Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Last Decade at a Glance


According to my calender, we are on the eve of a new decade. If the 1990s saw an ever-increasing build up of animation jobs in NYC-area animation, the decade that followed could best be called a roller coaster. I have a tendency to measure the strength of our job market based on how many series are in production in town, simply because they create the most jobs. In 1990, there must have been few to no large productions going on. I know Michael Sporn was enjoying a fruitful and lengthy period of making half-hours for Weston Woods and HBO. It wouldn't be until the following year that Jim Jinkins' "Doug," would launch a return to full-blown series production here in New York City. Jinkins built his studio, Jumbo Pictures, around the show (series orders have a way of doing that). Two years later (after a first season produced at J.J. Sedelmaier), "Beavis and Butt-head" relocated to MTV Animation's first headquarters in 1515 Broadway.

In 1996, Nick Digital Animation grew up around its first major production, "Blue's Clues," soon followed by "Little Bill." The same year, Linda Simensky left Nickelodeon, for a job at Cartoon Network, thus leading to a Renaissance of NY animation series orders. Speaking of which, John R. Dilworth's "Courage the Cowardly Dog" caused the director to stretch his one-room Stretch Films into a whole floor. Near the end of the 90s, Xeth Feinberg rented a large space to handle the production of the Web series "Queer Duck," "Sheep in the Big City" brought series production to Curious Pictures, David Wachtenheim and Robert Marianetti founded their own studio partnership, animation wonderboy Aaron Augenblick started a studio in Brooklyn, and Blue Sky won an Oscar for their short film, "Bunny."

And, so the stage was set for the year 2000. Chances are you've already lived through the last ten years below, but either way here's a handy compilation list of the high and low points of the "Oughts" NY animation scene. Consider it a decade a glance, and feel free to comment with corrections and additions.

2000-
-The dot-com bubble burst ushers in the near year, forever ending the days when all you needed was a loft, a cappuccino machine, some business cards and WHAM! you were in business.
-Nick Jr's "Little Bill" ends its three year production span, during which it completed two seasons of shows. The show only begins to air in 2000, meaning the network can unveil "new" episodes for the next few years to come.
-The Oxygen channel debuts an animation division and closes it down the same year. Among the pilots produced is "KnitWits," starring Joan Rivers and created and animated at Buzzco, Associates, inc.
-Linda Simensky steps down as president of ASIFA-East, leading to some joker taking over for the next ten years.
-MTV Animation veteran, and creator of its series, "Downtown," Chris Prynoski, heads to L.A. and opens the studio Titmouse, Inc.

2001-
-The attacks on September 11, combined with the still lingering effects of the dot-com bubble burst cause a year-long production drought. Even NY's most resilient freelancers have difficulty finding work.
-MTV abruptly cancels production of "Celebrity Death Match," leaving puppets still frozen in their last last poses, ensuring that we'll never know who would win in a fight between Monica Lewinsky and Star Jones.
-"Blue's Clues" announces to its employees that it will cease production in 2003, giving its employees an almost unprecedented two-year notice.
-"Sheep in the Big City" wraps up production, but soon on deck is the long-running "Codename: Kids Next Door," created by Tom Warburton and also produced at Curious Pictures. Warburton's series won its chance to go to series on Cartoon Network's Big Pick Weekend, which featured another NY area pilot, The Krause brothers "Utica Cartoon."
-Noodlesoup Productions opens its doors, founded by several artists who met working at Jumbo Pictures.
-NY animation fixture Sue Perrotto, leaves for L.A. and begins a residency directing series at Cartoon Network.
-MTV shuts down its entire animation studio, including its fairly new MTV commercials division.

2002-
-Stretch Films wraps up "Courage the Cowardly Dog." The studio carries on in the same space working on small projects and pilots until 2006.
-The long-running Ink Tank studio, headed by famed illustrator R.O. Blechman, runs out of ink, closing shop after a troubled series production. The good news is that out of the inkwell is born Richard O' Connor and Brian O' Connell's Asterisk Animation studio, proving to be one of the more successful indie animation studios of the decade.
-Dancing Diablo, a Brooklyn-based studio created by designer Beatriz Ramos is founded, with a second office in Caracas, which I think is in Staten Island or something.
-Debra Solomon wraps up her animation on "Lizzie McGuire" (remember? That was the big show for girls before Hannah Montana) and debuts her second pilot for Cartoon Network, the half hour special, "Private Eye Princess."
-Blue Sky releases its first original full length animated feature and launches a franchise with "Ice Age," which is a mammoth it, (not to be confused with a Mamet hit, which would imply a screenplay by David Mamet).
-ASIFA-East presents an evening with Richard Williams to tie in with the launch of his book "The Animator's Survival Kit."
-Howard Beckerman unveils his long-awaited book, "Animation: The Whole Story," which is re-edited and republished a year later as the definitive edition on Allworth Press.

2003-
-Spike TV attempts a full block of prime-time animation in one stroke, leading to two in-house Flash animated series animated at Nick Digital, "Gary the Rat," and "This Just In." Neither find an audience, despite being the most brilliant creations in the history of mankind. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating here. A shake up of Spike TV's senior staff soon follows.
-Linda Simensky leaves Cartoon Network for PBS Kids, again, creating a ripple of production in the Big Apple for years to follow.
-NY author and animation guy Allan Neuwirth launches his book, "Makin' Toons: Inside the Most Popular Animated TV Shows and Movies," which acts as an unofficial sequel to Leonard Maltin's "Of Mice and Magic."

2004-
-Scholastic organizes it's own animation studio to handle two series, "Clifford the Puppy Years," and "Maya & Miguel," but does not continue once the shows have been delivered. But, with Harry Potter money fueling their empire, maybe they'll be back.
-Little Airplane begins its ascent, dominating the next five years of NY animation production with a stream of continuous work, staffed by an ever-changing flight crew.
-Signe Baumane helps organize a compilation of NY area animation called, Avoid Eye Contact. Vol.1, which features films by Bill Plympton, Mike Overbeck, John R. Dilworth, George Griffin, Pat Smith, and others.
-NY animation veteran, Yvette Kaplan departs for L.A. and lands into a directing gig on Mike Judge's "King of the Hill."
-ASIFA-East presents an evening with Ray Harryhausen to tie in with the launch of his book "Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life."
-Animation producer and historian Greg Ford produces master animator Mark Kausler's golden-age retro-themed "It's the Cat," a film completely produced without computers and shot on 35mm film. A sequel is in the works.

2005-
-Disney TV pulls the plug on "CatBot," a flash animated series in production at Funny Garbage, which after nearly a year of a production, is plagued by never-ending development notes. The production only manages to create a two-minute animation test. Some say on a quiet night you can still hear the muddled mews of "CatBot," but I think that's just silly.
-Curious Pictures does its first full scale digital series production with the flash-based "Little Einsteins," made for the Disney Channel. Their spin-off series, "Little Oppenheimers," never scores a pilot.
-Mo Willems departs from his job as head writer on "Codename: Kids Next Door," to concentrate on his successful slate of children's books. On his way home he spies a frustrated pigeon trying to drive a city bus and the wheels of inspiration soon turn.
-Michael Sporn launches his "splog," an informative daily animation blog, thus giving me something fun to read as I eat my morning cereal.
-Will Krause produces and directs the 2005 Ottawa International Animation Festival signal film, enlisting the support of nine area animators, all of whom get a pass to the festival, their name in lights, and a hug from Will.
-Bill Plympton, who not only made an original short for every year of this countdown (in addition to several features), scores his second Oscar nomination for his hilarious short, "Guard Dog."

2006-
-Out of the Blue Enterprises is co-founded by "Blue's Clues" co-creator Angela Santomero, leading to the creation of the mutli-season series, "Super Why" on PBS Kids.
-Cartoon Pizza, the continuation of Jumbo Pictures, goes guerilla when it leaves its 1 Lincoln Plaza headquarters and relocates to a few apartments scattered across the city. Season two of Jim Jinkin's series, "Pinky Dinky Doo," is animated in Canada, where its crew enjoy access to Tim Horton donuts on a daily basis.
-Noodlesoup Productions changes its name to World Leaders Entertainment, leaving one of its original founders (and namesake) Jeff Nodelman, to found Animagic (see 2007). The newly renamed studio had first considered the names: World Soup, Soup Leaders, and Leaders of Soup before settling on the soup-free World Leaders name.
-John Canemaker wins the Oscar for best animated short with his touching autobiographical film, "The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation."
-"Blue's Clues" celebrates its ten year (that's 70 in dog years!) anniversary with an hour long special and 10 additional episodes of its spin-off series, "Blue's Room."
-Background painter and fine artist, Liz Artinian, organizes the first "Too Art for TV," show, becoming a near-annual tradition, and giving animation artists an outlet to showcase their off-hours artwork.

2007-
-MTV animation tries a half-assed relaunch with the flash animated series, "Friday: The Animated Series." Half-assed in that––when the series wraps, only a trickle of episodes ever air––and in the worst time slot possible. A full-assed comeback plan is two years away.
-Animagic, a new studio linked to the Creative Group and Fangoria, starts production on "Nate the Great," a series for PBS Kids, but the show crashes to a halt when the studio's investors abruptly pull out. Before a first episode can even be finished, 75 animation artists, all of which believed they had two years of job security ahead of them were suddenly unemployed.
-Fred Seibert's company Frederator make their first foray into in-house animation production in NYC with a pair of Dan Meth created Web series' "The Meth Minute 39" and "Nite Fite."
-NY is home to three simultaneous Adult Swim series productions: "The Venture Brothers," "Super Jail," and "Assy McGee" (partially animated in NY for the Boston-based Clambake Animation.) MTV Animation, somewhere, is taking notice.
-An ad shot by Passion Pictures (for Sony Bravia) features the largest crew of stop motion animators ever assembled for an outdoor shoot, with animators working for a week and a half in the streets. The ad goes on to win the Golden Lion at Cannes.

2008-
-Amid Amidi, one half of cartoonbrew.com, reverses a trend by moving to NYC after years of living in L.A.
-Animation Collective, named after the Borg Collective, and one of our biggest employers during the years 2003 to 2007, lays off its staff, leaving us to guess at its fate.
-Nick Digital Animation, the house that "Blue" built, officially shutters it's doors, temporarily halting its animated series "Team Umi-Zumi," which resurfaces the next year as a production at Curious Pictures, crushing my hopes that "Little Oppenheimers" will go to series.
-Robert Smigel ceases production of his hit-and-miss (writing-wise) "Saturday TV Funhouse" cartoons, which had provided over a decade of steady work to J.J. Sedelmaier, Tape House Toons, and Wachtenheim & Marianetti. Was this cartoon empire brought down by this?
-PBS Kids' "The Electric Company" relaunches, creating the need for new animated spots. (note: design above from one of my "Electric Company" spots)
-Nina Paley unveils "Sita Sings the Blues," a wonderful flash-animated indie feature, and ends up creating a new business model in the process.
-ASIFA-East hosts a panel moderated by Amid Amidi to spotlight the new trend of indie animated features, with a look at finished films and works-in-progress by Michael Sporn, Emily Hubley, Bill Plympton, Dan Kanemoto, and Tatia Rosenthal.
-A new series of language-based educational DVDs launches from a company called LanguageMate, and employs Robert Powers to direct. Language-based? Isn't everything language-based? Well, except Mummenschanz.
-Filmmaker brothers Mike and Tim Rauch debut with their touching award-winning short, "Germans in the Woods."
-Justin Simonich and Linda Beck start shooting a documentary on New York animation. Spoiler alert: The Krause brothers, who also completed a kick-ass pilot for Cartoon Network called "The Upstate Four," are more than ready for their close ups.
-Blue Sky Studios moves from New York to Connecticut, threatening to bring on an animation Ice Age in the Big Apple.
-Elliot Cowan arrives on the scene, bringing his self-penned indie series of Boxhead & Roundhead films with him, which he enters in 4,000 film festivals world wide.
-"One Stuck Duck," a collective of 7 animation artists is formed, for the purpose of making joint-film projects.

2009-
-Sesame Workshop undertakes a massive international project.
-Frederator and Starz Animation announce commitments to making low-cost animated feature films.
-New York City loses Tom Warburton and PES, along with promising newcomers Rebecca Sugar, Jake Armstrong, and Kat Morris to Los Angeles. In addition, Pat Smith goes on extended leave to teach animation in Asia. Meanwhile, John R. Dilworth returns from two years living and working in Spain, and arrives with a new short, "Rinky Dink."
-London's Handmade Films buys Animation Collective, setting it up as a joint venture with Nat Geo Kids.
-MTV Animation reorganizes its development department and announces its comeback plan.
-Suspected fraud at the Queens International Film festival is the talk of the town.
-Little Airplane wraps up its two most recent productions, releasing its crews onto the tarmac.
-San Francisco-based creator Loren Bouchard's excellent new pilot is produced in SF, animated in NYC, scores a series pick up at Fox, and goes into production in L.A.

***Whew! Glad that's over. Let's all work towards making this next decade as animated (and stable) as possible. Join forces, start partnerships, make films, pitch projects, create jobs, and be sure to get enough fiber in your diet. Onwards and upwards! Happy New Year to all!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Film Doesn't Lie. It Tells Stories.

video
Since we just got hit with a snowstorm, I thought it was high time that I posted my first indie film, "Snow Business." The production spanned the years' 1996-1998. I began the film while working at Michael Sporn's studio and I think the resulting film bear's that influence. And, since my co-designer on the film was long-term Sporn employee Jason McDonald, that was probably inevitable.

I graduated from SVA in 1995 and started working for Michael Sporn the day after graduation. I learned so much in the first two weeks there that I was immediately inspired to start channeling it into a first post-school film. While still in high school, I made about five 1 minute animated films which I shot on my dad's old super 8 MM camera. I shot the first film with only one 60 watt bulb illuminating the artwork. When I got the film back from the lab, the image was so dark that I had to shoot the whole thing again. I remember telling my lighting troubles to my high school art teacher who responded, "Film doesn't lie. It tells stories." I suppose my film told the story of bad lighting.

A year into working for Michael Sporn, I finally had an idea for a film I would be excited to make. I based the film on a key image: a snowman traveling down a hill on its own momentum and how that event would turn the characters lives upside down. But, as I described in a past post, it was only years later that I realized the film was deeper than that. A part of the film was autobiographical. Hint: I'm the boy in the film.

Although I started the film while working for Michael Sporn, I finished it as a staffer on Nick Jr.'s Blue's Clues. Making a film around the schedule of a full-time job is always a sacrifice, but I couldn't imagine not finishing it. "Snow Business" was animated on paper, colored with markers, and rubber cemented to cels, with the excess paper trimmed away with an X-acto blade. It was the technique I had learned at Sporn's and I had fun doing my own guerilla version of it within my Astoria apartment. I had two cats living with me so I had to kick them out of the room whenever I was preparing and handling the animation cels so not to get cat hair all over them.

One cold January morning I was walking two heavy box loads of animation cels to my cameraman, when I happened to notice Harrison Ford standing only 10 feet away about to cross the street in front of me. I winked at Mr. Ford. He winked back. True story. I remember thinking that this was some sort of good luck moment. Making an indie film, especially in the days of film, was a pretty brutal and thankless process. It involved a lot of expense (supplies, animation cells, film stock, camera fees, lab costs, color correction, transfers, dubs) not to mention the time of actually making the film. But, had I not gone through the effort I would have never had my moment with Harrison Ford. My only regret? Not warning him to stay away from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Making indie films tends to open up numerous commercial opportunities for their creators. In the last two years, my films helped me land 14 original animated spots for The Electric Company and Sesame Workshop. To be considered for this type of work one needs to have samples of their own animation. This is because only your original work will show a director's point of view or a filmmaker's execution. When The Electric Company relaunched in 2008, their producers wanted to work with a wider range of animators but were wary to engage animators whose reels contained only clips of animation from the same five series.

When you make films, you don't know exactly how and when it might impact your career. My only guide was a keen awareness that my heroes (Plympton, Griffin, Sporn, Dilworth, Beckerman, Schnall, Willems, etc.) made indie animated films. "Snow Business" is not a perfect (or even a great) film by any means, but it was my first step to achieving any type of permanence in this difficult industry. Despite the wintery subject matter, I'll always have a warm spot for this film.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Growing Work


*Above image from my final film for Sesame Workshop in 2009. The opportunity to make six films for them grew out of work I've done for their other divisions. Background art by Adrian Urquidez.

Here's something I've never put into writing before: I was a shift manager at McDonalds at the age of 16. I had keys to the store, the combination to the safe, and the responsibility of opening the store for many-a-weekend breakfast rush. Ah, the memories of a misspent youth.

As a shift manager, I would sometimes work the closing shift, where there was always a senior manager on duty. One night my boss was trying to get a leg up by shutting down the grill a 1/2 hour early. That way he could start cleaning the grill parts in the back sink and we could all get out of there a little sooner. Unfortunately, a final customer came in and ordered a burger. Since my manager was also the one working the grill that night, I had to ask him to make the burger. Reluctantly, he marched back to the grill with clean grill parts in hand and cooked the order. He was really mad and took it out on me, wining that I should have turned the customer away. In response I asked, "Are we in the business of closing the store or of serving the customer?" That was like pouring gasoline on a fire. He turned bright red and if looks could kill, my head would have been swimming with the french fried potatoes.

And, as much as I was an insufferable teen back then, I still think of that encounter, particularly how it relates to how us animators or animation studios find work. We all want to be in the business of growing work but we often behave as if we are going out of business. We do this when we don't stay connected to the community, grow new contacts, keep our skills up to date, keep up with new software, or value work above the relationships that are required to get that work and be invited back for more.

The hardest time to build a viable network of opportunity is at the start of a career because one has to begin everything from scratch: honing skills, establishing a reputation, and creating relationships. But, if the start of a career in animation has its challenges, longevity too, can work against us. A New York animation veteran of over two decades confided to me that the two people that used to give him steady work at one company have both since passed away. I find this to be good evidence that even when we are connected to the work stream it's still important to grow new connections. All sources of work eventually dry up. We need access to more than one watering hole.

I have always felt gratitude for every animation job I have ever landed, no matter how big or small, no matter how fat or lean the budget was. As I see it, getting to spend my life doing work I love with the people I love to work with is a privilege, not a right. And, it's a privilege that I work hard to earn and re-earn each and every day. I think when one sincerely holds that attitude one cannot help but to grow work, even in a business as difficult as ours.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Not Drinking the Kool-Aid


I went to a lecture given by a present day Disney animator whom, in response to a student asking him what he thought of Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner's claims that 2D animation was dead, answered, "2D didn't die. It just went underground." The audience (of mostly students) seemed to eat that up. Isn't it a tad bit funny that the animator answered one absurd statement with another? Underground is such an odd term. It makes me feel like a fugitive on the lamb. At any moments the cops could close in and declare me irrelevant. After all, my work is not up there on the silver screen. How dare I even exist?

Okay, okay... I'm getting a little carried away. But, let's accept (for a moment) the premise that any animation outside of Disney 2D feature animation is underground. That makes Disney the establishment. And it ain't never been cool to be that. Just ask a 1950's beatnik.

Secondly, Disney is in the nostalgia business. Creatively they are a dog chasing its tail––self-referencing up the yin yang. But what should it mean that animators are back at work making 2D Disney features? And, besides Walt's signature logo, what connection does the new film have to the company that lost its visionary leader in 1966?

The real power and excitement behind a new 2D Disney film is legacy––the illusion of continuity to something we loved. For a moment we could kid ourselves and imagine what it must have been like to be around in 1941, attending the premiere of Dumbo. That's the magic we want for our ticket money and that's impossible for today's Disney to deliver. But, they have the talent to deliver something new if only they were allowed to.

I don't agree with the misguided comments of Katzenberger, Eisner, nor the Disney animator that declared that 2D animation had gone underground. Instead, I'm with Ralph Bakshi who has said that Disney perpetuated a con on the animation world by suggesting that they were the only ones who knew how to make an animated feature––that it had to be done the Disney way. And, at the very least we can forgive the original company for holding that attitude. They earned that right through an amazing period of artistry and innovation. But, that doesn't mean that I have to drink their Kool-Aid and give that same regard to today's Disney. However, I'm happy they have jobs and are making films. I wish them even bigger success than they enjoyed in the 1990s, all the while knowing that some of them couldn't care a fig about what was going on in animation outside their gates. See my point? They sure are hard to root for...

In the years between "Brother Bear," and "Princess and the Frog," despite 2D animation going underground, I didn't loose inspiration––thank you very much. And I don't measure my self-worth (or even the worth of the medium in which I work) based on what Disney is doing or how well they are doing it. I'm too busy trying to build something of my own, as are many of my NYC animation friends and heroes.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Smarts of Saldanha


Last week I went to a School of Visual Arts event: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs: An Evening with Director Carlos Saldanha. The young director, who began his education in the computer animation department at SVA, has directed a handful of successful features during his long time residency at Blue Sky. His career is of particular interest to me since we attended SVA at roughly the same time. Unfortunately we had never met because the traditional animation department never mingled with the computer animation department. And, at the time, a career doing animation on computers was the last thing I wanted to do. How ironic that I now make my entire livelihood staring at my trusty Wacom Cintiq.

But, what I could relate to were Saldanha's career stories. To start with, he moved to NYC from Brazil at age 16 to attend SVA. But, travel alone doesn't tell the whole story of his ambition. As a student and a teacher I can attest to some students that traveled half way around the world and had no more drive, passion, or work ethic than a piece of aluminum siding. But, Saldanha was different. His former instructor at SVA told us that while most students delivered 10 seconds of animation in the semester, Saldanha completed one and a 1/2 mintutes.

"I couldn't believe that there were thirty computers in that room and nobody was using them. Everyone would just leave at the end of class. If this room of computers was in Brazil, people would have been kicking and screaming to get in there," Saldanha recalled. With all those empty computer stations sitting around, he was able to network them together––allowing him to achieve better results out of the slow machines.

A student in the audience asked Saldanha if traveling to NYC had made the difference. Was it the secret to his productivity? "No," he answered. "It could have been the same story if I had come from the South Bronx. The point was that I had no access to computers and then I did." In other words, Saldanha was in that breed of student that appreciates the opportunity before him. He seized it, worked his ass off, and went on to achieve big things.

His next important career moment came when he was about to graduate. He had the opportunity to work at the big shops in Hollywood, but he saw something special in Blue Sky, which was then a fledgling studio. He saw the chance to grow with the smaller company, believing that it had great potential. "I wanted to be their soldier, helping them achieve their dream to do big things," he said. I love that Saldanha had a philosophy about where he wanted to work. So often, young graduates don't even dare think about where they want to work. Instead they simply look for any openings anywhere. And, obviously, in today's economy, you can't really blame them. But, it would be good to remember that when looking for your first break, it is best to start searching where you want to work. Who is doing the kind of work you'd like to be doing?

His final career story was how he got his first opportunity to direct. He had been animating on commercials for a while when a commercial came in with a lousy budget and schedule. Nobody else wanted to touch it, so Saldanha volunteered to direct the spot––fitting it into his already busy schedule and at no extra compensation. And, with that sample under his belt, he became a director heading down the road that would lead him to helm many successful features at Blue Sky.

As much as it is useful in a blog entry to simplify someone's journey into three career moments, it really isn't as simple as that. These are not a series of plug and play moments that anyone can graft on to his/her own career and expect the same result. But, if I had to boil down Saldanha's path to success I would say that he worked harder than anyone else and took fate into his own hands to help nurture (what would turn out to be) his most important opportunities.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Staying in the Game


There's nothing that can tell you where or when career opportunities will arise. Some times you're not ready for them and some times someone else will tell you you're not ready. In either case, there's something to be said for hanging in there (baby) and developing the skills that would have gotten you the job.

In 2004, when there were only a few weeks left to go on my job directing animation on "Blue's Clues," a friend gave me the tip that Scholastic had just organized their own in-house studio to handle a big series order of their new show "Maya & Miguel." The show's producer, who was from Los Angeles, had to quickly familiarize herself with New York's animation talent pool and staff the show from scratch. I got a cool reception from her at my interview because my digital animation experience wouldn't be useful for her X-Sheet-based traditional production model of sending all the animation overseas. She asked me if I had any experience with X-Sheets. I told her I had timed some sheets for a direct-to-video project at Michael Sporn's studio that had been animated out of house. How long I was assigned to the sheets? Three or four weeks, I replied. That wasn't enough experience, so instead she offered me the opportunity to take a storyboard test. In looking through the model packs of characters and backgrounds, and a sample of a finished board, I realized the job wasn't going to be a good fit. I didn't have the skills to draw the cinematic angles with complex perspectives that seemed to be in every scene. Slightly disappointed, I politely declined and thought that was the end of it. No harm done. It would be someone else's great opportunity.

After "Blue's Clues" ended, I was lucky enough to land a few months of freelance work right away. During that time a producer of an 11-minute preschool TV pilot rang me up and asked if I had any experience doing X-Sheets. Déjà vu. Not setting my expectations too high, I gave him the same answer I had given the "Maya & Miguel" producer, but in this case I was hired on the spot. The pilot turned out great and now I had 11 minutes of sheet directing to my credit.

A few months later, I got another call from "Maya & Miguel." Former MTV Animation producer Machi Tantillo had replaced the previous producer on the series and she needed help checking X-Sheets before the shows could be sent overseas. I was hired to check a half-hour episode and tried to go above and beyond what was asked. When I presented my work, series director Tony Kluck noticed my extra effort. He was particularly happy with the eyebrow and eye acting I had added. They gave me several more episodes to check and even offered me a full-time job as the show's assistant director. In the end, I didn't take that position (or a similar job on Scholastic's other series, "Clifford the Big Red Dog") because I accepted a directing position on a Flash series for Cartoon Pizza.

It was more than gratifying to go from being unqualified to qualified within a six-month period, and to know that I got there by hanging in there and proving I could.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Just on the Horizon


Leonard Maltin's "Of Mice and Magic" remains one of my favorite books ever written about animation. Where else can you read entire histories of the animated output of Famous Studios, Terrytoons, Columbia/Screen Gems, UPA, and so on. When Howard Beckerman assigned our History of Animation class this book, I had no idea that I'd end up reading it 25 times (no exaggeration) or that it would provide decades of inspiration as the most useful research tool in my library.

"Of Mice and Magic" leaves off in 1986 when the most recent news item was the success of "An American Tale." As hindsight shows us, just on the horizon was "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?," the '90s Disney renaissance, "The Simpsons," Nicktoons, Cartoon Network, the modern preschool explosion starting with "Blue's Clues," and the edgy groundbreaker "South Park" followed by the ongoing success of the Adult Swim line up.

In 1986's "Of Mice and Magic" Pixar is not even a gleam in John Lasseter's eye, nor is Lasseter even mentioned. Disney is the only company that can make a financially (or even creatively) successful feature with the possible exception "The Yellow Submarine." Dreamworks doesn't exist. There is no Bill Plympton, Don Hertzfeldt, Spike and Mike Festival, or MTV Animation…yet.

In the frozen-in-time end of Maltin's book, there are virtually no signs of hope that this second "golden age" was imminent. And, even when it began to arrive, as late as 1992, I still had instructors at SVA tell me there was no work available in animation. The 1986 "Of Mice and Magic" allows us to compare everything past, present, and future to what is considered The Golden Age of Animation, and while that standard of measurement will not go away any time soon, it is no longer the only comparison point. Now we have the 1990s animation boom to examine, which trickled into this decade despite the dot-com bubble burst, the terror attacks on 9/11, and the economic collapse.

We don't know what will create the next golden age, but our industry is stronger than it was in 1986. For one thing, Disney is no longer the only company that can make a successful feature. (In fact, it has something to prove with its upcoming "Princess and the Frog.") In 2009, the animated feature is now an institution, something as durable as the action film or the romantic comedy and usually out-earning both at the box office. On TV, even if you're not a fan of Seth MacFarlane's block of animated prime-time shows, they keep the public seeing animation "for adults" on a nightly basis. Programming is no longer limited to movies theaters and TV, and the internet is no longer just a place for free exposure. Atomfilms.com pays animators to make films it can distribute or broadcast on its website. I'm wrapping up a series of paid shorts made for an iTunes podcast. And, let's not forget the indie animated feature revolution; not only have individual artists such as Bill Plympton and Nina Paley made features, but low-cost animated features are also being made and distributed worldwide to theatrical release. Compare these factors to what looked possible in 1986 and you might conclude that we're sitting pretty for the advent of the third golden age.

But then again, "sitting pretty" is never the way to make something happen. Just because we chose to work in this industry doesn't entitle us to a smooth ride. Our livelihoods and career satisfaction are ours to make. We do this by being aware of the possibilities and taking our future into our own hands. The health of our industry does not live in the headlines of "Variety," it starts at your desk.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Limited Animation vs. Drawing Movement






Michael Sporn wrote a great post last week about limited animation and it got me thinking about my feelings on the subject. The limited animation I love (Dr. Katz, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, South Park) tends to rely on incredibly strong writing and/or soundtracks. When the right balance is struck, its hard to imagine these shows any other way. I certainly wouldn't want Dr. Katz to move like it was directed by Richard Williams. I don't need Dr. Katz to move at all.

My personal beef with limited animation began long before Flash came along. As an animation student, it was really disheartening to see so many of my classmates splitting their characters up into separate levels so they could do the least amount of work. Seldom did they split layers so to emphasize only one specific movement, which would be a justified use of the technique. They split up a character because it was a time-save, and it supplied the feeling that they were using professional studio techniques. After all, this was how commercial studio jobs were done, so why not work that way?

In the days of cel animation you could split up a character only so many times. After four or five cel levels a character would grey down the artwork so much that the scene could turn to mud. Now, when many think of 2D, they automatically think of Flash. In this program (or in any digital 2D animation program) we have unlimited layers. We can split up a character into a project or symbol that contains hundreds of individual bits of art. And this is the system that has taken over as the main way 2D animation is produced for TV and the web. And it's hard to argue with the economic benefits. Such a production system is ideal for both in-house and virtual studio production lines.

So what is my beef with limited animation? Or in particular, with most Flash animation? I find it incredibly dull to watch. There are no surprises. There's only a rigid character puppet made up of pieces that hinge at set anchor points. In short, when you animate with a puppet such as this, you are not only NOT DRAWING, you are specifically NOT DRAWING MOVEMENT. In worst of Flash animation, the animator makes poses and then adds mathematical tweens calculated by the computer. The result is as dull as it sounds.

The series of shorts that I'm making for Sesame Workshop requires me to work very quickly. I am completing each 30 second animated spot in one week's time. This breaks down into one day to build a storyboard animatic (including writing the spot!), one day to design the characters/background layouts, two days to animate, and one day to color/composite. With such a time crunch you could think that my only option would be to animate with Flash puppets, but I refuse to do so.

Instead, I draw everything directly on my cintiq. This saves a need for scanning and processing the scans. I draw in photoshop where I can select a nice pen tool that recreates the feeling of traditional drawing. And because I AM DRAWING, I can DRAW MOVEMENT. This means that I have a real shot at these spots looking visually exciting. When you draw, the process itself is spontaneous. Something magic can happen when you put pen to paper (or cintiq, in my case). I'm often surprised at the choices I make as I go. That keeps the process fun for me and on a fast paced schedule like this, having fun is very important.

Above are a set of stills from my latest Sesame Workshop film (background art by Adrian Urquidez). I cringe to think what the action would look like had I decided to use a Flash puppet. I really dig distortion in a character. I don't mind if a character goes off model as they move, since movement should be about a feeling (not a matter of mathematics). I wonder if the worst byproduct of all this Flash animation these days is that, through an emphasis on economy and ease, it encourages NOT THINKING. Maybe that's why my brain turns off when I watch it.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Carpe Diem!





During the last two or three years, the lack of consistent work among my generation in the animation industry has been, in some ways, good for us. Between the years of 1997 and 2006, many of my colleagues and I were continuously employed on long running series projects that offered comfortable working conditions, competitive wages, 401K plans, and health insurance. With any luck those good ol' days may come again, but until they do, there's no over looking how these times have transformed many of us for the better.

Take the loosely organized animators that make up the production team known as One-Stuck Duck as an example. These collaborators (comprised of Bob Fox, Chris Timmons, Michael J. Smith, Robert Powers, Claire Scholssstein, Jeremy Sawyer, and Christopher Conforti) have made three films to date with more projects to follow. Rotating directors per project, the rest of this team become that director's crew. I wonder if they would have gotten together to work on these collective indie projects had they enjoyed continued smooth sailing in the job market. Gaps between jobs (as well as the collapse of the Animagic studio and hostile conditions at other studios in town) might have proved an important incentive for these folks to take control of their own creative destinies. Instability has a way of doing that, encouraging the individual to look for answers within.

In the same vein, my friends Justin Simonich, Dayna Gonzalez, and Jason McDonald are enjoying new challenges and career milestones that may not have come their way during long term employment. Over a year ago, Justin Simonich (with Linda Beck), embarked on an groundbreaking documentary project covering the NY animation scene. Dayna Gonzalez added flash scripting for games and websites to her bag of tricks and entered a DC comics contest with art director Mike Lapinsky which, after winning a semi-final round, paid the pair to produce their Batman game. Jason McDonald took his love of all things zombie and channeled it into his continuing web comic My Living Dead Girl, winning international fans while developing his singular voice and vision.

The good years of milk and honey had the indirect result of making us comfortable and soft. Now that the economic conditions have changed so radically, the positive result might be that more of us get off our keisters and spend more time towards self-development. I can attest that the greatest break I had since landing my job at "Blue's Clues" occured when the series finally ended. On a series, you tend to work the same muscle over and over again. It was only after the safety net of steady work was pulled away that I had the flexibility of more time to develop other important skills.

Sure, I'd have a fatter bank account if "Blue's Clues" had continued, but I don't think I'd have proposed or written any books, developed and pitched as many projects, traveled to as many festivals, created as many indie films, or have had the chance to work in areas outside of preschool as I did on projects for Adult Swim and the Fox Network. My current freelance project (a series of 30 second films for Sesame Workshop, with backgrounds by Adrian Urquidez, shown in the four stills above), allow me to work as a writer, storyboard artist, designer, animator, and director. I can't think of a single long-term job that could compete with all that, but if and when I do, I'll be happy to entertain the offer. But, the real message is that the economic downturn has inadvertently created a renaissance of possibility for the individual. Carpe Diem!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

October Fests


The two top questions you get from friends and strangers alike at the Ottawa International Animation Festival are:
-What day did you get here?
-Do you have a film in the festival?

My answers to these questions were, "Wednesday" and "No." In fact, I've never had a film play at this festival. The film I entered this year was "Owl and Rabbit Play Checkers." When I went to the festival's children's shorts competition screening, I was watching the category where my film would have played had it been accepted. The children's films that tickle festival director Chris Robinson are far darker and experimental than my film. As a filmmaker, I find it very informative to see how a festival programs. My film would not have fit in with Robinson's vision for this category, and his taste is part of why it's worthwhile to attend the festival in the first place. Programming a screening is like arranging an important dinner party. One has to consider whom is sitting next to whom as well as the desired overall effect.

I thought the festival was superb this year, perhaps the finest of the six times I've attended. New Yawker's were very well represented with two of our own (Jake Armstrong and Steig Retlin) even scoring awards. Congrats also to the following filmmakers who had films in competition this year: Mike and Tim Rauch, Fran and Will Krause, Signe Baumane, Gary Lieb, Kristy Caracas, Tatia Rosenthal, and Jennifer Oxley. And, congrats to Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata for having their pitch proposal selected for the "Pitch This" competition in TAC (Television Animation Conference).

A special treat for me was finally seeing Paul and Sandra Fierlinger's grand new feature, "My Dog Tulip," which won the honorable mention award in the feature category. The husband and wife creative team were in attendance at each of their screenings where they graciously accepted handshakes and gushing compliments. I was very touched by their film, which continues the wonderful tradition of their intimate and intelligent previous works such as "Still Life with Animated Dogs," and "A Room Nearby." Paul reported that the Ottawa audiences received the film far more enthusiastically than had Annecy. On a personal note, Paul reminded me that I had a role in the making of "My Dog Tulip."

"You introduced Debra Solomon to us and one day she happened upon a financier who needed to find a director to make an animated feature. Debra thought of us and we got the phone call, which was a dream come true," Paul recalled.

I hope everyone gets the chance to see this special film. It paints a sophisticated relationship between its lead characters in such a simple, honest, and poetic way. It's a true animated masterpiece, providing what could be the best example yet of the animated feature film as a mature work able to stand alongside the best live action films. How often can we say that about animated features today?


While I have not had success breaking through with a film at Ottawa, when it comes to book signings I am 2 for 2. It was very gratifying that my panel event, "How to be Pitch Perfect in the Imperfect World of Development," was filled to capacity. Special thanks go to my stellar panel (pictured above courtesy of a photo by Richard O'Connor, who has a great 5 day coverage of the Ottawa festival at his blog): Eric Homan, Heather Kenyon, Fran Krause, and Linda Simensky. The conversation really seemed to jell and we got lots of feedback afterwards suggesting it was one of the best panel discussions ever presented at Ottawa. I began the event by half-joking that my book should have been called, "Self-Development," because that is the real message of the book. As an added bonus, my book "Animation Development: From Pitch to Production" sold out at the festival book table.

By the end of the week, I was exhausted from all the festival fun. As great as the screenings were, the best part of the festival is that it gives one the excuse to stop everything and hang out with good friends. I was very happy to enjoy time with Justin Simonich (who was also my roomie!), Chris Boyce, Dayna Gonzalez, Linda and Jeremy Beck, Glen Ehlers, Andy Kennedy, Sean McBride, Jessica Plummer, The Krause Brothers, The Rauch Brothers, Tatia Rosenthal, Jen Oxley, Doug Vitarelli, Linda Simensky, Heather Kenyon, Eric Homan, Birk Rawlings, Eunice Kim, Dan Sarto, Ron Diamond, Candy Kugel, Jake Armstrong, Kat Morris, Alan Foreman, Barry Sanders, Isaac King, Richard O'Connor, Liesje Kraai, Stephanie Yuhas, Susan Godfrey, Art Sir, Pilar Newton, James Murray, Celia Bullwinkel, Amid Amidi, Jerry Beck, and Janet Perlman.

But, my rest was short lived because a few days after Ottawa concluded, my wife and I flew to Chicago where I had two children's films ("Owl and Rabbit Play Checkers," and Iwanna Wanda in: "Don't Wanna Brush") in competition at the 26th Chicago International Children's Film Festival.

After our screening at The CICFF, Bob Charde (my co-director on "Owl and Rabbit Play Checkers") and I were asked to stand up for a Q and A. The kids (ages 2-5) asked:
-Do you like owls and rabbits?
-Why did you make this film?
-Why do they show movies in the dark?
-What day did you make this film?


The parents asked:
-Why can't we see quality children's films like yours on TV?
-How long did it take to make the film?
-What programs did you use to make the film?
-Is this the same theatre where Dillinger was shot?

Okay, I made up that last question. But, I am happy to report that two festival scouts from rival festivals tracked us down in the theatre lobby, inviting us to submit to their festivals. And, best of all, a children's book agent asked me if I'd like to represented by her agency. When you make a film you don't have a clue as to how it will be received or what good consequences might follow your efforts. So, it sure is nice when you get a nibble or two of interest.

I explained to the young audience (during the Q and A) that Bob and I make films to share with others and, although it takes a very long time to make a film, we know that at some point the film will be done and ready to present to an audience–– just as we were delighted to do this day. And, that's the most rewarding part of all.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Actionable Advice



One way I judge animation career advice is by asking, "Is it actionable?" In other words, "Can I use the advice for inspiration or (more importantly) to create a plan?"

I just enjoyed a nice lunch with some old friends, "Super Why" and "Blue's Clues" (both pictured above) co-creator Angela Santomero and her vice president of production and development Wendy Harris. That afternoon Angela gave me two nuggets of wisdom that helps define what is "actionable advice." When talking about the creative and business strategies of her company Out of the Blue Enterprises LLC, she explained how she "tries to stay out of her own way." I found this to be an important insight into how she might have accomplished so much. By understanding that she finds success if she stays out of her own way, she's showing awareness that success is hers to make. She's not at the mercy of the ever-changing entertainment industry climate. Instead she's going to do what she wants to do and the only thing that could possibly stop her is herself.

After that piece of actionable advice, Angela shared a gem of a story with me that is clearly planted in the inspirational side of the equation. She recalled how during the earliest stages in the creation of "Blue's Clues" she happened to show her development materials to someone and they told her it looked, "cute." She was aghast, responding, "This isn't cute. It's going to change the world." Of course, the word "cute," can be very complimentary but in this context it didn't begin to describe the vision Angela had planned for the series. Her aim was to change preschool television forever, and with hindsight we can see that she and her creative partners succeeded.

What I got out of her story was the personal passion one should have for their creations. It's not enough to create a product to order or simply with the insight as to what the buyers are looking for at the moment. The most important part of a pitch is that it represents something the creator is incredibly excited about. Once again, actionable advice from a very smart and successful individual. Thanks, Angela!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Perfection vs. Mistakes and Slickness vs. The Human Touch


I recently interviewed Bill Plympton for my next animation book. We were talking about directing when he revealed an important part of his filmmaking approach: "I love mistakes. Mistakes are cool. They add a personal touch." He continued, "I want to have a good time making a film, but when it's done I move on to something else and get the next one out there."

In other words, accepting mistakes is not only an integral part of Bill's filmmaking approach, it also allows him to enjoy the process and to be uber productive. He mentioned Richard Williams as his polar opposite, somebody who had sought to make the "perfect" film.

But, most of us animation people know that in the Mt. Olympus of Animation Heroes there is room for both approaches and everything in-between. There's lots of examples out there. Chuck Jones directed brilliant shorts with a very structured process that entailed him making most of the key drawings himself. Bob Clampett's approach gave his animators more freedom, inviting more spontaneity into the production. Both directors produced great work, the difference being that Chuck's method discouraged mistakes and Bob's method invited them inside and gave them a cup of coffee.

Cartoon Brew recently posted a collection of animated shorts made for They Might Be Giant's new children's music CD. Among them is a gem of a film called "Electric Car" (click title to watch video) made and directed by Ru Kawahata and Max Porter, a married couple working out of their home studio. Today, instead of discussing the pro or con of mistakes, it might be more relevant to phrase it as whether the human touch is visible or not.

On one hand there is the Pixar CGI model, which works to achieve a look that shows no traces of the artist's hand, even though some of today's best artists work on their films. This "perfection" has grown its own polar opposite and that can be seen in the type of low-fidelity work that Ru and Max are honing with their films. In their vision, the texture, warmth, and rough edges of cloth and cardboard are presented in all their charming glory. The end result is a celebration of 2D space along with the old school ways of adding depth through multi-plane levels. For more low-fi work of the highest quality check out any film by PES.

So pick your poison: mistakes or no mistakes, slick or low-fi. There's room for everything and we've only just begun to see ways that they might be combined for good effect.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Courage



What is the state of the animation industry in the Big Apple area? If we take the recent departure of Tom Warburton to L.A., Patrick Smith's acceptance of a long-term teaching post overseas, the soon-to-be heading west PES, and the smallest amount of series work in production since 1992, then this can leave one to conclude our recovery is still some time in the future. While it's easy to feel the loss of the three big talents named above, it's important to remember the large talent pool that remains. And, the good news is that one of our best and brightest has recently returned after spending a couple of years living in Europe. He comes back with a new film in the can and two more in production. Ladies and gentleman I am speaking of none other than NY animation legend, the Academy Award Nominated John R. Dilworth.

Many may know him as the creator of the terrific long running Cartoon Network series "Courage the Cowardly Dog," but more people should be aware of his wonderful independent films. My connection to John stretches (pun intended) back 17 years. We first met when he was the substitute teacher at my SVA Intro to Animation class, which was normally taught by John's sometime collaborator Mark Heller. It was 1992 and as a new student I had no idea who John R. Dilworth was. Looking very much like John Turturo, Dilworth zipped into class riding on a swivel chair and paddling the air with imaginary paddles. Needless to say, he got our attention. He ran his most recent cartoon, telling us that we were among the first to see it. It was called "Psyched for Snuppa," and featured characters written by Michael Pearlstein that would later be transformed into the series "Sniz and Fondue." That series would be animated at the Ink Tank and was featured on Nick's anthology show "Kablam!." But, the characters were never more alive and funny than when they were in John's hands. I thought the short was one of the most exciting pieces of animation I'd ever seen.

John was deep in his hero-worship of John Kricfalusi period. I guess "Johns" have to stick together. "Ren and Stimpy" was still a hot new show, and our class was just as excited about it. He showed us clips from the series and made us students analyze every creative element in the animation, right down to the soundtrack. It was the first time I had ever thought about every single ingredient that makes up a successful piece of animation and I have to admit that I was probably more intimidated by the exercise than I was inspired. After the two classes we didn't want Dilworth to leave and I made a silent pledge that I would show him the first animated film I completed at SVA to get his feedback. But, when that film proved a great disappointment to me, I chickened out.

My next encounter with John was two years later during my Junior year at SVA. Mark Heller had hired me to work for his then-partner in a stock footage company. The company regularly supplied stock footage to SNL, David Letterman, etc. Unfortunately, the boss turned out to be so erratic and irrational that he actually added a $50 bonus to my first check just for putting up with him! Yet, after one more week, I'd had enough abuse and I decided to give my notice to his partner, Mark Heller. When I arrived at Mark's place, John Dilworth was there to let me in. The two shared space in those days. Mark soon joined us and I ended up giving them both a blow-by-blow version of the horrible two weeks that led me to give my notice. John didn't say one word during my long story, but he listened to every word. When I was finally finished, John spun around in his chair and said, "Well after a story like that there's only one thing to say... (then he pointed towards the door and shouted) GET THE FUCK OUT!" Of course, he was kidding, and we all shared a good laugh. I left determined that I would show him my thesis film the next year to get his input at an early stage. But, again... I chickened out.

When I made my first independent films I was pretty headstrong about doing things my way, so thoughts of showing my works-in-progress to someone like John Dilworth was out of the question. He might change my idea, I worried (foolishly). Last week, John and I met for lunch at Molly's Pub (a favorite haunt of Howard Beckerman, for all you animation groupies out there), and after a long enjoyable lunch he asked me if I was working on any new films. I hadn't planned to talk about it, but on his prompt I told him the story of my next film, "Keisha Katterpillar." His eyes lit up and he immediately knew just how to improve it. His main suggestion was on the moment where Keisha clears her bed of stuffed animals––something she did thinking it might make herself grow up in a hurry. I was going to have her simply shove the dolls off her bed. John gently protested: "Would she really do that? Have you seen little kids and their dolls? Wouldn't she put them away very carefully and with great respect?" As soon as he said this I knew he was right. But, John wasn't finished, he also gave me a great idea to improve the ending, again coming from getting inside the character's head to find the most appropriate outcome.

I was blown away by John's ability to think this way. Sure, I knew he was brilliant. How could the filmmaker behind "The Dirdy Birdy," and "The Mousochist," not be brilliant? But, I hadn't been sitting across from him when he hatched those ideas. Watching John go through his thought process gave me even more respect for his gift. Upon returning home I made John's suggested revisions and sent him a copy of the animatic along with my design set-ups (shown above). This time I'm not going to chicken out. I'm going to show John every stage of this film and ask for his feedback. It took me 17 years to work up the courage (pun intended again!) to enlist John's advice, but as they say, "better late than never." And, if I may dare speak for the NY Animation community, "Welcome home, John!"

*ASIFA-East is planning an evening of John R. Dilworth shorts. Stay tuned for more details!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Why Ask Why?


At the New York panel event to launch my new book, Amid Amidi advised the audience to ask themselves, "Why do I want to have my own TV show?" It's an important question for any would-be creator to answer because your motivation can help determine whether or not you should expend your energies toward that goal. As creative people we have a choice of where to spend that most precious of resources—time. The options we have and the distractions that might pull us away are innumerable. But if we ask ourselves "why?" before beginning a creative project, we might find a clear reason to see the project through and eliminate all the other possibilities.

It's just as important that we ask "why" we want to make an independent film. I've made two films with the sole motivation of wanting others in the industry to take me seriously as a viable creator for a TV series. Not surprisingly these are my least successful films. Neither one connected with an audience nor did they win the validation I was seeking.

When I made the film "Good Morning," I wasn't setting out to make a breakthrough indie film, see it aired on Noggin or accepted into the Hiroshima International Animation Festival, but that's what happened with this heartfelt film. I was coming out of melancholy period in my life and something from inside drove me to make that film. When I started it, the film was only going to be something to share with my wife. The first eight seconds were animated while she was busy in another room and I couldn't wait to share this animation with her. Showing it to anyone else was an afterthought.

My wife recently made a film and had a similar experience. While she's a creative person with diverse talents, she wasn't planning on making a film, let alone a 50-minute documentary over a two-year production time, but that's just what she ended up doing. Why? What was her motivation to devote so many hours, days, and weeks, as well as pour personal expense into this project? And, what motivated her to stay the course through each thankless and unglamorous stage that stood between her and the finished film?

She hadn't set out to make this film or any other film. But, when she saw a couple of performances by the all-female sketch comedy group, and met with the group members she felt compelled to document them and their work. She didn't know what she'd end up with; it was simply something she wanted to do.

When I first saw her picture lock, it was a very emotional moment. Besides my personal connection to the filmmaker and her sacrifices to make this film, I was deeply moved by the experiences of the four members of the troupe. On the simplest level, it's the story of a group of creative people trying to reach a goal and how the industry—and life in general--can put up endless obstacles. At the end of such journeys, very few look back from the vantage of wild success, but as creative people there is victory in being in the game and in knowing that there is another project, film, or pitch in us.

[I'm thrilled that a festival audience will soon have the chance to see my wife's film, "Desperate for a Laugh" at its official world premiere at the 6th Annual Big Apple Film Festival (BAFF), taking place on November 3-7 at the Tribeca Cinemas in New York City. ]

Sunday, September 20, 2009

An old idea/A new film



*above images showing some emotional moments from my new film-in-progress.

One of the things I cherish most about working from home is that it allows me more time on personal independent projects. Right now I'm teaching a class at NYU called Intermediate Animation Production, and the goal is that students complete a one minute film over the 15 week term. Over the summer I got the idea that it might be fun to make my own film alongside the students. The weekly homework reviews would give me deadlines to hit and ensure that I'd have new finished film by December. I'm hoping the students get a kick out of giving me notes, too! And, I don't doubt that the feedback could prove instructional for the class as well as helpful to my film.

For the film, I selected an old idea of mine called Keisha Katterpillar. The simple story concerns the titular character's hurry to grow up and get her butterfly wings so she can be just like her older brother Karl. The catterpillar/butterfly scenario is well-traveled territory, but my approach is to focus on Keisha's resourceful imagination to show how she thinks her problem through to try and achieve (what we know is) the impossible. And, through Keisha's problem, show how her family comes together to be there for her.

It was very enlightening to revisit the old material. For one, there was a lot of extra dialogue and description in the script that I was able to trim (something that would have helped my last film!). Frequent readers of this blog will know that I'm a big advocate of self imposed rules on an independent film. Rules help speed up the process of elimination and this is important because what to leave out shapes what to leave in.

A couple of important rules immediately sprang to the surface as I prepared a storyboard. The first rule I made was to limit the film to four scenes or acts with only four backgrounds or locations. Although, I might change my mind, right now I'm thinking that there will be no camera work/pans/zooms, etc. And, no cuts either. I plan to animate the transitions between scenes and keep Keisha's position consistent in the bridge between each scene. This further emphasizes her as THE character. I also used a round window shape in the first scene to reappear as a bathroom mirror or family portrait in subsequent scenes. I'm hoping this repeating bit of the layout further helps further anchor the transitions.

I hadn't intended to make yet another children's film, but there is something in this story that is still calling to me five years later, so the timing seems right to give it a try. And, I've been encouraged by the success of my other recent children's films. In October I'm going to attend The Chicago International Children's Film Festival where two of my films were accepted into competition: "Owl and Rabbit Play Checkers," and Iwanna Wanda in "Don't Wanna Brush." The latter is my newest film made for a client who hired me after seeing my other recent children's film, "Good Morning." These children's films have been a joy to make, a major creative challenge, and have opened up a lot of great commercial opportunities. While nobody has an exact road map of what they should do next, I'm beginning to think that I'm spending my creative energies in the right place.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Commercial Calamity


During my research for a third animation book I'm writing, I came across this cautionary tale about a local commercial animation production. Commercials are one area of animation where I have almost no experience, and stories like the one below make me grateful for that.

An animator started on a commercial and (on the first day) discovered there was no storyboard, no animatic, and the animation director (a live action director that had never worked in animation) was out of town and out of touch. The problems that transpired in the days that followed are what you might imagine. There was no guiding vision for animators to follow. What they tried on one day would be overruled the next. And not only was there no process in terms of storyboards and production pipeline, the producer at the helm bowed to every client note and demand––pushing it all to the animators to pull off a miracle, at one point even asking them to re-animate the entire job from scratch in less than a week. And, best of all, no matter how many times the animators tried to explain their needs to the producer, he never once listened. I can't think of worse animation work-place scenarios sans physical violence or verbal abuse.

The above example is all the more shameful because the short turnaround time of an animated commercial greatly depends upon an efficient production process with all goals clearly defined to steer a crew to a proper finish. When the basic needs of the crew are ignored, they can't possibly do their best, and their morale will suffer along with the work. A commercial schedule does not allow for the luxury of time to sort this all out. A production has to have a running start and be fast reacting to any hitches along the way. Producers and Directors share a responsibility not only to the work, but also to the workers. Yes, the finished animated product must speak for itself, but the battles fought and lost by the crew in the example above are ones that need not happen in the first place. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel (which is itself a common production process mistake), this commercial job existed as if there was no such thing as a wheel. Somewhere a Geico caveman is crying.

I wonder how many producers or directors would admit to being the obstacle that they might be. If you are one of these producers, would you want a builder to build you a house without first making a blue print? Or to start building a frame without pouring a foundation? Would you want someone with no experience in plumbing to connect your toilet? Someone with no knowledge of wiring to ready your house for electricity? You get the point, right? So, if all these things are painfully obvious, how could you allow a production without a process? How could you ask a crew to start animation without an animatic? How could you ask them to animate without clear direction? And, how could you allow a client to give any note they wish at any stage of the production regardless to how it may impact the deadline or costs? How can you hire animators and animation artists for their expertise but, at the same time, ignore all their expert advice on how to make the production run smoother? And, how could you ask the animation crew to work with all these handicaps and pull off a miracle? Now go stand in the corner and think about what you've done.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Book Week


Note: above image was the logo from my first pitch to score a network deal.

We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore! That was the original title for my new book, but the publisher convinced me it might be a good idea to have the word "animation" in the title, and so it became "Animation Development: From Pitch to Production." And, since the book hits shelves on Tuesday September 8, it's much too late to change our minds.

In all seriousness, is there anyone among us who doesn't believe the system for pitching and development is seriously flawed? Even the development executives interviewed for my book know this is so, admitting that the way networks green light and develop animated ideas into pilots and series is too slow. Well, that's a start, but its certainly not the only problem. Not only is the process by which networks review and develop projects slow, it's also often expensive, wasteful, and rife with the wrong people in charge––giving the wrong notes, making the wrong decisions, and otherwise getting in the way of the process in any number of ways. Oy!

So what is the appeal? Why should anyone want to stick their head into the network lion's mouth and pitch a project? In the world of pitching and development, even the best scenario is filled with potential pitfalls. In 2007, I landed my first development deal for a preschool project I created called "Fiona Finds Out." It was sort of a preschool "Myth-busters," allowing the home viewer to learn and play along as Fiona (a pint-sized Owl with an inquisitive mind) and her friend Buster (a flighty bat who believes if it looks like a duck it's a duck, without waiting to see if it walks like a duck or sounds like a duck) debunked preschool sized myths such as: Is there a monster under my bed? Will I grow a watermelon in my stomach if I swallow a watermelon seed? Etc...

Despite what I thought was a no-brainer of a creation, the first pitch went terrible. Imagine my surprise when I saw that one of the development execs at the meeting was someone who had also created a pilot that year. Knowing how the network did business, this meant that if she were to green light my project it would put me in direct competition with her own pilot's chance to go to series. And sure enough, she worked hard to poke holes in my pitch during the meeting. Outside of her response, the rest of the execs weren't that warm to the project either. The pitch went over like a lead balloon.

For a couple of months the pitch just sat on the shelf, until I thought to show it another network. I emailed that network's development exec but was shocked to read her response. "I don't want to look at another network's rejects. I don't like being second banana. Why didn't you come to me first?" she asked.

As Charlie Brown might say, "Good grief!" I thought the exec was acting a touch irrational so I decided to write her back some words of reason: "I went to the other network first because I had a long term relationship with them. They rejected my project because they have very specific needs and I had created something outside of that box. I don't believe your network is second banana to anyone. Your network is the one that set the standard all the others follow. I hope you reconsider taking a look at my project. I'd love to show it to you."

Surprisingly, she wrote back immediately: "You're right. Sorry about that. Yes, I'd love to see your project."

I decided to email her all my pitch elements instead of sitting through another bad pitch meeting. A few weeks later she read my materials while on a flight and wrote, "I like this... a lot." She wanted to show it to her network president when he was in town later that month. I asked if she wanted me to be there for that meeting but she felt more comfortable just casually showing the project to the president on her own. I trusted her judgement.

Two weeks later she emailed with the great news that they were offering me a deal and wanted to put my project into shorts (or interstitial development) with the goal of making six shorts that could be aired in-between other programming, a sort of mini series that could test out the viability of my series. I was delighted and quickly engaged the services of a lawyer to negotiate the deal.

While we were waiting for the contract to appear I got a call from the network's L.A. office, where a different exec wanted to speak to me about my project. "I really like this and think it could be great."

I waited for the "but."

"But," (she didn't disappoint) it's a pass because we already have something like it going to series this Fall."

Very calmly I explained that I was confused because at this very moment a contract was being drawn up and my project had been green-lighted by a NY exec under the guidance of the network president. I could see her face grow scarlet even over the phone. "Oh, I'm so sorry. Please ignore this call. My mistake."

The NY-based exec (the one who had green lighted my deal) left me a voice mail apologizing up and down about the misunderstanding with the L.A. office. She assured me that we were still on and that a contract was underway. And, indeed it was. But, what a reminder about the trappings of development in the mean time! A creator's first lesson is to manage his own expectations, to proceed with each stage knowing that it's only real when it's real.

My lawyer negotiated a great deal for me and over the year-long first option period, I wrote all six scripts which were met with approval. My exec called on a Friday and asked me to start contacting some local studios so we could start getting bids on the shorts. We were going to start production soon. But, by Monday (as it so often happens) the wind changed and the same exec called with the bad news that they weren't going to make my shorts after all because the network didn't want a science-based series right now.

The roller coaster ride of this project was over and I appreciate it for what it was. For a year the network paid me very generously to further develop my project and write six scripts. Not a bad thing by any standard. And shortly after they axed my project, the same exec brought me in as a head writer to develop a subsequent series at a giant media company. Even when a project dies, there's still value to the experience––new career notches for the resume.

"Fiona Finds Out" was squashed before pilot but, it was but one opportunity. I'm not naive enough to believe that one day the networks' development processes will be foolproof. The entertainment business has always had its share of short sighted people, more afraid of losing their jobs by making waves than they are passionate to champion what might be the next big thing. But, so what? Somebody is going to breakthrough with the next "SpongeBob," "SouthPark," or "Simpsons," and that someone won't have been scared off by the seeming futility of it all. That someone could be you, and it is the key goal of my book to increase all our chances for a direct hit.

As long winded as this post has been, it's merely the tip of the ice berg on the subject. To expand the conversation, I invite you to join us on September 15, Tuesday at 7 PM at SVA, 209 E. 23rd Street, 3rd Floor amphitheater for a special panel discussion/book signing to mark the release of "Animation Development: From Pitch to Production," featuring panelists: Carl W. Adams (co-creator of Assy McGee), Amid Amidi (cartoonbrew.com), Janice Burgess (creator of Backyardigans), Fran Krause (creator), and Debra Solomon (creator). Hope to see you there!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Making a Living Versus Living


*Enjoying a movie at Notting Hill's Electric Cinema. This is the only way to see a movie...

My wife and I just flew back from a week in London and this is where I could write, "and boy are our arms tired." While we were planning this trip, some of my NY animation friends asked if I was going to set up any animation meetings while we were there. That was the furthest thing from my mind, but our trip was not completed unconnected to animation.

For one thing, our friend Sophie Lodge (a London-based 3D animator who animated on Peter Jackson's "King Kong," and "Return of the King,") lent us her flat which was smack in the middle of Knotting Hill. No, we never did bump into Hugh Grant but, we did see actor Josh Brolin at a screening of "Inglorious Basterds" at the neighborhood's Electric Cinema. The movie theatre is a restored 100 year old cinema with the seats ripped out and replaced with cushy individual leather armchairs. There's a full service bar, posh snacks, and terrific popcorn to boot. I highly recommend it.

This vacation was a chance for Debbie and I to be tourists and catch up with our friends Sophie Lodge, Steve May, and Yasmine Ismail, all animators who we had first met at the Hiroshima International Animation Festival the year before. But, the week long trip did not devolve into a 7-day shop-talk. We are all friends first and connected by animation second. And, Debbie and I were deeply grateful for their hospitality and generosity. With their advice (along with the recommendations of Justin and Emma Simonich) we took a boat ride up the Thames to Greenwich, explored Kensington Gardens, wandered the British Museum, walked through the creepy and claustrophobia inducing Sir John Soane's museum, stared history in the eye at the Tower of London, and dashed around the tube using our multi-ride Oyster cards (their version of the MTA's metro-card).

We also traced the steps of Jack the Ripper in White Chapel (where we enjoyed Indian food and the London take on the Bagel– spelled Beigel), had amazing Thai food in Notting Hill, and walked the bustling Saturday market at Portobello Road. And, to top it off, we rode the London Eye, filled our mouths with fish, chips, bangers and mash, and washed it down with more hard ciders than you could shake a stick at (Assuming that some like to shake sticks at their drinks.)

But, back to the assumption that this trip would include official animation meetings. I think that suggestion says a lot about us animation artists. We are a lucky lot. Even our getaways might be thinly veiled excuses to set up meetings, pitch projects, and otherwise network. For many of us, animation is more than just what we do for a living. It's much deeper than that. It's a passion that doesn't die at the end of the work day. But, while this may be true much of the time, it shouldn't be so all of the time. As Nina Paley said in a quote from my first book, "There's making a living, and there's living." So, to paraphrase Nina, not everything is animation. Either way, when you work in the creative arts, your personal experiences become a part of you that will come out in your art.

We had an interesting experience taking in the play "A New World–A Life of Thomas Paine," at the famed Globe Theatre. As Americans it was a bit odd to be sitting with a mostly British audience and seeing a recreation of the American Revolutionary War, including such shouted lines as, "The hated British!" It was like being privy to a mirror view of American history that we wouldn't normally see. The focus of the play was not the great success of a noble cause but on how Paine's idealistic notions were exploited by the American rebels and later, the French revolutionaries, to serve their own causes.

But, sadly, the play managed to take all this history and make it a very dull ride. There were bright moments (in particular a wonderfully full blooded Ben Franklin) but, the problem was that this Paine was a one note character who could not sustain the four hour ride. According to the play's author, Paine ate liberty for breakfast, freedom for lunch, reform for dinner, and compassion for dessert. I wondered, did Paine ever play cards, go fishing, speak on other topics besides changing the world? Near the end of the trip I began to read Bob Dylan's autobiographical "Chronicles: Vol.1" (2004), and at one point, Dylan notes that nobody ever wrote a song about Al Capone because he was a one-note character in real life and not full of the nuances needed to make a good subject for a folk song. The animation equivalent of this problem would be to think that to design a character is the same as writing a character.

The "living" that Nina Paley speaks about is why one can connect and be enriched by such things as travel, theatre, and literature––three things one might miss if everything is animation.