A blog about the cross-pollination of ideas, creative expression, communication, and the laws & technologies supporting (or hindering) the above.
(Oh, and a bit about me too.)
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Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Discovering Peter Serafinowicz
Peter Serfinowicz is a British voice actor, comedian and actor whom I've been exposed over the last decade, but never put a face to. Tricia and I were watching Couples Retreat and the paradise island host Sctanley caught our attention because of his relaxing, authoritative, and strangely familiar voice.
Today I found a Boing Boing interview with him and started connecting the dots.
Turns out he was in Star Wars: Episode I (Darth Maul's voice), Sean of the Dead (roommate of Simon Pegg), Look Around You (narrator), and Black Books (which featured Simon Pegg and Dylan Moran, another favorite comedian).
I can see why he was chosen to play Paul McCartney in the upcoming Zemeckis motion capture freakfest remake of Yellow Submarine:
Man, we are almost at Beatles-level in the world of mashup artists. DJ Earworm continues to weave top 40 hits together. Now, Israeli artist Kutiman has taken unrelated bits of amateur music performance clips on Youtube, blending them together magically to make new creations, like this one:
My advice to the RIAA and media conglomerate executives? It's time to learn to love the world without excessive copyright, because this IS the future, like it or not. No amount of litigation, government crack-downs, or lobbying will end these "violations." Not even a doomsday lock-down on electronic communications itself, China-style. Time to evolve new business models, not cryogenically preserve archaic ones.
I was a young boy near Boston during the early 70s. My portal to imagination was all the crazy children's TV programming on TV at the time. You're probably familiar with famous shows like Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Schoolhouse Rock, and Mr. Rogers. But there were also now largely forgotten, local programs produced, and some have stuck with me. I can't remember the episodes really, just the theme music and a bit of visual imagery.
Take for example, Jabberwocky, a show with a Gilliamesque animated opening sequence and a tune that is difficult to remove from your head once you hear it: I've been looking for any sign of this show for years. (The Museum of Radio in NY did not have it.) Never expected to actually see it again. Thank you, youTube and Internet 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:
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.)
*sigh* Ok, I had promised you some LifeFormz footage months ago (last year in fact), but I became frustrated with the results of digitizing the 15 year-old VHS tape I had -- bad sound, all washed out or too dark, and generally crappy. But just this past week I discovered I had another, much better tape. Yay!
So here's one of everybody's favorite sketches, Mr. Stick. Brian Flumen came up with the idea of a silent film actor who happened to be a stick. Somehow we evolved it into having a historical film host guy showing off a few of Mr. Stick's films, Mr. Stick Goes to Town, and the sequel, Mr. Stick Comes Back from Town, plus Mr. Stick Walks His Dog.
Brian performed the voice of the host here while I simultaneously listened and lip-synched along in front of a green screen Chroma-keyed (using an old JVC analog video switcher) with footage taken from U.Penn's Fine Arts Library. Besides wanting Brian to perform, the reason we did it this way was that Penn's UTV Station did not have good microphones in the studio at the time, only in the control room. That's why sadly, most of our sketches did not involve multiple characters speaking. Separately, Brian also performed Mr. Stick himself in front of a green screen with a Chroma-keyed image taken from a book of old streets we found somewhere.
Oh! The piano music... Well, in the grungy basement of the studio, back in a far storage closet, Steve and I found a piano, and one day, a young woman was practicing on it. We asked her if she would play something ragtimey, so she played The Entertainer. Perfect! Steve ended up speeding it up old-school style, by dubbing it off of one S-VHS player to another that was recording at a slower speed. Man, we would have LOVED having Logic or ProTools back then.
The Amiga Video Toaster provided the film-look and black-and-white FX.
One technical challenge we faced was that we could not do compositing after the fact like you can today. So anything being Chroma-keyed had to be ready, up and running in either the JVC switcher or the Amiga Video Toaster, or in some cases both! That also meant we needed enough people on hand to operate everything, essentially live. Although editing-wise, we often shot in a film style. This drove UTV nuts because we used WAY more S-VHS tape than everyone else and we produced episodes much much slower than they would have liked. (Not to mention the fact that our puppets and building materials were slowly taking up a huge section of UTV's office!) Cié la vie. We had a hit show and it won a Student Emmy, so they stopped complaining eventually.
Up next, "In Search of the Unknown Unexplained Mysterious Things We Do Not Know Anything About".
Once again, it often takes two exposures to some new things before it sinks into my brain to the point where I notice. This was the case for Jonathan Coulton, whom I had seen perform along side John Hodgman without knowing who he was, then later finding out that HE was the one doing the great folk-songy version of "Baby Got Back" and a bunch of other great songs. Today's rediscovery is The Go! Team.
Sometimes last year I bought Lumines II for my PSP, the sequel to the horrifically addicting block game that features bizarre music (mostly Japanese electronica) and swirly visuals. This new version features actual music videos (!) of a few familiar artists (Beck, Gwen Stefani). I had started on the Basic mode, so none of these appeared. Hadn't played my PSP in a while, so yesterday I put in Lumines II and tried the Intermediate & Advanced modes to discover whatever tunes might be hidden in the game. Sure enough, there's one really, really strange video that sounds a bit like a high school marching band mixed with a previously unknown happy-sounding Janet Jackson or Nina Cherry rap song playing on a cassette player in the basement mixed with a harmonica riff, and a drummer playing an early 70s-style backbeat. Meanwhile, the visuals have a Super-8 film look, cut into a bizarro early 70s Sesame Street-like New York montage (with a few shots of Hollywood?) with no polish whatsoever. Unfortunately, one can't really focus on the visuals because the game itself is underway and blocks cover them up. Doh! How to figure out who made this craziness?
Luckily, the game tells you the name of the song ("Bottle Rocket") as you complete a level, but who was this artist? Was it a guy with lots of samples? Maybe two? A real marching band went home and recorded itself on Garage Band and went nuts, mashing it with 80s rap and adding tons of reverb?
In the back of my mind, I thought "Could this be The Go! Team?" Being an Angel member of the fantastic public radio station KCRW, I get new CDs sent to me every six weeks or so. In this manner I've discovered KT Tunstall, Zero 7, Imogen Heap, LCD Soundsystem, Band of Bees, and so many other great artists that in general, don't get played on mainstream, tightly-controlled corporate radio. Back in the Fall, they sent me an album called "Proof of Youth" by The Go! Team, which sounded like a high school cheerleading section paired with an acoustic drumset. It was a cool concept, but to my ears a little too muddled. I couldn't really make out the lyrics, and some parts were mixed too loudly for my taste. But maybe the creator(s) of this CD were responsible for this bizarre game video.
A quick search on YouTube for "Bottle Rocket" revealed this (albeit in poor quality):
A-ha! Caught red-handed. And this other video reveals that no, this is not the result of only a guy with some brass and rap samples (or a cheerleading squad / marching band for that matter):
Nope. This is a band from the UK, apparently quite multicultural and jubilant:
And how you can you not like a band with TWO drummers and an invisible horn section?
A few years ago I had the pleasure of sitting next to him at a fund-raising dinner for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit group devoted to issues such as free speech, consumer rights, and excessive copyright law. Some books of his worth reading are "Free Culture", "The Future of Ideas," and "Code & Other Laws of Cyberspace."
During the mid-1990s when there were still quality Saturday Morning Cartoons on the major networks, ABC had an excellent stop-motion animated show called "Bump In the Night" involving a monster under the bed (Mr. Bumpy), his neurotic side-kick toilet-bowl cleaner monster Squishington, their pal Molly Coddle, and various other toys and creatures living within the household of a boy and his sister.
Great talent worked on this show, including its creators Ken Pontac & David Bleiman. Many animators and fabricators had come off of Nightmare Before Christmas and some moved on to Pixar (which released its groundbreaking Toy Story a year later). Most of original songs during the Karaoke Café segments (shown separately) were written by none other than Jeff Moss, legendary Sesame Street composer of "Rubber Duckie," "One of these things is not like the other," and "I Love Trash." The animation was all done in the States. Voices were provided by Jim Cummings, Rob Paulsen (Animaniacs, Pinky & The Brain), and Gail Matthius.
In 2003 I had the pleasure of having a drink with Ken Pontac in Sausalito. He had been trying to teach an extension class called "Creating an Animated Series" about developing and pitching. Naturally I jumped at the chance, but only I and one of my friends signed up -- twice! Both times it was canceled due to lack of enrollment. Damn! Had it been in L.A. would it have worked? I don't know. But I knew who he was from Bump In the Night and was very happy to hang out with him for an afternoon. Recently he's been working on "Happy Tree Friends" cartoon series.
I managed to tape every episode (each contained 2 segments and a "Karaoke Café" song) aired onto high quality VHS tape back in 1994, but unfortunately I overwrote one by mistake, "Adventures in Microbia" & "Not a Peep." Ugh. So during my archiving project I intend to make the best of these available online, as I've only seen small, badly-recorded clips on YouTube so far. Unfortunately, the YouTube compression really mangles the opening sequence (full of camera moves and pans), but the episode itself looks okay. Ken mentioned back then he would like to get everything out on DVD, but I'm sure it'll take a while... It took 13 years to get another great animated series of that time, The Tick, onto DVD.
UPDATE: I found a better way to compress the videos such that youtube will accept them and they look better. Basically, I'm using H.264 with a bitrate of 1000.
I've known this song since I was maybe 5 or 6 when I got the Sesame Street LP "Monsters!" This album has been reissued by Sony on CD in 1996 but WITHOUT this song. The R & B group EnVogue did a cover of this song but with lyrics changed.
If I make friends with a friendly monster I'd let him bounce me on his knee I'd let him do whatever he wants to 'specially if he's bigger than me.
If I make friends with a friendly monster, I'd be the best that a friend could be. I'd let him do whatever he wants to And he'd always belong to me.
It was taken off rotation on Sesame Street in 1984 after a mom complained. Other classic SS sketches have been removed too due to a complaint, like the Don Music sketches where he bangs his head against his piano when frustrated.
(Interestingly, the person who uploaded this onto Youtube had to combine a Dutch-dubbed version with the original album version. At home I found that I have a Spanish-dubbed version and was considering doing the same thing.)
In 1994 I bought a Panasonic 4-Head VCR. In 1997 I bought a Hi-8 Camcorder. Now it's 2007 and I have amassed a relatively small but still space-taking collection of VHS & Hi-8 tapes, mostly recorded off of TV (when cable was still $12-40, had few commercials, and a diverse set of channels), some recorded events like my brother Colin's wedding, San Francisco Bay Area Puppetry Guild shindigs, and other random stuff.
Sadly, that very well-made VCR would cost a lot to repair (Note to self: Never pack a VCR in styrofoam peanuts!) though it is so much better built and (when it worked) records better than the crappy plastic JVC behemoth I had to buy in a pinch (2003). And in any case I don't watch Cable or Satellite TV anymore (a growing trend in Hollywood. Ironic, huh?) so having an analog playback device around constantly is no longer necessary. Soon the U.S. government will be forcing everyone to upgrade to digital TVs (2009) and shutting down analog TV signals altogether in 2012, so my eventual goal is to move entirely to computer-based playback.
Anyway, this desire to upgrade my media situation coincides with my recent post about wanting to put clips from "Lifeformz" online, the only copy I have of which is on VHS. I bought a Canopus ADVC-110 for this purpose, a cute little box that digitizes analog to DV quite nicely. Granted, DV is not the best format because it can cramp colorspaces but for my budget and purposes it should be fine.
Discovered that even DV footage takes up a TON of disk space! My poor Mac was running dry after just 2 tapes. So I bought a Lacie 1 TB drive with USB 2.0, Firewire 400 & 800 ports. There we go. 60 hrs!
Today I just took a look at the entirely open-source Neuros OSD multimedia device, which seems to have evolved a bit since I last checked. Might have bought that instead had i known I could watch Youtube with it and that it doesn't need a computer. Ah well.
Incidentally, you can actually recycle VHS tapes and other media through a company called Green Disk.
I love this sketch from the early 70s. Simple "limbo" set. The humor is in the wacky lyrics, timing, choreography, dynamics of the music, and the contrasts and reactions between the characters. Lovely little rhythm guitar going on in the background (making the tempo feel faster than it really is). Great use of the screen space -- Jim Henson came up with the idea of using wide-angle lenses in video puppetry to give great depth of field, so the main singer puppet isn't moving back all that far, but it looks like he is.
Pen Spinning (or Pen Twirling as we called it) was something many of the guys in debate team did while I was in High School in Texas. Or more accurately, we stuck to what seems to be now called the Thumbaround. (We had no such nomenclature for our useless habit.) Eventually, I would discover people could do all sorts of pen tricks, particularly my Asian friends.
It took lots of practice during Physics, Chemistry, and Debate classes, as well as the noise of countless pencils flinging across the room, hitting the floor, but I finally managed to do Thumbarounds. My colleagues and I on the Debate team would travel to other schools for competitions, and in between sets we'd watch people doing Thumbarounds. Me and one guy hypothesized that it might be possible, but highly unlikely, that one could do it in reverse. But we decided it was probably impossible to to go back and forth quickly.
Until one night. I was sitting with a table of debaters from another school. Suddenly, there it was! Forward, backward, forward, backward, around and around until he lost control and dropped it. A-ha! It was possible.
So back I went. I practiced and practiced until finally... I got it. Now, decades later, people where I work are impressed. Some of them can do the fancy Korean-style finger flips, but nobody can do the elusive Thumbaround Harmonic.
This is not to be confused with the Thumbaround Reverse (which I cannot do, though it's probably easier). That's where you start at standard position, then immediately spin the pen backwards. The Harmonic, done properly is NOT Thumbarounds followed by Reverses over and over -- that's too controlled, with catches in between. No, as described in this video, the fingering is very subtle squeezing such that the pen is kept in constant non-stop motion, no catches.
YouTube is a veritable training ground for Pen Spinning, so get out there* and study Pennastics.
* Has anyone noticed I keep ending blog posts with that phrase? Your homework is to count how many times and leave a comment. Seriously, I do not want to become a formulaic writer, like Cary did on the show Sex and the City.
There has been some amazing old footage of Jim Henson and the Muppets (pre-Sesame Street, pre-Muppet Show) showing up on YouTube lately. This example demonstrates the back-breaking work it took to produce a Muppet commercial for Wilson's Meats.
Sesame Street animation: 3 striped Balls & a Polka Dotted Ball
I'm very glad someone found this little stop-motion animated clip from Sesame Street in the 1970s. I've had its synthesizer music in my head since I was a child, and it's greatly influenced my sense of melody and arrangement.
If anyone knows who created this piece, please let me know!
Brother Henry found this video of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, the famous comedy duo of the 1950s. Here they are as dentist and patient, brilliantly performed through body language, pacing, writing, and voice. Each went on to be film directors; Nichols directed the classic The Graduate and more recently The Closer. May directed the movie synonymous with box office failures, Ishtar.
While I wouldn't go so far as wanting to "drink Jon Stewart's bathwater" as This American Life writer David Rankoff once commented, oh how I do love his show. It would be the only reason (other than maybe The Food Network) for me to pay for Cable (which I have not done for 4 years now). This clip discusses the legal battle between Viacom and Google's Youtube.
Jonathan Coulton created this folk-songy cover of Sir Mix-a-lot's "Baby Got Back" song. Now, someone has mashed-up the two back together as a video. Brilliant! Surreal! Makes you realize just how silly most popular music is.
UPDATE: Hmm, the Copyright Police struck and this is no longer available on YouTube.
BUTT, I just realized that I've seen Jon Coulton live without realizing it. He was playing guitar at a John Hodgman (PC guy in those Apple commercials) book-signing in Hollywood last year. And, he's featured in a recent The Show with ZeFrank episode.
Beautiful silhouette animation. The technique certainly looks similar to Lotte Reiniger's cut-out animation work back in the 1920s, but a Wikipedia entry suggests this was done with computer. (I'm suspicious of that claim, given the time it was made). Anyways, YouTube does not do it justice -- the twilight effect is quite lovely particularly when projected in a theatre.
The director, Michel Ocelot, is the President of ASIFA-International, and also the director of a full-length animated feature called Azur and Asmar which just got bought by the Weinstein Company.
I first saw this short at a Spike & Mike Animation Festival years ago, but had not found it on any DVD compilation until now. You can find it (with 5 other shorts in this style) at Hong Kong Flix for about $12! Unfortunately, the extras are in French with only Korean subtitles.
Right about when I started working for Sony, I found an intriguing website called screenblast.com. Sony had just purchased a music and video software tool company called Sonic Foundry, creators of a program dear to my heart, ACID. I remember when an office building (called "Smith" for some reason) next to us over at Sony Pictures Imageworks was being cleared out (around 2004) to make room for more of us, but it had formerly housed folks at Sony Pictures Digital including screenblast.com. Indeed, all that's left is a Screenblast poster hanging inconspicuously as one enters the building past the security guard.
The vision (back when Sony had such a thing) was just slightly ahead of its time: sell near-professional level tools at a cheap price for making videos and then encourage creators to upload them for free to a website for distribution. Sounds like a great idea, no?
Unfortunately, it didn't take off. The software business aspect already had stiff competition. Apple acquired Final Cut Pro and Logic, and with its great brand was able to make these de-facto standards in content creation tools. (They in turn helped sell Macintosh computers because they were exclusively available on them, not Windows PCs). In contrast, ACID and Vegas, while great, are still not nearly as popular.
I never used the Screenblast site itself, but I don't recall it having a particularly easy to use interface. If anyone out there tried it, I'd love to know how it compares to YouTube. (Their interface beat out even Google's own service, enough to where Google decided just to purchase the whole company.)
Meanwhile, right around that time was Sony's mind transplant. Sony acquired BMG Music, and found itself confused -- are we a hardware/software company enabling people to become creators in their own right? Or are we concerned about piracy and locking down our Intellectual Property? Much of the original brilliance at the top left in a huff as Sir Howard Stringer (the hired Axe-man) took over. Screenblast was one of the casualties, perceived as a waste of money, presumably.
But whether or not screenblast's web interface was good, there was no "killer app." No content went viral from it, as did the Saturday Night Live sketch "Lazy Sunday" in 2005 which made YouTube a household word. Somehow I doubt it offered the ability to show videos in blogs, like YouTube.
Poor Sony. It's a bit late in the game, but they bought up Grouper last year. Ever heard of them? Hmm, not so much.
Man, I bet this street marionettist (from Barcelona, apparently) has never had an audience this big before. And right there on the front page, a link to Yahoo! Directory: Puppetry.
The comments on the video are all enthusiastic. So many people have never seen a decent live puppet show before. Thank you, Internet!
Now if we could just get some footage of master puppeteers on the front page of Yahoo! Then we're talking. How about it, Hugo & Ines? Bob Hartmann? Phil Huber? Albrecht Roser? Let's get your work online if its not already.