Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Animation Goggles

Just over ten years ago I sat on my first animation festival jury outside of ASIFA-East's annual jury screenings. It was The New York Expo, a now-defunct film festival that had been around for decades. I've since sat on a few other juries, most notably for the PISAF festival in South Korea. While on a festival jury you watch a lot films, take notes in the dark (so you can remember what you saw), and then gather as a group to discuss the films and choose the winners.

One of my co-jurists on The New York Expo was a very sweet older woman who had worked as a background artist, and I recall she would only evaluate films based on their design merit. It was as if she saw no other aspects of a film. She never said anything about a film's writing, animation, pacing, humor, storytelling, directing, or soundtrack. Her "animation goggles" saw only production design. I can't say this made her the ideal jurist, but she certainly had a clear point of view that she processed all animation through.

As the years rolled on, I have to come to realize that her "animation goggles" were not as unique as I thought. The evidence was everywhere. Whenever anyone criticized Bill Plympton's tendency to time animation on 8s, they were seeing his work through "animation goggles," judging his films by some universal standard that animation is supposed to follow. How dare Bill do artistic and successful work while thumbing his nose at the exacting standards and rules laid down in the golden age of animation! Recent comments posted by animation folks on various blogs discussing the Oscar-nominated The Illusionist also show the bias of "animation goggles," especially in how some are flat out rejecting The Illusionist because it's a serious film, not the feel-good "cartoon" they expect the animated feature to be.

Recently creator Loren Bouchard's series Bob's Burgers (pictured below) debuted on Fox. As you may know, I was the lead animator and supervisor of the NY crew (Dale Clowdis, Dayna Gonzalez, and Hilda Karadsheh) that made the pilot on which the series was based. On the premiere of the new series, Cartoonbrew featured a talkback on which readers could comment their feelings about the show. There were many negative comments based on design alone. It reminded me of the criticism that surrounded the look of The Simpsons when that series debuted in 1989. I don't presume that everyone should love everything or that we all have to agree on the aesthetics of a show's animation design, but I do propose that to dismiss a series based on this one criteria is to completely miss the point.

How should The Simpsons have looked? TV animation is a script-based medium. The Simpsons, South Park, and Beavis and Butt-Head (to name three successful animated TV series of the last twenty years), rewrote the rule book on TV animation––from writing, to satire, to social commentary, to graphic styling. But, that was hard to notice while wearing "animation goggles" that held all animation to one outdated ideal.

With time, most would have a hard time imagining the above three series looking any other way, even if the styles were off-putting when we first saw them. That's our problem as animation people. We are slaves to our history, to the very legacy and exacting standards of all the good work done before us. But we make a mistake of using all that against our selves, so that it clouds our judgement. Non-animation people don't carry around that baggage.

In the Jan 28, 2011 issue of Entertainment Weekly, they called Bob's Burgers and Archer two TV's funniest shows. That's a far cry from some of the feedback by Cartoonbrew readers who dismissed the new series at a glance. Entertainment Weekly evaluates an animated series against the rest of the TV landscape. In contrast, many animation artists evaluate a series based on how closely it adheres to the gospel of Bob Clampett.

Clampett deserves his place in history, but so does Matt Groening, Mike Judge, Matt Stone and Trey Parker. It's important to study and learn from the past and stay connected to our roots, but it's destructive to the growth of our art-form and industry to use all that rich history as a wall to shut out all other approaches. New artists and writers are going to continue to innovate either way, with our without us animation goggle-wearing artists recognizing their achievements. But, I can't help but believe that being able to recognize innovation might coincide with the act of being able to innovate. *Crunch* (the sound of me stepping on my animation goggles).

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Animation Hiatus Survival Guide

A still from Andy Kennedy's amazing new indie short, "Accumulonimbus."

Recently the animation crew behind Nick Jr's Team Umizoomi, a production at New York's Curious Pictures, began a year long hiatus between seasons. Some of this talented bunch instantly snapped up freelance work, and so far, at least one, Andy Kennedy, used the time to finish an amazing indie animated short followed by a months-long bicycling adventure in South America. I suspect others on that team have simply taken a few weeks or months to catch their breath and enjoy some rare freedom. But, after a while unchecked freedom can equal boredom and wasted opportunity. Don't get me wrong, everyone is entitled to a break, but defining that amount of time upfront might be a good first step to making the most of such a long hiatus.

If I were among the Umi crew on current hiatus I'd be operating under three assumptions. One, at best, I have a year off with no pay to do with as I see fit. Two, the series could be cancelled during the hiatus resulting in no job to return to. Three, even if the series resumes, the hiatus could be longer than the estimated year. All three scenarios are possible and would lead me to a single conclusion: be my own advocate. This simply means: look for work, create my own projects, and all under the presumption that the worst outcome could prove true. With that, I'd be prepared and would have used my time wisely.

Some other realistic thoughts would be assisting me in my conviction. Yes, the production paid good wages for TV series work in NY, but is that still the case if my wages have to stretch to survive a whole unpaid year. Take what you earned last year on Umi and divide it in half. Does that rate still look so good?

My next thought would be to realize why I was laid off in the first place. It would have been too costly for the series to keep me on unless they had work for me to do. So, the production did what it had to, laying off a whole crew so there would be no waste. Just as the production does what it has to do to stay in business, so does the individual worker have to do what is best for them to stay in business even outside this one particular job.

Finally, I'd remind myself that my career goes beyond this one series production, so that means that my survival needs are long-term. I'd need to ensure the best possible chances for continued work in the field even when this production is gone. To that end, this year long hiatus is actually a shot in the arm reminding me to be proactive by:
-creating new work and freelance opportunities through networking and self-promotion.
-creating new samples and personal works of art, whatever they might be.
-treating nearly every day as a work day, even that means just working for myself.

A year can be either long and short, depending how you look at it, but either way, YOU decide how that time is spent, which especially so when you're dealt the opportunity of a year-long hiatus.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Right Pitch, The Right Way

Joel Moss Levinson donned as a Penguin in one of his previous video projects.

Sorry for the very late post this week. Our place was down with the flu, which we became "the flew" as we traveled by plane to visit family. If you've never travelled sick, you don't know what your missing. And if you don't know what your missing, you probably should keep better track of your belongings.

A few weeks back, pre-flu, my new friends, creators Stephen and Joel Moss Levinson asked me if I wanted to co-create a cartoon pitch with them. Wed previously worked together on a short animated film based on Rosh Hashanah. So, I thought I'd use our new venture to create a new pitch TIP list:

-where possible pretest out a collaboration before getting entangled on something like a pitch. Our previous project proved that we could work well together and communicate effectively. And more important we had FUN working together.

-don't create a pitch for a series that you wouldn't want to work on, should it sell. The Levinsons and I like comedy FIRST so I was surprised when they expressed a desire to do an educational kids show. At first we started to go down that road, and then it immediately felt stifling to me, because we'd eventually need educational consultants and curriculum, and once you have that element it dampers down any straight out fun you can have. So I suggested we respin it as an all-out entertainment cartoon. Happily they were on the same page and we were on our way! Another tip might be you have to work with people you can be honest with, because if I didn't feel comfortable suggesting a change like this, it would have been an unhappy partnership.

But what were we going to make, pitch wise? In other words a bible? A short two-sheet proposal?

-make the pitch process work for you by making the pitch on your terms. Again, the beauty of an entertainment cartoon versus an educational cartoon is that the former can be pitched in a far looser manner where you're not so dependent on making a traditional pitch bible. Bibles are a yawn to make and to read. Besides, this is the day of viral video, so why not a three minute cartoon to show case what we can do?

That sounded right to us! So using the germ of the idea the Levinsons brought to the table, we hashed out a few key twists and improvements and just nailed down enough details to start sculpting together designs, songs, and a script.

-if you want a free spirited cartoon that is funny and fresh, you can't over plan it to death. The process should resemble the tone of the product. Otherwise you might as well be making a legal brief instead of a cartoon. To tap into that spirit we worked apart after our first brainstorm meeting. Each of us could create and show finished bits and pieces as they unhatched. It felt organic and spontaneous.

-ideally choose pitch partners that can bring other talents to the table then your own. On our pitch, Joel writes the songs, Stephen the script, and the designs are created by me. While each of us have a say on all things, we have our areas of expertise and get to offer our talents very much unfiltered.

-ideally each partner will be able to bring their own unique connections to the project to plus it creatively and also to increase it's sellability. The Levinsons have amazing ties to the comedy world and right away were able to sign up an amazing cast member to voice a key character. And once we are ready to pitch, myself and the brothers have a large pool of development executive contacts we can utilize to set up meetings or at least get eyes on our video.

-work with people as motivated as you are. Each member of the team has to treat the venture as serious project. When I was down with the flu, Joel kept on writing and recording songs and emailing them to me. Its great when the team has each others' back like this, with each member keeping the wheels rolling. In the past it took so long to make a 3-4 minute film (it used to take me 2 years), but with cheap and fast digital tools it shouldn't take us more than three months to get this film done. A short production keeps it fun without too much second guessing. After all, second guessing is an execs job, not ours. Were just out for a fun time. And if we do our job right, well have a great and funny cartoon film that is worth more than 100 pitch bibles because a film is proof of execution. It says, "Here's what this creative team can do."

And, now if you'll excuse me, one more bowl of chicken soup.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

My Year with Plympton

I'm far from alone in being fascinated with Bill Plympton's films and career. Trying to describe his impact, John R. Dilworth once said, "Is he not our God?" But, since I've got a whole blog post to fill, I'll try and say it in more words than that. Where the average indie animator completes an animated film on a strict schedule of once in a while to almost never, Bill makes one or two animated shorts a year and completes an animated feature every three years or so. While most indies painstakingly scratch out time to make a film in between work, freelance, and life commitments, Bill's earns his living through his shorts, with even commissioned work (such as commercials and music videos) done in his signature style. In all of animation history, there's been nobody quite like him.

Despite being familiar with Bill's work since I was 14 years old, and later, planning ASIFA-East events with him to celebrate his Cartoon Network 12 Tiny Christmas Tales special and recent feature Hair High, I never dreamed that my career would overlap with his as it did this past year.

Our recent period began when I visited him at his studio to record an interview for use in my book Directing Animation. When the same book needed a cover, my publisher, Tad Crawford of Allworth Press, suggested we try to feature one character that we could get the rights to without much difficulty. Together, Tad and I came up with the concept of putting a character in a typical director's chair and garnished with all the ol' school director's props. I wanted to feature indie shorts and features in my book, so it was only natural that my thoughts turned to Bill and the star of his popular "Dog" films.

So, I whipped up a cover concept sketch, grabbing a pic of Bill's Dog that I found online. I was a little nervous when I called Bill with the news that I had rough sketched his character into my layout. How would he react? But, to my relief he only asked, "When do you need the final by?" I was so grateful for his help, which was typical of his generous spirit.

Bill's awesome illustration for my book cover.

Almost a year earlier Bill asked me if I'd like to be in the running to co-write the book on his life and art, which was due to be published by the famous Italian art book publisher, Rizzoli, for their Universe press. So I quickly cobbled together my previous blog entries about Bill so that I could present them to his agent. A lot of time went by before Bill and his agent finally negotiated the deal, and, happily, by that time my name had moved to the top of their list to co-write the book, now titled Independently Animated: Bill Plympton, The Life and Art of the King of Indie Animation.

Getting a chance to work on a serious hard cover coffee table book about the most important indie animation artist of all-time was really a dream come true, and a great way to expand out of the how-to books I'd been writing.

As we got started I was thrilled to learn that the talented Chris McDonell would design the book with the huge task of wading through decades of Bill's art and photos. Chris would base the images on the text so Bill and I had to take the lead. A nice thing about this book is that its in Bill's voice. These are his words, just as he would relate them. So, my first job was to try to make sure the right stories bubbled up.

One pet peeve of mine is that established artists tend to repeat their same opinions and stories through the years. Certainly that happened with Chuck Jones. Knowing most of Bill's tride and true stories, I set out to steer him toward things he'd never related before. To help in this goal, I prepared 15-20 original questions on each phase of his life from child-hood to the current year and advised him that just by answering them we'd have the bones of our book.

It took me about 4 or 5 months to stitch it all together and create the right narrative approach, taking the book through several versions before we hit just the right tone. Bill encouraged me to punch up his text so the book wouldn't be too boring or serious, so I was able to add some puns or jokes wherever appropriate. Anything that sounded too "Dave Levy" got crossed out, (thank goodness) so after some experience I got better writing humor in Bill's voice.

Rizzoli editor Robb Pearlman also deserves a lot of credit for helping to focus our efforts. He was always encouraging and supportive, and I particularly liked that he gave me all his major edit suggestions during in-person meetings in his office. That gave us a chance to hash out some major issues in style and content. The book really benefitted from having these three sets of eyes on the text.

My favorite chapters to write were the three that were handed to me in the worst shape. It was fun to play text doctor and create the narrative flow that worked the best. I don't want to say which chapters they are because readers have a right to experience the book in their own way.

But, the book didn't really come alive until Chris added the images and page design. Of course, it didn't hurt that Bill had so much knock-out artwork. There's so many previously unpublished works included, and even familiar images are given new meaning when presented in the context of the whole body of work. Some of my favorite images are Bill's artwork and paintings from the brief time he attended the School of Visual Arts in the early 1970s.

A neat aspect of the book is how Bill sees his own work, in particular his self-criticism on areas where he comes up short. I didn't always agree with his conclusions, nor will the reader, but that's not the point. This is how Bill sees his life and art. Another nice aspect of having the book be in Bill's voice is that, despite his amazing level of achievement (including two Oscar nominations to date), the reader will see that he still has a folksy "aw shucks," way about him. It gives the book a warm humanity.

Shortly after we wrapped up the book, I made my latest short, Grandpa Looked Like William Powell. Recently I was blown away that Bill and Signe Baumane invited my film to be part of Kodak's annual focus on animation screening which will be on Jan 12. Bill's work is one of the reasons I make indie films in the first place, so I can't even describe how much it means to me that he appreciates my film.
A still from my new short, which I consider my first mature work of film.

Spending so much time with Bill's life and work, and the man himself (we spoke on the phone almost every day during the writing of this book) changed me. It was impossible to escape just how serious he is about his art and how much fun he has making it. It made me want to sharpen my focus, improve my work, and take my career to the next level. I'm so excited that on March 22 all will have a chance to experience Bill's book for themselves. With amazing artwork, candid stories, and intriguing (sometimes controversial) opinions on the industry and its famous figures, it all adds up to one entertaining and essential animation book, one that will hopefully inspire you as much as it did me.