Sunday, October 06, 2013

"16 letters" opens today on Gothtober

"16 letters," my newest animation, opens today, October 6th, on Gothtober. I'm really grateful to be included on the calendar again and be able to share my work this way.

This impish six-minute stop-motion animated piece plays with moveable letters that represent a partial selection of the alphabet, morphing a few letters at a time into a succession of words. Reflecting on the malleability and abstract power of language and thought, I expanded on the meaning of and my personal associations with each word using sound and images, with sometimes rather quirky results.
Letters ready to become words and 
ideas on my animation stage

Language starts as something finite, but becomes infinitely expansive. As a student of linguistics, I marvel at the gigantic potential that a small and finite number of language sounds (represented somewhat approximately by letters) has to represent an unlimited number of concepts as words.

Words, and language itself, are abstract entities and don't belong to anyone, but everyone who can talk holds them as a deeply and unconsciously integrated part of himself, effortlessly using them to think and communicate. Language is a part of us at the basic physical level, in the structures of our brains and vocal tracts, but it soars into our highest thoughts and most ineffable emotions and experiences. And though we all may know and use a particular word, the ideas, memories, and feelings we associate with it can be delightfully unique.

Please take a look at what I've done. I have a lot of fun on my own creating these pieces, but I also make them for you, the viewer. So do let me know what you think.

Go to and take a look at Julianna's creation for the main page this year: the Gothtober International Airport. Then click on the number 6, on the brown suitcase on top of the baggage cart, and take off on a six-minute flight with "16 letters."

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Love and Groceries

Touching on the theme of charity 
with illustrated package labels

How do you successfully express the combined ideas of kindness – and groceries? That’s the challenge I faced recently on an assignment to design and illustrate a poster for a food bank donation project. 

A Food Donation Project

The poster would introduce the community at a local spiritual center to a new volunteer-run community service project, in which participants purchase a few packaged food items for charity each time they grocery shop. On collection days, participants deliver the items to the center in a provided bright green shopping bag, for drop off at a local food bank.

A Big Job for a Little Poster

This poster had a big job to do, as it would serve as the first and most-seen printed communication for a project with a limited budget. One modestly sized copy would be printed, which would be mounted and re-used indefinitely to advertise the project. An image of the required green bag had to be included, as well as simple instructions on how to participate, and a space to show the next collection date. Most importantly, the design needed to communicate to a culturally diverse community with a wide range of ages and backgrounds.

The finished design

Creating the Poster

I started by selecting a typeface that suggested the homey, old-fashioned type often used on food package designs, and selected green tones for the type that would echo the important “green bag.” To catch the eye and communicate instantly, I painted an illustration showing a bright and bold array of packaged foods in front of a simplified bag, using the smooth, solid colors of gouache.
To convey the spirit of brotherly love that motivates the project, and hopefully inspire viewers, I designed a love-themed label for each package, including several images of hearts, and invented brand names that expressed the theme of charity, such as a package of milk from  “Kindness Farms” and a box of cereal labeled “Fields of Sharing.” I felt that expressing the theme without using images of specific people was an elegant way to reach a diverse community. 

Encouraging Results

To date, the food donation project has collected 763 pounds of food – and that was just on its first collection day. While the project’s initial success is certainly due to the inherent dedication of the community and the project volunteers, these encouraging results also suggest that this little poster is communicating successfully.

Check out the project’s Facebook page 
Inspired to help? Find a local food bank (U.S.A. only)

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Little More “Mermaid”

Back to the first "Little Mermaid" entry

Hitting a Wall

The faithful, long-time reader of my blog (and you know who you are, Dad) will probably recall my annual struggles to create animated presentations of my illustrated stories for, using Adobe Flash.

I think Flash is just too complicated to 
use without proper training
Creating pieces for Gothtober during the past nine years has led me to take advantage of what the Web can do by translating my story and illustration ideas into art pieces with movement and sound. But as I taught myself just enough Flash from online tutorials to get my more recent pieces finished, I felt like I’d wandered into a little corner of the world of animation somewhat by accident, and I started to wonder where I would go next. Without any proper education in the program, I barely knew what I was doing, and wasn’t even sure that this was the best tool for my purposes.

As I put together “The Buffalo Demon” last October, repeatedly banging into the walls of my own ignorance and Flash’s quirks like a Roomba trapped in a pantry closet, I solemnly promised myself (between bone-jarring collisions) that I would find another way to animate my work.

A Break-through at SFAI 

On a rainy March night this spring, I sat down in a dim film classroom at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) to start an adult continuing education class in experimental animation. I felt like I was going out on a limb — me, the goofy painter, taking a film class? — but when my teachers, David Borengasser and Tiffany Doesken, reached their unit on 2-D stop animation and showed us how we could set up a stage and camera, make our own puppets, and animate them, I began to put these ideas together with my illustrative work. For the final project, I chose 2-D stop animation as my method, and started “The Little Mermaid.”

I think David and Tiffany may be the most patient and encouraging art teachers I’ve ever had, and I have to stop and thank them here for everything they taught me, and thank the ACE program at SFAI for running their class. David and Tiffany’s experience, guidance, and support have definitely pushed my work to the next level, and I’m truly grateful for the opportunity to learn from them.

Inspiration from “Surfer Girl” 

Like most of my time-based pieces, I started this animation with a script. This was based on some idle thoughts that I had while driving on I-580, listening to The Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl.” The script developed my initial inspiration and images into a continuous narrative, separated into scenes and shots that paralleled the song lyrics while telling their own story. At this point I also started my technical planning with lists of all the puppets, props, and backgrounds I would have to paint and construct to shoot the animation.

Editing a list of the puppets needed to portray the surfer

I see this story on a couple of different levels: as a sweet and simple story about a lonely character, as a sort of laughable romance fiction, and also as a story that alludes to the drama of self-discovery and coming out as gay. Not to say that I was trying to write a commentary about being gay into the story, but after a few months of work, one does draw some connections.

Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Mermaid”

Only after completing my script did I pause to consider the similarity my mermaid story bore to Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale, in which a mermaid trades her tail and her voice for legs in order to pursue the human prince she has rescued and fallen in love with. In due diligence, I read through a Wikipedia article on Andersen’s “Little Mermaid” story, and reviewed several other animated interpretations of it, but only to check how his plot compared to the one I had invented. I felt my story was different enough to feel like a twist on the original, rather than a remake, and decided, cheekily, to give it the same title. I then promptly buried my nose in my own project again. In fact, I was so focused on creating a coherent narrative for my own story (without the benefit of expository dialogue, I might add), and completing as many shots as possible before David and Tiffany’s class ended, that I unthinkingly relegated my very own childhood copy of Andersen’s Fairy Tales to the bottom of a pile of books assigned the menial task of holding up one of the lamps on my animation stage.
Andersen's Fairy Tales sat on my 
worktable for five months... unopened.

Imagine my surprise six months later as I read Julianna Parr’s comments about my “Little Mermaid” in The Gothtober Blog, in which Julianna, Gothtober’s creator, shares the results of her own research on Hans Christian Andersen. Her readings revealed that the original “Little Mermaid” is itself, as she puts it, “a really really really GAY STORY.” Once I understood Andersen’s perspective, his familiar tale seemed to open up to me. Now I do fully recognize a very gay experience in the original plot: the pain of invisibility and silence, and the hopeless vulnerability of an attraction to someone who may as well inhabit a separate world that you just don’t belong to.

Big Watercolors, Tiny Actors

Painting large watercolor landscapes isn’t something I do frequently, but I decided that the backgrounds for this ocean piece would look best if painted in subtle, watery watercolor. Having done the necessary research and experimentation, I have a few observations about watercoloring to share with you.

  1. You can make lovely fluffy clouds in a wet wash of sky by simply wiping some of the paint away with a paper towel.
  2. Despite the inherent delicacy of the medium, painting a smooth wash over a large area is an almost athletic pursuit in which you race against time and temperature as your paper mockingly dries before your eyes.
  3. When thoroughly moistened, Arches watercolor paper smells like a wet dog.
I now have greater respect for people who paint large watercolors. In fact, I’ve come to suspect that the world’s most skilled and successful watercolorists all live together with a pack of St. Bernards in an eternally damp basement (possibly somewhere in England), where their paper stays wet for a full hour, and nobody notices the way it smells.

Parts for my first set of mermaid puppets
Designing and crafting the puppets for this piece was more familiar territory for me, and it was amusing, if time consuming, to assemble lifeless little pieces of painted paper (some of them as small as a fingernail) into convincing-looking characters.  My favorites in this piece are the shark (So grumpy! And he never manages to bite anyone! Hee hee!) and the yellow tangs, which are so silly-looking, and so easy to animate just by pivoting them on the single brads that also serve as their eyes. 

Deus ex machina

It’s remarkable that for all of my pieces requiring voices, the opportunity to make a good-quality recording has come to me out of nowhere, like a Venus in a Victorian play, descending on a flower-decked swing from the catwalks above. This time was no exception; I had the good fortune to record in SFAI’s recording studio, with professional David at the controls. The only canker in the bud was that on the designated day, I came in with the dregs of a cold that just wouldn’t clear out. As a result, I went home with excellent recordings of a very snuffly performance. If you listen carefully to the heavily altered version that accompanies the animation, you may detect that the mermaid’s high and dreamy voice also sounds a little congested. 

Making the Animation 

I made my first attempt at animating my new puppets with only a general idea of what needed to take place in the shot. When I brought my spontaneously-shot frames to class and exported them to video, I dissolved in a fit of giggles, discovering that motions I had imagined would look smooth and subtle actually looked like a frenzied, erratic insect mating dance.

Tiny physical props are a fun 
aspect of stop animation
After this amusing learning experience, I wrote out a frame-by-frame plan for each shot that listed exactly the motions I wanted, from start to finish, and the frames they should occur on. Writing the plan often took as much time as it did to shoot the sequence, but, even though I’m still learning, it gave much better results. However, I may return to exploring spontaneous animation in my next project, a touching story in which true love overcomes social and familial obstacles to unite two praying mantises.

After shooting all the frames for each shot, I exported the photos into a video clip with Quicktime, and then compiled all the clips into one iMovie file, added the soundtrack, and edited the clips to the right length to match the sound. Though I am glossing over the compiling of the animation a bit, it was honestly the shortest and simplest part of the process.

To compare my old and new animation processes, stop animation is like fishing a pickle out of the pickle jar using a fork, whereas animating with my previous homegrown Flash methods was like trying to fish a pickle out of the pickle jar using only the power of one’s mind. Not only does stop animation afford me more possibility for motion, it’s easier. This means that I can create more meaning. And creating something — anything! — meaningful is certainly my goal.

Back to the first "Little Mermaid" entry
See the piece (click on Gothtober pumpkin #7)
Read The Gothtober Blog

Friday, October 05, 2012

The Little Mermaid

Have you ever  tried working with a 200-watt light bulb blazing at each side of your head? I’d say it’s somewhat like the sensation a consciousness-endowed eggplant would experience inside a solar oven on a July day in Arizona, about halfway to its final form as baba ghanoush. Try it sometime. Working between two 200-watt light bulbs, I mean, not the baba ghanoush. I’m sure that you, sophisticated reader, have already tried baba ghanoush.

I mention this unique sensation of being solar-baked because working alongside 200-watt light bulbs is a necessary part of making stop animation, which is the medium I’ve been exploring this year. The realm of the Brothers Quay, Martha Coburn, and Gumby and Poky, stop animation is the process of making physical objects appear to move by capturing them in sequential photographs.

Setting up a shot on my animation stage

In my new three-minute stop animation, “The Little Mermaid,” the physical objects are two-dimensional jointed puppets that tell the story of a solitary mermaid. This project is the result of about four months of work, and the mounting of a lot of steep learning curves, including figuring out how to set up a useable animation stage, getting some kind of grip on creating the desired animation speeds and motion, and getting accustomed to the subtleties of digital photography beyond the snapshot camera.

“The Little Mermaid” makes its Internet debut October 7th on the great So, this Sunday, when you come back from your starry-eyed Sunday stroll or leisurely autumn picnic in the park (or harried soccer practice pickup, or desperate dash through the grocery store, arms full of deli-packed baba ghanoush, or whatever your Sunday looks like), I invite you to click on Gothtober pumpkin number 7 and meet the little mermaid.

Go to the second "Little Mermaid" entry

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Making of "The Buffalo Demon"

I've put many hours into the artwork, design, and animation for this piece, and an amazing group of people has also contributed their voices, time, and talent to it. I hope you'll enjoy it!

Art resources

After writing and mercilessly editing my script, I took a field trip to the San Francisco Asian Art Museum to work on the visual look of the piece.

Designing the look of Mahisa was fairly simple (you need an evil-looking buffalo? I can do that) but designing a character to represent Durga took more thought. I settled on a character based on sculptures of Durga and other goddesses that date from 900 to 1000 C.E. These sculptures have small waists, large hips, and extensive jewelry, and are clothed in a clinging garment around the hips. The Durga you’ll see in my piece has a body shape, clothing, and jewelry similar to these older Durgas, but she also has the long hair, large eyes, and frequently sweet expressions you’ll see in most popular, contemporary representations.

I studied a series of Rajput paintings (18th century Indian paintings from Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan) to formulate the style for my own paintings, borrowing their flattened perspective, large expanses of light, flat colors as backgrounds, and eschewal of shadows in favor of outlines to define forms. Interestingly, when I combined these conventions with my personal drawing style, the resulting images actually reminded me of Warner Bros. cartoons as much as Indian paintings! Not the expected result, but I went with it.

I also drew on a visit I made several years ago to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where I spent an hour with a series of illustrations from the Ramayana. What interested me most about these was that they showed the same character several times in the same picture to illuminate different points in the narrative. I decided to use this same fluid approach to time in my images of the battle scenes in my piece.

The sound of awesome

One of the best parts of creating this piece was working with some super-talented friends.

Dia expertly recorded an amazing voice acting session for us, and everyone contributed a unique touch to the character voices. Lori was a fierce, powerful Durga, Jared gave a gorgeous, stentorian performance as Mahisa. Adrienne, Jenny, Dia, and Jared were hilarious and versatile as the various other demons, and Adrienne also made a brave and mighty lion.

Karla outdid herself creating music with GarageBand; her extensive searches for just the right instruments and samples, and her inspired combinations have paid off in an elegant soundtrack that seamlessly creates the right mood for each scene. Karla also tirelessly edited the voice recording sessions, compiling voice and music files ready to tweak and place in each scene.

I listened to the sound for this piece many, many times while animating the images, and I marveled each time at everyone’s brilliant sound work.

Painting, painting, and more painting

I spent a month creating 29 separate gouache paintings on paper, including separate background paintings, which I put together into the images for this piece. The battle scenes in particular are compiled from series of images that I planned and sketched together, then executed in pieces, scanned, and assembled in Photoshop. This piecemeal approach made it easy to create and store the paintings; if, for example, I had painted the battle between Durga and Mahisa on one continuous sheet, I would have needed a piece of paper that was six and half feet long.

Flashes of inspiration – and irritation

What can I say about Adobe Flash? This Web animation software has allowed me to create some Web artwork that I’m very proud of… on the other hand, it has sometimes taken me to the edge of sanity! This time was no exception. Happily, I survived the week of combining the sound and images and animating the transitions, and the artwork is ready to open tomorrow, Tuesday, October 25th.

Click here for more about the story of the buffalo demon.

Watch It!

If you haven’t seen Gothtober, the world’s only Halloween countdown Web art calendar, yet, do take a look at some of the other pieces on it… as always, it’s a grab-bag of Web art pieces that range from funny and cute, to gross and scary, to amusingly odd, and are sometimes all three at once.

By the way, as you can probably tell, I did not create The Buffalo Demon with a child audience in mind, so please watch it yourself before deciding whether to share it with a kid.

You will find my piece at the following link; on the Gothtober page, click on the square that says “25.”

The Buffalo Demon

It’s October again and I have another piece of art on This year’s piece tells an ancient Hindu story in which a demon in the form of a buffalo (yes, that’s right, an evil demon that looks like a bovine with big horns) takes over the world with his army of demons, and has to be taken down.

About the Story

My main resource for the story information was the Devimahatmya, an anonymous text written about fifteen centuries ago in northwest India. The story of the buffalo demon is one of three narratives within this text, and depicts an epic battle on a grand scale. While I chose to reduce the number of characters and scenes for necessary brevity, I have otherwise tried to follow the text fairly closely in my retelling. However, I’m sure I have made mistakes in the way I’ve represented some elements, so if you know Indian culture or this story better than I do, please forgive them.

What’s all the fighting for?

A fierce battle is not a typical subject for me, and, while seated at my drafting table, painting various decapitations and impalements, I did occasionally ask myself why there is so much violence in this story. Although the stories of the Devimahatmya were written down during India’s Classical Age, a time of peace and advancement, they doubtless existed before this as oral traditions, and they reflect the experience of ancient people for whom mortal danger and hand-to-hand combat to the death must have been everyday realities.

As far as I know, the Western view of beings like demons sees them as decidedly evil, and the idea of their redemption is usually not considered. However, in a worldview where all souls are re-born countless times until they reach an ultimate liberation, even demons have a chance at eventual enlightenment. The Devimahatmya’s buffalo demon sequence ends with a long hymn of praise sung by the gods for the conquering goddess Durga, during which they extol her compassion.

…Though they may have committed enough evil to keep them long in torment, even as you strike down our enemies… you think, May they reach heaven through death in battle with me.

Why does your mere glance not reduce all [demons] to ashes? Because when assailed by your weapons and thus purified, even those adversaries may attain the higher worlds. Even toward them your intentions are most gracious. (1)

I find this idea of a transcendent, purifying death in battle sort of chillingly beautiful; it’s inspiring that the demons actually benefit from being killed by Durga, but it still sounds really freaky.

Higher meaning

Like any classic that has withstood the test of time, you can interpret the story of the buffalo demon through several different lenses, such as the ongoing struggle between good and evil in the world, or as a reflection of the individual’s internal battle between the selfish ego and the higher impulses that tame it. There is also something intriguing in the character of Mahisa, the buffalo demon, in that he is not quite what he appears to be (what is his true form, really?). However, even after researching details and contemplating the meaning of this tale for the better part of a year, I still feel like the story is operating at a higher level that I can’t quite pin down.

Click here for more about how I created this piece.

Watch It!

If you haven’t seen Gothtober, the world’s only Halloween countdown Web art calendar, yet, do take a look at some of the other pieces on it… as always, it’s a grab-bag of Web art pieces that range from funny and cute, to gross and scary, to amusingly odd, and are sometimes all three at once.

By the way, as you can probably tell, I did not create The Buffalo Demon with a child audience in mind, so please watch it yourself before deciding whether to share it with a kid.

You will find my piece at the following link; on the Gothtober page, click on the square that says “25.”

(1) Devadatta Kali, translator and commentator, In Praise of the Goddess: The Devimahatmya and Its Meaning (Maine: Nicholas-Hays, Inc., 2003), p. 84

Monday, May 23, 2011

Results of the Frankenart ketchup portrait extravaganza

Well, I have discovered that being a ketchup street portrait artist is really fun.

I was one of four artists on duty at the Frankenart Mart ketchup and mustard portrait stand at Zog's Dogs on May 6.

We had a pretty steady stream of takers, who were surprisingly cooperative about posing and holding still while we spurted out artwork. It was sweet how delighted most people were with the idea of ketchup portraits, and how pleased they were with their freshly-squeezed images.

We were even interviewed by the Bay Citizen:

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Drawing ketchup portraits this Friday, May 6, Noon-2:30ish

I'm pleased to share that I've been invited to join a small group of artists to draw street portraits in ketchup and mustard this Friday at Zog's Dogs hot dog stand. Yes, you read that correctly.

The portraits are free, and so is the crazy wackiness. If you come, expect a perfect likeness of yourself, rendered solely in ketchup and mustard, and executed in a to-go container! Ok, maybe not a perfect likeness, but at least an amusing souvenir from your lunch hour. I practiced a bit on Sunday, and the results were indeed amusing.

Take note that the condiments will be mixed with a painting medium to increase their archival lifetime; in other words, please don't try to eat your portrait.

The skinny:

Friday, May 6

Noon to 2:30 pm

Zog's Dogs

646 Market Street (downtown San Francisco)

Zog's is in the alley behind the McKesson Building, between Market and Post

Frankenart Mart is putting on this event, along with Zog's Dogs. I could try to explain Frankenart Mart, but their web site does it so much better: I hear that this is just one of a series of "artist in residence" events that Zog's Dogs has hosted. I can only imagine what the others have been like.