Friday, October 12, 2007

15 Years Ago, Lifeformz was Born...

Lifeformz Cut-out Title
Lifeformz Cheese Monolith

Good grief! It doesn't feel so long ago, but sometime in the Fall of 1992 I raced back to the Penn campus via train from NYC (my first time there), having just seen a life-changing presentation at the Museum of TV & Radio about Jim Henson. The guest panel included Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Jane Henson, the late Jon Stone, and Michael Frith. I had a mission. When asked by an audience member "What should we do or study to become Muppeteers?", Jerry Nelson half-seriously blurted out "Computers!" and after the laughter died down, Jane Henson suggested "Cable Access Television." One of the brightest lightbulbs ever lit up over my head because I was already doing BOTH, at Penn's University TV Station (UTV) and doing some modeling & animation work for graduate & PhD Computer Graphics students at Penn's Center for Human Modeling & Simulation. There was no question about it, it had to be done. Yes, I was going to attempt to create a TV show with puppets and animation. But what to call it?

I'm not entirely certain when or how I arrived at the name of the project, but at some point I mentioned it to my good friend at the time, Steve, and he nodded approvingly. I printed up some flyers using my Atari ST & its ginormous laser printer advertising a new student group / experimental puppetry and animation show. We plastered them over campus, not entirely certain of the people who would show up to the first meeting. After all, Penn back then was NOT known for any sort of visual arts training. The Annenberg School of Communications was there, but its film & video classes had long been shut down because the Dean "did not want Penn to be a trade school." Bummer! Even its theater department (as I found out later when I set up an independent study to do the show) emphasized theory and academia over actually doing anything. So we sat at a table in Houston Hall, and waited for whoever showed up.

We started with a few women interested in building puppets, four computer scientists, an English major, and one artist. The next few meetings involved sitting at Houston Hall with trash bags of foam, glue guns, and fabric, but over the next year we took over a large chunk of UTV station with our puppets and materials. We had no scripts at first -- our model was Jim Henson's earliest show "Sam & Friends," and the earliest of those that involved only lip-synch and musical numbers. (It was frustrating to many of our members not to jump right into voices and elaborate sketches, but truthfully, we were not ready.) But the puppets evolved over time (after scrutinizing various Muppet & puppet-making books), and we got pretty good at using the limited 70s and 80s era video equipment. (The most modern thing in the station? An Amiga Video Toaster, which we mastered better than anyone else at UTV)

Towards the end of 1993 we became one of the most popular UTV shows (apparently our demographic was "stoners") and had grown to about 35 members and volunteers. We started experimenting with then state-of-the-art software for the Mac, Quicktime, hooking it up to a PowerGlove a couple years before Quicktime VR or other various image-based digital puppetry attempts came along. We even did a live performance, using puppets that played foam drum MIDI-triggers we rigged up.

Then, inspired by another student* at Northwestern who had won a Student Emmy for her puppetry TV show "Freeform" we submitted an edit of our show to the same competition. We won a Regional Student Emmy . Not bad, considering our competition was from Film Schools, and had budgets of $10,000 and one even starred Mel Gibson. Ours? $300 maybe) It was incredibly surreal to attend the Award ceremony in Beverly Hills, sit at a table with other award-winning students and get a photo taken with Brent Spiner (who says "lifeforms" quite a bit on Star Trek: Next Generation episodes).

Needless to say, it was a wonderful time in my life. It tickles me now that some very talented people passed through our group who later went on to be big shots working at Electronic Arts, ILM, Weta, and technical artists featured in WIRED magazine. One guy who never had time to work on the show (despite my nagging) who designed a recruiting poster for me went on to co-found Gnomon School of Visual FX.

Here we are 15 years later... Very soon you will get to see some video clips. About time, huh?

And now you know why the domain for this site is called "Lifeformz."

* Who was that student, you ask? Stephanie D'Abruzzo, who went on to work for Sesame Street and later became the co-star of the original (off and on Boadway) Avenue Q!

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posted by Brian at 12:38 AM


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