Sunday, October 31, 2010

New Book Week!

It would be a missed opportunity not to use this space to announce that my new book, Directing Animation (Allworth Press) finally drops this week on Tuesday November 2nd! To celebrate the occasion, I'm moderating a panel on the subject of directing animation at the wonderful Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) on Thursday November 4 at 7 PM. Joining me will be a great panel representing most areas of directing I cover in my book: David Palmer (TV series director), Dan Meth (Web shorts director), and Bill Plympton (Independent director). Click here for the full details on the event. You can buy the book at Barnes and Noble or at this amazon link, but we will also be selling the book at the MoCCA event for your convenience.

I hope you get a chance to check the book out. While great new books on the art, craft, and history of animation come out every year, I'm certain there is no book out there like mine, which explores the human side of working as a director in this industry––something the other books don't touch. I find this very baffling because the animation industry is a "people industry," one where we depend upon each other for work opportunities as well as in day-to-day collaboration to get the job done.

I've already written about my goals with my new book at this past post, so I thought I'd use this blog entry to excerpt a short passage from the book. If you've read my previous books you already know that I like to write in a conversational style where information is related in sometimes cautionary, sometimes inspirational, stories and anecdotes. Besides, since I'm not an intellectual or an academic, I can't write any other way. Best of all, these books gave me a great excuse to go through my personal library of mistakes so that the reader might benefit from them. So, without further ado, here's an excerpt from Chapter 6: Directing Animation for Television Series:

After working as an episode director, responsible for directing half the episodes in production, and working under a supervising animation director for six years, my first experience working as a supervising director on a television series was a major step forward in responsibility. The series, an animation/live action and puppet hybrid, was the first time I was exclusively responsible for building an entire production pipeline from the ground up, staffing the entire animation crew, deciding the order in which episodes passed through production, making the delivery schedule, and managing and directing the daily workflow. On top of all this, I was even responsible for such preproduction stages such as reading and giving notes on scripts and looking out for animation needs on a three-month live-action shoot.

The production was a happy one and went with nary a hitch or hiccup...until the production's end. Over the ten-month production we went through three editors, none of whom (unknown to the producers or me) had left a detailed log of what final revisions got cut into what master tapes. The series was cut on Avid and the network deliverables required three beta masters: one for back up, one for domestic, and one for international.

We might not have discovered the problem if not for another deliverables issue that came up toward the end. The producers hadn't fully read or didn't understand the network's deliverable requirements, which is a detailed list of factors that affect the final product. Such a list should be read at the start of a production because it casts implications on many technical and creative decisions. The deliverable requirement that bit us on the butt was the restriction that there were to be no written text on our puppet sets. Without knowing that rule, the sets featured numerous words and signage that our puppets and live-action actor crossed in front of again and again in nearly every scene. Instead of enjoying a pleasant wrap to a smooth production, the last weeks became a stressful scramble, making frame-by-frame masks and patches to paint out any text from the live action shoot.

As we redelivered previously approved scenes to edit, someone noticed that some beta tapes had been regularly updated and others hadn't. In short, for each of the ten shows the three beta tapes were not the same. This was a real pain in the neck and there was a lot of private discussion amongst the senior staff on the best way to handle the problem. I advised the producer to wipe the beta tapes since there's no way to match them up and ensure that each had the same frame-by-frame sequences. Instead, I suggested that we fix the show in the Avid suite and then re-export to make the final betas.

For a week or so a final plan still hadn't come together. Late one evening, with all of us still at work digging out of this mess, the producer called me into an impromptu meeting in edit. I walked in and sat on the arm of the couch, which was the only seat left in a room already filled with the editor, producer, executive producer, and two associate producers. The producer was very emotional and vulnerable at this moment and everyone seemed to instinctually know that, presenting their best face forward, all speaking supportively to what the producer wanted to hear. "We know how hard this is for you, and however you decide to fix it, we'll help you with it," said one associate producer. Everyone echoed similar sentiments. The editor went one step further and repeatedly pet the producer on the knee as he cooed supportive words.

When I tell this story in my School of Visual Arts career class, by this point most of the students shake their heads in disbelief that all these professionals would act this way and "baby" someone instead of being straightforward. But, in reality, however, they were not babying the producer (outside of the petting), they were being sympathetic and understanding; they had the tact to see the moment for what it was. It was the time for soothing solidarity, not the time to rip off the Band-Aid. But I already had my hand on the Band-Aid, thinking I was to be the voice of reason.

When the producer turned to me to weigh in I said, "Wipe the tapes, fix the shows in the Avid, and export to new tapes." The producer, turning red, leaned toward me and raised her voice, "I can't listen to you because you don't understand what I'm going through!" At that moment, the purpose of this meeting finally hit me. If I had put aside my own thoughts for a second, I would have been able to see that this was not the time to lay down a blunt set of instructions. In one way my mistake was evidence that I was operating in a new arena. As a supervising director responsible for the animation on an entire series, I was now expected to weigh in on such topics at important meetings, ...and having the right answer was not as important as giving the right message at the right time. It doesn't mean that one has to be dishonest or play games, instead it shows the importance of being able to read a room and offer up one's plan in the best way so that it might get be properly heard.

The next day we implemented a plan. We would wipe the tapes and reexport from the Avid, but first we would take turns watching the tapes and logging any mistakes we saw to order up any additional retakes we'd want from animation. The production was extended by about two weeks to accommodate this effort and in the end we were confident in the final product delivered to the network.

I share this story because I can't stress enough that these situations and challenges, are as much an animation director's responsibility as asking an animator to add a little more squash before the character jumps into the air. As much as each director helps define his role and no two productions are exactly alike, a director can't be a success by ignoring all the non-fun duties that go with his title. The producer and I have worked together on three subsequent projects and share a high degree of mutual respect, which comforts me and demonstrates that these missteps need not prove to be fatal, especially when you're willing to learn from them.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Recent Gig as a Case Study

I just finished up a big gig that encompassed all my virtual animation studio phillosphies in one. The job was directing an eleven minute film for a Southwestern state's conservation division. Now, bear in mind that I have no agent or rep, nor do I look for work in a conventional sense. So, how do I find jobs? Like most animation artists, word of mouth is the main method. But, in my case, I add a healthy does of networking through coffee meetings and lunches, and also by pitching and promoting personal projects and attending animation related events.

A year ago a producer friend introduced me to a designer/creator who was assembling a pitch property which required a minute of animation. The budget was super low and the work required about 3 solid weeks of my time, but because of the good credentials of the people involved, I jumped in. The animation turned out very well and a few months later its creator engaged me to animate another snippet for an additional pitch project, again with a tiny budget.

The creator/client tried to hire me a third time but I confessed that I wasn't the best fit for her new job and was able to recommend two friends who snatched it up. Now its a year later from our original work together and she's about to throw more animation my way, a continuation of the first project we collaborated on.

But, best of all, a few months ago, she recommended me for the major gig I mentioned at the top of this post. Purely on her word, her contacts at a state agency asked me to bid on their animation project. My bid, which only took a day or two to prepare, involved creating redesigns of three characters as well as a letter/production plan itemizing the steps, costs, time, and money associated with each stage of production. After three weeks of waiting I was awarded the job, which allowed me to enlist some of my favorite workers/friends: Jason McDonald (Design), Hilda Karadsheh (animator), and Dale Clowdis (Animator). The 11 minute production went incredibly smooth and took about 2 months.

So to sum up, using this gig as a case study, here's the method I'm using to round up work for my happy little virtual studio:
1-No need for agents or reps.
I'm of the mind that a small studio owner attracts a lot of work through his/her own reputation and personal relationships and business dealings. I don't need a slick agent or rep to muck that up. Not that I'm anti rep/agent. It's just that I'm perfectly capable of mucking up my own relationships, and if its me doing it, at least I know the mistakes I've made and therefore have a chance to fix them and learn from them. And, as for reps/agents, I'd gladly employ one in the right area if needed. But, for now, I look for work organically just by making casual lunch and coffee meetings, keeping in touch with contacts, developing and promoting my personal projects, etc. None of that ever feels like work to me, it's just plain fun!

2-Small jobs lead to big jobs, or, at least, repeat business.
I'm more than willing to squeeze in the time to tackle small jobs with low budgets, even if they make short-term big demands on my time. I consider it planting seeds for a relationship, so why not start with a small project? It's a great way to see if the client and I are on the same page. I did the same thing with Sesame in 2008, when they hired me to create a small web animation. After that humble beginning I was awarded dozens of additional contracts at Sesame, spread across three divisions of the company. All this adds up to: Don't automatically poo-poo the smaller jobs, and DON'T ever get hung up only taking work if it lives up to your so-called "day rate." I've never had a day-rate because I know that each project has its own budget. Day-rates are starting points at best, but never a means to reject a project outright.

3-Expand your horizons by working for clients outside of New York.
And, I'm saying this as a booster of the New York scene. The fact is, local work can dry up, no matter how well you are connected to the workstream. So, I'm more than willing to work for clients spread out across the country. Since 2007 (the start of my virtual studio business) I've worked for clients in Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, and, most recently, the south western state profiled in the job above. By being the "face" of my own studio, all the networking I do ensures that I am my own studio brand, one that can attract work in faraway states without needing a rep/agent.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Dissatisfaction and You

Call it a symptom of being part of the New York animation scene that I have always gravitated towards the animation heroes that develop their own unique approach to the art form and carve out a singular career. Our town, maybe more than any other animation hub in the world, has a thriving indie animation community, not to mention the fine arts, music, theatre, dance, film and TV communities that also exist here. In the Big Apple, culture is in the very air we breathe, although sometimes replaced by the scent of wet gingko leaves after a good rain.

But, despite the obvious benefits to an animation artist living and working in this town, nothing really happens unless you make it happen. A former student of mine, who is working at a full time job doing animation design, recently posted on facebook that she knows she should be doing some art on her own but can't seem to find the motivation. I suggested she ask herself if she'll be satisfied doing the same exact work she's doing now ten years into the future. If not, a great way to ensure she will have better and more diverse career opportunities is to develop her talents outside of the workplace.

A key motivator for me has been the desire to work in different ways on diverse kinds of animation. I've tried (and failed) to replicate the late 90s Cartoon Network look in a couple of films, but my latest film, "Grandpa Looked Like William Powell" (pictured above and below), is my first 100% personal work, delving into my family's history for its subject. I recently showed a work-in-progress chunk of it at a panel event, where I was delighted to see it make a strong connection with the audience.

Most films of this nature are usually about family members caught up in big events (like a war or the Holocaust), but not my film. Instead I tried to cobble together a study of a life (my Grandpa's) and explore my connection to him. It was a surreal experience recreating some events from my past as well as moments from my grandpa's life that happened long before my time. It felt as if the real people were winking back at me from my cintiq screen. Besides what it meant to me personally, it was a wonderful exercise in storytelling and filmmaking, one I would not have had without embarking on this project.

Another area of interest for me is comedy. But, you wouldn't know it by watching my films because I never really found a way to bring my sense of humor out in my animations. Indie animator Signe Baumane recently remarked on a great podcast interview by Alan Foreman and Joel Frenzer, that she understands Bill Plympton's famous 3 rules of successful animated filmmaking (short, funny, cheap) but takes exception to "funny," because what she thinks is funny others may not laugh at. Signe's right. Comedy is subjective, so an animation that manages to be funny to the majority of viewers is going to be pretty special indeed.

Last week, my pal Xeth Feinberg wrote me asking if I'd like to collaborate with him again, this time maybe on a funny cartoon. So, we started e-mailing script nuggets back and forth––just little bits and pieces of ideas we had lying around. Now we're committed to making a little anthology film together, made up of these creations, each one fully vetted and improved upon by the other. If we make each other laugh, that's enough. While comedy is something that's been a corner stone of animation since the very beginning, how often do you see a cartoon that really makes you laugh? There's that dissatisfaction again, motivating us to attempt a funny cartoon from our point of view. Just like my advice to that student, developing this side of my writing/filmmaking might give me a fighting chance to grow new opportunities ten years from now.

Everyday is another excuse to work on something for yourself. Just like going to the gym, it can become a consistent part of your daily routine. Besides all the obvious gains it creates in a career, the best part is that it makes each day more fun and artistically satisfying. Just don't wait to start tomorrow. Tomorrow is always too far away.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Catching up with Jen Oxley and Dave Palmer

In some ways this week's post is a good companion to my recent piece on the new NY studio Titmouse East and its co-owner Chris Prynoski. Much like Chris Prynoski, animation directors Jennifer Oxley (Little Bill, The Wonder Pets, 3rd and Bird) and David J. Palmer (Blue's Clues, Blue's Room, The Backyardigans) developed during the big 1990s NY Animation boom. After years of helming top preschool series, coincidentally, they both recently launched new independent careers.

Now here's the mind blowing part: not only are Jennifer Oxley and David J. Palmer two of the most talented animation artists working today, combined they may have trained more NYC animators than anyone else in our history. That's no inflated claim. Think about it. This pair rose to prominence in what became known as the digital animation studio––in other words: animation series production created by in-house crews working in Flash, After Effects, Maya, and often in creative combinations of all three. They've helmed shows that usually employed up to 75 artists or more at a time and they've been at that pace since the mid-to-late 1990s. We are talking about hundreds of artists, the majority of the current workforce of character animators in the Big Apple!

So, without further ado, I want to use the rest of this post to catch up with my friends Jen and Dave and find out more about this exciting time in their careers:

1-After over ten years of working in a very senior role from high profile show to high profile show, how does it feel to be on your own?

It was of course very scary to leave my role as Creative Director at Little Airplane after being there for 8 years but I think it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I will always be grateful for all that I learned and all the wonderful opportunities I was given. But being on my own just feels right for me now. Aside from having more time to focus on my personal goals I also get to share an office with my adorable cat Sydney. What more could I ask for really.

Pictured: Sydney

I've been lucky enough to work on shows that I really love, with terrific and talented people, but I have to say that it feels great to finally have a lot of time to devote to projects of my own. I'm still adjusting to the change of pace, however. Working with a huge team and a lot of resources, the sense of progress is palpable--you can complete episodes every few weeks at certain points in the schedule. Now, however, I'm focusing on writing and developing projects of my own, which I truly enjoy, but the pace of progress is incremental. It takes me a long time to write a pitch or a script, and to experiment with designs, and to set up meetings--the whole development process itself moves at a glacial pace, so its been a big adjustment. I want to finish everything now!

2-What projects can you talk about that have sprung up since your independence began? And, could those projects have happened while you were in your full time roles?

I’ve been working on many exciting projects since leaving Little Airplane including an independent animated film with my brother called Willow Veil. As soon as I became independent I began working on the film full force and I couldn’t be happier. Below is an inspirational illustration that I did for the film.I’ve also been working on a couple of TV development projects including a new math show for PBS. I don’t want to talk too much about the project because it’s still in the works but I’m truly grateful everyday that I’m now in the position to be working on a show of my own creation with people that I love and adore!

Its a little early to discuss specifics about the projects I'm working on now, but I can say that I'm developing a variety of different things: TV series, animated shorts, feature films, a couple picture books, a play. As for whether they could've happened when I was on Blue's Clues or The Backyardigans, in a way, yes, since I've always worked on multiple projects at the same time. The difference now is a matter of scale--while directing Blue's Clues and The Backyardigans, the additional projects I took on (for myself or clients), were smaller, had shorter schedules, and were spread out over many years. Now, however, I can work on more projects simultaneously, and can take on larger jobs, too.

*image above from Palmer's blog where he posts one drawing a day.

3-You are both associated with the rise of modern method of digital series animation in NY. When you were starting your careers, did you intend to be on the cutting edge of production technology? If not, how did you end up where you landed?
When I started my career I didn’t really know how to use a computer. I never would have guessed that I would be associated with cutting edge digital animation. After college I moved to London where I was in the ink & paint department (real ink and real paint) at Tony White’s studio, Animus Productions. After about 8 months I moved back to NYC and worked for Bill Plympton. It was at Bill’s studio that I learned what it really takes to make an independent film. My heart however was always in Children’s TV. After 6 months with Bill I accepted a job at Sesame Street in the Interactive Technologies department where I got to use my first computer on the job. I certainly learned a lot at Sesame but my true digital animation foundation came when I was hired as one of the after effects animators on Blues Clues. It was here that I met the talented Dave Palmer and I began to learn what was possible in digital animation.

It was never a goal of mine to do something technologically cutting edge, (and, really, those first few years at Blue's Clues felt like anything BUT cutting edge, with our PowerMac 7100s being pushed to their limit every day and night to get the shows out the door). I was brought onto the Blue's Clues pilot by John LaSala, a professor of mine at NYU who had his own production house. John knew that he could use photoshop and after effects to combine live action and animation in a relatively quick and inexpensive way, and I was there to figure out a system for doing the character animation, and to do the lion's share of the animation itself. Really, the whole look and process of Blue's Clues grew organically out of the particular needs of the show and the expectations of its creators. After we got heavily into production and started to fine tune the process, there was definitely a feeling of "no one else is doing a show like this", which was a nice feeling. But that was secondary to the creation of the show itself, and our goal to try to make the best episodes we could with the technology, budget, time, etc. at our disposal.

4-Now that you have more time for your own projects, how do they differ in subject, tone, or audience, from the work you did for children's series TV, now that you have the freedom to develop whatever you want?
Almost everything I’ve created in my career has been for children. The independent film that I mentioned earlier will be my first film that is not necessarily for kids. Even though all the voice actors are under the age of 10 the tone and subject matter is very dark in comparison to my other projects.

I'm still developing some things for 2-5 years olds, and older kids as well, but the majority of my own work is for adults: action shows, science fiction, horror--things that I would love to see on TV or in the theater.

5-How did you imagine what it would be like to be independent, and how is the reality similar or different than the fantasy?
I’m LOVING my new independent life! I’ve been able to connect and collaborate with amazingly talented people. I’m also free from all the draining politics associated with working on a large production. I didn’t realize how liberating this would be creatively. However, It can get a bit lonely working from home. As much as I love my new feline office mate I do miss the people. This is just more motivation for me to stay connected with all my friends and the NYC animation scene.

Well, I remember what it was like to be independent before I jumped on Blue's Clues full time in 1996, so thats what I thought it would be like after The Backyardigans as well. And, generally, I was right--its been hectic, and fun, and nerve-wracking, and tiring, but ultimately satisfying.

6-Knowing that you've both had a lot of experience with staffing over the years, how would you say today's entry level talent matches up to, say, 15 years ago? And, what does that say about today's animation educations at the various Universities?
This year I was part of the selection committee at the Annecy International Animation Festival and I saw some stunning first films. I continue to be blown away by the talent that’s out there.

I haven't done a lot of staffing over the past six years or so, but it seems to me that--in terms of knowledge of and application of the principles--most of the young talent available today is really no better or worse than what was available in the mid to late 90's. Animation programs are becoming more numerous and more comprehensive, but I think that in many ways, learning how to be a great animator is experiential, and happens over time, as you do more and more work. The upside of more (and better) animation programs, though, is a larger talent pool to draw from, which could definitely increase the odds of finding really talented people for your project, if you have the time and energy to look at a lot of candidates.

7-Large in-house digital productions (Blue's Clues, Little Bill, The Wonder Pets) that you've both been associated with are a lot rarer these days. Where do you see the trends heading in NY Animation? Big projects or small? More big studios (a-la the brand new Titmouse East), or an increase in little botique-style operations?

I’m not sure. If I had to guess I would say an increase in little boutique-style operations. It seems that running a big studio will be very difficult in this current financial climate with the overhead that’s required. My personal dream is to one day have a modest little studio big enough for my newly acquired Oxberry camera and a team of happy creative talented zany creatures.

I think the trend from larger houses to smaller boutique studios and back is cyclical, and it does seem--after Nick Digital and other studio closings over the past few years--like there's an opportunity for Titmouse and Curious and other larger operations to expand and consolidate a lot of talent. My gut is that as digital tools for the creation and distribution of high quality (HD) content become less expensive and more ubiquitous, we're going to see more and more small boutique studios who can play on the same field as the bigger studios, at least in commercials, shorts and TV. Features are a different story, but I think there's a real opportunity for smaller boutique houses and even individuals to link together and step into that realm as well, which would be exciting to see.

8-What type or style of animation do you feel that you could really do well, but worry that you may not have the opportunity to do because of your branding as a preschool series director?

I think you can do any type of animation for preschool. You just need to execute it in a way that is appropriate for young children. I think that if the stories are strong and if the characters are lovable anything goes.

I've always thought of my career as encompassing many different styles and genres of stories--I'm just interested in great stories, regardless of the demographic or style. But the worry that my pre-school career has closed off some opportunities for me is a reality now--I've already missed out on some opportunities in the few months since The Backyardigans wrapped because I didn't have something specific on my reel. I think this happens to some extent to everyone in our industry, though, and the only solution is to do more and different work all the time, concentrating on the types of jobs you want to do. If someone won't hire you for a type of job that you know you can do, give yourself the job first, and do something in that style or genre, even if its just a few seconds to cut into your reel. The problem with pigeon-holing isn't about someone's abilities, its about how people perceive their abilities based on what they've done before, and that perception can be changed--it just may take some time.

9-Now that you're on your own, what means are you utilizing to stay connected to the larger community of animation folk? 
Now that I’m out on my own I try to schedule at least one meeting a day with various animation folk. Because I manage my own schedule now it’s much easier to stay connected and attend local events and screenings.

I'm really staying connected with emails and phone calls, mostly, with as many meetings and lunches with people as I can fit in between freelance gigs and Dad stuff, (dropping my son off at school, and picking him up after, etc.). There's probably no better way to stay connected to the animation community at large in NY than through ASIFA, but with a three year old, its much harder for me to make it to meetings or events in the evening, so I'm not as involved in that as I'd like to be. I'm hoping my website and blog ( also helps to keep me connected, but they're both fairly new, so it may take some time for those connections to develop.
*above another image from Palmer's blog.

10-If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself so you could better handle being a first time director?
When I first started out I wanted to do it all and I frequently over complicated things. If I could go back in time I would tell my self to keep it short and simple and focus on the story.

Oh, jeez, there's so much! I've made every mistake a director could possibly make, and some of them more than once. But if I had time to say one thing to myself when I was first starting out--something I really needed to keep in mind every day--it would be: "Knowing about, and caring about animation can help make you a good director, but knowing about, and caring about people can help make you a great director."

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Challenge of Doing Business

*image above from Nick Jr's Team Umizoomi, a production at Curious Pictures.

If Animation Collective, Little Airplane, Stretch Films, Jumbo Pictures/Cartoon Pizza, have one thing in common it is: none of them have ever made me a grilled cheese sandwhich. No, that's not it (although true). They are all studios owned and operated by creators whose own shows were their biggest and often only (by intention) productions.

As successful as all these above studios have been or are, businesses organized this way tend to run into a common problem. No matter how brilliant an individual creator is or how successful he/she is at selling pitches, there's going to come a time when there's a lag in production, and the rent on big studios costs just as much empty as when they're full.

In contrast to the above, Curious Pictures is set up as big diversified media production company animating games, commercials, as well as TV series created by others. Even though Curious has been the home of such creators as Mo Willems and Tom Warburton, they were not partners or owners in the overall company. After their series orders were delivered Curious Pictures survived on.

New studio Titmouse East, and older studio Aaron Augenblick Studios Inc. could be seen as creator driven studios being that Titmouse's co-founder and president Chris Prnoski had his own series on MTV, and Aaron Augenblick is a filmmaker, writer, and creator in his own right. But, the difference here is that these two folks didn't set up studios exclusively as vehicles for their own brainchild productions.

Creating and pitching a series is one thing, but relying on that success to keep a business running at its current size is quite another. No matter who is at the wheel, it seems like only a matter of time before the reality of an empty studio creeps in. Us animation artists are seldom confused with being good business men or women and the reality of a creator-run studio often backs up that cliche. I think this has a lot to do with ego, because creators (by design) are single minded people carried forward by their ambition. In that frame of mind why would there be room for partnerships with other creators? That's too bad because a real collective (not just a studio that happens to have the name "collective" in its title) would have a better chance to succeed in the long-term by having a group of savvy creators at the helm.

Creator-run studios helmed by individuals are not the only risky model of the big studio in NYC. MTV Animation and Nickelodeon Digital Animation were our largest employers for a good ten years or more. But, what happenned when the halls emptied out between projects? Add to that the fact that not all their shows are going to be major money-makers a-la Beavis and Butt-head and Blue's Clues. Sprinkle a few bad decisions to that mix, such as the MTV Animation development exec that turned down South Park in place of Spy Groove, and you have a recipe for trouble. An insider at MTV Animation recently told me that, while they try to do as many projects in the city as possible (such as Team Umizoomi at Curious Pictures), they will never again be in the studio business because it is simply too expensive here.

So as creator-run studios come and go, and with the network studios seemingly a thing of the past in this town, what kind of animation businesses can work in the big apple? Clearly virtual studios such as The Rauch Bros. and Alan Foreman's operation have certain advantages that I have written about here, but in addition, nimble boutique-style studios (which have flourished in this city since the time of the Hubley's) have the advantage of low operating costs that help them survive in lean times. Production of pilots, commercials, and short-form series are still a viable means of production for a boutique studio, a virtual studio, or even for a large company such as Sesame Workshop. The latter is currently engaged in an ambitious many-years production called Sesame English which not only employs a small in-house group of animation artists, but also farms out large orders of short-form series animations to individuals or to virtual studios such as mine.

The reality is that when a project is relatively simple (in bite sized bits like the Sesame English scenario) there's probably a cost effective way of producing it in NYC. Oddly enough, the exact opposite also seems to be true. As illustrated by New York's Curious Pictures productions' Little Einstein (Disney Channel) and Team Umizoomi (Nick Jr), these two shows were as expensive as they were complicated, both involving innovative and creative combinations of Flash, After Effects, Drawn Animation, Maya, and (in the case of Umi's), Live Action.

ASIFA-East held a panel on Flash animation production in 2005 where then-Little Einstein's director, Steve Connor, advised would-be creators to devise very complicated-to-make ideas because that way it could only be produced by an expert crew working in-house. Connor's words proved true again on Curious Pictures next production(Team Umizoomi), but there's a catch to this model of work. It requires a deep-pockets client like Nick or Disney to agree to fund such an expensive series. For example, PBS Kids series have far lower budgets (they only kick in up to 30% of the budget), requiring a studio to pull in cost-reducing partners like Canadian studios.

So, there is truly no one magic answer to the challenge of doing business here... but, in the mean time, studios like Titmouse, Augenblick, and Curious Pictures are doing a kick-ass job of producing big animation projects, without being a network studio, and without having to have created the shows in the first place. And, that has equaled something pretty damn important in any economy: jobs––helping us buy our own grilled cheese sandwiches.