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.


Elliot Cowan said...

Hey man - one of your finer posts.

Katie does make an interesting comment about you having the "right" personality to meet people, make contacts, making your own luck etc.
I've gone to great lengths since I've arrived here to do similar, but it's got less to do with personality than it does necessity, I think.
Cold calling/emailing/meeting people is something that is not in my nature, but over the years I've had to make it so or I really wouldn't have any work.
My comment to anyone who thinks that it has to do with personality is that once you learn to fake it properly, it becomes actual, real life confidence.

As for your other points.
I've come to this city completely green.
Before I arrived I went to some effort to find out who was blogging, who was making stuff, what was going on, but I was busy with the business of emigrating, lawyers, and getting married to really get my finger on the pulse as I did when I headed to London.

I knew nothing of the lack of work, nothing about the state of the industry.
So while it may be a little daunting to hear about it, it's really not entirely meaningful to me (and there's nothing I can do about it anyway).
All you can do is put your balls to the wall and work really bloody hard to find something to do, which really isn't unreasonable for ANYONE working in the arts.
Perhaps somewhere in this world there's a magical city where animators bundle off to studios with an endless supply of terrific work that'll keep you creatively satisfied every day for the rest of your life.
I'm reasonably sure there isn't (and I'm reasonably sure they wouldn't have me there) so what you do is what commercial artists have been doing forever - hustle, meet people, walk the pavement, work fucking hard.

Lastly - fact is, there IS work out there.
There's no doubt less of it and maybe it isn't paying as well as before, but it's there.
I've been working in the city about 6 months now and although I've hardly been busy that entire time, I've done enough work that I've quite comfortably survived.
But nobody handed me that for free.
I met the right people and made contacts and when the opportunity to score a gig came up I went all out to get it.

I'm getting all wound up at 8 in the morning.
This could be my longest post in 4 years of blogging.

I'll remind everyone that the BE Film Festival starts tomorrow night and apart from being a festival chock full of animation, many of those films are from ASIFA-East film makers.
Tickets from the website.

I may not see you at BE but I sure hope to see you all Sunday night.

Dan said...

Great post Dave. Was good to see you that night.

Talk soon

David B. Levy said...

Good points, Elliot.

I love your observation, "Perhaps somewhere in this world there's a magical city where animators bundle off to studios with an endless supply of terrific work that'll keep you creatively satisfied every day for the rest of your life."

It helps to see this written out.

That is the myth right there, isn't it? The myth of entitlement.

Linda Beck said...

Great post, Dave.

I do see evidence of entitlement in our industry, which we really need to get under control before it becomes an epidemic.

None of us our guaranteed or owed work, whether we're producers, or creatives... and I'm not sure the entitled amongst us deserve it to be frank.

Let's move, people. We need to be creative and motivate ourselves and each other to think of new ways to keep our industry working and making things.

Jim Mortensen said...

"Perhaps somewhere in this world there's a magical city where animators bundle off to studios with an endless supply of terrific work that'll keep you creatively satisfied every day for the rest of your life."

Methinks that city is located in Personalworktown, in the district of Workmyassoff County. :)

Katie Crops said...

Its wierd to see my own name in your post David but most welcome. I don't know what more to say about how much personality factors into sucess because there are plently of super talented ass hats out there that get great work and there are plently of genuine nice guys scraping by. I have to think this is a gray ish aread when it comes to getting work in the nyc because it seems to be a million different ways to get your foot in these oddly shaped doorways. - I actually don't remember what my point was here but anyway, its a good article Dave and a topic totally work noting.

David B. Levy said...

Hi Katie,

In my experience, the majority of animation artists in this community are very nice people. I can count the ones I avoid on one hand, so I think that's a pretty good ratio. And, the baddies tend to wear out their welcome after a while, no matter how talented they are.

Although, you are reminding me of my favorite Linda Simensky quote:
"If you're not avoiding at least three people in this industry, you're not working hard enough."

Nelson Diaz said...

When I think about working in a studio the first thing I'm in awe of is how much I see the people I sit next to!

I see my work buddies more than the people I live with.

It seems to me that the most important thing before talent and skill is that you can put up with the people you work with; that they're nice people and will help you out when the team needs that extra boost.

And when it comes to freelance, it's even more important because you're working with someone one on one!

ben oviatt said...

Reading your blog cheers me up.

It was cool running into you last week, and pseudo-catching up. I'm looking forward to the various screenings we have coming up. Let's see... ASIFA, SVA, NYU screenings. Geez, they should call next month ani-MAY-tion!

...yeesh, what a David Levy joke.

James Sutton said...

This is a great post.

LOL, Koreans are taking jobs from very talented animators. OH NO!

David Watchenheim did great stuff for Courage and what you did on Assy McGee was also great.

I sometimes think I was the only person who ever liked the show. Most people hated it because it was about a mumbling ass and they judged it immature from the start.