After a long hiatus, Joseph Robertson’s excellent LAB magazine is back, and it features an interesting three-way interview he conducted with me and graphic designer Ian Lynam (author/editor of Parallel Strokes) over five years ago. It’s a fun meander through many of my favorite alphabet-related topics. The rest of the magazine is gorgeous and stimulating, as always. You can download the whole thing as a PDF for free, or buy a hard copy via print-on-demand. (I already have two earlier issues, and they’re handsomely bound and printed, well worth the cover price.) Or, just go straight to our interview. Enjoy!
I’ve been a fan of Ed Stastny’s work since the early days of the web, when SITO.org clued me in to the awesome possibilities of massively collaborative, software-guided web art projects. Gridcosm was surprising, disturbing, inspiring, and highly addictive. It was also a big influence on me personally: without that shining example of the weird things a group of total strangers can do together, I may never have come up with the idea to put Graffiti Archaeology on the web.
Now Ed has a wonderful new project in the works, and he needs your help to make it happen. Yono mashes up 8-bit pixel art, the exquisite corpse surrealist parlor game and Mad Magazine’s fold-ins. It picks up where Gridcosm left off, but it takes full advantage of the magical powers of today’s Internet: it will come with its own pixel art painting tool, and will be designed to work on pretty much any device, so the barriers to participation will be far lower, meaning everyone can play.
He’s offering some very cool thank-you gifts on his Kickstarter, and there are only 9 days left! So if this is something you’d like to support, jump in and help, will you?
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.
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!
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.
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.
Digging through some old archives, I found this picture, which sums up one of the frustrating aspects of colored-letter synaesthesia. There are so many colored letters in the world, but to any synesthete, most of them will be wrong. I actually sorted through this entire bin of foam letters to pull out the ones that are colored correctly according to my synesthetic map. It’s the tiny pile on the right. Yes, that’s all of them.
Asemic is a magazine of asemic writing, or writing without semantic content. It’s full of fun peripheral glyphery, little black-and-white shadows of nonsense coming out of the fog. The individual pieces are hit or miss, but the variety is wonderful.
I never knew there was a word for it, but asemic writing is something I’ve loved for years. The fact is, I love the form of language more than its content. It’s why I like foreign accents, and listening to languages I don’t understand. It’s why I spent so much time in college listening to Cocteau Twins. It’s one of the main reasons I love graffiti. My first Burning Man project was an exercise in asemic writing and speech.
I started speaking in tongues on the subway in New York in high school. Acting like a crazy person is an effective strategy for dealing with certain tricky situations. And it was fun to watch people try to guess where I was from. But over time, it became something I would do for my own enjoyment, even when nobody else was around. It was just a joy to be able to speak without having to mean anything. All the beauty of form without the burden of content. It was comforting, like a dog’s chin resting warmly on your knee, not saying anything in particular, just existing.
an almost completely asemic piece by San Francisco writer APEX.
I’ve also noticed a trend towards asemic writing among some of my favorite graffiti writers. While most start their artistic lives with the written word, there’s always an abstract component, and there comes a point in certain writers’ development where the abstraction takes over completely. Maybe they feel the same attraction to meaninglessness that I do.
So, about a year ago, a few things happened. We bought a house. We moved to the suburbs. I started working on a new movie. Our kid turned two. And this blog ceased to exist. I’ll spare you the details, mainly because I don’t understand them, but it had something to do with a bad database, or gnomes, or sunspots. Maybe all of the above.
They say that being a parent really changes your priorities. What that means in practice is, you have an incredible excuse to be lazy about anything not directly related to your kids. Awesome! So the blog remained dead.
Then, last week, things got a little worse: the machine with the dead database crashed altogether, taking all of my web sites with it. Basically, the Internet forgot I existed. This was a little too much to take. So, I dug up my poorly maintained backups, found a new web host, and set to work making things right.
A lot of interesting things have happened in the past year, things I would have blogged about if I could have. So you might start seeing backdated posts popping up here and there. Be nice and pretend I really posted them on the “published” date, would you?
Andy James works with Chautauqua students, including Shayla Malm, left, during a recent music class. Photo by Elizabeth Shepherd
My friend Andy James teaches elementary school on Vashon Island, a rural community a short ferry ride from Seattle. He’s got a real passion for teaching, and my conversations with him about it always leave me inspired. His latest project is no exception: faced with a new role as music teacher, he decided the thing to do would be to get the kids to compose, perform and record an entire album. And they did it. Not just any album, mind you: a concept album made entirely of original songs written by the kids, based on a South American folk story called “The Whistling Monster”. Now they’re selling the CD to raise funds for the school (and in the process help save Andy’s job, which like many teachers’ is on the chopping block). I haven’t heard the music yet, but if I know Andy it’ll be worth a listen!
The whole operation is pretty low-tech, so as of now you can’t buy the CD online.Update: Chautauqua Elementary School has made the CD available online! You can order it here in MP3 form or as a physical disk. Take a listen, and leave a comment below if you’ve got anything to say!
Just got back from the wrap party for “How to Train Your Dragon” in Hollywood. At one point, a bunch of us animators were hanging out on the dance floor, and there was this line of people all taking photos of us at once. These two photos, by Jen Stern and Lilian Ku, must have been shot within a fraction of a second of each other. So I stitched them together into an animated gif. Check us out in 3D!
Cassidy Curtis's splendid display of colorful things.