Saturday, October 31, 2009

Carpe Diem!

During the last two or three years, the lack of consistent work among my generation in the animation industry has been, in some ways, good for us. Between the years of 1997 and 2006, many of my colleagues and I were continuously employed on long running series projects that offered comfortable working conditions, competitive wages, 401K plans, and health insurance. With any luck those good ol' days may come again, but until they do, there's no over looking how these times have transformed many of us for the better.

Take the loosely organized animators that make up the production team known as One-Stuck Duck as an example. These collaborators (comprised of Bob Fox, Chris Timmons, Michael J. Smith, Robert Powers, Claire Scholssstein, Jeremy Sawyer, and Christopher Conforti) have made three films to date with more projects to follow. Rotating directors per project, the rest of this team become that director's crew. I wonder if they would have gotten together to work on these collective indie projects had they enjoyed continued smooth sailing in the job market. Gaps between jobs (as well as the collapse of the Animagic studio and hostile conditions at other studios in town) might have proved an important incentive for these folks to take control of their own creative destinies. Instability has a way of doing that, encouraging the individual to look for answers within.

In the same vein, my friends Justin Simonich, Dayna Gonzalez, and Jason McDonald are enjoying new challenges and career milestones that may not have come their way during long term employment. Over a year ago, Justin Simonich (with Linda Beck), embarked on an groundbreaking documentary project covering the NY animation scene. Dayna Gonzalez added flash scripting for games and websites to her bag of tricks and entered a DC comics contest with art director Mike Lapinsky which, after winning a semi-final round, paid the pair to produce their Batman game. Jason McDonald took his love of all things zombie and channeled it into his continuing web comic My Living Dead Girl, winning international fans while developing his singular voice and vision.

The good years of milk and honey had the indirect result of making us comfortable and soft. Now that the economic conditions have changed so radically, the positive result might be that more of us get off our keisters and spend more time towards self-development. I can attest that the greatest break I had since landing my job at "Blue's Clues" occured when the series finally ended. On a series, you tend to work the same muscle over and over again. It was only after the safety net of steady work was pulled away that I had the flexibility of more time to develop other important skills.

Sure, I'd have a fatter bank account if "Blue's Clues" had continued, but I don't think I'd have proposed or written any books, developed and pitched as many projects, traveled to as many festivals, created as many indie films, or have had the chance to work in areas outside of preschool as I did on projects for Adult Swim and the Fox Network. My current freelance project (a series of 30 second films for Sesame Workshop, with backgrounds by Adrian Urquidez, shown in the four stills above), allow me to work as a writer, storyboard artist, designer, animator, and director. I can't think of a single long-term job that could compete with all that, but if and when I do, I'll be happy to entertain the offer. But, the real message is that the economic downturn has inadvertently created a renaissance of possibility for the individual. Carpe Diem!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

October Fests

The two top questions you get from friends and strangers alike at the Ottawa International Animation Festival are:
-What day did you get here?
-Do you have a film in the festival?

My answers to these questions were, "Wednesday" and "No." In fact, I've never had a film play at this festival. The film I entered this year was "Owl and Rabbit Play Checkers." When I went to the festival's children's shorts competition screening, I was watching the category where my film would have played had it been accepted. The children's films that tickle festival director Chris Robinson are far darker and experimental than my film. As a filmmaker, I find it very informative to see how a festival programs. My film would not have fit in with Robinson's vision for this category, and his taste is part of why it's worthwhile to attend the festival in the first place. Programming a screening is like arranging an important dinner party. One has to consider whom is sitting next to whom as well as the desired overall effect.

I thought the festival was superb this year, perhaps the finest of the six times I've attended. New Yawker's were very well represented with two of our own (Jake Armstrong and Steig Retlin) even scoring awards. Congrats also to the following filmmakers who had films in competition this year: Mike and Tim Rauch, Fran and Will Krause, Signe Baumane, Gary Lieb, Kristy Caracas, Tatia Rosenthal, and Jennifer Oxley. And, congrats to Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata for having their pitch proposal selected for the "Pitch This" competition in TAC (Television Animation Conference).

A special treat for me was finally seeing Paul and Sandra Fierlinger's grand new feature, "My Dog Tulip," which won the honorable mention award in the feature category. The husband and wife creative team were in attendance at each of their screenings where they graciously accepted handshakes and gushing compliments. I was very touched by their film, which continues the wonderful tradition of their intimate and intelligent previous works such as "Still Life with Animated Dogs," and "A Room Nearby." Paul reported that the Ottawa audiences received the film far more enthusiastically than had Annecy. On a personal note, Paul reminded me that I had a role in the making of "My Dog Tulip."

"You introduced Debra Solomon to us and one day she happened upon a financier who needed to find a director to make an animated feature. Debra thought of us and we got the phone call, which was a dream come true," Paul recalled.

I hope everyone gets the chance to see this special film. It paints a sophisticated relationship between its lead characters in such a simple, honest, and poetic way. It's a true animated masterpiece, providing what could be the best example yet of the animated feature film as a mature work able to stand alongside the best live action films. How often can we say that about animated features today?

While I have not had success breaking through with a film at Ottawa, when it comes to book signings I am 2 for 2. It was very gratifying that my panel event, "How to be Pitch Perfect in the Imperfect World of Development," was filled to capacity. Special thanks go to my stellar panel (pictured above courtesy of a photo by Richard O'Connor, who has a great 5 day coverage of the Ottawa festival at his blog): Eric Homan, Heather Kenyon, Fran Krause, and Linda Simensky. The conversation really seemed to jell and we got lots of feedback afterwards suggesting it was one of the best panel discussions ever presented at Ottawa. I began the event by half-joking that my book should have been called, "Self-Development," because that is the real message of the book. As an added bonus, my book "Animation Development: From Pitch to Production" sold out at the festival book table.

By the end of the week, I was exhausted from all the festival fun. As great as the screenings were, the best part of the festival is that it gives one the excuse to stop everything and hang out with good friends. I was very happy to enjoy time with Justin Simonich (who was also my roomie!), Chris Boyce, Dayna Gonzalez, Linda and Jeremy Beck, Glen Ehlers, Andy Kennedy, Sean McBride, Jessica Plummer, The Krause Brothers, The Rauch Brothers, Tatia Rosenthal, Jen Oxley, Doug Vitarelli, Linda Simensky, Heather Kenyon, Eric Homan, Birk Rawlings, Eunice Kim, Dan Sarto, Ron Diamond, Candy Kugel, Jake Armstrong, Kat Morris, Alan Foreman, Barry Sanders, Isaac King, Richard O'Connor, Liesje Kraai, Stephanie Yuhas, Susan Godfrey, Art Sir, Pilar Newton, James Murray, Celia Bullwinkel, Amid Amidi, Jerry Beck, and Janet Perlman.

But, my rest was short lived because a few days after Ottawa concluded, my wife and I flew to Chicago where I had two children's films ("Owl and Rabbit Play Checkers," and Iwanna Wanda in: "Don't Wanna Brush") in competition at the 26th Chicago International Children's Film Festival.

After our screening at The CICFF, Bob Charde (my co-director on "Owl and Rabbit Play Checkers") and I were asked to stand up for a Q and A. The kids (ages 2-5) asked:
-Do you like owls and rabbits?
-Why did you make this film?
-Why do they show movies in the dark?
-What day did you make this film?

The parents asked:
-Why can't we see quality children's films like yours on TV?
-How long did it take to make the film?
-What programs did you use to make the film?
-Is this the same theatre where Dillinger was shot?

Okay, I made up that last question. But, I am happy to report that two festival scouts from rival festivals tracked us down in the theatre lobby, inviting us to submit to their festivals. And, best of all, a children's book agent asked me if I'd like to represented by her agency. When you make a film you don't have a clue as to how it will be received or what good consequences might follow your efforts. So, it sure is nice when you get a nibble or two of interest.

I explained to the young audience (during the Q and A) that Bob and I make films to share with others and, although it takes a very long time to make a film, we know that at some point the film will be done and ready to present to an audience–– just as we were delighted to do this day. And, that's the most rewarding part of all.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Actionable Advice

One way I judge animation career advice is by asking, "Is it actionable?" In other words, "Can I use the advice for inspiration or (more importantly) to create a plan?"

I just enjoyed a nice lunch with some old friends, "Super Why" and "Blue's Clues" (both pictured above) co-creator Angela Santomero and her vice president of production and development Wendy Harris. That afternoon Angela gave me two nuggets of wisdom that helps define what is "actionable advice." When talking about the creative and business strategies of her company Out of the Blue Enterprises LLC, she explained how she "tries to stay out of her own way." I found this to be an important insight into how she might have accomplished so much. By understanding that she finds success if she stays out of her own way, she's showing awareness that success is hers to make. She's not at the mercy of the ever-changing entertainment industry climate. Instead she's going to do what she wants to do and the only thing that could possibly stop her is herself.

After that piece of actionable advice, Angela shared a gem of a story with me that is clearly planted in the inspirational side of the equation. She recalled how during the earliest stages in the creation of "Blue's Clues" she happened to show her development materials to someone and they told her it looked, "cute." She was aghast, responding, "This isn't cute. It's going to change the world." Of course, the word "cute," can be very complimentary but in this context it didn't begin to describe the vision Angela had planned for the series. Her aim was to change preschool television forever, and with hindsight we can see that she and her creative partners succeeded.

What I got out of her story was the personal passion one should have for their creations. It's not enough to create a product to order or simply with the insight as to what the buyers are looking for at the moment. The most important part of a pitch is that it represents something the creator is incredibly excited about. Once again, actionable advice from a very smart and successful individual. Thanks, Angela!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Perfection vs. Mistakes and Slickness vs. The Human Touch

I recently interviewed Bill Plympton for my next animation book. We were talking about directing when he revealed an important part of his filmmaking approach: "I love mistakes. Mistakes are cool. They add a personal touch." He continued, "I want to have a good time making a film, but when it's done I move on to something else and get the next one out there."

In other words, accepting mistakes is not only an integral part of Bill's filmmaking approach, it also allows him to enjoy the process and to be uber productive. He mentioned Richard Williams as his polar opposite, somebody who had sought to make the "perfect" film.

But, most of us animation people know that in the Mt. Olympus of Animation Heroes there is room for both approaches and everything in-between. There's lots of examples out there. Chuck Jones directed brilliant shorts with a very structured process that entailed him making most of the key drawings himself. Bob Clampett's approach gave his animators more freedom, inviting more spontaneity into the production. Both directors produced great work, the difference being that Chuck's method discouraged mistakes and Bob's method invited them inside and gave them a cup of coffee.

Cartoon Brew recently posted a collection of animated shorts made for They Might Be Giant's new children's music CD. Among them is a gem of a film called "Electric Car" (click title to watch video) made and directed by Ru Kawahata and Max Porter, a married couple working out of their home studio. Today, instead of discussing the pro or con of mistakes, it might be more relevant to phrase it as whether the human touch is visible or not.

On one hand there is the Pixar CGI model, which works to achieve a look that shows no traces of the artist's hand, even though some of today's best artists work on their films. This "perfection" has grown its own polar opposite and that can be seen in the type of low-fidelity work that Ru and Max are honing with their films. In their vision, the texture, warmth, and rough edges of cloth and cardboard are presented in all their charming glory. The end result is a celebration of 2D space along with the old school ways of adding depth through multi-plane levels. For more low-fi work of the highest quality check out any film by PES.

So pick your poison: mistakes or no mistakes, slick or low-fi. There's room for everything and we've only just begun to see ways that they might be combined for good effect.

Friday, October 2, 2009


What is the state of the animation industry in the Big Apple area? If we take the recent departure of Tom Warburton to L.A., Patrick Smith's acceptance of a long-term teaching post overseas, the soon-to-be heading west PES, and the smallest amount of series work in production since 1992, then this can leave one to conclude our recovery is still some time in the future. While it's easy to feel the loss of the three big talents named above, it's important to remember the large talent pool that remains. And, the good news is that one of our best and brightest has recently returned after spending a couple of years living in Europe. He comes back with a new film in the can and two more in production. Ladies and gentleman I am speaking of none other than NY animation legend, the Academy Award Nominated John R. Dilworth.

Many may know him as the creator of the terrific long running Cartoon Network series "Courage the Cowardly Dog," but more people should be aware of his wonderful independent films. My connection to John stretches (pun intended) back 17 years. We first met when he was the substitute teacher at my SVA Intro to Animation class, which was normally taught by John's sometime collaborator Mark Heller. It was 1992 and as a new student I had no idea who John R. Dilworth was. Looking very much like John Turturo, Dilworth zipped into class riding on a swivel chair and paddling the air with imaginary paddles. Needless to say, he got our attention. He ran his most recent cartoon, telling us that we were among the first to see it. It was called "Psyched for Snuppa," and featured characters written by Michael Pearlstein that would later be transformed into the series "Sniz and Fondue." That series would be animated at the Ink Tank and was featured on Nick's anthology show "Kablam!." But, the characters were never more alive and funny than when they were in John's hands. I thought the short was one of the most exciting pieces of animation I'd ever seen.

John was deep in his hero-worship of John Kricfalusi period. I guess "Johns" have to stick together. "Ren and Stimpy" was still a hot new show, and our class was just as excited about it. He showed us clips from the series and made us students analyze every creative element in the animation, right down to the soundtrack. It was the first time I had ever thought about every single ingredient that makes up a successful piece of animation and I have to admit that I was probably more intimidated by the exercise than I was inspired. After the two classes we didn't want Dilworth to leave and I made a silent pledge that I would show him the first animated film I completed at SVA to get his feedback. But, when that film proved a great disappointment to me, I chickened out.

My next encounter with John was two years later during my Junior year at SVA. Mark Heller had hired me to work for his then-partner in a stock footage company. The company regularly supplied stock footage to SNL, David Letterman, etc. Unfortunately, the boss turned out to be so erratic and irrational that he actually added a $50 bonus to my first check just for putting up with him! Yet, after one more week, I'd had enough abuse and I decided to give my notice to his partner, Mark Heller. When I arrived at Mark's place, John Dilworth was there to let me in. The two shared space in those days. Mark soon joined us and I ended up giving them both a blow-by-blow version of the horrible two weeks that led me to give my notice. John didn't say one word during my long story, but he listened to every word. When I was finally finished, John spun around in his chair and said, "Well after a story like that there's only one thing to say... (then he pointed towards the door and shouted) GET THE FUCK OUT!" Of course, he was kidding, and we all shared a good laugh. I left determined that I would show him my thesis film the next year to get his input at an early stage. But, again... I chickened out.

When I made my first independent films I was pretty headstrong about doing things my way, so thoughts of showing my works-in-progress to someone like John Dilworth was out of the question. He might change my idea, I worried (foolishly). Last week, John and I met for lunch at Molly's Pub (a favorite haunt of Howard Beckerman, for all you animation groupies out there), and after a long enjoyable lunch he asked me if I was working on any new films. I hadn't planned to talk about it, but on his prompt I told him the story of my next film, "Keisha Katterpillar." His eyes lit up and he immediately knew just how to improve it. His main suggestion was on the moment where Keisha clears her bed of stuffed animals––something she did thinking it might make herself grow up in a hurry. I was going to have her simply shove the dolls off her bed. John gently protested: "Would she really do that? Have you seen little kids and their dolls? Wouldn't she put them away very carefully and with great respect?" As soon as he said this I knew he was right. But, John wasn't finished, he also gave me a great idea to improve the ending, again coming from getting inside the character's head to find the most appropriate outcome.

I was blown away by John's ability to think this way. Sure, I knew he was brilliant. How could the filmmaker behind "The Dirdy Birdy," and "The Mousochist," not be brilliant? But, I hadn't been sitting across from him when he hatched those ideas. Watching John go through his thought process gave me even more respect for his gift. Upon returning home I made John's suggested revisions and sent him a copy of the animatic along with my design set-ups (shown above). This time I'm not going to chicken out. I'm going to show John every stage of this film and ask for his feedback. It took me 17 years to work up the courage (pun intended again!) to enlist John's advice, but as they say, "better late than never." And, if I may dare speak for the NY Animation community, "Welcome home, John!"

*ASIFA-East is planning an evening of John R. Dilworth shorts. Stay tuned for more details!