Thursday, August 19, 2010

"...I would have missed the fire trucks and everything."

Sometimes in our haste to do the things we want most, we run the risk of missing things we didn't even know were on the horizon. Point in case. On the day prior to the first day of the new school year, my youngest daughter announced that the bag she originally intended for ferrying books was now inadequate and would have to be replaced. It was early afternoon after attending the annual "Meet the Teacher" event and she wanted me to taxi her to the local sporting goods store for a backpack. I told her we would have to wait until after dinner. Unhappy with my decision, she stormed upstairs to brood.

In the kitchen I began preparing the food, talking to my wife about the open house and our excitement over the new year. Somewhere between the chopping and the seasoning, I heard the kids yelling, "Dad, there's two police cars outside in the front yard." Of course at this point I dropped the knife on the counter and bolted to the front door nearly colliding with the dog and both of my children who were careening down the stairs in an attempt to go outside and see the action unfold in person. Of course neither of them had considered that whatever was happening out front might include weapons or other forms of death and mayhem. Fortunately for us, it was neither.

After sequestering them behind the blinds in the family room to peer through the slats, I ventured through the front door. Three police officers were gathered beside the first car which had managed to park its right front tire on my yard just sidestepping the fire hydrant. The doors were ajar to reduce the heat in the vehicle from the sweltering 95 degrees and 85% humidity of the our North Carolina summer. The second car was paralleled to the curb behind my car, blue lights flashing brightly in spite of the setting sun. I attempted to flag one of the officers, but was politely ignored - they had other things on their minds. Mine, of course, was ensuring there was no danger to my family or home.

I ducked back inside the house peppered with questions by Darby and Isaac. Trudie told them to go back upstairs, not to get them out of the way, but rather to have a better view from Darb's window to see who or what was in the back of the first squad car. I heard her shout down that it was "some guy." Unfortunately, that was as good as it got. Their full attention was now on the fire truck coming up the road.

You have to understand that our neighborhood is usually fairly quiet. The kids play outside all the time, but rarely are there any issues. When there are, however, they usually involve a fire truck. There was the time one of the kids decided to try and save the air conditioner unit, and didn't realize its weight would pull him out of the second story window rupturing his spleen along the way.  And then there was the great "pizza box in the oven" scare. And, of course, there was Izy's birthday when he was little and the "woo, woo truck" came for him and his friends in the cul de sac. So, in honor of the fire truck, the kids decided they would see even better from our 40 foot magnolia tree, and raced out the back door to start climbing.

 It was about this time that one of the officers knocked at the front to let me know what was going on. The young man in their custody, apparently not of our neighborhood at all,  was having some difficulties which required an intervention. He was not dangerous, just confused. I noticed the fire truck turning around to which the officer commented he "did not think this case warranted their time," and so he had sent them away. I am sure my children and their friends were crestfallen, at least as until the EMS truck showed up with lights a blazing.Just because the hook and ladder was superfluous did not mean there wasn't going to be an intervention.

All-in-all the "event" took about 2 hours. When everything settled down, we enjoyed a nice dinner and lively conversation. And then Darby and I went to the store, bought her backpack and closed out the night.

Everything happens. Sometimes with reasons we can see, other times for reasons we cannot. It was her comment the following morning that classified the "event" as a part of one of life's detours. She said she was sorry for getting upset about not going to get the backpack earlier in the afternoon. She also observed,  "If we had gone when I wanted to, I would have missed the fire trucks and everything."

- Ken

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Summer Film Festival

When I was thirteen years old the school I attended in Florida had what I would now call the precursor to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in the form of the Enhanced learning Program (ELP). It was also known as the nerd class. I had been in ELP since about the third grade. Although the primary focus was identifying gifted and talented students and providing them with additional structured learning like brainstorming, creative design, computers (TRS-80 Model I and later we moved up to an Apple II color), we also got to do film making - in particular, animation!

My junior high school ELP teacher truly believed in learning and the power of imagination. Whether we were creating Rosetta Stones and archeology digs about our own made up civilizations, or acting out our own variations of Shakespeare, he not only made it interesting, he made it fun. The day he walked into class holding an 8mm Bolex animation camera, I just couldn't believe it. My first animation was of a chess set where the pieces actually did battle, cocktail swords and all. Little did I know that 30 years later I would experience a sense of déjà vu.

My son Izy may not have all of the interests I had as a youth, but he does share my passion for film (although his fortunately comes in a digital format and is a lot cheaper than 8 millimeter to produce). As he does not have the benefit of my favorite teacher of all time (Mr. McCoy, I hope you are still with us), I have tried to support his interest and for a couple of summers we have attempted to produce movies. This summer was no exception, and with an empty living room in the apartment in our new town, we had the perfect location for a stop motion animated picture.

For those of you not familiar with the tools and the process, it is actually quite simple. Take a digital camera with manual focus and white balance (this is to keep it from auto adjusting while recording), a tripod (to keep it from shaking between frames), a controlled light source (or sources), and a computer with some kind of video editing software capable of sequencing a series of images (Google the phrase "Monkey Jam Animation" for a free application). The rest is just imagination, something to animate and a lot of time and patience.

Izy's two week visit this summer came with no distractions or responsibilities during the day. This left him with all the time necessary to produce some movies; and he did. The first were a little rough. Getting the feel for timing in stop motion is a little tricky at first. We worked in some good old fashioned math, including geometry, and learned how to calculate distance and time and then convert to number of frames between point A and B so that an object seemed to move at the correct pacing. And then, one evening, I came home from work to find he had spent the entire afternoon shooting a car race across the room.

It was awesome! Izy had taken the whole process several leaps beyond the basics we had discussed and figured out how to do camera panning, multiple camera angles, and a car jump. Although I was impressed (especially with the creativity of the different camera angles and the jump) he and I knew it was a little rough in spots. For example, the wheels spun in different directions at times and the distance between frames was erratic. So we sat back and determined that we needed some cues for the wheel spinning which would solve both problems. The spokes of the model cars did the trick. Not only were we able to smooth out the speed of the cars, but we were also able to do some acceleration and deceleration to boot. The final output can be seen on his YouTube site: The Jump.

The best part of the whole thing was that we did it together. His creativity and imagination were brought to life. The short deviation from his usual summer break resulted in a little bit of movie magic. Since then he has produced several different types of videos, working on his editing and sound effects, and is still experimenting. I hope to have the opportunity to continue working with my son and helping him make whatever dreams he has come true.

- Ken