I came. I saw. I Con-quered.

Well, I think Comic-con actually conquered me as I'm still trying to stop my brain from spinning inside my skull. Previously, I had only been to Vidcon, CTN, and Wondercon... so SDCC was a whole new beast. A swarming, hot, sweaty, beast. Doesn't sound very pleasant, but somehow in all the chaos it really was.

It's the only event where superstars from movies, TV, games, comics and books all come together. All of my comic book heroes were there—Jeff Smith (Bone), Joe Hill (Locke & Key), Brian K. Vaughan / Fiona Staples (Saga), Frank Miller (Sin City), Mike Mignola (Hellboy), Kazu Kibuishi (Amulet)—and plenty of new favorites as well. It was an inspiring and overwhelming event filled with the latest, greatest, and shiniest.

Words pale in comparison so I'll let these photos take over:

Digging for Dinosaurs (and Answers) - Part 1

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Why do people love dinosaurs? Was it their size? Their teeth? Their sudden extinction? Or was it that, once upon a time, monsters roamed the Earth.

Through a series of fortunate events, I found myself about to fulfill my lifelong dream of digging for dinosaurs. At the time, I worked for Pixar Animation Studios and was a member of their Paleontology Club (all wanna-be Alan Grants). Every year, a small group of Pixarians participated in an ongoing dig at the Waugh Quarry in Wyoming. When invited, I eagerly jumped at the opportunity and was soon driving through pine-covered mountains toward Hill City, South Dakota.

In the late 1800s, Custer's Expedition discovered gold in those same hills. Instantly, thousands of prospectors arrived hoping to strike it rich and swiftly established an unruly population of miscreants. "A town with a church on each end with a mile of Hell in between" is the oft-quoted slogan for the origins of Hill City. Perhaps it was the kind of people who arrived—troublesome treasure-hunters—or that the one-road town had 15 saloons.

Our first stop in town brought us to the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, a world-renowned center for all things prehistoric, primarily the excavation, preparation and sale of fossils. Within their walls, the Black Hills Institute (BHI) had its own museum which they, unlike others that bought or borrowed exhibits, literally dug up from the dirt themselves. Tyrannosaurus rex. Allosaurs. Pteranodons. Triceratops. Ammonites. Petrified eggs. Gigantic fish. Insects crystalized in amber. Carbon reliefs of plants. An extinct crocodile with jaws large enough to swallow its modern ancestor whole. The museum housed a vibrant carousel of primitive creatures unlike anywhere else I’d seen.

As purple, ink-injected thunderclouds stacked on the horizon, we entered the BHI’s cavernous warehouse where the sixty-five million year old skeleton of a life-sized T-rex leered down at us. Though menacing looking, his name sounded harmless: "Stan." Stan was one of many full-scale models BHI sold to museums and private collectors for over $100,000 to fund their continued research. The actual fossils, too precious and delicate to be used in exhibits, had been expertly duplicated in their laboratory.

What makes Stan unique is that 65% of his bones are intact. That incomplete percentage surprised me, until I learned that only a few bones of a single species are found at one site. The rest of the skeleton is often crushed, strewn apart or lost from eons of geological tumult. But, when bones from the same species are compiled from many different sites, modern paleontologists can create a complete structure of the animal. However, back in paleontology's early days, scientists connected all fossils they found together, creating various strange and nonexistent creatures from disparate species.

The Black Hills Institute had actually unearthed another T-rex, the best ever discovered, at 80% complete. This historic find positioned BHI for critical and financial success, but the fossils became embroiled in the longest legal battle in the history of South Dakota. The T-rex, aptly named, was "Sue."

Even before the valuable bones could be excavated, the ownership came into question. Did the fossils belong to Sue Hendrickson, the paleontologist who discovered and named the T-rex? Or Maurice Williams, the person who owned the land where it was found? Or the Sioux Tribe, of whom Maurice was a member? Or the underlying rights to the land held by the United States Department of the Interior?

The FBI and National Guard raided the dig site and confiscated everything until the dispute could be resolved. After a protracted legal battle, it was determined that the fossilized T-rex belonged to the land owner who quickly set up an auction. Within minutes, the Field Museum in Chicago had bought Sue for 8.3 million dollars—the most ever paid for dinosaur fossils. These fantastic creatures, though long extinct, are still big business for museums and collectors around the world (both legally and on the black market).

Early the next morning, our caravan of all-wheel drive SUVs rolled past the watchful faces of Mount Rushmore before turning west into the hills. We had been warned of rough-to-terrible roads, tornadoes and venomous snakes ahead—a far cry from the city life we knew in San Francisco. Winding through the Black Hills, we saw ponderosa pines prickling the hilltops. Lakes sunk like God’s blue footsteps. Black and twisted scars marking tornado touch-downs. Eventually, the green pillows of land smoothed to a beige blanket as we crossed into Wyoming.

Our penultimate stop before the dig site came into view: the quaint, sandstone ringed town of Hulett, known as "The Beginning of the West.” Devils Tower, an impressive backdrop to the small town, protruded over 1,300 feet high behind it. The tower was formed by an intrusion of igneous material, thought to be the remnants of a volcanic plug. It looked like a massive, stone incisor standing defiantly out of the earth's gums. Though the rock is over 40 million years old, the tower has only recently (in the geologic sense of the word) become visible due to erosion. Imagine that: ground-level was once 1,300 feet higher at this location, but erosion has whittled the softer dirt around the tower down to its present level.

The folktale we heard from locals about Devils Tower originated with the Sioux Tribe. They believed that two girls were playing when a pack of bears chased after them. The girls climbed onto a rock and prayed to the Great Spirit for help. Hearing their plea, Great Spirit pushed the rock (Devils Tower) up through the ground and into the heavens well out of the bears’ reach. The large grooves carved down the tower’s sides are from the bears' attempts to climb. We all wanted to visit, not because it was America’s first National Monument, but because every sunday night they screened a famous science-fiction film that took place there: Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

After a general store stop for food and supplies, we drove off-road through fields of sheep, forded a shallow stream, and powered up the winding dirt path to where Waugh Quarry, and the dinosaur bones, were hidden.

Continued in Part 2...

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Cinque Terre - Perched on the Edge

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When you know something is going to end, every moment becomes beautiful.

There is one such place, perched on the edge of the rocks of time, that one day will be swallowed by the sea. Strung along the northwestern shore of Italy, the five villages of Cinque Terre thrive on the mediterranean sun. Fish are pulled from the sparkling water and grapes from its terraced slopes.

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Each of the five coastal towns, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare have a distinct flavor but they are all connected by a single footpath designed for travelers, lovers and citizens to pass between. For the lazy or uninspired there is also a train.

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The pathway begins at Riomaggiore, the southernmost village, nestled within a valley between two rugged mountains. In an area known for heavy walking, the abundance of seafood, olives, and the pesto and foccacia bread that make the area famous are welcome to the weary.

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Riomaggiore's narrow streets and tall buildings appear to slump against each other like two lovers after a long evening of drinking wine. Fitting, as just at the edge of town the Via Dell'Amore, or lovers walk, stretches along the seaside cliffs. Locks are affixed to a fence symbolically linking the loving couples together forever.

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Just north comes Manarola with its arm of rocks jutting out into the sea for tanning and fisherfolk alike. The village climbs upward into the inland hills covered with row upon row of grapevines. There are no flat paths in Cinque Terre; you are always going up or going down. It is only when you stop to take in its magnificence that you can relax.

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Beyond, 368 steps loom upwards to Corniglia, the most elevated and secluded of all the five villages. The winding, stepped streets curve back on themselves tirelessly making already travel-worn legs burn and keeping tourists away. One moment you'll be turning claustrophobic corners, then the next staring out to a starry night sky above the Ligurian sea from above a hundred foot tall terrace, and finally finding a secret stairwell down to a hidden lagoon. There were only a few shops in Corniglia, a bakery, and a single restaurant owned by a man named Mananan that seemed to be open only when he wanted it to be, never when people were hungry.

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Due to recent floods, the pathway to Vernazza was closed when my girlfriend and I visited, but a brief train trip through the mountainside was all it took to reach the next village. Vernazza was perhaps the most beautiful of all with its sheltered lagoon and towering church where wedding bells tolled for the happy newlyweds.

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The final leg lands you in Monterosso al Mare, the largest and most populous of all the cities in Cinque Terre. Most travelers stayed here as it had access to a long stretch of beach and unrestricted views up and down the Italian coast. There was also ample gelato.

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To many, used to the chaos of cars in big cities, Cinque Terre often feels vacant, simple, or out of touch, but nothing could be further from the truth. That is how Cinque Terre has always been and that is how it always will be. After a few days wandering the enchanted villages, that description becomes what you embrace most about Cinque Terre. A shot of espresso versus our "double-venti-soy-chai-tea-latte-with-extra-whip-to-go." A solo voice shining pure above the choir.

Dick Figures The Movie - Day 1 - Animation Begins

DFTM_Day1 Today was the first day of animation for Dick Figures The Movie.

Ever since the Kickstarter funded successfully back in late summer, Ed Skudder, the Dick Figures team, and myself have been hard at work preparing all the elements necessary to actually make an animated feature film. Writing the script, storyboarding scenes, recording dialogue, editing sequences, designing sound, building character models, and prepping animation took months of tireless work by an amazing assortment of talented artists. Most of our hours were spent simply getting the story right, by far the hardest part of making an entertaining movie, so we've taken great care to make sure it's something special. Just a few days ago we finally cracked the last piece of the puzzle and now animation can officially begin.

There were only five animators on Dick Figures Season 4 but we've "ballooned" up to our full (though still tiny) staff of two directors (Ed and myself), two producers, six 2D animators, one 3D animator and our composer (Nick Keller). That's it. At Pixar, Dreamworks, and other major animation studios, movies routinely cost over $150,000,000 vs. our $313,000, employ several hundred artists vs. our dozen, and take 3-5 years of production vs. our 9 months. Though the team and time are truncated, you can still expect it will be the most amazing, animated comedy-adventure featuring stick figures you've ever seen.

Dick Figures has come a long way since we launched the first episode, A Bee or Something (approaching 10 million views), over two years ago and we're thrilled that Red and Blue are finally heading to the big screen. To finish the movie, however, we're going to need all the luck and caffeine we can get.

Lemony Snicket's Pep Talk

I stumbled across this wonderful piece on writing from Lemony Snicket. Perfect for anyone at the beginning, middle or end of writing their book. Or just thinking about giving up entirely. Dear Cohort,

Struggling with your novel? Paralyzed by the fear that it’s nowhere near good enough? Feeling caught in a trap of your own devising? You should probably give up.

For one thing, writing is a dying form. One reads of this every day. Every magazine and newspaper, every hardcover and paperback, every website and most walls near the freeway trumpet the news that nobody reads anymore, and everyone has read these statements and felt their powerful effects. The authors of all those articles and editorials, all those manifestos and essays, all those exclamations and eulogies – what would they say if they knew you were writing something? They would urge you, in bold-faced print, to stop.

Clearly, the future is moving us proudly and zippily away from the written word, so writing a novel is actually interfering with the natural progress of modern society. It is old-fashioned and fuddy-duddy, a relic of a time when people took artistic expression seriously and found solace in a good story told well. We are in the process of disentangling ourselves from that kind of peace of mind, so it is rude for you to hinder the world by insisting on adhering to the beloved paradigms of the past. It is like sitting in a gondola, listening to the water carry you across the water, while everyone else is zooming over you in jetpacks, belching smoke into the sky. Stop it, is what the jet-packers would say to you. Stop it this instant, you in that beautiful craft of intricately-carved wood that is giving you such a pleasant journey.

Besides, there are already plenty of novels. There is no need for a new one. One could devote one’s entire life to reading the work of Henry James, for instance, and never touch another novel by any other author, and never be hungry for anything else, the way one could live on nothing but multivitamin tablets and pureed root vegetables and never find oneself craving wild mushroom soup or linguini with clam sauce or a plain roasted chicken with lemon-zested dandelion greens or strong black coffee or a perfectly ripe peach or chips and salsa or caramel ice cream on top of poppyseed cake or smoked salmon with capers or aged goat cheese or a gin gimlet or some other startling item sprung from the imagination of some unknown cook. In fact, think of the world of literature as an enormous meal, and your novel as some small piddling ingredient – the drawn butter, for example, served next to a large, boiled lobster. Who wants that? If it were brought to the table, surely most people would ask that it be removed post-haste.

Even if you insisted on finishing your novel, what for? Novels sit unpublished, or published but unsold, or sold but unread, or read but unreread, lonely on shelves and in drawers and under the legs of wobbly tables. They are like seashells on the beach. Not enough people marvel over them. They pick them up and put them down. Even your friends and associates will never appreciate your novel the way you want them to. In fact, there are likely just a handful of readers out in the world who are perfect for your book, who will take it to heart and feel its mighty ripples throughout their lives, and you will likely never meet them, at least under the proper circumstances. So who cares? Think of that secret favorite book of yours – not the one you tell people you like best, but that book so good that you refuse to share it with people because they’d never understand it. Perhaps it’s not even a whole book, just a tiny portion that you’ll never forget as long as you live. Nobody knows you feel this way about that tiny portion of literature, so what does it matter? The author of that small bright thing, that treasured whisper deep in your heart, never should have bothered.

Of course, it may well be that you are writing not for some perfect reader someplace, but for yourself, and that is the biggest folly of them all, because it will not work. You will not be happy all of the time. Unlike most things that most people make, your novel will not be perfect. It may well be considerably less than one-fourth perfect, and this will frustrate you and sadden you. This is why you should stop. Most people are not writing novels which is why there is so little frustration and sadness in the world, particularly as we zoom on past the novel in our smoky jet packs soon to be equipped with pureed food. The next time you find yourself in a group of people, stop and think to yourself, probably no one here is writing a novel. This is why everyone is so content, here at this bus stop or in line at the supermarket or standing around this baggage carousel or sitting around in this doctor’s waiting room or in seventh grade or in Johannesburg. Give up your novel, and join the crowd. Think of all the things you could do with your time instead of participating in a noble and storied art form. There are things in your cupboards that likely need to be moved around.

In short, quit. Writing a novel is a tiny candle in a dark, swirling world. It brings light and warmth and hope to the lucky few who, against insufferable odds and despite a juggernaut of irritations, find themselves in the right place to hold it. Blow it out, so our eyes will not be drawn to its power. Extinguish it so we can get some sleep. I plan to quit writing novels myself, sometime in the next hundred years.

– Lemony Snicket

Nominated for an Annie Award

annies_web_home_hdr Today, the International Animated Film Society, ASIFA-Hollywood, announced the nominations for its 40th Annual Annie Awards, recognizing the year’s best in the field of animation, and my good friend Ed Skudder and I were nominated for Best Directing in Television for the Dick Figures episode "Kung Fu Winners." This is a huge honor for Ed, myself and everyone at Six Point Harness who makes the show with us. Thank you to all the fans who watch Dick Figures and everyone who voted. Perhaps it's time they roll out the Red (and Blue) carpet.

Congratulations, as well, to our friends and other nominees for the 2012 Annie Awards.

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Stone Circles & Haunted Hedgerows

Some places are off the map because they have not yet been discovered. Others because they do not want to be found.

Kenmare. Tucked astride the deepest inlet of the North Atlantic Ocean where river meets bay on the rocky southwestern shores of Ireland hides one of those places. The town, whose population has hardly changed since the 1800s, is comprised of only three streets that form a triangle: Henry Street, Shelbourne Street, and Main Street. "The Little Nest," or An Neidin, as the area is known by the Gaelic tongue, resides within County Kerry clear on the other side of the country from the capital city of Dublin. Often, Kenmare feels even further away in both distance and time.

Water from the frozen sea, from the salmon-thick River Roughty, and endlessly from the sky above makes the lush land grow boundless. Brilliant green foliage covers every postcard-perfect vista. Dense, rocky forests, spotted by picturesque waterfalls, drip with mist and lichen-covered boughs. Tall grasses sprout wildly across the rolling hills. Even inorganic stones, roads and buildings grow thick beards of moss.

There is green and then there is green in Ireland.

The charming town makes you feel never like a tourist, always a neighbor. Original, hand-painted wood and iron signs hang above penny-whistle storefronts, pubs are still named for their original barkeeper (O'Donnahain, Foley's, O'Sullivan's) where the scents and sounds of rich, slow-cooked stews and feverish fiddles arrive with the setting sun, and the local gentry can tell you when the rain will start, stop and what type it will be.

And they are always right.

Kenmare soaks day and night in its surrounding waters so there is never a dry coat, nor a dry glass. Pints are filled just a pinky's-width shy of overflowing to save room for the foam of the locally brewed favorite, Beamish, a nuttier, bolder and even older beer than Guinness. Beamish is found on all the taps, all the lips and even in many of the stews in the triangle with the alcohol-warming hopes of staving off the chill for just a few minutes more.

Following any one of the clear blue streams down the mountainside leads to the long finger of Kenmare Bay where boats flying the green, white and orange never enjoy a gentle moment on the churning tide. Heavy breezes constantly blow from offshore, driving people inside in front of crackling fires to enjoy one of the many nightly live bands that spill out of every pub. This wind, ever-present and ever-biting cold, can be felt every place down by the bay, except for one.

Hedgerows, miles long, weave an interconnected maze along the waterfront, their thickly meshed branches forming a fully enclosed wooden tunnel to keep out the wind, but not the cold. Within the hedgerows lives perpetual twilight as the sun, already putting up the good fight against thick cloud cover, has no strength left to cast shadows. Those brave enough to risk an early morning trek out to these natural wonders will often find them filled with a ghostly, frigid fog that enshrouds the pathway ahead and behind as it passes like a phantom through the leaves. These hedgerows, once barriers against invading armies of forgotten wars, now encounter no more action than a wistful hiker trampling dead leaves beneath her feet.

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On the outskirts of Kenmare sits perhaps its most ancient secret: a stone circle. Similar to Stone Henge, the Bronze Age (2,200-500 B.C.) stone circle in Kenmare was constructed with fifteen boulders, each weighing several tons, arranged in a geometrical ellipse that surrounds a singular dolmen. This dolmen, or portal tomb, consists of three stones supporting a fourth flat stone and was often used for rituals or to mark the grave of an important individual. Not only is the positioning of  these stones remarkable due to their immense weight, but also because they are oriented to face astronomical elements during a solar or lunar event, such as a solstice. Even though the stone circle was created thousands of years ago before the advent of modern mathematics, physics, or astronomy, the unknown builders exhibit a remarkable understanding of the progression of the universe. Why exactly the stones are there only the faeries the locals speak of truly know.

Kenmare embodies quintessential Irish charm with a smile on every face and a fire in every hearth. There are even, cliches be damned, rainbows arching over the bay to some unseen pot of gold. Little has changed in Kenmare throughout history and it still remains relatively unknown. For that the locals and visitors are thankful. Kenmare, shrouded in its protective fog, rests safely away from the tug of time.

Forever off the map.

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