Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Ins and Outs of Indie Animated Features

ASIFA-East held a panel on the state of NY independent animated features on September 23, 2008 that was moderated by cartoonbrew’s Amid Amidi and featured panelists Emily Hubley, Dan Kanemoto, Bill Plympton, Michael Sporn, and Tatia Rosenthal. Each panelist has either finished a feature or is in progress on one. The audience was first treated to a two-minute clip of each film before the discussion began. One aspect of making an independent feature dominated the conversation: how to secure funding and distribution. The next day Michael Sporn lamented on his splog how he had wished there had been more questions on the creative side. Nobody asked how a filmmaker used to working in shorts deals with the creative problem of expanding their vision to a feature length medium.

The same lack of creative curiosity goes on at panels on pitching and development for an animated series, where the dominant conversation is always about how to pitch or legally protect ones ideas. My feeling is that in both cases the audience and panelists each believe they already possess the creative chops to make a feature or create an animated series. Of course, they are probably mistaken, as these goals are only realistic for a very small portion of those attending such events.

Forget funding. Forget distribution. At least for a minute. The real issue for me is, “Will there be an audience for my indie feature film?” Persepolis was picked up by Sony Picture Classics, which ensured it a world wide, albeit somewhat limited release. The film didn’t make it to every-town USA but, it did play in artsy theatres in major US cities. That’s probably the best an indie animated film can expect to achieve for now. Tatia Rosenthal’s $9.99 seems well heeled to follow in Persepolis’s footsteps because of its lavish-for-an-indie-animated feature budget of 3 million bucks and a world-wide distribution plan built into that (see image from $9.99 above). To secure such an arrangement, Tatia began with a killer script, a grant from NYU, a place at the Sundance workshop, a willingness to upset her life and move to Australia for the two-year production, and perhaps most important––a willingness to relinquish ownership of the film.

The larger budget and broader partnerships not only showed in Tatia’s film clip, but they also ensure a much more certain future for her film. Her sacrifices (which also include an 8 year production time!) will not only get her film seen but will also nicely set up her career to direct another feature, which she might own and even get to make in the city of her choice.

Sitting somewhere in the audience that night was an indie live action feature producer friend of mine with 18 years experience in the business. She gave me fresh perspective on the event when she explained that while each of the filmmaker’s had a compelling back story about their film, ultimately the audience is not going to care about that. The audience doesn’t see a film because the filmmaker struggled over many years to make it. The film has to be compelling in its own right. Compelling in its subject and in its execution.

We indie animators are used to playing in the safe and small pond world of short animated films. We know how much they cost, how many ideas they can hold, what level of risks we can take with them, and where to get them seen and distributed.

Some ten years ago I attended a script reading of Tatia’s film by professional actors in New York City. Sitting on stools with scripts in hand, they read through the entire feature length screenplay in real time. We, as an audience, were transfixed. I felt as if I’d seen the film that night, it so came alive in my mind.

On the panel Michael Sporn correctly pointed out that Bill Plympton is a pre-sold brand, but (I would point out) this has not proved enough for Bill Plympton to achieve the success in features that he desires. Sporn wisely adapted Edgar Allen Poe's biography along with a few of the author's short stories to frame his feature. Poe IS a pre-sold commodity even if Sporn’s name (outside of animation circles) is not. Dan Kanemoto chose the rich tapestry of WW II stories as his theme, but after being unable to secure the rights to authentic soldier’s stories, made up his own. However, WW II is an evergreen subject and one which upon limitless stories can be told. Emily Hubley seems to have made the most abstract feature on the panel, which explored the familiar themes of her shorter films. Yet, as a master of securing film grants and private funding, she may have the least financial risk on the line of this panel.

The two main business models presented this night were making it/showing it/and it will find distribution VERSUS making it with the financial and distribution partners already committed. Obviously the filmmaker doesn’t always have a choice in the matter. Sometimes one just follows their muse and throws caution to the wind. How lucky for us that so many interesting films are going to see the light of day, even if that light may only show at animation festivals or on the filmmaker’s self-distributed DVDs.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Back from Ottawa!

Note: Photo courtesy of Justin Simonich, featuring (from left to right) Yuliya Parshina, Fran Krause, Will Krause, Justin Simonich, Christy Karakas, and David Levy.

I just flew back from the Ottawa International Animation Festival and boy are my arms tired, eh? By throwing the word, “eh” at the end of that tired old joke, it becomes Canadian. Trying to write about attending this festival is like having to write a school essay on what you did last summer. Besides, there’s already some stellar coverage of the festival on blogs such as Michael Sporn’s splog at So, instead, here’s a bullet point summary from me:

-Traveling with my buddy Justin Simonich, we arrive in Ottawa at 9:30 AM on the first day of the festival. We enjoy a tasty breakfast at Dunne’s (a sort of cheap diner on Elgin Street near our hotel). We are joined by New York animation artists Willy Hartland and Phil Lockerby (who is actually Canadian!). Check out Phil’s blog at: Willy shows us some pitches he plans to show at TAC (the festival’s TV animation conference.) We toast our coffees to wish him luck. Maybe we should have toasted our bread instead. At other breakfasts we dined with Linda Beck, David Watchenheim and his studio stalwart Glen, as well as Chris Boyce.

-We finally find the Arts Court building to sign in to the festival. I’m terrible at direction, which gives Phil a chance to ask numerous pretty girls for directions along the way.

-At the Art Courts building I’m happy to see my book is displayed for sale on a table also holding DVDs by NY indies Signe Baumane, Pat Smith, and others.

-We start to hear the first of countless complaints that there is NO central meeting place at this year’s festival. In past years, the NAC (National Arts Center) served as a swanky festival hub, allowing attendees to meet, bump into each other, as well as saving us from having to trek all across town to other venues.

-I’m reminded how seedy Rideau Street is near the also-seedy ByTowne Theater, which serves as one of the festivals main screening venues. We notice a homeless man squatting on the floor carving raw meat off a small animal’s bony carcass. On that note, it’s time for lunch! Ottawa is overrun with pubs and for me that means lots of delicious cider! It’s also another chance to NOT order the local Canadian treat “poutine,” which is French fries drowned in gravy with some cheese curd mixed in for good measure.

-I only made it to one panel discussion, but luckily it was a great one on humor in animation moderated by Amid Amidi. On the panel were Nick Cross, Fran and Will Krause, Christy Karakas, and Martin Pickles. It was here that I learned about Amid’s sneaky moderation style, which is to spout strong opinions that might get a rise out of the panel and the audience. Hmmm…sounds also like his posting style on cartoonbrew, no?

-In my opinion, the heart and soul of the festival were retrospectives on the work of Michael Sporn and Skip Battaglia, and the class reel from RISD. Amy Kravitz, RISD’s animation department chairperson, picked up a special award at the festival for her outstanding student’s work. Go RISD!

-The unjust award goes to the snubbing of Bill Plympton’s and Nina Paley’s features in favor of the more commercial leaning CGI film “Terra,” which some thought to be Terra-ble.

-Fran and Will Krause picked up the kids jury award for their outstanding pilot “The Upstate Four,” and the audience was charmed by the kid reading a summery of the film from her own point of view. A miscommunication between the brothers resulted in the award being left behind at the closing party at Helsinki bar. Luckily it was recused the next day and is being mailed to the brothers, who promise to be more careful with their next award.

-Justin Simonich and Linda Beck began shooting a very special film project at the Ottawa festival, which you will no doubt be hearing about soon.

-J.J. Sedelmaier sported some killer facial hair and sat on a panel moderated by Ward Jenkins on the state of animation education. Richard O’Connor not only did a killer karaoke version of “China Girl” at the closing party, he also moderated a panel on feature animation.

-Yo Gabba Gabba clips dominated the kids category at the festival and among the best was Willy Hartland’s “Pick it Up.”

-The bees were out in full force at the they could welcome the queen bee Candy Kugel, who’s film dEVOLUTION played at a special festival screening. To this, Candy responded with dELIGHT.

-While trekking to History of Civilization-held closing ceremony, we spot two live beavers across the street...causing me to exclaim, "I'll be damned!"

-Otis Brayboy made homemade chicken soup for 10 people who all drove up and stayed together in a couple of hotel suites. Among the lucky soup slurpers were Dayna Gonzalez and Pilar Newton.

-My “how’d they do that award” goes to Super Jail! How did they do that?

-I enjoy a nice chat sitting next to Heather Kenyon on the flight home where we thumb through the latest animation magazine together.

There’s so much more to write about, but how could I fit it all in, eh?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Collaboration in an Indie Film

Collaboration on the job can be tough enough, even with roles defined by title, responsibility, and differences in pay scale. Sometimes it’s just plumb hard for folks to work together (note: I’ve been watching a lot of “Little House on the Prairie” lately, and the folksy vernacular is starting to seep into my subconscious. At least, I reckon it is.) All too often, collaboration between one or more artists making an indie-animated film can lead to disaster.

One story from my dad’s childhood works as a nice metaphor for the trap. When my dad was a kid in the 1940s, a common enterprise for boys was to earn money shining shoes. One day my dad and a friend from the same apartment building decided to create their own shoe-shining business. The plan was they would each buy materials and then set up their stands side-by-side in their Brooklyn neighborhood. Incidentally, they lived in Brownsville on Amboy Street. The same street as Ralph Bakshi, who was a child hood friend of my dad! When my dad and his business partner were finally ready to begin their shoe-shining enterprise, the friend suddenly bailed out. It turns out his father didn’t want his son to shine shoes. My dad was left without a partner and he almost threw in the towel as well. But, my dad’s grandfather convinced him to go it alone, offering to accompany him to the park. The moral support did the trick and my dad set up for business. He continued his shoe shining for years, earning himself money for movies as well as money to help out his struggling household.

In my career class I often describe the same problem above as two people joining the gym together. At first they set days and times that they will work out on a regular basis, but then inevitably one friend will lag behind and stop going. The other friend can either stop going too or realize that they don’t need to depend upon someone else to get their own butt to the gym. Independent films made between one or more partners face the same challenges. Very often partners begin with the best intensions because talk is cheap and enthusiasm is free. But, films take work and commitment to get done. Poorly chosen collaborators can drag both partners down with one member constantly waiting for the other to make a move before either can proceed.

I’ve been lucky to find my best collaborator to date with my creative partner Bob Charde. He’s a musician, composer, songwriter, singer, voice artist, producer, and technical wizard. All things I am NOT. However, like me, he is self-motivated and has the drive to see a project through to its completion. For our film, “Good Morning,” it was really just me hijacking one of his songs and animating it. When I was finished I called Bob and told him he had a new film! He was delighted and together we entered film festivals (landing into competition at ten festivals to date.) Most recently, we inked a deal with a Canadian distributor who now has non-exclusive rights to our film for the next 3 years. Bob and I will be paid every time the film is broadcast on TV or on the web.

Shortly after we began to find success with Good Morning, Bob asked if I was interested in collaborating on a film with him “for real.” I had no real plans to make another film but, on Bob’s encouragement I sent him three old scripts I’d written for preschool projects I’d developed. Two weeks later, Bob responded by sending me the vocal soundtrack for one of my ideas called “Owl and Rabbit Play Checkers” (see still above.) With a lesser collaborator this could have been a disaster. Imagine if the track was lousy! But, thankfully, Bob nailed it––expertly voicing the titular characters as well as the narrator. He hit just the right tone, capturing all the humor and emotion in the piece. With Bob’s bold move he shanghaied me into making another film. It’s as if he got his revenge for my actions with his song “Good Morning.”

Now I was suddenly making a short that I had no plans to EVER make. When you make films on a regular (or semi-regular) basis the problem is not, “should I make a film?” but, more like, “Which film should I make?” Happily, Bob forced the issue and pushed us both into business. I’m now 2/3 done animating the new short. I turn it over to Bob on Oct 12 so he can start scoring the film. Before the next year, we’ll have a new short to our names. I would have nothing if not for this fruitful collaboration. It’s interesting that collaboration can be so important to a project that there may not be a project without it.

This week I’ll take a short break on the film to attend the Ottawa International Animation Festival. Perhaps, at the festival, some future collaborators might meet for the first time. Hope to see you there!

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Elephant in the Room

On a past post I contemplated whether or not New York has an animation industry. For my purpose, I’m defining “industry,” as consistent employment available for a large number of artists at ten or more large studios. Clearly, New York does not have an animation industry in the Hollywood sense. Yet, we have work––sometimes stretching for a year or more at a time, more often for substantially shorter periods than that. Instead of ten or more large studios, there are only three or four active large studios with temporary employees numbering over fifty employees. Since Blue Sky is planning a move to Connecticut, we can leave them out of the equation. The majority of animation studios in the Big Apple are smaller boutique-style operations that expand and contract based on the amount of work they take in.

With no consistent “industry,” in New York, its animation artists survive by their wits, skills, and creativity. We build relationships. We look out for one another and recommend each other when appropriate. Sometimes large groups of artists even seem to migrate from job-to-job in packs. Witness the large group of Code Name: Kids Next Door employees landing at Word World, as well as the stampede of a core group of artists pack-walking from Little Bill-to-Wonder Pets-to-Little Einsteins-to-Umi Zumis. As much as there is movement in groups and individuals looking out for one another... real community group action has been lacking at times when its been needed most.

First launching in 1996, Blue’s Clues was one of the first digital-in house animated series in New York. Certainly, it was the largest and most successful of its kind. Developing its new model for series production, the show spent its first three seasons honing its production systems to ever increasing efficiency. It was just in time too, because by season four, the show nearly doubled in production and greatly expanded its staff. A weak link with Nickelodeon’s digital studio of that time was the tech department, which serviced and maintained the busy staff’s computers.

The increase in computer stations wasn’t accompanied by increase in the already spotty tech service. Animation artists had long grumbled about slow fix times when their computers were down but, the biggest issue was lack of basic communication from the tech department. An animation artist would call in the tech problems and get no response. And when a tech person did visit their station there was little to no follow up information on when a computer might be fixed or what the problem was. In short, animation artists weren’t feeling very supported on this issue. But, for years the crew kept their complaints to themselves or to each other by griping over the problem at lunch. Occasionally, individuals complained to supervisors or producers but, nothing really changed. Tech service was still a source of frustration and the production expansion only made matters worse.

One day some of the animation artists decided that a group action might be justifiable. They drafted up a petition, had the entire creative staff sign it, and then presented it to a department head. With this action, the problem, which had been festering for four years was suddenly on the road to being solved. The tech department was given the message and they made the needed improvements in communication and service. It was a victory for group action. Other crews have had (and have) similar opportunities across town––where the stakes are a lot higher than waiting on broken computer. At a couple of other studios the problems are alarming. There are studios currently operating where employees are expected to give their entire waking lives over to their jobs. This comes out in mandatory late night and weekend work (without additional pay or the full proper compensation that such overtime would require.)

Animation artists understand that this is a business that sometimes requires late nights or additional work. Often this is the result of a fickle client or a changing deadline or some other unforeseen challenge. So, how does one know if they are being exploited on the job? Here are some telltale signs of a bad situation that might justify a group-action response:
-The studio demands that a crew put in mandatory unpaid (or underpaid) overtime requiring that it work late nights and weekends on a consistent basis. They do so to such an extent that such a situation is IN FACT their business model.
-The studio’s work atmosphere or culture is prohibitive to each crewmember delivering their best work.
-The studio’s production process, systems, or workflow is sabotaging the crew’s ability to deliver their best work, putting unfair demands and pressure on the individual workers.

Since the Blue’s Clues crew came together on their tech issue there have been a few other group action events in New York animation. Last year, a major studio cut its workers’ benefits and healthcare insurance but, after a unified staff (including animation artists and live action staffers) walked out and took their case to the media, the studio changed their mind and restored much of the benefits package to its workers (see photo above). Another crew came together after an employer decided not to pay previously agreed upon paid holiday days off. The crew and its director brought their case to the studio and the studio partially relented, paying the crew for more than half of the agreed upon holidays. More than half is better than none. This year, a crew facing mandatory late nights and weekend overtime created a petition and handed it to their supervisor. The producers backed down and eased up the unfair requirements.

Think of it this way––if a studio has such power over a crew that they can demand it to work mandatory improperly compensated overtime, then, what else might that studio do? Such a situation opens the gate to other abuses of power such as harassment. Certainly such a studio doesn’t respect artists as individuals. But, they will be forced to change their agenda if group action is taken.

In each case outlined above, the group actions were successful BECAUSE the actions were JUSTIFIABLE (not frivolous) and were staged DURING production. This is when a crew has the most leverage and the best chance of creating change. Nobody in this business has to be alone.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Time Is On Your Side (Yes It Is)

Over the years I’ve seen several companies, networks, web destinations, or distributors on the prowl for short animated films. They have one common misconception about animation artists: we ALL make our own animated films. The reality is that very few of us continue to make our own animated films beyond our graduate or thesis films.

The most common reason to NOT make a film is a shortage of time. A lack of resources (equipment or money) has long been eliminated in this age of computer animation. We each have a computer so indie films have never cost less to produce than presently. So, a shortage of time (or energy) is now the only reason NOT to make a film. While we could stop the conversation right here, I aim to probe deeper.

What does it mean to not have the time or energy? I can offer up the following possibilities:
-You have an old fashioned view of work. This means you believe “work” is something you do for other people in exchange for money.
-You invest ALL your creative energy in “work” for other people, leaving none of it for yourself.
-You’d like to make a film but there just doesn’t seem to be enough time because of other responsibilities.

Very little about making an animated film is quick or easy. Those of us, who do, make films because we HAVE to. We have the same shortage of time as most anybody else. We also juggle work commitments and other life responsibilities to squeeze out any available time into our films.

The ultimate irony is that making an indie film is not something separate to one’s career. It’s in full support of it. A film allows its maker to explore areas that they may never even come across in ten years working in the field.

A quote from Michael Sporn well sums up the allure of making indie animated films for me (although he is speaking of the art of animation in general):
“Animation has the potential to be the greatest of all the arts. It combines drawing, painting, music, acting, photography, and computer art. Anything you can think of can be combined by the animator to be used at his or her disposal.”

An independent animated film not only incorporates all of Sporn’s artistic descriptions above, it also affords one a chance to play producer, deal-maker, supervisor, book keeper, and countless other roles.

The most amazing thing of all is that you don’t have to be Bill Plympton to see a financial return for your indie film. Two case studies from my two newest shorts bare this out. When I finished “Good Morning” in 2007, one of the first things I did was to mail DVDs or links of the short to friends, colleagues, producers, and development executives. Two development executives at one network liked the short so much that they asked me to interview to direct their new series pilot. I competed against two other directors and my film helped give me the edge to land the job. The pilot still has a strong chance of going to series and I am in line to direct if it does. (see image of a BG above from the project designed by my dad and I).

My current film is not even completed yet, but whenever I meet with a new contact or client, I show them some QuickTime movies from the short in progress. At one such meeting in April, I showed a thirty second clip from my new film and it must have planted a seed because I was just engaged to animate/direct a self-funded pilot for this client as a result. Incidentally this new project, when combined with my teaching income and other miscellaneous funds, allows me to earn a living wage for the fall/winter. Best of all, I still have time to finish my latest short, which I plan to wrap by early October.

I may not be an acclaimed indie animation filmmaker on the level of Bill Plympton, Pat Smith, Signe, PES, Debra Solomon, Michael Sporn, Andy London, Emily Hubley, or others, but my humble shorts (and the opportunities that they have helped grow) are one of the reasons I’ve been able to build a career in this industry, stay inspired, and remain employed through good times and bad. The same thing could be true for you. All one has to do is get over the idea that they don’t have enough time. Time is not something you find (like your keys), its something you make.