Sunday, April 20, 2008

Basking in Bakshi

I had the privilege of attending the SVA event with Ralph Bakshi to celebrate the release of Unfiltered, a book written by Jon M. Gibson & Chris McDonnell, chronicling fifty years (and counting) of one of the most important animation filmmakers of all time. At the start of the same week everyone was busy kneeling at the altar of Ollie Johnston, the last surviving of Disney’s fabled 9 Old Men that passed away on Monday. The industry celebrated Johnston’s life with one glowing eulogy after another. The closest thing I read to a critical examination on Johnston came from Michael Barrier and Mark Mayerson who posted essays questioning the meaning and influence of The 9 Old Men. In summary, they suggest that 9 Old Men were designated as such not just for their animation excellence, but also because of their loyalty to Walt, especially during the strike of 1941. Early in their career, the 9 Old Men stood on the shoulders of giants such as Fred Moore, Bill Tytla, Art Babbit, and Norm Ferguson (to name but a few) and these are the names that defined a medium. Nobody can deny that the passing of Ollie Johnston is the end of an era. I totally understand and appreciate what that means to this community.

On the other hand, any on-line post about Ralph Bakshi is going to attract more criticism and outright hatred than it will praise. Over his nine feature films, Ralph did the unthinkable, and to a large segment of the animation community; the unforgivable. By sheer force of will, he dragged animation out of the realm of G-rated family fare, and brought animation into the modern era. The fact that Ralph still irks the conservatives in our business over forty years after Fritz the Cat says a lot about this unique man and his work. With SO much criticism, the importance of Ralph’s work makes itself clear. Why so much praise for Ollie Johnston, a man among nine and a righteous keeper of the status quo, and why so much criticism of Ralph Bakshi for being a maverick, an individual, and having the audacity to do something new? Criticism tells us something important; Ralph Bakshi, is the more important artist.

Are Ralph’s films perfect? Hell no. They are sometimes sloppy, incoherent, or even downright unsatisfying. In other words, they are crackling with life, energy, and spontaneity. Any animation artist today that yearns to be a filmmaker doing important work should realize Ralph Bakshi for what he is; the roadmap to individual expression and achievement in a medium that, by its very nature, so often dilutes individuality to render all its artists anonymous. You don’t have to like Bakshi’s films to get the message. Unfortunately, all too many in this animation community, not only want to throw out the message but, also the messenger. I truly don’t get it. Why should artists worship the status quo? How can we be artists if we do that? I don’t suggest not appreciating the 9 Old Men or their illustrious peers and predecessors, but it might help to recognize that their achievement was a technical one, albeit something that breathed life, emotion and reality into this medium. A filmmaker such as Ralph Bakshi dared to focus on subject, and drag animation to new places such as urban decay, sex (instead of fairy tale romance), and volatile race relations. Come to think of it, I have a criticism for Ralph too: I wish he’d been able to make even more than 9 feature films.

Do yourself a favor and watch Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic, which are both readily available on DVD. Then, pick up the baton and carry the spirit of Ralph’s work to the next level. Maybe even sprinkle a little Ollie Johnston in there for good measure. A spoonful of sugar might help the medicine go down.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Reducing the Lazy Factor in an Independent Film

One of the burdens of this age of limited animation is an automatic tendency to split characters into levels, animating only bits and pieces of a character while the rest of the character holds. Don’t get me wrong, I think full animation carries its own curse (where nothing ever stops moving. Think Rock-a-Doodle). Somewhere, there should be a happy medium. Its important to note, in this age of flash-bashing, that held animation levels were invented long before there was flash. Cell animation pioneered this factory friendly technique over eighty years ago. Flash or no flash, animators, particularly those making independent films, have to make a conscious effort to not automatically slick-ify their production values to the point of making a product undistinguishable from the latest show on Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon.

Flash or After Effects lets us make films in our living room sans paper, cells, and especially a clunky expensive Oxberry camera. My latest film, Good Morning, cost me next to nothing to make, while my film from ten years ago, Snow Business, cost 10,000 bucks! However, while these programs allow one to make a film without the prohibitive steps and cost of yesterday, they also tempt us into taking shortcuts that compromise our creative vision. Flash and After Effects encourage animators to “puppet” their characters to limit the amount of new art that needs to be created. Puppeting is just today’s version of limited animation. If Flash puppeting had been available in 1959, it would have been used to animate the limited animation classic Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Still, the shame of Flash or After Effects in the hands of the independent animator is that it lets one so easily sink into limited animation doldrums. While such a production style would be understandable in a TV product where deadlines and budget is tight, it doesn’t make sense for the independent animator to embrace such limitations unless they would best do the project justice. Most of the time, we animators take these shortcuts out of laziness or restlessness to get the end product as soon as possible. Instead, we ought to be making the appropriate choice of animation styling, whatever that might be, so that our projects might reach their full potential.

Anyone who’s worked in Flash or After Effects has to know that the programs themselves should not be blamed. Both programs allow the artist to the replicate hand drawn animation techniques of yesterday, with none of the drawbacks of past production. I’m currently working on a new film, Owl and Rabbit Play Checkers. The original character art (NOT shown here) was created in a flat flash friendly style, using Illustrator, back in 2004. When I made the decision to animate this film in 2008, I opted for a much warmer hand drawn feeling (see above). The new styling was achieved by drawing directly into a wacom tablet in the same technique I used for my film Good Morning. I’m not puppeting my animation. I’m drawing every frame, even though sometimes I may time the drawings on 3s or 4s. The result is very expressive and lets me really get into the acting. This is all the more important because this is a two character film and the success of it all depends on really establishing the differences between these characters.

As for laziness? I suffer from that as much as any animator…but, I’ve figured out a way to make handrawn animation work for me in just as quick a manner as puppeted animation. The secret is not such a secret. This technique allows me to animate with a finished line. There’s no going back to pencil drawings later and cleaning them up to find the polished ink line. I’m not worrying about that. If lines get a little loose or intersect that's okay. This may sound lazy (and maybe it is), but the result is full of life and all the happy accidents that can only come from the human touch. There’s no scanning, because I’m drawing directly into photoshop. The color technique I’m using is also fast and direct, coloring loosely in photoshop with a simulated crayon brush. I don’t need my animation to look like Cartoon Network. When Cartoon Network pays me to make a pilot for them, then, I’ll worry about that problem. For now, I’m making an independent film, and I find half the fun is discovering and slaying whatever obstacles might be in the way so that, in the end, the film wins.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Make Mine Assy McGee

Assy McGee, a show that I’ve been directing for the last year, premiered on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim on Sunday 12:30 AM, on Sunday April 6. It was my first foray into directing for an “adult” audience, after a career mostly spent in children’s/preschool projects. It was a welcome change and the more cinematic attributes of older programming have already begun to influence my sensibility on a new independent children’s film I’m working on (more on that in a subsequent post.)

TV animation gets a bum rap from just about everybody. It is usually measured against what was lost, while I would argue it should instead receive credit for what it preserved. It kept industry alive, allowing decades worth of animation artists to earn a living in their occupation of choice. Yes, TV animation is a different model than what came before. There’s a greater reliance on scripts and soundtracks over the demands of animation, which by sheer cost, is always kept at a minimum. Still, who among us would deny the importance of script (or story) and soundtrack in any successful animation made in the last 75 years? To criticize TV animation for its dependence on strong scripts and soundtracks is akin to criticizing trees for having leaves.

It’s hard for me to think of Assy McGee without comparing it to MTV’s Friday (which, was a short lived 8 episode animated series produced in NY in 2006-2007). Here’s how MTV got it wrong with Friday and Adult Swim got it right with Assy McGee. Note: I don’t doubt MTV’s ability to find success anew in animation, and I certainly hope they do.

MTV Friday’s:
Step one:
Green light a show based on (semi-popular) series of movies. This will automatically give the show urban edge and recogniziblity in the marketplace. Right?

Step two:
Ensure failure by making the show a soulless creator-less venture, a product of committee.

Step three:
Hire an amazing crew of artists and production personale.

Step four:
Second-guess every stage of production. Re-write episodes. Re-record actors. Make committee changes that weaken the product with every passing minute.

Step five:
The amazing crew of artists and production staff work tirelessly to salvage the show.

Step six:
The network cancels the show after airing only a small handful of episodes. Project over. Pretend the whole thing never happened in the first place.

Assy McGee
Step one:
Start with a quirky creator-driven show co-created by Carl W. Adams and H. Jon Benjamin, and a head writer/executive producer Matt Harrigan.

Step two:
Write scripts that actually start out funny. Make changes that make it even funnier. Repeat during the whole production process.

Step three:
Record excellent actors that take said script and plus it ten-fold by improvising new material and embellishing the rest.

Step four:
Hire a crew of amazing artists and production personale. Working as the NY crew, we had animators: Justin Simonich, Dagan Moriarty, Danielle Keenan, Adam Rosette, Meredith Gran, and Mira Scharf. Background design by Adrian Urquidez and Bob Levy (my dad! See BG image above). Character design by Jason McDonald. Add to this group incredibly talented artists and production staff in Watertown, MA, including; creative director Andre Lyman, business manager Carrie Snyder, producer Julia King, Bob Keough (storyboards/animatics), Matt Durso and Cara FitzGibbon (storyboards & animation revision), Adam Swanson (additional props/character/bg design), audio editor Abe Stein, and editor and visual effects Vanessa Pyne.

Step five:
Encourage creative contributions from every member of the crew.

Step six:
Air the show to a major advertising campaign, including official sponsorship by Toyota’s Scion. Toy line on its way. There’s going to be an Assy McGee bank. Guess where the coin goes?

Is Assy McGee a perfect show that will please everyone? Nope. And, nor is it trying to be. Creatively, Assy McGee teeters the balance between coherence and utter incomprehensibility. That’s a pretty powerful mojo to power any work of art or piece of commerce. I would argue that unlike a product made by committee, Assy McGee has something that is rarely associated with TV product: spontaneity.

Missed the premiere? Watch the episode now at:

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Make Your Own Luck

I recently began a new chapter of my career as a TV animation writer for scripts and development. I don’t venture to guess how much this might come to dominate my career. I’m still directing series, making films, teaching, etc. However new I might be to development and script writing, I find I’m turning to some old tricks to make it work. My first strategy is making creative time during captive time. By captive time, I mean time spent traveling; sitting on the subway, and (at the moment) sitting on a plane during a return trip from Arizona. Instead of tuning out with my ipod, I write in my journal, jot notes on a script, and scribble thoughts on post-its.

My father, Bob Levy, was the art director who single-handedly conjured up the long running series of Crest toothpaste cavity creeps (“we make holes in teeth) campaign (see image above.) While I was growing up, my Dad still had his original conceptual drawings for the series stuck to his home-office walls. My Dad is my industry hero because of his seemingly supernatural ability to brainstorm ideas and solve creative problems. He believes in letting the ideas flow out without stopping to judge them or edit them in any way. The point is to get them down on paper first. Later, he’ll sift through a pile and start picking out the key ideas, the ones that stick. Chuck Jones called his writing meetings with key collaborators like Mike Maltese, “yes sessions.” But, I think it’s important to bring that same yes-energy even when creating on your own. Perhaps even more so.

Writing to order is a really fun challenge. When I write for my own films or pitch projects I can indulge in a relatively full creative freedom. Writing on assignment is about bringing your own sensibility to the table to help birth something else for someone else. I think when it’s done right, it need not lack a personal touch or genuine inspiration. John Lennon wrote “A Hard Day’s Night” as an assignment. Ringo Starr had coined the phrase and the Producers chose it for the title of The Beatles all-important first film. The song Lennon dreamed up captured the true spirit of the band at that exact moment in their development. It was honest, real, while still being made to order.

I owe this writing stage of my career partly to pitching. To pitch is to try to prove how a project is both personal to its creator and at the same time universal in the market place.

Tom Warburton, creator of Cartoon Network’s Code Name Kids Next Door has only pitched 4 times in his life. He’s been successful four out of four times, scoring pilots, series deals, development deals, and most recently a children’s book. That’s a unique kind of success. If I measured my pitching and development career by that marker, I’d be a failure ten times over (ten times representing ten years of pitching without success.) But, then again, what is success? In this business we define our own success. Creating and pitching shows has helped land me 3 directing gigs to date as well as two new jobs as a writer. Over my ten, often frustrating years pitching and missing, I would fantasize that if development executives didn’t buy my ideas, maybe they would engage me as a writer or developer on their own projects. It never happened. Until, one day it did.

The key is to do what you need to do when you need to do it. Make yourself ready for opportunities imagined or unimagined. In a recent lecture to my career class, Tom Warburton advised my students to, “make your own luck.” Despite our very different levels of success, I believe Mr. Warburton and I are talking about the very same thing.