Friday, June 26, 2009

Begin the Summer with Bill Plympton's "Dog Days"

I admit that I was skeptical upon receiving Bill Plympton's new DVD shorts compilation "Dog Days." The collection (packed with bonus features such as animatics, pencil tests, commentary, and sponsored work) features Bill's seven independent shorts made between the years 2004 through 2009. I was skeptical, in part because like many animation folk, I run the risk of taking Bill's films for granted. He has done so much excellent work for such a long time and has received so much success in return that it's easy to overlook his last five years of shorts and make the assumption that his best work is long behind him.

For decades the trajectory of the traditional animation artist was supposed to be a suffering creature, one who toils away for a lifetime in obscurity, working on other people's projects, and perhaps taking a victory bow in his last years. When Bill arrived on the animation scene in the mid-1980s, he followed a far less traveled path: the animation artist who is not only devoted to his craft but also organizes his commercial life to work on independent projects, becomes known in the industry as a singular brand, and through an uncanny gift for business and self-promotion achieves fame and success for his efforts.

One factor that unfairly weighs against any serious discussion of Bill's work is the fact that he's still producing work. Animation artists are quick to share an opinion on the work of living artists in private over drinks, but very few of us are willing to publicly offer intelligent commentary. It's far safer to write about what Freddie Moore liked to eat for lunch at the Disney commissary than it is to offer serious discussion on the latest Plympton short. That's a real pity because, while there have been a few misfires, several of Bill's films from 2004 to 2008 have been among his best work.

I am tempted to describe Bill's recent commissioned work, the music video "Mexican Standoff," as one of those misfires in that it can appear to be an average work. But as soon as I think that, I correct myself: Average for whom? The film is full of innovative camera angles, daring animation, and enough style and ideas for 10 films. I wonder if one price Bill has paid for his productivity might be that we've become accustomed to his ordinary excellence. If we had never seen a Bill Plympton film before and started with "Mexican Standoff," we might be asking, "Who did that terrific animation?" But, the value of the "Dog Days" collection is that it answers that injustice by forcing the viewer to look at this five-year period of Bill's work as a whole.

"Dog Days" features such excellent films as "Guard Dog" (the first in his dog series), the children's film "The Fan and the Flower," the experiment in animated film noir "Shuteye Hotel," and the faux newsreel charmer "Santa: The Fascist Years." Two other dog films round out the program and (taken as a trilogy) it's interesting to see how Bill applied different techniques on each film in that series. The drawing style seemed to tighten up in the second film, only to loosen up in the third. Viewing the three films in a row, I noticed that the held poses which helped make the first dog film so much fun (remember the poses struck by the karate bird?) were largely abandoned in the sequels. I miss that level of confidence (or experimentation) in the subsequent dog films, although I'd add that "Hot Dog" stands on its own as an enjoyable film. The fourth and least successful Dog film, "Horn Dog," was not included in this compilation.

Like any series, the Dog films face the danger of becoming a one-note joke, growing staler with each outing. While the first two dog sequels still offer up laugh-worthy gags, they just don't have the mojo that powered the original film. Bill reveals on the DVD commentary track that "Guard Dog" was inspired by his observation of a dog barking at a helpless bird in Madison Square Park. I think the film that resulted showed that spark of creation based in personal experience and truth. The inspiration for the sequel films may owe less to true experience and more to knowing that audiences liked the first dog film, and that lack of authenticity is hard to shake.

Don't get me wrong, I don't presume that Bill's sole motivation on the Dog films was to capitalize on the first film's success. I think the idea of creating a successful recurring character is what has kept this series alive. The series format (which requires a character-based approach to storytelling) is uncharted water for Bill, leading one to conclude that the challenge of succeeding in this new arena might be a major source of inspiration, much like the challenge of making a successful animated feature motivates Bill towards that goal.

At this point in time, Bill Plympton is far from the new kid on the block, but he is also far from being irrelevant. One of his continuing gifts to this community is demonstrating how, despite unprecedented success, he is able to stay artistically hungry. "Dog Days" offers ample proof to believers and non-believers alike.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

"9.99" and Animation for Adults

There never seems to be a loss for New York-based animation topics to write about and this Monday is no different.

In September 2008, ASIFA-East began its season of events with a special panel spotlighting NYC-based independent animated features. The panel was made of up Bill Plympton, Emily Hubley, Tatia Rosenthal, Dan Kanemoto, and Michael Sporn. Noticeably absent was Nina Paley, who had been invited, but was out of town. Much of the panel discussion, moderated by Amid Amidi, centered around funding and distribution instead of the creative challenges of making an animated feature. Given the difficulty indie animated features have in getting distribution and a theatrical release, I think that focus was justified. Anyone can start an animated feature, but far fewer have the tenacity or talent to pull one off, and even less will be able to score a theatrical release. The problem is two fold. On one hand, animators are used to making small films, of which they own the complete copyright. Some animators transitioning into features bring that same need for control they enjoy with their shorts. The problem is that for a feature film to reach a wide audience (beyond the world's animation community), it requires funding and distribution partners, and that results in losing or sharing ownership of your film.

One filmmaker who did give up the ownership of her film was Tatia Rosenthal, and the results of that sacrifice (along with 9 years of production) was the NY theatrical-run debut of her feature, "9.99," which is now playing at the Sunshine Landmark Theatre on Houston Street. I urge anyone who cares about animated film to see her film and show their support. It's a rare thing for an indie animated feature to secure world-wide theatrical distribution, and its even more rare for such a feature to be truly for adults. Despite Pixar and Disney's limitless resources of money and available talent, they are in the business of making main stream animated features. In North America, this means family/children's films. You won't see Pixar or Disney (or Dreamworks or Blue Sky) making films outside of the box of general audience viewing. That would be a true creative and financial risk, that would go far beyond inventing a new process to animate underwater effects or fur. So, if one want's to see animated features grow up the way live-action films have been doing for the last 100 years, they should stop micro analyzing "Up," and start discussing, "9.99."

Important animated feature films are so few and far between that we could be tempted to like them just to support their existence. Happily, "9.99," stands on its own stop-motion feet and doesn't require your approval. It earns it instead. Something interesting happened as I watching Tatia's film. There's a scene (spoiler alert) where it looks like a father is about to smash his son's beloved piggy-bank with a hammer. The son's bond with his piggy-bank was something that built over the course of the film, culminating with a lovely scene where the boy brings the pig to show-and-tell. The little bank became an object of unconditional love for the boy because the pig continues to smile whether the boy puts a coin in it or not. When the moment comes where his father is set to smash it, I jumped in my seat and heard exclamations from many others in the audience.

"9.99" has many such moments and is populated with every-day characters that make a deep emotional connection without succumbing to cliches. There's the loneliness of the old man, the unhappy father of two young men drifting through life, the sophicating relationship between the boy with the piggy-bank and his father, the super model who inspires and requires total submission from her lovers, the young-man struggling to stay a kid despite the demands of an adult relationship, and the vagabond angel more concerned with his own base needs than he is positively effecting people's lives.

This an ensemble film akin to the live action film, "Magnolia," but managing to score higher because of animation's ability to mix abstract ideas with reality. When frogs rained down in "Magnolia," it was an impossible moment violating an otherwise straightforward film's rules. "9.99," uses animation to its advantage without having to justify its choice to be an animated film at every turn. For and foremost, Tatia Rosenthal wisely uses animation as an editor, since animation is about choices (what to leave in and what to leave out.). In a live action film there is much that is simply just there because of where a camera happens to be set up. When the little boy stares at a wanted action figure displayed in a store window, there is nothing else in the scene that might distract from that moment. While based in reality, "9.99's" makes effective use of surreal and fantastical characters and situations and fully justifies its choice of animation as its medium. And, like all effective storytelling, the medium starts to vanish as the audience becomes engaged.

The worst feature animation we usually see is about movement, not feeling. Tatia Rosenthal described her film as a "one-take production" because of the budgetary limitations, and to my eyes, this became a key strength of the film, which was not able to wallow in the overuse of settles, squashes, movement in arcs, and followthrough that muck up a film like "Coraline." Can't a character simply pick up a salt shaker without a sweeping arc, overshoot, and settle? The answer is ,"yes," and most importantly the elimination of these annoying and unnecessary flourishes might just be what defines the look of "Adult" animation.

The morning after we saw "9.99," my wife and I both woke up with a key shocking sequence of the movie in our head's. We just couldn't shake it. It's now days later and there's still a place in my brain where that sequence sits. I had the same experience after No Country for Old Men, Dillinger is Dead, Betty Blue, Claire's Knee, and any number of other live action films. There will always be a steady buffet of "Kung Fu Panda," "Ice Age," and "Toy Story" to feast on, but at the end of the day those are just empty calories. "9.99," is a meal. See it and have an important animated feature to digest for a change.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Adventure Time vs. Anxiety Time

Most everyone agrees that "Adventure Time" by Pen Ward (pictured above, and created for Frederator's Nickelodeon shorts initiative Random Cartoons) was one of the best animated pilots in recent memory. The resulting "Adventure Time" series eventually found a home at Nick rival Cartoon Network after the original network failed to understand the short's potential. I know what you're thinking: Familiar situation. Another case of shortsighted development executives not understanding something good right under their noses. But, in this case, there's one big problem with that theory—development executives were not alone in their concern about the series. In fact, they had unlikely allies: animation artists. Once it became known that Cartoon Network was launching an "Adventure Time" series, I heard many animators remark online and in conversation, "That will be very hard to write," or, "That won't translate to a series." There must have been Nickelodeon executives who felt the same. This begs the question, What about "Adventure Time" made people question being able to make it a series? I think the quickest way to answer that is to first discuss what it had in common with other series.

Since 1991 (and the launch of Nicktoons), TV animation has been mostly a creator-driven affair. The whole point is that each creator will have a unique vision for their series, characters, and world they are creating. The creator-driven series is really a character-driven beast since characters are the reason we keep tuning in to watch episode after episode. On the creator-driven character-based front, Pen Ward had it covered. He had a unique vision that was clearly in support of his main characters, Pen and Jake. On this first criterion, "Adventure Time" is business-as-usual, and that's a good thing!

But, characters are only interesting if stories come from them. In theory, a story line used on "Codename: Kids Next Door" should not work for "SpongeBob SquarePants." Stories need to come from the character's own idiosyncrasies or specific interactions with the other characters or aspects of their world. Of course, there are only a few basic story premises in the world, but within the animated episodic cartoon series there can be an infinite amount of clever variation on those stories. These variations will inevitably come from character. Again, "Adventure Time" fits this mold.

On the surface, Pen Ward's short might seem as if it’s one non sequitur after another, randomly breezing through its plot. In actuality, the characters work within a basic time-tested structure: we meet the characters and get to know them, they become involved in a problem or a quest, they go off on their journey, they encounter obstacles, the hero confronts the villain, the day is saved, and things leave off ready for another adventure to begin. Just because characters have interesting speech patterns or quirky phrases such as, "Algebraic," it doesn't mean that the short doesn't have a structure or leave a path subsequent episodes can follow.

Finally, the short was funny, cartoony, action-packed, skewed towards boys without alienating girls, and was popular with its target audience (kids ages 8-12), while capturing the interest of older viewers. Those are all things that most cartoon-making networks CLAIM to be interested in.

So, what was so different about "Adventure Time" that had some development executives and animation artists doubting its ability to transition from successful short to successful series?

I'm not certain I know the answer to this. Aesthetically, "Adventure Time" had a modern outsider look that had more in common with indie comics than it did with the retro-modern UPA-meets-Cal Arts style that we have seen in shows from "The Power Puff Girls" to "The Fairly Odd Parents." But, perhaps the most significant feature of "Adventure Time" is that its characters live in a semi-surreal landscape inhabited by an Ice King, a Princess, and a Rainicorn (a combination of a rainbow and a unicorn). Oh, and there's a moment of physic connection between Pen and Abe Lincoln on Mars.

Development executives and like-minded animation artists may have noticed that in "Adventure Time" we don't have the NORMAL kid-context for the main character, Pen. Does he go to school? Does he live at home with a family? Most middle of the road cartoons use both as a familiar anchor. In fact, I've often wondered if the boating school that SpongeBob attends wasn't the result of a network executive insisting that SpongeBob have some kind of school experience, even though the yellow sponge was a "adult," living alone and working a full-time job.

On school and home-life, I'm certain that Pen and his crew (in expanding his show to series) must have figured out at least a home base for the two characters, even if it isn't a traditional home. But, the key point of this blog entry is that development executives and animation artists who have expressed doubt about "Adventure Time" ought to know better. All the important shows on television ("Seinfeld," "MadMen," "The Simpsons," etc.) brought a touch of new perspective to otherwise familiar formulas of episodic television. Consider the NEW element in "Adventure Time" to be the creator's vision of a sweetly exciting semi-surreal world of adventure. After that, to corrupt a phrase by Bill Clinton, "It's the characters, stupid."

Monday, June 8, 2009

All Things Being Equal

(image above: more of my spec designs created for The Electric Company. These designs were not picked, but helped the client to visualize my range of techniques or styles.)

I've heard that some studio owners revel in the game of scoring jobs. There is an excitement to the process, since a single job can be the difference between being in the red or the black. Certain job opportunities have brought out a strategy in me that has worked two out of three times. When I hear of a juicy project that needs animation and the style is not fully set, it activates my curiosity and sense of competition. Since I know the client is going to look at several bids, naturally the thought is how to set myself apart.

When a studio (or a single freelancer like me) is considered for a job, it can be for many reasons. We might have a personal connection to the client from a preexisting working relationship or friendship. They may know us strictly from the work we have done for ourselves or for another client. We may have been recommended to them by a third party. Or we may have gotten in the door through the efforts of a rep or an agent. But the means of entry is not usually enough to land the job. There are so many factors that define what opportunities are a good fit. But, if all things were equal between all the studios bidding, what could win the bid for one of them?

Shortly before I started my at-home freelance period in 2007, I had an interview to direct a Nick Jr pilot that was going to be animated in-house. The creators were not artists or directors so they especially needed to feel safe and secure in their choice of director. In this case, I knew the other two directors that they were considering. Each would have been a strong choice, and would have brought something different to the mix. Before our interviews, we were each given the pitch pack that won the creators their pilot.

Once I saw that the designs exactly matched the signature work style of one of the director's, I knew my goose was cooked. A client tends to feel most comfortable when you have already done exactly what they are looking for. Sure enough, the other director won the bid. It’s not possible to always have the exact style a client is looking for already on your reel. But, there is a way to create the materials that can win the job.

Less than a year later, Nat Geo Kids had a pilot project and were in need of a director, for which they were considering four people (from New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco). Once I had an interview scheduled, I asked the producer if she could send me any art or music from the project so I could check it out before the meeting. She was happy to do so, and I think each director may have been given the same materials. Once the character art and soundtrack was in my hands, I spent a day animating a finished walk cycle to the music. The day before my meeting I e-mailed a Quicktime of the animation to the producer so it could work its magic. There were practically squeals of enthusiasm when I got to the interview. A good sign, no?

Of course, anyone would enjoy seeing their character move, but there was more value to the process than that. Because I had already tackled some animation of their character, I could already discuss that process: how long it took, what programs I used, how the art should be prepared, etc. I'm sure each of the other director's could have intelligently speculated on that too, but I was speaking from actual experience. Perhaps most important, because I had taken this initiative, I had proven my sincere desire to do the project.

I hinted a few posts ago that I was about to embark on a large new freelance job with an assistant. The job was won in a very similar way to what I described above. With so many factors out of your control on the job hunt, why not give yourself the best possible odds for success?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Yes We Have No Bananas

Forgive me another student themed post. Each and every year I teach a 15 week class called Animation Promotion PR. It's the class that led to my book Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive. In fact, this is my favorite subject to teach and I've been doing so since 2003. And, each year there are students that read my book, listen to my lectures, and meet a who's who of animation talent in my class, all of which reinforces the basic premise of how to find a job, how to keep a job, and how to build up a career over time.

If we took the word "animation" out of the equation, we could be talking about buying bananas. Over the coarse of 15 weeks of my class, students learn how to find a store that sells bananas, how much they cost per banana and, finally how to eat the banana.

Carrying this banana analogy forward, imagine my surprise to get emails from former students up to a year later saying, "Hi Mr. Levy. I'm still thinking of buying a banana at some point. How do I do that again? Do I need a credit card? Exact change? What color should the banana be again when its ripe? Should I join the banana group (ASIFA-East)? How do I do that again? Would it be worth it? I still daydream about bananas from time to time and I'm trying to get myself organized to get my banana website up. Do you know anyplace I can get a banana? I've been meaning to look into that, but time has gotten away from me."

Don't get me wrong, I know this industry can be rough. Two posts ago, I shared some stories in which I encountered some rude or unwelcoming people at the start of my career. But those were never going to stand in the way of what I wanted to accomplish.

If the process of walking to the store, buying, and eating a banana is a mystery to you, than its because you are choosing to live in mystery. That's nothing more than a clever way to keep yourself away from your goal. Or maybe its because after 4 years of expensive art school you learned that don't like bananas. While that can't be an ideal financial situation to be in, its far from the worst position to be in on this green Earth. Just be honest with yourself. You have your whole life ahead of you and its yours to do something with (and that's with or without bananas).