Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Omissions and Other Misrepresentations

*Image above from Walt Disney's "Pinocchio" (1940).

Over the years I've developed a pet peeve in this biz, concerning misrepresentation in resumes, bios, reels, etc. For instance, years ago, I knew of a guy who worked a few days at Nick Digital Animation in NYC, where as a digital animator, he was working on short promos for one of their animated TV series. He was given library files of characters based on the Los Angeles-based TV series production. This means that he was manipulating and re-aranging pre-made puppet pieces, and not animating in the same manner as the TV series of the same name.

The problem was that in his bio/resume he listed that series title under his animating experience, omitting that his actual work was NOT on the smash hit show of the same name but promos for it. At best this was a careless omission, but in all likelihood it was intentional, designed to deliberately mislead the reader of the bio or resume into making a false conclusion, elevating the person's connection to, or responsibility on, the project.

A correct and honest description of this gig (using Fairly OddParents as an example) in a resume would list this gig something like this:

March 2001-April 2001
Fairly OddParents Promos
Nick Digital Animation NYC
-character animation for three 30-second promos using digital library files, animated in Flash.

Not quite as sexy as saying you worked on Fairly OddParents, but far more accurate.

Another problem that I've seen is that animators sometimes leave out the studio that they are working for and list the client instead as their employer. I understand the temptation to do this because the client's name is probably more famous than the small boutique animation studio you might be working for. And, the bigger the names on a resume the more points you get, right?

In reality, the client probably never met you since you were, in fact, working for a studio handling that client. At a later date when you're up for a direct job with them, the client might be very confused to see you listing them as an employer. It's okay to list the client but be sure to make it clear who you worked for, and you can't do that without listing the studio or individual that hired you. Don't omit the name or company of the actual employer that hired you. To do so is similar to biting the hand that feeds you.

Years ago, such "omissions" might only get you in hot water with one person or company at a time, but today our resumes and bios are online for all the word to see. Every time someone updates their Linked-In work history, those updates are e-mailed to every person you are connected to including the studio you've omitted in favor of the client. So the chance for damage caused by "omissions" is greatly magnified.

Another important thing, as hinted in the above Nick Digital story, is that you should also be honest and clear about the amount of time you spent on a project. Some projects, like Fairly OddParents the TV series, go on for a decade, so it's bad form to not be specific and explain not only what you did in connection with that project, but also how long you worked on it.

Worse than these omissions are, of course, out-and-out lies. I heard of one animation artist's bio that listed him as an animator at the world's most famous animation studio, when in fact his job was a fairly low-level job in production at a satellite location of the main studio, which was on a different coast! Clearly the goal here was to inflate his own legacy by allowing readers of his bio conclude that he worked in a high-level animation capacity for the main entity of the giant company. While some mistakes can be chalked up to innocent errors and inexperience in writing a bio or resume, the deliberate out-and-out lies are just attempts to get away with something.

We need to understand that we are all connected in this business and that new social and business networks online as well as the proliferation of portfolio blogs and personal websites have made all our choices public as never before. At the same time, the Internet has made it easy to research and double check this information whether it's calling up crew lists online or finding the phone number of someone at the studio to call and confirm with. Omissions and other such misrepresentations are an unnecessary risk no matter how you slice it.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Directing Animation: a preview

My new book, Directing Animation, flies onto shelves November 2, and boy will its arms be tired. Don't get me wrong, I know I'm not Chuck Jones, Richard Williams, or Preston Blair. First of all, two of them are dead, and one of them is in his 70s. And, since I don't have an AARP card in my wallet (yet), I can't be in this august company. But, what I have tried to do is write a book from the perspective of a working director, with six series, a half-dozen pilots, dozens of shorts for Sesame Workshop, as well as a smattering of indie films behind him as well as just about every mistake you can make, some of them with career-altering consequences.

I recently had lunch with a young animator who told of working on an animation gig at a studio where her director stayed bunkered in his office, only coming out to yell at his team or give vague direction. The director made it clear each day how angry and disappointed he was and how he wished to fire everyone on the crew. Stories like this are why I thought there was a need for this book, not that I hope to reform an individual like that, but you never know.

The education of an animator––from school, books, and instructional dvds, is all geared toward learning the craft of animation (bouncing balls to walk cycles, and advanced acting). The trouble is that at some point a gifted animator might be promoted to director where her duties will then require management, communication, and leadership skills. So all of a sudden a good animator is now expected or assumed to be a good boss. That's the basic and eternal challenge: Who better to direct animation than someone who's come up through production, starting as an animator or a storyboard artist responsible for only his/her own work, and hopefully having a full understanding of the entire production so to be able to be able to see the big picture as a director must. But what prepares him or her to take on all the roles and responsibilities of management?

To write on this unexplored yet important aspect of directing animation was an enormous challenge, but as with my previous books, I didn't go it alone. I'm very grateful to include new interviews and stories from some of today's top animation directors including Cordell Barker, Signe Baumane, Don Hertzfeldt, Marv Newland, Janet Perlman, Bill Plympton (who also provided the cover illustration!), Michael Sporn, Mike Overbeck, PES, J.J. Sedelmaier, Dave Wasson, Ian Jones-Quartey, Robert Marianetti, David Palmer, Sue Perrotto, Rob Renzetti, David Wachtenheim, Tom Warburton, Paul Fierlinger, Yvette Kaplan, Nina Paley, Andrew Stanton, Tatia Rosenthal, Xeth Feinberg, Dan Meth, and Amy Winfrey.

I'm hopeful that Directing Animation can do some good in the industry (at the very least it's a juicy read full of anecdotes and warts-and-all stories), throwing an important spotlight on what might be the hardest part of directing animation to master: the people factor. Pixar legend Andrew Stanton told my NYU class that a journalist interviewed him about his upcoming experience directing the live-action feature film, John Carter on Mars, asking, "Are you nervous that you'll have to talk to people on set?" Stanton replied, "It's the same with animation. I don't talk to computers. They don't do the animation. I talk to people."

Friday, June 18, 2010

Trouble at the Top: The Producers' Dilemma

Despite the recent increase in available freelance work across town, those at the top and the bottom of the animation food chain are struggling the most. At the bottom are the recent grads, of course, seeking to break into a difficult industry at a challenging time. I've written a lot on this side of the topic, as have many other bloggers and commentators on the animation scene. So my focus here is the top level workers: the producers. Sure, there are producers working around town, some at Electric Company or other divisions of Sesame, some working on a few series orders at Out of the Blue, and some are attached to studios such as Curious Pictures or Flicker Lab. But, because of a recent 10-year low in NY area series production, many producers are between jobs.

This was first made really clear to me when I attended the last Kidscreen Summit in February, where many of the attendees (if they weren't network execs traveling on expense accounts) were out-of-work producers handing out business cards listing them as the presidents of their own (one-person) media "companies." The savviest among them were aligned with creators and pitching projects (or, as they call them, "intellectual properties"). It made for an interesting vibe because just two or three years before these producers were employed by networks or thriving studios. I could see both fear and excitement in their eyes as they operated in the uncharted waters of a changing media landscape mixed with an uncertain economic recovery.

In the recent past, more of us animation artists would have been connected to their current situation. After all, less series work means less work for all of us. But, animation artists have been more resilient in this climate than our producer brothers and sisters, and I think it's because even in downtimes like this, there's still a decent amount of opportunity through a variety of freelance, staff, and self-initiated work. After all, an animator can be their own producer, but a producer can't be their own animator. Any animation artist that freelances has some producer-like skills such as managing time, setting budgets, keeping schedules, making work deliveries, and communicating the daily status and needs of a job.

The other issue is that many of the studios still standing (in the wake of the decline or demise of big studios) are the small indie boutique-style studios built around one or two animators who, again, tackle producer chores themselves as a natural part of their business model. And, who could blame them? After all, a producer's salary could blow out a whole profit margin, putting a small studio in the red. Besides, small studio owners often go into business to do things their way, not to hire a boss for themselves.

Surely there will always be a need for producers as part of feature, TV series, and commercials productions but, the producers who survive these times of limited opportunity must not only be the best and most passionate at their job, but must also be something they didn't have to be during times of more plentiful work: savvy entrepreneurs and go-getters with a keen ability to build relationships, attach themselves to future work, and understand where the shifting mediascape is heading and how to stay relevant within it.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Burger Time

In my last blog post (scroll down if you're curious) I wrote about the increase in NY animation talent leaving town for other opportunities. I am firmly in the I "heart" NY camp, so I don't see myself leaving anytime soon. Instead, I try to use networking opportunities to bring work from outside of NYC to me. This lets me sometimes work for clients in faraway places without moving my life, and because I run my own home studio, it doesn't even require putting on shoes.

Right now I'm bidding on a job from a Texas-based firm and writing for a studio in Vancouver. In the past three years I also tackled series work, and a pair of pilots for studios in L.A. and San Francisco. The latter of which, I'm proud to say, has just spun into a full-fledged series coming this fall to Fox prime time: Loren Bouchard's Bob's Burgers (pictured above.)

I first met Bouchard when we were both jury members at The School of Visual Art's senior film show (The Dustys) in 2002. Being on a film or festival jury is a great opportunity to meet folks from diverse backgrounds or areas of expertise. This was important to me, especially since I was smack in the middle of my eight-year entrenchment at Nick Animation, where I worked with the same set of people for a great span of time. Bouchard was then living in the Boston area and working at Soup to Nuts (now owned by Scholastic) where he had a key role on such shows as Dr. Katz (my personal fave), Home Movies, Hey Monie, Science Court, and more. Later he branched out on his own and opened up a small studio in San Francisco, where he landed a series on Adult Swim, the 3D computer-animated Lucy Daughter of the Devil.

One of my favorite networking stories is from Codename: Kids Next Door creator, Tom Warburton, who, at the start of his career, wrote articles for ASIFA-East about local studios, thus putting him in direct touch with most of the employers in town. Much the way Warburton started his career, I've used the interview and research stage of my book projects as an excuse to meet or reconnect with some of my heroes. So while I was writing Animation Development: From Pitch to Production, I naturally thought of Bouchard as a good interview subject. Our reconnection dovetailed with his plans to test out a possible After Effects production model for a hypothetical future season of Lucy. Knowing that I worked primarily in AE, he brought me onboard as a consultant to help try out his new process/pipeline. It was only a couple of days of work but it was a good test of our working relationship.

After that we stayed in touch and a few months later Bouchard called with the great news that he scored a green light for his own prime time Fox network pilot. He asked me about the possibility of animating his pilot in the After Effects. I was very excited to be hired to supervise the animation production as it's lead animator, for which I also helped build the pipeline and process, find the crew, as well as schedule and assign the animators' work.

I rounded up six great NY-based animators for Bouchard to check out and he selected those that best matched his vision for the pilot. Joining me to animate the Bouchard's two month pilot production were the excellent animators Dale Clowdis, Dayna Gonzalez, and Hilda Karadsheh.

Bouchard directed us from San Francisco where he was encamped with a small crew, including the pilot's producer Ralph Guggenheim. New York animation is so dominated by preschool work that it's wonderful to have a chance to stretch your creative legs on something like a Fox prime time pilot for an adult audience. Bouchard's script was top notch, his voice actors were made up of a who's who of today's top comedians from stand up and improv, and the guy did his own musical score! Talk about talent...

Best of all, Bouchard had a complete vision for what he wanted out of the animation and explained it to us at the launch of each sequence. Whenever my animator was to start a new section, we had a three-way conference call so he could relay his vision for the action (including acting notes, story points, scene blocking, and comic beats). He preferred limited movement where a character only moved when it was funny or when absolutely necessary. Once an animator turned in a first pass, Bouchard followed up with detailed notes containing frame specific instructions, along with lots of appreciative compliments and encouragement. Our New York crew, each working from home, felt like part of a real crew. It was a dream scenario in every way.

We were all pretty blown away by how good the pilot turned out, so, it was no shock when we got the news that Fox picked up Bob's Burgers for a 13-episode season. Although Fox insisted that the project be animated in Los Angeles and Canada (where they were already set up to handle the series order), thus leaving New York out of the series production, we in the NY crew still shared in his victory and were very proud to have this pilot as part of our legacy.

Anyone can grow opportunities where you get a chance to work with new people from different parts of the country (or world) on exciting projects like this one. Networking is not only a survival skill, it's part of what makes this business fun. After all, who wouldn't want to schmooze with like-minded individuals working the same field with the same interests? Besides, without networking, us work-at-home folks might be pretty darn lonely.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Frame Drain

Image from Chris Prynowski's MTV Animation series "Downtown," a production from 1999, the last era where work was abundant enough to temporarily slow the flow of NY animation talent heading west.

In the 1960s Europe faced what became known as "the brain drain" as individuals with technical skills or knowledge emigrated to the United States and other places where they could earn more for their skills. Since 2008 or 2009, New York City animation has undergone what might be called "the frame drain," as some key animation talent has moved to Los Angeles to continue careers or, in some cases, start them.

For example, Kat Morris and Rebecca Sugar, two of the most talented animation artists to graduate SVA in recent memory, both headed west to take advantage of the greater opportunities out there. Venture Bros. director Ian Jones-Quartey recently split as did N.Y. stalwart and Codename: Kids Next Door creator Tom Warburton. Another departure was the amazing husband-wife team of Toni Tysen and Danny (Kano) Kimanyen. Indie superstars PES and Patrick Smith also got out of Dodge (to La-La-Land and Singapore, respectively).

Now I've heard word that four more of our brightest and best are planning to scoot (two because of scoring a two-year artists' residence in Europe) and two because of L.A.'s sweet siren call. Even as a booster of the N.Y. animation scene, I can't deny the advantages that Hollywood provides. For one thing, there's an actual animation industry there. When you work on a TV series for Cartoon Network, for instance, you work in a building bearing its name. When the series job comes to an end, there will likely be another job for you on another series down the hall or on the next floor. There hasn't been anything like that in NY since MTV Animation quietly shut down in 2001.

All this departing talent of the past two or three years could sound pretty disheartening to those of us remaining in the Big Apple, if not for one important thing: the natural renewal that is already in progress. Animation, like many industries, seems to have up cycles and down cycles.

At this point in time, I can happily report that most of my peers have either full or part time work. Even the most pessimistic among us would admit that things were a lot worse as recently as a year ago. How well this translates to opportunity for recent graduates is yet to be seen. I suspect there is still a long way to go in that area, but the arrival of new studios such as a Saatchi & Saatchi’s commercial animation division and the July 2010 arrival of the New York branch of Chris Prynowski's successful L.A.-based studio Titmouse, Inc., gives us reason to believe there's even more opportunity brewing for the second half of the year. Knock on wood.

Besides, New Yorkers departing for the West Coast is nothing new. It's been happening since Walt Disney first put California on the animation map. All of us animation folk are gypsies of a sort; whether we pack up and head west or not, we all exist from job to job, opportunity to opportunity. And, no matter what path we each take, we're still a part of the extended community that is New York animation.