Blue Sky, Pixar & More Artists Paint for a Cause

What happens when you make a documentary film and just happen to work at one of the top animation studios in the world? If you’re smart, you make friends with the artists and they multiply your creativity. If you’re smarter, you ask them to bring their friends from around the world with them. And that’s just what happened for Brownstones to Red Dirt, the thought provoking film about kids in Brooklyn housing projects paired with Sierra Leonean pen pals orphaned by civil war.

Artists from Blue Sky Studios and beyond (Pixar, ILM, Valve, 2K Games, CTW, more) have provided hand-drawn artwork on postcards as a lovely counterpoint to the very real letters exchanged by the kids in the film. So many ways to evoke pen-pals, whimsy, struggle, thoughtfulness, and much more. Soon there will be 150 unique pieces. And starting March 6 you’ll be able to buy them.

Proceeds go to construct schools and improve education in Sierra Leone. Buy a postcard and help make it happen! Update: the auction is live

Some favorites (click for details):

Find more on the Brownstones to Red Dirt Art Auction blog and see a another fabulous art endeavor at Blue Sky Studios Challenge.

Chelsea Art Inspires

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Whenever we plot a course through Chelsea galleries, we plan to hit some major shows but it’s always the other things we stumble into that make the trip worth it. This time we were of course aiming for Edward Burtynsky’s Oil, but unexpected bits (big and small) made the day.

Take, for example, New York Then and Now (above), a fabulously varied group show that captures the city along so many dimensions. Susan Malloy’s Visions of New York (in the same space) provided an understated refrain.

High Altitude. Michael Najjar’s mountain scenes might look like typical nature photographs, but they’re actually fully synthetic charts of stock market data. This one shows the Dow from 1980 to 2009. Note the precipitous drop at right. The kind of cliffs we can all relate to falling off, then.

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Picture of Fate. Murakami and his crew are perennial favorites in these parts (the retrospective at BAM last year was stunning) so turning a corner to see a piece so distinctively his — especially where you don’t expect it — is a treat. And so it was.

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Three Ways of Looking at the Earth. Having traveled out to Storm King to see Maya Lin’s massive outdoor work Bodies of Water a few months back, seeing her new indoor project was a lovely counterpoint.

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Monochrome Age. Gorgeous or gaudy, Anselm Reyle’s sparkling latticeworks turn every head that happens in to the Gagosian.

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Flowers For America. Stéphane Calais’ show was a bit hit and miss, but I was fascinated by these blurred ink blot paintings that overlay faces at once menacing and beautiful.

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Quick minds among us remembered Tesla Motors has a home in Chelsea. It was our duty, then, to gawk at the EP2, Tesla’s second electric car prototype (sadly decommissioned).

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Night and rain fell, providing the perfect cover for an intimate dinner at sake drenched Izakaya Ten (closing time 3am).

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So it’s been nearly one year since our last Chelsea journey. Too long. And now that gallery season is starting up again, let’s hope we can break the trend.

The Road to Kampala

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In a few days I’ll be in Uganda, and that’s just the beginning. Scrambling over the last week, we put together a mammoth plan: USA to Uganda, Uganda to Rwanda, Rwanda to Tanzania, Tanzania to South Africa. (And there might be a little Kenya sprinkled in there, too.) All in 3 weeks and all in service of a dream to find ways to make social computing more relevant to the next billion users.

I’ve had a long standing interest in using technology to empower underserved communities, dating back to my thesis work in inner city schools. When I came to IBM, I decided to focus on other things but I never stopped writing about the possibilities. And over the past few years, it became clear to me that the opportunities in developing nations (or in corporate-speak “growth regions”) was too big to ignore. What shocked me, though, is that IBM agreed — and sent me to India as the social computing delegate to a thought leadership study on technology for the “next billion users.”

From there, I was given a year to “figure it out.” What is IBM’s social computing play in developing nations? There are so many questions out there — how do we answer? For me, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. But, then, that’s both a blessing and a curse: given enough rope, will I hang myself? What’s followed has been anything but easy: politics, economics, complex partnerships, tickets bought and canceled at the last minute, seeing the impact of dead aid first hand, losing the person who made so much of our work possible. There are a million moving parts and, as the team lead for the work, I’m consumed by holding them all together. It’s been the biggest emotional roller coaster of my life: exhilarating in one instant, soul crushing the next. And through it all, a classic David Mamet scene has been on repeat in my head:

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Malone: You said you wanted to get Capone. Do you really wanna get him? You see what I’m saying is, what are you prepared to do?

Ness: Anything within the law.
Malone: And then what are you prepared to do? If you open the can on these worms you must be prepared to go all the way. Because they’re not gonna give up the fight, until one of you is dead.

Ness: I want to get Capone! I don’t know how to do it.
Malone: You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way! And that’s how you get Capone. Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that? I’m offering you a deal. Do you want this deal?

Ness: I have sworn to capture this man with all legal powers at my disposal and I will do so.
Malone: Well, the Lord hates a coward.
[jabs Ness with his hand, and Ness shakes it]

Malone: Do you know what a blood oath is, Mr. Ness?
Ness: Yes.
Malone: Good, ’cause you just took one.

Now what are you prepared to do? With every showstopper, the question keeps coming back. And I keep hoping I have enough of an answer to keep this thing alive, to make it something bigger, to have some chance of making it a career. I’ve always felt I had a few threads I could pull together to define my research identity, but never has it been so crystal.

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For my thesis I did what I was good at, at times at IBM I’ve done what I could be paid to do, and in tiny bits of spare time I pursue what I want to do. Now I have a window to bring it all together and hit the sweet spot in the middle. Or watch it fall apart.

So, in getting on that plane to Kampala I’m well aware I have tons to learn. (I’ve been to the continent twice before but never to do work there.) But my hope is that this is at least the end of the beginning — a point where my group and I (because god knows I couldn’t have gotten here on my own) can start in some small way to have an impact. I’ve fought so hard to get to this point, I have to make it matter. Can’t break promises to Jim Malone, now can we?

The trip is booked end to end with conference presentations, meetings with innovative NGO partners, universities, and government. But I hope to have some photos and stories to tell, too. See you on the road!

Ice Age 3: Bits from the Premiere

I’ve been a fan of Blue Sky Studios since Bunny so it was a great thrill to score tickets to the premiere of their latest: Ice Age 3. But that thrill came with a certain amount of fear. After all, the last film in the series is easily the team’s worst and the first Ice Age, while a great introduction to a promising new studio, didn’t quite live up to their Academy Award winning roots.

So when the first act of Dawn of the Dinosaurs threatened to feature Sid (the Ice Age equivalent of Jar Jar Binks) prominently, I got worried. But here’s the thing: this time I didn’t hate him. And as soon as Simon Pegg’s deranged Buck hits the screen, IA3 never looks back — the trip he leads into the dinosaur underground zips from one rollicking action set piece to the next, with just enough character and story to hold it all together. And some of his key character sequences (take the map drawing in the sand) give goosebumps. Then it hit me: with its newest feature, Blue Sky has found its voice.

That’s why saying IA3 is no Pixar film is a compliment. The reason Dawn of the Dinosaurs feels so self assured is (save a few plot points that read like focus group requirements) it doesn’t try to be anything more than what it is. And that’s a fabulous update of the classic Looney Tune, with a level of cleverness to which other studios (coughDreamworkscough) can only aspire. That’s Blue Sky’s strike zone, and it seems like they know it.

It was with a bit of irony that I dressed up to go see Scrat, but in a way it makes sense. After all, as Scrat goes so does Blue Sky, and suffice to say his IA3 bookends don’t disappoint. Plus it was great fun to ride the waves of giddy enthusiasm as the folks who made the movie saw it end to end for the first time. Let’s hope the box office rewards them.

Pixar Concepts: Good Dog, Bad Dog

Love this concept art from Pixar’s fabulous Up. And there’s more where those came from. Heck, MoMA had a whole exhibit of Pixar concepts.

Which begs the question: why don’t other studios put their formative art on display? They certainly have work worth sharing, but it typically trickles out through less than official channels. (Jake Parker has some great stuff from Horton Hears A Who, for example.) Perhaps that says something about the origins of each studio. Pixar, after all, was started by artists, while most of the others were started by suits or engineers. That’s not good or bad, it’s just different. And it’s interesting to see how the genesis of a studio can impact how they work, even so many years later.

Find more Pixar concepts at Sanders Art Studio and did you know the next their next three flicks will be sequels? I’d be worried but their only sequel to date (Toy Story 2) is their best film yet.

We last wrote about Pixar in Pixar Models Ratatouille

Update: Don’t miss the gorgeous Up color scripts. I’ve got some from The Incredibles in my office, but these beat ‘em!

Hardcore Starts at Home

Guilty as charged. The ridiculous haircuts, the ludicrously huge glasses, the ancient headphones, the thousand yard stare. It’s all true. No matter! Nothing focuses you like Combat, Atari 2600 style. It’s the young heyday of the videogame in full swing — my big cousin and I drinking from the firehose.

But what I love is watching my nephews doing the same thing. Except now the console is Wii, the closest thing to Combat is Wii Play Tanks (complete with co-op!), and they’ve traded the rotting yellow hand-me-down headphones for significantly cooler earbuds. And I’ve gone from the hopeless geek to the cool uncle who understands (well, until they see this photo).

Me and my cousin? We’ve both got PhDs. That’s right, here’s proof that violent videogames are the gateway drug to… higher learning. The horror.

Find more full-on immersion at That Looks Awesome! and Game Faces. And enjoy some game nostalgia with the Edge 200.

Final confession: for better or worse, everything I’m wearing in the photo (other than the glasses) is a hand me down from cousins. And they eventually handed down the 2600, too. Rock!

Down, Out, and Animated

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Late last year, just after Hank Paulson gave his fireside chat on the implosion of the world economy, my wife began the search for a new job. For us, then, the continually gruesome economic news has carried something of a personal tone. It’s been a stressful few months to say the least.

So, it’s with great pleasure that I’m able to emerge from the financial fallout bunker to report that Q has not only found a job, but a fabulous one. In early March, she’ll will start work in the research & development division of Blue Sky — a AAA animation studio just north of NYC. They’re the folks who brought us gorgeous feature films like Ice Age and Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!

But my heart warms most to two of their bit players: Scrat and Bunny. Featured in enigmatic shorts full of spastic action in the best Tex Avery tradition, Scrat is lovable animated lunacy at its purest. You’ll find him in or around nearly every Blue Sky feature. Bunny, on the other hand, has only made one appearance. But that appearance, in a classic Tom Waits backed short, was enough to win Blue Sky an Academy Award. It’s a bittersweet tale that’s stuck with me since the film’s debut in 1998. Saying more would ruin it, but suffice to say missing Bunny is missing out.

What a relief and what an exciting new adventure. For Q, it’s a dream come true. Plus, I’ve been trying to finagle a visit to Blue Sky for some time, so here’s hoping my foot’s a little more firmly in the door now! Many thanks to Adam Christensen and Jake Parker for getting Q’s resume in front of the right people — that was tremendous.

Find more Scrat at Blue Sky Shorts. And see Bunny in her entirety at Yahoo! Movies.

Art Inspiration in Chelsea

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Whenever I go to Chelsea, I come away inspired. But absence makes the heart grow fonder and it’s been way too long. Then again, gallery season just started, so it’s a perfect time to reacquaint. And boy did this season start well. Just have a look at Calma up above. His Novo Mundo show at the Jonathan Levine is jaw dropping. Here are a few more December shows that remind me why I love Chelsea:

Zaha Hadid’s installations at 169 10th Ave and Sonnabend (respectively):

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The Art of Babar at Mary Ryan ignites memories of the fabulous space elephants of childhood:

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Peter Callesen’s “Folded Thoughts” paper sculptures:

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Shag’s underwater room as part of his Voyeur show:

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Perfect Strangers provides these “dare not go in” freakazoid human-headed beasts:

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Hope to hit Chelsea a lot more often in the new year. Art inspiration can’t wait another 300 days (and neither can Billy’s). See you in 2009!

Speaking at Living Game Worlds

Just hit the ground in Atlanta, where I’ll be speaking at Living Game Worlds 4 this week. It’s always great fun to hang out with folks like Raph Koster, T.L. Taylor, Randy Farmer, and Ian Bogost. My talk will focus on the design challenges we faced building games in virtual worlds — the Virtual Team Building Games project, which I lead at IBM Research. Looking forward to some good discussion. If you’re at LGW4, stop by and say hi!

Check out our notes on LGW3 at Inside Living Game Worlds. For more, see the Living Game Worlds site.

What Slumdog Millionaire Ain’t

Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire ain’t what you think. Brilliant and harsh, Boyle’s flicks tend to leave you feeling a bit damaged (see Trainspotting, 28 Days Later). And given that Slumdog focuses on India’s crushingly poor slum kids, you’d expect similar — particularly since films like Born into Brothels have calibrated expectations.

It’s anything but. There may be down moments, but the relentless pace hardly lets you linger. We meet gangsters, take kaleidoscopic trips down slum alleys, witness family trauma. But throughout it all there is a pervasive sense of hope. It’s clear that Danny fell in love with India; he captures it so well. In a recent interview, he put it this way:

You go there, and it’s buzzing. The extremes you get are incredible! You cannot believe what you’re getting on film because you don’t go anywhere that’s boring. The city’s just exploding somehow. Destroying itself and re-creating itself at the same moment—the buzz you get off it! (more)

And halfway through the flick I realized what had happened. Boyle hasn’t just fallen in love with India, he’s fallen in love with Indian cinema. When I’m on travel, I make sure to catch local cinema and India’s is special: Bollywood (the largest film industry in the world by ticket sales) is all about crowd pleasers. That means a whole lot of gangster flicks and love stories (often both together), punctuated by singing and dancing that puts western music videos to shame.

You mock it at first but it quickly becomes contagious. And I think fans of Boyle’s previous films might find Slumdog just the same. You start out hating it for what it isn’t, but end up loving it for what it is. I dare anyone not to smile at the closing credits (you’ll see what I mean). And in doing so, you aren’t just falling in love with Slumdog, you’re falling in love with Bollywood, too. More of that, please.

Find more Slumdog Millionaire at Fox Searchlight. Oh, and did I mention the Slumdog soundtrack is absolutely fantastic? Shimmering, pulsing beats match the hyperkinetic visuals blow for blow. It’s criminally absent from Amazon. That better get fixed soon.





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