What got you started with computers?

Far From Computers

Twenty years ago the thought of me working with computers would have seemed ridiculous. I was spending all my time painting and drawing, working toward a degree in Studio Art. I had played video games as a kid and knew how to write emails and use the web, but beyond that I found myself getting frustrated with the fickle nature of computers. The analog world of charcoal and paintbrushes was better suited to me. I was about as far from modern technology as I could be.

Making Animated Videos

This all changed for me at the end of 2010 when my childhood friend Shawn came to visit for Christmas break. We had known each other since First Grade, but after high school, he had gone off to Harvard for a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology. Now he wanted to spend the break collaborating with me to make a whiteboard video explaining his research in Bionanotechnology. There had been some elegant animated videos created by Cognitive Media that were gaining attention. An artist would draw cartoons while a narrator spoke about a topic. The drawings were sped up in time with the narration and matched what the narrator was talking about. It was a captivating way to present an idea. Shawn wanted to do a video in this style and he figured since I knew how to draw, and he knew the science, we could collaborate and figure it out.

While he was in town we developed a script and storyboards, and by the time he left, we had a good idea of where the video would go. He left a laptop with some Adobe software, Final Cut Pro, and a camera for me to film with. I knew virtually nothing about computers at that point, much less filming and editing videos. So for the next several weeks, when I had time, I poked around with the software and filmed myself drawing. It was a lot of trial and error, but I finally put together something that resembled an animated whiteboard video. It turned out alright given the circumstances and was well received by the small community that watched it. Finally, the video was done and I could get back to my life.

“What is Bionanotechology?” March 2011 Link

Fast forward a few months and someone contacted me out of the blue. They had seen the video and wanted to pay me to make a video for their company. They lived in Scottsdale (about an hour and a half drive from where I lived in Tucson) and they needed a completed video in a week, which is a ridiculously quick turnaround for a video from scratch. Nevertheless, I took on the job, wrote a script, sketched out storyboards, and drove up to Scottsdale to film in a hotel conference room until 4 am. I barely finished the video in time. It was exhausting, but also inspiring, and I got paid!

A few months later, another person reached out. A few months after that, someone else. Each time I made mistakes, but I learned new things as well. I continued to refine my contracts and workflows to manage each new project. It was great to be doing something creative (my day job was in real estate finance), but before long I was getting burned out making videos after work and on the weekends. My son’s due date was a month away and I was about to become a father. Something had to give.

And so I did what most reasonable people would do and quit my dependable, well-paying job to make cartoon videos full-time. I knew I had to be professional about it so I made a website, a nifty little logo, got my business all set up and going, put out some Google ads, and waited for the clients to come rolling in.

The first month – nothing.  

The second month – nothing. 

The third month – nothing. 

My son was born, my day job was over, and I had zero clients to speak of. What had I done?

Since there wasn’t any money coming in, I thought my time would be best spent making videos, if not for others then at least for my son, and any other kids out there. I made a video called “How Do Birds Fly?” and another one called “Why is the Sky Blue?” The first video has since received over 600K views and is in the number one spot when you Google “How do birds fly?”

“How Do Birds Fly?” – Link

I’m not sure if these videos drummed up business, but shortly after finishing them, I started getting new clients. One in healthcare, another in supplements, another in software. I got to meet with CEOs and Art directors from all kinds of different companies around the world, from industries like healthcare, medicine, surgery, technology, finance, fast food, and non-profits. 

Evolving into Other Projects

For many years business was great, but it wasn’t perfect. It was unsteady, with a lot of rush jobs at a moment’s notice. Sometimes there would be a few weeks with nothing in the pipeline, while other times I would have to turn business away. I now had two sons and the financial uncertainty was wearing on me and my family. 

The whiteboard animation style was also becoming mainstream. Some software companies had caught wind of it and made applications that would use a photograph of a hand and have it float over some clip art while it slowly revealed the image over time – a cheap approximation of a drawing hand. Eventually, the market was saturated with these videos, often playing snappy ukulele music in the background as a dismembered hand sloppily conjured up irrelevant imagery. 

This had the overall effect of cheapening the whiteboard aesthetic. It also made it harder to find customers willing to pay the hefty price of a custom video. I didn’t foresee myself making this style of video forever, and now it seemed the end was fast approaching – the writing was on the wall.

Meanwhile, Shawn had started running his lab at the University of California San Francisco. I made little graphics and animations for him while I was making the whiteboard videos. I pitched the idea of working with him on a more regular basis and so, in 2015, I started working for him part-time. 

One of the first projects I worked on came around the time virtual reality was making a big splash. Shawn wanted to create a duplicate version of his lab in a virtual environment and create tools that could track inventory, experiments, and protocols using augmented reality, projectors, and cameras. The tech wasn’t quite there yet, but it appeared that it might get there soon and he wanted to gain insight into the space so he could be ready when it did.

I was tasked with learning how to model 3D objects, convert them to real-time assets, and set them up in Unity for a virtual reality recreation of the lab. This was a very different undertaking than whiteboard videos. I would fly out to his lab in San Francisco to take photos and measure lab equipment, furniture, instruments, tools, containers, and even the layout of the building. After several months of tutorials, experimenting, and modeling I started turning out high-fidelity real-time assets and in about two years we had recreated the lab in a virtual environment and had a large library of 3D assets that could be used for future videos, animations, or VR. We even got to go on a virtual reality talk show called FooVR, complete with little avatars of ourselves. 

VR Lab – Link

This project introduced me to programming and required a greater proficiency with computers to implement many of its requirements. I worked on other projects for Shawn as well, and many of these involved Python scripting to bring data into 3D programs, or small scripts to display data in a browser. I was pushing up against concepts I didn’t quite understand, and it was frustrating to be in the dark. I got things working, but I sometimes think it was more luck than anything. 

Looking for a Job

In 2018 Shawn’s lab was going through some changes and it looked like we weren’t going to renew our contract that year. Thinking that whiteboard videos were not a viable option anymore, I began looking for a job in Tucson. The catch was I needed to make enough money to support my family on a single income, and Tucson is not a high-wage city. Armed with only an Arts degree and my diverse, but odd work experience, I set out to see if there were positions at marketing firms, advertising, or something part-tech/part-art that could utilize my skillset. There wasn’t much to speak of at the time.

Eventually, I came across a job for a “VR Technologist.” I thought it was something I could do and it paid well, so I applied. However, it required a Computer Science degree, which I didn’t have, and while the hiring manager liked my resume, my application couldn’t make it through the company screening without that degree. 

I kept searching and realized there wasn’t much I could do in Tucson, especially with my limited credentials. Out of curiosity I looked up Computer Science degree programs and came across the Oregon State Post-Bacc program. I looked into other ones as well but this one seemed like a good fit for me. It would take time to complete, and it didn’t help that I needed a job in the meantime. 

Back at the Lab

I talked to Shawn and floated the idea of me pursuing this degree while working on more technical tools for the lab, in addition to any graphics, animations, and videos he needed as well. Fortunately, some funding for his lab had recently come in and he thought it would be a good opportunity for both of us. He got his undergrad in Computer Science and is always building software tools and leveraging computer power to assist with lab data. If I was strengthening my understanding of computers and programming I could offer more to the lab. We renewed our contract, I enrolled in the program, and I continued working for Shawn.

And so here I am, writing this blog post in the last class of my Computer Science degree program. I’ve worked on web applications, scripting 3D data in Blender, an OpenGL generative art simulation of gel electrophoresis, and other projects that required a great deal of programming. I will be looking for a job soon, and I’m grateful I can have a technical degree this time around. I’ve always felt like computers were a sort of “black box” and the missing piece to rounding out my skill set. So much creative work is reliant upon computers nowadays, and having a basic understanding of computers makes for a much better relationship with them than I had so many years ago. 

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