Monday, March 30, 2009

The Book Gets a Cover

I supposed I'd be a terrible self-promoter (Tom Warburton and Cartoonbrew have already be me to the punch) if I didn't mention that my upcoming book, Animation Development: From Pitch to Production was available for pre-sale on amazon.

Writing a book such as this is such a long-term project. A year-and-a-half to write, and then months of waiting until Allworth Press's edited manuscript dropped back into my hands. The task now at hand is for me to reread the entire book and answer the highlighted questions the editor marked here and there. The good news is that my publisher, editor, and their sales agents are already very happy with the book.

In a couple of weeks, I'll return the final manuscript. The next step will be for me to approve the galleys, which is the first stage in which I get to hold a print-out in my hands and see pictures and text woven together for the first time. The last stage happens on September 8th, when the book finally hits shelves. Whew!

I still remember the feeling I got when I opened the box containing copies of my first book. There's something about a book that is different from a film, (besides the obvious differences, of course). A animated film is like magic; an illusion. Richard O' Connor recently remarked (in a comment on this blog) that animation is essentially a process. He's correct. Animation is series of frame-by-frame images that only come together the moment we flip drawings, ram preview, render, press the dvd play button, or tweak the knob of a projector. That's when this process comes to life, albeit it only for the length of the animation. It doesn't really exist outside of that moment of play.

Even when you hold the dvd in your hands, its not really the same as holding a book: leafing through its pages, smelling the ink, and (over time) making your own signs of wear and use visible to its spine. A book comes alive in the reader's hands. I'm very grateful to have had this experience, and I'm tickled that I'll soon have it again.

There's something different about this book from the last. The first book served as a sort of walking tour through a potential career in animation. A career in animation could not have been a broader subject. There was so much to cover, and over the years I'm finding more and more to include if and when we are fortunate enough to print an updated edition. By its very nature, the first book had to assume that a good portion of its readers might be beginners or students.

This time out, I have a book that has the benefit of a more concise subject. And while the book will certainly appeal to beginners and students, there's an even greater likelihood that Animation Development: From Pitch to Production could appeal to established animation artists, writers, directors, filmmakers, voice artists, producers, development executives... in short--anyone that dares to be closer involved towards the creation or production of an animated series.

A while back I took some slams on the "exposure sheet" blog after touting of the value of relationships to any career in animation. I'm still scratching my head about that one. My current freelance job, as the supervising animator of a prime time network pilot, sprang directly out of a relationship I fostered with its creator after we met six years ago while serving on a film festival jury. In a few weeks I start a new freelance gig that sprouted out of a relationship I have with the producer (in fact, I helped recommend her for that job by arranging an introduction to the network's senior director of programming).

Fostering and nurturing relationships not only leads to employment can also help you get well known characters on your book cover. It took three or four months of e-mails and legal back-and-fourths, but relationships I had with friends Tom Warburton, Brown Johnson, Linda Simensky, Angela Santomero, and Traci Paige Johnson... allowed my new book to be adorned with some very recognizable characters, and for that I will always be grateful.

Unlike my explanation about the different natures of books and films, relationships have no trouble bridging that great divide.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Collected Wisdom

What's the secret to a thriving career as an independent animation filmmaker?

You may have already heard Bill Plympton's three rules for being a successful indie animator. He advises others that wish to follow in his wake (earning a living through his indie films) to make animated films that are: short, cheap, and funny. Of course, there's more to it then that... so, towards the end of fostering an even smarter and savvier NY indie animation scene, I thought I'd round up a list of tips pulled from the masters of the game.

1-Make good films (or at least confident films).
There's no way to get everyone to agree on what is "good" by any standard of judgement... so maybe its more important to produce films with confidence. Confidence is undeniable. Bill Plympton has made so many films by this point that not all of them can be masterpieces, but they ARE all confident works. They all demonstrate his solid chops in creativity, humor, and draftsmanship.

2-Make a lot of films.
Don't stop at one. To continue with the example of Bill Plympton, his dedication to making at least one short a year has helped define him beyond the quality of any one of his films. Most importantly, he is a brand. He is building up a body of work that is stronger than the strengths of even his single strongest film. One indie film does not an indie make. More examples include PES, Signe Baumane, Pat Smith, Andy and Caroline London.

3-Become known for a style.
Is there anyone who could watch a new film by PES, Signe Baumane, Bill Plympton, PES, Pat Smith, Paul Fierlinger, Emily Hubley, or Don Hertzfeldt and not recognize its author? All of these filmmakers have honed an idiosyncratic style that, along with the quantity and quality of their films, helps define their brand. Pat Smith took this one step further with another identity as a fine artist exhibiting and selling in galleries. Note, Pat has a gallery opening this very week:

I do think its possible to throw out this rule and aim for a wider diversity in personal style and still be a success, but, more often than not, an identifiable brand identity wins the day.

4-Enter a ton of festivals and program your own events as well.
All of the above filmmakers do this and are not shy about getting their work screened. One veteran NY animator recently complained to me about being shut out of the ASIFA-East festival for several years. When I asked him what other festivals he entered, the answer was, "none." Success at the ASIFA-East festival does not an indie career make (I realize I sound like Yoda). If you're not promoting your film, don't complain when others are promoting there's.

All of the above filmmakers are also active in programming some film festivals and hosting some of their own screenings and events. For example, Signe Baumane regularly programs one-shot events wrapped around holidays such as Valentine's Day or around themes such as sex. Why not do the same thing yourself? You can choose Thanksgiving and abstinence as your themes. Set up a screening. Get a venue. Promote it. There's nobody stopping you. All it takes is a little effort on your part to get it off the ground... and then, organizations like ASIFA-East will help you promote it for free...not bad, eh?

5-Make your own DVD compilation.
Again, taking a page from the book of the filmmaker's above (with their Avoid Eye Contact vol.I and II; pictured above), get a collective of like-minded filmmakers together and produce and sell your own compilation DVD. ASIFA chapters around the world will help you spread the word. You can try to interest animation festivals such as Annecy to screen your compilation as they did with Avoid Eye Contact. Again, there's no monopoly on ideas. What worked for others can work for you. I am proud owner of compilations collecting the works of Michael Sporn, John Canemaker, John Schnall, Emily Hubley, George Griffin, The Krause Brothers, Pat Smith, and Signe Baumane.

6-Share your films on-line for free:
PES could be our greatest inspiration in this area. His philosophy has always been to get his work seen by as many people as possible, and the on-line viral success ( of his films from "Roof Sex" to "Game Over" has helped PES grow a worldwide reputation for snappy little films of the highest quality. The visibility has allowed PES to score funding for further indie projects and was instrumental in launching his successful career as a commercial director.

7-Get qualified for the Oscar.
While some of the filmmakers listed here have not yet scored an Oscar nomination, most of them have qualified for an Oscar nomination with every film. Oscar eligibility requires savvy on the filmmaker's part. A top prize at certain festivals will automatically qualify a film, but that is but one way to get on the list. Some indies have been shrewd enough to organize their own Oscar qualifying screenings at specific L.A. theatres, ensuring that their films will be eligible for animation's top prize. There's nothing stopping others from doing the same, on an individual or group basis.

In conclusion:
I have spent the above list focusing on the most active indies working today, but these are by no-means the only indies worth noting. The filmmakers profiled above were not necessarily selected for their artistic contributions to indie animated films (although they have contributed much). I chose them for their almost in-human dedication to making an animated short just about every year, and (most importantly) then promoting the hell of them. The inspiring part for me is how applicable so many of these ideas are to upcoming indie animators as well as to established indies wishing to learn a few new tricks.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Embrace the Differences

I'm currently writing a third book on animation––and its got my wheels spinning about what distinguishes animation from live action. This seems a little counter intuitive because many of us spend a lot of time and energy explaining that animation is not a separate genre of film. For instance, some wish that the animated feature Oscar would be abolished, allowing animated features such as Wall-E to compete head-to-head with the likes of Slumdog Millionaire for a best picture nomination. In fact, I am planted firmly in that camp. But, despite my belief that animation is not a genre limited to one type of film, I don't think animation can or should go every place live action goes.

Case in point: I recently saw Dillinger is Dead (pictured above right), a 1969 Italian art house film directed by Marco Ferreri in a revival screening at BAM. To quote from Wikipedia, "...The story is a darkly satiric blend of fantasy and reality. It follows a bored, alienated man over the course of one night in his home." For most of this film, we are watching the leading man cook dinner, eat dinner, tidy his house, find a gun, take apart the gun, clean the gun, reassemble the gun, watch TV, and watch his own home movies projected on the living room wall. Sound like fun? It was actually fascinating at every frame. So much of the film's power is what a living actor can bring to a role. Why else would it be interesting to spend all this time with a bored middle aged man going through his nightly routine?

I can't imagine a clearer example than Dillinger is Dead for what animation can't do well. The lead actor in Dillinger is Dead, Michel Piccoli, brings pathos with his posture, brow sweat, skin moles, thinning hair line, and with every nuance in his subtle performance. Now-a-days, some 3D animation attempts to replicate such ordinary details that make up a living individual, but 3D has yet to recreate the human spirit that goes along with them. That's what is so tragic about 3D animation. In its goal for total realism it moves further away from what animation does best, which is simplification of detail and caricature of action. An animated character going through the mundane tasks shown in Dillinger is Dead would be a dreadful bore of a feature film.

When it comes to animation, less equals more. Incidentally, 3D animation is not the first form of animation to walk away from what animation does best. When Disney finally returned to feature animation following WW II, the move was towards more realism of movement and design. In Cinderella (1950), Ward Kimball's cartoony cat stands as a remnant for what was lost–– a holdover from a time where an entire feature might be done with a lighter touch, as last seen in 1941's Dumbo (pictured above left). But, even when 2D features took the realistic path, at least there was still simplification and abstraction that comes with making a drawing. 3D could travel down a far more interesting path if only it would get over the fact that it can recreate a realistic looking world.

There's another aspect to why a film like Dillinger is Dead works in live action. The live action medium provides an instant reality. It's real life. We automatically relate to people, things, and places seen in a film. Its as if we are looking in the mirror. Because live action is based in reality, creative filmmakers have been able to play with separate realities within the reality of film. And, this has been one of the reasons that live action film has taken so many directions over the years. French new wave director Jean-Luc Godard provides a good example. Check out any of his 1960s films and you'll see the director playing with the nature of sound, continuity, etc. Even his actors step in out of character and in and out from the confines of the story. Goddard's efforts are bolstered by the built-in reality of film. And, it didn't hurt matters any that he cast sexy leading actors like Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo to keep us watching.

Animation succeeds best when it builds and supports its own reality, one that is separate from live action. We know mice don't talk. We know elephants don't fly. But, when we watch Dumbo we are charmed by its many appealing elements such as simplicity of design, clarity of story, and the very emotional character arc of the titular character. Each frame in Dumbo is purposeful and moves the film ever closer to its conclusion. Unlike Dillinger is Dead, Dumbo is not interesting because of the time we spend with him during an ordinary eventless evening. Dumbo utilizes the power of simplicity and caricature of animation to make us watch, care, and cry.

Animation and live action are in parts similar and different, but I would suggest that we best unlock the power of animation when we embrace the differences.

Monday, March 9, 2009

On Buddy and Bakshi

What kind of career would you have if you only had 2 & 1/2 years to make your mark? That's exactly how much time Buddy Holly had from the moment his single "That'll Be The Day" rocketed to number one on the charts. While at SVA, I had the opportunity to take a contemporary music class taught by the Rolling Stone music critic Billy Altman. It helped me meet one of the elective requirements for my Bachelor's degree. One day Altman played us music from a double disc set that turned out to be the Buddy Holly Collection. The next class I came up to him and said, "Your last class cost me 30 bucks." He shot me a puzzled look before I explained that I had no choice but to buy the Buddy Holly Collection on the way home.

As far as I see it, there are two tragedies to the Buddy Holly story: his sudden death and the fact that it has come to define him. Another way to look at his legacy is to examine what he accomplished in so short a time. Nobody has a crystal ball to reveal their fate but, Holly certainly didn't waste the time he was given on this Earth. The body of work he left behind is astonishing in its quality, originality, and durability. How often can we say the same about singer/songwriters that have the gift of decades of time in which to develop their talents? Holly is one of my creative heros as well as a reminder to make every day count, both in life, and in career.

On that note, I seque to a great anecdote told by Ralph Bakshi, as interviewed by Don Duga at SVA in 1998. To a standing room only audience of students and industry professionals, Bakshi shared a story I will never forget. He had recently visited an old High School friend who had long given up on a career in the arts. Bakshi complimented a wonderful painting hanging on his friend's wall, a painting that his friend had created decades ago.

Bakshi said to his friend, "That's a great painting. Did you ever think about making another one?" After this, Bakshi explained to us that its a LONG life and that we should make each day and each year count. Unlike the case of his friend's painting, if we are serious about our art, we should never be finished. Our dreams need not remain hung on the wall and under glass.

Its now ten years later and Bakshi is still not done creating. He paints on a regular basis and rumor has it that he still has animated projects in the works. His long-life legacy was recently celebrated in a terrific coffee-table style book, Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Baskhi by Jon M. Gibson and Chris McDonnell.

My teacher, Billy Altman, finished off his lesson on Buddy Holly by playing a song called "Learning the Game" from Holly's "apartment tapes." For those not in the know, these were the home recordings found in the singer's Greenwich Village apartment after his untimely death. A short while later, I was able to track down my own bootleg of these recordings, but it was not until a month or so ago that they were officially released as part of two new retrospective sets: Buddy Holly Memorial Collection and Buddy Holly: Down The Line- Rarities.

Its nice to see two of my creative heros recognized with these special career-spanning tributes! I can't think of a better way to re-examine these unique talents. Now, if only someone will erect a statue of John Ritter next to the Lincoln Memorial... I'd be all set.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Thesis Films, Advisors, and Students...Oh My!

(Note: Image above from Chris Conforti's award-winning SVA thesis film, "Frog.")

The thesis film is an important thing. It is supposed to be the summation of a student's total animation education. Ideally, it also aides the student in discovering what it is they may wish to do in this industry. Its hard for anyone, student or pro, to make a really good animated film, so a student film's first objective should be to show effort. A lazy or sloppy student film suggests that the student might make a lazy or sloppy employee.

The big fear of this year's SVA thesis students seems to be on the content/subject of their films. Some of them are worried that their films may not be effective commercial samples after graduation. In truth, no one film can be all things to all people. An edgy and violent film won't assist you in landing a job on a preschool series, but, it might be just the thing you need to work on an Adult Swim series. Students have to simply make the films they choose to make. Super Jail co-creator Christy Karacas advises that students make films that reflect what they might want to be paid to work on. Playing to your interests seems like good advice to me and that might ensure that you make a film that is personal to you.

As a teacher at SVA since 2003, I've served as a thesis advisor four times. I am a very strict advisor. I only take one student a year, if any, and I try to only select students who's films match my own areas of interest and expertise. Two of my four students were fantastic. They were ready and excited to work hard. I helped them manage their deadlines and guided them through the creative process, and hopefully didn't get in the way of the films they sought to make.

After speaking to other thesis advisors, I can say that our bad experiences have a lot in common. All included students that did not, could not, or would not put in the time needed to make a thesis film. It is quite baffling, and no amount of patience, encouragement, inspiration, time, and advice from their advisors could change this. For an advisor, this can be very, very frustrating. One student actually broke contact with their advisor after the advisor confronted them with the reality of the situation. There was only six weeks left till deadline and the student was months behind schedule. After the meeting, weeks went by and the student would not answer the advisor's calls or e-mails. Finally, a meeting was set up with the SVA thesis department, and that seemed to do the trick. The student finally spoke to their advisor on the phone. "You didn't believe in me," was his explanation for the radio silence. Months after he graduated, the student visited their former advisor and apologized, adding, "You were right, and I was wrong."

"The advisor replied, "I didn't want to be right. I just wanted you to listen, understand, and have a shot at finishing your film."

Not surprisingly, the film was never finished and the student, who happened to be a nice and talented fellow, didn't work in the industry after graduation.

I think many animation students are shocked by how much work it takes to make a film. Once they are confronted with that reality, they have the choice of putting in the work or not. No advisor or best thesis program in the world can turn around a student that has decided not to put in the work.

Some students have a creative way of letting themselves off the hook.

Someone else's thesis student once remarked to me, "My advisor gave me a lot of notes, which I followed, but now I am not as into making the film as I was originally."

I asked, "So, what does this mean?"

The student replied, "I'm not working on it that much."

I explained to the student: "What do you want people to think when they see your film at the student screening at the end of the year? Are they to assume, 'Oh, I guess he wasn't into making that film because of changes that his advisor suggested.' Or, will they just see another student film where the student didn't put in the time required to make a good film. And, what will potential employers think after that? Who loses when a student doesn't do the work they ought to?

**on a side note: wanna check out a whole evening of animated student films? Join us for the ASIFA-East jury screening on March 10. For details visit