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.

-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.

-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.

-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.

-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."

-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.

-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."

-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.

-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.

-Amid Amidi, one half of, 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.

-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!


David B. Levy said...

Haha, glad you liked it, Dayna. I suppose I'm calling it at a glance because there are so many other projects, series, and individuals that could be mentioned, but I tried to stick with milestones. It wasn't easy! : )

Elliot Cowan said...

Best post of the decade!

Nina Paley said...

Amazing work, Dave.

For me, a significant story of the New York animation scene in the 2000's was the Steve Dovas tragedy. Hard to write about, since opinions vary in the community and mysteries abound. I hope Steve publishes a memoir!

Wickwise said...

Very well put together, Dave! For a a person who only entered this industry in 2006, this provided a lot of interesting context.

One additional thought- I noticed you didn't mention much about Little Airplane... their wrapping production on two full blown series within months of each other could be considered a big story of 2009, though that is of course depending on whom you ask :) Either way, thanks for putting this together... now I know what was happening in the real world while I was learning walk cycles!

David B. Levy said...

Hi Sarah,
I did list Little Airplane as having dominated, starting from 2004, for the next five years. So, that implies that the studio was busy with multiple projects without me having to list them each and every year. When you are doing a "at a glance" list, that's one of the ways to avoid being too repetitive.

Mike Rauch said...

Really enjoyed this Dave! Gives great perspective for someone like myself who missed the better part of this decade in NY animation.

It's an exciting time to be here, and I'm looking forward to the next 10 years!

Wickwise said...

Yes, I noticed that too... hence my saying that the importance of mentioning them further "all depends on whom you ask"... my individual perspective being skewed from having spent 2/3rds of my working life thus far there. You encouraged commenting with additions/suggestions, so there was my little attempt o_0

In any case, certainly looking forward to the next year's worth of bullet points! May a new era begin!

David B. Levy said...

True, true, Sarah. Perspective is everything. Mine is as skewed as any, although I tried to be as inclusive as I could.

And, Mike... when folks like you and Tim arrive, its sometimes hard to imagine that you weren't already part of the scene. I love that about our community. Great talented folks just jump in and any time, always serving to give the NY scene a creative jolt in the arm. Love it!

Ben Price said...

Nice compilation David. Actually MTV Animation's headquarters was in three locations during the last decade: first in Time Square at 1515 B'way aka the Viacom building, then Columbus Circle and finally 1633 B'way.

Andrewk said...

Thanks for the recap... even though I felt like losing my lunch over most of these. I was one of the victims of one of these more unfortunate turn of events, and my past year has never been any better. What happened happened. Now we should just focus on preparing for how we can get control over our future.

David B. Levy said...

Hi Ben,
Thanks for the tip. I wasn't aware that MTV first set up in 1515 B'Way. Blue's Clues was moved to that space for a year and a half as well before landing back at 1633.

David B. Levy said...

Hi Andrew,
Sorry that you were on the wrong end of one of these bullet points. I'm sure that was a big blow. I'm familiar with your great work. You've got a great reel! Hang in there.

stephen said...

the next decade is the decade things get awesome! it's going to take at least two posts to recap. said...

Really great and fascinating post Dave - looking forward to your next wrap-up in ten years time.

Glad to see Asterisk mentioned, they really do fine work. Personally I would add Greg Ford into the mix, his dedication to the artform is quite amazing.

David B. Levy said...

Hi All,
Some additions were added based on your suggestions:
2 Art for TV, One Stuck Duck, Greg Ford, Little Airplane 2009 production wraps.

Mike Rauch said...

@Stephen - Agreed!

I think the tough economic times we're going through (along with technical and other advances in the art form) are laying the groundwork for a creatively interesting decade ahead.

tdgasek said...

What a great history lesson Dave. This will be required reading for my NYC Spring workshop students from RIT. We're all looking forward to learning more from you. A quick note . . . I believe that Adam Pierce and his company Charged produced a pilot for Glenn Martin DDS in 07-08 but alas that migrated off to Canada for production. Thanks Dave!

Michael Sporn said...

Was all this going on while I was well protected by my four walls scratching my finger nails in search of work? Oh, my. Oh, my.

Thanks for putting together proof that there is an animation community in NY - mostly 2D.

We have to get together more often so that it's more of a community. The ASIFA party once a year isn't enough.

Doug Vitarelli said...

I would put in your list the plethora of new boutique commercial studios that have appeared on the scene since 9/11. Since then I have freelanced at over 30 studios in NYC and that isn't even half the number that has or still exists. And, I believe, for commercial work NYC was the place to be.

While LA, Toronto and London studios are our competition almost every major commercial studio has a presence here confirming the vitality and creativity of our Big Apple.

That was the story of the aughts for me.

robert k. said...

That's a wrap! Thanks for a decade of Dave.

Happy 2010!

Unknown said...

Nice look at the past decade. Had no idea that so much had been going on.

Alisa said...

Quite a list! One note, the spelling was actually Katbot (original, I know.)

Also, I'm surprised there's no mention of Flickerlab. They tend to fly under the radar but have employed a number of talented artists over the years. They animated several episodes of Tek Jansen for the Colbert Report before it was cut out of the budget. In 2008 Flickerlab re-branded Hooked on Phonics for a new generation and also did the initial designs for the ill-fated Nate the Great a few years back.

Just thought I'd give them a shout out. Best in 2010, Dave!

Andrewk said...

I can say the same thing about Flickerlab. They do good work too! They also produce the graphics and animation TV spots of A&E's network!

David B. Levy said...

ASIFA-East is doing an event on Jan 19 to spotlight FX and CGI studios in the city. You are right that they should be included. I'm glad ASIFA-East can help play a part in that introduction.

Good call on Flickerlab. I think with my focus on series studios, it slipped by my radar. I'll add them to a future update.

Hopefully ASIFA-East can host another holiday party next year. That would be ideal, to have two big social gatherings per year. Outside of that, we usually end up at a bar after regular ASIFA events.

Dagan Moriarty said...

Thank you for this thoughtful and thorough recap, Dave! :)

Reading that was like going back in time for a few minutes...Some stuff I had actually experienced, and some things I had forgotten. We all had a busy decade here in NYC, for sure!

Happy New Year Dave and NYC animation familia. See you cats in 2010. Here's to a great 12 months ahead! ;)

The Accidental Misanthrope said...

Surprised not to see 4Kids Entertainment in the NY chronology. At its height in the middle of the last decade, it was churning out 3 full blown original animation series.