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.