Tuesday, May 17, 2016

17 May 2016: Wanders

5.14-16 items of note:

☑ Ate a monster pretzel at Alamo drafthouse
☑ Watched pianists duke it out
☑ Danced kizomba with strangers
☑ Danced salsa with a cat
☑ Couldn't finish my breakfast tacos
☑ Ate black cherry gelato and eavesdropped
☑ Whistled in a capital
☑ Broke up a fight
☑ Performed as 1-note honorary saxophonist
☑ Rode bikes in a thunderstorm
☑ Missed a flight by 3 minutes
☑ Sunbathed in Miami
☑ Pushed my Spanish to the limit
☑ Learned that "guapo" is definitely absolutely totally not another term for "sir"
☑ Rock-a-by-ed a baby at the TSA Checkpoint
☑ Watched the sun set on a jet bridge
☑ Became addicted to traveling alone


Thursday, May 12, 2016

12 May 2016: FI Video Collective

Coming soon, you'll find out what's been consuming my life for the past semester. Four words: Focused Inquiry Video Collective (does it still count as 4 words when the first two are abbreviated? ha!)

Lots of words, lots of thoughts, lots of touch-up work still to do. Watch this space!


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

11 May 2016 : ILM goes SXSW!

Late post! Lots of things have been changing at VCU ALT Lab, leaving little time to pause and reflect on the past few weeks. I'm going to wrack my memory here because our team's trip to wonderfully weird Austin, Texas happened almost 2 months ago. That said, the impact of our time at SXSWedu is still being felt, fresh as ever, and is worth delving into. Let's go!

Temple Grandin delivered the first day's keynote and spoke eloquently to the idea of diversity in learnership. . What an incredible mind.

We weren't entirely sure what to expect from SXSWedu. No, we weren't going because our 3-piece punk band had finally "made it" out of touring the toilet circuit (though we hold out hope for next year)... but when you say "I'm going to South By," most people immediately think of the carnival-on-steroids that is the yearly music and film festival. Would the educator's conference be in a similar vein: lots and lots of lovely, distracting flash and not-so-much substance? After going to Adobe MAX in October, we were anticipating at least a liiiiitle sales-pitchyness and sparkle... but it turned out that wouldn't be the case (in the best of ways).

 SXSWedu is made up of educators, researchers, and administrators from all levels of education looking to improve their practices - in teaching, in choosing content, in employing practices in the classroom and beyond -- in ways that are new, innovative, and inspiring. Had enough buzz words yet? I wish I could say it ends there, but it doesn't, because the buzz words are all true. All the speakers and panelists we had the pleasure of seeing fit the bill to a T, and we were happy to see the conference deliver on its promise of "fostering innovation in learning by hosting a diverse and energetic community of stakeholders from a variety of backgrounds in education."

As similar as our jobs are, we each have distinct areas of concentration and interest - so Molly, Max and I each got something different out of the conference. Speaking for myself and my bleeding heart, I loved seeing so many panels that explored the moral and ethical side of education. As educational media becomes more and more prevalent in classrooms, you have to start questioning the implications of your work. Am I presenting the subject matter in a truthful way? Am I omitting details or presenting a biased view of a topic? Am I sacrificing something important for flash and view counts? The line between "educational" and "persuasive" can blur quite easily. As people consume media more and more frequently (often without conducting their own research or thinking critically about what they've just watched/listened/experienced) the responsibility falls on the content creator to make sure their product and chosen medium doesn't feed negative emotions like sensationalism, escapism, unchecked reactivity, laziness, et cetera.

I really liked a presentation by Common Sense Media about new updated tools they've made accessible to families and educators to explore topics of morality and character-building through media. Martin Atkins provided a fucking funny 15-minute power talk about getting shit done. Lizzie Velasquez shared her story and reminded us all to be sensitive to the seen and unseen struggles of students. Lizzie Edwards shared the virtual reality practices happening at the British Museum and made me kick myself in the face for missing it when I visited last year. Dan Ryder and Ellen Deutscher hosted a fun session in improv and adaptability. Our team sat in a panel where several educators from varying grade levels spoke to their experiences in using video for students' self-expression and social activism. Between designing ed tech products in workshops, hearing personal stories of educators working specifically with video and educational media, animating with iPads, programming Lego robotics, and more... there was a lot. I could go on and on. The problem that so often happens at cool, smallish conferences like SXSWedu is that that there's just too much awesome stuff to see and not enough time. Wouldn't it be ideal if conferences happened twice? Like, you have one week to see your priority sessions, you get 'em all in, you're golden to report back to your own work. But wait! Then the whole thing repeats itself the next week so you can have your second go-round for all the cool extra dealies that are just purely interesting. #ifemmaruledtheworld

VR EdTech Product Development! Fun brainstorming and a little public speaking practice, to boot.

Reflecting on it now, my biggest takeaway from SXSWedu was the notion of productivity and how to optimize it. Because at the end of the day, what struck me most was exactly what I described above: the amount of content. The amount of innovation. The number of designers and educators and content-creators and people who are thoroughly invested in this work. is. HUGE. There is so much happening across borders and in so many different fields; it made me hopeful that some of the obstacles described by speakers at DML might be overcome through sheer force of will. As the number educators implementing new, more thoughtful practices grows and grows and grows, it changes the landscape of education as a whole. Can we collectively learn about which practices are working best and which are not -- and therefore make a more concentrated effort to change the landscape as a community of innovators? Maybe my impression of the scale of this community is skewed because I spent a week surrounded by its members... but it doesn't lessen my impression of the impact an individual person can have on the classroom. By the looks of it, a handful of personalities are doing work that has an incredible ripple effect - and when more people decide they want to cause ripples, the growth is exponential.

So. Platitudes time: Work together. Work with your heart. Be productive. Be motivated. Be humble. Be open to change. And when you're feeling down, do as Martin Atkins so very eloquently says: "Stop being shit - start being awesome!"

And you know, since we WERE in Texas... Avocado Maragritas from Curra's definitely helped us prep to absorb the knowledge. Science, folks.


Friday, March 4, 2016

03 March 2016: Understanding Connected Learning

So I'm really into musicals. 98% of my readership may have just dropped out after that first sentence, but for the remaining 2%, I'm hoping this anecdote will help illustrate the topics I touch on in this blog. Musicals are a niche market and hard sell for anyone who really likes... you know... living in reality. But I digress. So. Musicals.

If you've been keeping up with music recently, you'd know that the 2016 Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album was awarded to the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Hamilton: An American Musical.

Hamilton's overwhelmingly positive critical reception is a result not only of its stellar production quality. The libretto was written by lyrical genius Lin-Manuel Miranda, and it tells the biographical story of America's most-overlooked founding father, Alexander Hamilton, and the events of his life that eventually led to his fatal duel with Aaron Burr.

A musical about the American Revolution performed in period costume is not a revolutionary concept. What makes Hamilton revolutionary is its decision to tell the story of America's beginnings through a multi-racial cast of actors and actresses who would, in any other retelling of our nation's history, play no significant part whatsoever. The songs are not musical theatre standards - they're sung in the styles rap, hip-hop, reggae and R&B genres of music that were born in communities of color. Hamilton takes a traditionally white-dominated medium and uses it to showcase those who are so often ignored in history lessons; it adapts the subject matter to create a story that both honors an extraordinary man while also reclaiming elements of his story for minorities to relate back to their American experience.

What I'm interested in talking about is the aftermath of Hamilton. The cast's Grammy performance understandably led to a large spike in interest in February of 2016, but prior to that, Hamilton had been steadily growing a community of die-hard fans online since its opening a year prior. Fan-made artworks, fanfiction, and the regular fandom fare was generated but with a unique twist: with Hamilton being a work based so heavily in historical non-fiction (Ron Chernow's thorough biography of Alexander Hamilton served as the main source material for the show), fan-generated works began retelling other historical events with the same air of remix and tinges of pop culture.

One innovative musical breathed new life into the old, musty memories of elementary school history classes and 4th grade colonial days. American History began to be memed. Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, Instagram, news sources and more erupted in a tsunami of dialogue regarding Hamilton that continues to span over topics of music, history, social activism, feminism, racism, philosophy, psychology, governmenteducation, literature and more. Musical theatre geeks, history buffs, and every impassioned nerd in between took to the Web to dissect and connect and discourse over a singular work of art.

The craziest part of all?

The majority of people involved in these discussions have never seen the musical performed.

Does it all chalk up to hearsay? Or perhaps something more?

While it's not connected learning in the purest academic sense, I love this example. I think it speaks to the power not only of sharing work, but also of building communities and (re)discovering interests through Web-based connections. Community is, in my opinion the most valuable and tangibly enjoyable aspect of connected learning. When the day came to create a video about connected learning at ALT Lab, I knew I wanted to incorporate a cohesive style that speaks to that idea.

 The aesthetic of this video is rather simple -- I used lots of smooth, vector-based images and pastel-tinged colors to create a friendly, stylized environment in which our characters (including Molly) would demonstrate the more technical aspects of connected learning. The world of aggregation, syndication, tagging, setting up plugins and every other tool we use to create Web-based connections can be daunting for a beginner-- I thought it was important to lay things out as clearly and unembellished as possible. With the exception of video samples, all the elements in this video were born in the same stylistic world. They make sense together.

That visual continuity helps make the illustration of harder-to-get topics a little easier. I loved using clean lines to communicate the exchange of information between instructors, students, and online resources. One of my favorite things to animate was the white, thin "web of ideas" (there has to be a better term for that, ha!) that floats behind Molly in the opening sequence. I think that simplicity can be just as (if nor more) powerful as complexity when it comes to communicating visual information.

I hope that this video helps guide newcomers through connected learning in a way that helps them understand how to use these tools to expand their horizons. As my long-winded story about Hamilton shows, sharing your passions can end up like a pebble thrown into a lake -- the ripple expands beyond itself, widening and widening until it touches new shores all around. Connected learning offers a means of accomplishing this in ways that are efficient, trackable and most importantly, beneficial to community building.

Til next time,



Friday, February 12, 2016

12 February 2016: The Story's in the Telling

You've probably already heard loads about the FI Video Collective from Molly B., but today I'd like to touch on an aspect of production that tends to go under-appreciated by most folks who work in that world. Maybe '"under-appreciated" is the wrong word... "under-estimated?" "unnoticed?" Neither of those work either. It's a sort of nuanced thing, what I'm trying to get at.

Most people who consider themselves creatives remember themselves as ALWAYS being such -- as children, playing pretend in imaginary worlds with a knack for theatrics and storytelling through artwork, sounds, or other means. I certainly remember playing out (needlessly overcomplicated) story lines with plastic toys from Happy Meals -- I don't ever remember a time when a simple creative activity wasn't touched by a story in the background. There was always pretext, context, and a greater structure or system that guided my creative decision-making.

This is already sounding kind of pompous, but bear with me. I guess what I'm trying to say is this: in my most recent project, I had to adopt the position of someone who isn't used to making "creative translations," or connecting one form of creative expression to another. Creatives are generally well-acquainted with conceptualizing ideas while dipping in and out of the possibilities of one art form to another. (For example, a videographer like Max can be told an idea for a story, and his brain will naturally generate ideas of composition and staging while also considering potential audio and graphic components, and he can visualize how all those things would synthesize into one final product.)

Since embarking on the scripting phase of the FIVC, it's become clear that we need to provide participants with an idea of how to adapt words into visuals -- specifically, visuals that propel a narrative. I took on the task of making this educational tool, and it really forced me to reflect on habits that I take for granted.

I wrote a script for myself that breaks down a split-script document into its separate parts, and then goes on to explain how to use those separate parts to construct a piece of sequential art -- namely, a storyboard. Over and over again I found myself back-tracking over what I'd written, imagining a student that wouldn't know what "shot," "frame," or "beat" meant. I left those words out, would I still be clear enough? How much can you expect someone to know off the bat? Can you expect anything?

I understand why some production artists come off as snobs (and some people totally are snobs), but I think at times, there's also a weird language barrier that develops when people get engrossed in their craft -- they forget that most people don't understand the special codes and words and inside jokes that come along with a specialization. For some disciplines this might not matter as much (I used to work at an HVAC office and felt really OK not knowing ventilation-speak)... but when it comes to creative processes like filmmaking and music-making, it can be a very negative thing. The last thing you want to do as a collaborative creative (or collaborative anything) is make people feel intimidated or discouraged to participate before they understand what's going on.

That was a big tangent, but hey -- this is my blog post!

Long story short, making this latest piece of educational media made me very conscientious of the privilege I have as someone who gets to work creatively the majority of the time. Overthinking aside, I really enjoyed the process of breaking down scripting and storyboarding into something a beginner could understand. Saying you're "turning words into pictures" is so vague and contains such a broad range of possibilities... it'd be easy for anyone to get overwhelmed. I'm hopeful that this video will help FI students wrap their heads around how to "turn words into pictures" in a more defined way that'll help them develop their own storytelling voices.

As I think about it, "creative translations" might just be another way of wording the idea of multimodal learning. The steps of acquiring or creating material, analyzing it, translating it, and synthesizing it into something that expands its original significance into something bigger, or better, or different are all so important to becoming a better learner. Without the ability to translate an idea into a different perspective (or in this case, a different medium), your ideas stay stagnant. Or worse, dormant.

Uh oh. Is this blog post turning into a connected learning soapbox session? (;

I'll leave this stream of consciousness at that. Take a gander at 'Script to Storyboard 101' for an introduction to creative translations. More updates to come as the FIVC rolls on!


Monday, January 11, 2016

11 January 2016 : 2015 Recap - Godzilla

The final weeks of the Fall 2015 Semester were a whirlwind. The project that consumed most of my time during this home stretch was a video that had been in the works since October - a course trailer for a Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness course taught by Professor Natalie Baker.

Natalie was a TON of fun to work with. She approached the Innovative Learning Media  team at ALT Lab with a very specific vision for her course trailer, and when we learned her aesthetic would largely include Japanese sea monsters and Snoop Dogg it became pretty impossible to resist.

The general gist of the video was this: in a post-apocalyptic world, Natalie and her Godzilla companion would be performing a rap about media portrayals of disasters and the problematic elements that accompany them. Is this reading as "too much sake" yet? Read on, dear reader.

This project required the construction of a world made entirely from scratch. Our awesome student worker, Michael Couchman of VCUarts Department of Graphic Design, took on the role of art director and began gathering and arranging elements for the Look while our team tackled the video and audio production elements with Natalie. Michael came up with this crazy good collage-y look that merged old, noisey photographs and muted, toxic-looking colors. The result was both wonderful and nauseating. Michael's environments were very fun to work with, and I was excited to start deconstructing them when the animation phase began.

Here's a quick mock-up we sent to Natalie of how we envisioned one given frame to look. 

These are the sorts of projects where my God complex begins to show, haha! The thing I'm drawn to most in animation is the creative freedom -- if you can imagine it, you can find a way to portray it. Your vision can be as specific as the time you are willing to invest in it. Video production can produce astounding images, but I often find myself frustrated by the limitations of lighting, actors, time, multiple takes... Maybe it's a sign I need to develop more patience, but in any case, this particular project was a great outlet for me creatively. Michael's world was a great backdrop for some of the new techniques I wanted to try.

After receiving Michael's environments and assets and the sweetened rap audio from Max, I set to work breaking them apart. There are quicker ways to animate puppets in Adobe After Effects (and I'm sure that Adobe Character Animator will expedite this process even more moving forward), but in order to maintain consistency across the board, I broke each image down as much as I could (even further than Michael already had, which is saying something), separating hands, feet, jaws, and heads into separate layers. Each character existed within their own Composition, and would be placed, animated, and timed appropriately depending on the frame that was being animated. Time intensive? Yes, but totally worth it if it meant easy transferability. The backgrounds themselves were also animated along a 3D axis, which helped to push some of the "believability" of the world, mainly the existence of a depth of field.

The future of educational media, y'all.

Along with our multiple Godzilla characters and Natalie-in-a-Hazmat-Suit character, there were also several still and video elements that came into play as well. In order to create the 34 separate shots that the video ultimately comprised, I ended up working with about 300 or so layers in AE. Let's just say I learned a LOT more about how to use color coding and naming structures over the course of this project.

The finished product?

Looking at this project now, I still see glitches and timing issues I'm dissatisfied with... but they don't eclipse how happy I am that this video got completed at all. Our team was very often crunched for time during the past year, so it's pretty incredible that we managed to crank out a piece that is SO animation heavy. I'm also really thankful to Molly and Natalie for allowing me to get silly and push some of the more ridiculous elements of the video. There are unavoidable NSFW aspects that come into play when you're using gangster rap in an educational video... but playing it "safe" would have cheated this video out of some of its charm and humor, and those are 2 attributes that become increasingly important when trying to emotionally connect an audience with subject matter that's -actually- pretty important.


Monday, December 14, 2015

16 September 2015: Channeling Audobon

Before I left for SIGGRAPH, our creative team had been given the awesome task of creating several videos for the Department of Biology. These videos highlight some of the exciting research and field work that undergraduate and professional students embark on as they pursue their concentrations of interest. These are the types of assignments that are especially exciting for those of us working in production, as they mean we get the rare opportunity to bring a camera into the thick of a swamp, tidal wetlands, into canoes, and other places more way adventurous than the studio. You break out the galoshes, sunscreen, bug spray, UV filters and essentially pretend you're camera-manning for Steve Irwin. It's a trip.

For this assignment, I faced the same fate as many post-production specialists on exciting shoots -- which is, I didn't go. Boo. Instead, I was tasked with creating the animated assets for the video, which proved to be an expedition of its own.

Using the paintings of renowned 17th century wildlife artist John James Audubon as inspiration, I wanted to create an aesthetic that, while maintaining a sort of classically idyllic, exceptional naturalism, still moved in a way that looked modern and lifelike. Lesley Bullock's class is a real merger of centuries-tested ornithology techniques and 21st century data collection, so combining the 2 stylistic ideas reflected what we hoped to communicate about the course itself.

A preliminary sketch

To bring Audubon's paintings to life, I had to think like Audubon -- meaning that I took a bunch of assets and turned them into a monster composition, as one would a large-scale painting. I deconstructed several of Audubon's paintings in Photoshop, and animated each as their own composition in Photoshop -- fish were made to swim, birds flit, etc. Once they were all properly animated, I brought each composition into my main "Opening Sequence" comp and re-timed each so that every asset would have a brief moment as the camera's point of focus. 

I really love the way this composition looks when you step back from it; From a distance, there are obvious tricks at work to fool the camera's eye as it travels the piece (big scaling differences, for example. Dealing with Zoom/Point of Focus keys in AE can be a little tricky, so this was my quick workaround). I like that even this small sample of Audubon's work still looks pretty lush.

I feel that the time constraints of the video led to the camera having to pass over the scene too quickly, a little jaggedly; but in the future, I'd love to flesh this sort of composition out even further, with more assets, more subtle movements, and more time for the camera to travel over them and really take in the scene.

That's about 200 layers of greenery, waterfowl, fish and feathers.

While the opening sequence was the main chunk of my work on this vid, I also had the opportunity to create some additional graphics for warbler migration patterns and lower thirds, too... and don't get me started talking about lower 3rds. Those are so much fun.

This project was a great exercise in combining dozens of tinier compositions into a single massive scene, and it's a technique that I can't wait to apply to out next Biology Researchers vid. To see the finished video (with editing by the ever-slick
Max), you can mozy on over here.