Monday, April 27, 2009
Cult of Personality
***Photo by Elliot Cowan. Left to right: me, Linda Beck, and Tim Rauch. Deeper in the background are Willy Hartland and Ray Kosarin. From drinks after the ASIFA event.
ASIFA-East's Linda Beck just put together a panel on the State of NY Animation, and you can read Katie Cropper's tidy summary of it at the ASIFA-East exposure sheet blog at www.asifaeast.com. The panel discussion was moderated by Linda Beck and featured Howard Beckerman, David Wachtenheim, Steve Connor, and myself.
Howard Beckerman was his usual charming self and to record all his wisdom here would be impossible. I will say that he was a calming voice of reason, giving us example after example of how this has all happened before. He also shared some of his strategies for surviving in this fickle industry, reminding that when one door closed another always opened. In other words, when theatrical cartoons dwindled TV commercials appeared to pick up the slack.
Steve Connor pragmatically suggested that everyone devote their efforts to making solid work on schedule and on budget and how that alone can help keep projects flowing in the Big Apple. He also suggested that even independent projects could be planned out with a better process that could be applied to making the same project with a larger crew should the project grow to a series.
David Wachtenheim (of Wachtenheim/Marianetti) eloquently spoke of shrinking budgets and less commercial work floating around these days. He worried about the perception of clients, that there's a kid in his living room somewhere that can do the work cheaper and at a "good enough" quality.
After the panel, fifty of us headed over to grab drinks at a nearby bar. While I was munching on a burger, Katie Cropper and I were discussing the evening. She told me that my message of "make things happen, make your own luck, and work on your own projects," suited my personality. "It's natural for you to do that," she said. And, this made me wonder just how much personality weighs in to a career. Although I would caution that what one does well often appears to others as if its effortless or simply natural.
No two of us are hard wired the same way. And, I think too many of us are at the mercy of our own harmful thinking. At the panel, I explained that I don't give much thought to what is going on in the economy and how it might effect NY animation. Instead, I am aware (as Howard Beckerman kept pointing out) that NY animation has always had its ups and downs. My focus is to only worry about what I can control. Therefore, I make films, I pitch shows and children's books. I look out for interesting work opportunities and am careful to nurture relationships that often lead to more work.
During the panel, I told the audience that I tried to follow a smart plan as an at-home freelancer. In my current pair of freelance gigs for Sesame Workshop, I am sure to check in with the client on a regular basis to give them updates on the status of the work. Recently, they had an internal meeting to change the creative direction on one of the jobs. The producer gave me the choice of coming in for the meeting or just getting an update afterwards. For me, there was no choice. Of course I wanted to be at the meeting! Not only would attending the meeting allow me to get on the same creative page with the group, but it would also be a chance to meet with another set of folks from Sesame Workshop. I want to be more than just an anonymous freelancer uploading and downloading work. I understand that relationships are important to getting future work.
How much of this is based on personality and how much of this is just ol' fashioned common sense? I think it weighs heavier towards common sense. As if to provide the opposite to my story above, I heard of another animation artist who scuttled his working relationship with a new client after he came in for a meeting and then decided to bill them for it. This instantly caused a squabble and this artist was told that if he kept the charge for the meeting on his bill, they would pay it, but would not work with him again. The artist chose to be paid and kissed the relationship goodbye. Subsequently another artist got the job and worked on that particular project for almost a whole year. The industry will have its up and downs, but the greatest risk we face is making our own personal droughts.
Each of us IS different, but better sense can be adapted by all. Personality helps and hurts in different turns and factors in to what jobs are the right and wrong fits for us. For one of my long-term flash series directing jobs, I later found out that the producers also interviewed another experienced director who had several flash series to his name, while I had none. The producers told me that they didn't hire him because he was too much of a football coach personality, while I was mellow and non-threatening. My personality helped me win that day, but this "football coach" director has continued on with his own great career. Clearly, he's a great fit for many employers, football coach-style and all.
Good sense and sound judgment can be learned, but only if a person is open to learning from their own mistakes. A closed off person with an old-school "the producers or client is always out to screw me" attitude is not going to get far. And if they do get far, they will have had to be the most talented person in the room. That's not an option available to me, so I've always pushed other skills, learned other lessons, and kept applying them forward. The mistakes I've made can fill a book (actually, three!), which only proves that mistakes don't have to be career-killers, unless we decide that they are.
Furthermore at the panel discussion, some wondered what will happen as India and South Korea (and others) gear up to build strong animation industries. "They're going to take our jobs," many worried. I say, that's only possible if there's such a thing as "our jobs." I argue that there is NOT. There are no agreed upon jobs that are ours for the taking or that can be reserved for us like a rental car. Not on an individual level, nor a city-wide level, nor a national level. We have to reach out for those jobs...to create them ourselves. There's no such thing as entitlement. Just because we decided to be journeymen animation artists doesn't mean the industry owes us squat. This can be empowering if you let it. That's how I think. Who can say I'm wrong? It's my view of the universe and it holds true in my own head, and it helps me survive and navigate this difficult industry.
Some in the audience bemoaned NYC animation as primarily a preschool animation city. And, while many of the series have been preschool shows, there have also been older kids shows made here such as Sheep in the Big City, Codename: Kids Next Door, Kappa Mikey, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Doug, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There has also been a batch of "adult" or animation for tweens in the form of Beavis and Butthead, The Head, Celebrity Death Match, Daria, Downtown, Fridays, The Venture Bros., Super Jail, Assy McGee, Gary the Rat, and This Just In. This city is what we make it. If your goal is to make animation for a different audience, then the ball is in your court. If you succeed, it may not change the perception of NY animation over night, but it will be a step in a different direction. Everything is a first until it isn't. Feature animation was not a reality in this country until Disney made it happen. No British rock band had ever broken through to the American market until The Beatles. The first one through the door has a tendency to leave the door open for what comes next.
Don't get me wrong, I don't have solid plans myself. I never have. I don't assume to know what I will be able to accomplish. I have assorted goals, but none of them have expiration dates on them. So, the only direction I have in my career is that I am going after my goals. Each day I work towards achieving them. And, I don't look at external obstacles as my problem. In my own head, the state of NY Animation is a perpetually a green traffic light.