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.


Elliot Cowan said...

Regardless of how you feel about them, these are mostly charming and the bear is very fun.

On a related note.
So many folks in animation do what they think are character designs, when in fact they are just drawings.
To be a character, it has to have CHARACTER.

Elliot Cowan said...

"Does "artist" encompass all?"

I don't think it does, actually.
There are many, many people who work in animation who aren't artists - not everyone can be.
Not every graphic designer or illustrator is an artist either.
They may be talented and technically proficient, but it doesn't make them an artist.

However, this doesn't mean you are not a hard working professional doing specialised work in a difficult field.

I like the term "animation worker" but I usually tell people I'm a brain surgeon.

David B. Levy said...

I like the term "animation artist" as a catch-all term, if I had to pick but one. I HATE the way everyone who works in animation is called an animator. That's so incorrect.

I realize I could have been clearer, but I do like my designs, Elliot. And, of course, I'm super glad the client liked them. I think I have the ability to create some "character" or warmth in my designs. I just know I'm not technically perfect or sophisticated... but, I don't see that entirely as a weakness.

In some ways, I'm glad my designs are not slick. For me, slick often equals "formula." And, in a way, not being trapped in a formula approach can let one stumble upon fun designs that a more structured knowledge might not allow for.

Elliot Cowan said...

Actually, I was commenting on the quality of your work rather than the clarity of your post : )

And I am agreed 100% about slick and formula.

It seems to me (particularly in the US) that commercial character design inspiration come from a very small pool.
It's incredibly frustrating to me.

Chris said...

At one time I referred to myself as a turd polisher.

These days, the term animation artist fits better than animator.

I agree with you guys about character designs, btw. Some of the new shows coming out already look dated. Professionally designed, yes, but you can tell they won't make it past a season or two, because their look is not unique.

Dagan Moriarty said...

Couldn't wait to get to a good stopping point with today's work so that I could head over here to see what this week's discussion would be, Dave. Great stuff...

With regard to character design, I personally like to see that an artist's work is progressing and evolving over time. A good designer never rests on his or her laurels, and I believe that the truly inspired designers in our craft display their artistic and professional growth in their work.

I love to see an artist's work change as their influences change. That evolution is the exciting part, for me.

There are varying levels of talent in our field in all areas, for sure. But the most important asset is the desire to learn and grow in ALL facets of the craft. To get better!

Your designs do have a consistent sense of fun and warmth to them.
You can tell that you're having fun drawing them, which I love to see.

Salut! :)

Nelson Diaz said...

Chuck Jones used to call himself a graphic artist.

I used to think that was a good term but animation artist is much better.

It suggests many skills in such a specific field.

Jim Mortensen said...

My vote is for "Animation Director", for a couple of reasons..

For one, in my experience here in LA there are Directors and Show Creators that step in and do their own character designs sometimes. That's the fun of being a Director - you can choose to do something yourself (if you'll enjoy it) rather than hand it off. Not necessarily a whole show's designs, but a couple of characters. I know it's pretty common for a show creator to do a couple of episodes' storyboards to. I'd say "Director" encompasses all.

Building on that, "Animation Director" sounds a lot more impressive. And I bet that in NYC that brings connotations that you could (and have) take a project all the way from pre-production to post-production, whether it's a show episode or a short film or an interstitial. So in there, you can decide what parts of the production you want to get your hands on and what you can hand off to people with potentially more specific skillsets.

That said, I'm more of a generalist in my current gig too. So there are pockets of LA that let you have the ability to get your hands in lots of things.

Jim Mortensen said...

Oh, forgot to add... love the designs. :)

Linda Beck said...

I thought NY Animation was made up of "Technicians"? Just jokes. :)

One of the things I look forward to most about working with members of our community is the moment when I stumble upon someone's hidden talent. People in artistic fields seem to crossover so often into other mediums of self-expression. Nothing's cooler than discovering that someone who's an amazing Animator can also sing some sick karaoke or peeking into a Production Coordinator's really cool, really inspiring sketchbook.

Uncle Phil said...

Whoa! That was a huge surprise to see my name in there Dave. Thanks!

And by the way, your designs are awesome. They are super funny and appealing.

For me, moving out to LA was all about the opportunity and education. I love and miss NY quite a lot. I grew up in New Jersey and all of my family is there. My wife is from NJ and all of her family is on the east coast as well. We both see ourselves ending up back on the east coast at some point. And I want to take everything I've learned here back to NY and dive right back into NY animation.

One of the biggest differences here in LA is that most people pick an area of expertise and stick with it and perfect it. There are exceptions to that of course, but I think this is generally true. I miss bouncing back and forth from designing to animating to painting bgs. The ability to do that was a key in keeping steady employment after graduating from SVA.

That doesn't happen quite as much here in LA, but I do try to keep my door open for any freelance that might let me use those muscles I don't use everyday.

Oh.. and I call myself a "cartoonist". I just happen to work in animation, currently as a character designer. :)

And here's my 2 cents about "good" design. For me, it's all about communication. Aesthetic is subjective. I feel that Beavis and Butthead is just as well designed as any of the other design notables... Sleeping Beauty, Samurai Jack, Ren and Stimpy. ... I narrowed that down quite a bit to try to make a point :) Let's see if I catch some flack for that one.

Thanks again for the mention.

Elliot Cowan said...

I've just decided that I should like to be called a "Journeyman Animator".

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