Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Formative Stories

*image above, my Long Island grammar school, also known as the location of my first commercial art/business venture.

Because I'm currently co-writing Bill Plympton's "Art of" book, I'm spending a lot of my time editing the words of the master showman of indie animation. Working on the manuscript has caused a couple of stories from my past to bubble up in my mind, and I thought I'd share them here.

The first steps of my creative/business life was producing and selling my own comic books, while still in the fifth grade. I charged five cents for each Xeroxed five-page issue, which were mostly my takes or spoofs on Batman, He-Man, and Inspector Gadget. In one month I raked in $50 of sales (that's a lot of sales at five cents each!), which kept my belly full of gummy bears, and my hands full of baseball cards and real comic books the whole summer.

I remember once, when I was selling comics at lunchtime in the school cafeteria, the much respected and feared phys-ed teacher walked in and grabbed my merchandise out of my hands. My heart thumped loud in my chest as he flipped through a comic sporting his fierce poker face. Then he roared loud enough to get everyone's attention, silencing the room by announcing, "David Levy is selling comics! You should buy one."

But other teachers and administrators were not so kind. One teacher chastised me for my comics' poor spelling and grammar, and the assistant principal barred me from selling the comics in the school. Happily I took that literally and moved my sales operation to the school playground where every recess I had a line of kids (their pockets heavy with quarters) ready to buy my latest issues. My success was not lost on two other artistic students who tried to compete with their own comic book empires.

I went home and complained to my dad about my new rivals, and his answer was to fire up his compressor and add a dash of air-brushed color to adorn the covers of my comics. Now I had something my competitors didn't have. I needn't have worried. My rivals only managed to produce an issue or two, while I had stacks of new comics each week. Eventually the assistant principal caught me selling again and explained that the school playground was still the school grounds, thus marking an end to my comic book adventure.

So what? I had animation on the brain, anyhow. And I went through a pretty typical animator's right of passage, attempting to make my own animated cartoons on the family super 8MM camera as well as on a new circa-1985 video camera. The video camera couldn't shoot a single exposure so the film route was the better choice. By the end of high school I made about six one-minute cartoons, the final two of which were reasonably sophisticated by my standards at the time.

One day I went to my high school's AV department (of which, I was NOT a member, thank you very much) and ordered an 8-mm projector to be delivered to my Spanish class. Imagine my teacher's surprise when, right on schedule, there was a knock on the door, and a projector cart was wheeled in. "There must be some mistake," the teacher protested. I stood up and confessed that I had ordered it because I thought it would be fun if I could show my new cartoon to the class. The teacher, a fairly stern woman, was caught temporarily off guard and curiosity got the better of her.

"Okay, thread it up." she allowed. Before you could say, “Rushmore's Max Fischer,” I had projected two cartoons, and even though the second one got stuck and started to burn, it still counted as my first public animation screening. Just as you don't have to ask permission to make an animated film, I found that a similarly bold move could help get the film seen by an audience. The best part was that I got to try out being an animated-film maker early on, and thus could confirm that I truly had been bitten by the bug (even if my talent had a long way to catch up to my enthusiasm––and still does!).

What are your formative stories? Feel free to share below in the comments!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bad Writing

*drawing of Fred Seibert by Dan Meth

If I stacked all the TV scripts and pitch bibles I've written on the floor it would be taller than a foot stool but shorter than a dwarf giraffe. And, it would smell like chocolate. Okay, that last part makes no sense, but you get the idea. Frederator president and executive producer Fred Seibert and I don't agree on everything, but one bit of wisdom I got from him is the idea that animators have a lot of trouble writing scripts because they haven't written enough.

"How many drawings have you made in your life?" he'd ask an artist pitching him a project. "Now, how many scripts have you written?" Obviously most artists spend more time drawing than writing, accounting for the weak writing and the lack of a engaging storytelling in many pitches (many of mine included!). Fred's premise is that a typical would-be pitcher has to get a lot of bad writing out of the way before they can produce quality scripts--just like the artist has to spend many years making bad drawings as part of the his/her development.

Writing scripts for my pitch bibles has helped me develop as a writer. Like most self-development, it happened on my dime and schedule, and there was a long slog where I wasn't sure if it was getting me anywhere. But, then something interesting happened with my development deal at Disney in 2007: I became a paid TV writer! In all I turned in five short scripts for the project. Right on the heals of my Disney deal (the "House of Mouse" did not option my project beyond one year), that same executive parlayed me onto writing for another internal project. In a way that meant even more than the opportunity to write the scripts for my own deal because when it's your creation, nobody knows it better than you. So to be trusted to write for someone else on their project seemed like a major victory.

Since then, I've written paid treatments for two more properties. One was for a famous children's clothing empire, and the other was for Mr. Magoo! As a lifelong UPA fan, I considered the Magoo job a dream come true. The opportunity came after a casual cup of coffee with a producer on the series, which is being produced in France for French public television. When I turned in the treatment for the series, it was accepted without a single change, but I have to assume that the resulting series could go in a very different direction.

My latest TV writing gig concluded last week. A major kids channel, producing a few pilots to a set educational curriculum, reached out to established studios to secure pitches. One of the studios enlisted me as a part of their core creative team, and I ended up taking on the main writing duties as well as some art direction and overall project guidance. As this was speculative work for a pitch, it was six weeks of unpaid time, but I'm connected to the project should it go forward, and very proud of the creation our team turned in. Tackling the writing duties on this project felt like a culmination of all those years of scripts and pitches. Not only did all that writing time logged in help snag me this opportunity, it also gave me the confidence to write with conviction and trust my instincts.

I never took a creative writing class, so my own scripts and pitches have been my boot camp. The same opportunity is open to everyone. I know this concluding thought is beating a dead horse (particularly if you've read my other posts and books), but whatever we hope to achieve in this industry is based on the work we ourselves do. Nobody else has the power to make us anything or deny us anything... I find that this awareness also smells like chocolate.

While we all know that we can't get better at something without practice, the tricky part is that we don't usually make ourselves practice. It takes a willingness to go through a "bad writing" stage. You have to give your self permission to fail many times. Besides, learning how to handle failure is good practice too.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Saturday Morning Conga

*image above from a new short created by me and Xeth Feinberg.

It's Saturday morning as I write this post and I've just finished animating the same three-character conga dance for the third time on my new indie film, a collaboration with filmmaker Xeth Feinberg. A few months ago I tackled a freelance job which had me animating a dance between two potatoes––something I had to animate twice to get right. In both the freelance job and my indie film, the problem was the same: I first animated the characters separately and then attempted to combine them later in After Effects. It didn't work then and it didn't work now. Perhaps this time the lesson will stick.

A while back, indie animator Pat Smith told my SVA career class the story behind his debut indie film Drink: He had to wake up early each day to steal a few hours to work on the film before reporting to his job at MTV Animation. It's hard to imagine a better example of the sacrifice it takes to make indie films, to fit them in to an already busy work life. You have to be a little bit crazy to embark on such an adventure. Only passion can force you to stay on course in light of every other possible way you could be spending your time. How else could I justify spending a lovely Spring morning animating a Frankenstein monster, a little girl with a cat on her head, and a European Villager doing a conga? Insert dirty joke punch line here.

I didn't plan on making this film. Xeth Feinberg and I had co-created an educational series pitch for ages 5-7 that we thought had legs. Although we had lots of good meetings before enthusiastic executives, there was no deal forthcoming. Usually one just stops right there and moves on to other things, but Xeth and I thought a bit of animation could help us demonstrate our idea even better. That bit of animation grew into a four and half-minute film which we are finishing up the end of this month.

So, on the third try, is the conga perfect? Certainly not. But, it's better. Nothing in the film "perfect." And, that's a huge part of the point of our film. Dora the Explorer is perfect in its own way... and perfectly successful. And, that same perfection––where every drawing is on model and every episode is sewn up in a rigid formula does not appeal to me. Yet, at the same time I admire its success and impact in the market. And, I appreciate that it provides an exact opposite area for Xeth and I to explore.

Why can't an educational series be character-based (in other words, based on an interesting character) instead of using characters as wide-eyed blinking props? And, while Dora is not a flash or After Effects puppet-based show, it might as well be, because the drawing is so contained and predictable. Instead, Xeth and I have made a film full of off-model drawings that celebrate hand-drawn animation in all its clumsy glory (in our hands, that is).

Will anything come from this odd hybrid of a self-produced pilot and an indie film? I have no idea. All I know is that it was fun to make and along the way I discovered how much I like to work with Xeth Feinberg. Success can be defined many ways. As my friend Elliot Cowan says: "You better like your film, because you might be the only one that does." In that category, we are already successful.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Plympton, Working for Free, and Securing Your Place in the Industry

Image above from Bill Plympton's Oscar-nominated first indie short, "Your Face."

I'm currently co-writing a book on the art of Bill Plympton, title TBD, published on Rizzoli, the same press that brought us the wonderful book Unfiltered: The Complete Ralph Bakshi. And, at my present age of 36, I can't help but be blown away by the simple fact that Bill Plympton didn't complete his first film until age 37. But, wait...there's more. His first completed animation was a film called, Boomtown, a sponsored film that he took on for FREE. What?!!! Animators are not supposed to EVER do anything for free, not under ANY circumstances! That's me playing devil's advocate, but certainly some of us think that way.

Not only did Bill begin his animation career by making a sponsored film for free, it turns out it was just a continuation of how he began his previous career as a successful illustrator and cartoonist. His first work in that area was mostly unpaid work for fledgling cinema magazines or local downtown newspapers. Each "free" commission was another sample that would comprise the impressive portfolio that (soon after) landed the future-animator paid work in such publications as Playboy, Screw, Vogue, and National Lampoon (to name just a few), not to mention a nationally syndicated comic strip.

So, when Bill was willing to make his first short, Boomtown, for free, it was with the proven knowledge that free work, at its best, CAN be important work for YOURSELF. Through the production of Boomtown, Bill was able to finally have an animation mentor, in this case––animator Connie D'Antuono, who would teach him the nuts and bolts of animation production. In Bill's story, FREE work proved life-changing when he applied what he'd learned towards his first indie film, Your Face. As you probably already know, the film scored the new filmmaker an Oscar-nomination while giving us, arguably, our greatest animation hero since Ralph Bakshi.

To clarify, my position on working for free is that there are specific circumstances where it might make sense. Where it doesn't make sense, in my opinion, is when it is part of a failed studio business model, requiring YOU, the animation artist, to work unpaid simply as a part of their normal delivery plan. But, there are cases (like Bill's) where the artist uses the excuse of unpaid work to craft new samples, build skills, and increase his/her own future employability and opportunities. Each situation is different, just as each of us are different. To some of us, some amount of working for free, in the right situation, could prove to make ALL THE DIFFERENCE, just as it did for Bill Plympton.

Sure, it's easy to look at a success like Bill, follow his career trail, and see that working for free (in specific circumstances) played a big role in his development. But, how might this be applicable to someone just starting out? And, how can a newcomer distinguish between when to and when not to work for free? A study of Bill's choices helps to find that answer. For one, when he did free illustration work for cinema magazines and downtown newspapers, he was just starting out and needed the samples. But, perhaps more importantly, these were struggling magazines, not huge media empires. They had virtually no money to pay, and the big magazines weren't returning Bill's calls yet. So, he saw an opportunity to create professional samples by doing some free work for the little guys. And, later, when he decided to take on the four months of free work it required to create Boomtown, part of his willingness to do the job came from believing in its cause, the anti-nuke movement.

Mark Mayerson recently gave some great advice to graduates at his blog:
"Grads have a tendency to look at their first job as the culmination of their educations, but it isn't. It's merely the first step in a career. Just as you go from knowing everything about your high school to knowing nothing at all about your college or university, you're now going from knowing everything about the school you are leaving to knowing nothing (or very little) about the animation industry. It's no fun to start again at the bottom, but that's where you are and over the course of your career, you may find yourself starting over several more times. Recognize your position for what it is and accept it. With luck, it's only temporary."

I think Mark's advice is very relevant to the topic above. Might the odd, occasional, and well-chosen work for free be an important part of securing your place in the animation industry? I don't think there's a universal answer to this question. Just the right answer for you.