Monday, May 25, 2009

Survival Is Not a Dirty Word

***Note: Above image from a pilot I just finished for a local production company

There is something undeniably romantic about the animation artist going into business for his or herself, forming a studio business, and taking control of their own destiny. The alternative is to become an aging artist forever drifting in the freelance pool. But, the problem with that idea is that a day rate doesn't necessarily go up from year to year or from job to job, and there's an ever-restoring crop of new blood coming in that can best the aging worker by working cheaper and for longer hours.

I few years back I took on some freelance animation work from a series that needed help. It was high focus work that often took up to ten hours a day just to keep on schedule. Happily, I thought the pay was very good and reflected the difficulty of the work. A small studio in town was also helping in the same role. A few weeks into the job I had a conversation with a partner in that studio and was surprised to hear him complain about the low pay. We compared rates and found that we were making the same amount of money. As a studio, they had to bring in someone to work the job, split the profits between three partners, as well as having to cover the cost of studio rent, electric bill, etc. As an at-home freelancer, I had far less overhead to worry about and, as an individual, found that the pay was more than fair.

The above story combined with my subsequent adventures working from home for the last three years have me wondering how the small studio is able to survive now-a-days. As an individual artist working in my living room, I've won bids to directed three pilots, three series, and a handful of other individual spots or promos. The work has been enough to sustain me and I've been able to hire other artists on a project-to-project basis. Recently I secured another large gig that is large enough to bring on an assistant for two months and still bring the job to completion on budget and on schedule. And, while the pay is fair for me as an individual, I don't know if a studio could have taken on the same job and made any profit. More likely they would have done the job as means of paying Manhattan rent for two months. I do want to point out that, while no two budgets are the same for any studio or individual, I am not underbidding based on working from home. I think that would be a dangerous practice that has potential to damage the whole industry. I always bid for a fair market price, although obviously sometimes we can misjudge the amount of work or aggravation that goes along with it.

Some small studios have been able to survive in this town because they wisely avoid over expansion. When they have a big job, they bring in temporary help. They maintain just enough workstations in-house, and have the option of allowing some freelancers to work at home. As an at-home freelancer, its no different for me, except that I have minimized the risk even further by not having any additional rent or utilities to pay. Perhaps most importantly, I'm not responsible for a single persons livelihood other than myself.

When my first book, Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive was published in 2006, I was working at Nickelodeon and, somehow, I got the nutty idea to send a copy of my book (through inter-office mail) to Viacom super medial mogul Sumner Redstone. He e-mailed me a personal thank you to all of us who had helped delivery Blue's Clues to such success. Then sent me a signed copy of his auto biography.

I had never read a book on a business figure before, but I was happy to find that the book was thoroughly engaging. Redstone is a fascinating man, beginning his career as a scholar turned military code-breaker in WW II. After which, he built an amusements company with his father, becoming a leading force in drive-in theaters across the nation. Redstone had made sure that his company always owned the land occupying the drive-in theaters so when trends changed the business to indoor multiplex theaters, he could rebuild on his own land. There's lots of interesting stuff in the book. Much failure and mistakes mixed in with all the success.

The point I got out of the book was that a real business person like Redstone, puts in a 7 day work week. And, this is no different than many of the founders of small animation studios in this town. The difference is that Redstone's business is BUSINESS. He's in the business of profit through media empire. The small animation studio exists to enable its founders to enjoy some degree of independence. They control what jobs they are willing to take on, the ones that might mesh with their style or aesthetic, and that can be achieved with their available resources. It's like being a traveling minstrel in earlier centuries. I don't think many of them got rich, but they enjoyed a lifetime earning a living through their talents and craft. The struggle of staying afloat amid month-to-month unknowns goes with the territory and each acquired job is like an extension--keeping the dream alive that much longer. The model of the small studio and my own adventures working from home remind me that SURVIVAL is a noble success in and of itself.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

It's a Small World After All

Most of us working in this business are constantly in the state of looking for work. Even when we're working, we know the importance of keeping an ear and an eye out for the next gig. Much of the time, I don't even notice making an effort at this because at some point it just becomes second nature.

The hardest time to look for work is when one is just starting out in his or her career. One has to build their experience, web of contacts, and reputation- all of which (eventually) make the job hunt easier. Although I've logged 15 years in the animation business, I remember those first few attempts to find work as if they were yesterday. Two stories are at the forefront of my memory and I'll think you'll soon see why.

Sometime around Spring of 1994 it dawned on me that I would graduate SVA in a year and an internship might not be the worst idea. One of my classmates did several internships and he had the habit of repainting the back of his jacket to match whatever studio he temporarily called home. He was like a walking billboard. While that was a bit silly, I admired his boldness. I knew an internship might help me make real-world connections at studios and that might make it easier to find a job post graduation.

An SVA instructor gave me the name and phone number of an MTV Animation producer, which I called during a break from my part-time data entry job. The producer did not pick up her phone so I left a short message. A couple of hours later my mom called me to tell me that Linda Simensky had just called our house. I had never heard of Linda Simensky (she'd be my teacher a year later) but, apparently the phone number I had been given was wrong and actually belonged to Linda at Nickelodeon. My mom told me Linda asked that I call her back. Not only was Linda incredibly friendly to a nobody like me, she even gave me the correct phone number of the producer I was looking for at MTV Animation. I never forgot her helpfulness, and it inspired me to return the favor in helping others make their first industry connections.

With the correct phone number in hand, I finally reached the MTV producer. She seemed nice and told me to call her back in one week to set up an interview for an internship. I thanked her and made a note to call her back in 7 days.

Imagine my shock when she screamed at me (no exaggeration) when I called back the following week. "Don't call here! Do you understand??!! I'll call you when we're ready! Don't call here again!" she yelled, before hanging up.

It was pretty traumatic. Did she think I was someone else? Maybe. Either way, I didn't call back.

A year later, in Linda Simensky's SVA career class, we took a tour of MTV Animation, which was then still in its first location at Columbus Circle. And, which producer do you guess gave us the tour? The smiling producer was none other than the woman who had treated me so rudely on the phone.

I never said anything to her about it, nor did I mention anything to Linda Simensky. But, I did get the lesson of how small this business is. How foolish this producer was to muddy her reputation. I think one can tell a lot about a person by how they treat the least important people. Certainly I was the least important person in her universe the day I followed her instructions to call her back. Do I still remember her name all these years later? You bet I do. But, luckily we haven't overlapped since, except in periferal social circles.

In the Fall of 1994, I tried a different track to look for work--SVA's job placement office. They had a scant few job listings for animation back then and even less for somebody with as little qualifications as me. One lead, for a cell painting job, seemed promising. I had done cell painting on my own films and thought I had the knack for it. I called the producer who owned his own animation studio downtown and we set up a day and a time for me to come by for an interview. He asked that I bring samples of cells that I'd painted so I decided to spend a few days practicing my technique. By the time of the interview my confidence was up because I had some very clean samples to present.

Imagine my dissapointment when I got to the studio's floor and found its door locked with nobody inside. I waited for an hour to no avail and then I got to a pay phone to call the producer. No answer. I left a message and waited around for another half hour. I called again the next day. No answer and no call back. That was the end of that.... until one day three years later when I was working as a storyboard artist at Nick Jr's Blue's Clues. The creator's of the show were in need of a new producer and (knowing that I knew a lot of people through ASIFA-East) asked me if I knew a certain producer they were considering. Guess who that name was?

I told them about my encounter (or lack of encounter) with this producer and it was all they needed to hear to cross his name off the list. As that ride at Disney World claim's, "It's a Small World After All."

I am glad to say that these early encounters didn't at all represent the majority of the people I would come to meet in the animation industry. Most of my experiences have been very positive, but I would suggest that we help set the tone for the experiences we'll have based on our own attitude.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

aniMAYtion at SVA

(Note: image above from Rebecca Sugar's SVA thesis film, "Singles.")

While April showers usually bring may flowers, this year--the showers were in May and they brought animation. Come to think of it, the first week of May might be dubbed "New York Animation Week." This past this week featured the 40th ASIFA-East animation festival and student animation shows from Pratt, Parsons, NYU, and SVA. An animation enthusiast coming in from out of town has the opportunity to hit all these animation events in one week. Mayor Bloomberg, you can thank me for the tourism idea...and speaking of the Mayor, The Mayor's office of film sponsored an animation careers panel on May 5th at the new SVA theatre. Last, but not least, The BeFilms festival was in full force this week. And, if this wasn't enough, some local folks threw an Animation stimulus party. Has there ever been such an animation packed week in New York's checkered history? I doubt it.

ASIFA-East's exposure sheet blog already has some great coverage of the ASIFA-East 40th animation festival so I won't use blog space here to tread where others have already gone. Instead, I'd like to focus on SVA's student thesis animation show, otherwise known as The Dusty's. But, I can't do that without first beginning with a quote from Bill Plympton spoken during his Keynote address at the Careers in Animation event earlier in the week. "My style is old and tired. You [the students] have the new look people will be interested in."

I never heard Bill voice this before. The great thing about his style is that it never tried to belong to any particular era. The only thing that makes it "old" is that we've seen Bill's work for more than twenty years now. He's not the next thing, nor does he represent where tastes were twenty years ago. Plymptoons are one man's singular vision and (in my opinion) show how a true independent exists in a category by themselves.

That said, one could attend the SVA Dusty's screening and see what Bill might be alluding to as the "new look people will be interested in." Mike Rauch, Elliot Cowan, and myself walked together to the SVA screening and this gave us ample time to chat. Mike wanted to know what NY animation school's like SVA are teaching the students. He asked, "Are they learning color theory, figure drawing, and the other fundamentals?"

The answer is complicated. NY animation school's provide a background in the fundamentals, but, they focus more on preparing the students to work and think as individual artists. The traditional animation track at CalArts is where students go who wish to join the larger Hollywood animation industry. NY school's offer an alternative. Consider them to be the breeding ground, not of the next John Lasseter's, but of the next Bill Plympton's.

The interesting thing is that a good smattering of films from this year's SVA Dusty's show are not only works of artistic individuality, they are also examples of animation craft of the highest possible order (yes, even in the polished CalArts mode). But, these terrific SVA films are not trying to be audition pieces to score jobs on The Frog Princess 2. Veteran animator Dan Haskett has complained to me that he wishes there was a combination of NYC substance with Hollywood craft. Well, Mr. Haskett, here's a crop of films made just for you... How dare these students exploit Hollywood technical chops to use towards their own ends? Only in New York, and perhaps, only (in this scale) at SVA.

Student films, at their best, are like indie animated films made as a graduation requirement. Let's face it, making a great animated short is hard as hell. How many of us are expert at storytelling, timing, pacing, acting, animating, character and background design, color theory, sound design, and directing all at once? It almost seems impossible to do so. Yet, Shu-Yi Chiou (Hey, It's Me. Your's Bubbly), Alex Wager (Juxtaposed), Mikhail Shraga's (Metamorphosis), Paul Villeco (Metal Boot), Eunkyu Kim (The Mouse Reaper), Michael Antonucci (Passin' on Class), Rebecca Sugar (Singles), Jake Armstrong (The Terrible Thing of Alpha-9), and Peyton Skyler (Cat) are ALL interesting, touching, funny, odd, bold, experimental, fascinating, and amazingly executed (in-everyway) films.

I've had my heart broke before. There have been other amazing student filmmakers who have graduated and not made a single independent film since then. But, I sincerely hope that this above group is just getting started. We can use their spirit. They could make a major contribution, ensuring that NY hold on to its dominance as THE independent animation city of the world.

These films cast such an impression on me that it could be possible to over look other good films that screened that night. First off, I have to tip my hat to animation wunderkind Lev Polyakov. Lev's been on the scene so long and made so many films that its already possible to take him for granted (and he's only now graduating!). It's been interesting to see him evolve from Piper the Goat to his newest, Fantastic Plastic. He's evolving a hectic and energetic style of animation that combines commercial polish with offbeat ideas. I would love to see what he might do with a quieter, shorter, and more personal film.

I'd like to point out a few more of these good films that rounded out the program. There was something unique and odd about the staging of many of the shots in Hyo Jung Ahn's "Another Story of A Cat & a Dog." Ioana Alexandra Nistor's "The Chicken Prince," was an unusual mix of Disney storytelling conventions, black comedy, and morality fable.

For the I-LOVE-TO-DRAW-AND-IT-SHOWS-AWARD, I'd nominate Emmanuel R. Jaquez's "Bully Proof," Shelley Low's "Durian Season," Valerie Ang's "Manic Expressive," Patrick Weibel's "Memorabilia," Pedro Davie's "My New York," Sandy Hong's "Pathway," Nadia Saburov's "Pink Flamingo," "Rebecca Pena's "Spaced Out," Carly Crawford's "Star," Elyssa Di Giovanni's "Trade Winds," and Wesley Etienne's "The Workout Plan."

One of the hardest things for anyone to do is successful comedy and two films aimed their sights very successfully in that direction. Wesley Etienne's "The Workout Plan," was fairly conventional in much of its territory (including often-mined audio cues), but, he nailed many of his jokes right on target and the accumulated effect was impressive. Even more successful was Michael Antonucci's "Passin' on Class, which was infinitely better than most of what regularly airs as animated comedy on Fox or on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim lineup. Did animation just find its next master of the laugh?

Amid Amidi provided a good spotlight on the SVA Dusty's show at and the conversation inevitibably turned to why the quality was so low on some of the student films. It is undenaible that there were some real turkeys on that screen. The most problematic films not only had weak design, animation, and storytelling, they also looked like the student had put in very little time and effort. Why, after four expensive years at film school would a student turn in such a film, especially when some of their peers are busting their butts all year to polish out gems? There's no one answer. Some students go through their schooling with apathy, merely going through the motions until they graduate and then doing something entirely different with their lives.

Most students begin their school years with some level of interest in animation. Then they are asked to work hard and push themselves to learn the fundimentals of this very difficult artform. The bottom line is that its easy to watch cartoons, its easy to love animation. But, try doing it, and that's what separates the sincere from the insincere. Howard Beckerman wisely tells students, "Everything is easy until you try it yourself."

Yes, school's like SVA let in a wide range of students. Some of those bets pay off and some don't. But, I would put much of the responsiblity on the students and their parents. I recommend that any would-be student that has not tried animation on their own ought to before deciding to go to SVA, Pratt, NYU, Parsons, etc. A would-be student should pocess enough intellectual curiosity to try out animation before they spend four years of time and money to learn it. When I was a kid I used the family Super 8 and video cameras and created hours of animation. Today, would-be students have no excuse not to do this. Programs like Flash and After Effects are cheap and accessable. I can't imagine a student deciding to go to school for animation without having tried it on their own first. That would be like saying, "I want to be an English Lit major," but never having read a book, thinking you'll start reading when freshman year begins. Odd, huh? But, that's what many animation students do.

On cartoonbrew, Amid responded to one former student that offered a list of reasons why her film was not as stellar as it might of been. Her point was to say that not everyone is ready to make a film even after four years of school. I agree with her and I also agree with Amid's response that a film must stand on its own without the backstory of the student's struggle. I would further suggest that no matter what industry folks like Amid and I think of your film, you have the option of making another film. You decide if your thesis film represents you or not--by making or not making more films.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Trouble with Ambition

I'll never forget a quote I heard from a famous actor who said, "Acting is the only career where if you make only $60,000 a year, you are considered a failure." I think this applies to anyone in the entertainment industry. Instead of acknowledging the success of one simply working in one's chosen field, they are measured against what they have not yet achieved: an oscar, a $20 million film, house-hold name status, etc.

Most animation artists are not trying to be J-Lo. We chose to work in a very difficult industry where to simply be able to pay your bills for the year might be a sign of success.

I've been thinking about this topic after going to see the new documentary ANVIL! The Story of Anvil, which is all about a sad-sack pioneering heavy metal band from Toronto that never achieved the success it was after. The film is very entertaining and the band, in particular its leader named Lips, come across very sympathetic. Yes, the whole real-life story takes on a very This Is Spinal Tap-feel (and the filmmaker plays up that angle often), but at the heart of this story are a pair of 50-something rockers that have not yet given up on their dream.

Other members of the movie audience howled with laughter at the band's many misfortunes on the road and in their career. It was as if this band existed just to be laughed at. A band-members' sister seemed to echo this with her point that its sad for the band to still be trying for success. She thought it was clearly over and she painted them as losers. I sat there wondering what she had achieved in her life. What ambitions had she pursued over a thirty year period? What was her passion? When a butcher works cutting meat for thirty years, does this make him a loser? What is wrong with a working rock band that is still pursuing their dream thirty years later?

ANVIL! The Story of Anvil was a funny film, but it was also full of hope. The message was that dreams are ageless and have the power to outlast naysayers of all stripes (including family members, industry executives, and members of the movie's audience that were laughing a bit too loud and a bit too often.)