Monthly Archives: April 2015

Escape the Room NYC

My friends and I have been enjoying playing the Escape the Room games in NYC. Costing around $30 per person, you need to book well in advance, and (pending the specific game) need anywhere from 6-12 people to play. On a previous outing, we played the James Bond themed “The Agency” game (that we did not win), and more recently we (successfully) completed the Sherlock Holmes-themed “The Home.” The only game left at the Midtown location for us is “The Office.” There are two more games located at their downtown location (“Theater” and “Apartment”) we’ve yet to play. Similar games have been springing up, such as a pop-up Attack on Titan game that was held at Yankee Stadium!

Having studied game design back in undergrad as an interactive multimedia student (and a tiny bit in grad school too), I enjoy experiencing these “big games” on a very meta level. Both the experience of playing–the exhilaration, the teamwork and communication needed to beat the clock, the puzzles (and the puzzles within puzzles)–and the experience of being cognitively aware that I am going through these pre-determined motions and interactions, is quite a rush. The thought that I am actively playing a game someone else meticulously designed, game terminology floating around my head all the while, that was specifically designed for this space, is pretty fantastic. That’s what I love about big games: they are, by definition, inherently specific to the surrounding environment. A good example and chance to play some big games is the Come Out & Play festival, which (in this year’s case) takes over Governors Island and DUMBO Brooklyn for a weekend (July 17-18th) of site-specific fun.

In one of my undergrad game design classes, we were tasked with designing a big game that made use of our college campus. It was very fun to playtest the various teams’ games and see where they took us on the campus, and how they made use of the space. But Escape the Room is great as the space it occupies was built for the game, rather than it just being a variable the designers had to factor in. (Obviously, the designers had to factor in certain things about the space before designing the game though, but more basic things such as cubic meters, ceiling height, etc.–things you can’t actually legally change when renting a space in NYC.

Being able to deconstruct the game as both a player and a designer, allows one to use these angles to help progress the story along, and give you an idea of what to expect. As all of my friends who I attended with are gamers (video games, board games, card games, casual games, you name it)(oh, and avid Sherlock-watchers!), I felt pretty confident. The fact that we had already played one before as well added to the knowledge and experience we collectively pooled. We sort of knew, not what to expect, but how to manage our expectations and the nature of the unknown factors we’d face. I feel like I talked about the same thing over and over but with different wording each time…I just really enjoy this type of thing. 🙂

If you are ever in NYC, I highly recommend giving one of these a whirl. I loved “being” in 221B Baker Street and rummaging about, with a certain theme song on loop in my head the whole time. And as I mentioned before, if you’re interested in experiencing other types of “big games” yourself, consider Come Out & Play in July.

The game is on

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The Lord of the Rings in Concert

Last weekend, I attended a performance of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers in concert in NYC. It was hosted at the Lincoln Center, where I’ve seen the New York Philharmonic Orchestra perform. This event featured the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra, who have been traveling the world essentially covering movie scores. Past performances include “live” screenings of Pirates of the Caribbean, Back to the Future, Ratatouille, Indiana Jones, and more. This was their first time performing the Lord of the Rings trilogy in North America.

Amazing. Def had an out of body experience. #lordoftherings #LOTRinConcert

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Having bought this ticket off of a co-worker, I was locked into The Two Towers. Though I think I would have picked it had I had the option. I remember in middle school facing the exact same dilemma in a music store. Adoring the scores to these films, I wanted (and could only afford) one CD. It came down to Fellowship or Two Towers, with my love of the playful Shire music pulling me towards the first, and my love of the grandiose Rohan epics pulling me towards the second. In the end, I decided on Two Towers largely because it had a nice combination of “happy” music and action music. (Return of the King did not have much of what 12-year-old me classified as “happy” music, ruling it out entirely.)

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Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet @ the NYICFF

Towards the end of March, I had the privilege of attending the US premiere of the 2015 animated adaptation of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet at the New York International Children’s Film Festival (NYICFF). The screening took place at the SVA Theatre on 23rd street, which gave me a chance to stop in and visit SVA, where I am a part-time MFA computer animation student.

I have been following this adaptation of The Prophet for a while now, honestly in shock that such a film was even rumored to exist. When I first learned of it, it just sounded too good to be true: it is a (mostly) 2D animated feature length film, with contributions from eight of the world’s leading indie animators, and it tackles subject matter with a lot more depth than slapstick. I was so pleased that Salma Hayek was seeing this through.

To be brief (and spoiler free), the overarching story follows Mustafa, a writer, artist, and teacher whose work was perhaps a little too liberal for his local government. Under house-arrest for years, he is taken care of by a woman whose daughter, a quiet troublemaker, becomes an unlikely friend. When his sentence is up, he is escorted by guards through the town, towards the docks, where he is to be shipped back to his home country. Along the way, he encounters many of the locals, who welcome his return with unbridled celebration (to the displeasure of the government officials). He shares with them eight sermons (a distillation of the original 26 poems), which range from topics of love, work, death, and everything all humans experience in between. These are where the work of the independent animators come through. I won’t elaborate further, but I will steal a line from Variety’s Review, saying that it “…doesn’t shy away from grown-up concerns.”

Still from the film

Still from the film

At times, I did find myself admittedly wanting to fast-forward through the main story, just to get to the smaller inserts done by the indie artists. Each one offered something new both stylistically and in the way they visually conveyed the more mature sentiments of Gibran’s poems.  Although the overlying story was interesting in its own right, there was much to be desired for me. The cel-shaded CG was a bit awkward for me visually. Similarly, some of the gags involving minor characters (particularly the seagull and bumbling guard) seemed forced.

Ironically, the children I ended up seated next to disliked the inserts and I was treated to an audible sigh (“Another one!?”) as each one began. After the screening, I overheard the father discussing with his children, asking what they didn’t like about it. The older of the two (with approving nods from the younger) stated that the short animations kept distracting them from the main story, and that they were too wordy, which made it more difficult to follow along. As a child, I know I would have preferred the varying segments over the overall story, but I also know that the depth of those segments would have been lost on me.

I am not going to go into the shorts any more, as I’d like to watch the film once more, as well as give other people a chance to see it for themselves in theaters before reading any sort of deconstruction. And–in case it was a concern–this film does touch a tiny bit on God, particularly during a couple of the inserts. But I never felt like it was being thrown in my face. The beautiful thing about the words of the prophet is that, regardless of religion, they are universal truths and experiences we share by simply being human.

I highly recommend seeing this film. Go see it on the big screen, support dream projects like this, support the indie artists and this beautiful collaboration. Support 2D animation–an animation that asks a little more of its audience–that calls attention to the freedoms of expression we often take for granted. Celebrate the wisdom and words of the prophet.

GKids has announced that the film will hit New York City and Los Angeles theaters on August 7, with a US and Canadian rollout following after.

Bill Plympton @ Blue Sky Studios

NYC-based independent animator Bill Plympton visited Blue Sky Studios!

plymptonBSS

Photo taken from Blue Sky Studios Facebook page

This actually wasn’t my first time seeing Bill Plympton talk. He’s visited my department at SVA a number of times, was on a panel I saw a while ago organized by The Academy and the Society of Illustrators, and I tend to bump into him at NYC events, and support his other animation endeavors. I have quite a few post cards with doodles of his iconic guard dog:

It’s always interesting to see Bill talk, because, unlike many artists who cater their talks based on whether the audience is predominantly students or professionals (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), he is always very blunt and sincerely speaks his mind. He doesn’t beat around the bush about his opinions on animation in the US, about being an animation student today, or about himself and his career.

He’s the first one to tell you that he doesn’t make a whole lot of cash from his films, and that any money he makes goes into the next film. He discussed his decision to launch (a successful) kickstarter for his latest film, Cheatin’, his early days as an illustrator-turned animator, and the freedom (despite limited resources) he enjoys today tackling more grown up subject matter. He was encouraging to many artists, reminding them that they can still create their own work about whatever they want despite being at a larger studio.

Always the advocate of broadening the scope of animation in America, Bill’s talks always touch on this, which is why I enjoy them so much. There’s no reason why more films like his can’t exist alongside your Disney musicals. I personally prefer a grey area in between these “kid” and “adult-themed” films, which is why films like The Wind Rises appeal to me on a thematic level. They tell more mature stories but can still be accessible to younger audiences. But Bill is doing what no one else in this country is doing, and doing so without compromise, and I love that. He shows that these darker topics can be digested without being the punchline like you so often find in “adult” animation like South Park. Again, not that there is anything wrong with that, but there is always room for more!

My friend from high school, Eric Francisco, interviewed Bill for the site Geekscape. It’s a really fantastic read, as Eric asked some great questions, many of which I ponder a lot while working at a studio that solely focuses on family-oriented stories. While at Blue Sky, Plympton did briefly share his thoughts on the matter, similar to this bit from the interview:

They get jealous, they have adulterous affairs and divorces, [even] hook up with prostitutes and things like that, but yet they can’t talk about it. They can’t discuss it in their films. They have to do kiddie films. Which seems like lying. They’re betraying their artistic sensibilities. Whereas I can draw about whatever I want and that’s what makes me an artist talking about my own life.

The independent film life is not for everyone, especially with a beast of a medium like animation. But it’s so great to see people like Bill Plympton continue to carve a niche for themselves. And from the looks of some early reviews of Cheatin’ (which just was released to limited theaters), it looks like that niche will be growing even more this year.

Here is a trailer for Cheatin’: