Thursday, February 28, 2008

LifeFormz: Livin' In the Fridge music video

One of the best ways to learn video puppetry, in my opinion, is to lip-synch to songs. It's how Jim Henson started -- he used the local TV station's record collection of Stan Freberg comedy sketches as well as popular songs. When I started LifeFormz, I discouraged new puppeteers joining us from jumping right into character dialog work.

"Aww, come on Brian!" they'd say. "This is just for fun, who cares if my head's in the scene or my puppet's head is flapping?" Well actually, the audience does. Do it right and the audience will believe in the character and respond to it. Do it wrong and it may laugh at how bad the puppet's moving or the funny dialog, but it won't have any connection to your character.

So when we started, all we did were music videos and very few spoken bits. With songs, we could focus on these techniques first:
  1. Proper lip-synch
  2. Eye gaze
  3. Rhythmic choreography
This music video (to the song "Livin' In the Fridge" by Weird Al Yankovic) was actually one of the last clips I worked on before graduating and it was finished and shown after I left. Unfortunately, you can tell -- note the difference in lip-synch of the red monster for the song up until he gets pushed into the fridge. Head-flapping! Stiff! Heh. Oh well. I think it turned out rather well despite my absence.

I love how we somehow found a real fridge, yanked off the door and attached it to a fake fridge interior with holes in the back. Making all the food puppets was really fun. We learned a lot about coverage -- how do we fill up the time with the lead singer, cut to close-ups of activities inside the fridge, and keep things reasonably consistent. The psychedelic sequence was really fun to make although it's a bit crude. (Layers of S-VHS tape being duplicated over and over just don't hold up, apparently.)

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posted by Brian at 9:51 AM 0 comments links to this post

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 0 comments links to this post

Monday, October 25, 2004

HBO vs. Consumers

HBO has decided to take copyright law into its own hands by locking its content and allowing only one copy to be made of its programs.

Problem is, let's say you have a Tivo. That counts as one copy. Now you want to archive it. Nope. If your DVD recorder or computer complies (as it will soon be required to), you won't be able to.

Now they justify this on their website by saying "You have no need to time shift (i.e. use Tivo) because we provide our OWN tivo-like functionality with our premium (i.e. more expensive) on-demand satellite content, and therefore we comply with the law."

Oh come on, HBO. We, the consumers, can choose to buy Tivo. Why are you entitled by Law to force on us your own proprietary system of Tivo-like functionality? This is akin to Microsoft preventing people from using different browsers.

Actually, the answer is that the Law makes an exception for non-broadcast content (it lets them do whatever rights management they want). That means, Tivo-ing your cable/satellite content may be severely restricted in the near Future.

Lovely. Who wrote this part of the Law, I wonder?

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posted by Brian at 6:55 PM 0 comments links to this post