Monday, July 27, 2009

Sometimes the Teacher, Sometimes the Student.

I've been extremely busy with work lately (knock on wood!), but, no matter how busy I get, I try to make time to have breakfast, lunch, or coffee with friends, contacts, or colleagues as often as possible. When I'm in a busy patch, I like to line up two or three meetings in a row, almost like speed dating. In a way, it's break in the middle of a tough work week. Last week I had lunch with a former student and then coffee with another.

The coffee meeting was with a student who had graduated about four years ago and after being told by some in the industry that there was little opportunity for work at the time (which I can say was not really true), he decided to get a master's degree and wait things out. Unfortunately, the economy only worsened during the two years he spent getting the degree and in the two years since, he has had no success breaking into the biz.

This former student had done some hard work looking for leads online and pursuing internships, and he even joined a networking group of other young artists searching for jobs. In addition, the master's degree allowed the student to pick up valuable 3D animation skills that will serve him well. But, students certainly don't do themselves any favors in ignoring that this is a people business. Getting a job in animation is not as straightforward as getting a job at K-Mart and this only becomes more obvious in difficult economic times.

I wish I could have been there four years ago when the student was told that it was not a good time to find a job in animation. Not only was this information wrong, it's barely relevant. Yes, there are better and worse time to graduate and enter the animation industry. BUT, we have NO control over that. We arrive when we arrive. Who among us feel that they graduated or entered the job hunt at the most ideal time? So the key ingredient is not the luck of the draw (economy-wise) but your own determination to work in this business at the exclusion of all other options. In an unstable industry, we provide our own consistency by having the passion to stick it out. A career in animation is not something that happens to you, it's something you choose to pursue in any way you can.

The next meeting I had that afternoon was a lot of fun. In the first I was firmly in my teacher role, but one coffee later I was the student. Sparked by a lecture I gave to animation producer John Catapano's class at SVA only a week earlier, one of the students arranged an informational meeting with me. This summer course tends to have older students, already established in some career and looking to make a change or expand their horizons. I love speaking to classes because I'm exposed to great people I might not have met otherwise. The student who arranged to meet with me turned out to be an accomplished illustrator and author of many lovely children's books. In fact, she scored her first children's book right out of RISD, something she admitted to not fully appreciating when it happened. While she had questions for me on a project she planned to tackle, I found myself with just as many questions about pitching children's books.

Much like my earlier meeting, where I reminded my former student of a lesson I'd already given in class, my second meeting reminded me of what I should be doing: If I was serious about scoring a children's book of my own I would need to make a full dummy (mock up) of the book to pitch. I have six children's book pitches under my belt, but I have never made a full dummy book to present an idea. Instead I always relied on one or two pieces of art and a short manuscript. That isn't enough, she said, "a book has to stand on its own." She was telling me something I knew, but I'd managed to ignore. My lack of success getting a children's book off the ground speaks to that. And then she read from the notes she'd taken at my lecture: "I don't talk myself out of anything I want to accomplish," I'd said, a theme that had passed from coffee to coffee that day.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Legacy and Responsiblity

*above image from Mr. Warburton's first children's book, 1000 Times No.

Some time back, there was a controversy in the animation blogworld when it was announced that Brad Bird's next project was going to be a live action film. Brad Bird is but one man, but, because of his singular talents, others assigned him the responsibility of being animation's savior. Post-"Ratatouille," when Bird's career led him away from animation, he was seen by some as betraying the community.

These misguided attitudes remind me of a great exchange between Bart and Comic Book Guy in the season-eight episode of "The Simpsons," "The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show," after the debut of the soulless character Poochie:
Comic Book Guy: As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe me.
Bart Simpson: What? They've given you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? I mean, if anything, you owe them.

So, because Brad Bird made some of our favorite TV and theatrical animation, some of us think it means we have a right to complain if he should decide to continue his career as he sees fit. I can't think of more juvenile and misguided industry opinion to hold. Be it Brad Bird or someone just out of school, each artist has a right to pursue his own path. It strikes me as absurd that there are artists who hold such warped opinions, assuming that they have a say over a stranger's most important creative choices. I have a rule of thumb that I use when I am tempted to second guess somebody else's life choices: I wouldn't know what someone else should have for lunch so why should I choose someone's career path?

But, this post is not really about Brad Bird. The New York animation community just bid adieu to one of its most celebrated members—Mr. Tom Warburton, who is off to the next chapter of his career in Los Angeles. Most know him as the happy-go-lucky guy who created Cartoon Network's long running series, “Codename: Kids Next Door.” Warburton began his career in animation in 1990, lending his talents to such studios as Buzzco Associates, Inc., Jumbo, J.J. Sedelmaier, and Curious Pictures, before landing his own pilots, series, and children's book. While one could admire him just based on his accomplishments, to know him is to know that his contribution to New York animation goes far beyond that.

In a very real way, Warburton can't leave, because his influence and example are here to stay. Here's a man who honed his skills, developed as a writer and an artist, and understood the importance of building valuable relationships in the community. And no matter how successful he became (and I consider having a six-season run on Cartoon Network to be a sign of success), he ALWAYS had time for the rest of us. And it was as if the busier he got, the more fun he made it look. His confidence encourages others to pitch shows, write a children's book, and to (most importantly) handle all the pressures of this business with grace.

A key aspect of Warburton's personality can be seen in how he prepared his successful TV pitches. Most creators develop what they hope is just enough to entice an executive to take a chance on their show. Warburton couldn't stop there––he made lavish pitch books filled with punchy text and colorful illustrations bringing his shows to vivid life, long before any executives pulled the trigger. His natural setting is to NOT hold anything back. I think this shows his trust in his own talent and his belief that to try with all your might is its own reward.

Most significantly, when he succeeded, it was a gain for the entire New York animation community in the form of one of the longest running productions in local animation history, employing many talented artists and nurturing dozens of new comers.

Much like Brad Bird, Tom Warburton was not responsible for single-handedly supporting an animation scene. But, there's no denying that he is a symbol of what is possible in New York for someone as open, enthusiastic, ambitious, and talented as he. If I could take the liberty of speaking for the New York animation community for a moment, I'd like to say to him, "Tom, who?" Just kidding. I'd say, "Mr. Warburton, you left your mark on this town and we're all the better for it. And, you'll ALWAYS be a part of our family. We'll just have to settle for your blog and Facebook updates for our Warburton fix. Now, go on...kick some L.A. animation ass, and make us proud all over again."

Saturday, July 11, 2009

My Lunch with Howard

It may not be as famous a title as "My Dinner with Andre," but it has a ring to it. Howard Beckerman and I have been meeting for lunches since he was my thesis advisor at the School of Visual Arts 15 years ago, and boy, are our stomach's full!

Former ASIFA-East president (and current PBS Kids Vice President of Children's Programming) Linda Simensky has repeatedly mentioned her own debt to Howard, saying that his casual and funny way of public speaking informed her style. While I know just how Linda feels, I can go even one step further: I wanted to BE Howard Beckerman.

Not only is he an incredibly nice man and terrific teacher, he has accomplished so many of the things I had hoped to achieve in my career. First off, he is a writer. He wrote articles published in various animation and film magazines, a text book "Animation: The Whole Story," and authored several terrific animated shorts including "Boop-Beep," "The Trip," and "Jack The Giant Killer." He is a teacher, a long-term executive board member of ASIFA-East, and worked for legendary studios such as UPA and Paramount as well as heading his own successful independent animation studio for many years (with his talented wife, Iris).

When I look at Howard's life and work I can see his influence all over my career path. As we all know, a school such as SVA costs a pretty penny, and it naturally leads one to ask if a costly four-year animation program is worth it, especially since there are so many alternative ways to learn this craft. Without SVA, I would not have been introduced to Howard Beckerman. Words cannot describe how encouraging he was in my formative years. I was not the best artist in the room, but instead of giving me up as a lost cause, he kindled my interest in writing and storytelling. His sensibility of gentle cleverness inspired my thesis film and also my first post-school film, "Snow Business." I think by nurturing my writing side, Howard actually challenged me to play catch up with my other skills. After all, how could one realize the ideas in their head without being able to put them down on paper?

When I began my career with Michael Sporn, Howard was freelancing for Tony Ciao's nearby DMA studio, so we frequently met for lunch. Our relationship once based on the student/teacher scenario now became a valued friendship of peers. Together with my job at Sporn's studio, those lunches made me feel like I was now a part of the industry. As a result, I still make a point to meet up with former students for lunch or coffee whenever they ask me. I know how important it is to feel connected, and at no time is it more important than in the first few years of a career.

Last week, Howard and I met for lunch at Molly's Pub near SVA. I showed him four new gags I drew for consideration at the “New Yorker.” I learned that, for a time, he had also submitted gags to the magazine. And, just like me, he eventually had to stop because of other commitments. Our lives and careers are really a series of choices. Despite our ambitions and abilities, we don't have infinite time or energy to branch out in too many directions at once. Some plans don't stay with us for the long haul. Life and a bit of luck steer us toward what is most important.

There are many kinds of hero worship in this industry. I know from personal experience that I clung to Walt Disney and Chuck Jones hardest in those years before I made real life connections. As a world animation community, we'll always have those heroes in common. But, it's not until you start to make your own important relationships that your true heroes emerge.

It’s almost a cliché that your heroes are bound to disappoint you. You may like someone's art but that doesn't mean that you would also connect with that person one-on-one. Howard Beckerman is that rare mixture of talent, class, and kindness. Why not allow a little Howard into your life? Pick up a copy of his warm and informative book, "Animation: The Whole Story."

I may have started with Walt and Chuck, but that was only because I hadn't yet met Howard.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Ignoring the Poison Mentors

When I started working at Nickelodeon, my first experience on a series production, I was struggling to master my job and stay on schedule. So I came in early for a few days to get a leg up on the work. One of those mornings, an animator 10 years older than me came by my desk and warned me how foolish I was to give the series extra time and effort. In his eyes, the company didn't deserve it and if I continued to do this, I was a sucker. I decided not to call him out on being early himself and instead explained that I was only putting in a little extra time until I got a handle on the job. He still shook his head as if I was making a huge mistake. Then he said some very unkind things about the production and its leaders. He was a very bitter employee who quit the production very soon thereafter.

Another employee kept taking me out for coffee to complain about the production, ranting that nobody knew what they were doing. These encounters made me sad because I had started this job with such excitement. Although I was new to this production and only two and half years into my career at that time, I had the suspicion that the anger and frustration I was hearing had little to do with the series. There is no single way to react to any workplace situation. I found that in most cases the problems had to do with the individuals own inability to properly communicate or collaborate with others. A more rational person would have understood that because the production was one of the first digital in-house animated series in its first season, it was still working through its natural growing pains.

I remember a meeting with the creators/producers where the bitter employee who liked to take me on those "coffee walks" exploded into a rage over being asked to move a couple of characters a few pixels to the right. He slammed his palm on a TV monitor and shouted at the creators. There was no good reason why the characters couldn't be nudged over so this employee's reaction was way out of proportion. In fact, he quit the production a few weeks later.

Since my time on this series, I've worked on a half dozen more while also having the benefit of hearing about work conditions on other series produced elsewhere. The conditions at this first series stack up very well against the best situations I have personally experienced or heard about. More evidence that these negative people were primarily projecting their own inner demons on the young and well-meaning production. Certainly there have been conditions in this town that have been worth such a negative reaction and beyond, so by no means I am suggesting that every situation can be made workable simply by holding a good attitude.

The bottom line is that despite the efforts of these misguided mentors, I didn't become disenchanted with the production. In those important first weeks, I was too busy learning my job, which included my first experience working on a Mac. I tried to be a sponge soaking up all the technical and creative nuances of the show, which were taught to me by the many talented and terrific artists on the staff. By the end of those eventful first two weeks, the producers called me into their office and surprised me with a $100 a week raise. It was such a victory over negativity, and it showed me that (under agreeable circumstances) each employee can define his or her own experience on a job.