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An Innovative Approach to Animation

Joshua Marvel
www.joshmarvel.com
Plymouth Film Festival

Shift, an animated film by Hampshire College graduate Joshua Marvel, was accepted into the 2005 Plymouth Independent Film Festival. Marvel completed Shift for his Division III (senior project) at Hampshire.

In a series of slowly shifting scenes, the five-minute animated film depicts a burned-out husk, with barren, smoldering scenes evolving into a new form—a natural environment of trees and water and clouds—in a cycle of reclamation. Color values move fluidly from the subtle and minimalist to vibrant and sharp, creating the contrast essential to the underlying message of inevitable change over time. The overall message is one of optimism, but only within the context of inevitable cycles.

To make Shift, Marvel blended two very different approaches to image creation. First, he painted watercolor compositions that generate complex lighting and surface texture that would have been much more difficult to create on a computer. Then, he used the tools of 2- and 3-D computer graphics.

“Perspective shifts, mobile cameras, fluttering leaves, and the like couldn't be painted frame-by-frame with the fluidity and slow pacing Josh was seeking in his film,” explained Chris Perry, the Hampshire College computer graphics professor who chaired Marvel’s Division III faculty committee. “Josh exploited the strengths of both art forms to create a film that isn't exactly watercolor or animation; instead, it's an intriguing hybrid that's very compelling to watch.”

In Shift, Marvel animates environment and atmosphere, with the camera exploring different cycles through time in a natural setting in a way that gently forces the viewer to look carefully. Unlike most animation, which tends to move rapidly, he wanted to slow everything down so that the audience would focus on subtleties in emotion and color, filling up their senses. He made every decision in designing Shift with projection in a dark theater in mind, thinking not only about the computer animation skills he was developing but also thinking carefully through how to create animation that could be viewed “as a film.”

Although working in animation, Marvel is influenced by and consciously draws on the tradition of narrative documentaries. He describes Shift as being “in the tradition of Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi and Ron Fricke’s Baraka.”

A bit of collaboration on the Hampshire campus was involved as well. Recognizing the importance of audio to an animated film with no characters or dialogue, Marvel drew on the talents of another Hampshire student, Evan Viera, for acoustic composition. Most of the images are original creations by Marvel, with two other Hampshire students—Daniel Gilbert and Brian Kendall—working with him on particular visual effects within the film.

Marvel completed some of his images with the use of Hampshire College’s cluster computing facility, which houses two high-performance Beowulf-style computer clusters. Using a work distribution system given to the college by Pixar Studios, he could send renderings to 46 different processors simultaneously, completing the process approximately 50 times faster, producing renderings in a matter of minutes rather than hours.

Other areas of academic interest for Marvel as a Hampshire student were philosophy and Medieval literature, which he concentrated on while studying abroad in New Zealand in 2003, so it is not surprising that his film’s content focuses on cycles through time. He finds himself constantly drawn back to the exploration of “something bigger than us and inevitable.”

Marvel has been seriously interested in animation since the eighth grade, finding it “the most interesting method” for expressing his creativity. “With animation I can go into strange and different places,” he said. “I’m interested in narrative, but not in an explicit and obvious and narrow way, more in way that is open to interpretation.”

The New Hampshire native interned last summer at Hatchling Studios in Portsmouth, N.H. He is currently entering Shift in a number of additional film festivals and exploring possibilities for professional employment in the competitive world of animated filmmaking.

 

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