Monday, February 23, 2009

Far and Near

I have been working outside of the "studio system" in NYC animation since 2007. I have not worked in-house at any studio in the last two years, although I've been consistently working as a freelancer from home. I thought I didn't necessarily choose this path, but, then again, maybe I did. Thinking back, I didn't apply for any of the mass studio jobs that employed many of my friends and colleagues in this two-year period. During this time, there were in-house staff jobs to be had on such series as The Venture Brothers, Little Einsteins, Wonder Pets, Third and Bird, Super Jail, Team Umi Zoomi, (the short-lived) Nate the Great, and Word World.

All these series put together created up to 400 jobs for animation artists and I didn't apply for a single one of them. I can't fully explain why that is. Maybe it was time to get out off that path? While I enjoy many of the series listed above, I didn't see myself working on them for a variety of reasons. It just worked out that at the end of my last studio job at Nick digital I got the opportunity to work remotely, directing Assy McGee while working from home.

Nobody has a crystal ball to guide them in their career. Opportunities happen your way, sometimes by chance and sometimes grown from your work/reputation, but, the ones that are the right fit are the ones that you have made yourself ready for. When I began this current period of working from home, I had no way of knowing that the NY animation scene (and the economy itself) was about to be in deep trouble. It turned out that it was a good time to have diverse clients, to not have to depend on NY animation in-house staff positions as the sole source of one's livelihood.

Since 2007, my employers have been based in L.A., San Francisco, Boston, and in New York City. This has been a key component of my survival as the NY animation scene has sunk into a slump. I'm reminded of an animation friend of mine who once declared that he, "would NEVER travel for animation." This friend said this in response to me using valuable paid vacation time (while on a staff job) to travel to festivals such as Ottawa and Annecy. In fact, my friend proved his sincerity when a film he made landed into competition at a major festival and he chose not to go. In contrast, festival travel to me (whether on paid vacation time or not) is something I HAVE to do. I NEED to be around other filmmakers. My friend has long since left the animation business. I think his declaration to not attend animation festivals revealed that his passion was not in this field. Another example of how people weed themselves out of working in animation for the long haul. I don't judge or think negative of these people. Everyone has to find their happiness and I don't presume animation is suited for everybody.

When I started in this business in 1995 I looked at the ASIFA-East community as the ENTIRE WORLD. That was it. If I got a film into the ASIFA-East festival, it meant that I'd offically arrived. These were my heroes and my peers. Acceptance by this NY animation community was EVERYTHING to me. By 2000, my curiosity of the larger world animation community finally got the better of me and I attended my first Ottawa Animation Festival. There I met Cartoon Network executive Khaki Jones for the first time, and (eight years later) she recommended that Carl Adams hire me to direct animation on his Adult Swim series Assy McGee.

Another (more immediate) result happened as a result of attending my first Ottawa festival. At the festival, Fran Krause introduced me to a group of British animators (which included animator Hotessa Laurence) and we all shared some nice times over the course of festival. Months later, these British animators came to NYC and arranged to meet up for a drink with their new animation friends. At the bar was a terrific stop motion animator I had never met before, named Eileen Kohlhepp. Upon our introduction, I assumed she was from out of town, but it turned out she was a New Yawker employed at MTV Animation. Eileen has since become a good friend and we have made it a point to meet for lunch a few times each year to catch up and compare animation war-stories. She's also been a frequent guest lecturer in my SVA career class. We sometimes laugh about how it took British animators that we met in Ottawa to connect us in our own backyard. Sometimes you have to travel far away to make a local connection. (Note: Eileen Kohlhepp was an animator on the incredible Sony Bravia commercial pictured above!)

I think the recent spate of layoffs and studio closing in NYC will remind many to make the time to travel to animation festivals and/or make personal films/pitches/scripts/art. I have already heard stories of some of the former Little Bill/Little Einsteins/Wonder Pets/Team Umi Zoomi artists that are now fully engaged working on personal projects that they had previously long put off.

When times are good it is possible to pack-walk from studio to studio, working at full time in-house staff jobs for years at a time. Nobody has a crystal ball to predict when those days might return, but I can say (with certainty) that it will enrich your life and your life's work to invest in yourself. And, while that may start with making a film, it can also start with buying a plane ticket to Annecy this June, or Ottawa this October. Its a source of wonder to me that my connections to the animation world outside of New York have allowed me to stay working and living in New York.

Monday, February 16, 2009

You Screen, I Screen: My Three Days at KidScreen

I just finished three days at the 10th KidScreen Summit in NYC. It was my first time attending the conference, which is mostly geared towards the community of children's media executives and production companies. It is truly an international affair, with every corner of the developed (and developing world) seemingly represented. I could be wrong, but the only minority group in attendance seemed to be the artists/writers/creators, who (ironically enough) are the people that actually may provide the content that the rest of the conference attendees base their existence around.

My ticket into the proceedings was the event I hosted with Tom Warburton, which fell on day two of the three day event. We had a decent turn out that looked positively anemic in the giant room they scheduled us in. But, the event went great. Tom was his usual energetic and open self so all I had to do was help organize the conversation by leading him through topics the audience might want to hear most. We covered the formation of Tom's career at such studios as Buzzco, Jumbo, and J.J.Sedelmaier, and how skills and relationships he built up over his first decade in the biz served him well on the pilots and series that were to come his way.

Tom is one of those unique individuals that have scored green-lights/deals on each pitch he has attempted to date. He revealed that he takes a lot of care on his pitch books, trying to make them as fun and full of visuals as possible. In a similar way, he sold his upcoming children's book, 1,000 Times No (published by HarperCollins) after first producing an entire dummy book that left no stone of the project unturned. Yet, Tom cautioned that everyone should pitch in their own way because sometimes making too complete a pitch could backfire (yet another reason why there are no universal truths when it comes to pitching.)

Speaking of pitching, I engaged in two rounds of speed pitching where creators have 3 minutes to pitch the executive of their choice. Sign ups are done in advance, on line, and (due to the high demand) each creator is limited to two speed pitches. Maybe that's a good thing. Three speed pitches could give a creator a heart attack. In truth, I thought it was a pretty enjoyable experience. On the negative side, you don't get to get your footing with the executive before you begin to pitch. Instead you just bust into the pitch. After a quick handshake its go time. I started with a pitch to an exec from the UK who was busy jotting down notes during the whole of my three minute pitch of one project. I didn't think my pitch was making much of an impression, so as it drew to a close I left her with a second project for her to check out on her own. "This is more like it," she said with enthusiasm. It was a funny moment and I think it well demonstrates how much a crap shoot this pitching business is. The trick is to roll with it and let it roll over you. In case anyone thinks that NOTHING ever connects with an executive in this speed pitching scenario, Kay Benbow of UK's CBBC revealed that her network is about to debut a show that was speed pitched to her at KidScreen Summit three years ago.

Outside of the speed pitches, I scheduled 12 or so informal meetings with executives from media companies around the world. These meetings were as short as ten minutes and as long as a half hour. I can't say that I scored a deal at any of these meetings...but, attending Kidscreen allowed for lots of other chance encounters, spontaneous pitches, and also an opportunity to reconnect with networks/clients I've worked with in the past.

One thing worth noting was that the UK seems to be embracing a method of development that has not been used in the states since the days of Termite Terrace. Today, at the UK's CBBC and at Cartoon Network UK, there are in-house development teams made up of artists, writers, directors and producers. These networks still take outside pitches, but some percent of what makes it to air comes from these in-house teams making original content. That's a very special investment that ought to be tried by networks in the states.

At KidScreen I was also able to meet emerging talent, such as writer Randy Astle, as well as discover that the multi-talented and in-demand art director/set builder Christina Aprea was launching her own production company. I was also very happy to be able to catch up with Linda Simensky (who participated in several events), producer Kris Greengrove, writer Livia Beasley, Elyse Lawson (who is heading up Curious Pictures internal development department), Norooz Production's Shabnam Rezaei and Aly Jetha, and DMA studio founder Tony Ciao.

Should more small animation studios and individual animation professionals be represented at KidScreen Summit? I'd answer that question with another question: Who wouldn't benefit by getting a little more industry savvy? But, obiously, KidScreen is not the only path to that end. Certainly this is an area of interest for me and one I keep returning to on this blog. After all, the principles of animation have not changed since the 1930s but the animation industry model of today is ever-changing.

Does this mean we stop caring about the creative side? Never. I give us artists/writers/creators a lot more credit than that. Surely, we can keep two interconnected agendas going at once. All artists got to eat, right?

Monday, February 9, 2009

A Stritch In Time

I have the pleasure and honor of taking over two of John Canemaker's animation classes at NYU in the upcoming year as he goes on sabbatical. In addition to heading NYU's animation department, John is an acclaimed author, animation historian, and Oscar-winning filmmaker.

For each class I agreed to take on, John invited me to sit in on his current class so that I might have a better understanding of his approach to teaching. Last week I sat in on the second of the two classes, Action Analysis II. If there's a single most important animation class in NYC, then this might be it. When I walked in the room I immediately noticed his writing on the dry erase board:

Elaine Stritch at Liberty:
Ethel Merman
Ed Sullivan
Gypsy Rose Lee
Asbestos curtain

John opened the class with some selected clips from Elaine Stritch's one woman show, "Elaine Stritch at Liberty," and the list of names/words written on the dry erase board were all mentioned in Stritch's act. John wanted to make sure that all those references were explained ahead of time so that the class could follow along. All of those names and words would have been familiar to me as a student in the early 1990s, but time has left this generation further removed. For the next 45 minutes John played sections of "Elaine Stritch at Liberty," and when it was over, he asked the students to talk about the actresses' transitions, mannerisms, thought process, timing, body language, and gestures. There was, indeed, a lot to talk about. Studying a master like Elaine Stritch is what is missing from the animation education of today. How-to-animate books offer examples of simplified movements and formulas that were long ago based upon real life, but to watch Elaine Stritch is to be looking at a potential source.

The most acclaimed cartoons were made during the golden age of animation, and its important to remember that those artists were not necessarily only referencing other cartoons, they had grown up reading books and newspapers, seeing vaudeville, and watching early live action movie masters of pantomime like Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd. When you are close to the source of your inspiration you have a better chance of channeling it into something new. Something all your own. This was just as true for The Beatles, who had spent their youth digesting the first generation of American rock 'n roll.

John spent the next two hours reviewing the students' homework, which was to animate a pencil test of a character drinking what they assumed to be alcohol, but is actually milk. The point was to establish a character and their intent to drink what they think is alcohol and then show the thought process as they realize something is wrong and then react to it. It was fascinating to watch John patiently lead the critique of each piece, encouraging the class to comment along. When a student failed to establish a character, John would ask: "Who is your character? How old are they?" If the student responded that the character was young, John would ask: "What gestures or attitude might help communicate that your character is young?" Sometimes he'd ask the student to stand up and demonstrate what that pose might look like.

The students had the opportunity to sit and learn through 20 such critiques in that day alone. I wondered if they knew how lucky they were. John was pushing them to think not as a fan of Bugs Bunny, The Simpsons, or Akira, but as an actor might think.

At one point John asked the students if they'd noticed how Elaine Stritch had begun her act by making eye contact with as many members of the audience as she could. Of course, she couldn't really see their eyes because the audience looks like a blur from the vantage point of the stage lights. John described this as an old vaudeville survival trick. Actors would be sure to make eye contact with as many audience members as possible because it humanized the actors in the eyes of the audience.

A few of John's students presented work that confused the class. In each case it was because the student had imagined an elaborate back story explaining their characters and their situation (all things that did not make it to the animation paper.) For character animation to really work, it needs to live in the NOW. And, it has no chance of doing that if it first doesn't try to establish a bond with its audience. The audience only knows what we show them. While our characters can't directly look at the audience the way Elaine Stritch can, an animator must remember that they are making animation for an audience just the same. Students are not always ready to understand what teachers wish them to learn, but John's lesson was not lost on this lifelong student. Thanks, John.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Getting Unstuck

Working in NY animation, one can't help but notice the thriving indie scene. This city has more individuals making indie animated shorts and features than any other place in the world.

A year ago I was doing a Q and A after a screening of my film, Good Morning, at the BAMkids festival in Brooklyn. Sharing the stage with me was a filmmaker named Barbara Parks, who co-owns a sound studio called Splash Studios. A man in the audience asked me why I would make a film like Good Morning if I wasn't being paid for it. "Indie films are made for self expression," I said, before adding that they can also have commercial results. How true that was. Just this past Friday I finished animating/directing a pilot for Barbara Parks. That Q and A at BAM was our introduction, of which I owe to my film Good Morning.

I'm going to assume that most industry folk know how many benefits there are to making personal films. So, why aren't more animation artists doing it? I would suggest that too many people are stuck. To get past being stuck, one only has to be creative with their approach. Here's some suggestions for how to get started, no matter what group you belong to.

1-you're not a writer:
(By "writer" ––for the purpose of this discussion––I want to focus in on traditional dialogue or narration for narrative storytelling)
Okay, you're not a writer. No problem. Why not try a documentary approach? Base a film around an interview or use some found audio and repurpose it. The Rauch brothers are doing amazing documentary style films based around interviews from StoryCorps. Other filmmakers (such as Paul Fierlinger and Signe Baumane) have done great films based on their life experiences, narrating the tracks with the honesty of their own voices. Or, why not make an experimental film by starting with a strong music track that does not require any linear storytelling? Why not animate to a pre-existing song? That's what I did when I animated to Bob Charde's song, Good Morning. Need more examples? Buzzco Associates, Inc. and Debra Solomon have based their entire filmic careers on animating to songs.

2-you're a writer, but you're not an animator.
Barbara Parks fits this category. She works as a sound designer by trade, but she co-wrote a script that she wanted to see animated, so she hired me to collaborate with her to make a film. This city is filled with animators to partner with...and it doesn't always have to involve an exchange of money. Potential collaborators have a way of finding each other, but only if they take a look around or are (at least) open to opportunities that present themselves.

3-you're not a writer nor an animator.
Maybe you're a designer, an illustrator, or a painter. If so, your talents could set the visual style of film. My newest short, Owl and Rabbit Play Checkers, was initiated not by a writer, nor an animator, nor a visual artist. The project was suggested by my composer Bob Charde, who enticed me to collaborate on another film by creating the film's score and voice track and emailing it as an Mp3 to my inbox.

***However, the biggest obstacle one may have to face (whether making a film on their own or through collaboration) is to have enough courage to take the public risk of making a film. Films are for sharing with an audience and there's a chance the film could be lousy. Let me be the first to tell you that I have more than one lousy film to my name. At least two, in fact. Oddly enough, I believe those films both helped and hurt my career to date. I know how they helped because they were partly responsible for landing me some important jobs and promotions. I am also fairly certain that they hurt me. They might have cost me credibility as a filmmaker with some, which could have damaged my chances with selling certain pitches.

The truth is that films don't lie. Instead, they tell stories. They tell the story of where a filmmaker is at––in terms of maturity, level of craft, and authenticity of inspiration. Yes, there are risks to making a film. But, I'd say that if you believe in carving out a long term career in this industry, it is a risk worth taking.