Sunday, January 25, 2009

"The Wisdom of Warburton" or "The Art of War-burton"

Today's post is so special, it required two titles. Additional titles sold separately. Collect them all.

One of the most important bits of wisdom I picked up came from Tom Warburton. It fell at out of his pocket while he was tying his shoes. Today, most know Tom as that lovable rogue who created Codename: Kids Next Door or as that funny guy who hosts the ASIFA-East animation auction every two years. Others may know him as that guy who owes me two bucks.

So, what bit of wisdom did I borrow from Tom? Early in his career, while working at his first job at Buzzco Associates, Inc., Tom got involved with ASIFA-East and decided to write a series of articles for the ASIFA-East newsletter spotlighting local studios and animators. To this end he had to contact lots of animation folks he hadn't yet met. By writing these articles, he not only enriched the newsletter and its readership, he also put himself in the position of fostering new relationships in the community. No doubt these relationships offered him insights and inspiration he might not have had without them. As we know, Tom turned out pretty well, so I can't help but assume that his formative years with ASIFA-East (and those articles) were part of his career cocktail. And, it doesn't hurt my theory that Tom admitted this to me himself. Achem.

While no one can follow any one set of instructions or advice and be guaranteed the same result, the same opportunities are certainly open to anyone. My time on the ASIFA-East board opened up countless opportunities, including the introduction to Blue's Clues through board member Nancy Keegan. There are lots of new faces on our board of directors as of late, and the smart ones will stick around and find their own unique ways of making a contribution that may serve the community, ASIFA-East members, and their own destinies.

The important thing to note is that building relationships (by volunteering with ASIFA-East or not) is not something one just does in the first years of a career. Its something you work at each and every day. In a similar way to Tom's ASIFA-East articles, my books have forced me into contact with numerous creators and executives I wouldn't have otherwise met. In fact, I start supervising animation on an animated prime time network pilot next month, which was created by someone I interviewed in my upcoming book on Allworth Press, Animation Development: From Pitch to Production.

These are tough times. We lost a lot of studios in the last year. But, I hope its a comfort to know that networking and relationship building are always within our grasp, no matter what the industry throws at us. As creative people, there's no reason we can't also be creative in how we network. There's no single way to do it. One only has to be true to themselves and be willing to put themselves out there while remembering that its a two-way street. Of course, you have to remember to move your car on alternate side of the street parking day.

The best and most effective networking is mutually beneficial. Note how Tom's articles for ASIFA-East offered deserved recognition for its subjects while helping its author plug in to the local scene and expand his own horizons.

One of the killer networking events in town each year is the KidscreenSummit, which is at the midtown Hilton February 11-13. Networks and production companies specializing in animation send delegates to this summit every year, but the price tag of attendance makes it prohibitive for the local animation community to come out in droves. I've been trying to do an event with the Summit for years now but, to no avail. This year I finally got smart and suggested a Q and A event with Tom Warburton, and Kidscreen jumped on it. Details below:

Cracking the Code—A chat with Codename: Kids Next Door creator Tom Warburton
February 12, 2009 - 4:30 PM to 5:15 PM - Find out what makes one of the industry's top toon talents tick. Kids Next Door creator Tom Warburton talks candidly with David Levy about his creative process, the realities of producing six seasons of a series, collaborating with network execs, maintaining your artistic vision, pitching effectively and much more. He'll also open up about his newest projects-rumor has it he's awaiting the release of his first kids book and has a pilot in production for Disney.

In conclusion, It will be fun to share the stage with Tom and probe the brain of a man who owes me two bucks. After tense negotiations with the Warburton camp, I conceded that would also accept a single ride metro card as payment. Find out what happens at this thrilling event. Until then, to wet your Warburton appetite, why not check out his bodacious blog at ?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Breakfast with Shamus

When it comes to all-time treasures of New York animation, Shamus Culhane is high on the list. I'm sad to say that the only time I met Shamus he was wheelchair bound and in the last months of his life. The occasion was at Jerry Beck's gala 1995 event to celebrate Famous Studios. In the mid to late 1960s, Shamus had briefly headed up Famous Studios before the torch was passed to Ralph Bakshi shortly before the studio folded.

Howard Beckerman was kind enough to introduce me to Shamus. I remember I had to lean in close to hear him- so weak was his voice at the time. I complimented him on his Woody Woodpecker cartoons. "Ski for Two" is my favorite Woody Woodpecker cartoon," I reported. "Everyone only wants to know about my Woody Woodpecker cartoons," he replied, before he asked me if I'd read his books. I explained I hadn't, but promised that I would buy them straight away. I kept my promise and soon bought a copy of his first a book, a memoir of his days in animation called, Talking Animals and Other People.

There's bits in the book that have never left my head, such as:
-Shamus's notion that the union squashed work opportunities in NY and were actually destructive to the local industry. Not to mention his on-going war with union business manager Pepe Ruiz (who at age 86 was run over and killed by singer Wilson Pickett!). Real life is always stranger than fiction!
-The huge pay cut he endured to snag a job at Disney at which he had to virtually start over from scratch and be trained with the latest crop of newbies coming out of art school.
-The time he had to confront an animation saboteur who was hiding his work at the Ub Iwerks studio.
-His bizarre description of working with "Three Little Pigs" director Burt Gillette at the Van Buren studio in NY.
-His rise to heading up his own million dollar animation studio in NY in the 1950s, which banged out tons of commercials in NY's golden age of Advertising. Mad Men, anyone?

Now, bear in mind that I first read this book at the height of my Marx brothers mania. Knowing the time Shamus was active, I wondered if there would be any Marxian encounters in the book. Imagine my surprise and delight when Shamus casually mentions that he was married to Maxine Marx, the daughter of Chico Marx! Wowsa!

The main impression I had at the end of the book was what a survivor Shamus was. And, we need survivor stories now-a-days more than ever. Shamus is long gone, but he lives on through his memoir. I liked to read it over a bagel and coffee, calling it my "breakfast with Shamus." I think I'm due to read this book for the fourth time. There's plenty of room at the breakfast table. Won't you join us?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Joy of Animation

Animation bloggers spend much of their time touting news, analyzing industry trends, spotlighting unsung artists, or preserving the past. My mission has been to discuss all-things-NY-animation, but I just as often share strategies on how to build a career in this unusual business. Along the way, my blogging buddies and I, tend to overlook one elemental thing: the joy of animating.

For me the joy in animation comes from animating ordinary moments in a character's life. For instance, in my new children's film, Rabbit reluctantly agrees to keep his promise to Owl and sit down for a game of checkers. In the pilot I'm currently animating and directing for a client, a little girl breaks a crayon in frustration and then walks out of scene dejected (see above stills pulled from the film).

I think the indie filmmaker has a better chance at bringing some truth to life than an animator that just makes the occasional animation test or sample for a reel. When you make a such a sample scene for a reel, its largely a technical exercise. You might animate some lip synch, or a walk, or a special effect. But, when you have the burden of an entire film, complete with smaller connecting scenes, you are forced to confront smallish moments.

Neither of these scenes are dripping with high octane action. There's no epic sword fight, battle with a dragon, or robot space war. Instead, these are ordinary moments, which (as an animator) I hoped to imbue with insights into the characters, revealing their thoughts, feelings, and motivations. That's the joy of animating for me. And, its in these ordinary type of scenes that live the potential to really bring a character to life. Everything about these little scenes interests me. For instance, I love figuring out what part of the character should lead the action and how that choice reveals how the character is feeling. Or, where to place a blink. Everything is choices. In other words, what to leave in...what to leave out, as Bob Seger sang in his hit song, "Against the Wind."

As I see it, an animator has a responsibility to their characters...and this is something that goes well beyond the ability to keep a character on model. In my film "Owl and Rabbit Play Checkers," the characters go on and off model at times, but they are always "in character." Their animation is always informed by character. I am wagering that in this film, that is more important than technically perfect drawing. And that comes in handy for me because I can't do the technically perfect type of drawing anyway. Long ago I stopped caring what the reason was: Either I don't have the talent for it, or I'm just not interested in it. Perhaps its a little bit of both.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Your Legacy and Mine

In trying to unlock what it is that makes the New York animation scene so special, it occurred to me that this city (both today and in its checkered past) happens to house most of my animation heroes. Starting out, my animation heroes were as generically typical as anybody else's. It started and ended with Disney, the original self-made man of animation.

Each year I tell my SVA career class that they will soon be meeting the true heroes of their career. These will be the individuals that act as mentors, guides, and sources of boundless inspiration. Most importantly, these are the people that may give you your first breaks and/or career expanding opportunities. The most important heroes are ones that become a part of your life.

This situation should not be any different whether you are based in Hollywood, San Francisco, or Toronto. However, there's a key difference that separates New York's animation heroes from other animation hub cities. In New York, there's a far greater chance you'll meet diverse heroes––distinguishing themselves in any number of creative areas. Take your pick. The tops in children's books? Mo Willems. Successful TV cartoon creator? Mr. Warburton. Giant CGI feature studio founder? Chris Wedge. Flash animation industry leader? Aaron Augenblick. Oscar winner? John Canemaker. World's most celebrated indie animator? Bill Plympton. Internet cartoon pioneer? Xeth Feinberg. Animation historian/author? Amid Amidi. Breakthrough indie animated stop/motion feature director? Tatia Rosenthal. The list goes on and on.

From the moment I graduated SVA, the culture of New York animation effected me in a profound way. I was as frightened as anyone who ever graduated from a four-year animation program. But, from the moment I got my first break (courtesy of Mr. Michael Sporn), I began to interact with people who were scoring Oscar nominations, making internationally recognized indie animated shorts, pitching shows, writing scripts, creating hit cartoon series, illustrating books, running their own studios, and traveling from festival to festival on the strength of their films or career achievements.

I can only imagine how different it might have felt if I had been in Hollywood. There, it seems the dream is to become as good as possible to secure a position on the best productions in town. The dream there is to be part of a history of craft where creating quality content is somebody else's job. In New York, we have the benefit of working on industry projects while keeping one foot in our own content creations. In Hollywood, this would be the exception to the rule. In New York, its in the oxygen.

How could that not influence me? How could I not dare to try making a few contributions myself? The opportunity is here, folks. Although I'm only 35 years old, I can look back and see heroes of a generation coming up behind me (The Rauch brothers, anyone?). While that can be a little unnerving, it also re-energizes me to continue onwards and upwards on my own projects. This weekend I just locked picture on my new six minute animated film, "Owl and Rabbit Play Checkers." I wouldn't have had the audacity to even pretend to be a filmmaker without the heroes of New York's animation past and present cheering me on. What company we keep. Sounds like a legacy to me.

Speaking of legacies, two of New York's animation's finest, J.J. Sedelmaier and Howard Beckerman (with support from Blue Sky Studios) have curated a very special exhibit on New York animation called "It All Started Here!" (see illustration/invite above) Start the year by taking a step into your own checkered history. And, its FREE!!! I hope you'll come down and show your support at the January 17, opening reception. I'll see you there!

Click below for more information on this special exhibit: