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Toymaker: A New Seven-Minute Animated Short From Brown CS

This story was originally published in the December 2017 issue of Conduit, the annual Brown CS magazine.

It’s half past noon in CIT 368 on May 18, 2017. After fourteen years of Senior Lecturer Barbara Meier’s computer animation classes at Brown, after months of focused effort, we have something very new, a first: Toymaker, a seven-minute animated short.

Every seat is full, and much of the floor. The lights are dimmed. In darkness, there’s room for multiplicity. The student who started the whole thing is here with her team of thirteen. There’s the teacher and mentor who didn’t just advise but worked the long hours alongside them; here’s the composer who wrote the score and helped perform it. Classmates from RISD as well as Brown are gathered, friends and friends of friends, and the colleagues and experts who are maybe the only ones to fully understand the scope of what’s been accomplished.

But why subdivide the ineffable? The flickering screen makes us all spectators again. We’re drawn to the high spire, the telescope, to humankind’s mastery of art or science on the grandest scale, but also to the personal and small: the studio in all its clutter, the Wozniakian garage, or here, the string of fleeting moments that tell a much bigger story.

We’re ready to wonder again. Barb’s about to hit the ► button.

Take a moment to see it for yourself: go to https://vimeo.com/242488116 and use contoyduit17 for the password.

Not Knowing What The Recipe Would Make: Barbara Meier

Before story, history: Barb traces her interest in animation to when she was twelve or thirteen. Her parents disapprove of most daytime television, so she watches when they aren’t home, and is awed by the hand-drawn work that she sees in an animated film festival. At first, a career as an animator seems as unlikely as becoming an Olympic skater, but in the years that follow, Barb finds herself returning to the idea that animation is just drawing on paper. “It didn’t have to be this mysterious process,” she says. “I felt like it was an actual possibility.”

But there’s plenty of mystery to come along a zigzagging career path. Studying computer science as a Brown undergrad, Barb sees the potential for using computer graphics (CG) in animation and is drawn to auteur animation’s ability to realize the vision of a single artist. She credits Andy van Dam for encouraging her to apply to the Brown CS Master’s program, and postgraduate work follows at RISD, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (their curriculum replicates the working life of an artist, an idea that Barb returns to later in her own teaching), and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

Industry work catches Barb’s attention first, and she spends almost a decade in California, creating animated effects and digital matte paintings. It isn’t easy: long hours, constant pressure to work faster and lower costs, extremely narrow margins. “I knew it wasn’t going to sustain me forever,” she says. “I wanted kids, a life. It was a really great ride, but I thought I could take what I’d learned everywhere and bring my industry experience to students, even if I didn’t know what the recipe would make.” A book about making a career change had recommended teaching, and with more than a little hesitation (Barb remembers saying, “No, not that! That’s for people who are washed-up.”) she returns to Brown.

Barb agrees to take on CS195-9 (now CS 125) in mid-July of 2003. Beyond any doubt, it’s trial by fire. She remembers frantically picking software for the course in August, trying to prepare lectures with two small boys running around the house, finishing her notes an hour before the class begins. She says, “The one thing I think I did well was setting up a structure and creating assignments. Right away, I saw the students doing really good work, exceeding expectations on every task I gave them.” Graduates of the course often continued working with Barb independently, which sparked the need for a second course, CS 128 Intermediate Computer Animation. One trend continues year after year: students are coming to her with more interest in animation and better experience with it, so she continually moves content from the second course to the first.

CS 125 presents students with the new challenge of creating a short film at the end of the course. “But they’re really bare-bones,” Barb says, smiling. “It's an important project because it forces students to tackle all parts of the film, even those they've barely practiced. If they pause to polish one area, they'll never finish the rest. CS 128 addresses the desire to go back and do it right, to learn the artistic and technical skills at a deeper level. The price is that lavishing more time on every stage of production makes it impossible to finish a short film at the end. The ultimate dream is to flex the deeply-honed skills to finally make a high-quality short film.”

Occasionally, some students follow that dream.

Portraits From Life: Nellie Robinson

“One of the main things I got out of CS 125,” says Nellie Robinson, “was working as a team on our one-month short. I wanted to repeat the experience.” That was the start of Toymaker.

Since graduating in May (she has a dual degree from RISD), Nellie has been working at Ingenuity Studios in Los Angeles. As a kid, we find her working with crafts (turning tissue boxes into apartment buildings, building a tiny playground out of concert tickets) and drawing portraits from life: “I always enjoyed drawing, but I never thought about how it could be applied to other things.” She doesn’t take any CS courses in her first year at Brown and RISD, but learns Processing, a programming language built on Java for the art and design community. “I really liked looking at the output of code I’d written, the visual aspect.” she says. “Maybe I was drawn to computer animation because it’s squarely between the technical and the artistic.”

That summer, Nellie interns at Pixar, and CS 125 follows. It’s motivation enough for a big project of her own, so she goes to Barb in November of 2015 with a pitch for a new class. The reaction?

“Ugh, not again!” Meier laughs, pantomiming despair by putting a hand to her forehead and slowly lowering her head to her desk. In the past, students have asked her for a third class, to work on bigger projects: it was offered once, in 2011. “I was wearing too many hats, producer and director, and it was frustrating in many ways. Unintentionally, we set ourselves up to fail. When Nellie came to me, I gave her a choice, and when she picked a class instead of a group independent study project, I set very high bars: lots of monitoring throughout the process, at least ten people on the team, and having one person as the sole producer.”

And so it begins. “At the start,” Nellie says, “it felt entirely reasonable.”

Spring And Summer: Pre-Production

Take a look at Toymaker again, focusing on nothing but the textures: the dull plastic handle on the cheap pair of scissors that we all own, clumped and gummy glue, the glint of a paperclip. But there’s more. Look closer. See how paint feathers at its edges into woodgrain, or how age and reuse turn a soda bottle’s perfect transparence into translucence, or –quick, you only have seconds to admire it– the hundreds of crisscrossing scores that a utility knife makes in the slightly nubbly rubber of a tabletop-protecting mat.

In the spring of 2016, Robinson has her story, so she brings it to Megan Jerbic of RISD, who begins turning it into a script. Nellie starts working with other RISD friends (Mariel Rodriguez and Julie Kwon on character design, Michelle Zhuang and Yoo Jin Shin on set design), and soon it’s time for choosing color palettes and designing objects that will make up the Toymaker world. “The main feed for the visuals,” she says, “was the DIY mentality. I’m really interested in repurposing objects, turning trash into fantasy worlds.” As a possible aesthetic influence, Nellie cites the stop-motion work of Laika Entertainment: “Objects have flaws. There aren’t a lot of perfect perpendiculars, it’s kind of wonky – you can tell the materials of everything.”

Her original idea for the cast of characters is an old man and his daughter: “That was the first thing that came to mind, but the artists pointed out, and I agreed, that it was a trope that’s been done a lot, the old craftsman neglecting his kids. "Turning the toymaker into a working single mother is more nuanced and relevant. We're instantly aware of her work/life balance, and this places more importance on the difference between providing for her daughter and connecting with her daughter.”

It’s a notion that makes it easy to understand how Nellie’s mentor might have been drawn to the project. “I want to change how people look at the seemingly small issues of everyday life,” Barb writes in a recent Artist Statement, “but those that affect us and our relationships in some of the more profound ways.”

Summer: Much More Than A Community

Summer arrives, and Nellie has managed to gather enough people to meet Barb’s requirement.

“If I’d stopped to think about it,” says Kenji Endo (now Head TA for CS 125, he’s graduating in the spring of 2018), “maybe I wouldn’t have thought Toymaker was feasible. But it was so cool! Nellie has a great artistic eye and technical skill. And the people drew me in, the sense of community.”

It’s time to meet the team. Thanks to prior work with Barb, the students know the production pipeline of animation inside and out: Meier immediately assigns each phase of the project to one or two leaders and possibly a “worker bee” or two under their direction. Each leader has to define their job and their team’s goals. The poster for Toymaker lists everyone in alphabetical order: Luci Cooke, Dash Elhauge, Kenji Endo, Felege Gebru, Emma Herold, Simon Jones, Barbara Meier, Vivian Morgowicz, Ray Muñoz, Ben Nacar, Emily Reif, Nellie Robinson, Yoo Jin Shin.

Megan Jerbic, Julie Kwon, Mariel Rodriguez, and Michelle Zhuang also contributed to the script, storyboards, character design, prop design, and set design; Melanie Ambler and Irene Tang accompanied Ben Nacar on the Toymaker score.

“I think Nellie said it in a Facebook post,” says Barb. “The whole reason wasn’t to make this film but to make it with these people. The students were already a community from taking classes together, but they were much more than that at the end. The hard work came out of not wanting to let each other down.”

At the beginning, did it ever feel too ambitious, even impossible? Nellie thinks for a moment: “I’m not sure, but if it did, that feeling definitely increased as time went on. When something is pushed back a few days, it pushes back everything else. The whole project felt slightly more unreasonable each week.”

Fall: Modeling, Shading, Character Modeling, Rigging, Layout, Blocking

And the weeks are already going by. For a visual, picture the MS Lab, which serves as home base. No matter which hour of the day or night it may be, Nellie and the others have gotten used to seeing at least one member of the Toymaker team at work whenever they walk in.

The leaders have set up the assignments for their worker bees, but sometimes all hands are needed. Modeling is one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle, and it involves creating the geometry of everything in the set based on sketches, then applying textures, color, surface properties. Set dressers are putting the props into place, just like they’re moving into a new apartment: walls, doors, shelves, down to the last detail. The shading of an object depends on where it sits in the set and how it’s used. The spine of a book on a shelf that never gets read doesn’t take much time, but the shaders kick into high gear on certain objects that drive the story, that we see again and again.

Kenji says that he likes tackling technical challenges from an artistic angle. “We’re making everything in this world from scratch,” he says. “We’re responsible for time of day, the mood. The architecture of the world helps tell the story.”

The layout process turns the storyboard into shots: it could be a one-to-one ratio, or a shot might be made up of as many as six storyboard panels. Blocking, the positioning of characters, begins with all of them in T-pose, with their arms straight out. There’s not an actual camera to be found, of course, but the team is agonizing over close-ups and long shots like any Hollywood director.

Eventually, the storyboard is replaced with quickly-rendered blocking shots. “It’s really tough,” Barb says, “because what you have is crude and what you want is very high-level. It’s like editing a paper to adjust the arguments before the grammar is completely there.” Character modeling is another big technical challenge: it’s a lot more complicated to make a person than a coffee cup. They might be too tall, too old, too cute, and soon they’ll have to move, so their underlying geometry has to have integrity. The rigging process builds an armature inside the characters, giving the animators controls to grab onto.  

At various points in time, Nellie explains, many of the students are working on the project almost every day. On many nights and weekends, Barb works from her home in Barrington, her coffee intake slowly increasing; at other times, the students wrestle the file system and work remotely, separately. But every week starts the same way: a look at everyone’s work, two and a half hours of detailed critiques. “It was really fun to go in depth in our reviews every week, to iterate and improve over time,” says Kenji. “Everyone got to specialize in their favorite area, but we all learned more about each component of the project, even if we weren’t working on it.”

“I loved that part,” Nellie says. “I was surprised every week by what people were doing – you got to see a little bit of magic.”

The Music Drives Things: Ben Nacar

Brown CS alum Ben Nacar is one of the first people to join Nellie’s team: Barb emails him an invitation in May, 2016. (She knows him from his work on an advisee’s capstone project.) His contributions begin early, but we deliberately turn to him just now, in the middle of the action. Until we have a sense of the textures, the props, the production work that’s going on around him as he writes the score, it’s impossible to see how the music springs from the deepest core of the story.

Go back to Toymaker again and listen. A picture book open on a girl’s lap shows a fairground lit with the nearer stars of carnival lights, the far ones tiny and sunk in indigo sky. There’s only a piano playing in the background; the midway calliope is just your imagination. But did you catch that little flourish as Angela’s hand moves over the carousel? Later, just shy of one minute into the short, Ben has exactly seven seconds to capture all the subtleties of this mother looking back at this sleeping girl in this moment. Listen to what he does with it. 

“I was really drawn to the story,” he says. As a kid, Ben dabbles in filmmaking, telling stories with stuffed animals. “We moved the animals around with nylon threads that we hoped people wouldn’t be able to see, but they could anyway! I went back to those memories of just playing, imagining, reading Robert Louis Stevenson – trying to recapture that. The world of Toymaker is very vivid but fragile. Maria is doing work but her heart isn’t in it: even when they’re happily reading in bed, it’s a little sad. When the village comes to life, it’s a separate melody, more emotions.”

One of Ben’s early tasks is to create a mock soundtrack as a reference. He uses bits of Beethoven, the Firefly soundtrack, John Williams, but it’s “a bit of a chore” because it reminds him how far he’ll have to go for the results he wants. “I had to ask early on what the instrumentation would be,” he explains. “It’s more intimate than a regular Hollywood blockbuster – an orchestra would be overkill. I looked at eastern European music, which historically was often used in animation, but traditional classical is my idiom, so I went with piano, violin, and cello, letting myself be influenced by klezmer and other traditions rather than trying to duplicate a particular style.”  

Ben describes himself as a melody-centric composer, and as the team starts feeding him materials (only sketches at first), he begins drafting just a couple of lines: capturing character and mood, then extrapolating from there. Tara Fisler (daughter of Professors Kathi Fisler and Shriram Krishnamurthi) and team member Emily Reif star in a live action demo that gives him a sense of timing and flow, and within a week, he has a rough draft of the first half. The second follows a week later. Starting at the beginning of October, Ben’s there at every weekly meeting, and not as a silent partner: “I loved being involved in the process...I really felt like part of the whole.”

He has a practice session with his musicians in late autumn, and the final recording session at the end of January. “By then,” Ben says, “the timing was pinned down and the animators had to work from what I’d done. It’s the opposite of live-action films, but animators and composers work much more in parallel. At that point, Barb and the others and I agreed that we had to lock the timing so I could proceed. The script inspires the music, not the other way around, but the music drives things, not so much the plot as the emotional content of the film.”

With his score in the background, production work goes on. And as our conversation with Ben winds down, we ask him about being part of the Toymaker team. In retrospect, what was the entire experience of working on the short like? “Every time I go back to it,” he says, “It feels special. That’s a mark of success for me.”

Winter And Spring: Animation, Lighting, Shading, Sound

Technically, animation starts in the last week of November. The leads are assigning shots to animators, and each student’s work has to join with work from the student before them and the one after. If one of those two finishes first, and the merge doesn’t look good, the animator in the middle may be forced to redo their shot.

This is when we see real emotions come out of the characters: here are the corners of the mouth for Angela’s mad face, and here’s Maria thinking about something. What about those eyelids, are they too open? According to Barb, animation is different from any other part of the pipeline: people who struggled with modeling may turn out to be natural animators, and vice-versa.

Two-thirds done is Meier’s rough estimate for where things are at the end of the year. Only an approximate 20% of the work is creative at this point, and the rest is babysitting the rendering, cleaning up the little things. Thousands and thousands of renders. A broken render farm that can’t be fixed until next year’s software update. The rig for Maria’s hands isn’t right, and they have to work joint by joint. The students and Barb can recollect this phase pretty clearly: a long slog, they call it. The swamp.

January means completing 95% of the animation so they can move on to final lighting and rendering. Communication among the team members is constant. Barb says, “We texted our latest , but nobody wants to make decisions in a text thread, and it wouldn’t be a good idea anyway. When we got together, everyone had so much respect for the other people at the table, and you’d hear ‘good enough, good enough’ go around the room. For some decisions, we just let time run out, and that’s not always a bad way to do things. If nobody proposes something different to what’s currently on the table, that’s the way it goes.”

Lighting is being adjusted and finessed even as the final 5% of animation is winding down. At first, it’s the lighting for a room, a whole scene; later, it gets adjusted in minute detail, shot by shot. “Every technical detail is there to tell a better story,” Kenji says. “Animation tells a visual story, designed to create emotion, empathy, through these technical details. Throughout the project, Barb gave incredible feedback for ongoing improvement, and she had such dedication and belief that we could complete this."

Lighting tests continue until the clock runs out, but Barb remembers the end of animation as a milestone. Her family remembers it as the time period where they’d ask her what was for dinner and she’d think it was still lunchtime. “At this point in the project,” she says, “we had almost all the pieces, but it still takes hundreds of hours to go from 90% to 100%. Whether it gets done depends on the huge dedication of the students who continue to work on the project even after the official course is over.”

Late spring is for foley recording, sound effects, making sure the little details that add realism don’t overshadow the expressive score. Lighting and shading are still being tweaked all the way into May. Glass objects are still too bright; remembering that particular struggle, Barb puts her hand to her mouth and pretends to shout across a room: “Someone turn down that jar!”

And then one day, it’s done. (That day is May 17, the day before the screening.)

“Pretty crazy” is how Nellie describes the screening. “It was the first time a lot of us had seen it final-final, with music, sound effects, color correction.”

“I couldn’t stop thinking about the computer hours that had gotten crunched,” Kenji remembers. “We had only 20 computers working on the short, 10,000 frames and about an hour to render each frame – around 10,000 computer hours to just render it once. And we got up to version 5 or 6 of most shots. There were so many points when it seemed like we wouldn’t finish or it wouldn’t be up to the standard we were looking for. So I was really, really proud of it. It didn’t hit me until the screening that it was a Brown/RISD first.”

“It reminded me that I really like doing,” Barb says. “A lot of what faculty members do is help students do things, so it was wonderful to be in the zone and get stuff done. I went into animation in the first place because I wanted to make things.”

Animation A Bit Differently

With those numbers alone (10,000 frames, 10,000 hours of rendering), Toymaker astounds the layperson, but what about the expert? A week after its debut, Barb shows the short to eight alums at Commencement. Some of them have known her for her entire teaching career.

“When I saw the video file that Barb was opening, my jaw dropped,” says Mike Ravella. Now a Technical Director at Pixar, he came to Brown with no experience in art or computer graphics. “It was just incredible. You never see students even at the top animation schools do seven-minute shorts.”

“It was always competitive to get into Barb’s classes,” he remembers, “but these kids are insanely more qualified than we were. When one of my friends and I made our short, we tried to be conservative. We put a lot of love into it, and we were so excited to make something, but it still didn’t come out as well as we’d hoped. Toymaker is what I wanted to do, but that team of people didn’t exist that year. It does now, and the community that Barb has fostered is only on the rise. It’s self-sustaining: with more grads, students see more and more role models, so the career path looks viable to them.”

But the biggest challenge, Mike says, is animation’s barrier to entry: “And I want to see more kids get this opportunity, because Barb does such a great job breaking that barrier down! But she can only do so much teaching alone. When I heard that Toymaker was more about collaborating with friends and less about winning awards, it reminded me how Barb does animation a bit differently. She has the same focus on craft as other schools, but this is deeply personal for her. Animation is art to Barb, and anything from her students has a lot more heart, and it speaks to people better than something thrown together for a demo reel.”

The proof that it’s speaking to people occurs at that very same screening. Stunned by a plot twist, an alum’s five-year-old son voices his thoughts in a whisper heard throughout the room: “She’s breaking all the things the mom made!”

I Hope It Happens Again

The posters went up a few days before the screening.

Brown and RISD get credit at the top, the thirteen names are all the same size at the bottom, and just below that is a tiny postscript, a point of pride in technique and local habitation: “ARTISANALLY RENDERED IN PROVIDENCE, RI”. The title appears in gleaming white script, but the scene is subdued, even dim. Mother and daughter are sitting on the floor with a book, Angela stretching a little as kids do to make up for lack of height. Light is coming from stage left, but the sun is low. Near the ceiling the blue-green wall is black. The white mopboard has gone pink; soon it’ll be gray. Disrupting any sense of staginess or calculation in the pose or the scene, the animators have tucked one of Angela’s drawings behind her head, semi-obscured, throwing off the symmetry a little. All the months of work have culminated with a complete lack of pretense.  

“There’s a reason why we were able to do it,” Barb says. “I put a structure in place that made it possible to be successful, and we had the right group of students. After working ten or twelve hours in the lab, they’d go to a movie together. They’re friends who deeply cared about the project and each other.”

So, what’s next for Nellie? “I don’t know,” she says, but it has to involve computer graphics tools and collaboration. “You can’t do this work alone.” She pauses. “I’m glad this actually happened. I hope it happens again.”

“I hope so, too,” says Ben. “I hope Barb’s willing to put up with me again!”

Months later, three words recur when we ask Barb if there’s anything else to say: “I don’t know. I just re-rendered the video today, actually. I'd love to run the class again and make another short, but it's tricky because I have my other courses to teach. A project like this requires a lot of specific creativity and problem-solving to produce a quality film, compared to a typical two-week learning assignment in the intro course where mistakes are small and soon forgotten. It'd be great to have someone else come in and teach the intro course on a visiting basis now and then. But this was really a showpiece for what Brown CS can do. It was aspirational, but we had specific things in place to make it work. Based on what we learned, projects like this can only get better.”

And she’s been doing this for more than three decades. The best gardeners, Barb admits, are people in their sixties and seventies, because they’ve seen more growing conditions. A grin breaks out: “Yeah, I’d like to do something like this again.”

It’s the last week of summer and everyone’s coming back to campus. The screening was almost four months ago, but the posters are still hanging up in the CIT (mother and daughter leaning close in that late light) and new students will see them. Some won’t make the cut for CS 125 but will get in next year, some won’t get as far as they wanted in four years but make it to Pixar anyway, and some will have the idea and form the team and Barb will have to start drinking more coffee again.

Four months later and counting, nobody seems in any hurry to take them down.