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My 2014 freelance year in review: Remembering to Learn

People have encouraged me to keep my passions strong about my own work. But, there were some dark moments of 2014 that I took my own passions for granted. For example, during crunch times of consistent 80-hour-plus work weeks, I have forgotten the extent of how to manage my own energy output. I tunnel-visioned on actualized results and deadlines, and neglected the joys of learning. I mistook workaholism for passion and momentarily misplaced my personal identity.
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Because of this, I’m charting my career growth in 2014 in terms of what I’ve learnt, not what milestones I have met. I believe it is a positive and healthy mind-shift for one’s own professional goals. And learning is incredibly valuable to someone who is fairly new to freelance and developing their own projects. Self-employment has a kind of freedom that requires self-reflection and self-discipline. Freelancers ought to develop their own brand through how they work and what they want to learn. This, I found, is the best way to know how to say yes and when to say no.
At the same time, do I really have a “final product” to show for my learning this year? Not really. But, for my self-initiated projects aimed at commercial release, I’ve finally lived through what it truly means to pivot and transform a project. I needed to do this because otherwise I may be staring at a 3-year wall of work, but now I have a project that has a scope that better reflects its core strengths. And I will likely continue to pivot again and again. The growing pains are harsh, and they always will be, but I think that making myself more adaptable and malleable is for the better.
Eric Ries’ Lean Startup methodology demonstrates how employees’ mandate of meeting milestones and deliverables is a well-intentioned structure, but it isn’t actually efficient if the final product does not have meaning or contribute value.
Now, there’s several ways that we can understand value, such as value in the marketplace by real users, as well as value by the people who have worked on the product. We can measure value for professionals based on our empowerment, through learning and gaining confidence in our contributions. And I believe that this goes all the way down to the individual level. That, even and especially when there are failures, we ought to still measure our professional achievements by learning first, at the very least for ourselves. Because that’s how we create positive change from failures, and it’s how we pivot.
This is my 2014 learning chart:

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One thing that should be clear from such a chart, at least to remind myself, is that a lot of my efforts did translate into learning opportunities. And I don’t think anyone should forsake that. Instead, we should remind ourselves of our recent accomplishments which are meaningful and that we can feel proud of, even if they don’t contribute to a final product. I had forgotten, for example, how much time and energy I’ve focused into creative writing this year. This is compared to treating it as a hobby in the past, and it feels great to treat it respectfully as its own process. I think that I still have far to go, but practising it and utilizing a multidisciplinary approach can only make better practice. And I finally created a Babel: Episode 1 storyline that I am happy with. Even in October, as I stared at an abyss of really needing to pivot away from 3D, or face a high-risk project of years of development and multiple team-mates’ contributions on the line, the story was what kept it grounded.
But there is also a lot of room for improvement. For example, there was such little time spent on coding. I barely even remember anything of UE3’s Unrealscript because it was sandwiched between a lot of crunch and having too many obligations simultaneously. UE4’s Blueprint didn’t even register on my chart because I felt like I gave myself so little time to learn how to make dialogue and trigger objects work. However, as I move forward, I need to provide more time and patience into learning coding. The only time that I feel like coding started to click for me is when I recoded my TOjam game, Scar Tissue, into Unity for more flexibility. The first pass was also done in a crunch of four days, but it felt really neat to turn nothing into a set of workable and simple game mechanics.
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By assigning key dates to the work that I’ve done, I really became aware of how little breaks I have given myself. I was working non-stop from August 2013 to June 2014, worked straight through 2013’s Christmas holidays, and didn’t give myself a complete weekend off until early September 2014. It’s not healthy, and in hindsight I believe my pivots for both Scar Tissue and Babel would have been less painful processes had I just given myself real breaks. Half-weekend work days are still not entirely a breather. There were some instances where I should take a continuous two-and-a-half days off in “don’t-even-think-about-it”-mode, to look at it again with fresh eyes.
In terms of art, 2014 was the year that I had dealt with the most diverse aesthetic explorations, both of my own choosing as well as that of clients’ or teammates’. The biggest learning curve was for the Remington client project that I managed game engine-side graphics for, but a really valuable takeaway from that is that anything with aesthetic unity requires R&D / storyboarding / mockups. Lots of it. I will improve on my artistic practices in 2015, for I will develop a stricter process of experimentation to key the right aesthetic vision to Babel and other projects. 2014 as a whole was a good mix of both organic and inorganic artworks, and in mid-December I finally crunched out my first human 3D model since game arts graduation in 2012. All of the above learning feels rewarding and memorable.

It’s been a hard year for a lot of people in the entertainment and video games industry. I’ve seen how hard people have worked to get to where they are. I’ve seen how prototypes and final products feel like two divergent paths, because the former feels like a roadtrip and the latter feels like grind. I know now how difficult it is to hit that sweet spot of game design that feels meaningful and heartfelt to players and unifies the game as one cohesive journey. A lot of us are perfectionists. Some of us go through this self-destructive passage in forgetting the rest of the world, or even our own, and burn out.
It happens. The greatest privilege is to know that you can dust yourself off because you’re learning, training yourself anew from the shells of your old projects. And I must recognize my own privilege that I’m in a game development community that is very supportive of emergent voices and experimentation. There are friends who encourage me to follow my dreams. Experienced designers and engineers who send the elevator back down, to encourage the growth of opportunities for the next generation. I don’t want to squander anything that I’ve learned over the years, whether in school or starting out like this in freelance. I have finite energy, but, by focusing on learning, and aiming to share what I can, it all feeds back into a cycle of renewal. We ask questions and we learn more as we teach what we know. I want to encourage that aim for a great journey, of wondrous lessons and its stories, and not just that perfect result.
(All images in this post are illustrated by yours truly; Header image is an “unfinished” concept piece for Babel.)
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Pencils and pastels: More figurative

Here is a series of figurative drawings in varying styles and mediums.

First two were done with conte and pastels respectively, from live model, in 2006.

This one below was completed less than two weeks ago. It was drawn on capriciously beautiful textile recycled paper, which made the whole process very unforgiving, because any erasing would cause damage to the fibres. It also prevented me from layering as much as I tend to like to do, enabling me to only “mix” two colours much of the time. Thus, I chose bright tones that are close to the primary colours to generate flow and pop in the illustration.

The last two are hand drawings, using graphite and ink respectively.


At a terminal: Breakdancing and the globalized dance market

This might be difficult to read but it was harder yet to write, as I have more uncertainty and more questions than I have answers.

By now, it is no secret that I am plateauing in dance. I have this vital need to see breakdancing through different lenses, because this is what I do. Beyond fun, beyond camaraderie, why would I chose acknowledge this cultural practice over others? I am voicing a dialectical reflection with myself, analyzing disparate perspectives that I am given without drawing straightaway conclusions. I have silenced my questions for too long for fear that I might insult my friends who have spent years perfecting their art; friends who highly motivated and conscientious, whom I look up to and call them my mentors. But I must question more fundamentally what my relationship to dance is. It is, after all, a revitalizing exercise to question the basis of one’s reality, if I could stretch this idea so far.

Little little am I capable of, with these small hands of mine.

Proponents of the b-boy world promised this culture to be truly hybrid, identifiable and unalienating to youth, even breaking the boundaries of race and coming to its own in a “global village” sustained by expression. Being part of this world for nearly a year and being a spokesperson of its universalizing merits, I have uttered the very same assumptions. However, in this premature post, I will challenge that assertion and present breakdancing as something with limitations, even though it does offer reforms for the practice and visibility of dance.

Some definitions need to be clarified: I shall peruse the term ‘breakdancing’ over that of ‘bboying’ as more authentic for the phenomenon of what I am to analyze. The distinction is that breakdancing is a terminology coined by the media, often criticized for the inevitable appraisal of the dance’s potential profit-making capability. In contrast, b-boying is a name of respect amongst its ground-level practitioners. However, my contention is that the magnetism of popular media is ever more nuanced than bboys on the whole would identify it as. Indeed, I believe that breakdancing has failed to shake off the mold given to it by popular media. It is empirically observable that breakdancing is a dance style that persists as a profitable fascination in commercial arenas, something that is unprecedented amongst dance styles in scope except for “hip hop dance” that had been christened by music videos from its offset, and disco to a lesser degree if one wants a historical parallel. B-boys are all aware of its associations in trendy, modern music videos, but I hear no haranguing against its non-self-reflexive stuntsmanship. Rarely do I see us take a critical approach against working alongside the hegemonizing big brother media in its mode of address. We still demand the flashing lights, being the nightclub Epicurean, party-know-it-all, MTV-saturated attitude of b-boys lined up like military big guns as the crowning glory of our achievements. This isn’t what the basic language of a cypher circle is about, but it is what breakdancing has transformed itself to under the aegis of popular media, and what constitutes a great part of this generation’s imagination, dancers included.

Is breakdancing’s implicit growth sustained by popular media a necessary evil of its survival as basic techniques, or is its rhetoric merely reification (that is to say, the sociological definition: a hegemonic ideology naturalized by the common citizen which simultaneously supplaints their critical awareness for the power structures that disadvantages and alienates their true interests)? I would say that it is a bit of both: that breakdancing by its nature contains such energetic, blown-up moves that translates smashingly well under the big lights and the visceral Hollywood HD. However, this is not an inevitable, natural progression. Recall that bboying began from the streets as a form of the simultaneous, with its own rites of passage in technical ability that is preset on physical presentation rather than on a marketable culture (the packaged goods of certain shoes, certain brand labels making it big). The image of breakdancing that I see today are squandered in a moneyed exchange more than most styles of dance, especially when I see that it has become a global phenomenon as glorified in the documentary Planet B-Boy. It has become an exportable commodity to reach out to the nag value of the Westernized youth community, to enhance their sensibilities for a new cellphone, a gadget, sweets, Puma fall collection. contend that breakdancing has a crisis of identity even as it spreads globally. How many times have I seen in my mind’s eye the right way to execute a move as something that I’ve seen sponsored by Converse? How often do I hear that the only way to make a living as a breakdancer is to make yourself good enough that you represent the spirit of what you do in commercials? That’s the harsh light that I believe the younger generation of potential bboys absorbs with the blanket association of “breakdancing”.

Is there a difference between the sponsorship of the considered “high arts” – classical dances such as ballet-, and the sponsorship of street style dance? Once again, yes and no. HSBC sponsors Stars on Ice (freestyle figure skating), the Globe and Mail and CTV sponsors the National Ballet of Canada’s ’08-’09 season. Perhaps the less benign example is Stars on Ice, but even the sponsors for the National Ballet of Canada, although they are local media conglomerates, do not offer one distinct product-based business rhetoric that breakdancing thrives through. In other words, these dance styles’ sponsors do not permeate a sustained, militant, overt message of trendiness aimed at the youth to make them purchase particular and specific consumer items (Nikes, Samsungs, Toyotas). My reason for wearying this point is because I wholly believe that it makes a difference in what motivates the base of our creativity.

There’s recently been a recent influx of b-boy crews who reach out to the greater community with youth motivational programs, partly motivated by finding a younger and bright generation to pass on the technical and stylistic elements, partly to ride the wave of interest in alternate forms of more communitarian growth in a child’s athletic and artistic development. I quite support the perspective that a form of dance that emphasizes more groupwork and the pooling of teaching ability is a reform in the right direction from the chauvinized, singular development in some forms of competitive sports. Furthermore, it builds upon spontaneity of space, sound, and all its perceivers, and thus it has the potential to be performance art in the high art sense without being high art.

However, we preclude too much when we rule that breakdancing is inherently more democratic than any other forms of physical expression. Youth programs centered around breakdancing that I see nowadays are the step in the right direction. However, it does not step far enough if it merely gathers interest from pre-teens towards corporate aims. Pre-teens are particularly susceptible because of their expectation of the commercialized cool. Thus, any youth programs applying bboying as an art form should gather that interested energy and transform it into something more sustainable and creative, than being able to chose between one product and another. I’d go so far as to say that it can be this community effort that lends itself further to the survival of grassroots bboying, because the commercial alternative is that a trend is a trend and it will go out after a fashion. So the argument goes if one would see bboying as a subculture rather than just another mutation of hegemonic commercial culture, writ slightly unusual to give consumers a semblance of choice.

Commercialized culture must be readily made palatable to a large audience to be profitable, and has at its disposal an immense fund to play up ideas in order to make attractive a product, thus perpetuating its engine. This is of particular concern to the scholars of previously colonized countries as they are just coming out in their own with distinct political and civil identities, as well as social and cultural representation, and global cultural flows become ever more stringent. For example, sub-Saharan African filmmakers are particularly worried about the Ghettoization of their youth, or the glamorization of the ghetto as emulated from MTV hip hop. Breakdancing, when globalized for export, is therefore immaculately packaged with the raw attitude, the underdog with riches, the big-guns masculinity, and the energetic sexual fetishization. It must be pointed out that sub-Saharan Africans are aware that African Americans mean more Americans than Africans by virtue of their life opportunities and mediated identities. In the space of cultural Africa negotiating still against the subservience of colonialism and neocolonialism, breakdancing could never be seen as something hybrid and a “universally positive language” but a Western one. There’s a fragile line to preserve what’s theirs (“African-ness”) in the arts, when the language of the educated population has eroded to French, a cinematic technology informed by a French-German sponsorship and expertise, political arts seen as continentally bad-humoured, and economics in relative squalor to everyone else’s. The post-colonial generation had thusly sought to revolutionize not only the storytelling to have something relatible by the local masses, but also in the form that it presents its images as distinctly uninformed by Hollywood conventions. My friends, that is a more authentic hybridity than what breakdancing has currently achieved.

An eerie echo of this reification comes the construction of an attitude amongst South Korean bboy crews. History, that is, the telling of the past with the voice of the victorious, is placed into the mainstream in the Gamblers crew’s Battle Of The Year 2005 showcase (as seen on Planet B-Boy). In the performance, the crew is divided into two, one side wearing red and the other wearing blue, signifying the two parts of Korea. They spar with dizzifying array of flares and footwork, but at the end the two sides synchronize in mutual agreement that they share the same values: a reunification. Although clearly intended to be interpreted as a peaceful exchange of “culture” without fisticuffs, this could be seen as a disturbing Western cultural hegemony, precisely what the North Koreans abhor of their racial kin. It also distinctly begs the question of ‘where’s the East?’ in the phenomenon of globalizing street dance markets.

However, I remain optimistic that there can be new insights into a form of popular dance practice that is also not thoroughly informed by commercial rights. In talking about alternative energy, David Suzuki exclaims that “it’s an opportunity, not an impossibility”. He also finds that people tend to care after the environment as a side-benefit in a lifestyle that they conceive as good, rather than care for the environment as a prime motivation in and of itself. So too, I believe that the same can be applied to cultural energies, to see alternative mindsets as not only permissible, but necessary to a well-rounded cultural environment. The very existence of African Cinema as appealing and vibrant to Cannes and New York audiences gives me abundant hope.

Let us, at last, wrap up this chapter of discourse with the following anecdotes. In a number of my posts I have shared some thoughts where my opinion is one informed by film, or literature which relates to it. Suzuki’s declaration is stated in an episode of CBC’s Nature of Things, and my example of sub-Saharan Africa relate back to articles of John Akomfrah and Jude Akudinobi on the resilience of African Cinema. Any university-level film course endeavours to question how we relate to mediated ideology, and how the construction of any ideology can differ from the constructedness in the status quo. I find this to be important in questioning basic assumptions and values that spring from these sources, and what alternative sources can offer. I want to be able to say, you don’t need to buy into mainstream culture, whatever that mainstream culture consists of, and why. I want to believe that we the world’s people are not captive audiences to one cultural hegemon, and I want to be able to prove it.