Friday, November 27, 2009

The Smarts of Saldanha

Last week I went to a School of Visual Arts event: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs: An Evening with Director Carlos Saldanha. The young director, who began his education in the computer animation department at SVA, has directed a handful of successful features during his long time residency at Blue Sky. His career is of particular interest to me since we attended SVA at roughly the same time. Unfortunately we had never met because the traditional animation department never mingled with the computer animation department. And, at the time, a career doing animation on computers was the last thing I wanted to do. How ironic that I now make my entire livelihood staring at my trusty Wacom Cintiq.

But, what I could relate to were Saldanha's career stories. To start with, he moved to NYC from Brazil at age 16 to attend SVA. But, travel alone doesn't tell the whole story of his ambition. As a student and a teacher I can attest to some students that traveled half way around the world and had no more drive, passion, or work ethic than a piece of aluminum siding. But, Saldanha was different. His former instructor at SVA told us that while most students delivered 10 seconds of animation in the semester, Saldanha completed one and a 1/2 mintutes.

"I couldn't believe that there were thirty computers in that room and nobody was using them. Everyone would just leave at the end of class. If this room of computers was in Brazil, people would have been kicking and screaming to get in there," Saldanha recalled. With all those empty computer stations sitting around, he was able to network them together––allowing him to achieve better results out of the slow machines.

A student in the audience asked Saldanha if traveling to NYC had made the difference. Was it the secret to his productivity? "No," he answered. "It could have been the same story if I had come from the South Bronx. The point was that I had no access to computers and then I did." In other words, Saldanha was in that breed of student that appreciates the opportunity before him. He seized it, worked his ass off, and went on to achieve big things.

His next important career moment came when he was about to graduate. He had the opportunity to work at the big shops in Hollywood, but he saw something special in Blue Sky, which was then a fledgling studio. He saw the chance to grow with the smaller company, believing that it had great potential. "I wanted to be their soldier, helping them achieve their dream to do big things," he said. I love that Saldanha had a philosophy about where he wanted to work. So often, young graduates don't even dare think about where they want to work. Instead they simply look for any openings anywhere. And, obviously, in today's economy, you can't really blame them. But, it would be good to remember that when looking for your first break, it is best to start searching where you want to work. Who is doing the kind of work you'd like to be doing?

His final career story was how he got his first opportunity to direct. He had been animating on commercials for a while when a commercial came in with a lousy budget and schedule. Nobody else wanted to touch it, so Saldanha volunteered to direct the spot––fitting it into his already busy schedule and at no extra compensation. And, with that sample under his belt, he became a director heading down the road that would lead him to helm many successful features at Blue Sky.

As much as it is useful in a blog entry to simplify someone's journey into three career moments, it really isn't as simple as that. These are not a series of plug and play moments that anyone can graft on to his/her own career and expect the same result. But, if I had to boil down Saldanha's path to success I would say that he worked harder than anyone else and took fate into his own hands to help nurture (what would turn out to be) his most important opportunities.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Staying in the Game

There's nothing that can tell you where or when career opportunities will arise. Some times you're not ready for them and some times someone else will tell you you're not ready. In either case, there's something to be said for hanging in there (baby) and developing the skills that would have gotten you the job.

In 2004, when there were only a few weeks left to go on my job directing animation on "Blue's Clues," a friend gave me the tip that Scholastic had just organized their own in-house studio to handle a big series order of their new show "Maya & Miguel." The show's producer, who was from Los Angeles, had to quickly familiarize herself with New York's animation talent pool and staff the show from scratch. I got a cool reception from her at my interview because my digital animation experience wouldn't be useful for her X-Sheet-based traditional production model of sending all the animation overseas. She asked me if I had any experience with X-Sheets. I told her I had timed some sheets for a direct-to-video project at Michael Sporn's studio that had been animated out of house. How long I was assigned to the sheets? Three or four weeks, I replied. That wasn't enough experience, so instead she offered me the opportunity to take a storyboard test. In looking through the model packs of characters and backgrounds, and a sample of a finished board, I realized the job wasn't going to be a good fit. I didn't have the skills to draw the cinematic angles with complex perspectives that seemed to be in every scene. Slightly disappointed, I politely declined and thought that was the end of it. No harm done. It would be someone else's great opportunity.

After "Blue's Clues" ended, I was lucky enough to land a few months of freelance work right away. During that time a producer of an 11-minute preschool TV pilot rang me up and asked if I had any experience doing X-Sheets. Déjà vu. Not setting my expectations too high, I gave him the same answer I had given the "Maya & Miguel" producer, but in this case I was hired on the spot. The pilot turned out great and now I had 11 minutes of sheet directing to my credit.

A few months later, I got another call from "Maya & Miguel." Former MTV Animation producer Machi Tantillo had replaced the previous producer on the series and she needed help checking X-Sheets before the shows could be sent overseas. I was hired to check a half-hour episode and tried to go above and beyond what was asked. When I presented my work, series director Tony Kluck noticed my extra effort. He was particularly happy with the eyebrow and eye acting I had added. They gave me several more episodes to check and even offered me a full-time job as the show's assistant director. In the end, I didn't take that position (or a similar job on Scholastic's other series, "Clifford the Big Red Dog") because I accepted a directing position on a Flash series for Cartoon Pizza.

It was more than gratifying to go from being unqualified to qualified within a six-month period, and to know that I got there by hanging in there and proving I could.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Just on the Horizon

Leonard Maltin's "Of Mice and Magic" remains one of my favorite books ever written about animation. Where else can you read entire histories of the animated output of Famous Studios, Terrytoons, Columbia/Screen Gems, UPA, and so on. When Howard Beckerman assigned our History of Animation class this book, I had no idea that I'd end up reading it 25 times (no exaggeration) or that it would provide decades of inspiration as the most useful research tool in my library.

"Of Mice and Magic" leaves off in 1986 when the most recent news item was the success of "An American Tale." As hindsight shows us, just on the horizon was "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?," the '90s Disney renaissance, "The Simpsons," Nicktoons, Cartoon Network, the modern preschool explosion starting with "Blue's Clues," and the edgy groundbreaker "South Park" followed by the ongoing success of the Adult Swim line up.

In 1986's "Of Mice and Magic" Pixar is not even a gleam in John Lasseter's eye, nor is Lasseter even mentioned. Disney is the only company that can make a financially (or even creatively) successful feature with the possible exception "The Yellow Submarine." Dreamworks doesn't exist. There is no Bill Plympton, Don Hertzfeldt, Spike and Mike Festival, or MTV Animation…yet.

In the frozen-in-time end of Maltin's book, there are virtually no signs of hope that this second "golden age" was imminent. And, even when it began to arrive, as late as 1992, I still had instructors at SVA tell me there was no work available in animation. The 1986 "Of Mice and Magic" allows us to compare everything past, present, and future to what is considered The Golden Age of Animation, and while that standard of measurement will not go away any time soon, it is no longer the only comparison point. Now we have the 1990s animation boom to examine, which trickled into this decade despite the dot-com bubble burst, the terror attacks on 9/11, and the economic collapse.

We don't know what will create the next golden age, but our industry is stronger than it was in 1986. For one thing, Disney is no longer the only company that can make a successful feature. (In fact, it has something to prove with its upcoming "Princess and the Frog.") In 2009, the animated feature is now an institution, something as durable as the action film or the romantic comedy and usually out-earning both at the box office. On TV, even if you're not a fan of Seth MacFarlane's block of animated prime-time shows, they keep the public seeing animation "for adults" on a nightly basis. Programming is no longer limited to movies theaters and TV, and the internet is no longer just a place for free exposure. pays animators to make films it can distribute or broadcast on its website. I'm wrapping up a series of paid shorts made for an iTunes podcast. And, let's not forget the indie animated feature revolution; not only have individual artists such as Bill Plympton and Nina Paley made features, but low-cost animated features are also being made and distributed worldwide to theatrical release. Compare these factors to what looked possible in 1986 and you might conclude that we're sitting pretty for the advent of the third golden age.

But then again, "sitting pretty" is never the way to make something happen. Just because we chose to work in this industry doesn't entitle us to a smooth ride. Our livelihoods and career satisfaction are ours to make. We do this by being aware of the possibilities and taking our future into our own hands. The health of our industry does not live in the headlines of "Variety," it starts at your desk.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Limited Animation vs. Drawing Movement

Michael Sporn wrote a great post last week about limited animation and it got me thinking about my feelings on the subject. The limited animation I love (Dr. Katz, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, South Park) tends to rely on incredibly strong writing and/or soundtracks. When the right balance is struck, its hard to imagine these shows any other way. I certainly wouldn't want Dr. Katz to move like it was directed by Richard Williams. I don't need Dr. Katz to move at all.

My personal beef with limited animation began long before Flash came along. As an animation student, it was really disheartening to see so many of my classmates splitting their characters up into separate levels so they could do the least amount of work. Seldom did they split layers so to emphasize only one specific movement, which would be a justified use of the technique. They split up a character because it was a time-save, and it supplied the feeling that they were using professional studio techniques. After all, this was how commercial studio jobs were done, so why not work that way?

In the days of cel animation you could split up a character only so many times. After four or five cel levels a character would grey down the artwork so much that the scene could turn to mud. Now, when many think of 2D, they automatically think of Flash. In this program (or in any digital 2D animation program) we have unlimited layers. We can split up a character into a project or symbol that contains hundreds of individual bits of art. And this is the system that has taken over as the main way 2D animation is produced for TV and the web. And it's hard to argue with the economic benefits. Such a production system is ideal for both in-house and virtual studio production lines.

So what is my beef with limited animation? Or in particular, with most Flash animation? I find it incredibly dull to watch. There are no surprises. There's only a rigid character puppet made up of pieces that hinge at set anchor points. In short, when you animate with a puppet such as this, you are not only NOT DRAWING, you are specifically NOT DRAWING MOVEMENT. In worst of Flash animation, the animator makes poses and then adds mathematical tweens calculated by the computer. The result is as dull as it sounds.

The series of shorts that I'm making for Sesame Workshop requires me to work very quickly. I am completing each 30 second animated spot in one week's time. This breaks down into one day to build a storyboard animatic (including writing the spot!), one day to design the characters/background layouts, two days to animate, and one day to color/composite. With such a time crunch you could think that my only option would be to animate with Flash puppets, but I refuse to do so.

Instead, I draw everything directly on my cintiq. This saves a need for scanning and processing the scans. I draw in photoshop where I can select a nice pen tool that recreates the feeling of traditional drawing. And because I AM DRAWING, I can DRAW MOVEMENT. This means that I have a real shot at these spots looking visually exciting. When you draw, the process itself is spontaneous. Something magic can happen when you put pen to paper (or cintiq, in my case). I'm often surprised at the choices I make as I go. That keeps the process fun for me and on a fast paced schedule like this, having fun is very important.

Above are a set of stills from my latest Sesame Workshop film (background art by Adrian Urquidez). I cringe to think what the action would look like had I decided to use a Flash puppet. I really dig distortion in a character. I don't mind if a character goes off model as they move, since movement should be about a feeling (not a matter of mathematics). I wonder if the worst byproduct of all this Flash animation these days is that, through an emphasis on economy and ease, it encourages NOT THINKING. Maybe that's why my brain turns off when I watch it.