Sunday, September 30, 2007
Adult Swim: New York Style
Ever since the days of Roger Rabbit in 1987, the entertainment industry has been trying to make and market animation specifically to the tastes of young adults, while hoping to also sweep along viewers in their 30s and 40s that still collect comic books and action figures.
Once upon a time MTV animation had a ground-breaking vehicle to showcase innovative animated programming for young adults. It was called Liquid Television and it was the launch pad of cheap acquisitions such as (then unknown) Mike Judge’s embryonic Beavis and Butthead. As we all know, the unlikely duo grew into a massive hit show of their own. The trouble started when development executives ,TV programmers, and network presidents tried to build a line up of animated programming that might keep viewers glued to their seats. Towards this end, MTV employed a lot of NY animation artists, built a studio, spent a lot of money, and (famously) rejected a show created by a new pair of unknowns named Matt Stone and Trey Parker, called South Park. MTV animation, despite some modest success with Celebrity Death Match and Daria, largely survived off the vapors of Beavis and Butthead. In 2001 they gave up the ghost and closed shop.
But, who was to claim the audience primed on years of Beavis and Butthead. Sure, South Park landed on Comedy Central to major success, but (like MTV) this network had trouble expanding the lone hit into a programming block. Lots of misfires stacked up and other niche cable networks jumped onto the bandwagon (Sci Fi network’s Tripping the Rift, anyone?) Then came the bizarre attempt by Spike TV to debut it’s block of animation as if animated cult hits could just be made to order. Anyone remember Gary the Rat, This Just In, and Stripperella? Most recently, MTV animation rose from the dead, plugged in a bunch of wacom cintiqs, and hired an awesome New York crew to create an 8 episode series called Friday, which they dumped off the air after one or two broadcasts.
No network (or even web destination) was able to crack the code and create an animated line up that could consistently deliver the goods to this fickle audience. That was slowly about to change. In the early 1990s, Cartoon Network quietly debuted a late night show called Space Ghost Coast to Coast. The odd show repurposed character names and designs from a largely forgotten Hanna and Barbera cartoon from the 1960s and re-imagined its stars as the animated hosts of a late night talk show. The show began to develop a following and became the seed for a whole night of programming that would later be called Adult Swim. Where all other networks have failed, Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim line up has spawned hits such as Robot Chicken, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, The Venture Brothers, and several others.
The Venture Brothers, created by Jackson Publick, launched as a series in 2003, becoming Adult Swim’s first New York area production. This summer it was followed by Assy McGee (co-created by Carl W. Adams), a production of Boston-based Clambake Animation, but partly remotely staffed by New York area freelancers, including myself. Soon to begin production is a third New York series called Super Jail, created by Christy Karacas and produced at Aaron Augenblick’s studio in Dumbo.
Why has Adult Swim succeeded where others have not? The answer may be that they don’t try to make cult hits. There is no pandering to the audience. In fact, like a good punk band, Adult Swim sometimes even displays contempt for their audience. After all, they did recently mix reruns of Saved By the Bell “ironically” into their programming line up. Adult Swim’s development executives green light and produce shows that amuse themselves much in the same way Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, and Bob Clampett (working in the Golden Age of Hollywood animation) made shorts.
Adult Swim is about to take a victory lap by expanding its programming reach to seven nights a week. Surely, MTV, Spike TV, and Comedy Central will be among those watching.
Monday, September 24, 2007
One sign of the poor quality of animation critique is the lack of serious writing about the animated films of the most renowned independent filmmaker in the world, Bill Plympton. Yet, I have mixed feelings about writing about Bill Plympton when there are so many unsung animation filmmakers in the New York Area. However, one of the benefits of having a weekly blog is that with each Monday entry, there’s more than enough love to go around. Outside of the obvious quality and quantity of Bill’s work, there is also his generosity of spirit beckoning me to feature him in today’s entry. Bill has carved a very visible role in the New York area community and is a regular presence at ASIFA-East screenings and events. Bill has championed other films and filmmakers and I don’t think he gets enough credit for it.
I first became aware of Bill Plympton’s work while I was still in high school. I remember traveling in from Long Island to see Bill’s animation as part of an animation tourney that played at a (now) long-gone Bleeker Street Cinema. There I saw Bill’s seminal works such as “One of Those Days” (1988), and “How to Kiss” (1989). As an amazing illustrator working in animation, Bill’s films were living and breathing with the artist’s hand present in every frame. For someone who came to animation fairly late in his career, Bill emerged as a fully formed idiosyncratic filmmaker. His films quickly found festival success, TV play, and even an Oscar nomination for 1987’s “Your Face.” Animation enthusiasts all over the world very quickly became familiar with Bill’s blend of black out gags, adult themes/humor, colored pencil technique, deft draftsmanship, and a tendency to time animation on 4s, 6s, and 8s.
In my opinion, Bill hit a recent creative peak in 2004 and 2005 with a pair of very different films. “Guard Dog” was Bill’s most sophisticated use of animated cinematography since “One of Those Days.” The titular character bounced through the film in walk cycle so stylized that it was virtually made up of only key poses. Most action in the film is depicted in the same fashion. A martial arts sequence preformed by an animal in a tree, pops from pose to pose in much of the same way. Bill’s choice is not an animated short cut. He’s displaying the confidence of a master. The result was nothing short of thrilling and hilarious. There are also terrific jump cuts in the dog’s journey through the park that emphasize the growing mania and impending danger. With “Guard Dog,” Bill came dangerously close to animating a character as a character and not as a comic prop. We see the guard dog react to its surroundings and later to the consequence of it’s actions. The short’s subject of an overly protective canine, ready to protect it’s master at any cost, is a one note joke, but a perfect one to explore over a short film.
Bill followed this short with the excellent “The Fan and the Flower,” a poetic love story between the title characters. The film is elegant in it’s use of silhouettes and sparse scenics. I preferred the first version of the film with its original narrator before Bill swapped that out for the Oscar-bate voice of Paul Giamatti. Perhaps because the film was written and produced by Dan O’Shannon, Bill had to stay faithful to the story and put a limit to the creative indulgences that mark some of his other work. I find that rules can force creative people out of their comfort zone. Wasn’t John K’s original Nickelodeon version of Ren and Stimpy so much more fun when it flirted on the edge of good taste instead of clubbing you over the head in its later Adult Party incarnation on Spike TV? In such a way, I’m a believer that Bill’s best work is not found in his (anything goes) “Sex and Violence” series of shorts. Bill’s most recent short, “Shuteye Hotel” showed that Bill might be in agreement. It’s a beautiful looking film, with lots of great murder mystery noir touches.
For someone primarily thought of as an indendepent animator, Bill has made many TV commercials over the years as well as a handful of TV pilots. I don’t think the TV pilots (to date) have captured the best of Bill’s work the way his shorts so often do. For Bill’s best TV work to come through it may take collaboration, which is the lifeblood of all good TV pilots and series. I suspect that the networks that gave Bill pilot deals largely tried to stay out of his way in attempts to imitate the creative freedom that power his best shorts. I don’t think either party benefited by such a plan.
Short films remain Bill’s bread and butter. The problem is that Bill has been so prolific and successful with his shorts that its an area where few challenges remain. Bill is currently putting the finishing touches on his fifth feature film and its tempting to speculate that he continues to make shorts if only to pay for his experiments in features. In features, the stakes are higher. They take longer to make, are more expensive, and have far greater demands in the writing department. The juice that powers a great film like “Guard Dog,” doesn’t cut it for a longer format. With features, Bill enjoys the challenge that he may have felt long ago when he tackled shorts for the first time. Bill’s quest to make a great feature film has allowed this most celebrated of animators to stay hungry.
Sunday, September 16, 2007
I’m excited to report that my film, Good Morning, has been accepted into the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival. Regretfully, independent filmmaking has played only a small part in my career to date. I often get ideas for films but work and life priorities often intervene and pull me in other directions. Good Morning has it’s own unique creation story and I thought I’d share it on this blog.
In late October 2006 I flew out to L.A. to pitch a series idea and launch my book at an event with ASIFA Hollywood. When I got home there was a message from my Dad that my mom was in the hospital again. She had been a cancer survivor for over thirty years and enjoyed a high quality of life without any pain. Now she took a turn for the worse and things were looking grim. For the next month and a half she would be in and out of the hospital. Before my mother took ill, I had accepted a job to animate on a pilot. By the end of my first week on the job, my mother lost her battle and passed away. At less than a year later, this still seems unreal to put in writing let alone to say out loud. As natural and inevitable as this process is, I don’t think anything prepares you for it. The event made me re-evaluate my priorities and I put work on hold for a month to be with my family.
Shortly after the New Year I returned to my job animating on the pilot. In addition to this I had teaching obligations to finish up at NYU and SVA as well as three more months of freelance work to complete on a series of films I was commissioned to make for TV series about wine. On top of everything my girlfriend and I were trying to close on an apartment and once that finally happened, there was the matter of having to move. I found myself consumed by all these responsibilities.
Happily, by mid February my work on the pilot and the wine show were both near the finishing stages. At this time I accepted an offer to direct Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim series Assy McGee, but that wouldn’t start for some time. All I had left on my plate was teaching two classes a week. The rest of the time was mine. I started to flirt with the idea of starting a little film project; something purely to please me and free from the demands of any client. I saw ten days coming up where I could devote to whatever muses might grab me.
Because of all the madness of the last four months, I ended up with a wacom tablet sitting untouched and brand new inside its box. I decided to install it and maybe make a little film to test it out. Searching for inspiration, I searched through a stack of CDs and rediscovered a disc of children’s songs written by my friend, Bob Charde. Ten years ago he had composed the theme to my first film, Snow Business. I popped on the CD and fell in love with a short song of Bob’s called, Good Morning. The tune was bouncy and full of joy. I made up my mind to animate to this track and by that evening’s end I had fourteen seconds in the can. I finished the short over the next nine days.
Working on Good Morning was like allowing myself permission to bliss out. Never had making a film felt so good. At this time in my life it was like a form of therapy. Contributing to the fun were the filmmaking rules I assigned to this project. Rules are incredibly important because they give you parameters on which to create. For a film that barely cracks the one-minute mark, it sure has a long list of rules. I decided to not have any scene cuts or separate backgrounds. All the animation would be brown line art against a brown paper bag texture. There would be no other color. Overlapping lines between characters and backgrounds were okay. Instead of cuts, I used animated transitions between each scene. Forsaking a traditional storyboard, I deliberately worked straight ahead, allowing myself to paint the film into a corner at the end of each scene. I hoped this would all conspire to give the film a sense of joy and spontaneity. Certainly, with a track as good as Bob’s song, I couldn’t go too far off.
It’s very gratifying that this film is experiencing some festival success, but I don’t know what could compare to the important role it’s already played in my life. I can’t watch Good Morning without thinking about my mother…and that makes me smile and bliss out all over again.
Sunday, September 9, 2007
Welcome to the first edition of my weekly ASIFA-East’s president’s blog, ANIM-MONDAYS. As you may have already guessed, I’ll be updating this blog page every Monday. There are so many great blogs out there. In fact, I don’t feel fully into my day until I’ve had my morning coffee and a visit to such great blogs as Michael Sporn’s insightful splog at www.michaelspornanimation.com, Jerry Beck’s and Amid Amidi’s tasteful cartoonbrew.com, the newsy awn.com, author Michael Barrier’s posts at michaelbarrier.com, and the (almost too varied) cartoon blogs available at frederator.com. With so many voices already in the mix, ANIM-MONDAYS will differ in that it will be exclusively devoted to topics revolving around the New Yawk area animation scene.
For this first entry, I’m happy to feature filmmaker’s Fran and Will Krause. I first met Fran in 2000 when he was fresh out of RISD, riding the festival award-winning wave of his thesis film, Mr. Smile. At the time I was an animator at Blue’s Clues and one Friday, our supervising animation director, David J. Palmer, showed us Mr. Smile. “Check out the way he draws hands!” Palmer pointed out. We were transfixed.
Fran’s first animated films at RISD were experimental art pieces. Fran changed direction when he heard the audience reaction to funny films made by classmates such as Jesse Schmal and Mike Overbeck. Mr. Smile expertly blended humor with Fran’s love of Estonian animation, which is often bizarre, funny, and fascinating at the same time. There must have been something in the water that year at RISD because a new wave of animated filmmaking was being born. I’m tempted to call it a Slacker New Wave (SNW). I use the word “slacker” affectionately because the films appear free and (almost) effortless in their execution. SNW works also amble by a slow pace that tends to explore quiet and sometimes awkward moments instead of focusing on macho action, blood, and guts. Even the voices in their films are usually soft, casual and quiet.
After seeing films by SNW filmmaker’s such as Jesse Schmal, Fran Krause, and Mike Overbeck, I imagined that they were conceived by writing random words on index cards, throwing them in the air, piecing them together in no particular order, and then united them in some obtuse theme. Schmal and Overbeck have thus far been consumed by their successful careers in commercial animation and have not yet further devoted time to making films beyond their student triumphs. Meanwhile, Fran Krause has carried on beyond RISD to emerge as one of the top animation filmmakers today, sometimes working on new independent films alone (Moonraker and Box Factory), and sometimes working with brother Will (Robot Dance Party, Utica Cartoon). Incidentally, Will Krause is a highly accomplished animator/filmmaker in his own right, most recently making a big splash with his award winning direction of The 2005 Ottawa International Animation Festival signal film.
I have been teaching animation since 2003 and many students’ eyes light up when I bring Fran Krause into class as a guest speaker. Most know his work through his first pilot for Cartoon Network, the aforementioned, Utica Cartoon. Fully animated, voiced, photographed, and composed by Fran, Will, and their Animation Cowboy collaborators (pals made up of fellow RISD-ites), the film was like nothing else done at Cartoon Network (before or since). More a glorified independent film than corporate pilot, it was difficult to pin down. As much as the pilot seems very brothers Krause, it also bore the scars of network notes and revisions. The original idea that Fran and Will had pitched was about the rivalry between the animals at a zoo and the students at a nearby school. Pitched as Utica Zoo, it instead became a cartoon about anthropomorphic animals living among humans in a human world, without any noticeable rhyme or reason.
Fast forward more than five years later and Fran and Will Krause are putting the finishing touches on a brand new pilot for Cartoon Network. From what I’ve heard, this time there is action mixed with the comedy, and actors (not Animation Cowboys) are supplying the voices. Perhaps best of all, the Krause’s offer hope that there is room for New York independent filmmakers in a world of network development that too often caters to the Hollywood house style. Could the Krause’s lasting legacy be the merging of the two worlds? Who knows? These brothers are just getting started.