Sunday, August 29, 2010

Spinning Animation for the Web

As we all know, people have been making commercial animation for the Web for more than a decade. At the beginning, Web animation was a shaky speculation. Some companies tried to use it to create a sort of TV channel-style destination, speculating with other people's money and using it to rent huge lofts and purchase cappuccino machines. Then there were individuals like John K., who was so ahead of his time that the Internet wasn't ready to play his George Liquor cartoons even on the fastest connections of the day.

Some 10 years later, Web animation is still here, thriving as viral videos made by living-room Hanna-Barberas and posted on YouTube, as acquisitions for sites such as and, and as podcasts like Sesame Workshop's Word on the Street for which I have been making 30-second films.

In addition to the my Word on the Street films, I was just engaged by Stephen and Joel Moss Levinson to create a film with them for their client, an online Jewish magazine called We finished the minute-and-half film set to a song written by Joel, in one week, and I'm excited to report that it's a hoot. These quick productions have the ability to capture some of that spontaneity I was writing about in last week's post. When you work at this pace, planning and animation take place simultaneously. It's working without a safety net, and I love it!

I've already explained in a previous post how I write, design, animate, and direct my Word on the Street podcast shorts, only employing my pal Adrian Urquidez to tackle backgrounds. It's not so much wearing all these different hats that make these projects so much fun (although it keeps my head warm), it's the amount of creative freedom Web animation offers. Somehow (knock on wood) animation for the Web is not micro-managed the way network or film projects are. For instance, on the newest Sesame short, Arachnid (pictured in two stills above and below), the plan was to showcase three types of arachnids––highlighting their eight legs, pinchers, tails, and other attributes. That was fine, but it seemed a little dry. To jazz it up, I suggested that at the end of the cartoon the first two arachnids show up to celebrate the third arachnid's birthday. I knew it was an odd idea out of nowhere, but the producer loved it and ran it by the research department who approved as well. So before you can say "arachnid," I'm adding party hats, presents, cupcakes, and confetti to an otherwise straightforward cartoon.

The short for the Levinson brothers was just as fun. Joel's song gave us a great foundation and, he and Stephen provided a good outline for what they envisioned for the animation. It was a very happy collaboration, one that matched the joy and fun of Joel's music and performance. I got to put a lot of myself into the piece, so much that during the production my wife remarked, "You're really coming into your own style lately." How often can that be said about work for hire?
*a rabbi chats on the phone in a couple of drawings I drew for the Levinson's short.

These short and simple Web animations demand a shrewd production plan, encourage creative freedom, and foster individuality. Like all golden moments in time, I know these days won't last...but, I'm going to enjoy myself while they're here and seize the opportunity these special films afford me.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Battling The Non-Spontaneous Side of Animation

*drawing above from my new indie film in-progress.

The busier I get, the more determined I get to jam in some time to work on personal projects. I mentioned a few posts ago that for the short films I'm making for Sesame's Word on the Street series, the deadlines are so tight that I'm sort of writing and storyboarding on the fly. Often I have to just invent a story as I draw it. Usually, us animators work to someone else's script, so these Sesame films go against that norm and forced me to work a new way. Having to work in different ways, for whatever the reason, pushes me out of my comfort zone. And, that's a good way to keep growing as a filmmaker.

I had an idea to make a personal film about a member of my extended family, some two years ago. It sort of laid there for a long time while other projects and priorities pushed ahead of it. But, recent events in my life convinced me to finally make this film. I don't like to say too much on a film in progress so I'm going to keep it pretty general and just discuss process here.

The first thing I did was fill several pages of a journal with memories of a certain time in my life that I wanted to recreate. Jotting down these notes only took about a half hour (I did this while I was on the train). Next, I recorded myself reading the notes in no particular order. I gave myself permission to ad-lib here and there to keep it loose and fresh. The notes were not so much a script as they were talking points.

Next I cut together the bits of track I liked using After Effects. At the end of one day, I had my first rough assembly of the track, which came to about five minutes. I plan to shift audio around as I work.

My philosophy in making this film is to let the film tell me what to do. Usually that's something that happens as you work on a film for a while, when it feels as if the film begins to give you instructions on what to do, but I wanted to see if I could get to that state of mind from the beginning. The key for me was to work in a way I hadn't worked before, allowing the interview snippets to be a sort of audio storyboard.

A day later I started the animation and I've since been able to animate about 20 seconds a day on the film, that is whenever I have a day to spare. I have about 2 minutes of the film completed and my goal is to have the rest of it finished within a month or so.

The thing I like least about animation is how non-spontaneous it can be. I know, typical animation requires lots of planning and process, where a crew or individual follow a pipeline from script, boards, designs, animation, edit, sound, and post. But, all too often the work we do in this industry looks like the process in that the careful planning sucks out any chance of life the animation might have had. I don't want someone to see my process when they watch this film. I want them to feel something instead.

So I'm battling this by working very loosely within a very personal subject. When I start to animate a scene I don't have a full plan of what I'm going to do. I just let it happen as I animate. Also of help is the documentary format of the film, which encourages experimentation in tone changes and narrative flow. So far I'm very pleased with the results. I don't know if I'm making a great film, but its of great importance to me. And, I suppose that's a good start.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

MST3K and Me

*above images from MST3K

When I first saw this Mystery Science Theatre 3000 in 1995, it had already been on air for five or so years. In 1995 I was still living at home and since we never had cable TV I had missed out on the quirky series, until my boss, Michael Sporn, asked if I wanted to apartment sit for him and watch his cat. This meant a week in neat railroad apartment in Brooklyn, just one stop away from Manhattan.

Knowing that my first evening of cable TV awaited me, Robert Marianetti, the studio's production manager, told me to watch a new episode of MST3K that night. It was one of his favorite shows. Others in the studio talked it up as well––so my anticipation was mounting. That night, I watched 10 minutes of the show before concluding that the whole thing had been a practical joke. This was the program everyone was so excited about? I honestly didn't know what to make of it. Was it a puppet show? Or a spoof on bad movies? I should have just hunkered down and gave it a chance, but there was a whole gaggle of other cable channels to check out!

Eight years later I met my future wife, Debbie, who (along with her brother) were die-hard original fans of MST3K.

As a slow adopter, it was another six years before I was completely hooked on the show. Besides its entertainment value, the show's origin story is inspirational too. First created by writer/comedian Joel Hogsdon as a public access series in Minnesota, it went to achieve cult success during its 11-year cable TV run, starting out on Comedy Central and finishing on The Sci-fi Network.

You can check out the Wiki entry on MST3K if you're curious for more information.

The genius of MST3K is that it presents bad (sometimes otherwise unwatchable) movies in a new context, throwing high-brow and low-brow riffs on what's happening and not happening on the screen. What seemed so slow paced to me at first, I see now a densely layered show with jokes that hold up and pay off on multiple viewings. The puns, one liners, and pop culture references are delivered in a more relaxed Mid-Western manner than I was used to seeing on a TV screen so dominated by NY and LA productions.

For me it's a good reminder to try to take in some new influences, to be open to experiencing something outside my tried and true favorites. A big problem in the growth of animation as a medium is that so many of today's generation of artists have tastes freeze-dried in adolescence. While there's nothing wrong with being nostalgic for The Transformers, G.I. Joe, and Star Wars, MST3K shows that you can throw jokes about Harold Pinter and Federico Fellini in alongside them.

MST3K was chock full of obscure references and inside-jokes but, as Joel Hogsdon explained (in a doc about the series), "We never ask, 'Well who's going to get this?' We know the right people will." No doubt a good mantra for all creative people to remember–– that you don't have to cater to the lowest common denominator.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Virtual Animation Studio 101

*above image from a series of six shorts I directed for the wine-themed cable series "Uncorked" in 2006 & 07, which laid the groundwork for my virtual studio. Storyboard and design by my pal Jason McDonald.

I didn't set out to work this way, but it's been a fun and artistically stimulating three and a half years. It used to be that a person working from home was usually a freelancer, bouncing from project to project, and hoping to take in enough work to sustain his or herself. Today it's very different because the computer puts a potential full-service animation studio smack into a corner of the living room. This doesn't mean that any animation artist with a computer is the owner and operator of a virtual studio. There's a bit more to it than that. Although it happened gradually without me planning it, I've become the operator of a busy home studio, so I thought I'd use this post to round up the ins-and-outs of this fairly new animation production model.

1-Get experience first.
It helps to have production experience, working in various areas of animation. That way you'll build up your skills, understanding of techniques, mastery of programs, and experience working in a collaborative process under a schedule. By working in studios you'll make friendships and relationships with your co-workers, both of which will come in handy when you need to hire trustworthy off-site workers for your virtual studio. Augment your studio work by taking on freelance work wherever possible. This will ensure you get used to being responsible for the completion of a job, not just in one step of an in-house studio assembly line. It will give you experience with contracts including negotiating time and money, and the experience of communicating directly with the client during the duration of a job.

2-Location matters, even in an off-site virtual studio.
Part of the success of my virtual studio is being only a few subway stops away from Manhattan. This means I can jet into the city to sign contracts, attend meetings, and pick up and deliver work that can't be easily or effectively exchanged on an ftp site. Being able to attend in-person meetings allows you to create a personal connection with the client, which can be key to getting future work.

3-Be ready and able to delegate, expand and contract your operation as needed.
The key difference between a freelancer and the operator of a virtual studio is the willingness to grow their operation according to the needs of each project. For instance, at my leanest periods, sometimes I'm my only worker, but during busy periods (like I'm enjoying now), I might have a half a dozen subcontractors or more. To find them, I rely on the contacts and friends made in 12 years of working at in-house jobs, in addition to the occasional recent graduate from one of my animation classes.

4-Have a client base.
This could be the hardest part. A client has to trust you and your virtual studio to be able to tackle and deliver on a job. Part of it is reputation, a history of successfully delivering similar work. For me this happened in baby steps. Inbetween in-house directing gigs for Pinky Dinky Doo and Blue's Room, I landed a series of six one-minute animated films for a wine-themed cable series called Uncorked. To meet the order, I had to bring in a few subcontractors––storyboard artists, BG artists, designers, and animators––all of whom worked off site. This first toe in the water of my virtual studio became a splash when, a year later, I got the gig to direct a full-fledged TV series for Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. The Uncorked films helped give me and my new employer the confidence that I could pull it off. Another secret to getting work is a willingness to take on some smaller jobs because they can sometimes lead to bigger things. For instance, I recently took on two small animation jobs for a very nice client who had very little money. Happy with the job I did, the well-connected client recommended me for a large animation gig for a state agency.

A nice thing about a virtual studio is that you don't need an agent or rep to get work. Part of it is just keeping in touch with people you've already worked with, something that's not only fun and pleasant when you like your clients, as I do, but also has a way of leading to more jobs. It also helps to stay connected to the larger community by attending animation events. Visibility is important: without making that effort, a virtual studio can be virtually invisible.

Another advantage is that you can expand and contract as needed, without buying a single piece of furniture or a second computer station. Paperwork and bookkeeping are super simple––I use my iCalendar to mark the start and end of projects along with the hire and end dates of my team. For bookkeeping I keep a folder for subcontractor invoices, send out 1099 forms to them during tax season, and keep track of money coming in and out week-to-week. With experience, you get a feel for how many people you need based on the difficulty of the work and the schedule and budget.

In conclusion, the virtual studio might be the most "you can too" model of animation business in the history of our medium... and the only one where you can work in pajamas.