Thursday, September 24, 2009

Why Ask Why?

At the New York panel event to launch my new book, Amid Amidi advised the audience to ask themselves, "Why do I want to have my own TV show?" It's an important question for any would-be creator to answer because your motivation can help determine whether or not you should expend your energies toward that goal. As creative people we have a choice of where to spend that most precious of resources—time. The options we have and the distractions that might pull us away are innumerable. But if we ask ourselves "why?" before beginning a creative project, we might find a clear reason to see the project through and eliminate all the other possibilities.

It's just as important that we ask "why" we want to make an independent film. I've made two films with the sole motivation of wanting others in the industry to take me seriously as a viable creator for a TV series. Not surprisingly these are my least successful films. Neither one connected with an audience nor did they win the validation I was seeking.

When I made the film "Good Morning," I wasn't setting out to make a breakthrough indie film, see it aired on Noggin or accepted into the Hiroshima International Animation Festival, but that's what happened with this heartfelt film. I was coming out of melancholy period in my life and something from inside drove me to make that film. When I started it, the film was only going to be something to share with my wife. The first eight seconds were animated while she was busy in another room and I couldn't wait to share this animation with her. Showing it to anyone else was an afterthought.

My wife recently made a film and had a similar experience. While she's a creative person with diverse talents, she wasn't planning on making a film, let alone a 50-minute documentary over a two-year production time, but that's just what she ended up doing. Why? What was her motivation to devote so many hours, days, and weeks, as well as pour personal expense into this project? And, what motivated her to stay the course through each thankless and unglamorous stage that stood between her and the finished film?

She hadn't set out to make this film or any other film. But, when she saw a couple of performances by the all-female sketch comedy group, and met with the group members she felt compelled to document them and their work. She didn't know what she'd end up with; it was simply something she wanted to do.

When I first saw her picture lock, it was a very emotional moment. Besides my personal connection to the filmmaker and her sacrifices to make this film, I was deeply moved by the experiences of the four members of the troupe. On the simplest level, it's the story of a group of creative people trying to reach a goal and how the industry—and life in general--can put up endless obstacles. At the end of such journeys, very few look back from the vantage of wild success, but as creative people there is victory in being in the game and in knowing that there is another project, film, or pitch in us.

[I'm thrilled that a festival audience will soon have the chance to see my wife's film, "Desperate for a Laugh" at its official world premiere at the 6th Annual Big Apple Film Festival (BAFF), taking place on November 3-7 at the Tribeca Cinemas in New York City. ]

Sunday, September 20, 2009

An old idea/A new film

*above images showing some emotional moments from my new film-in-progress.

One of the things I cherish most about working from home is that it allows me more time on personal independent projects. Right now I'm teaching a class at NYU called Intermediate Animation Production, and the goal is that students complete a one minute film over the 15 week term. Over the summer I got the idea that it might be fun to make my own film alongside the students. The weekly homework reviews would give me deadlines to hit and ensure that I'd have new finished film by December. I'm hoping the students get a kick out of giving me notes, too! And, I don't doubt that the feedback could prove instructional for the class as well as helpful to my film.

For the film, I selected an old idea of mine called Keisha Katterpillar. The simple story concerns the titular character's hurry to grow up and get her butterfly wings so she can be just like her older brother Karl. The catterpillar/butterfly scenario is well-traveled territory, but my approach is to focus on Keisha's resourceful imagination to show how she thinks her problem through to try and achieve (what we know is) the impossible. And, through Keisha's problem, show how her family comes together to be there for her.

It was very enlightening to revisit the old material. For one, there was a lot of extra dialogue and description in the script that I was able to trim (something that would have helped my last film!). Frequent readers of this blog will know that I'm a big advocate of self imposed rules on an independent film. Rules help speed up the process of elimination and this is important because what to leave out shapes what to leave in.

A couple of important rules immediately sprang to the surface as I prepared a storyboard. The first rule I made was to limit the film to four scenes or acts with only four backgrounds or locations. Although, I might change my mind, right now I'm thinking that there will be no camera work/pans/zooms, etc. And, no cuts either. I plan to animate the transitions between scenes and keep Keisha's position consistent in the bridge between each scene. This further emphasizes her as THE character. I also used a round window shape in the first scene to reappear as a bathroom mirror or family portrait in subsequent scenes. I'm hoping this repeating bit of the layout further helps further anchor the transitions.

I hadn't intended to make yet another children's film, but there is something in this story that is still calling to me five years later, so the timing seems right to give it a try. And, I've been encouraged by the success of my other recent children's films. In October I'm going to attend The Chicago International Children's Film Festival where two of my films were accepted into competition: "Owl and Rabbit Play Checkers," and Iwanna Wanda in "Don't Wanna Brush." The latter is my newest film made for a client who hired me after seeing my other recent children's film, "Good Morning." These children's films have been a joy to make, a major creative challenge, and have opened up a lot of great commercial opportunities. While nobody has an exact road map of what they should do next, I'm beginning to think that I'm spending my creative energies in the right place.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Commercial Calamity

During my research for a third animation book I'm writing, I came across this cautionary tale about a local commercial animation production. Commercials are one area of animation where I have almost no experience, and stories like the one below make me grateful for that.

An animator started on a commercial and (on the first day) discovered there was no storyboard, no animatic, and the animation director (a live action director that had never worked in animation) was out of town and out of touch. The problems that transpired in the days that followed are what you might imagine. There was no guiding vision for animators to follow. What they tried on one day would be overruled the next. And not only was there no process in terms of storyboards and production pipeline, the producer at the helm bowed to every client note and demand––pushing it all to the animators to pull off a miracle, at one point even asking them to re-animate the entire job from scratch in less than a week. And, best of all, no matter how many times the animators tried to explain their needs to the producer, he never once listened. I can't think of worse animation work-place scenarios sans physical violence or verbal abuse.

The above example is all the more shameful because the short turnaround time of an animated commercial greatly depends upon an efficient production process with all goals clearly defined to steer a crew to a proper finish. When the basic needs of the crew are ignored, they can't possibly do their best, and their morale will suffer along with the work. A commercial schedule does not allow for the luxury of time to sort this all out. A production has to have a running start and be fast reacting to any hitches along the way. Producers and Directors share a responsibility not only to the work, but also to the workers. Yes, the finished animated product must speak for itself, but the battles fought and lost by the crew in the example above are ones that need not happen in the first place. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel (which is itself a common production process mistake), this commercial job existed as if there was no such thing as a wheel. Somewhere a Geico caveman is crying.

I wonder how many producers or directors would admit to being the obstacle that they might be. If you are one of these producers, would you want a builder to build you a house without first making a blue print? Or to start building a frame without pouring a foundation? Would you want someone with no experience in plumbing to connect your toilet? Someone with no knowledge of wiring to ready your house for electricity? You get the point, right? So, if all these things are painfully obvious, how could you allow a production without a process? How could you ask a crew to start animation without an animatic? How could you ask them to animate without clear direction? And, how could you allow a client to give any note they wish at any stage of the production regardless to how it may impact the deadline or costs? How can you hire animators and animation artists for their expertise but, at the same time, ignore all their expert advice on how to make the production run smoother? And, how could you ask the animation crew to work with all these handicaps and pull off a miracle? Now go stand in the corner and think about what you've done.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Book Week

Note: above image was the logo from my first pitch to score a network deal.

We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore! That was the original title for my new book, but the publisher convinced me it might be a good idea to have the word "animation" in the title, and so it became "Animation Development: From Pitch to Production." And, since the book hits shelves on Tuesday September 8, it's much too late to change our minds.

In all seriousness, is there anyone among us who doesn't believe the system for pitching and development is seriously flawed? Even the development executives interviewed for my book know this is so, admitting that the way networks green light and develop animated ideas into pilots and series is too slow. Well, that's a start, but its certainly not the only problem. Not only is the process by which networks review and develop projects slow, it's also often expensive, wasteful, and rife with the wrong people in charge––giving the wrong notes, making the wrong decisions, and otherwise getting in the way of the process in any number of ways. Oy!

So what is the appeal? Why should anyone want to stick their head into the network lion's mouth and pitch a project? In the world of pitching and development, even the best scenario is filled with potential pitfalls. In 2007, I landed my first development deal for a preschool project I created called "Fiona Finds Out." It was sort of a preschool "Myth-busters," allowing the home viewer to learn and play along as Fiona (a pint-sized Owl with an inquisitive mind) and her friend Buster (a flighty bat who believes if it looks like a duck it's a duck, without waiting to see if it walks like a duck or sounds like a duck) debunked preschool sized myths such as: Is there a monster under my bed? Will I grow a watermelon in my stomach if I swallow a watermelon seed? Etc...

Despite what I thought was a no-brainer of a creation, the first pitch went terrible. Imagine my surprise when I saw that one of the development execs at the meeting was someone who had also created a pilot that year. Knowing how the network did business, this meant that if she were to green light my project it would put me in direct competition with her own pilot's chance to go to series. And sure enough, she worked hard to poke holes in my pitch during the meeting. Outside of her response, the rest of the execs weren't that warm to the project either. The pitch went over like a lead balloon.

For a couple of months the pitch just sat on the shelf, until I thought to show it another network. I emailed that network's development exec but was shocked to read her response. "I don't want to look at another network's rejects. I don't like being second banana. Why didn't you come to me first?" she asked.

As Charlie Brown might say, "Good grief!" I thought the exec was acting a touch irrational so I decided to write her back some words of reason: "I went to the other network first because I had a long term relationship with them. They rejected my project because they have very specific needs and I had created something outside of that box. I don't believe your network is second banana to anyone. Your network is the one that set the standard all the others follow. I hope you reconsider taking a look at my project. I'd love to show it to you."

Surprisingly, she wrote back immediately: "You're right. Sorry about that. Yes, I'd love to see your project."

I decided to email her all my pitch elements instead of sitting through another bad pitch meeting. A few weeks later she read my materials while on a flight and wrote, "I like this... a lot." She wanted to show it to her network president when he was in town later that month. I asked if she wanted me to be there for that meeting but she felt more comfortable just casually showing the project to the president on her own. I trusted her judgement.

Two weeks later she emailed with the great news that they were offering me a deal and wanted to put my project into shorts (or interstitial development) with the goal of making six shorts that could be aired in-between other programming, a sort of mini series that could test out the viability of my series. I was delighted and quickly engaged the services of a lawyer to negotiate the deal.

While we were waiting for the contract to appear I got a call from the network's L.A. office, where a different exec wanted to speak to me about my project. "I really like this and think it could be great."

I waited for the "but."

"But," (she didn't disappoint) it's a pass because we already have something like it going to series this Fall."

Very calmly I explained that I was confused because at this very moment a contract was being drawn up and my project had been green-lighted by a NY exec under the guidance of the network president. I could see her face grow scarlet even over the phone. "Oh, I'm so sorry. Please ignore this call. My mistake."

The NY-based exec (the one who had green lighted my deal) left me a voice mail apologizing up and down about the misunderstanding with the L.A. office. She assured me that we were still on and that a contract was underway. And, indeed it was. But, what a reminder about the trappings of development in the mean time! A creator's first lesson is to manage his own expectations, to proceed with each stage knowing that it's only real when it's real.

My lawyer negotiated a great deal for me and over the year-long first option period, I wrote all six scripts which were met with approval. My exec called on a Friday and asked me to start contacting some local studios so we could start getting bids on the shorts. We were going to start production soon. But, by Monday (as it so often happens) the wind changed and the same exec called with the bad news that they weren't going to make my shorts after all because the network didn't want a science-based series right now.

The roller coaster ride of this project was over and I appreciate it for what it was. For a year the network paid me very generously to further develop my project and write six scripts. Not a bad thing by any standard. And shortly after they axed my project, the same exec brought me in as a head writer to develop a subsequent series at a giant media company. Even when a project dies, there's still value to the experience––new career notches for the resume.

"Fiona Finds Out" was squashed before pilot but, it was but one opportunity. I'm not naive enough to believe that one day the networks' development processes will be foolproof. The entertainment business has always had its share of short sighted people, more afraid of losing their jobs by making waves than they are passionate to champion what might be the next big thing. But, so what? Somebody is going to breakthrough with the next "SpongeBob," "SouthPark," or "Simpsons," and that someone won't have been scared off by the seeming futility of it all. That someone could be you, and it is the key goal of my book to increase all our chances for a direct hit.

As long winded as this post has been, it's merely the tip of the ice berg on the subject. To expand the conversation, I invite you to join us on September 15, Tuesday at 7 PM at SVA, 209 E. 23rd Street, 3rd Floor amphitheater for a special panel discussion/book signing to mark the release of "Animation Development: From Pitch to Production," featuring panelists: Carl W. Adams (co-creator of Assy McGee), Amid Amidi (, Janice Burgess (creator of Backyardigans), Fran Krause (creator), and Debra Solomon (creator). Hope to see you there!