Friday, March 26, 2010

The Cutting Room Floor

*Gag above inspired after my final rejection in a round of pitching from 2005.

One of my favorite aspects of writing animation career books is that it requires me to conduct extensive interviews with some of today's most influential animation people. Unfortunately, there's always some great stuff that doesn't quite make the final edit. But, that doesn't mean that it can't be shared in a blog post. Here's some choice bits left out of my recent book, Animation Development: From Pitch to Production, that deserve to see the light of day. I'll do a future post with rescued tidbits from the executive side of the table. But, until then, here's something to feast on from some of today's top creative minds in the animation industry...

On how to create something personal yet universal:
"I just make up stuff that I like. It has to interest me first before I’ll consider pitching it to someone else. If your idea sells you may have to work on it for a few years so it better be something you’re interested in otherwise you’ll lose interest in it really fast."
––Butch Hartman

"It’s all about character. Concepts are good to get someone interested in a project but a concept alone won’t draw viewers back week after week. So go for strong, appealing, and relatable characters to drive your project. When creating characters, I try to think of different points of view, how they might play off each other and the conflicts they might get in with one another."
––Craig McCracken

"Every show really only revolves around a few characters. Get the heavies right and don't worry about the rest. If the supplemental characters are great and the chemistry between your lead characters stink, then it won't save the show. But if your lead characters are right on and the world, episode samples, spelling is wrong nobody cares. They can make GOLD out of
the core group.

I spend most of the time thinking out why these characters need to be together, what they represent, what a young audience will find exciting and accessible about them that I don't think a whole lot else is needed."
––Doug TenNapel

On the effects of fads or trends in the pitching process:
"I don’t pitch stuff based on the latest fad or trend because fads and trends die off and so will your show idea if it’s based on a fad. Also, doing that can majorly “date” your idea and only have it be relevant to the time it’s first aired. A few years down the road and nobody’s going to care about it any longer. It’s like if I were to pitch a show about a Rubik’s Cube right now. Who would want to watch it?"
––Butch Hartman

"I love kids and I love to know the kinds of things they like, but I don't like putting fads in my stories. I have a general rule that I want the technology and culture in my shows to still be funny in 20 years. I barely even let video games be shown in my shows. I just don't like chasing modern props to try to appease my audience's appetite for their own thin, ever-changing, pointless culture.

We're also making cartoons for a global market that will be rerun forever on some cable channel. Does some kid in India really want my characters to call each other "My Nizzle"? Why does a kid in Turkey want my characters to talk about cell phones and Ipods?

As a story-teller, we're trying to plug into that universal human quality that we all share. You know, the way it's funny to fart and wrong to lie no matter what culture you're entertaining. I can build shows around characters that lie and fart but I can't if they just talk about their Ipod."
––Doug TenNapel

On collaboration:
"More minds are always better than fewer. Unless you have too many."
––Mo Willems

On technology:
" I learned directing the digital aspect of the first season of Elmo’s World that those on the cutting edge get cut. The future is in the future. I work in the present tense, which is to say I try to be present and I’m always tense."
––Mo Willems

"I think the internet is a threat to some executives but not the good ones. The bad ones really couldn't recognize a quality show if it slapped them upside the head like a wet fish (now that's a great show idea!)...the good ones are usually a step ahead of the internet, or see through the niche fanatics that promote certain internet phenomena."
––Doug TenNapel

On preparing for a first pitch meeting:
"The best preparation is making sure you can explain your idea clearly and succinctly. You don't need a fancy preparation. Show just enough to make them see what you're seeing. The important thing is to make them feel
––Carl H. Greenblatt

"I try to do as much art as I can . It’s the clearest and easiest way to express the characters for me. When I pitched Foster’s ,I filled a conference room at Cartoon Network with drawing s of the characters and the world and invited the executives to look around at it for a while . I wanted them to get curious about what they were looking at. Only after they were curious did I explain."
––Craig McCracken

All of the time goes into creating the thing, so coming up with the pitch materials is the shortest part of process for me. Many of the characters I pitch have been on my work desk for years so when I finally decide to pitch them I just bang out a page or two of written material and maybe do three to five pages of art.
––Doug TenNapel

What is your take on the role of pitch bibles?
"Honestly I don’t like pitch bibles. I feel they don’t reveal the most important aspect of making a cartoons: execution. You can have the most network-friendly bible in the world but If you don’t have the talent/skills to pull off what you’ve written it’s a moot point."
––Craig McCracken

"Usually I'll type up the pitch in a few days and do little sketches and doodles directly on the printed page. It's not very professional but it forces the executives to consider the visual as they read the material. Shows end up on a screen and there are no words to read in the final form so
it seems odd to have the pitch written in some dry format that is usually only written because the language of Hollywood is the word on the page.

I think overworking a Bible is a bad move. This doesn't apply to everyone because I've seen some incredibly tight bibles sitting on the desk of some pitch executives. They have full color, textured, hard-covers and seventy-five pages of final art and written material. They look good on a desk.

I think most executives know a good idea when they see one and aren't often fooled by impressive type-setting and printing. It really isn't their job to admire the length of a Bible, or even the depth for that matter."
––Doug TenNapel

On maintaining your vision while remaining open to network notes:
"If you aren't flexible, your show will never get made or worse, survive once it's on the air. It's important to be confident in your idea, but to realize which changes won't affect the core and which will changes will alter it from what you want. It's hard to set your ego aside, but I always tell myself there's more than one good solution to any problem, and good ideas can come from anyone. However, most development execs want to justify their jobs and usually they feel they have to make comments to do so. If you blatantly disregard their comments, they won't want to work with you. If you change everything they ask you to, you'll seem like a creator who doesn't know what he want his show to be. Find the balance. Most of their comments are pointless, but think about the root of why they want to change something. Find an answer to the change that makes you both happy."
––Carl H. Greenblatt

On pitching style:
"I have a ton of energy, but it’s very controlled. This is important because you’ve got to communicate that energy and excitement to the people you’re pitching to. If they don’t feel you’re excited about it, then they won’t be. Also, I bring everything I think I need to answer the many questions of the people (or clients) I will be pitching to: written material, drawings, pictures, videos, whatever it will take to get my point across.

Remember, just because you’ve been living with an idea for a year or so (maybe a shorter or longer time) doesn’t mean that the client has. They are blank slates and you will have approximately 10 minutes to fill their heads with just as much stuff as you have in yours. You have to have your pitch down pat. Have a beginning, middle and end.

Answer their questions as best as you can. You may think you have every question answered – which is good – but I can guarantee you they are going to ask you something you hadn’t even thought of. Not that this is a bad thing. On the contrary, it actually adds to the collaborative process and makes the client feel involved. But having them throw you a curve ball may make you nervous. Don’t be. If you have your pitch well thought out and the foundations of your story down, unexpected questions won’t throw you. You’ll be able to come up with a solution easily, or adjust your idea slightly to fit their ideas in."
––Butch Hartman

On the importance of building healthy relationships with executives:
"I build friendships based on who people are as people. Their position doesn’t impress me. However, that being said, it is vitally important to maintain healthy working relationships with execs because they’re the ones who can say “yes” or “no” to your project. Just be yourself and be open to their thoughts and suggestions, no matter how much you may or may not agree or disagree. Remember: you’re not always right. But neither are they. And, if everyone can work together and drop the egos for a second, a great project will be made that everyone can benefit from."
––Butch Hartman

On managing the emotional rollercoaster inherent in the pitching process:
"Emotion has nothing to do with it. If you make TV, this is your job and you realize you’re in it for the long run. "
––Mo Willems

On what you would change about network development if you were able?
"Sure, I’d make it more creator driven, I’d give crews more time, and everyone would get a pony. Actually, if every member of the crew got a small piece of the back-end, you’d have more harmonious and driven teams, but you’ve got a better chance of giving everyone a pony."
––Mo Willems

"I would fire every mid-level anything and only have network heads take pitches. When I brought Earthworm Jim to Universal I pitched to Sid Seidenberg himself! No junior execs, no assistants! I didn't even have an agent at the time. He looked across the conference room table and said, "We'll do thirteen episodes. Now I have to meet with junior executive 1, 2 and 3 then the head of production gets permission from the Chief blah blah to do a 30 second flash cartoon...two years later I'm at where Sid Seidenberg had me in twenty minutes. Things aren't getting better. Most networks know this. Their audience shares are shrinking and even the bigger networks are abandoning simple principles for inexpensive gimmicks thinking story-telling has changed. It hasn't. The human condition hasn't changed in 60 years and it will take another 60 years for most people to realize that."
––Doug TenNapel

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Remaking and Unmaking of Disney

*Three of the key players in Waking Sleeping Beauty, (Peter Schnieder, Roy Disney, and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

As young as the history of animation is (compared to the other arts), so much of its important history seems to be soooo far in the past. Challenging that notion is a new documentary feature Waking Sleeping Beauty directed by Don Hahn, chronicling the Disney studio between the years 1984 and 1994, a period where the dying industry of animated features was roused to new financial heights.

Peter Schnieder, the film's producer, remarked during a Q and A after a screening of the film at SVA, "We told the animators to believe you can do better than Walt." He went on to say, "In a way we did and in a way we didn't. But the important thing was to believe that we could." This was not only a pep talk to inspire animators, it was also a mission statement showing how much the thinking had changed at the Disney company.

The film describes the Ron Miller period of Disney as a sleepy little company slowly cranking out an animated feature every four years, and helmed by the remnants of Walt's original crews: sweet old men wearing cardigan sweaters. Back then a creative decision on a film would be answered by the question, "What would Walt do?" This would all change with Eisner and Wells at the wheel where it was understood that if the company was going to "win" they would have to abandon the notion of running each important decision by a dead man.

I was in High School when Roger Rabbit and Little Mermaid scampered, jumped, and splashed onto movie screens. It was amazing to see something that had meant so much to me suddenly be embraced by so many other people. Animation was big business again and Waking Sleeping Beauty tells that story, not the story of the animation artists. The way the filmmakers present it, the animators represent a herd of bodies to be moved from one building to another, waiting to be told what to do, how to feel about their work, and what to title their movies. But, don't feel too bad for them because during the good years that unfold, the animators get to buy BMWs too.

The big drama in this story came from the top. We can debate wether or not there should have been more artists included or identified (I vote that they should have), but to do so we might miss discussing the film that Hahn and Schnieder made. And, there's LOTS to discuss. At one point in the film, Bluth is labeled as "the man who kicked us when we were down," a reference to the 1979 exodus of artists that followed Bluth in resigning from Disney, something that setback the recovery of the studio. Yet, in retrospect, it almost looks like Bluth did Disney a favor. By whisking away all the malcontents, only the true believers remained. And, that was a necessary condition for the success that followed, one that was just as important as the hiring of Eisner, Wells, and Katzenberg.

Eisner and Wells were appointed by Roy Disney to save the Disney company from corporate raiders in the early 1980s. Waking Sleeping Beauty gives us a vivid and candid depiction of each man, showing their strengths and weaknesses and the nature of their relationship to each other. It seems that as each film grew to greater success, the strain between these four powerful men grew in tandem. The movie depicts them as hard driven men, each clamoring for credit and jealous of one another's accomplishments. Roy is depicted as having no love for Katzenberg, with the implication that he would have never allowed him to fill the position created by the untimely death of Wells. Meanwhile, Eisner makes the claim that if only Katzenberg had been patient he would have given the job.

One moment in the film sheds a new light on Roy's legacy. Waking Sleeping Beauty reveals another side of Roy, showing how his ego added to the mix and mess of the whole situation. There's footage of the memorial service just after Wells' death where Eisner is choked up while talking about his departed colleague and friend. At the end of his tearful speech he introduces Roy to the podium. What follows was fascinating. The situation was a memorial but Roy spends the first couple of moments grinning and laughing at the mic, teasing Eisner for not giving him a better introduction. "That's it?" he asks between chuckles. It's a moment of pure ego, one that can't be contained even for a moment.

Waking Sleeping Beauty shows how the artists and execs needed each other. Sure, each side had different goals. The execs' goal was to build the company into a modern media giant with animation as its engine. The artists wanted to do great works, to compete with Walt while at the same time follow in his tradition. Each side got to live out the fantasy, at least for a while.

According to Waking Sleeping Beauty, the period's creative VIP was Howard Ashman, the late lyricist responsible for much of the Broadway-style influence from Little Mermaid to Beauty and the Beast. Feature animation has always had a strong theatrical influence. Actors on a stage give "big performances" that can be read from the back row. Animators, by trade, over-exaggerate poses and gestures so they can be clearly read.

The Broadway musical is often a guilty pleasure, a celebration of schmaltz. So, when we see and hear that master animator Glen Keane insisted on being the animator for Ariel's I-want-song, "Part of Your World," the Broadway sensibility and a Disney animator's taste seem to be one and the same. Tellingly Katzenberg wanted that song cut from the film, but the creatives won the battle and the sequence stayed in. Such important artistic victories could happen at the start of this period. Makes you wonder who was minding the store during the Treasure Planet period that would follow. This certainly helps bolster Katzenberg's role in Disney's success because post-Lion King, the studio began floundering immediately.

I left the film feeling a bit sad. The power of Waking Sleeping Beauty is how it so vividly places us in the period that we almost believe we were there... and in a way we were there––in that we remember sitting in dark theaters, munching popcorn and slurping cokes when Ariel, Aladdin, and Simba first graced the screen at 24 frames per second. Make a point to see this film at NY's Sunshine Theatre (note the screenings that will include a Q and A with producer Peter Schnieder.)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Attitude and Gratitude

I have to admit that when I started I didn't know if there would be a place for me in this industry. Doesn't everyone have that natural bit of fear starting out? That was my mystery to solve but, once I got my first freelance job from then-SVA teacher/animation producer Mark Heller, the mystery was replaced with eternal gratitude to be able to work and earn a living doing what I love.

The thing that I've observed in my time in this business is that each of us define our own experience in this industry through (in large part) our own attitudes. If we think we're gonna get screwed or shafted at every corner, we'll put out an energy of fear, distrust, and self-defeat that can block opportunities for happiness and success in the field.

A few posts ago I wrote about Ian Jones-Quartey whose main career compass is simply to be open, trusting, and passionate about his art and work. He doesn't see the industry as a cut-throat place so, for him, it isn't. Discovering you have this power is like suddenly waking up a superhero, only without having to change your sheets.

I've made a ton of mistakes in this industry (just read my books to find a "greatest hits" of them) but, one thing I have tried to be consistent with is working with an open and positive attitude. To better explain this, a couple of stories come to mind that I haven't shared before. Not so long ago, I was doing a bit of Web animation for a leading kids entertainment company. The job started with an in-person meeting between me and four reps of the company (some producers, international execs, researchers, etc). At the hour-long meeting we set the creative direction for the animation. I left with a rough plan that I was to present back to them in the form of an animatic. This work took me two days, after which I presented the animatic to the client.

A day later, the main producer called me on the phone: "I have good news and bad news. The good news is that you gave us just what we asked for. The bad news is that the rest of the team changed direction and want to try something else."

I answered: "That's all useful news because now we have the benefit of having tried something and eliminated one possibility. That should help us nail the next version."

There was a brief silence before the producer spoke again. She was a little surprised to hear my positive attitude and I could already sense a lighter quality in her voice. Then I added, the only thing I ask is that the time I spent creating the first version be compensated. She agreed and we quickly arrived at a price. Next she explained that they planned to have another meeting to iron out the next version, saying I had the option of attending or not. Of course I wanted to be there!

A big part of what I love about being a virtual studio is that I get to participate in each job's creative planning and execution. This gives me more control over my fate and a personal connection to each job I take on. Attending meetings is also a fun excuse to get out of the house once in a while, not to mention a chance to help cement in-person relationships with another set of producers (both of which are important to getting repeat business).

I'm happy to report that the second stage of this project came off swimmingly, and better still, led to continued freelance with the company that I'm still enjoying today. In fact, this client turned out to be my main supplier of work in 2009, helping to keep me busy in a very bad year for the economy. Would all this have happened if I'd had a different attitude during the initial bumpy stage of the first job?

For another client, I once put in a total of two extra unpaid weeks spread out on either side of a long-term job to help organize the work and later to archive it. The job was for a start-up studio making a low budget series. I appreciated their trust in working with me and I considered the extra work I put in to be a part of my obligation to the project and the people behind it.

A good attitude and a lot of gratitude goes a long way towards helping us build the career of our choice, and at the very least, might help make up for the mistakes we will inevitably make along the way. Now, if I can only figure out which monkey above represents "attitude" and which represents "gratitude."

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Cunning of Christy Karacas

This past Monday evening, Super Jail (Adult Swim) creator Christy Karacas once again graced my SVA animation career class with his can-do spirit and inspiring story. Here is someone who seemed to be born trusting his own creative instincts. For example, when he needed to make a thesis film at RISD, he struggled with the process until he decided to play to his hunger for spontaneity by drawing random storyboard panels on index cards and then throwing them up in the air and assembling them in a random order. Christy said that this was partly inspired by a jazz musician he liked that worked a similar way. The result was the spontaneous montage of a film called Space War which went on to huge success on the festival circuit, indirectly leading to a job opportunity at MTV Animation.

While working as a background designer on Daria (because of a knack for perspective drawing), Christy heard about MTV's new plan to make a creative lab that would give money to staffers that wished to pitch a project. Not missing a beat, he and pal Steve Warbrick whipped up the concept for what would become their MTV-funded short Barfight. Christy told my class that he planned the short's content by catering to his own short attention span. "I get bored easily, so I like if a UFO can just drop in out of no where. I like to be surprised. I think what is the least expected thing that can happen and that's what I do."

Smoking gun #1: Notice how Christy's process was all internal. He didn't think, "What would MTV want?" or "What might the development executive want?" Instead, he and Steve planned and pitched a film they would enjoy making and watching, one that came from a personal place.

The MTV creative lab bit the dust before his film could be aired, so the filmmakers tried their hand at the festival circuit. Despite being popular among the NY animation community, Barfight did not go on to have any festival success, and for a time, Christy left animation and Steve took a job building animatics at Blue Sky.

Smoking gun #2: Could Christy have possibly known how short the window of opportunity would be for the MTV creative lab program? If he hadn't struck right away, there'd be no Barfight. And, while that may not have seemed important at the time, it sure turned out to be important later.

Years later, Christy was working as a package designer at a DVD company when his phone rang. On the line was someone from Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. "Are you the guy who did Barfight?" the voice asked. A few weeks later, Christy and Steve met with the Adult Swim exec in NYC and pitched an idea centered around a super jail. "Imagine the world's biggest jail run by a Willie Wonka type character," they said.

Smoking gun #3: Creators have to be able to sum up their creations in a short sentence as Christy and Steve were able to do. If a series idea requires three paragraphs of explanation just to be able to understand it, it usually won't be a compelling animated pitch, let alone a compelling series to watch.

Not only did Christy and Steve's instincts serve them well, they also delivered (with the help of collaborators such as Aaron Augenblick and his studio) what might be the most unusual animated TV series to hit the air since South Park. Best of all, this show helped keep NYC series animation on the map during a very bad time for the economy. Check out the odd pleasures of Super Jail season 1, newly released on DVD, and bring home a modern day slice of New York animation history.

Monday, March 1, 2010

I Want That

A big appeal of working in this industry is that we each have the opportunity to make our own way, to build the careers of our choice. Unfortunately, it's sometimes hard to distinguish between what we personally want and what others have accomplished. So many of us "like the idea" of having their own series, getting a children's books published, opening a studio, directing a feature, winning an oscar... the list goes on and on...

Complicating the matter further is that, within the NY animation scene are many individuals who have achieved these goals, so it's not hard to imagine or fantasize about following in their footsteps. Sometimes it's simply the thought, "I could do that too."

As creative people we could set our agenda to achieving just about anything. And, that's often the very root of the problem. In my career I've had a difficulty honing in on what I really want to do. On the positive side, I've been fearless about going after what I want, but on the negative side I've spread myself thin and set goals that didn't always represent where I might best spend my energies.

I imagine that lots of animation folks have this problem. How many of us know the exact path we should follow, eliminating all else? Personal development is a messy thing, full of twists and turns, and not the tidy series of events it appears to be on a resume.

So how did all this play out in my career? For starters, since I worked so often in preschool TV, the majority of my animation pitches tended to be preschool ideas. Looking back, this was not because it was my passion, but more because it was familiar. I knew the world, the rules, and was trying to capitalize on the time I logged working on preschool projects. It was an area where I thought I could be taken seriously. The problem is that preschool TV is concept and curriculum heavy with little-to-no room for character development or humor. So, developing preschool pitches left out some of my key interests, areas that would have given me a real connection to what I had created.

For the pitches I recently created with Xeth Feinberg, we focused on educational series for the ages 5-7 where there is a larger opportunity to add humor and character to the mix. The result? Xeth and I cooked up projects we'd be really excited to make, and not just because it would give us a job. We've already seen a few nibbles of real interest for our trouble, and in the mean time we are making a two minute film to even better illustrate one of our ideas. Because of our connection to the project, it doesn't feel like "work" for us to continue this way. Quite the opposite. We can't wait to get our hands on it and make a little film.

I'm also working on some pitches for Nicktoons (which caters to a 6-12 year old audience) with a couple of partners. Again, I have the amazing feeling of being in my element. Because I logged so much time trying to develop in other areas, I can really feel the difference when something clicks with what I want to do. I'm gradually learning the difference between "wanting" and "what I want."