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.


Elliot Cowan said...

I'm not sure if this is a story about developing your skills so much as it's about fickle producers.

I'm sure you would have done a fine job the first time around.

David B. Levy said...

Howdy Elliot,

I'm certain I could have handled the X-Sheet work the first time around, but I didn't have the experience that the first producer was looking for. If I had that experience, she could have trusted me. Each producer is an individual and will have a different set of criteria on how to judge experience. But, I appreciate your vote of confidence!

Elliot Cowan said...

You should have just lied the first time : )

Michael Sporn said...

You'd been animating at Blues Clues and you had animated for me. Isn't that enough to prove you could do X-sheet timing? It sounds like the producer needed more experience. Good for Machi to recognize what she needed.

roconnor said...

I am compelled to comment that those characters are horrifying.

Is it safe to assume you recoiled at the first interview and understated your ability so you wouldn't be stuck with them?

David B. Levy said...

Hi Michael,
I agree that those experiences should have been enough, but I also sympathize with the producer who did not know the NY talent pool. That couldn't have helped my case.

Maya and Miguel, design-wise, were not really my cup of tea. And, you have to wonder if it was any artists' cup of tea. But, it provided work for two years for many good folks. But, creatively, it always seemed like a committee created show (which it was) and that just can't be overcome by even the best writers or artists. Still, all things considered, the show turned out very watchable, and I did enjoy my work on the episodes.

Joseph Giardina said...

Dear Mr. Levy,

I stumbled upon your blog while doing a random google search, and it has reminded me of your book "Your Career in Animation", which played a huge roll in helping me land my first artistic job. Now, three years later, I've dusted it off and I plan to give it another read. I am excited to have found your blog and I look forward to reading old posts, and new ones. Thank you for taking the time to write, your work has helped me get through good times and bad.