Thursday, April 29, 2010

ASIFA-East and You

Pictured above, just a sampling of the world-class veterans of NYC animation found in ASIFA-East. From top to bottom and left to right are Xeth Feinberg, Candy Kugel, Debra Solomon, Emily Hubley, Signe Baumane, George Griffin, Bill Plympton, and Michael Sporn.

For lots of us in the NY animation scene, ASIFA-East is as necessary as oxygen. Despite recent signs of growth, most jobs are still on a short-term basis, be they in-house or offsite. That could be a good recipe for an isolated and fractionated community, were it not for ASIFA-East bringing people together––from retired veterans to students (along with everyone in between). I can't even calculate how important ASIFA-East has been for me both personally and professionally. Over the years it has provided connections, contacts, opportunities, and inspiration––all of which helped me persevere through hard times as well as give me confidence to dream big and create a career of my choice.

The oft-repeated Woody Allen quote "90% of success is showing up," could well apply to ASIFA-East. When you attend an event (especially if you go out with the gang afterwards) you get a chance to bond, share tips, and cheer on each other's triumphs. In other words, the average ASIFA-East event is a potential networking bonanza.

I haven't shared too many details about it, but my wife and I are in the works on our own animated feature film. To start out we are producing a 10 minute short section of the larger film––something we can use as a pitch vehicle and a festival film to (hopefully) help secure funding and distribution. To lay the proper foundation for the production that will follow, we needed just the right storyboard artist, one that perfectly matched our very specific vision for the project. For months we've been searching on and off. But, the search came to a happy ending recently, thanks to ASIFA-East.

After one of the March jury screenings a bunch of us went to the nearby Rodeo Bar to unwind and discuss the films we just saw over some beer and burgers. Near the end of the night, an old animation friend of mine joined us at the table and stayed for a drink. And, hearing about the types of projects that he'd been working on, a light clicked on in my head: maybe he'd be our perfect storyboard artist?

When I got home my wife and I checked out his website portfolio and got more proof that he was our guy. The next morning I called him and we arranged to meet for coffee that afternoon. I'm happy to report that he took on our job and delivered an amazing storyboard! Best of all, he told me, "I felt as if this was my project, something I was doing just for fun." That's what every producer wants to hear! Despite the fact that it was a paid gig, the project felt personal to him. Needless to say, if we are able to secure funding for the feature, he'll be the first person we'll call. Details about this project and those involved will be disclosed at a future time.

The important thing is that without ASIFA-East bringing us together, I would have never thought of this artist for this particular opportunity. For one thing, we'd never worked together, despite co-existing for years in the NY animation community. For over forty-five years ASIFA-East has been providing a priceless service to this community. Despite how much or how little one participates in everything ASIFA-East has to offer (monthly screenings, free drawing classes, an annual festival, a facebook group, a digital on-line newsletter with blogs, articles, event reports, and events calender) I think it's safe to say we'd all miss it if it were gone. Plug into the community and make or renew a few of your own connections by joining us on Sunday May 9th for our annual Animation festival. See ya there!

Thursday, April 22, 2010


*Image above from Elliot Cowan's multi-award winning independent short "Brothers in Arms."

Elliot Cowan is one of my favorite animation artists working today as well as a good friend of mine. I was recently privileged to sit on an animation development panel with him, moderated by the industry savvy Terence Gray (the Executive Director and founder of The New York Television Festival), on the subject of animation development on April 20, 2010 at the nifty Showbiz Center Cafe on W. 21st Street in NYC.

Long before I wrote a book on pitching and development for animation, I had attended many such panel events and no matter which city or country they're in, the same audience questions keep coming up. Some of the most commonly asked questions have to be, "Why can't there be more adult animation on TV? And, will my adult animated project have a chance?"

The meaning of "adult" in this context is the inclusion of violence, sex, and other sophisticated adult themes, much like you might see in a typical episode of original television on HBO. And, it could imply the inclusion of a season wide story arc that gradually unfolds over many episodic outings, even if the episodes themselves can be otherwise self-contained.

In North America, mainstream animation on TV and in theaters tends to be family or kid oriented. That's the biggest market where the most money can be made. Other avenues such as animation on Comedy Central, Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, and prime time animation on Fox cater to a more adult crowd but focus primarily on comedy. So, does this mean that there is no place for "adult" animation as described above?

My go to answer for this oft-repeated question is, "Who was clamoring for an X-rated cartoon showing cats in compromising situations back in 1972? One that was based on an underground character with little mainstream public recognition? None of that mattered to Ralph Bakshi who, through sheer force of his will, got that project sold, made, and distributed to profit and acclaim. To top it off, Bakshi had never made a feature before. He was not a household name nor a major name in the entertainment industry. What part of that was easy, or even probable? Just as Bakshi did––it is your job to figure it out if you want to break ground and make something nobody has seen before.

Another audience member made a short film (intending it as a series pilot) but wasn't sure who his audience was. Elliot asked him some sharp questions:

Elliot: "Who did you make it for?"
Audience member: "Kids, but I want their parents to enjoy it too."

Elliot: "So, your audience is PG."
Audience member: "Yeah, but somebody told me that my stuff was too violent. I don't think it is. At one point I have a kid hit another kid over the head with a bat. But, that's nothing. Elmer Fudd shoots Bugs Bunny in the face. And, that's for kids."

In our hour long panel discussion, Elliot and I didn't always have time to carry each answer to its full conclusion, but there was a lot to say on this topic. I'm not sure if the audience member was aware that the Looney Tunes example was made seventy years ago. Seventy years ago there was no man on the moon, Russia didn't have the bomb, and the hula hoop craze was just a gleam in some entrepreneur's eye. The world has changed in 70 years. And, along with it––the standards for what is appropriate for children to watch. The important thing is WE DON'T HAVE TO AGREE WITH IT.

A key part of the puzzle is that the Bugs Bunny shorts (and all that great golden age stuff) was made for general audiences that may or may not have included kids. Lots of adults watched those cartoons so they had to play well for a diverse audience. Second, a talking rabbit encountering a hunter is a FANTASY situation. A kid hitting another kid over the had with a bat is a real situation that can be repeated by kids anywhere, right in their own backyard. I personally believe that most kids know the difference between fantasy and reality.

But, again, my point is not that you have to AGREE that you shouldn't be allowed to have a kid hit another kid with a bat in your cartoon, but, if you you're making a cartoon pitch for TV, some executive is probably going to object to that. That's the reality. If you don't want to make the compromise, make a Webtoon and host it on your site or on youtube. The web makes a great place for your uncensored vision.

Another memorable part of the panel for me was another conversation between Elliot and an audience member. Elliot has the ability to be honest, blunt, supportive, and informative at the same time. One audience member started to describe his own pitch-in-the-making in a very apologetic manner. "They won't like it cause its pornographic and violent, etc." And, each time the would-be creator put his own work in a negative light, Elliot kept gently interrupting him by telling him, "This is a terrible way to pitch, mate. Don't point out what's shit about it." Good advice, indeed.

It was a well attended evening with questions and answers flying back and forth. We all had a blast. Thanks a bunch to Terence Gray and the New York Television festival for putting this together.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Nature versus Nurture

(master art director, Bob Levy, working at Grey Advertising in 1980––cooking up major ad campaigns by the day, and coming home by night to share the blow-by-blow stories with a seven year old Dave Levy)

Lately I've been trying to figure out why I hold the attitudes and beliefs I do about the industry and why they sometimes differ from the opinions held by my heroes and peers in animation. This Spring I've been teaching an 8 week animation career course for the Rochester Institute of Technology (held at the 92nd Street Y) where recently, one of the students may have slipped me the answer. The student asked, "Do you think you relate to management because your father worked in advertising as an art director?" I suppose that in a lot of ways that's true. I grew up on a steady nightly diet of my dad's management and workplace collaboration stories. These were tales from the creative executive side. I found them fascinating. I learned from my father that you make the greatest contribution to a project from a position at the top. And I learned the negatives too––the eternal challenge of working effectively with people, the increased stress that goes with greater responsibility, and how the greater the responsibility the greater the consequences of failure.

Maybe its more important to think about the stories I didn't grow up on. There was no parental figure telling me the world was out to get me, not to trust people, or to be automatically cynical on bosses and management. The interesting thing is there were lots of evidence in my dad's office stories that could have supported that view of the world, but instead I always took the stories as studies in human folly, not institutional folly. I didn't believe that ALL management was bad or that ALL workers were good. The reality was that to be successful in the commercial arts field, you needed to learn how to work effectively with all kinds of people and that was true whether you worked at the top or in the trenches.

As an employer, I've come across very talented animators, some at the top of their game, who behave as all employers are out to shaft them in one way or another. When you're not that kind of employer, dealing with these situations just seems like big fires to put out that didn't need to be lit in the first place. It makes for a very unpleasant work experience for both sides. It saps everybody's strength away from the fun stuff.

I know there are many bad experiences out there and each of us has similar and diverse experiences in the field. We can view the industry and our relationship with the people in it with an open mind or with a pre-judgment. And, this makes me wonder how much of our attitudes come from nature and how much from nurture? Does it depend on the diet of stories we grow up on? And, what part comes from the genuine instances of being screwed over by worst-case-scenario studio owners and bosses? Nobody denies that bad studios and bosses exist, but is it reasonable to assume each new job experience will follow suit? And, to treat people that way accordingly? Or is either view held simply a valid response to working in such an unstable industry?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Owning Your Weakness

A life in animation brings certain realities. On the negative side it's an often-unstable living. On the positive side is the privilege of a life spent doing something you love. If you want animation to do more for you, like give you the ability to buy a house, have a family, take a vactation once in a while, then you have to do MORE in animation. You have to network, keep your skills up, work and play well with others, and grow your talents outside of the realm of a paycheck. The less you do in all those areas, the more brilliant you'd better be to make up for those deficiencies.

As for me and my weaknesses? Where should I start? I'm the guy that Howard Beckerman, a wise and dear friend of mine, used to refer to as "someone who can't draw well but has great ideas." And, you know what? He got the "can't draw well" part right, and hopefully I'll still prove myself on the "great ideas" part. If Howard could see my weakness, so could others, including (most importantly) myself. On the first day of my first full-time job in the industry, at Michael Sporn's studio, I was so ashamed at my inability to draw a simple character in a few poses that I covered up my surviving drawings (the ones that didn't get crumpled into the garbage) with blank paper. All the studio's employees had to pass by my desk on the way to the lunch table and they each uncovered my drawings a little further until all my shame was exposed clear as day. Nobody offered a high five and there was no, "Hey! This guy can draw!" compliments.

These were all artists I respected and I wasn't fit to breathe their air. After the trauma of sitting through that experience the studio's affable production manager at the time, Robert Marianetti, gently asked me, "What did you show to get hired here?" The message was clear to me. I was in trouble. And, whether or not my job was truly on the line, it was important that I BELIEVED it was. I took home the model sheet, drew the characters every night until 3 AM, studied the storyboard for the pilot we were working on, and emerssed myself in the seemingly endless hours of animation that Michael's studio had completed in previous years. Little by little, I clawed my way out of the abyss and it was hard not to get emotional two weeks later when Michael promoted me to work in the studio full-time, hiring someone else to do my previous duties as studio runner/messenger.

I don't share this story to show that one can make up for a critical deficiency within two weeks. The point is that ANY day you start is where you begin. For me it was owning all the hard work that I HADN'T done up till that point and doing something about it. It's a good many years later and I'm still on that mission, to overcome my weaknesses, to try to make a contribution to this industry, and to simply keep my place in it. I would have never guessed, before my career began, that owning my weakness could prove so motivating. It's become the cornerstone of my philosophy.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Animation Studio Blues

I don't know of a more romantic notion than opening your very own four walls and a roof animation studio. To do so is to follow in the footsteps of Max Fleischer, Walt Disney, John and Faith Hubley, and so on... For decades there has never been a better way for an animation artist to take fate into their own hands, to work with the people they'd like to be working with, and to the set of their own marching orders. There have even been pockets of time where an independent animation studio could equal big business. For instance, Shamus Culhane's 1950s NY commercial animation studio made millions of dollars at a time when commercial work was plentiful, creatively rewarding, and highly profitable.

Obviously even the smallest studio will have ups and downs that tend to fluctuate along with changes to the economy. Today, some small animation studios (at least the ones I respect most) are not in the business to make a Trump-sized killing. Instead, their founders chose to build and organize studios where independence, survival, and a lifetime doing what one loves is enough reward.

But survival comes with its own reality. For one thing, the small studio (even ones that grow as large as 75 employees) will either (as necessity or when pushed against a wall) resort to robbing Peter to pay Paul. In such a way the studio hires labor and gets paid by the client, but puts off paying the worker to first pay off other pressing bills. These bills might include rent, utilities, salaries of key personnel, and (finally) the labor that's been waiting the longest to be paid. The average small animation studio works with one foot in a ditch. And, the odd part is that the medium to large independent studios are no better off. These studios tend to go after longer form projects such as TV series work. And, yet, the economics are still such that to bring in a show on schedule, within budget, and to the desired quality... often some amount of free labor is engaged, some of which may or may not qualify as illegal internships.

Case in point: I recently caught up with a very talented animation artist who graduated four years ago. During that time he had found some long-term employment at one of the local studios, but when I saw him a couple of weeks ago he told me he was interning at another studio. Four years out of school and now working for free? What does this say about the viability of the small animation studio? Or about the health of our so-called industry? I think we can all agree that it's sobering stuff.

I don't have the desire to found my own traditional studio. But without having done so, I've been able to work from home, land jobs (big and small), and augment my efforts with off-site workforce as needed. And, when my workers have to wait to get paid, it's because I am waiting on the same check. When the check comes in, my workers get paid at the same time. No robbing Peter to pay Paul. I used to say that I didn't want to have my own studio because I didn't want to buy light bulbs. But, the real reasons I don't want a studio is I don't think I'd have the fortitude to layoff workers I'd like to keep, or to have to ask some people to work for free, or to expect others to wait to be paid despite the fact that the client has already paid for that job. And, perhaps most important of all, a virtual studio doesn't have the same pressure to take undesirable jobs just to keep the whole darn thing afloat.

The life of an animation studio owner can't be easy, but even with all the above I still find it a very romantic notion. And despite what I've written, a virtual studio is not without its challenges and problems. You have to be able to get the work, deliver the job, and get paid, and this requires a strong set of business skills, people skills, and creative chops. Perhaps most importantly, to be successful at the virtual studio you have to be able (and willing) to over- communicate to both your clients and your workers because working offsite requires this as a rule. And, not every type of job is easy (or even appropriate) to tackle in a virtual studio with an offsite workforce. The virtual studio does best with relatively simple animation jobs that don't require everyone working under one roof.

I particularly enjoy that working off-site allows me to creatively and responsibly organize my own work day. Because of this I've been able to seed in more time for my own projects than I have been able to do at any other time in my career.

Is the four walls and a roof studio a thing of the past? I sure hope not. As a virtual studio, I enjoy collaborating with such small studios on series and pilots, helping them offset their cost by providing some of their labor so they don't have to hire and station all those bodies in house, which is something that meager budgets would not allow in the first place. There must be other creative ways by which work can be organized, produced, and delivered without having to make free labor or unreasonably delayed payments the go-to solution. It's just up to us animation folks to figure it out, just as others did before us.