Archive for January, 2013

UPG Guestpert: Signe Baumane

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

From time to time we interview guest experts, or “guestperts” for the PhLog. Signe Baumane is an acclaimed animator who is currently finishing her first feature film. Titled “Rocks in My Pockets,” the film details her family history, the history of her native land of Latvia, and the issue of depression; how it affected her ancestors, and how it has affected her. In spite of all of this, the film is also very funny. We sat down with (ok, emailed) Signe to talk with her about her work.

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UPG: Your work deals a lot with mythology and animal imagery. Is this a direct connection with your Latvian background or another obsession entirely?

SB: I don’t know how one can separate those egg whites and yolks broken and stirred into the omelet of personality.

I don’t know where Latvia starts or ends inside me – is she (and yes, Latvia is she :- )) responsible for my mythological way of looking at the world?

If that was the case, every single Latvian would be interested in mythology and speak in metaphors, but it isn’t the case.

But YES in the terms of abstract “National Mentality” – which is a myth that every nation creates about themselves to separate them from the others – Latvians love and understand metaphors more than other nations, and Latvians love fairy tales, animals and nature more than anything.

When I was growing up the world that I lived in was full of magic and wonder -under every rock there was hidden life or a message (a rainworm, but sometimes a note or a golden key to a secret door), every tree communicated with me, every creature had a secret connection to me.

One is supposed to lose that wonder when they grow up but I guess my brain had malfunctioned and didn’t drop the animalistic, pagan ways of looking at the world. And why would I want to have that adult serious brain anyway? Dead serious brain is dead. It’s more interesting to live in the world that delivers secret messages and keys from under its rocks.

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UPG: There’s a romantic idea of a connection between artists and depression or other forms of mental instability. Vincent Van Gogh and Edgar Alan Poe are just two examples. Do you think there is an actual connection to be made between depression and creativity? Or is the idea of the tortured artist just another myth?

SB: Many brilliant people suffer from depression, not only artists – scientists, politicians, you name it.

Aaron Swartz had a very brilliant mind. (what happened to him is so unjust and tragic it breaks my heart, but politics is only small part of this story, suffering from depression is much bigger part of it)

It seems to me that a brilliant mind also casts a deeper shadow.

To describe how it feels to be brilliant and depressed I have to use an allegory now, please forgive me my Latvian mind…

In one of his short stories O’Henry wrote about a thief whose specialty was opening safes without breaking them – the thief would file off the skin of his fingertips so that his fingers would become very sensitive, then with those very sensitive fingers he would turn the code knob on the safe very slowly, when the knob would hit the right number it would have a click so slight that only the thief’s exposed nerves on his raw fingertips could sense it.

The thief never failed to open all safes.

One has to have a sensitive mind to be able to crack the code of the world, but being so sensitive is also very painful.

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UPG: The technique you use in “Rocks in My Pockets” is quite unique to your work. You use a combination of cell animation and stop motion, with 3–dimensional sets. What prompted you to expand your style of animation for this project?

SB: In 2008 Aspesi, a famous Italian fashion designer (he doesn’t sell his clothes in USA because he believes Americans don’t have taste : )) asked me to do a mural for one of his shops. While I was working on it, he asked if I can do paper mache sculptures. I has no idea what he was talking about but said YES. Making the first paper mache sculpture was nerve wracking but I got into it and 2 years later Aspesi had about 30 Signe Baumane sculptures and he had to ask me to stop. He couldn’t turn his shops into Signe Baumane museums.

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But I couldn’t really stop. I was racking my brain how I could incorporate this new skill into my films. Paper mache is hard to animate well – it is quite rigid. So I came up with the idea of having paper mache backgrounds. I really like the look.

You know – part of why we are artists is because we hate doing the same thing over and over like other people can do (or at least they can tolerate it better), so if I kept doing what I have done in “Teat Beat of Sex” or “Birth” or “Dentist” it would bore me so much that would fold myself into a fetal position and weep for 3 years.

We need to try new things all the time, have new challenges. That’s why it was so exciting for me to make “Rocks In My Pockets” – new storytelling form combined with new technique. It’s nerve wracking but also exciting.

UPG: You’re from a small country that very few people know anything about. Since your films play on the world stage, do you feel a certain obligation to educate people about your homeland? Or is it mainly because you’re interested in issues of identity that the country features so strongly in your work?

SB: I don’t feel that I have an obligation to educate people, period. I am here to entertain them, engage them into a conversation, shake them up, make them think.

In order to educate anyone one has to think she/he knows one or two thing about the world, and I don’t have the feeling I know much.

In “Rocks In My Pockets” I am telling a story that fascinates me – a family’s history throughout 112 years in a country that had very adventurous/tragic history because of its geopolitical position.

When I was 20 I had a couple of bibles (books that told me the Truth about world) that I read and re-read and almost memorized.

One was Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle,” the other was collection of short stories by J. L. Borges. I was taken by history of Latin America depicted in this very special Borges way. I thought this Argentinean writer was very lucky to live in such interesting country with such amazing history. Then I came to New York and after a few years here I realized that Latvia had no less fascinating history than Argentina.

I guess it takes a distance to see something better.

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UPG: Did you set out to make a funny film about depression? Is comedy a tool you’re using to explore this topic or just a byproduct of your style? What can comedy do to shed light on depression in a way that drama can’t?

SB: I never set out to do comedy. I don’t want to feel constrained by genre. The story unfolds through me and I deliver it to you the best way I can.

I wrote my first novel when I was 8, it was heavily influenced by works of Victor Hugo (who makes a brief entrance in “Rocks In My Pockets”), Dickens and Balzac, who were my favorite writers at that time (yes, I confirm it again: at age 8 those were my favorite writers).

I imitated their writing style, the tragic tone, the moody scene descriptions. Put some sex scenes in my novel, too.

It was a historic adventure novel set in Latvia in 1564.

But when I was 14 I wrote a short story from my life – how with the best intentions I cleaned our family pantry from stuff that I thought was unused and my mother came back from work and put everything I threw out back to the pantry.

The story was published in a local paper and was an instant hit. It was read on national radio and won writing competitions.

Accidentally, I had discovered my voice. A voice that tells the honest truth and other people find it very funny.

Resisting that voice, trying to go back to a Victor Hugo writing style would be like trying to be 4 inches shorter – I would have to cut my legs to fit the mold.

In any case – humor in my stories is never intended, it is a byproduct of the story am telling and my voice.

UPG: Thank you, Signe!

Signe Baumane is currently finishing post production on “Rocks in My Pockets,” but she can’t finish it without your help! Lend your support and find out more about this film and Signe’s work here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1055277857/rocks-in-my-pockets

Charitable Giving

Friday, January 18th, 2013

The Unemployed Philosophers Guild is committed to charitable giving. We support many causes throughout the year. So each time you make a purchase from us, it’s like charity!

Here are some of the notable organizations we supported in 2012. Get to know them and lend them your support as well.

THE CENTER FOR JUSTICE AND ACCOUNTABILITY

This international human rights organization is dedicated to ending torture and aiding survivors of torture and human rights abuses to find justice. CJA engages in litigation to hold perpetrators accountable and to advance the rule of law in countries around the world. CJA also provides psycho-social services to victims of torture.

WOMEN FOR AFGHAN WOMEN

Based in Kabul and New York City, WAW provides front line programs and services to women in crisis in eight provinces in Afghanistan. Services include community organizing, human rights advocacy, and education. In addition, WAW operates seven shelters in Afghanistan, providing an essential service to women and children in need.

TREATMENT ACTION GROUP

TAG is an independent AIDS research and policy think tank fighting for better treatment and a cure for AIDS. Founded in the early 1990s, TAG is one of the oldest AIDS advocacy programs in the US.

THE RED HOOK INITIATIVE

The Red Hook initiative is a local community-based organization that provides long-term programming to youth aged 10-24 in the Red Hook area of Brooklyn. Their mission is to empower and nurture the youth of this unique neighborhood to continue on the path to a self-determined and fulfilling life.

MAYORS AGAINST ILLEGAL GUNS

Founded in 2006, this coalition of mayors from across the US is dedicated to stopping the flow of illegal guns into American cities. The organization resolves to punish criminals who posses, use, and traffic in illegal guns, hold accountable gun dealers who break the law, and support state and federal legislation that targets illegal guns.

REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH ACCESS PROJECT

RHAP promotes the safe integration of contraception and abortion into primary care, promotes an evidence-based, women-centered approach to reproductive health care, works to reverse the abortion-provider shortage, improves medical education and expands access to reproductive care, and develops the next generation of clinician activists and leaders. Their approach, which combines activism with training, advocacy, and mentoring, seeks to ensure that women at nearly every socioeconomic level can readily obtain birth control and abortion from their own primary care clinician.

WILLIE MAE ROCK CAMP FOR GIRLS

Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls is a non-profit music and mentoring program that empowers girls and women through music education, volunteerism, and activities that foster self-respect, leadership skills, creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration. Their summer day camp offers instrument instruction, songwriting support, performances by visiting artists, and culminates in a showcase concert.

BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY

We like books. And we’re based in Brooklyn. So of course we had to contribute to our local library.

TRANSPORTATION ALTERNATIVES

Transportation Alternatives is New York City’s leading transportation advocacy program, fighting for safer, smarter transportation and a healthier city. TA is committed to reclaiming the city’s streets for bicycling and walking, and ensuring that every New Yorker has access to public transportation.

UPG Guestpert: Dano Johnson

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

Dano Johnson wrote and directed two animated films rooted in geometry.

Flatland, adapted from the 1884 novella by Edwin Abbott Abbott, tells the story of creatures living in an oppressive two-dimensional world whose lives are changed through an encounter with the third dimension. The film explores (as does the novella) the ways in which people are often blind to potential scientific breakthroughs and our limited ability to see beyond what is right in front of us.

The novel Sphereland, a sequel to Flatland, which was written by Dutch scientist Dionys Burger in 1965, serves as the source material for Dano’s follow up film Sphereland, which explores the concept of dimensions beyond the third.

We sat down (OK emailed) with Dano to discuss these films, and about converting science and mathematical concepts into drama.

UPG: What gave you the idea to take the novel Flatland and adapt it into a film?

I think all three members of the Flatland team – Seth Caplan, Jeffrey Travis, and myself – read the book in high school geometry and it stuck with us as a unique experience.  How often do you read a fiction book in math class?  Never!  When Seth graduated from AFI’s producing track he was looking through all the public domain books he’d read in school to get an idea for a project and he picked out the thinnest book in his stack – Flatland.  He knew me from our days in the e-Learning business and he’d worked with Jeffrey on a TV pilot, so we all started talking about Flatland.  There was a previous animated adaptation in the 1960s (starring a young Dudley Moore) but nothing since then.  We knew there’d be big challenges to adapt such an ‘unfilmable’ novel but we thought the story was so unique it would connect with audiences and teachers.

In regards to Sphereland, when I first read Flatland in school our paperback copy included Sphereland too.  There were a bunch of fun ideas in there that I wanted to explore so during the long hours of animating Flatland I slowly formed my idea for the sequel movie.

UPG: Is there a Flatland fan base? Do many people know about the novella?

DJ: There is a Flatland fan base of sorts. When we were first starting work on the movie we made a little teaser trailer and Seth went to a math teacher conference to present it. We assumed that every teacher would know about Flatland, but when we asked them less than half said they’d heard of it. One of the fun parts of independently marketing our film is when we visit math teacher conferences and interact with people who’ve never heard of Flatland. The minute you start explaining this strange little book their eyes light up and they want to hear more. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and the film What the Bleep Do We Know have also popularized the story of Flatland, plus it recently got a nod on The Big Bang Theory. Many popular science programs and books that delve into string theory or higher dimensional physics use Flatland or similar analogies to explain the concept of dimensions. The great thing is that there is always someone learning about Flatland for the first time and if they’re seeking information they’ll run across info about our movie too.

UPG: How did you go about shaping (no pun intended) the main characters so that they weren’t just serving their allegorical roles, but were (also, seriously, no pun intended) multi-dimensional?
DJ: I think that both main characters (Arthur Square in Flatland and Hex in Sphereland) experience something remarkable that changes them and ‘re-shapes’ their views (pun intended). For Hex especially I thought about the experience of Galileo. Just as he saw the inner-workings of our solar system and was punished for trying to spread controversial knowledge, Hex saw the third dimension but her words can’t do it justice and she can’t get other Flatlanders to believe her. That pain of being rejected really affects her and we see how she’s closed herself off from the rest of Flatland (even in the design of her home, it’s essentially a shell where she can avoid others). I thought that was an interesting point to start with a character who must eventually make the choice to go public with her new discoveries, but this time she doesn’t just have words – she has the math that proves (spoiler alert) that Flatland is curved in the third dimension (end somewhat obvious spoiler alert). It’s literally the scientific process in story form where the whole time you’re rooting for the character to prove her hypothesis by experimenting and analyzing (with some exciting chases and inter-dimensional encounters along the way).

 

UPG: You have a surprising number of “name” actors playing roles in these films: Martin Sheen, Kristen Bell, Michael York, and Kate Mulgrew to name a few. Was it difficult to attract them to this project? Did it take a while for them to “get” it?

DJ: We were extremely lucky to get the cast we did for both films. Once we were able to get through agents and managers, we usually got a quick yes or no response as to whether they wanted to do it. Martin Sheen was very enthusiastic to do it. He really appreciated the social satire part of the book and the script. He was the first actor we recorded and it was truly remarkable to hear him bring our scenes to life for the first time. We’d been working on the script for a year and had table reads and scratch tracks, but hearing his take on the lines made me realize the animation challenge I had to match the great voice acting. Many of the actors, especially Michael York and Danica McKellar, appreciated the educational aspect and wanted to be a part of the films.  I’d say they all got it quickly – we always came overly-prepared with storyboards and animatics in case they wanted references but instead it was, “Let’s go in the booth and give it a shot.”

UPG: Flatland and Sphereland have had a lot of play in the educational market. Was that an original aim of the project?  Did you have a mathematician or scientist consult on the script?

DJ: Yes, from the beginning we knew the films probably wouldn’t have a theatrical or broadcast release (although if anyone’s interested we’ll take your call!). Seth and I had some experience in the educational market and thought any school that read the book would want to show the movie. So when the first script came out to around 30-40 pages we realized that the movie could probably fit into one class period, something perfect for teachers. One problem we foresaw was that the concepts in Flatland don’t necessarily fit into a curriculum category (for teachers whose calendar is full of ‘teaching for the test’). So we partnered with a few education consultants and math teachers to develop worksheets and activities to go with the movie. We were very lucky to work with Professor Thomas Banchoff of Brown University, who probably knows more about the novel Flatland and 4 dimensional geometry than anyone in the world (Tom also got to know Sphereland author Dionys Burger while he was still alive).

UPG: The two films have moments that rely on explaining mathematical concepts in order to solve problems the characters are facing. It must have been a challenge for you to take this material and dramatize it in a way that makes it both clear and exciting in the moment. Can you talk a bit about how you went about this process?

DJ: I think we learned a lot from doing the first movie where the math concepts are a bit easier (arithmetic dimensions can translate to geometric dimensions). Fortunately for us, the original novel treated this premise through the use of characters – we meet beings of 0, 1, 2, and 3 dimensions. So although we do have one ‘math lesson’ scene explaining dimensions, we then go on to see how these dimensions affect the creatures who are live in those dimensions. It’s a very important thing to understand since the whole novel and movie is in analogy for us to think about the 4th dimension and beyond! The math lesson scene is nonetheless important and through the animatic stage we were able to balance how much to tell and how much to show.

For Flatland 2: Sphereland we treated the math problems as puzzles and the only way to solve them is for the characters to imagine higher dimensions. It’s a bit more theoretical but as the characters work on the puzzles they see that they are all solved by one solution, so the math scenes build on one another and come to a nice, neat conclusion.

UPG: What is your background in math? Is it a subject that has always interested you?

DJ: I was always more of a science kid growing up (I think until middle school my career goal was to be a paleontologist). I had good math teachers and often excelled at it, but I felt science had a ‘story’ aspect to it that appealed to me (I always watched ‘Square One TV’ but really I was waiting for ‘3-2-1-Contact.’ PBS kids, am I right?). I definitely got more interested in math when I had a great class in college from Mike Starbird. His emphasis was less on ‘here’s how to solve this math problem’ and more ‘let’s build some problem-solving skills you will use throughout life via math even though eventually you’ll forget the math.’ I highly recommend his book The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking whether you’re interested in math or just creative thinking.

UPG: What are some of the surprising or unexpected responses you’ve received from the film?

DJ: We always get lots of positive feedback from teachers when we meet them at math conferences. I’ve had teachers just walk up and give me a hi-five, saying “I play it every year!” I think the best response has been watching the sequel with a crowd. It has a bigger emotional climax, followed by a joke (sorry, no spoilers) that just brings out big laughs and I love getting that response each time. Also, sometimes it’s fun to search on twitter for ‘flatland’ or ‘math movie’ to see if any math classes are watching the movie. The funniest tweet so far: “hahahaha wtf were watching a math movie about like talking crackers in geometry.” I think somebody also tweeted that Sphereland made them cry, so mission accomplished!

UPG: What’s next? Any plans for Flatland 3-D?

DJ: There are no plans for a third Flatland movie, but I’m sure if we get a great idea we’ll consider revisiting. We have actually had interest in converting Flatland: The Movie for the 3D Imax format (yes, really) but as of now it doesn’t have a green light (or funding). But Seth and I are looking into a few other popular math and science-related novels to option. We’d love to hear anyone’s suggestions for educational novels to adapt – please reach out to us via the Sphereland Facebook & Twitter pages. We really believe that telling stories about math and science inspires young minds and we aim to keep making quality films towards that purpose.

Thank you Dano!

You can find out more about these films at Flatlandthemovie.com and Spherelandthemovie.com. And check out the trailers below:

 

Smartass Response to a Philosopher #6

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

“He who thinks great thoughts, often makes great errors.” – Martin Heidegger

Two words: Heidegger’s moustache.