Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Pitcher

Last week I crammed in a three-day whirlwind trip to LA to pitch a new project with my co-creators, the Levinson bros. Our reception ran the full rollercoaster from red hot "I wouldn't change a thing" and "this is just what were looking for," to "Love it, but we don't need it" to "I like the tone, and one of the characters, but..." to a scathing rejection of every single element. Ouch!

Three things I was reminded of this week:

One is that development execs are people like you and me (duh), albeit probably better paid. As with any group of "real" people, they can't be reduced to a single stereotype. The execs we met with were motherly, aloof, sympathetic, bored, excitable, opinionated, tight-lipped, lackluster, and inspirational.

Two, because of the above, showing a project is akin to a rorschach test, probably saying as much about the exec's pysche as anything else... The variety of reactions on one project could be comical at times. One exec said "your character is too mild and meek," the same day another declared "I'm not seeing the mild and meek side of the character." Moments like that can actually help a creator relax. Because, what does it all mean anyway?

Three, during the pitch process creators collect A LOT of data on what the networks are currently looking for. And this brings up the great dilemma: what the hell to do with that info? If you want, you can let this outside influence in, and return with a paint-by-numbers show tailor-made to these instructions. In the past, that's just what I'd do. It was like a game to me. But how often did that new idea really connect with "me"? The truth is that the best creation comes from within. When Pen Ward built the odd, random, and fun world of Adventure Time he did so from an honest place that was so real to him... It WAS him. But now some execs use his show as what they expect from you too.

One exec summed up what they are looking for as being louder, wilder, and even more random than Adventure Time. But I can't help believing that the next big thing won't be defined by Adventure Time, just as Adventure Time wasn't defined by SpongeBob. History taught us: Looney Tunes beat Disney by not being Disney.

So what to do with this feedback? Maybe it's my age (half my stubble is gray now), but I'd rather be ME even if it paints me eternally uncool and uncommercial because I've learned-- if it ain't personal, it's nothing.

Speaking of the personal, this trip gave me a chance to meet up with two sets of cousins from my fathers side of the family, whom even my father has never met. So it was pitching by day and family reunions at night. Ironic, in a way, because that's like following one type of stress with another. As accustomed as I am to pitching now, it still requires a great deal of energy and nerve. After a meeting, the toll of the experience hits me. There's always a deep breath as I walk out the door.

But, instead of creating added stress, these pitches made meeting "new" family seem like a break or reward at the end of the day. Happily, my new extended family were all wonderful people. It was a joy to make their acquaintance and help build a bridge across time.

We are all the descendants of my Great Grandfather Isaac Levy.

Isaac was head of an acrobatic trio that preformed in vaudeville with my Great Grandfather being the strong man (bottom guy). They once shared a stage with Eddie Cantor. One of Isaac's daughters went into showbiz too, shaping her three children into a successful family of Flamenco dancers and singers that starred in an Oscar-nominated short called "Bombalera" in 1945.

It seemed natural to be meeting some of Isaac's offspring in the industy town of Burbank all these years later. Whatever the fate of the pitches, connecting with my relatives gave me my "Hollywood" ending.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Animation Career Round Up

*a snapshot of a panel called "Job or No Job" from the 2008 Platform Animation Festival in Portland, Oregon. Left to right: Heather Kenyon (moderator), and panelists Fred Seibert, Jason McHugh, me, Debra Blanchard, and Frank Gladstone.

A very nice (and talented) former student recently ran into trouble finding work after his long-term job ended. Hearing his story brought back memories of my first animation layoff some 15 years ago. Lay offs are like rights of passage in this industry. Before they come along we work under the illusion of stability and consistency. My first lay off forever changed me, making me realize I was responsible for my own experience in this industry.

To try and help my former student, I first rounded up 10 links to past Animondays entries dealing with the subjects of finding work, keeping a job, and building a healthy and rewarding career in this industry. This is hard-won information, based on my experiences (mistakes and all) along with observations on others. Since it could be of use to others as well, I'm using this blog post to present those links.

Even with ten essays, this is far from the whole story, so feel free to add your own additional links in the comments. It might be fun to follow this next week with a round up of similar links from Richard O' Connor and Mark Mayerson, who have also written extensively on the subject from their own areas of expertise.

On the role and importance of relationships to your career.

On the difference between a job-to-job existence vrs. having a career plan.

On the difficulty of breaking in to the business.

On techniques you can use to give yourself an edge in the market place.

On avoiding bad mentors and bad advice in the workplace.

On what's missing from unsuccessful job hunts.

On surviving downtime.

On the role of staying connected and staying in touch to ensure continued employment.

On the importance of being able to juggle all the aspects that make up a successful long-term career in animation.

On how your non-animation related work can teach you lessons that are also applicable to this industry.

Saturday, January 14, 2012


The one and only Mo Willems, animation superstar turned amazing children's book author, caught in a snapshot while attending an ASIFA-East festival last decade.

Over the years I’ve flirted with the idea of trying to develop as a children’s book author. Starting in the late 90s, I illustrated a steady stream of books for Simon & Schuster, Scholastic, and Golden Books. These were all Blue’s Clues titles. This opportunity came from working on the series that spawned them. All I had to do, initially, was take a test to get on the approved list of illustrators. After that you just waited for the phone to ring.

Starting around 2004, I wrote a half dozen original manuscripts of my own book ideas, created some concept art, and submitted to an agent or two and the odd publisher. Despite some interest and encouragement, no deals were forthcoming. Then, one day I asked my friend, Mo Willems, for advice. He said that putting a viable children’s book together is much more work than people think, and advised that it’s absolutely necessary to rough out the entire book before approaching an agent.

Unlike the world of pitching animated series ideas, when it comes to children’s books, you absolutely need an agent. Publishers only want to look at books that come through agents, knowing that agents only represent books/authors that have merit and sales potential. Agents act as the buffer zone for publishers. They fend off all the "unsuitable" books that publishers don't have to see.

Once I was armed with Mo’s good advice I can’t say that followed it. Instead, I tried another handful of book pitches in my own half-lazy way with no success. Up until six months ago I would have said that my so-called attempts at cracking the world of children’s books were over. But, half the fun of a career is not being able to predict what’s ahead.

While making an original animated series pitch with a couple of partners, we enlisted a wonderful comedienne/writer/actress to voice one of our characters. I loved her voice and she loved our project (the latter of which comes in handy when you’re asking an established talent to work on spec). Half way through our production, she asked me if I would be willing to do some spec work for her, illustrating a children’s book she wanted to write. She presented two raw ideas and I picked the one I was interested in. She wrote a few drafts and I designed the characters.

A couple of months drifted by until I could jump back on the book project, but when I did I remembered Mo’s advice: “rough out the entire book before approaching an agent.”

So, I decided to rough out the entire 32 page book and take 5 or so spreads to full finished color. Laying out the book, figuring out the page flow, type design, etc., has been a blast. I see now what Mo meant. The book just isn’t there until you go through that process. Sure, there’s the “voice” of the author’s writing, but the other “voice” is how that story unfolds into a page-by-page visual experience. Why would an agent or publisher “get it” without you having done that work?

My experience finally utilizing Mo’s wisdom reminds me how often we go around collecting good advice, but so seldom use it. Still, better late than never.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Guest Speakers

My favorite class to teach is the animation career strategies class at SVA, which is titled Animation Promotion/PR (Public Relations). As I’ve mentioned before, when I was a student at SVA, Linda Simensky taught this class, where she brought in a who’s who of local animation talent to share the ups and downs of working-in-animation.

It’s been my pleasure to keep that same tradition going by bringing in talented guest speakers over the years such as PES, Patrick Smith, Candy Kugel, Mo Willems, Tom Warburton, Xeth Feinberg, Tina Moglia, Ray Kosarin, Allan Neuwirth, Debra Solomon, John R. Dilworth, Otis Brayboy, Ian Jones Quartey, Jake Armstrong, and many others. My rule for guest speakers is that they must have unique experiences different from my own (since the students are already stuck with me), and that each speaker represent a specific career path.

The 15-week course spun off into my first book in 2006, ensuring the information gathered has reached beyond my classroom. But, the best thing for me is how teaching this class gives me the privilege of meeting and connecting with a new wave of talent each year, and how through the students' questions and guest speakers' advice, I have a chance to learn something new too.

At the end of the fall 2011 term of my class, I compiled a visiting guest speaker list, so I could summarize the wisdom offered by each one. As a way to kick in 2012, I thought it would be fun to post this list below. Best wishes on your career in animation in the new year!

Eileen Kohlhepp- stop motion animator –
As a stop-motion animator (her current gig is animating for Henry Selick on his new feature!) she’s had to move around a lot and work in different cities, so she relies on staying in touch with people to help ensure future work. With each booking she updates her roster of clients as to her schedule––what she’s working on, when she’ll finish, etc. Giving former clients such updates has made it easier from them to hire her. Not a bad strategy.

Dan Meth- web animator-
Anyone who earns a living writing/directing/and producing his own animated cartoons deserves our attention and admiration, so I’m always happy to have Dan visit my class. This semester, he presented a power point lecture that included a slide displaying the logos for Tumblr, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Vimeo with a headline above saying “Don’t Fight These.” Dan’s point is that social media as a powerful tool for today’s creative people, and one that has allowed him to spread his brand across the airwaves.

Kevin Maher- writer-
This human ball of creative energy, whom I’ve written about before here, told us that before taking on any freelance job he evaluates it based on how well it scores on a series of factors, giving it a 1-5 score on: money, creative satisfaction, ability to lead to new contacts, how limited an impact it will have on family time, and if it represents a clear step forward in his career. For Kevin to take on a gig it has to score at an 18 or higher.

Emily Campbell- Entertainment Lawyer-
“Be your own business agent,” advised entertainment lawyer Emily Campbell. She cautioned that animation artists that run their own studio businesses should never entrust the job of business manager to anyone but themselves. The thinking behind this is that nobody but the owner/operator knows what money is coming in and out and how to properly manage it. Plus she added that many times when people entrust their books to someone else it results in getting ripped off.

ila Abramson- Owner/recruiter of Ispy Recruiting-
North America's top expert in how to prepare yourself and stay prepared as an animation industry professional, ila explained how your resume/reel/portfolio, etc. are always in process, for your whole career. As a survival skill, animation artists must be in the habit of constantly updating their work to keep it current. ila told many cautionary tales of artists that didn’t do so and once their jobs ended (or the studios that employed them closed down), they found it impossible to retrieve samples of their work.

Liz Artinian- BG and color supervisor “The Venture Bros.” and founder of 2Art for TV-
Speaking to students as the next generation to enter the workforce, Liz stressed the importance of being professional in the work place and not to make the mistake of creating another “high school” environment on the job. She gave examples how holding a poor or immature attitude holds back achievement in a collaborative atmosphere of an animation studio.

Rick Ritter- storyboard artist on Nick Jr’s Team Umizoomi-
Rick, through his dead pan humor, explained that although he hadn’t trained to work in the animation industry, he was able to pick up much of his skills as a storyboard artist by learning from everyone around him––picking and choosing from the best of his co-workers skills.

Pilar Newton- home studio owner/operator of PilarToons, LLC-
In her naturally enthusiastic delivery, Pilar reminded the students not to forget that they’re artists and not just defined by animation-specific jobs that they get or don’t get. “You can work in other areas, such as silk screen, graphic design, illustration, etc…,” she said.

Tim and Mike Rauch -Indie Directing & Producing team-
If the job you want doesn’t exist, invent it and put in the sweat equity to make it happen––so was the example provided by the Rauch Brothers. In short, there was no studio, no job for which to apply to that would allow them to make powerful and gripping animated documentaries full of humanity. So, over a painstaking three-year period they tapped into their connections, developed their creative approach to the medium, proved what they could do by executing three fantastic sample films, and (all the while) sacrificing financially until all the planets aligned.

Fred Seibert- Founder and Exec Producer of Frederator & Media Entrepreneur-
If you know Fred at all, you can guess that he had the students’ attention from his first word, telling us truths such as buyers (networks, media companies, etc.) only pay attention to people who make things (films, comics, etc.) because these are the people that have something to say/sell. On the entrepreneurial side, Fred cautioned that his plans that failed were always the ones that were rushed and not properly thought through.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Animondays Interview: Linda Simensky -part II

*I'm a sucker for photos filled with my animation heroes. Here's a photo via Michael Sporn from a 2007 post on Annecy. Left to right are Sporn, John R. Dilworth, and Linda Simensky in 1992.

Happy New Year to all! As my first post of 2012 I'm happy to present the conclusion to my interview with the PBS Kids VP of Children's Programming, Linda Simensky.

For all those pitching in 2012, best of luck to you. Enjoy the experience, get as much as you can out of it, and be open to other measures of success. You may not sell your project out of the gate, but you'll be on the road to building better communication/storytelling skills, and make important new relationships with producers and development execs that could lead to job opportunities (if not a deal on your creations down the line).

Linda's answers are straight-forward, practical, and should help you on your way. Good luck!

13-How useful have pitching extras (such as a bit of finished animation, voice or song track) been to you in a typical pitch meeting?
Seeing a demo of the animation can sometimes help show us more about the idea. There have been times, such as in the WordGirl pitch, where Soup 2 Nuts came in with a very funny piece of animation, and we all fell in love with it. On the other hand, we've seen a number of horrible demos that have pretty much killed the projects for us. As for other extras, such as theme songs or voice samples, if we already like the idea for the show, these are often interesting to see, but I can't think of time when the extras made us change our minds about an idea.

14-How much time should a creator give a network to get back to them with a verdict after a pitch meeting?
It varies, but I'd say that it often takes a fair amount of time. You can get a rejection fairly quickly but contructive feedback takes time. If several people are going to look at an idea, and someone is going to put some notes together, it can take a while. Also, the higher up the executive is in the company, the more time it will take to hear back from them.

I tend to look at projects in relation to each other, and that adds time to the process.

Since our department does more than just development, sometimes production takes precedence over development.

It is okay to call or email and check on the status of your project, as long as you don't start to nag. You might get a faster answer if you pose your question as "I am curious to know what you thought," as opposed to "Please give me an answer as soon as possible."

I am usually swamped at work to begin with, and there's usually something going in production on that needs immediate attention.

15-Is the Paper Development deal (where a network options a project and commissions more scripts, designs, or storyboards) the standard first deal in your development process, or do some projects go right to pilot or series? If so, why?
In past jobs, there were always the development deals, followed by pilots. At PBS, we have a slightly different process, and the experience for each show is different. The producer and the producer's experience, the kind of show, and what the show seems to need all determine the approach we will take with that property. Some go right to series, some start with a set of shorts or a Web site, some go to pilot, and some may go direct to broadband, an option we are currently in the midst of designing.

If a series is pitched by someone we are already working with, we may determine we are comfortable with that producer and move ahead to a series without a pilot. But when we have questions about a show or a creator, we might ask for a pilot or some further development to answer those questions.

16- What amount of each year's green lit projects are initiated by or that involved celebrities as a selling point?
None at present, but people often end up casting more famous voices. PBS seems to attract a number of actors who are interested in being connected with PBS, either for their kids or because of their appreciation of PBS from their own childhoods.

There hasn't been a point, either, where we've felt that we should pick up a show just because it featured a celebrity. It all comes down to the strength of the show, with our without the celebrity. After all, the chance of that celebrity dropping out of the show for some other obligation is pretty high, so a show needs to work on concept alone.

17- What is your opinion of shorts programs (such as What a Cartoon! at CN, and Random Cartoons from Frederator/Nick)? What are the pros/cons of such programs?
These types of programs are great for giving emerging artists the chance to make a short and get experience. The odds of getting a series through these sorts of programs are pretty small, though, probably smaller than if you just pitched to the network.

18-Besides looking at pitches, what are some of the other duties a network development executive juggles?
At PBS, there is no member of the kids programming department who handles only development. We oversee all of kids programming, so we handle program strategy and scheduling, development, and current series. In addition, we work closely with other departments, so we are involved with Interactive, Marketing and Branding, Business Affairs, and several aspects of management at different levels. We speak at and arrange a number of meetings each year with the PBS stations, as well. We're always in meetings about any number of topics.

19- How open are you to re-looking at a previously pitched (and rejected) project, assuming that the creator has made a large amount of changes and improvement?
Sure. We have looked at many projects at several different stages. I can think of several projects that came to us that weren't what we were looking for. After numerous discussions and changes, a few have ended up in our commissioning rounds. I think it is rare for an idea to come in fully figured out and fitting perfectly into our lineup. Everything usually requires some feedback.

For some projects, though, if they aren't working after a few tries, it's usually best to move on.

20- How much experience should a would-be creator have before they are ready for their own pilot or series? And where should they best get that experience?
At PBS, producers and creators must have series experience, and preferably experience in kids educational programming, as well. People starting out should want to have experience -- I would imagine it is fairly daunting to be running a 40-episode first season order with no background in producing. Given this huge level of responsibility and how much freedom a producer gets, I would prefer to work with people who have experience producing a series.

21-Any advice for new comers to pitching on how to best manage & cope with the emotional rollercoaster inherent in the pitching process?
Go into the process expecting to hear "no" most of the time. Use your experiences to learn more about pitching and more about the networks you are pitching to. Try to get as much experience as possible working on other shows.

22- How, if at all, do you think new platforms for animation such as on smart phones, ipads and the internet will change the future of the network development process? *NOTE: this Q & A dates from 2009.
At PBS, new platforms have already changed the development process from creating a series to to creating a multi-platform property. Certainly now there are more opportunities to get ideas seen in other media, and more opportunities to get experience. Eventually, there will be a number of creators who will be able to say they got their start on the web or on cell phones, but at this time, there aren't that many. There is something about those formats that emphasizes quick laughs over character development and storytelling, which are still the cornerstones of TV series.

23- How much effort have you made in building relationships and friendships with would be creators, and how important is it to do so?
I wouldn't call it an effort, as much as a positive side effect of working in the kids TV and animation industries. At this point, many of my friends are from the industry and we've become friends because we are interested in the same things. I wouldn't say I have attempted to befriend everyone I've worked with, but many of us spend a fair amount of time together, either on the phone or in meetings or at meals, and we've gotten to know each other pretty well. These relationships help because they allow us to be honest with each other. But these sorts of work friendships have to happen naturally.

24- How much effort do you put towards monitoring trends, fads, and other factors that might effect the sellability of shows? If so, how does this effect your network's development process?
At PBS, we do focus on different areas each year, but the changing directions tend to have more to do with what we feel we need to close programming gaps. We notice fads, but we don't have to do anything about them. As far as trends go, we've always been more interested in creating trends than following them. It's hard not to notice if several people are doing similar shows, but there's never any pressure to follow anyone else.

25-Can you estimate, in a year, how many pitches your network receives, options, and picks for pilot production?
We probably receive somewhere between 200 and 300 pitches per year. Only about 20% meet our criteria and get serious consideration, such as feedback. About 10-12 make it to the two final greenlighting rounds, and two to three shows per year go to series.