Saturday, July 31, 2010

Dream Job: Then and Now

*image above from two new spots I'm making for Sesame Workshop.

As a kid I hated the taste of coffee, onions, and alcohol––I couldn't figure out why adults tortured themselves so. And now? I consume all three in a meal called brunch. Back then, I also wanted to work for Walt Disney, thinking that was the only place to work in animation. But, as with coffee, onions, and alcohol, I eventually changed my opinion (not that I was suited for a job at the House of Mouse anyhow).

I can't say exactly where and when that happened but one step in that direction was definitely when my SVA animation career strategy teacher, Linda Simensky, booked Mo Willems as a guest speaker. This was my introduction to Mo and his work. The filmmaker and future children's book author was deep in his Sesame Street phase at the time, turning out little animated films starring his creation Suzie Kabloozie. In Simensky's class, Mo screened some of those spots, along with all the films he made while still a student at NYU, including The Man Who Yelled and Iddy Biddy Beat Boy. It was easy to see that the hallmarks of Mo's personal work also made it into his Sesame films.

*image above from a Mo Willems Suzie Kabloozie short for Sesame.

At the time I was awed by Mo's Sesame work, and my Disney dream started to fade. Flash forward to present day 2010 and I'm beginning my second set of six original films for Sesame Street's Word on the Street series. While I admire Mo's singular approach to his films, my goal for the 12 spots has been to try different styles, hopefully so it might appear as if a different animator made each film. Yet, I know that's not really possible, because anything we do will have a certain personal stamp, but having a goal for variety has helped keep it loose and fun for me.

The blessing and curse of these little productions is that they have to be finished one per week, otherwise it would blow the schedule and the budget. This means I try to keep them within one location with no more than one or two characters and backgrounds. Working this quickly is almost like improv, especially in the writing. For instance, on the second spot of the new batch I'm currently making, the word is "Cling," and I didn't really know what the story would be as I started drawing the storyboards. But, happily, it just popped out as I drew, and within a half a day I had an animatic that the client approved and loved. I wouldn't want to have to work this quickly on everything I take on, but I find that it's a really fun challenge. There's no time to procrastinate or second guess yourself. It's just go, go, go!

With this new set of Sesame films, despite the same time and budget limitations, I'm trying to improve on the first six. It's one thing for the client to be happy, but it's quite another to make films that stand alone, even outside their educational context. All this gets all the more complicated because (like most animation artists), I'm never satisfied with my own work. All I see are compromises, mistakes, and things I could do better if only I had another week.

But all considered, so many years after giving up on a future at Disney, this scrappy little project is what I now consider to be a dream job. Maybe the seed was planted when I saw Mo's films, but I have come to believe that successful and effective animated filmmaking has less to do with slick drawings or art, or unlimited resources of time and money, and much more to do with heart, good storytelling and filmmaking, and the ability to express ideas in the clearest and most concise manner. Over the course of a career dreams change, as can a personal definition of "dream job."


Mike Rauch said...

Sounds like a great way to work, and certainly a dream job!

Unknown said...

I feel like I could have written this post! When I was in high school I thought Disney was the one and only place to be an animator. It took a summer at CSSSA with Christine Panushka, Gary Schwartz and Ruth Hayes introducing us to the masters of the NFB to start me down the independent road. I love the short turnaround of commercial work and the room for stylistic play. Can't think of any place I'd rather be!

David B. Levy said...

Thanks Mike. It is a great way to work, even if it's not by my choice, in terms of the speed of it all. But, the good news is that I just finished the first two of the new round and they are a far cut above my last six. I'm excited to keep raising the bar as I go.

Corrie, Isn't it amazing how these little moments in our careers end up having such a huge impact? There's no way to fully plan a career, these little things add up to shake everything up and take you somewhere special.