|Mike Hussey, associate professor of drama and theatre, and the animation students of the Dramatic Media area partnered with Perpetual Motion Studios and Monte Markham to produce some awe-inspiring animations for an upcoming History Channel documentary.
When Artificial Intelligence, Dumpster Diving and Real-Life Drama in Real Time and Prime-Time TV Collide:
Mike Hussey’s Excellent Adventure
A very wired Mike Hussey has not slept much in the past 48 hours.
Hussey, associate professor of drama and theatre, strides back and forth within a tiny, galley-like space spiked with the laser-like energy of 12 pairs of student’s eyes trained onto computer screens. Their collective focus – fed by caffeine and an impossible deadline – wavers only for good-humored exchanges. In another tense 72 hours, they must hand over hundreds of hours of labor. If all goes to plan, the special effects they designed for a pending airdate on the prestigious History Channel will be completed.
Hussey, managing to grin and grimace simultaneously, says they will make it.
“Somehow,” Hussey qualifies, mopping his brow and ignoring a small lock of brown hair that he missed when scraping his hair back.
While the odds may seem to tilt away from the deadline-crunching group – critical funds have been next to impossible to obtain for the project – if Hussey were a racehorse, you would bet on him. He’s determined, even obsessed – and he will squire his students to the finish line not only because they are, as a group, trained and talented, but because he’s also working shoulder-to-shoulder with them.
The former mechanical engineer is witnessing the professional merger of art and physics that he’s long anticipated. Animation, artificial intelligence and special effects require the deftest fusion of art and science, Hussey says, in “re-creating virtual worlds.”
“I think it is also about the fact that putting animation into a drama department to begin with was a viable idea. I mean, we took what we had, arranged a logical schedule layout and added this new medium, using theater design practice as the foundation.”
|For the past six months, students have been working tirelessly to create animated segments that will be integrated in to a production about the life after death of ships, space capsules, landmarks, and more.
Hussey says that the students get real-life exposure through the department’s partnership with Perpetual Motion Films (PMF) in Los Angeles. Adjunct UGA Professor Monte Markham (BFA, ’57; MFA, ’60) takes responsibility, “creatively and financially” for Perpetual Motion productions created to network specifications for The History Channel.
“They’ve (PMF) been exceptionally kind and helpful to the students and to UGA, and I want to make sure the credit goes to them. They’re the powerhouse behind this.”
As Hussey comments, discordant images play on various PC screens: a missile fires off into a perfect sky…a ship arches then breaks apart, sinking in ballet-like motions…a film star’s eyes shine moistly in a heart-breaking black and white close up…then a computer mouse is moved and each scene is scrutinized, altered and played again. The “tweak” to alter and correct a missile course or the descent rate of a sinking ship may necessitate hours of intense calculations and effort. But with newly purchased animation software, those hours are drastically reduced, Hussey explains.
Just when all seemed lost – the students have actually gone “dumpster diving” Hussey explains, ferreting out needed computer equipment like spare monitors and computer parts – the Graduate School approved an Opportunity Fund Grant keeping the student project alive. Critical new software shaves hours off the deadline; archaic software loaded hours of labor onto the students’ already tight deadlines.
The students’ projects are diverse and complicated ones being readied for professional usage and the viewing public.
Hussey speaks in highly-caffeinated rapid fire about “repurposing a missile silo,” and waves his hands as his graduate students keep their eyes trained onto the row of computer terminals that they are hunkered before, except to glance up occasionally and smile with equally tired eyes. And yes, indeed, their hands mirror Hussey’s – like him everyone’s seemingly in a state of controlled chaos and motion. The students click with a forefinger and occasionally ease a mouse into ever-so careful position while refining three-dimensional models of a re-created NASA silo, doomed battleships and even video clips of a historically significant African-American actor.
International student Lena Gieseke simulated the launch of a Titan II Missile and a credible silo simulation. Another student, Pete Gorneault, built a working model of a missile working with declassified government diagrams. Meanwhile, Kat Elliott works with CAD drawings of a ghost fleet ship, the US AFS General Hayt S. Vanderberg, which will be sunk to create an artificial reef. The images she creates demonstrate precisely how the ship’s demolition will occur in shallow waters.
Each project demonstrates a different skill set, Hussey explains, and each project has a direct end use and application beyond serving as a tutorial. While each project is an exercise in skill and competencies, these projects will be publicly aired and used by a real life client – in some cases televised, shown in film festivals or analyzed for research purposes. And in each instance, the deadlines are nerve-shatteringly close due to the scarcity of available computer terminals and the soaring number of technical hours demanded by animation.
Even so, Hussey and the students seem to enjoy the pressure, the daring, the sheer adrenalin-fed (unstated) rush of how-on-earth-can-they-make-this-happen? Hussey’s earnest, upbeat body language suggests that there’s a certain magic in a great endeavor, paraphrasing the writer Goethe.
|The animation project for The History Channel’s documentary “BONEYARD,” first aired this summer. Producers at Perpetual Motion Films have requested further corroboration with UGA students on broadcast-quality work. PMF principals and former UGA students offer the animation students critical industry exposure says Hussey.
Silos, sinking battleships and an embattled actor – three riveting projects underway at once, and all in danger of being sunk themselves without the intercession of emergency funding from the Graduate School’s Opportunity Fund, Hussey stresses. All – (silos, ships and a documentary) – are inter-related in a remarkable way, due to Mike Hussey’s tutelage and assemblage of this unlikely band of artistically gifted and scholarly talents. Hussey, a former mechanical engineer who moved into drama (MFA, ‘93) to satisfy his own artistic growth, grins delighted at the technical aspect of working with animation.
Hussey is almost giddy he’s so grateful. He’s grateful for everything: the project itself (more about that later), the opportunities that have unfolded in stunning sequence thanks to industry insiders, mentors and friends of the program and Dean Grasso. For without Dean Grasso’s approval of funds to buy new animation software and equipment, all would be lost, he says.
At 5:50 on Friday afternoon, Hussey and students raced out of the Fine Arts building with DVDs filled with uncompressed images bound for the Athens Federal Express office. They had exactly 10 minutes make a trip that normally takes 25.
A system crash had cost Hussey’s students hours of work. They had struggled to repair their losses. “Re-renders” were done by the animators, but this time under less than optimal conditions. There was the deadline demanded by The History Channel and then there was also the Federal Express delivery deadline. If they missed the carrier’s deadline the data would not make it to Los Angeles.
The students labored to correct “weird little anomalies that occur during final renders,” Hussey explains.
“We’d never cut a delivery that close. Usually we’d end things at 25 minutes to 6 and hop in the car and make the run to Fed Ex. We found that with traffic, we could make it in the door with about a minute’s worth of time to spare before the doors closed. We’ve done this so many times now that it’s become routine. This last time, however, we had more data to render and burn than before.”
And worse yet – the students had discovered Friday morning they could not use the main lab, located outside the new Animation Production lab. The main lab was in use until 3 p.m. Their “contingency plan” was lost. “Our back up was gone,” says Hussey.
“Our deadline for delivery of all animation was Sunday night at 9 p.m. When we sent the discs, we sent all but two of the movies. Both involved water scenes. Water is one of those render-intensive items prone to go wrong at every turn. We
delivered the final two animations Sunday evening by Internet on time...well... California time, but on time no less.” Hussey repeats: “If the Graduate School had not stepped in to help us with the equipment and software to build a professional level lab, we wouldn’t have been able to make the deadlines.”
With the animation safely en route to the editors who folded the students’ work into the documentary, Hussey plopped back to earth. In fact, he was admittedly a little depressed after the project ended.
“These students, in such a short time, went to such a high level of achievement. I mean, these guys only had three prior animation courses, Intro, Intermediate and Advanced. They pushed themselves hard.”
“Systems crashed unexpectedly, causing all sorts of chaos and damage control to recover data. Many things we’d like to have done were lost, and compromises were made to meet the deadline. Re-renders had to be made with lower anti-aliasing levels, lower light quality, that sort of thing. A big part of the time is spent correcting all the weird little anomalies that occur during final renders,” Hussey sighs.
The completed program, entitled “Boneyard,” aired primetime on The History Channel on June 19. The air date had been moved up three months – effecting accelerated schedule pressures on PMF’s producers, directors and editors and the creative team assembled in Athens.
UGA received two on-air credits. According to producers, the program’s audience share was high, bolstering future advertising revenues for the network and moving it to request development of Boneyard as an on-going series for The History Channel. Hussey says Boneyard’s performance “is a strong validation of Perpetual Motion’s confidence in the professional quality of the UGA team’s work,” guaranteeing future projects.
Students, professors and producers were jubilant to hear the program would re-air.
“I’m very proud of the students,” Hussey praises. “They really delivered top-quality work. The show looked really great, and I was certainly elated. That show represents why I wanted to partner up with them (Monte Markham and PMF) so much. Quality at every level, something the university could be very proud of.”
But there was also a degree of regret – animation work left lying on the editing room floor.
“Unfortunately, everything is tempered by a great deal of sadness on my part because of this,” Hussey confides. “The work of four students didn’t make it to air.”
Before the initial airdate, Hussey learned from Jason Markham, CEO of PMF and Boneyard’s producer/director, that “due to the limits of the overall program length there was no room in the final edit for the student’s animations of the USS New York and the B-52.”
“The students and I always knew there was a chance of animation being cut for time. Keeping this in mind for the next production, we’re going to give each student assignments across many smaller projects, to ensure a greater chance every student will have a portion of their work aired.”
“They’ll have no problem securing projects as freelancers,” PMF editor Scott Juergens reassured Hussey. “They’re very talented and have proved they can handle the pressure of deadlines.”
Hussey repeats his gratitude to mentors and industry insiders like Chris Wells, “a pro that has come back to give several lectures and seminars here at UGA.” Wells was on the Emmy award-winning animation team creating the opening to the documentary, “Superstructures of the World.” He ran an internship the semester prior to their tackling Boneyard.
Creative types say one is only as good as one’s last work, and Hussey’s weary eyes sharpen at the prospect of the next. “We’re going to have a planning session with Jason soon for ‘Russian Navy’ (a two-hour special Monte Markham is now producing and directing on location throughout Russia) and go over ways to improve the collaborative process.”
For a graduate student documentary team effort that once survived by salvaging materials from dumpsters, the future looks Technicolor-bright.
“PMF is prepping Boneyard for international distribution now. It will soon begin to air around the world,” Hussey adds proudly. “DVDs are available online at www.historychannel.com.”