Monday, October 27, 2008

Canaries in the Coal Mine

In 2005 and 2006 my SVA career classes graduated with a large percentage of them finding employment. By 2007 the local industry was beginning an undeniable downturn. Less TV series were in production and, since TV series make up the bulk of our jobs, there was less work to spread around. In particular, students graduating in large numbers (the SVA graduating animation classes alone have numbered over 40 students per year since 2000) depend on TV series jobs more than other more-seasoned animation artists, which have a broader range of opportunities to call upon. TV series require a large workforce with a great deal of assistant work tailor made to newcomers.

I’m amazed at the power the Disney films of the 1990s have held on the current generation of wanna-be animation artists. The success and influence of The Little Mermaid to Tarzan is what has packed the SVA animation department since 2000. I’ll never forget the rows and rows of long faces staring back at me when I taught my first SVA career class held after the announcement that Disney was shutting down their traditional animation department. What I read as merely another headline in Variety, the class took as a deathblow.

Beginning in 2007, there has been a large rise in unpaid “internships” going to students post-graduation. For me, SVA’s graduating class has provided a yearly glimpse into the relative health of the local animation industry. Many of the last two graduating classes have struggled to land even a first break in animation. Some have asked me for help and advice. In each case, it is advice I had dispensed over and over again during my 15-week course. The only problem is, the students weren’t ready to hear it then. I’m not sure they are ready to hear it now.

In each case I ask them to describe their job hunt. The answer is always the same:
"I search on line and apply to ads on craigslist."

That would be fine if it represented 10% of their job hunt, not the summation of it. Some students wait until they are done creating the perfect reel. Others simply let their “dream” fritter away and allow themselves to get swallowed by the easiness of their part time or full time jobs outside of animation. Breaking into animation and securing one’s place in the industry takes as much passion and effort as it might take to learn this artform's craft. One has to network and creatively develop themselves. It’s never enough to be “into cartoons.” This industry eats people alive who are merely “into cartoons." You have to have a hunger for animation. You have to know that you can’t imagine a life working in any other capacity.

Do students lacking imagination and drive in the job hunt make this “canaries in the coal mine” analogy useless? I don’t believe so, because during busier periods in animation, even those who are only “into cartoons” are often swept into jobs (perhaps after being recommended by their more ambitious friends). The fact that this hasn’t happened in the last two years is an indication of a continuing slump.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Not So Merrie About the Merrie Melodies

The sixth Loony Tunes 4-DVD set just dropped into stores, and according to a post by Jerry Beck on from a way’s back, it might just be the last. This is as good a time as any to discuss the series’ strengths and weaknesses.

Commentary Tracks:
A handful of commentary tracks on each disc (ranging from the very informative Greg Ford and Mark Kausler to genially enthusiastic Jerry Beck and Eric Goldberg to historical musings of Michael Barrier and Daniel Goldmark). For the most part, any commentary is a welcome addition to these sets.

-Disappointing commentary tracks from voice artists such as June Foray and Stan Freberg due to their lack of fly-on-the-wall insight. After all, they were THERE.
-Hot and cold John K commentaries. He had virtually nothing to say on the brilliant Chuck Jones’ short Waikiki Rabbit, made all the more noticeable by Eddie Fitzgerald’s constant laughter.

Cartoon remastering and restoration:
Restored original titles, uncut cartoons, and remastered picture and sound bring these cartoons back to life after decades of mistreatment.

Cartoon selection and distribution:
-HUGE CON! Why weren’t these shorts presented in chronological order? I wouldn’t even care if they’d skipped Bosco, Foxy, and the other earliest shorts. They could have started with Porky Pig and moved on from there to the very end of Warner’s shorts. Then, there could have been archival releases of what came before. The recent official Fleischer Popeye DVD sets show how chronological collections make the most sense. This way the viewer gets to see the filmmakers and the cartoon stars evolve over time and change as products of their changing times. In the random way these cartoons are spread over these six sets, this is completely impossible to track.

Other special features:
Pro & Con:
-Any special features are automatically welcome, but, bonus cartoons (such as early black and white Harman and Ising era WB cartoons) just make me sad because it leads me to conclude that such cartoons will never be released in a chronological and archival DVD set of their own. Instead of bonus cartoons, these seem like cast offs.

Cover art:
Again, look to the Popeye collections to see how such covers can be rendered with respect and dignity. The cover art/art direction of these six sets is an absolute abomination to the point where they risk devaluing the shorts contained within.

The WW II theme of the sixth set:
We should be grateful that on such a general public release, they finally got around to including these important historical shorts.

The WW II theme (outside of one disc) is only window dressing. The rest of the set is filled with regular cartoons. A pity that they didn’t make this a release a fully WW II themed set. The 24 Private Snafu cartoons could have been spread over two discs. Instead, Snafu cartoons were spread around as bonus tracks on previous sets. A missed opportunity, indeed.

*** In summary, perhaps Popeye faired much better because its shorts had been out of the public eye for decades. Popeye was geared to the serious collector and it showed in the elegance of its cover art, menu pages, and bonus material. In contrast, the six WB cartoon sets were caught between trying to please the serious cartoon aficionado while also pleasing the general public that was seeking a video babysitter for their children. With such competing interests the films were made to be the losers. These shorts deserved better. But, worst of all? Ask me to find “What’s Opera Doc?” and I’d have no idea which of the six collections houses it. But, I suppose that doesn’t matter to the scores of parents looking for a video babysitter.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Gains and Losses

On a floor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts sits an Oxberry Camera. The camera is now out of use and serves as a marker of a change in the animation industry. A card explains the camera’s function to passers by, boasting that Mo Willems, Jennifer Oxley, and Michael Dougherty (among others) shot films on this Oxberry.

Back in the day, shooting animation was one of the most expensive parts of the traditional animation process. Artwork would have to be carefully organized and all timing and camera needs had to be clearly marked on exposure sheets for camera men who would toil away into the night. Most animation studios did not own their own Oxberry cameras. The machines were heavy, expensive, and required towering ceilings wherever they might be installed. Still, these devices were essential to the animation process for almost a century. Yet, at the end of their run, schools couldn’t give them away.

We all know that the computer age changed the systems by which traditional animation is produced. Now, making an animated film is cheaper and easier than ever before. Working on a Mac or a PC in Flash or After Effects, one animates and exposes and shoots animation all at the same time. The "camera" (in a virtual sense) is now a part of the animation process and is in the animator’s hands.

The questions are “What was gained?” and “What was lost?” The gain is that one person can create a full-service animation studio with a computer tucked in their living room. I just upgraded to the most powerful Mac pro tower and Wacom Cintiq with enough power and hard drive space to make an entire animated feature in HD. At the very least, it will allow me to fly through freelance work and my short personal films.

The loss has been the decline/shift in the old disciplines of animation craft. Animators used to have work in a more organized and careful manner, diligently prefiguring out camera moves and instructions on exposure sheets. A single mistake could blow a whole shoot, resulting in major losses in time and money. Now, animators work in more freewheelin’ manner, perhaps with nothing more than a rough idea of how a scene may work before animating it and compositing it together in After Effects. Working in this manner, the animator can retime animation, camera moves, and etc in an infinite amount of ways––each just a mouse click and a ram preview away.

At best, this loss is also a gain. My new personal film seeks to make this working method into strength. By using such a freewheelin’ approach to production, I’m hoping this spontaneity will help give my animation added life and interest. By drawing directly onto my Wacom, the roughnesses of my drawings are preserved as they are. I don’t time out the animation in advance. I only draw the drawings I think I’ll need and then allow new accidents and discoveries to happen when timing them out in After Effects. I seldom need to go back to Photoshop to add new drawings. Once I’m happy with the scene’s timing, I return to Photoshop to color the drawings in an imitation crayon style. Again, the looseness and human touch comes into play in the production process.

For me, this age of animation production means neither gains nor loss––it means so much more than that. It means freedom.

Monday, October 6, 2008

80% of Success

If we are to believe Woody Allen’s quote, “80% of success is just showing up…” then in the world of pitching projects, we can assume that developing and pitching projects frequently must be fundamental to success in that arena. Until this post, I never compiled an exact count of all the pitches I juggle year-to-year (see image above showing a blitz of pitch meetings a couple of years back). For fun, I’ve labeled each pitch that went nowhere with a “DUD!” and each pitch that led to a deal of some sort with a “SCORE!”

one animated preschool idea ended in a year-long option/development deal at Playhouse Disney in 2007.

one animated older kids (age 6 to 11) concept has failed to find a home even after three years of redevelopment and repitching.

My idea for a stars-of-animation live action TV interviews show fails after 3 pitch meetings with various networks.

pitched an animation pitching and development book, which ended in a deal to write my second book for Allworth Press. The manuscript was finished and delivered in early August 2008 and the book’s publication date is September 2009.

my deal with Playhouse Disney stalls after we complete scripts––before we get a chance to go to pilot. Still, it was a great experience to have a project optioned at a major network.

two animated pitches for adult animated series. One has more legs than another, but is still on the back burner until I can put some energy and resources together to make a 2-minute test film to help sell the show. A 2-minute test film seems especially necessary with adult projects.

I pitch a children’s book agent five children’s book ideas. All are rejected.

two weeks after the Disney deal goes south, my network contact recommends me to be the creator/writer/developer of a new project for an independent production, giving me my second paid experience as a TV writer. This project remains active and is likely a pilot (if not a full blown series) will be ordered soon.

I pitched a third concept for an adult animated series, which goes nowhere.

pitched a third “animation” book for Allworth Press, which ended in a deal to write the book. The contract was signed last week. Writing begins January 1, 2009.

after seeing my short “Good Morning,” National Geographic Kids development hires me to direct an internal pilot, allowing me to contribute on the ground floor of a new project.

pitched two old concepts to a new shorts program at Cartoon Network.

after showing clips of my work-in-progress, an independent producer hires me to animate/direct/develop her self-funded pilot, which I start in mid-October.

***Note that the only consistent successes on my pitch roster have been my book proposals to Allworth Press, where I am (miraculously) 3 for 3. Not every pitch on this list has become a major creative priority in my creative life. There’s NO WAY that I would ever devote to pitching and development full time. This is a speculative business with no guarantee that any project will take off. Instead, pitching and development has been a side-bar to my career, offering a chance to reach for the moon (sorry for the cliché), while I happily toil away in the animation industry.

As we move into 2009, my pitch sites are set on another personal film, a new children’s book pitch, and three proposals for an animated feature film. Hey––you never know, right?