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.


roconnor said...

Well put, in regards to when to do work for free.

Obviously there are times when it's "worth it" for whatever reasons. All too often it's taken as you says -as an operating model for a failed business.

There's a difference between producing a job for free and working on someone else's project. If you're the author the benefits are clear (as in the case of "Boomtown"), if you're a lackey the degrees of benefit become smaller.

On the topic of free illustration -that's a little different. Not simply because of the time involved but also the return. A published illustration with a byline is an advertisement for the artist. It's also evidence to other art directors that you're a professional. Work in animation is not really the same.

Elliot Cowan said...

Bill also had a solid career behind him at the time and was at a different stage of professional development.

Most folks who are being confronted with working for free are not the same position he was at that time.

David B. Levy said...

Richard, the argument could be made that a bit of free animation work is a byline for the animator, albeit one that only shows in his/her reel. It can count as a professional sample the same way that Bill's free illustration work did. But, clearly the person doing free work has to be careful and not leap into it without fully weighing all the pluses and minuses.

Elliot... Bill did have a solid career by that point, as an illustrator, but was completely unknown, untested, and unable to put a film together without the knowledge he gained by working for free on a four month long animation.

I can't use the term, "most folks," because all of us are different. In truth every situation and person is a little different. One has to decided what means are best for them.

Elliot Cowan said...

"Most folks" don't have a successful career as an illustrator to return to if their first animation adventure is a bust.

David B. Levy said...

True, Elliot.. and I'll go one further that "most folks" could get a job at K-mart if their illustration, animation, or any-career-in-the-arts go bust.

I think the point is that we all learn in our own way and make important connections in our own way. Bill had tried to make an animated short since the early 70s but couldn't figure it out. The four months of free work was the key that unlocked everything for him.

roconnor said...

Animation doesn't have a byline -that's the thing.

A commercial or broadcast segment rarely has "Animated by David B. Levy" tagged on like nearly every print illustration.

Also, if I'm not mistaken, Bill retains the rights to "Boomtown". That makes it very different from most of the fly by night freebies we're asked to do.

I agree with your underlying point -sometimes work for free pays dividends. We just need to be extremely careful when working this terrain.

Michael Sporn said...

Connie D'Antuono did I&Pt for Bob Blechman. Bill had contacted me looking for advice before starting Boomtown. We met a couple of times. I was a fan of his strip.

I tried teaching Bill how to do the cut and paste method of I&Pt. It was a fast process that I put together at Hubleys in the early 70s. But Bill didn't quite get it. I'd already taught Connie, so I introduced the two. They were a good match.

David B. Levy said...

Well said, and I agree with your distinction between the two situations.

That's a neat part of the story. Thanks for sharing that!

Caresse said...

It reminds me of video games - EXP points matter more than money.

Sure, you can buy the best sword to defeat the final boss, but if you don't have enough experience points, you may not even be able to equip the super-weapon!

I've been working pro bono on three different projects with varying levels of authority on each, and I'm very happy about it because I'm learning how to tackle situations that might be more stressful were money on the line.