Monday, June 27, 2016

Jack Spicer: An Evil Boy Genius, An Evil Inspiration

Jack Spicer from Xiaolin Showdown, a clip from the TV show
My bestest boyfriend in the whole world got me the perfect Christmas present this year: Season 1 of Xiaolin Showdown on DVD. This is a show that aired around the time that I was ten to thirteen. I loved watching it as a youngster. My favorite character was the comic relief guy, who also happened to be a red-headed Evil Boy Genius.

I'm not generally one to root for the bad guys, but it's hard to resist when they're the paragon of what you want to be. (Aside from being a screamer.) So let's look at what Jack Spicer, Evil Boy Genius has:

  • A evil lair/laboratory
  • Lots of robots
  • Advanced knowledge of physics and mathematics as it relates to ripping a hole in the space-time continuum
  • Artist snobbery
  • An evil laugh
  • Red hair
All good resume material for the up and coming evil mastermind.

I had forgotten about the show until recently, and so was thoroughly enjoying re-watching it. Multiple times. After going through the 1st season a third time, I determined that I was this world's manifestation of Jack Spicer, and that I must become more like him. Which takes me to one of my future projects.

Jack Spicer's HeliBot that he got from his Grandma
when he turned evil.
You can't be Jack Spicer without the HeliBot (his little backpack). This is probably one of main distinguishing characteristics of Spicer. I developed a design that seems pretty practical (at least for a costume) and that would be slightly complicated to make. Making the pack would involve my welding, soldering, and circuit design skills.

I wasn't a welder until fairly recently, when I took a creative metal design class. I got to experience the joys of the oxy-acetylene and Mig welders, although the things I created were never really practical. Sort of like Jack's semi-useless robots. When making Jack's HeliBot, I would be using my welding skills to create the shell, creating welds where you can see the lines in the above image. I figured I'd do it this way so that I didn't have to do much metal dishing. And, fortunately, I'm just strong enough that I can bend steel with my hands, something that Jack may or may not be able to do. For the metal I'd use, I'm torn between steel and aluminum. I've never welded aluminum, so I don't know how it would go. Steel would be easy enough to weld, but would end up being pretty heavy, even if I used a thin gauge.

With my soldering and circuit design skills, I would be figuring out how to get my Propeller micro-controller to run a couple little DC motors. I figure I would use the motor as the means to extend the stocks and props for the HeliBot. I'm still not entirely sure how I would make the mechanism to extend the stocks, but the props themselves will be easy enough to run. My circuit designing skills are a bit limited, but, with a manual and Google on hand, I could come up with the ideal design for connecting my MC to the rest of the circuit. I think my biggest concern with the circuit will be how to provide enough power to the motors without frying my little Propeller MC. We will see...

And, finally, the HeliBot would not be complete without a watch to tell it when to extend the props and get them spinning. When I went to visit Parallax last year, I got one of the people there excited enough that he took me into the back room and let me pick from a selection of discarded modules, electronic components, and manuals. That was a good day. In the back room, there was pretty much everything I needed, the main of which was a WiFi and bluetooth module, which are the exact modules I'll need for making a watch to communicate with my HeliBot. The only thing I'm missing now is a screen for the watch and some free time to build it all.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Fun with CSS3

I went through a revamp of my website,, about a year ago. The design was getting a bit stale for my tastes and didn't have the flair that other sites have. The organization of my HTML had gotten pretty out of hand, too, from all the edits and minor revisions that I made while trying to avoid a complete overhaul. Eventually, I made time to fix my website.

What bugged me the most about my older websites was that I had to use JavaScript to make my drop-down navigation menus. I don't generally think much of JavaScript, since it can get needlessly complicated very quickly. And this comes from a girl that's programmed in Java, C, Basic, PBasic, Python, and Propeller.

When I was tweaking my website a little while back, I had to look up some CSS notation. I generally go to W3Schools, since they give the most direct and simple answers. I saw the little demos they had on the main page for the pure CSS animations and got pretty fan girl excited. I've been animating since I was fourteen and have always loved the art form. Seeing that I had the potential to use CSS to create animations was the team up of my two loves: art and coding.

CSS has come a long way since when I first started web developing 10 years ago, as have my web design skills. CSS was a bit limited, but was still pretty powerful. Only needing to edit a few lines of code in a file separate from your HTML source code made it much easier to update my website's look as my design skills developed. Before I learned CSS, it was easy to miss a tag that would mess up the whole rest of the site if left behind during a revamp.

The update to CSS3 has made web design even simpler, since it eliminates the need for most Javascript. Animating a navigation bar with CSS takes only two or three lines of code, rather than the block of 5 or more lines in Javascript. Not only can you animate a nav. bar, you can also animate a little game with an animated avatar, like on this site. Apparently, I'm not the only animation nerd out there.

Web designing is rad and the tools for it just get better an better. I'm looking forward to seeing what new CSS tricks will be developed in the future.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Power of the 10 Minute Cartoon

Since I'm a student animator, I'm a big fan of cartoons. I always have been. Whenever I have some spare time, I like to sit down and binge watch kids cartoon shows. My absolute favorite cartoon show is a tie between Gravity Falls and Teen Titans (OS). But these are both ~30 minute long cartoons, which is necessary for the story they're telling. Both Teen Titans and Gravity Falls are plot driven shows. What I want to talk about is 10 minute cartoons.

10 minute cartoons are a cool thing. One of the first 10 minute cartoons I remember watching was 'My Life as a Teenaged Robot.' This was a 20 minute show with two 10 minute segments. The stories were generally pretty light; quick little vignettes and sketches with no continuity from one to the next. My most recent obsession is Steven Universe, a continuing three season long cartoon show with individual 10 minute episodes. I watch all of my TV online, so I don't know if they play two episodes together or not on TV, but each episode has an intro and credit sequence, which suggests not. If I'd gone back in time and tried to tell myself how powerful a 10 minute cartoon show could be, I wouldn't have believed myself. It took watching several episodes to convince myself of that. So that you can understand why I think 10 minute cartoons can be so powerful, I'm going to take a brief segue into movies and scripts.

If you're a script writer, the ultimate reference for making a great script is Blake Snyder's Save the Cat. In this book, Snyder presents an outline that every successful movie should follow. If the outline is followed exactly, the script can become a movie that leaves the audience satisfied and happy. Snyder explains why the outline works for stories and also says that following the outline gives you a way to prove that the script is your own, in case some one tries to rip off your idea. Blake Snyder simplifies the outline to a 'beat sheet' in his book, with each 'beat' being a major plot point. Not only is the beat sheet great for movies, it can also work for books, television shows, and cartoons. A satisfying story can be told through any of those mediums. Since I'm an amateur writer, Save the Cat  is a book I've studied. Out of curiosity one night, I decided to sit down in front of a few Steven Universe episodes to see if each episode hit each beat. Each episode I had watch felt full-length, rather than the short 10 minutes that it actually was, so that made me wonder if they were applying Snyder's outline. (Or maybe I'm just a spaz and can't sit still for longer than 10 minutes.) To my surprise and delight, the three episodes I plotted all hit each beat. Each beat was clear and distinct. In movies, it can be hard to find each beat the first time watching it, but I figure this is because a movie has more time to develop each plot point that you can look at at the end of the movie and then recognize them. Short cartoon shows have to be a lot more direct so that you don't get lost.

Not every 10 minute cartoon uses the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet outline. Not every cartoon needs to. Adventure Time, for example, is closer in character to the Teenaged Robot show I mentioned earlier. Each episode is more of a quick sketch,with no real continuity between episodes (at least for the first two seasons). Adventure Time is a good example of a joke driven show, where each episode is a build up with a joke for a punchline at the end. We Bare Bears appears to be a simpler outline than Snyder's for each episode, although I haven't plotted any of them out. I suspect the outline is truncated.

Seeing how powerful and interesting a 10 minute cartoon can be gives me hope. My eventual goal is to become an animator and hopefully create my own animated series. If I start a cartoon show more or less on my own, it would be impossible for me to regularly create a 30 minute show every month, let alone every week. A 10 minute format would be much more feasible.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Fringe: Interesting, But Inaccurate

Recently, I decided that it was time to take a break from watching kids cartoons and to start watching a 'grownup' show. I recently subscribed to Amazon Prime (Great service. I highly recommend it.) and looked at its suggestions for me. It recommended that I check out Fringe. From what I saw in the description, it looked to be an interesting enough show, so I decided to check it out. It held my interest for 3 seasons.

The premise of Fringe is that there is an FBI division called the 'Fringe Division' that handles strange occurrences that can only be explained by fringe science. A determined young FBI investigator, Olivia Dunham, begins noticing a 'pattern' of strange, fringe occurrences. She becomes curious and begins investigating them on her own. After having a good deal of success in her investigations, she's offered a position in the fringe division. Further investigation leads her to believe that a crazy, old ex-scientist named Walter is linked to all of the occurrences, and so she gets his shady son to release him from the mental institution he resides at. From there, the investigations into the strange and paranormal begin.

The show has a premise that I find relatively interesting, although majorly bogus. Many of the fringe occurrences they come across are physically and medically impossible. Also, Walter, the supposedly brilliant scientist, regularly substitutes 'theory' for 'hypothesis.' For those of you that aren't acquainted with the scientific terms, a hypothesis is an initial concept that needs to be tested and either proved or disproved. A theory is a concept that has been tested rigorously and appears to be accurate for all intents and purposes, but still has the possibility of being inaccurate. A law is an immutable concept that is constant and cannot be disproven. This is a common layman mistake to call a hypothesis a theory.

If you ignore the scientific, medical, and terminological fallacies, it is a relatively good show. The characters are interesting and believable. The main character, Olivia, is a character that's easy to identify and sympathize with. Walter is a bit of a stereotype, but not obnoxiously so. Peter is a fun character and plays off of Olivia well. Also, the most exciting part of the show for me, Leonard Nimoy is a key character, although he doesn't get much screen time. Of all the actors, I would definitely say his acting is the best, but, as an OS Star Trek fan, I may be biased.

I think the most disappointing part of the show for me is the over-arching plot line. I like the plot lines of the individual episodes the best. The over-arching plot of the series feels over dramatic and is, honestly, not that interesting. What kept me watching for three seasons was the characters and their fun and amusing interactions. I would recommend this show for others, especially if the paranormal and strange interest you. It's also fun for anyone that doesn't get easily annoyed with factual inaccuracies. I liked it alright!