In the latter part of the ’90s, Zachary Brewster-Geisz was working backstage at various local theaters, including the Kennedy Center.
“I was a regular worker on, among other things…Shear Madness,” running sound and props, says Brewster-Geisz.
But when the opportunity came up to freelance on a more regular basis at the Kennedy Center, he passed. He was 27, and his son was about to be born.
“They were gonna offer me a full year-round position doing sound for the Youth & Family Programs,” says the Greenbelt resident. “But that was the point where I was saying, ‘You know, if you’re not going to pay me enough that day care is an option, I may as well just stay at home.’ So that’s what we decided to do.”
Then, about a year later, the stay-at-home dad got a new home computer. “I was like, ‘Oh, well, what can I do now?’”
He decided to design a video game, and a Web search led him to Vancouver, Wash.– based Hash Inc. The company’s Animation: Master software, which facilitates 3D character animation, retails for $299.
“I realized, ‘Holy shit! I can tell stories,’” recalls Brewster-Geisz, 33, who these days is looking after both 6-year-old Drew and 3-year-old Emma.
The software rekindled an interest that actually stretched back to a stop-motion piece starring his fifth-grade wardrobe. Brewster-Geisz used a camera to take motion-by-motion shots of a pair of shoes.
“I made my shoes walk across the floor,” Brewster-Geisz recalls. The left was on the right side, and the right on the left, and after realizing their gaffe, they corrected themselves and went on their way. “There’s your conflict and resolution,” he jokes. His socks tagged along, he says, “and then my underwear followed my socks.”
“It was not sophisticated [by] any stretch of the imagination,” he admits. “I didn’t have Ben-Hur in mind.”
The adult Brewster-Geisz lives by the same rules as his grade-school incarnation: Keep it clever and keep it short. In LipSink (2003), a pair of cherry-red lips with movie-star-white teeth flail just above the water line for a moment before sinking under. Their dying words: “Oh, I hate these animation puns.”
Irresistible Force vs. Immovable Object—winner of a quarterly Internet Ray Tracing Competition (IRTC) in 2002—places a scrawny, jittery “force” and a bulky, nearly catatonic “object” in a boxing ring; by the end, both are down for the count. Try to make a buck off of Star Wars: Episode 1 1/2—a movie-geek fantasy (and copyright minefield) that pits Star Wars against Star Trek—the film’s credits warn, and “the lawyers [will] kill you with both proton AND photon torpedoes.”
And now two of Brewster-Geisz’s recent creations have been selected to screen at this month’s DC Shorts Film Festival: The 55-second , which aired last fall on Nickelodeon’s Nicktoons Film Festival and won a quarterly IRTC competition in 2003, follows the titular key as it busts out of its keyboard holding pen; its escape is thwarted by Ctrl, Alt, and a club-wielding Delete. Soap Opera, about five-and-a-half minutes long, retells the story of Mozart’s Don Giovanni using, well, soap.
Brewster-Geisz says he tries to keep up with contemporary film animation and particularly admires the work of Pixar. “Finding Nemo makes me cry every time I see it,” he says.
But not all Hollywood animated fare moves the artist. Brewster-Geisz hasn’t even seen Warner Brothers’ The Polar Express, but he’s skeptical. Released last fall, the Tom Hanks vehicle drew headlines for its use of what its publicity materials call “performance capture,” wherein the star’s face was rigged with sensors. Each of the sensors was set up to reflect light into a series of digital cameras, which then fed directly into animation software. The result, says Brewster-Geisz, can’t possibly rival the expressiveness of other animation schemes.
“Unless you had literally millions of sensors all over someone’s face, there’s no way that just moving the sensors around could really give you what the person was feeling,” Brewster-Geisz says. “It’s not a shortcut to good animation.”
Brewster-Geisz’s high standards for modern animation may stem from his background as a performing-arts major at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. Not that he ended up doing much acting. “I wouldn’t even get to the auditions. The cold feet sort of came at the point where I convinced myself, Oh, I’m just not good at auditioning, so I may as well not even try,” he recalls. “Really insidious.”
Stage freight doesn’t quite figure into Brewster-Geisz’s current obsession. Just as technology is revolutionizing high-end, high-profile animation, making it more visually precise, software such as Animation:Master is making animation a possibility for any laptop jockey. But the ability to do something isn’t the same as the ability to do something well, and a lower barrier of entry can sometimes translate into lower-quality results.
“We had to wade through quite a lot of unwatchable [animated and live-action] pieces in order to cull the pieces we did select,” says Jon Gann, director of DC Shorts, noting that the computer-generated submissions generally lacked a story line.
Brewster-Geisz’s work is an exception. follows a confinement-freedom-confinement arc; Soap Opera found Brewster-Geisz reaching back to the late 18th century in search of a narrative. Soap Opera retells the climactic scene of Don Giovanni—in which the haunting statue Il Commendatore drags the unrepentant Giovanni down to the underworld—using common bathroom paraphernalia.
The model for the scene is Brewster-Geisz’s own bathroom, and the artist took great pains to re-create real bathroom lighting effects in the film.
Similar hurdles arose in the rest of the production, especially character development:
•The Don Giovanni figure is represented by a computer-generated plain white bar of soap named Don Ivory, who meets his doom when he refuses to acknowledge the dirtiness of his own toilet bowl.
“The big problem with a bar of soap is that he’s flat,” Brewster-Geisz says. “[W]hen you smile, you’re not just smiling in a single dimension, or in a in flat dimension. You’re doing it in three dimensions. It goes back as well as up.”
•Il Commendatore, a statue representing the ghost of the father killed by Don Giovanni, is in Brewster-Geisz’s creation a shampoo bottle named Il Dispensadore.
Bearing a label that reads “Diavolo,” Il Dispensadore sings through a long, thin
nozzle that protrudes from the top of his head. “The shampoo bottle was easy because it’s basically just a cylinder….The hardest part was making sure the mouth could be articulated.”
•Similarly, Leporello, servant to Don Giovanni, becomes a purple sponge dubbed Leporello-bob.
Leporello’s appearance made him easier to animate than his master. “[A] sponge has all those little, well, sponge pieces on him,” he says.
In the piece’s climax, Don Ivory and
Leporello-bob literally fall from grace, tumbling from the raised rim of the toilet seat to the water below. It’s rendered with a trio of high-profile shots—an overhead showing the pair falling into the bowl, a bowl’s-eye view of their descent (“Yowza!” reads the subtitle), and, moments later, a spiraling overhead, as the flushing water consumes them.
But for all the crisp colors and impressive camerawork of Soap Opera, Brewster-Geisz can also go minimal. The Cell-Phone, which he created for a contest sponsored by fellow Animation:Master users, features a stock Hash character named Shaggy playing the part of the classic oblivious cell-phone junkie. The film achieves an old-timey feel through piano music, black-and-white coloring, a grainy-film effect, and silent-film dialogue placards (“Can you hear me now?”).
Shaggy’s world exists in shorthand, with props such as a free-standing revolving door suggesting a restaurant wall. “A lot of the people who saw it didn’t get it, actually. They said, ‘I don’t understand. Why was the stoplight floating in space like that?’”
Hash Inc. has taken notice, selecting
Brewster-Geisz as one of several directors for a collaborative feature film to be based on L. Frank Baum’s The Tin Woodman of Oz.
“[H]e’ll be doing a lot of what he does very well: the shot selection and camera angles and things like that,” says Ken Baer, Hash’s director of marketing.
Brewster-Geisz will receive a commission for his work—something he says has happened only once before, when he worked up a DVD intro for a production company. “It was like a couple thousand dollars, I think,” he says. “And that is quite literally the first and only time I’ve been paid for something.”
It’s not unheard of for Hash animators to move on to professional work. Animator Victor Navone, for example, became something of a legend in Hash circles when his short piece Alien Song (created in Animation:Master) landed in the in-box of Pixar’s president—and landed him a job as an animator there.
Wherever Brewster-Geisz’s spare-time obsessions take him, they appear to suit him better than his previous incarnations in the arts. “I’m a failed actor,” he recalls thinking when he first started experimenting with Animation:Master. “I can make other people act and not have to actually give direction.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Charles Steck.