Monday, May 30, 2011


ANIMONDAYS is on hiatus until June 20. See you soon!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Changing Face of NY Animation

Above image from Ugly Americans, a series for Comedy Central, now in season two production at Augenblick Animation.

A few factors have contributed to a recent shift in NYC animation TV series production. Since the early 70s, the local industry has been dominated by projects for preschoolers or children. From Sesame Street to The Wonder Pets, this trend lasted nearly four decades. While there has been other animation made for different audiences in the big apple during this span of time, such as commercials, specials, industrials, etc., series work is unique in that it tends to employ the largest amount of people for the longest period of time.

The preschool/children’s series work was dominant for so long that many generations of local talent cut their teeth on that work, probably forever changing the nature of their careers as well as the direction of their artistic and filmic growth. Working on animated projects for such a young audience has its pros and cons. The benefits are honing your skills in the service of clear staging, creating readable actions, and learning how to telegraph the story point or curriculum needs scene to scene. Along the way, you try to make the animation as entertaining and engaging as possible, despite the limitations of the genre. The negatives to working on series for young audiences is the overly-simplified film language, lack of any real distinct characterizations to base interesting or diverse animated performances on, and the stifling even-pacing of the storytelling. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing about animation for young audiences that requires or necessitates these defects. These weaknesses just happen to be in most of the series work being produced today.

While dominating the local industry for so long, it seems like NYC’s days as a center of preschool/children’s animation are coming to a close. This happened because of a few factors. The first was the economic crisis of 2008 and recession that followed it, both of which created less series work, period. The second factor was the risky business model of studios organized around the visions of single creators acting as their own idea-bank, and depending on their gifts as creators and salespeople to keep workstations occupied in expensive Manhattan studios. No matter how gifted a creator is at inventing and selling shows, the very nature of the entertainment business ensures (at best) interruptions in workflow. The disruption, halt of production, or complete business failure at some of these studios devoted to preschool works helped set the stage for the next era of NY Animation.

While the single creator-run studio has proven a flawed business model, the studios set up to produce other creator’s works (not just their own brainchilds) are thriving. In this category are Augenblick Animation (producing Ugly Americans), Titmouse East (producing Super Jail, The Venture Bros. etc.), and Curious Pictures (producing Team Umizoomi). It's noteworthy that the surviving productions and new series work is (more often than not), geared towards the older “Adult Swim” audience. At present time, Team Umizoomi is the only large-scale preschool/children’s series being fully produced in New York. With Sesame English (a massive 3-year animated project) drawing to a close, and The Electric Company having recently wrapped, it’s hard to see signs of life in the preschool/children’s animation scene.

Adding to the trend of adult animation being made in the Big Apple is a new series I’m directing for the Adult Swim series, Tight Bros., which is produced by Clambake Animation, a Boston-based studio who’s in house crew of storyboard artists, character designers, background artists, sound designers, and editors are augmented by my New York-based team of six local animators.

Not since the hay day of MTV Animation of the 1990s have this many adult oriented projects been in production in this city, and now, with overall reduced series activity––effectively diminishing preschool/childrens’ projects, this is probably the first time that animation for an older audience has dominated local production.

I can’t say that this trend will stick. Who knows what is around the corner? Newer platforms for animation such as podcasts, apps, and broadband channels will likely have an effect, and it’s likely to grow opportunities for diverse new areas of animation. Ipad apps seem particularly suitable for youngish educational projects, but the question is, will those projects ever have the budgets or staff akin to a traditional series production?

No matter what the future holds, today NY animation is in the grip of a different kind of animation. For the first time animation graduates are cutting their teeth on Adult animated projects with the potential to spend much of their career on such productions. I think that’s cause for celebration. Super Jail is an inventively animated show, all of it hand drawn. The Venture Bros. features sophisticated and cinematic storylines and complex characters. Ugly Americans features a style that Variety writer Brian Lowry described as “vaguely resembling EC Comics of the 1950s.” Whatever your opinion on Adult Swim-style content, there’s no doubt that these projects offer a more expansive playground to the animation artist. I can't see how that could be a bad thing for the future of NY animation.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Observations on The Animation Thesis Process and Student Mission Statements

Since it’s graduation time there’s a lot of animation student thesis films in the air. Even though all the local animation schools have their own culture and methods of teaching animation, they have one thing in common, which is the promotion of the idea as the animator as a filmmaker/auteur. This is why animation art students are expected to be the writer, designer, animator, and producer of their own films. Some even supply their own voices or music, expanding on their creative juggling act even further. For the students ready to do all this, it’s a great opportunity to strut their stuff. For the rest of the students it can be an uncomfortable uphill battle, at best.

I think this is a big problem with the local animation educations. How does it make sense to take a senior who is still having problems doing basic animation and require them to take on those other roles at the same time? Besides, the experience of completing your own film from start to finish in complete solitude doesn’t really prepare one for the idea of working in collaboration with other artists, a skill students will need to master if they are to build a career in animation. I think encouraged or mandatory collaboration could be the key, where small groups of students work as production units and make a film together. While that wouldn’t be without its problems or challenges, there would be a potential gain in how students could keep each other honest and hitting deadlines. The whole process could be overseen by a thesis advisor, which would help mediate any conflicts (both personal and creative) that arise. Not only could this make the quality of the films higher, it would result in better reel/portfolio samples, and (most importantly) ensure that the students learn key lessons in communication, teamwork, and production.

As the system stands now in the local schools, besides making their own films, students are also required to hand in a short mission statement concerning their vision as filmmakers. I think these are very instructive, not only to see where the students are coming from, but also as proof of how their educations in our local institutions could be improved. Looking through all the mission statements I kept coming across the words “worlds” and “universe.” For the students using this description, their attraction to animation was that it let them create unique worlds, and, or, their own universe. On the surface I get that. Animation does give its creator Deity-like powers to invent everything in an animated film, but what level of that should be in the hands of a student that has problems drawing the most basic of movement? The freedom of a thesis film puts all that responsibility squarely on the shoulders of students, whether ready to create an entire universe or not.

I also worry about the lack of standards that may go along with the “it’s my world” outlook. There’s a great potential for uneven or unfocused work under that umbrella because it makes such a great catch all excuse and defense for weak results.

The next bit that lots of the mission statements had in common was the idea that the filmmakers make work for the approval of family and friends. That is a sweet, honest, and understandable sentiment, one that is representative of the starting place for just about every animation professional. Who among us didn’t start out making films or drawings for their immediate family and friends? That truly is our first audience. It’s often a place of unconditional love and support. But, a college graduate stepping out into the world has to broaden their horizons because he/she will put out next works as professionals ready for professional critique. Once a part of the industry, there is a new set of standards, ones that are much more critical and objective. I’m still trying to learn how to better take criticism from my peers and mentors and I’m 37 years old! I'm proof it can take time to truly get to the stage where you’re ready to hear a real critique of your work; so don’t put that off longer than necessary!

On a very positive note, many of the mission statements demonstrated a desire to become a link in animation's collective chain, to honor the past by trying to create worthy works for today's and future audiences. That's a powerful and primal motivation for doing art, reminding me of the bridge between eons of humanity you experience in Wernor Herzog's new documentary feature "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," (pictured above).

Saturday, May 7, 2011


The Best in Show of ASIFA-East's 2011 Animation Festival, Andy Kennedy's "Accumulonimbus." How cool that the Best in Show went to an experimental film made by a young filmmaker new to entering our festival!

"Backwards," Last year's Best in Show from the ASIFA-East Animation Festival, another victory for new blood in this win by fresh talents' Aaron Hughes and Lisa Labracio.

The Rauch Bros. and the subjects of their 2009 Best in Show win from the ASIFA-East Animation Festival, the lovely film Q & A. It was the second-ever short, by these young brothers.

The ASIFA-East festival reception makes a great place for animation folk of all levels and ages to come together, inspire each other, and foster important relationships. This photo by Joe Bluhm, depicting a typical cluster of activity around Mr. Bill Plympton.

Many a time at an ASIFA-East board meeting, we board members have asked ourselves, “What value are we giving our members for their dues?” and, “What role or relevance does ASIFA-East play in an ever-changing media landscape where people can access so many films online and have a zillion other ways to connect and keep in touch with other without even leaving their homes?”

In some ways it’s easier to answer what ASIFA-East is not. It’s not a union, a guild, an employment office, nor an animation studio. It has no agenda other than to continue to serve the area’s animation artists, students, industry professionals of all stripes, and cartoon and film aficionados by helping foster a sense of community that goes beyond our ties to what particular studio or job we may or may not be working at month-to-month.

So, if ASIFA-East is none of those things above, and aims to serve the community, then how does it do that? Even though everyone makes his or her own experience with the organization, here’s what ASIFA-East officially offers:

-Free drawing classes to its members.
-An original and up-to-date online interactive magazine (The Exposure Sheet) that features articles, reviews, event reports, interviews, an international ASIFA report, editorials, and free advertising space. In addition, the website also lists almost every animation-related event in town, making it the only go-to place of its kind.
-Monthly (sometimes bi-monthly) free events open to both members and non-members. The April event was an evening with The Rauch Bros., presenting the behind-the-scenes story of their StoryCorps films. We also host retrospectives (such as our evening with Oscar-winning filmmakers Frank and Caroline Mouris), annual “Business for Animators” workshops (featuring Steven Zelin, The Singing CPA!), panels (represented recently by a “State of the Industry” night, a spotlight on the CGI/SFX/Motion Graphics community, a behind the scenes look at indie animated features in production, and coming in June: a focus on the new model of Virtual Studio production.) In the recent past, we’ve also presented evenings with such legends as Yuri Norstein, Richard Williams, Ray Harryhausen, and Bruno Bozzetto, as well as historical programs of rare cartoons curated by animation historians Jerry Beck, Greg Ford, Bill Lorenzo, and Howard Beckerman. Additionally, each year we program a specific international-flavored event to coincide with International Animation Day in October.
-E-mail blasts and Twitter feed to members, reminding them of upcoming events or spreading timely news and important updates.
-A “Friends of ASIFA-East” Facebook group, which helps spread information and tally expected head counts for our monthly events through invites.
-Funds permitting, we throw a kick-ass post-holiday party, such as the one we held in January at Gonzalez Y Gonzalez in downtown Manhattan. Members got in free, and guests could enjoy all they could eat and drink for the small donation of $5. This is the type of thing we’d love to be able to afford to do every year, but, as we need to be fiscally responsible, it’s not always in our means.

Besides the monthly events, drawing classes, services, and occasional parties, there are two annual events designed to make sure members and non-members have a chance to get their work screened. The first option is free, requires no submission process, and is simply a great opportunity to screen some of your animation; be it your latest reel, a pencil test you made that morning, a work-in-progress indie short, a student film, etc. We call this our “Open Screening” and it traditionally falls in September or October so we can be sure the maximum amount of students can attend and enjoy this forum. It’s a popular event with a lovely spirit, with the audience often asking the filmmaker questions about his or her work.

The other opportunity to have your work screened at ASIFA-East comes in the form of an official competition where there is a submission fee (monies collected directly pay for the festival venue, event insurance, and, of course, the food, wine, beer, etc., for the reception). The festival generally represents the local Eastern United States animation area (mainly the tri-state area, dominated by entries from NYC simply because the city is the area's main animation hub), but we have had regular submissions from Vermont to Florida, and some additional entries from the West Coast and Canada. Our entry form is available to the public for five weeks each year (end of January through February) as a downloadable pdf, and is sent to members in hard-copy form.

When I arrived on the ASIFA-East scene in 1995, we were getting about 80 entries a year, but these days it averages between 120-140 (it was 140 this year). Back then we viewed films in two to three evenings of screenings, but now we routinely need four. Entered films are viewed by an open jury made up of members, non-members, and board members, along with some of the filmmakers featured each night. Voting is by members only, anonymous, and in public. The voter’s names don’t appear on the ballots, and at the end everything is collected and placed in a sealed envelope and given to an independent accountant who has not seen the films, and who is not a member of ASIFA-East.

The mathematical data gets tabulated and the numbers directly pick the winners. Along with the mathematical tally, another way to ensure fairness is that the festival co-chairs (Nancy Keegan Lennert and Linda Simensky) don’t have a pony in the race, don't attend the jury screenings, and are objective in reviewing the accountant’s results. None of that is to say that it’s a perfect process, but the truth is no two people would ever (or should ever) agree on something as subjective as judging a film. You can quantify a widget and measure it in an analytical process by testing its durability and so on, but animated films are art and its natural that we should disagree on our ballots and even at the festival in terms of what made it to the screen and what did not. It's a lot like how we second guess the Oscars the next morning.

Certainly there are still many areas open for improvement, such as how to ensure an even fairer and more comfortable jury process, how many awards should be given in each category, and so on. After every festival the board gets together and tallies the feedback we’ve received along with our own opinions on how it went and we brainstorm how we can do it better next year. You can count on us giving this a top to bottom examination before the year’s end (our current season ends in June), and we look forward to sharing the plan of improvements for next year’s festival with you all.

Does ASIFA-East do enough to encourage studios and individuals to enter films so that we may have a broad enough body of entries from which to judge? We will be sure to address this, as well, in our festival post-mortem discussion. When I joined the executive board in 1995, there was no ASIFA-East website by which to spread information. We could only rely on mail. Now we spread information (including the delivery of our festival entry form) by snail mail, e-mail blasts, a Facebook group, a twitter feed, and through our website.

It would be awesome to have the broadest representation possible for our open jury to vote on and we’ll take the necessary steps to improve from where we are today. But ASIFA-East can’t hold the hand of every individual or studio that’s making animation in this region and personally make sure they enter the festival. But, you can help! Word-of-mouth within the community helps. Even better, it’s always appreciated when any blogs or websites (from small to prominent ones) help spread the word of our entry period. Since each blog or site attracts its own population of followers, it's a great way to help increase the scope of our outreach.

The festival is ASIFA-East's biggest undertaking every year and just pulling it off requires a lot of helpers and volunteers. Maybe it's a sign of our festival’s legacy or longevity that it is being discussed and critiqued as one might in a review of Annecy or Ottawa, but such a comparison is in reality incorrect. Those festivals are businesses (regardless of whether or not they make a profit) with paid employees, year-round offices, and all dependent on some amount of public arts funding to augment their survival. They are international festivals, which, by their mandate, seek work from all over the world, and because of their structure and set up, they are designed to process, review, program, and award films from a pool of thousands of entries. Part of how they can pull of such an undertaking is by having private juries, made up of 5 or so people, judging all the films.

In contrast, ASIFA-East’s festival is dependent upon a much more limited set of resources. While growing the amount of films entered in the festival would be great, we only have so many nights to view entrants, for instance. So, if we suddenly had three times the amount of films to watch, that would be a hell of a challenge to process and properly review in our open jury system. Would the member jury devote even more nights than the current four to watch everything? Or would this result in smaller jury pools spread thin over many nights of viewing? Not sure. But, since we’ve already expanded the amount of entries by almost double since 1995, perhaps we can expand even more…

Besides the planned improvements you can expect to see, clearly we can do a better job explaining who we are and what we’re doing, especially in regards to the festival. For instance, we can better explain how we adjust the festival in a substantial way almost every year. This year it was the introduction of separate categories for Music Video, Experimental, and Educational, along with creating one brand for this year’s festival so that the postcard, award certificate, and signal film (all by the talented Mr. Dan Meth) would create a more consistent experience. On top of this we relabeled the outdated “sponsored” category to the more accurate description “commissioned.”

A few years back our big innovation was to create title cards that played before each film so the audience could associate what films won what prizes, and to award one category at a time and then watch those films, making that the presentation method of the evening. The old way was to give out all the awards in one batch at the top of the festival and then screen the films sans any reminder of what they won. That system was a holdover from the early days of our festival where things were entered on film, making it very difficult or expensive to consider inserting award listings between the films. The ASIFA-East festival has always been a work-in-progress with changes small and large seeding in over the years.

On, the question, “Why do we do the festival?” We think this is an important tradition to carry on. Unlike Ottawa, Annecy, and other big animation festivals, the ASIFA-East festival is a festival put on BY the community and FOR the community. ASIFA-East is not the “other.” We, and our members, are one and the same. We may be board members of ASIFA-East donating our time and sweat to continue this event, but we are also part of the community, and because of that we too enter our films into competition and subject ourselves to the same jury process as any entrant. This is the natural occurrence of a festival that strives to reflect the community that it serves without any deliberate exclusion. The board members of ASIFA-East are representative of the same local industry of artists, craftspeople, and filmmakers, and win and lose at the festival just like anyone else. If you count our board of director’s numbers (not all of whom vote in every night of jury screenings) we are five to nine ballots out of a crowd of voters numbering 50 to 85 or more night-to-night.

Michael Sporn, longtime ASIFA-East board member had this to say on the question of the festival's purpose at his blog, explaining how the organization would be effected by disqualifying the board from being able to enter films: "If board members (all 9 of them) weren’t allowed to enter their films, there would be fewer board members since they do a lot of work for no pay, and if they weren’t allowed to enter the films in the festival there would be a reason for them not to volunteer to be on the board and do all the hard, necessary work. This is very different from the awards given out of ASIFA Hollywood. ASIFA East is a small group in New York and should be recognized as such."

Yet, as flawed as the current jury system may be (The ASIFA-East board still argues amongst ourselves about festival results from 10 years ago!), it's very gratifying that we can point to the fact that the last 3 Best in Show awards (see stills at the top of this post) were won by new-comers, most of whom are not even five years into their careers. But if that's inconclusive, how about this fact: the Best in Show winner from the 39th festival (see image below) was Arthur Metcalf's "Fantaisie in Bubblewrap," a student film!

Then there's 2003's Best in Show winner "Bathtime in Clerkenwell" made by a total outsider to the scene, Aleksey Budovskiy, who had been working as an electrician (see image below). I would suggest that this offers evidence that the system isn't ALL bad and that the member jury is open and ready to recognize great work no matter where it comes from or what name is attached to it. So, whatever improvements we'll try with the jury process, we probably shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water.

This festival is first and foremost a celebration of the art of animation. There’s no admission cost to attend the festival, there’s plenty of free food and drink for everyone, and there’s no pressure to become a member. There’s no cash, college scholarships, Oscar-qualification, or new cars awarded as prizes. Winners get a paper certificate, the applause of the audience, and another screening of their film at the awards ceremony. Probably most importantly, the winners get a public nod by winning a prize awarded by their peers. Whatever the winners do with that boost is up to them. Maybe it encourages them to make more films. Maybe it helps attract new clients. Whatever the case, it’s nice to be in the show because it means an open jury process selected your film as having merit.

ASIFA-East makes ZERO profit from the show (or from anything we do, for that matter), and it’s in our bylaws that any venue that screens our festival (such as other ASIFA chapters like our friends ASIFA Atlanta and ASIFA San Francisco) must be free and open to the public. That’s very unlike most festivals, which charge the public for tickets and compile a winner’s reel to sell or rent to other venues. Hopefully this helps explain the difference between our chapter’s festival and the international festivals it has been incorrectly compared to.

In this post I tried to explain what ASIFA-East does year-to-year for its membership of about 300, while also offering many services to non members alike (some of whom choose to become members eventually to support what we’re doing). I won’t always be president, just as the current board of directors won’t always hold the positions they do right now. We’re just the current and faithful caretakers of an institution that was here before us and will be here after we’ve passed the baton to someone else. Meanwhile, each year we pick up a couple of new board members, which helps us continue to add fresh thinking to the mix.

I owe ASIFA-East a massive debt of personal gratitude. It has been for 10 years (and continues to be) an honor to serve as its president, if only to try to repay the organization that not only helped me get my first footing in the industry, but, more importantly, has given all of us the immeasurable resource of a community. It makes me happy to know I’m not the only one who has this relationship with ASIFA-East. And how lucky are we that besides ASIFA-East, we have other great groups such as Women In Children’s Media, Women in Animation, ACM SIGGRAPH, as well as newer institutions such as The Animation Block Party and Midsummer Night Toons III, and The Big Screen Project to bring us all together to celebrate each other and the art form we all hold so dear.