Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Write Stuff

ASIFA-East logo design by Fran Krause.

Two weeks ago I delivered a third contracted animation book to my publisher, Allworth Press. When I dropped off the manuscript, which was written over the course of a very busy year, I got to meet the editorial assistant and publicist that will be helping edit and (later) promote the book. The president of the press exclaimed, "We're excited to read this." I responded, "I'm excited to get rid of it." And, everyone had a good laugh.

Don't get me wrong––I'm very happy the way it came out, but it is such a relief to pass it off to someone else for a while. It might be as long as two months before the editorial assistant gives me a copy edit to read. And, by then I'll be happy to dive in again and make any necessary corrections.

The new book won't hit stores until November, so it's premature to share any other details. But, I will say that this book feels like the end of a trilogy. With all of my books I tried to fill a void, to write books on areas of our industry that had not yet been written, or at least not written from the animation artist's point of view.

Writing continues to be a growing area of my business, with a new deal to write an art-of style book next. I was not a writing major (or minor) at school and I never dreamed I would have these opportunities. But, I know exactly why and where to trace it to: ASIFA-East. When I finished my first indie film in 1998, then-ASIFA-East newsletter editor Maria Scavullo asked me to write an article about the experience. Although I enjoyed writing the article, I found it a bit terrifying to think that ASIFA veterans would be reading my words, so I didn't really write again for ASIFA until I became president in 2000 and had to write the monthly letter from the president column.

Suddenly I was forced to write, find, and research topics that might be of interest to the readership. Little by little I started to enjoy myself and gradually my confidence grew as I started to find my voice. By the time I pitched my first book in 2004, I had five years of steady articles to my credit, some of which were used as samples for Allworth Press.

In June 2009, ASIFA-East decided it was fiscally irresponsible to continue printing the newsletter, especially when it could have such a more vibrant life online at a fraction of the cost. A digital newsletter is interactive, reaches more people, is more up-to-date, and can feature color graphics, video, and audio. Since June, ASIFA-East board's Web committee (under the guidance of Web site manager Adrian Urquidez and Exposure Sheet blog editor Dayna Gonzalez) has been working hard to relaunch our newsletter as a modern paperless magazine.

Today, on February 1st, ASIFA-East has issued the following press release:
"ASIFA-East is very excited to announce the upcoming debut of the aNYmator online! Moving from print to online, the aNYmator will feature a full team of bloggers reporting on the animation industry. Come February 1st, we are expanding to cover much more than the usual events reportage seen on the Exposure Sheet –– everything from film reviews, to feature articles, to member's animation. Richard Gorey will be our new Features Blogger, covering all feature articles and stories, including posting articles from our membership. Elliot Cowan will be our Community Blogger, posting links to members' news and animation. Dayna Gonzalez will continue in her role as Blog Manager and Events Blogger, handling all reporting on local animation industry events. The Exposure Sheet will be hosted on our website at  Along with the Exposure Sheet, the aNYmator will include Animondays from ASIFA-East President David B. Levy, The International Update from our International Representative, Ray Kosarin, the Events Calendar, and archived original aNYmator print publications."

Many of the original aNYmator newsletters were edited by Mark Bailey who served as our most recent editor until the final June 2009 issue. I'm thrilled his wonderful work can still be shared with a new generation of ASIFA-East members through our new archive. There's a lot of content in there that you can't find anywhere else. Take some time to check it out. And, look for more newsletters from decades past to join the archive soon.

Most of all, I'm very excited that our new digital newsletter will continue the tradition of providing writing opportunities for veterans and newcomers alike. Who knows where such writing might lead? You might write the next trio of books, knocking mine off the shelf.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Ready to Take a Chance Again

Image of squirrels for unrelated projects.

I used to think working from home would mean occasional days off with afternoon trips to the movies or long lunches with friends. While that sometimes is the case, this week that time was spent prepping for the KidScreen Summit in February, where I'll be hosting a panel discussion on the topic of new low-cost international animated features called "The Big Screen Frontier." I'll share more about that in an upcoming post.

Since my event is only one hour out of the three-day Summit, it leaves me a lot of time to fill in my schedule with other events I can attend. There are interesting workshops, lectures, and discussions. And if all else fails there is coffee. This week it dawned on me that it would be missed opportunity to attend the Summit without pitching a couple of projects to the network executives gathered from around the world.

When it comes to developing my own preschool pitches, my wide experience working in preschool TV has been both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because I know how to organize the material according to the network rules of do's and don'ts. It's a curse for the same reason. Knowing all that information can be like a confining box, an automatic sensor or editor, keeping me from trying something interesting and new.

Over the last six months I had spent a tiny bit of time sitting in coffee shops (again with the coffee!) developing two preschool pitches, which I roughed out in notes and sketches. They were very raw, but something about them kept me interested.

With the KidScreen deadline looming I thought it might be practical to collaborate with someone on the pitches. Besides the time factor, it's always more fun to work with another creator than to go it alone.

Xeth Feinberg (Bulbo, Queer Duck, Papu, etc.) is one of my favorite creator/designer/writer/directors in the business and an all around great guy. He has an amazing work ethic, frequently balancing commercial projects and personal films, and (best of all) he has an offbeat/adult-oriented sensibility. I instantly thought of him as being the perfect foil to my overly structured, grounded, and more wholesome style.

When I spoke to Xeth about the possibility of us working together, he was interested but cautioned that he didn't know the rules of creating preschool projects. This was new territory for him. I assured Xeth that his lack of knowledge in this area was a strength. Happily, Xeth liked both my rough concepts and we quickly got down to work. Our plan is to volley the pitches back and forth, each one changing and improving the other's work until they are as a good as can be or until we run out of time (which ever comes first!). One thing is certain: whenever you invest in self-development you have nothing to lose.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Cereal, Soda, and Middle Age

You never forget the first time.... you feel old. I had a flash of my actual age while attending this past Ottawa International Animation festival. Looking around the room, I wasn't the oldest, but I wasn't the youngest either. There's a name for that: middle age.

Even more evidence of my age arrived last week in the form of a dvd release: Mighty Mouse, The New Adventures. This groundbreaking saturday morning cartoon series first arrived in 1987 when I was a 14 year-old kid, too old for Saturday morning cartoons despite the fact that I still ate sugary cereals. If you could see my bedroom wallpaper, not that anyone was lining up to, you would have seen a gaggle of animation articles torn out of the newspaper and stuck all over the place. There were clippings about Roger Rabbit, An American Tale, and Oliver & Company. I figured if I surrounded myself with animation it might rub off on me, not knowing that silly putty would have picked it up just well.

I was very aware of Ralph Bakshi. Growing up, my dad and Bakshi shared the same Brooklyn street and possibly a can of soda. The pair later attended The High School of Industrial Art (now the High School of Art and Design) where they might have shared another can of soda. Bakshi went to work at Terrytoons, and my dad earned a scholarship to attend Cooper Union––heading for a career in advertising. Despite the fact that Bakshi still owed him a soda, my dad retained a life long interest in the man, making a point to see all his films.

And then one day there was the article in the paper announcing Bakshi's new TV series, a fresh take on Mighty Mouse. I watched every episode, taping some of them using an early form of TiVo called a VCR. The show featured jump cuts, random gags, paint splatter BGs, characters changing model, obscure references, inside jokes, and lots of breaking the fourth wall. It was a brilliant mess. The words "game changer" are thrown around far too often these days, but that's the only way to describe this cartoon series.

But you don't have to take my word for it. Click here to read a review from The Onion.

Because of Mighty Mouse, The New Adventures coming out on DVD, someone who wasn't born when the show debuted can now better understand what came after this series. For instance, The Ren and Stimpy Show didn't drop out of the sky. Many of its ideas were first tried on Mighty Mouse and by John K, himself. While Mighty Mouse didn't invent the many elements that made up its humor, the innovation was in their combined effect.

More important still, is that this release helps celebrate a different side of Bakshi's legacy. The controversial filmmaker is usually associated with his groundbreaking feature films such as Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic. As a result, we don't automatically credit him with sparking the creator-driven TV animation era. But, as John K says in a bonus documentary included on the DVD, "None of this would have happened without Ralph."

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Ethics of Indies

It's absolutely essential that independent animators promote their own films. An interesting by-product of this is that the more successful indies get, the likelier they will have opportunities to curate screenings and programs where they become the barometers of taste, deciding which filmmakers make the cut and which one's don't. Is this an ethical dilemma? I know a few filmmakers who believe so, but, I'm not so sure.

On the plus side, when an indie develops the clout and connections to create new venues to screen animated films, it throws a spotlight on the other included filmmakers who benefit from the exposure. This is a gain for the programming filmmaker too, because by including other indies in the event, it helps ensure a larger audience.

Part of me asks, if not an indie filmmaker programing such an event, who would? Who else would have such a knowledge of animators and their films? A festival programmer is the easy answer. But, festival programmers already do that, through the more democratic and less biased method of a jury or selection committee. There are a few other non-filmmaker and non-festival programmer types who know the scene well enough to program screenings of indie animation, but without having a film in the mix themselves, it's not as likely that these folks could devote the time and energy to doing so on a regular basis.

On the negative side, some argue that the animators producing and programming their own events are playing favorites or shutting some artists out. But, I think that's too easy a criticism to make. To program such an event is to automatically narrow down selections. The top (most prolific and most awarded) independent animators in New York City happen to work with adult themes, making edgy films with subjects of humor, sex, and violence. So, when they program events, you can be sure that they are going to round out the film list with similarly themed works. That seems pretty natural to me. Besides, it would be quite odd to wedge in an indie children's film into such a program.

If the top indie animators have a certain power over the scene, it is one that they have earned simply by working harder than everyone else. And, not just harder in that they make more films more often. They also work equally hard promoting those films.

So, is this an ethical dilemma? Whatever the answer, nobody can deny that some stellar filmmakers of yesterday and today have not received the attention they deserve. There's no single easy way to fix that injustice, but as a move in the right direction, ASIFA-East is planning at least two retrospective screenings per year (from now on) to help re-introduce the community to some amazing talents. Stay tuned for more details.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Being Your Own Advocate

*above art and design by Elliot Cowan for one of my 2009 Electric Company spots.

It's 2010 and the local animation "industry" has many of us (hopefully) scratching out a living (typically) by freelancing for a variety of employers during the course of a year. Think of it as high-stakes musical chairs with animation artists leaping from one gig to the next, sometimes working at home, sometimes in a studio. This reality makes me think of a cautionary tale, one that might help somebody navigate this challenging situation.

At the start of this story, a young animator is working at a new studio on a six-week animated pilot production. At the conclusion of the pilot, the studio chief tells the animator he'd like him to come back in four months to start on a two-year project. Good news indeed, but this animator took the "we want you to come back in four months," to be a firm contracted obligation. In his eyes, it was an official start date.

The following week, a different studio contacts this same animator and offers him a five month contract to animate on a series––starting immediately. Over the phone the animator tries to accept the new offer, but decides to honor the other studio by mentioning that he can only work up to four months (not the full five) because he's due to return to the other studio. On learning of this, the person trying to hire him reneges the offer. After all, why hire someone who plans to leave a job early when you can find someone who will stay the whole run? When someone leaves early it causes problems on a production. It means finding a replacement at the eleventh hour, someone that has to be trained from scratch.

So, instead of this animator having a job to report to until his two-year contract comes up, he has nothing. Shortly after this experience, another studio tries to hire this same animator to work from home on a series. It is a seven month job, but just as in the other story, the animator turns it down because of his "start date" on the two-year contract.

What happens next? After the four month wait for the two-year job, that project is delayed by two months. And, after that? It is delayed another two months. And, finally, when the two-year job does start, it lasts only one month because the whole studio tanks when investors pull the plug on the series.

With hindsight, we can see that this animator turned down two real jobs while he waited eight months for a job that was supposed last two years, but that only ended up lasting one month. Nobody has a crystal ball, but the lesson is that, especially (in times such as these) where jobs are precious, we have to be our own advocates.

This animator's mistakes were many. One, he took a far off job offer as being a firm commitment, not realizing that it was a one-sided commitment. When that studio had to keep changing the start date, they did. It didn't bother them to know that they had originally told this animator four months. That had just been an estimate. It was not a written contract. The studio, as a business, did what it had to do. Second, when the next studio tried to offer him a five month contract, he could have taken it. He never needed to mention the two-year job's start date, especially since he had no reason to believe that date would stay firm. He could have started the seven month job in good faith, with the plan to give them at least two weeks notice if the two-year job started as planned.

Third, he could have taken the seven month job offer after the mistake was made losing the five month job. And, although the salary and span of that job still didn't compare to the two-year gig, the project was for an older audience––so taking on the job would have given the animator important new samples for his reel, which was full of only preschool series samples.

Don't get me wrong. I respect that the animator was trying to do the right thing in honoring his original employment offer. He had good intentions and was bending over backwards to be honest. My message is that someone can be honest to a fault. Besides, you can't really be honest by holding true to a start date by which you have no control over. Experience in this industry shows the opposite––that start dates almost always get pushed by two weeks or more. A bird in the hand is worth more than a two-year job in the bush. These are tough times for this industry, but we can make it even tougher on ourselves if we choose.