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.