and teachers hoping to discover other artists and teachers to create a community that would thrive here in the most creative melting pot in the world.

Just a handful of students and faculty showed up from CCA and AAU in C Theater that day.  I talked about my dream, and we all smiled, agreeing that such a collaborative world would be rosy indeed.

Without subscription from a larger community of artists, the plan failed, the logistics of which had something to do with it, as our location in Marin is remote enough to accommodate only those students with time and resources to make the hefty round-trip, typically in traffic or on a ferry and bus combination.  

I'd have to go back to the drawing board on that one, instead, re-craft those associations within an online community, using technology like Adobe Connect, Skype and others in lieu of physical proximity, at least in the planning stages.  I had to table it.  There were other pressing issues.

2. Build an educational infrastructure around the core studio

I was challenged with the immediate need for equipment and technology to support the most demanding of all the creative trades.  The investment for even a small stage footprint is incredible, what with the emergence of high speed photography, stereo taking, motion control, motion capture, and simulation.

I needed five million dollars.  I had five dollars.

(to be continued)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

32Ten Studios Splash!

After four intense months of planning, a core group of investors and artists have launched a new production facility under the auspices of 32Ten Studios. The task was as exhilarating as it was monumental, in both the scope of the various challenges involved with an entertainment startup and degree of complexity involved therein.

What's not stated in the article is our vision for post-production and academic training support, one of the many overlays that we plan to implement at 32Ten.

My personal dream has been to create a magnet for intellectual property, both in the creative and technical sense, artistic application of design principles as dictated by a commercial market, and a hub for community in which all of the aforementioned may hope to grow and thrive. I tried to create this space in academia. I accomplished some positive outcomes using this philosophy, but because I could not ultimately control the context of collaboration in a for-profit program, my efforts fell short of my intended mark.

I had looked at other academic or short-form immersion programs in the greater bay area, including AI, Expressions, SFSU and Berkeley. SFSU and Berkeley were rooted in tenured programming that didn't see the value in application or layered collaboration. They are still teaching the methodologies of the 60s. The other for-profits were wed to their menu curriculums, fixed in place by their vanilla approach to portfolio development and inability to see larger pictures.

I pitched the idea of immersive, connective production training to Tim, Greg and Anthony Shafer, who were looking at their options after the closing of Kerner Optical and StereoBox. They saw value in creating a specialize training facility for artists that were marginalized by big box academic programs. Not only could we reach out to BA and MA grads for portfolio re-tuning, but we could help guide those junior college, community college and state college transferees before they took the more expensive trade school plunge. In addition to seat training, we wanted to go beyond exercise or tool work, and provide a cultural and business indoctrination for those artists who felt courageous enough to start up their own boutiques.

Not closing any doors to opportunity, we agreed that educators could benefit from immersion (like Sony's IPAX program of the early 2000's), as well as off-shore subcontractors who wanted a piece of the ever growing image-making pie. In a few short years, I truly believe that the film markets in India and China will be looking for domestic talent to contribute to their pipelines, not the other way around. Preparing for the new global animation and visual effects production paradigm is paramount in our mission.

Securing the old ILM C Building, 3210 Kerner Blvd., was essential to the fundamental establishment of this creative space. In no other place in the world can you find such a concentration of extreme passion and ultimately, raw technical delivery of creative vision. I knew that this would be a once in a lifetime opportunity: to establish a community of artists with a shared understanding of the industry, both past and present, with the connective force of history underlying the mission statement of the company.

Anyhow, I wanted you to know. I wanted those of you who have been with me since the beginning, since I was building the small VFX program over at the AAU back in 2005. Those years have certainly prepared me well for this next step in my academic and creative career. I hope you will stay with me.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Production Workshop Live Event!

While I am working on a permanent Production Workshop webcasting solution, I've set up a temporary home at the following url:

Join me Thursdays, 1 - 3PM PDT to discuss collaborative production, employment opportunities, the current state of the entertainment market, and other topics related to our mission of bringing a new creative empowerment to visual storytellers!

The idea is to create a supportive network of artists. This is just the first step in changing the entertainment world, but it begins with you. Let me help!

See you Thursdays.Link

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Story Analysis: Example (Part 2)

I'd like to thank the brave student who volunteered their initial thesis animation story treatment for critical review.

If you watched "Owl" you'll understand that even short film writing (20 minutes) gives you enough time to craft a three act story. In "Owl" the three acts are presented unconventionally:

First Act

Our eventual protagonist is led to the gallows, and will be hanged for acts hinted at in the opening close-up on the proclamation (nailed to the tree).

Second Act

When the rope breaks, the viewer's position shifts from one of passive voyeurism to one of active participation. The protagonist's escape and mission to elude his captors is basically a chase scene, revealing his will to survive and return to his family, to his life before the war.

Third Act

Comes abruptly at the very end of the film, when he is hanged, and the entire lens of the film returns to the first act, revealing the red herring, the flashback, and instantly confronts the viewer with the shocking divorce from our hope that this man would escape the unfair justice thrust upon him at the beginning of the story.

This three-act presentation is unconventional in the length of each act. In a typical 90 minute feature, you might divide the acts somewhat equally throughout the film. Here, the second act basically comprises the entire film, with first and third acts serving as book ends.

Shorter Form Writing

How can you accomplish a powerful story like "Owl" in two to three minutes?

"Breathe" presents nearly the same story outcome, but where "Owl" is not predictable, "Breathe" telegraphs its arc from the outset. The viewer is never placed in a position of emotional choice, that is, from the onset of "Breathe" the viewer knows that the condemned man is dreaming. When he escapes his jailors, he leaves his cell and steps into a grassy field. The author keeps us in a dreamscape with a series of distinct, surreal scenes. We know that he is dreaming. When he is executed at the end of the arc, it comes as no real surprise because we suspected this outcome all along.

Super short form story development, whether dramatic or comedic, requires a tightly crafted load up and payoff in order to keep the audience, and ultimately leave them with a memorable project arc!


While "Breathe" could be re-written to follow the "Owl" device more closely, I would caution those of you who would write dark dramas (stories involving death) as a 2D/3D thesis vehicle. Frankly, you must consider the market that you wish to work in out of school. While this might be considered selling out to a commercial standard, I think that the two to three years you are in a training program is barely enough to learn ALL of the complex collaborative concepts that are expected of you when you apply for your first job.

This is the reality of trade education. You are suspending your life to find a new career. You do not have the time to create impressive exercise work AND a thematic project of a quality that will impress your future employer. You need to make some choices.

Crafting a portfolio marketing piece, an entire project designed start to finish, presented as an MFA thesis project supported by exercise work is the best way to derive value from your hard-earned investment dollar.


Right now, the hottest employment markets for animation are the big films coming out of Disney/Pixar, DreamWorks, Blue Sky, and Sony Animation. These films tend to be aimed at younger audiences and their parents. I can't think of a single 3D animated 90 minute dark drama developed for the US market in recent history. Japanese Anime films (Akira, Princess Mononoke, etc.) have been distributed in the US with cult success, but these are not the films that you will be working on out of school.

In order for your time to be used most efficiently in school, it's imperative that you learn the comic trade, comedic performance, comedic timing and other skills that support this market. Selecting dark dramatic themes force the portfolio reviewer to change gears and regard your material in a category that they are not hiring for. Though your material may be thought-provoking, ultimately the reviewer is looking for a company fit. Will you be able to work on Shrek 10? Though you may not want to, you may have little choice.

Animation as Art

I love experimental art. I love to see young artists pushing the commercial envelope and presenting story forms that defy pop cultural norms. However, an MFA program, especially a trade MFA program is not the place to do this. You are most likely accruing a mountain of debt (in both lost revenue from non-full-time employment and student loans.)

As difficult as this is for me to say, I think that you need to focus on getting the skills you need while in your program in order to find a job after graduation. You'll need to make your iconoclastic animation masterpiece later, when you have more financial options. Sooner than later, short form production will be commonplace, where distribution channels offer per play or per download monetized reward for your efforts. It's coming but it's not here yet.

Meanwhile, as an animation writer, you'll have to tow the popular story line, developing material that will appeal to the widest possible employer pool.

Story Aside

Even if "Breathe" was a well-constructed relevant 3D animation short project, the treatment indicates a project that is way off-scale in terms of academic production complexity. Considering the montage sequence and the number of shots, number of unique characters, and the complexity involved in animating realistic performances, this project will run over the two semesters you'll have after midpoint. Unless you can generate a team consisting of a dedicated modeler, rigger, environment modeler, painter and several lighters, this project will hobble any solo animator. It's just too big. (This sort of project calls for some motion capture assist, which is a bit beside the point for a feature animator.)

Keep it Simple

The best short form animation projects are those that pit one character against another, or pit a character against an obstacle. They usually can occur in a single setting. As long as you are able to derive a believable performance from your simple story, you have succeeded as a student animator, and are ready to prove yourself in the professional arena. Take another look at the Student Academy Award winning animation project "Bert" (2004) .

Simple concept == Solo-able project.

Student of Writing

Try to take a writing course that showcases not only the three act ninety minute feature form, but also covers four act (hour long television show) writing. Learn how to write comedy gags. Critically study the Warner Brothers short animation films of the 60s and understand the strengths and weaknesses of the Hanna Barbera model of the 70s. Watch Ren and Stimpy, the John K. wellspring of the current thirty minute story model copied by every short animation anthologist since the 90s. Watch SpongeBob. Watch everything, taking note of timing, scope and physical comedic (gag) action.

You're a student of the form! Know your market and scope. Know the history of the form. Do these things and you will succeed in getting your first job in the field, paving the way for your avant garde masterpiece down the road.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Story Analysis: Example

Here's an example of a character animation story treatment that is fairly typical of MFA candidates. (Represented here by permission.)


Late-20’s, 6’2” athletic build, Short dark hair, dark eyes, light skinned, Latino

Mid-20’s, 5’10” curvaceous body, Long dark hair, light eyes, caramel skinned, Latina

The story begins with a dream sequence of a man’s relationship with his wife from first meeting to happily married, and then the man starts from his sleep only to find himself in a jail cell. When the man looks to see what woke him he sees two guards coming into his cell with handcuffs and leg irons.

Powered by panic and confusion the man throws his head back breaking the guard’s nose as he tries to put on the handcuffs. Rushing the second guard the man breaks free of his cell and runs down the halls of the prison looking for the door that he constantly sees flashing in his mind.

When he finally reaches the door he bursts through it and finds himself running through the grass with nothing between him and freedom. Before the man can get too far he stops short to find himself looking over a sheer cliff face. The breeze coming from the sea far below triggers a flash back and the man finds himself standing in his bedroom looking at another man in bed with his wife, a policeman’s uniform in a pile next to the bed.

In a blind rage the man jumps on top of his wife’s lover raining down blows until his arms are heavy and his face is covered with blood. The man turns to face his wife, wearing nothing but a bed sheet, as she screams in fear. Crying, he walks towards her pleading for a reason why she would do this. Backing away from him the bed sheet covering the woman’s body gets tangled in her legs and she tumbles and falls over the balcony to her death on the sidewalk ten floors below.

After seeing his wife die floors below him the man hears the door being kicked open behind him and as people start to point at him accusingly the man turns and is transitioned back into the present looking at several guards hesitantly approaching him with another set of cuffs and leg irons.

With tears falling down his face the man looks at the guards as he leans back over the edge. Falling over the edge as lab coats and ceiling tiles flicker into his vision. As the man falls he sees his wife’s face appear in the sky and her arms reach out to embrace him and as he reaches his hand towards her to be reunited forever, he mouths the words “forgive me”.

The background fades as the camera pulls back to show the man in a sterile room, eyes on the ceiling, and hand reaching towards the sky as the contents of the needle empty into his arm and people can be seen watching from the other side of a glass window. As the man releases his final breath into the air his arm falls limp to his side.

In order to analyze the value of this project as it relates to short-form thesis production, we'll have to take it apart in layers.


First, as filmmakers, we need to establish a historical story precedent, if we can. There are few truly unique stories, and it behooves the writer to understand those projects that are related to his or her work in order to identify the strengths and weaknesses in the precedent vehicle. If you can identify these story areas in a work that has been completed, you can guide your own project accordingly.

The work that most resembles this piece is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," a French adaptation of the Ambrose Bierce short story. A powerful work, the black-and-white short subject film is as moving as any feature-length film. The writer of this treatment should watch this film to understand what I mean.
Here is a passable streaming version: It's about 25 minutes in length.


While the emotional tone of the two stories is vastly different, they climb aboard the same plot vehicle: the flashback. Both stories utilize the flashback in support of a red herring (twist) ending, but Owl succeeds where Breathe does not in that our expectations (and therefore our connection to the protagonist) radically change in the opening scene.

Dramatic plot lines necessitate the loading and unloading of audience emotion. In Owl, we open on a contrasting scenario of a bucolic autumn landscape serving as the backdrop of a hanging. Our expectation is that this faceless man will be hanged; yet another faceless malefactor dealt a deserved justice: we are not emotionally connected to the man we do not know.

When the rope breaks, despite our passive acceptance that his hanging was a just reward, we are ultimately relieved to be spared the extremity of his death. After all, we are human, sympathetic, empathic, and at our collective core, we ultimately cherish life.

This is Owl's powerful set-up. We are moved between two emotional extremes: from our flat-line initial resignation to the certainty of the prisoner's death to the spike of his sudden and miraculous salvation.

The second act plot line allows us to put flesh on the character brought to the hangman's noose. A faceless, condemned, throw-away character takes life in the following twenty minutes, as we learn to understand the humanity, the frailty, and the passion within the character we had initially written off.

This device is known an emotional loading. You are bonding the character to the audience in a way that defies contrivance. He is proving in deed and action that he is like any other man, with sensitivity and motivation and love. We grow inside him as grows inside us as we move through the story.

When we are certain that we like this man, understand his desires, have bonded to his mission, he is suddenly and irrevocably dead. The entire story has taken place between the beginning and end of the man's fall on the hangman's rope.

The proverbial "life flashing before a man's eyes" takes on a new meaning as a story-telling device in this classic film.

As we are presented with his death, the red herring twist of flashback realization hits us, and we can view with clarity the circular nature of the story through a new lens: these realizations arriving in a simultaneous flood of awareness: the "aha!" moment of successful storytelling.

The finale's perfect storm of emotion has earned this Bierce story a powerful and enduring legacy. When I first saw this film in high school, I was left speechless.

So, how does Breathe fail where Owl succeeds?

We'll explore more in the next installment.