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."

Friday, July 23, 2010

Inspiration City

*images above and below from Stephen and Joel Moss Levinson's pilot, currently called "Noah's Ark."

Two weeks ago I posted a piece inspired by Meredith Gran, congratulating the artist on her first published work. It's been said, inspiration is wherever you find it, and this week I unexpectedly found it again.

As an author, I speak at a few animation industry events each year, and one of the benefits is that it serves as my introduction to some interesting people in the audience. This past April, fellow filmmaker Elliot Cowan and I gave a talk for The New York Television Festival on the subject of animation development. In the audience was Stephen Levinson, who works at Comedy Central's on-line division, and has aspirations to helm his own series.

Since my book Animation Development: From Pitch to Production was published, I've been contacted by one or two creators a week, wishing to show me their pitches for advice, encouragement, or help finding development executives. For those who haven't read my book, the answer is simple: "Read the book and if you still have questions on development or pitching, let me know."

I don't have the time to counsel on one or two projects a week, nor do I want the potential legal nightmare that goes with that––so it's rare that I'll check out a pitch by a perfect stranger. But that's just what I did this week. And I'm glad I did.

Shortly after the April panel, Stephen Levinson friended me on Facebook. Last week he wrote me that he and his brother, Joel Moss Levinson, created an eight-minute animated pitch film featuring the voice of a major comedy figure, Jonathan Katz. This got my attention, especially since the comedian is one of my all-time favorites. So, Stephen and I made a plan to meet for drinks in my neighborhood so he could give me a copy of his DVD and his two-sheet pitch proposal. Their self produced pilot, based around Noah's Ark, is an outgrowth of a series of shorts they made called God & Company for the on-line Jewish magazine Tablet.
Stephen and his brother are smart cookies, instinctually making some very good moves when they developed their project. First off, when looking for a subject for a pitch, they thought back to some childhood skits they would perform for their family at holiday time. Second, they wrote a tight script with full-blooded characters, and third, they took a chance and asked top comedians, without knowing any of them personally, if they would come aboard and voice their soundtrack for free. Guess what? They all said yes! The key was getting the main comedian to sign on, after which all the other talent followed suit. Like I said, the Levinsons are smart cookies. When I expressed my amazement that he landed such big-name actors to voice his film he agreed, "I know, I still can't believe it myself."

I've already watched their self-made pilot twice and plan to watch it a few more times. It's terrific. These brothers are funny guys with a sharp vision. When I asked Stephen what his brother did for a living, he told me he was a professional video contest winner living on prize money won from corporate video contests. So, next time Crystal Light lists a video contest on the back of their box, think of Joel Moss Levinson.

I love being around people like Stephen that dream big, follow through, and despite their accomplishments, hold onto an "Aw shucks, I can't believe we pulled it off" attitude. Besides the amazing soundtrack, the pilot was animated under the expert supervision of head animator Ed Mundy (Archer, Sealab 2021), and designed by illustrator Mike Herrod.

The brothers have just begun to pitch their project but are already feeling a major sense of success and achievement. And isn't that what it's all about? Very inspiring stuff indeed.

I wonder what kind of inspiration I'll find next week?

Friday, July 16, 2010

The "No" list

The older I get the less interested I seem to be in mainstream animated features. For instance, despite the fact that lots of people recommended it, I never did get my butt to the theatre to check out How to Train Your Dragon. And, it's not because of an anti-Dreamworks bias. I liked Kung Fu Panda, but, even if you've seen and enjoyed a few modern mainstream CGI animated films, after a while it becomes impossible to keep up with them, and more importantly, apathy can set in. A good CGI animated feature is like a decent piece of bubble gum. While chewing gum brings some pleasure, it doesn't mean that I need to try every new gum that wads up on the bottom of my shoe. I don't have that kind of interest in gum, shoes, or in these animated features.

This doesn't mean I'm not seeing other types of films playing in theaters. My wife, who has a far wider knowledge of cinema than I, has been a good influence on me–– expanding my horizons to take in more diverse films from the past and present. We recently attended theatrical screenings of a pair of Weimar Germany-era silent classics Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) and Metropolis (1927), the gripping B-movie noir classic, Nightfall (1957), as well as a pair of recent documentaries, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work and Two in the Wave, which is about French New Wave directors Godard and Truffaut.

*image above from Diary of a Lost Girl.

On DVD (thank you Netflix!), we just watched Sydney Pollack's thrilling Three Days of the Condor (1975), William Wyler's tense drama The Children's Hour (1961), Roman Polanski's haunting Repulsion (1965), as well as Mel Stuart's appealing and light If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969).

*image above from Repulsion.

When you explore the whole spectrum of films that are available to watch, (even if it's just putting a toe in the water like me), it can give you a new perspective on the mainstream American animated feature. In short, when did the facial expressions and body language of "funny man" Jim Carrey replace our once-cherished The Illusion of Life? When did every animated character start moving, acting, and behaving the same way? Need an example? Check out the trailer to Disney's upcoming Tangled. I'm not the first to observe that in mainstream theatrical animation attitude has replaced personality, and formula has replaced storytelling. In short, to compare the modern mainstream animated feature to the caliber of live-action films my wife and I are taking in, is like comparing balloon animals to Michelangelo's David.

I realize that cherry picking from a hundred years of live action cinema doesn't make for a fair comparison to modern day animated features. Perhaps if I took in more of today's mainstream live-action films I might have the same reaction. I only single out animation because it's what I do and what I care about most. And, as a sign of respect to it's potential I want to compare it to the best in cinema, not simply to other animated features.

Is this the face of today's mainstream animated feature?

I sometimes feel like tuning out all these modern animated features. That's one option, but it carries its own burdens. Fully blocking out mainstream animation can disconnect me from the current scene, which is like leaving myself out of the conversation. With that in mind, I'll still make it to a couple of these animated features a year...if only to see what's not right with them. That's an essential thing to do if your goal is to create better works that may help to grow the medium and the art.

I don't think you can create art without dissatisfaction. You have to want to do better than what's out there, or at the very least add your own vision or voice to the mix. Don't get me wrong, I think it's wonderful that so many of the highest grossing features, these days, are animated. Lots of talented artists are employed and getting to earn a living in their chosen craft. And, while employment on high-profile projects is a dream come true, its wrong to assume these same artists have zero influence on the types of films their studio's make.

It's not such a far-fetched idea to imagine feature animation artists and directors pushing for something new. Once upon a time Disney innovated by allowing it's new generation of artists make the films they wanted to make, even if it meant slogging through The Black Cauldron before they could get to The Little Mermaid. Don Bluth and his followers believed so strongly in fighting for the films they wanted to make that they walked out of their jobs at Disney, putting everything on the line for their beliefs.

Pixar director (Finding Nemo, Wall-E) Andrew Stanton answers a student's question after giving a lecture at NYU. John Canemaker, looks on far left.

More recently, Pixar created an animation revolution with the original Toy Story, not by imitating then-popular formulas, but by doing things their way. Pixar director Andrew Stanton told NYU students that when Pixar was crafting the original Toy Story the first step was to create a "No" list. On that paper was everything they didn't want to imitate about what was then a very popular and successful formula at Disney (such as including "The Happy Village Song," the "I want song," a Broadway style score, a love story, etc.).

Maybe it's time each of us––indies, TV, Web, or feature animators––draft up our own "No" list. And maybe the best of 100 years of live-action can help make a "Yes" list.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Meredith Gran, and the Savvy Generation

Gosh, a lot has changed in a very short while. When I graduated from SVA in 1995, it was such a different professional and media landscape than it is today. Back then, if you were lucky enough to get a job, you worked hard to keep it, growing your skills, and cementing important work relationships one at a time, so that maybe over the course of five years you'd have a large enough network in the community to ensure a steady flow of work opportunities.

For today's generation, whether still in school or recently graduated, it's a very different world, one where community networks and connections are not necessarily the product of years-long in-person build up. Instead, savvy young individuals have already built up huge social and professional networks, reaching both fans and colleagues while creating career opportunities.

For example, my wife and I were in a downtown restaurant last week when she spotted well-known 15-year-old fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson, The Style Rookie, (she has her own Wikipedia entry). It was the right week for the "young and successful" because only a day prior we attended the Brooklyn launch (at Bergen Street Comics) of Meredith Gran's first published book, a collection of her self-penned comic Octopus Pie. Note: Gran and her work pictured above.

Less than five years ago Meredith was a member of my SVA animation career class, as well as my thesis student. It was a joy to work with her on her charming film Polar-oid, and watch her progress on it week-to-week. Shortly after she graduated I was able to enlist her to work with me on Cartoon Network's Assy McGee, (co-created by Carl W. Adams for his Boston-based animation studio Clambake). Gran was a key player on the series, using her considerable talents to craft terrific animatics for nearly every episode that season, later jumping aboard as an animator.

Long before I met her, besides being a crackerjack animator right out of the gate, Meredith had been making her own indie comics, first photocopying them to spread around, and then launching a web-based serial comic strip Octopus Pie. She updated her online strip three times a week and developed a following. Linking to other like-minded cartoonists with web comics, she fostered a community of contacts, friends, peers, and potential publishers and distributors.

But, Meredith's efforts at promotion weren't all of the virtual kind, she never missed renting a table (with other comics art friends) at San Diego's Comic-Con, and she frequented many other major comics gatherings around the country, such as NY's Mocca Art Festival. Recently, all her talent and hard work caught the attention of a publisher, Villard, which just released a paperback collection of her strip titled Octopus Pie: There Are No Stars in Brooklyn.

I think it's wonderful that Meredith and the generation behind her have figured out how to forge careers, not by relying on the whims and tastes of gatekeepers (network execs, studio bosses, etc.), but through self-promotion and community building (both online and in-person). They are changing the rules of the game, making them up as they go along.

I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Octopus Pie: There Are No Stars in Brooklyn, and make this witty, personal, and expertly drawn book part of your summer reading.

I can't wait to see what Meredith achieves next. She's already hinted that she's begun animating the characters in her comic, so we'll just have to stay tuned.

When my wife and I left Meredith's book signing we couldn't stop smiling. Maybe it was the complimentary champagne that Bergen Street Comics provided, but more likely it was simply inspiring to see such talent, drive, and understanding of the new media landscape sprouting up in the next generation. That provides a lot of hope and inspiration to this "thirty-something." Congrats, again, Meredith!