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.
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 (www.bydavepalmer.com) 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."
Monday, October 11, 2010
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Thanks for writing this!
I LOVE Jen Oxley. Having interned while she was at LAP, and speaking with her at ASIFA events, she is one of the most put-together and yet down-to-Earth person ever, not to mention absolutely brilliant.
(Person? People? Grr.)
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