Saturday, April 30, 2011

Two Weeks in Review

Director David B. Levy, Director Frederick Marx, and moderator Christopher Ramsey, during the Q & A at the Florida Film Festival. "Grandpa" played before Frederick Marx's (Hoop Dreams) new feature "Journey From Zanskar." Photo by Lance Turner

It was an important two weeks, so, of course, I caught a cold. The current spree began a couple of weekends ago when I jetted down to the Florida Film Festival where my “Grandpa” short competed in the doc shorts festival. This festival has a great reputation among animators who have attended over the years. Upon arrival at the Festival’s main location at the lovely Enzian Theatre, I learned almost every volunteer was already familiar with my film, so it was easy to feel welcome and at home. To top it all off, a tropical mural designed by Bill Plympton (see detail below) adorns the walls surrounding the Enzian’s outdoor “Eden” bar.

I’m a late bloomer as an independent filmmaker, so my “Grandpa” short marks the first time I’m entering and getting into film festivals other than ones themed to animation or children’s’ content. The benefit of this is a chance to comingle with a different set of people from the larger communities of narrative and documentary live action shorts and features. That wouldn’t have been a desirable thing to me ten years ago, but now I really appreciate how important it is to have diverse contacts in different areas of film, TV, and the Web. When I was recently discussing this with Mike Rauch, he agreed, adding, “When you meet these live action filmmakers, you become their connection to animation, and they think of you for any of those needs that might come up.”

At the Florida Film Festival, my short opened for a feature (which Bill Plympton tells me is the more desirable way to be programmed, as opposed to being stuck into a batch of shorts). The feature was the new documentary by Frederick Marx (one of the director’s behind “Hoop Dreams,”) called “Journey From Zanskar,” which depicted a trek of Tibetan Monks trying to lead a group of poor village children on a dangerous and spiritual journey to begin new lives training to become Buddhist Monks and Nuns. I met Frederick just before our screening and he told me he was going to stay for my short and then come back for the Q and A. His film was magnificent, and opening for it was tremendous honor. I was blown away that Frederick loved my film too. In fact, we asked each other questions about our respective films during the Q and A!

At a festival, there seems to be great people to meet around every corner. Before I even got to the festival grounds, I shared a ride to the hotel with another filmmaker, Brooklyn-based Vaishali Sinha, who was there to represent her feature documentary (made with producer and co-director Rebecca Haimowitz), “Made in India.” In fact, when I signed in at the festival, the volunteers joked that every filmmaker attending the festival was either from L.A. or Brooklyn. How about that! I wasn’t able to attend Vaishali’s screening, but Debbie (who had flown down to join me at the fest mid-way) and I were so happy when she won the award for Best feature doc at the fest, something that qualifies her and Rebecca for a possible Academy Award nomination! Her film will be screening in the Big Apple at the NY Indian Film Festival, so I have another chance to check it out soon. Another feature doc at the fest was by Lawrence Johnson, a very affable fellow from Portland Oregon, whose film “Stuff,” won a special jury prize at the Festival. He gave me a DVD screener, which I can't wait to check out.

As soon as I got back to NY, my animation team started on the Adult Swim series I’m directing for Boston’s Clambake Animation. Incidentally, I found that the Adult Swim credit had a lot of cache in the film world. Most of the filmmakers I met were aware of that “brand,” and the feeling seemed to be one of respect, knowing that Adult Swim can stand for offbeat animated projects for a cult audience. Animation producer Claire Curley (The Electric Company) once told me, “The best time to promote yourself is when you’re already under contract.” This means that when you have projects going on it’s all the more important to be making the rounds of self-promotion. This way you have the opportunity to capitalize on what you’re doing, by using your current projects to grow your next opportunities.

A still from "Grandpa Looked Like William Powell"

The next week I was promoting “Grandpa” at another festival, this time at Tribeca (right in my home town), where I was competing again in the doc shorts category. Just getting into festivals makes your self-promotion plans easier. Agents, distributors, and other festivals scour the listings of the Tribeca festival (and other festivals). This can lead to invitations to enter other fests (sans fees), as well as offers of representation and distribution, all of which happened to me during my two weeks at the Tribeca Festival. What any of that will amount to, I have no idea. But, it’s nice to have these new opportunities. Festivals are not the be and end all to determine what is good or worthy, but there’s no denying the boost they offer to participating filmmakers.

During the Q and A following the premiere of "Open 24 Hours" a program of 8 shorts at the Tribeca Film Festival. From left to right: Me, Joe DeRosa, Phil Botti, and Vinz Feller.

As an animator entering the Florida Film Festival, Tribeca, Atlanta Film Festival, or The Athens International Film Festival, it was neat to realize that I was a complete nobody in their eyes. I’d never even entered a film in these fests before, so when they saw some merit in “Grandpa” it was not based on how the film compared to my usual work or personal standards. The film had to make it or sink on its own.

Between Tribeca’s nightly parties, and five screenings of my film, there was ample opportunity to meet and connect with many other filmmakers, writers, actors, and producers. Tribeca programmed my film to be the only animated short (or doc) playing with a selection of 7 live action narrative shorts. The first five films were heavy dramatic pieces full of family tension and angst. One was “Storm up the Sky” by Jon Kauffman, who had previously worked as Darren Aronofsky’s assistant on “Black Swan.” Two other favorites of mine were comedic films “Loose Change” by Phil Botti (who’s day job is working at Atlantic Records), and “Cheat” by comedian Joe DeRosa. Through the latter film I got to meet several comics whom appreciated the humor in my film.

Sharon Badal, head programmer of the Tribeca shorts told me that “Grandpa” was used as a transitional film in the program to bridge from drama to comedy. Between Sharon, and Shorts Programmer Ben Thompson, we were in good hands. At one point during a Q and A helmed by Ben Thompson, an audience member asked us a very general question about distribution outlets. Ben briefly and politely answered the question before asking if there were any questions about the actual films screened. All of us filmmakers standing there very much appreciated his savvy handling of the situation.

During the awards party Debbie and I happened to meet Ryan Silbert, who had produced this year’s Oscar winning live action short “God of Love.” I really dug that short when I saw it at the short list Oscar voting, and I was thrilled when it won the Oscar because, so often, comedies don’t get the recognition they deserve. Ryan has capitalized on the Academy Award by starting a production company called Toy Closet Films, with a business partner. Similarly, Jon Kauffman is readying a feature script to ride the momentum of “Black Swan” and his Tribeca short. It was infectious being around all these amazing people for two weeks. I even managed to meet an animator or two, in Canadians Felix Dufour-Laperriere (his film was the experimental “Strips”), and Jordan Canning (“Not Over Easy,” which was part of the fest’s animation shorts program). Felix told me his current job is making an animated film at the legendary Canadian Film Board. I jokingly asked him if Paul Driessen was there, and he replied, “Yes, I say hello to him every morning!”

Smack in the middle of all this Tribeca business, I had to miss one of my screening nights to attend the launch of the book I co-authored with Bill Plympton at NY’s Society of Illustrators. At the “standing room only” event, Bill asked me to say a few words about our collaboration and, afterwards, join him at the table to co-sign the books. Actor Matthew Modine was in attendance too (he’s provided voices on two of Bill’s recent short films), and he revealed that he almost became an animator because of an obsession he had with the Fleischer Popeye’s as a kid. Among the other attendees were famous New Yorker cartoonists’ Sam Gross and Mort Gerberg.

If I'm beaming, its because I'm standing next to two of my biggest heroes in the whole world: Bill Plympton and Howard Beckerman.

This was the kind of two weeks it has been: my usual animation world opening up to include new experiences with players in the world of live action film, illustration, cartooning, and beyond. But, on Sunday Night May 1st, it became all about animation again with the ASIFA-East Animation Festival! During all this hustle I thankfully found some time to beat back my cold, but, unfortunately, before I could, I passed it along to Debbie. But, thankfully the common cold was the only damper on two weeks of fun, inspiration, and free drinks.

I never thought I’d write a book with Bill Plympton, make a short that got into Tribeca, or have a gig directing a series for Adult Swim. But, that’s what’s interesting about a career. Who knows where anything leads? One thing is certain: the steps we take today, however small and spread out, are taking us somewhere... Not knowing the exact where and when is half the fun!

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Juggling Match

As part of my School of Visual Arts Animation Career Strategies class, which I teach to graduating seniors each year, I ask them to bring in two questions each week based on the assigned readings. The texts cover just about every aspect of building and maintaining a healthy career in this industry, and the questions they inspire help to shape our discussion in class. One interesting thing that has come up time and again is fear or stress at the idea of having to do more than one thing at a time. In other words: while you’re going on interviews and looking for work, you should also be creating new samples (maybe specialized samples tailored to a project you’d like to work on), and networking by attending animation events/keeping in touch with your peeps online.

When I mentioned that it might be a good idea to volunteer at groups such as ASIFA, WIA, WICM, Animation Block Party, etc., a few students expressed concerns with fitting that into their schedule. Volunteering (in the context of animation organizations) is not a full time commitment, but an hour or two here and there, maybe spread over a month. I have to admit that I’m a little baffled by these fears, because my assumption is that this current generation would be experts at multi-tasking. Aren’t they the ones that are watching TV while texting, tweeting, and checking their e-mail? Maybe this modern-age skill for multi-tasking usually only serves frivolous purposes? I don’t want to believe that. But, there sure seems to be a gap in understanding that you need to juggle to earn and keep your place in this biz.

Time is among the most precious things we have, at any age. But, when you begin a career in animation, how you spend that time is especially critical. In this post I’m suggesting that its absolutely essential to be juggling things like the job hunt with networking, volunteerism, making new samples, etc., and for many newbies that may also mean adding working as interns for free or little money. Some will advise you to NEVER work for free under any circumstance. Others, such as successful newcomer Jake Armstrong, advises that its okay to work for free upon graduation, but insists you must set a definite limit at two days a week. That’s how he began (in an internship at Augenblick), and in only two years since, he’s become one of today’s most sought after freelancers (on both coasts!).

But, be careful in your internships. I just heard about a recent grad working at a studio where most every employee is an unpaid intern (all of them graduates), working for free, five days a week. She confessed that she hadn’t made it to ASIFA-East events in a long time because she just can’t get away. Now, as much as it’s true that no experience is wasted, I’d say this is still a very unfair situation. Not only is five days a week too much to ask of an intern, these free workers have been "working" this way for five months! Not only does this smack as illegal to me, it also robs the intern of the time he/she needs to use to find a REAL job, network/volunteer at events, and create new samples.

I don’t know that this kind of thing happens in other industries. I can’t imagine an oil rig opening up and asking oil workers to intern for free on the rig for five months/five days a week. Can you? But, animation artists line up for this shit. It boggles the mind. Yes, you have to pay your dues––we all did. But, paying your dues doesn’t have to involve being ripped off and abused. If you’re going to build a career of your own invention, you can’t do that without looking out for your basic needs and rights. You can’t juggle if your hands are bound.

Monday, April 18, 2011

If you can learn from your mistakes...

The rough design I mocked up (hijacking Bill Plympton's Guard Dog) for my last book cover. The story below could have been included in that book, but instead I'm sharing it here...

Today is an extra fun day for me because it’s my animation team’s start on a new animated series I’m directing for Boston’s Clambake Animation. The beginning of a project is an exciting time full of invention, especially when you get a chance to animate a show’s first season as we are doing. We have a killer mix of great artists working in-house at Clambake under the supervision of Exec Producer Carl Adams, Creative Director Andre Lyman, Producer Julia King, and Business partner Carrie Snyder, and a wrecking crew of six NY-area animators, that Carl has affectionately dubbed “Clambake Brooklyn.” It’s way too early to reveal any details about our series, so they can’t be shared in this post. But, I’m happy to say that it’s a great project that was written and created by top TV writers who have worked in both live action and animated hits.

Clambake and I learned so much together on our past projects, as we felt our way to making the most of our on-site/off-site hybrid productions. With the tight schedules and budgets we are used to working with, there’s simply no cushion that would afford you to make the same mistake twice anyhow. With TV animation production, you can really sense that you’re adding your stage of production to a constantly moving assembly line. This makes you have to learn to take advantage of every minute of the day and intimately know the day-to-day progress of your team, while giving them everything they need to be successful. That sounds like a no-brainer, but it certainly wasn’t the case on the first series I directed for.

At the start of my directing career I was on a hit series with a fat budget and a longish production span. But, despite those advantages, we somehow never quite took full advantage of it. I know that first hand because in this story below I was part of the problem.

One of my lead animators finished her scenes on our latest episode a whole week and a half early. It was a combination of her fine effort combined with her being assigned to a section of the episode that had few to no production hiccups or educational challenges. When I saw this talented animator was freed up I couldn’t believe my luck! Wow! Now we’d have the rare chance of having a lead animator be able to start the next episode early. In my fantasy I imagined the best pair of episodes that my team ever delivered!

But, as you can probably already guess, it didn’t turn out that way. Animators on our series would show their director work on a daily basis: during casual (and sometimes spontaneous) desk visits, or officially in a team approval viewing two mornings a week. To show work in the latter method, animators would call their team’s production assistant the night before to reserve their place the next day. The following morning the PA would walk around a hard drive (we had no networked server or ftp site back then) so animators could copy their work to a central place.

On the second day of the lead animators early start I asked her how things were going. She assured me all was fine and things were coming along. By the third day I saw she wasn’t showing me any work, either casually or officially, and at the end of that day I popped by again to ask how things were going. Again she assured me things were fine even though she wasn’t showing me anything. On the fourth day I didn’t pop by at all, but the next day during a department wide meeting I told my whole team that if anyone hadn’t shown work this week they should sign up for Monday morning approvals.

I hoped that my message would be heard, but apparently, it was not. When Monday came, she didn’t show again, and when I stopped by the next day to ask her again how it was going she again made some excuse and I backed away. This was all very confusing to me because this animator had always had a good work ethic and was a good communicator. Whatever was going on, I realized it had gotten out of hand, so I forced a confrontation the next day by asking the PA to show up at her desk with a drive to make her show work in approvals. I’m not saying this was the best or most natural way to solve this problem––it was just what I tried from my low level of experience as a director.

I should point out that during the span of days that this problem unfolded I wasn’t just waiting around my office hoping to see her work. I was busy working on 8 episodes at a time, 6 in various stages of pre-production, with 2 episodes in current production. Every day there were fires to put out, and my time was spread very thin.

Back in the story, when the PA showed up at her desk, the animator was confused and insisted there must be a mistake, so the PA came to me and asked what I wanted to do. I sent the PA back the animator, but instead of the animator copying work to the drive, she came into my office to yell at me. She was so mad that she was shaking. “Why are you on my back?” she shouted. I was so frustrated by this point that I shouted back, “Why aren’t you showing your work? You don’t work by yourself on this show. Nobody does. You’re on a team! And, part of the process is that you have to show your work to your director!” It was a very bad moment and we were both shaken up by it. Afterwards she and I each had a chance to talk to separately talk to our supervisor about it, and he supported me by saying that she had been wrong to withhold her work.

But, that felt like a very empty victory to me, suddenly, because I finally asked myself, “What will tomorrow be like?” We still had to work together. In my botched handling of the whole affair I hadn’t once thought of that. The other thing I finally realized (far too late) is how much of a partner I had been in this mess. It was my job to set the tone and provide a safe and effective workplace that would prevent any animator from getting into this situation. Instead, I’d help cause this! I gave this animator enough rope to hang herself with, so to speak, while at the same time escalating my frustration, which put all the blame on her.

Why did the animator do what she did? While that’s not the point of all this, I speculate that she felt “entitled” after finishing the previous cycle of episodes early and decided to have a slow start on the new work as a victory lap, of sorts. And, maybe that plan got away from her and before long, she was phoning it in for well over a week.

As part of the resolution of the conflict, she showed me what she had accomplished over those days and it was plain to see that this animator had only worked a day or so out of all that time. She was embarrassed, and immediately pledged to stay late and work weekends to make up for the lost time, which she did.

That was the end of the story for a long time, but years later when I was freelancing for the company she was working at; I bumped into her on the sidewalk outside their building. We chatted for a few moments before I confessed how sorry I was for this incident. “I made a lot of mistakes working with you, and I’m glad to have this opportunity to tell you how I feel.” I don’t think she was expecting me to talk about that, so our conversation ended awkwardly and abruptly. But, I was still glad and relieved to have a chance to admit my error and express my regrets.

Mistakes and missteps are going to happen in any career in animation. When it’s the director making them, the repercussions and potential damage become far worse. But, if you can learn from your mistakes and apply that knowledge forward, then no experience (no matter how negative it is) is without a positive side.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Make Mine MoCCA

Bill Plympton and I hawking our wares at MoCCA Fest 2011.

Last week my post was about the easiest/simplest form of networking, which is the basic “check-in” e-mail, keeping your contacts up to date on your current projects and availability. And, while there’s no doubt how effective this can be, it’s best to first establish an in-person relationship, and since you’ll want to network with a larger community of people than whom you happen to already be working with, nothing beats attending animation or related events to started.

This past weekend I participated in an amazing event that brought together many amazing talents from the comics, cartooning, and animation communities: The annual MoCCA Fest 2011. My half table, which I used to sell my books, was smack dab between a writer/producer from the USA Network named Jonathan Baylis and Bill Plympton. Bill and I were thrilled that we could be neighbors because our section made for a strong animation row with nicely overlapping products. He sold two cases of our new book from Rizzoli press, and I sold my Directing Animation book, which featured his Guard Dog character on the cover. Every time we made a sale, we’d pass a book to the other to get a second signature on it. It was a lot of fun! And, it was an amazing sight to have a front row seat to watch Bill interact with his fans, scribble free sketches, sometimes while he ate an orange or crunched some potato chips. Hey, a fella’s gotta keep his strength up.

Jonathan Baylis, whom I hadn't previously met, was a great guy. And, it turned out we had a lot of mutual friends in the business. He was there selling a series of comics he wrote and self-published called “So Buttons,” all of which were based on his life experiences. I bought his latest issue for a very reasonable $5 and read it on the way home from the first day. It was full of witty and sharp storytelling. Jonathan was also an old pro at this comic convention stuff. I learned a lot by watching him interact with his customers.

The festival attendees were an eclectic mix, as young as high school students, as old as elderly. There were fans, newbies, and established artists. In the latter category were animation friends Rob Kohr, Tom Eaton, Celia Bullwinkel, Amid Amidi, Katie Cropper, Susan Godfrey, Andrew Kaiko, Andy London, Erin Finnegan, Felipe Galindo, Alisa Haris, Dan and Gabe Pinto, Mo Willems, Robert Leighton, Maciek Albrecht, Dan Meth, Will Krause, Rob Schaad, Lindsay Woods, Jake Armstrong, Alisa Stern, Jaime Ekkens, Patricia Burgess, Devin Clark, Charles Kenny, Sandrine Flament, Sam Marlow, Ernest Kim, Audrey Skalkowski, Peter Ahern, Linda Beck, Jen Oxley, Heather Tilert, Melinda LaRose, Signe Baumane, Francisco Gutierrez, Adrian Urquidez, Dayna Gonzalez, Pedro Delgado, Erica Perez, Mina Sanwald, and my best friend in the whole universe, my wife Debbie.

As for creating a pre-event buzz, I think the award goes to my former student, Meredith Gran, and her pals Lisa Hanawalt, Kate Beaton, Sarah Glidden, Domitille Collardey, and Julia Wertz, who scored a two-page spread in the April 11, 2001 New Yorker Magazine!

On the cartoonist side, I got to reconnect with legendary New Yorker cartoonist Sam Gross, whom I met a while back when I was pitching gag cartoons to the magazine every Tuesday. Sam was very encouraging, and advised me to try again and keep building up my cartoon gag arsenal, which he reminded could be circulated to other magazines outside of The New Yorker.
Above, a Sam Gross cartoon.

I also saw Robert Mankoff, The New Yorker’s cartoon editor, when he briefly stopped by Bill’s table before he had to dash off to do a panel. But, my favorite New Yorker cartoonist encounter was when Paul Noth stopped by my table and told me he owned my Animation Development book, and that it helped him navigate through the development process when he created a cartoon for use on the Conan O’Brien Show.

While chatting with Paul Noth it took me some time to realize that he was the same Paul Noth who’s cartoons graced so many of The New Yorker issues that arrive in our mailbox each week. He also encouraged me to try my luck again at the magazine again. Not only that, he bought a copy of my new book!
Above, a Paul Noth cartoon.

There were a lot of fun students to meet, and I was happy to learn that many of them were already familiar with my books, or at least one of them. One student came by and told me that he had two of my books on a wait list at his local library, and this prompted another student standing at Bill’s table to open his messenger bag and whip out my Directing Animation book, complete with its library binding and Dewey Decimal number from his library!

Through Bill’s connections I met some of the students from his short-lived Bill Plympton Animation School, as well as Jessica Fuller, an editor from Rizzoli Press, as well as a bunch of fine folks from The Society of Illustrators, including the organization’s affable president Dennis Dittrich.

I left the weekend with thick stack of business cards representing brand new connections, some of which bridged the worlds of cartooning and comics. You can’t meet such folks staying home. Relationships mean so much in a people-business such as animation, so while I’m glad my table made a profit, the real value of the two days live in that stack of business cards and the new connections, relationships, and potential friendships they represent. Big thanks to the entire MoCCA family, their army of helpful volunteers, and their wonderful chairman Ellen S. Abramowitz! They are already accepting applications for table space next year. Hint. Hint.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Checkin' In: One of the Secrets to Getting Work in Animation

Boston's Clambake Animation, my employer on a new project. Photo by Joel Murphy.

So many in this industry needlessly stress themselves out at the very idea of networking, but the good news is that networking, even in its most simple and easy form, the occasional e-mail or online "check-in," can work wonders in any career.

A few years ago a former student from my SVA career class e-mailed me, asking if I knew of any openings anywhere. Since she had graduated, she’d attended a handful of ASIFA-East events and sent me the occasional update/hello e-mail. Even though she was an animator who’d specialized in stop-motion, she made it a point to tell me that she would also consider jobs as a production assistant on the office side of things. By chance of fate, the next week, a pal from Nick Jr asked if I knew anyone that could work in production on one of their series. So, I thought of this animator and connected her to my contact. She got the job, a position she’d keep for the next two and half years until the series’ end.

Three months ago a friend of mine, whom I’ve never worked with, and another alumni of my SVA career class, wrote me a message on Facebook, explaining that he was without work and worried about it. As a long admirer of his skills, I began to think of something we could work on together. Then it hit me. I had a pitch I was preparing for KidScreen and I needed some help inking and coloring the show art. So, I used this as an excuse to employ this artist on a little assignment, which doubled as a low-risk way to try out our work-relationship. I think it’s important to test-run potential new hires with little assignments before booking them long term. As a virtual studio, I most often work with different combinations of the same dozen artists, but I stay on the look out to add the occasional new member to the team––it’s essential to do so because you can’t always book the same crew since they are constantly drifting in and out of availability.

I’m happy to say that this artist did an amazing job! His work was excellent, his communication skills and enthusiasm top notch, and he hit the deadlines. Last week I started a new gig, directing another animated project for my friends at the Boston-based Clambake Animation, and snapped up this artist as part of my team.

Another member of my newly assembled team is an animator that I directed back on Blue’s Clues, but that recently left NY to move back to his hometown. When he moved he reached out to all his contacts to let everyone know that he was interested in freelance he could do from off-site. As much as he’s one of my favorite animator’s to work with, I wouldn’t have known he was available for this type of work if he hadn’t stayed in touch and told me.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago an animator that I’d directed on Pinky Dinky Doo wrote me (via LinkedIn) that he’d just moved back to NY after a couple of years working in L.A. And, it turns out his experience there was on a very compatible series to the work I was now directing for Clambake. Although he couldn’t have known it, the final position on my team had just opened up and I was able to offer it to him.

While all these stories are specific to my experiences and interactions, the larger point is how staying in touch can lead to opportunity for anyone. As an employer it makes it easier for me to know who's out there if my contacts stay in touch, and as someone looking for work, when I stay in touch with my former employers it helps remind them that I'm out there. During the three years since I’d last worked with Clambake Animation, we stayed in touch through e-mails, occasional lunches, etc––keeping each other up-to-date. Last week I went to Boston to work on-site for a couple of days, and it felt as if we just picked up right after our last conversation. It was so natural, in large part because we’d stayed connected between work opportunities.

All of us working in animation have these “benefits of networking and staying in touch” stories. The relationships and friendships we make working in this industry not only help us get jobs, but are also a large part of why we have so much fun doing what we do. Keeping in touch is a natural and enjoyable thing, not an icky thing, nor should it be confused with "ass-kissing" as some do. The best networking is authentic and sincere and can be as easy as simply keeping in touch with your contacts. At the very least, what have you got to lose by giving it a try?