Monday, April 27, 2009

Cult of Personality

***Photo by Elliot Cowan. Left to right: me, Linda Beck, and Tim Rauch. Deeper in the background are Willy Hartland and Ray Kosarin. From drinks after the ASIFA event.

ASIFA-East's Linda Beck just put together a panel on the State of NY Animation, and you can read Katie Cropper's tidy summary of it at the ASIFA-East exposure sheet blog at The panel discussion was moderated by Linda Beck and featured Howard Beckerman, David Wachtenheim, Steve Connor, and myself.

Howard Beckerman was his usual charming self and to record all his wisdom here would be impossible. I will say that he was a calming voice of reason, giving us example after example of how this has all happened before. He also shared some of his strategies for surviving in this fickle industry, reminding that when one door closed another always opened. In other words, when theatrical cartoons dwindled TV commercials appeared to pick up the slack.

Steve Connor pragmatically suggested that everyone devote their efforts to making solid work on schedule and on budget and how that alone can help keep projects flowing in the Big Apple. He also suggested that even independent projects could be planned out with a better process that could be applied to making the same project with a larger crew should the project grow to a series.

David Wachtenheim (of Wachtenheim/Marianetti) eloquently spoke of shrinking budgets and less commercial work floating around these days. He worried about the perception of clients, that there's a kid in his living room somewhere that can do the work cheaper and at a "good enough" quality.

After the panel, fifty of us headed over to grab drinks at a nearby bar. While I was munching on a burger, Katie Cropper and I were discussing the evening. She told me that my message of "make things happen, make your own luck, and work on your own projects," suited my personality. "It's natural for you to do that," she said. And, this made me wonder just how much personality weighs in to a career. Although I would caution that what one does well often appears to others as if its effortless or simply natural.

No two of us are hard wired the same way. And, I think too many of us are at the mercy of our own harmful thinking. At the panel, I explained that I don't give much thought to what is going on in the economy and how it might effect NY animation. Instead, I am aware (as Howard Beckerman kept pointing out) that NY animation has always had its ups and downs. My focus is to only worry about what I can control. Therefore, I make films, I pitch shows and children's books. I look out for interesting work opportunities and am careful to nurture relationships that often lead to more work.

During the panel, I told the audience that I tried to follow a smart plan as an at-home freelancer. In my current pair of freelance gigs for Sesame Workshop, I am sure to check in with the client on a regular basis to give them updates on the status of the work. Recently, they had an internal meeting to change the creative direction on one of the jobs. The producer gave me the choice of coming in for the meeting or just getting an update afterwards. For me, there was no choice. Of course I wanted to be at the meeting! Not only would attending the meeting allow me to get on the same creative page with the group, but it would also be a chance to meet with another set of folks from Sesame Workshop. I want to be more than just an anonymous freelancer uploading and downloading work. I understand that relationships are important to getting future work.

How much of this is based on personality and how much of this is just ol' fashioned common sense? I think it weighs heavier towards common sense. As if to provide the opposite to my story above, I heard of another animation artist who scuttled his working relationship with a new client after he came in for a meeting and then decided to bill them for it. This instantly caused a squabble and this artist was told that if he kept the charge for the meeting on his bill, they would pay it, but would not work with him again. The artist chose to be paid and kissed the relationship goodbye. Subsequently another artist got the job and worked on that particular project for almost a whole year. The industry will have its up and downs, but the greatest risk we face is making our own personal droughts.

Each of us IS different, but better sense can be adapted by all. Personality helps and hurts in different turns and factors in to what jobs are the right and wrong fits for us. For one of my long-term flash series directing jobs, I later found out that the producers also interviewed another experienced director who had several flash series to his name, while I had none. The producers told me that they didn't hire him because he was too much of a football coach personality, while I was mellow and non-threatening. My personality helped me win that day, but this "football coach" director has continued on with his own great career. Clearly, he's a great fit for many employers, football coach-style and all.

Good sense and sound judgment can be learned, but only if a person is open to learning from their own mistakes. A closed off person with an old-school "the producers or client is always out to screw me" attitude is not going to get far. And if they do get far, they will have had to be the most talented person in the room. That's not an option available to me, so I've always pushed other skills, learned other lessons, and kept applying them forward. The mistakes I've made can fill a book (actually, three!), which only proves that mistakes don't have to be career-killers, unless we decide that they are.

Furthermore at the panel discussion, some wondered what will happen as India and South Korea (and others) gear up to build strong animation industries. "They're going to take our jobs," many worried. I say, that's only possible if there's such a thing as "our jobs." I argue that there is NOT. There are no agreed upon jobs that are ours for the taking or that can be reserved for us like a rental car. Not on an individual level, nor a city-wide level, nor a national level. We have to reach out for those create them ourselves. There's no such thing as entitlement. Just because we decided to be journeymen animation artists doesn't mean the industry owes us squat. This can be empowering if you let it. That's how I think. Who can say I'm wrong? It's my view of the universe and it holds true in my own head, and it helps me survive and navigate this difficult industry.

Some in the audience bemoaned NYC animation as primarily a preschool animation city. And, while many of the series have been preschool shows, there have also been older kids shows made here such as Sheep in the Big City, Codename: Kids Next Door, Kappa Mikey, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Doug, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There has also been a batch of "adult" or animation for tweens in the form of Beavis and Butthead, The Head, Celebrity Death Match, Daria, Downtown, Fridays, The Venture Bros., Super Jail, Assy McGee, Gary the Rat, and This Just In. This city is what we make it. If your goal is to make animation for a different audience, then the ball is in your court. If you succeed, it may not change the perception of NY animation over night, but it will be a step in a different direction. Everything is a first until it isn't. Feature animation was not a reality in this country until Disney made it happen. No British rock band had ever broken through to the American market until The Beatles. The first one through the door has a tendency to leave the door open for what comes next.

Don't get me wrong, I don't have solid plans myself. I never have. I don't assume to know what I will be able to accomplish. I have assorted goals, but none of them have expiration dates on them. So, the only direction I have in my career is that I am going after my goals. Each day I work towards achieving them. And, I don't look at external obstacles as my problem. In my own head, the state of NY Animation is a perpetually a green traffic light.

Monday, April 20, 2009

I'm Not a Designer But I Play One on TV

Why have I stayed in NY... instead of "heading west young man?" It's an interesting question to ponder, although its rare that I think about this. I never set out to be a booster of the NY animation scene. I was born here. My dad earned a terrific living as top Advertising Art director and executive (at one point he was even a vice president at Benton & Bowles), so I saw one could survive and thrive working in the commercial arts in the NY area. There was only one thing against me. No, it wasn't the anemic NY animation industry. It was my own underdeveloped talents. Spending four years at SVA didn't change that, and that was no fault to SVA. It was my own stubborn refusal to work hard enough to challenge myself. In fact, I didn't even know I had made that choice. But, choices are often made silently, aren't they?

When I was privileged with the opportunity to work at Michael Sporn's studio it was both at once a rarified experience as well as typical to New York animation. Rare in that Michael's studio (then and now) tackled animation from beginning to end. No outsourcing like much of the production at MTV, Jumbo, Curious, 4Kids, Scholastic, World Leaders, (and others that have since come and gone). Here was a place to learn it all from top to bottom, because of a supportive boss like Michael and the wonderful staff that followed his lead. I soon had the opportunity to try my hand at storyboards, designs, animation, writing...all within the two year period I worked at his studio.

While this would have indeed been rare to get this variety of experience at some NY studios in such a short amount of time, it WAS representative of a key an aspect of NY animation. Namely; flexibility. Getting to do different things on different projects. That's something I have never taken for granted. It still tickles me that I get to do that.

No, I'm not a character designer in the Phil Rynda sense (he is amazing, by the way.) Just check out

But, by being in NYC animation I get design opportunties just the same. I recently whipped out the above 3 designs after sesame workshop hired me to animate a 30 second spot. They wanted to see lots of different design approaches so I spent two or three days exploring some possible styles. They loved one particular design (not shown above) so much that they asked me to just animate that character as it was drawn. These fun little gigs, they seem very "NYC animation" to me. It's part of our blend of the independent and the commercial. Michael Sporn, his disciples, and those of the other NY botique-style animation studios (Buzzco, JJs, Asterisk, Wachtenheim and Marianetti, etc) are the true face of NY animation. They are the survivors that remain as the big studios come and go.

So, in NY animation we find ourselves with a happy problem. What to call oneself? Am I a director? A filmmaker? A designer? A writer? An author? A teacher? An animator? A jack of all trades but a master of none? To some, I'm simply the president of ASIFA-East. But, in NY animation, one doesn't have to choose one label. And, by some absurd turn of fate, this formerly raw SVA graduate is now paid to do all of these things (well, except the president of ASIFA-East thing). Why have I stayed in NY? Where else could one have such a career? And, best of all, I could list more than a hundred people just like me. Only chances are, they will be better designers.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Teaching as a Life-Line

I have been an adjunct teacher since 2003. That was the year that Richard O'Connor recommended me to Parsons School of Design to temporarily take over a class he was teaching. I was deep in my "land of milk and honey" Blue's Clue's job, which turned out to be almost 8 years of end-to-end employment. Back then, I wasn't hurting for money, and it would have been very easy to turn the teaching down. Most of my colleagues weren't teaching on the side. A small handful were. Teaching is something that had always been on my personal fear list and therefore it was something I had to do. If something is a new experience, it's probably something useful. In fact, animation producer Tina Moglia just told my career class that her only factor to stay on a job is, "Am I learning anything?"

So, how do you get an opportunity to teach? First of all, work in the industry. Local schools such as Parsons, Pratt, SVA, and NYU don't require that an adjunct teacher have a Master's degree or even a Bachelor's degree. You only need to be a working professional and that includes most of us! The next thing to do is to be an active member of the animation community. Let others see you running events, making films, and volunteering for organization's like ASIFA-East. This will grow your profile and show that you are reliable and able to juggle multiple tasks. Thirdly, tell animation teachers you know that you're interested in teaching. Current teachers are often the first ones to hear about positions opening. Usually, current teachers get a crack at the first new opportunities, but not all of them are a good fit, and many times a teacher will be able to pass the lead on to their contacts. Lastly, you can also try to set up a meeting with the head of the school's animation department and present yourself as a potential teacher.

The interesting thing about teaching one class is that it tends to mushroom into several classes, perhaps even spread over different schools. Just six months after taking on my first class at Parsons, Machi Tantillo recommended that I take over her Animation Career class at SVA. It was the class that inadvertently launched me as an author when my class plan spun off for the book, Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive (Allworth Press). A couple of years later, John Canemaker brought me in as temporary teacher at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, at which I will return to teach a pair of classes this year. School's like to give multiple classes to teachers that are already proven commodities, which only makes sense. But, new teachers crack through every so often, so try to make yourself one of the success stories by following the plan above.

The income that my first class brought in (teaching one 15-week class pays about $3,000) wasn't something I needed in 2003. But, it sure helped me in 2004 when I returned to the freelance life for 10 months, and again in 2007 to the present day when I became a full-time at-home freelancer. Income-wise, teaching has become a life-line, a guaranteed check that I can count on. It represents the very least amount of money I can make in a tough year such as 2009. The other nice thing about teaching is how it flexible it can be. Many times, the teacher can suggest a day and time that works best for them. When possible, I try to do most of my teaching at 6 PM classes, and that way when I have a full time in-house job, the class won't interfere.

Most of all, I really appreciate the way teaching puts me into contact with the upcoming generations of animation artists. It's inspiring to see the work they do and then to see them achieving success in the industry upon graduation. Its nice to know that, as a teacher, you had some small part in that. Not all the work an animation artist takes on in a career is work we can feel proud of...but, I find teaching has always been a rewarding experience. It's become a vital part of my career cocktail. Its the lime in my gin and tonic. A small part, but one the makes a big contribution to the whole.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Office Space

*Note: image above from Janet Perlman's film, HotSeat.

I never know what will touch a nerve in my SVA animation career class. So, I was very pleased when a healthy debate erupted based on the "Desktop Dilemma" section of Chapter 7 in my book, "Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive." Assuming you have the book (I can dream, can't I?), I'll give you a minute to look that section up. In short, it was a cautionary tale of how an animation artist could damage his reputation by adorning his wall space and desktop computer with swim suit models and scantily clad teen starlets.

Look at any studio's animation cubicles and offices and you'll find personal items such as posters, toys, family photos, doodles, and other decorations at most every workstation. The stuff we surround ourselves with projects an image. Its a public display of our tastes, humor, and personality. But, how much should one share at the workplace? Even when it comes to the creative workspaces in this industry?

In response to the "Desktop Dilemma" story above, one female class member explained that if she sees pictures in the workplace that objectify woman, it feels like a personal attack. It makes her feel as if she is being looked at as a sexual object around the office.

The particulars of office culture comes into play when trying to understand this complicated issue. A preschool series tends to have young children, mothers, child development specialists, and female network executives walking through the office on a regular basis. Its easy to understand why it would not be desirable to have anything potentially offensive on display.

One male student objected and felt that the images described in "Desktop Dilemma" were not offensive to him... and, besides, another studio in town that animates edgy adult swim and comedy central series' had much worse on their walls. The difference, I explained, was that the edgy studio was an independent company, set up to reflect the taste and personality of its owner. For some, that might be reason enough to not want to work there. Not everyone is the right fit for every situation. And, on the male students first point (he did not understand what was offensive about swimsuit pictures), I told him the issue wasn't his personal definition of what was offensive. Instead, the point is to be sensitive that somebody else "might" take offense.

I'm not sure I got this point across either. Later that night (after class), a trusted friend suggested that for men that didn't understand what could be offensive about female swimsuit pictures posted at the office,...maybe they would understand it in other terms that might be offensive to them. There's a long list of potentially offensive material that I wouldn't recommend displaying in the workplace: images that are racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-Christian, homophobic, etc. Think of the what might offend you and understand that there are some women who might be offended by your sports illustrated swim suit calendar or copies of Maxim magazine.

The bottom line is that the office, desk, chairs, stapler, computers, and walls, are not your property. You are only keeping the seat warm for the length of time you are on a project. You are working in someone else's home in a highly collaborative process staffed by men and women of all kinds.

I tried one last time to reach this male student. I asked him, "Is it worth the risk of harming your reputation to prove a point that you're entitled to express yourself no-matter-what the circumstances? Not quite sure if this was understood either, I asked, "What are your goals on a job? Are you there to conduct a sociological experiment to determine what percent of a staff might be offended by your wall-hangings?...Or, are you there to be an animation artist working in harmony with the rest of the team?