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Not exactly insomnia

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Nathan Strum

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So, it's 5:00 AM, and I'm wide awake. This is a side-effect of this time of year at my job.

 

As with last year and the year before, and for that matter, the previous sixteen or so years, I've been burning the midnight oil at both ends (how's that for a mixed-metaphor?) getting our end-of-the-year showing of student films put together. The first show was on Saturday afternoon (May 1st), and from Friday through Sunday morning I was awake about 40 hours straight, minus a short cat-nap in my office on Saturday, and only went home long enough to shower (mercifully) on Saturday morning. I didn't bother tracking my hours for the week this year, but in previous years it's been about 80-100, and it sure feels like about that many again. I've been trying to catch up on my sleep, but unfortunately, my body is dictating when that's happening. Consequently, I'm awake a lot earlier right now than I'd like to be. So I'll write up a blog entry until I feel I can either get back to sleep, or just give up and start the day.

 

This year's show was "short", compared to the last few - "only" six hours. But still, that was about 135 student films*, which is impressive by any means. And as always, there was some downright entertaining stuff in there. Hopefully, I can get some of it put up online sometime. This has been a goal of mine for a couple of years, but it's just been difficult to find the time to make it happen. Due to sites like YouTube being commercial, we can't just upload them there, since we're only allowed to use the films for non-profit, promotional purposes. So we'll have to get our own QuickTime server up and running.

 

We did improve a few things from last year - we added a pair of 18" subwoofers to the sound system, which helped fill out the sound; we hired a crew to put up the huge 15' x 20' screen (which saved considerable time and stress); and we rented another 100 chairs - and filled them. I'm not sure of the numbers, but it had to be more than 300 again, which is pretty amazing since we only have about 146 students in the program. (There are a few pictures available on Facebook, but it's hard to get an accurate impression of the scale of the room, or size of the screen.)

 

At the moment, we're between our two shows. The one last weekend was "The Open Show", in which we run everything that the students turn in. Next Thursday (May 13th) will be "The Producers' Show", in which we screen the top 25 or so films (as selected by faculty) for the animation industry at a 600-seat theater in Hollywood. I'd be happy to invite you to attend - except the show sold out weeks ago. ;) This show takes a lot less time to assemble for a number of reasons. First - there are fewer films. Second - the students have already turned in their films once, so any technical issues with them will have been addressed. But for the first time, there's a new reason: Third - our faculty (Ben) who teaches the sound design class is mixing the audio for all of the films. Usually, I end up going through all the films and not-so-much mixing but "fixing" them, trying to balance out the audio from film to film, and crudely tweaking any trouble spots just to make the soundtracks listenable. For the Producers' Show, that's not such a big deal anyway. But doing this for the Open Show takes a lonnnng time. Remember, that's a six-hour show, so working on the sound alone takes about three times that long, and that's just a quick 'n' dirty pass at it. The problem is, many of our students wait until the last minute to work on their sound, and so don't give it the time it needs. Besides that, we don't have a proper listening environment for them to work in. They just use headphones for the most part. What Ben is doing for the Producers' Show films though is a proper mix, using ProTools, with the students' original audio tracks, sitting with the students in our school's mix theater, using a professional console and a properly calibrated 5.1 surround system. His estimate was that it would take about an hour per film. Impossible for the 135-film Open Show, but doable for the 25 Producers' Show films (which this year will run about an hour and fifteen minutes in total).

 

Actually, prior to 1994, we did have sound mixes for all of the upper-class student films. But that was when we were still cutting our audio on magnetic film stock, and so we had to have sound mixes done for us. But they were done as early as February (so there was ample time), and the first-year students weren't allowed to do sound, so it cut the numbers down considerably. Once we went digital in '94, the organized sound mixes went away, since we didn't need the specialized equipment anymore, and students could edit their sound whenever they wanted to, and weren't bound by a mix deadline. The problem with that was that the quality rapidly went downhill, since we lost the expertise of having sound engineers lending an ear to all of the students' soundtracks. What we're starting to do now, is reintegrate mixes back into the production path, to correct that for at least some of our students. We had a handful of students in the Open Show get their sound mixed, and we required it for all Producers' Show films. So hopefully, this is the start of improving the students' understanding, appreciation, and knowledge of sound design. After all, we're teaching filmmakers here... not just animators. I look forward to hearing the results. (Incidentally, there's an interesting list someone put together showing the impact some of our alumni have had on the feature film industry in recent years.)

 

*I should probably mention that our "films" are completely digital. We don't actually use film anymore.

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I got home from the Producers' Show about 12:30 AM or so Friday morning. Pretty typical.

 

The show went well - we had a nearly packed house of around 600. The films were very well received, although the video projector was adjusted with too high of contrast, so some of the near-white imagery was washed out. After all these years, you'd think we'd have a better handle on that by now. But nobody (yet) has come up to me to complain about it this year, so maybe it wasn't as bad as what I was seeing. The theater may be getting an HD projector by next year, which would be a good thing. We're likely taking the plunge into HD production this Fall. We figured their current projector is at least 14 years old - maybe more - and it has a bit of a flicker problem, in addition to the color being a bit off. But it's still a pretty decent projector, even for its age. It's got a very impressive scaler that makes even standard definition video look remarkably crisp.

 

The sound mixes made a huge difference. The show was clear and well-balanced all the way through. Although the house sound-guy for some reason turned the volume down partway through the show. Maybe someone complained it was a little loud (which in all fairness, I thought it was - and I was all the way in the back).

 

Everyone I talked to said it was a great show. I think keeping the run time down to an hour and 18 minutes helped. Previously, we'd been as long as two hours and 20 minutes, which is far too long to comfortably sit through a bunch of short animated films. Even good ones. This felt like a good, comfortable show.

 

I guess I've probably been with the Character Animation Program long enough now that sooner or later it had to happen... I was caricatured in the opening titles. This is a tradition of sorts going back into the 80's featuring various faculty over the years, so I guess it was my turn (along with a half-dozen of my co-workers). It was all in good fun, and I guess in some way I've been immortalized now. (Although it does make me wish I'd lost the weight I'd wanted to this year...)

 

Anyway, that's another one done and dusted. It's nice to have it over, and although it was a success by any measure, I'm still annoyed for not getting the projector dialed in better. But we did our best, made a guess at it, and will learn from it for next year. The sound was certainly a vast improvement, and the audience enjoyed the films. In the end, that's what matters, since the students worked hard for that response.

 

Hopefully this summer I'll have our QuickTime server up and running so you can actually see some of these films. But first... sleep.

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Watched the first 6 so far, good stuff!

 

I suspect it would be hard to find since I don't know what you look like.

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