Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Last Decade at a Glance

According to my calender, we are on the eve of a new decade. If the 1990s saw an ever-increasing build up of animation jobs in NYC-area animation, the decade that followed could best be called a roller coaster. I have a tendency to measure the strength of our job market based on how many series are in production in town, simply because they create the most jobs. In 1990, there must have been few to no large productions going on. I know Michael Sporn was enjoying a fruitful and lengthy period of making half-hours for Weston Woods and HBO. It wouldn't be until the following year that Jim Jinkins' "Doug," would launch a return to full-blown series production here in New York City. Jinkins built his studio, Jumbo Pictures, around the show (series orders have a way of doing that). Two years later (after a first season produced at J.J. Sedelmaier), "Beavis and Butt-head" relocated to MTV Animation's first headquarters in 1515 Broadway.

In 1996, Nick Digital Animation grew up around its first major production, "Blue's Clues," soon followed by "Little Bill." The same year, Linda Simensky left Nickelodeon, for a job at Cartoon Network, thus leading to a Renaissance of NY animation series orders. Speaking of which, John R. Dilworth's "Courage the Cowardly Dog" caused the director to stretch his one-room Stretch Films into a whole floor. Near the end of the 90s, Xeth Feinberg rented a large space to handle the production of the Web series "Queer Duck," "Sheep in the Big City" brought series production to Curious Pictures, David Wachtenheim and Robert Marianetti founded their own studio partnership, animation wonderboy Aaron Augenblick started a studio in Brooklyn, and Blue Sky won an Oscar for their short film, "Bunny."

And, so the stage was set for the year 2000. Chances are you've already lived through the last ten years below, but either way here's a handy compilation list of the high and low points of the "Oughts" NY animation scene. Consider it a decade a glance, and feel free to comment with corrections and additions.

-The dot-com bubble burst ushers in the near year, forever ending the days when all you needed was a loft, a cappuccino machine, some business cards and WHAM! you were in business.
-Nick Jr's "Little Bill" ends its three year production span, during which it completed two seasons of shows. The show only begins to air in 2000, meaning the network can unveil "new" episodes for the next few years to come.
-The Oxygen channel debuts an animation division and closes it down the same year. Among the pilots produced is "KnitWits," starring Joan Rivers and created and animated at Buzzco, Associates, inc.
-Linda Simensky steps down as president of ASIFA-East, leading to some joker taking over for the next ten years.
-MTV Animation veteran, and creator of its series, "Downtown," Chris Prynoski, heads to L.A. and opens the studio Titmouse, Inc.

-The attacks on September 11, combined with the still lingering effects of the dot-com bubble burst cause a year-long production drought. Even NY's most resilient freelancers have difficulty finding work.
-MTV abruptly cancels production of "Celebrity Death Match," leaving puppets still frozen in their last last poses, ensuring that we'll never know who would win in a fight between Monica Lewinsky and Star Jones.
-"Blue's Clues" announces to its employees that it will cease production in 2003, giving its employees an almost unprecedented two-year notice.
-"Sheep in the Big City" wraps up production, but soon on deck is the long-running "Codename: Kids Next Door," created by Tom Warburton and also produced at Curious Pictures. Warburton's series won its chance to go to series on Cartoon Network's Big Pick Weekend, which featured another NY area pilot, The Krause brothers "Utica Cartoon."
-Noodlesoup Productions opens its doors, founded by several artists who met working at Jumbo Pictures.
-NY animation fixture Sue Perrotto, leaves for L.A. and begins a residency directing series at Cartoon Network.
-MTV shuts down its entire animation studio, including its fairly new MTV commercials division.

-Stretch Films wraps up "Courage the Cowardly Dog." The studio carries on in the same space working on small projects and pilots until 2006.
-The long-running Ink Tank studio, headed by famed illustrator R.O. Blechman, runs out of ink, closing shop after a troubled series production. The good news is that out of the inkwell is born Richard O' Connor and Brian O' Connell's Asterisk Animation studio, proving to be one of the more successful indie animation studios of the decade.
-Dancing Diablo, a Brooklyn-based studio created by designer Beatriz Ramos is founded, with a second office in Caracas, which I think is in Staten Island or something.
-Debra Solomon wraps up her animation on "Lizzie McGuire" (remember? That was the big show for girls before Hannah Montana) and debuts her second pilot for Cartoon Network, the half hour special, "Private Eye Princess."
-Blue Sky releases its first original full length animated feature and launches a franchise with "Ice Age," which is a mammoth it, (not to be confused with a Mamet hit, which would imply a screenplay by David Mamet).
-ASIFA-East presents an evening with Richard Williams to tie in with the launch of his book "The Animator's Survival Kit."
-Howard Beckerman unveils his long-awaited book, "Animation: The Whole Story," which is re-edited and republished a year later as the definitive edition on Allworth Press.

-Spike TV attempts a full block of prime-time animation in one stroke, leading to two in-house Flash animated series animated at Nick Digital, "Gary the Rat," and "This Just In." Neither find an audience, despite being the most brilliant creations in the history of mankind. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating here. A shake up of Spike TV's senior staff soon follows.
-Linda Simensky leaves Cartoon Network for PBS Kids, again, creating a ripple of production in the Big Apple for years to follow.
-NY author and animation guy Allan Neuwirth launches his book, "Makin' Toons: Inside the Most Popular Animated TV Shows and Movies," which acts as an unofficial sequel to Leonard Maltin's "Of Mice and Magic."

-Scholastic organizes it's own animation studio to handle two series, "Clifford the Puppy Years," and "Maya & Miguel," but does not continue once the shows have been delivered. But, with Harry Potter money fueling their empire, maybe they'll be back.
-Little Airplane begins its ascent, dominating the next five years of NY animation production with a stream of continuous work, staffed by an ever-changing flight crew.
-Signe Baumane helps organize a compilation of NY area animation called, Avoid Eye Contact. Vol.1, which features films by Bill Plympton, Mike Overbeck, John R. Dilworth, George Griffin, Pat Smith, and others.
-NY animation veteran, Yvette Kaplan departs for L.A. and lands into a directing gig on Mike Judge's "King of the Hill."
-ASIFA-East presents an evening with Ray Harryhausen to tie in with the launch of his book "Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life."
-Animation producer and historian Greg Ford produces master animator Mark Kausler's golden-age retro-themed "It's the Cat," a film completely produced without computers and shot on 35mm film. A sequel is in the works.

-Disney TV pulls the plug on "CatBot," a flash animated series in production at Funny Garbage, which after nearly a year of a production, is plagued by never-ending development notes. The production only manages to create a two-minute animation test. Some say on a quiet night you can still hear the muddled mews of "CatBot," but I think that's just silly.
-Curious Pictures does its first full scale digital series production with the flash-based "Little Einsteins," made for the Disney Channel. Their spin-off series, "Little Oppenheimers," never scores a pilot.
-Mo Willems departs from his job as head writer on "Codename: Kids Next Door," to concentrate on his successful slate of children's books. On his way home he spies a frustrated pigeon trying to drive a city bus and the wheels of inspiration soon turn.
-Michael Sporn launches his "splog," an informative daily animation blog, thus giving me something fun to read as I eat my morning cereal.
-Will Krause produces and directs the 2005 Ottawa International Animation Festival signal film, enlisting the support of nine area animators, all of whom get a pass to the festival, their name in lights, and a hug from Will.
-Bill Plympton, who not only made an original short for every year of this countdown (in addition to several features), scores his second Oscar nomination for his hilarious short, "Guard Dog."

-Out of the Blue Enterprises is co-founded by "Blue's Clues" co-creator Angela Santomero, leading to the creation of the mutli-season series, "Super Why" on PBS Kids.
-Cartoon Pizza, the continuation of Jumbo Pictures, goes guerilla when it leaves its 1 Lincoln Plaza headquarters and relocates to a few apartments scattered across the city. Season two of Jim Jinkin's series, "Pinky Dinky Doo," is animated in Canada, where its crew enjoy access to Tim Horton donuts on a daily basis.
-Noodlesoup Productions changes its name to World Leaders Entertainment, leaving one of its original founders (and namesake) Jeff Nodelman, to found Animagic (see 2007). The newly renamed studio had first considered the names: World Soup, Soup Leaders, and Leaders of Soup before settling on the soup-free World Leaders name.
-John Canemaker wins the Oscar for best animated short with his touching autobiographical film, "The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation."
-"Blue's Clues" celebrates its ten year (that's 70 in dog years!) anniversary with an hour long special and 10 additional episodes of its spin-off series, "Blue's Room."
-Background painter and fine artist, Liz Artinian, organizes the first "Too Art for TV," show, becoming a near-annual tradition, and giving animation artists an outlet to showcase their off-hours artwork.

-MTV animation tries a half-assed relaunch with the flash animated series, "Friday: The Animated Series." Half-assed in that––when the series wraps, only a trickle of episodes ever air––and in the worst time slot possible. A full-assed comeback plan is two years away.
-Animagic, a new studio linked to the Creative Group and Fangoria, starts production on "Nate the Great," a series for PBS Kids, but the show crashes to a halt when the studio's investors abruptly pull out. Before a first episode can even be finished, 75 animation artists, all of which believed they had two years of job security ahead of them were suddenly unemployed.
-Fred Seibert's company Frederator make their first foray into in-house animation production in NYC with a pair of Dan Meth created Web series' "The Meth Minute 39" and "Nite Fite."
-NY is home to three simultaneous Adult Swim series productions: "The Venture Brothers," "Super Jail," and "Assy McGee" (partially animated in NY for the Boston-based Clambake Animation.) MTV Animation, somewhere, is taking notice.
-An ad shot by Passion Pictures (for Sony Bravia) features the largest crew of stop motion animators ever assembled for an outdoor shoot, with animators working for a week and a half in the streets. The ad goes on to win the Golden Lion at Cannes.

-Amid Amidi, one half of, reverses a trend by moving to NYC after years of living in L.A.
-Animation Collective, named after the Borg Collective, and one of our biggest employers during the years 2003 to 2007, lays off its staff, leaving us to guess at its fate.
-Nick Digital Animation, the house that "Blue" built, officially shutters it's doors, temporarily halting its animated series "Team Umi-Zumi," which resurfaces the next year as a production at Curious Pictures, crushing my hopes that "Little Oppenheimers" will go to series.
-Robert Smigel ceases production of his hit-and-miss (writing-wise) "Saturday TV Funhouse" cartoons, which had provided over a decade of steady work to J.J. Sedelmaier, Tape House Toons, and Wachtenheim & Marianetti. Was this cartoon empire brought down by this?
-PBS Kids' "The Electric Company" relaunches, creating the need for new animated spots. (note: design above from one of my "Electric Company" spots)
-Nina Paley unveils "Sita Sings the Blues," a wonderful flash-animated indie feature, and ends up creating a new business model in the process.
-ASIFA-East hosts a panel moderated by Amid Amidi to spotlight the new trend of indie animated features, with a look at finished films and works-in-progress by Michael Sporn, Emily Hubley, Bill Plympton, Dan Kanemoto, and Tatia Rosenthal.
-A new series of language-based educational DVDs launches from a company called LanguageMate, and employs Robert Powers to direct. Language-based? Isn't everything language-based? Well, except Mummenschanz.
-Filmmaker brothers Mike and Tim Rauch debut with their touching award-winning short, "Germans in the Woods."
-Justin Simonich and Linda Beck start shooting a documentary on New York animation. Spoiler alert: The Krause brothers, who also completed a kick-ass pilot for Cartoon Network called "The Upstate Four," are more than ready for their close ups.
-Blue Sky Studios moves from New York to Connecticut, threatening to bring on an animation Ice Age in the Big Apple.
-Elliot Cowan arrives on the scene, bringing his self-penned indie series of Boxhead & Roundhead films with him, which he enters in 4,000 film festivals world wide.
-"One Stuck Duck," a collective of 7 animation artists is formed, for the purpose of making joint-film projects.

-Sesame Workshop undertakes a massive international project.
-Frederator and Starz Animation announce commitments to making low-cost animated feature films.
-New York City loses Tom Warburton and PES, along with promising newcomers Rebecca Sugar, Jake Armstrong, and Kat Morris to Los Angeles. In addition, Pat Smith goes on extended leave to teach animation in Asia. Meanwhile, John R. Dilworth returns from two years living and working in Spain, and arrives with a new short, "Rinky Dink."
-London's Handmade Films buys Animation Collective, setting it up as a joint venture with Nat Geo Kids.
-MTV Animation reorganizes its development department and announces its comeback plan.
-Suspected fraud at the Queens International Film festival is the talk of the town.
-Little Airplane wraps up its two most recent productions, releasing its crews onto the tarmac.
-San Francisco-based creator Loren Bouchard's excellent new pilot is produced in SF, animated in NYC, scores a series pick up at Fox, and goes into production in L.A.

***Whew! Glad that's over. Let's all work towards making this next decade as animated (and stable) as possible. Join forces, start partnerships, make films, pitch projects, create jobs, and be sure to get enough fiber in your diet. Onwards and upwards! Happy New Year to all!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Film Doesn't Lie. It Tells Stories.

Since we just got hit with a snowstorm, I thought it was high time that I posted my first indie film, "Snow Business." The production spanned the years' 1996-1998. I began the film while working at Michael Sporn's studio and I think the resulting film bear's that influence. And, since my co-designer on the film was long-term Sporn employee Jason McDonald, that was probably inevitable.

I graduated from SVA in 1995 and started working for Michael Sporn the day after graduation. I learned so much in the first two weeks there that I was immediately inspired to start channeling it into a first post-school film. While still in high school, I made about five 1 minute animated films which I shot on my dad's old super 8 MM camera. I shot the first film with only one 60 watt bulb illuminating the artwork. When I got the film back from the lab, the image was so dark that I had to shoot the whole thing again. I remember telling my lighting troubles to my high school art teacher who responded, "Film doesn't lie. It tells stories." I suppose my film told the story of bad lighting.

A year into working for Michael Sporn, I finally had an idea for a film I would be excited to make. I based the film on a key image: a snowman traveling down a hill on its own momentum and how that event would turn the characters lives upside down. But, as I described in a past post, it was only years later that I realized the film was deeper than that. A part of the film was autobiographical. Hint: I'm the boy in the film.

Although I started the film while working for Michael Sporn, I finished it as a staffer on Nick Jr.'s Blue's Clues. Making a film around the schedule of a full-time job is always a sacrifice, but I couldn't imagine not finishing it. "Snow Business" was animated on paper, colored with markers, and rubber cemented to cels, with the excess paper trimmed away with an X-acto blade. It was the technique I had learned at Sporn's and I had fun doing my own guerilla version of it within my Astoria apartment. I had two cats living with me so I had to kick them out of the room whenever I was preparing and handling the animation cels so not to get cat hair all over them.

One cold January morning I was walking two heavy box loads of animation cels to my cameraman, when I happened to notice Harrison Ford standing only 10 feet away about to cross the street in front of me. I winked at Mr. Ford. He winked back. True story. I remember thinking that this was some sort of good luck moment. Making an indie film, especially in the days of film, was a pretty brutal and thankless process. It involved a lot of expense (supplies, animation cells, film stock, camera fees, lab costs, color correction, transfers, dubs) not to mention the time of actually making the film. But, had I not gone through the effort I would have never had my moment with Harrison Ford. My only regret? Not warning him to stay away from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Making indie films tends to open up numerous commercial opportunities for their creators. In the last two years, my films helped me land 14 original animated spots for The Electric Company and Sesame Workshop. To be considered for this type of work one needs to have samples of their own animation. This is because only your original work will show a director's point of view or a filmmaker's execution. When The Electric Company relaunched in 2008, their producers wanted to work with a wider range of animators but were wary to engage animators whose reels contained only clips of animation from the same five series.

When you make films, you don't know exactly how and when it might impact your career. My only guide was a keen awareness that my heroes (Plympton, Griffin, Sporn, Dilworth, Beckerman, Schnall, Willems, etc.) made indie animated films. "Snow Business" is not a perfect (or even a great) film by any means, but it was my first step to achieving any type of permanence in this difficult industry. Despite the wintery subject matter, I'll always have a warm spot for this film.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Growing Work

*Above image from my final film for Sesame Workshop in 2009. The opportunity to make six films for them grew out of work I've done for their other divisions. Background art by Adrian Urquidez.

Here's something I've never put into writing before: I was a shift manager at McDonalds at the age of 16. I had keys to the store, the combination to the safe, and the responsibility of opening the store for many-a-weekend breakfast rush. Ah, the memories of a misspent youth.

As a shift manager, I would sometimes work the closing shift, where there was always a senior manager on duty. One night my boss was trying to get a leg up by shutting down the grill a 1/2 hour early. That way he could start cleaning the grill parts in the back sink and we could all get out of there a little sooner. Unfortunately, a final customer came in and ordered a burger. Since my manager was also the one working the grill that night, I had to ask him to make the burger. Reluctantly, he marched back to the grill with clean grill parts in hand and cooked the order. He was really mad and took it out on me, wining that I should have turned the customer away. In response I asked, "Are we in the business of closing the store or of serving the customer?" That was like pouring gasoline on a fire. He turned bright red and if looks could kill, my head would have been swimming with the french fried potatoes.

And, as much as I was an insufferable teen back then, I still think of that encounter, particularly how it relates to how us animators or animation studios find work. We all want to be in the business of growing work but we often behave as if we are going out of business. We do this when we don't stay connected to the community, grow new contacts, keep our skills up to date, keep up with new software, or value work above the relationships that are required to get that work and be invited back for more.

The hardest time to build a viable network of opportunity is at the start of a career because one has to begin everything from scratch: honing skills, establishing a reputation, and creating relationships. But, if the start of a career in animation has its challenges, longevity too, can work against us. A New York animation veteran of over two decades confided to me that the two people that used to give him steady work at one company have both since passed away. I find this to be good evidence that even when we are connected to the work stream it's still important to grow new connections. All sources of work eventually dry up. We need access to more than one watering hole.

I have always felt gratitude for every animation job I have ever landed, no matter how big or small, no matter how fat or lean the budget was. As I see it, getting to spend my life doing work I love with the people I love to work with is a privilege, not a right. And, it's a privilege that I work hard to earn and re-earn each and every day. I think when one sincerely holds that attitude one cannot help but to grow work, even in a business as difficult as ours.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Not Drinking the Kool-Aid

I went to a lecture given by a present day Disney animator whom, in response to a student asking him what he thought of Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner's claims that 2D animation was dead, answered, "2D didn't die. It just went underground." The audience (of mostly students) seemed to eat that up. Isn't it a tad bit funny that the animator answered one absurd statement with another? Underground is such an odd term. It makes me feel like a fugitive on the lamb. At any moments the cops could close in and declare me irrelevant. After all, my work is not up there on the silver screen. How dare I even exist?

Okay, okay... I'm getting a little carried away. But, let's accept (for a moment) the premise that any animation outside of Disney 2D feature animation is underground. That makes Disney the establishment. And it ain't never been cool to be that. Just ask a 1950's beatnik.

Secondly, Disney is in the nostalgia business. Creatively they are a dog chasing its tail––self-referencing up the yin yang. But what should it mean that animators are back at work making 2D Disney features? And, besides Walt's signature logo, what connection does the new film have to the company that lost its visionary leader in 1966?

The real power and excitement behind a new 2D Disney film is legacy––the illusion of continuity to something we loved. For a moment we could kid ourselves and imagine what it must have been like to be around in 1941, attending the premiere of Dumbo. That's the magic we want for our ticket money and that's impossible for today's Disney to deliver. But, they have the talent to deliver something new if only they were allowed to.

I don't agree with the misguided comments of Katzenberger, Eisner, nor the Disney animator that declared that 2D animation had gone underground. Instead, I'm with Ralph Bakshi who has said that Disney perpetuated a con on the animation world by suggesting that they were the only ones who knew how to make an animated feature––that it had to be done the Disney way. And, at the very least we can forgive the original company for holding that attitude. They earned that right through an amazing period of artistry and innovation. But, that doesn't mean that I have to drink their Kool-Aid and give that same regard to today's Disney. However, I'm happy they have jobs and are making films. I wish them even bigger success than they enjoyed in the 1990s, all the while knowing that some of them couldn't care a fig about what was going on in animation outside their gates. See my point? They sure are hard to root for...

In the years between "Brother Bear," and "Princess and the Frog," despite 2D animation going underground, I didn't loose inspiration––thank you very much. And I don't measure my self-worth (or even the worth of the medium in which I work) based on what Disney is doing or how well they are doing it. I'm too busy trying to build something of my own, as are many of my NYC animation friends and heroes.