Sunday, June 7, 2009

Killing Mr. Mole

For three years now there has been a nasty little member of the marsupial family plaguing my lawn (or lack thereof as my friends and neighbours know very well). Mr. Mole, lawn destroyer extraordinaire. Also known as Little Brown Bastard. I've cursed him. I've cursed his mother. I've cursed his uncle and his sisters and his brothers. I threatened that I would search out and kill his whole family if he kept up his digging antics. I tried to smoke him out, drown him, trap him, stomp him. I've tried to reason with him. Offered him my time-share in the Poconos if he'll just...move...out. But alas, Little Brown Bastard has eluded me.

Until today.

In No Limit Poker, one mistake can cost you a tournament. One misread on your opponents and you are walking the streets reflecting on your own idiocy like a Wall Street broker buying up GM. Mr. Mole made that one costly mistake today and I was there to take advantage. He bluffed at the wrong time and I had Aces.

We are out in the garden enjoying a nice Sunday afternoon. Sunshine, my wife, is picking the dead leaves and petals off struggling flowers and notices that each time she presses a begonia back down into the soft earth, it slowly pops itself back up again. After a few attempts she calls me over. "I think Little Brown Bastard is after my flowers," she shouts. I look closely at the bobbing flower. "I think you're right," I whisper, my eyes glazing over with fury and hate.

I grab my shovel. Not the flat one, the nice, sharp spade with a pointy end. I am calm. I can see Mr. Mole across the poker table. His whole stack is pushed into the center. He's got his dark glasses on and he's staring down. I stare back. Look close. He's hiding behind those glasses but he's fully exposed. I raise my shovel up above my head. In a deranged, overdramatic whisper I speak my final words to Little Brown Bastard. "I CALL"

The shovel spears deep into the loose dirt. I lift it up and look for red paint. Evidence of my victory. There is none. "Does he have me beat again?" I think. I step on the mount of dirt. It doesn't bob or move at all. I shove my hand into the war zone and immediately find his tunnel. I root around, sifting the dirt and cursing his name over and over. How could he get away again? He had no outs!

Then my hand brushes against soft. I turn over the dirt and my nemesis flops into the open. I stand there shocked. Stunned. Victory is mine! "I killed the mole! I killed the mole! Sunshine! I killed the mole!" I scream. The rush of victory shoots up my spine and into my brain. I pump my fist and jump up in the air. It looks like the end to every cheesy 80's action tv show. "He's DEAD," I say.

"You're DEAD," I tell him, just in case he wasn't aware.

One mistake, that's all it took. Goodbye Little Brown Bastard. You were a good nemesis...but I'm glad your dead.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Frame by Frame Stop Motion Video

I've always loved watching animations. From old school loony toones to the newest rendered films like WALL-E to those National Film Board shorts (remember 'The Log Driver's Waltz' and 'The Cat Came Back?')on television. So I know why I was so excited when I saw yesterday's MacUpdate Promo. It was for Toon Boom Studio, a professional animation program that is regarded by many as the best of the best. The price is definitely a hint to the fact that it's a great program. Most applications that come through MacUpdate are $7.95 or $10.95 after the 50% off sale; prices I can handle with minimal resistance from the spousal front. ToonBoom's 50% off price is $199. This purchase would be an instant World War III.

So it's a good thing, I suppose, that drawing has never been my strong point. It has never come naturally to me as so many other things do. My artist friends keep telling me that I'm drawing with my mind instead of my eye. "Draw what you see," they say, "You're drawing what you think it should look like, instead of what it actually looks like." But I rarely get anything that doesn't look like something a small child created.

There is still a hint of purchase temptation towards Toon Boom way back in the attic of my mind. That relic of a dusty trunk sits in the corner with it's brass hinges, leather strapping, and a stamped plate on the front that says, "Application Lust." I haven't opened it in so long. Sites like and have helped me stay away. But the trunk still sits there, confident in the knowledge that it's hinges will squeak open again sometime in the future.

Seeing Toon Boom for sale reminded me of a project I worked on with my students this year. It involved a beta program I had installed in our computer lab a few years ago called FrameByFrame. The program has now had a number of revisions and is quite amazing, especially considering it's freeware. It allows you to create stop motion animations in an easy to use and intuitive environment. If you are a mac user, I encourage you to download the app and just play with it. There are some fun things you can do in a very short period of time.

As many of you know, I've been teaching music over the past few years in our school's art rotations. I enjoy it but greatly miss my original arts course, "Digital Arts." That's another entry for another day, though. I have really wanted to do a digital arts project that involved music so I could get back into the computer lab. I love the concept behind stop-motion video and never cease looking for cool new examples of the art. Below are links to my current favourites.
  1. Muto
  2. Human Skateboarding
  3. Her Morning Elegance
FrameByFrame gave me the inspiration to build the following project. It is aimed at middle school level students but could be easily modified to older age groups. If you are a fellow educator, please feel free to download and modify the project to meet your needs.

Download the Project File - PDF

Rubric - MS Excel

The challenge was to create a one minute stop-motion animation film that expresses a concept the student has learned in one of the core subject areas (Humanities, Math, Science, or Health and Career Education). The following steps were taken to work through the project (a more detailed breakdown is in the actual project file):
  1. Introduce and Play with FrameByFrame. Learn the ins and outs.
  2. Look at many different examples of stop-motion video.
  3. Plan and Storyboard the movie. What's the concept? How will you lay it all out?
  4. Create the set. Use a shoebox or similar box to create the set for the film.
  5. Shoot the film. Use district borrowed, school, and individual digital cameras to create required number of frames for the film.
  6. Import into FrameByFrame. Adjust frames and fps. Export as Quicktime movie.
  7. Import into iMovie for titles & transitions. Send to Garageband.
  8. Use Garageband 3 (or higher) to create a movie score.
  9. Export final cut and hand in to teacher.

As this was the first time I've done this kind of project, some serious reflection is required. There are a number of things that I will change the next time that I tackle something like this but there were a number of great successes as well. The list below should help you if you choose to take this on -- beware the pitfalls. I hope you see the same success as I did with the project.

What Worked:
  • Understanding Stop Motion. Overall, students were successful at gaining a basic understanding of how to create stop-motion video. They learned how to calculate how many frames were needed at certain frame rates to create a specific length of film (60 sec x 15 fps = 900 frames to be taken). They also learned how different frames per second settings produces a different look to their film AND related this to how we are 'tricked' into seeing motion when a series of still images flow by at a fast rate.
  • The Chosen Core Concept. Most students were able to create a film that showed their knowledge of some part of their core curriculum. A number of grade sevens chose some sort of egyptian theme (pyramid building, Icis and Ra, farming). Grade sixes focused a lot on Japan (samurai, earthquakes & housing, farming) and many others chose something from Health and Career Education (anti-smoking or anti-bullying). The concepts were, for the most part, represented with a measure of success. The viewer understood what the concept was and why it's important.
  • Learning Patience. Students definitely learned that stop-motion video is a meticulous art that requires a high degree of patience. This was the downfall for a number of students who just could not get into the required mind-set and ended up with extremely choppy and shaky animations.
What Was Overcome:
  • FrameByFrame Issues - The copy of FrameByFrame that was installed in our computer lab was an earlier version that had some crash problems. They have since been fixed but it's not that easy to install a new version of the program for 30 computers at a whim.
What Bombed:
  • The Timeline - I only see each of 3 classes once per week for the music art rotation. Because of this, I developed a strict time schedule for students to follow. Looking back, I realized that 1 hour per week for a project like this just doesn't cut it. If students are away, they miss way too much to realistically get caught up. The project will work MUCH better if the homeroom teacher uses the project as there would be bigger chunks of time to devote to the project. This will be especially important during the video shoot portion of the project.
  • Music Composition - This only bombed because of the time restrictions in the project. We were up against the report card deadline and I just did not have the time to teach electronic music composition to the depth that I would have liked. It was ironic, of course, because the project took place during music class.
Some examples:
  • Beyond Expectations
  • Fully Meeting Expectations
  • Meets Expectations
  • Not Yet Within Expectations

-Clayton Willms

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Writing - Oh, man! It's so difficult!

Wordle: A Norman Rockwell Vocabulary

One of the things I continually strive for is to become a better writer. The biggest problem is that I just don't write enough. I'm not a published author and don't rely on writing for any kind of financial need. I also am not a great journal writer. It always feels like a chore and the many times that I've been forced to (usually for university classes), I've hated every minute of it.
At times, though, inspiration hits and I write a short story or memoir, tuck the file away on my hard drive, and rarely if ever look at it again.
This past Christmas, on a snowy evening, inspiration hit once again and I actually got up the nerve to print a few copies and include them with our seasonal card sending frenzy. After some feedback from friends and family and my own reflection, I look back at this piece of writing with a certain fondness that is lacking from my earlier attempts and think that maybe I've progressed to the point where my creation is actually bearable to read. It feels preachy at the end and the similes are forced but still makes me smile when I read it back.
I've included it as a part of my first blog post ever and hope that you enjoy it.


My Perfect Painting
An Essay by Clayton Willms

I am in a Norman Rockwell painting. We're talking ultra republican Norman Rockwell here. Ever since I was a kid, I've always loved those paintings, as silly as that sounds. Coke Santas and snow hills. Kids and swings. It's the nostalgia, as I'm sure you well know. My own Rockwell painting is forming live around me as I sit on my couch this December 8th. The lights are dimmed low and we are all relaxing after a long day.
It's quiet. Quiet enough that I can hear the faint buzz of the light bulb above me. An ambulance that I'm sure is miles away softly whines. It slowly becomes a bit louder before fading away. Dying out. I hope the occupant fares better than the siren.
I love this short quiet time between our hectic December days and the cozy nights of slumber and dreams. The rug is warm and soothing beneath my aching feet. It's cold outside and for the moment the rain has let up. It's song is finished and the cloud dancers clear the floor to regather their strength for the next number. The moon, jealous of those other dancers, takes this chance to peek out and show off his shine. The only thing to make this scene better would be to have a good five feet of snow on the ground.
Back inside, my perfectly groomed dog 'Mason' is lying in a ball at my feet. He makes an excellent family pet. Every day when I walk in the door, he greets me with a big grin and a wagging tail that would lift his butt off the ground if it moved any faster. He circles my feet with the enthusiasm only my father-in-law in a Porsche dealership could match. Right now though, he's dozing. Silent except for the occasional doggy sigh. I'm sure he's dreaming about chasing rabbits in the countryside or fetching a stick at Brule Lake.
The fire sits there crackling away, making sounds like an October walk through the leaves; it's only job to give warmth. It is unaware of any cares in the world, except perhaps it's own slow dwindle toward embers and ash.
Chloe is lying in Sunshine's arms and drinking her nightly bottle. With each gulp she makes a sound. Just a little sound. It's soft and seems to me to represent the epitome of relaxation and contentment. Each coo swells my heart with amazement and astonishment until I think it might burst. Even after ten months, I'm amazed at how deep that well of love goes. I keep thinking that it will fill but it never does. Will it ever? I don't think so. Nope, nope, nope.
Sunshine glances over at me and smiles, seeming to sense how this moment could last forever. She's beautiful. No metaphors or similes needed here. Just that one word, beautiful.
So this is my painting. My small eternal etch in a history that will never make the books. A moment that's mine alone to cherish. Perfect. Rockwell.
Then a change.
A small, barely noticeable change occurs that begins to peel away the layers of paint in my perfect moment.
As I'm gazing into the fire, transfixed by flame and spark, a phantom hand in a plaid sleeve moves into my field of vision. It's holding a fire prod and proceeds to fix the logs in such a way so that new flame bursts through the spaces. When the phantom is satisfied, it throws another log on. Sparks scurry upwards but I can't see where they go because the top of my t.v. set gets in the way. Sunshine remarks on how she thinks that Shaw cable should pay someone to tend the fire twenty-four hours a day because she's sick of seeing the same logs burning over and over. "It should be like live t.v.," she insists, "That would be cool."
So much for my Rockwell fire.
I'm trying to stay in the painting though. This eternal moment is just too cuddly and comforting to be ruined by the cable t.v. phantom hand in the plaid sleeve.
Then Mason farts.
I hear it first and hate my past experience that tells me I'll smell it all too soon. I know it's one of the bad ones too because it's not loud and 'flappy.' It's coming like a ninja. You know...silent but deadly. The ninja cometh.
So much for my Rockwell pet.
The painting is definitely fading now. I'm almost resigned to it but hold out just a little hope for the eternal moment to last a bit longer.
Chloe finishes her bottle, sits up and promptly makes her ready-to-puke face. Uh oh. Maybe she smelled Mason's 'exhale.' Thankfully, she just lets out a nice lady-like burp. That is, if a lady's burp sounds like a jackhammer on a tin roof. Sunshine looks at me and laughs. We both do, actually. It's a true laugh, one from the gut. Laughs like this only ever come from a goofy surprise or the surprisingly bizarre. A lumberjack belch from a sleepy toddler fits into both categories so we just laugh harder.
Then the ninja comes. And as always, just as soon as you've forgotten him, he pounces. Sunshine glances at me again, not with a smile and a sense of the wonderful lasting moment, but with a grimace of mild horror at the smell that is now present. My painting fades a bit more and then winks out of existence when I realize that the smell is not coming from Mason.
So much for my Rockwell family.
We play rock-paper-scissors to decide who gets the change. I lose. Damn you, rock.
As I'm climbing the stairs towards Chloe's room, to do a chore that God must have put in place only to keep us humble, I realize that I don't mourn the loss of my Rockwell painting. It was nice but that's it. Nice. It was a wonderful snapshot of just a single moment. What makes it truly special and totally worthless at the same time is that it is a moment among thousands. Millions. Billions and more. All of these moments, good and bad, are what make up the true painting of my life. Sunshine's life. Chloe's life. Your life.
My life painting is not kids on swings and fishin' in the pond. It's not baseball on Saturday and church on Sunday. And even though it could be, it's not a walk to school along a white picket fence with my books in one hand, my lunch in the other and the sun warming my backside. It's that and more. Infinitely more. It's the sour with the sweet. The cold and the heat. The classical music and the phat rap beat. It's definitely my really bad rhyming and hopefully my engaging writing. The ironies, conflicts, failures and victories. The histories of sad stories and the nostalgia brought from the memory of happy times. That's true Rockwell.
Sorry Norman, your painting was good but I like mine better. :)