Monday, November 24, 2008

The Outsiders

There's a common misconception that the "industry" does something to the animation artist. The idea is that it makes us conform our styles and our independent spirits so that we might hope to be cogs in the wheel at a major animation studio. In reality the industry doesn't do that, animation artists make that choice themselves. Everyone is so busy trying to figure out how Tex Avery timed a gag, Jim Tyer drew, or Mary Blair designed. Sure, we'd have to lack a normal artistic curiosity not to want to figure that out, but to what ends are we prepared to apply that information? What's the end game?

Oddly enough, outsiders to our industry have led the way in making some of the most groundbreaking animation of our era. For the purpose of this discussion, I'm only going to reference TV animation because the incredibly low standards and conformity in that arena. On Nov 19, Don Hertzfeldt came to town for a special set of screenings at the IFC center and the packed houses were treated to a set of unique films by this modern young master of indie animation. During the Q and A, Hertzfeldt revealed he has a TV deal, and one can only assume its for his own pilot or series. The filmmaker now joins a long line of outsiders who have stepped in to create the most original animation on the tube. The list includes Mike Judge (a self taught animator who learned to animate by making the first Beavis and Butthead film in his garage), Matt Stone and Trey Parker (live action film students who dabbled in cut out animation that most animators would scoff at), Matt Groening (the indie cartoonist who's first foray into animation was when he was drafted to dash off short animations for The Tracy Ullman Show), and Tom Snyder (the educational software company owner who devised a show with comedian Jonathan Katz that employed illustrators-not animators to create the series, Dr. Katz).

These outsiders never spent two seconds trying to imitate how Chuck Jones subtly raised an eyebrow, or to discover how Art Babbit broke the joints, or figure what sets apart each of the nine old men. And, they certainly wouldn't care to get into a debate as to the differences between each Pixar release or on how well Lasseter is doing as head of Disney. In contrast, we animation artists define ourselves by those very interests. It's what makes us "animation people." And, it's also what makes us take second place to the trailblazers listed above. They pull their influences out of life experiences as well as from inspirations coming from other mediums such as painting, sculpture, live-action cinema, theatre, etc. Is it any wonder that their creations take OUR medium to places we would dare not dream?

I know there's a degree of over-simplification in this argument. Some industry animation artists also have diverse interests, but I would wager that they tend to keep them out of their animation. This is because we are so busy scrambling to make a living that we give all our effort to our commercial work and leave none of that time or energy to ourselves. With such an equation, how could we be the groundbreakers in our own industry? The outsiders have a further advantage called "ignorance." Since they don't know the "so-called" limitations of our industry, they don't let anything block their creativity. To compete, we in the industry must learn to forget trends, fads, and commercial considerations that hold us back. Its as if we have automatic sensors telling us, "this will never sell," or "this project is too risky to be successful."

The last thirty years has seen the birth and boom of an interest in animation history and its checkered films and filmmakers, rescuing many from obscurity. Some, such as Chuck Jones, were even fortunate enough to live to see it happen and take a well deserved victory lap. I don't suggest we stop searching out our past, nor do I suggest turning a blind eye to where the industry is at today. Instead, I suggest we examine why it is that some of our best contemporary work has come from those who are not saddled by the negative baggage that comes along with being "animation people."

Incidentally, Herzfeldt's latest short, "I Am So Proud of You," (pictured above) is a masterpiece and its mature subject matter and sophisticated construction does animation proud, even though.... at the Q and A with moderator Amid Amidi concluding the screening, Hertzfeldt admitted, "I'm not an animator. I use animation to make films."

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Two Topics

Today, I'm presenting two unrelated topics...


Forgive me a partial post on my cartoon pitches to the New Yorker. Of course, these are not pitches in the sense that one might pitch an animated series. At the New Yorker, its possible to present a new set of cartoons once a week. One could never do that for an animated pitch, where even a rough proposal will likely represent weeks or months of development. For the last four weeks, I've set aside at least one day a week to draw up a new batch of cartoons. I'm happy to report that some of them have made the weekly short list of cartoons that the magazine holds on to for further consideration. I still have yet to sell them a gag, but, I'm getting a lot out of the experience.

For one, working on cartoon gags every week exercises the hand and the mind. Over time, one has a chance to really develop a style and a point of view. Secondly, a weekly pitch puts one in the hot seat on a regular basis, where rejection becomes something you can schedule on the calendar.

An interesting thing has happened. With only four weeks into my adventure, I can report that each encounter is not defined by rejection. What could seem hopeless or disappointing, actually feels exciting and rewarding. This is because each week represents both a renewed commitment to myself as well as further proof of my sincerity to the New Yorker.

What the hell does this mean to anyone reading this blog? Well, I believe that its important to spend at least one day a week in a risky scenario where you push your talents, film, projects, or whatever. Up until now, I've pitched animated projects maybe on the rate of once every two months. Now, I feel the rush of excitement every Tuesday when I hand over a small stack of cartoons, one of which might just wriggle its way into the magazine.

(below: 2 gags from week 2 of my New Yorker submissions)


I find this topic endlessly fascinating. Most of the time, animators that are the "real deal" are interested in animating. Their concerns are draftsmanship, staging, timing, acting, characterization, and countless nuances and possibilities available in the mechanics of creating any animated moment. What they are often not interested in is in making films. Or, as in the case of Richard Williams, when they cross into making animated films, they might bring an unbalanced view of animation's role in an animated film. Character animation is but one element in an animated film. A film requires its makers to weave together all aspects of visual and audio storytelling that make up any motion picture. A filmmaker making animated films will allow different elements of a film to dominate the experience at any given time, and all for the service of moving the story forward. The animation-minded individual is more likely to make animation the central point of any given moment. At best, they might devise a story or subject that justifies such a choice.

Don't get me wrong, one is not necessarily either a filmmaker or an animator. One can be a little of both in different degrees.

Ralph Bakshi seems an easy poster child for the filmmaker approach. He bent the elements of film to suit his own vision. He mashed animation and live action together for graphic excitement, to convey emotional mood, and also to ensure that his films came in on budget. Richard Williams acts as a good example of the animator that might obsess over the mechanics of animation to such a degree that it consumes all else. Both men have accomplished great things in their careers and rose to the top of the industry despite (and because of) their respective views of filmmaking and animation.

I suspect all of us over and under compensate to our strengths and weaknesses as we create not only films but, also our careers.

(thanks to Elliot Cowan for the idea for this blog entry!)

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Arrested Development

We are fortunate enough to have oodles of golden age animation collections available on DVD. More seem to be coming out all the time. In the last two years alone we have seen collections of shorts by Lantz, Warners, Disney, MGM, Famous, and (finally!) Fleischer. These collections house some of the greatest character animation ever achieved in the continuing history of this industry. Today, many of us lament that the standards of animation have fallen. While there are more animation artists working today than ever before, there remains the notion that draftsmanship standards have fallen. Taken with (creatively crippling) faster and cheaper production methods utilized since the TV animation era began, its obvious to conclude that the golden days were, well, simply golden.

While its easy to conclude this, its not the entire story. As I've collected and enjoyed box set after box set of these precious nuggets of animation's past, I've noticed something else–something beyond the "look, they used to animate on ones," and, "boy, could they draw!" Over time, I began to realize, that while these shorts set a technical standard of achievement unequaled since, they may have been equally responsible for our medium's arrested development. Creatively, there's only so far one could go with animation subjects starring dancing toys, cats chasing mice, rabbits outsmarting hunters, and woodpeckers pecking wood.

Much has been written blaming the "kid vid" status of animation on how animation was presented on television. In short, it was programmed at hours when kids would be watching, before school and after school. The brief period where animation first appeared in prime time (Flintstones, Jetsons, Bullwinkle), was just that. Brief. But, was TV (exclusively) to blame for US animation forever existing as primarily a children's media? I don't think so. Theatrical cartoons, such as the ones collected in these special DVD sets mentioned above, played their part as well. Sure, these shorts played to general audiences, but they were almost exclusively comedies, most of which skewed their appeal to the youngest seat fillers in a theatre. In the public's mind, animation equaled kid-safe comedy. Don't get me wrong, working within animation's narrow comedic box, directors, animators, and artists of all kinds did wonderous things. They built the foundation for this art and this industry. And, they made brilliantly entertaining shorts which, (as far as craft goes) are unsurpassed. One could argue, the success of these shorts (along with the Disney Features) built an industry and fitted it with a creative straightjacket at the same time.

All one has to do is think of the diversity of live action film from the golden age of animation to further understand how long animation has been restricted to the children's arena. In the 1930s and 40s live action film developed into many artistic directions including musicals, westerns, comedy, romance, dramas, period pieces, bible and adventure epics, gangster pics, science fiction, horror, thrillers, mysteries, etc. Yes, all of these directions were (in turn) reflected in animation, but only as comedy geared to general audiences, again skewing mostly to children. This was not the case in live action where films like The Lady Eve, Casablanca, and Spellbound (and hundreds of other classics of the day) were made for adults. Its now more than 70 years later and animation still has a long way to go before it is embraced by general audiences as a medium that can tell ANY story, and (more importantly) in untold creative ways that live action cannot.

Thank goodness UPA arrived on the scene just in time to dare to take animation into unexpected directions. Within less than two decades, UPA's influence would be passed on to the independent animators who would channel their own personal vision into films that could be anything and that could be made for anyone. Perhaps one day, the independent animation era (which began in the 1960s) will be as appreciated and celebrated as a box set of films where cats chase mice. One can only hope.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

New Yorker State of Mind

For more than fifteen years I've created and drawn hundreds of one panel gag cartoons, usually revolving around gold fish and their environs. Eight of these gags eventually found a home published in magazines and newspapers across the country. From time to time I would send off a batch of these cartoons to the prestigious New Yorker magazine, but to no avail. This week, through the generosity of a friend, I had the opportunity to present some new non-fish gags to the New Yorker's famed cartoon editor Bob Mankoff. It was quite an experience!

Once I decided to create some new general themed cartoon gags for the New Yorker I had only four or so days in pocket so I had to work fast. A morning trip to the gym proved a handy catalyst to creativity and I found myself with four or five gags to sketch when I got home. I decided to draw the gags directly into photoshop via my wacom tablet. I like the loose feel this imposes on me. My cartoonist friend told me that one needs to present a minimum of seven gags at a shot if they hope to be taken seriously. With such a short window of time available I decided to keep my gag number to seven exactly.

Cartoonists have one hour a week to present gags in person to Bob Mankoff. Visiting the floor where the New Yorker is made was prize enough for me. On my arrival, Mankoff's assistant let me onto the floor and I confessed that it was my first time presenting cartoons. He welcomed me and told me all I had to do was to figure out where the back of the line was. Boy, was he right. There was a sprawl of cartoonists hovering around Mankoff's office. Some had already showed gags. Others were waiting. Complicating matters further was a nearby waiting room that might contain other cartoonists-in-waiting. After ten minutes, it became clear that the last person ahead of me had showed and then it was my turn.

Mankoff welcomed me into his office and asked me about my background. After some small talk he motioned for my small stack of gags. Thumbing through them, he quickly gave me the good advice of avoiding topical political references which might already be dated by the magazine's publication. At least two of my seven gags violated that rule. Moving through the rest of my work, he seemed to initially put two gags on the side for possible consideration. Then he advised me to try a more sophisticated drawing style for my next round of submissions. Getting to the end of my stack, he told me that he had decided not to hold on to any of my gags on the first visit. He asked, "How many more ideas do you have?" I replied that I could do a stack such as this everyday. Best of all, he told me, "You have the mind for this. Come back and show me more."

With that last exchange, I was thoroughly encouraged. However, since nothing is ever a sure thing, I'm making a solemn vow to keep my expectations in check. I got a further does of reality joining the other cartoonists at a lunch that day at a near by restaurant. Among them was a very nice and talented cartoonist who has been submitting gags to the New Yorker for 8 years without making his first sale. Another cartoonist told me that they were submitting cartoons for a year and another had just wrapped up their first month of submissions. They each remained hopeful and inspired to keep trying, although they admitted that they seldom came in on a weekly basis. Everyone acknowledged that paying work and other life commitments make coming in weekly a near-impossible scenario. I doubt I could sustain a weekly submission very long, although I plan to push myself to the (reasonable) limits.

This weekend I took a crack at some new gags based on Bob Mankoff's feedback. I can already see the improvement. Any such creative endeavor returns to us regardless wether or not we make a sale. I'm enjoying taking on this pipe dream because it allows me to better develop as a writer and a cartoonist. And, since animation artists working in the New York area have always relied upon a diverse set of skills and outlets to earn a living, why not add "New Yorker" cartoonist to that list. A fella can dream, can't he?

*Note: cartoon gags above ©2008 by David B. Levy from his first in-person submissions to the New Yorker magazine.