Thursday, January 20, 2011

Dust on the Bulb

Occasionally in life, the sight of a certain object or a sound will transport you back in time to your childhood days. The smell of dust, burning on a 250W light bulb is one such trigger for me. I don't know if the smell reminds me of the old 8mm film projector that my dad would pull out on occasion to show us the films and animations that he made, or if the smell I remember is the actual smell of dust, burning on the 250W light bulb that he used to light the frames as he shot them, one at a time, to create an animated sequence.

This semester I am teaching a class in traditional 2D animation and the light stands we are using are the same ones that my father built and used to make similar films more than thirty years ago. One of the bulbs is an actual bulb that he used so many years ago. My father was the artisan, I am a teacher, he explored the world of light and animation and I try to explain well established principles of the art. Where he spent time breaking rules that he already understood, I spend time keeping kids from breaking the rules so that they will understand why they are there to begin with. As I develop this class, I often find myself wondering how he would have done it or what assignments he might have created to teach a specific concept or technique. I have a blown up picture, taken by my uncle, of my dad with his camera. It reminds me each day, how privileged I am to have had him as a father.

This afternoon, we finished up class at 3:45 and most of the students dutifully shuffled off to other things. But one student stayed behind to take pictures of his 48 hand drawn animation frames that we had worked on in class. He was wrapped up in his task and I was busy preparing my lesson for tomorrow, but the smell of the dust sizzling on the top of that 250W bulb, whiffed into my head and knocked invitingly on a door in an older part of my brain. It took me back to when I was a little boy in that big old adobe house with the high ceilings and creaky floors, in Tome. My dad had a large office from which my brother and I were usually banned. A large serape blanket served as the door and when the wind caught hold of its corners in the springtime, we could catch glimpses of the magic as he worked silently behind that heavy curtain. Occasionally we could enter into his sanctuary and watch him create or even create ourselves as he guided us. I still remember how awkwardly my hands felt, compared to his, as I pushed the cutout of a cartoon rocket ship I had drawn across the page. Dad clicked out the frames of an animation that he was helping me build. The result was a simple, somewhat jerky animation of the coyote chasing Roadrunner through space, but it was mine, I had made it, just like my dad. His animations always looked so much smoother and cleaner than mine did, and I was in awe of his amazing skill. He was, as dads tend to be, bigger than life. Sitting by my dad's camera stand or standing over his desk as he spliced film together or shot frame after endless frame of white dots on black card stock, is to this day one of my favorite childhood memories.

Today, I animate using Autodesk Maya, on a set of 24 inch monitors that make HD look blurry. My computer is a quad core Mac powered by four 3.06 GHz Intel processors with more RAM than a single person should have. My computer uses amazingly powerful animation software that incorporates light and dynamics. With a few clicks of a mouse, I can alter time, change the weather and even create living breathing creatures (no... not really, but it sure does look convincing) I bring images to life in ways that would boggle my dads mind.

He passed away in 1983, almost thirty years ago. A year after the original movie, Tron came out, a full two years before Dire Straits ground breaking 3D animated music video "Money for Nothing" came out on MTV. He never saw the computer revolution take hold as it has today. I often wonder what he would have done with the technology if he were still around. Back then, for most of us, we could not even imagine doing what the artists at PIXAR do with computers today. I am privileged to be able to do what I do, here in my little high tech corner of the New Mexico State University Carlsbad campus. But some days, in the midst of my speedy lab computers and expensive software, I still long for those days of still frames, of dust burning on overly bright light bulbs, bulbs that could singe the hair off of your little adolescent arms if you got to close.

Some days I wish that I could pull back that curtain, just one more time and watch his hands coax life out of those little tiny dots or painstakingly splice a frame or two of film into a larger reel. It is strange how the slightest whiff or quickest glimpse can impact you, so many years later.

At least I still have the smell of dust, burning on a 250W light bulb.

1 comment:

David said...

Okay, I've thought for two days about how to comment on this post. This is just a great and a special post that commenting on it almost feels like leaving muddy footprints on the pristine river shoreline.

Needless to say, I would love to see what your father would do with today's technology too. And your post brought back many memories to me of seeing my dad in his element - covered in grease and underneath a car or jeep fixing it up. While reading your post, I flashed back to the many images and smells of doing that with my dad (and even felt a hot exhaust burn momentarily).