Phew… this was supposed to come out two weeks ago.. but between Batman, Resurrection Man, Justice League, Zombie Love and life… things took longer than expected.
I’m a big fan of Santigold and she recently released a new video. Upon viewing it, I loved it but I kept thinking it reminded me of something. At first, I thought it might be M.I.A., but that wasn’t it. Later that night, enjoying a winter brew at the Tap Room, it hit me. The Guys Next Door. “Wow. I wonder if that’s on youtube?” I thought to myself and then realized I have an awesome phone, let’s take a look. There it was. Many years back, I was animating all manner of things at a place called American Film Technologies. I believe we were finishing up some O.G. Readmore (‘riginal Gangsta) and I believe my friend Corey or Heather (memory fail, this was awhile ago) and I were pulled on to do some animation for an opening of a new show. The art director, Ron Elliot, was an intense guy. He explained his ideas and it all sounded fine by me. We were going to be animating graphic elements traditionally (on paper and animation disc) and then do the coloring and effects in post. The big to do about AFT was that we were the first animation company to be completely paperless. The system we developed went on to become Toon Boom, if I’m not mistaken. We had time sheets, cassette tapes of the song that we played in “Walk Man‘s” and some loose scene break downs. Small joys were things like working to get the keyboard that flies in, to be directly beneath the one singers (Patrick Dancy) fingers. Timing the key frames so the keyboard arrives just in time, doing the inbetweens ourselves and having to shoot the frames on a camera system we had set up were all great hands on touches that changed things up in a real nice way. The fact that we were getting to animate on a disc with actual paper we’d ordered from Cartoon Supplies was great. I used to love their catalogue they sent out with orders. I do have to say, listening to that song over and over again in headphones can drive a man zany. It probably only took us a week to complete, but the change of pace made me come back to the computer and the Suma Sketch with a whole new energy. I’m about to brush off some of my animation rust for some pieces in the Gothic Cowboy movie I’m attempting to complete by July. Strangely, seeing this old clip is giving me energy, once again. Not to mention it makes me laugh. That’s some cheesy stuff right there.
Pong, Asteroids, Dig Dug, Bump and Jump, Ghosts and Goblins, Tempest, Choplifter, Mr. Do’s Castle, River Raid, Summer Games, Sidearms… I grew up loving video games. I loved my Atari 2600 and luckily for me, my good friend and next door neighbor, Daryl, had a Commodore 64 and hundreds of games on disk. Where am I going with this? MC Hammer.
This is years ago, so excuse me if I get the facts slightly wrong. I was a roguish handsome young devil (I warned you about my facts) and I had recently been given an opportunity to find a new job (layoffs). I had been working as an animator of sorts and there were some animation jobs opening up in Los Angeles. I even went up and took a tour of the Disney Studios in Burbank. Our guide was a storyboard/layout artist and the uncle of a mutual friend. There were these great maquette’s (can’t believe I spelled that right on the first try) of Hyena’s and we got to hear these great songs for the film by Elton John. We listened to dialogue reads by Jeremy Irons as an evil lion. There was this immense storyboard room with sliding tack walls filled with gorgeous artwork. Thoroughly impressive. By the end of the tour and over lunch I was basically offered a job. The strangest thing was, I think I remember my first thought being, no. Why? My gut reaction was I didn’t want to ruin my appreciation of the animation field and Disney any further that it already had by seeing more of what goes on behind the scenes. I would end up working for Disney twice in the future and my concerns would be proven correct. Nothing wrong with Disney, far from it. It’s just that sometimes, you don’t want to know what goes into making the hot dogs.
Hot dogs… MC Hammer. Okay, back on subject. I didn’t take any of the animation jobs up in Los Angeles but ended up with a great job in Carlsbad at a new company called Verizon. Wait, what? Oh yeah, it wasn’t called Verizon yet. You see, Verizon used to be GTE and that company had a video game and multimedia wing called ImagiTrek. Let me tell you, the phone company had money, to say the least. At the time, there were just a handful of HDTV’s in the continental United States and we had one hooked up to a Laser Disc in a storage room with an endless loop playing of flowers blowing in the wind. There was no other content to play on the massive orphaned television, just flowers. We were also developing this internet television service before there really was an internet to speak of. With this service we were developing, you could talk to other people through your tv, or order pizza, or look up information like in an encyclopedia. It was like the future, ten years early. I was hired as a production artist to work on sprite games for platforms like the Sega Genesis, SNES and 3DO. My first day on the job, they sat me down to read photoshop manuals and play Sonic. I played Sonic for hours that first day and at one point the head of the division walked up behind me and startled me. My first thought was “ahh, playing video games when the boss walks up… I’m in trouble.” He promptly commented, “Nice job. You’re getting much further than most people do.” Oh yeah, that’s right, it’s a game company, they encourage gaming. I would have to get used to this. Time passed. I worked on some pitches for games and interactive CD’s. I even did some sprite processing and simple animations for a game called Jammit. Now we get to the meat of the story.
One of the most awful feelings in the game industry, is working on a game for a year or more and then having it “shelved”. This happens much more than you can imagine. I’ve worked on at least three games that have been shelved. One game in particular was the MC Hammer video game. Sure, I would have loved to work on the Slayer or Tom Waits video game, but that wasn’t in the cards. We had signed on to do the MC Hammer video game and we began a time consuming and, in my opinion, rewarding adventure, to say the least. The game was a side scroller in the vein of Double Dragon, with villains and boss levels to defeat. The story line had a sort of end of days aspect to it with the bad guys being these possessed zombie like creatures called Soul Suckers. We shot a lot of the character moves on video like Mortal Combat had done and then rezzed those frames down to sprite size and added animations or color tweaks to those sprites. All this time, I was learning more and more about photoshop, which leads me to my favorite part about working on a project like this, the people you meet and work with. Sure, on some projects there are people you wish you had never met, but on the whole, if you’re lucky enough, you’re working with similar like minds that are as dedicated just as much as you are to making great stories and art. I was learning Photoshop from the books and talking with this great guy named Tommy Yune. Tommy had worked on the Photoshop Wow book and was just brilliant if you ask me. Oh, and he’s also one of the nicest people on the face of the planet. Meet him, you’ll see. Along with Tommy, there were great co-workers like Christopher K., Susan H., Lori N., Brian M…. okay, I see I should stop there, I could keep going on and on about the great people we had. It may sound obvious, but a great team is what you really need when you’re working on a project that’s going to take you months or years. Someone to pick up the slack or point out how to fix things or what remind you what doesn’t connect to the work done months earlier. We worked on this crazy idea for what seemed like a year or more. I learned about rotation points, world views, LOD’s, bit depths, LUT’s, game mechanics, and ultimately business. We had this great working game where I could sit in the lead programmer’s cubicle (I think that was Phil Sorger) and play the game like I had been playing the Sonic game, much earlier. That’s about when the business lesson came in. You see, when we had started the project, MC Hammer was on top of the world with top selling records, flashy videos, his own line of shoes and Saturday Morning cartoons, but nearing the end of the project, the intense interest had passed and the publishing costs of the game far outweighed the projected profits of the game if it were released. I’ve been told that only the top 5 games each year end up making back the money invested, and alas, the MC Hammer video game didn’t make the cut. Oh how I wish I could play this game on my cell phone now. Maybe we should have gone with the Kool Moe Dee video game.