Saturday, August 27, 2011

Animation Blog Roll

I’ve been meaning to do a round up of blogs I like for some time, so now is as good a time as any. Animation artist blogs or animation studio blogs come in many varieties. Some are strictly online portfolios, while others offer behind-the-scenes looks at the state of the art form or uncover its history. Here’s a round up of blogs (in no particular order) that I check out everyday, and the reasons why.

The Frederator blog, a collection of posts by Fred Seibert, Eric Homan, and their associates, celebrates the art form and its artists. Besides giving countless newcomers their first public nod, this blog also takes readers behind the scenes showing how hit series such as "Adventure Time" (pictured above) and "Fan Boy & Chum Chum" are made. I can’t think of a more transparent production than "Adventure Time," for instance, in that it appears that every model sheet and background painting made for the series has been posted for viewing. Since the quirky show is the most game-changing animated series since "SpongeBob," this is nothing to sneeze at. Add to this the entrepreneurial musings of Fred Seibert, forever encouraging readers to re-invent themselves and their industry, and to do it all with passion, joy, and enthusiasm.

When I worked for Michael Sporn, for an all-too brief two years, I made sure that (besides Michael) I was the first person in the studio each morning. That meant a leisurely conversation with Michael at the back table over tea. It was my chance to ask him how he made his groundbreaking films and he’d recount each experiment with pleasure, aptly demonstrating his love of animation and filmmaking. One morning he pulled out some issues of his old studio newsletter called Sporn-O-Graphics, which made for a great record of his early 1990s output as well as time capsule of the overall era. Other mornings Michael would suddenly get up, pry open a box on a nearby shelf and pull out original layouts from Raggedy Ann and Andy, or drawings by John Hubley, among others. These morning chats are now available to everyone through Michael’s daily splog posts. If you like your animation discussion from a responsible and reliable source who was there, worked with many of the greats, and is leaving his own mark on the art/industry, then this is the blog for you.

The only time I disagree with Mark is on the subject of pitching and development, but I don’t let that stop me from enjoying his intelligent observations on the business, industry, and art of animation at Mayerson on Animation. From copyright issues, to studies and mosaics of classic animation, to issues faced by students and recent graduates, Mark’s blog covers it all. Best of all, he’s rational, balanced, and level-headed, something in short supply on the Internet.

As a teacher at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, I had the pleasure to meet the latest wunderkind to emerge from the program, the multi-talented Stephen P. Neary. After wowing the festival world with his quirky and delightful student films such as “Shark Suit,” and “Chicken Cowboy,” Stephen graduated and was immediately snatched up to work in the story department of Blue Sky. For so many, scoring a dream gig like that would mean putting any personal projects on hold, but not for Mr. Neary. He’s been busying himself making further short films such as “Let’s Make Out,” and the upcoming, “Dr. Breakfast,” as well as creating book and feature proposals, and otherwise scribbling lovely observations into his sketch books (pictured above). Oh, I forgot to mention, Stephen is a hell of a nice guy, making it all the more fun to go along on his journey and cheer him on.

I come to Scribble Junkies in part to read Bill Plympton’s unusual reviews of the many films he watches (its especially fun to read him objectively criticize the work of friends––even ones as powerful as John Lasseter), in part to be a fly on the wall as Bill reports on his never ending animation world tour, and to read Pat Smith’s surfer/rock-star take on being an artist/animator. Bill and Pat are two of the most active indies in the world and for that reason alone they make an exciting combination. They share an infectious “can do” spirit that makes you want to finish a film and then promote your work with gusto.

No other blog best captures the ins-and-outs of running a successful small animation studio than Ace & Son owner/operator’s Richard O’Connor’s blog. Go deep into his archive at his old address to find invaluable posts on budgeting, pipeline, and all aspects of doing business. His discussions on the creative side are no less insightful. Richard and I began our careers in animation in NYC during the same year but have charted very different paths. Even though it is not my goal to operate a traditional studio as Richard does, I admire his ability to hold a bustling studio together, to get work, and how he shares his knowledge and experiences to help others navigate this difficult business.

The overgrown kid known as Mr. Warburton has achieved a lot in his 20-year (and counting) career (note the page above from his first job hunt journal heralding his hire at Buzzco). Once the poster child of NY animation success (going from employment at studios from Buzzco to J.J. Sedelmaier to creating and producing his own long-running series for Cartoon Network), he has since packed up to reboot his career in L.A., currently supervising retakes for the Disney TV series “Fish Hooks.” Despite his level of achievement, Mr. Warburton’s blog somehow manages to feel like the fresh enthusiastic observations of someone just starting out. This is a man appreciating life working in a field he loves.

Like an indie version of the Frederator blog, brothers Tim and Mike Rauch have been extremely transparent in sharing their production process (pictured above, Tim's design studies for Miss Devine), collaborations, thoughts, and research behind their acclaimed StoryCorps animated films. These guys did things the hard way, creating work on their terms, and giving hope to today’s generation of animation talent that there’s another option besides lining up for a more conventional job or internship in the field.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Festival of Drawn Animation

(From left to right, animators Fran Krause, Colleen Cox, Pat Smith, and Bill Plympton during the closing Q and A at The Scribble Junkies Festival of Drawn Animation. Terrible iphone photography by me.)

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the first Scribble Junkies Festival of Drawn Animation, the brain-child of animators Bill Plympton and Pat Smith. The two high profile artists already share a blog, a passion for hand drawn traditional animation, and now have collaborated to curate and present this new festival. Their choice of venue, the new Nitehawk Cinema in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, helped set the tone of a relaxed and celebratory atmosphere. Maybe that’s because there were drinks to be had in the Cinema’s bar before and after the show? I, for one, very much appreciated the Magner’s Cider on tap. *burp*

As recently as fifteen years ago 2D drawn animation was still THE main technique of animation around the world, as it had been for nearly a century. If someone had called an event a “drawn” animation festival back then, it would have seemed redundant. Today such a distinction makes total sense. But, the “drawn” credo is more than just a snappy title or a way to position itself apart from what the big CGI studios are doing in features. As I watched the selections of the evening, I began to realize the artists behind these films wanted us to see their individual drawings. Many of these films are about drawing, both technically, and in the psychological sense by what happens when the artist loses his/her self in the act of drawing.

Masks by Pat Smith.

I appreciate this new festival’s focus, especially in how it forced me to look at a few films in a new way. For example, Pat Smith's "Masks" benefitted from the viewer's requirement to experience each film in the context of drawing being the most important element. Drawing and animating are Pat's strengths (check out his wonderful commercials posted here), so even though "Masks" began as an audio track created by composer Karl von Kries, it's the visuals that dominate the experience. Upon seeing this film some months ago, animation artist Adrian Urquidez remarked, "You can tell this guy loves to draw." In short, a perfect candidate for this screening.

David Chai is one of today’s most decorated and prolific humorous animated filmmakers, sort of like a disciple of Bill Plympton, but his “Enrique Wrecks the World,” (which is a crowd pleaser on the festival circuit) seemed a little out of place here. Maybe I wouldn't have felt this way if the short was programmed later in the show, but as the opener, I expected something a little more visually compelling––something to showcase all that drawn animation can be.

Pat Smith introduced “The Music Scene” by Anthony Schepperd as being a former student of his, making the claim that the student was better than the teacher. The film is was wonderfully inventive and imaginative.

Rebecca Sugar, one of the most amazing talents to come out of SVA in recent years (and there’s been a lot of competition), was represented with “Johnny Noodleneck,” which, like her thesis film “Singles,” featured terrific drawing and quirky, brilliant, and idiosyncratic character posing. It was a treat to see another work by the gifted artist, even though it appeared to be a less polished earlier work when compared to her more mature thesis film.

Wrong Number Singapore by Colleen Cox.

A real highlight for filmmaking in the show was “Wrong Number Singapore,” which Colleen Cox animated to a popular viral audio recording circulating around Singapore. I loved the designs, acting, animation, and frenetic crackle of the short, which depicts a phone call gone terrible wrong. Keeping the film language to a minimum was a great move because it let Colleen have a field day animating these raving characters in a way so the staging didn’t get in the way.

Thought of You by Ryan Woodword

Thought of You” by Ryan Woodword went toe to toe with Bill Plympton’s excerpt of “Cheatin” as the most beautiful animation in the festival.

I was very happy to finally get to see Don Hertzfeldt’s “Wisdom Teeth,” after having missed it at several other festivals. It was a curious one-joke experiment, and judging from the laughs in the audience, a successful one. It reminded me of the filmmaker’s free spirited earlier work before he attempted the more structurally sophisticated “I’m So Proud of You,” and “Everything Will be Okay.”

Nosy Bear” by Fran Krause should almost be required by law to be accompanied by the lovely and inspirational making-of video showing the short’s peculiar production process. But, in all seriousness, “Nosy Bear,” holds its own quite nicely, and the only fault I can find with it (and it’s probably not a flaw at all) is that it’s far less ambitious than Fran’s previous films such as “Mister Smile,” “Moon Raker,” or his daring video collaboration with his brother Will “Dog in a Burning Building.”

“Summer Bummer” a new two-minute short by Bill Plympton, was made for Showtime (same as Hertzfeldt’s “Wisdom Teeth”), and made in about one week. I need to see this one again because the images came so fast and furious that I lost the thread at one point. But, that could just be me, and I may not feel that way on a second viewing. Thematically, it covers similar territory to Bill’s Oscar-nominated “Guard Dog” in that the main character imagines terrible and impossible dangers looming around every turn. There was some lovely animation and sophisticated layouts in the film, both of which demand another look.

Codswallop” by the Brothers McLeod artfully presented two scenes at once, much like the explorations of animator Paul Driessen. I’m not sure I always understood what was going on, but I wanted to see this again. It seemed like one of the classier productions in the show.

Let’s hear it for Bill Plympton and Pat Smith! Their maiden festival was sold out, and they have plans to make this an annual event, spread over a couple of days of screenings. If there’s one thing the NY animation community has proved, there can’t ever be enough venues for animators to view films. If they build it, we will come. Especially if there’s cider on tap.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


I’ve been surprised and delighted at the positive reception of my short Grandpa Looked Like William Powell. The film is about halfway through its festival run and still receiving invites from festivals around the country. It was gratifying to be accepted into competition at some major festivals, but one of the biggest kicks I got was from reading notes on the film made by the jury of the Animazing Spotlight festival, where they voted my film a 2011 Quarterly winner. I know that getting such feedback can’t always be a pleasant (or even useful) experience, but the messages on my film turned out to be interesting and provocative. I'm not a famous or highly regarded filmmaker so it's a rare treat to read any words on a short film of mine. And, since shorts don't get half the attention, reviews, or respect that feature films do, I'll enjoy this while it lasts.

All this encouragement inspired me to go to the trouble (which included making two 35 mm prints of the film, as pictured above) to qualify "Grandpa" for the Academy Awards. Maybe I'll have a shot if some of the Academy voters agree with the Animazing Spotlight jury. Whatever happens, it'll be nice to be on the ballot.

Here’s the Animazing Spotlight Festival Jury comments:

I like it very much. Good idea to make the autograph book the key element of the image as well as the story. The animation is very well done, I love the sketched-like style of the characters. The music matches the voice over and the image perfectly. An excellent homage!
- Silvina Cornillon

This is a reminiscence about a grandfather after he has passed. But the animation, hand-drawn and digitally superimposed over an old diary is warm and appealing. I especially liked the way the line drawings bring the pages to life for a few seconds. The character drawings, though deliberately quick and sketchy, surprisingly capture the personalities, especially of grandpa, and the other family members. And yet the central figure remains an enigma. This is a gentle, understated story about a man who was loved and about whom not much is actually known. Well done.
- Jack Bosson

I loved his film--it took me back to similar techniques of UPA ("The Unicorn in the Garden) and Caroline Leaf's film about her life in a N.Y. suburb as a child. This is totally engaging, great animation and design, beautifully written and very personally involving.
- Bill Matthews

This snuck up on me and completely charmed me. I finally thought, ''This reminds me of the best parts of George Griffin's films and a little bit of our own personal films.'' Great work!
- Frank Mouris

Really good. Worked on pretty much every level for me. I felt like I got to know the central character, I felt that the filmmaker had made pretty good use of the various properties of animation to tell the story, I felt that the artwork matched the narrative and I really liked the story. I showed this to several people and a couple of them wondered (and I had a similar fleeting thought) that perhaps the film insinuated that the Grandpa might not have been wholly trustworthy when it came to dealing with kids. Not sure if this insinuation is intentional or whether the people I hang out have overly suspicious minds
- Malcolm Turner

This is an engaging and quietly challenging piece, in that such biographical pieces normally try to facilitate a kind of intimacy and poignant revelation. I liked the way this told the story through the autograph book but ultimately led to a lack of connection or knowledge. That which is known is nicely, one might say, warmly illustrated, but the presiding feeling is one of distance from the central character, a man suggested rather than known; a man whose existence takes on an almost Beckett-style absurdity by virtue of his acceptance that ‘that’s it’. We assume that all lives leave evidence of affect and purpose; such a memoir might suggest that the common outcome is the very opposite.
- Paul Wells

Genuine. Nice little film talking about someone seemingly close to your heart, but not quite close.
- Sharon Wu

The voice over reminiscing with the autograph book was very nicely handled. The animation was simple but very well done. The movement of the characters over the bowing of the page seam was superb. Great story arc. First class film.
- Larry Loc

Thursday, August 4, 2011


A snap from The Ottawa Animation Festival in 2008, (left to right and front to back) Justin Simonich, Andy Kennedy, Glenn Ehlers, Andy Sacks, David B. Levy, Chris Boyce, Linda Beck.

I thought it might be fun to bookend my previous post with my first letter as ASIFA-East president dating from September 2000. This doubles as a review of my first ever experience attending The Ottawa International Animation Festival. Since I had just been promoted to an animation director position at Blue's Clues, Nickelodeon generously paid for my hotel expenses, but with the caveat that I act as representative of Nick's brand new digital animation studio. This mostly meant I had to hand out toys and postcards. Not a bad deal, right?

Attending my first major festival was an eye-opener. Where else can you see five days of animated programming and mingle with wonderful artists from all around the world? I was forever transformed. I wanted to see my films on their screens one day. I still haven't achieved that goal but, they hosted a signing for my first book and a panel for my second. I was invited to return to the festival this year to do a panel based around my Directing Animation book but, had to turn it down due to a conflicting opportunity.

If you haven't been to the festival, book your trip now. You won't regret it.

A Letter From The President
David B. Levy

Greetings from the North! By North, I mean the Ottawa International Airport. That's where I'm presently sitting, awaiting my flight back to the Colonies. If I'm still here when you get this....won't someone be so kind as to send me a sandwich and two hard boiled eggs? As you may have guessed, I am in Canada because I attended the Ottawa International Animation Festival. It was an interesting and informative trip. I learned that it's possible to wear shorts during the Fall in Canada (courtesy of Festival Director, Chris Robinson). I also learned that no matter how hard one tries it's impossible to spend down all your loose Canadian change before you get back across the boarder. And I learned the secret to surviving a week of daily animation screenings....the mid day nap.

Between lessons, I managed to squeeze in about three screenings and events a day. There were many noteworthy films. Marv Newland brought us, "Fuv," the story of a man who is not sure who should inherit the earth (and no, the answer is not "the meek"). Barry J.C. Purves's "Gilbert and Sulivan- The Very Models" actually won the award for best models. Veteran animator Paul Driessen was a crowd favorite with two entries, "The Boy Who Saw the Iceberg" and "3 Misses." As someone who paid $375.00 for a one inch high Blue Meanie Driessen drawing at last years Asifa-East auction, I couldn't be more pleased.

Stop Motion was well represented, especially at the traffic lights when they turned red. Among the highlights were Richard Goleszowki's "Hooves of Fire" (best TV special), Steffen Schaeffler's "The Periwig Maker" (best 1st Professional film), and Will Vinton Studio's "The PJ's" (best TV series).

It was a proud festival to be an ASIFA-East member. Our own Paul Fierlinger was called on stage so many times that he wore a hole in the carpet. Recognizing this, Ottawa awarded him the "most called on stage award" (no joke). Fierlinger's idiosyncratic body of work was also featured in a special screening which included bits of his newest film, "Still Life With Animated Dogs", a personal account of his life with his canines. Take it from me, this one is not for the dogs.

ASIFA-East native son Bill Plympton was also honored with a special screening in which he indulged the audience with a work in progress peak at his new feature "Mutant Aliens." Also screened were eight of his new web shorties, animated in Flash, for Atom Films. Also featured in this year's fest was several films by Asifa-East member in good standing, J.J. Sedelmaier. His "Captain Linger" should be used as a lesson to all would be super heroes, that one should always leave on a high note (or at least on a £5 note). Also screened were "The Ambiguously Gay Duo #7 Letters" and "Jewel's Poetry", directed by our own Sean Lattrell (which won the Mike Gribble award for Humor). Last but, not least....our friend Yvonne Anderson's work was featured in a special retrospective.

Spotted in the crowd, whether they like it or not, were ASIFA-East's: Bob Lyons, Fran Krause, Barbara Kearney, Candy Kugel, Kris Greengrove, Mo Willems, Steve Dovas, Chris Boyce, Tatia Rosenthal, David Palmer, Jennifer Oxley, Fred Armstrong, Olexa Hewryk, Karl Staven, Pilar Newton, Machi Tantillo and Linda Simensky.

One of the highlights of the festival for me occurred at a retrospective of legendary animator Gene Deitch's Rembrandt Films period. One "Nudnik" film was screened backwards and upside down. This was followed by Deitch films for Weston Woods that apparently arrived for screening without optical soundtracks. This snafu quickly turned into a blessing as Deitch (sitting in the audience) burst into action by giving an off the cuff commentary on the films as they played. Another high point of the festival was the George Pal retrospective. The light attendance for this early morning screening had Jerry Beck throwing up his hands as he blasted the missing people for not knowing what they were missing. The missing people could not be reached for commentary at press time. The all too brief program featured Pal classics like "Mr. Strauss Takes a Walk," "Tubby the Tuba," and the poignant "Tulips Shall Grow." Won't someone please put the complete surviving Puppetoons on DVD?

A still from "Ring of Fire" by Andreas Hykade

The most bizarre moment of the festival happened after "Ring of Fire" (Andreas Hykade) won the Grand Prize for independent film. Estonian jury member, Priit Parn, approached the podium and announced his strong disagreement into the microphone. He then dutifully pointed out that the best film was in fact "Flying Nansen" (Igor Kovalyov). A stunned audience was quickly pacified with the screening of the winning films.

For some the most interesting thing about Ottawa was the weather. There was sun, clouds, rain, and warm and cold fronts. Happily the weather was just right for the animator's picnic. Apparently, the bees agreed...because there was one bee for each animator in attendance. One unlucky Canadian touched a plastic cup to his mouth without noticing a bee had perched on the rim. Needless to say....the man had a "swell" time at the picnic.

Now for more local news.... As the new president of Asifa-East I am proud to have the opportunity to work with such a diverse, experienced and capable board of directors. We also share the privilege of having Barbara Kearney as our new Vice President. In addition to this position, Babara will continue to handle programming duties.

Together, we have an exciting year in store for us! The newsletter is back (on a semi-monthly basis), the website is transitioning into different hands and the 30-year festival book is almost complete. Also, we have some new blood taking over important positions. Joining us as the new Membership Secretary is David Billings. Dale Clowdis is helping out as acting Newsletter Co-Editor. Tarik Cherkaoui is taking over as webmaster of our aforementioned website.

Finally, the Asifa-East annual Open Screening when off without a hitch on September 27! It turned into an old fashioned "sit in" as capacity crowds filled every inch of space. It was so crowded that someone drank my water. Lot's of funny, touching, bizarre and sex-crazed films rounded out the evening. Thank you to all the animators that participated! We'll see you next screening...(details on the cover)!