Thursday, December 22, 2011

Animondays Interview: Linda Simensky -part I

Pitching is on my mind these days because I'm prepping (along with my partners, The Levinson bros.) an original 5 min self-produced pilot and mini bible for use in a major round of pitching in January and February. Pitching is not for everyone, nor does it line up with everyone's goals for what they want to achieve or explore in the art and industry of animation. But, those that are curious about this interesting area may find this post useful.

Linda Simensky, PBS Kids VP of Children's Programming, was the first animation development executive I ever met. Level-headed, funny, and an expert in her field, she's been a trusted friend and mentor to me for almost two decades.

Simenksy's official bio:
In her role as VP of Children’s Programming, Linda Simensky collaborates with producers, co-production partners and distributors throughout development, production, post-production and broadcast for existing and new series including Curious George, Dinosaur Train, The Cat in the Hat Knows A Lot About That, Super Why!, Martha Speaks and Sid the Science Kid for PBS Kids, as well as WordGirl, The Electric Company and Wild Kratts for PBS Kids GO! Prior to joining PBS, Linda was SVP of Original Animation for Cartoon Network, where she oversaw the development and series production of The Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, Courage the Cowardly Dog and other major projects. Linda began her career with a nine-year stint at Nickelodeon, where she helped build the animation department and launch such popular series as Rugrats, Doug and The Ren & Stimpy Show.

Without further ado, here's part 1 of my interview with Linda Simensky (pictured above and, below, in cartoon form from PBS Kids' WordGirl), conducted in 2009 for use in my book, and appearing here in it's entirety for the first time. Enjoy!

1-What do you think the most common frustrations creators have with the typical network pitching and development process?
I am lucky that in the course of my career, I've been able to work with a number of people who have done great work, and I've had shows and even pitches where the experience has been completely positive. Those moments come when the creator not only has a good idea, but understands the goals of whatever network I am working for. I, in turn, find it works best when I understand the goals and bigger vision of the creator I am working with. These moments are the ones that make a development job worth it.

On the other hand, there are certainly many times when pitches are painful -- boring, not interesting looking, or just wrong for us. But what I think the creators are feeling is just an overwhelming amount of stress. I have been taking pitches for a while now, in three different companies, and the experience is fairly consistent. The pitching process is fairly stressful for both sides! If you are on the network side, you have to walk into each pitch thinking "this might be our next show." I often sense that the creators are walking in thinking, "these people don't understand how great my project is going to be."

I always get the sense that creators and producers sense that we are holding information back -- that we know the answers or we know exactly what we are looking for and we're just not sharing it. I think they tend to have the sense that development executives are not being completely honest.

I also think that creators often feel that if they could just speak to the person in charge (if they are pitching to the rest of the department, for example,) that person would love the project and it would get picked up. Of course, a good project will generally excite anyone in the department.

Also, I think that creators sense the development executives get bored easily and are looking at their watches. This may be true some of the time. On the other hand, sometimes a minor crisis of some sort is unfolding, and then it's 2:00 and you are off to a pitch. It's impossible not to seem distracted and unfocused. Sometimes it helps to be honest about being distracted.

2-What, if anything, about this process would you change if you had the power to do so?
First, I'd find some way to make the process much less stressful. I used to joke that I was renaming the pitching process "come in and tell us about your idea," so it would sound less stressful. But the nature of the process is that it is stressful.

Also, many people who pitch are either not that great at representing their property, and many don't seem to know it well enough to make the pitch completely sound enticing. What creators can do is know their properties and be able to talk about them, rather than reading from the pitch or doing an unfocused pitch that doesn't really represent the idea. Give examples of how a show is funny, rather than saying it's going to be funny.

There are some other mistakes that creators and producers make when pitching:
- When you are pitching to a network, know what shows they produce and watch them before coming in.
- Don't think that your show needs to be exactly like the other shows on the network. They have those shows already.
- Don't insist that you know a network better than the executives sitting there. Maybe someone's trying to do something different.
- Don't tell me that other networks really like the idea and are interested. The pitching process is a lot like dating. So if you wanted to date someone, would you tell that person that many other people were interested in dating you? Or that you were interested in dating other people? Your goal is to convince the networks why your project is perfect for their network.

There are also some mistakes that executives make when taking pitches.
- Be as honest as possible. It is hard to say no, but I think most people would rather have an honest answer than to think the pitch was great and then get rejected.
- Don't act too self important. Someday, you might be on the other side of the desk, pitching to this person.
- Sometimes the pitch you are looking at isn't one you fall in love with, but perhaps this creator will be back with something better next time. You can offer feedback and/or encouragement, rather than just some terse comments.

3-What are some common problems you often see in show art in a pitch bible?
There usually isn't enough art. If you are pitching and you've only bothered to draw one drawing each of the main characters, that doesn't usually capture the feel of the show. And if the characters are posed for presentation or a character lineup, they can look pretty static. The optimum pitch, from my point of view, has rough art as well as finished art, and shows characters in a variety of situations or actions. If the show is meant to be humorous, the designs should convey that.

Many times, people will put badly drawn art in a bible. For those who do not have a background in designing characters for animation, consider hiring someone who does. The ability to illustrate is not the same as the ability to design for animation. And someone's ability to "draw just like a Disney animator" is not the same as actually being an animator. Unattractive, badly drawn or amateurish designs often ruin what otherwise might be a good idea.

4- What are some common problems you often see in plot synopsis's in a pitch bible?
Much of the time, there is too much written and it doesn't really tell much about the show. Try to be succinct, and most importantly, make sure it is an interesting read.

I always have a stack of pitches waiting, and I tend to read the shortest ones first. And if a pitch doesn't interest me right away, I don't always finish it. If a pitch isn't interesting to read, the show probably won't be much better. I should be hooked at the very beginning of the pitch.

Don't spend much of the pitch telling us how funny it will be, make it actually seem funny and that will go along way in convincing us you have the right tone.

5- What are some common problems you often see in character descriptions in a pitch bible?
Sometimes a great deal can be written about a character, and yet we still don't know much about this character. Sometimes, people have very little information about the character, othen that how funny they are going to be. Try to describe the character using terms that capture the character as if it were a real person. Make us believe this character is believable and interesting. If you want people to tune in every day to see what this character is doing, make us care about the character. When creators use very basic and bland terms to describe a character, you end up with a character who doesn't seem particularly interesting. If you need to practice, write a description of yourself, the way you'd want to be described. Most people have more than one or two character traits.

6- What are some common problems you often see in world/set-up descriptions in a pitch bible?
Creators often come up with very high concept ideas that are interesting in the pitch for a few minutes, and then just seem like they take time away from the more important parts of the shows. When someone pitches an idea where the world concept is highly stylized and everyone has names that are animals or plants or colors, I usually end up thinking that if I don't love the characters, I don't care how cleverly their world was constructed or how high their high concept was.

Sometimes a world just isn't believable and a creator's defense is often, " Well, this is my vision, in this world, dogs fly. That's how I see it." But there is often something missing or underdeveloped that makes you continue questioning the world.

7-For a first meeting with a creator, do you prefer to see a few of their ideas roughed out on two sheets before they go through the larger effort of creating a full pitch bible?
This tends to be a matter of personal preference. I prefer to see something at the very beginning, and at this point, I can tell people if the idea is interesting and a good fit for us.Then they can go back with some feedback and develop it a little more fully for us specifically. When people walk in with the foamcore-mounted characters or a finished pilot, I usually sense that they aren't open to much feedback. But on the other hand, it's very rare that someone walks in with something that works perfectly for us with no additional feedback.

8-How many pages should a pitch bible be?
I find that the initial pitch can be around five or six pages and that can include everything that I would need to see in a first draft. A typical pitch for PBS will end up fairly lengthy in the end since the show needs to be educational as well as entertaining, and the pitch also needs to be for all platforms, not just for television. But there is no need to communicate much more than the basics at first. These basics include the initial idea, the main characters, their world, the visuals, the curriculum, and five or six stories. In a final pitch, the curriculum document would be much longer, their would be an interactive/web plan and a list of advisors, as well as several other items, for example. But that just underscores the difference between a pitch for a series and a pitch that represents the idea across platforms.

9- How important is presentation in a pitch bible? For example, if the show is about furry green monsters, should the pitch bible be bound and covered in furry green fluff?
This is a matter of personal taste, I believe. I personally have no particular interest in how well the show is packaged if I don't fall in love with the basic idea. I have never picked up a show because it was packaged well for the pitch. I have wondered in some cases if the person behind the pitch might be better suited for a marketing job at times. But again, it is a matter of personal taste -- some people are driven by visuals to the point where the thought of sending something that wasn't cleverly packaged just seems wrong to them. But we tend not to pay much attention to the packaging, unless it makes the project unwieldy. (It's true, green fur doesn't file well...)

We have an ongoing joke about people who have their projects professionally bound at the printers, because the first thing we usually do is tear the binding off to have copies made.

If you want to put your time into something aesthetic, put it into making the artwork in the pitch as compelling as possible. If someone were pitching a show that had a comic book feel to it and they made the cover look like a comic book, or they did a few pages of a fake comic book that made me laugh, I'd be much more impressed.

10-Do you like to be thumbing through a pitch bible during a pitch meeting or is it a distraction?
It's a distraction to me to be thumbing through a pitch. I'd rather have someone just talk to me about the show. After all these years of taking pitches, I still have no idea if I am supposed to follow along with a pitch or not unless someone tells me specifically what I should do. It's different from pitch to pitch. The easiest for me is when someone brings art they can hold up, and then at the end, they hand out takeaway pitches for us to review.

11-What is the best way for a creator to present an animated pitch in a pitch meeting?
I prefer when someone comes in and can talk fluently about the show, can show artwork by holding up a bunch of examples, and can then capture the idea in the pitch they hand me to review. I also prefer smaller pitch meetings, as the conversation is usually better and more natural. What I hate most in a pitch meeting is when people read to me.

People usually want to know if they have to have some animation to show. They don't, but I can think of a few times when people walked in with some Flash animation that was pretty funny, and it certainly helped to get us excited about the idea. On the other hand, I can think of many more times where a weak demo killed the property for us right then.

12-How much of your development content is found or pitched to you at industry events such as MIPCOM or Kidscreen each year?
Many projects are pitched at these events, but few turn out to be right for us. I find events such as Kidscreen helpful for meeting people, but I find pitches at these events to be rushed and awkward. I find myself taking pitches from people who are not familiar with what we are looking for and are trying to pitch to as many people as possible.

In a typical pitch in my office, there would be some time to chat and learn more about the person pitching and for them to learn more about what we are looking for. The whole pitching process can be a little more relaxed, and more feedback can be shared. At Kidscreen, chances are that I am scheduled with back to back 15- and 30-minute pitches all day and after about the third or fourth pitch, my ability to concentrate is shot. At Kidscreen, I prefer taking pitches from people I'd have no chance to see during the rest of the year.

***Stay tuned for part II of my interview with Linda Simensky next week! Till then, Happy New Year!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Creativity and Writer's Block

Tonight is the last day of my SVA Animation Careers class. This is the first time I've taught the class in the fall and it's been a real pleasure. In the past the only opportunity seniors had to take my class (which is a graduation requirement) was the Spring, smack in the middle of the mad rush to complete their thesis films. But whichever season the class hits, there's been one consistent variable among the students: a fear of writer's block. I get a lot of questions about that and it's a curious thing.

After the writers block questions flared up this term I asked the students, "How many of you have gotten ideas for future films you'd like to make as you've been working on your thesis films?" Every single hand in the room went up.

When you are being creative and in-process on something, ideas just seem to flow––ideas and solutions for what you're working on and stray bits of new ideas you'd like to explore in the future.

I've brought this up before, but I think I learned something about creativity by being the son of an Ad man. My dad would use his entire 4 hours-per-day commute to fill backs of envelopes and scraps of paper with scribbles of new campaigns, concepts, logos, etc. One doodle would lead to the next. But, he would have never gotten to the best stuff without having gone through that process. Quantity of ideas lead to quality. His job was just to put them all down on paper (as fast as his hand would allow) and with the understanding that the good ideas will stand out. Creativity and editing are separate stages. I think a lack of awareness in this area is what is confused with writer's block.

For example, I develop, write, and pitch proposals to networks each year, but I don't think I would be accomplishing that if I began development with my editorial hat on. To start that way would be saying, "What's the best possible idea I could think of?" That would be a sure way to kill creativity because it sets an impossible standard for any ideas to follow. A better beginning would be to ask your self: "What do I enjoy?," "What areas of interest of mine can I start with to get things flowing?"

After all is said, writer's block does exist--just ask Stephen King, who has used it as a central topic in many of his novels. No matter how comfortable we get in our brainstorm process, there will be times when we hit a wall. But, there's always options or exercises to help with that.

When I had trouble starting the storyboards for my latest film, I engaged Willy Hartland to do the storyboard (see one of Willy's original panels above), thus allowing me to focus my attention elsewhere. And, you know what? Being able to build off of what Willy did gave me the confidence to get started, even allowing me to take some of his sequences to the next level and reboard certain sections with new ideas once I figured out what I was doing. And, none of that is to fault what Willy did. I love his storyboard. But, just a like a creative brainstorm, a first storyboard is a conversation starter. Solutions and the right path to the finish emerge as you work. They don't come as easily (or at all) by staring at a blank page.

Monday, December 12, 2011


I don’t know what I’ll be working on professionally, year-to-year, so the only way I know if my career is on track is by making sure I'll have new experiences. All of us get some degree of new experiences through the work we do for clients, but the most reliable source for new challenges is from creative works you generate your self.

Since 2007, I’ve amped up the regularity by which I’m making indie films (averaging about 1 every year-and-a-half), and these projects ensure that whatever happens in the economy or to our industry, I’ll make my own new experiences no matter what.

Films allow one to experiment with so many elements: the visual development that usually takes place at the beginning, the approach to the storytelling discovered in the storyboard, the pacing of the film established in the animatic, the style or design of the animation that emerges as you draw picture after picture, the audio styling that tells half your story and in ways that the visuals couldn’t alone, and the fabric that is all these elements stitched together in the final product. The indie short filmmaker has final say over all these ingredients–– there’s truly no other venue (as animation people) where that freedom exists.

Another thing I appreciate, is how these projects give us something positive and creative to occupy our thoughts. Sometimes while I’m walking, about to go to sleep for the night, or brushing my teeth, I’ll get an idea of how to restage my scene-in-progress, or a solution for a tricky camera move, or maybe hatch a new name for the film. In short, when you’re working on a personal film, there really is no time away from it. You’re always thinking about it, improving it in your mind, and forever going through the creative process. I find this to be a very addictive.

Once a film is done it’s like preparing to launch fireworks. Some are duds, and some explode to their full glory maybe even going beyond expectations. But, unlike fireworks, after a film burns through a two-year festival run, it still exists, building up a body of work for the filmmaker. Above and below are stills from my new short, which is only days away from completion. It’s almost time to aim it away from my face and light the fuse…

Saturday, December 3, 2011

He Played it by Ear

A still from "The Ballad of Archie Foley - he played it by ear," a 1995 film co-directed by Candy Kugel & Vincent Cafarelli.

I was very sorry to hear that Buzzco Associates, inc. co-founder Vincent Cafarelli died last week. Vinnie was one of those people that you assume will always be around. Passing away at the age of 81, his career spanned from the days of the theatrical short (Famous Studios) through the golden age of NY animated commercials in the 1950s and 60s, and concluding in the present era's botique studio of the Hubley's model.

I met Vinnie so many times over the years, going back to when I first attended an ASIFA-East board meeting at Buzzco in 1995. Vinnie didn't stick around for the meetings, but as he was heading out the door we always exchanged a few pleasant words. I was aware of his talent and reputation and I admired his warm and gentle disposition. In 1996 when I was on a layoff from Michael Sporn's studio, I officially interviewed at Buzzco where Vinnie and his studio partner, the friendly Candy Kugel, sat me down to check out my work. At the end of the interview, I asked if I could stick around to watch all their films, which they had compiled on a single video tape.

I had already seen at least two of their films at ASIFA festivals, but this was the first chance I had to see the full body of their work. I was blown away by the variety and quality of the shorts. I particularly loved the films "A Warm Reception in L.A." and "We Love It," both of which were tongue-in-cheek looks at what it's like being an artist working in a commercial field.

After the meeting, they invited me to stay for lunch and eat with their crew. For someone newish to the industry who was currently out of work, sitting down to a meal with the Buzzco family made me feel a little more hopeful, and a little less lonely before returning to my apartment to face the rest of my layoff. That was the shop that Vinnie and Candy built. A family atmosphere that happened to be professional animation folks churning out award-winning indie films and top-notch commercial assignments.

I had the pleasure of seeing Vinnie only two weeks ago at an Academy screening, where we chatted about Brooklyn. Vinnie lived in Cobble Hill near my wife's Aunt. I told Vinnie I was living in Brooklyn too and that my dad was from Brownsville and my mother from Canarsie. Vinnie said to Candy, who standing near by, "We have another Brooklyn boy here."

After I heard the news of Vinnie's passing, I kept thinking about Buzzco's 1995 film, "The Ballad of Archie Foley," which depicts the life of a gentle man who spent his days in the entertainment biz, albeit in the largely uncelebrated role of foley sound recording. How apt a metaphor for animation people who similarly toil behind the scenes in anonymity. Still, I think the majority of us wouldn't have it any other way. We speak through our drawings and our films, and through the people left behind that absorb that work and it's lessons.

Vincent Cafarelli has left behind a rich legacy and we are richer for having had him a part of NY Animation all these years. For a more detailed account of Vinnie's career be sure to visit Michael Sporn's post. My thoughts are with Vinnie's family, Buzzco's extended family, and with his partners' Candy Kugel and Marilyn Kraemer.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Magic Decade

I don't think I'm unique in being fascinated by the time immediately before I was born. For me, that decade happens to be the fascinating and transformative 1960s, so that certainly doesn't hurt none. All my life, the 1960s have had a distinct pull for me from music to movies to history. Most importantly (on a personal level) it's when my parents met, married, and settled in Long Island where I was later born and raised.

Now my lifelong interest in that era has gone one step further in that I'm making a short documentary animated film about how my dad, Bob Levy, unexpectedly came to go to Cooper Union, graduating in 1961. Each day on this film connects me with that time, and with my family's history. It's an experience I'm relishing, and maybe that's why a film I wanted to be finished in a month is taking me four times that long.

Making personal films exploring family history, is allowing me to bridge gaps in my past and that of my ancestors. It's been said that you should write what you know, or do the research until you know what you write. As part of the research process, my dad and I turned his house upside down to find his artwork from the period so it can appear in the film at key moments. In one closet (as his three curious cats looked on) we stumbled upon some of his random creative and business projects from the early 1960s. There were original song lyrics (I had no idea he had tried to write songs), artifacts left over from a successful silkscreen printing business he co-owned and operated for two years, and a stack of cut-paper Christmas cards (images above and below) that he made but never got around to printing.

I thought it would be fun to share some of these designs here, especially with the holiday season just around the corner. Happy Holidays from one magic decade to another.

*all images © Robert S. Levy

Friday, November 18, 2011

PES by Numbers

PES, photo courtesy of

Currently based in L.A., the stop-motion animator/director PES first established his career in NYC where he became an important fixture of the local indie animation scene. PES represented a new type of indie animator, one whose creativity and ambition was matched by his savvy in self-promotion utilizing new media. Just as Bill Plympton broke ground by tapping into new markets such as MTV and tournées like Spike and Mike in the late 80s and early 90s, in the new century PES became the darling of viral videos that spread via e-mails, his website, and later on YouTube.

I miss the guy and his energy, so today I thought I’d share PES’s complete essay written in 2005 for use my first book. Enjoy!

“I shot my first film when I was 25. It was live-action and it was a short film, precisely 48 seconds long. It was more like a commercial than a traditional short film, with fast-paced editing and a surprise ending.

I spent 700 dollars on it and called in lots of post-production favors. I had to figure it out from the ground up. I wrote it, directed it, produced it, cast it, did the costumes, built models to create my own effects in-camera and I even borrowed a 16 mm camera to shoot it. My goal was to discover, in a relatively low risk scenario, whether or not I enjoyed the process of making a film enough to continue doing it.

At the time I was working in a large advertising agency in New York City. It was my first job after college. I was a “creative assistant,” in other words, a glorified secretary to an ad executive on the creative side. This means I had gotten m y foot in the door in a fun place to work, but that was about it. I was at the bottom of the totem pole. My days were spent doing menial tasks like booking flights and making popcorn in the reception area. Stuff you could do with your eyes closed. But at least I was getting paid, and I had lots of time to devote to developing some of my own ideas.

The advertising agency was great for many things, one of which was RESOURCES. There were people, machines, tape stock -- anything and everything you could think of -- tens of thousands of dollars worth of goods and services.

Another interesting thing about being in the advertising agency creative department was that I was surrounded by creative content from all over the world: commercials, short films, music videos, print advertisements and posters. I looked at everything in my spare time and was definitely influenced by it. I was drawn to the short storytelling format of comm ercials. A simple idea, you’re in and you’re out. Leave a viewer with a thought, make them laugh, but more than anything: get their attention. Show them something they’ll never forget. The big lesson I learned from advertising is that short can be powerful.

After I made my first film (the 48 second “Dogs of War”) I promoted it to advertising press sources. I slapped a logo on the end and called it a “spec commercial,” a term used in advertising to refer to commercials that were not commissioned but are useful in getting a director paying work within the industry. The press sources ate my film up, even though it wasn’t a commissioned job.

Calls from agents and commercial production companies looking for up-and-coming directors started coming in: What else do you have? And when can I see it? What’s your next project? Can you send me your reel? Unfortunately I had only those 48 seconds to my name.

The title card from "Whittlin' Wood," demonstrates how the filmmaker's signature design sense makes it to every aspect of his work.

I planned my next films. The second was another live-action short film shot in a desert that could also function as a “spec commercial”. I called this idea “Whittlin’ Wood.” The third film was a little idea about two chairs that have sex on a New York City rooftop. It was to be an animation with objects. Two life-size chairs would need to move inch-by-inch on a real rooftop. I knew immediately had to quit my job in order to make these films because I would need lots of time to shoot the second one, “Roof Sex.” On top of that I had to teach myself how to animate.

I took out 8 credit cards and quit my job. This was a scary leap, but necessary for me. It was the moment I placed all my faith in my own ideas and myself.

I learned more about filmmaking in that year than any time at school could have taught me. I thought very hard about all my shots, and about how the films would play out. I considered many options for every scenario, choosing the ones that made the most sense to me. Since I was spending the only money I had access to, I had to make absolute sure both these films were good. A dud was out of the question. I never really believed in learning by making mistakes. My feeling was, if you think hard enough through an idea, and if you have a genuine feel for the medium, you can avoid simple pitfalls that a less-prepared filmmaker might make.

One of the reasons I was drawn to start making films in a shorter format was that I felt I could have a better chance of making a great film all-around, with fewer compromises than I might have been forced to make on a larger film (given the financial constraints I was working with). So very early on I decided that for me a great 1-minute film was going to be 100 times more valuable than a mediocre 5-minute film. I believed in the inherent value of great short content, especially in an increasingly internet-savvy world.

At the time I also wanted to get up and ru nning as a commercial director so that I could make money to finance future personal projects. Commercials were always how I planned on making my bread and butter. It was where the big money was, and I knew that from the very beginning. But aside from money, I knew commercials would be great for experimenting with techniques and equipment, working with A level Hollywood cinematographers and art directors, getting valuable experience directing large crews. As an added bonus, if you were lucky (and talented) you even might make something that gets absorbed into the bloodstream of popular culture. Above all, I felt commercials and music videos were a logical entrée to getting larger projects such as a feature off the ground sometime down the road.

Check out this still from Roof Sex. Anyone can drag some furniture on a roof, but how many can compose a shot like this? PES's cinematography paints the city scape as if he designed the buildings himself.

How/why I started doing animation
Now I went back to the drawing table. At this point I will remind you that I had only done one animated film, this was not my “thing” yet. I had made Roof Sex ® because it was funny and I loved the idea of furniture porn, not because I wanted to make an animated film. I taught myself how to animate because I had a clear vision for this film and I didn’t want anyone else to fuck it up. I had to do it myself in order to be 100% certain it was exactly how I wanted it. However, the process of creating Roof Sex was so exciting for me that it was like opening up a chamber in my brain stuffed with hundreds of ideas about objects and now I wanted to make them all. Like Steinback said, ‘First you have one rabbit. Then you have a hundred.”

Only thing was, that credit card debt was eating all my money and I had literally nothing to make my new films with. This turns out to have been the next critical juncture for me: I would start making the cheapest of these ideas first. I called up the armies of household objects, small stuff: peanuts, seashells, binder clips, and other assorted ≥ household objects. The more films I could make the better. I pushed myself. In no time I began to create several films with animated objects, some as short as 10 seconds. I was just following some of my ideas, within the realm of what I could afford to make. All this work was very experimental; I was really just playing around. Stop-motion animation just happened to be the best method for this crop of ideas, not the only type of film I ever wanted to make. But I persisted.

The next important decision I made was to create a website where my films could have a home. Sarah my girlfriend was key in this process. She learned basic html and we put it up ourselves in a couple of weeks. I called it, and I offered my films up for free. The idea was to do something simple, focusing on the work.
On my website I posted my short animations along with Roof Sex. “Roof Sex” drew thousands of people to my site instantly, sin ce it already had a life of its own.
Furniture Fornication as art, in "Roof Sex."

Traffic on my site began to climb over the following months, completely by word of mouth. People came to the site looking for “Roof Sex” and discovered a body of work, lots of ideas and executions. Films I had made 2 years before were now seen in the context of everything else I had made. This is very valuable to people out there because you suddenly leap from being a one hit wonder in the public’s eyes to an artist with a particular style and distinct point of view. This “fingerprint” is really the most valuable asset you have. It’s what makes people want to work with you.

On Film Festivals
Annecy 2002 is when my life started to change. Roof Sex took a top prize for BEST FIRST FILM at Annecy. Overnight it became one of the most talked about films in the world. When we returned home to NYC the fax machine was flooded with papers and my first instinct was, what the hell happened here. But i t turned out to be licensing agreements for “Roof Sex”: TV channels all over the world had seen Roof Sex at Annecy and wanted to run it on TV. Better yet, they were offering to pay. I was dazzled by the requests – there was a genuine desire out there for short content. It confirmed everything I had been feeling when I first decided that short and memorable was the way to go.

On Promotion
If you have something new to say, it’s only half the job to make it: you have to get it out there. Otherwise, you don’t give it a chance to have an impact and you lose out on the opportunity to experience any benefit the film may bring you. Promotion is a very important part of the equation.

This weird thing happens when people get familiar with your work. They think they know you. They talk about you on a first name basis. For better or for worse, people start seeing you as a kind of brand: your taste, the ideas you make, the way you tell a story, the pacing you set. This is your fingerprint. People latch onto your name as a symbol that stands for the combined identity of all these things. “Have you heard of this guy PES?” “Oh he’s the guy who did that Nike thing…” or “Oh, the chair guy…” "That’s very PES," stuff like that. I believe it’s very important for artists to carve out their identities in the marketplace, really develop a distinct voice. When someone who's not involved in film knows about you, they want to see your next films. These are the people who enjoy your films for sheer entertainment value. When advertising, music video, television, and film people know about you, they enjoy your films but they also keep you in mind for future commissioned projects. Unless you have a trust fund an/ or are happy getting paid outside the industry, this is valuable turf for you. Do not underestimate the value here. It’s only a matter of time before they bite.

So, after a couple of rollercoaster years of making films and promoting them in both the film and advertising industries, I finally got my opportunity to direct legitimate commissioned work. And this is working out great for me. It’s exactly as I thought it would be. Some projects are great and others are just so-so. But they all help finance my personal projects, which I rely on for my own artistic satisfaction. I haven’t had any terrible experiences with commercials so far. They are collaborations, and sometimes the creative compromises you make along the way (the client technically owns the film) are a bit depressing, but at the end of the day it’s just a commercial."

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Animondays Interview: Signe Baumane -part II

Above image from Signe Baumane's film, "The Gold of the Tigers."

Last week I presented part I of my interview with indie animator/director Signe Baumane. Today I'm pleased to share the 2nd and final installment in which Signe explains what sets indie animation apart from commercial animation, the difficulty she's had directing animators, and the painful (yet educational) act of sharing your work with an audience.

Notice how she honestly critiques her work in the answers below. I think that's an important thing to be able to do if one wants to grow as an artist. Not that one should act as their own reviewer, but not being satisfied with one's previous works, and understanding why, allows the artist to push forward and keep creating/exploring.

Without further ado, here's part II with Signe Baumane. Enjoy!

1-What part of directing animation gives you the most satisfaction?
Nothing, really, It is a lot of hard work, and I have no patience to see how drop by drop the bathtub gets full. I am not cut out for working in animation. I hate to work, but in animation all you get is work, work, work. Ironically, I am always in a rush to finish a film, because I want it finished yesterday, but once it's done, I immediately start a new film. Why? I think I should get my head examined.

Ok, there is one part of the process that makes it worthwhile––the excitement of conceiving the idea, having hopes that this is going to be the best project ever, living with my vision for months and months. Or years. But, inevitably, when it's done, it is a disappointment. It never is the best film ever. Maybe I work too fast? Maybe I don't invest enough time in thinking through minuscule details? But I can't. Working on something for too long kills me.

2-What methods have been the most effective in giving notes and feedback to your animators (assuming you do this)? And, what has not worked so well, and why?
I am not very good with working with animators. When I give them the task, we act the scene out, we play with it, have a great time and then the animator goes to work and when she comes back there is nothing left of what we acted out. The animators that I worked with always try to do some short cuts, give themselves slack and I dont know how to push them to work harder.

There were about 4 occasions in my experience of work with animators when an animator truly gave me her best. It was like flying, like sex. We experienced great unity, intimacy and feeling of conspiracy. Those were the cases when animators wanted to prove something, to me or to themselves or to a producer. Mainly, the animators I worked with, regard me either as a cash machine (they want me to accept the scene so that they get paid) or their adversary (because at times they don't believe in my vision and think my ideas suck). Then I feel very lonely, deserted, and can only trust that my concept will carry the story and I edit the shit out of the mediocre footage I got. Meaning, editing and timing the scenes is also part of the work of a director. Am I too hard on my animators? : )

It's all probably my fault...

3-Where did you learn your sense of timing, acting, staging, and storytelling that is so essential in directing animation?
I definitely was not born with it. I was very sloppy with timing, and ignorant, too. The day I watched my first film "The Witch and the Cow" with an audience, I was in pain, what a horrible film, what a torture to sit through those 2 minutes 40 seconds!

I decided to be better with my next film, but "Tiny Shoes" was too fast at times, too loaded with imagery for audience to understand everything I was trying to say. The next film "The Gold of the Tigers" was a directorial disaster, although I am still fond of the story. In short, constantly making a new film and watching it with an audience has been a great education for me.

But please note, I havent made a perfect film yet. It's surprising, because some people get it with their first film, but not me.
I have made about 14 or more short films and still am guessing how to do this right.

4- What has watching your films play to audience taught you, that you would not have discovered otherwise?
An audience can teach you a LOT. It's intuitive, visceral knowledge/learning that I can't quite describe.

It's not the laughs am going for, it's a reaction, "Veterinarian" sometimes got a very emotional reaction from an audience,
at times––indifferent, and at times––bored, restless. Even with such a different reaction I can see where I failed to communicate the emotion, the message, and where I've succeeded. The mistake that some of us, indie animators make, is
that we think if audience doesnt laugh they are bored. So, just like standup comedians, we work for laughs every 10 seconds
in fear of boring the audience.

But a laugh is only one kind of reaction and if you make them laugh every 10 seconds you might forget about building a character, making your story more meaningful, connecting with your audience in a different way. Not making them laugh every 10 seconds is taking a risk. With "Veterinarian" and "Birth" I took that risk, and YES it's painful for me to sit though those films with an audience, because I am never sure how they are going to react, they get very quiet sometimes and I am not sure if it is a good quiet or bad bored quiet. But each time I sit with the audience, I learn so much about filmmaking, my own filmmaking,
that I could never learn anywhere else. Education is painful.

The audience rules. Unlike some filmmakers who claim that the audience doesn't matter to them, I make films to connect with people (imagine you are telling a good story or a joke in an empty room, what's the purpose of that?).

Above images from "Birth," and "Veterinarian."

5-What advice do you have for someone just starting out in animation with ambitions to make their own indie animated films?
Low overhead is the key for a successful career as an independent artist, be that an animator or a painter. People who buy cars or houses or have demanding girlfriends (they demand diamonds, you know) or have expensive habits (like heroin, fancy restaurants, etc.) have a hard time staying independent. Be modest with your budget. On the other hand, dont be modest about your ambition, goals and dreams. Dream BIG. But preserve your resources.

6- What is your secret to sticking with an indie film through to completion?
Passion. The story I want to tell. Ambition. The need to have a project. The irritation of something hanging around not finished.

It is a kind of character I have. I see that other people have other kinds of character and they dont have a burning need to finish anything. It's not good or bad. It's just the way we are.

7-What indie animation blogs do you visit most often and why?
I don't, really. Cartoon Brew probably is the most visited site by me and that's once in 4 months. ASIFA-East site and blogs - once in 5 months. AWN - once in 6 months. I am just too busy, juggling work for money, sending my films to festivals, trying to work on my next project, seeing work of other people, replying to emails, staying informed about animation, politics, keeping up with my personal life and friends, I have to shower sometimes and eat, too.

I dont have time for Facebook, Twitter or other excitements, I am basically overwhelmed the moment I wake up and open my emails.

8-How do you develop an original voice as an indie animation director in a world where your influences are all around you?
I think, one must have to have bad memory. My memory is so bad, I cant remember anything, so when I create something, it's coming from inside of me rather than from something I've seen. I also never studied animation nor art, so I dont know how to do things correctly, by the book. That is a HUGE help in staying original.

Another thing -develop yourself as a person, find out who you really are and what interests you. That involves reading a lot of books (on philosophy and politics), and thinking about things that are around you, form an opinion about anything you see or observe. Originality comes from inside, it cant be taught in school, it takes developing yourself, working on your Eternal Soul.

9- What is it about the properties of animation that are unique to this medium and how should those be utilized when making an indie animated film?
Animation is a very condensed medium, you can tell a story in 1 minute that in live action would take an hour. Animation is a perfect medium for expressing abstract ideas, to play with meaning of words, cultural references, and many other things. Animation doesnt require a language (dialogue, voiceover) to communicate an idea or a story.

The way that TV or feature animation uses animation as a medium is a little bit realistic and dialogue driven. Indie animation, on the other hand, if it doesnt try to imitate TV or features, tends to use animation for what it is best at - expressing one's soul, unique artistic vision, abstract ideas, and pure fun of doing things that are not possible in live action.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Animondays Interview: Signe Baumane -part I

*above photo of Signe Baumane taken by Katz.

The longer I've known indie animation director/filmmaker Signe Baumane, the more I've admired, respected, and appreciated her both as an artist and a human being. She's genuinely interested in what others are doing, and always sincere and honest in her critiques.

When I met Signe in the late 1990s, she was working for Bill Plympton, supervising his ink & paint assistants. While that period was where she built her NYC indie-scene cred, in my opinion, she hit her stride later with the sensational and personal series of shorts under the title Teat Beat of Sex. This was Signe at her most confessional, direct, and uncensored, and I think it's some of the finest and most powerful animated filmmaking ever done. Today, the director is at work on an indie animated feature film, "Rocks in my Pocket," and she's documenting her journey in fascinating posts on her blog.

I interviewed Signe in 2009 (for use in my "Directing Animation" book), and her answers were among the most useful and insightful. I'm happy to feature the part I of the interview on today's post. Enjoy!
A drawing from Signe's feature-in-progress.

1-What skill sets go into directing animation for your own independent film?
For me the most important work of a director, be that a director of animated short, feature, live action etc. is organizing the time of the film, structuring the visual material with the help of timing. Is that a skill? I dont know. It might be a talent.

Quite often you see films that have great design, great concept, but something is missing, when you look closer, there is something wrong with the timing, it's either they give too much or too little time to visuals, usually too much,
and they forgot about pacing, it is too even. Change of pace is crucial.

The director is the one with the vision, and she/he has to carry this vision into the reality. You could say, a writer has a vision, too. But the writer doesnt struggle to bring the story out into reality in full, it does stay in her/his head and on the paper if she/he writes it.

In any case, as in indie animator, since I alone write, design, animate, direct my own films it took me a long time time to understand what directing really is. ASIFA-East judging nights really helped me: the independent films are judged by animation, writing/humor, directing, design, sound.

You have to really think which is what and how to judge it. I think it is a GREAT exercise, when I teach animation, I make my students to do the same thing.

2-How important is it to have worked in animation in other roles before being ready to direct?
No, not really. I mean, it doesnt hurt, but I think you dont need it. Although, lets say, if I was about to direct a feature film that 23 animators are going to animate in Flash and I don't know Flash (I am serious, I still don't know Flash and am proud of it) then, I personally, would drop any prejudices and learn Flash as soon as I can, so I would be able to communicate with my team.

In Latvia, where my  "Veterinarian" was animated by 8 animators, I would see some of the animators trace, for example, a hand moving across the screen, it looked like a  cut-out, so I confronted the animator, and she said, "No, I did not trace, I animated."

I said, "In that case, did you flip?"

Judging from the smooth, untouched paper edges, she did not flip.

She swore by her poor mother's health that she flips. What I was to say to that? I took the scene and animated the freaking hand myself during the night. Which is NOT a good example of what a director should do. It would have been so much better if I did not know how to animate and made the animator to do what I wanted her to do by persuasion or threats. I am too much of a wuss to push people around, that's why prefer to work on my own.

3- Who are your indie animation hereos and what has their work taught you?    
Well, Bill Plympton, of course. He gives us a great example of how an independent animator can be independent and successful.
We all think, I can do it too. But no, we can't. It's impossible to do what Bill does. We all have our different path. But in any case, Bill does set a Golden Standard for indie animators. He is the North Star, a guide in the night. A beam of a hope. An encouragement to jump out of window and try to fly (I have seen people so inspired by Bill that they did something equal to jumping out of a window).

When I met Bill in 1995, I had done 3 films in Latvia, on government grants, in a studio, where I had animators, painters, cameramen and a producer to pout at if something went wrong. Bills taught me that you can do it all yourself and he taught me not to pout when things go wrong.

4-Can you list some common mistakes and challenges that are faced by the first time indie animation director?
First, and the most important challenge of a first time filmmaker is that she or he cannot imagine how the movie in their head is going to come out into the reality and how the audience is going to understand the story. The fragile, fleeting images that you conceived, they look so crude and inept when drawn on paper or in computer. You have been waiting for so long, excited to draw what you had in mind but all of sudden you stop, disappointed and frustrated. You're right––the drawings are terrible, but please keep going, because only by confronting the reality and overcoming your limitations can you grow as an artist. You don't become an artist just by dreaming about it.

The first time filmmakers sometimes can't see what is most important and what is not and they get very stubborn about totally stupid things, like: "I am not going to change the design of the horse, because that's the horse I've drawn!" Unfortunately, the horse looks like a dog and is easily confused with this other dog in the film and it is essential for the punchline that we understand the difference between the horse and the dog.

Sometimes, first time filmmakers borrows from their teacher or people they admire. They try to imitate Bill Plympton or Simpsons or anime or what not. It is not going to get them very far. Because we already have Bill Plymton, Simpsons, anime and what not.

Develop your unique voice, find your own story.

Actually, I believe that a story has to come out of necessity, a need to tell it. There should be some intense fire it it for you to do it.

First time filmmakers sometimes conceive totally complicated stories and try to squeeze them in 3 minutes, and then everything happens so fast that an audience is lost and confused.

First time filmmakers sometimes try to tell one little punchline for 3 minutes, taking it so slow that those 3 minutes turn into 3 hours.

First time filmmakers sometimes create an absolute work of perfection, I have seen it again and again and again.

5-What are the ingredients of a good production pipeline, process, and schedule? And, what role does this have on an indie production where there are not necessicarily any rules?
I don't know what are the ingredients, unless it is a good organization when everybody knows their place and work that has to be done, and files are easy to access and oversee.

In indie production is the same thing: good organization even if you work alone or with 2 people.

6-In your indie films, in what areas have you sought out collaboration with other creative people and why?
I used to like to work with camera men although everybody hated them. I thought, they educated me on how things are done under camera. Now, of course, this knowledge is useless.

I love working with sound designers. I am a control freak and I think it is good to break up your instincts and inclinations a little bit, so my collaboration with a sound designer gets things out of my hands, I let it go and I like it. It always comes out well, too.

A composer is crucial for a project.

A producer, too. Without a producer my "Teat Beat of Sex" would have never had happened. Or maybe it would, but not all 15 episodes.

A still from a Teat Beat of Sex short.

7-Is there a secret to good communication with your collaborators?
Be nice, but remember what you want.

I actually don't know a secret to good communication with my collaborators. If they are nice, I am lucky. If they decide to push me around, or deliver bad stuff and claim its the best they can do, I cry and then I slip away in the night. I dont really have a good character for bossing people around or dealing with bullies. It destroys me, to do that.

But, a collaborator, just like  a dog, has to know who is the boss and you have to let her/him know this is your project and you are making the final decisions. Once, a sound designer aspired to direct my film that was already shot, he kept suggesting changes, funny, to his opinion, gags. I kept laughing it off but it didnt end well. We are not on speaking terms.

I am not on speaking terms with another collaborator, a co-director, the production part was all fun, we enjoyed each other's creativity it was wonderful ... till the festivals came and we had to share a spotlight. Then it turned out, there was only one director of the film according to my co-director, and it wasnt me.

Since that day I strongly advise not to co-direct anything with anybody unless it is your brother, sister or wife or husband.

8-What creative mistakes have you made as an indie director and what have they taught you?
Oh, endless mistakes! SO many I cant even count!!!!!! Each of my films is full of mistakes like a sick cat with flies. It is painful to sit through my films with an audience, but I make myself do that because that is the only way I can internalize what went wrong and why.

But big mistakes? Like choosing sex as one of the subjects? : )

NO, I dont regret that, but I advise my fellow indie filmmakers not to get carried away with the subject of sex. It only looks hot,
but causes major sufferings (no one wants my sex films, they are so hard to sell, even "Teat Beat of Sex" with the huge festival 
success, hasn't gotten a distributor).

9-How is technology changing today's indie animation process?
I love working with computers! I was probably the last one in the industry to shoot on film (I shot "Dentist" on 35 mm in 2005).
But once I went digital (although not completely, I still do drawings by hand on paper, I love that handmade look) I don't think I'll ever go back. Computers allow me to work with timing, color and many other things till I can't improve them anymore (at one point you have to stop working on a project even if it's not perfect, there is always another project to work on!).

I like that more and more people make animated films, (computers make it easy for everyone) because people who normally wouldnt know much about animation now are the experts! The animation field is growing, i think there are endless possibilities there!

Partners in Crime: Bill Plympton and Signe Baumane hawking their wares at MoCCA Fest. Photo by Liza Donnelly

10-Do indie animation directors get stereotyped as comedy or action or etc? And, if so, does that have a negative impact on one's industry career? And, what can be done about it?
Every time I show up at a festival for a Q&A people tell me that my work is just like Bill Plympton's. I always get upset, because it isn't. Bill doesnt do the kind of films I do. It turns out, Pat Smith gets the same reaction. And he gets upset, too.

Then, one day, I was talking to George Griffin and I told him how people think my work is just like Bill's, and George laughed and laughed and he said that he put his "Club" (his film where all the members of a club are penises) on Atom Films and a few comments he got were something like this: "Oh, this guy is just ripping off Bill Plympton!" or: "This is nothing new, looks just like Bill Plympton." In fact, "Club" was made in 1978 when Bill was not making animated films yet. Indie animation gets stereotyped as "Bill Plympton," because that is what audience knows is indie animation, because Bill is so well known like none of us will ever be.

So, is it a good or bad thing to be typecast as another Bill Plympton? I gave it a thought and came to conclusion, that it is a great thing, because it shows that Bill carved a niche for all of us.

As to indie animation getting stereotyped as comedy or artsy stuff––not sure if I ever felt that.

*Stay tuned for part II of this interview (coming next week, I promise)!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Make Mine Not Music

One topic I’ve covered (maybe too infrequently) on this blog is the idea of that you have to be your own advocate and look out for your needs.

I played clarinet in grammar school (for reasons I still don’t understand.) Maybe it was simply for a change of pace from playing with Legos. But, this exercise in futility caught up with me in Jr. High, because one could only take either band or art, not both. Sticking with my obligation I didn’t have any art classes for 7th and 8th grade. By 9th grade it was finally clear to me just how stupid that was. So, I asked my guidance counselor what I’d have to do to drop band to take make room for art class. All I needed was the band teacher’s signature. Not so tough, right?

When I showed up in his office with the form in hand, he took one look at it and winced. “I don’t have to sign that,” he said, before asking me why I wanted to quit band.

“Because as long as I’m taking band, they won’t let me take art. Art is important to me.”

He reminded that band is just as important. So I told him that I was going to have a career in art, not music.

That didn’t change his mind. He still wouldn’t sign it.

So, I shot him.

Okay, that’s not true, but I did come up with this snappy answer, telling him:
“I’ll be back in your office every day until you sign this paper.”

Threatening him with my steady company must have done the trick because he snatched the paper out of my hand, signed it, and told me to get out. I left with the paper and a first victory in being my own advocate.

It would be nice to say that from that point on in my life and career that I never missed an opportunity to be my own advocate, but that would be a lie.

For instance, my first two layoffs in the business caught me by surprise because I had nothing else lined up. Don’t get me wrong, you can’t always have work lined up, but you can always have ready “connections” to other work. In this area “being my own advocate” took the shape of joining ASIFA-East, which allowed me to network with other animation folks––something that has a way of generating opportunity on both sides of the relationship. Even embarking on personal creative projects is a form of being your own advocate because it’s self-development. So this “advocate” concept encompasses a lot: from sticking up for yourself and your needs, to taking all career-enhancing matters into your own hands.

Otherwise, you might end up playing the clarinet when you’d rather be holding a paintbrush.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Tri-Lev Production

Standing are my co-creators, Stephen Levinson and Joel Moss Levinson, with Peter Levin at the controls, as we record an actor at NYC's Splash Studios. Photo taken by me.

How many Levites does it take to create a self-funded and self-produced animated pilot? It turns out, the answer is three. In the summer of 2010 I was on a animation development panel for the NYTVF and sitting in the audience was a very alert Stephen Levinson. A comedy writer working by day on Comedy Central's Website, Stephen had been producing animated cartoons (with his brother Joel) for a Jewish online magazine called Tablet.

After the panel, Stephen got in touch with me to show me a pilot he and his brother had created for pitching purposes. Featuring the voice talent of comedian Jonathan Katz along with the brothers sharp writing, I thought the project was terrific. But, while the brothers were in the process of pitching it around, they began to get antsy to develop another project. Over Skype (Joel lives in Los Angeles) we brainstormed a raw idea and very quickly started to see its potential. There and then we agreed to work together to not just develop this germ into a pitch, but to focus our energies on making our own pilot film.

Making a film as pitching tool is a double edged sword. On the negative column it's sometimes better to let execs imagine how great your project can be instead of showing something tangible that doesn't live up to the expectation. Additionally, it takes a ton of time and effort to make a finished film, so going down this path ensures you won't quickly get to market. But, on the plus side, in this day of viral video, a film can be posted online and grow its own fan base. To put it in other words, nobody is logging on to the internet to read pitch bibles. A pitch bible is not alive. Films are. A pitch bible tries to hint at execution, while a film is execution. Not only that, a hot viral video proves itself in "hit" counts, something that can be a valuable asset to generate interest with a network. Lastly, making a film is simply fun, exciting, and satisfying. Not only will our film by alive, it will exist in three ways: a pitch tool at meetings, a viral video, and a festival film (probably only in children's film festivals or specific categories, but nonetheless).

We started our pilot in ernest on December 2010. Stephen did the lion's share of the script writing, Joel (a gifted singer/songwriter) wrote 3 original songs and provided sound design, and I designed the characters and their world. But, while we each had a clear role, we all had a say in improving each other's work. Once we had a lock on the script, voice records began on both coasts. Among our stellar cast are two terrific and well-known comedians from TV and movies, both of whom worked for spec. After ironing out all the character designs, I enlisted the animation veteran Otis Brayboy to make story sketches from which it would make my job easier to create a storyboard/animatic. My friend and frequent collaborator, Adrian Urquidez, painted all the backgrounds.

Our 8-minute film was animated by three of my favorite animators: Dale Clowdis, Mike Sanchez, and Dayna Gonzalez. As the animation director, I didn't do the animation myself, but I did the next best thing by designing all the puppeted pieces to make up each character rotation. While we're employing puppeted-style animation, all the art was drawn by hand, giving it a lot more warmth and looseness than a typical "Flash-based" children's show. The animators did a terrific job, going well beyond our expectations.

Less than a year after starting from scratch, we're now a week away from finishing the animation! We can't wait to take it on the road and post it online. Between the three of us we have a lot of network connections and we aim to work just as hard to sell our series as we did to make this film. Stephen, Joel, and I each brought our A-game, and I believe we brought it out in each other. It was the perfect collaboration because each of us had a key area of expertise, helping to define our respective roles. That's a good way to choose partners. Each should bring a major element to the table that the other is lacking.

The world of pitching can truly suck (for lack of a better word). Anyone who has a pitched a project even one time knows what I mean. But, the magic part is that through your efforts you're giving yourself permission to develop your talents, create freely, and earn your seat at the table. Ironically, the negative side to pitching is also a positive, in how it tests your passion, commitment, and skill sets.

Stay tuned for the final product, coming soon!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Animondays Interview: Rob Renzetti -part II

*graphic above from:

Finally, here's part II of my interview with animation creator/director Rob Renzetti. This was conducted in 2009 for use in my book, Directing Animation. It's fun timing to share this right now because I just spent the better part of the weekend sharing a booth with Bill Plympton at NYC's Comicon. It was really gratifying to connect with some of my readers and learn that my books have been helpful to them. In particular, Your Career in Animation, seems to be a gateway book that a lot of animation artists pass through on their way into the business.

In the spirit of sharing, here's the "directing specific" interview with Rob Renzetti. You'll notice it's not as personal as part I, and that's because of being on deadline and having to interview dozens of directors at once. But, there's still good information below. Enjoy!

1-What skill sets go into directing animation for a television series? And, is it important to have worked in animation in other roles before being ready to direct?
The most important experience is to have done some actual animation. Not a lot. But suffering through a few short films will give any aspiring timing director a much better sense of how long (in terms of frames) it takes for actions and expressions to “read”.

Also working as a storyboard artist will help since storyboards are intrinsically linked with animation direction (at least in television animation).

2-What role does good people skills have in being a successful TV animation director?
If you are strictly doing timing you can hide in your room all day if you like and talk to no one. Of course, this would not bode well for your future employment. The more you are involved with other aspects of the production process the more people skills you will need.

3-Can you list some common mistakes and challenges that are faced by the first time animation director?
The biggest challenge is to get the cartoon to run in your head. You have to visualize the final animated project.

The biggest mistake is playing things too slowly. Inevitably the work print will come back and things will be dragging. You quickly learn  to push things faster.

4-What are the ingredients of a good production pipeline, process, and schedule? And, what role does an animation director have in setting that up and maintaining it?
Unless the director is also the creator of the production he will have very little role in setting up the production pipeline. A good pipeline leaves room for the inevitable delays, missteps and mistakes. Put some padding in every step of the way. Not a ton but a little. Want to fail? Then assume everything will go according to plan and leave no room for error. You will end up paying people to sit around waiting for others to catch up.

5-Is there a secret to good communication up and down the animation pipeline? What role does the animation director play in that?
This really falls to the line producer and production staff as well as the show creator. The main thing is too check in with your artists on a regular basis, make sure they are on task and on schedule and catch problems before they have a chance to fester for weeks and snowball out of your control.

6-What mistakes have you made as a director and what have they taught you?
Well, I used to time things too slowly when I first started as mentioned above. I also could get lost in the details of timing each little action without looking at the bigger picture, meaning the overall pacing of a sequence or of the entire cartoon. When the storyboard is strong this tends to happen less. A strong board will give you a strong indication of how to pace things. Ironically a crappy board is easy to work with as well. It’s obvious things aren’t working and you can go to the creator and suggests changes to strengthen it. I’ve been lucky enough to work with people who trust my sensibilities and value my input. A mediocre board is the toughest to work with because some things are working, maybe every sequence is working, but it doesn’t add up to a satisfying whole. But when you are lost in the details of each scene it’s easy to miss the fact that it just doesn’t add up to a good cartoon. You have to take the time to step back and look at the whole package before diving into the minutia.

7-What is the animation director's role in regards to collaborating with other departments such as storyboard, design, post production, etc?
A director will work most closely with the storyboard artists. In an ideal setup this is a two way street. The director will want to make sure that he or she is understanding what the board artists had in mind and the board artist will be open to changing things if the director needs adjustments for either technical or creative reasons.  Having the board artists pitch to the crew is really helpful for directors in terms of getting the rhythm the board artists imagined for each sequence. Some directors take on post production responsibilities as well and may be involved in calling retakes, editing and spotting music & sfx.

8-What are the typical daily duties of an animation director on a TV series or feature production?
I can only speak about TV since I’ve never worked in features. Usually you are spending your time either slugging a board or doing x-sheets.  If the show does animatics you will be involved in that as well. In all these tasks you are making timing decisions. Deciding about the overall pacing of the cartoon in the broadest strokes and determining the amount of time for the minutest of actions.

9-How is technology changing the way today's animation directors work?
In my own personal experience, new technology has not had a lot of impact except in terms of editing. Digital editing is a completely different experience than editing on film. You can do so much to adjust the rhythm of the picture. Creating holds where none existed, speeding actions up, slowing them down or even reversing them. It gives you an amazing amount of flexibility and saves so much money in retake costs.

10-Is your directing role and responsibilities different depending on whether you are directing an in house production or an outsourced one? 
Almost all TV programming is actually animated overseas. The only exception for me has been Foster’s which was animated in Flash at CN Studios. Having the animators in house (and speaking English) was an amazing luxury. I was able to preview scenes before they were complete, make adjustments before we would get to the official retake session and when we did call retakes I could just walk over to the retake supervisor if there was any confusion or something too complicated to explain in a retake note. It was heaven.

11-How did you get your first opportunity to direct? 
I was a storyboard artist on 2 Stupid Dogs and during the second season the creator Donovan Cook gave me the opportunity to direct  the episodes I had boarded. So I would board an episode and then follow myself up directing it. I even had the chance to animate a scene or two along the way!

12- Since becoming an animation director, have you worked on projects or jobs where you filled other positions such as storyboards, design, layout etc?
I’ve probably done more directing than anything else but I have continued to do storyboards here and there as well as write outlines and scripts. On my own show I did a little bit of everything of course.

13- Do animation directors get stereotyped as comedy or action?
I have not ever felt stereotyped. I have mostly worked in what I would call classic cartoon comedy but I’ve also worked on action when I directed on Samurai Jack and prime time sitcoms like Family Guy.

14-What part of directing animation gives you the most satisfaction?
When you are watching a finished cartoon with an audience and they laugh at something that is funny purely because of the way you have timed that scene. I gives you the idea that you might know what you are doing.

15-Where did you learn your sense of timing, acting, staging, and storytelling that is so essential in directing animation?
As a consumer of pop culture, I think I mostly just acquired it through osmosis. You watch or read things that you find funny and as you grow up it all kind accumulates in your head, mixes in with your own experiences and your particular perspective on the world. If you’re a smart ass like I was, you start trying to make your family and friends laugh, you start acting up in class. You see what works and what doesn’t and you adjust. If you’re an artist you also start drawing for yourself and for the praise it garners from others. You start telling stories with your pictures.  I also did a brief stint of acting in high school. Doing the same play 3 or 4 times for different audiences and adjusting your performance is a great way to hone your sense of timing.

16- After directing, what is the next goal you'd like to achieve in your career in animation? 
I always wanted to have my own show and I was lucky enough to already have that dream come true.  Right now I’m just enjoying helping other young artists get their chance at making their characters come to life.

17-What advice do you have for someone just starting out in animation with ambitions to direct?
If you can go to an art school hopefully one with an animation program and actually do some animation! As I said, this is the best possible training you can get.