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Shooting in Real Time with the Lunchbox Sync

by Wendy Jackson Hall

First published in Animation Magazine, August 2001 issue

 

I first saw the Video Lunchbox at the World Animation Celebration technology expo in 1997. This odd little device looked more like the accessory of a hungry construction worker than that of a busy animator. I was intrigued by how it allowed animators to capture single frames of video, but I had no idea how much of an impact it would have on the craft of animation.

Two years later, while volunteering at Inner City Arts in Los Angeles, I was able to teach with these machines. I was hooked. You see, I started doing animation workshops for kids in 1990, using super-8 cameras and three-minute cartridges of film that cost $10 a roll and took a week to get back from the lab. A few weeks after I started teaching with the lunchboxes, I bought my first video lunchbox, a 1024-frame capacity unit. Sure, it presented limited space for animating, but in return it gave me powerful teaching tools I'd never had: instant playback, live frame comparison, and portability, not to mention ease of use by myself and students. It completely revolutionized the way I teach. Using this device, in the past three years, I have taught hundreds of people--adults and children, alike--in animation workshops in schools, libraries, community centers and art fair booths.

I have been using the Lunchbox for three years now, the first two with the original lunchbox and now with the Lunchbox Sync. I was skeptical at first, thinking the new machine was too complicated, but a demonstration at the Ottawa animation festival last year convinced me I needed this in my classes. Sync sound capability, increased image resolution and a much larger storage capacity have dramatically improved the quality of the animation being produced by my students.

I love the new model because it allows me to get more mileage out of the kids' animation. For example, the new machine will "hold" scenes that were shot in too few frames (this often occurs with titles). It also can create sub-loops of cycles within a larger animated sequence, and it can alter the frame rate of a scene, before or after it being shot. I often adjust frame rates from "ones" to " threes" when a student animates something too fast. To anyone who is familiar with "the old-fashioned way" of animating on film or with the old Lyon-Lamb video recorders, the video lunchbox really is a magical thing.

The kids in my workshops always ask "Why do they call it the video lunchbox?" I posed the question to Howard Mozeico, one of the founders of Animation Toolworks, the small Oregon company that manufactures the lunchbox. "We originally designed it by function, and ended up with a certain-sized printed circuit board," he explained, "We then went about figuring what to house it in. My partner, Arthur Babitz's, original idea was to call it the Video Shoebox. A friend suggested the Lunchbox, and after a bit, it stuck. The first prototypes were shiny metal miners' lunchboxes."

According to Mozeico, the machine's primary users are educators because "it makes technology a facilitator rather than an obstacle to students and teachers." He adds that the LunchBox's ease-of-use allows students to learn and practice the principles of animation, rather than the quirks of some soon-to-be-obsolete software version. "Teachers appreciate its reliability and the fact they don't have to spend their time as software and hardware technicians," he says.

Other users of the machine-many of them educators like myself-often echo Mozeico's claim. Eleanor Ritter, an elementary school teacher described her experience in a letter posted on the company's web site. Of the often-disengaged students she has exposed to the Video Lunchbox, she wrote that "they really connected with the animation project, stayed after school to put in hours of time, and beamed with pride at the result." Her results are not uncommon; I've seen several troubled, disrespectful teens make beautiful, touching films in the course of my two-hour animation workshops.

And the Lunchbox has proven to be a valuable tool at the college level. I've used it to teach at Santa Monica College and the Art Institute of Seattle, and at the new animation department at Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design in Colorado, the animation lab houses 12 lunchboxes so that every student can use one during class. In the Animation Research Labs in the University of Washington's Computer Sciences department, creative director for digital animation Barbara Mones is teaching students how to make animatics and story reels using the LunchBox Sync in her class, "Story Reel and DVD Design." The 21 students in the class, a collection of math, compartative literature and cinema studies majors, none with prior animation experience, learned how to use the lunchbox in 15 minutes, says Mones.

Aside from its obvious value to educators and the professional stop-motion animators who have used it widely to help line up their shots (Celebrity Death Match, The PJ's), few traditional 2D animators have worked it into their routine. However, Duck Soup, a Los Angeles-based commercial production company known mainly for its cartoon style has brought the Lunchbox Sync into its production pipeline, to pencil test animation drawings before they are cleaned-up and scanned into the US Animation program. Director Roger Chouinard used it for a recent Star Kist tuna commercial. "We can alter the timing on the spot," says Steve Thenell, System Administrator at Duck Soup. "We used to use CTP for pencil testing but switched to the Lunchbox Sync in April." After using CTP, Duck Soup ultimately realized the directors and animators needed a hands-on device more similar to the old video-capture systems. "The lunchbox seemed more like what our directors and assistant directors were used to. CTP had glitches and you had to wait for render time," says Thenell, adding, "With the LunchBox, we are shooting in real time."

"The editing features are invaluable for character animation"

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