March 2017

I’ve never worked more OT than I have in the last few weeks. I’m talking almost every lunch hour as well as after hours. But it’s bee worth it. Check out the trailer to the film I’ve primarily been working on:

Trailer day is always pretty fun at the studio. There’s no fanfare or anything, but it gives everyone a little boost to finally be able to show something to family and friends, and to signal that a few months down the road this thing that has consumed most of your life for the past couple of years is out in the world.

Because of this, though, most of my personal goals this month were on the backburner, like my 31 Day Declutter Challenge. Totally did not succeed, but definitely made progress which I can talk about in a future post. But let’s chat.

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Top 5 Animated Films of 2016

fox and bunny having an argument

In 2015, I tracked my media consumption on a page on my blog, but then never did anything with it. Earlier in 2016, much like I adopted GoodReads to track my books, I created an account on LetterBoxd to track films, and my oh my, how much easier it is. I’m not sure why I never did your typical end of year wrap ups on my blog before,¬†but here we are making up for it.

That being said, I wrote the post over on my animation website, AnimationComplex.com. So please head over there and give it some love. ūüôā

Unfortunately, my picks were not totally in-line with the Oscar nominations, which were released this morning. We were on very similar planes regarding the film, but we definitely have our differences. And there’s one that I haven’t seen, that wasn’t nominated, that, based on performance and reviews, sounds like it should have made the cut. I also mention an animation-related documentary that was nominated for an Oscar as well! But I plan to go into the Oscars¬†a bit more in the future, both on AnimationComplex and on the in-progress, not-yet-launched Animation Complex YouTube channel.

Tech Inspiration in Seattle

I visited Seattle, Washington the first weekend of September, where my good friend moved. This is the third summer in a row where I made this trip, with the last two occurring after the SIGGRAPH conference. Despite not attending this year, my northwest adventure more than made up for my absence in LA.

Have you ever had a period of time¬†where things felt oddly connected?¬†Or maybe you had a few unrelated classes thematically spill into one another?¬†That was my week in Seattle.¬†This trip had a much welcomed, consistent¬†theme running throughout the duration, starting with the plane ride there. In the wake of the first casting news announced for Steven Spielberg’s filmic adaptation, I decided to re-read¬†Ready Player One. The book heavily features a virtual world, OASIS, where the characters spend most of their time, and where they truly live their lives. I’ve always had a strong fascination with more technology-driven cartoons, to the point where I probably would not be working in CG animation without them driving my interest into computers. The references to some of these properties, and others such as¬†WarGames really got me excited about these types of stories, and knowing about some of the VR and AR tech being developed, such as the¬†HoloLens, OASIS¬†won’t seem like a pipe dream for much longer.

In the years that I’ve known him, my friend has been a source of inspiration and assurance throughout my foray into CG/interactive technology. Working at Mircosoft, he definitely knows a thing or two about technology. We’ve always had similar taste in/appreciation for science, science fiction, art, media, and technology, so I supposed my little adventures being related shouldn’t be too surprising. ūüôā

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Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet @ the NYICFF

Towards the end of March, I had the privilege of attending the US premiere of the 2015 animated adaptation of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet¬†at the New York International Children’s Film Festival (NYICFF). The screening took place at the SVA Theatre on 23rd street, which gave me a chance to stop in and visit SVA, where¬†I¬†am a part-time MFA computer animation student.

I have been following this adaptation of The Prophet for a while now, honestly in shock that such a¬†film was even rumored to exist. When I first learned of it, it just sounded too good to be true: it is¬†a (mostly) 2D animated feature length film, with contributions from eight¬†of the world’s leading indie animators, and it tackles subject matter with a lot more depth than slapstick. I was so pleased that Salma Hayek was¬†seeing this through.

To be brief (and spoiler free), the overarching story follows Mustafa, a writer, artist, and teacher whose work was perhaps a little too liberal for his local government. Under¬†house-arrest for years, he is¬†taken care of by a woman whose daughter, a quiet troublemaker,¬†becomes an unlikely friend.¬†When his sentence is up, he is escorted by guards through the town, towards the docks, where he is to¬†be shipped back to his home country. Along the way, he encounters many of the locals, who welcome his¬†return with unbridled¬†celebration (to the displeasure of the government officials). He shares with them eight¬†sermons (a distillation of the original 26 poems), which range from topics of love, work, death, and everything all humans experience in between. These are where the work of the independent animators come through. I won’t elaborate¬†further, but I will steal a line from Variety’s Review, saying that¬†it “…doesn‚Äôt shy away from grown-up concerns.”

Still from the film
Still from the film

At times, I did find myself admittedly wanting to fast-forward through the main story, just to get to the smaller inserts done by the indie artists. Each one offered something new both stylistically and in the way they visually conveyed the more mature sentiments of Gibran’s poems. ¬†Although the overlying story was interesting in its own right, there was much to be desired for me. The cel-shaded CG was a bit awkward for me visually. Similarly, some of the gags involving minor characters (particularly the seagull and bumbling guard) seemed forced.

Ironically, the children I ended up seated next to disliked the inserts and I was treated to an audible sigh (“Another one!?”) as each one began. After the screening, I overheard the father discussing with his children, asking what they didn’t like about it. The older of the two (with approving nods from the younger) stated that the short animations¬†kept distracting them¬†from the main story, and that they were too wordy, which made it more difficult to follow along. As a child, I know I would have¬†preferred the varying segments over the overall story, but I also know that the depth of those segments would have been lost on me.

I am not going to go into the shorts any more, as I’d like to watch the film once more, as well as give other people a chance to see it for themselves in theaters before reading any sort of deconstruction.¬†And–in case it was a concern–this film does touch a tiny bit on God, particularly during a couple of the¬†inserts. But I never felt like it was being thrown in my face. The beautiful thing about the words of the prophet is that, regardless of religion, they are universal truths and experiences we share by simply being human.

I highly recommend seeing this film. Go see it on the big screen, support dream projects like this, support the indie artists and this beautiful collaboration. Support 2D animation–an animation that asks a little more of its audience–that calls attention to the freedoms of expression we often take for granted. Celebrate the wisdom and words of the prophet.

GKids has announced that the film will hit New York City and Los Angeles theaters on August 7, with a US and Canadian rollout following after.

Bill Plympton @ Blue Sky Studios

NYC-based independent animator Bill Plympton visited Blue Sky Studios!

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Photo taken from Blue Sky Studios Facebook page

This¬†actually wasn’t my first time seeing Bill Plympton talk. He’s visited my department at SVA a number of times, was on a panel I saw a while ago organized by The Academy and the Society of Illustrators, and I tend to bump into him at NYC events,¬†and support his other animation endeavors. I have quite a few post cards with doodles of his iconic guard dog:

Got a guard dog doodle from Bill Plympton the other day! @plymptoons

A post shared by @jenhurler on

It’s always interesting to see Bill talk, because, unlike many¬†artists who cater their talks based on whether the audience is predominantly students or professionals (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), he is always very blunt and sincerely speaks his mind. He doesn’t beat around the bush about¬†his opinions on animation in the US, about being an animation student today, or¬†about himself and his career.

He’s the first one to tell you that he doesn’t make a whole lot of cash from his films, and that any money he makes goes into the next film. He discussed his decision to launch (a¬†successful) kickstarter¬†for his latest film, Cheatin’,¬†his early days as an illustrator-turned animator, and the freedom (despite limited resources) he enjoys today tackling more grown up subject matter. He was encouraging to many artists, reminding them that they can still create their own work about whatever they want despite being at a larger studio.

Always¬†the¬†advocate of broadening the scope of animation in America, Bill’s talks always touch on this, which is why I enjoy them¬†so much. There’s no reason why more¬†films like his can’t exist alongside your Disney musicals. I personally prefer a grey area in between these “kid” and “adult-themed” films, which is why films like¬†The Wind Rises appeal to me on a thematic level. They tell more mature stories but can still be accessible to younger audiences. But Bill is doing what no one else in this country is doing, and doing so without compromise, and I love that. He shows that these darker topics can be digested without being the punchline like you¬†so often¬†find in “adult” animation like¬†South Park. Again, not that there is anything wrong with that, but there is always room for more!

My friend from high school, Eric Francisco, interviewed Bill for the site Geekscape. It’s a really fantastic read, as¬†Eric asked some great questions, many of which I ponder a lot while working at¬†a¬†studio that solely focuses on family-oriented stories.¬†While at Blue Sky, Plympton did briefly share his thoughts on the matter, similar to this bit from the interview:

They get jealous, they have adulterous affairs and divorces, [even] hook up with prostitutes and things like that, but yet they can’t talk about it. They can’t discuss it in their films. They have to do kiddie films. Which seems like lying. They’re betraying their artistic sensibilities. Whereas I can draw about whatever I want and that’s what makes me an artist talking about my own life.

The independent film life is not for everyone, especially with a beast of a medium like animation. But it’s so great to see people like Bill Plympton continue to carve a niche for themselves. And from the looks of some early reviews of Cheatin’ (which just was released to limited theaters), it looks like that niche will be growing even more this year.

Here is a trailer for Cheatin’: