Thursday, December 23, 2010

There's Always More We Could Be Doing

Above image by PES, pre-production sketches for his indie film which doubled as a commercial directing spec, "Roof Sex."

I'm still seeing a lot of newcomers to the NY animation scene having difficulty finding work. That's not a big surprise, given the state of the economy and the fact that NY animation production levels have been at fairly low levels since 2007. The first couple of years of a career in animation are the toughest. That's when you are building up your network of contacts, reputation, and skills, and that simply takes some time. My only periods of unemployment, in my 16-year (and counting) career, totaled four and a half months and occurred in my first two years. Here's where I have to write the obligatory "knock on wood."

For an 8 year span or so I was in the protective bubble of employment at Nick Jr's Blue's Clues, but that ended in 2004, so I've now had as much time away from that series as I did on it. One thing is certain, whenever I hear tales of newcomers (or even from some veterans) that are having trouble finding work, there's always a few common factors.

Here's a round up of what's missing in some of these job hunts:

1-You don't know the software
I know of some Flash animators that get snapped up for every flash job in town, but that only takes them so far. During some periods half the character animation work in this city is After Affects work, and the fact that these Flash animators don't know the program means that half of the available work won't be available to them. Knowledge of both programs are key to nabbing steady work in this town. Throw in a knowledge of Toon Boom, or Maya, and you'll be a triple threat.

In a related issue, I see some students graduating from local schools and listing themselves as "traditional animators." As an employer I read that as "I don't know Flash or After Effects." I think the term "traditional" is not doing a would-be worker many favors. True traditional work on paper is very scarce in this city. Most of that work moved to the digital realm of drawing with a wacom stylus on a cintiq. Of course, traditional skills are used in all animation, but to sell yourself as a throwback doesn't make you very marketable in today's Big Apple animation scene.

2-Networking at Events
Boy, this one's a biggie. If you don't make time to go to animation events, such as the kind presented by ASIFA-East, and actually stick around to talk to your fellow attendees afterwards, then you're basically saying, "I don't want to meet the animation community or start building the valuable relationships that will keep me happily working and busy for years to come."

Need an example? I often hear about a recent grad who lands a job at local studio, where they were lucky enough to be employed for a year or more. But, the job inevitably ends, and then all of a sudden that worker is left out in the cold with no large network of contacts to turn to. I collect several stories like this a year. Too few seem to understand that the best time to network is when you don't need to. When you're on that nice year long gig, it would behoove you to stay plugged into the larger community. That's what I did by joining ASIFA, and it led to my employment at Blue's Clues shortly after being laid off from my job.
A still from one of Elliot Cowan's successful "The Stressful Adventures of Boxhead and Roundhead" shorts.

A good example of someone taking advantage of what ASIFA-East provides is Elliot Cowan, who as a new comer to our animation scene had to build up his New York contacts from scratch a few years back. What did he do? In addition to making films, and taking lunches with local talent, he became a regular at ASIFA-East events and board meetings. ASIFA-East was able to help him make the concentrated effort he wanted to make to meet as much of the community as possible. It was a great and inspiring sight to see, and I'm truly surprised that more don't do as he did. Not only did ASIFA-East help connect him to work opportunities, it also helped him foster friendships. Not a bad thing when you're new to a city. And, like any smart and sincere networker, Elliot gave back as much as he got. He volunteered on the ASIFA-East board of directors, became our first communications officer (starting our e-mail blast and Facebook group), and created a postcard design and signal film for our film festivals.

3. Not being specific enough
Super Jail co-creator Christy Karacas told my SVA career class that they should create the type of work that they'd like to be paid to make. I think that's a good start, within reason. Obviously there has to be some degree of commercial or industry appeal to the work for it to be magnet for getting jobs. But, I like the focus that his advice necessitates. Another example is PES. He had a low-level job in an Ad agency (he made popcorn in the agency lobby), and on the side he created three very short films that doubled as commercial specs. In short, he made samples of the type of work he'd like to be paid for. I don't have to tell you that for both Karacas and PES the gamble has more than paid off.

A wall-sized illustration by Christy Karacas on display in a past 2Art for TV art exhibit.

Most students struggle through a thesis film even though their whole final year of school is structured for their success. Despite the fact that these films are graduation requirements, many students find it difficult to stay motivated through them, so it's not a big shock that most students will not go on to make another film of their own post-school. But, does that mean that they can't create new samples of any nature?

A good place to start is to look at one's reel. What are you lacking? There should be acting scenes (with dialogue) as well as walk cycles, etc. I'm amazed how many reels I see with no lip synch dialogue on display. An odd thing since lip synch has become one of the entry level jobs on an animated series. To not show an understanding of lip synch on a first professional reel is another hinderance to employment.

4. Waiting for perfection
I can't even count how many former students emerge six months to a year after graduating and announce "I just finished my reel or my website!" Upon further questioning, I usually discover that the student didn't look for any work over that year, but instead worked on their portfolio materials. In other words, they were in hiding, putting off the uncomfortable: the job hunt.

There's nothing wrong with fine tuning a web site or reel, or making new samples to feed them. But, to have to get all those ducks into a perfect row before you can step out into the world is a huge mistake. The better way would be to fill your evenings making those new samples, and your days by going out and showing them to the studios. You'll NEVER be done building you reel or updating a website. That's a lifelong pursuit.

Everyone gives the same advice about reels, resumes, and portfolios, but what we seldom hear is that you should also personalize your presentation. When I first looked for work I only showed my thesis film and a resume. I left the big clunky portfolio at home because I didn't think it represented me. I'm not a slick guy with a fancy black portfolio with every piece of art neatly pressed into its plastic pages. That didn't feel very "Dave Levy" to me, so I didn't do it. And, tailoring what I showed and how I showed it made the interview process feel honest and personal to me. For instance, when I applied at Blue's Clues all I showed was clasp folder full of storyboard samples. I simply opened the envelope and spread the pages across the conference room table. There was nothing fancy about it. It was authentically me.

Since Blue's Clues ended I've never made an animation reel, in a traditional sense. Shocking, isn't it? Instead, when I'm up for a job I show a couple of loose renders attached in an email, all of which are good matches for what I know the potential client is looking for. It's never failed me. Nobody has ever said "this is unacceptable." Or "Where's your reel?" But, obviously, I've built my career to the point where I can do this. But, isn't that precisely the point? You should be steering your presentation method to work for you. It doesn't happen over night, and you would be well advised to start a career by having the expected materials like a reel, portfolio, resume, and website, but it's never too early to nudge the presentation to being as personal as possible.

5. The industry is only an impersonal as you make it.
A huge mistake I see recent grads making is that in behaving as if this is a very closed and impersonal industry, they make their experience just that. Is this a difficult industry? Absolutely. But, the reality is that most people that work in animation from producers to interns are very nice people. And, compared to other arts industries, such as film or TV people, animation folk are often described as being very supportive of one another with a strong sense of community spirit. By not building relationships with actual animation people at events or through informational interviews, they put themselves at the mercy of gatekeepers. The gatekeepers don't really exist unless you give them power of you. If you believe the gateway to a studio is its general phone number or email address, then good luck to you. You're in for a long wait because if you try to reach out to a studio that way because you'll just be one of the hundreds of emails unread, reels unwatched, and phone calls not returned.

Only people can help people, so you've got to make relationships with those at the studios. That's how you'll be able to get in the door, and start growing a network of people that will be on your side in the job hunt.

6. Increase your own odds for success.
When I went looking for my first job in animation post-graduation, I beat the pavement with VHS copies of my film and resumes. When I dropped off a tape with Michael Sporn I asked if I could come back later that day for some feedback. He happened to be a very generous man, otherwise that might not have gotten me far, but I think he respected the effort I was making by personally knocking on doors. When I came back later that afternoon, he offered me a job! And, all was trying to do was to see if I could get people to look at my film that day.

In another example, a recent RISD grad was having a lot of trouble finding work. The problem? He was only able to work legally in this country for a year, not being a citizen. And, he was telling all possible employers this when he met them. I advised him not to tell them that. After all, so much animation work is short-term. Why scare off a studio by telling them you won't be around in a year. That's not even their business to know. He listened to me and began a new round of job hunting following my advice. The other day I was leaving the lobby of the Sesame building after dropping off some work deliveries when I heard someone call my name. It was the former RISD student. He informed me that he got a job in the building doing CG animation for another department at Sesame. It came through contacts I had recommended him for, but more importantly he got the job after heeding my warning to not mention his year-long residency issue.

Whatever your particular circumstance, there has to be a way for you stack the odds better in your own favor. You are the expert of you.

I hope this list serves as a shot-in-the-arm to anyone struggling to break into this business. Best of luck to everyone in the New Year!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


I've had a crazy busy year in 2010 (knock on wood), with my happy little virtual studio completing an eleven minute industrial film, two pilots, six original Sesame shorts, and about 150 (believe it or not) one-minute flash cartoons for Sesame Street English. As animation artists, whether working in a studio or off-site such as myself, we are usually animating or visualizing someone else's script or concept. So, as satisfying as all these above jobs were, the most enjoyable and rewarding commercial assignments are the ones where I get to write as well as animate/direct.

From September to December I was contracted to complete six more original animated shorts for Sesame Workshop's "Word on the Street." Just like the first six I had made the year before, Sesame would give me a word on which to create a 30 second cartoon.

Getting the opportunity to make 12 of these shorts to date has been the culimination of a dream come true. So many of my New York animation heroes, including The Hubleys, Michael Sporn, Buzzco, Mo Willems, and Howard Beckerman created original shorts for Sesame Workshop, so to get the same opportunity means a great deal to me. I thought I'd use this post to explain how I came to get this gig, and how the assignment works within the structure of my virtual studio:

1-Proof of Authorship
One thing I knew from my years at SVA was that the filmmakers that made original spots for Sesame all had proof of authorship, or in less legal terms, made their own indie animated films. This meant that Sesame Workshop would have no trouble seeing the animator's point of view. To see an animator's indie work is to see their own original work, unlike what you see when an animator cobbles together a reel of commercial assignments. Work made to order won't show the artist's stamp the same way their own work will, so having your own animated samples is key to anyone wishing to create original spots for hire.

I was making short animated films long before I went to SVA, so I had a leg up in that department. Continuing to make my own shorts was always part of my plan post-school, but the good news is that you don't have to be successful on the level of a Bill Plympton to have your shorts serve your career. For instance, my recent children's film "Owl and Rabbit Play Checkers" didn't set the festival world on fire, getting into only 8 animation festivals and not winning any awards, but the film has made a great sales tool to land work at places such as Sesame. By showing the best bits of the film as little self-contained clips, Sesame could see me as someone who could originate cartoons for their program. That's "proof of authorship" in a nutshell.

Good relationships with others in the industry is important to any animation artist's career, and even more important to the livelihood of a studio owner, virtual or otherwise. In 2005 I worked with a great producer on an in-house TV series. After our year of working together we stayed in touch, bumping into each other at animation events (networking!) and in my SVA career class where I booked her as a frequent guest. A few years later when she landed as a producer at Sesame, she started to throw little bits of freelance my way, eventually recommending me to an outside producer who was responsible for producing the Word on the Street animated segments. With each job you get, especially as you get deep into a career, you can trace the family tree of how you got the opportunity. You won't become friends with everyone you work with (see my last post), nor can you do a perfect job of staying in touch with everyone as the years roll by... so a basic understanding of the importance of relationship building in your career is all you need.

3- Creative Confidence
To work as fast as these Sesame shorts require, you have to be able to dive in and quickly conquer the blank paper (or Cintiq screen). When I was assigned the word "Cling" for the short posted above, the client suggested "Monkeys clinging to branches" or "babies clinging to mothers," so I thought, why not put those together? So, I wrote the very lose story of a monkey clinging to a branches and a vine as it looks for something unseen offscreen. Then, the big reveal would be that its looking for its mother, ending with the baby monkey clinging to its mother's belly as they walk off. I wrote a couple of sentences to outline the idea and once approved I went right to an animatic/storyboard. A fun part of making all these shorts is experimenting with a different look for each one. For "Cling," I tried out a partially colored character, letting the rest of the shapes fill in with white.

Another enjoyable aspect of these shorts is planning out the action. In "Cling," I gave myself the rule of not having any scene cuts, but instead focusing on following the action of the Monkey's movements all in one scene. Setting some rules like this gives you an approach to the storytelling, helping you find your creative vision. The confidence to do all this comes from having put in that time making proofs of authorship. I also used this same dive-in-and-do-it approach to help me tap into a new kind of spontaneity I used in my new film "Grandpa Looked Like William Powell." No creative work we do is fully in a bubble, so its not uncommon for techniques employed in a commercial gig to inform a personal project (or vice versa).

4-The Right Production Model for the Right Times
My virtual studio set up has its pros and cons. But, when it comes to a gig like these two orders of six original 30-second cartoons, there is nothing that would work better. For work such as this, intended for a free itunes podcast, the budgets are very small. This means that there's no wiggle room to bring in a lot of help or to have a long production span. Each short is made in a five day period, from writing to delivery with my only help coming from my friend Adrian Urquidez who handles the background art. If I was a traditional studio, even a small one with two or three partners (like many are set up in this town), taking on this job as a viable account wouldn't be possible. Just having the studio rent and insurance would make this prohibitive. But working from home, and at great speed, with myself as the main workforce adds up to very doable scenario.

We didn't invent today's budgets nor did we invent the new platforms such as itunes for which my animation services are now being used. The world moves on and the way I see it, doing original paid animation for a platform such as itunes is a new outlet, one that I appreciate. In that context, I don't bemoan the low budget. New York animation artists are, by our very nature, survivors. We have never had the luxury of steady-Hollywood style work, so we've always had to scrape by and thrive on a diverse mix of opportunities.

My entry into the virtual studio game was not planned as a shrewd response to a shifting media landscape, its only with hindsight that I see the timing turned out to be just right. But, there is nothing random about the work you have to put in to create proof of authorship, or the relationships you have to build along the way to foster opportunity.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

I haven't shared this particular story in one of my books, and I think that's because I didn't know how I could frame it into a learnable lesson. One of my favorite quotes from my friend, veteran development executive Linda Simensky is, "You're not working hard enough in the animation business if you aren't avoiding at least three people." All kidding aside, Linda's quote has served as a good reminder to me that not everyone we encounter in the work place is going to be someone we hit it off with. I think we animation folk sometimes assume that since we all have the same interest, we'll be an instant happy family. If only. Everyone comes to a job with a different agenda––some behave as if they're living the dream, others behave as if each workday is a nightmare, and many reside somewhere in between.

On one job I worked, early-sh in my career, my supervisor of the three person animation department to which I belonged, was very, very unhappy on the job. Once I was in a production meeting where he slammed his palm into a TV monitor and yelled at the show's creator during (what seemed to my eyes) a very minor creative disagreement. That was an odd meeting. I couldn't understand that level of anger and frustration.

Another time, my supervisor turned some of that attitude my way. After he explained some work to me, and I either didn't understand it the first time, or maybe asked one too many questions, I heard him mumble "fucking idiot" under his breath as he walked away. The trouble was that I happened to be walking in the same direction. He hadn't realized that, and turned around after his remark and looked embarrassed. I didn't say anything, trying not to react at all. But, the next day, he came to me and said, "Oh, I wanted you to know that I sometimes mutter things, like thinking out loud, but it has nothing to do with anyone else."

But, the next problem could not be ignored so easily. One day, this same supervisor quit, giving our producer a two week notice. Because of the nature of the schedule, he had nothing scheduled to do for these last two weeks. Seeing this, our producer assigned him to assist me for the entire 10 days, something that would help me catch up and make my future deadlines. I should note that my position was created fairly late in the game of the production, so there was quite a bit of work piled up that still needed attention. This was just the boost I needed to help get my schedule back under control.

On the first day of the two-weeks, my soon-to-be departing supervisor told me he'd help me tomorrow. But, tomorrow, it was the same excuse. The third day, he said nothing and offered no plan of help. The fourth day, same as the previous. The fifth day, he said he was sorry he hadn't been able to help me this week, but he'd be "all mine" next week. I accepted his answer. What else could I do?

Sometime in the middle of this first week, the producer came to me, asking if my supervisor was helping me. I covered for him, lying that he was. I really felt trapped and alone with this problem. The other member of my department was close friends my supervisor so that didn't feel like an avenue I could turn to for advice. And, if I complained to the producer (an idea that didn't sit well with me) I'd have an enemy for life.

The next week came and the same thing happened all over again. Monday through Wednesday, my supervisor gave me an explanation as to why he wouldn't be helping me that day, always saying he would help the following day. And, again, my producer checked in with me to make sure I was getting the help I was promised. Again I lied that I was, still covering up the truth.

With no solution in sight, I started working late hours to "fake up" the help I was supposed to be getting.

By the third day of the second week I was ashamed of myself for letting this happen. Enough is enough, right? So, when our office mate left for a meeting, I decided to close the door and confront my supervisor.

I told him:
"You're putting me in a very difficult position. The producer keeps asking if you've been helping me. And, I've been covering for you. But, where do you think those hours are going to come from? To make up for the help they think I'm getting, I'm having to stay late each day. And, even then, it won't be enough to add up to the two weeks of help that they think I've been getting. How am I supposed to handle this? What would you do in my situation?"

If looks could kill I would have been dead, or at least on life support. He was speechless in anger for a moment. Then he answered, "You're out of line. I'm your boss." And, he kept on repeating similar things like that, until he asked me how long I'd been in the business. I answered him "two and a half years," and he said, "Well, I've been in the business for "four years." But, with no good argument to be had, things just petered out and after a while, we both turned our heads and got back to our day. The rest of the day passed without us uttering another word about this or otherwise.

The next day he arrived in a very pleasant mood as if nothing had happened, and helped me on those final two days.

I remember thinking of Linda Simensky's quote. That's "one," I suppose. And, I also remember thinking how hard these workplace situations can be because there was no rule book to consult. Maybe situations like this are why I was later moved to try to write such books for our industry. Hopefully they help others handle similar situations better than I was able to.

Everyone is allowed mistakes. That goes for both me and my supervisor in this story. My mistakes (to date) have filled three books and could spill into three more. So, when I recall this story my focus is still on what I could have done differently so it could have worked out better for all concerned. We always have the most to learn and gain when we examine our side of a conflict. If I could do it all over again, I wouldn't have so willingly played the martyr. By the second day (when it was clear I wasn't getting the help I was due) I should have spoken up to my supervisor. But, at that moment, early on in my career, I was so eager to please and not make waves (or enemies) that I missed looking out for my needs.

One thing is certain, whether you're the employee or the boss, being a doormat is NEVER EVER good for the soul, your self esteem, or in helping to appropriately and professionally resolve a situation.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

It happened in NY Animation: 2010 Edition

The whole world seems to be "list happy," so how can I resist compiling a list of important happenings in NY Animation for our soon-to-be-departing year. If you notice any milestones missed, feel free to include them in the comments below. Wishing you all a happy, prosperous, and animated 2011!
-Wachtenheim/Marianetti tackled another set of Big Baby cartoons for CN.
-Animation Collective resurfaced in a downsized way with a new series "Jolly Rabbit," mostly working with an offsite crew, as opposed to their productions of yesteryear which used to fill three Manhattan buildings.
-Brooklyn-based animator Alan Foreman created a virtual animation studio, organizing as an LLC, to tackle a major workload from PBS Kids,' The Electric Company.
-NY Animation filmmaker/director/producer Ray Kosarin is enlisted to teach the History of Animation class at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. Is it too late for me to enroll?
-Titmouse East, a major new studio founded by Chris and Shannon Prynoski, as an offshoot of their L.A. based studio, opens in Tribecca, throws some kick-ass parties, and raises the spirits of Big Apple animation. Early on their agenda? Season II of the Adult Swim series, Super Jail.
-Aaron Augenblick Studios, Inc. is the home of Comedy Central's "Ugly Americans," now in second season production.
-World Leaders is animating more shorts starring and based on the popular candy, Raisinetts, supervised by creative director Miguel Martinez-Joffre. Could a Goobers-based cartoon series be far behind?
-Diane Kredensor's first children's book, Ollie & Moon, is published with a release date for April next year.
-Sesame Workshop produces one of the cities largest animated projects of the year in Sesame English, employing a good chunk of our workforce, myself included.
-Emily Hubley created animated segments projected between scenes of the new play, Motherhood Outloud, which opened on the Hartford Stage in February.
-Talented locals, Fran Krause, Adam Rosette, Ian-Jones Quartey, and Dan Forgione became the latest to join the migration west, becoming talented locals of a different locale.
-Jen Oxley, parachutes out of Little Airplane (after a wildly successful 5-year residency as its creative director, serves on the Annecy jury, and scores her own preschool pilot for PBS Kids.
-Biljana Labovic ends her long residency as Bill Plympton's producer and embarks on a series of interesting projects, including a role as producer on Dash (The Bottomless Belly Button) Shaw's first animated feature, which is being produced out of Brooklyn.
-Dean Lennert lands funding to complete the animation on his long-running short film, Dear Anna Olson.
-Signe Baumane starts a winsome and confessional blog, and launches her first indie animated feature film production.
-Tatia Rosenthal (of the stop-motion feature $9.99 fame), expands her career horizons by writing her first solo live action feature screenplay, which was immediately optioned. She's writing another script now!
-The Mayor's Office of TV, Film, and Theatre express interest in helping to encourage the growth and continuity of NYC animation production. Good news, or don't hold your breath? Place your bets now!
-Art director extradorinaire Mike Lapinski's first comic book, Feeding Ground, a collaboration with artists Lang and Mangun, is published by Archaia Comics.
-The Rauch Bros., Mike and Tim, release three new remarkable StoryCorp films, which land mentions and articles in such august publications as The New York Times and New York Magazine.
-The Curious Pictures Nick Jr. production Team Umi-Zumi, goes on a planned year-long hiatus, starting at the end of this year, before rezuming with the production of Season Three.
-John Canemaker's latest book, "Two Guys Named Joe," cobbles together the life and art stories of Joe Ranft and Joe Grant. Somewhere, someone, gets the idea for the book "Two Guys Named Moe, The Moe Howard story," or "A Tale of Two Stooges."
-Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter's lavish and whimsical short film, "Something Left, Something Taken" will be competing in the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
-Debra Solomon's new short was the half-hour HBO special "Getting Over HIm, in 8 Songs or Less," a very personal/funny/warm mini-musical memoir. She followed this by creating the title sequence to the TV show "Running Wilde." On both projects Debra was assisted by ASIFA-East's own Katie Cropper.
-At the second edition of Midsummer Night Toons, an event founded by filmmaker Matt Lee, Mike Carlo debuts his new short "President of the Universe." The event showcases work from some of this last decades most impressive (and in-demand) local animation talent, including: Ben Levin, Mike Carlo, Joe Cappabianca, Gary Doodles, and Al Pardo. Along with the longer-running Animation Block Party, this newer event is helping keep the sizzle in NY animation all summer long.
-Call this the year of Plympton! His latest feature "Idiots and Angels" played in select theatres around the country (and the world, including Russia), he wrote his first ever career documenting book (co-written by some fanboy), and his short "The Cow That Wanted to Be a Hamburger" made the short list for an Academy Award nomination.
-Buzzco's Candy Kugel, debuted a new film "It's Still Me!", a guide for people with Aphasia, and was a jury member at this past summer's Hiroshima International Animation Festival.
-Three (count 'em), three members of ASIFA-East's executive board of directors have their first babies––and all are boys. Congrats to all!
-The New York Times reports on the possibility of illegal internships at a New York Animation studio.
-Patrick Smith debuts his long-awaited new short "Masks" to a paying audience at the 92nd Street Y.
-Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) relocates its animation class to NYC for 8 weeks, under the supervision of talented animator/teacher (and soon to be author) Tom Gasek...touring local animation studios, attending ASIFA-East events, and planting lots of good seeds for the future.
-Producer Greg Ford is in production on director/animator Mark Kausler's new short, a sequel to his 2004 film, "It's the Cat." The production, which is one of the few examples of animation finished on cells and shot on film features camera work by Larry Q and Adrian Urquidez.
-Jerry Beck's latest book, 100 Greatest Looney Tunes, features commentary from such NY animation legends as Greg Ford, Michael Sporn, Linda Simensky, and J.J. Sedelmaier.
-Asterisk Animation, among its many projects this year, does the animation for David Grubin's documentary "The Buddha," which aired as a special on PBS.
-Blue Sky employee, Stephen Neary, puts his commute to good use and animates his upcoming short during his daily train ride.
-Indie stalwarts Patrick Smith and Bill Plympton launch a joint blog called "Scribble Junkies" and fill the year with from-the-hip reviews and commentary on their careers, influences, as well as musings on the state of the art form.
-Alan Foreman and Joel Frenzer launch their "Animation Forum" podcast on, featuring chat with such animated guests as J.J. Sedelmaier, the Krause Brothers, Signe Baumane, and some joker who has his own blog called Animondays.
-J.J. Sedelmaier's studio creates the signal film for the Ottawa International Animation Festival, and debuts a different variation of the film for each day of the festival.
-In December 2009, ASIFA-East presented a career-spanning retrospective of local legend John R. Dilworth's work. Dilly followed that up with two more such events in 2010, one at the 92nd Street Y and one at the continuing "Animators Are God?" series at Brooklyn's The Obvervatory.
-Not only does he have a possible "Boxhead and Roundhead" feature in the works, animator/filmmaker Elliot Cowan also snagged a series of teaching positions this year, enriching the staff of such schools as NYU, FIT, and UArts.
-Animator Justin Simonich directed his first live action spots, shooting segments for Sesame Street's "Word on the Street" podcast.
-Cartoonbrew's Amid Amidi, went into semi-seclusion after this summer, to finish the writing of an upcoming secret animation book.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

5 Lessons from the Fab 4

There are two kinds of people in this world. People who appreciate The Beatles, and people who will eventually appreciate them. Think I'm wrong? All the Beatle-bashers I've known eventually asked me to lend them one of their CDs. Richard O' Connor, I'm waiting for your call, and keeping a copy of The White Album at arm's reach.

All kidding aside (or at least long enough to get through the rest of this post), if you know me at all, you know that the Fab Four are my ultimate creative icons. Real original, huh? But, while mine is far from a unique point of view, as a non-musician, I find there's a lot in The Beatles story that I can apply to my chosen field of animation. So, without further ado, here's a short Magical Mystery Tour From Me to You:

1-Do your thing even if it means you're out of step with trends or fads.
By the time The Beatles were fully developed and looking for a record deal in England, they were woefully out of step with what record companies were looking for. The big star at the time was Cliff Richard, a tame English version of Elvis Presley. Solo singers were king and guitar bands were out. None of this mattered to The Beatles, and despite Decca records turning them down for going against the grain, George Martin, a producer in residence at E.M.I., decided to take a chance on them.
How to apply to animation:
Whether making a personal film, or whipping up a pitch project in attempt to score a pilot or series, developing your creative voice (no matter how in or out of step with trends and fads) is the most important thing. The world has enough followers. If you want to do something serious in animation it starts with you. Don't ask anyone for permission, don't apologize for what you like, and weave together all your interests and influences and put your personal spin on them. Need examples? Ralph Bakshi and Bill Plympton.

2-You are your own product.
Why did George Martin sign The Beatles to a recording contract? According to him, it wasn't necessarily because of their musical talent. The larger reason was their personality and wit, which was (at that time) ahead of their writing/performing talent.
How to apply to animation:
Yes, even if this age of on-line social networking and YouTube viral videos, the animation artist that is fully part of their own brand has a major advantage. This translates into making personal appearances at film festivals, comic conventions, and events, where you push your product, promote your brand, and make important relationships that grow opportunities.
Need examples? PES, Signe Baumane, Patrick Smith, Don Hertzfeldt.

3-Once established, keep growing as artists.
By The Beatles second LP, they were international stars, even cracking into the American market, which no other British act had ever been able to do. The Beatles could have used the rest of the years making 12 more A Hard Day's Night albums, but they didn't. They evolved and pursued wherever their artistic muse took them. This meant scoring songs with strings (Yesterday, Elanor Rigby), introducing new instruments to rock music (George bringing the sitar to the Rubber Soul album), and singing about subjects other than love, beginning with "Paperback Writer."
How to apply to animation:
This is probably the main reason Bill Plympton makes features. His animated shorts have consistently made money and scored critical acclaim, but the different demands of producing successful features gave him an artistic goal to strive for. Another example are John and Faith Hubley who developed an increasingly personal and sensitive approach in their shorts, working in unique styles not normally associated with animation, and also experimenting with improvised and unscripted soundtracks. The other choice is to keep making the same film over and over again. But, sooner or later, you might get bored, and so too, might your audience.

4-Rewrite the Rules.
Rock stars were supposed to tour to support their albums, hit singles, etc. When this proved exhausting to the Fab Four, they did the unthinkable and stopped preforming concerts. Instead, by focusing on recording, they were able to create ever more sophisticated records, beginning with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band.
How to apply to animation:
Bill Plympton exploited the new markets for animation that rose in the late 80s and early 90s with such venues as The Tourne of Animation, Spike and Mike, and the expanding cable markets such as MTV. When PES came along in 2003, none of those venues were available. But, did that mean that nobody could come along after Plympton and still make a successful career on the back of their short animated films? PES answered that question by giving away his films for free on his website and also in his encouragement of friends and fans to share his work virally. The result was that PES became an industry name and brand, and not only did this lead to paid venues for his shorts (European TV, to name one), it also attracted advertising agencies and gave PES a career as a top commercials director. The lesson here is that no matter how things continue to change, there will always be a way to do business. And, I'd be crazy not to mention Nina Paley, who rewrote the book on feature film distribution...

5-Stop, or change it up when it's no longer fun.
When working together was no longer the joy it was in past years, The Beatles gave up the ghost and broke up in 1970. All four of them were free to pursue their own independent creative lives, and grow up as human beings and as artists.
How to apply to animation:
What was the reason you got into this business? I doubt many would answer, I want to be a cog in an assembly line working on a preschool series, but, that's what happens to many of us that work in NY animation. Yes, were are lucky and grateful to be paid to work our craft, but if something else might make you happier, sooner or later, you should listen to that voice. NYU animation alumns Tatia Rosenthal and Michael Dougherty started out staffing some of The Big Apple's top preschool shows before figuring out that their creative destiny lay in other areas. Dougherty left animation to co-write X-Men II, and Superman Returns, and Rosenthal followed up animating on The Wonder Pets by directing and co-writing her stop-motion feature $9.99 and subsequently had an original live-action screenplay optioned.

We are each responsible for our own experience in matters of career, or as the Lads from Liverpool might say, "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make."

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Trouble with "Name That Tune"

Stills from Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

Forgive another post comparing an old live action movie to today's animated features, but I am once again moved to do so. I recently caught a screening of Megamind, not because I was burning with curiosity nor was it because I had $12 burning a whole in my pocket. I happened to have a 3 hour gap between errands and teaching at NYU, so I figured, "What the heck." I had no expectations going into the film. I'm not a "hurray for all things animated- guy." But, I try to keep an open mind.

Megamind was okay at best. At times entertaining, but awfully forgettable. Sort of the definition of "meh." All the characters were animated capably, but with that modern day, feelings on their sleeve method. We can trace this method of animation acting back to 90s era Disney, and I think this problem is just what Miyazaki is talking about when he said that Disney sets the bar too low. In short, viewers are not supposed to think anything on their own or be required to add their own humanity to the performance they see on the screen. So we get superficial attitude in place of nuanced acting. At Disney, this form of animation acting, calling it, "Name that Tune," with the idea that every drawing is supposed to be a neon sign blaring the characters inner most feelings in the most cliched and over the top manner possible. Sure, that could be a fine approach to a specific character in a specific feature, but the way it applied across the board is a mistake.

The deepest most heartfelt moment of Megamind is (spoiler alert) when Tina Fey and Will Ferrell's characters have a sort of parralell moment. They each visit the Metro Man museum to deal with their melancholy feelings. There's lots of quiet and long scenes of them walking through the lonely cavernous space. While the sequence was heavy handed (this is super hero territory after all), it's the films most moving moment. Yet, it's ironic that it was achieved through layout and cinematography and not via character animation. Of course, there are many components in a film, all of which help tell the story. But, I couldn't escape the fact that the filmmakers' best conveyed emotion when their characters were barely on the screen.

Two weeks later I finally watched a film I had been meaning to see for years, a classic film from over 40 years ago, called Bonnie and Clyde. There's a scene in the film that I'd like to talk about, one that goes against Disney's "name that tune" school of drawing and everything that the modern era of animated features stands for. Bonnie and Clyde, played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, drive up to a a depressed backwoods gas station where actor Michael J. Pollard fills their tank with gas. Bonnie and Clyde spot a fellow conspirator in Pollard, and Dunaway seductively explains to the simple man that their car is stolen and that they're bankrobbers. Pollard's reaction to hearing all this is to twist and turn uncomfortably away and air punch at a gas station post. He's sporting an uncomfortable grin and his glances back at Dunaway remind us of a little child. His reaction goes on for a long time––a unique reaction to the information he's taking in. At the conclusion of the scene, Pollard robs his own cash register and donates the cash to his new partners in crime, just before jumping aboard their stolen car to ride away with them.

Now what boggles the mind is that animation can do anything. It can get into the soul of a character in a way that even a human actor cannot. Animation has its own properties of telling a story that are custom ready for an audience to engage with and project their own reality and life experience on, roughly to complete the experience. But, the audience can't do this if the film follows the "name that tune" school of animation because such a technique makes the viewing experience a passive one. There's nothing for the audience to think about on a deep meaningful level. Instead you get a sort of "animated fast food" experience. There's nothing about full or traditional animation that requires going down this path. Dumbo's sad and dazed expression as he walks to the water barrel with Timothy mouse (right after they visited Dumbo's incarcerated mother) comes to mind. What about that is cliche? There's so much sorrow in the little Elephant's face. So much thought behind his eyes.

All of this begs the question of why such formulas (like "name that tune") are being used in the first place. I see the value in getting the artist to conquer the blank page to dive in and draw, but at worst it encourages cliches in how it values instant readability above all else. If we are truly capturing the illusion of life, how is this form of instant readability compatible with that? Michael J. Pollard's anguished reaction to being tempted by the romantic and exciting life of crime (or should I say, re-tempted, because his character's backstory was that he had already spent some time in jail), would never pass mustard in the "name that tune" scenario. This is because it forsakes cliches, achieving humanity. And, while you could say that comparing animation to live action is comparing apples and oranges, there's a lesson in here we'd be wise to learn and apply.

Monday, November 15, 2010

RISD and The Slacker New Wave

Above still from The Fran and Will Krause Cartoon Network pilot, Utica Cartoon, which is an example of how RISD's Slacker New Wave broke through to the mainstream over a ten year period to put a stamp on today's TV animation era.

Adventure Time, Regular Show, and Super Jail, all offbeat creator-driven series on current TV, on a network (CN) that had its first successes 15 years ago with a pack of very different shows, the most successful of which (Power Puff Girls and Dexter's Laboratory), followed the early 1990s wave that revived the thick-and-thin graphic style associated with UPA, by way of Cal Arts.

You might disagree with me, but my generation of animation artists that were in school in the first half of the 1990s had very little in the way of personal point of view. There were a handful of students obsessed with Disney's then-current hit streak of Little Mermaid to The Lion King. And just like any modern era, there was the usual amount of students inspired by anime. Other influences were The Simpsons, the sick and twisted world of Spike and Mike, and the underachieving graphics of MTV's Beavis and Butt-Head. But, I didn't see my generation of students (me included) pulling all of this together and doing anything with it. Sure, we might show bits and pieces of this stew of animation in our work, but we weren't serious about truly studying it and distilling it into something of our own.

But, the students (I've met) that went to school in the second half of the 90s seem to have had a far more distinct point of view, pooling together diverse influences such as The Simpsons, golden age animation know-how, Estonian animation otherworldlyness, and stripped-down (almost-Gary Larson-style) drawing skills, but with a modern post-grunge indie twist. Out of this school of animators came Fran and Will Krause, Jesse Schmal, Alan Foreman, Sean McBride, Christy Karacas, Mike Overbeck, and many more. Not only did these students have eclectic interests, more importantly, they had passion for animation and filmmaking. Their popular thesis films launched their careers and helped set animation on a new course that we are still seeing on today's Cartoon Network. It just goes to show how long these trends take to break through to the mainstream.

I like to call this The Slacker New Wave, because these filmmakers have such laid back personalities that showed through in their art. They mixed casual and quiet pacing with random and spontaneous stream of consciencenous ideas. Nobody could mistake Pen Ward's 2005 pilot for Adventure Time for what it was: a breakthrough in current animation development. But that was more a breakthrough in terms of development executives finally recognizing the next trend. Not to take anything away from Ward's achievement, but the style and point of view that he utilized had already been around and winning film festival prizes around the world for ten years. Ward carried it to the next step.

I think the hardest thing is to take in 100 years of animation, film, art, writing, music, and literature and put your stamp on it, and create something new from the air we all breathe. I think, the new trend of TV animation as evidenced by Adventure Time, Regular Show, and Super Jail (and others) was something that began in the mid to late 90s, possibly from one single school!

While there's hundreds of animated films being made every year, made in a myriad of styles, very few of them actually end up influencing the direction of what comes to define the next era in cartoons (of course, nor do they need to, but that's besides the point). Of those names listed above, only Sean McBride wasn't a RISD grad. Could it be that this school largely known for it's individual and non commercial approach has had the biggest influence on commercial animated product in recent years? The amazing trick is that the RISD films also stand alone as strong personal works of art. Note that the RISD student reel has won top honors (or at least runner up status) at the last three Ottawa festivals in a row. Kudos to RISD animation head Amy Kravitz and her teaching staff!

One thing is for certain, RISD organizes its thesis students differently than the four animation schools in New York City. While the big apple schools favor a system with students working as individuals reporting to a single advisor, RISD has thesis students report to each other as a class in weekly open critiques. The results of the RISD system speak for themselves. Now if I can only figure out what it means that Seth MacFarlane also came out of RISD in the mid 90s.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

"...the better the drawer..."

Some more stills from my latest short, Grandpa Looked Like William Powell, which is decidedly (and unashamedly) not about sophisticated drawing nor full animation.

At my book launch event at MoCCA, my friend, talented animator Stephen Mead, asked me if I had been a writer all my life. I remember being assigned a lot creative writing assignments in grammar school and high school and always feeling hopeful (at the start of each one) that I would do a good job and write the best essay or short story ever. But, it never seemed to happen. I never could write out the interesting ideas living inside my head. This went unchanged until I finally realized that you could write in your own voice.

As an animation professional I had a similar problem. I couldn't easily put on paper what I imagined in my head or what I could observe with my eyes. I recently finished my third animated short in three years and of all the shorts I've made, these are the three of which I'm most proud, and especially so with my new film "Grandpa Looked Like William Powell." I recently shared a link of this short with an animator friend of mine who is struggling for 12 years to make a single short film, and she asked me how I stay motivated and finish my films. I think the answer to this question is important because it's instructive to examine what factors may lead to finishing or not finishing projects.

First of all, there's nothing wrong with spending 12 years making a single film, nor is there anything wrong with making a sophisticated or complex film. I know of people spending even longer periods of time on films than 12 years, and who's to say that when those films come out that it won't have been worth every moment? So, the key is to make the film you want to make and play to your best chances of finishing it. I have the ability to stay focused enough to spend up to two years on a film, but now I prefer a more instant kind of film, one that doesn't require slick or perfect production. Besides, why not leave the slick stuff to Pixar? So, now I work to make films that look like I made them, not by a sea of anonymous employees.

The animation production of my "Grandpa" short was finished in a month despite it being four minutes and twenty seconds long. This speed was enabled by my creative choices. By drawing right onto the cintiq there was no paper to scan in or process, and because my finished animation was only line art there was no characters to color in. By using live action footage in place of backgrounds there was no background art to create. And, the combination of line art and live action footage ensured that the natural shadows coming off the gutter of the book would spill right on to my character lines, helping them to feel sandwiched into the book's pages and live alongside the original writing on the book's pages. My feeling is that elimination (no BGs, no color, no storyboard) is a big part of creativity. I had remembered that Michael Sporn had used a similar technique by deciding to not storyboard the first half of his powerful film "Champaign." I'm always keeping an ear out to hear how other people are working. You never know when you might want to borrow a technique or idea.

Because I wasn't burdened with a complicated production, a creative approach came together in a very organic way. Four or five shots into the film I got the idea to always draw my Grandpa in a bathing suit and hat, even though an explanation for that choice doesn't come until a minute into the film. This free wheeling way of working let me really get into character and get the right tone and motivation in each character's actions. When my grandpa throws me his autograph book at the end of the film he does it as an after thought. Its a very casual and cavalier action, something that is in character for my Grandpa and true to our relationship. It would have been a big mistake to have him hand me the book in a careful and loving manner. None of this was storyboarded or planned out ahead of time. I just drew the scene and figured it out as I went. And, while there was still a lot of thought in this method, it wasn't overdone or over planned. Slick and complicated productions require careful planning and a proper pipeline, but my little short required only a personal touch and little more.

World famous and oscar-nominated Cordell Barker penned one of my favorite quotes in my new book "...the better the drawer, the more the drawing seems to be of the most importance. But I think that it’s the least important of all [aspects]." I'm in firm agreement with Cordell, especially since I can't make sophisticated drawings. So, there's no way that perfect drawings could ever be the point of one of my films. What a liberating idea for any level of artist. Imagine if you gave yourself permission to draw what felt right versus what had to be slick or polished? Cordell went on to conclude, "The simpler the design, the more auteur the feel. The more slick and sophisticated the attempt, the less of a personal brand."

We all have different talents to exploit and different weaknesses to overcome. The key to success is figuring out how to make it all work for you.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

New Book Week!

It would be a missed opportunity not to use this space to announce that my new book, Directing Animation (Allworth Press) finally drops this week on Tuesday November 2nd! To celebrate the occasion, I'm moderating a panel on the subject of directing animation at the wonderful Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) on Thursday November 4 at 7 PM. Joining me will be a great panel representing most areas of directing I cover in my book: David Palmer (TV series director), Dan Meth (Web shorts director), and Bill Plympton (Independent director). Click here for the full details on the event. You can buy the book at Barnes and Noble or at this amazon link, but we will also be selling the book at the MoCCA event for your convenience.

I hope you get a chance to check the book out. While great new books on the art, craft, and history of animation come out every year, I'm certain there is no book out there like mine, which explores the human side of working as a director in this industry––something the other books don't touch. I find this very baffling because the animation industry is a "people industry," one where we depend upon each other for work opportunities as well as in day-to-day collaboration to get the job done.

I've already written about my goals with my new book at this past post, so I thought I'd use this blog entry to excerpt a short passage from the book. If you've read my previous books you already know that I like to write in a conversational style where information is related in sometimes cautionary, sometimes inspirational, stories and anecdotes. Besides, since I'm not an intellectual or an academic, I can't write any other way. Best of all, these books gave me a great excuse to go through my personal library of mistakes so that the reader might benefit from them. So, without further ado, here's an excerpt from Chapter 6: Directing Animation for Television Series:

After working as an episode director, responsible for directing half the episodes in production, and working under a supervising animation director for six years, my first experience working as a supervising director on a television series was a major step forward in responsibility. The series, an animation/live action and puppet hybrid, was the first time I was exclusively responsible for building an entire production pipeline from the ground up, staffing the entire animation crew, deciding the order in which episodes passed through production, making the delivery schedule, and managing and directing the daily workflow. On top of all this, I was even responsible for such preproduction stages such as reading and giving notes on scripts and looking out for animation needs on a three-month live-action shoot.

The production was a happy one and went with nary a hitch or hiccup...until the production's end. Over the ten-month production we went through three editors, none of whom (unknown to the producers or me) had left a detailed log of what final revisions got cut into what master tapes. The series was cut on Avid and the network deliverables required three beta masters: one for back up, one for domestic, and one for international.

We might not have discovered the problem if not for another deliverables issue that came up toward the end. The producers hadn't fully read or didn't understand the network's deliverable requirements, which is a detailed list of factors that affect the final product. Such a list should be read at the start of a production because it casts implications on many technical and creative decisions. The deliverable requirement that bit us on the butt was the restriction that there were to be no written text on our puppet sets. Without knowing that rule, the sets featured numerous words and signage that our puppets and live-action actor crossed in front of again and again in nearly every scene. Instead of enjoying a pleasant wrap to a smooth production, the last weeks became a stressful scramble, making frame-by-frame masks and patches to paint out any text from the live action shoot.

As we redelivered previously approved scenes to edit, someone noticed that some beta tapes had been regularly updated and others hadn't. In short, for each of the ten shows the three beta tapes were not the same. This was a real pain in the neck and there was a lot of private discussion amongst the senior staff on the best way to handle the problem. I advised the producer to wipe the beta tapes since there's no way to match them up and ensure that each had the same frame-by-frame sequences. Instead, I suggested that we fix the show in the Avid suite and then re-export to make the final betas.

For a week or so a final plan still hadn't come together. Late one evening, with all of us still at work digging out of this mess, the producer called me into an impromptu meeting in edit. I walked in and sat on the arm of the couch, which was the only seat left in a room already filled with the editor, producer, executive producer, and two associate producers. The producer was very emotional and vulnerable at this moment and everyone seemed to instinctually know that, presenting their best face forward, all speaking supportively to what the producer wanted to hear. "We know how hard this is for you, and however you decide to fix it, we'll help you with it," said one associate producer. Everyone echoed similar sentiments. The editor went one step further and repeatedly pet the producer on the knee as he cooed supportive words.

When I tell this story in my School of Visual Arts career class, by this point most of the students shake their heads in disbelief that all these professionals would act this way and "baby" someone instead of being straightforward. But, in reality, however, they were not babying the producer (outside of the petting), they were being sympathetic and understanding; they had the tact to see the moment for what it was. It was the time for soothing solidarity, not the time to rip off the Band-Aid. But I already had my hand on the Band-Aid, thinking I was to be the voice of reason.

When the producer turned to me to weigh in I said, "Wipe the tapes, fix the shows in the Avid, and export to new tapes." The producer, turning red, leaned toward me and raised her voice, "I can't listen to you because you don't understand what I'm going through!" At that moment, the purpose of this meeting finally hit me. If I had put aside my own thoughts for a second, I would have been able to see that this was not the time to lay down a blunt set of instructions. In one way my mistake was evidence that I was operating in a new arena. As a supervising director responsible for the animation on an entire series, I was now expected to weigh in on such topics at important meetings, ...and having the right answer was not as important as giving the right message at the right time. It doesn't mean that one has to be dishonest or play games, instead it shows the importance of being able to read a room and offer up one's plan in the best way so that it might get be properly heard.

The next day we implemented a plan. We would wipe the tapes and reexport from the Avid, but first we would take turns watching the tapes and logging any mistakes we saw to order up any additional retakes we'd want from animation. The production was extended by about two weeks to accommodate this effort and in the end we were confident in the final product delivered to the network.

I share this story because I can't stress enough that these situations and challenges, are as much an animation director's responsibility as asking an animator to add a little more squash before the character jumps into the air. As much as each director helps define his role and no two productions are exactly alike, a director can't be a success by ignoring all the non-fun duties that go with his title. The producer and I have worked together on three subsequent projects and share a high degree of mutual respect, which comforts me and demonstrates that these missteps need not prove to be fatal, especially when you're willing to learn from them.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Recent Gig as a Case Study

I just finished up a big gig that encompassed all my virtual animation studio phillosphies in one. The job was directing an eleven minute film for a Southwestern state's conservation division. Now, bear in mind that I have no agent or rep, nor do I look for work in a conventional sense. So, how do I find jobs? Like most animation artists, word of mouth is the main method. But, in my case, I add a healthy does of networking through coffee meetings and lunches, and also by pitching and promoting personal projects and attending animation related events.

A year ago a producer friend introduced me to a designer/creator who was assembling a pitch property which required a minute of animation. The budget was super low and the work required about 3 solid weeks of my time, but because of the good credentials of the people involved, I jumped in. The animation turned out very well and a few months later its creator engaged me to animate another snippet for an additional pitch project, again with a tiny budget.

The creator/client tried to hire me a third time but I confessed that I wasn't the best fit for her new job and was able to recommend two friends who snatched it up. Now its a year later from our original work together and she's about to throw more animation my way, a continuation of the first project we collaborated on.

But, best of all, a few months ago, she recommended me for the major gig I mentioned at the top of this post. Purely on her word, her contacts at a state agency asked me to bid on their animation project. My bid, which only took a day or two to prepare, involved creating redesigns of three characters as well as a letter/production plan itemizing the steps, costs, time, and money associated with each stage of production. After three weeks of waiting I was awarded the job, which allowed me to enlist some of my favorite workers/friends: Jason McDonald (Design), Hilda Karadsheh (animator), and Dale Clowdis (Animator). The 11 minute production went incredibly smooth and took about 2 months.

So to sum up, using this gig as a case study, here's the method I'm using to round up work for my happy little virtual studio:
1-No need for agents or reps.
I'm of the mind that a small studio owner attracts a lot of work through his/her own reputation and personal relationships and business dealings. I don't need a slick agent or rep to muck that up. Not that I'm anti rep/agent. It's just that I'm perfectly capable of mucking up my own relationships, and if its me doing it, at least I know the mistakes I've made and therefore have a chance to fix them and learn from them. And, as for reps/agents, I'd gladly employ one in the right area if needed. But, for now, I look for work organically just by making casual lunch and coffee meetings, keeping in touch with contacts, developing and promoting my personal projects, etc. None of that ever feels like work to me, it's just plain fun!

2-Small jobs lead to big jobs, or, at least, repeat business.
I'm more than willing to squeeze in the time to tackle small jobs with low budgets, even if they make short-term big demands on my time. I consider it planting seeds for a relationship, so why not start with a small project? It's a great way to see if the client and I are on the same page. I did the same thing with Sesame in 2008, when they hired me to create a small web animation. After that humble beginning I was awarded dozens of additional contracts at Sesame, spread across three divisions of the company. All this adds up to: Don't automatically poo-poo the smaller jobs, and DON'T ever get hung up only taking work if it lives up to your so-called "day rate." I've never had a day-rate because I know that each project has its own budget. Day-rates are starting points at best, but never a means to reject a project outright.

3-Expand your horizons by working for clients outside of New York.
And, I'm saying this as a booster of the New York scene. The fact is, local work can dry up, no matter how well you are connected to the workstream. So, I'm more than willing to work for clients spread out across the country. Since 2007 (the start of my virtual studio business) I've worked for clients in Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, and, most recently, the south western state profiled in the job above. By being the "face" of my own studio, all the networking I do ensures that I am my own studio brand, one that can attract work in faraway states without needing a rep/agent.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Dissatisfaction and You

Call it a symptom of being part of the New York animation scene that I have always gravitated towards the animation heroes that develop their own unique approach to the art form and carve out a singular career. Our town, maybe more than any other animation hub in the world, has a thriving indie animation community, not to mention the fine arts, music, theatre, dance, film and TV communities that also exist here. In the Big Apple, culture is in the very air we breathe, although sometimes replaced by the scent of wet gingko leaves after a good rain.

But, despite the obvious benefits to an animation artist living and working in this town, nothing really happens unless you make it happen. A former student of mine, who is working at a full time job doing animation design, recently posted on facebook that she knows she should be doing some art on her own but can't seem to find the motivation. I suggested she ask herself if she'll be satisfied doing the same exact work she's doing now ten years into the future. If not, a great way to ensure she will have better and more diverse career opportunities is to develop her talents outside of the workplace.

A key motivator for me has been the desire to work in different ways on diverse kinds of animation. I've tried (and failed) to replicate the late 90s Cartoon Network look in a couple of films, but my latest film, "Grandpa Looked Like William Powell" (pictured above and below), is my first 100% personal work, delving into my family's history for its subject. I recently showed a work-in-progress chunk of it at a panel event, where I was delighted to see it make a strong connection with the audience.

Most films of this nature are usually about family members caught up in big events (like a war or the Holocaust), but not my film. Instead I tried to cobble together a study of a life (my Grandpa's) and explore my connection to him. It was a surreal experience recreating some events from my past as well as moments from my grandpa's life that happened long before my time. It felt as if the real people were winking back at me from my cintiq screen. Besides what it meant to me personally, it was a wonderful exercise in storytelling and filmmaking, one I would not have had without embarking on this project.

Another area of interest for me is comedy. But, you wouldn't know it by watching my films because I never really found a way to bring my sense of humor out in my animations. Indie animator Signe Baumane recently remarked on a great podcast interview by Alan Foreman and Joel Frenzer, that she understands Bill Plympton's famous 3 rules of successful animated filmmaking (short, funny, cheap) but takes exception to "funny," because what she thinks is funny others may not laugh at. Signe's right. Comedy is subjective, so an animation that manages to be funny to the majority of viewers is going to be pretty special indeed.

Last week, my pal Xeth Feinberg wrote me asking if I'd like to collaborate with him again, this time maybe on a funny cartoon. So, we started e-mailing script nuggets back and forth––just little bits and pieces of ideas we had lying around. Now we're committed to making a little anthology film together, made up of these creations, each one fully vetted and improved upon by the other. If we make each other laugh, that's enough. While comedy is something that's been a corner stone of animation since the very beginning, how often do you see a cartoon that really makes you laugh? There's that dissatisfaction again, motivating us to attempt a funny cartoon from our point of view. Just like my advice to that student, developing this side of my writing/filmmaking might give me a fighting chance to grow new opportunities ten years from now.

Everyday is another excuse to work on something for yourself. Just like going to the gym, it can become a consistent part of your daily routine. Besides all the obvious gains it creates in a career, the best part is that it makes each day more fun and artistically satisfying. Just don't wait to start tomorrow. Tomorrow is always too far away.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Catching up with Jen Oxley and Dave Palmer

In some ways this week's post is a good companion to my recent piece on the new NY studio Titmouse East and its co-owner Chris Prynoski. Much like Chris Prynoski, animation directors Jennifer Oxley (Little Bill, The Wonder Pets, 3rd and Bird) and David J. Palmer (Blue's Clues, Blue's Room, The Backyardigans) developed during the big 1990s NY Animation boom. After years of helming top preschool series, coincidentally, they both recently launched new independent careers.

Now here's the mind blowing part: not only are Jennifer Oxley and David J. Palmer two of the most talented animation artists working today, combined they may have trained more NYC animators than anyone else in our history. That's no inflated claim. Think about it. This pair rose to prominence in what became known as the digital animation studio––in other words: animation series production created by in-house crews working in Flash, After Effects, Maya, and often in creative combinations of all three. They've helmed shows that usually employed up to 75 artists or more at a time and they've been at that pace since the mid-to-late 1990s. We are talking about hundreds of artists, the majority of the current workforce of character animators in the Big Apple!

So, without further ado, I want to use the rest of this post to catch up with my friends Jen and Dave and find out more about this exciting time in their careers:

1-After over ten years of working in a very senior role from high profile show to high profile show, how does it feel to be on your own?

It was of course very scary to leave my role as Creative Director at Little Airplane after being there for 8 years but I think it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I will always be grateful for all that I learned and all the wonderful opportunities I was given. But being on my own just feels right for me now. Aside from having more time to focus on my personal goals I also get to share an office with my adorable cat Sydney. What more could I ask for really.

Pictured: Sydney

I've been lucky enough to work on shows that I really love, with terrific and talented people, but I have to say that it feels great to finally have a lot of time to devote to projects of my own. I'm still adjusting to the change of pace, however. Working with a huge team and a lot of resources, the sense of progress is palpable--you can complete episodes every few weeks at certain points in the schedule. Now, however, I'm focusing on writing and developing projects of my own, which I truly enjoy, but the pace of progress is incremental. It takes me a long time to write a pitch or a script, and to experiment with designs, and to set up meetings--the whole development process itself moves at a glacial pace, so its been a big adjustment. I want to finish everything now!

2-What projects can you talk about that have sprung up since your independence began? And, could those projects have happened while you were in your full time roles?

I’ve been working on many exciting projects since leaving Little Airplane including an independent animated film with my brother called Willow Veil. As soon as I became independent I began working on the film full force and I couldn’t be happier. Below is an inspirational illustration that I did for the film.I’ve also been working on a couple of TV development projects including a new math show for PBS. I don’t want to talk too much about the project because it’s still in the works but I’m truly grateful everyday that I’m now in the position to be working on a show of my own creation with people that I love and adore!

Its a little early to discuss specifics about the projects I'm working on now, but I can say that I'm developing a variety of different things: TV series, animated shorts, feature films, a couple picture books, a play. As for whether they could've happened when I was on Blue's Clues or The Backyardigans, in a way, yes, since I've always worked on multiple projects at the same time. The difference now is a matter of scale--while directing Blue's Clues and The Backyardigans, the additional projects I took on (for myself or clients), were smaller, had shorter schedules, and were spread out over many years. Now, however, I can work on more projects simultaneously, and can take on larger jobs, too.

*image above from Palmer's blog where he posts one drawing a day.

3-You are both associated with the rise of modern method of digital series animation in NY. When you were starting your careers, did you intend to be on the cutting edge of production technology? If not, how did you end up where you landed?
When I started my career I didn’t really know how to use a computer. I never would have guessed that I would be associated with cutting edge digital animation. After college I moved to London where I was in the ink & paint department (real ink and real paint) at Tony White’s studio, Animus Productions. After about 8 months I moved back to NYC and worked for Bill Plympton. It was at Bill’s studio that I learned what it really takes to make an independent film. My heart however was always in Children’s TV. After 6 months with Bill I accepted a job at Sesame Street in the Interactive Technologies department where I got to use my first computer on the job. I certainly learned a lot at Sesame but my true digital animation foundation came when I was hired as one of the after effects animators on Blues Clues. It was here that I met the talented Dave Palmer and I began to learn what was possible in digital animation.

It was never a goal of mine to do something technologically cutting edge, (and, really, those first few years at Blue's Clues felt like anything BUT cutting edge, with our PowerMac 7100s being pushed to their limit every day and night to get the shows out the door). I was brought onto the Blue's Clues pilot by John LaSala, a professor of mine at NYU who had his own production house. John knew that he could use photoshop and after effects to combine live action and animation in a relatively quick and inexpensive way, and I was there to figure out a system for doing the character animation, and to do the lion's share of the animation itself. Really, the whole look and process of Blue's Clues grew organically out of the particular needs of the show and the expectations of its creators. After we got heavily into production and started to fine tune the process, there was definitely a feeling of "no one else is doing a show like this", which was a nice feeling. But that was secondary to the creation of the show itself, and our goal to try to make the best episodes we could with the technology, budget, time, etc. at our disposal.

4-Now that you have more time for your own projects, how do they differ in subject, tone, or audience, from the work you did for children's series TV, now that you have the freedom to develop whatever you want?
Almost everything I’ve created in my career has been for children. The independent film that I mentioned earlier will be my first film that is not necessarily for kids. Even though all the voice actors are under the age of 10 the tone and subject matter is very dark in comparison to my other projects.

I'm still developing some things for 2-5 years olds, and older kids as well, but the majority of my own work is for adults: action shows, science fiction, horror--things that I would love to see on TV or in the theater.

5-How did you imagine what it would be like to be independent, and how is the reality similar or different than the fantasy?
I’m LOVING my new independent life! I’ve been able to connect and collaborate with amazingly talented people. I’m also free from all the draining politics associated with working on a large production. I didn’t realize how liberating this would be creatively. However, It can get a bit lonely working from home. As much as I love my new feline office mate I do miss the people. This is just more motivation for me to stay connected with all my friends and the NYC animation scene.

Well, I remember what it was like to be independent before I jumped on Blue's Clues full time in 1996, so thats what I thought it would be like after The Backyardigans as well. And, generally, I was right--its been hectic, and fun, and nerve-wracking, and tiring, but ultimately satisfying.

6-Knowing that you've both had a lot of experience with staffing over the years, how would you say today's entry level talent matches up to, say, 15 years ago? And, what does that say about today's animation educations at the various Universities?
This year I was part of the selection committee at the Annecy International Animation Festival and I saw some stunning first films. I continue to be blown away by the talent that’s out there.

I haven't done a lot of staffing over the past six years or so, but it seems to me that--in terms of knowledge of and application of the principles--most of the young talent available today is really no better or worse than what was available in the mid to late 90's. Animation programs are becoming more numerous and more comprehensive, but I think that in many ways, learning how to be a great animator is experiential, and happens over time, as you do more and more work. The upside of more (and better) animation programs, though, is a larger talent pool to draw from, which could definitely increase the odds of finding really talented people for your project, if you have the time and energy to look at a lot of candidates.

7-Large in-house digital productions (Blue's Clues, Little Bill, The Wonder Pets) that you've both been associated with are a lot rarer these days. Where do you see the trends heading in NY Animation? Big projects or small? More big studios (a-la the brand new Titmouse East), or an increase in little botique-style operations?

I’m not sure. If I had to guess I would say an increase in little boutique-style operations. It seems that running a big studio will be very difficult in this current financial climate with the overhead that’s required. My personal dream is to one day have a modest little studio big enough for my newly acquired Oxberry camera and a team of happy creative talented zany creatures.

I think the trend from larger houses to smaller boutique studios and back is cyclical, and it does seem--after Nick Digital and other studio closings over the past few years--like there's an opportunity for Titmouse and Curious and other larger operations to expand and consolidate a lot of talent. My gut is that as digital tools for the creation and distribution of high quality (HD) content become less expensive and more ubiquitous, we're going to see more and more small boutique studios who can play on the same field as the bigger studios, at least in commercials, shorts and TV. Features are a different story, but I think there's a real opportunity for smaller boutique houses and even individuals to link together and step into that realm as well, which would be exciting to see.

8-What type or style of animation do you feel that you could really do well, but worry that you may not have the opportunity to do because of your branding as a preschool series director?

I think you can do any type of animation for preschool. You just need to execute it in a way that is appropriate for young children. I think that if the stories are strong and if the characters are lovable anything goes.

I've always thought of my career as encompassing many different styles and genres of stories--I'm just interested in great stories, regardless of the demographic or style. But the worry that my pre-school career has closed off some opportunities for me is a reality now--I've already missed out on some opportunities in the few months since The Backyardigans wrapped because I didn't have something specific on my reel. I think this happens to some extent to everyone in our industry, though, and the only solution is to do more and different work all the time, concentrating on the types of jobs you want to do. If someone won't hire you for a type of job that you know you can do, give yourself the job first, and do something in that style or genre, even if its just a few seconds to cut into your reel. The problem with pigeon-holing isn't about someone's abilities, its about how people perceive their abilities based on what they've done before, and that perception can be changed--it just may take some time.

9-Now that you're on your own, what means are you utilizing to stay connected to the larger community of animation folk? 
Now that I’m out on my own I try to schedule at least one meeting a day with various animation folk. Because I manage my own schedule now it’s much easier to stay connected and attend local events and screenings.

I'm really staying connected with emails and phone calls, mostly, with as many meetings and lunches with people as I can fit in between freelance gigs and Dad stuff, (dropping my son off at school, and picking him up after, etc.). There's probably no better way to stay connected to the animation community at large in NY than through ASIFA, but with a three year old, its much harder for me to make it to meetings or events in the evening, so I'm not as involved in that as I'd like to be. I'm hoping my website and blog ( also helps to keep me connected, but they're both fairly new, so it may take some time for those connections to develop.
*above another image from Palmer's blog.

10-If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself so you could better handle being a first time director?
When I first started out I wanted to do it all and I frequently over complicated things. If I could go back in time I would tell my self to keep it short and simple and focus on the story.

Oh, jeez, there's so much! I've made every mistake a director could possibly make, and some of them more than once. But if I had time to say one thing to myself when I was first starting out--something I really needed to keep in mind every day--it would be: "Knowing about, and caring about animation can help make you a good director, but knowing about, and caring about people can help make you a great director."