Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Once upon a time I was an animation student at SVA where, in a film theory class, I was introduced to such filmmakers as Truffaut, Antonioni, Ozu, Bergman, and Eisenstein. I found these foreign films more than challenging. In fact, more often than not, I slept through these films, letting the subtitles lull me to a slumber. Students are a frustrating bunch. On one hand they believe that they are fully formed adults. In reality very, very few students truly take advantage of their school years. One only has to look at the attendance of the average art student. The majority of them miss as many classes as they are allowed to miss without it affecting their grade. Think of the money wasted per each class. What a waste of an education! Most students are simply not ready to absorb their craft and understand how it fits into the world of art and the history of cinema. What a curse that the time in our lives when we have the most potential energy and resources geared towards learning, we choose to squander it.

The saddest students believe their education ends upon receipt of a diploma. As a New Yorker, I’m lucky to have access to foreign, independent and retrospective cinema each and every day. Each film I see fires me full of ideas and inspiration, continuing the education that I was too young to appreciate while at SVA. I live in close proximity to BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), where there is a playhouse, an opera house, and a world class cinema showing new run art house films as well as a generous amount of retrospectives. In the last year I’ve caught BAM screenings of film noir gold (Double Indemnity and The Seventh Victim), foreign films (Loves of a Blonde, Breathless, 400 Blows, Pierrot Le Fou, Last Year at Marienbad–pictured above), and even a guilty 1980s-era pleasure (Desperately Seeking Susan).

Outside of Brooklyn, I was recently dazzled by a screening of the silent film masterpiece, Beggars of Life, at the Walter Reade Theatre. I’m currently working my way through Goddard’s 60s at The Film Forum, where I recently bumped into cartoonbrew’s Amid Amidi. Amid spoke of an animator friend that would only go to one Goddard film per week because she found the films too frustrating. I would use the word, “challenging," instead. Anyone who’s visited a non-English speaking country knows that you use more brainpower looking for the bathroom than you do in your homeland on the same task. Similarly, the sheer foreign-ness of these films makes your brain work harder.

A film education shouldn’t start and end with Star Wars. I am no longer that gangly twenty year old who had trouble sitting through film theory class. Today I have trouble sitting through typical multiplex garbage such as Transformers.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Pick Your Motivation

In his latest blog post, Ward Jenkins describes what motivates him forward to create a personal animated film. You can check it out at wardomatic.blogspot.com. He shares what are perhaps the most universal reasons why most independent filmmakers are drawn to make personal films. Ward writes, “I just want to work on something that I can call my own. To create characters in my style, and animate them however I want. To be able to work on something where I don't have to answer to anyone. I'm calling the shots here. No art directors, no producers, no creative directors to answer to! Freedom. Liberation. Joy. And once it's done, there'll be such a feeling of accomplishment you can't even imagine. I look forward to that moment -- it's what will drive me throughout the entire process of making this film.”

At an ASIFA-East event screening Paul Fierlinger’s PBS animated documentary Still Life With Animated Dogs, somebody asked the filmmaker to name his inspiration. “Fear,” he replied. “Fear of not earning a living.” I think Paul’s answer surprised many in the audience. I wasn’t surprised because “fear” has been my constant motivator since SVA.

All of us have natural fear in our lives and careers. I know where my fear comes from. My skills as a filmmaker and animator have never been where I wanted them to be. My original fear was that I would not have the skills or talent to break into this business. Once I did just that, my next concern was a fear of keeping my place in this business.

For me, fear is empowering. It helps me focus my goals and stay motivated. Fear inspired my first independent film, Snow Business. At the time, I was recently away from working at Michael Sporn’s studio, where I learned a whole host of traditional animation production disciplines. I was worried that all of my new found skills would wither and die, so I desperately kept them alive in the form of a personal film. This film allowed me to continue to work through my lessons from the Sporn studio over the next two years. It was a fear of loss channeled into something positive.

I suppose I should point out that fear alone is not enough to act as a catalyst to action. One has to have ambition. One also has to have a driving need to develop their own voice as a filmmaker, since there’s no other way to do that besides making films. I have these additional motivations, but “fear,” is certainly the galvanizing factor.

Ten years after the completion of my first film, fear is still helping to guide my career. Case in point– something petty and small just happened on my latest gig that served as a reminder that this job was not my baby. Although my latest job is a career break-through, it’s still a commercial job for hire. I had a fear I was getting too close to this job. I feared this would make me lose objectivity and prevent the client from getting the best I had to offer. This fear pumped new enthusiasm into my current independent film. As a form of therapy, I dropped everything, and devoted the next three days to push a new scene to completion on my film.

We are very fortunate that we have the ability to balance the commercial and artistic sides of our lives. A healthy dose of fear has been my friend for over a decade. What’s your motivation? Comments welcome below.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Emmy Which Way You Can

I just had the neat experience of serving on the panel to award Emmys for the individual achievement in animation category for the daytime Emmy. It was a treat to reconnect with fellow panelists such as Dave Palmer, Jason Oliveri, Kari Kim, Tina Moglia, Masako Kanamaya, Lisa Goldman, Stephen Neary, Bob Charde, JoEllyn Marlow, and Biljana Lubovic. It was also an opportunity to make a few new acquaintances; I took an instant liking to Dominie Mahl and Alan Foreman. How lucky are we that there are so many great people in this business? The answer: very, very lucky.

I sat on the sub committee that had to decide on an Emmy for production design. Our group poured over twelve or so entries to search for something that met the prize’s criteria. Production design is how well all the elements weave together. Do the characters pop properly off the backgrounds, while at the same time belonging to the same world? Does each shot read clearly? These are but a couple of the questions we had to ask in order to evaluate the entries. Although some of the productions managed to have successful enough production design, our job was to determine whether or not that meant it was “Emmy worthy.” We felt a responsibility to ensure that the Emmy would mean something.

Such a responsibility makes one think anew about the productions they’ve worked on in the past. In TV animation, each episode gets precious little time on the assembly line and many creative fires are put out along the way. I suppose that an Emmy worthy production wouldn’t show any of those battle scars in the final production. An Emmy for individual achievement in daytime TV animation likely means that this person (and production) went above and beyond the limitations in time and budget to make a truly stellar product. As I tackle my next duties in TV animation, I’ll be reminded of this.

Each committee found that they could tell when the artist was truly inspired by the project or whether they just saw the job as a paycheck. We all noted how stellar preproduction work (including inspirational art, storyboards, layouts, and background keys) had to be at the start due to the inevitable fact that these elements get watered down on the way to the finish line. Perhaps the hardest category to award was the individual achievement for animation. Unfortunately, TV animation is not an animator’s medium. The best productions on TV succeed on the basis of clever writing and sharp design.

The experience serving on this committee reminded me that our work must always stand on its own if its going to considered for excellence. Richard Gorey told my SVA career class, “You are not rewarded for hard work. You are rewarded for outstanding work.” That sounds like the criteria for “Emmy worthy,” to me.

Monday, May 5, 2008

ASIFA-East 39th Animation Festival: REPORT #1

It’s the day after the big ASIFA-East festival and my thoughts are filled with all the good films and good times from last night. A super big congrats to all the winners and a huge "thank you" to the many folks that tirelessly donated their time to pull this off. In particular, I’d like to give a shout to our jury film list guru Candy Kugel, festival co-chairs: Nancy Lennert and Linda Simensky, Celia Bullwinkle for making the opening film, Cliff Galbraith and Justin Simonich and Dayna Gonzalez and Mark Bailey and Adrian Urquidez for spreading the word about the festival, Cartoon Network and Michael Grover for sponsoring the party, Linda Beck and Jennifer Oxley for planning the party, and our welcoming host; Parsons School of Design and Anezka Sebek. Check in with our website, www.asifaeast.com, this week to see the full list of winners.

Our apologies for not having time to screen the two honorable mentions in the student category, which were; Michael Langan’s “Doxology,” and Joy & Noelle Vaccese’s “The Scritch-Scratch of Busy Little Hands.”

There’s a lot of film’s I’d like to discuss in subsequent postings, but I’m eager to first offer some comments on Fran and Will Krause’s Cartoon Network short, “The Upstate Four,” and Pen Ward’s Frederator/Nickelodeon short, “Adventure Time.” It was a treat to see these films play nearly back-to-back in the festival because they represent the hope that still remains in sponsored TV product.

Fran and Will’s short was a virtual follow up in theme and tone to their previous Cartoon Network short, “Utica Cartoon” (2002). Both their shorts open with characters engaged in game play, have plots that center on obsessive eating, and feature bizarre casts of human, animal, and surreal characters. The six years have been good to the Krause brothers and they have emerged with an even stronger point of view than before. Part of their growth was letting go some control and it was to their benefit to bring in strong support in voice talent and sound design. “The Upstate Four” races along at a break neck pace, with main character Mary not even having time to properly mount and ride her bicycle to the big finish. The film frequently goes places other TV cartoons would not even think to tread. I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw a character with a tombstone for a head play checkers or a furry snack scout that, when angry, transforms into a cross hatched pen & ink R. Crumb-like design.

Pen Ward’s “Adventure Time,” might seem like a celebratory parody of adventure story clich├ęs, but it is so much more and so much less at the same time (and I mean both in a good way). The real theme of the film is innocence. One usually thinks of Mr. Warburton’s Code Name: Kids Next Door as being the best example of writing for a kid audience. Still, KND (by its own cleverness) seems very much organized with an adult’s logic. In contrast, Pen Ward is truly floating in outer space. “Adventure Time,” only sprinkles on just enough plot to set their characters into action and relishes in spending all of its energy on character. Design wise, never have I seen such an uncluttered TV pilot, and the characters are so basic and simply drawn that they might be mistaken for preschool if they weren’t so distinctly odd. “Adventure Time,” is unconventional in just about every way.

Taken together, “The Upstate Four” and “Adventure Time” show that there are great things to be done in sponsored film and I give both Cartoon Network and Frederator/Nickelodeon three cheers for recognizing the merits of these filmmakers and letting them lose to make some wonderful cartoons.