Monday, October 31, 2011

Make Mine Not Music

One topic I’ve covered (maybe too infrequently) on this blog is the idea of that you have to be your own advocate and look out for your needs.

I played clarinet in grammar school (for reasons I still don’t understand.) Maybe it was simply for a change of pace from playing with Legos. But, this exercise in futility caught up with me in Jr. High, because one could only take either band or art, not both. Sticking with my obligation I didn’t have any art classes for 7th and 8th grade. By 9th grade it was finally clear to me just how stupid that was. So, I asked my guidance counselor what I’d have to do to drop band to take make room for art class. All I needed was the band teacher’s signature. Not so tough, right?

When I showed up in his office with the form in hand, he took one look at it and winced. “I don’t have to sign that,” he said, before asking me why I wanted to quit band.

“Because as long as I’m taking band, they won’t let me take art. Art is important to me.”

He reminded that band is just as important. So I told him that I was going to have a career in art, not music.

That didn’t change his mind. He still wouldn’t sign it.

So, I shot him.

Okay, that’s not true, but I did come up with this snappy answer, telling him:
“I’ll be back in your office every day until you sign this paper.”

Threatening him with my steady company must have done the trick because he snatched the paper out of my hand, signed it, and told me to get out. I left with the paper and a first victory in being my own advocate.

It would be nice to say that from that point on in my life and career that I never missed an opportunity to be my own advocate, but that would be a lie.

For instance, my first two layoffs in the business caught me by surprise because I had nothing else lined up. Don’t get me wrong, you can’t always have work lined up, but you can always have ready “connections” to other work. In this area “being my own advocate” took the shape of joining ASIFA-East, which allowed me to network with other animation folks––something that has a way of generating opportunity on both sides of the relationship. Even embarking on personal creative projects is a form of being your own advocate because it’s self-development. So this “advocate” concept encompasses a lot: from sticking up for yourself and your needs, to taking all career-enhancing matters into your own hands.

Otherwise, you might end up playing the clarinet when you’d rather be holding a paintbrush.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Tri-Lev Production

Standing are my co-creators, Stephen Levinson and Joel Moss Levinson, with Peter Levin at the controls, as we record an actor at NYC's Splash Studios. Photo taken by me.

How many Levites does it take to create a self-funded and self-produced animated pilot? It turns out, the answer is three. In the summer of 2010 I was on a animation development panel for the NYTVF and sitting in the audience was a very alert Stephen Levinson. A comedy writer working by day on Comedy Central's Website, Stephen had been producing animated cartoons (with his brother Joel) for a Jewish online magazine called Tablet.

After the panel, Stephen got in touch with me to show me a pilot he and his brother had created for pitching purposes. Featuring the voice talent of comedian Jonathan Katz along with the brothers sharp writing, I thought the project was terrific. But, while the brothers were in the process of pitching it around, they began to get antsy to develop another project. Over Skype (Joel lives in Los Angeles) we brainstormed a raw idea and very quickly started to see its potential. There and then we agreed to work together to not just develop this germ into a pitch, but to focus our energies on making our own pilot film.

Making a film as pitching tool is a double edged sword. On the negative column it's sometimes better to let execs imagine how great your project can be instead of showing something tangible that doesn't live up to the expectation. Additionally, it takes a ton of time and effort to make a finished film, so going down this path ensures you won't quickly get to market. But, on the plus side, in this day of viral video, a film can be posted online and grow its own fan base. To put it in other words, nobody is logging on to the internet to read pitch bibles. A pitch bible is not alive. Films are. A pitch bible tries to hint at execution, while a film is execution. Not only that, a hot viral video proves itself in "hit" counts, something that can be a valuable asset to generate interest with a network. Lastly, making a film is simply fun, exciting, and satisfying. Not only will our film by alive, it will exist in three ways: a pitch tool at meetings, a viral video, and a festival film (probably only in children's film festivals or specific categories, but nonetheless).

We started our pilot in ernest on December 2010. Stephen did the lion's share of the script writing, Joel (a gifted singer/songwriter) wrote 3 original songs and provided sound design, and I designed the characters and their world. But, while we each had a clear role, we all had a say in improving each other's work. Once we had a lock on the script, voice records began on both coasts. Among our stellar cast are two terrific and well-known comedians from TV and movies, both of whom worked for spec. After ironing out all the character designs, I enlisted the animation veteran Otis Brayboy to make story sketches from which it would make my job easier to create a storyboard/animatic. My friend and frequent collaborator, Adrian Urquidez, painted all the backgrounds.

Our 8-minute film was animated by three of my favorite animators: Dale Clowdis, Mike Sanchez, and Dayna Gonzalez. As the animation director, I didn't do the animation myself, but I did the next best thing by designing all the puppeted pieces to make up each character rotation. While we're employing puppeted-style animation, all the art was drawn by hand, giving it a lot more warmth and looseness than a typical "Flash-based" children's show. The animators did a terrific job, going well beyond our expectations.

Less than a year after starting from scratch, we're now a week away from finishing the animation! We can't wait to take it on the road and post it online. Between the three of us we have a lot of network connections and we aim to work just as hard to sell our series as we did to make this film. Stephen, Joel, and I each brought our A-game, and I believe we brought it out in each other. It was the perfect collaboration because each of us had a key area of expertise, helping to define our respective roles. That's a good way to choose partners. Each should bring a major element to the table that the other is lacking.

The world of pitching can truly suck (for lack of a better word). Anyone who has a pitched a project even one time knows what I mean. But, the magic part is that through your efforts you're giving yourself permission to develop your talents, create freely, and earn your seat at the table. Ironically, the negative side to pitching is also a positive, in how it tests your passion, commitment, and skill sets.

Stay tuned for the final product, coming soon!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Animondays Interview: Rob Renzetti -part II

*graphic above from:

Finally, here's part II of my interview with animation creator/director Rob Renzetti. This was conducted in 2009 for use in my book, Directing Animation. It's fun timing to share this right now because I just spent the better part of the weekend sharing a booth with Bill Plympton at NYC's Comicon. It was really gratifying to connect with some of my readers and learn that my books have been helpful to them. In particular, Your Career in Animation, seems to be a gateway book that a lot of animation artists pass through on their way into the business.

In the spirit of sharing, here's the "directing specific" interview with Rob Renzetti. You'll notice it's not as personal as part I, and that's because of being on deadline and having to interview dozens of directors at once. But, there's still good information below. Enjoy!

1-What skill sets go into directing animation for a television series? And, is it important to have worked in animation in other roles before being ready to direct?
The most important experience is to have done some actual animation. Not a lot. But suffering through a few short films will give any aspiring timing director a much better sense of how long (in terms of frames) it takes for actions and expressions to “read”.

Also working as a storyboard artist will help since storyboards are intrinsically linked with animation direction (at least in television animation).

2-What role does good people skills have in being a successful TV animation director?
If you are strictly doing timing you can hide in your room all day if you like and talk to no one. Of course, this would not bode well for your future employment. The more you are involved with other aspects of the production process the more people skills you will need.

3-Can you list some common mistakes and challenges that are faced by the first time animation director?
The biggest challenge is to get the cartoon to run in your head. You have to visualize the final animated project.

The biggest mistake is playing things too slowly. Inevitably the work print will come back and things will be dragging. You quickly learn  to push things faster.

4-What are the ingredients of a good production pipeline, process, and schedule? And, what role does an animation director have in setting that up and maintaining it?
Unless the director is also the creator of the production he will have very little role in setting up the production pipeline. A good pipeline leaves room for the inevitable delays, missteps and mistakes. Put some padding in every step of the way. Not a ton but a little. Want to fail? Then assume everything will go according to plan and leave no room for error. You will end up paying people to sit around waiting for others to catch up.

5-Is there a secret to good communication up and down the animation pipeline? What role does the animation director play in that?
This really falls to the line producer and production staff as well as the show creator. The main thing is too check in with your artists on a regular basis, make sure they are on task and on schedule and catch problems before they have a chance to fester for weeks and snowball out of your control.

6-What mistakes have you made as a director and what have they taught you?
Well, I used to time things too slowly when I first started as mentioned above. I also could get lost in the details of timing each little action without looking at the bigger picture, meaning the overall pacing of a sequence or of the entire cartoon. When the storyboard is strong this tends to happen less. A strong board will give you a strong indication of how to pace things. Ironically a crappy board is easy to work with as well. It’s obvious things aren’t working and you can go to the creator and suggests changes to strengthen it. I’ve been lucky enough to work with people who trust my sensibilities and value my input. A mediocre board is the toughest to work with because some things are working, maybe every sequence is working, but it doesn’t add up to a satisfying whole. But when you are lost in the details of each scene it’s easy to miss the fact that it just doesn’t add up to a good cartoon. You have to take the time to step back and look at the whole package before diving into the minutia.

7-What is the animation director's role in regards to collaborating with other departments such as storyboard, design, post production, etc?
A director will work most closely with the storyboard artists. In an ideal setup this is a two way street. The director will want to make sure that he or she is understanding what the board artists had in mind and the board artist will be open to changing things if the director needs adjustments for either technical or creative reasons.  Having the board artists pitch to the crew is really helpful for directors in terms of getting the rhythm the board artists imagined for each sequence. Some directors take on post production responsibilities as well and may be involved in calling retakes, editing and spotting music & sfx.

8-What are the typical daily duties of an animation director on a TV series or feature production?
I can only speak about TV since I’ve never worked in features. Usually you are spending your time either slugging a board or doing x-sheets.  If the show does animatics you will be involved in that as well. In all these tasks you are making timing decisions. Deciding about the overall pacing of the cartoon in the broadest strokes and determining the amount of time for the minutest of actions.

9-How is technology changing the way today's animation directors work?
In my own personal experience, new technology has not had a lot of impact except in terms of editing. Digital editing is a completely different experience than editing on film. You can do so much to adjust the rhythm of the picture. Creating holds where none existed, speeding actions up, slowing them down or even reversing them. It gives you an amazing amount of flexibility and saves so much money in retake costs.

10-Is your directing role and responsibilities different depending on whether you are directing an in house production or an outsourced one? 
Almost all TV programming is actually animated overseas. The only exception for me has been Foster’s which was animated in Flash at CN Studios. Having the animators in house (and speaking English) was an amazing luxury. I was able to preview scenes before they were complete, make adjustments before we would get to the official retake session and when we did call retakes I could just walk over to the retake supervisor if there was any confusion or something too complicated to explain in a retake note. It was heaven.

11-How did you get your first opportunity to direct? 
I was a storyboard artist on 2 Stupid Dogs and during the second season the creator Donovan Cook gave me the opportunity to direct  the episodes I had boarded. So I would board an episode and then follow myself up directing it. I even had the chance to animate a scene or two along the way!

12- Since becoming an animation director, have you worked on projects or jobs where you filled other positions such as storyboards, design, layout etc?
I’ve probably done more directing than anything else but I have continued to do storyboards here and there as well as write outlines and scripts. On my own show I did a little bit of everything of course.

13- Do animation directors get stereotyped as comedy or action?
I have not ever felt stereotyped. I have mostly worked in what I would call classic cartoon comedy but I’ve also worked on action when I directed on Samurai Jack and prime time sitcoms like Family Guy.

14-What part of directing animation gives you the most satisfaction?
When you are watching a finished cartoon with an audience and they laugh at something that is funny purely because of the way you have timed that scene. I gives you the idea that you might know what you are doing.

15-Where did you learn your sense of timing, acting, staging, and storytelling that is so essential in directing animation?
As a consumer of pop culture, I think I mostly just acquired it through osmosis. You watch or read things that you find funny and as you grow up it all kind accumulates in your head, mixes in with your own experiences and your particular perspective on the world. If you’re a smart ass like I was, you start trying to make your family and friends laugh, you start acting up in class. You see what works and what doesn’t and you adjust. If you’re an artist you also start drawing for yourself and for the praise it garners from others. You start telling stories with your pictures.  I also did a brief stint of acting in high school. Doing the same play 3 or 4 times for different audiences and adjusting your performance is a great way to hone your sense of timing.

16- After directing, what is the next goal you'd like to achieve in your career in animation? 
I always wanted to have my own show and I was lucky enough to already have that dream come true.  Right now I’m just enjoying helping other young artists get their chance at making their characters come to life.

17-What advice do you have for someone just starting out in animation with ambitions to direct?
If you can go to an art school hopefully one with an animation program and actually do some animation! As I said, this is the best possible training you can get.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Full Lessons from Part Time Jobs

I should get my computer back early this week, so my apologies for another week's delay in the posting of part II of the Rob Renzetti interview. For this post I cooked up something else.

When animation graduates first embark on their careers, many of them don't have much (or any) animation work experience to list on their resumes. I had a small handful of animation freelance jobs when I completed my degree at SVA, but, the majority of my work history was in non-animation related industries. As an employer myself, these days, I see any work history as being a major plus. You can learn so much working at any job, whether it's folding clothes, standing at a cash register, taking tickets at a movie theater, etc. The people that never had any working experience are the people I'd be adverse to hiring. Without a work history, there would be no proof that someone could hold down a job and understand what it means to be responsible for delivering a service (on deadline) for pay. And, without a work history, there would be no references for an employer to follow up on.

I also appreciate the lessons I learned by working outside the animation industry. People skills translate across all businesses, so I'm especially grateful that I had a lot of varied experiences that taught me all kinds of things. Here's a short round up of what I'm talking about:

Phone Soliciting
For 6 months I worked for a chimney cleaning company who's main method of landing new business was through cold calls to the unsuspecting public. The hourly wage was minimal, but the real money was to made in sales-based bonuses. All new employees were given a 10 day grace period to get the hang of salesmanship, but if they had no sales after that, they were let go. I had zero sales for my first 9 days, and as I started the final day my boss reminded me what was at stake. But, instead of getting increasingly nervous, for some reason, I got calm. Working the phones in a relaxed state for the first time in two weeks I must have projected something different because that day I made five sales. The company average for a decent salesperson was 3 sales a day, so my boss was pretty shocked at my recovery.

The lessons learned? Calm is better than a state of panic, and you have to get comfortable with yourself before you could become a convincing salesperson.

Data Entry
My dad's college buddy had a small Ad Agency which he launched with an account executive partner. On the side, to help pay the bills, they provided data entry services for a client that held a sweepstake. For a small hourly wage they had someone entering customer contest data on a spare computer. Before they hired me, they had a parade of untrustworthy people who stole from them before getting fired. Plus they were all slow as molasses at entering the data. I was fast at my job and trustworthy enough to also handle company bank deposits as a side duty. After four months of working for them for two days a week, I decided to ask for a raise.

The response? "You'd have to go even faster to earn a raise."

Knowing I was their fastest employee already, that sounded silly to me.

I asked, "But, what about the additional things I do around here, such as the bank deposits?"

That didn't sway their opinion either, and they simply stopped asking me to do the bank deposits after that. I finished the job, logging in two more months before there was no more data to enter.

The lesson learned? The most likely raises are the ones you don't have to ask for. Since then most of the raises I've had in animation were when I was promoted, which is a production's way of giving a reward for hard work and acknowledging an increase in responsibility. In contrast, the data entry job already paid me to the point they were comfortable paying, regardless of how fast or trusted I was. Still, it felt good asking. It doesn't hurt to ask if you have a case to be made.

Publisher's Clearing House
By my junior and senior years at school, homework kept me so busy that I only worked part time jobs in the winter and summer breaks. Publisher's Clearing House had a large operation to sort mail (sweep stakes and subscription services) not too far from where I lived on Long Island, and since they liked hiring people for work periods as short as four weeks, it was a good fit all round. The only hiccup happened when a silly payroll mistake (on their end) resulted in my second, and third checks not being issued. Not only did they not pay me two weeks in a row, they seemed very cavalier about fixing it. So, I after I complained to every manager in the place, I told them that they could find me in the cafeteria reading a book on company time. After about two hours, someone managed to draft up a check, and I returned to work.

The lesson learned? When the powers that be don't pay you and don't seem to care, get creative in return. Now, as a producer/virtual studio operator, sometimes the missing money effects not only me, but my crew. Thank goodness I don't usually experience such issues, but twice in the last two years I had to speak up about payment interruptions. While you don't want to risk hurting the relationships that get you work, getting paid in a reasonable amount of time is part of the exchange of work for pay. That said, I try to be reasonable in my response even when dealing with the worst case scenario. "Try" is the key word.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Short Break

I was all set to feature the second part of my interview with Rob Renzetti, but my computer had other plans and is currently vacationing at an Apple Store genius bar for repairs. I'll take my lead from the universe and take a break from posting this week. See ya next Monday!