Monday, August 31, 2009

Making a Living Versus Living

*Enjoying a movie at Notting Hill's Electric Cinema. This is the only way to see a movie...

My wife and I just flew back from a week in London and this is where I could write, "and boy are our arms tired." While we were planning this trip, some of my NY animation friends asked if I was going to set up any animation meetings while we were there. That was the furthest thing from my mind, but our trip was not completed unconnected to animation.

For one thing, our friend Sophie Lodge (a London-based 3D animator who animated on Peter Jackson's "King Kong," and "Return of the King,") lent us her flat which was smack in the middle of Knotting Hill. No, we never did bump into Hugh Grant but, we did see actor Josh Brolin at a screening of "Inglorious Basterds" at the neighborhood's Electric Cinema. The movie theatre is a restored 100 year old cinema with the seats ripped out and replaced with cushy individual leather armchairs. There's a full service bar, posh snacks, and terrific popcorn to boot. I highly recommend it.

This vacation was a chance for Debbie and I to be tourists and catch up with our friends Sophie Lodge, Steve May, and Yasmine Ismail, all animators who we had first met at the Hiroshima International Animation Festival the year before. But, the week long trip did not devolve into a 7-day shop-talk. We are all friends first and connected by animation second. And, Debbie and I were deeply grateful for their hospitality and generosity. With their advice (along with the recommendations of Justin and Emma Simonich) we took a boat ride up the Thames to Greenwich, explored Kensington Gardens, wandered the British Museum, walked through the creepy and claustrophobia inducing Sir John Soane's museum, stared history in the eye at the Tower of London, and dashed around the tube using our multi-ride Oyster cards (their version of the MTA's metro-card).

We also traced the steps of Jack the Ripper in White Chapel (where we enjoyed Indian food and the London take on the Bagel– spelled Beigel), had amazing Thai food in Notting Hill, and walked the bustling Saturday market at Portobello Road. And, to top it off, we rode the London Eye, filled our mouths with fish, chips, bangers and mash, and washed it down with more hard ciders than you could shake a stick at (Assuming that some like to shake sticks at their drinks.)

But, back to the assumption that this trip would include official animation meetings. I think that suggestion says a lot about us animation artists. We are a lucky lot. Even our getaways might be thinly veiled excuses to set up meetings, pitch projects, and otherwise network. For many of us, animation is more than just what we do for a living. It's much deeper than that. It's a passion that doesn't die at the end of the work day. But, while this may be true much of the time, it shouldn't be so all of the time. As Nina Paley said in a quote from my first book, "There's making a living, and there's living." So, to paraphrase Nina, not everything is animation. Either way, when you work in the creative arts, your personal experiences become a part of you that will come out in your art.

We had an interesting experience taking in the play "A New World–A Life of Thomas Paine," at the famed Globe Theatre. As Americans it was a bit odd to be sitting with a mostly British audience and seeing a recreation of the American Revolutionary War, including such shouted lines as, "The hated British!" It was like being privy to a mirror view of American history that we wouldn't normally see. The focus of the play was not the great success of a noble cause but on how Paine's idealistic notions were exploited by the American rebels and later, the French revolutionaries, to serve their own causes.

But, sadly, the play managed to take all this history and make it a very dull ride. There were bright moments (in particular a wonderfully full blooded Ben Franklin) but, the problem was that this Paine was a one note character who could not sustain the four hour ride. According to the play's author, Paine ate liberty for breakfast, freedom for lunch, reform for dinner, and compassion for dessert. I wondered, did Paine ever play cards, go fishing, speak on other topics besides changing the world? Near the end of the trip I began to read Bob Dylan's autobiographical "Chronicles: Vol.1" (2004), and at one point, Dylan notes that nobody ever wrote a song about Al Capone because he was a one-note character in real life and not full of the nuances needed to make a good subject for a folk song. The animation equivalent of this problem would be to think that to design a character is the same as writing a character.

The "living" that Nina Paley speaks about is why one can connect and be enriched by such things as travel, theatre, and literature––three things one might miss if everything is animation.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Those Quiet Moments Floor Me

I just got back from seeing "Ponyo" and while I usually don't always comment on world releases in this blog, I feel moved to break that habit for this post.

Note: there are spoilers below if you haven't seen the film.

There's so much to be said about this terrific film, but for me it's the little quiet moments throughout "Ponyo" that make it truly special. Here's a round up of bits from the film that I still can't get out of my head:

-The Flood:
With most of the seaside town underwater, Ponyo and Sōsuke journey to find Sōsuke's mother in a little toy boat. There are lots of quiet moments of the two looking underwater and observing the new sea floor at their doorstep. Instead of it being terrifying to be in that water, Sōsuke's walk in the shallows (surrounded by a whole host of prehistoric fish swimming around him) was a thing of beauty. I particularly loved the subtle bit animation of a baby octopus slowly climbing its way into Sōsuke's home, perhaps showing nature asserting itself into our modern lives.

-The Bugs at the Shore:
Sōsuke climbs down to the ocean with a pail containing Ponyo (as a fish) and just foreground of him are these majestic seaside rocks. As Sōsuke gets closer we see a herd of rock dwelling bugs scatter about, reminding us that in this film there are world's within worlds and these worlds constantly interact with our own.

-Ponyo and the Baby:
Ponyo and Sōsuke come across a young family with a new born baby and there's a wonderful sequence where Ponyo and the baby stare into each other's eyes. In many ways Ponyo is a baby herself, just learning what it's like to live as little human girl, so the gaze between these two characters is particularly poignant. Miyazaki gives us long close ups of the pair as Ponyo slowly registers wonder at the baby while the baby holds its ground cautiously. Before this sequence is over Ponyo pours a cup of soup for the baby and gives the parents a stack of sandwiches. I saw the movie with Jason McDonald and afterwards he remarked, "What a sequence! A very human moment of people helping each other." I think we both got goosebumps discussing this. We so seldom see people connecting with each other in a real and meaningful way in an animated children's feature film.

-Ponyo spilling water out of the boat:
Once the Ponyo and Sōsuke make it ashore, there's a scene where Ponyo grabs the little toy boat out of the water and tips it so the water can spill out. Its such an ordinary moment, but full of natural innocence. This is the opposite of a cliched animated performance. It's moments like this that help a character become real to the audience's eyes.

***for a far more comprehensive look at Ponyo, I highly recommend Michael Sporn's Splog ( post of August 18.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The art of Adrian Urquidez and Jason McDonald

I've been running a sort of virtual home studio for the last few years and the best part of this operation is that it gives me the opportunity to work with a lot of talented friends. For this post, I'd like to throw a spotlight on two terrific and versatile animation artists. When the Boston-based Clambake Animation (run by partners Carl Adams, Andre Lyman, and Carrie Snyder) engaged me to direct season 2 of "Assy McGee," it afforded me the opportunity to once again work with my good friends Adrian Urquidez and Jason McDonald.

We first met as co-workers at Michael Sporn's studio in the mid ’90s. With all of the crew working so closely together, the family atmosphere of the studio was conducive to lasting friendships. Jason is a fine designer and storyboard artist who left his stamp on many a Sporn production. At Sporn's, Adrian was a jack of all trades who also grew into a hell of a production manager.

On "Assy McGee" season 2, Adrian created half of the demanding and challenging background art, while Jason tackled almost all the character designs along with many of the props. The two of them did a smashing job on the quirky series, and I've been privileged to work with them on subsequent projects. Since "Assy" wrapped, Jason storyboarded my most recent short, "Owl and Rabbit Play Checkers," and Adrian just finished assisting me on a project for Sesame Workshop.

I'm delighted to share some of Adrian's and Jason's fine work on "Assy McGee" below, made for the Carnival-themed episode. Enjoy...

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Creative Currency

There's a lot of bad information about pitching and development out there and one myth I want to address is that developing and pitching projects is a waste of time. It's easy for development executives to tell you how much they love your project and want to make it happen, but then never contact you again. Even when the rug is pulled out from under you, only YOU decide if the process has been a waste of time.

To develop a pitch is to develop your voice as a writer and an artist. Even being strung along by an insincere development executive (no, they are not all insincere) doesn't change the fact that you created something that you may take with you to greener pastures. Something like this happened to me recently.

My collaborator and musician extraordinaire, Bob Charde, and I have been meetings with various networks and entertainment companies to present ourselves as a creative duo. Typically we have a casual chat with the execs and then screen DVDs of our films, "Good Morning" and "Owl and Rabbit." One such meeting ended with an enthusiastic executive asking us to retool the characters from one of our films into a different format. We left inspired and immediately brainstormed the possibilities over coffee. Within a week we had three options to pitch to the exec. But, as it often goes, the exec had cooled off to the idea by this time.

Were we strung along? Did this exec waste our time? Is this yet more evidence why someone should never even bother trying? It could be, but it wasn't for us. Now we had three new series options to pitch with our film's characters. And that sure came in handy a few weeks later when a major network e-mailed asking us to pitch an interstitial tailored to a specific theme. Coincidentally, one of our concepts dovetailed nicely into this network's proposal. With that we are throwing the pitch dice again. I share this story because I think it's evidence that pitching is only a waste of time when you choose to pin all your hopes on one idea or on one particular opportunity or executive.

I have come to believe that development executives will always let you down; not that they intend to but there's just no way they could ever be as excited about your project as you are. And in turn, most creators they strike deals with probably disappoint the executives since it's got to be tough to live up to what an exec might imagine your project to be before it's made. In the end, it's up to you to make sure that pitching isn't a waste of time. All your efforts travel with you and build up your creative currency over time.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Intellectual Curiosity

Years ago I went to a free concert in Central Park where Jonathan Richman opened for Randy Newman. At the conclusion of the show, a friend of mine remarked, "If this had been a talent contest, Newman would have easily won." I had the same feeling after back-to-back film festivals at BAM on Sunday (Animation Block Party's 6:50 PM show) and Monday (The 47th Ann Arbor Film Festival, Traveling Tour 2009), with animation as the definite loser.

Don't get me wrong... there were some bright moments at the ABP show (and in all fairness I only saw one of their many programs), but just about every entry was bogged down with the trappings of pop culture, animation self-referencing, and light-weight themes and ideas. None offered much (or any) insight into important issues, the state of world, the human condition, or even simple human relationships.

Despite endless possibilities, many animation artists would rather contemplate how to use any story set-up as an excuse to create an epic fight scene. Among the most technically polished pieces in the ABP show was a seemingly endless film that featured a pint-sized character rambling on and on in a post-game locker room. The attractive design work and subtle character animation were not enough to generate interest in the tedious film. Can you imagine a live action equivalent, with great lighting, art direction and cinematography but no story, just a guy rambling on and on? If you're doing a narrative film, it’s not enough to have good animation or high production values. A narrative film requires structure and interesting characters working through something the audience can relate to.

Obviously, animators making a film have a right to make anything they want, and it’s also true that what I don't appreciate could still work for somebody else. I don't mean to knock an individual film or filmmaker or ABP, but I am interested in pondering what these films say about us as a community of animation artists. A personal film has the opportunity to explore areas that a big budget theatrical animation or an animated TV series couldn't touch. But, many personal films are love letters to those very institutions, repeating themes and scenes and jokes we’ve seen before, with the effect of diminishing returns.

It’s ironic that animators are the first to defend the potential of their medium and are also the least likely to exploit it. What does it say about us that we are more concerned with getting a cheap laugh or recreating a fight scene from “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” than we are about really saying something? The ABP has a significant amount of student films, which are graduation requirements for their makers. Are they evidence of a population of serious art students ready to absorb and then build on what came before? Or did they pursue animation for different reasons entirely? We all make films to express something, and my thesis film expressed my desire to write an effective story from beginning to end. What some of these student animators are choosing to express does not give me hope that they have the needed intellectual curiosity to create work that will surprise the older generations like mine and inspire the generations after them.

An example of surprising and inspiring animation, not to mention gut-wrenching, was something I saw, not at the animation festival, but in the Ann Arbor program.. a short called "Passages" (pictured above), which was an animated documentary by documentary filmmaker and animator Marie-Josée Saint-Pierre about the real life horror of a baby delivery gone wrong. This film reminds that animation can be an effective tool for dramatic purposes and storytelling.

Other Ann Arbor highlights included a winning pair of live action films, one a spotlight on urban decay in present-day Detroit ("A City to Yourself"), and the other a disturbingly voyeuristic look into the isolated inhabitants of a German apartment building ("Six Apartments").

It's now a week after these Sunday and Monday screenings and while nothing of substance remains in my head from the ABP, the Ann Arbor films have permanently nested in my brain. They make me want to be a better filmmaker––to make personal work that says something about the world.