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The Master of His Universe

Greencastle native and Bloomington resident Thomas DeCarlo introduces his labor of love: a high-tech animated short film which stands as proof that one person with the will and the vision can create something every bit as marvelous as the big studios.

by Donovan Wheeler
photos by Donovan Wheeler
and courtesy of DeCarlo Productions

Five years ago, I started drawing a rather silly comic strip mocking the bureaucratic nonsense swirling around public education in the midst of “reform.”  Eighteen months after that, I convinced myself that animating it would be a brilliant idea.  I bought a cheap $50 box of software, paid another chunk of dough for access to a series of online tutorials, and spent weeks creating a four-minute YouTube clip.  Making that cartoon was hard…one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done.  Like most people I went into it with an artistic mindset based on those grainy images of Disney studio animators flipping stacks of penciled Bambi sketches into a jittery sprint.  But in the world of modern animation the act of drawing is arguably one of the least consequential skills on the docket.  Rather, the current art form is more an exercise in math and computer programming.  No doubt that’s the reason my toons were so crude: distended elbows, distorted jaw lines, contorted eyeballs, and extended pant legs.  Mine was less the savvy of South Park and more the hackery of a Salvador Dali wannabe.

Tom DeCarlo, on the other hand, is one of these new world animators. He doesn’t doodle on flip tablets.  He doesn’t even draw, per se.  He is the 21st century artist: a writer, a thinker, and a creator who melds his ideas with the plastic and silicone tools sitting in front of him.  In fact, he actually purchased his characters for his current film project from a stock producer who sold him the rights to use them commercially and creatively.  DeCarlo’s artistry lay instead with the “rigging” of his characters, the development of his story, and the assembly of his animated components.

“You have to understand how people physically move,” he explains.  “There’s definitely some artistry to that, but so much of it also ends up being mechanical.”

I had seen DeCarlo’s early cuts of his new animated short, The Encounter, online a few times, and even when it switched from mostly finished clips to storyboard sketches, it remained an impressive bit of work.  The 3-D effects were sharp, the facial expressions comically real, the story was well conceived and the dialogue craftily laid out…but it was the lighting—yes, lighting—which was perhaps the most masterfully done element.  The Encounter tells the brief story of Larry (voiced by Zachary Spicer), a hapless UFO-hunter who has a selfie-stick meeting with Bo-Bo—a goofy-looking, telescope-eyed caricature from the stars. As good as his film promises to be, what’s most inspiring about his story is not that he’s masterminded it from some exectutive producer status at Pixar or Dreamworks.  Instead it is the fact that he’s making it out of his home in a 50-year-old, old-growth subdivision in Bloomington, Indiana. DeCarlo is effectively proving that time, self-discipline, and a mastery of the technical intricacies of animation software can produce a product rivaling the efforts of the giant studios.

“The full program, with all the bells and whistles, runs more like $3,500…which is comparable to many of the other high-end systems out there. But I only spent roughly $700 about ten years ago for the core, start up program. Since then, using an education discount through IU, I only spend a couple hundred a year to keep everything updated.” Courtesy DeCarlo Productions.
“The full program, with all the bells and whistles, runs more like $3,500…which is comparable to many of the other high-end systems out there. But I only spent roughly $700 about ten years ago for the core, start up program. Since then, using an education discount through IU, I only spend a couple hundred a year to keep everything updated.”
Courtesy DeCarlo Productions.

Donovan Wheeler:  When you were in high school, you were a musician and a physical actor.  How did you make the switch to animation?

Thomas Decarlo: “I continued live-action pretty much through my college years at Denison University.  But during my senior year, I got a little frustrated with that and turned to 2-D animation.”

DW:  Frustrated how?

TD: “In the fall semester of that year, I was spearheading a film project, and I had everything all lined up.  I had my actors, my schedule, my script, my equipment all checked out, and my locations were ready as well.  Then on the big day most of us sat around on location waiting for my lead actress…who I couldn’t get a hold of.  Everybody didn’t have cell phones at that time, so I would call her dorm room…her roommate had no idea where she was.  After sitting for a couple hours, I told everyone to go home.  That tanked my project because I had planned on half of it being shot that day.  That was my last big live-action production.”

DW:  You couldn’t risk another experience like that?

TD: “My favorite analogy is the bucket of water comparison.  When you’re operating on a low (or no) budget, your project is the bucket of water.  But the bucket is peppered with holes, and you’re the one person trying to plug all the holes with your fingers.  The set doesn’t look the way you wanted it to.  Something doesn’t cut together in your favorite part of the film, and you have to go through a bunch of weird editing to fix a mistake.  That’s what it is: you spend all your time fixing mistakes, and your vision spirals into the abyss.  Then, whatever you’re able to actually plug up…that’s your product.  I just got tired of relying on volunteer crew and volunteer actors because it became very hard to get people to do things.”

DW:  That’s too bad because when you and Zachary Spicer worked together when you were young, you guys made some very good, inventive stuff.

TD: “Zach and I were very lucky because we were both equally motivated.  We would sit down and say, ‘Let’s do this.’ And that’s exactly what we did.  When you have those people, the project works.”

DW:  So you gave it up?

TD: “Eventually.  After college I was in Chicago, and I was going through the same headaches with people there.  And…on top of that, I was no longer working with the nice equipment from school and instead using a single hand-held camera.  But as I started playing with it, I was amazed when I realized how close you could get to objects.  The college equipment required all these special ‘macro lenses’ for up-close work, but this thing could just zoom in and offer a clear image.  So I started looking at my own finger through this, and I said to myself, ‘I need to make a movie with finger puppets.’  I decided to make a sci-fi spoof.  I was making costumes and designing sets, but then I realized that using my fingers was kind of limiting.  So I started designing animatronic figures, and I was messing around with foam latex and getting an airbrush.  And [he laughs] this is how things fly out of control.”

DW:  And this is where you make your shift to animation?

TD: “Right.  Before long, I realized that I was going to be putting a lot of money and time into these sets, and I further realized that I could save that time and money by making the switch to computer animation.  For the next month or so, I went through all the different software packages trying to see what I could do with them.”

DW:  And what did you find?

TD: [Laughing] “I found that I could accomplish pretty much nothing.  Most of them were so impenetrable that I wouldn’t even know what to click.  They’re really just designed for professionals who have trained how to use them.  Finally I stumbled upon Cinema 4-D, and sat down and built a scene…I spent an hour creating this set.  And I was very impressed with how intuitive it was.”

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On cue, DeCarlo turns my attention to his set up.  Two enormous monitors sit on his desktop, allowing him to slide windows out of the way in the midst of his rapid toggling from the assembly window, to the visual layout window, to the layers of codes and ordered text in yet another window.  It’s the same sort of effect you get when you look onto the dashboard of a commercial jet or stare at the keys and valves on a Saxophone.  Clicking a button somewhere on the left screen DeCarlo’s leading man, Larry, pops up.  Clicking another button, Larry’s figure radiates a series of lines running along his arms and legs and gyroscopic circles surrounding his joints.

The process works—in the most basic nutshell of explanations—like this:  After creating (or buying, or hiring someone else to create) your character, you “rig” him.  You give him virtual bones and program them to respond to the movements of neighboring bones.  That way, when you move the lower leg, the thigh will move accordingly, mimicking the natural movements of people.  The next step is to create a backdrop or scene, which you place over your stage.  Complicating what obviously seems the next step—inserting your character into the scene—is a process called “layering.”  When I dabbled with animation, this was the most aggravating part.  Layer your set up incorrectly, and Larry’s waving hand could awkwardly disappear behind his own head.

If you’ve survived the painstaking agony of plotting all of those details, you must then plan the movements.  Most programs function algorithmically, meaning you place everything where you want it at the starting point—move your timeline along to a midway point and locate everything (every hand…every foot…every eyelid…everything) where you want it again.  You repeat this process until the end of your scene, and the computer “moves” all the parts along a “logical” path.  After hours of tweaking someone’s blink, or making sure the moustache moves with the rest of the head, you then “render” the scene into actual “footage,” usually in the form of an Mp4 or some other common video type.

That’s the simple explanation.  DeCarlo’s film, which employs “camera angles” and “virtual klieg lighting” requires mammoth amounts of time too complicated to imagine.  One of the tools he employs, giving him vastly greater range and control than a basic mouse, is his 3-D mouse, a plastic knob sitting on a chrome pad looking akin to a nubbed-off video game joystick.

“It wobbles, so it actually slides,” he says describing Larry’s movements as he drives his truck along a dusty road in search of his UFO.  “In addition to twisting in multiple directions, you can lift up…push down… and slide it forward and backward.”  The trick is dropping Larry into the truck and creating the believable reaction on the screen.  When the truck performs that wobble, Larry’s body has to react to the motion of the ride.  Easy to do when you stick a live body in a real car, but another thing when it’s all on a screen on a desk.

Abruptly, he switches to yet another screen showing a stack of code and text.  It’s here where DeCarlo creates the “switches” connecting and disconnecting Larry from his ride.  Flip it one way and Larry becomes “one with the truck” while sitting in its driver’s seat.  Flip it the other way, and he becomes fully independent of it when he steps out onto the road.  When flipped on, the hand on the steering wheel responds to DeCarlo’s movements of said steering wheel.  But leave it flipped on too long…? Larry’s standing gestures to the alien make the truck like it’s possessed.

“The 3-D, I feel is very conducive to that because it’s very malleable. The modern 3-D animation equipment allows you to virtually modify an object in a manner similar to the way potters model a piece of clay. So, I’m not a great illustrator in that sense, but I know what looks good, and the tools I have in front of me get that done.” Photo by Donovan Wheeler
“The 3-D, I feel is very conducive to that because it’s very malleable. The modern 3-D animation equipment allows you to virtually modify an object in a manner similar to the way potters model a piece of clay. So, I’m not a great illustrator in that sense, but I know what looks good, and the tools I have in front of me get that done.”
Photo by Donovan Wheeler

DW:  So how far along are you?

TD: “I’ve got about two minutes left to block.  Which means I need to move the characters roughly where they’re supposed to go and get some basic animation underway. I also need to put the camera where I want it, but often when I do that the actions which I’ve anticipated have changed.  So I often have to work backwards some.  But once I’ve got that, then I will have the whole thing blocked out.  Once I’m there, I can run what I’ve got past people, get their take on it, decide which scenes are well set up…which ones need to longer…that sort of thing.  That point would be the ideal time to bring Zach back in and do final dialogue.  And he would act watching it play out.  It would be a sort of single performance, since the entire film is one specific scene.

DW:  Then…?

TD: “Then I would fine tune the finished product according to his performance.  The facial expressions, the mouth movements, and the fine motor stuff really need his performance stamped on them before I can do that.  Meanwhile my sound effects people will make their final adjustments, and my composer will be putting together the score.”

DW:  And when this is finished, when it’s ready for a full audience, what are your plans then?

TD: “I will definitely have a showing here in Bloomington.  I know that the major festivals don’t want full-length, live-action films to premier anywhere else before those high-level festivals.  My understanding is that those rules aren’t the same for shorts…especially animated shorts.  So I want to get it into as many festivals as I can.  Then I’ll more than likely move it to some ‘Video-on-Demand’ platform.”

DW:  Given that you and your wife have a newborn son, and that the two of you are preparing to move into a new house on the north side of Bloomington, what sort of deadline are you giving yourself?

TD: “My goal has been to finish this by the end of the year.  But the fact that my wife and I thought we were beginning a new house search only to walk into one and buy it right from the get-go has probably put a wrinkle on that timeline.  I’m pretty far along, and once I nail down the camera angles and how to move the action…once I do that, I’m going to be a good halfway through it…and that will have been the hardest half.  Because the rigging and set up is always much more laborious than the fine-tuning and polishing.”

DW:  Is that realistic, given that you are roughly halfway finished with it now?

TD: “Now that I understand how to structure a bigger project, I’ve learned how to import my models and characters more efficiently.  When I started, I was working on scenes in a haphazard sort of way.  But over time, I’ve learned how to organize what I’m doing, streamline my methods, so I’m in a much, much better place from an efficiency point-of-view than I was when I began this.  That, and the fact that the most recent upgrade of the system has improved my productivity as well.”

DW:  Where do you want to go next once you’ve finished this project?

TD: “I’ve been toying with the idea of turning this into a feature.  Over all this time, as this work has come together and as I have jumped all the learning curve hurdles, it’s left me contemplating animation as a full-time career.  But the most plausible way to do that is to secure investors and make a feature.  Add into this the fact that Cinema 4-D is not very popular in the US, also add that I don’t have any formal education in the field nor full-time experience for that matter, and it all consequently means that I don’t think any animation company would hire me.  But in a lot of ways that’s just fine.  I don’t think I would want to be spending my days working on volumetric clouds for some major studio, anyway.  My strength is not in some tiny specialty, it’s in being able to tie all these things together.  But now at this point, I feel that I can at least show investors what I’ve got, show them the quality, tell them that I did this mostly on my own, and maybe put myself in a position to work on it full time.”

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Before leaving, DeCarlo shows me an updated the full story: still a hedged-together collection of nearly finished scenes, halfway finished scenes, and stop-action story boards standing in for those scenes not begun, but more polished than I had seen months before.  Narratively, the story is crisp, well-written, and pretty funny.  But thematically, it does something far better than exploit oft-used “E.T. tropes.”  Sure, his film reminds we’re not alone.  And sure, it points out that we’ve got more in common than we think we do.  But it also calls out our self-absorbed, self-protective, and insecure nature.  The Encounter captures the clichés but doesn’t pander to them.  It makes us laugh, but not at the expense of the story.  In other words, for all its digital bells and virtual whistles, DeCarlo is creating a film which thrives because it has been “rigged” around a solid story.  And that’s the real lesson: no matter how much technology changes the way we tell our tales, the good ones and the bad ones will always be separated by the brains of the people who create them.

Cover Photo Courtesy of DeCarlo Productions.
Cover Photo Courtesy of DeCarlo Productions.

About Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches AP Literature and AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He is the senior editor for the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes for ISU’s STATE Magazine. Since putting in a pool he can now dive in head first (with goggles), and he has mostly stopped throwing golf clubs, but he still hates to fly.

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