Saturday, February 26, 2011

Who's Schoolin' Who?

*above BG art by my dad for my Electric Company spot, My Daughter Studies Rocks and Flies.

I shared a story in my book Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive, about a mistake I made trying to "school" an employer who had years more experience than I. I thought I'd use this post to augment that story and put it into a larger context.

The story occurred during the first year of my career while working on a four month industrial animation job for a big financial firm. For a time I was the only worker on this job, besides my boss who barely did any of the actual work, seeing himself as the big-picture producer-type. My role on this job had me reporting to the animation studio and to the client (splitting my week to work in both locations) and this odd situation helped create a trap of dual loyalties.

My boss was using the occasion of this job to build his own studio, which meant he dragged me around to go shopping with him to furnish his space instead of allowing me to work to meet the upcoming client deadlines. When he did let me work, he'd disappear for the entire day and return around 5 pm, even though our deadlines were so tight that it required both of us to be working. Because of all this I felt a lot of pressure being caught in the middle––having to make excuses to the client, while knowing how needlessly wasteful our production was being run. And, of course, I felt the stress of having to carry the whole production and always having to work in a pinch because my boss didn't lift a finger.

I didn't have to be an industry vet to see the missed work would bite our production later (which, of course, it did). Yet my boss didn't seem to worry about this, and that made me worry all the more. In fact, the client worried too, and one exec used to corner me and ask, "When do you think you'll have the ________ stage done?" To which I would reply, "What did my boss tell you?" And, then she'd answer, "In four days," with a doubtful look on her face. "That's what we're working towards," I'd conclude. Then, of course, we'd blow the deadline.

I hated working this way. It's not in my nature to play games or not take deadlines seriously. Besides the moral issue, it's such a waste of energy to constantly have to spin a story or cover up the truth. I was also getting exhausted from having to schlep out of state a couple of days each week (in a long commute) to "work" in his studio.

But when the pressure and frustration built to a head I made the mistake of trying to "school" my boss, basically telling him how he was running his studio poorly and wasting my time on nonsense.

It shouldn't surprise you to learn that my words, delivered on a phone call, were not well received. In fact, I was almost fired, but a day later, my boss reconsidered and decided to give me another chance. The lesson here is not that I was wrong in my opinion or frustrations, but that I criticized my boss as if I was on the same playing field or even above him. In reality, I was less than a year out of school. Whatever his failings were as a boss or studio owner, we were not equals, and it was not appropriate for me to take the position I did.

There had to have been another way to handle this. I could have pushed for bringing in another worker to help me for a few days a week, for instance. It didn't have to get personal. The key to handling a situation like the above is to figure out what you really want. I didn't see myself working with this guy beyond this job, and since I was in no position to teach him anything any how, I should have relaxed the pressure on myself. All I really needed was a little help on the work so we'd have a prayer of hitting our deadlines.

I wasn't always so tactless in that first year of my career. Sometimes my instincts severed me well. At the end of the first day, of my very first job, working for Michael Sporn, I took home the storyboard of the pilot we were making and studied it during my long commute. The next day I arrived early and had marked some questions with Post-it Notes. I just wanted to figure it all out, to understand the storyboard and what we were doing as well as possible. Michael was very patient with me and cheerfully answered each question. Later that day he held a staff meeting during which he pointed out his delight that I had taken home the board and brought in questions that morning. So, it was a little victory for taking an active interest in the workplace without stepping on toes and going too far.

Most beginners with a passion for the art/craft of animation have to find this balance on their first jobs––how to demonstrate interest in the work or studio without crossing the line and making others uncomfortable. As seen in my Sporn story above, a good rule of thumb is to ask questions, gather information, and soak up as much as you can. In the beginning of a career, you are there to learn, not teach.

There's another reason I should have known better in my handling of the financial firm job. I had heard about another recent graduate around that time who, initially, had done very well (working at several top studios) in his first 3-5 months out of school. But, then I started hearing stories about his attitude in the workplace, in particular how he was lecturing his employers on how to properly do model sheets, layouts, etc. In truth, he barely knew anything about production, nor were his skills all that great, so it was very inappropriate for him to advise anyone on animation production. The damage to his career was swift––it took him years before he would be hired by any studio again.

To sum up, early in a career it's better to observe, listen, and ask questions than it is to spout advice, give opinions, or offer criticism. I would say this applies not only to the workplace but also to any interaction with professionals in your field with more experience than you, whether at animation events or online at social networking sites such as Facebook. Chances are, we all make some mistakes in this area, but we have the power to decide if those mistakes are learning experiences or the path to full blown self-defeat.

Friday, February 18, 2011

"I've Tried Nothing, And I'm All Out of Ideas."

NY's Hilton Hotel Lobby, the scene of many Kidscreen Summit rendezvous this past week.

The title of this post comes from The Simpsons and was spoken in a flash back by Ned Flanders's dad who was complaining to a child psychologist about his badly behaved son. Somehow I find the joke a very apt description of our struggles in NY animation, specifically in terms of growing our studio businesses (virtual like mine, or the traditional model).

It's a crazy notion to suggest that animation people lack imagination, since our very stock and trade depend upon being to create the impossible. But, why doesn't that imagination also extend to self promotion, marketing, or branding of our talents or studio strengths? One of the reasons might be the very nature of the NYC animation scene itself. We define ourselves by not being "Hollywood." Does anything sum this up better than the Annie Awards versus the ASIFA-East Animation Festival? The Annie Awards are tuxedoes and caviar, while our festival is jeans and triscuits.

Integrity instead of glitz isn't a bad thing, but zero attention to showmanship is bad for business. I just spent four days taking meetings at the Kidscreen Summit. I didn't officially go to the conference this year, but took meetings in the lobby bar and lounge instead. Some of my pitches went over very well and some died on arrival, but, these weren't the only meetings I set up. Many animation artists, if they think about this Summit at all, believe it to be a market for execs. And while that's true to a point, for me, the Summit also represents an opportunity to meet with production studios based outside NYC. Some of the studios occasionally get work outside their areas of expertise and need to bring in help to handle those projects. This was certainly the case with the studios I met up with at the Summit, and as a result I have three new potential gigs for this year. Even if none of these come to fruition, seeds have been planted.

If arranging these type of meetings doesn't sound like your cup of tea, there was also a lot of great networking opportunities at cocktail parties held at studios such as Little Airplane, Curious Pictures, Animation Collective, and Titmouse. On top of this there was even an animation party (partially presented by the Annecy International Animation Festival) at the posh French Embassy. Networking at these events is like reshuffling the deck and continually putting your card at the top. There's no way to keep it there forever, but an even instant can work wonders. That's often all it takes for a studio or exec to see you, remember you're alive, and match your skills and talents with a project they have in the works.

By no means are these the only ways to market yourself or your studio, but these are pretty damn effective. Think about it: Relationships are what leads to work in this business (assuming you have talent/skills to do the work) so connecting and reconnecting with dozens of animation professionals and friends in a single week is pretty powerful, especially when you consider that these methods are 100% free. Even better is the fact that there's no agent or rep to split the pot with.

We have no control over the larger economy or other such conditions that effect our industry, but there are no shortage of ways to do better business. All it requires is to take a little of that imagination we use every day and sprinkle some of it on the business side.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Pitch Fever!

Above snap by Richard O' Connor, from last year's SVA panel launch for my book Animation Development: From Pitch to Production. Pictured in the photo from left to right are: Moi, Carl Adams, Janice Burgess, Fran Krause, and Amid Amidi.

Pitch fever is sweeping NYC animation. From my own observation it looks like there are more individuals and studios creating and pitching animated projects, series, and features than any time I can remember.

I know, some animation folk get downright irate about the world of pitching and its "unqualified executives," "needlessly slow and inefficient development process," etc. Even more folks point out the futility of it all.

Don't get me wrong, there's something to all this criticism. But, I can't help but wonder: What if series creators' John Dilworth, Jim Jinkins, Mike Judge, Christy Karacas, Tom Warburton, Jackson Publick, Soo Kim, Mo Willems, Chris Prynoski, and Devin Clark had decided not to pitch? Can you imagine NY animation from 1993 to today without the multi-season productions begat by these creators (and others)? Had they not created, pitched, and sold shows, there would have been hundreds of less jobs during this span of time. It's amazing to think the first step to all that job creation was an idea in a creator's brain or some scribbles in a sketch book.

I've been using February as a pitch month, so outside of my work commitments I'm prepping three different projects. One is a comedy for ages 6-10 with amazing designs by Phil Rynda (Chowder, Adventure Time), which were inked and colored by Adam Ansorge, that I'm pitching in a simple mini bible form. The second is a preschool series created by veteran writer Barry Harman (Carol Burnett Show, The Great Space Coaster, Allegra's Window, etc..), which I came aboard as co-developer and designer, and that we are pitching with a slick full 12 page bible. The third pitch is another comedy for ages 6-10, a co-creation with brothers Stephen and Joel Moss Levinson, which will be in the form of a fully produced short film starring some of today's top comedians, featuring original songs, and the talents of some great artists/animators such as Adrian Urquidez, Otis Brayboy, and Dale Clowdis.

The two non-film based pitches above will be pitched during the Kidscreen Summit this week. The self-made pilot for the third pitch will be completed some time this Spring and will be used as a (hopefully) viral video and the main salvo of pitch meetings in NY and LA.

One thing I have to stress is the importance of getting a second and third opinion about your work. For the one solo pitch above I made sure to show my materials to two professional animation writers not involved in the project. Without their help I'm sure my pitch would have been dead on arrival.

The biggest obstacle we creators face, contrary to all the nonsense on pitching that's out there, is ourselves. There's almost always room for improvement and it's not an ideal situation to use the networks as a place to gather those notes. They're going to have something to say, either way, but the more issues you resolve before they see a property, the better. Besides, if you let them tell you what's wrong, they also might conclude that you're not ready to create a viable pitch.

Another bit of advice I'd offer is to not take advice from those who haven't pitched or have no-to-little interest in pitching. They won't be able to offer you much, and likely if they do, it will be misinformation that they gained second or third hand. For instance, if I wanted advice on how to make it as an indie animation filmmaker, I wouldn't go to a person who only worked on commercial projects for big studios. I'd go to Bill Plympton. Not all animation people are expert in all areas.

As for these February pitches of mine, will any connect? Who knows? But, one thing I know for sure: each has been a chance to stretch skills, make new writing/design/animation samples, and to work with some new collaborators as well as some old friends. So even if the pitches don't end in deals there's a great value to the time and effort spent.

Case in point: the preschool pitch with Barry Harman has offered a whole new set of experiences. We are in process on inking a deal with a great studio that wants to partner with us to create a one minute animated teaser. The studio plans to absorb most of the cost for this mini-production, and in return we will offer them a piece of the pie of the series. Being part of the negotiations and dealmaking that will create this partnership has been an invaluable learning experience, one I wouldn't have without pitching.

Good luck to all my fellow creators developing and pitching animated shows and projects right now! Stay focused, and filter out any nonsense that comes your way. You may very well be creating the next hundred jobs in NY animation.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The New Animation Stars of NYC: Part 1

The longer I've observed the animation scene, the more I've come to notice that our art-form's past achievements are usually applauded at the expense or at the underestimation of the great work that's being done right now. I don't think this happens for any personal or malevolent reasons, but simply because the past is easier to analyze and decode. Old works are fixed in time and the intervening years have a way of creating new appreciation as well as the opportunity to give long over-due attention to the individual talents that contributed to the works. The only draw back is that we don't celebrate the great works being done today with the same reverence and respect. So, I thought I'd try to take my own advice and throw the spotlight to some of today's generation of talented animation artists working in the New York area. Happily there are far too many talented folks to fit into one post, so we'll have to consider this "to be continued..."

Ross Bollinger

The dapper Ross Bollinger accepts a prize for his SVA thesis film Hook, Line and Stinker at the College Television Awards.

A member of my SVA class last year, Ross was that rare student who made more than one thesis film in a year. In fact, he made more than eight, and they were all GOOD. A man with creative energy to spare, I first met him when his jug band preformed a song at John R. Dilworth's memorable December 2009 ASIFA-East event. Recently I had breakfast with Mike and Tim Rauch and they made the good point that it's asking a lot of any animation artist to be able to animate, design, color, write, storyboard, produce, and direct their own films––because, how many of us have ALL those skills? Not many, is the answer, but Ross Bollinger is in that camp. I'd put him in the "one to watch" category. Check out Hook, Line, and Stinker, and see what I'm talking about.

Tiny Inventions: Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata

A still, and self-portrait, from Tiny Inventions' award-winning film Something Left, Something Taken.

As proprietors of their own virtual animation studio, juggling professional and indie projects, everything they tackle seems to emerge with a personal stamp. For example, you see the same loving attention to detail in their latest indie short Something Left, Something Taken, that you see in their commissioned videos for They Might Be Giants, such as Electric Car. Max and Ru, much like the stop-motion animator/director PES, are making lush and cinematic animated films that only artists or artist-run studios could create. In contrast, a studio run by business-people usually make product to fit the bottom line, and end up creating work that reveals the limitations in budget. You don't see any of that "holding back" in the work coming out of Tiny Inventions. Instead of seeing production short cuts, you see the joy of animation, the joy of creating itself. In the last ten years budgets got smaller for most everyone working in TV and Web-based animation, but Tiny Inventions' use of the efficient, modern, and cost-effective virtual studio along with their considerable artistry proves that it doesn't have to show on the screen.

Dan Meth
Dan Meth Posted this illustration on his site, with the caption: Have you ever noticed that Iron Man and Winnie the Pooh both kinda rock the same outfit?

Self-made man, mural painter, cartoonist, Web animation creator, Tumbler junkie, and savvy satirist of pop culture from the 1970s-to-today, Dan Meth makes it seem natural to plant his feet in different worlds. He's an old-school illustrator/cartoonist scribbling out sketches in home-made sketch books, who happens to use Tumbler, a personal Web site, and outlets such as as the drop zone for all those raw ideas. I can't think of anyone else who has made so much original animated content for the Web AND gotten paid for it, all the while working under 100% creative freedom.

Talking to my SVA Animation Career Strategies class recently, Meth revealed some of the secrets of his success, including how he chooses his pop-culture targets: "I wouldn't spoof Harry Potter because I don't know it. I'm not into it. You have to like what you're spoofing, you have to be into it." While Dan has a very laid-back demeanor, he's very disciplined––demonstrating his focus by posting an original cartoon image or gag on Tumbler every day at 10:45 am. This way he attracts thousands of viewers to his work everyday, as his friends and fan base repost his work, spreading it to their networks and so on.... While he's scored amazing success with his witty cartoon series for Frederator (Meth Minute 39) and an on-going series of shorts for college humor (check out this inspired short), he also has his eyes on longer-form projects such as books, TV series, and features. With his mix of talent, ambition, and marketing savvy, I have no doubt he'll succeed.

Lisa LaBraccio

Still from Lisa LaBraccio's award winning SVA student film, "Sideshow."

Another alumni from my SVA class of a few years back, for someone so new to the scene, Lisa LaBraccio has already had a checkered career. She was selected by the French Embassy in the United States to represent her school and country during the "PRIMN" (First International Digital Media Meeting), sponsored by French embassies all across the globe in 2005. It was at a reception/press conference held in her honor at the French Embassy that I first met her. How could anyone not be impressed at this high-level of accomplishment achieved a year before graduation? Lisa's thesis film "Sideshow" was an elegant and well animated tragic love story, the kind of sensitive film that many of us animation instructors wish their students would attempt.

Before graduating she was already working for master indie animator Bill Plympton, and stayed on his staff for the next two years. After leaving Plympton's she landed back at SVA, employed to help manage the animation department, and serving as a mentor to many a student. LaBraccio recently left SVA, heading to her next adventures. Based on her most recent foray in animation, co-producing the ASIFA-East Animation Festival 2010 Best in Show film, "Backwards," a collaboration with Aaron Hughes, we can expect to see amazing work from Lisa for years to come. She's just getting started.