Monday, November 26, 2007

The long shadow of Little Bill and a Little Blue Puppy.

Working a long stint at Blue’s Clues between 1997 and 2004, I was able to witness an interesting movement in talent that would come to dominate the NYC TV series community. Some time in the late 90s, we Blue’s Cluesers were informed that Mr. Bill Cosby would be stopping by for a tour of our operations. He had inked a deal with Nick Jr. to turn his line of children’s books, featuring a character called Little Bill, into a preschool TV series. For this new series, Nick Jr’s second done in-house in After Effects, it was a natural idea to seed its staff with experienced Blue’s Clues veterans. Among those that made the show-to-show switch were Jen Oxley, Nancy Keegan, Michael Dougherty, Chris Boyce, Adam Osterfeld, Chris Gelles, Jane Howell, and Olexa Hewryk. Not before long, the fledgling crew exploded to occupy two floors in a brand new studio at 1633 Broadway. With most of Blue’s Clues staff staying put, where would Little Bill find it’s large crew?

The answer was partly, SVA. Their graduating class of 1999 was the first to jump right out of school and into steady employment. In this wave came some of today’s top talents, including such names such as: Celia Bullwinkle, Rob Powers, Bob Wallace, David Heiss, Dan Cardinali, and many others. Most would find their seminal work experience at Little Bill. By some accounts, Little Bill was an expensive show to make and perhaps that contributed to why it wrapped production just short of January 2001. An insider at Nick Jr recently told me, “It didn’t work to have such a fearful character at the center of a series. He was always sad.”

In contrast, Blue’s Clues enjoyed three more years of continued production. So, as circumstances had it, the Little Bill crew were first to venture out and seek employment elsewhere. This pushed them into serving as gatekeepers on series work all over town. Among Little Bill alum’s, Blue’s Clues long had the reputation as the simpler of the two shows. I remember Steve Connor, who worked on both Little Bill and Blue’s Clues having difficulty convincing his Little Bill pals just how challenging Blue’s Clues actually was to make. By season six, it had gotten quite sophisticated; far more so than most people realized.

The migration pattern, dominated by the movement of the ex Little Bill artists is easy to track. First, they landed at Spike TV, when it emerged with two short-lived original flash animated series; Gary the Rat and This Just In. The shows turned out to be huge flops with their intended audience, but the crew was stellar. This could have been the birth of a new digital MTV-style animation studio. Instead, the whole enterprise fell flat on its face. Little Bill alum Mark Salisbury helmed these shows and hired up many of his former co-workers. By the time of the second Spike series, Blue’s Clues was finally on hiatus, so it’s crew was free to apply for a position on the new show. This would mark the first great mixing of the two preschool crews. Sadly, in the hey day of Blue’s and Little Bill, when the two shows occupied the same floor for a two year period, there was virtually no interaction among their staffs. Each crew had myopically gone about their business.

Once Spike ran it’s course, the flock migrated to join director Jen Oxley at Little Airplane where they were employed to animate on short and long form series work, including Nick Jr’s The Wonder Pets. It was at this time that animators Bob Wallace and Rob Powers first got the chance to direct. By all reports, season one was a bumpy ride for the crew, but what made it to the screen was spectacular and took the show to number one.

Post Wonder Pets season one, many of the original crew landed at Curious Pictures Little Einstein, a series that combined flash, drawn, and 3D animation in equal measures. Olexa Hewryk directed season one of Little Einstein and the technical director was Sang-Jin Bae, both formally of Little Bill. Little Einstein remained the home base for many of the former Little Bill and Blue’s Clues crew until Nick Jr announced a new series starting full production in Fall 2007.

Incidentally, this new show was created by Soo Kim and Michael Smith, a pair of ex Blue’s Cluesers. On this new series, Blue’s Clues and Little Bill alumni are now co-occupying the 4th floor at 1633 Broadway once again. Its fitting that Steve Connor is at the helm as the director, because he really deserves the credit for bridging the gaps between the two old crews. This time, you can bet that they are enjoying a collaboration and comradeship that seemed to elude them nearly ten years earlier. For a community of artists existing from job to job and moving from place to place, this sure sounds like a family to me.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Oscar Blues

In NYC, we just screened the pre-selections eligible for this years Oscar nomination for best-animated short subject. In a very roundabout way, it’s an inspiring thing for a filmmaker to attend, especially for one who has not yet snagged an Oscar nom or win themselves (there’s still some of us out there, right?). I offer this backhanded compliment because to screen these thirty plus films is to demystify what may be considered as Oscar Worthy. Sure, of this lot, only four or five will secure a nomination, but, many of the cast offs wouldn’t last two minutes in our very own ASIFA-East jury screenings. During a break, Jimmy Picker observed that the bad films are also very loud films. Jimmy’s right. Bad and loud go together in bad animation. Watching films such as My Date From Hell, Christmas Village, The Chubb Chubbs Save Xmas, and Anna And The Moods was very much like being beaten with a bag of oranges, but without that pleasing citrus-y aroma. I was glad to see that most of the 3D monstrosities were not made in America. But, then again, they were made as copies of our box office champs such as the Shrek franchise. Is this the legacy of what we’ve wrought?

Not surprisingly, Disney had an entry this year with their new 2D Goofy short, How to Set Up Your Home Theatre. I’d seen this film open the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival in October, where it played to a packed crowd of kids that didn’t laugh once. Here it seemed like a breath of fresh air. Well, sort of fresh. I don’t know what to make of this film. On one hand, I think, “well done.” But, on the other hand, I wonder, “What’s the point?” Yes, it’s great to see Disney doing 2D again, but, the film is a love letter to the past with nothing to offer for today, besides exploiting the home theatre craze (wasn’t that so 5 years ago, anyway?). The original Goofy shorts sort of followed a Robert Benchley how-to format. Today, Benchley is long gone and his own live action shorts have not aged well. As much as this sounds awful, maybe it would have been better to throw Goofy to a situation relevant to today? A reality format? A home design make over show? Something. Anything but a carbon copy of what Disney did in the 1940s. Why make new 2D animation that is stuck in the past? Can’t we make new work that does honor to the great animation of yesterday without resorting to this?

A few films floored me. There were moments of Peter and the Wolf where I was on the edge of my seat. There’s a moment in that film, when the strings finally kick in with the familiar score for the first time. For me, it was as magical as when Dorothy steps from black and white into Technicolor. The film was a dazzler with incredible shots, pacing and genuine emotions. Michael Sporn recently correctly remarked that smiles were overused in Bee-Movie. A scene in Peter and the Wolf begs to agree. There’s a moment where we first see Peter smile when he’s escaped out the fence that separates him from the adventure of the great outdoors. Peter and his animal friends frolic for a bit on a frozen pond and then there’s this shot of his Peter’s smiling face. The smile had such resonance. A similar moment occurred when the director is bold enough to hold on a very long shot of Peter’s face smoldering with hatred for the wolf.

On a side note, many in the audience were dazzled by a Russian film called My Love, which for my money was a Ralph Bakshi rotoscoped film masquerading as paint on glass.

Before I forget, big kudos and congrats to NYC area filmmakers included in this screening:
Sarah Wickliffe (Art’s Desire) and Bill Plympton (Shut Eye Hotel).

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

MOMA Knows Best!.., and honors the films of Michael Sporn.

I noticed many things in my first few weeks working for Michael Sporn. First off, everybody, from seasoned veterans to newbies like me, all experienced frequent bouts of work related panic and flop sweat. “Why,” you may ask? The reason was that Michael often challenged his employees by handing out assignments that stretched them well beyond their comfort zone; background painters and designers might be asked to work for a few weeks as animators, animators might be assigned storyboards, the production manager might be asked to figure out a new color technique or to tackle layouts, and a recent studio assistant might be asked to run an entire job as a production manager. Not only did the projects change every couple of months, so did the hats we were all wearing. This was true from the most senior member of the studio all the way down to little ol’ me. Even though this was my first job in animation, I suspected that this was truly a special place to work.

Michael places an amazing amount of trust in his staff. Recently at an ASIFA-East event held in honor of his latest DVD release, I asked Michael how he chooses the scenes he animates himself. He answered that he assigns himself the most boring scenes, the ones where a character might simply have to walk from A to B. Therefore, one can presume that part of Michael’s joy in running a studio must be in how he assigns the work to his staff. Each scene or task is a special bond of trust between Michael and his artists. Although Michael encourages a large degree of self direction from his animators, the resulting films emerge with every frame bearing Mr. Sporn’s fingerprints. I don’t know how he does it!

Still, animation is not all art, and even small independent studios like Michael’s cannot escape the factory side of animation work. When I worked for Michael, the studio was still shooting on film and preparing artwork on cell or paper. There were lots of mechanical handwork involved with paints, glue, and exacto blades. At some point of production, most of the studio would be reassigned to work a few days or weeks at these tasks. At Michael’s, we were so often working to the peak of our abilities that switching over to a more mundane part of production felt like sweet relief! Yet, whatever the relief factor was, we still had piles of artwork to prep or check for camera. Whenever one person ended up with too much work, the rest of us pitched in and redistributed out the scenes. I naively imagined that all animation studios functioned this way. There was never a day with one person working into the middle of the night with everyone else going home.

As a studio boss, Michael has a gentle way of teaching by example. He might fix your drawing and then walk over and explain what he did and why. He’d invite you over to look at dailies and was open to input on the entire process. But, to me, the best part of the day was getting to the studio early and sitting down with Michael and talking “animation” over a cup of tea. Between 9:00 and 10:00 AM the studio slowly came to life, each employee trickling in and taking their seat at the back table. Sometimes we all chatted for a long time, maybe not getting up until close to 11! Such are the pleasures of a family environment. It was truly like an animation home away from home.

Not everyone has had the privilege of working with Michael Sporn, but everyone should come out and celebrate the man’s stunning body of work Nov 9-12 with a special retrospective of his films at MOMA (see for details!). Congrats, Michael!

For your daily dose of Sporn check out

Sunday, November 4, 2007

A Look Behind The Book

I’m currently in the midst of writing a second book on the animation industry for Allworth Press, this time on the ins and outs of pitching and development. My first book, Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive (May 2006), was a pretty big ordeal to write. Lack of time turned out to be my worst enemy. This time around, it’s largely the same old story, but at least I now know how long it takes to write a book and am able to budget my time a little smarter.

I’m very pleased with how the first book has been received by reviewers and by the industry. It was truly an odd thing to get a book deal in the first place. By 2004, I’d been pitching animated series ideas for eight years, without success. But, I’ve learned that success is a relative term. It’s possible to have all your ideas rejected and still be inching ever closer towards your goal. Very slowly, over time, I was improving as a writer and a salesman, which is what pitchers have to be in equal parts.

I thought I’d use this week’s blog entry to share the original pitch letter that sold my first book. I remember making 12 drafts of this two-page letter over a period of a couple of weeks. Some of the content of this letter made it into press materials for the book and some even snuck into the introduction chapter itself.

Please forgive any self-aggrandizing statements in the letter below. As a pitch document, the letter had to prove not only the need for such a book, but my own qualifications to write it. Also, note the different working-title of the book. Gosh, what a mouth-full! Some of you may find some of the letter’s content familiar because some of it found its way into the introduction chapter and other bits snuck into the press materials. I hope you get a chance to check out the final book that sprung from this pitch, Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive. For the best price, I recommend picking up a copy on

And now, here's the original pitch letter. Enjoy!


David B. Levy

How To Stretch and Squash Your Way Into A Career In Animation is as much for those with hopes of entering the field of commercial animation as it is an industry survival guide for those already working. Whether one wants advice on how to land one's first job or is seeking ways to advance one's current career, the answers and inspiration are here.

The animation industry is a billion-dollar worldwide business. It's hard to imagine a day where you don't find yourself confronted by an image of SpongeBob SquarePants, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny or The Simpsons. Although animation dates back to the birth of film, it continues to evolve as evidenced by the recent groundbreaking CGI successes of Pixar's Monster's Inc. and Dream Works' Shrek. Scads of books abound on how those films and your favorite animated TV shows are made. DVD commentary tracks regularly give us the voices of directors as they break down their creations. The curtain has been lifted and would-be animators now have more access to technical information than ever before.

Despite this flood of information, crucial questions about the animation business remain unexplored:

-How do you begin a career in animation?
-What kind of portfolio or reel do you need?
-How do you meet the local community of animators?

Likewise, those already working may be asking:

-How do you ensure that your skills stay marketable for years to come?
-What can you do to network more effectively?
- How do you make the leap from working for others to pitching and selling a show of your own or going into business for yourself?

No single book has ever sought to focus on these important topics...until now.

Utilizing interviews with those at the top of the industry, How To Stretch... will offer up answers, advice and personal anecdotes on all those questions and more. Best of all, my ten years (and counting) experience working in the animation industry ensures that this book is written from an insider's perspective. I have worked as a freelancer and as a staff employee on such projects as TV series, industrials, commercials, pilots and independent films. The genres have run the gamut from preschool to kids to adult. In ten years, I've enjoyed steady employment and weathered layoffs during slower periods of the economy. Since graduating from the School of Visual Arts (SVA), I've produced an award winning short independent film nearly every year. As a director, I have been in competition in the largest Animation festival in the world, the Annecy International Animated Film Festival. In my role as President of Asifa-East (The New York chapter of the Association Internationale du Film d'Animation), I am responsible for leading and organizing monthly events, screenings, newsletters and an annual festival for the New York community of animators. I have done a series of lectures on how to build a successful career in animation at New York University (NYU), and I am presently teaching a class at SVA called Animation Career Strategy.

This book will also function as a resource by listing contact information for animation schools, societies, unions, film festivals, studios, websites, books, and magazines.

How To Stretch and Squash Your Way Into A Career In Animation will entertainingly educate and enlighten the reader on key subjects essential to achieving success in the field.