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Sunday
Jan222012

Commercialism vs Idealism

When I was a kid I had a big goal in life: I wanted to become a pro hockey player. (Hey, I'm Canadian.) Eventually, as a teen-ager, I realized that that wasn't going to happen. I changed my focus to one of my other favorite things, and decided I wanted to work in the movies. I wanted to make important films that changed peoples lives. I graduated from high school and with that high ideal, I enrolled in the film program at my local college. There, I discovered post-production sound work. I found the path that I wanted to take.

I'm quite a few years down that road, and I still really enjoy working in the audio-post world, but my original dream of working on important projects got lost somewhere along the way.  Most of the projects I work on are animated series that, at first glance, appear to be great little escapes for viewers - science fiction adventures in space, comedies aimed at stoner teenagers, educational programs for pre-schoolers etc.  Most of these shows are great fun to watch, but the reality is that almost all of these shows are essentially ads for the toys they are promoting.  There's big money in TV animation, but it's made at the checkout lines in the malls, off of the sales of action figures, books, games and anything else that a logo can be stamped on.

I realize this is nothing new; in my prime cartoon-watching years in the 80s, I was a huge fan of Transformers, G.I. Joe and He-Man.  Now I know that these shows were all just 30 minute loss-leaders that got me to pester my mother into getting me Optimus Prime for Christmas.  And it worked.

In every Toys 'R’ Us store there is a sign at the end of each aisle letting shoppers know which toys can be found down each canyon of products.  I remember one visit when I found an aisle where every toy in the whole aisle was from a show I had cut sound effects work for.  One side was all Bakugan toys and the other side was filled with Digata Defenders paraphernalia.  


 

When I first saw that sign, I must admit I was filled with a strange sense of pride. Even though I really had nothing to do with the toys on display I suddenly felt part of something bigger. I spent my days alone in a dark room making my little noises but suddenly it seemed like I was a part of a big project, one that kids were crazy about - just like I was about He-Man.  As time went on, Bakugan became a huge hit.  Billboards popped up around the city and toy sales went through the roof.  


 

The show kept getting picked up for renewal season after season.  In fact I just recently finished working on the 189th episode!  It's been great to be able to drop the name of a show that has actually been seen by people (by 'people' I mean boys aged 8-12) when asked what I do for a living.  All my friends' kids thought I was super cool.

I've kept believing that there is something to be gained from working on something that may not be a big commercial success but actually has a point to it beyond making money.  This is why I am so happy to now see a promotional push happening behind a smaller project I worked on last spring.  I have already put up a few posts on this blog about my experience working on "One Millionth Tower" for the National Film Board of Canada (Please read here for details on the project) but this week a new wrinkle for the project appeared.  Suddenly there are ads for the project all over the subway system in Toronto.


I've seen wall-mounted billboards at most stations I've been to lately and the info screens on the platforms that indicate the current time and how long it will be until the next train have been running sections of the film for people to watch while they wait.


 

Granted they are playing the segments without sound, so my work can't be appreciated in the subway tunnels, but still it is pretty cool.

What makes this especially great, given my mild case of animation fatigue, is that there are no toys associated with this project. It was created purely to try to help communities come together and make cities a better place to live.  

I am not sure how much of a change this little production will make, if any at all, but I feel proud, in an un-conflicted way, to have been part of something that is at least trying to make a difference.  After all, that was my goal when I decided I wanted to get into this business in the first place. 

Wednesday
Dec212011

National Film Board Follow Up

A few months back I worked on a project for the National Film Board of Canada and I was pretty excited about it.  I did a blog post at the time about my history with the NFB.  Well now that project is completed and released.  It is called One Millionth Tower (or 1MT) and it recently had its world online premier at wired.com  It is a film/website built with new open source technology, webGL, and not all computers can load the 3D version. If you load up the most recent version of firefox, chrome or, if you are running a mac with Lion, Safari you should be good.

I did the sound design for the film within the website, that kind of acts as the sites focus point.  It is a short that is kind of an animated documentary about the residents of a public housing highrise and their dreams of how the building could be transformed into a positive environment.

The music was composed by my friend and extremely talented musician Jim Guthrie.  If you like the music in the film, he just released a crazy album made entirely with a Sony Playstation.  The album is pay what you can, listen to it here.

Below is a press release, if you have a moment to go to the website click here to  check it out.

ONE MILLIONth TOWER

The HIGHRISE re-imagined

One Millionth Tower is the result of unique collaboration between apartment residents, architects, animators, filmmakers and web developers to re-envision what a declining highrise neighbourhood could be.  Through a close collaboration with the Mozilla Foundation – Mozilla, developer of the open source Firefox browser and a pioneer in promoting openness, innovation and opportunity on the web, the HIGHRISE team has created a lush visual story unfolding in a 3D virtual environment. Visitors to the online documentary can explore how participatory urban design can transform spaces, places and minds.

One Millionth Tower re-imagines a universal thread of our global urban fabric — the dilapidated highrise neighbourhood. More than one billion of us live in vertical homes, most of which are falling into disrepair. Highrise residents, together with architects, re-envision their vertical neighbourhood, and animators and web programmers bring their sketches to life in this documentary for the contemporary web browser -- one of the world's first HTML5/webGL documentaries.

And it's got music composed Jim Guthrie with a sonata by Owen Pallett.

Mark Surman, Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation, says One Millionth Tower ”is a prime example of the work we are doing together to empower makers and build tools that anyone can use to make awesome things happen — on the Web and in the world. It's a testament to how we are building a better Web together.”

One Millionth Tower places you in the three-dimensional world of a run-down highrise neighbourhood, where, if you access it with a webGL enabled computer, you can interact with the environment and see it re-imagined as a lively, flourishing community. (If you do not have a webGL enabled system, you can still watch a non-interactive video capture of the documentary play out in a virtual 3D space.)

Additional features include:

• a behind-the-scenes documentary about the collaborative process behind One Millionth Tower

• a short documentary featuring international examples of tower revitalization

• a short documentary exploring the open technology used to create the project

and a spectacular interactive feature, World of Highrises, that takes you to highrise neighbourhoods in more than 200 countries in the world, thanks to Google Streetview and satellite imagery. It's based on our own original research to find and understand highrise communities around the globe. Visitors can submit their own highrise tower to be included in this unique visual database.

One Millionth Tower is a story with global implications about how, with the power of imagination, we can transform the urban and virtual spaces that belong to all of us.

The team behind One Millionth Tower includes director Katerina Cizek, Senior Producer Gerry Flahive, 3D Creative Technologist, Mike Robbins (for Helios Design), Music Jim Guthrie, Owen Pallett, Sound Design Timothy Muirhead, Animators Lillian Chan, Howie Shia, Kelly Sommerfeld, Technical Director Branden Bratuhin, Associate Producer Sarah Arruda, Community Media Project Lead And Creative Associate Heather Frise, Community Media Liaison Maria-Saroja Ponnambalam, Highrise Residents Ob, Faith, Priti, Jamal and Donna, Lead Architect Graeme Stewart (for E.R.A. Architects),  Executive Producer Silva Basmajian and many more.

Our previous HIGHRISE project, OUT MY WINDOW, won a Digital Emmy Award, IDFA’s first-ever Digital Storytelling Award, and many other international prizes.

Tuesday
Jun142011

Adventures with National Film Board of Canada

I recently started work on the sound design for a short film being produced by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). This is a really cool thing for me, as I'm a very big fan of the work the NFB has done. If you're not Canadian, you might not have heard of the NFB, but the Film Board has been a major influence on world cinema over the last 40+ years. Maybe not so much on the movies that play at the local multiplex, but as far as documentaries and animation are concerned, the NFB blazed many trails that lead to where those genres are at today.

I have worked on NFB films before, but only as a dialog record engineer. In fact, of one the very first paid sessions I ever did was for the NFB. It was at my first studio job, where I had interned and was learning the ropes. I had sat-in on innumerable sessions with senior engineers, but now I was finally at the controls for a narration recording session for a short animated film.  This was my big chance to run a session by myself without a more experienced engineer in the room - I was in charge. I still remember it clearly, thirteen years later, because I was so nervous going in. Luckily, it was also the easiest session possible: one mic, one actor and no editing - they wanted all takes dumped onto DAT (remember those?!). As a result of its simplicity the session went off without a hitch and I aced my first test in the studio.

I gained a lot of confidence from that session and I was proud that it was for the NFB and not some silly corporate motivational video (I had hundreds of those to look forward to in the years to come.) Having proved myself capable, I moved up the ladder at the studio and basically forgot about that short film - until about a year and a half later when the Oscar nominations came out. The NFB had snagged a nomination in the Animated Short Film category for My Grandmother Ironed the King's Shirts, the very film I had recorded the narration for in that first session. Well, there's nowhere to go but down when your first gig lands an Academy Award nomination! (Sadly, the film did not take home the big prize, but the director went on to win an Oscar in the same category a few years later.) 

Since then, I have recorded dialog for a few more NFB films, including I Want a Dog (featuring music by one of my favourite artists Neko Case!!) and Penguins Behind Bars but I have never had the chance to cut SFX for an NFB film until now. I jumped at the opportunity.

The NFB is currently working on a documentary project looking at high-rise apartment life around the globe. This project has already won multiple awards including an International Emmy. The film I'm working on is part of this series and takes place at a specific high-rise building in the outskirts of Toronto.

Last week, I went out to visit the building and record some ambiences to use in my edit. When I arrived on site with my gear (Sound Devices 702 recorder and a Sanken CSS-5 mic) I immediately noticed a little problem: the lawn surrounding the building had just been mowed… and I am extremely allergic to grass clippings.  To take my allergic reactions out of earshot would mean leaving my gear unattended... unwise. So, what I ended up capturing was some decent ambience, frequently interrupted by the sound of me having sneezing fits. Needless to say, I had to do a lot of editing in order to get anything close to useable from this session. Here, for comedy's sake, are a couple of samples from the day's recording, with me sneezing like crazy, ruining the takes.

Sneezing by azimuthaudio


The film is set to be released as part of the bigger website project and will have a large interactive aspect, so I'm about to get deep into asset deliveries that are quite different from what I usually produce for linear animation. I'm going to be kept on my toes making sure everything gets delivered properly - looking forward to it.

Check out the film that resulted from that first little session I did: