Sunday, June 29, 2008
The ASIFA-East season of events officially ended with our June 26th salute to Frederator’s Meth Minute 39 web series. Panelists Fred Seibert (Frederator president), Dan Meth (the series creator), and Carrie Miller (the series producer) were on hand to discuss the making of this unique series.
The Meth Minute 39 is a very forward-looking series, a glimpse into the not too distant future of series animation. A few years ago, Meth was a struggling freelancer, with a knack for short, punchy, and funny web animations that happened to score millions of hits. I recall Fred telling me about Dan Meth and his successful viral animations. Shortly after Fred and Meth first met, Fred asked Meth to bring his studio to Frederator where the animator could work on his own projects and freelance. In reality, Meth was a studio of one, so the move was not overly complicated.
At the ASIFA-Event I made it a point to mention how impressed I was at Fred and Meth’s openness for collaboration. Neither knew where this loose work arrangement might lead. In fact, Meth initially used his proximity to Fred to pitch pilot ideas for Frederator’s Random! Cartoons. Fred wasn’t interested in any of Meth’s pilot pitches, but neither he nor Meth seemed discouraged by that. Eventually, Meth dreamed up a pitch for what would become the Meth Minute 39. His idea was to make a grab-bag series of unrelated short internet cartoons–one per week, over 39 weeks. Eventually, the plan was ironed out and Fred began to self-fund the Meth minute, which as a series of independent films, would air on Channel Frederator (a broad band internet channel) as well being widely available on youtube.
Rarely does an individual hear about a series launch that they can possible imitate themselves (maybe even in their own living room). Each of us can pick up the baton and make our own Meth Minutes, possibly even making 39 shorts over 39 weeks. Fred even hinted he might repeat this himself, although he wisely points out that its uncertain such a format would work for another filmmaker besides Meth.
I’m inclined to agree. Meth’s gifts perfectly suit this format. First off, he’s imaginative, funny, and has a real gift for timing and storytelling. While his interests are broad, including rock music, 80s pop culture, and video games, his focus is decidedly narrow–giving each cartoon a laser like precision. Unlike Robert Smigel’s TV Funhouse, which are too often bloated to (a patience testing) four minutes, Meth gets in and out without anybody getting hurt.
While the Meth Minute was set up to be a self-funded commercial loss, its clearly the opening salvo to a new business plan in the making. It has already spun off its own series, Nite Fite, which happens to be commercially funded by a real sponsor. How’s that for results? Before all 39 of the original Meth Minutes had dropped, it had already spawned a paying venture.
What is to stop each of us from “Mething” our own minutes? The answer is us. We stop ourselves each and every day. How many of us would invest our own money and time in such a project as Fred has? How many of us would have the audacity of Meth to pitch such a project in the first place?
At a recent event at SVA, Ralph Bakshi fielded a question from someone in the audience who challenged that it was not possible to make your own feature and get it distributed towards making a profit. Bakshi answered, “You mean to tell me that there’s no way to do business? I don’t believe that. There’s always a way to figure it out. It’s your problem to figure out. Not mine.”
Fred’s venture with the Meth Minute 39 is in the same spirit. Make something good and get it shown, and, surely, a business model will present itself. What a way to end the ASIFA-East season! Our thanks to all our friends at Frederator for helping to set up this special event. Don’t forget to visit frederatorblogs.com to learn more about the goings on at Frederator.
Monday, June 23, 2008
June events are always a risky proposition. As the weather gets nicer, pants get shorter, and event attendance gets lighter. Another problem might be that ASIFA-East’s big show is our annual May animation festival, and in a symbolic way, it seems to mark the end of our event calendar. In reality, we always do one or two more events in June. On June 17, we presented an event with career coach, teacher, entertainment lawyer, and animation packaging agent, Mr. Jim Arnoff. For the fifteen of us in the audience it was an unforgettable evening.
Before the event, Jim and are were chatting, trying to figure out when we first met and in what context. Neither of us could remember! For a time in the late 1990s, Nickelodeon offered a bevy of industry related night classes to its employees, and during that time, I was able to recruit Jim Arnoff to lecture our group on several occasions. Since 2003, Jim and I have been sort of teaching partners at SVA, each of us handling the Fall and Spring semesters respectively, helming classes on legal and career issues for the graduating animation artist. Because we share the same students a semester apart, I always make sure to check which speakers Jim booked in the Fall, so not to repeat them in the Spring.
Jim Arnoff has generously promised to do another workshop event with ASIFA-East in the Fall, this time on pitching an animated series, so I’m going to let this blog entry serve as the far advance buzz for that event. After Jim’s animation career workshop on June 17, he and I each received e-mails of thanks from most of the audience. Each person reported being transformed and having made a major career breakthrough that evening, thanks to Jim.
I too, learned a lot from Jim, even if his career messages weren’t always what I personally needed to hear. The key to his method is to let the audience get to the root of their own obstacles or problems. Jim starts off the event by introducing himself and then passing the baton to the audience, getting them to share their names, their story, and finally, their problem. Once Jim has done a clean sweep through the room he picks a willing first participant to focus on and performs a sort of public, yet, one-on-one conversation with the individual, repeating the same experience throughout the room. Not only does Jim make the person feel safe to open up, he also enables the rest of the audience to go along for the journey and offer their own constructive feedback as well as probing questions.
The key to Jim’s approach is his limitless patience and non-judgmental attitude. There are other people who can dish out advice. I consider myself one of those people, but I need to work on curbing my judgmental side. If one judges while dispensing advice, the message might get lost which could render the help fairly useless. During the evening, I chimed in a few times, backing up some of Jim’s points, or offering suggestions and comments of my own, often at Jim’s invitation. As I spoke, I could feel my own judgmental self, breaking through. By the end of the evening, I found myself making a concerned effort to break this habit and balance my message with gentle understanding.
For over two hours, Jim helped audience members with problems such as, how to define one’s new studio business, how to switch career tracks, and how to achieve specific long-term goals like selling an idea for a series.
It was amazing to see how one man could get a bunch of relative strangers to open up and discuss their hopes, dreams, and fears –exposing themselves to advice, constructive criticism, and probing questions. Keep a look out for Jim Arnoff’s next ASIFA-Event this Fall, and be sure to mark it in your calendar. You will leave the event ten IQ points sharper and infinitely more inspired.
Oh, and don’t forget to check out our final event of the ASIFA-East season on Thursday June 26, when we present an evening with Frederator’s Dan Meth. Details at www.asifaeast.com.
Monday, June 16, 2008
It’s kind of comical how often us animation artists find ourselves, at the conclusion of job, standing at the edge of the unknown. When will we find work again? What will be the next project? My crew and I finished up work on Adult Swim’s Assy McGee (for Clambake Animation) in early April, so that marked the end of my latest full time job.
The timing was perfect–allowing me to devote time to finishing my second book for Allworth Press. The rest of my time has been split between my writing duties on a new upcoming preschool series and also on a new personal film.
For the last two years I’d been hearing about PBS/Sesame Workshop’s new Electric Company series slowly lumbering into production. When word rang out that the series was seeking animation studios to produce 30 second spots for the series, I helped them spread the word, throwing out the lead to lots of great studios (one of them being Clambake Animation.) Some months later, it dawned on me that maybe I should have thrown my hat in the ring too! Happily, by the time I expressed interest to the Electric Company, it wasn’t too late. For their animation spots, the production wanted to hire studios, not individuals. Since I’d just finished a happy experience working with Clambake Animation, I proposed that Clambake and I team up and pitch our selves as a production unit. Just as we had produced Assy McGee, I’d be directing from New York, and they’d be the animation house in Boston.
The combination proved desirable to the Electric Company and they quickly offered us four spots, which soon grew to six. So, here we are, back in business. We’ll deliver all six spots by mid August, making this a short and sweet summer job. Perhaps, best of all, this production allows Clambake Animation to hold onto their creative staff from Assy McGee. At first we were going to be working with an in-house designer at The Electric Company, but then that plan changed and I was able to bring in New York designer, Al Pardo, to handle all the character design. Clambake and I are very excited to get to collaborate again, this time for a children’s series in a completely different style then our last project. We’ll be doing fuller animation on these spots, which is another nice opportunity you don’t have on an Adult Swim series.
One problem of back-to-back jobs is that it makes planning vacation time a tricky business. This a problem all freelancers and short-term workers face. At some point you just have to book a vacation and let all work that might be offered to you during that time, be damned. My wife and I were trying to figure out where we might we want to travel, without a clear idea of where or when. I had entered my film, Good Morning, at the Hiroshima International Animation Film Festival, prompting us to a running joke, “Well, if Hiroshima accepts the film, we’ll go to Japan.” We’ve repeated this to each other for months. I’ve entered every film I’ve made since 1998 into this prestigious festival, to no success. Imagine my surprise when the Hiroshima festival sent me an email announcing my film’s acceptance into competition and inviting me to Japan! I’ve long dreamed of cracking into Annecy, Ottawa, or Hiroshima with a personal film, and now it’s finally happened!
Somehow I find it all the sweeter that this was a goal not easily obtained. And, since I didn’t have instant success with my indy films, the fast track option was not available to me anyway. I am in awe of the power of animation and how a ten-day production such as Good Morning, born of inspiration, can open so many doors. Time to get back to finishing my next short.
Monday, June 9, 2008
One of my favorite moments in The Beatles Anthology video series is when Ringo Starr discussed the period when he temporarily quit the Beatles. It was during the making of The White Album, and as Ringo tells it, he was feeling unloved and underappreciated. He visited the other three Beatles, one-on-one, and explained, “You three are really close and I’m not fitting in,” or something like that. Paul replied, “I thought it was you three.” George replied, “I thought it was you three.” John replied, “I thought it was you three.”
What the hell does this have to do with animation, you may ask? Well, it happens to remind me of the many clicks or subsets that exist in the New York Independent animation community. To the uninitiated, it might look like the independent scene is one close-knit community. The reality is that New York City’s independent animation community is so large that it is divided into many groups. Case in point– I had breakfast with Will Krause this week and at one point he referenced the independent animation scene in New York as “those people.” I chuckled and asked him if he didn’t feel a part of it. At that point our omelets arrived and we fell into a food coma.
The truth is that one can be part of something (like an community of independent animators) while still feeling apart from it. My feeling is that like-minded people always find each other and form close relationships. I believe that’s what goes on in this community, more than any deliberate exclusion. In my mind, the modern era of NY indy animation began when twelve animators banded together to create the two compilation DVDs, Avoid Eye Contact Vol.1 and 2. This action separated the past from the present. The past model had independent filmmakers acting alone, making films and entering festivals. Avoid Eye Contact presented this challenge to status quo:
1- Animators don’t have to act alone (anymore) to promote their films.
2- Through the DVD we can define ourselves as “The Best of New York Animation.”
Twelve people acting together can have the audacity to say that they are “The Best of New York Animation.” One individual would never have said that, and so the break from the past tradition in this community is obvious. The new era arrived through a $10 DVD!
“The Best of New York Animation,” was the official subtitle to Avoid Eye Contact. Not only was this new group willing to enter into a joint-venture to cross promote their films, they were also seeking to define what “The Best of New York Animation,” might mean for the present, and also for posterity. While this was a good commercial tag-line, which probably helped to sell DVDs, it also instantly made this an exclusionary compilation. So rich is the NY animation scene, that the artists and films left off the two DVDS (to date), threaten to outshine what was included.
Of course, there’s no stopping anyone not included on this two-volume set from making their own collectives, featuring a whole host of other artists. The fact that this hasn’t happened shines light on just how special the Avoid Eye Contact artists were. These 12 were fully committed artists ready to promote like-minded filmmakers to a mutual benefit. The DVDs may be inadvertently exclusionary but, the model of a joint-venture by independent artists, belongs to us all.
Monday, June 2, 2008
It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally figured out what everybody in animation wants. Consider this our ultimate wish list! Forgive me if this seems extreme, but it is based on years of reading comments posted at several popular animation web sites. The following represents the thinking of too many of us in the animation community. Who am I to stand in the way?
1- We wish the right to impose our taste in animation upon others, holding it up as the one true type of animation worthy of praise, study, and continuation, while scorning all else.
2- We wish the right to perpetuate inaccurate history and keep the petty grudges and arguments of yesterday, alive today (such as between Jones vs. Clampett or UPA vs. the traditionalists.)
3- We wish the right to be forever disappointed in anything being done in modern day animation today while indiscriminately praising all that was done in the past.
4- We wish the right to only recognize good work only once it becomes old and never to recognize it in its time.
5- We wish to be entitled to high pay on satisfying and creative work all year round– despite the limitations of our own energy, enthusiasm, ambition, or talent.
6- We wish the right to share our irrational, misguided, and fear-based opinions anonymously as fact, posting them as comments on various blogs.
7- We wish the right to blame the “industry” for our lack of ambition or success.
8- We wish that animation was still the exclusive domain of trained professionals, and that we could close the door on the unwashed masses entering our field through programs such as Flash.
9- We wish the right to believe our industry is so fragile that we are all doomed if the latest animated feature should fail to break 200 million at the box office.
10- We wish the right to believe that ALL animation artists are infallible heroes and all producers, movie moguls; network presidents and executives are idiots or worse.
These Ten Commandments are each fun in their own way, allowing their beholders to vent their frustrations. Believe me, I fall prey to some shades of these myself. The problem is, this doesn’t get us anywhere. To hold these beliefs or dwell on them is to give all your power away to mystical forces. It takes a lot more courage to turn the mirror on ourselves and figure out how we might make the best possible contribution to this industry, however flawed it might be. There are a lot of good excuses out there, each one offering us an easy way out. Hopefully the ten above might snap some people into action to better tap into their own potential.