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Todd Jacobsen Smoke Signals
  • Client: Self

  • Work Performed: Motion Graphics (Photoshop, After Effects), Sound Editing

  • Project Date: 2009

The second of two personal exercises that focused on developing my skills in Adobe After Effects was truly a personal exercise.

I spent my formative years in a very small town near Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. And like many “dream-y” adolescents who grew up in such places, I couldn’t wait to escape to the big city.

But like many adults, regardless of where they grew up, I catch myself wanting to return to my roots as often as possible. There are some that say nostalgia isn’t healthy, but I fundamentally disagree.

I’ve found in my travels that the older I become, the more I realize the true value of my yesterdays: it’s only in my past where my steps can — and must — be carefully retraced in order to reconcile my present.

“Smoke Signals” is based on Sherman Alexie’s short story “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” from his book “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” and the 1998 film deals largely with this type of contemplative journey. Alexie is a Native American of Coeur d’Alene tribal descent; his screenplay takes place and was filmed on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation, about 30 miles from where I was raised.

The film was a critical success and won numerous awards, from the Sundance Film Festival’s Filmmaker’s Trophy and Audience Awards, to the National Board of Review’s Special Recognition for Excellence in Filmmaking. It’s an incredibly poignant yet funny film, one that continues to resonate long after its final credits.

Immediately after the birth of my daughter — six months before I started this exercise — I found myself becoming impossibly and unbearably homesick for Idaho. I hadn’t been able to see the family I still have back there in nearly eight years, and starting a new family of my own brought on a rush of memories from my childhood. So I figured a little “digital journey” back to my hometown would be the best way to try to make peace with those feelings.

For this one, I’ll go into the sound editing first. Getting the music to work behind the first 35 seconds of this project was a challenge. “Wah Jhi Le Yihm” by Ulali is one of the most haunting yet joyful tribal pieces I’ve ever heard, and felt that an audio snippet of that piece combined with a clip from the film with its sound effects and score (by BC Smith) kept intact could be really effective.

The spoken word piece (a poem by Dick Lourie) that plays over the beginning of the suite during the film is an emotional highpoint, and I couldn’t bear to leave this gem untouched either. This posed a small problem for me: the voiceover happens a bit earlier in the film and it wasn’t where I would have liked it in my project. There was also a quiet bit of music underneath the V.O. that, while it sounded great, would probably clash with the dramatic piece of music from the film clip I chose.

I lifted the V.O. directly from the film itself and cut out the sections of music in the poem’s pauses using Sony’s ACID software, in hopes my chosen part of the score could play underneath without too many distractions. As it turns out, my intended placement of the V.O. caused the last part of the dialogue to be obscured by the score. I found I was spending a bit too much time trying to reduce the volume of the film clip while bumping up the volume of the last bit of the V.O. (with its music still underneath), mostly without any real success.

I ultimately realized that without a completely clean vocal take, I’d just be wasting the three days I gave myself to complete this project. So I did the best I could and moved on.

(Just for the record, the line is: “Do we forgive our fathers for leaving us too often, or forever, when we were little?”)

To create a transition between the film clip and the “Wah Jhi” section I found an orchestral cymbal roll in .wav form, and altered its pitch, length and decay. I faded out the score underneath the roll, then introduced the a capella section of the Ulali piece. This would create a dynamic where the audience comes down gradually from the aural high of the first clip, to the slow and contemplative guitar piece I chose from the soundtrack for the main part of the DVD menu.

I saw the sun in the top left corner of the clip as a way to transition visually into the DVD menu screen. So I created a solid in Adobe Photoshop whose color matched the center of the sun’s, nested it underneath the film clip in After Effects, and created an animating mask that would start in the top left corner and travel down to the bottom right corner. This mask would obscure the film and reveal the white solid, causing the sun to “burn” away the anguish of the character in the clip.

The map that makes up the bulk of the menu screen is an old one I found on the internet that depicted the North Idaho area from 1909. Since the film was about a soul-searching journey I thought that a map might be proper, and I loved that this century-old engraving indicated such things as lakes, rivers, railroads and settlements without a single highway in sight! I aged it further in Photoshop by eliminating everything in the map but the descriptions, and replaced the background with a brown paper texture to give it an older, weathered look. The lines depicting the map’s details were overlaid with a slightly darker brown tone and softened a bit so they didn’t “pop” against the new background. I took the film title’s logo and played around with After Effect’s native warping tools to distort it into something that ended up looking like a sine wave, then animated it back into its proper shape over a couple of seconds. Add some blur at the beginning, bring up the opacity of this animation from zero to 100, animate the composition from the bottom of the screen to the middle and voila…instant smoke.

I brought in the menu options in time to the music, and for the cross-dissolving film clips I used an old blown-out photo frame as a vignette. Most of the film deals with flashbacks — one scene in particular has an old photograph with a heartbreaking inscription on its back — so I felt this would be a good way to frame the scenes I chose.

I didn’t loop this exercise like I did for “Iron Man,” mostly because I liked how this one ended with a bit of a somber, meditative feel. The looping point felt obvious enough to me…besides, I really wanted to wrap this up somewhere within my self-allotted time frame.

This one took three 1/2 days. Close enough.


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