Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Most Important Element In a Pitch

ASIFA-East recently held a pitch workshop event with career coach, packaging agent, entertainment lawyer, and teacher Jim Arnoff. The point of the event was to help would-be creators better sell their creations (not to teach one how to create a winning cartoon pitch itself). The problem with such a discussion is that it may lead some to believe that by following one specific plan, they might reach their goal of having their own series. Don't get me wrong, the event was informative and helpful but, I could tell that most would-be creators in the audience operated under the assumption is that (creatively) they already have it in the bag.

The truth is that most projects pitched are half-baked at best and most creators are not ready for the responsibility of making a winning cartoon should they even get a deal. The most responsible among us try to make themselves ready for the day when they earn a cartoon series. I keep coming back to a wonderful quote by my friend, Fran Krause: "Don't expect anyone to pay you for what you haven't yet done yourself."

Its easier to define what makes a successful cartoon pitch than it is to define what makes a successful cartoon. A successful cartoon pitch is one that leads to a development deal/option/pilot or series. A successful cartoon, one that might spawn a series, is a much more subjective thing. All the elements (writing, design, color, animation, direction, sound design) must blend together to create a satisfying experience.

No pitch element (shy of making an entire pilot yourself) shows how a creator and his/her team will blend all those ingredients together to guarantee that the end result will live up to the promise of the pitch. Its no wonder that (for a deal to be struck) it often comes down to a creator's reputation and the strength of their relationship with the development executive/network.

Mo Willems is a great case. Cartoon Network didn't wake up one day and decide, "Gee, I need a show where a non-verbal sheep gets chased around by military agents inbetween bursts of sketch comedy." Instead, all they knew was they wanted to make a show with Willems. He had already proved himself with countless films for Sesame Workshop as well as his own Nickelodeon mini-series, The OffBeats. Willems also had a strong friend and champion in Linda Simensky, (who was then a Cartoon Network development exec), ensuring that he was wooed by Cartoon Network much in the way a hot rock band might be wooed by a record label.

The idea he proposed (as clever and fun as it was) might have been the least essential element of his green-light. Willems' track record beyond Sheep only proves how smart Cartoon Network were to gamble on him in the first place. He went on to head write Mr. Warburton's Code Name: Kid's Next Door just before launching into the stratosphere as the most successful children's book author since Dr. Seuss. ***image above from Sheep in the Big City.

Jim Arnoff (speaking as a packaging agent) advises that would-be creators aline themselves with a production company and build a strong team of creative partners before pitching. While I can see the value in that, I believe the danger of such a plan creates a handful of additional gate-keepers to block one's path. Is building such a team the most important ingredient to selling a show? In all fairness, I'm not suggesting that Jim Arnoff believes this is the case. He merely offers a road map by which some projects are sold.

Bill Plympton often tells students not to start their own studio businesses right upon graduation. He argues, they won't have enough contacts and experience to succeed that early on. Instead, he suggests such students first cut their chops working in the industry for at least seven years. I'd argue for similar advice for would-be creators. First work in the industry in a variety of capacities, preferably for episodic animated series. Learn production and see what nuts and bolts come together to build a crew and a production process, and what it takes to make a show delivery. Along the way, its okay to develop and pitch your own productions, but, the key is to understand that the most important thing to develop (towards the goal of selling your animation creation) is yourself.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Bust, Boom, Bust

When I began my schooling at SVA in 1991, our animation teachers warned us that there were very few jobs in animation. "You'll have to go to L.A. to find work," they told us again and again. In those days, animation was drawn on paper, finished on cels, and shot on film. A year before, my father arranged a meeting between myself and a jaded old animator who was going out of business. For ten minutes the man tried to convince me to go into another line of work. "Animation is dead," he reported, before he invited me to help myself to any artwork I found in the dumpster on the way out.

One man's ending is another man's beginning. The industry was (in fact) beginning to rebound. Beavis and Butthead and Doug arrived a year later, bringing TV series production back to New York City. On the heels of the recovery came the internet and a whole new means of animation distribution came about. Sure, people are still trying to figure out how to make direct money from internet animation, but the exposure this new platform has offered filmmakers has already paid off with commercial dividends.

Along with the rise of the internet came cheap and fast digital animation in Flash and After Effects. Scores of jobs were created in what became New York's first in-house large scale animation endevours since Richard William's Raggedy Ann and Andy (1977). Simaltaneously, New York re-asserted itself as the North America's undisputed indie animation capital with new filmmakers such as The Krause Brothers, Pat Smith, Debra Solomon, Andy and Caroline London, and Signe Baumane joining the ranks of our already world-wide festival award stalwarts (John Canemaker, Michael Sporn, Emily Hubley, Bill Plympton, John Schnall, George Griffin, Candy Kugel & Vincent Cafarelli, etc.).

The New York animation industry grew and grew between 1991 and 2000. Then, the dotcom bust occured. Then 9/11. In 2000, MTV canceled Celebrity Death Match in midframe with six shows left unfinished. In the same year, Disney did not renew its contract with Jumbo pictures. In 2001, MTV animation bit the dust and Nick Digital's only 2nd production to last more than one year (Little Bill) was not renewed. The bad news kept coming. In 2004, Blue's Clues officially ended, marking the end of continuous production at Nick digital. The following year, Funny Garbage laid off an entire staff when Disney pulled the plug on KatBot. A year later, upstart studio Animagic went belly up, leaving its 75 person crew working on Nate the Great, in the cold. Cartoon Pizza (the smaller studio which evolved out of Jumbo pictures) closed its doors after season one of Pinky Dinky Doo and opted to make season two in Canada. In the last four weeks, production has been halted at Word World and Animation Collective, and Nick Digital ceased existence as of Dec 18.

Interestingly enough, the build up that occurred between 1991 and 2000 took nearly as long to collapse. Hopefully, 2009 marks the end of this down cycle and the beginning of something new. Today we have several advantages to turn to that previous generations of struggling animators did not. For one, the idea of the internet as a viewing platform is no longer mere theory. Youtube has set the current viewing standard as short, funny, and irreverent...but, longer form series and movies are now being viewed through itunes and other online destinations. This translates into more animation needed to serve this new demand.

Most importantly, even as Manhattan rents have pushed out larger studios, the virtual studio is on the rise. I am now involved in my fifth at-home gig large enough to bring in additional crew besides myself. The new gig is a for a Fox pilot and the client is in California. The longest of these gigs, Assy McGee (for Clambake Animation), employed some of my remote crew up to seven months in a row. I think we can generate a lot of work in this city if we get creative about it. We have nothing to lose because its better than sitting around and waiting for studios to hire again.

The other new area to have opened up is the independent animated feature film. Yes, its still hard to get funding and distribution, but, why shouldn't it be hard? Animated features (outside of the Hollywood machine) have to prove that they can go places that the "animated feature family film ghetto" hasn't allowed them to travel. Films such as Persepolis, $9.99, Sita Sings the Blues, and Idiots and Angels have paved the way. To date, no indie animated feature has reached the success of, say, Blair Witch or Big Fat Greek Wedding, but I believe that the day is coming soon. I plan to be a part of it. I have an indie animated feature film project that I'm in the process of launching with my wife.

One thing is for certain: animation as a career plan is not a casual pursuit. You have to want it above all other ends to even stay in the game. Challenging times such as these only serve to underscore that point. Yet, these challenging times are also bursting with opportunity. Okay, we lost a handful of potential (or actual) employers, but it doesn't have to mean that our hopes and dreams should go down with them.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The 10 Commandments of Working From Home

Since 2004, I have been someone who jumps in and out between working on-site at studios and working from home. The at-home projects have included consulting (Lucy Daughter of the Devil, Super Why), directing pilots (Playhouse Disney and National Geographic Kids), directing shorts (Electric Company), and directing an entire season of episodes of the Adult Swim series Assy McGee. For the last two years I've worked exclusively at home and this experience has led me to compile these 10 Commandments of Working From Home. *drawings above from my current freelance gig: animating and directing a pilot for a client.

1-Go out before you start to work.
Grab a coffee, go to the gym, walk your dog, etc. This is very important because it gets your butt out of bed and forces you to throw on shoes and clothes. You get some air as you stretch your legs. It's a bad idea to simply stagger out of bed and plop down at your workstation straight away.

I get up each morning and eat breakfast with my wife, who has a job with normal hours in Manhattan. Every morning, I walk her to the subway and then I continue on to the gym. After a short workout I grab a coffee and walk home. Shortly after 10 AM I'm at my workstation and ready to start my day.

2-Start your working day at or around 10 AM and finish by 7 PM.
This way your get a sense of order to your life. Since you're working from home, you need to have a sense of being home and being done with work at a set time each day. Of course, there will be times where you'll have to keep working to make a deadline or juggle multiple jobs, but as a rule, try to create this healthy boundary between work and home. Also, by keeping to normal office hours, you'll stay ready to jump back into the workplace of your next on-site job.

3-Don't use IM unless you need it to communicate with your client or workers.
Instant Messenger can be a big distraction because it requires you to interact with people in relative real time. Non work related IMs get burdensome and can suck away hours at a time. Some animators use seperate IM addresses for work time so they can keep IMs as exclusively as work communication.

4-Make it a point to meet up with friends/industry peers for lunch outside of your home at least twice a week.
Not only will this be delicious, but it will get you out of the house to sustain friendships and start new ones. Note that this also works for breakfast too!

5-Be mindful of the increased demand for timely communication.
When working on site, there is opportunity for direct in-person communication all day long. When working remotely, its important to be extra mindful to communicate your questions, needs, and status of work on a regular basis.

6-Be extra mindful of the tone of your communication when using instant messenger and email. The reader always reads their own tone into someone else's writing, so its important to be clear and professional. If there is a sticky matter to discuss, get the person on the phone to discuss it in conversation.

7-Music and (maybe TV) is okay
Despite what Richard Williams advises, it is perfectly fine to work to music throughout the day. I doubt many of us are involved in the kind of total body and mind concentration required to do the kind of overly complex animation Williams is engaged in. If you're working on any other type of animation, listening to music can help make for a pleasant workplace. Leaving the TV on can work too, but there is the problem of getting sucked into a TV show. Watch at your own risk.

8-Lunch time is blog time.
When I'm not meeting up for a lunch outside my home office, I eat at my computer and use it as an excuse to peruse my favorite animation blogs which keep me informed on the state of the art and industry of animation. Food for thought, indeed.

9-Make time to go to animation events.
Working from home can make you stir crazy (anyone see The Shining?) and its easy to miss the companionship of of your peers and friends in animation. Attending events such as ASIFA-East's monthly screenings, makes for instant networking opportunities, keeping you connected to the larger world outside your home studio. You might also pick up a little inspiration.

10-Make time to work on your own art.
This can be tough under any circumstances, but it gets even tougher when you're working from home. The last thing you may want to do is to work on your own art or animation at the end of a busy animation day, but if you make the time to do so (even a few days a week), you will make yourself a lot happier, create new samples, and ready yourself for untold opportunities. Best of all, working from home allows you some days to yourself when you are inbetween freelance jobs. Fill in some of those days by attacking personal projects.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The House That Blue Built (1996-2008)

Another sign of a weakened animation industry (and the overall weakened economy) arrived last week when staffers working on the 4th floor of 1633 Broadway were summoned into a meeting where they were told that New York's Nickelodeon Digital Animation Studio would be closing its doors before the end of the year. The largest pool of workers among them were in mid-season production on Nick Jr's Team Umi Zumi, which is a as-of-yet unaired series made completely in-house with Flash, After Effects, and Maya. The workers will be on hiatus for an undetermined amount of time while the producers work to re-establish the series at an independent animation studio to complete the rest of the season order.

New York's Nick Digital Animation studio first sprung up in a few cubicles on the 32nd floor of 1633 Broadway, which was on a floor above it's sister studio, MTV Animation. The maiden project, "Blue's Clues," was a new form of production: full in-house series production via Adobe After Effects, Photoshop, and Power Macs. The studio that grew around the series (adding such productions as Little Bill, Gary the Rat, This Just In, Fridays, and Blue's Room in addition to many pilots) provided my (near- continuous) employment between the years 1997 and 2007. Having been away from the studio for the last year and a half, its semi-abstract to learn that the studio is closing its doors. Even though I didn't work on the studio's final series, it was nice to know that they were employing so many animation artists and support staff. It was nice to know that the studio was there- period.

What role did a large studio like Nickelodeon play in the New York area animation landscape? For one, it paid some of the best salaries in town, and (for the majority of its run) gave its temporary workers full benefits such as health care, dental, and 401k plans. It offered long-term work on high profile projects in a stable work environment with a genuine Human Resources department. When independent studios (such as Curious Pictures) set up their first large scale digital series productions, they followed in Nick's example by providing fair wages and benefits packages.

Whether or not you ever worked at Nick Digital Animation, this event effects you. There is a giant pool of expert workers that will be all looking for work at the same time. There is one less major studio where graduating students might find work. While there are a smattering of new projects rising in the city, so far, no single production will be able to absorb this entire crew. Lean times like this have always thinned out the ranks. Many will drift into other lines of work or move to other parts of the country.

I don't think we need any more examples that our jobs are temporary in this industry. Even accepting a job on a series with a long-term contract is by no means a guarantee that the bottom will not fall out from under you. There is no continuity to be found at any one studio. The continuity has to come from you. Times like this test us to be resourceful, to look after our own fates, and (of course) to value, appreciate, and look after each other.

One might take stock of what got them into this business in the first place. I doubt many of the recently laid off Nick Digital folks would answer, "I always wanted to work in a compartmentalized capacity preforming repetetive tasks on a preschool animated series till the end of time." Chances are, some people wanted to work in features, on music videos, write the great American novel, start a comic strip, create their own content, or build their own studio business.

It should be inspiring that Tatia Rosenthal (a Nick alumni) left the close knit studio a long time ago, forsaking the comfortable path for a chance to make her own stop motion feature. Her feature film, $9.99 opens in Los Angeles on December 12. It was the result of many years of unbelievable sacrifice and it would not have been possible had she stayed at Nickelodeon. In a similar way, those recently let go might just look back at Nick Digital Animation closing its doors as the best thing that ever happened to their career. And, if that's the case it will be because they (like Tatia) made something happen.

Monday, December 1, 2008

What's Wrong with The Simpsons

I figured it out. America's favorite yellow family must be vampires. In fact, all of Springfield USA must be vampires too, because nobody has aged a day since season one began in 1989. If time had been a factor, Bart would be around 30 years old today.

Since The Simpsons have been renewed until at least 2013, I think this discussion is long overdue. In theory, it looks like an advantage to have an entertainment medium in which characters remain forever young. However for a show as long-running as The Simpsons, the advantages ended around season 8 or so (and that was back in 1997!).

Once upon a time, The Simpsons WERE set in time. Marge and Homer had an origin story. They had been high school sweethearts in the 1970s. This made sense because Homer was supposed to have been in his mid 30s in 1990. The math checked out. But, nearly two decades of episodes have passed since then and that has not been kind on the reality between The Simpsons' universe and our own.

Live action sitcoms can't ignore their actors getting older. If a family-based sitcom survives long enough, its once cute tots grow up to go to college. Unfortunately, by that point, most sitcoms have long worn out their welcome and try to remedy the situation by adding new tots into the mix. Despite the fact that most sitcoms don't manage to stay as sharp as they once were, there is at least the potential to tell new stories that might reflect the characters' changing lives.

I remember what it felt like to attend junior high for the first time, graduate high school, get a driver's license, go to college, get a job, and how my social world and values changed again and again. Bart and Lisa (and Maggie) are forever stuck in grade school and any attempt to age up their situations would only ring false. That is, unless they were able to grow.

The first deathblow to The Simpsons relevancy occurred with the 1997 debut of South Park on Comedy Central. Before then, Bart Simpson was a role model for underachievers everywhere. He talked back to adults. He got bad grades in school. But, he was really a safe modern-day throw back to Dennis the Mennis, even complete with sling shot in pocket. On the other hand, South Park's Eric Cartman cooked his friends parents and then fed it to him.

The second deathblow was that beyond season 10 (and that's being generous), The Simpsons had said all they had to say and could only repeat themselves with diminishing returns. How telling it was that even the recent Simpsons feature film recycled nearly all its plot elements from earlier TV episode plots. For instance, Homer getting attached to that pig? That was very similar (but less funny) than Homer getting attached to the lobster (Pinchy) from episode "Lisa Gets an 'A'" (the seventh episode of The Simpsons' tenth season. It aired on November 22, 1998.) How about Homer ruining the whole town and making it unlivable? That happened already when Homer made the town a toxic landfill in "Trash of the Titans" (the 22nd episode of The Simpsons' ninth season and the 200th overall. It originally aired on April 26, 1998.) The family losing faith in Homer? Marge and Homer's marriage on the rocks? Lisa dealing with a new love? All tackled in the TV episodes to far better results.

Live action sitcoms debut with their characters being a certain age and (within a season or two) find the balance or blend of qualities that might define that show's voice. As the actors age and grow, the balance changes and eventually every sitcom runs out of juice. The physical transformation of the aging cast makes that change perfectly clear, giving it a visible face. An animated sitcom such as The Simpsons does not show its age so readily. One has to actually watch an episode made between 2001 and 2009 to see the rot just below the surface. By the show's final curtain call, it the bad seasons will far outnumber the good.