February 21, 2014

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Fishers of Men

One of Theo’s favorite pastimes is fly-fishing.  The River Coln flows gently past his cottage on its way through the Cotswold Hills of southern England, and is filled with lovely brown trout.  Such a pastime allows one to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life and spend time in a quiet stream or lake, relaxing in the beauty of God’s creation.  Great for us humans, not so great if you’re a fish.

Fishers of Men

Fly-fishing is the art of catching fish with artificial lures that resemble real bugs, or “flies” as in mayflies or stoneflies.  Like most sports or activities there’s an art to fly-fishing, a skill which is learned.  Some people are better at it than others, of course; some are naturals, some never develop a love for it and prefer other types of fishing.  People like me have to work very, very hard at it, and only catch fish with dogged determination and much prayer.  Not a joke.  

Also, the fly-fisherman must think like a fish.  If you were a fish where would you hang out?  Rivers have personalities; some are easy-going and gentle, some are treacherous, some meander with endless loops of cut banks and eddies.  The fly-fisherman must learn to read the river. A fly-fisherman must have a fair knowledge of the stream he or she wishes to fish, as well as a fair knowledge of the fish itself.  Not all rivers are alike, and neither are fish.  For example, barracudas don’t have the same diet as rainbow trout.  You won’t find a marlin in a trout stream.    

Finally, there are different seasons, as well.  Trout are bug eaters, but like all creatures great and small, bugs have life-cycles (egg, nymph, emerging adult, dun, spinner, etc.), so it’s best to know what’s hatching bug-wise.  The knowledgable fly-fisherman will “match the hatch,” by selecting an artificial fly from his fly box that best resembles the bug of choice.

What’s my point to all of this?  Temptation, of course.  Did you know that the devil is a professional with centuries of experience when it comes to fly-fishing?  He’s been around a long time, and knows what artificial flies will tempt us.  He’s basically got three types: lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, the pride of life.  He bagged our great ancestors Adam and Eve with these three, and hasn’t added any new flies to his flybox.

He knows what artificial lure to use to entice the believer into sin.  James 1:14 reads, “But each person is tempted when they are dragged away and enticed by their own evil desire” (NIV).  The word for “enticed” is deleazo in the original language.  It’s a fishing term that means to lure.  

A wary trout may “sniff” at a lure, but then pass on it.  He knows it’s a fake.  I’ve had this happen many times in my own experience.  What do I do?  I’ll try a different fly.  Maybe he’ll go for this one.  If he does, I’ve caught him.  I’m a catch-and-release guy; that is, after I catch a fish I let him go.  The devil releases no one.  There are no “limits” he must abide by.  The devil knows his fish.  he knows what lure to use for every kind of human fish, for every kind of water condition––stream, lake, ocean––and in every season of the year.

October 23, 2013

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Behind the Scenes of the Theo Series - Pre Production

One vision. Six months. Fourteen thousand, four hundred frames of film. A gaggle of artists and technical nerds. One thousand, eight hundred cups of coffee. Four gobs of money (a gob is 16 crate loads). Those numbers represent a part of what it takes to make a ten-minute episode of Theo.

Piece of cake!

We all love the behind-the-scenes look at our favorite movies, don’t we? Bonus features that give us a peek into the lives of actors and directors, as well as into the production itself; its highs and lows, perhaps some technical insights as to how they got full-size humans to look like hobbits, or how they got Superman to look like he’s really flying. Over the next several blogs I am going to write about the three production phases that go into the making of Theo––Pre-Production, Production and Post Production.

I hope I can do it in three blogs.

Animation, for those who are not aware of it, is a very labor intensive, highly collaborative filmmaking process. It involves writers, animators, background painters, voice-over actors, mixers, dubbers, compositors, producer, director, production manager, and the list goes on. No one person can do it all.

I’ve been asked many times, “Don’t you just do it with computers nowadays?” I frown. My upper lip curls. “No!”

People have funny ideas of what a computer can do. It can do many things which help the animation process, but it cannot yet replace good old fashioned pencil-to-paper technology. They’re getting close though. Very close.

In the meantime, Whitestone Media is what we call a “tradigital” studio; that is, we animate traditionally, with pencils and paper, the way it’s been done since the beginning of the modern art form with Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur (1914). This is the traditional side of tradigital. The digital side of it kicks in generally with the ink-and-paint phase, as well as each of the phases in post-production (more about this later).

There are highs and lows in every production, traditional or digital; times when everything is hitting on all eight cylinders, and times when––dare I say it––the wheels come off. Technical glitches, artist meltdowns, life crises, whatever. Such is the creative process involving many talented artists and technicians. Toss in some spiritual opposition (in the case of Theo cartoons), buffeting and human frailty, and it’s a wonder that anything gets done. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry, sometimes we wonder if this is what God really wants us to do. And always, as we “wrap” an episode, as we sit down together as a studio and watch what God has allowed us to do, we resoundingly say, “Yes, Lord! Thank you! Use this for your glory!”

Pre-Production--Script through recording

Mike Joens at the computer Every episode of Theo begins in prayer. As the writer I always begin a script by asking God what He wants me to write about, what He wants me to teach through Theo. As we Christians know, prayer is a mystical experience, and difficult to articulate. But we know that when we pray God always answers. Sometimes He answers through my daily devotional time. A scripture may come to mind, and then a theme––like justification, or the new birth. At other times one of the artists might call and say, “What about this idea, Mike? I was just praying about it. I think it would be a good topic for Theo.”

“Yes, but can I condense it into a 10 minute episode?” That’s often the most challenging part. Weaving a biblical theme with Scripture and humor can be challenging as well. It’s a balancing act.

Once the script is written, I will give it to Lisa Joens, my associate producer and daughter-in-law, and she, or her production assistant, will go through and mark it for new characters, backgrounds and props.

For example, in our episode on Adoption (God’s Truth) we needed a new character, a dog, whom Theo adopts into his family. New character, new model. Someone needs to design it.

I did a rough sketch of what I had in mind for Bumper’s look and gave it to John Pomeroy, one of our lead animators. He gave it the “Pomeroy touch,” making it “animatable”; that is, a character whose basic forms––body, head and muzzle masses––would be easy for animators to animate, and yet retain a fun and engaging personality. This drawing then got tweaked by Len Simon, another lead animator, and the character of “Bumper” was born. Truly a character created by collaboration.

Early sketches of Bumper the dog Once the director approves the character model, turnarounds must be drawn. A turnaround is just that, a turnaround of the character. It’s a series of drawings of what the character looks like from every angle––top, bottom, side, front, 3/4 front and rear views. Attitude poses are also very helpful, so that an animator will know what the character should look like in this or that pose or his range of expressions.

John Pomeroy and Mike Joens discussing the storyboard John Pomeroy also does most of our storyboards. A storyboard is a scene-by-scene depiction of the script. He will interpret a written scene, talk it over with the director, and then, in the solitude of his studio, breathe visual life into it, acting with his pencil. Every scene, every camera angle, every bit of character acting, every nuance of expression is drawn into the storyboard. In reality the storyboard is the “blueprint” for the picture. Or, as the old animation saying goes, “If it ain’t in the storyboard, then it ain’t gonna be in the picture.”

Props are inanimate objects, such as rakes or hoes, or hammers, or dog bowls that will animate in a given scene. Like character models, each prop needs designing, so that animators will have a consistent model to work with. That way one animator’s dog bowl will look like another’s. Props are either designed from the storyboard, or from the script, depending on the flow of production and artist availability. Sometimes we are able to reuse a prop from an earlier episode, such as Theo’s fishing rod, or wheelbarrow. This of course saves time and money, two commodities in cartoon production that always seem in short supply.

Next comes recording. We bring in the voice actors and record the dialogue. It’s fun to listen to the actor’s take on a line of dialogue. And it’s especially fun when an actor adds (or ad libs) something not in the script that actually plusses the scene. Personally, I like to direct the actor from the storyboard, whereas there are those who like to direct from the script, and then give the actor’s readings to the storyboard artist to help him or her visualize the scene. Each approach has merit.

Voice actor in sound booth One of the major differences between live-action and animation filmmaking is how we edit. In live-action the editing process usually occurs in the post-production phase. In animation in occurs in pre-production. Why the difference?

A live-action director will usually call for several “takes” of the same scene, until he gets it the way he wants. Afterward a film editor will go through reams of raw footage and pull it all together. We simply can’t afford to do that in animation. Because animation is so expensive we have to get it right up front, on the first take; we must “pre-edit” the film. Before an animator ever touches pencil to paper we must know what the film looks like, how long each scene will take, what camera angles best fit the scene, and so on. To do this we create what’s called an “animatic.”

Animatic of Theo An animatic is a filmed storyboard. Once the storyboard is completed and the voice-overs have been recorded, we then scan the storyboard into the computer and “time” it out in a computer program; that is, how long should this scene or action take? I still favor an old fashioned stopwatch when I time out scenes, but there are digital stopwatches available for non dinosaurs. In the animatic we arrange everything in proper sequence, sometimes adding storyboard inserts if needed, sometimes even adding sound effects or stock music to give us a feel for the storytelling. With the animatic we “lock down the picture” to the frame.

Track reading and X-sheets come next (sounds like a Sci-fi movie, doesn’t it?). This is the point where it gets a little technical. People have often asked me how we get the voices of the actors to match up, or lip-sync, with the animation. It’s very simple. But first a note about exposure sheets, or X-sheets as we call them in Cartoon Land. An X-sheet (see photo) is a long sheet of paper with bunches of horizontal and vertical lines on it (I told you this was going to be technical).

X-sheet Each one of the horizontal lines represents 1/24th of a second of film. Put another way, there are 24 frames of film in every second (based on the old 35mm standard). It takes so many seconds for an actor to read a line of dialogue. The same line could be read fast or slow, depending on what the director wants.

A track reader receives the finished recording on tape, or WAV file, and “reads” it; that is, he listens to each word and writes it down phonetically, and notes its duration, on the X-sheet in the vertical column going down the middle of the page. For instance, if Theo says, “God loves you,” it might be written, “ga-awd lu-uvs yooo,” in the vertical column, taking up several of the horizontal lines; again, depending on how long it took the actor to voice it.

By following the X-sheet, the animator knows that at line 20, for instance, Theo’s mouth must make a “Guh” expression for two or three horizontal lines, followed by an “aaah” or open mouth expression, for several more lines, followed by a D, and so on. As long as the animator follows the track reader’s notations, his animation will sync with the actor’s words. Of course he will have a copy of the actor’s actual voice, in order to get his/her tone, vocal expression, etc, the way it was recorded.

There are a lot of other steps involved in the pre-production phase, but this gives a general idea of the process. Hang on, though, we’re just getting started! Next blog we’ll talk about the Production phase, which involves animation and clean up, and BGs, and layouts, and all the rest of the fun stuff that goes into the making of a Theo episode.

April 03, 2012

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How to Make an Eternal Impact for Every Christian Parent

 Click here to read the featured article in the April 2012 issue of Parent Life magazine from Lifeway.

March 23, 2012

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Quote from Jay W. Richards Ph. D.

 

Christians have been trying to teach the Bible and theology to their children for two thousand years—with varying degrees of success. Whitestone Media's series Theo Presents makes it look easy. They combine first rate production quality, brilliant animation, and solid biblical content. Rather than dumbing down the faith and the Bible, they make both accessible, compelling, and entertaining to kids. Theo Presents has blessed our family.

Jay W. Richards, Ph.D.
Executive Producer, The Call of the Entrepreneur, and co-author of the New York Times bestseller Indivisible.
March 22, 2012

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God's Peace

I have a confession: I am a weakling. I grew up idolizing the tragic hero. The man or woman who has the deck stacked against them.  The one who has every reason to believe they are going to fail, has every reason to be discouraged but still trudges on, does their duty, and fights the good fight.  But I realized something, I am just not that guy. I constantly need encouragement.
Recently, my wife and I got home from church and our 10 month old daughter was in a foul mood (I never knew a baby could be so rebellious). She was screaming and carrying on and there was nothing we could do to soothe her.  We were dealing with some difficult matters and having a very upset little girl on our hands was doing nothing to help our pain and anxiety. I was getting more and more discouraged until I finally prayed out to God, “Please give us some kind of encouragement; this is just too overwhelming”. But things continued as they were and, eventually, I started asking God “Why wouldn’t You do this for us?  Why won’t You encourage us?”  

At the end of the day, just before her bed time, I took my daughter for a walk to a park close by and we plopped ourselves down next to our favorite tree. As we sat there with the wind blowing through the leaves and sun setting, I was staring at my daughter as she looked around in wonder at all the new sights and sounds.  It was music to my soul. God’s peace at last! 

Walking back, I wondered how much of God’s peace I miss out on because I fill my life with noise and activity. My typical strategy for dealing with pain is to distract myself from it. I watch t.v., read a book, work on some project, anything to keep my mind off of the pain and anxiety.  Bringing it before God and letting Him speak to me in the midst of it is usually a last resort. When David says of the Lord, “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” (Psalm 23:2-3a), he is talking about something deeper and more profound than “He helps me not think about my pain.” If I’m honest with myself, not only is my distraction strategy ineffective, it prevents me from receiving the gift that God really wants to give me: His Peace.

 

March 16, 2012

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A Faithful Man

St. Patrick's Day - Four Leaf Clover I am not a Saint Patrick scholar, nor do I agree with every thing his sect of Christianity claims.  But as one raised in an Irish-American family that had corned-beef and cabbage every Saint Patrick’s Day, the holiday has a special place in my heart. There is plenty of myth surrounding Saint Patrick, but here are a few things we do know about him.  He was kidnapped by a group of Irish Marauders at the age of sixteen, and taken to Ireland where he became a slave.  After several years he escaped and returned to Britain. In Britain he studied to be a priest and became a bishop. Eventually, he felt God’s call to return to Ireland and spread the gospel among the Irish.  He says of his return to Ireland:

In his autobiography (Confession), Saint Patrick writes:

I testify in truthfulness and gladness of heart before God and His holy angels that I never had any reason, except the Gospel and His promises, ever to have returned to that nation from which I had previously escaped with difficulty. 

He spent almost thirty years sharing Christ on the island until he died.

. . . Without any doubt, in that day we shall arise in the brightness of the Son, that is, in the glory of Jesus Christ, and, all redeemed, we shall be, as it were, the sons of God and co-heirs of Christ, and made like to His image in the future. For from Him, and by Him, and in Him, are all things: to Him be glory for ever. Amen.

It is difficult to read a passage like this without thinking of the many Irish who are “sons of God and co-heirs of Christ” because of the works God accomplished through Saint Patrick. Any choir director will tell you every good choir needs a diversity of voices.  Thanks be to God for the many Irish voices which will be singing “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty, Who was, and is, and is to come.”

November 08, 2011

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My Motivation

My name is Michael Anderson. I am on staff here at Whitestone Media and in September we released the first DVD of our animated series, Theo. We are all very excited about this project and it is a privilege to be working on it. I hope you will allow me to share my motivation as I do my (very small) part on this project.

When I was in second grade I took part in a school wide choir performance. I don’t remember much of the performance but I do remember singing a humorous adaptation of the song “Don’t worry, be happy”. In the version we sang, instead of “don’t worry, be happy”, we sang “don’t worry, get even”. It was meant to be funny and it was, every time we sang that chorus, I could hear laughing from the crowd. I bring this up not to be hard on my teachers. They gave of themselves every day to their students; they lived the exact opposite of the song’s message. But to a seven year old, who lives in a world that preaches self-satisfaction as man’s highest end, these words were dangerous.

We sometimes think of our beliefs as a kind of grocery list. An idea is presented before me, I weigh it independently and either place it on the “believe list” or not. This is overly simplistic because often the beliefs I have, shape the way I see the world and influence the ideas allowed on my “believe list”. Here’s a silly example, imagine Sally never learns that fire is hot. One day she sees Johnny jumping up and down shaking his hand forwards and backwards next to a lit stove. You or I might come to believe that Johnny has burned his hand. While Sally might believe that Johnny is practicing a new dance. Ideas are the lenses by which we see the world.

In my case, the chorus of that song we sang influenced the way I saw the world, contributing to an incorrect view. I bought into the lie that I should “get it while the gettin’s good” If someone wrongs you, get them back, if they owe you, collect, do whatever it takes to take care of numero uno. The more and more I saw the world in this way, the more that attitude was confirmed in me. But here is the big problem, this is utterly at odds with my Lord when He commands me to lay down my life for others. As I am being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, I am having to change my view of the world.

There is a great danger here, but there is also great opportunity. This is what excites me about Theo. Theo touches on biblical concepts like faith, justification, obedience, forgiveness, and much more. These are concepts that I eventually got around to pre-middle school, but how much more beneficial would it have been for me to be exposed to them earlier?

My great hope with Theo is that children would be exposed to the biblical ideas found in our episodes and those ideas would be shaping the way they see the world and their relationship to it. That is, I pray that their view of the world would be more and more conformed to that of our Savior, Jesus Christ.