Wednesday, December 15, 2010


I've had a crazy busy year in 2010 (knock on wood), with my happy little virtual studio completing an eleven minute industrial film, two pilots, six original Sesame shorts, and about 150 (believe it or not) one-minute flash cartoons for Sesame Street English. As animation artists, whether working in a studio or off-site such as myself, we are usually animating or visualizing someone else's script or concept. So, as satisfying as all these above jobs were, the most enjoyable and rewarding commercial assignments are the ones where I get to write as well as animate/direct.

From September to December I was contracted to complete six more original animated shorts for Sesame Workshop's "Word on the Street." Just like the first six I had made the year before, Sesame would give me a word on which to create a 30 second cartoon.

Getting the opportunity to make 12 of these shorts to date has been the culimination of a dream come true. So many of my New York animation heroes, including The Hubleys, Michael Sporn, Buzzco, Mo Willems, and Howard Beckerman created original shorts for Sesame Workshop, so to get the same opportunity means a great deal to me. I thought I'd use this post to explain how I came to get this gig, and how the assignment works within the structure of my virtual studio:

1-Proof of Authorship
One thing I knew from my years at SVA was that the filmmakers that made original spots for Sesame all had proof of authorship, or in less legal terms, made their own indie animated films. This meant that Sesame Workshop would have no trouble seeing the animator's point of view. To see an animator's indie work is to see their own original work, unlike what you see when an animator cobbles together a reel of commercial assignments. Work made to order won't show the artist's stamp the same way their own work will, so having your own animated samples is key to anyone wishing to create original spots for hire.

I was making short animated films long before I went to SVA, so I had a leg up in that department. Continuing to make my own shorts was always part of my plan post-school, but the good news is that you don't have to be successful on the level of a Bill Plympton to have your shorts serve your career. For instance, my recent children's film "Owl and Rabbit Play Checkers" didn't set the festival world on fire, getting into only 8 animation festivals and not winning any awards, but the film has made a great sales tool to land work at places such as Sesame. By showing the best bits of the film as little self-contained clips, Sesame could see me as someone who could originate cartoons for their program. That's "proof of authorship" in a nutshell.

Good relationships with others in the industry is important to any animation artist's career, and even more important to the livelihood of a studio owner, virtual or otherwise. In 2005 I worked with a great producer on an in-house TV series. After our year of working together we stayed in touch, bumping into each other at animation events (networking!) and in my SVA career class where I booked her as a frequent guest. A few years later when she landed as a producer at Sesame, she started to throw little bits of freelance my way, eventually recommending me to an outside producer who was responsible for producing the Word on the Street animated segments. With each job you get, especially as you get deep into a career, you can trace the family tree of how you got the opportunity. You won't become friends with everyone you work with (see my last post), nor can you do a perfect job of staying in touch with everyone as the years roll by... so a basic understanding of the importance of relationship building in your career is all you need.

3- Creative Confidence
To work as fast as these Sesame shorts require, you have to be able to dive in and quickly conquer the blank paper (or Cintiq screen). When I was assigned the word "Cling" for the short posted above, the client suggested "Monkeys clinging to branches" or "babies clinging to mothers," so I thought, why not put those together? So, I wrote the very lose story of a monkey clinging to a branches and a vine as it looks for something unseen offscreen. Then, the big reveal would be that its looking for its mother, ending with the baby monkey clinging to its mother's belly as they walk off. I wrote a couple of sentences to outline the idea and once approved I went right to an animatic/storyboard. A fun part of making all these shorts is experimenting with a different look for each one. For "Cling," I tried out a partially colored character, letting the rest of the shapes fill in with white.

Another enjoyable aspect of these shorts is planning out the action. In "Cling," I gave myself the rule of not having any scene cuts, but instead focusing on following the action of the Monkey's movements all in one scene. Setting some rules like this gives you an approach to the storytelling, helping you find your creative vision. The confidence to do all this comes from having put in that time making proofs of authorship. I also used this same dive-in-and-do-it approach to help me tap into a new kind of spontaneity I used in my new film "Grandpa Looked Like William Powell." No creative work we do is fully in a bubble, so its not uncommon for techniques employed in a commercial gig to inform a personal project (or vice versa).

4-The Right Production Model for the Right Times
My virtual studio set up has its pros and cons. But, when it comes to a gig like these two orders of six original 30-second cartoons, there is nothing that would work better. For work such as this, intended for a free itunes podcast, the budgets are very small. This means that there's no wiggle room to bring in a lot of help or to have a long production span. Each short is made in a five day period, from writing to delivery with my only help coming from my friend Adrian Urquidez who handles the background art. If I was a traditional studio, even a small one with two or three partners (like many are set up in this town), taking on this job as a viable account wouldn't be possible. Just having the studio rent and insurance would make this prohibitive. But working from home, and at great speed, with myself as the main workforce adds up to very doable scenario.

We didn't invent today's budgets nor did we invent the new platforms such as itunes for which my animation services are now being used. The world moves on and the way I see it, doing original paid animation for a platform such as itunes is a new outlet, one that I appreciate. In that context, I don't bemoan the low budget. New York animation artists are, by our very nature, survivors. We have never had the luxury of steady-Hollywood style work, so we've always had to scrape by and thrive on a diverse mix of opportunities.

My entry into the virtual studio game was not planned as a shrewd response to a shifting media landscape, its only with hindsight that I see the timing turned out to be just right. But, there is nothing random about the work you have to put in to create proof of authorship, or the relationships you have to build along the way to foster opportunity.


JoE C said...

Great post man!

Daniel said...

Thanks for your insight Dave. Appreciated as always. :)

David B. Levy said...

Glad you enjoyed the post, Joe C and Daniel.