adam gravois' "golden shoes"

Posted by Rhizome | Sun May 25th 1997 1 a.m.

RHIZOME discussions of "degraded" aesthetics in the digital realm
haven't pointed to many satisfying projects. But recently, RHIZOME found
"Golden Shoes," a beautiful animation by artist Dame Darcy and
illustrator Adam Gravois, that yokes together the handmade and the
technological in an innovative way.

First, consider the animation
(http://www.adobe.com/newsfeatures/lowres/), which debuted at Siggraph
in 1996. Think of shabby prairie houses, whistling torrents of wind,
peeling wall-paper, and the imagination of a poor little girl. "Golden
Shoes" offers a rich Flaubertian materialism, evokes turn-of-the-century
rural desolation, and more specifically, suggests a dark turmoil of
little girl-ness.

Then consider the people and the thinking behind it. Please find brief
blurbs on Dame Darcy and Adam Gravois, followed by an e-terview with
Gravois in which he discusses "Golden Shoes," realism, his upcoming
project based on a Borges story, and his thoughts on lo-fi aesthetics
and high-tech tools.

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Dame Darcy (http://fargo.itp.tsoa.nyu.edu/~connor/darcy/darcy.html) is a
wonderful figure of a-history: she wears antique clothes and rose
essence, makes dolls, writes the sinister and well respected
Fantagraphics comic "Meat Cake," and plays beautiful lo-fi bluegrass
music. Sound like another eccentric downtown New Yorker? She is more
than that -- the 26 year old Dame is an historical anachronism. After
conversations with her, I am always touched by her un-affectedness, and
shocked by how intuitive and core Victorian iconography and
sensibilities are to her. For "Golden Shoes," Dame Darcy composed the
song (banjo, xylophone, zills, looptape and whistling), created the doll
Hazel, the film's main character, and did the pencil drawings that
Gravois scanned in and retouched.

Adam Gravois, a former Nickelodeon producer and animator, used Adobe
After Effects, Knoll Cybermesh, and Electric Image Animation System to
produce a piece that is totally disinterested in the imagery, look, and
feel of high technology.

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Q: Adam, what was the evolution of "Golden Shoes?"

A: The project originated as a reaction to the status quo of computer
graphics. I was tired of the endless parade of shiny, abstract crap that
defined CGI as a medium. (Forgive my sloppiness as I will use the term
CGI ("Computer Generated Imagery") variously to mean the medium, the
software, and the industry in general, depending on the context) This is
less true now than it was three years ago, but I still see a lot of
work, both commercial and independent, that has nothing more to say than
"look at what my new software can do!" I wanted to see work that didn't
use the software as it was meant to be used, that pushed it in different
directions. I especially wanted to see work that wasn't explicitly
commercial, or obsessed with commercial potential, as so much of it is.

CGI also had (and still has) this obsession with photorealism that I
find boring and at the same time suspect. Boring because it's an awfully
narrow ambition for a medium which has literally unlimited potential for
creating new kinds of images. Suspect because it's a desire that is
largely unexamined and unquestioned. "Photorealism" is as constructed a
style as "impressionism," but most people in CGI take it totally at face
value. They don't see it as a constructed point of view at all. Nor do
they seem to conceive that you might want to make non-realistic images.
And by non-realistic, I don't mean fantasy/sci-fi imagery. Don't even
get me started on the endless parade of lame sci-fi imagery that issues
from computers around the world non-stop. This onanistic obsession with
the imagery of high technology is just, well, depressing.

It is maybe a little disingenuous of me to suggest that I wanted to
reject realism out-of-hand; to tell the truth, I also have a certain
obsession with realism, but it's a different kind of obsession. When I
was thinking about this project what I wanted was to create a sort of
"realistic artifice." That is, I wanted to use the computer to create
something that was clearly "not real," whatever that means, but that
looked as though it was made by other means; in this case, stop-motion
animation.

Computer animation revelled in its high-techness. I wanted to use the
same high-tech tools to make something that looked as though it had been
expertly crafted of very low-tech tools, something that was not "slick"
at all. I realized that using hand-drawn art as the basis for the
imagery was a necessary first step.

Around this time I had been watching a lot of animation, most notably
the work of the Quay Brothers and Jan Svankmeyer. I was drawn to the
themes and images in these works: the decay of the corporeal world, the
inanimate coming to life, and most of all, the rich detail of grime and
dust, the sense of "realness" created by the imperfections.

Of course, three or so years down the road, it's clear that most people
creating CGI have tired of that perfect plasticine look. Grime,
degradation, and blurriness are everywhere you look. It's in danger of
becoming as trite as the shiny stuff! So clearly I was not alone in my
thinking. I guess it's part of the maturation process for this
particular medium.

Q: Did you see Dame Darcy's work and think that she could offer
material for a great animation?

Yeah, absolutely. I had seen Darcy's comic strips in various zines and I
really loved them. This was before I knew about her music. When I did
hear the song, well, the music just naturally works with her
illustrations and it inspired all sorts of images. The richness of that
degraded sound (recorded through a cassette deck's condeser mic, some
parts even dubbed down a generation through that tiny mic!) echoed very
strongly with the images of grime and decay I had seen in the Quay
Brothers' animation, especially Rehearsal For Extinct Anatomies. I
wanted to do CGI that was not clean or slick at all, and the song (and
Darcy's art) fit perfectly with that idea.

Later, a mutual friend introduced me to Dame Darcy. When I mentioned the
idea to her, she was very excited about creating an animation for Golden
Shoes. She had used cel animation in the past for other projects, but
didn't know anything about computer animation. I don't think she really
had any idea what I was talking about when I tried to describe the look
that I had in mind, not very different from how the finished product
turned out, but difficult to articulate without an example to point to!

Q: Tell us how long this project took, and which stages were the most
arduous.

A few months after we initially agreed to work on the project together,
we actually sat down to hash out a storyboard. Darcy is an amazing
collaborator; she has lots of great ideas and boundless energy. Once we
had worked out a rough storyboard, she created pencil drawings of the
various elements I would need, such as the shoes and gravestones. For
the shack, she drew the walls and roof laid out flat. Darcy makes dolls
out of modeling clay with human hair and little dresses; we decided to
use one of the dolls for the main character so I took photographs of the
doll to scan into the computer.

With these elements scanned into the computer, I began work on the
animatic, which is a sort of 'moving storyboard' done to establish
timing, composition and general action. This was around April or May of
1995. I figured that I could whip out the animatic quickly and spend the
bulk of the summer working on the final, fully dimensional animation. Of
course, these kind of projects always take longer than you think they
will...by the end of summer, I was only halfway through the animatic and
nowhere near beginning the 3D work. It wasn't until late 1995 that I
finished the animatic--when I showed it to Dame Darcy, she was thrilled.
She thought it was the finished piece!

Even though the animatic took forever, it's a stage that can't be
skipped. When producing computer animation, or any kind of animation,
planning ahead is absolutely critical. And I mean tight planning. Making
a change to the action once you're bogged down in the process of
creating the final animation will cause you to waste major time. Forget
your dreams of sitting down at the computer and spontaneously spinning
some magic; the time for spontaneity is when you're working out the
script and storyboard. If the timing doesn't work in the animatic, it
won't work in the finished piece.

The last stage--creating and polishing the final 3D work--was by far the
most grueling. By this time, I knew I wanted to get GS into the 96
SIGGRAPH animation festival, so I had an iron-clad deadline of early
June. Also, I was tired of working on it and just wanted it finished!
The editing and action had been worked out in the animatic, but now I
had to recreate everything in 3D and solve a lot of the difficult
technical problems I had been putting off. Sometimes I would spend whole
days just working out one move or effect.

Also, once you get to the final stages, rendering time becomes a major
issue. Setting up the animation is only half the work. Once you're done,
the computer has to 'cook' the scene: render out the final images with
shadows, textures, whatnot. This process takes hours, sometimes days. So
by the end, I was working on one machine, rendering on another, pretty
much all day long. Juggling those tasks, deciding which scenes to
render, which to work on, which to put off till tomorrow, was not easy.

Q: I know you worked on this project after hours at Nickelodeon. How did
that happen?

Umm... for the record, I did all of the work at home. On my own
computers. With my own software. (Folks working at the office after
hours on their own projects should beware, particularly if you work for
a large company. I'm not kidding! They can attempt to claim ownership
and they are unscrupulous enough to do so, particularly if your project
makes any money.)

That said, the situation at Nickelodeon worked out quite favorably for
this project, and I probably never would have been able to complete it
without that environment. I had been working at Nick for about a year
when I began production on GS. Even though it was a freelance job, it
was stable and reliably 10-to-6, so I had free run of the computers
after hours. My bosses knew about the project and were supportive,
although one of them did later caution me to downplay Nickelodeon's
contribution to the project! (see above disclaimer)

For the most part, I worked evenings, from about 6:30 to 10, and at
least one whole day out of the weekend. During the first half of the
project, I worked in a very spotty manner, sometimes taking off entire
weeks. It's really hard to maintain interest on a long-term project,
particularly when you're working alone. But as it got closer to
completion I spent at least three evenings a week and both weekend days
on the project, finally taking a week and a half off from my job to work
on it all day and all night at the end.

Q: What is your artistic background? Do you work in other media? Does
the creative process differ using technological media?

I did a lot of theatre work in high school and college, originally as an
actor, then as a technician and designer. I spent more all-nighters
getting sets up than writing papers. Set construction is very gratifying
because you start with an idea, then you meticulously plan, then you
perform two weeks of back-breaking physical labor, then you rip it
apart! It's a complete cycle.

Before that, I took photography in high school...I have always been
attracted to creative processes that involve a high degree of technical
craftmanship. Maybe that's a crutch for me because I know I can always
master the technical aspect, whereas the creative is always elusive and
not something that can be mastered or summoned at will. I guess I might
consider myself more of an artisan than an artist... less structured
media, like drawing or painting, don't come as easily to me.

Q: How did you get involved with computers?

Computers have been in my life for a long time. My dad is a programmer
and he got me hooked on programming in BASIC when I was in sixth grade.
I wrote a couple of games for my own amusment... nothing major. I took
programming courses in high school and college, too, but I never wanted
to be a professional programmer. Programming can be an art form, to be
sure, like mathematics can be, but it was always a little heavy on the
technical mastery end for my taste. The background does come in handy
sometimes, though. Some software allows you extend its capabilities
through short scripts... this can be a very powerful tool for the
artist.

Q: How did you get into animation?

At Brown I started doing graphic design, initially posters for plays I
was involved with, then art direction for a campus magazine. I really
fell in love with the endless potential of programs like Photoshop and
Illustrator. Then I stumbled onto a most miraculous thing: the Brown
Computer Graphics Lab. Part of the Computer Science dept., the Graphics
Lab is the center of some of the most advanced academic CGI research in
the country. At the time, they were working on a system for real-time 3D
animation. The lab has a continuing need for "artistic types" to use
their software for testing, feedback, and most importantly, to generate
presentable work with it! So I did that for a summer and a semester, and
also worked for a short while at CoSA, the company that developed After
Effects before they were purchased by Aldus (and Aldus was purchased by
Adobe). As a result, I got exposed to a lot of different animation
systems and was able to generate a modest demo reel before leaving
school.

Q: Was it a self-conscious decision for you to work in animation?

Well, around the time that I was working in the Lab, I became aware that
computer animators could make money at their craft. (Unlike set
designers, who frequently lose money working on productions. No
kidding!) Since I was about to graduate from school, a paying, creative
job sounded quite a bit more attractive than a creative, non-paying job
or a "straight" paying job.

Also, I've always loved animation. As a kid I loved the Warner Brothers
cartoons and the animation on Sesame Street. Frankly, I can't understand
how someone wouldn't want to be an animator for a living!

Q: Were there any political issues in working with these technologies
(cf. were the technologies widely accesible, and was that important to
you?)

Yes, primarily because if they weren't widely available, I wouldn't have
had access to them! Also, as I said, I wanted to take these tools, used
to create specific kinds of commercial imagery, and use them to create
different, totally non-commercial, non-"CGI" images.

Q: Is keeping up with adaptations and developments in software a
concern?

A lot less so than it used to be. I'm very thoroughly burnt out on the
"latestgreatestfastestandbestest" obsession of the computer industry in
general. Qualitative changes in the software interest me far more than
"Now 22% Faster!!" Those changes are happening... animation tools are
still fairly primitive on the computer, and there are many ways they
could become better.

Even so, I still think that being limited by your tools can actually
encourage creativity rather than stifle it. Too many tools can be worse
than no tools at all. This is a big danger in CGI, where there is always
the temptation to wait for the next version of the software. You have to
decide, is my work about the tools that I have? Or is it about something
else that really transcends the tools? People tend to forget that you
can do a lot with very simple tools, and that the fanciest computer in
the world won't make your bad ideas good.

Q: "Golden Shoes" combines, in an unusual way, low and high production
values. Very sophisticated software was used, and there are some
"tricks", but it also seems very homemade -- Dame Darcy's work is heavy
with old-fashioned iconography and atmosphere. Was that part of the
allure of working with her? Or was that something you aimed for?

Ah, yes and yes. Those sorts of images were not associated with CGI at
the time, and I wanted to show that the computer could do more than
shiny plastic newsgraphics.

Q: "Golden Shoes" is story and image driven -- is this the kind of work
you are interested in?

It's funny that you say that...I personally don't think Golden Shoes is
all that narrative. There is a narrative, but it's fairly ambiguous.
People read the story in very different ways. Some people think she dies
at the end, some think that it's all her dreams, one woman asked me if
it was about child abuse. They are all possible readings. While Darcy
has a story to tell, it's not a very structured one, and the ambiguity
is definitely something I embrace.

Image driven, absolutely. As a filmmaker, the image is more important to
me than a clear narrative... I like the evocate potential of the image,
the malleability of meanings associated with it.

Q: What other artists [making technology-driven or dependent projects]
do you like?

Hmm, let's see... as far as animators go, obviously the Quay Brothers
and Jan Svankmeyer are at the top of the list. I would also say the
bolexbrothers, creators of "The Secret Adventures Of Tom Thumb." Also,
Aardman Animation, home of Nick Park's Wallace and Grommit. None of
these places does CGI, but their work really transcends the particular
animation style.

As far as computer games/'interactive' work is concerned, the field is a
little sparse... Inscape published a CDROM 'game' based on the work of
Edgar Allen Poe... it combines puppetry and computer generated
environments in stunning and beautiful ways. It also has a very atypical
objective: you have to 'die' several times in order to progress through
the game!

Even though it's explicitly commercial, I would have to say that I am
very fond of the work coming out of Pixar Studios. Long before Toy
Story, John Lasseter recognized the potential of CGI for storytelling in
shorts like "Tin Toy" and "Red's Dream." Toy Story itself is an amazing
and beautiful acheivement, even if the story is typical Disney family
pap.

Every year at SIGGRAPH I see at least one or two gems in the sea of
shiny shit. This year, the standout was a piece from Japan called
"Sakuratei." It really resonated with me, partly because it had the look
of miniature stop-motion animation that I was striving for, but mostly
because it was so beautiful! "Shot" in black and white, with delicate
robots moving about a sparse landscape of cherry trees and temples, the
film is a testament to the potential of computer animation for opening
new aesthetic realms.

Q: Are you currently at work on other projects?

Yes, I am in pre-production on an adaptation of a Jorge Luis Borges
short story, "The Library Of Babel." The library is an infinite series
of rooms, covered floor to ceiling in seemingly random text. The
narrator is a librarian, searching for meaning in a universe of
unintelligible writing. If the library is as vast as it seems, and no
two rooms are alike, surely there must be legible words somewhere. But
if you found meaningful words in this sea of letters, how could you
trust them? What do they really mean?

It could be a meditation on the meaning of life, or it could be a snarky
metaphor for the world wide web. The interpretation is, as it always is,
up to the reader.

I am excited about the visual possibilites of this project. In Borges'
version, the library is a series of hexagons filled with books, but I am
doing away with the hexagons and books, and putting the writing on the
wall, as it were. The architechtural possibilities are as endless as the
combinations of letters. The first rooms we see will be normal in size
and shape, but they will take on grand, miniature, shifting, and even
impossible forms as the librarian continues on his journey.

Q: Any software that looks especially promising or exciting?

Well, I have to confess a certain soft spot in my heart for Electric
Image. I used it to create Golden Shoes, and I love its sheer speed and
muscle. The new version, due out who knows when, will have a whole host
of new features that I'm very excited about. First and foremost is the
modeller, which it never had before. It's based on proven solids
modelling technology and looks very powerful. Also, they will be adding
radiosity, which is a rendering technique that calculates inter-object
diffuse reflection, for example, the color cast by a red ball placed
next to a white wall. This is a big jump forward in realism (oops, there
I go again, drooling over all the things I dissed on earlier) that I
have been wanting on the Mac for years. Unfortunately, EI being the
perfectionists they are, and the biz being what it is, this product,
scheduled for Q3 1997, probably won't be out until 1999!
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