Monday, August 3, 2020

Meditative Drawings

Way back in the twentieth century, even before computer graphics and 3D visualization, I drew a lot using pencils and pens on paper.  Most of what I drew was representational (and most of that was science fiction-y), complete with accurate three-dimensional geometries in perspective.  Even my doodles were pictorial or geometric.  

But there came a day when I scribbled in the margin of a yellow legal pad, effortlessly and unconsciously, and then and there I recognized something new, and something worth exploring.  

That scrap of legal paper is long gone, but of my later efforts, the drawing below is similar in tone:  


This kind of drawing - intuitive, unplanned, abstract, and easy (don't underestimate easy!) - was a radical departure for me.  I even had an affection for it, since so many of my other drawings, or the materials I was using, had become especially difficult endeavors.  I wanted to protect the integrity of these new drawings (especially from my own scientific inclination) even as I was attempting to identify what it was that needed protecting.  Safeguarding the intuitive process led me to think that these were entirely process-oriented efforts, avoiding goal-oriented thinking as antithetical to their success.  (Success in my eyes, anyway, which is all that matters here.)  While I tried to avoid an excess of aesthetic critique of the outcomes, I also tried to push their evolution by introducing color or constraints of gesture and style.  

The following drawings, while showing a variety of permutations, were all created spontaneously, with no definitive plan, no underlying rough drawing, no tools (such as compass or french curves), and no erasing...  

A typical effort in pen:


Adding markers to the pen:


Adding colored markers:


Constraining the overall shape:


Using just pencil:


Confining the style to sweeping strokes:


Straying into representational (if stylized) landscape mode:


Trying broader gestural strokes:


Going for a more textured (furry) look:


I consider every single one a success, at least to some degree, both in the process of their execution and in their aesthetic outcome.  I have many more drawings, and a lot more drawing to do!  

See http://www.tomsylvan.org/ for more.  

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Dot-Com Interviews

My biggest motivation in moving to the San Francisco Bay Area shortly before the turn of the century was to find a job using my recently acquired skills (such as they were) in 3D modeling and animation.  This was a time when people could make piles of money just by being one of The Few who knew how to use the latest software (like Flash) before a million kids learned how to use it in school.  This was the Dot-Com Inflammation, before it became a Bubble and burst. 

If only I knew what I was doing. 

Though I was new to the area, my digital skills were incomplete and untested, and I was Old (my late 30's!), I actually managed to arrange more than a few interviews.  Strange interviews.  Or with strange companies, or just strange people. 

There was the interview with UBUBU.  (You-be-you-be-you?  You-boo-boo?  I still don't know.)  I signed a non-disclosure agreement, but I don't know why, because they didn't tell me a single thing the company was planning to do.  Aside from asking me questions, all they told me was that they'd contracted Patrick Stewart to provide his voice for something.  I never heard from them again, but I'm not sure anyone else did, either. 

Then there was Eight Cylinders, where they were developing a new super-cool non-traditional immersive browser thingy, and they told me all about it.  Nice offices, very few people.  Had two really good interviews there, then nothing. 

There were a few game companies, but I didn't play games.  Apparently you have to play games to contribute to the making of games.  And there was the company that scanned Big Things, like Triceratops fossils, to make digital models.  And another company that scanned core samples. 

But of all the companies I interviewed with, the weirdest, the most memorable was Digiscents.  They were working on a device that would add smells to the sights and sounds of internet media.  No, really!  And (no, really) they called it "iSmell" technology.  Really.  There was a little box with vials of chemicals that would mix together in different proportions according to internet signals to puff out any concocted smell you could think of.  What could go wrong? 


Digiscents even gave me a mousepad to remember them by, so you know I'm not lying! 

After two or three years of interviewing, I never did find a job in the Bay Area.  But I found temporary gigs, and discovered the world of freelancing, as much as I didn't intend to be a part of it, and the rest is history. 

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Robots

I can't remember a time when I wasn't aware of robots.  It may have started with my fascination with animatronic elves in store windows when my mother took me Christmas shopping.  Some of my earliest memories are of black and white images from Japanese TV shows featuring the android Eighth Man and the giant robot Gigantor



Sophisticated robots were confined to science fiction in those days, both on the page and on screen, and even then they were mostly pretty crude.  But it didn't matter.  I remained fascinated by the multitude of ideas inherent in robotics, from the mechanical aspects to the processing of vision, speech, and thought. 

I'm a fan of the robots in Metropolis, Forbidden Planet, The Iron Giant, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Silent Running, Star Wars, Pacific Rim, West World, The Incredibles, THX 1138, The Matrix, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and even Robots, among many other movies.  And Isaac Asimov's tales of robots, robotics, and roboticists (but emphatically not their movie derivations) are my favorite stories. 

But what prompted me to start drawing android robots was The Questor Tapes, an obscure 1974 TV movie.  This was a Gene Roddenbury series pilot, though creative differences killed the series before it started.  Though I've since forgotten most of it (I only saw it that one time), I still remember the scene where the android, late at night and unknown to its human engineers, refines its own appearance from blank mannequin to realistic human. 


For whatever reason, it flipped a switch in me, making me wonder what the insides of an android would look like.  How would a machine be constructed to mimic a human's range of motion?  I didn't know anything about motors or pneumatics or electromagnets, but I was content to design things that looked like they might mimic the functions of bones and muscles.  (I guess I was content to visually mimic things that functionally mimic other things...)  Unfortunately, many of my earliest drawings have been lost, but two drawings survive that benefited from about four years of experimentation after The Questor Tapes



The first is a pretty typical android design, not especially ingenious or even mechanically functional, but it managed to fit a machine into the shape of a man.  The second is a more abstract study, a 3D geometric representation of the human form, and more important to me as an antecedent of my work decades later in 3D modeling and animation.  It also illustrates my thinking about robot design slowly evolving into thinking about human design as well.  Logically, you have to know how a human works before you can design a mimic of it. 

After that, I was sidetracked for a few years by college and other forms of experimentation, but eventually I resumed drawing bits and pieces of android robots.  The human shoulder in particular presented a vexing (but fascinating) engineering challenge. 




Years of drawing three-dimensional geometries on paper, I'm sure, helped me learn 3D computer modeling much faster than it otherwise would have taken.  And while I had to earn a living modeling things other than robots, and learning even the fundamentals of character animation was time-consuming, finally designing and animating 3D CG robots was an inevitability. 




So, while I'm not yet done, not by a long shot, and other things have occupied my time, I have a few animations to remind me where I left off.  IceBot is a fun little exercise that forced me to learn some new things.  And Bad Reflection, another fun idea based on a famous Marx Brothers bit, is not yet done, though I finished a rough draft in 2001 and resumed refining it, if only briefly, in 2011. 





Thursday, January 2, 2020

Isaac Asimov’s Centennial Birthday!

One hundred years ago today, Isaac Asimov was born.  (For the record, while he celebrated his birthday on January 2, the actual date is uncertain.)  From the day I read my first Asimov science fiction stories, the Nine Tomorrows collection, the direction of my life changed.  


I was impressed not just by his storytelling, his ideas, his intellect, or his profound insights.  I was equally captivated by his good-natured friendliness, his unpretentious humor, so self-deprecatingly sincere he refused to feign modesty.  

But his storytelling!  His ideas!  Robopsychology, the Three Laws of Robotics, and psycho-history are only a few of his many inventions, expertly wielded.  (He actually invented the term robotics.)  I couldn't get enough of his fiction, which led me to his other writing, primarily his science essays, from which I learned some biology, biochemistry, physics, astronomy, and so much more.  In comparison, school was so tedious!  I was already drawing science fiction, but then I tried my hand at writing science fiction (a writer, I am not, turns out), and finally, over the years I managed to hear Asimov speak (in person!) three times, traveling to different states each time.  He was as wonderful a speaker as he was a writer.  

Thinking about it now, I suppose his example has a lot to do with me becoming a generalist in my field.  As an illustrator and animator, I've depicted a bizarre diversity of things: toys, syringes, spice racks, humidifiers, packaging, cars and trucks, building construction, product defects, fires, industrial accidents, spinal injuries, jewelry, furnaces, train cars, marina development, breast pumps, explosion prevention technology, and even robots.  I like to think that, through me, Asimov even has an influence on my son, who is even now studying robotics in high school - and who has a real talent for robot design.  

The world could use more Isaac Asimovs.  I feel privileged to have witnessed the one-and-only!  

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Polygon Home

Back in 1999, I initially intended Pollie Gone Home to be an exercise in teaching myself more about 3D modeling and animation. I had no intention of producing anything more than a flythrough of the japanese-style treehouse I modeled, itself a blend of my own interests calculated to sustain my attention throughout the uncertainties of the production.


Once the treehouse was done, though, it begged to be explored by more than a simple flythrough. So, Pollie was born, a little wooden bird as peculiar, in its way, as the elaborate treehouse seemed to be. The story that evolved between them took on a life of its own, in the process forcing me to learn much more than I had anticipated.






The project took three months to complete, start to finish, including a solid week of rendering. I used 3D Studio Max for every aspect of the modeling and animation, Photoshop for texture editing, and the Iomega Buz VideoWave system to edit the 26 scenes together and output to videotape. 


Just for the heck of it, and being a recent transplant to the San Francisco Bay area, I entered Pollie in the North Bay Multimedia Association's annual competition, and was very surprised to learn I won Best of Show. 

Friday, November 22, 2019

Just for Fun

Once in a while, I find time to model and animate something purely for fun.  Years ago, I devised a mechanical Valentine for my son that I thought he'd appreciate.  I think he did.