Monday, January 28, 2008

Good Morning! Again!

Some time ago, I posted on the making of my latest film, Good Morning. A few people wrote asking for a link to the film. Here, for a limited time only is a link to the film. I believe it expires on Thursday. Hope you enjoy viewing it.

Good Morning is my sixth film, not counting my thesis film. I wish I could say that these half dozen films add up to an impressive body of work, but that’s not the case. Don’t get me wrong. Each film was something I felt I had to do at the time. More importantly, each film advanced my career, allowing me to grow to become an animation director. I can’t stress enough the value of doing personal work is to any career. Without it, you’ll just have a reel of other people’s show clips. You disappear in such a real, no matter how good it is.

I’ve had some advantages when it comes to making personal films. For one, it’s always been in my blood to do so. I’m one of those little brats who experimented by making animation on super 8 MM and on the family’s first VHS camcorder. I lived and breathed animation as a child, much like I still do now. Making a thesis film at SVA was a natural thing to do, besides being a graduation requirement. However, none of this made me a disciplined animator or filmmaker. I always felt my ideas were years ahead of what my current skills could deliver. I still feel this way, no matter how many years and films go by.

The other thing that’s motivated me to make films is fear. Good ol’ fear. Fear of not being good enough or worthy enough to hold a place in this industry. I also desperately wanted to tell stories, direct, animate. All things I didn’t assume that anyone might ever pay me to do. Now, I am paid to do these things, but I still make films. I still have that particular hunger that films can only satisfy.

Looking back at my first post student film, Snow Business (1998), it still remains a high mark. At the time I wanted to make a universal family film. In fact, this film was sold to TV in many European languages, so I know that I succeeded in that goal. I remember being shocked to hear people ask me if I was going to make a sequel to Snow Business. Some how, I thought this very question was evidence that I might become I pigeon-holed as a family friendly filmmaker, even though I only had one film to my name. I didn’t know what kind of filmmaker I was, beyond being a beginner. I allowed such minimal external pressure to influence the next films I chose to make. Today, I realize the harm this did to my independent animation career. One should never make personal films to please anyone else.

It took me ten years to learn this lesson, but I did eventually learn it. With Good Morning, I start again fresh.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Great Rip-Off Myth

Among the most common rookie questions concerning pitching is, “How do I protect my creation?” My default short answer is, “You don’t.” You don’t protect a creation; you develop, nurture, and freely pitch a creation. Copyright questions and the fear of getting ripped off prevent many a would-be creator from getting off the ground. Its easy to imagine our precious little babies getting stolen right from under us by some smiling back-stabbing executive. The truth is, in animation, this seldom (if ever) happens. In fact, there’s a far more likely scenario; perhaps the idea that you brought in about an opera singing robot sheriff in a futuristic old west has been passed across the development executive’s desk in two seperate pitches in one week! Well, not the exact idea, but something quite similar.

A friend of mine developed a neat idea about a family of spies and spent months creating a lush series bible with juicy show art, a full script, and all the other trimmings. On the very first attempt pitching to Nickelodeon, the development executive told my friend, “This is great. Unfortunately, we already doing something very similar called, 'The X’s.'

It’s now more than five years later and “The X’s” still has yet to set the world on fire, but that’s beside the point. The show was made and aired. Was my friend ripped off in reverse by a series that was already in production? This is what happens, folks. We all breathe the same air. We are products of the same world. You could say that good ideas are flowing in the cosmos and we have to seize the moment when inspiration strikes. To me, sitting on idea while worried that vultures are waiting to pounce upon it, is a form of self-sabotage.

As a closing thought on “the great rip off myth,” I recently had a revelation while attending a Women In Animation (WIA) panel discussion on animation artists that have transitioned into becoming published authors. As typically happens at these events many audience members asked questions about the dangers of companies or individuals stealing their ideas. They wondered how to protect themselves. Wisely, the panelists, who consisted of Tom Warburton, Megan Montague Cash, and Allan Neuwirth, calmly rested their fears. Their consensus was that it’s extremely unlikely that anyone’s ideas will be stolen. And in the odd chance that it does happen, you can always sue! Simple enough.

I realized something at that moment. I could almost smell the fear in that room. It’s not only paranoia or lack of experience in the industry that makes people worry about being ripped off. In my opinion, focusing on this concern says something else entirely; you are way too precious with your idea, and chances are, it’s your only idea. It’s no good to obsess on any one particular idea or overprotect it. Real creativity doesn’t work that way. A would-be creator’s mind has to stay sharp and keep creating new things. Any successful creators will tell you that they’ve got sketchbooks or drawers filled with ideas for scripts, books, shows, comics, etc. As they say, a writer writes. Worrying about the very unlikely event of getting ripped off can keep one from really taking a chance on their dream. Now, let’s lay the “great rip off myth” to rest for good.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Relationships in Your Career

Today my SVA Animation Career Strategy class begins, stretching on for the next fifteen weeks. This is the class that has served as the foundation for my book, Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive. In each class, I stress the importance of valuing relationships in this industry. We know in our minds and hearts the hopes and desires we hold for our careers. Some of us want to direct, animate on a feature, become an art director, helm their own series, and so on. It would be na├»ve for us to assume that our co-workers don’t have similar dreams or aspirations. The person getting coffee for a producer today becomes the producer of tomorrow. It happens again and again. If we take the time to create and nurture healthy relationships now, it strengthens and grows our own opportunities in the future.

Of course, with burning bridges, the very opposite happens. The complication is, we’re never going to get along with everyone, nor become automatic best friends with a whole crew. The point is that we should acknowledge how we all have similar goals, are interconnected, and are each deserving of respect. Since this is all pretty abstract I thought I’d use the crew of Blue’s Clues (1996-2004) to illustrate my point. Whatch how these staffers of humble beginnings grew into forces to be reckoned with, only a short time later.

In the list below, “then,” describes the individual’s first role on Blue’s Clues. This list is far from complete. It’s merely a survey of the natural progression of some stellar people, and it’s pretty inspiring to note that all of the below are only just getting started. Imagine how we might update this list another ten years from now!

Samantha Ettus-
THEN: production coordinator.
NOW: Media personality, author, and syndicated columnist. She is the creator of the bestselling Experts' Guide series of books, offering knowledge seekers trustworthy and entertaining advice in a "CliffsNotes" format.

Lisa Davis-
THEN: prop master.
NOW: Author of the best selling debut novel, Belly, which was on the NY Times best sellar list.

Adam Peltzman-
THEN: scripting coordinator.
NOW: Head writer of The Backyardigans, writer for numerous other top series, as well as the creator of his own Nick Jr pilot, Monster News. Currently, with more projects in development.

Fran Krause-
THEN: animator.
NOW: Co-creator of two original pilots for Cartoon Network, and internationally known and respected independent filmmaker.

Tatia Rosenthal-
THEN: animator.
NOW: Director of an upcoming independent stop motion feature film, $9.99. Now in post-production.

Sarah Landy-
THEN: Intern/Executive Assistant.
NOW: Manager of production and development for Nickelodeon’s Nick Jr. Department.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Xeth Feinberg Unleashes His Inner-Papu

Xeth Feinberg, one of the today’s top talents, recently unveiled a string of new “Papu” shorts on line. Xeth is a one-man animation machine turning out terrific independent cartoons all within the confines of his home studio. I’ve admired Xeth’s work since discovering it at an Asifa-East jury screening in the mid-1990s. Some independent animators are content to make film after film that are similar in tone, structure, and subject. Xeth's body of work is unique in that he's made successful dialogue driven-toons (Papu), black and white pantomime surrealistic films (Bulbo), and one-shot narratives (The Old Country). Unifying the filmmaker's work is his distinct style, which seems like a mixture of Hanna/Barbera, indy comics, and the pie-eyed designs of the 1930s.

Xeth’s body of work has not gone unnoticed. Not long ago, Blue Sky recruited him for their story department, where he helped write jokes and plan content for Ice Age and Robots. More recently, Xeth directed Queer Duck, the motion picture, based on a series of shorts he designed and directed for Xeth, like Pat Smith, sets up his own studio boutique style, bringing in help as needed per commercial assignment, and spending the rest of the time entertaining his own whims making art and films. Unlike Pat Smith, who labors on each film for about a year and a half, Xeth cranks out films at a rate of one per week.

Xeth’s films are short, simple, and fast productions, and I think such a system encourages greater experimentation in form and content. Xeth’s work never comes across as precious or fussed over. His strengths lay in his wiseacre vision, which is ironic, spontaneous, intellectual, and lowbrow all at once. I wonder if Papu, a blue goon perpetually swinging a mighty hammer at both friends and foes alike, is Xeth’s answer to the trials and tribulations of the world of animation development. In that area, Xeth and I are kindred spirits, both pitching ideas to the same executives, and usually spending most of our time waiting for an answer.

In a cartoon pitch, all relationships between characters must be clear and purposeful. Papu’s very description, which reads, “An Inexplicable Force of Nature,” takes a jab at these conventions. Pen Ward’s recent short, “Adventure Time,” (Frederator) did a similar thing, by delightfully breezing it’s characters through an anti-story. In the Papu universe, characters are thrown together into relationships just to score a laugh (not a bad reason, in such a short format!). Papu is rarely without his randomly chosen companions; a generic small boy and a drunken long-shore man. This trio is as inexplicable as the big blue guy himself. Dispensing of the usual rules of a character driven cartoon, Xeth is free to spend his shorts any way he pleases.

In “Papu Family Values,” we come close to learning more about Papu, by meeting his seemingly normal brother. The brother coaxes Papu to accept a job in his law firm, but Papu quickly smashes that notion right on it’s head, helping to uncover his brother’s own “Papuish,” nature. In a similar way, Xeth prolifically churns out cartoons; aiming to win a broader audience and also court future career opportunities. Each toon becomes one more conk on the head, and I mean that in the best possible way. Go Xeth! Get your Papu-on at