The Limits of Color Coding

“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!)

Painterly rendering in your pocket.

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!)

Interesting folding toys

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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?

Madagascar fans at the Jardim Botanico

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.

Animating with a wrecking ball

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.

Ready for the solar eclipse

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

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!

Prime factorization sweater

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Certified math nut Sondra Eklund has made an awesome sweater. Before you read her explanation, take a look at it and see if you can figure out how it works.

Of course, the synesthete in me says her color choices are all wrong. But she’s coloring a different animal here (primes, not numerals) so there’s no real way to be “right”. Regardless, I want this as a T-shirt!

(via MetaFilter)

Animation Hypnosis

Sometimes, when you’ve worked on one shot for too long, you can go a bit blind. It’s a very specific kind of blindness, one that prevents you from seeing mistakes you’ve made and opportunities you may have missed. It seems to happen to every animator at some point, and it is deadly to the creative process.

"Day Nine", photo by Jerry Cooke

There are tricks you can use to get around it. You can hold a mirror up to the screen to see the shot from a fresh point of view. You can step away for a few minutes, or a few days, or longer. (One time I was able to step away from a shot for a full year: boy did I see it with fresh eyes at that point!) And of course you can show other people. But once the effect has set in, your own perceptive powers are severely diminished.

I have a hunch that the main cause of this is the simple act of watching your shot over and over again. In psychology there’s a concept called habituation: any stimulus repeated long enough reduces your sensitivity to that stimulus. It’s the reason why you notice the sound of the dishwasher when you first walk into the kitchen, but eventually it fades into the background.

In the early days of animation, watching a shot in progress play back at full speed was a luxury animators didn’t have. To do that required shooting key drawings onto film, developing the film, threading it into a projector, and so on: an expensive and time consuming process. And yet, great animation still got made: animators planned very carefully and learned to do most of the work in their heads. In the early days of computer animation, it was much the same, though for different reasons: we’d have to wait for an overnight render to see our work at speed.

"Hypnotizing", photo by Patrick Breen.

Nowadays, animators have digital tools that allow for instant, real-time feedback, which for the most part is a tremendous aid. But it also makes it very easy to hypnotize yourself with all those looping stimuli.

If you want to stay sharp, it’s critical that you delay the onset of animation hypnosis as long as you possibly can. So what I try to do is avoid watching my shot while I’m working on it. I’ll watch it once, twice, maybe three times, and then jot down my thoughts about what needs doing. Then I go to work, keeping narrowly focused on each detail as I go. If I have to play some part of the shot at speed to judge some nuance of weight or gesture, I’ll hide everything but the body part I’m working on, so as not to get distracted. Once I’ve addressed all of my notes, only then will I watch the shot as a whole again. It takes a kind of discipline that I can’t always muster. But when I succeed, it feels great. And as a side benefit, I find I get more real work done in less time: after all, time spent looking at your shot is not time spent working on it.

"Sissi ipnotizzata", photo by screanzatopo.

I’d love to have some way of counting how many times I’ve looped my shot, to see if there’s a certain magic number where hypnosis sets in. What would that number be? 500? 5,000? You could make a game of it, a la “Name That Tune”: challenge yourself to finish a shot with the absolute minimum of viewings. How low could you go? Ten loops? Three loops? Zero?

Cassidy Curtis's splendid display of colorful things.