Sunday, January 1, 2017

A song for a panic attack

It's already a tired cliche to say 2016 was a bad year, but for me, it was unusually rough. And forgive me, this one is a bit personal, but it feels good to write about it.

I was already not having a great time when 2016 began, but there was something to look forward to mid-year: a European vacation. Wife and I were going to drop off our daughter with her grandparents, then the both of us were going to head off to Europe for 10 days. 3 days visiting friends in Denmark, then 3 days exploring London with a friend from Singapore, then 3 days in the British countryside for a beautiful wedding with friends we hadn't seen in 7 years. It couldn't come soon enough because I was struggling with something awful and entirely new to me. Anxiety. I've lived an entire life worry-free. Yet, for some reason, my brain decided to experiment with anxiety in 2016. Just for kicks I guess.

As the vacation got closer, my anxiety was starting to be replaced by excitement. But, the day before we left, I got an awful situation dropped on me. That was it. My brain snapped. I got my first panic attack. It was surreal because at 35 you feel like you've experienced every feeling and emotion your brain is going to concoct. Suddenly, I was experiencing something entirely new and singularly awful. I couldn't sleep, I was sweating, shaking, my chest was heavy, and the situation that had been dropped on me constantly swirled around my head, consuming every other thought. I had no control over my brain and was unable to think about anything else. It took all of my focus and willpower to not dwell on it, but it was almost impossible, and mentally exhausting. It reminded me of my first time meditating and how frustrating it was to try to think of nothing, only to discover seconds later that my mind had wandered and I was thinking of stuff again. I'd get so tired of fighting it, that sometimes I'd just give in and let it overwhelm me. Night was the worst. I couldn't sleep. At one point I stayed awake for 3 days straight. I'd just lay there panicking, waiting for daylight, my face hot and my head cycling through the same thought over and over and over again.

Needless to say, the entire vacation was ruined. I was having a hard enough time fighting this mental battle, but we were also navigating across Europe with no cell service, sometimes with no English speakers and an old-fashioned paper map. We'd also made the rookie mistake of packing large, heavy suitcases. There's a reason people say they're "backpacking across Europe" not "Lugging 50 pound suitcases across Europe". We'd wanted to do a trip like this our entire lives, and now that it was happening, I was locked in my head. Completely unable to be in the moment or enjoy the country, my wife or our friends. Thankfully my wife and friends where incredibly supportive, though my wife often says we need a vacation do-over.

There was a memorable moment during the trip. I'd been awake for several days with panic. We were staying with our friends in Jelling, Denmark. It's a beautiful, isolated little town at the ass-end of Denmark. Everyone but me was napping. I was sitting behind our friend's electric piano, rocked with panic, looking out the window at the beautiful countryside under a light misty rain. I started playing piano. All my panic and emotions rolled out of my fingers into the keys, and for the first time in days I felt peace. I played for hours till my wife woke up. Without saying a word she pulled out her phone and recorded me playing. Here is the video. It's surreal for me to watch. Photos and video always have a layer of pretense to them, like when someone takes a photo and everyone stops acting natural and smiles or duck-lips or does that thing with their chin that stretches out their neckfat. The video my wife shot is completely genuine. It's me, going on 3 days awake, battling a horrific panic attack through a piano.

First thing after getting back i got my panic attacks under control and addressed the situation that popped up before we left. Panic hasn't been a problem since. But, it's still wild to look back at this video and see a panic attack in a song.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

We're off to Canada

This January we're moving to Canada. Let me get this out of the way right now. It's not because of that moral bankruptcy of an election. That's a legitimate coincidence. Now that that's out of the way, lets talk about something else:

Just shy of two years ago my workplace, PDI Dreamworks, shut down. I assumed we'd be moving to Vancouver BC for my next gig, which was just fine with us. But then I got a cold call from Apple requesting an interview. This was unexpected. I wasn't sure what a guy who makes cartoon characters could offer Apple but I did the interview and before I knew it I was an Apple employee.

If you know anything about apple, you probably know they value secrecy, so I'll go light on the details. But, if I had to describe the job it would be this: 

Come in on a Monday to a problem you don't know how to solve in a program you don't know how to use, and hopefully, get it sorted by Friday. 

It was profoundly difficult, but thankfully, I was surrounded by titans of the industry that I could lean on for support. It's the first time I've ever had a job that has actually changed me at a fundamental level. At the very least I learned some damn humility. I'd like to say I had a good time, but change doesn't come from comfort. It was Awful. And euphoric. And miserable. And the best experience of my life. 

A few months ago I got another cold call, this time from Sony Imageworks. Every time they contacted me over the past few years I'd send a reply along the lines of,"...not right now, but please let me know when a position opens up in Vancouver." Well, they finally offered me a Sr position in Vancouver to work on both animated films and live action VFX. I couldn't pass it up. Vancouver is stunning and LITERALLY 15 minutes from snowboarding. My wife's twin sister and my daughter's cousins live in the area. Most importantly, we can afford to live there. The San Francisco Bay area boasts the most expensive housing in America. We live in the school district the documentary "Waiting for Superman" featured as an example of the problem with the American Public school system. Unfortunately a 2 bedroom apartment in a good school district in the bay area will run you 5k a month. Even the run-down place we live in right now is heading out of our price range. The last time my mother visited I made a sweeping gesture at our half of a musty duplex with its cracked, canary yellow tile kitchen, water stained, sagging ceiling and matted carpet with iron burns and said,"Bet you never thought your son would live in a million dollar home!" So, add us to the list of people priced out of San Francisco.

Here we have a stunning 2.5 million dollar one bed, one bath in charming East Palo Alto.

Since I gave notice at Apple I've not been able to shake the horrible feeling that I'm making a massive mistake. It's a quality-of-life over career decision, and it's not easy to make. Apple is an incredible company and I work with amazing people. Some of the things my team has accomplished over the past few years have been remarkable. I hope I can talk about them some day. Most importantly, the project is the most important thing I've ever been involved with. It eats away at me knowing that I'll have to watch it succeed from a distance rather than it being something that I contributed to.

I can only hope that regret will be balanced out with all the snowboarding and poutine. 

Friday, September 30, 2016

The hair of a Rick James giraffe and the danger of complacency

It was my first day back at work at Dreamworks after a mind-bending week at burningman. My boss called me into his office and said,"Listen, Trolls is ramping up. It's the most hair-heavy show we've ever done, so we're building a dedicated team to re-work our hair pipeline. I want you on it." I might have had a mini panic attack.

For some reference, in our film pipeline modelers would make the geometry for a character and, at best, create some geometry that represented hair masses, then send into the ether of the pipeline. The actual hair itself was a whole 'nother complicated beast that would be handled by people who specialized in that discipline. So, to be asked to tackle hair, how it looks, moves and renders is like asking a plumber to "...redo the electrical wiring while you're in there". I'd been doing the same, specific task for a decade, so to be suddenly asked to do something so dramatically and technically different was daunting, especially considering the fact that I was just back from burningman and re-familiarizing myself with the idea that clothing was a requirement in the real world.

I'd just finished modeling the character Cooper who is best described as a "pink Rick James giraffe". I had a surreal moment where the model was approved, so I published him into the pipeline, then walked upstairs to my new desk in Character Effects and downloaded the character I'd just published to be handed off to myself. From there I got a crash course in Houdini, simulation, hair styling and the DW rendering pipeline. It was tough.

...but, with the help of the other talented people on the hair team I pulled it off. It made my brain hurt, and I put in a lot of long hours, but I did it. Cooper was a challenge because he had multiple different styles and simulations- His Dreadlocks, his neck fur and his body fur. I kept getting the note,"Make him feel softer". It's a tough note to address because you intuitively know what soft is, but when you're charged with making something "soft" what do you do? What makes a kitten look soft? how thick or thin is soft hair? How does soft hair move? I looked up tons of reference, but the best execution of soft I found were the trees in the movie "The Lorax".

I wanna frolic in that

I studied what they did- how the hairs clumped, tapered off and wafted at the tips. It wasn't easy since they had some rendering tech we didn't, but we made do. The groom was finally approved and I moved on. I worked on several of the character's grooms in some respect but the 3 characters that I worked on most were Cooper, the large blue troll and the fuzzy caterpillar. Check out the final product!

I love this clip because I'm intimately familiar with each of the troll's grooms and what the specific challenges were for the artist in charge. How does the main character Poppy's hair move differently at the base than the drooping tips? How do you simulate hair that is 3 times taller than the character himself? How do a clump of dreadlocks behave below a hair-tie vs above? Each of these things is something an amazing artist spent months figuring out, so a huge shout-out to those peeps!

It was an amazing experience because it taught me the danger of complacency. Over my career I've seen artists lose work because they were unable or unwilling to learn new skillsets. In film it's easy to get pigeonholed into a narrow skillset and get comfortable. If that skillset becomes obsolete, the artist is out of a job. In retrospect, I was getting dangerously close to that precipice. Since the hair team I've been fortunate enough to learn new skills constantly. Just outside my comfort zone is a great place to be.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Sunday, April 17, 2016

A crash course in screen printing.

I polished up the truck design I did for the Touch a Truck fundraiser to be printed on shirts for sale at the event.

The screen printer was a local family owned business called Marisol's Embroidery. The owner, Marisol, is a wonderful woman who, upon being presented with my image said,"This is great! Can you please make a vector version so I can print it?" 

No. No I can't.

Turns out you can't just make an image and expect it to work for a screen print. Marisol is very good at screen printing prepared images. Unfortunately she's not the one who sets up the images for screen printing, especially not 4-color rasterized images. Thus began my week-long crash course in screen printing. I learned most of it from this video.

The video has great information, though it's a perfect example of what I hate about video tutorials. GET TO THE POINT!!! No one wants to know what you had for breakfast, or if you're getting over a cold, or if you're filming from your mom's place today, or literally anything said before you start explaining how to do the thing we don't know how to do. Don't bore us, get to the chorus!  I swear, one day I'm going to write a series of 60 second tutorials that blasts information so fast people will be pounding the pause button to catch up. As a bonus I'll write step by step instructions in the video description. 

Sorry, I think I had a fog-of-war moment there.

Anyway, I spent two afternoons in the back of the print shop as Marisol introduced me to the screen printing process and we did test prints while I adjusted my 4-color print setup on their computer. We stayed up till 10:30 the night before the event doing final adjustments, then got up at 5:30 to do a test print and a final run of 50 shirts. It's an understatement to say Marisol went above and beyond here. She definitely lost money on the project after all the hours she spent getting the print right, but she cared more about getting a quality product out than a profit. Side note, she spends her free time volunteering at a local hospital. THIS IS A REAL PERSON WHO ACTUALLY EXISTS! Seriously, buy all your shirts from her.

Here's the final product modeled by my lovely assistant.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Touch A Truck

My daughter's preschool is doing a fundraiser called Touch a Truck. They gather a bunch of vehicles like dump trucks and police cars along with their operators for kids to check out. They sell shirts, so they needed a design. I offered to make a vehicle mascot for the shirts.

The challenge with designing a car character is trying to avoid iconic car designs like:

Putting eyes in the windshield instead of the headlights was genius.

I decided on a dumptruck and made a sketch.

I modeled it up. The windshield wipers were too distracting so I swapped them for rear-view mirrors. Render in Keyshot.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The song I wrote while I lived behind a couch

Me completely terrified

I spent 3 months living behind a couch while I was in Australia. A couple of friends let me put a small bedroll behind the couch in their living room and that was my "room" for 3 months straight. One of my roommates, Thomas Price, had a keyboard in his room and we'd often jam in the evenings. One night while I was playing he fell asleep. When I noticed him sleeping I stopped playing but he instantly woke up. "Keep playing" he said,"I hear it in my dreams.". So, I kept playing. I wrote the foundation of a song while he slept that night. I later added ragtime elements and wrote lyrics about Tom sleeping.

A few years ago I gathered my courage and played the song at an open mic. I've skydived and, on two separate occasions, I've been jumped by groups of strangers looking for a street fight. None of those were even close to as terrifying as an open mic. I have crazy respect for people who can perform in public. The open mic was recorded so, here it is. My first time ever playing music in public.