Saturday, November 27, 2010

5 Lessons from the Fab 4

There are two kinds of people in this world. People who appreciate The Beatles, and people who will eventually appreciate them. Think I'm wrong? All the Beatle-bashers I've known eventually asked me to lend them one of their CDs. Richard O' Connor, I'm waiting for your call, and keeping a copy of The White Album at arm's reach.

All kidding aside (or at least long enough to get through the rest of this post), if you know me at all, you know that the Fab Four are my ultimate creative icons. Real original, huh? But, while mine is far from a unique point of view, as a non-musician, I find there's a lot in The Beatles story that I can apply to my chosen field of animation. So, without further ado, here's a short Magical Mystery Tour From Me to You:

1-Do your thing even if it means you're out of step with trends or fads.
By the time The Beatles were fully developed and looking for a record deal in England, they were woefully out of step with what record companies were looking for. The big star at the time was Cliff Richard, a tame English version of Elvis Presley. Solo singers were king and guitar bands were out. None of this mattered to The Beatles, and despite Decca records turning them down for going against the grain, George Martin, a producer in residence at E.M.I., decided to take a chance on them.
How to apply to animation:
Whether making a personal film, or whipping up a pitch project in attempt to score a pilot or series, developing your creative voice (no matter how in or out of step with trends and fads) is the most important thing. The world has enough followers. If you want to do something serious in animation it starts with you. Don't ask anyone for permission, don't apologize for what you like, and weave together all your interests and influences and put your personal spin on them. Need examples? Ralph Bakshi and Bill Plympton.

2-You are your own product.
Why did George Martin sign The Beatles to a recording contract? According to him, it wasn't necessarily because of their musical talent. The larger reason was their personality and wit, which was (at that time) ahead of their writing/performing talent.
How to apply to animation:
Yes, even if this age of on-line social networking and YouTube viral videos, the animation artist that is fully part of their own brand has a major advantage. This translates into making personal appearances at film festivals, comic conventions, and events, where you push your product, promote your brand, and make important relationships that grow opportunities.
Need examples? PES, Signe Baumane, Patrick Smith, Don Hertzfeldt.

3-Once established, keep growing as artists.
By The Beatles second LP, they were international stars, even cracking into the American market, which no other British act had ever been able to do. The Beatles could have used the rest of the years making 12 more A Hard Day's Night albums, but they didn't. They evolved and pursued wherever their artistic muse took them. This meant scoring songs with strings (Yesterday, Elanor Rigby), introducing new instruments to rock music (George bringing the sitar to the Rubber Soul album), and singing about subjects other than love, beginning with "Paperback Writer."
How to apply to animation:
This is probably the main reason Bill Plympton makes features. His animated shorts have consistently made money and scored critical acclaim, but the different demands of producing successful features gave him an artistic goal to strive for. Another example are John and Faith Hubley who developed an increasingly personal and sensitive approach in their shorts, working in unique styles not normally associated with animation, and also experimenting with improvised and unscripted soundtracks. The other choice is to keep making the same film over and over again. But, sooner or later, you might get bored, and so too, might your audience.

4-Rewrite the Rules.
Rock stars were supposed to tour to support their albums, hit singles, etc. When this proved exhausting to the Fab Four, they did the unthinkable and stopped preforming concerts. Instead, by focusing on recording, they were able to create ever more sophisticated records, beginning with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band.
How to apply to animation:
Bill Plympton exploited the new markets for animation that rose in the late 80s and early 90s with such venues as The Tourne of Animation, Spike and Mike, and the expanding cable markets such as MTV. When PES came along in 2003, none of those venues were available. But, did that mean that nobody could come along after Plympton and still make a successful career on the back of their short animated films? PES answered that question by giving away his films for free on his website and also in his encouragement of friends and fans to share his work virally. The result was that PES became an industry name and brand, and not only did this lead to paid venues for his shorts (European TV, to name one), it also attracted advertising agencies and gave PES a career as a top commercials director. The lesson here is that no matter how things continue to change, there will always be a way to do business. And, I'd be crazy not to mention Nina Paley, who rewrote the book on feature film distribution...

5-Stop, or change it up when it's no longer fun.
When working together was no longer the joy it was in past years, The Beatles gave up the ghost and broke up in 1970. All four of them were free to pursue their own independent creative lives, and grow up as human beings and as artists.
How to apply to animation:
What was the reason you got into this business? I doubt many would answer, I want to be a cog in an assembly line working on a preschool series, but, that's what happens to many of us that work in NY animation. Yes, were are lucky and grateful to be paid to work our craft, but if something else might make you happier, sooner or later, you should listen to that voice. NYU animation alumns Tatia Rosenthal and Michael Dougherty started out staffing some of The Big Apple's top preschool shows before figuring out that their creative destiny lay in other areas. Dougherty left animation to co-write X-Men II, and Superman Returns, and Rosenthal followed up animating on The Wonder Pets by directing and co-writing her stop-motion feature $9.99 and subsequently had an original live-action screenplay optioned.

We are each responsible for our own experience in matters of career, or as the Lads from Liverpool might say, "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make."


Phil Willis said...

Great post.

I've often thought independent animation had more in common with starting a garage band than starting any other kind of business.

ps Just finished reading your "Animation Development" book. Brilliant.

Thanks for the inspiration.

dennis e. sebastian said...

Inspirational, as always.

Laboring on an animated short and then reading your inspiring words really helps keep me focused.

Thank you!

David B. Levy said...

Thanks so much for the kind words, Phil. Nothing makes me happier than hearing my book was useful to someone.

Looking forward to seeing your short, Dennis! Glad you enjoy the blog.

roconnor said...

To be fair, I think the Beatles are something music lovers grow out of.

We're indoctrinated with them as children and find our ways to other performers who to our mature consciousnesses more directly.