Sunday, February 3, 2008

Does NY Have an Animation Industry?


I was grateful to be part of an interesting conversation this past Monday night. The occasion was a visit by cartoonbrew’s Amid Amidi to my SVA animation career class. For an hour and a half Amid shared his unique industry POV while fielding lots of questions from my students and I. Most interesting was Amid’s take on the difference between the industry in Los Angeles versus New York. Amid’s basic message was New York does not have industry. It has work, but not an industry. Industry implies a large pool of workers, consistently employed year after year. L.A. has such industry. Much of it’s work is under union contract, which helps standardize salaries, benefits, and working conditions. If you have an industry, it makes sense to have a union to protect and represent its members.

The question remains, “Does New York have an animation industry?” Okay, we know there is some work. More importantly, since 2003 the local animation opportunities have been pretty good for veterans and new comers alike. One can earn a living working in New York animation, although you have to sincerely work to make it happen and exist jumping job to job, sometimes with large gaps between work. Perhaps we have fifteen studios that employ more than five people at a time. Among them are a handful of larger studios, including Curious Pictures, Animation Collective, Little Airplane, Nickelodeon, World Leaders, and Blue Sky. We also have a smattering of smaller independent studios that bring in freelance help as needed.

Currently, Curious Pictures is not in major production (they recently wrapped out Kids Next Door and Little Einsteins), Blue Sky announced plans to move to Connecticut, and even those with long term work on Little Airplane’s Wonder Pets and Nick Jr’s in-house production of Umi Zumis all have end dates waiting for them a year or so down the calendar. 2008 is looking more and more like the beginning of the downward cycle where jobs are fewer, for both freelance and staff work. New York animation, since rebounding in the early 90s (during the peak days of Jumbo pictures and MTV), has gone through familiar 4-year cycles of plentiful work periods followed by leaner times.

Those who earn a living in New York not only exist from job to job, but also often change hats with each opportunity. This is a freedom we enjoy that is not as common on the west coast where the industry is far more rigid. On one job we may be a supervisor, on the next we may be doing storyboards. Some work is done on-site, and some is take-home freelance. Our pay varies with each job’s budget and our respective titles and responsibilities. Jobs are shorter in our city, so there is also a greater variety in projects, which brings the potential to pick up diverse skills.

New York City is the art capital of the world, so those working in animation here have the ability to mix with that world (as Pat Smith does). Additionally, there are art opportunities here through publishing, illustration, fashion, and merchandise and toy design. New York also has some work in special effects, motion graphics, and Web design. Animation artists working in the big apple don’t have industry in the L.A. sense, but we do have is a unique cocktail of opportunity. Many of us survive (and even thrive) on this blend.

Amid offered more evidence that New York is not an industry town, pointing out how it’s area school’s differ from those in Los Angeles. New York schools such as Parsons, Pratt, SVA, NYU, (and even near-by RISD), all focus on nurturing the artist’s personal expression. It’s about making films and artistic experimentation. At a west coast school like Cal Arts, the focus is on preparing one to work in industry doing storyboards, design, animation, and everything else. It is true the Cal Arts has a great experimental program as well, but that department is very small. Schools reflect the flavor of their surroundings. New York’s schools and their animation programs help reinforce the notion that New York is not an industry town, in the Los Angeles sense.

The final difference between the two cities might be found in their respective ASIFA chapters. Amid, who recently ended a fourteen year run working in L.A., noted that ASIFA Hollywood has great screenings that few L.A. animation artists bother to attend. I have witnessed this first hand in my two visits to the West Coast. In contrast, New York’s ASIFA-East is alive with animation artists attending monthly events, as well as running the organization itself. Our festival is the real deal, now going on to it’s 39th year! ASIFA-East members share a bond that goes beyond which studio or project happens to employ them at the time. There is a larger sense of community in NY; many of us cherish it, and more of us ought to.

Are we making a mistake in wishing to be more like Los Angeles? Do we risk losing our own unique combination of work, freelance, art, and freedom of lifestyle and personal expression? The work that comes out of the Los Angeles industry is some of the slickest animation made any where in the world, but is rarely ever confused with anything containing soul. Be careful what you wish for, because one day, you may get it.

19 comments:

stephen said...

I agree with most everything, but just to play devil's advocate--isn't it somewhat discouraging that all this hat-swapping and freedom is met with usually lower paychecks, higher costs of living, and in many cases longer hours? I guess these are things I examine as a student hoping to make a monetary return on my educational investment.

But of course it's not about the money, and NY's strange mix definitely rewards those wise enough to innovate and adapt. And that's why I hope to stick around.

Plus: the falafel.

David B. Levy said...

Hi Stephen,

You raise a good point, but if you're independently minded and wish to make your own films and have them as a creative outlet as well as a career booster, than NY is the place for you.

Animation can be a pretty feast or famine situation in NY, usually we take on lots of work when it's available, knowing that there could be a lull following that. It becomes a delicate dance. A lot of folks in my peer group have done quite well in this town even with all the negative realities.

Rob Kohr said...

Hey David,
I spoke with Amid the week before about this same issue as he mentioned he was going to talk at SVA soon. Its all true there is less and less work in New York in TV animation.

I totally agree about the cocktail. New York animation is a cocktail, and while its not an industry like LA it is an industry in its own right. to survive in New York you must embrace new media and the ideas that there is work in animation beyond TV and film. In that industry you can find more security and permanence, though you will loose the credit that you get in the other area. Video game animation is an often over looked area, this includes 3D games as well as 2D games. We outsource some 20 games a year from Nick Jr, Nick does about 2 x that. There IS money in these games, but the shops that bid for them are usually out of state or country. I can't get into the specifics of cost, but there is money in it.

To animate in new media you need more than just an understanding of animation you need to specialize in it and act as the authority on your team (you are usually the lone animator). You need to be-able to work with software programmers, producers and writers. For me I felt SVA prepared me really well in this way, getting a smattering of everything really prepared me for what I now do in my job.

Flash animation studios that are hungry for work need to diversify. Work in games, build high end websites and hire yourself a AS3 developer. Flash has a lot of ability to develop plugins, studios would do well to hire a developer who would aid in game development, but also aid in making the animators job easier with custom plug-ins.

The main thing that I love about a new media job is the clock stops at 6, i go home and I can work on my film. in the end everything else is just work to support my film, that was the best lesson I learned at SVA.

Gr8Ball said...

Hey Dave --

I'm in your class on mondays (tonight, actually! amazing!) and I stumbled upon this blog of yours and started reading about Assy McGee. It inspired me to doodle up something for you -- I dont think I can post images in the comments section of your blog but here is a link to my doodle --

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2372/2243021080_c955f60ec4_o.jpg

I call her "rosy cheeks" -- get it?

thanks
chrissy

Stephen Worth said...

Amid is mistaken about ASIFA-Hollywood. Our membership is at an all time high. This week, we are staging the Annie Awards in Royce Hall at UCLA, which will be attended by over 2500 industry professionals. We have screenings of recent animated films on a regular basis, often hosted by the filmmakers themselves. Our Animation Archive is growing by leaps and bounds, with participation from the major studios as well as the local art colleges. ASIFA in Los Angeles is bigger and more active than it's ever been.

The main problem that exists within ASIFA at present isn't inactivity at the local chapters. It's the level of communication between chapters. Cartoons magazine is a good start, but I think a lot more could be done.

Stephen Worth
ASIFA-Hollywood Board Member

Tom said...

This unpredictable animation business on both coasts continues to resemble the weather in Chicago. If one doesn't like it, one can just wait fifteen minutes and it'll change.

By the way, David B. Levy, you wrote a good book.

Tom Minton

El Pollo Loco said...

Let's not forget that New York use to be the epi-center of animation back when I was just a wisp of a thought in my parents future. WE had great studios like the Fleischers and Terry toons.
Though the hustle of the New York animation artist can sometimes give you a nasty chip on your shoulder. New York animation has more soul and vigor than any slick, well polished California animation. Thats not to say I wouldn't like to have the voice and representation that the Cali artists have.

David B. Levy said...

Hi All,

Thanks for the comments and discussion! Stephen Worth, I appreciate that ASIFA Hollywood has it's own vibe. No doubt it's the biggest chapter in the world, but in my own experience, artists don't come out in droves to see all the great screenings and events you guys offer. I wonder if L.A.'s car culture keeps the community apart. It's truly different in NYC. We don't have the black tie Annie's but, we have a 39 yr old festival that tours the country and makes a huge impact...

You're right that there should be more communication btwn chapters. We are more often in touch with San Francisco, which seems to share a greater kinship with NY than does L.A. But, I'll personally make more of an effort to keep the lines of communication open btwn our respective chapters. Cheers, and much success to us all. We're all doing the same good work for our communities.

El Pollo Loco,
I couldn't agree more. In fact, the Fleischer's, in some ways, have proven more vital and relevant than Disney as time goes by. Throw in Felix the Cat, Winsor McCay, The Hubleys, Bill Plympton and so on, and it's easy to see that NY has always had something special to offer, even if the industry didn't evolve the same way as L.A.

jimmy nock said...

Great article Dave! I worked in LA all through the 90s.
I am still a member of local 839, I still stay in touch with friends and keep up on the industry out west. I think if anyone has a dream of going out there they should try it. Its a great experience. But, and its a big but, no pun intended. NYC offers so much more as far as camaraderie, creativity, variety of work, i could keep going on but you get the point. Sorry I missed the meeting, it sounded like a good one.

Jim Mannocchio

Stephen Worth said...

Out here, our membership has a lot of their own resources when it comes to mid scale screenings. The studios host lunchtime screenings for their employees, there are tons of revival theaters and regular movies to go see. We don't do well when we compete with that.

But our larger events and seminars do very well. Our 2D Expo and Stop Motion Expo were quite well attended, we pack the house at the Egyptian when we cosponsor a screening and discussion there, like our John K and UPA shows. The Archive Treasures program at Los Angeles Animation Festival 2007 was well received too. And our regular screenings of recent features always get hundreds of people, especially when the filmmakers are present.

But we're working on other ways besides traditional screenings to get films seen, and that may not be on your radar... Our archive contains over 3000 animated films, all of which are available for viewing by the public four days a week. Almost every day, I have a pack of students crowded around the computers drawing from Fleischer Bouncing Ball cartoons or Bill Nolan Oswalds.

A lot of the students who use the archive have expressed interest in very informal, small scale screenings where they can view and discuss films in a salon sort of setting. So we are getting a hidefinition video projection system installed next month, and I'll be putting on "Theory Night" screenings at the Archive every week.

I think that things are just as active out here as they are back East, it's just our membership prefers a different sort of program. They either want a large scale event with celebrity panels, or a very informal small scale salon type affair. The traditional "inbetween" sort of screenings are just not as popular because there's just too many of those sorts of things going on at the studios and local theaters.

See ya
Steve

Philip Street said...

David: Nice post. I liked your book. But imagine my surprise to see my own head (drawn by me, from my website, philipstreet.com) on the Godzilla at the head of the post.

I don't really mind you using it, but it would be nice to get credit, or even some traffic directed at my site, which is admittedly out-of-date except for the archive of my daily comic strip, Fisher, which also appears in the Globe and Mail newspaper, and which I shamelessly plug here.

Thanks.

David B. Levy said...

hi phillip!
Wow, cool that this is your image up there. Sorry man, didn't know who had done it. Found it somewhere goofing around and looking at google.
Your plug is nothing near shameless. I'll check out your site...and I hope others do the same.

cheers,

Dave

AnneW said...

Hey Dave! What's new?
Just discovered your blog. Dayna posted a link on the Yahoo Group page to this entry.
Unlike some other people who have experienced working in both LA and NYC, I can't accurately compare the two but LA seems like greener pastures to me!
Variety is the spice of life but with working I would prefer to have some stability. If the company is good it would be nice to grow with them over time rather then jumping from one company to another trying to fit in and adjust to their standards.
Ever meet up with old co-workers in NYC?What are the questions that come up most, "Where are you working now?", or even more importantly, "ARE you working?"
It's really important here to build a network and to try as best as you can to not burn bridges. When layoffs happen, whether you saw them coming or not there will be other people around to possibly help you find your next gig. Some jobs aren't posted publicly at all so this is a huge help.
I've looked at ads for jobs in LA and it seems there are a plethora of jobs, including entry-level ones and for some you only need to know just ONE program! That's it! For someone that has roots on this side of the country the move is the biggest issue. If only it were Los Angeles, CT or something..
We have an industry, but it feels very unstable and unfullfilling at times. You just have to keep sticking it out. Maybe things will get better.

David B. Levy said...

Hey Annew,

Your raise good questions and points. I would say that anybody entering the NY animation industry expecting stability would be misguided, at best.

The good news is that nobody promised us anything, so there's no villan here. It's really a matter of what you personally want out of your career. NY offers it's own set of unique opportunities that differ from those of L.A. So, take your pick and know that wherever you go it's up to you and that there's really no such thing as any easy ride anywhere... especially if you really have ambition to achieve something. Real achievement is based on sweat. Pat Smith just spoke to my class, telling the students that he he used to wake up at 6 AM and work on his own film until 9 AM and then go to work at MTV for a full day. He carried on this way for years until his first film, Drink, was complete. That's what I'm talking about. Personal commitment.

People are wrong to put themselves at the mercy of any city's industry. You gotta make your own bliss, your own future. I like to make my own luck and opportunties and I suggest others do the same. It certainly worked for Pat Smith.

mary said...

Good blog to go... I am An HR person for a fastly growing firm.I need to post jobs

for some of our internal activities. can someone suggest a better list of websites to list on.
Thank you in a advance............
Are they helpful ?

David B. Levy said...

Hi Mary,

You are welcome to e-mail me or the ASIFA-East web master. We are both listed at www.asifaeast.com.

We'd be happy to post job leads on the ASIFA-East website or in our newsletter.

chrisallison said...

Great article, David! I'm a student in the LA area and I really respect the NY scene. I've always wondered about this. However, I'm curious how you think it's better to be independent in NY. I'm doing my own independent stuff and hope to continue in the "real world", so this is very important to me.

Seems to me, it would be better to produce independent content in a stable environment. I get fewer working hours, and more pay for my time. So in the end, I have more free time and money to finance my films. Also, I have job stability which means that I don't have to waste time looking for jobs and such.

Is there something I'm missing? Just curious.

GO NY GO!

David B. Levy said...

Hi Chris,

Good comments. I think it's helpful (but NOT) essential to be part of a big community of indy filmmakers. We learn from each other (in terms of craft and in terms of business). Also, many of us are savvy about making the NY model work so well that it does pay us a stable living wage with enough side time to devote to personal film projects.
But, NY is not for everyone, and the sink or swim conditions here naturally weed out anyone that does not really HAVE to do animation as their life's work.

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