Month: January 2021

Lighting the Way With … Tom Coben: When Kimmel calls and statues dance

Tom Coben ’12

About this series: Lighting the Way With … is a periodic series in which we shine a light on Lawrence University alumni. Today we catch up with Tom Coben ’12, a motion graphics artist whose work in the past week has been viewed more than 5 million times.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Nearly a decade after leaving Lawrence University with a growing portfolio of 3D graphics and other visual effects, Tom Coben ’12 has gone viral.

Well, his creative skills have gone viral, if not his name.

A freelance motion graphics and visual effects artist in the Twin Cities, Coben hooked up earlier this month with the creative team of ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live! They were looking for an artist who could animate statues dancing and singing for a video they were making to mark the end of the Trump presidency.

Coben delivered 14 shots of statues, monuments, and paintings that became the heart of the video – the Statue of Liberty, the faces on Mt. Rushmore, the statue of Martin Luther King Jr., among them – all in full celebration mode. Jimmy Kimmel, the host of the late-night talk show, posted the video late last week, and it quickly bounced around social media, racking up more than 5 million views on YouTube in the first four days.

See the Jimmy Kimmel video here.

“I sent a sample video of the Statue of Liberty dancing as a proof-of-concept on spec and they hired me for the bit,” Coben said. “We used a type of motion-capture technique where they filmed an actor with facial tracking markers and I used that information to apply the facial motions to the different sculptures and paintings.”

From there, he watched the final product roll out, and the social media shares and video views quickly grow, all in the days following the Jan. 20 inauguration of President Joe Biden.

Between social media and TV views, it’s the widest his work has been seen. But Coben said he did have one other brush with the power of the internet when Will Smith shared on his Instagram account an animation Coben made of a robot bowling. That got him a ton of exposure and some new freelance work, which is always a good thing.

“But this Kimmel video is definitely the most amount of attention any of my work has had,” he said.

It started at Lawrence

Coben first got a taste for motion graphics and 3D visual effects while studying at Lawrence.

An environmental studies major, Coben developed an interest in animation and 3D artistry. Lawrence’s Film Studies program was launching just as Coben was graduating. He was able to put together a self-directed film/animation-related minor.

“One of my favorite experiences at Lawrence was during the summer after my sophomore year when I got the opportunity to travel to the Philippines for five weeks with my advisor, (Associate Professor of Biology) Jodi Sedlock,” Coben said. “She knew I was interested in film production and asked if I would come and produce a short documentary about cave-roosting bat species and conservation of cave ecosystems on the island of Siquijor. Besides just being rad as hell, that experience helped me get a job the following summer at the Smithsonian National Zoo making promotional videos for their YouTube channel, filming the different exhibits.”

Then during his senior year, Coben took an intermediate sculpture class with Rob Neilson, the Frederick R. Layton Professor of Studio Art and professor of art, and was given the green light to focus on using 3D software to create digital sculptures that he would incorporate into footage taken around campus.

It got wonderfully weird. There was a supersized octopus clinging to the cupola atop Main Hall. And snow goons waging a battle on the snow-covered campus green.

Neilson said he recalls Coben taking to heart the prompt he gave to the class at the outset of the term: “Construct a sculptural piece in any medium you choose that somehow closes — or exists within — the gap between art and life and addresses sculpture as a ‘thing’ in all its ‘objectness’.” Coben chose to use 3D modeling and video, and Neilson said he was all in.

“My approach to teaching art has always been: Sculpture can be anything we, the students and I, collaboratively decide it is,” Neilson said. “While I certainly love to ‘make things;’ to me sculpture is more about ideas than objects. Indeed, this is the fundamental beauty of sculpture; its ability to carry and convey meaning through material — even if the material is bits and bytes in a computer. Otherwise, it’s just an object.”

Coben took that approach and ran with it. He’s still running with it.

“After I graduated, I used some of those animations along with some other personal work to put together a reel, which got me my first few freelance jobs out of college,” Coben said. “After that I worked at a small video production company for about three years before deciding to get back into freelance animation, which I have been doing for the past five years.”

Much of his work is with local clients in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market, doing 3D product renderings, motion graphics for commercials and online marketing videos, and visual effects for music videos.

He’s also designing custom 3D-printed sculptures, selling them on Etsy under the name Tomforgery3D. 

“They’re based on the classics but I’ve screwed with them to make them more absurd,” he said.

It might not draw the 5 million views of a Kimmel video, but it’s interesting, challenging, and creative work, Coben said.

“I had a lot of very cool opportunities at Lawrence and I can honestly say that I don’t think I’d be doing what I am doing today if my professors hadn’t given me the ability to pursue my interests with as much freedom as they did,” he said.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

On Main Hall Green With … Allison Fleshman: For the love of science

Portrait on Main Hall Green: Allison Fleshman (Photo by Danny Damiani)

About the series: On Main Hall Green With … is an opportunity to connect with faculty on things in and out of the classroom. We’re featuring a different Lawrence faculty member each time — same questions, different answers.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Allison McCoy Fleshman, an associate professor of chemistry, has a deep love of science.

It’s evident when she’s teaching or conducting research as an associate professor of chemistry. She’s been a key member of the Lawrence University chemistry faculty since 2013. It’s also evident when she joins her husband, Bobby Fleshman, at their McFleshman’s Brewing Co. in downtown Appleton. The Mc in the name comes from McCoy, and she revels in the science of beer-making at the micro-brewery and taproom.

Fleshman has a bachelor of science degree in physics and a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Oklahoma.

We caught up with her to talk about interests in and out of the classroom.

IN THE CLASSROOM

Inside info: What’s one thing you want every student coming into your classes to know about you?

I absolutely love science, and in particular physical chemistry, and my enthusiasm is sincere. When I teach the Periodic Table of the Elements to my introductory chemistry students, my eyes fill with tears as I talk about its beauty. Those are real tears. Having a deep passion for the subject helps students appreciate what it means to be a life-long learner. I tell them that even something as simple as table salt, sodium chloride, still has so many secrets to share. Sincere enthusiasm fuels us to keep asking questions, even on things we think we understand.  

Getting energized: What work have you done or will you be doing at Lawrence that gets you the most excited?

I work with liquid salts that have fascinating physical properties, and have potential use in battery systems, carbon sequestration; you name it, these nifty materials can likely do it—except your taxes, they probably can’t do that, but they could be used in inks, so yeah, I guess they can do your taxes. My research focus is developing mathematics that describes the behavior of these liquids. I get super excited when the theoretical models explain experimental observations—sounds nerdy, but when the math works out, I do a happy dance. 

Going places: Is there an example of somewhere your career has taken you (either a physical space or something more intellectual, emotional or spiritual) that took you by surprise?

In 2017, a chance encounter at a conference resulted in me moving to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for six months as the resident director of an off-campus study program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. I was shocked to have the door open for me, but took advantage and learned so much science and met some great people. I admit that Imposter Syndrome is a real thing, but working at Oak Ridge helped build my confidence in my abilities as a scientist. My project was on the same liquid salts I mentioned, but using a completely new technique. I essentially got to play with a big laser that tracked little fluorescent molecules as they danced through the liquid salts. It was an absolute blast.

OUT OF THE CLASSROOM

This or that: If you weren’t teaching for a living, what would you be doing?  

Not a fair question. If I wasn’t teaching physical chemistry, I’d likely be teaching yoga, so still teaching. If I had to avoid teaching altogether, I’d probably join my husband at McFleshman’s Brewing Co. and write articles for the Society of Brewing Chemists. You can take the scientist out of the lab, but you can’t take the lab out of the scientist?

Right at home: Whether for work, relaxation, or reflection, what’s your favorite spot on campus?

My personal favorite spot: The Esch Hurvis Room in the Warch Campus Center has yoga classes facing the windows that overlook the river. I highly recommend them because you get a remarkable view to accompany a great yoga practice in the middle of the day. 

One book, one recording, one film: Name one of each that speaks to your soul? Or you would recommend to a friend? Or both?

I’m not sure what this says about my soul, but for a book: Salt by Mark Kurlansky. A fascinating tale of how salt has changed the world, although when I have recommended it to friends, they don’t tend to like it. Their loss. It is so fascinating. Although I should also give a shout out to Eric Scerri’s The Periodic Table, which now dons the First-Year Studies list. It has become a close runner-up to Salt. 

Recording: Tom Petty’s Southern Accents. My husband and I saw him and the Heartbreakers over 30 times in concert, but never heard this song live. There are many others, but this one does speak to my soul, in particular the live version in Gainesville, Florida, for the 30th anniversary tour. Check out YouTube. You’re welcome. RIP, Tom.

Film: I’m a child of the ’80s. Raiders of the Lost Ark for the win. 

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu.

Find more faculty profiles from the On Main Hall Green With … series here.