Monday, February 25, 2008

Comparison: Job-to-job vrs. Career

Forgive me another post on careers in animation. I just attended a great career panel hosted by The School of Visual Arts office of Career Development, where the emphasis was on getting your first break into the industry. In other words: how to land a job. The audience, composed mostly of students, asked lots of questions about reels and portfolios. Panelists, including Al Pardo, Phil Rynda, Mike Carlo, and Rick Lacy, reported on their first five years in the industry. They showcased killer reels and offered realistic advice. I left the event pondering the difference between a career in animation and a job-to-job existence in animation, which is really the next topic once you cover the “how to get a job,” business.

The job-to-job existence.
Most people won’t readily admit to having chosen this path. It’s sort of the default category for most people. There are lots of amazingly talented people that excel to the top of their craft, working job-to-job. These might be animators, designers, storyboard artists, etc. Like most animation artists, this group survives on their skills and reputation. Word of mouth is how we most often find work in this unique industry. The well skilled job-to-job worker who takes time to safeguard their reputation can look forward to lots of employment over the course of a lifetime. Animation productions need a large pool of this mercenary gypsy workforce. These are the first people contacted when it’s time to staff a show or project.

The only problem I can see with this existence is how vulnerable it makes one to the changing economy. In good times, they’ll be work, and in lean times, it’s less certain. Of course, this factor affects any one’s stability, even a career minded person. The difference is that the job-to-job worker lives at the mercy of this factor. The job-to-job worker does not create opportunities for themselves. Perhaps most troubling is what happens to the job-to-job worker as they age. Opportunities and salaries will eventually plateau. An animation artist can only earn so much, even on the best paying projects. Eventually, a ceiling is reached, and this could happen in as short as five years in the business. As we age, our needs change. We may some day want families and homes. The cost of life continuously rises while the job-to-job worker’s long-term salary will likely not keep up. Further complicating the matter are the students that flood out of the schools each year. Without the burden of responsibilities, recent students work longer hours and for less money than the older job-to-job worker. Over the long haul, the job-to-job worker’s future becomes less and less certain. Eventually opportunities diminish, not grow. Time is not on their side.

The Career minded existence.
The kinships shared between both the career minded and the job-to-job worker are in the area of craft and reputation. The career minded person is also likely to be effected by the economy in this peculiar industry. And, both groups will find themselves bouncing around from job-to-job, studio-to-studio, following the work. However, the career minded individual has a plan by which they can evaluate each opportunity that goes beyond which job is the longest or the best paying. The career minded person might decide to work on a shorter job for less pay if it provides an experience such as learning a new program, a chance to work on something for a different audience, or an opportunity to work in a new technique or style. Money is not the only compass when choosing work, if you are a career minded person.

While establishing their reputation and mastering their craft (just like the job-to-job worker), the career minded person will also begin to create opportunities for themselves. Self-initiated projects are the rule of thumb here. It could be writing scripts, preparing pitches, making independent films, creating fine art, etc. All creative endeavors have the potential to open doors to future opportunity. Outside projects also help one advance on the job, helping one to become a director or department supervisor. Ultimately, the goal of the career minded person is to make an individual mark in their field of choice. Some career-minded people form their own animation studios, taking destiny into their own hands. Career minded people are also a the mercy of the eventual salary plateau, but all their self initiated projects can help to create a multi-income stream that allow them to not depend on each job having to pay an ever-greater salary. The career minded person puts fate into his or her own hands.

Perhaps the best, most simplest way to explain the difference between a job-to-job existence and the career minded is that a job-to-job worker separates their work from their life, while a career minded individual’s quality of life is enriched by their work, with the two becoming blended together in ways that can be very satisfying.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Good, the Bad, and the Appealingly Ugly: 3 Types of Modern Animation Design

Design is not a topic I often write about. Yet, from my humble vantage point, I notice three camps of design in the world of modern animation. I’m speaking purely on character design, by the way. ASIFA-East just had the pleasure of screening the 2007 Best of Ottawa program and some of it’s contents seamed to back up this argument: The three types of character design in modern animation are: appealing, grotesque, and appealingly (or beautifully) grotesque. Each design type listed below is illustrated by an example from the 2007 Best of Ottawa program. Please note: no disrespect is intended towards the films or filmmakers.

1. Appealing Design: “John and Karen,” directed by Mathew Walker.

While seemingly unconventionally-appealing in design, Walker’s design represents a rapidly growing school of design that can almost now be called conventional. It’s a simple design, rooted in classic appeal but, with just enough modern quirks to give it a little edge. In short, small facial features and wide-set eyes working hard to off-set what are essential cute characters. Think of this as today’s version of Preston Blair’s guide to drawing cute or appealing characters. Animators working in this style tend to have a lot of fun moving their characters around in interesting ways. The simplicity of the design almost begs the animator to do so, not only to communicate a particular action, but also to generate visual interest in the action itself. Also, going hand-in-hand with this design aesthetic seems to be playfulness in story construction, maybe revealing an attempt to overcompensate for the simplistic graphics. The results often make for interesting filmmaking and are a breath of fresh air against the many formulas in modern 2D & 3D mainstream animation. This movement’s artists often blend both mainstream and independent careers: Fran and Will Krause, Sean McBride, Pen Ward, Mike Overbeck, David Chai, Tim Rauch, among others.

2. Grotesque Design: “Milk Teeth,” directed by Tibor Banozcki.
Filmmaker’s working in grotesque design styles try to repel the audience from their creations while at the same time pulling them in. It’s a big risk and requires a greater reliance on story and soundtrack to overcome the grotesque liability. Too often, films in this category are more obtuse then brilliant and only succeed in creating a mood experience. On one hand, grotesque design can seem all the more authentic and sincere in an independent film because this design style is decidedly un-commercial. However, since films like “Milk Teeth” are tailor made to play well at film festivals, perhaps they are commercial creations within the confines of the festival world. These are good ponies to bet on at a typical animation festival, whether or not the films themselves have any merit. Grotesque Design seems to have it’s roots in European art and seems all the more alien to these American eyes. I’m reminded of the message in many classic RKO films from producer Val Letwon: Americans don’t know how to grieve. In short, as a people, we haven’t suffered the way Europe has suffered over the centuries. Grotesque design is filled with the potentially rich cocktail of misery, grief, loneliness, and isolation. This movement’s artists are these darlings of the independent film festival circuit: JJ. Villard, Signe Baumane, Priit Parn, Igor Kovalyov, Phil Mulloy, Marv Newland, among others.

3. Appealingly Grotesque Design: “The Waif of Persephone,” directed by Nick Cross.

Filmmaker’s working in appealing grotesque design styles try to take the best of both worlds of design and stitch them together. Nick Cross’s film is a great one to analyze because it does this movement credit in showing that perhaps it takes a master to find the beauty in ugliness, and vice versa. “The Waif of Persephone” also shows an advanced filmic sensibility that goes far beyond the typical cartoon form. Drawing and composition seems be the most important asset in a film such as this. Here, the director even has the confidence to let many scenes in the film stand naked as still images held on the screen for long periods of time. In this film, director Nick Cross pays homage to a former employer, John K, and it’s hard to miss the influence. There are others that have explored appealingly grotesque design, but, none more so successful than John K. His “The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse” and original “Ren and Stimpy” remain the holy grail of this movement. Similar to the first group on this list, this movement’s members are also interested in moving their characters around in unusual ways. The problem is this style (itself a revival of some attributes of golden age animation) is now twenty years old. Yesterday’s ground-breaking art becomes today’s establishment and that’s one way to view the artists working in this style. Character animation in this movement follows it’s own formulas, however free it may appear. The main concern seems to be in exploring ways to freeze and unfreeze a character. In such a way, the cartoony-ness of these films becomes center stage. I don’t offer this as a plus or minus, just as an observation. Besides John K, other obvious heroes of this group are Bob Clampett and Jim Tyer, both known for their wild bursts of movement and rebellious lack of concern for staying too close to a model design. I have to take my hats off to this group, because of the three types of designers in this list; this group is the most able of draftsman and the most adaptable to work in any style. Perhaps the only negative is a tendency for these artists to give themselves too wholeheartedly to the movement, even at the risk of their own individuality. Still, nobody can deny this movement’s artists are some of today’s top industry talents: Stephen Hillenburg, Jared Deal, Phil Rynda, C.H.Greenblatt, Bill Wray, Teddy Newton, Gary Baseman, John R. Dilworth, among others.

Of course, it’s impossible to really categorize all design and all designers into these three boxes. I realize this list is overly general. Artists will never cease to find new ways to create their own particular blend out of all the possible elements. Design is an interesting thing to ponder, in part, because whatever strokes you make are at the exclusion of all others…that is, at least, until the next line, which brings yet another choice.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Anatomy of a Director

An animation director is a very rewarding position on an animated project. Often, the animation director’s duties may include shaping the production process or pipeline, creating the schedule, staffing the production, and managing the workflow while maintaining the crew's morale. All this in addition to the main responsibility of a director: creatively directing the entire process from storyboards to final delivery of animation. Whew! As an animation director, I’ve made just about every mistake possible, and perhaps I even invented some new ones.

Ironically, the best directing lesson I ever learned was from a live action director! The director was Rick Fernandes, and I was able to work with him during the live action shoot for several episodes of Blue’s Room. As the animation director, I had to be present for the whole shoot to make sure all animation’s needs for post would be met. Much of the footage we were shooting of puppets/actors (some against practical sets and some against green screen) would later feature an animated element, effect, or character added in post-production by my team of animators.

In addition to Rick, there were at least four other live action directors that season, each of them capable and skilled in their own right. However, when Rick stepped up to direct his first scene I noticed something astoundingly different. All the other directors had directed from behind the barrier of a director’s station. This seven foot high station was equipped with monitors, clipboards, water, paperclips, etc. From this vantage point, directors never made eye contact with the puppeteers, camera persons, and technical personnel. Before each new set up was shot, the directors would summarize their plan to the puppeteers and then step back, directing from behind their station as the shot was recorded.

This director’s station was close by to the back table where the executive producers and network executives sat. Most often, even after one take on a set up, the executive producers would call the directors over and start giving them notes. These might be notes on puppeteer acting, scene blocking, technical issues, and so on. All this from just one take. Often, these directors, after one take, might even seek out these notes, leaning back or stepping over to the table and fishing for notes from the uppers. With this directing style, shots took many takes before we were able to move on. Often, this lead to overtime situations, which eventually strained the budget and tired out the crew, as well as the puppeteers.

Rick was altogether different. Just like the other directors, Rick worked out a scene with the crew and puppeteers before trying a take. The difference was that once the camera started to roll, Rick didn’t retreat behind the protective cocoon of the director’s station. Instead he did something else entirely: HE STAYED WITH THE PUPPETEERS! With one eye on the puppeteer floor monitors to see what the camera was seeing, and one eye on the actual performers/space itself, Rick put himself where the action was. He saw what the puppeteers were dealing with. If one of them had difficulty getting around a piece of the set, he noticed it first hand, instead of having to shoot four wasted takes from behind the director’s station before realizing it. Rick was there for the actors and the crew. He was one of them. And, his method ensured that he (and the show) got what it needed.

There was one more method to Rick’s technique or style that really impressed me. Because he wasn’t directing from behind a station so close to the producer table, Rick gave himself more room to create and solve problems without needing to have everything spoon fed to him or weighed in on. I heard Rick explain his process to the producers just before shooting his first episode: “Let me have two takes to try to work things through. If you still have notes after that, we can go over them.” I sat close to the producer table and as Rick set up his first shot, the producers murmured concerns to each other about the lighting, acting, storytelling, scene blocking, etc. All stuff that Rick was seeing too and fixing/adjusting over his two takes. Often, by the end of the second take, the shot was in the can and we were able to move on to a new set up. To his credit, Rick always checked with the producers to make sure they got what they needed, and he was always open to any further feedback they might offer. Needless to say, with Rick at the wheel, the shoot never required over time.

This experience has stuck with me and certainly has improved my skills as a director. I try to keep close by my animators, attempting to make sure they have all their needs met and all obstacles removed so they may do their best work. There are animation directors that like to close themselves off from a production, hiding behind an office door. For example, I worked on one project where the director not only kept their door closed, they insisted on communicating with a whole in-house staff via AOL’s Instant Messenger! On a similar note, I recently spoke to some young animators working on a series here in town that didn’t even know their director’s name because (although working on the project for several months) had still never met the guy! This is sad stuff on a human level, and obviously bad for the process and the product.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Does NY Have an Animation Industry?

I was grateful to be part of an interesting conversation this past Monday night. The occasion was a visit by cartoonbrew’s Amid Amidi to my SVA animation career class. For an hour and a half Amid shared his unique industry POV while fielding lots of questions from my students and I. Most interesting was Amid’s take on the difference between the industry in Los Angeles versus New York. Amid’s basic message was New York does not have industry. It has work, but not an industry. Industry implies a large pool of workers, consistently employed year after year. L.A. has such industry. Much of it’s work is under union contract, which helps standardize salaries, benefits, and working conditions. If you have an industry, it makes sense to have a union to protect and represent its members.

The question remains, “Does New York have an animation industry?” Okay, we know there is some work. More importantly, since 2003 the local animation opportunities have been pretty good for veterans and new comers alike. One can earn a living working in New York animation, although you have to sincerely work to make it happen and exist jumping job to job, sometimes with large gaps between work. Perhaps we have fifteen studios that employ more than five people at a time. Among them are a handful of larger studios, including Curious Pictures, Animation Collective, Little Airplane, Nickelodeon, World Leaders, and Blue Sky. We also have a smattering of smaller independent studios that bring in freelance help as needed.

Currently, Curious Pictures is not in major production (they recently wrapped out Kids Next Door and Little Einsteins), Blue Sky announced plans to move to Connecticut, and even those with long term work on Little Airplane’s Wonder Pets and Nick Jr’s in-house production of Umi Zumis all have end dates waiting for them a year or so down the calendar. 2008 is looking more and more like the beginning of the downward cycle where jobs are fewer, for both freelance and staff work. New York animation, since rebounding in the early 90s (during the peak days of Jumbo pictures and MTV), has gone through familiar 4-year cycles of plentiful work periods followed by leaner times.

Those who earn a living in New York not only exist from job to job, but also often change hats with each opportunity. This is a freedom we enjoy that is not as common on the west coast where the industry is far more rigid. On one job we may be a supervisor, on the next we may be doing storyboards. Some work is done on-site, and some is take-home freelance. Our pay varies with each job’s budget and our respective titles and responsibilities. Jobs are shorter in our city, so there is also a greater variety in projects, which brings the potential to pick up diverse skills.

New York City is the art capital of the world, so those working in animation here have the ability to mix with that world (as Pat Smith does). Additionally, there are art opportunities here through publishing, illustration, fashion, and merchandise and toy design. New York also has some work in special effects, motion graphics, and Web design. Animation artists working in the big apple don’t have industry in the L.A. sense, but we do have is a unique cocktail of opportunity. Many of us survive (and even thrive) on this blend.

Amid offered more evidence that New York is not an industry town, pointing out how it’s area school’s differ from those in Los Angeles. New York schools such as Parsons, Pratt, SVA, NYU, (and even near-by RISD), all focus on nurturing the artist’s personal expression. It’s about making films and artistic experimentation. At a west coast school like Cal Arts, the focus is on preparing one to work in industry doing storyboards, design, animation, and everything else. It is true the Cal Arts has a great experimental program as well, but that department is very small. Schools reflect the flavor of their surroundings. New York’s schools and their animation programs help reinforce the notion that New York is not an industry town, in the Los Angeles sense.

The final difference between the two cities might be found in their respective ASIFA chapters. Amid, who recently ended a fourteen year run working in L.A., noted that ASIFA Hollywood has great screenings that few L.A. animation artists bother to attend. I have witnessed this first hand in my two visits to the West Coast. In contrast, New York’s ASIFA-East is alive with animation artists attending monthly events, as well as running the organization itself. Our festival is the real deal, now going on to it’s 39th year! ASIFA-East members share a bond that goes beyond which studio or project happens to employ them at the time. There is a larger sense of community in NY; many of us cherish it, and more of us ought to.

Are we making a mistake in wishing to be more like Los Angeles? Do we risk losing our own unique combination of work, freelance, art, and freedom of lifestyle and personal expression? The work that comes out of the Los Angeles industry is some of the slickest animation made any where in the world, but is rarely ever confused with anything containing soul. Be careful what you wish for, because one day, you may get it.