Sunday, February 14, 2021

So I give up...

I'm not a fan of Apple. Never have been. I hate almost everything they stand for. They spout "Think different", but cater to people who line up for their every new gee-gah like Beetle Bailey in a chow line. More often than not these days, they're late coming out with things that Windows or Android started doing last year, and yet their fans will still shell out a 25-50% premium just to catch up and be seen in public conspicuously consuming a logo that already had a bite out of it when they acquired it. I don't get it. I really don't. Let me explain why I take this personally.

Because Apple let me down on trying to hold onto my youth.

Here's the story. Back in the mid 90s, for about three years, I worked in the animation industry. It seemed like a long time back then, when I was in my mid-to-late 20s. I worked in two places. The first, which was also the last, bookended my animation career; a place called The Animation House where I did traditional in-betweening on TV commercials, mostly for cereal. It was what people now call gig work. They called me in when they needed me, and left me twiddling my thumbs when they didn't. In the midst of all that, though, I landed a job at a placed called Isabel Hoffmann & Associates, where we did digital animation on a series of children's educational CDs.

It was a strange place. Isabel was one of those people who would have fit right in in the upper echelons of Enron. Jobs were constantly under threat. The pay for most of us wasn't great. I couldn't afford to get out on my own on what they were paying us, so I did the long commute from the suburbs downtown everyday. But it was a jog, a real job, full time, and... it was fun. In spite of everything else, I enjoyed the people I was working with and the things we were doing. I got to animate, do voice work, and even assemble a few minor creative efforts of my own. I was there for a little over a year before I got too big for my britches and quit. I was a rat abandoning a ship that was leaky, but didn't quite sink for another couple of years. But, sink it did. My career in animation, back at the A-House, lasted about another six months till work got scarce and sixteen months of unemployment humbled me.

Anyway... Since everything we did at Hoffmann was digital, I have copies of the open files, even after all these years. We were using a program called Macromedia Director, the raster-based precursor of Flash (which I believe was also theirs), eventually acquired by Adobe. We were created cast members in Photoshop, cutting and pasting them in. Weird, clunky way to work, but it got the job done. This being 1996/1997, most of this stuff was still being made for Macs first, and PCs later. I guess it's not surprising, since we'd only just landed Windows 95 at that point. The Windows version of Director, for God knows whatever reason, will only export movies in AVI format, without sound. I mention this because around this time last year, I succumbed to this periodic urge I've had over the years to buckle down for a couple of weeks, go through the old disks, export all the movies, and put them up on YouTube for people to enjoy. Some of them are up there now, but people typically just post the straight read-throughs of the stories... none of the cool, fun, kicky little animations you could enjoy when you clicked on elements on the page. I wanted to share all that. I and my friends put a lot of work into those and I thought they deserved to be appreciated again.

Director has been deprecated for over a decade now. I can find it in various places online. We were working in Director versions 4 and 5. The earliest version of Director that will still run on Windows, and open files from those versions, is Director 6. Same problem, though. You can export the movie, but not the sound. So the magic answer seemed to be get hold of a Mac old enough to run the old software and export the movies right.

Around that time, the up-and-coming Mac was the iMac. I managed to find one reasonably cheaply. But it was so underpowered that it couldn't even manage a USB drive. I had no way to either install Director on it, or transfer my Director files to it. The thing was a lime green boat anchor. Fine. I went looking again and a G6 Mac. The guy had to bump the OS back a few notches for it to run those old versions of Director, but I managed to get them installed. Then I decided to get started.

One of the two projects that dominated most of my time at Hoffmann was something called Nikolai's Mysteries. Colloquially, we referred to it as "Black Windows", because one of the characters in the story supplied windows that were painted black. This was the one that was the most fun, so I decided to start with that one. Director was glitchy, and one of the pages, 11, simply refused to export properly. I never figured out why. I managed to export its individual animations one by one, except for one of them, which was probably the one holding up the show for the whole thing. So, after a couple of weeks of this eating up my spared time, I wanted to transfer them over and assemble them using a modern computer. But most of the portable drives that could handle it were too big for the Mac to recognize. I had to make umpteen partitions on the drive and format them back to formats from the late 90s to get anywhere. Once I finally got them on the drive, I plugged it into Windows, only to find that the MOV files I'd exported were utterly unrecognizable to it. Something the Mac had done in creating them made them useless for any other application. All that work down the tubes.

I suppose the reason I was really upset was that so much time had passed me by. When I moved out on my own, it was just three years after I left Hoffmann. Suddenly I find that, almost without my noticing it, over 20 years have passed. Hoffmann was one of those places that, despite the down sides, I never quite left. I've drifted back to it in dreams. I sometimes yearn to reconnect with the people who worked there, though I imagine beyond half an hour of "remember when?" talk, we'd have nothing to say to each other anymore. I suppose it was all just an attempt to hang onto a moment, pretend it wasn't quite over.

I sold the iMac about a month ago. I have an ad up for G6, but no takers so far. About a week ago I disconnected it and shoved it into the spare room. I highly doubt it'll ever get used again. Odds are I'll get fed up looking at it sometime this summer and just leave it at a Goodwill depot or something.

It's not really over, though. I still have Director 6, which will run on Windows 10. If I really want to, I can export them to soundless AVIs, make notes of which sound files I need to drop in, and resync them all in Premiere. I could make it all live again, if I want to. I might yet. I just might.

Meanwhile, I can share with you the few little things I do still have. I have four things up on YouTube. So, just for fun, here they are.

This first one is a "serious" piece; something I was tasked to animate that actually made it onto the disk in Nikolai's Pirates. On one page, you clicked on the family of jaguars, and this happened...

The next three are all just goofy stuff we did on the side. Screwing around with the elements on the pages. It probably goes without saying that these didn't go out on the disks.

Nikolai's dad (yes, Nikolai was real), Uno, was a big fan of Apocalypse Now, and even had the sound track. I did this in about half an hour screwing around one afternoon. One of the other animators showed it to him, and to my relief, he got a big kick out of it. The elements were from a page on Nikolai's Treats.

This next one was from Nikolai's Pirates. The cats were supposed to toss pepper into the pirate's face to escape, causing him to sneeze. I animated the sneeze. I couldn't help taking it one step further.

Finally, topping them all, there's this one. A couple of the guys came in on the weekend just to do this. It's from a page on Nikolai's Mysteries ("Black Windows"). They shopped it around to us on Monday. Our creative director was pissed that they came in and screwed around all weekend when they could have been getting something serious done (not that they got paid for being in on the weekend, mind you), so the guy who had the file deleted it... but not before I managed to just barely snag a copy. And so, the world still has this hilarious little masterpiece, with cameos by another of the animators and Edgar Rice Burroughs. The voice of Neow Neow (the cat), by the way, was Uno, Isabel's husband and Nikolai's dad.

And that's all she wrote, folks. :)

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Like a Troubled Bridge Over Water

This summer, as I've been finding it easier to get around and having more energy to do so, I've made a virtue of getting back out and visiting old bridges I've documented in the past, as well as a few I've never been to before. I'd like to share with you now a little of what I've seen.

Wiley Bridge on Gorewood Drive

I'm not exactly sure when this bridge in Peel Region was essentially removed from the road grid; at a guess, I'd say the 1960s or 1970s. Technically speaking, it can still be accessed by Conservation Area vehicles; I suppose if you were sneaky and bold enough, it would still be possible to get your car onto it. Given that it's essentially a pedestrian bridge now, I wouldn't advise it, though. Despite being an arch bridge on the Humber River, this one wasn't designed and built by Frank Barber, but by Langton and Bartho around 1924. A number of homes still exist on this road just a five minute walk or so back up the hill behind you in the view below.

Vigo Bridge on Flos Road 4

Encountering it for the first time on July 26, I missed driving on this Simcoe County bridge only by a year or two. It's been superseded by a new bridge about 50 metres to the north. I don't know if they're going to keep this bridge around or tear it down, but either way, I've documented it as it existed in the summer of 2020.

Old Shiloh Road Bridge

The Old Shiloh Road bridge is still in use in the extreme northeast of York Region. While I was there on August 3, it was crossed by some car or truck every minute or two. Sooner or later, as the area grows more suburban, this bridge will be replaced, but as far as I know, it's safe for now.

River Street Bridge

Found in Seagrave near Port Perry in Durham Region, this pony truss bridge once carried Simcoe Street traffic, until it was superseded. But this bridge remained in use. In fact, it's a rare instance of one where the municipality really went to bat to keep it in use. Just a couple of years ago, it was removed, refurbished, and then set back into place with a new lease on life.

I went out to see the bridge for myself on August 3.

Old Langstaff Road Bridge

Despite its being the closest of the three to my home, I visited this bridge for the first time only this summer, on August 1. Built around 1923, this is one of three Frank Barber bow arch bridges still existing on the Humber River, and, as far as I can tell, the only one for which no active plans to demolish it exist. This bridge carried Langstaff Road east from Islington Avenue till it was replaced by a modern span about 100 metres south sometime in the 1970s, at which point, I assume, it was removed from the road grid.

I'm surprised York Region isn't taking the refurbishment of this bridge and the trails associated with it more seriously. It's in the middle of a populous suburb, and is at the immediate south end of the Boyd Conservation Area, which is extremely popular with the locals. Clearly they're using this bridge to access it, however unofficially. It seems to me it would make a wonderful pedestrian access if only the region would put a little money into it.

McEwen Bridge on Kirby Road

This is another Frank Barber bow arch on the Humber. I was first out to see it on a rainy September Saturday back in 2006. Built around 1923, this bridge has been closed to vehicular traffic since the 1970s when a landslide dropped part of Kirby Road down into the Humber River below. Reading between the lines on the sign at the trail head, it appears that, despite being in comparatively good shape (at least to my eye), this bridge looks like it's about to be pulled down and replaced by some modern pedestrian bridge in support of the trail that this stretch of Kirby Road has become. This bridge is now closed off by mesh fencing at both ends, but it hardly presents a real obstacle to crossing the bridge by foot. I was down there on August 1, and was actually just a few dozen steps behind another photographer.

Old Major Mackenzie Bridge on Humber Bridge Trail

I've been out to this bridge something like a dozen times since 2013 or so. Up until 2018, you could actually drive across it. Prior to about 1990, this was the original course of Major Mackenzie Drive, which has since bypassed it about a kilometre to the south, creating a dogleg at Hwy 27, a new course correction of which is currently under construction and will open soon. A terrible sharp switchback, running immediately to the left of the house below, used to carry traffic down to the river to the one-lane bow arch designed and built by Frank Barber around 1914. Since 1990, the bridge has existed merely to serve the people living at the house, number 5789, shown below. The bridge was in bad shape, and York Region could either have spent an estimated $800 thousand to $1.7 million to refurbish it, or buy the house and tear it and the bridge down. They opted for the latter, and in 2017, the region bought the house for $1.28 million. This summer, they are both being torn down.

P-Doug and I were out there on April 11, where a guy living just the other side of the river broke the news to us that he'd heard the house and bridge were going to be demolished.

P-Doug and I went back on August 1st. Sure enough, there was construction... or maybe "deconstruction" would be more appropriate... equipment was on site. It appeared that what we'd heard in April was indeed the case. This venerable old bridge, one of the remaining few designed by Frank Barber, was, apparently, about to be torn down.

The house at 5789 was still standing, but of course, if the bridge was due to be removed, the house had to go first. The closed part of the original course of Major Mackenzie Drive (faintly visible here as the rise to the left of the trees) had been closed around 1990, so the bridge was the only remaining way to get at the house.

After being out there, I searched the net to see if there was any news backing all this up. Turned out there was.

I also found other corroborating information from the region itself revealing the plan to be definite. Knowing we had to keep an eye on things, we returned on August 15. The bridge was in its shroud.

The house, which had been built sometime in the 1960s, had been torn down.

Back in late 2013, I tried to hike up the old closed switchback of the original course of Major Mackenzie drive. It was rough going then, and fallen trees stopped me about 2/3 of the way up. This time, it was hard to tell there'd ever been a road at all, and I didn't get more than a a few dozen yards up the lower slope before I simply had to stop. I don't think anyone will ever again follow the original course of Major Mack up the slope to the neighbourhood just off to the left, high above.

At one time, this was something like the view you'd have had turning from the bottom of the switchback onto the straight course of Major Mack again. That's the bridge in the medium distance. The driveway to 5789 is just there on the left.

P-Doug went to clean the mud off his sandals and discovered the intricate scaffolding holding the bridge up to support the heavy equipment crossing it... the last traffic it will ever carry. This bridge is due to be gone by October, according to the contract.