Making Cutting-Edge Animation On A DIY Homestead

Originally published on July 17, 2011 12:23 pm

It's pretty common these days for young people to live with their parents after college, but few have managed to transform their old homestead quit like filmmaker Isaiah Saxon has.

With the help of filmmaking buddies Sean Hellfritsch and Daren Rabinovitch, Saxon has transformed 10 hilly acres surrounding his mother's house in Aptos, Calif. into Trout Gulch, a kind of rural hacker space where they build their own houses, grow organic vegetables, milk goats and produce state-of-the-art digital animation.

Saxon explains how his group of 21st-century pioneers takes a do-it-yourself approach to just about everything.

"We're building a 21st-century Hobbit village in which things are integrated into nature," Saxon says, "but we're harnessing cutting-edge technology and embracing the best of technology."

Saxon emphasizes a vision in which technology blends with nature — and "Hobbit village" isn't far off the mark. Rabinovitch, a tall 33-year-old, lives in a small grass hut with a door that's 4 feet tall.

"This is basically a sleeping chamber that is built to last about 10 years and then decay beautifully back into the land and become mulch," Rabinovitch says.

Outside his grass hut there's a solar panel that Rabinovitch installed to power some lights and his laptop. It's a reminder of how the bucolic and the space-age coexist at Trout Gulch.

Avoiding The Road To 'An Empty Existence'

The wooded hills of central coast California seem like an unlikely setting for a digital animation company, but that's exactly where this back-to-the-land threesome has headquartered theirs.

They call themselves Encyclopedia Pictura and their work varies greatly. They've produced a commercial for the video game Spore; music videos for artists like Bjork and Grizzly Bear; and they're also working on a feature film about a group of kids who lead a DIY rebuilding effort after a flood hits their town.

They're in such high demand now that they can afford to hire a small army of computer graphics technicians at a film studio in Berkeley. But their office still consists of little more than three work tables with laptops on them.

"We're constantly being asked to do ads," Saxon says, adding that companies like Sprite, Jeep and Honda have all approached the studio.

But, according to Saxon, Encyclopedia Pictura only does advertisements for products they actually use.

"We could certainly be maximizing our potential to make money right now," he says, "but that would hinder and slow down the development of this neighborhood that we're building and would take us on a road to possibly an empty existence."

The Power To Build Everything Around You

For Saxon and the other homesteaders, a meaningful existence is one committed to sustainable architecture and agriculture. They use composting toilets, take turns milking the goats and the big money they earn from commercial animation projects allows them to spend long periods of time developing infrastructure at Trout Gulch.

Meals are cooked in a homemade, igloo-shaped oven situated just a few paces from the garden. A commercial freezer discarded by a neighbor was hacked to serve as a very efficient refrigerator, thanks to information from an online community of home beer brewers.

"I probably spend at least 50 percent of my time on the Internet reading forums — and not just for fun, like, trying to solve problems," community co-founder Sean Hellfritsch says. "So being able to hop on a forum and connect with someone...is really key."

They've had hands-on help from friends living in the Bay Area — mostly people in their 20s and 30s who volunteer for work crews and feel that they're a part of the place — as well as a number of prominent figures in the DIY movement, including Tim Anderson, a man they refer to as a DIY superhero.

"We're providing an opportunity for people to gain land-based experiences and do things on a larger scale than you could ever do inside a city with all of the legal and physical space constraints," Saxon says. "I think people are excited by the freedom of this place and the amazing sense of empowerment you get from being able to build everything around you."

The Making Of 'Magic'

The idea of building everything around you is one that the filmmakers at Trout Gulch are also exploring in a new entertainment and education medium. It's called augmented reality and it allows for the real-time view of a surrounding environment to become digitally manipulable and interactive with programmed content.

In other words, it's like walking through a video game that's taking place in the real world.

"What you have is essentially magic," Saxon says. But, he adds, augmented reality can be used for a lot more than just games.

"We see this as the big, new, creative medium for the 21st century," Saxon explains. He says he hopes that Encyclopedia Pictura will lead the way in designing content for such systems. "We love to think of ourselves as trying to be the Walt Disney of augmented reality."

But in the meantime, the filmmakers at Trout Gulch continue to milk their goats and expand their sustainable village, while riding the cutting edge of digital design.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: In the mountains outside Santa Cruz, California, three young filmmakers and their friends are creating a unique community. In addition to organic vegetables and goat's milk, they're producing what some have called mind-blowing digital animation. This group of 21st century pioneers has a do-it-yourself approach to just about everything it does.

Jon Kalish reports on the utopian outpost known as Trout Gulch.

JON KALISH: A lot of young people go home and live with their parents after college. But few transform the old homestead quite like Isaiah Saxon.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM CAMERA)

KALISH: Saxon and two of his filmmaking buddies have started a small organic farm on 10 hilly acres that include his mother's house here in Aptos, California. They've built tiny houses for themselves and some friends. But more than that, they've transformed this land into a rural hacker space of sorts.

ISAIAH SAXON: We're building a 21st-century Hobbit village in which things are integrated into nature, but we're harnessing cutting-edge technology and embracing the best of technology.

KALISH: Describing this place as a Hobbit village isn't that far off the mark. Walk through a stand of redwood trees and up a steep hill and you'll find a small grass hut with a four-foot door. It looks like a Hobbit might live inside. But it turns out that this is the home of a tall 33-year-old filmmaker named Daren Rabinovitch.

DAREN RABINOVITCH: This is basically a sleeping chamber that is built to last about 10 years. And then decay beautifully back into the land and become mulch.

KALISH: Outside his grass hut there's a solar panel Rabinovitch installed to power some lights and his laptop. It's a reminder that the bucolic and the space-age coexist at Trout Gulch. These wooded hills may seem like an unlikely setting for a digital animation company, but that's exactly what this back-to-the-land threesome has headquartered here.

The company is called Encyclopedia Pictura. Here is a commercial it made for the video game Spore.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) How will it be when you can choose what you turn into. Time to grow. What kind of creature are you?

KALISH: Encyclopedia Pictura also makes music videos. It won major awards for a video it produced for the Icelandic musician Bjork. These young digital animators are in such demand now that the budgets they command allow them to hire a small army of computer technicians at a film studio in Berkeley. Still, their office here at Trout Gulch consists of little more than three work tables with laptops on them.

SAXON: We're constantly being asked to do ads.

KALISH: Filmmaker Isaiah Saxon.

SAXON: Everyone from Sprite to Jeep and Honda has asked us to do advertisements. We'll only do advertisements for products that we use. We could certainly be maximizing our potential to make money right now, but that would hinder and slow down the development of this neighborhood that we're building and would take us on a road to possibly an empty existence.

KALISH: For Saxon and the other homesteaders here, a meaningful existence is one committed to sustainable architecture and agriculture. They use composting toilets and take turns milking the goats. And the big money they earn from commercial animation projects allows them to spend long periods of time being tiny houses in their utopian village here at Trout Gulch.

(SOUNDBITE OF OUTDOOR KITCHEN)

KALISH: Much of that life is lived in an outdoor kitchen with a homemade igloo-shaped oven situated just a few paces from the garden.

(SOUNDBITE OF OUTDOOR KITCHEN)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You're smelling an herb chicken. All of the herbs in this chicken dish are herbs that are less than six feet away from us, actually.

KALISH: A commercial freezer discarded by a neighbor was hacked to serve as a very efficient refrigerator, thanks to information from an online community of home beer brewers. Filmmaker�Sean Helfritsch.

SEAN HELFRITSCH: I would say I probably spend at least 50 percent of my time on the Internet reading forums, and not just for fun, like, trying to solve problems. So being able to hop on a forum and connect with someone or search the stored history of that forum is really key.

KALISH: Helfritsch learned online about installing small engine on bicycles to make it up the steep hill.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTOR BICYCLE)

KALISH: A number of prominent figures in the do-it-yourself movement have come here to help build Trout Gulch. And friends of the three filmmakers in the Bay Area, mostly people in their 20s and 30s, volunteer for work crews and feel that they're a part of this place. Isaiah Saxon:

SAXON: We're providing an opportunity for people to gain land-based experiences and do things on a larger scale than you could ever do inside a city with all of the legal and physical space constraints of a city. I think people are excited at the freedom of this place and the amazing sense of empowerment you get from being able to build everything around you.

KALISH: The idea of building everything around you is one that the filmmakers at Trout Gulch are also exploring in a new entertainment and education medium called augmented reality. In it, a real-time view of the surrounding environment becomes digitally manipulable(ph) and interactive with programmed content. It's like walking through a video game taking place in the real world.

SAXON: What you have is essentially magic.

KALISH: But Saxon says augmented reality will be used for a lot more than games.

SAXON: We see this as sort of the big, new, creative medium for the 21st century. And what we're trying to position ourselves as is the first creative team that really understands the intrinsic power of augmented reality and creates really memorable experiences and content for that. And we love to think of ourselves as trying to be the Walt Disney of augmented reality.

KALISH: The filmmakers at Trout Gulch have more creative projects in the pipeline. They're working on a feature film about a bunch of kids who lead a DIY rebuilding effort after their town is devastated by a flood.

For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.