Saturday, May 8, 2010
Plympton, Working for Free, and Securing Your Place in the Industry
Image above from Bill Plympton's Oscar-nominated first indie short, "Your Face."
I'm currently co-writing a book on the art of Bill Plympton, title TBD, published on Rizzoli, the same press that brought us the wonderful book Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi. And, at my present age of 36, I can't help but be blown away by the simple fact that Bill Plympton didn't complete his first film until age 37. But, wait...there's more. His first completed animation was a film called, Boomtown, a sponsored film that he took on for FREE. What?!!! Animators are not supposed to EVER do anything for free, not under ANY circumstances! That's me playing devil's advocate, but certainly some of us think that way.
Not only did Bill begin his animation career by making a sponsored film for free, it turns out it was just a continuation of how he began his previous career as a successful illustrator and cartoonist. His first work in that area was mostly unpaid work for fledgling cinema magazines or local downtown newspapers. Each "free" commission was another sample that would comprise the impressive portfolio that (soon after) landed the future-animator paid work in such publications as Playboy, Screw, Vogue, and National Lampoon (to name just a few), not to mention a nationally syndicated comic strip.
So, when Bill was willing to make his first short, Boomtown, for free, it was with the proven knowledge that free work, at its best, CAN be important work for YOURSELF. Through the production of Boomtown, Bill was able to finally have an animation mentor, in this case––animator Connie D'Antuono, who would teach him the nuts and bolts of animation production. In Bill's story, FREE work proved life-changing when he applied what he'd learned towards his first indie film, Your Face. As you probably already know, the film scored the new filmmaker an Oscar-nomination while giving us, arguably, our greatest animation hero since Ralph Bakshi.
To clarify, my position on working for free is that there are specific circumstances where it might make sense. Where it doesn't make sense, in my opinion, is when it is part of a failed studio business model, requiring YOU, the animation artist, to work unpaid simply as a part of their normal delivery plan. But, there are cases (like Bill's) where the artist uses the excuse of unpaid work to craft new samples, build skills, and increase his/her own future employability and opportunities. Each situation is different, just as each of us are different. To some of us, some amount of working for free, in the right situation, could prove to make ALL THE DIFFERENCE, just as it did for Bill Plympton.
Sure, it's easy to look at a success like Bill, follow his career trail, and see that working for free (in specific circumstances) played a big role in his development. But, how might this be applicable to someone just starting out? And, how can a newcomer distinguish between when to and when not to work for free? A study of Bill's choices helps to find that answer. For one, when he did free illustration work for cinema magazines and downtown newspapers, he was just starting out and needed the samples. But, perhaps more importantly, these were struggling magazines, not huge media empires. They had virtually no money to pay, and the big magazines weren't returning Bill's calls yet. So, he saw an opportunity to create professional samples by doing some free work for the little guys. And, later, when he decided to take on the four months of free work it required to create Boomtown, part of his willingness to do the job came from believing in its cause, the anti-nuke movement.
Mark Mayerson recently gave some great advice to graduates at his blog:
"Grads have a tendency to look at their first job as the culmination of their educations, but it isn't. It's merely the first step in a career. Just as you go from knowing everything about your high school to knowing nothing at all about your college or university, you're now going from knowing everything about the school you are leaving to knowing nothing (or very little) about the animation industry. It's no fun to start again at the bottom, but that's where you are and over the course of your career, you may find yourself starting over several more times. Recognize your position for what it is and accept it. With luck, it's only temporary."
I think Mark's advice is very relevant to the topic above. Might the odd, occasional, and well-chosen work for free be an important part of securing your place in the animation industry? I don't think there's a universal answer to this question. Just the right answer for you.