Sunday, December 21, 2008

Bust, Boom, Bust

When I began my schooling at SVA in 1991, our animation teachers warned us that there were very few jobs in animation. "You'll have to go to L.A. to find work," they told us again and again. In those days, animation was drawn on paper, finished on cels, and shot on film. A year before, my father arranged a meeting between myself and a jaded old animator who was going out of business. For ten minutes the man tried to convince me to go into another line of work. "Animation is dead," he reported, before he invited me to help myself to any artwork I found in the dumpster on the way out.

One man's ending is another man's beginning. The industry was (in fact) beginning to rebound. Beavis and Butthead and Doug arrived a year later, bringing TV series production back to New York City. On the heels of the recovery came the internet and a whole new means of animation distribution came about. Sure, people are still trying to figure out how to make direct money from internet animation, but the exposure this new platform has offered filmmakers has already paid off with commercial dividends.

Along with the rise of the internet came cheap and fast digital animation in Flash and After Effects. Scores of jobs were created in what became New York's first in-house large scale animation endevours since Richard William's Raggedy Ann and Andy (1977). Simaltaneously, New York re-asserted itself as the North America's undisputed indie animation capital with new filmmakers such as The Krause Brothers, Pat Smith, Debra Solomon, Andy and Caroline London, and Signe Baumane joining the ranks of our already world-wide festival award stalwarts (John Canemaker, Michael Sporn, Emily Hubley, Bill Plympton, John Schnall, George Griffin, Candy Kugel & Vincent Cafarelli, etc.).

The New York animation industry grew and grew between 1991 and 2000. Then, the dotcom bust occured. Then 9/11. In 2000, MTV canceled Celebrity Death Match in midframe with six shows left unfinished. In the same year, Disney did not renew its contract with Jumbo pictures. In 2001, MTV animation bit the dust and Nick Digital's only 2nd production to last more than one year (Little Bill) was not renewed. The bad news kept coming. In 2004, Blue's Clues officially ended, marking the end of continuous production at Nick digital. The following year, Funny Garbage laid off an entire staff when Disney pulled the plug on KatBot. A year later, upstart studio Animagic went belly up, leaving its 75 person crew working on Nate the Great, in the cold. Cartoon Pizza (the smaller studio which evolved out of Jumbo pictures) closed its doors after season one of Pinky Dinky Doo and opted to make season two in Canada. In the last four weeks, production has been halted at Word World and Animation Collective, and Nick Digital ceased existence as of Dec 18.

Interestingly enough, the build up that occurred between 1991 and 2000 took nearly as long to collapse. Hopefully, 2009 marks the end of this down cycle and the beginning of something new. Today we have several advantages to turn to that previous generations of struggling animators did not. For one, the idea of the internet as a viewing platform is no longer mere theory. Youtube has set the current viewing standard as short, funny, and irreverent...but, longer form series and movies are now being viewed through itunes and other online destinations. This translates into more animation needed to serve this new demand.

Most importantly, even as Manhattan rents have pushed out larger studios, the virtual studio is on the rise. I am now involved in my fifth at-home gig large enough to bring in additional crew besides myself. The new gig is a for a Fox pilot and the client is in California. The longest of these gigs, Assy McGee (for Clambake Animation), employed some of my remote crew up to seven months in a row. I think we can generate a lot of work in this city if we get creative about it. We have nothing to lose because its better than sitting around and waiting for studios to hire again.

The other new area to have opened up is the independent animated feature film. Yes, its still hard to get funding and distribution, but, why shouldn't it be hard? Animated features (outside of the Hollywood machine) have to prove that they can go places that the "animated feature family film ghetto" hasn't allowed them to travel. Films such as Persepolis, $9.99, Sita Sings the Blues, and Idiots and Angels have paved the way. To date, no indie animated feature has reached the success of, say, Blair Witch or Big Fat Greek Wedding, but I believe that the day is coming soon. I plan to be a part of it. I have an indie animated feature film project that I'm in the process of launching with my wife.

One thing is for certain: animation as a career plan is not a casual pursuit. You have to want it above all other ends to even stay in the game. Challenging times such as these only serve to underscore that point. Yet, these challenging times are also bursting with opportunity. Okay, we lost a handful of potential (or actual) employers, but it doesn't have to mean that our hopes and dreams should go down with them.


Doug said...

Hi David, I found your blog through cartoonbrew a week or so ago.. I've now read all your archives and I'm cursing the fact that this is only once a week! Interesting comments on the boom bust, I'm also of the opinion that for anyone willing to put the work in this could be a great opportunity for trying something new.

Emmett said...

"We have nothing to lose because its better than sitting around and waiting for studios to hire again."

Lovely music to my ears, Dave. There's absolutely no point in crying over the lack of employment. Rather, this should serve as a motivating factor for some of us. Its certainly helping to motivate me right now. I have jobs, but none of them pay. Meanwhile, this is as good a time as any to get some personal work going (though thats just as hard as finding work).

Elliot Cowan said...

Yes indeed.
I'd like to stress a point that you've probably made elsewhere on this blog.

Unlike other film makers, we do not need to rely on a single other person to get films made.
Even if you spend all day flipping burgers, or smoking bongs or whatever it is you're doing to fill in your day there's no excuse to be doing nothing.
Anyone with Flash or After Effects or whatever you're using can sit down, make 10 seconds worth of entertainment and stick it on Youtube for all the world to see.
Or stick it on a DVD and send it to a festival.
The majority of European festivals have no entry fee and will screen films on DVD.
It costs about 3 bucks to send a DVD screener, paperwork and support material to Europe - even cheaper stateside if you can find a no entry fee festival (and there are several).

If you make a 10 second film then you may be into the groove enough to make a 20 second film, then you might go crazy and make a minute!

During depressed times, if you sit down and make a minutes worth of animation (particularly if it's fun) it makes flippin' the burgers or the uninspiring freelance or whatever mundane studio job you have seem much less awful.

And you know what else? If you work hard to make a short film and work hard to send it out into the world then you can say with all honesty that you are a FILM MAKER!
And it'll actually mean something tangible and significant instead of saying you're a film maker because you did a year of animation and have a DVD of your student film

You could even go completely nuts and find a friend to have lunch with who you can show the progress of your film to.
That might inspire them to make a one minute film too because they have been involved in the production of another film.

Dave mentioned trying to meet your peers in his last post and that I cannot stress how important this is. Do not just meet your friends though - meet whoever you admire and like. Go out of your way to meet the people you are intimated by!
People seem incredibly welcoming in this city, and practically everyone is accessible somehow.

So, do everthing I say and soon, everyone is making films and sending them to festivals, so the fact that you're not working on an animated network series or living in LA or whatever the fuck you think will make you happy is really not so important anymore.

Here endeth the lesson.

roconnor said...

Were there really no large scale productions between Raggedy Anne and Bevis?

I know of several series and long format productions made here in that time.

That brings out an interesting point which you don't quite get to.

The work in the 80s mirrored the economy (and to that extent the culture) of the time -commercially driven work like The Berenstain Bears or Richard Scarry videos -just as the productions of the 90s mirrored the digital economy.

The lull in animation in the late 80s and early 90s is directly related to the "read my lips" recession, just as our current pinch is the antecedent of the false economy propagated by the same digital landscape that fuel productions.

David B. Levy said...

Hi Richard,

I know there were projects such as Ink Tank's Soldier's tale and stuff like that, but I don't think anything was there between Raggedy and Beavis that had a long production with over a hundred workers consistently employed. I could be wrong. Please correct me with examples if that's the case.

In fact, I should have mentioned the closing of Ink Tank as one of the low points of recent times. Was that in 2002?

And, of course, Sporn had consistent work making 1/2 hour films for HBO and Weston Woods during much of the 80s and 90s. But, again, I was referring to large operations that employ large amounts of people for consistent periods of time.

The tiny industry of the 80s can be seen in how few students graduated from animation programs in those years, and even that small amount had difficulty finding work in those days. Note that a talent such as Dilworth had to work in advertising upon leaving SVA in 1985 because animation was so anemic.

David B. Levy said...

Hi Doug,

Welcome to the blog! Wow, thanks for digging through the archives too... : D



David B. Levy said...


Even if its hard to get personal work going, there's still lots of ways to get started. You could animate to so found audio. Create an anijam with friends. Create new tests or samples for a reel... etc. Go for it!

David B. Levy said...


Well said.. although I don't agree that "everyone is making films.."
Although it certainly is open to "everyone."

More than once a producer looking for content has approached me and asked me to give him contacts of all my friends to hit them up for films. Its always a shock when I tell them, "Oh, most people don't make films. But, they might have a student film you could use."

Elliot Cowan said...


When I said that everyone would be making films, I meant under the hypothetical and unlikely circumstances of everyone following my self important advice...

Dagan Moriarty said...

Great stuff, Mr. Dave. :)

Really good discussion going on here...

I'd like to talk a little more about the 'Manhattan rent' issue.

I have worked for at least a few bosses during slim times that were searching for ways to cut back and save a little in order to weather the storm. And every one of these guys absolutely REFUSED to consider moving their studios to less expensive areas, such as the Bronx, Brooklyn or Queens.

They really acted as if "God forbid I should move to a cheaper area, and sacrifice my status as a Manhattan tenant!"

And the maddening part (for ALL of them) was that they didn't have that kind of fervor for turning out a quality product. They'd rather get the work done on the cheap and pour 3/4 of their money into rented space. And for what?! The quality of the work was the true sign of their "status", right?


Don't get me wrong, I love being in Manhattan and I've been truly blessed to be able to build a career here for the past 10 years.

I suppose the "Manhattan rent" issue just speaks to the utter lack of priorities for some studio owners, as far as I'm concerned. I've seen that kind of closed-minded behavior take out a few studios here in NYC, and I don't understand it.

I wish those particular guys had the same passion for producing great work, and for helping to keep NY Animation alive and thriving.

-thanks amigo!

stephen said...

i really hope people don't write off blue sky as a place to work just because of its recently Connecticuted location. The commute is feasible, I promise.

It's sort of like working in the bronx, only a little further.

David B. Levy said...


I haven't heard of anyone writing off Blue Sky because of being too far away. Most people I talk to would be thrilled to work there.
Glad you are having a good experience there.

Dagan Moriarty said...

Hafta' add one more point, pertaining to the "Manhattan rent" bit... ;)

On the other side, there are many studios that I have worked for that fit well in Manhattan, and I understand people's desire to run a business here... It's the greatest place in the world!

Not only did those companys have the budget to do business in the big city though, but it also made good business sense, especially for the commercial studios. Always good to be close to our Madison Avenue brethren. :)

It's still amazing to me that places like Philadelphia, Queens, Long Island and the Bronx have so little to offer in the way of animation studios. I really hope that more studios explore the option of opening shop outside of Manhattan, as I DO think that it's a great way to help keep the work here. (Both in New York AND in the states in general.)

BUT, let's keep PLENTY of studios in Manhattan, as well! ;)

btw, I'd still LOOOOOOVE to work up at Blue Sky one day... Their move to Connecticut doesn't scare me ONE bit!

David B. Levy said...

Howdy Dagan,

On your theme (Manhattan rents), I think thriving studios Dancing Diablo and Augenblick (both in Dumbo, Brooklyn) have broke the outside of Manhattan stigma. And, least we forget that J. J. Sedelmaier has had a successful studio in White Plains since the very early 90s. Long Island City's Hiccup looks to be a fine new studio in the making as well.

Mike Rauch said...

Refurbished Cintiqs at J&R in Lower Manhattan just $1499! Tim and I just got one, and we're hoping it will mean big things in terms of what we're able to do. Technology really does seem to be changing the landscape of animation today— especially in how and where things can be produced. I'm excited!

David B. Levy said...

Mike, you ain't kidding...

I'm animating this pilot completely without paper.. here's the scene I just finished moments ago. Click link to download below. How ironic. The computer saved 2D animation!
(link below expires in 2 days day)

Elliot Cowan said...

So Dave - what are you drawing in and what are you compositing in?

dms said...

I'm drawing in photoshop. I draw all the keys first, usually pretty close to final on the first try (since this is such a simple style)...

Once the inbetweens and overshoots and settles are drawn, I then number all the photoshop layers and then import the photoshop comp into After Effects.

Working this way, I'm not making an x-sheet as I draw. I just draw with confidence that I have the right drawings and then I play with it in After Effects. In a scene like this one, its usually close to correctly timed on the first try...

But, in a two character shot It might take a bit longer to get right in the timing.

David B. Levy said...

PS- the DS comment above is from me.. (Dave Levy), I was writing from my wife's computer... hee, hee...

Mike Rauch said...

Hey Dave, cool. I DO think that working with the Cintiq will affect the look and style of our work pretty directly (at least in the immediate future). But I don't think that's necessarily bad. Nice to see what you're working on. Can't wait to see our first footage with this new magic box.

Buzz Potamkin said...

David said: I don't think anything was there between Raggedy and Beavis that had a long production with over a hundred workers consistently employed. I could be wrong. Please correct me with examples if that's the case.

Perpetual Motion / Buzzco (the eponymous incarnation) - as many as 110 employees (and IA too) - 1979-83 - 7 fully-animated long-form TV specials, plus commercials, plus some other stuff.

David B. Levy said...

Hi Buzz,

Thanks for the info!


MC said...

This post was very informative, as I didn't even realize there was a pattern of boom and bust in the animation industry (though I was saddened when Disney cut production on many of their cartoon series geared for children but fun for adults as well a few years ago).