Monday, December 31, 2007

Writers and Animators, Oh Boy!

What is the supposed rivalry between animators and writers? The best answer I can muster is the fact that producers don’t often consider animation artists for writer positions. Mo Willems remains one of the shining examples of someone who has bridged both worlds with success. Sure, most animation artists that make independent films are writers of sorts. The writing that I’m talking about, that mostly excludes animation artists, is script writing for TV series. Even Blue’s Clues, a series that offered its staff many diverse opportunities, drew the line at writing. Once or twice they opened the door to script contributions from the whole staff, but it never led to an artist penning a script.

There’s an attitude that writing is writing and art is art. The irony is that the wall preventing animation artists from writing scripts does not keep “front office” staffers from similarly contributing. In the world of preschool TV, I have seen scripts written by producers, coordinators, live action directors, actors, and child development research specialists. We can’t assume that all these people are automatically qualified or gifted writers. So, why are they getting this opportunity? My feeling is that this happens because those filling these positions work with the script as their sole document. Everything they do revolves around the script, unlike animation artists, which translate and then discard the script as they convert it to a visual medium. In most TV or commercial animation, artists interpret and writers write.

If an animation artist wishes to write or be considered a writer in a studio setting, they had better write some samples on their own time. I love writing scripts. My pitch projects have given me the excuse to write dozens of scripts over the years. I first developed my writing by contributing articles to the ASIFA-East newsletter (Hint! Hint!), and next by authoring the book, Your Career in Animation. This year I’ve been in development with a TV idea of my own creation and I was gratified to function as the writer on the project and not exclusively as the artist. Six years prior, I didn’t sign my first development deal with Nickelodeon (partly) because they pigeon holed me as the artist. At that point, I had no samples to prove I was a writer and it hurt my case. Today, my current deal has already led to another deal writing a series overview and bible for a new animated property, where my role will be, among other things, head writer/story editor.

Again, I ask, what is the supposed rivalry between animators and writers? My theory is nobody can block our path but, ourselves. Only we have that power. Perhaps this could be the catalyst for a new year’s resolution?

Monday, December 24, 2007

Five Reasons Why These Are the Good Old Days

1-Because TV series animation jobs have been back in the United States since the mid 1990s and despite upstarts such as India, show no sign of disappearing. Maybe with the dollar so weak, this can continue unabated. We could be the third world nation doing outsourced animation for other countries! How cool is that.. wait, that doesn’t sound so great… anyway, as we stand today, men and women are actually earning a living as animators working on television series. This hadn’t happened for nearly a twenty-year period prior to the 1990s. Back then animation on shows such as Scooby Doo was outsourced, only allowing U.S. animation artists to work as designers, layout, and storyboard artists. New cheaper means of producing animation such as Flash, After Effects and Maya have made this revolution possible.

2-Because when an artist creates a character for a network (again, since the 1990s), that artist receives participatory series bonuses and a piece of the ancillary action. A Nickelodeon insider told me that one successful creator has earned between 150 to 200 million dollars this way. In contrast, Scooby Doo was created in 1969 by employees of Hannah/Barbera as a work-for-hire, who only earned a flat weekly salary for birthing this still-successful franchise. Today, many creators are not only retaining a percentage of he spoils, they own their characters outright. The internet has put a “TV network” in the hands of anyone that builds a Web site and splatters it with original content. When internet properties prove themselves with gigantic amounts of hits, real TV networks take notice, putting the power right back in the hands of the creators.

3-Because Ralph Bakshi’s legacy of taking animation to not strictly G-rated kiddie fare has finally taken root. Love it or hate it, Ralph’s films have expanded this art form’s vocabulary and helped diversify its audience. Today his influence can be seen in everything from Adult Swim’s line up to independent features daring to tread beyond the song cycle of Broadway. Bakshi’s early features such as Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic explored the social, political, and sexual revolution. Persepolis, the most important animated feature this year, owes a far bigger debt to Bakshi than it does to another milestone film that’s now celebrating it’s 70th birthday, Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs. Whenever anyone tackles a subject that was formally taboo to the animated medium, they are pulling a Bakshi. The art form is all the more healthy for it, unless you’d rather the Chub Chubbs inherit the earth.

4-Because animation artists are exchanging ideas and information with each other as never before, largely thanks to personal blogs, and Web sites such as,,, and In the 1970s, budding historians such as Jerry Beck, Michael Barrier, and Greg Ford hunted for animated films in garage sales and laid the foundation for a serious discussion of this industry’s history. Today a provocative post on cartoonbrew might score 150 posted comments in the first 24 hours. The community is not only larger than ever, but is also interacting as never before. Through personal artist blogs, we not only have the ability to take an intimate peak at great (and future great) animation artist’s thoughts and work, but also are treated to a tour of their network of artist pals.

5-Because so many of the artists that I respect most are venturing into independent feature films that, again, would not have been possible without the cheaper production technologies of today. In the upcoming years New York Independent animation may be well represented in the Oscar’s best-animated feature category. Don’t be surprised to see indy features by such directors as Michael Sporn, Nina Paley, Dan Kanemoto, Tatia Rosenthal, and Bill Plympton taking their place alongside Pixar, Blue Sky, and Dreamworks. The day of the independent animated feature is finally here and it’s future looks bright.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Other Side of the Coin

Some of the comments on my last blog post have inspired me to address a related topic. Last week my blog post was about how animation artists navigate working in a non-union animation town such as NYC. Some of the emphasis was on how animation artists can work together without the union and improve working conditions as well as studio policies. Recently, last week in fact, “permalance” workers from Viacom’s MTV networks walked off the job after their benefits and health plan were severely cut back. Among those who walked out was the entire NYC animation department at Nickelodeon. After a few short days, Viacom made some concessions and the crews returned to work. In this example, management was equally effected by the cutbacks, so the general staff had their bosses right there on the picket line with them. Still, it takes courage to walk off a job under any circumstance, so the Nickelodeon animation staff deserves our kudos and respect.

But, this posting isn’t about the above labor action. It’s about individual responsibility, which is the other side of the coin on this issue. Some students graduate with a sense of entitlement. They believe they’re owed something because of the great time and expense they just put into their education. The first five years of a typical animation career is the time when experience should be the prime consideration, far above getting the highest salary. The pay I earned while working at my first job at Michael Sporn Animation was not the biggest dollar in town. There was far more money to be earned at that time at Jumbo Pictures or MTV. But, I was working at one of the only studios in town that did animation from start to finish. The bottom line was that I was in the best place I could be to learn. And I had a lot to learn (still do!). Besides, Sporn paid a fair and generous dollar based on his budgets. If you follow the almighty dollar as your only compass you may have a very sorry career to show for it. I never heard of anyone ever choosing this industry to strike it rich. If that’s your plan, you’re probably setting yourself up for a big fall.

Yes, I understand that students fresh out of school have student loans. These loans represent your investment in yourself. If you’re looking for a quick return on that investment and believe that others owe that to you, then, you’ve already sold yourself way short. This is a business about relationships and reputation. These are your two greatest assets that you should guard with your life. Get over your sense of entitlement and start building your career. Opportunities I now have are the result of 12 years of making personal films, creating and pitching projects, taking on freelance opportunities in addition to full time work, teaching at three universities, and networking/volunteering through ASIFA-East. I have no anger or disappointment. I never believed that anyone owed me a damned thing. I’m too busy being grateful that I get to work in the field of my choice. Turn the mirror on yourself before you look to vent your frustrations elsewhere.

Monday, December 10, 2007

New York City Animation and the Ghosts of Union Past

Once upon a time New York City animation was unionized. By the early 1980s, the union’s membership and influence waned as the local industry shrank and independent studios accepted low paying (below union scale) animation work from clients such as Sesame Street as a means of survival. Thankfully, animation in the big apple proved far more resilient than the union that sought to protect its member’s interests. However, recent events in NYC animation, such as the erratic behavior of specific studios, the sudden layoff of a whole crew at AniMagic, and the vanishing benefits package at MTV networks, have got some folks whispering about how a union might play into the whole mix. I don’t claim to have the answer to this question, although many are of the opinion that a union would send work away from NYC as well as threaten the existence of small independent studios.

I’ve often believed that there’s a circumstantial problem in this business that helps create conditions that make some desire to unionize. Firstly, each year, there’s a new batch of students bursting out of the animation schools. In NYC, alone, I’d estimate the animation grads per year to be around 110 individuals. The new trend is for studios/companies to “hire” these students as interns. Unpaid interns. Maybe this is similar to the old days of the apprenticeship system, but I don’t think so. An intern is someone still in school, helping out a few days a week at a company, in exchange for school credit, experience, and contacts. Secondly, animation artists, in their first few years in the business, have fewer family obligations and often consider a studio to be their new fraternal order or clubhouse. In such a way, the sacrifices they make by working unpaid evening and weekend hours seem less painful. Things get further complicated because this group often feels (and rightly so) that they are still paying dues. In addition, they have a natural fear about losing their jobs, while at the same time, feel grateful to be employed in their industry of choice.

While this is a non-union animation town, it doesn’t mean that class action can’t be utilized. I worked on a series for a big network where, initially, there were no benefits or ergonomic equipment. The staff rallied together and meetings were held with producers and network representatives. In the end, the staff won all their victories, even causing conditions to improve at large rival studios that were then forced to up the ante of their own employee offerings. In a lesser (but, still notable) action, the same crew successfully petitioned their director for better tech service to their computers, each artist signing their names to a petition.

But, crews do not always come together in the right way, for the greater good of each other. Sometimes they come together simply to lick each other’s wounds. In this scenario, everyone rallies around each other to soldier on, in spite of all kinds of abuses such as mandatory late hours and weekend work without pay, arbitrary firings, demotions, and harassment. I don’t trust that people will always have the confidence and leadership to tackle these issues on their own. I suppose the argument is; should they even have to? I merely ask the question and open the floor for discussion. For those wishing to learn more about the history of the animation union in the USA, I recommend Tom Sito’s book, Drawing the Line, although his honest retelling of union battles fought and lost, sometimes help make the case against the union.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Time to make your appointment to see Dr. Katz

Is it just me, or is Dr. Katz one of the most brilliant TV shows in recent times? I think the case for this quirky show is pretty simple. Beavis and Butthead succeeded in part because it combined memorable characters segments with economic repurposing of old and current music videos. Dr. Katz did the same thing with well worn stand up routines from a veritable who’s who of top comedians. In the guise of “therapy” the comics would run through their material which were then depicted in producer Tom Snyder’s patented squiggle vision. Book ending the comedy bits were brilliantly written story segments with a lean cast of characters: Dr. Katz, his deadbeat son, Ben, the surly secretary, Laura, and two of Dr. Katz’s pals at the local watering hole. Dr. Katz plays as a sort of animated companion to Seinfeld, finding character gold by exploring and reveling in moments of “nothing.”

Not since J.Ward’s Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, has there been an animated series that did so much with so little. Dr. Katz is deceptively simple however. Sure, there is little to no actual on-screen movement. No walk cycles, matches on action, or even transitions from pose to pose. On Dr. Katz, all of that happens between the scenes or cuts. It’s an implied movement. The scene layouts, held poses/expressions, and editing are so strong, that it all works! The show fascinates me because it puts such an additional burden on the editing where even changes in expression can only really happen on scene cuts. I can’t think of any other TV show or movie where this is the case (besides other productions by the Dr. Katz crew, of course).

I’ve always felt that TV’s bad reputation for animation was unjustified. TV allowed a breath of fresh air to arrive in the form of the art of the soundtrack. Sure, soundtracks in the theatrical cartoon could be incredibly inventive and sensitive, but for television, soundtracks had to do even more of the heavy lifting. This was artistic necessity, as well as an economic need. Dr. Katz features such strong audio that the show would work even as a radio play, but when combined with the great layouts, designs, and clever cutting, the visuals end up being the most radical and groundbreaking aspect of the show. Who would have thunk it? If you’ve already dismissed Dr. Katz and it’s squiggly non-animation, it might be time for another look.

Luckily, season one and two are already available on DVD, and this Tuesday an exhaustive 13 disc box set arrives (just in time for the holidays), collecting all six seasons of the series! Take the plunge and a let a little animated therapy into your life.