Friday, February 19, 2010

All in a New York Week

I'm not the first person to observe that sometimes it feels as if there's an animation-related event going on every night in NYC. Last week was no exception, starting out in high style with a presentation at SVA by a living legend, Russian animator Yuri Norstein. For great coverage of that event, see these informative posts by Michael Sporn, Richard O'Connor, and Dayna Gonzalez. "Hedgehog in the Fog," so richly captures the filmmaker's philosophy of exploring the psychology that makes characters move, behave, and react the way they do. And, if that weren't enough, Norstein is equally interested in his characters' relationship to the spaces their in––he calls the space (including camera moves and lighting) another "character" in the film.

So, how does all this play out in the film? In an early key moment, when the fog first envelops the title character, the hedgehog instinctually holds up his precious jar of jam out of the fog's reach (pictured above) as if the fog were a living thing that might swallow up his bundle. It's as true and honest a moment as has ever been committed to film. All at once it establishes the fog as something unknown to the hedgehog. And, the innocence of lifting the jam aloft reveals the animal's young age, while at the same time giving us a glimpse of character by showing how he'll cope with something new and unfamiliar. Some get their kicks from seeing blue people frolic around an alien landscape in Avatar, but Norstein's animation of the hedgehog and his jam jar is the stuff that gives me goosebumps.

And, what can I say about Norstein's work-in-progress clips from his forthcoming "The Overcoat," except that it's truly rare to see the work of an animator who is not only working at his own personal peak, but a peak that is also a pinnacle for the entire art-form. There's very few examples of this in the history of animation. If animation had its own Mt. Rushmore, I'd nominate Norstein's head to be carved right next to Walt Disney.

The topic swung from art to the TV cartoon later in the week when I presented a pitching and development panel to a capacity crowd at MoCCA on Thursday night. For the more intimate setting of a museum I went with a two person panel made up of Nickelodeon animation president Brown Johnson and creator Fran Krause.

We hit all the important points on the subject and there were a lot of memorable moments. Fran (who has been on ALL THREE book panels I've had thus far!) explained his reluctance to create a hook or a gimmick for his pitches until someone at the network explained to him that at some point "a five year old kid needs to be able to explain his cartoon to another five year old." This idea was reinforced earlier at our December John Dilworth event where a letter from Linda Simensky was read that included a bit where her young daughter was able to succinctly explain "Courage the Cowardly Dog."

Fran already described the experience of making his second pilot (with co-creator Will Krause) for Cartoon Network (image from their pilot, "Upstate Four," pictured above) in great depth at this post on cartoonbrew, but this night he revealed another piece of the puzzle. During the seven years it took for that pitch to go to pilot production, Fran confessed he didn't really know his characters yet, nor was he sure they would work. It wasn't until he was making that pilot and cast the actors that it came together. Imagine being the executive having to decide which projects to green light, when even creators aren't certain what they have! All the more reason why a creator has to build up his creative acumen because a pitcher is judged (in large part) by his ability to execute, and nothing proves this more than the pitcher's previously completed creative works.

I was thrilled to have Brown Johnson (pictured above) on my panel. She's probably the most influential animation exec in TV today, as Nickelodeon is the nation's largest supplier of original TV animation. Since her promotion to president, she now overseas all of Nick animation development from preschool to older kids cartoons, while also heading up Nick's global animation development slate. Brown told us about Nick's unique development model for its preschool development, which consists of a long and short form assignment. Each year or so they choose a new agenda, for instance, recently seeking out a math-based show. Once they have their direction they reach out to a select bunch of writers and artist whom they've always wanted to work with or work with again. The creators break into teams and each pitch back a show based on the set agenda/curriculum. The most recent example of this being the new series Team Umizoomi, currently still in production at NY's Curious Pictures.

Nick Jr.'s short-form initiative is similarly set up, only the goal is to make a self-contained interstitial, one that might one day make the leap into a series in the way that Wonder Pets and Ni Hao Lai Kan have done. For Nicktoons development, Brown unveiled that (in addition to normal "paper development" where a network options a project and asks for more designs/scripts, etc,) they sometimes do something called "Open Mic," that gives creators some money to make a simple 1-2 minute short starring one to two characters just being characters. She said it is really an attempt to find characters using the simplicity of a stand-up comedy style motif. Just a character being entertaining in and of themselves. Sounds like fun to me! Brown said, "We just give the creator the money and they go away and make the film." It's nice to see that some of Nick's development may go through such a direct process.

From pure art, to art mixed with commerce, the next evening had us going all the way to the business side with a presentation by the musical accountant, Steven Zelin (you guessed it, pictured above). Dayna Gonzalez introduced and arranged this event for ASIFA-East, and just in time for tax season! Steven Zelin explained that you are either in business or you are just doing this as a hobby. Anyone from a studio owner to an individual freelancer working from home is, in fact, in business so it wouldn't hurt to have a little education in that area from time to time.

Zelin conducted his work-shop style event while casually perched on a desk and plucking away at his guitar as he discussed 1099, W-2, W-4, and 1040 forms and more. He opened with a parody song of "When You're Smiling," retitled "When You're Filing." Then, Zelin had everyone in the audience ask tax questions which Dayna Gonzalez scribed on the chalk board. The event stretched to three hours as Zelin addressed all those and more, but the evening felt more like a breezy 10 minutes. Who knew tax info for the artist could go down so easy? At the close of the event Elliot Cowan and Justin Simonich were practically demanding that this become an annual event. The challenges of being in business aren't going away, so maybe this event shouldn't go away either.

To sum up, three events running the spectrum from animation art to animation business. I was glad to be at all three!...all in a New York week.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Report from KidScreen Summit 2010

For a time I didn't think I'd be attending this year's Kidscreen Summit because I wasn't a featured speaker or panelist. But, then I got the idea to propose a panel on the rise of low-cost/high-yield indie animated features. In other words, an animated feature made between for an average of $20 million dollars catering to a niche market or courting the mainstream success of hit indie films such as The Blair Witch Project, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Paranormal Activity.

The purpose of the the KidScreen Summit is for network executives, production studios, marketing folks, new media wizards, and distributors to meet, reconnect, and do business. As we all know, the business of entertainment has been changing year-to-year. One sign of the times was the abundance of independent producers in attendance. My friend, producer Melanie Grisanti, remarked that ten years ago most of the people like herself would have representing a production or a network, but these days producers are often between projects, working as consultants, and using the Summit to hustle up work much like creators might do. I've always thought that producers and animation artists were on the same team and now they are also in similar situations. An interesting trend showing that we have a long way to go before our industry fully recovers.

As a creative person attending the Summit, there's always a moment or two where the "business side" confounds me. On one hand there are business execs saying that a kids media pitch has to have a multi-media strategy built in from creation, which should include a games component, web specific content, etc. But, then you hear others say, "It's about finding great characters." I side with the latter because the internet and games worlds are filled with tons of failed character liscenesed product that makes no connection with an audience. Besides, what happened to the time when execs used to advise pitchers NOT to come in with a merchandizing plan showing characters on T-shirts but to instead concentrate on creating a strong character-based property?

So much of this confusing noise comes from these new media specialists or consultants that need to justify their own services. But, the bigger concern is that if creators bog themselves down with trying to hit every target at once as they develop an idea, they will end up with a big fat zero. Remember that Poochie episode of The Simpsons? That's just the type of creation you get with such thinking. You don't need a committee to be destroyed by committee-style thinking.

Two terms I kept hearing at this year's Summit was IP (intellectual property) and "play platforms" (another term for "toyetic" or how kids play along with a series through toys and games, etc). So don't make the mistake of calling a pitch a "creation" or ancillary areas "consumer products." Those terms are so "1999," which is incidentially the last year an animation mega hit was created (SpongeBob). SpongeBob predated a time when a would-be creator needed to worry about a plan for "play platforms." But, some how despite this, Spongebob proved itself pretty adaptable to those areas––even ones that weren't even invented yet in 1999. Food for thought.

One of the best sessions I attended at the Summit was "30 minutes with Kate Klimo," the VP & Publisher at Random House Children's Books. Klimo told us about Random House's new agenda to translate their books into animated TV series. I asked her if this was having any effect on how they were evaluating their children's book submissions. She said that at first it did have an effect on that process, a negative one. Having to look at book pitches with the added burden of imagining them as a TV series property greatly slowed down the works. They had difficulty choosing projects and trying to plan so far in advance also complicated their contract negotiations with author/creators. After a short while, they realized their mistake and decided to consider book proposals as strictly books. If and when a book takes off to big success, Random House can take that property and try to develop and sell it as an animated series. Listening to Kate Klimo was like a voice of reason in a sea of noise and a good reminder that creators should focus on creating great characters, be they in books, films, or animation pitches.

All this aside, my ticket inside KidScreen was my panel event spotlighting the new model of indie animated features. Here's a list of my panelists along with some insights they shared with the audience.

Iginio Straffi
The Founder and CEO of The Rainbow animation studio, as well as creator of its most famous product, the Winx Club series, which, culminated with the Winx feature film “The Secret of the Lost Kingdom." Beside its headquarters near Loreto, Rainbow now has offices in Rome, Spain, Hong Kong, The Netherlands and Singapore.
Iginio confessed to being a dreamer with a whole drawer full of feature film ideas he'd love to make one day...but, he lamented that the U.S. market seems near impossible to crack into. He treated us to a funny clip from a 3D movie his studio is making featuring the misadventures of some ancient Roman soldiers. The clip was well directed with snappy timing and clever writing. Maybe Roman soldiers could be the next big thing? After all, who would have thought pirates would have come back into style?

Fred Seibert
The president and exec producer of Frederator Studios. He is currently the executive producer of six cartoon series on Nickelodeon's networks --including, the new hit series Fanboy & Chum Chum, and he's developing animated feature films at Sony Pictures and Paramount Pictures.
Fred has been targeting an underserved segment of the audience by developing animated feature films that fans of (say) Family Guy might pay to see. He noted that up till now the only films made for this audience are live action comedies such as The Hangover. Fred revealed he had developed a feature called Super Fuckers about a bunch of screw-up teen superheroes. Despite trying to gear some of his features towards underserved moviegoers, Fred explained that he's a "pop culture guy" who's goal is to make hit product a-laThe Beatles.

Heather Kenyon
The VP, Project Development and Sales, Starz Animation, a Division of Starz Media, where she is seeking projects suited for Film Roman for TV, features and the direct-to-DVD market. She is the former senior director of development, original series at Cartoon Network, and the former editor-in-chief of Animation World Network.
Heather explained that Starz is aiming to keep their features down below the $50 million budget mark. Their first feature venture, 9, cost $30 million and grossed $32 million in US box office. She noted that in America, Disney has traditionally defined what people think of as the animated feature but that perception can be changed over time with films such as 9 that sport different subjects and design approaches. She thinks this area of animation is growing: the smaller, differently targeted animated feature. 

Paul Young
The co-founder of Irish Animation and Design studio, Cartoon Saloon, Producer of the animated feature The Secret of Kells and Executive Producer of the animated children’s series Skunk Fu!. He is currently in development on a number of projects including a new Feature film by his studio partner Tomm Moore, Song of the Sea.
Paul accepted our congratulations on the Oscar nomination of The Secret of Kells and suggested that Cartoon Saloon would like to become the Jim Jarmusch of animated features, making small interesting films. He said that Kells director Tomm Moore's blog helped generate a lot of interest in their film during the long period in which it was made. When I asked him how they made the most of their meager $6 million Euro budget, he answered that all the money is up on the screen. Everyone worked for low wages in order to make the film as good as possible.

My main point was that the easy mistake for an indie to make would be to try to imitate a Pixar experience at a fraction of their budget, schedule, and resources. During the 1930s and 40s, the Warner Brothers Animation unit couldn't imitate what Disney was doing at that time so they became something else, culiminating in Loony Tunes and Merrie Melodies. And, while foreign and domestic indie animated feature films have not yet created a major stir in North America, barriers like that were made to be broken. After all, who was looking for a 4 piece band from Liverpool prior to 1964? No English music star had amounted to hill of beans in America prior to the Fab Four's arrival. That logic tells me an indie animation Blair Witch-sized hit is inevitable. And, just like The Beatles ushering in the British Invasion, it might knock this barrier down once and for all.

Outside of the panel event I was buzzing around the Summit taking meetings with production companies, show creators, and network executives––sometimes pitching the show ideas Xeth Feinberg and I cooked up, and sometimes just comparing war stories on working in the business. Best of all were the opportunities to say hello and spend some time with old Nickelodeon collegues Kay Wilson Stallings, Teri Weiss, Dr. Alice Wilder, Koyalee Chanda, and Sarah Chumsky. I also enjoyed catching up with Little Airplane's Tom Brown and Tone Thyne, and former Little Airplane mainstay Heather Tilert, and Big Bad Boo founders Shabnam Rezaei and Aly Jetha. There's so many things going on at any given time that it's possible to miss someone completely. For example, I didn't see the Ottawa International Animation Festival's Azarin Sohrabkhani, who was there to check out Kidscreen's panel events for TAC research, until the very last hour of the three-day event.

Besides my official pitches, I was also the animator of a pilot for another project being presented by creator Shelly Delice with her partners Linda Kahn and Melanie Grisanti. It was fun to check in with them from time to time to see how their meetings were going.

Walking around the Summit you can grow contacts very easily. Your friends introduce you to their friends and its easy to meet others at the coffee station, on couches in the delegate's lounge, or simply by talking to your neighbor seated beside you at an event. A lot of these meetings have the potential to grow work, especially work with clients outside of the New York area. And, that can mean a lot in periods when work is scarce in the big apple. I don't consider myself a business person, but I take the business of my career very seriously.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Passion and Ian Jones-Quartey

Post-it sketch and warm up doodles by animation director Ian Jones-Quartey (pictured above).

"Don't focus on getting a job. Focus on your passion for animation." These words of advice were spoken by Venture Bros. animation director and SVA alum, Ian Jones-Quartey, to the students in my career class at SVA this past Monday night.

Ian is an impressive character, and not only because his first industry job was as an animation director. He interned at World Leaders during his junior year and it was then that his inking talents were noticed, leading to the studio offering him freelance work into his senior year. But, once it became clear how much of a commitment his thesis film would require, he had to decide which was more important, finishing school or dropping out to work. Wanting to finish what he started, he informed World Leaders that he'd have to stop working for them to focus on his thesis.

Once he finished his thesis he returned to World Leaders to screen the film for his former employers, also handing out promotional postcards. A few days later, they called him with a job offer to direct a flash animated series. Yes, Ian had made a terrific film, which certainly helped World Leaders decide to offer him a job...but, another key element to his opportunity was the fact that he visited the studio, wanting to show them his film. It showed that he valued their opinions and the relationships he'd made during his time interning and working there.

But, the most impressive part of the story happened a year later. Ian was still working at the studio when he happened by a desk that belonged to a supervisor on The Venture Bros. Ian hadn't worked on that project, but he noticed a stack of envelope packs on the supervisors desk. He asked what they were and the supervisor answered that they were Venture Bros. sheet directing tests about to be mailed out. Ian asked if he could see one and the supervisor had one xeroxed up.

"I had no plans to do the test," Ian recalls, saying, "I just thought it might be cool to check out and be a fun thing to have." But, Ian did more than check it out. He tried to time out the first scene that night. The next day he showed it to the supervisor who helped him correct the work and gave him other pointers. Ian repeated this process each day for the next week and a half until he had the test finished. But, he still had no expectations that he would get the job. He was just curious and wanted to learn. And, this passion was not lost on the production, which wisely offered him the sheet directing job on the series.

In contrast, Ian told our class about a former intern he knew that was very bitter after not being offered a job at the studio following the internship. In that intern's eyes, he was owed a job and fully expected to be offered one at a moment of his choosing. For Ian, this was an affirmation of his approach to not focus on any single job opportunity, but on his passion for animation instead. And, passion mixed with talent and good people skills has way of landing job opportunities. Ian Jones-Quartey is one of those people that seemed to instinctually know this from the start. I'm very grateful he returned to my class to impart a bit of that wisdom and experience to the students.

And, if the above is not impressive enough, for much of the last three years, in his spare time, Ian has been producing his own animated Web series, with co-creator Jim Gisriel, called knockFORCE. As they say, If you want something done, ask a busy person.