I like to play word games. Scrabble and Boggle are two of my childhood favorites, and nowadays I play Zynga’s “With Friends” versions of both games on my phone. (If you want to play me, look for “cassidyjcurtis” or “otherthings”!)

Both games are about scrambling letters up into words, and both make heavy use of the anagram-loving part of me. But I’ve noticed that the two games produce very different mental states. The reason has to do with how they make use of time.

There’s no Y in “otolith”. And besides, there’s no place to play it.

In Scrabble, there’s no time limit. You’re free to take as long as you want to play a word, but you can’t take it back once you’ve played it. The effect that has, on me anyway, is to make me an optimizer. I try to find the best possible word for the given moment, taking everything into account: the score, the state of the board, the consonant-to-vowel balance of my rack, how many letters are left, and so on. It’s a complex mix of concerns, and sometimes I just can’t see any option that’s clearly the best. But because I know my vocabulary is limited, I always suspect that a better word is out there that I’m just not seeing. When this happens, I get stuck, unable to play, effectively paralyzed. So Scrabble as a game makes me happy when I’m doing well, and miserable when I’m not. It’s not so much about the score of the game, as whether I’m measuring up to some abstract ideal of the perfect player. What a headache!

Is “squarey” a word? I dunno, let’s try it and find out!

In Boggle, there’s a hard time limit, and the goal is to find as many words as you can in that time. Some words are worth more than others, of course, but it’s usually better to find lots of small words than a handful of huge ones. So when the clock starts ticking, I just start finding words as fast as I can, with no time wasted on judging good from better. And what I find tends to happen is that small words lead to bigger words, in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way that’s energetic but not stressful, and just a lot of fun. I only pop up to look at the big picture when the vein I’m mining runs dry. And before I know it, time is up, and I’ve finished my turn exhilarated by the effort. Sometimes I win, and sometimes I lose, but I always enjoy the game. And enjoying the game, feeling that state of flow and fun, directly impacts my ability to play it well.

What this has to do with animation, or any complex creative work, should be pretty clear. You can approach a new shot in either way: give yourself all the time in the world to find the best possible idea, or give yourself a hard time limit (to accomplish some part of the job) and just start exploring, and then see what you’ve got when your time runs out.

I’ve experimented with the size of the task and the length of the time limit. And what I’ve noticed surprised me: the shorter the time limit, the more fun I have. And more fun leads to better quality work. I do still feel the urge to optimize sometimes. But on my best days, I’m too busy playing to notice.

“Ivan is the colour of the letter G but four people saw it as Adam.”

I’m a big fan of color coding. I use it to help me wrap my head around complex tasks, like computer animation. I’m also a pretty harsh judge of color coding schemes, especially for transit systems. Growing up in New York spoiled me for good in that regard: the subway there has its flaws, but color is not one of them. Having synaesthesia also makes me tend to organize names by color in my head (but usually only in my head, since nobody else shares my personal alphabet of colors.)

One of the problems with any color coding scheme is that the more things you need to code, the harder it gets to choose distinct colors. But where exactly is the limit? That’s the subject of this interesting paper, A Colour Alphabet and the Limits of Colour Coding (PDF) by Paul Green-Armytage. The lengths these folks went to to understand the problem are impressive. The paper also has great sentences like “Ivan is the colour of the letter G but four people saw it as Adam.” (Thanks to Mike K. for the link!)

My friends Dan Wexler and Gilles Dezeustre have just released a new app for your iPhone/iPad. It’s called Glaze. It’s a painterly rendering filter for your photos, and it’s really cool. It’s based on the traditional brushstroke-based model pioneered by folks like Paul Haeberli, Pete Litwinowicz and Aaron Hertzmann, but it adds some neat new twists: face detection to guarantee that eyes and other important features come out with the right amount of detail; a genetic algorithm for mutating and doing artificial selection on painting styles; and a really slick iOS interface that makes all of the above completely effortless and transparent. It also runs blazingly fast, considering all the work that must be going on under the hood. They’ll be giving a talk about the details at SIGGRAPH next week. (Here’s an abstract of their talk… wish I could go!)

What I find the app does best, so far, is to turn my garbage photos into beautiful art. This, for example, is a picture my thumb took by accident as I was putting away my phone. The original photo was blurry, out of focus, and weirdly composed. But the painting’s handmade feeling makes your eye linger on the details, and the results are just lovely. (Everyone’s Instagram is about to get a lot prettier!)

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Our friends in São Paulo gave our daughter these cute wooden folding toys. They’ve got elastic running through the middle, so you can twist the pieces around and make different shapes. After playing with them for a while, I noticed that they have an interesting mathematical property: when folded into any flat shape, any two triangles that meet are always the same color, forming a grid of diamonds (or squares, depending on your point of view.) I can’t help wondering why this is. It has something to do with the repeating pattern of four colors, obviously, but what?

At the Jardim Botanico by otherthings

We were taking a stroll through Rio de Janeiro’s gorgeous botanical gardens, when we ran into two big groups of kids on field trips from schools in the area. My lovely wife (and now, apparently, publicist) struck up a conversation with some of the boys, and let slip what I do for a living, and that I knew how to draw Alex the Lion. Next thing I knew, everyone had their cell phones out to take pictures, and I spent about a half hour talking with the kids, and drawing Alex, Marty, Skipper and other characters. They all were apparently big fans of the Madagascar series. Everyone was super excited. I even got one of the boys to draw something in my sketchbook. He drew a lovely princess.

When you’re in the movie business it’s so easy to get swept up in crtitical reviews and statistics, and obsess over the opportunities you’ve missed where you could have made this scene or that one work just a little better. It can make you pretty grumpy. So it’s pretty nice to get a reality check once in a while, and realize that there are kids, all over the world, who simply love what we do.

Any professional animator can tell you that animating well is only half of the job. The other half is being able to work well with others: directors, supervisors, your fellow animators, other departments that depend on you, etc.

One of the biggest struggles I see animators face is how to handle changes. Because animation is so time-consuming, it’s easy to think of your work like it’s a kind of architecture: first you must lay down a strong foundation, and then you can start building walls, etc., and finally put on that sweet paint job that makes it look awesome.

Sisyphus, by Marcell Jankovics. Not just a metaphor for your worst day at work, it's also a great short film!

This view is certainly true at a technical level: once the idea of the shot is clear in your mind, the process of blocking, breaking down, and polishing does have a kind of one-directional feel to it. It can be hard to go back and adjust your blocking after you’re well along in the polishing process. So, if for any reason you get notes from your director that change your blocking significantly, it can feel pretty bad.

But if you think this technical process is what your work is about, you’re completely missing the big picture.

Your real job as an animator is to find and execute the best possible performance. The performance is not made of keyframes and curves, any more than it’s made of bricks and concrete. It’s made of ideas. That is what you’re here to find. The part of animation that’s like building a house? That’s just the execution of the ideas. If you’re executing the wrong ideas, it’s like building your house in the middle of the road. No matter how good it looks, it’s not going to be a nice place to live.

Does this look like "work" to you?

Flickr photo courtesy of AlphaTangoBravo (Adam Baker)

So here’s a trick to help you deal with changes: learn to love destroying your own work. Genuinely enjoy it. Relish it. Specifically: you have to enjoy the process of destroying as much as you enjoy creating. Make it fun. Make it something you’ll look forward to, if you’re given the chance to do it.

Remember when you were a little kid? Did you ever make a huge tower of blocks, just so you could knock it down and make a huge crash? Remember how you wanted to do it over and over again? Destruction can be delicious fun.

So before you bring your shot in for review, take a moment to contemplate its utter demolition. Step back and take a hard look at your shot, and ask yourself: if I had to smash this to bits, how would I do it? Which parts would I smash at first? If I had to start again, what would I do differently? Savor that idea for a moment. And bring it with you to your review.

This is your wrecking ball. If the director asks you to make a major change, it just means you’ve got permission to use it. And when you do, you can do it with gusto.

Eclipse arabesqueSolar eclipse 2012Homemade eclipse gogglesSolar eclipse 2012Solar eclipse 2012Solar eclipse 2012
Stella and Dado making eclipse shadowsSolar eclipse 2012Solar eclipse 2012Solar eclipse 2012Solar eclipse 2012Solar eclipse 2012
Solar eclipse 2012Solar eclipse 2012Ready for the solar eclipse

Solar Eclipse May 2012, a set on Flickr.

What a great eclipse! We made makeshift safety goggles out of the Mylar I’d bought, some cardboard, and whatever was kicking around the house. The goggles worked like a charm. For shadow projections, a simple kitchen colander turned out to be the perfect device.

Reminder for next eclipse: must shoot some timelapse of those crazy shadows.

Ready for the solar eclipse by otherthings

Getting ready for the solar eclipse… I bought some 0.2mm silver mylar, which is practically opaque, but lets a tiny bit of sunlight through (like, about 1/160,000th by my seat-of-the-pants estimate). One layer of it makes the sun seem about as bright as the moon. Two layers, and you can’t even see the sun at all.

THIS MAY NOT ACTUALLY BE SAFE AT ALL. I don’t honestly know, because I have no way of knowing how much UV light gets through this stuff. But I did use mylar to look at the last solar eclipse several years ago, and I haven’t gone blind yet, so there’s anecdotal evidence at least.

Here’s a good article explaining when and where you can see the eclipse. If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, it should start on Sunday afternoon (May 20th) around 5:30pm, and reach maximum occlusion (about 90%) by 6:30pm.

4D Glasses T-shirt

Drew’s Fourth Dimension app has such a brilliant logo, I just had to have it on a T-shirt. Now you can have one too! We’re picky about our T-shirts, so we made this one exactly what we’d want to wear ourselves. It’s printed in a four-color process with a soft white ink underlayer, which gives a good balance of image quality and detail, while still looking and feeling good on a black shirt. There’s no text or other clutter, just the 4D glasses image, which speaks for itself. Enjoy!