Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Most Important Element In a Pitch

ASIFA-East recently held a pitch workshop event with career coach, packaging agent, entertainment lawyer, and teacher Jim Arnoff. The point of the event was to help would-be creators better sell their creations (not to teach one how to create a winning cartoon pitch itself). The problem with such a discussion is that it may lead some to believe that by following one specific plan, they might reach their goal of having their own series. Don't get me wrong, the event was informative and helpful but, I could tell that most would-be creators in the audience operated under the assumption is that (creatively) they already have it in the bag.

The truth is that most projects pitched are half-baked at best and most creators are not ready for the responsibility of making a winning cartoon should they even get a deal. The most responsible among us try to make themselves ready for the day when they earn a cartoon series. I keep coming back to a wonderful quote by my friend, Fran Krause: "Don't expect anyone to pay you for what you haven't yet done yourself."

Its easier to define what makes a successful cartoon pitch than it is to define what makes a successful cartoon. A successful cartoon pitch is one that leads to a development deal/option/pilot or series. A successful cartoon, one that might spawn a series, is a much more subjective thing. All the elements (writing, design, color, animation, direction, sound design) must blend together to create a satisfying experience.

No pitch element (shy of making an entire pilot yourself) shows how a creator and his/her team will blend all those ingredients together to guarantee that the end result will live up to the promise of the pitch. Its no wonder that (for a deal to be struck) it often comes down to a creator's reputation and the strength of their relationship with the development executive/network.

Mo Willems is a great case. Cartoon Network didn't wake up one day and decide, "Gee, I need a show where a non-verbal sheep gets chased around by military agents inbetween bursts of sketch comedy." Instead, all they knew was they wanted to make a show with Willems. He had already proved himself with countless films for Sesame Workshop as well as his own Nickelodeon mini-series, The OffBeats. Willems also had a strong friend and champion in Linda Simensky, (who was then a Cartoon Network development exec), ensuring that he was wooed by Cartoon Network much in the way a hot rock band might be wooed by a record label.

The idea he proposed (as clever and fun as it was) might have been the least essential element of his green-light. Willems' track record beyond Sheep only proves how smart Cartoon Network were to gamble on him in the first place. He went on to head write Mr. Warburton's Code Name: Kid's Next Door just before launching into the stratosphere as the most successful children's book author since Dr. Seuss. ***image above from Sheep in the Big City.

Jim Arnoff (speaking as a packaging agent) advises that would-be creators aline themselves with a production company and build a strong team of creative partners before pitching. While I can see the value in that, I believe the danger of such a plan creates a handful of additional gate-keepers to block one's path. Is building such a team the most important ingredient to selling a show? In all fairness, I'm not suggesting that Jim Arnoff believes this is the case. He merely offers a road map by which some projects are sold.

Bill Plympton often tells students not to start their own studio businesses right upon graduation. He argues, they won't have enough contacts and experience to succeed that early on. Instead, he suggests such students first cut their chops working in the industry for at least seven years. I'd argue for similar advice for would-be creators. First work in the industry in a variety of capacities, preferably for episodic animated series. Learn production and see what nuts and bolts come together to build a crew and a production process, and what it takes to make a show delivery. Along the way, its okay to develop and pitch your own productions, but, the key is to understand that the most important thing to develop (towards the goal of selling your animation creation) is yourself.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Bust, Boom, Bust

When I began my schooling at SVA in 1991, our animation teachers warned us that there were very few jobs in animation. "You'll have to go to L.A. to find work," they told us again and again. In those days, animation was drawn on paper, finished on cels, and shot on film. A year before, my father arranged a meeting between myself and a jaded old animator who was going out of business. For ten minutes the man tried to convince me to go into another line of work. "Animation is dead," he reported, before he invited me to help myself to any artwork I found in the dumpster on the way out.

One man's ending is another man's beginning. The industry was (in fact) beginning to rebound. Beavis and Butthead and Doug arrived a year later, bringing TV series production back to New York City. On the heels of the recovery came the internet and a whole new means of animation distribution came about. Sure, people are still trying to figure out how to make direct money from internet animation, but the exposure this new platform has offered filmmakers has already paid off with commercial dividends.

Along with the rise of the internet came cheap and fast digital animation in Flash and After Effects. Scores of jobs were created in what became New York's first in-house large scale animation endevours since Richard William's Raggedy Ann and Andy (1977). Simaltaneously, New York re-asserted itself as the North America's undisputed indie animation capital with new filmmakers such as The Krause Brothers, Pat Smith, Debra Solomon, Andy and Caroline London, and Signe Baumane joining the ranks of our already world-wide festival award stalwarts (John Canemaker, Michael Sporn, Emily Hubley, Bill Plympton, John Schnall, George Griffin, Candy Kugel & Vincent Cafarelli, etc.).

The New York animation industry grew and grew between 1991 and 2000. Then, the dotcom bust occured. Then 9/11. In 2000, MTV canceled Celebrity Death Match in midframe with six shows left unfinished. In the same year, Disney did not renew its contract with Jumbo pictures. In 2001, MTV animation bit the dust and Nick Digital's only 2nd production to last more than one year (Little Bill) was not renewed. The bad news kept coming. In 2004, Blue's Clues officially ended, marking the end of continuous production at Nick digital. The following year, Funny Garbage laid off an entire staff when Disney pulled the plug on KatBot. A year later, upstart studio Animagic went belly up, leaving its 75 person crew working on Nate the Great, in the cold. Cartoon Pizza (the smaller studio which evolved out of Jumbo pictures) closed its doors after season one of Pinky Dinky Doo and opted to make season two in Canada. In the last four weeks, production has been halted at Word World and Animation Collective, and Nick Digital ceased existence as of Dec 18.

Interestingly enough, the build up that occurred between 1991 and 2000 took nearly as long to collapse. Hopefully, 2009 marks the end of this down cycle and the beginning of something new. Today we have several advantages to turn to that previous generations of struggling animators did not. For one, the idea of the internet as a viewing platform is no longer mere theory. Youtube has set the current viewing standard as short, funny, and irreverent...but, longer form series and movies are now being viewed through itunes and other online destinations. This translates into more animation needed to serve this new demand.

Most importantly, even as Manhattan rents have pushed out larger studios, the virtual studio is on the rise. I am now involved in my fifth at-home gig large enough to bring in additional crew besides myself. The new gig is a for a Fox pilot and the client is in California. The longest of these gigs, Assy McGee (for Clambake Animation), employed some of my remote crew up to seven months in a row. I think we can generate a lot of work in this city if we get creative about it. We have nothing to lose because its better than sitting around and waiting for studios to hire again.

The other new area to have opened up is the independent animated feature film. Yes, its still hard to get funding and distribution, but, why shouldn't it be hard? Animated features (outside of the Hollywood machine) have to prove that they can go places that the "animated feature family film ghetto" hasn't allowed them to travel. Films such as Persepolis, $9.99, Sita Sings the Blues, and Idiots and Angels have paved the way. To date, no indie animated feature has reached the success of, say, Blair Witch or Big Fat Greek Wedding, but I believe that the day is coming soon. I plan to be a part of it. I have an indie animated feature film project that I'm in the process of launching with my wife.

One thing is for certain: animation as a career plan is not a casual pursuit. You have to want it above all other ends to even stay in the game. Challenging times such as these only serve to underscore that point. Yet, these challenging times are also bursting with opportunity. Okay, we lost a handful of potential (or actual) employers, but it doesn't have to mean that our hopes and dreams should go down with them.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The 10 Commandments of Working From Home

Since 2004, I have been someone who jumps in and out between working on-site at studios and working from home. The at-home projects have included consulting (Lucy Daughter of the Devil, Super Why), directing pilots (Playhouse Disney and National Geographic Kids), directing shorts (Electric Company), and directing an entire season of episodes of the Adult Swim series Assy McGee. For the last two years I've worked exclusively at home and this experience has led me to compile these 10 Commandments of Working From Home. *drawings above from my current freelance gig: animating and directing a pilot for a client.

1-Go out before you start to work.
Grab a coffee, go to the gym, walk your dog, etc. This is very important because it gets your butt out of bed and forces you to throw on shoes and clothes. You get some air as you stretch your legs. It's a bad idea to simply stagger out of bed and plop down at your workstation straight away.

I get up each morning and eat breakfast with my wife, who has a job with normal hours in Manhattan. Every morning, I walk her to the subway and then I continue on to the gym. After a short workout I grab a coffee and walk home. Shortly after 10 AM I'm at my workstation and ready to start my day.

2-Start your working day at or around 10 AM and finish by 7 PM.
This way your get a sense of order to your life. Since you're working from home, you need to have a sense of being home and being done with work at a set time each day. Of course, there will be times where you'll have to keep working to make a deadline or juggle multiple jobs, but as a rule, try to create this healthy boundary between work and home. Also, by keeping to normal office hours, you'll stay ready to jump back into the workplace of your next on-site job.

3-Don't use IM unless you need it to communicate with your client or workers.
Instant Messenger can be a big distraction because it requires you to interact with people in relative real time. Non work related IMs get burdensome and can suck away hours at a time. Some animators use seperate IM addresses for work time so they can keep IMs as exclusively as work communication.

4-Make it a point to meet up with friends/industry peers for lunch outside of your home at least twice a week.
Not only will this be delicious, but it will get you out of the house to sustain friendships and start new ones. Note that this also works for breakfast too!

5-Be mindful of the increased demand for timely communication.
When working on site, there is opportunity for direct in-person communication all day long. When working remotely, its important to be extra mindful to communicate your questions, needs, and status of work on a regular basis.

6-Be extra mindful of the tone of your communication when using instant messenger and email. The reader always reads their own tone into someone else's writing, so its important to be clear and professional. If there is a sticky matter to discuss, get the person on the phone to discuss it in conversation.

7-Music and (maybe TV) is okay
Despite what Richard Williams advises, it is perfectly fine to work to music throughout the day. I doubt many of us are involved in the kind of total body and mind concentration required to do the kind of overly complex animation Williams is engaged in. If you're working on any other type of animation, listening to music can help make for a pleasant workplace. Leaving the TV on can work too, but there is the problem of getting sucked into a TV show. Watch at your own risk.

8-Lunch time is blog time.
When I'm not meeting up for a lunch outside my home office, I eat at my computer and use it as an excuse to peruse my favorite animation blogs which keep me informed on the state of the art and industry of animation. Food for thought, indeed.

9-Make time to go to animation events.
Working from home can make you stir crazy (anyone see The Shining?) and its easy to miss the companionship of of your peers and friends in animation. Attending events such as ASIFA-East's monthly screenings, makes for instant networking opportunities, keeping you connected to the larger world outside your home studio. You might also pick up a little inspiration.

10-Make time to work on your own art.
This can be tough under any circumstances, but it gets even tougher when you're working from home. The last thing you may want to do is to work on your own art or animation at the end of a busy animation day, but if you make the time to do so (even a few days a week), you will make yourself a lot happier, create new samples, and ready yourself for untold opportunities. Best of all, working from home allows you some days to yourself when you are inbetween freelance jobs. Fill in some of those days by attacking personal projects.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The House That Blue Built (1996-2008)

Another sign of a weakened animation industry (and the overall weakened economy) arrived last week when staffers working on the 4th floor of 1633 Broadway were summoned into a meeting where they were told that New York's Nickelodeon Digital Animation Studio would be closing its doors before the end of the year. The largest pool of workers among them were in mid-season production on Nick Jr's Team Umi Zumi, which is a as-of-yet unaired series made completely in-house with Flash, After Effects, and Maya. The workers will be on hiatus for an undetermined amount of time while the producers work to re-establish the series at an independent animation studio to complete the rest of the season order.

New York's Nick Digital Animation studio first sprung up in a few cubicles on the 32nd floor of 1633 Broadway, which was on a floor above it's sister studio, MTV Animation. The maiden project, "Blue's Clues," was a new form of production: full in-house series production via Adobe After Effects, Photoshop, and Power Macs. The studio that grew around the series (adding such productions as Little Bill, Gary the Rat, This Just In, Fridays, and Blue's Room in addition to many pilots) provided my (near- continuous) employment between the years 1997 and 2007. Having been away from the studio for the last year and a half, its semi-abstract to learn that the studio is closing its doors. Even though I didn't work on the studio's final series, it was nice to know that they were employing so many animation artists and support staff. It was nice to know that the studio was there- period.

What role did a large studio like Nickelodeon play in the New York area animation landscape? For one, it paid some of the best salaries in town, and (for the majority of its run) gave its temporary workers full benefits such as health care, dental, and 401k plans. It offered long-term work on high profile projects in a stable work environment with a genuine Human Resources department. When independent studios (such as Curious Pictures) set up their first large scale digital series productions, they followed in Nick's example by providing fair wages and benefits packages.

Whether or not you ever worked at Nick Digital Animation, this event effects you. There is a giant pool of expert workers that will be all looking for work at the same time. There is one less major studio where graduating students might find work. While there are a smattering of new projects rising in the city, so far, no single production will be able to absorb this entire crew. Lean times like this have always thinned out the ranks. Many will drift into other lines of work or move to other parts of the country.

I don't think we need any more examples that our jobs are temporary in this industry. Even accepting a job on a series with a long-term contract is by no means a guarantee that the bottom will not fall out from under you. There is no continuity to be found at any one studio. The continuity has to come from you. Times like this test us to be resourceful, to look after our own fates, and (of course) to value, appreciate, and look after each other.

One might take stock of what got them into this business in the first place. I doubt many of the recently laid off Nick Digital folks would answer, "I always wanted to work in a compartmentalized capacity preforming repetetive tasks on a preschool animated series till the end of time." Chances are, some people wanted to work in features, on music videos, write the great American novel, start a comic strip, create their own content, or build their own studio business.

It should be inspiring that Tatia Rosenthal (a Nick alumni) left the close knit studio a long time ago, forsaking the comfortable path for a chance to make her own stop motion feature. Her feature film, $9.99 opens in Los Angeles on December 12. It was the result of many years of unbelievable sacrifice and it would not have been possible had she stayed at Nickelodeon. In a similar way, those recently let go might just look back at Nick Digital Animation closing its doors as the best thing that ever happened to their career. And, if that's the case it will be because they (like Tatia) made something happen.

Monday, December 1, 2008

What's Wrong with The Simpsons

I figured it out. America's favorite yellow family must be vampires. In fact, all of Springfield USA must be vampires too, because nobody has aged a day since season one began in 1989. If time had been a factor, Bart would be around 30 years old today.

Since The Simpsons have been renewed until at least 2013, I think this discussion is long overdue. In theory, it looks like an advantage to have an entertainment medium in which characters remain forever young. However for a show as long-running as The Simpsons, the advantages ended around season 8 or so (and that was back in 1997!).

Once upon a time, The Simpsons WERE set in time. Marge and Homer had an origin story. They had been high school sweethearts in the 1970s. This made sense because Homer was supposed to have been in his mid 30s in 1990. The math checked out. But, nearly two decades of episodes have passed since then and that has not been kind on the reality between The Simpsons' universe and our own.

Live action sitcoms can't ignore their actors getting older. If a family-based sitcom survives long enough, its once cute tots grow up to go to college. Unfortunately, by that point, most sitcoms have long worn out their welcome and try to remedy the situation by adding new tots into the mix. Despite the fact that most sitcoms don't manage to stay as sharp as they once were, there is at least the potential to tell new stories that might reflect the characters' changing lives.

I remember what it felt like to attend junior high for the first time, graduate high school, get a driver's license, go to college, get a job, and how my social world and values changed again and again. Bart and Lisa (and Maggie) are forever stuck in grade school and any attempt to age up their situations would only ring false. That is, unless they were able to grow.

The first deathblow to The Simpsons relevancy occurred with the 1997 debut of South Park on Comedy Central. Before then, Bart Simpson was a role model for underachievers everywhere. He talked back to adults. He got bad grades in school. But, he was really a safe modern-day throw back to Dennis the Mennis, even complete with sling shot in pocket. On the other hand, South Park's Eric Cartman cooked his friends parents and then fed it to him.

The second deathblow was that beyond season 10 (and that's being generous), The Simpsons had said all they had to say and could only repeat themselves with diminishing returns. How telling it was that even the recent Simpsons feature film recycled nearly all its plot elements from earlier TV episode plots. For instance, Homer getting attached to that pig? That was very similar (but less funny) than Homer getting attached to the lobster (Pinchy) from episode "Lisa Gets an 'A'" (the seventh episode of The Simpsons' tenth season. It aired on November 22, 1998.) How about Homer ruining the whole town and making it unlivable? That happened already when Homer made the town a toxic landfill in "Trash of the Titans" (the 22nd episode of The Simpsons' ninth season and the 200th overall. It originally aired on April 26, 1998.) The family losing faith in Homer? Marge and Homer's marriage on the rocks? Lisa dealing with a new love? All tackled in the TV episodes to far better results.

Live action sitcoms debut with their characters being a certain age and (within a season or two) find the balance or blend of qualities that might define that show's voice. As the actors age and grow, the balance changes and eventually every sitcom runs out of juice. The physical transformation of the aging cast makes that change perfectly clear, giving it a visible face. An animated sitcom such as The Simpsons does not show its age so readily. One has to actually watch an episode made between 2001 and 2009 to see the rot just below the surface. By the show's final curtain call, it the bad seasons will far outnumber the good.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Outsiders

There's a common misconception that the "industry" does something to the animation artist. The idea is that it makes us conform our styles and our independent spirits so that we might hope to be cogs in the wheel at a major animation studio. In reality the industry doesn't do that, animation artists make that choice themselves. Everyone is so busy trying to figure out how Tex Avery timed a gag, Jim Tyer drew, or Mary Blair designed. Sure, we'd have to lack a normal artistic curiosity not to want to figure that out, but to what ends are we prepared to apply that information? What's the end game?

Oddly enough, outsiders to our industry have led the way in making some of the most groundbreaking animation of our era. For the purpose of this discussion, I'm only going to reference TV animation because the incredibly low standards and conformity in that arena. On Nov 19, Don Hertzfeldt came to town for a special set of screenings at the IFC center and the packed houses were treated to a set of unique films by this modern young master of indie animation. During the Q and A, Hertzfeldt revealed he has a TV deal, and one can only assume its for his own pilot or series. The filmmaker now joins a long line of outsiders who have stepped in to create the most original animation on the tube. The list includes Mike Judge (a self taught animator who learned to animate by making the first Beavis and Butthead film in his garage), Matt Stone and Trey Parker (live action film students who dabbled in cut out animation that most animators would scoff at), Matt Groening (the indie cartoonist who's first foray into animation was when he was drafted to dash off short animations for The Tracy Ullman Show), and Tom Snyder (the educational software company owner who devised a show with comedian Jonathan Katz that employed illustrators-not animators to create the series, Dr. Katz).

These outsiders never spent two seconds trying to imitate how Chuck Jones subtly raised an eyebrow, or to discover how Art Babbit broke the joints, or figure what sets apart each of the nine old men. And, they certainly wouldn't care to get into a debate as to the differences between each Pixar release or on how well Lasseter is doing as head of Disney. In contrast, we animation artists define ourselves by those very interests. It's what makes us "animation people." And, it's also what makes us take second place to the trailblazers listed above. They pull their influences out of life experiences as well as from inspirations coming from other mediums such as painting, sculpture, live-action cinema, theatre, etc. Is it any wonder that their creations take OUR medium to places we would dare not dream?

I know there's a degree of over-simplification in this argument. Some industry animation artists also have diverse interests, but I would wager that they tend to keep them out of their animation. This is because we are so busy scrambling to make a living that we give all our effort to our commercial work and leave none of that time or energy to ourselves. With such an equation, how could we be the groundbreakers in our own industry? The outsiders have a further advantage called "ignorance." Since they don't know the "so-called" limitations of our industry, they don't let anything block their creativity. To compete, we in the industry must learn to forget trends, fads, and commercial considerations that hold us back. Its as if we have automatic sensors telling us, "this will never sell," or "this project is too risky to be successful."

The last thirty years has seen the birth and boom of an interest in animation history and its checkered films and filmmakers, rescuing many from obscurity. Some, such as Chuck Jones, were even fortunate enough to live to see it happen and take a well deserved victory lap. I don't suggest we stop searching out our past, nor do I suggest turning a blind eye to where the industry is at today. Instead, I suggest we examine why it is that some of our best contemporary work has come from those who are not saddled by the negative baggage that comes along with being "animation people."

Incidentally, Herzfeldt's latest short, "I Am So Proud of You," (pictured above) is a masterpiece and its mature subject matter and sophisticated construction does animation proud, even though.... at the Q and A with moderator Amid Amidi concluding the screening, Hertzfeldt admitted, "I'm not an animator. I use animation to make films."

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Two Topics

Today, I'm presenting two unrelated topics...


Forgive me a partial post on my cartoon pitches to the New Yorker. Of course, these are not pitches in the sense that one might pitch an animated series. At the New Yorker, its possible to present a new set of cartoons once a week. One could never do that for an animated pitch, where even a rough proposal will likely represent weeks or months of development. For the last four weeks, I've set aside at least one day a week to draw up a new batch of cartoons. I'm happy to report that some of them have made the weekly short list of cartoons that the magazine holds on to for further consideration. I still have yet to sell them a gag, but, I'm getting a lot out of the experience.

For one, working on cartoon gags every week exercises the hand and the mind. Over time, one has a chance to really develop a style and a point of view. Secondly, a weekly pitch puts one in the hot seat on a regular basis, where rejection becomes something you can schedule on the calendar.

An interesting thing has happened. With only four weeks into my adventure, I can report that each encounter is not defined by rejection. What could seem hopeless or disappointing, actually feels exciting and rewarding. This is because each week represents both a renewed commitment to myself as well as further proof of my sincerity to the New Yorker.

What the hell does this mean to anyone reading this blog? Well, I believe that its important to spend at least one day a week in a risky scenario where you push your talents, film, projects, or whatever. Up until now, I've pitched animated projects maybe on the rate of once every two months. Now, I feel the rush of excitement every Tuesday when I hand over a small stack of cartoons, one of which might just wriggle its way into the magazine.

(below: 2 gags from week 2 of my New Yorker submissions)


I find this topic endlessly fascinating. Most of the time, animators that are the "real deal" are interested in animating. Their concerns are draftsmanship, staging, timing, acting, characterization, and countless nuances and possibilities available in the mechanics of creating any animated moment. What they are often not interested in is in making films. Or, as in the case of Richard Williams, when they cross into making animated films, they might bring an unbalanced view of animation's role in an animated film. Character animation is but one element in an animated film. A film requires its makers to weave together all aspects of visual and audio storytelling that make up any motion picture. A filmmaker making animated films will allow different elements of a film to dominate the experience at any given time, and all for the service of moving the story forward. The animation-minded individual is more likely to make animation the central point of any given moment. At best, they might devise a story or subject that justifies such a choice.

Don't get me wrong, one is not necessarily either a filmmaker or an animator. One can be a little of both in different degrees.

Ralph Bakshi seems an easy poster child for the filmmaker approach. He bent the elements of film to suit his own vision. He mashed animation and live action together for graphic excitement, to convey emotional mood, and also to ensure that his films came in on budget. Richard Williams acts as a good example of the animator that might obsess over the mechanics of animation to such a degree that it consumes all else. Both men have accomplished great things in their careers and rose to the top of the industry despite (and because of) their respective views of filmmaking and animation.

I suspect all of us over and under compensate to our strengths and weaknesses as we create not only films but, also our careers.

(thanks to Elliot Cowan for the idea for this blog entry!)

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Arrested Development

We are fortunate enough to have oodles of golden age animation collections available on DVD. More seem to be coming out all the time. In the last two years alone we have seen collections of shorts by Lantz, Warners, Disney, MGM, Famous, and (finally!) Fleischer. These collections house some of the greatest character animation ever achieved in the continuing history of this industry. Today, many of us lament that the standards of animation have fallen. While there are more animation artists working today than ever before, there remains the notion that draftsmanship standards have fallen. Taken with (creatively crippling) faster and cheaper production methods utilized since the TV animation era began, its obvious to conclude that the golden days were, well, simply golden.

While its easy to conclude this, its not the entire story. As I've collected and enjoyed box set after box set of these precious nuggets of animation's past, I've noticed something else–something beyond the "look, they used to animate on ones," and, "boy, could they draw!" Over time, I began to realize, that while these shorts set a technical standard of achievement unequaled since, they may have been equally responsible for our medium's arrested development. Creatively, there's only so far one could go with animation subjects starring dancing toys, cats chasing mice, rabbits outsmarting hunters, and woodpeckers pecking wood.

Much has been written blaming the "kid vid" status of animation on how animation was presented on television. In short, it was programmed at hours when kids would be watching, before school and after school. The brief period where animation first appeared in prime time (Flintstones, Jetsons, Bullwinkle), was just that. Brief. But, was TV (exclusively) to blame for US animation forever existing as primarily a children's media? I don't think so. Theatrical cartoons, such as the ones collected in these special DVD sets mentioned above, played their part as well. Sure, these shorts played to general audiences, but they were almost exclusively comedies, most of which skewed their appeal to the youngest seat fillers in a theatre. In the public's mind, animation equaled kid-safe comedy. Don't get me wrong, working within animation's narrow comedic box, directors, animators, and artists of all kinds did wonderous things. They built the foundation for this art and this industry. And, they made brilliantly entertaining shorts which, (as far as craft goes) are unsurpassed. One could argue, the success of these shorts (along with the Disney Features) built an industry and fitted it with a creative straightjacket at the same time.

All one has to do is think of the diversity of live action film from the golden age of animation to further understand how long animation has been restricted to the children's arena. In the 1930s and 40s live action film developed into many artistic directions including musicals, westerns, comedy, romance, dramas, period pieces, bible and adventure epics, gangster pics, science fiction, horror, thrillers, mysteries, etc. Yes, all of these directions were (in turn) reflected in animation, but only as comedy geared to general audiences, again skewing mostly to children. This was not the case in live action where films like The Lady Eve, Casablanca, and Spellbound (and hundreds of other classics of the day) were made for adults. Its now more than 70 years later and animation still has a long way to go before it is embraced by general audiences as a medium that can tell ANY story, and (more importantly) in untold creative ways that live action cannot.

Thank goodness UPA arrived on the scene just in time to dare to take animation into unexpected directions. Within less than two decades, UPA's influence would be passed on to the independent animators who would channel their own personal vision into films that could be anything and that could be made for anyone. Perhaps one day, the independent animation era (which began in the 1960s) will be as appreciated and celebrated as a box set of films where cats chase mice. One can only hope.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

New Yorker State of Mind

For more than fifteen years I've created and drawn hundreds of one panel gag cartoons, usually revolving around gold fish and their environs. Eight of these gags eventually found a home published in magazines and newspapers across the country. From time to time I would send off a batch of these cartoons to the prestigious New Yorker magazine, but to no avail. This week, through the generosity of a friend, I had the opportunity to present some new non-fish gags to the New Yorker's famed cartoon editor Bob Mankoff. It was quite an experience!

Once I decided to create some new general themed cartoon gags for the New Yorker I had only four or so days in pocket so I had to work fast. A morning trip to the gym proved a handy catalyst to creativity and I found myself with four or five gags to sketch when I got home. I decided to draw the gags directly into photoshop via my wacom tablet. I like the loose feel this imposes on me. My cartoonist friend told me that one needs to present a minimum of seven gags at a shot if they hope to be taken seriously. With such a short window of time available I decided to keep my gag number to seven exactly.

Cartoonists have one hour a week to present gags in person to Bob Mankoff. Visiting the floor where the New Yorker is made was prize enough for me. On my arrival, Mankoff's assistant let me onto the floor and I confessed that it was my first time presenting cartoons. He welcomed me and told me all I had to do was to figure out where the back of the line was. Boy, was he right. There was a sprawl of cartoonists hovering around Mankoff's office. Some had already showed gags. Others were waiting. Complicating matters further was a nearby waiting room that might contain other cartoonists-in-waiting. After ten minutes, it became clear that the last person ahead of me had showed and then it was my turn.

Mankoff welcomed me into his office and asked me about my background. After some small talk he motioned for my small stack of gags. Thumbing through them, he quickly gave me the good advice of avoiding topical political references which might already be dated by the magazine's publication. At least two of my seven gags violated that rule. Moving through the rest of my work, he seemed to initially put two gags on the side for possible consideration. Then he advised me to try a more sophisticated drawing style for my next round of submissions. Getting to the end of my stack, he told me that he had decided not to hold on to any of my gags on the first visit. He asked, "How many more ideas do you have?" I replied that I could do a stack such as this everyday. Best of all, he told me, "You have the mind for this. Come back and show me more."

With that last exchange, I was thoroughly encouraged. However, since nothing is ever a sure thing, I'm making a solemn vow to keep my expectations in check. I got a further does of reality joining the other cartoonists at a lunch that day at a near by restaurant. Among them was a very nice and talented cartoonist who has been submitting gags to the New Yorker for 8 years without making his first sale. Another cartoonist told me that they were submitting cartoons for a year and another had just wrapped up their first month of submissions. They each remained hopeful and inspired to keep trying, although they admitted that they seldom came in on a weekly basis. Everyone acknowledged that paying work and other life commitments make coming in weekly a near-impossible scenario. I doubt I could sustain a weekly submission very long, although I plan to push myself to the (reasonable) limits.

This weekend I took a crack at some new gags based on Bob Mankoff's feedback. I can already see the improvement. Any such creative endeavor returns to us regardless wether or not we make a sale. I'm enjoying taking on this pipe dream because it allows me to better develop as a writer and a cartoonist. And, since animation artists working in the New York area have always relied upon a diverse set of skills and outlets to earn a living, why not add "New Yorker" cartoonist to that list. A fella can dream, can't he?

*Note: cartoon gags above ©2008 by David B. Levy from his first in-person submissions to the New Yorker magazine.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Canaries in the Coal Mine

In 2005 and 2006 my SVA career classes graduated with a large percentage of them finding employment. By 2007 the local industry was beginning an undeniable downturn. Less TV series were in production and, since TV series make up the bulk of our jobs, there was less work to spread around. In particular, students graduating in large numbers (the SVA graduating animation classes alone have numbered over 40 students per year since 2000) depend on TV series jobs more than other more-seasoned animation artists, which have a broader range of opportunities to call upon. TV series require a large workforce with a great deal of assistant work tailor made to newcomers.

I’m amazed at the power the Disney films of the 1990s have held on the current generation of wanna-be animation artists. The success and influence of The Little Mermaid to Tarzan is what has packed the SVA animation department since 2000. I’ll never forget the rows and rows of long faces staring back at me when I taught my first SVA career class held after the announcement that Disney was shutting down their traditional animation department. What I read as merely another headline in Variety, the class took as a deathblow.

Beginning in 2007, there has been a large rise in unpaid “internships” going to students post-graduation. For me, SVA’s graduating class has provided a yearly glimpse into the relative health of the local animation industry. Many of the last two graduating classes have struggled to land even a first break in animation. Some have asked me for help and advice. In each case, it is advice I had dispensed over and over again during my 15-week course. The only problem is, the students weren’t ready to hear it then. I’m not sure they are ready to hear it now.

In each case I ask them to describe their job hunt. The answer is always the same:
"I search on line and apply to ads on craigslist."

That would be fine if it represented 10% of their job hunt, not the summation of it. Some students wait until they are done creating the perfect reel. Others simply let their “dream” fritter away and allow themselves to get swallowed by the easiness of their part time or full time jobs outside of animation. Breaking into animation and securing one’s place in the industry takes as much passion and effort as it might take to learn this artform's craft. One has to network and creatively develop themselves. It’s never enough to be “into cartoons.” This industry eats people alive who are merely “into cartoons." You have to have a hunger for animation. You have to know that you can’t imagine a life working in any other capacity.

Do students lacking imagination and drive in the job hunt make this “canaries in the coal mine” analogy useless? I don’t believe so, because during busier periods in animation, even those who are only “into cartoons” are often swept into jobs (perhaps after being recommended by their more ambitious friends). The fact that this hasn’t happened in the last two years is an indication of a continuing slump.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Not So Merrie About the Merrie Melodies

The sixth Loony Tunes 4-DVD set just dropped into stores, and according to a post by Jerry Beck on from a way’s back, it might just be the last. This is as good a time as any to discuss the series’ strengths and weaknesses.

Commentary Tracks:
A handful of commentary tracks on each disc (ranging from the very informative Greg Ford and Mark Kausler to genially enthusiastic Jerry Beck and Eric Goldberg to historical musings of Michael Barrier and Daniel Goldmark). For the most part, any commentary is a welcome addition to these sets.

-Disappointing commentary tracks from voice artists such as June Foray and Stan Freberg due to their lack of fly-on-the-wall insight. After all, they were THERE.
-Hot and cold John K commentaries. He had virtually nothing to say on the brilliant Chuck Jones’ short Waikiki Rabbit, made all the more noticeable by Eddie Fitzgerald’s constant laughter.

Cartoon remastering and restoration:
Restored original titles, uncut cartoons, and remastered picture and sound bring these cartoons back to life after decades of mistreatment.

Cartoon selection and distribution:
-HUGE CON! Why weren’t these shorts presented in chronological order? I wouldn’t even care if they’d skipped Bosco, Foxy, and the other earliest shorts. They could have started with Porky Pig and moved on from there to the very end of Warner’s shorts. Then, there could have been archival releases of what came before. The recent official Fleischer Popeye DVD sets show how chronological collections make the most sense. This way the viewer gets to see the filmmakers and the cartoon stars evolve over time and change as products of their changing times. In the random way these cartoons are spread over these six sets, this is completely impossible to track.

Other special features:
Pro & Con:
-Any special features are automatically welcome, but, bonus cartoons (such as early black and white Harman and Ising era WB cartoons) just make me sad because it leads me to conclude that such cartoons will never be released in a chronological and archival DVD set of their own. Instead of bonus cartoons, these seem like cast offs.

Cover art:
Again, look to the Popeye collections to see how such covers can be rendered with respect and dignity. The cover art/art direction of these six sets is an absolute abomination to the point where they risk devaluing the shorts contained within.

The WW II theme of the sixth set:
We should be grateful that on such a general public release, they finally got around to including these important historical shorts.

The WW II theme (outside of one disc) is only window dressing. The rest of the set is filled with regular cartoons. A pity that they didn’t make this a release a fully WW II themed set. The 24 Private Snafu cartoons could have been spread over two discs. Instead, Snafu cartoons were spread around as bonus tracks on previous sets. A missed opportunity, indeed.

*** In summary, perhaps Popeye faired much better because its shorts had been out of the public eye for decades. Popeye was geared to the serious collector and it showed in the elegance of its cover art, menu pages, and bonus material. In contrast, the six WB cartoon sets were caught between trying to please the serious cartoon aficionado while also pleasing the general public that was seeking a video babysitter for their children. With such competing interests the films were made to be the losers. These shorts deserved better. But, worst of all? Ask me to find “What’s Opera Doc?” and I’d have no idea which of the six collections houses it. But, I suppose that doesn’t matter to the scores of parents looking for a video babysitter.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Gains and Losses

On a floor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts sits an Oxberry Camera. The camera is now out of use and serves as a marker of a change in the animation industry. A card explains the camera’s function to passers by, boasting that Mo Willems, Jennifer Oxley, and Michael Dougherty (among others) shot films on this Oxberry.

Back in the day, shooting animation was one of the most expensive parts of the traditional animation process. Artwork would have to be carefully organized and all timing and camera needs had to be clearly marked on exposure sheets for camera men who would toil away into the night. Most animation studios did not own their own Oxberry cameras. The machines were heavy, expensive, and required towering ceilings wherever they might be installed. Still, these devices were essential to the animation process for almost a century. Yet, at the end of their run, schools couldn’t give them away.

We all know that the computer age changed the systems by which traditional animation is produced. Now, making an animated film is cheaper and easier than ever before. Working on a Mac or a PC in Flash or After Effects, one animates and exposes and shoots animation all at the same time. The "camera" (in a virtual sense) is now a part of the animation process and is in the animator’s hands.

The questions are “What was gained?” and “What was lost?” The gain is that one person can create a full-service animation studio with a computer tucked in their living room. I just upgraded to the most powerful Mac pro tower and Wacom Cintiq with enough power and hard drive space to make an entire animated feature in HD. At the very least, it will allow me to fly through freelance work and my short personal films.

The loss has been the decline/shift in the old disciplines of animation craft. Animators used to have work in a more organized and careful manner, diligently prefiguring out camera moves and instructions on exposure sheets. A single mistake could blow a whole shoot, resulting in major losses in time and money. Now, animators work in more freewheelin’ manner, perhaps with nothing more than a rough idea of how a scene may work before animating it and compositing it together in After Effects. Working in this manner, the animator can retime animation, camera moves, and etc in an infinite amount of ways––each just a mouse click and a ram preview away.

At best, this loss is also a gain. My new personal film seeks to make this working method into strength. By using such a freewheelin’ approach to production, I’m hoping this spontaneity will help give my animation added life and interest. By drawing directly onto my Wacom, the roughnesses of my drawings are preserved as they are. I don’t time out the animation in advance. I only draw the drawings I think I’ll need and then allow new accidents and discoveries to happen when timing them out in After Effects. I seldom need to go back to Photoshop to add new drawings. Once I’m happy with the scene’s timing, I return to Photoshop to color the drawings in an imitation crayon style. Again, the looseness and human touch comes into play in the production process.

For me, this age of animation production means neither gains nor loss––it means so much more than that. It means freedom.

Monday, October 6, 2008

80% of Success

If we are to believe Woody Allen’s quote, “80% of success is just showing up…” then in the world of pitching projects, we can assume that developing and pitching projects frequently must be fundamental to success in that arena. Until this post, I never compiled an exact count of all the pitches I juggle year-to-year (see image above showing a blitz of pitch meetings a couple of years back). For fun, I’ve labeled each pitch that went nowhere with a “DUD!” and each pitch that led to a deal of some sort with a “SCORE!”

one animated preschool idea ended in a year-long option/development deal at Playhouse Disney in 2007.

one animated older kids (age 6 to 11) concept has failed to find a home even after three years of redevelopment and repitching.

My idea for a stars-of-animation live action TV interviews show fails after 3 pitch meetings with various networks.

pitched an animation pitching and development book, which ended in a deal to write my second book for Allworth Press. The manuscript was finished and delivered in early August 2008 and the book’s publication date is September 2009.

my deal with Playhouse Disney stalls after we complete scripts––before we get a chance to go to pilot. Still, it was a great experience to have a project optioned at a major network.

two animated pitches for adult animated series. One has more legs than another, but is still on the back burner until I can put some energy and resources together to make a 2-minute test film to help sell the show. A 2-minute test film seems especially necessary with adult projects.

I pitch a children’s book agent five children’s book ideas. All are rejected.

two weeks after the Disney deal goes south, my network contact recommends me to be the creator/writer/developer of a new project for an independent production, giving me my second paid experience as a TV writer. This project remains active and is likely a pilot (if not a full blown series) will be ordered soon.

I pitched a third concept for an adult animated series, which goes nowhere.

pitched a third “animation” book for Allworth Press, which ended in a deal to write the book. The contract was signed last week. Writing begins January 1, 2009.

after seeing my short “Good Morning,” National Geographic Kids development hires me to direct an internal pilot, allowing me to contribute on the ground floor of a new project.

pitched two old concepts to a new shorts program at Cartoon Network.

after showing clips of my work-in-progress, an independent producer hires me to animate/direct/develop her self-funded pilot, which I start in mid-October.

***Note that the only consistent successes on my pitch roster have been my book proposals to Allworth Press, where I am (miraculously) 3 for 3. Not every pitch on this list has become a major creative priority in my creative life. There’s NO WAY that I would ever devote to pitching and development full time. This is a speculative business with no guarantee that any project will take off. Instead, pitching and development has been a side-bar to my career, offering a chance to reach for the moon (sorry for the cliché), while I happily toil away in the animation industry.

As we move into 2009, my pitch sites are set on another personal film, a new children’s book pitch, and three proposals for an animated feature film. Hey––you never know, right?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Ins and Outs of Indie Animated Features

ASIFA-East held a panel on the state of NY independent animated features on September 23, 2008 that was moderated by cartoonbrew’s Amid Amidi and featured panelists Emily Hubley, Dan Kanemoto, Bill Plympton, Michael Sporn, and Tatia Rosenthal. Each panelist has either finished a feature or is in progress on one. The audience was first treated to a two-minute clip of each film before the discussion began. One aspect of making an independent feature dominated the conversation: how to secure funding and distribution. The next day Michael Sporn lamented on his splog how he had wished there had been more questions on the creative side. Nobody asked how a filmmaker used to working in shorts deals with the creative problem of expanding their vision to a feature length medium.

The same lack of creative curiosity goes on at panels on pitching and development for an animated series, where the dominant conversation is always about how to pitch or legally protect ones ideas. My feeling is that in both cases the audience and panelists each believe they already possess the creative chops to make a feature or create an animated series. Of course, they are probably mistaken, as these goals are only realistic for a very small portion of those attending such events.

Forget funding. Forget distribution. At least for a minute. The real issue for me is, “Will there be an audience for my indie feature film?” Persepolis was picked up by Sony Picture Classics, which ensured it a world wide, albeit somewhat limited release. The film didn’t make it to every-town USA but, it did play in artsy theatres in major US cities. That’s probably the best an indie animated film can expect to achieve for now. Tatia Rosenthal’s $9.99 seems well heeled to follow in Persepolis’s footsteps because of its lavish-for-an-indie-animated feature budget of 3 million bucks and a world-wide distribution plan built into that (see image from $9.99 above). To secure such an arrangement, Tatia began with a killer script, a grant from NYU, a place at the Sundance workshop, a willingness to upset her life and move to Australia for the two-year production, and perhaps most important––a willingness to relinquish ownership of the film.

The larger budget and broader partnerships not only showed in Tatia’s film clip, but they also ensure a much more certain future for her film. Her sacrifices (which also include an 8 year production time!) will not only get her film seen but will also nicely set up her career to direct another feature, which she might own and even get to make in the city of her choice.

Sitting somewhere in the audience that night was an indie live action feature producer friend of mine with 18 years experience in the business. She gave me fresh perspective on the event when she explained that while each of the filmmaker’s had a compelling back story about their film, ultimately the audience is not going to care about that. The audience doesn’t see a film because the filmmaker struggled over many years to make it. The film has to be compelling in its own right. Compelling in its subject and in its execution.

We indie animators are used to playing in the safe and small pond world of short animated films. We know how much they cost, how many ideas they can hold, what level of risks we can take with them, and where to get them seen and distributed.

Some ten years ago I attended a script reading of Tatia’s film by professional actors in New York City. Sitting on stools with scripts in hand, they read through the entire feature length screenplay in real time. We, as an audience, were transfixed. I felt as if I’d seen the film that night, it so came alive in my mind.

On the panel Michael Sporn correctly pointed out that Bill Plympton is a pre-sold brand, but (I would point out) this has not proved enough for Bill Plympton to achieve the success in features that he desires. Sporn wisely adapted Edgar Allen Poe's biography along with a few of the author's short stories to frame his feature. Poe IS a pre-sold commodity even if Sporn’s name (outside of animation circles) is not. Dan Kanemoto chose the rich tapestry of WW II stories as his theme, but after being unable to secure the rights to authentic soldier’s stories, made up his own. However, WW II is an evergreen subject and one which upon limitless stories can be told. Emily Hubley seems to have made the most abstract feature on the panel, which explored the familiar themes of her shorter films. Yet, as a master of securing film grants and private funding, she may have the least financial risk on the line of this panel.

The two main business models presented this night were making it/showing it/and it will find distribution VERSUS making it with the financial and distribution partners already committed. Obviously the filmmaker doesn’t always have a choice in the matter. Sometimes one just follows their muse and throws caution to the wind. How lucky for us that so many interesting films are going to see the light of day, even if that light may only show at animation festivals or on the filmmaker’s self-distributed DVDs.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Back from Ottawa!

Note: Photo courtesy of Justin Simonich, featuring (from left to right) Yuliya Parshina, Fran Krause, Will Krause, Justin Simonich, Christy Karakas, and David Levy.

I just flew back from the Ottawa International Animation Festival and boy are my arms tired, eh? By throwing the word, “eh” at the end of that tired old joke, it becomes Canadian. Trying to write about attending this festival is like having to write a school essay on what you did last summer. Besides, there’s already some stellar coverage of the festival on blogs such as Michael Sporn’s splog at So, instead, here’s a bullet point summary from me:

-Traveling with my buddy Justin Simonich, we arrive in Ottawa at 9:30 AM on the first day of the festival. We enjoy a tasty breakfast at Dunne’s (a sort of cheap diner on Elgin Street near our hotel). We are joined by New York animation artists Willy Hartland and Phil Lockerby (who is actually Canadian!). Check out Phil’s blog at: Willy shows us some pitches he plans to show at TAC (the festival’s TV animation conference.) We toast our coffees to wish him luck. Maybe we should have toasted our bread instead. At other breakfasts we dined with Linda Beck, David Watchenheim and his studio stalwart Glen, as well as Chris Boyce.

-We finally find the Arts Court building to sign in to the festival. I’m terrible at direction, which gives Phil a chance to ask numerous pretty girls for directions along the way.

-At the Art Courts building I’m happy to see my book is displayed for sale on a table also holding DVDs by NY indies Signe Baumane, Pat Smith, and others.

-We start to hear the first of countless complaints that there is NO central meeting place at this year’s festival. In past years, the NAC (National Arts Center) served as a swanky festival hub, allowing attendees to meet, bump into each other, as well as saving us from having to trek all across town to other venues.

-I’m reminded how seedy Rideau Street is near the also-seedy ByTowne Theater, which serves as one of the festivals main screening venues. We notice a homeless man squatting on the floor carving raw meat off a small animal’s bony carcass. On that note, it’s time for lunch! Ottawa is overrun with pubs and for me that means lots of delicious cider! It’s also another chance to NOT order the local Canadian treat “poutine,” which is French fries drowned in gravy with some cheese curd mixed in for good measure.

-I only made it to one panel discussion, but luckily it was a great one on humor in animation moderated by Amid Amidi. On the panel were Nick Cross, Fran and Will Krause, Christy Karakas, and Martin Pickles. It was here that I learned about Amid’s sneaky moderation style, which is to spout strong opinions that might get a rise out of the panel and the audience. Hmmm…sounds also like his posting style on cartoonbrew, no?

-In my opinion, the heart and soul of the festival were retrospectives on the work of Michael Sporn and Skip Battaglia, and the class reel from RISD. Amy Kravitz, RISD’s animation department chairperson, picked up a special award at the festival for her outstanding student’s work. Go RISD!

-The unjust award goes to the snubbing of Bill Plympton’s and Nina Paley’s features in favor of the more commercial leaning CGI film “Terra,” which some thought to be Terra-ble.

-Fran and Will Krause picked up the kids jury award for their outstanding pilot “The Upstate Four,” and the audience was charmed by the kid reading a summery of the film from her own point of view. A miscommunication between the brothers resulted in the award being left behind at the closing party at Helsinki bar. Luckily it was recused the next day and is being mailed to the brothers, who promise to be more careful with their next award.

-Justin Simonich and Linda Beck began shooting a very special film project at the Ottawa festival, which you will no doubt be hearing about soon.

-J.J. Sedelmaier sported some killer facial hair and sat on a panel moderated by Ward Jenkins on the state of animation education. Richard O’Connor not only did a killer karaoke version of “China Girl” at the closing party, he also moderated a panel on feature animation.

-Yo Gabba Gabba clips dominated the kids category at the festival and among the best was Willy Hartland’s “Pick it Up.”

-The bees were out in full force at the they could welcome the queen bee Candy Kugel, who’s film dEVOLUTION played at a special festival screening. To this, Candy responded with dELIGHT.

-While trekking to History of Civilization-held closing ceremony, we spot two live beavers across the street...causing me to exclaim, "I'll be damned!"

-Otis Brayboy made homemade chicken soup for 10 people who all drove up and stayed together in a couple of hotel suites. Among the lucky soup slurpers were Dayna Gonzalez and Pilar Newton.

-My “how’d they do that award” goes to Super Jail! How did they do that?

-I enjoy a nice chat sitting next to Heather Kenyon on the flight home where we thumb through the latest animation magazine together.

There’s so much more to write about, but how could I fit it all in, eh?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Collaboration in an Indie Film

Collaboration on the job can be tough enough, even with roles defined by title, responsibility, and differences in pay scale. Sometimes it’s just plumb hard for folks to work together (note: I’ve been watching a lot of “Little House on the Prairie” lately, and the folksy vernacular is starting to seep into my subconscious. At least, I reckon it is.) All too often, collaboration between one or more artists making an indie-animated film can lead to disaster.

One story from my dad’s childhood works as a nice metaphor for the trap. When my dad was a kid in the 1940s, a common enterprise for boys was to earn money shining shoes. One day my dad and a friend from the same apartment building decided to create their own shoe-shining business. The plan was they would each buy materials and then set up their stands side-by-side in their Brooklyn neighborhood. Incidentally, they lived in Brownsville on Amboy Street. The same street as Ralph Bakshi, who was a child hood friend of my dad! When my dad and his business partner were finally ready to begin their shoe-shining enterprise, the friend suddenly bailed out. It turns out his father didn’t want his son to shine shoes. My dad was left without a partner and he almost threw in the towel as well. But, my dad’s grandfather convinced him to go it alone, offering to accompany him to the park. The moral support did the trick and my dad set up for business. He continued his shoe shining for years, earning himself money for movies as well as money to help out his struggling household.

In my career class I often describe the same problem above as two people joining the gym together. At first they set days and times that they will work out on a regular basis, but then inevitably one friend will lag behind and stop going. The other friend can either stop going too or realize that they don’t need to depend upon someone else to get their own butt to the gym. Independent films made between one or more partners face the same challenges. Very often partners begin with the best intensions because talk is cheap and enthusiasm is free. But, films take work and commitment to get done. Poorly chosen collaborators can drag both partners down with one member constantly waiting for the other to make a move before either can proceed.

I’ve been lucky to find my best collaborator to date with my creative partner Bob Charde. He’s a musician, composer, songwriter, singer, voice artist, producer, and technical wizard. All things I am NOT. However, like me, he is self-motivated and has the drive to see a project through to its completion. For our film, “Good Morning,” it was really just me hijacking one of his songs and animating it. When I was finished I called Bob and told him he had a new film! He was delighted and together we entered film festivals (landing into competition at ten festivals to date.) Most recently, we inked a deal with a Canadian distributor who now has non-exclusive rights to our film for the next 3 years. Bob and I will be paid every time the film is broadcast on TV or on the web.

Shortly after we began to find success with Good Morning, Bob asked if I was interested in collaborating on a film with him “for real.” I had no real plans to make another film but, on Bob’s encouragement I sent him three old scripts I’d written for preschool projects I’d developed. Two weeks later, Bob responded by sending me the vocal soundtrack for one of my ideas called “Owl and Rabbit Play Checkers” (see still above.) With a lesser collaborator this could have been a disaster. Imagine if the track was lousy! But, thankfully, Bob nailed it––expertly voicing the titular characters as well as the narrator. He hit just the right tone, capturing all the humor and emotion in the piece. With Bob’s bold move he shanghaied me into making another film. It’s as if he got his revenge for my actions with his song “Good Morning.”

Now I was suddenly making a short that I had no plans to EVER make. When you make films on a regular (or semi-regular) basis the problem is not, “should I make a film?” but, more like, “Which film should I make?” Happily, Bob forced the issue and pushed us both into business. I’m now 2/3 done animating the new short. I turn it over to Bob on Oct 12 so he can start scoring the film. Before the next year, we’ll have a new short to our names. I would have nothing if not for this fruitful collaboration. It’s interesting that collaboration can be so important to a project that there may not be a project without it.

This week I’ll take a short break on the film to attend the Ottawa International Animation Festival. Perhaps, at the festival, some future collaborators might meet for the first time. Hope to see you there!

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Elephant in the Room

On a past post I contemplated whether or not New York has an animation industry. For my purpose, I’m defining “industry,” as consistent employment available for a large number of artists at ten or more large studios. Clearly, New York does not have an animation industry in the Hollywood sense. Yet, we have work––sometimes stretching for a year or more at a time, more often for substantially shorter periods than that. Instead of ten or more large studios, there are only three or four active large studios with temporary employees numbering over fifty employees. Since Blue Sky is planning a move to Connecticut, we can leave them out of the equation. The majority of animation studios in the Big Apple are smaller boutique-style operations that expand and contract based on the amount of work they take in.

With no consistent “industry,” in New York, its animation artists survive by their wits, skills, and creativity. We build relationships. We look out for one another and recommend each other when appropriate. Sometimes large groups of artists even seem to migrate from job-to-job in packs. Witness the large group of Code Name: Kids Next Door employees landing at Word World, as well as the stampede of a core group of artists pack-walking from Little Bill-to-Wonder Pets-to-Little Einsteins-to-Umi Zumis. As much as there is movement in groups and individuals looking out for one another... real community group action has been lacking at times when its been needed most.

First launching in 1996, Blue’s Clues was one of the first digital-in house animated series in New York. Certainly, it was the largest and most successful of its kind. Developing its new model for series production, the show spent its first three seasons honing its production systems to ever increasing efficiency. It was just in time too, because by season four, the show nearly doubled in production and greatly expanded its staff. A weak link with Nickelodeon’s digital studio of that time was the tech department, which serviced and maintained the busy staff’s computers.

The increase in computer stations wasn’t accompanied by increase in the already spotty tech service. Animation artists had long grumbled about slow fix times when their computers were down but, the biggest issue was lack of basic communication from the tech department. An animation artist would call in the tech problems and get no response. And when a tech person did visit their station there was little to no follow up information on when a computer might be fixed or what the problem was. In short, animation artists weren’t feeling very supported on this issue. But, for years the crew kept their complaints to themselves or to each other by griping over the problem at lunch. Occasionally, individuals complained to supervisors or producers but, nothing really changed. Tech service was still a source of frustration and the production expansion only made matters worse.

One day some of the animation artists decided that a group action might be justifiable. They drafted up a petition, had the entire creative staff sign it, and then presented it to a department head. With this action, the problem, which had been festering for four years was suddenly on the road to being solved. The tech department was given the message and they made the needed improvements in communication and service. It was a victory for group action. Other crews have had (and have) similar opportunities across town––where the stakes are a lot higher than waiting on broken computer. At a couple of other studios the problems are alarming. There are studios currently operating where employees are expected to give their entire waking lives over to their jobs. This comes out in mandatory late night and weekend work (without additional pay or the full proper compensation that such overtime would require.)

Animation artists understand that this is a business that sometimes requires late nights or additional work. Often this is the result of a fickle client or a changing deadline or some other unforeseen challenge. So, how does one know if they are being exploited on the job? Here are some telltale signs of a bad situation that might justify a group-action response:
-The studio demands that a crew put in mandatory unpaid (or underpaid) overtime requiring that it work late nights and weekends on a consistent basis. They do so to such an extent that such a situation is IN FACT their business model.
-The studio’s work atmosphere or culture is prohibitive to each crewmember delivering their best work.
-The studio’s production process, systems, or workflow is sabotaging the crew’s ability to deliver their best work, putting unfair demands and pressure on the individual workers.

Since the Blue’s Clues crew came together on their tech issue there have been a few other group action events in New York animation. Last year, a major studio cut its workers’ benefits and healthcare insurance but, after a unified staff (including animation artists and live action staffers) walked out and took their case to the media, the studio changed their mind and restored much of the benefits package to its workers (see photo above). Another crew came together after an employer decided not to pay previously agreed upon paid holiday days off. The crew and its director brought their case to the studio and the studio partially relented, paying the crew for more than half of the agreed upon holidays. More than half is better than none. This year, a crew facing mandatory late nights and weekend overtime created a petition and handed it to their supervisor. The producers backed down and eased up the unfair requirements.

Think of it this way––if a studio has such power over a crew that they can demand it to work mandatory improperly compensated overtime, then, what else might that studio do? Such a situation opens the gate to other abuses of power such as harassment. Certainly such a studio doesn’t respect artists as individuals. But, they will be forced to change their agenda if group action is taken.

In each case outlined above, the group actions were successful BECAUSE the actions were JUSTIFIABLE (not frivolous) and were staged DURING production. This is when a crew has the most leverage and the best chance of creating change. Nobody in this business has to be alone.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Time Is On Your Side (Yes It Is)

Over the years I’ve seen several companies, networks, web destinations, or distributors on the prowl for short animated films. They have one common misconception about animation artists: we ALL make our own animated films. The reality is that very few of us continue to make our own animated films beyond our graduate or thesis films.

The most common reason to NOT make a film is a shortage of time. A lack of resources (equipment or money) has long been eliminated in this age of computer animation. We each have a computer so indie films have never cost less to produce than presently. So, a shortage of time (or energy) is now the only reason NOT to make a film. While we could stop the conversation right here, I aim to probe deeper.

What does it mean to not have the time or energy? I can offer up the following possibilities:
-You have an old fashioned view of work. This means you believe “work” is something you do for other people in exchange for money.
-You invest ALL your creative energy in “work” for other people, leaving none of it for yourself.
-You’d like to make a film but there just doesn’t seem to be enough time because of other responsibilities.

Very little about making an animated film is quick or easy. Those of us, who do, make films because we HAVE to. We have the same shortage of time as most anybody else. We also juggle work commitments and other life responsibilities to squeeze out any available time into our films.

The ultimate irony is that making an indie film is not something separate to one’s career. It’s in full support of it. A film allows its maker to explore areas that they may never even come across in ten years working in the field.

A quote from Michael Sporn well sums up the allure of making indie animated films for me (although he is speaking of the art of animation in general):
“Animation has the potential to be the greatest of all the arts. It combines drawing, painting, music, acting, photography, and computer art. Anything you can think of can be combined by the animator to be used at his or her disposal.”

An independent animated film not only incorporates all of Sporn’s artistic descriptions above, it also affords one a chance to play producer, deal-maker, supervisor, book keeper, and countless other roles.

The most amazing thing of all is that you don’t have to be Bill Plympton to see a financial return for your indie film. Two case studies from my two newest shorts bare this out. When I finished “Good Morning” in 2007, one of the first things I did was to mail DVDs or links of the short to friends, colleagues, producers, and development executives. Two development executives at one network liked the short so much that they asked me to interview to direct their new series pilot. I competed against two other directors and my film helped give me the edge to land the job. The pilot still has a strong chance of going to series and I am in line to direct if it does. (see image of a BG above from the project designed by my dad and I).

My current film is not even completed yet, but whenever I meet with a new contact or client, I show them some QuickTime movies from the short in progress. At one such meeting in April, I showed a thirty second clip from my new film and it must have planted a seed because I was just engaged to animate/direct a self-funded pilot for this client as a result. Incidentally this new project, when combined with my teaching income and other miscellaneous funds, allows me to earn a living wage for the fall/winter. Best of all, I still have time to finish my latest short, which I plan to wrap by early October.

I may not be an acclaimed indie animation filmmaker on the level of Bill Plympton, Pat Smith, Signe, PES, Debra Solomon, Michael Sporn, Andy London, Emily Hubley, or others, but my humble shorts (and the opportunities that they have helped grow) are one of the reasons I’ve been able to build a career in this industry, stay inspired, and remain employed through good times and bad. The same thing could be true for you. All one has to do is get over the idea that they don’t have enough time. Time is not something you find (like your keys), its something you make.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Here I Go Again On My Own

If I were inclined to appreciate 80s hair-bands, I might be singing, “Here I go Again On My Own,” by Whitesnake because as of Monday I completed my latest project (directing six spots for the Electric Company). All I have lined up now is teaching one night a week at Parsons this Fall and one night a week at SVA this Spring. The rest of my time is ripe with possibility. I’ve learned long ago to seize such time because it is often fleeting. Most of us agree that although we love animation this doesn’t automatically mean that all of our employment is spent on “dream jobs.” The realist in me adds, “nor could it be.” Dreams are ours to make. Opportunities are ours to take. If anyone from Hallmark Cards is reading this, I’m available for a job in the copy department.

For me, time on my ownsome means time spent on a personal film (see images above from my in-progress short!). The new film is a third collaboration with musician, producer, and voice over artist Bob Charde. I used to refer to my films as independent films. Maybe if I had called them personal films I might have actually made something personal. I started out on the right track by making a film called Snow Business, which started out as a concept film (a snowman traveling through a city by accidental means) but, I realized later that the film was really based on part of my life experience. As a child, I used to eagerly anticipate my father coming home from his Ad agency job in Manhattan. As a family, we always waited until my dad got home so we could all eat together. Sometimes he wouldn’t get home until 9 PM. It was such a special feeling when his car pulled up and he came up the stoop of our house. Before we would eat, I would get to hear a play-by-play of the day’s events at the office and I’d fill him in on my day too. It was OUR time and I cherished it.

That longing is in the film Snow Business, which at its core is about a boy longing for time with his Dad. That personal truth gave them film a powerful center and I believe it went a long way to overcome any production problems with the film. Yet, I didn’t fully understand this at the time and I thus allowed other influences to creep into my second film, ensuring that it had nothing personal in it whatsoever. At the time I was obsessed with getting a development deal for my own television property (something I wouldn’t achieve until 8 years later). I allowed this to corrupt my second film (and my third film too, but that’s another story) in which I tried to draw the current hot look on TV. For content I aimed at shock value, which was a two-part rebellion. Firstly, I was working fulltime on Blue’s Clues and secondly, Snow Business had also been a family-friendly affair. I was oddly concerned that I would develop a reputation as a children’s filmmaker. All of this added up to a sad cocktail on which to base a film.

Although it took me years to get my personal films back on the right track, I can't say that nobody tried to warn me. Once in a while somebody comes along and has the guts to tell you something painfully honest that you desperately need to hear. Shortly after my second film debacle, David Cutting (an animator at Blue’s Clues) said to me, “David, I think with your second film–– you really threw out the baby with the bathwater.” The last time I heard such stinging honesty was years earlier at SVA when an foreign student told me through his broken English, “Your work is no good.”

I think the demands and pressures on the next generation of independent filmmakers to do something "commercial" with their films must be even worse than what I had experienced. If your animation doesn’t become the next big viral sensation on YouTube does that mean that it's a failure? Whenever one thinks of the marketplace when making personal art the “personal” goes right out the window. I’m now just under half way through production on my newest film. I’m proud to say that it doesn’t look or feel in any way like the product you see today on TV or in the viral sensations perpetuated on line. Although it is a kid’s film, I’m not using any of the assembly-line techniques of puppeted animation that dominate much of kids TV these days. Content-wise, the film spends its entire time in the company and conflict between two characters engaged in an average day’s activity. The tone is quiet, the pace is slow, and the characters do not scream their lines. I am blissfully out of step and I LOVE IT!