Oct 29, 2009

Meet Virgil!

I'd like to introduce you to Virgil, the newest member of my puppet entourage. He is a jaguar. More importantly (for him), he is a vegetarian jaguar. He would have been awfully disappointed in me for having eaten a ham-topped-cheeseburger this evening.

I built him originally for Project Puppet's 'Jungle' contest, but I wasn't able to finish him in time for various reasons. Some facts about him: his eyes are 28mm glass lion eyes from a taxidermy shop, his fur is made from a soft towel fabric I found at JoAnn's (painted yellow with acrylics and covered in spots with black Sharpies and brown/red Prismacolor markers), within his arms and hands are wires to give him a stiff elbow or finger configuration, hidden at the base of his wrists are two metal threads to screw in the arm rods that I made for him, his nose and tongue were made from painted Sculpey molds (I need to go over his nose again, since it's chipping, and then cover it with a clear acrylic protectant). That's about it...if you have any questions, feel free to ask!

Anyway, please enjoy the photos. He took a lot of work, and I'm pretty happy with the results.



arms up





having fun with my roommate, Dan

being goofy with Dan

I also made a puppet stand (two, actually), which I am very proud of. It just took a dowel, a wooden 'clock face' from Michael's, a 1/2" drill bit, and some wood glue (plus black paint and polyurethane).

Oct 28, 2009

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

In a few weeks, the Roald Dahl classic, Fantastic Mr Fox comes to the big screen as a stop-motion feature directed by Wes Anderson. I've never actually read the book (shhhh...), but I would kind of like to before seeing the movie. Maybe I won't. I'll probably just go watch it...

Running Platypus

So, I've got this whole platypus thing going on. I did an animation of him running, so here it is. It of course will require a bit of tweaking, but for a first running test, not too bad.

Oct 17, 2009

Pixar Concept Art!

Sadly to say, I've only recently come to appreciate concept art as its own form. It tends to be beautiful in its own way--especially color and light studies. Concept art evokes feeling in a way that the final product never does. I wonder why more films aren't made with a heavier emphasis on the dramatic looks of concept art.

One of my favorite films from the past few years is Finding Nemo. I remember when I first saw a teaser for it from the Monsters, Inc. DVD--I was sold on the idea from the beginning. The movie has such a strong quality to it: a father learning to deal with his fear of loss, a son realizing the value of his dad, an unexpected journey. What I never realized was how intentional the different moods of the film were. Thinking about it, it is now very obvious, but at the time, it accomplished exactly what it should have: people had the feelings evoked without really knowing it. The beginning of the film is set in warm, light blues for a feeling of safety and security in the reef. As the journey begins, deeper blues set in--symbolizing both distance from home and greater danger. The dark blues of the shark's hideaway and the deep-sea moment are frightening. Then, suddenly, the medium blues of the open ocean don't seem quite as bad anymore. The jellyfish are an inviting--almost dreamy--pink and purple, though the bright red of Dory's wound from them serves as a stark contrast to their seeming safety. Finally, in Sydney Harbor, the dull greens and muckier water show despair: Marlin thinking Nemo is dead and Dory not knowing where she is or what she's doing. Below is an image from Greg Hull, one of the concept artists for the film.

Other films in general (and Pixar films in particular) spend a lot of time getting colors and moods right. A character's environment plays a huge role in an audience interpretation of a scene. A laugh on a sunny day in a park seems light and innocent. Move that laugh to a dark, dank room, and it's either evil or nervousness.

I found a website today which has an OK collection of Pixar concept art. I would recommend the various "Art of" books, particularly from Finding Nemo, Cars, and Ratatouille. I would say Monsters, Inc., but I don't have that book, and it costs around $150, since it's now out of print.

Additionally, for Disney concepts, their "Art of" books (I remember "Art of the Lion King" being really good; also, "The Tarzan Chronicles") and "Before the Animation Begins."

Here are some great examples of the different styles of concept art:

Aladdin (Aladdin's hideaway)

Ratatouille (Paris skyline)

The Lion King (Simba's return to Pride Rock)

Beauty and the Beast (early Beast sketch)

WALL-E (WALL-E and Eve)

Oct 8, 2009

Occam's Razor and Politics

The Conservative Party just finished their four-day annual conference, which culminated in David Cameron's speech to the party. This year's speech is even more significant than usual, since it is likely, given the state of the polls, to be his last conference speech as the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. Next summer, he will probably be the Prime Minister of Her Majesty's Government, describing what his Government is doing to address the problems facing Britain.

I have mixed feelings about the speech, largely stemming from my mixed feelings about the state of the Tories in general. You see, David Cameron, in some ways, has been the John McCain of the U.K.--he's reliably 'conservative' on most issues, though he has decided that the way to win back Parliament is to adopt many of Labour's policies, including civil partnership recognition and benefits, burdensome taxes on the rich, and heavy, heavy funding for the National Health Service.

What surprises me most about Mr. Cameron's speech is that it reflects what ails the entirety of the European polity today, namely, the belief that society's problems can be answered by applying Occam's Razor. Simply put, Occam's Razor states that if there are multiple possible explanations for an occurrence, the simplest is the most likely. In society and politics, this is certainly not always the case.

Sometimes, it is. Take this excerpt from Mr. Cameron's speech, for example:

The truth is, it's not just that big government has failed to solve these problems. Big government has all too often helped cause them by undermining the personal and social responsibility that should be the lifeblood of a strong society.

Just think of the signals we send out. To the family struggling to raise children, pay a mortgage, hold down a job.

"Stay together and we'll give you less; split up and we give you more."

To the young mum working part time, trying to earn something extra for her family "from every extra pound you earn we'll take back 96 pence."

Yes, 96 pence.

Let me say that again, slowly.

In Gordon Brown's Britain if you're a single mother with two kids earning £150 a week the withdrawal of benefits and the additional taxes mean that for every extra pound you earn, you keep just 4 pence.

What kind of incentive is that? Thirty years ago this party won an election fighting against 98 per cent tax rates on the richest. Today I want us to show even more anger about 96 per cent tax rates on the poorest.

It is certainly true: taking away, through taxation, 96% of the income you earn is an idiotic incentive. No one in their right mind would think that would cause anyone to work more. In my current job, if I had to work twenty-four times as much to earn the equivalent of one unit of untaxed work, I simply wouldn't work. That's Occam's Razor. That's common sense.

However, on another issue, Mr. Cameron misses the root causes by applying Occam's Razor to a problem.

We cannot rebuild social responsibility from on high. But the least we can do the least we can do is pledge to all the people who are scared, who live their lives in fear and who can't protect themselves, that a Conservative Government, with Chris Grayling, with Dominic Grieve, will reform the police, reform the courts, reform prisons. We will be there to protect you.

You may not notice the mistake here, because there a few underlying facts. In Britain, gun control laws are among the strictest in the world. This came through the use of Occam's Razor, noticing the problem of crime (oftentimes perpetrated with guns) and saying that the simplest way to solve the problem would be to rid the nation of guns. They did so. That has made Britain one of the places where you are least likely to be shot. However, in the U.K., 26.4% of the country was victimized by crime in 2002 (3rd highest percentage in the world, according to UN statistics). 2.8% of the country was subject to assault, the 2nd highest percentage in the world. The U.S., on the other hand, with much more lax gun control laws (though still with the assault rifle ban in place at the time), came in as one of the most likely places to get shot, but below average in both world crime and assault rates. Clearly, getting rid of guns--though it may be effective in lowering crimes committed with guns--does not lower overall crime. There could be many reasons for this (culture, other weapons available, number of law enforcement personnel, sentencing levels come right to mind), but I think a major one is that, culturally, it is no longer legal to defend oneself. In the end, that is the point of owning a gun (besides hunting). It is a great deterrent to crime. If you know that I have a Glock in my drawer, you probably will be less likely to enter my home to rob it. If you think I might, you will still be less likely to enter my home. If you know I won't (as is the case in the U.K.), then you have no worries at all about robbing me blind (or murdering me with something other than a gun, or assaulting me or my family, or any other number of crimes).

Mr. Cameron thinks that Britain just needs more policing. That may help, but ultimately, police respond to crimes. Frontline police rarely prevent crime. You don't call 911 because a burglar might appear. You call because someone appears to be in the midst of a robbery. Sometimes they can stop something as it happens. However, the best deterrent is having the criminal know that you aren't the one in danger if they enter your home; they are. Britain, I believe, should loosen its gun control laws. That, paradoxically, is how you'll keep people safe.

I look forward to what I hope will be the Tories' trouncing of Labour next May. However, as American seems to be 'Europeanizing' under President Obama, I hope we realize that the simplest ways to solve problems (e.g. people need health care, just make them buy it; people get shot, outlaw guns; I am not rich and am not a criminal, tax all rich people because they must be) are not always the correct ones. Occam's Razor doesn't always work.

Oct 3, 2009

The Return of Cider

Slate has a cool article about the history of (alcoholic) cider in America. It was hugely popular in our early days, waned in the middle of our existence, and has begun a comeback. I'd love it if the phrase could be "as American as apple pie and cider". When I visited London in 2005, I enjoyed their cider a bit more than most of their ale (though both were delicious). It's nice to know that cider is becoming more respected, as it should be, since it is great, and that new cideries are appearing throughout the U.S., aiming to better the craft.

Makes me think about Johnny Appleseed. Do kids even learn about him anymore?

Oct 1, 2009

Muppets in Ramallah

The New York Magazine has a really interesting article on how the Sesame Workshop is working to instill tolerance and understanding to Israeli and Palestinian children growing up in Israel. Their two shows, Rechov Sumsum (Israeli) and Shara'a Simsim (Palestinian), are intended to be both educational (as all Sesame Street shows are) and culturally relevant.

It's well worth a read. Cool to see such out-of-the-box thinking to deal with the Middle East's problems.