Saturday, March 26, 2011


In this still from my latest short, my Aunt, Mom, and Uncle morn the passing of their father.

Something I really appreciate about getting older (besides losing my hair) is the awareness that the passage of time gives us all the opportunity to make our own "do-overs."

The subject of my "do-over" is my indie career as a filmmaker. While I’ve been making films since I’m 12 years old, up until this past year, I've never made the films I imagined I could make. Thankfully my livelihood didn’t depend upon them being successful, and even when they weren’t, they still contributed to my career path as a professional writer/director. But, the films themselves were nothing to brag about, and maybe that’s why I never really entered many festivals or worked very hard at promotion. Deep down I knew these weren’t award winners. At best they were my attempts to show various producers and executives that I wanted to be seen as a potential TV cartoon creator. That goal was paramount in my mind, far dwarfing any plans to tell my own stories, my way. It’s the difference between trying to be a “me too,” versus an “I am," and I sadly chose the former for many years.

I started turning around my botched indie career four years ago with the cheery and short “Good Morning” cartoon, which became my breakthrough film in that it was accepted into the Hiroshima International Animation Festival (and 15 other festivals), scored a distribution deal, and plays biweekly on Nick JR. But, the breakthrough element of "Good Morning," was not the film's decent success in the market. It was simply the fact that I had finally made something for me, which is very different than making something for the industry.

My new short “Grandpa Looked Like William Powell,” uses the simple graphic ideas in “Good Morning” (no background art, color, nor other fancy frills, and sports music by Bob Charde) but, this time, to create a personal documentary narrative. I’ve gone so far away from my old goal of making indie works that could be seen as commercial samples. For example, I recently showed “Grandpa” to a professional Hollywood animation veteran (someone who’s worked on major TV animation productions since the early 90s), and he remarked, “Oh, did you make this for your family?” Looking through his “industry goggles” he couldn’t understand this type of film. It doesn’t look like a TV series, typical animated feature, or anything he’d be familiar with in his world. That moment was an odd and sweet victory for me. I’d made something that could not be mistaken as mainstream––a do-over for my indie career.

I finished my new short in late October and have entered over 50 festivals already, which is more than my previous six films put together. Serious indie filmmakers such as Signe Baumane enter up to 120 festivals per film and it is my goal to do just that. While the Hollywood animation vet found my film impossible to appreciate, that wasn’t a problem for this year’s Tribeca Film Festival jury, and I’m happy to announce that my film will be competing in the festival’s documentary shorts category.
A handful of other festival invitations are too early to announce here, but I’m excited to report that three of them are Oscar-qualifying festivals, so if I win in my categories (either animation or doc shorts), I would be eligible for an Academy Award nomination. I know that’s a long shot, but the point is that I’m trying to promote this film as much as possible and finally taking my indie career seriously. I’m 37 years old now, the same age that Bill Plympton was when he made his first animated short, launching him into the career “do-over” from illustrator to animator. Maybe 37 is the magic age for do-overs? Me, and the hairs left on my head, intend to find out!

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Trouble with Your Own Studio as Your First Job

Aaron Augenblick shares an anecdote about running his own studio at a panel on Careers in Animation thrown by the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre, and Broadcasting. R to L: Arron Augenblick, Catherine Branscome, me, Debra Solomon, Norma Toroya.

With every new crop of students I meet each year, there are always a handful that want to open their own studios. I think that’s a great goal, but the trouble is that most of these students want to go into business right upon graduation. That’s a very problematic plan. Bill Plympton often advises that any one with such ambitions should wait 7 years and instead work their way up in the studio system, learn programs, stockpile ideas for films/projects, make contacts, and save money.

Plympton knows what he's talking about, but I’d like to add some additional reasons why it might be a good idea to put your studio dreams on hold, if only for a while:

1-Examine why you want your own studio.
When someone plans to begin a career with their own studio business it might be because he/she is fearful about getting a job, or being able to function within a studio environment under someone else’s direction. You’d be unusual if you weren’t a little worried about all that. At the start of a career everything is unknown, so it’s easy to feel insecure about whether you can make it in a field as difficult to break into as animation. But, others have done it. You can draw upon countless examples of newcomers that enter the animation field each year. I’d be willing to bet most of them were nervous about the job hunt and about succeeding on the job once they scored one.

It could be that you want your own studio right out of the gate because you want to avoid competing with other new hires and avoid the risk of failure. The trouble is that if building a studio is the answer, you’re just trading one risk for an even greater one. Why would it be easier to be the person who has to do the job AND get the account? The freedom to be your own boss is the part that hooks students into this fantasy, but to operate a successful studio is actually a far more difficult proposition than you might think.

2-Why would a client give you work?
Savvy students put some attention towards networking and relationship building while still in school, so some might have ready connections that could come in handy when beginning a studio right upon graduation. Likely, recent students would know some fellow students they would want to hire, for example. Yet, the trouble is, they won’t have tested the working relationship yet. It’s one thing to collaborate in art school, and quite another to work together in the real world as professionals.

The bigger problem is why would a client trust a brand new studio with no work or industry experience? Having no track record of producing professional level animation on a budget, to a client’s expectation, and to a deadline, makes such a studio a risky proposition. Besides, there's other choices in town. Why wouldn’t a client bring their job to other studios that are proven producers? And, it's not a matter of who will do the job cheapest, because many studios work at different prices, and no client will see a untested studio as a bargain if they think there’s any risk of the job not being done properly. And, if a client doesn’t care about that, what kind of client would they be anyway?

3-What it takes to make it work:
Aaron Augenblick started out working at MTV Animation for a couple of years before he embarked on his own studio business. Even with his considerable talents, his company struggled in its first five years, and during that time, one could assume that Aaron could have found far more lucrative employment working for someone else. But, he was as determined as he was skilled and hung in there. Some five years into his company it really starting to take off, as his studio began tackling series orders such as Wonder Showzen, Superjail, and Ugly Americans. Clearly, Aaron had what it takes to tough it out, and he proved it with his commitment, sweat, and tenacity during those early years. But, not all studio end in success stories like Augenblick.

After 13 years working for other studios and individuals, I created a virtual animation studio in 2007. I don’t have a company reel (or even a personal reel), a website (it’s still under construction), an agent or a rep, nor stationary or a company logo. Despite the fact that I'm advising not creating a studio at the start of a career, once you are properly ready to dive in there's no one way to do business. There's a lot of freedom to put your spin on it. So, what works for my personality is to market myself through networking at events as well as online through emails/facebook/linked-in, through making films, writing books, and creating pitches. What keeps my virtual studio humming is relationship building, repeat business, and the ability to expand and contract as needed, as well as the ability to work in different models of workflow.

If what is required to get business (no matter how conventional or unconventional your method) sounds like a lot of work, it’s because it is. It would be far simpler if I just got a job working for someone else and showed up each day and waited to be told what to do. But, despite how much more work it is for me to set my life up this way, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love the freedom of choosing which projects to take on and then surrounding myself with awesome, fun, and talented co-workers. But, I can’t even imagine how poorly my business would have gone if I’d have started it right upon graduation. I would have had no production experience, no connections to the work stream, no practice dealing with clients, no business skills, and no clue how to staff/schedule/manage a project.

At age 21, right after graduation, I didn't even know who I was yet. I still lived with my parents, had never travelled outside the U.S., and had no idea what it would be like to live in the real world with the responsibility of paying my own bills. That sounds like the worst qualifications for a studio owner to me. I couldn’t have been less ready for that, and upon working in the industry I saw just how much work it was to run your own business.

From my perspective, the Plympton advice is sound. You’ll have a far greater chance of success with your studio plans if you pave the road ahead of you, however many years that takes.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Diary of a "Lost" Film

Making an animated film used to be so much more physical in the days of film. There was lots of lugging heavy artwork to camera, for instance. Back then, you felt the weight of production in your hands. One morning, in 1997, before going to work at Blue's Clues, I stood at the corner of 50th and Broadway with two heavy FedEx boxes filled with "Snow Business" cels (from my first indie film) for the camera man to shoot, and crossing the street right in front of me was Harrison Ford. Being the only one on the corner who recognized him, I winked. He winked back. Now, thanks to the digital age, we make films without leaving our living rooms, unfortunately greatly reducing the chance of bumping into Han Solo.

Since I’ve only had a tablet and Cintiq since 2007 and 2009 respectively, I wasn’t able to employ the full joys of digital filmmaking till that time. Just before this period, in 2006, I embarked on a film that I never finished. This unfinished film, which I called “Thrown” was autobiographical in that it was loosely based on me and my terrible aim. I can stand right next to the garbage and throw away some trash and miss. It’s not always the case, but it’s true enough of the time and it’s something I’ve noticed about myself over the years.

Around this time, Debbie and I were watching a ton of Buster Keaton films, which gave me the idea to try “Thrown” as a type of silent movie complete with irises in and out, and title cards. I started to get excited about the project and loosely outlined the film’s structure, doing thumbnail sketches in place of slick storyboards. I drew the animation on paper with a sharpie. I didn’t plan on cleaning up the drawings or even coloring them in. After each scene I scanned all the artwork and assembled it in After Effects.

Looking back, I can see that I felt a disconnect while working on this film, even though I was jazzed by how the animation was coming out. Nowadays, when drawing a film on a Cintiq, I can instantly view its progress as I’m drawing it, or immediately after. This makes me feel like I'm always inside the film––really living in it. The digital process is far more instant and direct and that helps keep me engaged to see a project through.

Ultimately I found myself not really committed to keep going. I wasn’t feeling it anymore, and slowly let the project die. I can’t really say why for certain. I know I wasn't really enjoying the process, and perhaps the idea for the film was too flimsy in the first place. Although personal in nature, it didn't give me the deep desire an indie needs to carry oneself through the production.
Click here to see a cobbled together cut of some scenes from the film, and note that the story is far from complete.
Click here to see a isolated test from an early scene in the film.
Click here to see a bit of the unfinished end sequence of the film.

I think every artist or filmmaker leaves behind these little detour projects that are destined to not go anywhere. But, even though this film didn’t get finished, it did help to steer me in the direction I’m in today. It taught me the joys of a looser approach, the value of having autobiographical content, and (most importantly) that even six months is longer than I want to spend on an indie short. No work, even an unfinished work, is ever wasted.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Two Unconnected Animation Topics

Why We Shouldn’t Undervalue CG Animation

This may shock anyone familiar with the simple graphics and animation styling of Nick Jr’s hit preschool show Blue’s Clues, but I can attest that for the 8 plus years I worked there, any of us animators on the series could spot each other’s scenes. How is that possible? It was possible because even with such limited graphics, movement, and so on, there was much of each individual animator’s personal approach that creeped in––despite the fact that we were delivering an animated product that was made to one cohesive vision and standard. The fact is, when you have people in the mix, their individual achievements will be present.

Traditional hand drawn theatrical animation is not the only instance where individual achievements may be present. The puppeteer creates a performance, as does a stop-motion animator, as does the CG animator working with rigged character in Maya––all without the act of drawing. All of these forms of creating a performance require a person projecting his/her self into something else to bring it to life. Having a pencil in hand is not THE prerequisite for an individual/human presence in an animated film.

What complicates this is that the CG age is still so new that we don’t yet know who our current day Milt Kahls are. But, it’s a mistake to think we won’t. Surely within Dreamworks or Pixar or on productions such as Disney's "Tangled" (pictured above) they already know who these current and future heroes are, and one day we (on the outside) will know them too. In the future, someone will write John Canemaker-style history books and articles explaining what each superstar CG animator did best, lauding individual achievements, and cataloguing scenes.

Why the Oscars Matter

It’s easy to believe the Academy Awards don’t mean anything because the very idea of the awards is absurd. After all, what is THE best anything? There's no perfect and fair way to measure something as subjective as art. The Oscars are not definitive. No one award from any festival decides for all tastes what is best in anything. But, the same issue is inherent in any animation or film festival. In fact, the Oscars are simply another festival, albeit the most famous one in the world. Today, indie animated films can be either shared openly online (in hopes of going viral), or entered to compete in the festival circuit. Some try to do both at once (PES is the best example of someone succeeding equally at both at the same time), although filmmakers should be careful to not disqualify themselves by putting their films online because many festivals do not permit that.

My own strategy would vary from film to film. If I have a film that is very short and light in subject or theme, I’d be more likely to share it online and not be thinking of festivals or qualifying for an Oscar nomination. But, if I have a serious film (and we each have our own idea of what “serious” means) I’d enter a ton of important festivals and keep one eye on qualifying for the Academy Awards. I've attended the Academy shorts voting a handful of times and have seen several friends on the list of 30 or so films that qualify for a potential Oscar nomination each year. I can't explain how encouraging that is. It somehow makes the impossible seem a touch more possible.

It's natural to want to achieve what others have achieved. Anyone who works in animation automatically follows in the legacy of their heroes, so the Oscar goal is just a more specific (and even harder to reach) dream within that context. But in practical terms, an Oscar nomination means a lot of visibility. I’d wager that in this age of social networking and online information an Oscar nomination is probably more useful than it’s ever been. A filmmaker can capitalize on such a thing and use it as a means to get more projects off the ground, in particular more ambitious projects such as features and such, which require many partners and funding.

The glamour and glitz of the Academy Awards aside, it's the world's highest profile film festival, and that's the part that ensures its continuing relevance to the indie filmmaker.