Sunday, July 31, 2011

Changing the Guard

Longtime ASIFA-East board member, Don Duga, depicts an ASIFA-East board meeting circa the late 1960s and one from 2003.

It’s surprising to look back and realize that I’ve spent most of my animation career as president of ASIFA-East, and a large percentage of my adult life committed to ASIFA-East in some capacity. Now, after 11 years as el presidente, I’m stepping down from this office and I’m excited to see what the future holds for myself and for the organization that changed my life.

I joined the board in the fall of 1995, at the urging of one of my heroes, Howard Beckerman. The first meeting I attended turned out to be historic because everybody showed up naked. Okay, that’s not true, I was just trying to spice things up. It was historic because at the start of the meeting Linda Simensky announced she had accepted a job in development at Cartoon Network’s Atlanta headquarters so she’d have to give up the presidency. This was true for about five seconds until long-time board member (and gracious meeting host) Candy Kugel suggested the possibility that Linda could still be president from Georgia. Nobody wanted to see Linda go, so for the next four years, the office moved south to Dixie.

The ASIFA-East board members amazed me then and still do today. They do so much for so many, and never for pay. What brings them back month after month, year after year? All of these people with jobs, personal lives and commitments, feel it’s important to lend their time, talents, and energies to this cause, for this community. The group is a bit like Switzerland, a neutral territory—outside of the boarders of animation studios—where people can gather, mingle, and celebrate their shared love of animation.

Most people who attend board meetings are eventually assigned some task. My first responsibility was to assist then-membership secretary Jim Petropoulos. He taught me all the ins-and-outs of that role and a year or so later, when Jim stepped down, I became membership secretary. My co-worker at Blue’s Clues Chris Gelles became assistant membership secretary. To welcome us to our new posts, Linda and Jim treated Chris and me to a Japanese meal at a fine restaurant. The three of them devoured their fish with gusto (gusto was a popular cocktail of the time). I ordered the chicken, which came with a side of food poisoning (such was the auspicious start of my ASIFA-East career). Being membership secretary was a wonderful experience. It forced me to come out of my shell and engage with hundreds of animation people. Considering that this was pre-Facebook, that was no small feat.

After a few years of being an off-site president and doing a wonderful job in the position for 10 years, Linda Simensky decided it was time for a change. It was quite a shock when she asked me to be the next president. At first, I was reluctant, knowing what a commitment and responsibility it would be, but Linda is a great salesperson. I think I accepted the next day. When I became president it was all fireworks and barbecues, but I’ve since been told that was because it was the Fourth of July. My early days in the role were a lot like visiting a foreign country: you struggle to learn the language, try to pack the right clothes, and have trouble going to the bathroom.

My time as president turned out to be a period of great instability in the economy. New York animation was also affected by shifting media trends, a number of unstable studios, aborted productions, and a few large studio closures. But now may be the start of a new era of growth. New York is still the home of many celebrated indie filmmakers, a few mid-size to large studios producing series work, lots of scrappy and resourceful artist-run studios, a thriving CGI/SFX community, several world-class animation schools, and one of the best animation talent pools around. Besides ASIFA-East, the community is further served by such groups as WICM and WIA, and new institutions like Animation Block Party, Too Art for TV, and Midsummer Night Toons, each contributing much to the fabric of New York-area animation.

In 2000, when I stepped into Linda Simensky's impressive shoes (I think they were Converse), I was nervous and felt a bit unqualified that first year. But the position forced me to sharpen my game, interact with a lot of people, and present myself as a public figure and community leader. I’m not sure I ever fully figured out that last part of the job, but with such an enthusiastic board of directors, and a wonderful group of supportive members, we achieved a lot! Membership is up, our books are in the black, the monthly screenings are well attended, submissions to our festival have risen by nearly 50%, which may have to with the fact that we have the most vital Web site (and social outreach) of any ASIFA chapter in the world.

Whatever we accomplished on the board of directors is your legacy too. To all the ASIFA-East members and all of the executive board members of the past eleven years, I’m forever in your debt for the amazing opportunity to be your president. I’m still astounded that anyone had faith that I could do this job! Thanks for believing in me. You changed my life and career in so many ways. I can’t thank you all enough!

Now, all that’s left to do is throw our support behind the next president…

On behalf of the entire board of directors, I’m excited to announce that the awesome, affable, and animated Linda Beck will be your next president. She’s no stranger to the ASIFA-East board or the community, having served on the former as membership secretary for over five years. She also has a prominent place in the industry, currently working on the hit Nick Jr. series Team Umizoomi as a production manager/line producer. Linda is also a terrific artist and illustrator, as well as friend to all animals, vegetables, and minerals. Perhaps most importantly, she’s a fierce and passionate fighter for all animation folks.

To top it off, Linda has strong ties to the CG/SFX community, having worked as producer for two years at Mechanism Digital. A couple of years ago she used her expertise in this area to put together a killer panel featuring five of the top CGI/SFX studios in town. As the worlds of character-based animation and CG/SFX and composite work blend together more and more, Linda Beck is just the person to keep ASIFA-East relevant in this changing media landscape.

Linda’s term as president begins on September 1st, and I know you’ll join me and the executive board in giving her a warm enthusiastic welcome. We’ll announce further changes to the board of directors this fall as well as planned improvements to the festival.

Till then, have a great summer!

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Legacy of "Blue's Clues"

The "Blue's Clues" crew circa seasons 5, the next to last season.

In October 2004 I wrote this essay on The Legacy of "Blue's Clues" for the ASIFA-East newsletter. The series had recently ended after being in continuous production since 1996. I joined the series in early 1997 when the show was part way through its first season. With hindsight we know that the 1990s was one of the golden ages in NY animation, based on the amount of high paying and high visibility work available. "Blue's Clues" ushered in the last wave of that decade of activity, giving age old production techniques a fresh spin with a digital pipeline. It was now possible to animate an entire series in the U.S. again, something that hadn't been true since the 1970s.

Switching gears from topics in previous newsletters, I’d like to spotlight a local show that recently wrapped up production. I’m talking about a show that was in straight production for nearly a full decade! All of it animated, storyboarded, designed, written, researched and produced in house. The Great Grandmother to all the digital shows today (even pre-dating “South Park”). If you haven’t guessed it, I’m referring to that ground breaking pre-school game show, “Blue’s Clues."

Other productions have followed in “Blue’s Clues” wake, often staffed by those trained at “Blue’s Clues” and its After Effects based model of production. A whole generation of graduates got their start on Blue’s or the shows it inspired. The money
generated by the billion dollar little blue puppy franchise helped spring the lovely “Little Bill,” the animation block at Spike TV, and spurred on green lights throughout the industry.

However, the legacy of “Blue’s Clues” means more than just the money and jobs it generated. It was a positive thing to put out in the world, and did an educational service to its impressionable viewers (children ages 2-6 and some slightly askew college kids). It helped kids feel good about themselves and made their parents breathe a sigh of relief knowing it was out there. It solved the energy crisis, ended the war in Iraq and...well, OK, it didn’t do all that.

Like all shows, the production of “Blue’s Clues” evolved and changed as it went on. Those who left after the semi-rocky pioneering first or second seasons would be impressed to see how smoothly the production ran in its final years. At the same time, the standards for excellence in writing, design, and animation soared to ever increasing heights as the years passed by.

The production also broke ground the way in it reacted to several animators who developed carpal tunnel syndrome at the beginning of season two. "Blue’s" crew and producers rallied MTV Networks to improve the situation. Because of these actions, hundreds of animation artists of "Blue’s," “Little Bill”, and the Spike TV shows were given specially designed ergonomic desks and work stations. Injuries dropped to near zero (that guy who walked around for two years with crutches was faking it).

When animation artists gather at the local watering hole, what do they complain about win regards to their jobs? Often people are frustrated over their lack of a voice, feeling under-appreciated, and working for inadequate compensation. “Blue’s Clues” showed that you could make a number one show, produce it digitally in house on a TV schedule, push the creative envelope every season, and hold on to your crew for years by showing them the proper appreciation.

Every production or studio has its own way of organizing the work and the workers. Each animation artist in NY is the keeper of a vast supply of production knowledge in addition to their tricks of the craft. As much as we help shape the day-to-day nature of our jobs, we are, in turn, shaped by the production methods and attitudes of those around us. “Blue’s Clues” was a supportive, collaborative, and creative place to spend the last 10 years and it will be missed by many. The impact of the show in the local industry (and beyond) will be felt for years to come. For evidence, you merely have to follow the clues.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Animondays Interview: John R. Dilworth, Part I

In 2001, I asked John R. Dilworth, one of the finest animation directors, creators, and filmmakers in the business, to sit down for an interview to be published in the ASIFA-East newsletter. John was finishing up a four-season run of his popular Cartoon Network series "Courage the Cowardly Dog," and had recently completed another indie masterpiece in his short film "The Mousochist."

I arrived at this interview well prepared with a list of questions and a tape recorder. But, in typical Dilworth fashion, he had plans of his own and told me to put away the questions so we could just chat one-on-one and have a real conversation. Although that momentarily threw me off, it turned out to be a great thing. The looser approach allowed us both to relax and gave me the freedom to explore any interesting tangents that came up. I got about 4 hours on tape, only half of which I managed to transcribe for the newsletter. I still plan to go back and type up the second half, so consider this part one of my interview with John from 2001...

An Oscar Nomination. One hundred and four eleven minute Courage The Cowardly Dog cartoons for the Cartoon Network. Numerous pilots for MTV Animation and Nickleodeon. Six (and counting) independent animated films. Yes, I'm talking about multi award winning animator, designer, writer, director, producer, creator, and founder and president of Stretch Films, John R. Dilworth! John took a few hours out of his busy schedule to talk about all the above. Enjoy!

DL: Was there a key film in your childhood that pushed you towards a future in animation?
JRD: So many things contribute to who we are as a person...I can't just narrow it and say "Oh, I saw Steam Boat Willie"...though, they should have kept making those little rat movies...they were fabulous...that guy was nasty...he would abuse animals but, at the same time he was cowering under that huge guy.

There was a moment. I was looking at an illustration I made and I wanted to see it move. That was it.

DL: Can you describe what the industry was like in NY when you started in 1985?
JRD: When you went to school it was at the right got out of school just when there was a boom in animation (1995), so you came out of school and had a job! Most of us in 1985 did not. I had to go into advertising for two years and I also worked in printing. Disney was recruiting at the time, but, they didn't take me. I gave them my portfolio like everyone else in the school, but I'm not a Disney artist.

DL: Can you shed some light on why you've made your career in NY and not somewhere else, like LA for instance?
JRD: I need this city. It's a cynical place. It's a skeptical place....I guess I'm tuned into that. Of course I've had my love affairs with LA. I've always gone there with short films to do post production. The thing I don't like is you need a car out there. Think about Richard Williams, he's walking down the street! You look at characters! They way they walk...everyday you're looking at people.

DL: Is this 'observation stuff' something you can turn off or is it always going?
JRD: I can't shut if off. You'd really have to be in an emotional state to miss it. You know when you're so're looking down and you're just moving forward. You just want to get home. I get down. Those are the moments I can't look. I can't observe. The funny thing is that we record everything...then we can use it later.

DL: What were your work experiences before founding stretch films?
JRD: I interned with Howard Beckerman. Howard is a generous man. I was always working through school...working for whatever producer for 10 or 15 dollars an hour. It was amassing experience. I was painting cells with Janet Scagnelli at Chelsea Animation, which was fabulous. That doesn't even exist anymore. All painting cells with gloves on their hands.

At this time I was mostly assisting. I helped Janet to finish a job she was doing with doing with an animator who had passed away, John Gaug....a very talented animator, and I filled in and helped finish the commercial. You learned right there. Responsibility and production and delivering deadlines and finding ways to get things done. All your limitations come out at the same time. Then I got to animate with Michael Sporn. I fell in love with Michael's whole process. His style, the looseness of it...the stories. Michael's ability to find unconventional ways to communicate through animation. I was able to work on several films for Michael. Everything else get out more, you go to talk to people, and slowly you get more jobs. You went to studios and showed them your mostly got rejected...or there wasn't any work for you and you just kept going. We used to do all nighters...those things seem to be prerequisites for developing in Animation. I remember (MTV's) Liquid Television being a good thing to do at the time. MTV gave me two opportunities, "Smart Talk With Raisin" and "Angry Cabaret". "Smart Talk With Raisin" was for Liquid Television...that was their last season. It was supposed to be a two-parter. I did the first part, but then MTV cancelled Liquid Television.

"Smart Talk with Raisin" (1993)

DL: So "Smart Talk With Raisin" was a pilot?
JRD: I don't know if it was a pilot, but that's interesting. All these shorts were used as pilots! But, you weren't aware of it. You were just doing shorts. You were never told you were doing pilots. It's naive of the filmmaker to think "no" but, you were never told that. You were just given a small amount to produce it. "Smart Talk With Raisin" was done with Colossal pictures in San Francisco. Angry Cabaret... I don't know if that worked really well.

"Angry Cabaret" (1994)

DL: Was "Angry Cabaret" a vehicle to wrap music videos around, like Beavis and Butt-head?
JRD: Of course! They already had the Beavis and Butt-head experience. They had covered the music videos. I thought, we can do other things like show live action footage in a certain strange montage and just have music over that. But different kinds of music. We had a video DJ. MTV found a fantastic video editor. Ultimately I didn't want to do the series because they wanted me to do it there (at MTV's studio). Which means I would be an employee. I couldn't deal with that so it was a deal-breaker...and that was that. There was Nickelodeon as well...I met Linda (Simensky) there. They did beautiful things. I had a pilot there.

DL: Sniz & Fondu?
JRD: Then it was called "Psyched For Snuppa"....Masako Kanayama worked on it. They wanted me to the series too. I couldn't do that. I wasn't at all attracted to working with the was just too much. Mo (Willems) got a chance. I don't know what happened. Then they did those little shorts on Kablam! The one thing that always helped me out was my own conviction that I enjoyed making my own films. So throughout all of that, I was always making a film.

Sniz and Fondue, in their later incarnation post-Dilworth's involvement.

DL: Were these films like expensive business cards for you?
JRD: I just needed to do them.. I also wanted to be famous. I fell in love with the independent filmmakers from the 70s and the 80s. I really believed in the art. I believed that animation was a special vehicle in which to communicate ideas...and I still do. You make films to learn how to make films. I don't know how to do them still! (laughs). When you're making a film you're not deliberately saying 'this is what I'm going to explore.' But, there are serious symbols––the plane in Noodles and Ned is about freedom and being able to overcome something. It's very much like live action, nothing is by accident. You have a very active role in what your doing.

"Noodles and Ned" (1996)

The problem in my animation is that it is too attached to my own life. Of my commercial work, the only thing that I can say that is close to my life in a personal way is my Courage series. In Courage I was able to explore a lot of themes....and we did it so rapidly! How many short films can you make? What an opportunity. Most of my films are semi-autobiographical. My films tend to be about human feelings.

DL: What about something like The Dirdy Birdy, which on the surface, appears more like slapstick?
JRD: The surface. That film was about " Why are we attracted to things that are harmful to us? Why do we get into relationships that are so dysfunctional?"

"The Dirdy Birdy" (1994)

DL: It was functional for the Birdy.
JRD: Isn't it sad that there are people that only feel love through abuse or harsh behavior? (laughs) It's the only way they know that they're loved. Cartoons are perfect vehicles to express these things.

DL: Coyote and Road Runner.
JRD: We're they in love with each other?

DL: What would either of them have done without the other?
JRD: I know what you mean. Dirdy Birdy really fell in love with this cat. It turned out to be a codependent situation. They found something in common, you see? And what happens?...the Birdy fucks it up! Then the whole things starts again! It's a repetitive damaging cycle...anyway, it was funny.

DL: How would you define humor? What makes something funny in a cartoon?
JRD: That's a funny question. I like that question. I don't know what makes people laugh. I think I just do it subconsciously. You have to have some self control. You can't just put anything in. I also do things and show people. You can give 3 different people the same thing and you'll get 3 different opinions...but, something about a certain opinion will ring true to you and I don't know why, but, you'll explore that. Animation is such a collaborative thing...even if you do it yourself you're still working with some sound man, a camera man..and some assistant, and you can't help but become influenced.

DL: Courage, for the most part, is a non-verbal character. Were there any concerns with this limiting Courage's role as a lead character?
JRD: In the original short, "The Chicken From Outer Space", the dog didn't speak at all. In fact, nobody spoke. In the series, I wanted to have the dog talk...and we tried it. If you see the first half of Season one, Courage does a lot more talking then in the whole series and it really was the Cartoon Network that encouraged me not to have the dog talk. We limited his talking to screams, babbling and whines...and it works. That was a great call. I couldn't help but agree that it was better. These are no ordinary executives, at Cartoon Network. You know, I worked with some executives that don't have a clue. These are sharp characters...they believe in the art, the cartoons. Linda (Simensky), Mike (Lazzo) & Jay (Bastian)...we're very lucky.

The Oscar-nominated "The Chicken From Outer Space" (1995)

DL: You've had Armies of Eggplant, Handsome Duck Gods, Twisted hair-cutting relatives...
JRD: Eggplants were about accepting people that are different from you. (laughs). We got absurd, but the idea was there. Remember in the end? They all got along! It was team work. They all benefited.

DL: What about Freaky Fred?
JRD: We just invented that. I was talking to my head writer and he was telling me that he loved poetry. He loved writing it. Rhyme. I said, OK, why don't we do a story where the whole thing takes place in rhyme? That created this freaky barber. That's one of my favorite shows, Dave. You're just quoting old season one shows! You know Barbara Jean (Kearney) right? Well...she's Barbara, Freaky Fred's lover, you know when he goes back and he shaves all her head. You see the Dirdy Birdy with those monster faces? That's me! I'm the farmer (in Courage). Why do you think that character's so easy? I'm that cruel, bitter resentful man. (laughs) You know what? There's a real Muriel in Scotland. She's slightly modeled after that woman and a little bit after a friend of mine.

DL: You write most of the shows, correct?
JRD: I would say, yeah. 90% start with me and then we work with the team. It's an unusual way to work because some don't physically write. They sit with us and we write verbally. Our head writer, David Steven Cohen, assembles it all from the meeting.

DL: The backgrounds on Courage are among its most attractive features. They really set it apart from any other cartoons on television. How did the semi-photo realistic and highly textured BG style evolve from the simpler water color BGs of the pilot?
JRD: It's like that in the pilot too. It just evolved. Its the same soft ware. Painter and Photoshop. Is painter still used? What happened to it? Margaret Frey did all the BGs on the pilot. It just took off. After Season one we just kept building on was a natural evolution. That department has fulfilled all of my's one of my favorite departments to spend time in. The color, backgrounds and props... We can't really get the dimension I'm looking for...It's like CGI, but there is something about CGI that I can't accept. I'm exploring that now. Now I'm doing my first CGI independent film. I am trying to get a sense of how my influence on the media could work or how I could express myself. Physically I can't do it. I have to rely on artists that do it. It's a whole other way of working. For the backgrounds, on Courage, I wanted to create a real sense of time. Dramatic lighting (laughs).

DL: What is the most enjoyable and rewarding part of the showmaking process for you?
JRD: We've been very lucky on Courage. We've mixed medias. We did one episode with CGI. A big experiment. Courage goes through a computer and he turns into a CGI Courage. He went through a portal, he can's that looking glass. That was great fun and the Network just went with it.

DL: It is a paranormal show.
JRD: Oh, right! (LAUGHS) That is true.

DL: Do you do any of the animation on Courage at your studio?
JRD: We did walks...for all the main characters and maybe 30% of the rest.

DL: How did your rich history working for others effect the way you set up your studio?
JRD: I don't know...I just did whatever felt natural. I'm not a business man. We deliver our shows, they look great, the clients are happy, and we have a great relationship with our client. You have to be comfortable. You're a servant to the schedule when doing a series.

DL: Is the business hat something you wear for a certain amount of time each day?
JRD: You don't ever take it off.

DL: Is that a role you wanted to end up in?
JRD: I don't think you ever know until its on top of you...and then you swim. You just keep swimming. The biggest crisis you encounter is 'What's your next project?' or 'How many artists are you going to have to lay off?'

DL: What, if anything, on air now do you consider your competition?
JRD: I like SpongeBob. It happens sort of naturally.

DL: Did the Oscar Nomination for "The Chicken From Outerspace" (1996) open any doors for you?
JRD: That was a hundred years ago.

DL: Nominations don't expire.
JRD: You should talk to Nick Park. He's got three...if he gets one more he can put up a table. In 1996 we had the greatest year. We went all over the place. We met with everybody. The nomination lets you make appointments to see people at Amblin, WB... whether or not they are going to green light any projects is another thing all together. But, you go with it...and I wore my space suit to every meeting! With my silver boots! It's great're in La La Land! Ha! Ha! But, we didn't get any money. Eventually we knew we were going to do Courage. We just didn't want to do it with Hanna-Barbera. We waited for them to close. You knew something was happening. It took two years...

We did a series for CTW and CN called Ace & Avery. It was for young audiences. Three and under...some crazy thing, right? I'd never done that before. Noodles and Ned were wanted for this series, but I would have had to give up the rights to the characters...and I couldn't do I created Ace and Avery for them, because you have to stay in business. Also, it was a funding thing, it pays for movies. They were experts in child development...looking at everything like designs, color, story...everything had to get approved not just by executives, but by specialists....and you couldn't argue with them. They were the PHDs. They knew about child development. How do we become these politicians where we can just accept and continue to work this way? Don't you resent it at Nick? Aren't there conflicts? Or do you just except that 'Blue's Clues is a children's program, these are the parameters in which I need to work'...that's the challenge and you do it?

DL: It's no different than someone working on your Courage. They all work within parameters and have to support your vision. There is a world and a standard to maintain.
JRD: That's a good point. I can see it...but, we don't have child specialists... We have different kinds of know, that tell us not to make a character's skin too brown or it might get the attention of somebody who's skin looks like that. It's alright...Why are we being babies about it? A professional just does what they're told.

DL: That's the commercial nature of the business. That's why we do independent films outside of that.
JRD: I think it's all ego. We don't like to be told what to do. We don't like to have our ideas challenged. We want to be able to express ourselves...I think its all infantilism.

DL: Your films tend to be told with mainly visual storytelling techniques with little to no dialogue. What can you say about that?
JRD: I just think I'm reticent. I enjoy dialogue...but, I never feel comfortable doing it myself. I can express more just through expression...but, I can't say that we can just do that in an 80 minute picture. That would be something! (laughs). Would anybody sit through it?

DL: As an animator, how do you avoid the cliche and still make the actions and emotions clear?
JRD: You just THINK, right? You went to the Richard Williams master class. I have to tell you, I miss having tutors and mentors. That whole concept of someone older passing something down, some wisdom, to someone younger.

DL: In Richard Williams' book he says that when animators get older, their timing slows down.
JRD: I'm 39 28, I wasn't even touching the timing that I think I'm capable off. But, then at 33, 34 and 35 I really felt comfortable timing and I felt comfortable doing the art. I'm not very good at it. It's good that I believe so much in the individual way of drawing. No one should draw like Rembrandt. You draw your way...and that is the best way ever. But, timing? When do you start seeing the world slower? Did The Mouscochist seem slow to you?

DL: No.
JRD: No. So I don't know when It slows down. Maybe at 60, maybe at 70? Right? But, we don't know... I'm only now getting through the Richard Williams book...and its been a long time since I've sought out a book of such use.

DL: What was your animation book when you were starting out?
JRD: I think the book that had the most influence would be Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston's "The Illusion Of Life".

DL: How does your work style on your independent work differ from the way you work on Courage...or is it different?
JRD: On independent films you give yourself a could be flexible to some degree but, if you don't give yourself a deadline you could work forever on something...

DL: Or never start it.
JRD: Or never start it. Good point. But it's hard to finish. You can start something, but how do you keep going? That's one thing I'm proud of. I can do that.

DL: Are there any plans to put a collection of John Dilworth shorts together for home video?
JRD: I don't know... I don't think I have that many that I actually own. I did a lot that were financed by others...Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network. I also have a few that are unwatchable. They would just be under the category of early work, immature work. And then, mature work, QUESTION MARK.

DL: Is there any larger metaphorical or personal meaning behind your new film, "The Mousochist?"
JRD: It was about being a jurist at Annecy (2001) and how repulsive I found the whole experience. We had some members that were very acrimonious to the films...and I felt that it wasn't a celebration of creation, but a celebration of who could defeat the next person. Individuals intended to destroy someone's work. I was opposed to that. I realize we're in a society where competition is vital...its the only real way discern between great art or meaningful art and mediocrity...and would we ever get a Michealango if he wasn't a competitive soul? But.... I'm opposed to this idea of competition is all we should live for..(Who is better than the next person). It (The Mousochist) came at certain crosswords...falling in love with this false illusion of being a jurist in a festival that was going to celebrate art and creativity and find the good things in these everyone an opportunity to have their work be seen...and it's about doing the series, and its about personal relationships. For me it's 'You went after the things that you could, that you desired,' and there you can have it.. But, the thing is, you lose your head! I mean...Why do you go after these things that you know will harm you?!! It's naive.

"The Mousochist" (2001)

DL: The Mouse in "The Mousochist" may appear to be ignoring the cheese by reading a newspaper or exercising...but, it's really on his mind the whole time.

JRD: Right. But, also it's about going against his nature. I mean, how could he avoid the cheese? If there's something you desire it's going to be pretty hard to walk away from it. Why do we do the things (that at least on some level) we know is going to bring us harm? In the end, he got his cheese. Psychologically, it's fulfilling. But, how do you get out of it? I doubt he'll ever attach to his body again...and even if he does, is he going to be the same mouse? I don't think I executed the picture well enough...I'm not certain that people know that the mouse knows that the cheese is attached to a mouse trap. I've failed in that regard.

The Mousochist, we did in an island in Croatia on the Adriatic Sea. I was there and no one spoke English. I was staying at this beautiful place but, I wasn't talking to anyone and no one could talk to me. Between breakfast and lunch I would animate and then after lunch when everyone else was taking a siesta I would do it again and then go to the beach. It was just fabulous. It just worked out. The drawings are this big (gestures a 6 field). John pulls out a box of index card size drawings from The Mousochist. Including the mini BG.

DL: Did you corner register all the drawings?
JRD: Yeah, that's what I did. J. Stuart Blackton. The drawings are just shy of a 6 field. I had this metal straight edge that I held the drawings against. By the second week, I could flip five of these drawings! Talk about needing to draw and make something. I actually feel pretty comfortable doing little tiny drawings.

DL: What other creative endeavors do you have going on that people know least about?
JRD: Don't you feel that our lives should be creative in everything we do? As best that we can do? I mean, do I knit, do I cook? Yeah I do those things. I transplant trees. I sculpt. I paint. I do what you can. But, I don't know what else I'd be doing if there wasn't animation. Being in the service of other human beings would be a high thing for me. If I couldn't draw anymore, I'd be in some humanitarian field.

DL: What is the next big challenge for you? Any interest in working in feature films?
JRD: There's many things. I want to do this short CGI film. I'm also going to work on a new short film, something more substantial. We're waiting to hear word on a new pilot for Cartoon Network. I'd like to start development on a Courage feature. But, we'll see, I have to go down and start meeting with that Power Puffs has come around. Courage would look fantastic as a feature, visually. I have a story. I just have to get the momentum. Courage is winding down now. By August or end of July we deliver our last show. Then I can focus more on the pilot and the feature. It's what I'd love to do. Then I also want to do an independent feature.

DL: A la Bill Plympton?
JRD: God! Is he not our hero?

DL: What does the "R" stand for in John R. Dilworth?
JRD: Rumplestilskin. Raamses. Reticent.

Courage the Cowardly Dog, season one, is available on DVD.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Xeth Feinberg's Adventures in Webtoondom, Part I and II

I've been an appreciator of Webtoon pioneer, Xeth Feinberg, from the moment I first saw his work in the mid 1990s. We've since become friends and collaborators, having spent much of the last three years working closely together on a variety of animation projects.

When I became president of ASIFA-East in 2000, one my first goals was to revive the newsletter, creating a need to wrangle people to write articles. By 2001 it was clear that something historic had just happened in the bubble burst that destroyed much of the first internet media businesses. Because Xeth was a key player, as a paid director and content provider on these new platforms, I bugged him to get his then-recent experiences down on paper. On February 2, 2001 he wrote the sobering and informative "Adventures in Webtoondom, Part I, and, (almost exactly one year later) followed up with a part II.

There's all kinds of heroes in this business. On one side you have artists like Andreas Deja or Glen Keane that lend their talents to the support and glory of established institutions. On another side you have more entrepreneurial-minded individuals that carve their own path, as Xeth has. I'm delighted to be able to use this post to collect Xeth's essays on the historic early days of the internet cartoon, which although being fairly recent history, is still in need of being properly and respectfully preserved. Xeth's adventures are a reminder of the rise and fall of all animation eras, as well as our collective ability to survive and reinvent ourselves no matter what the industry throws at us.

(written Feb 2, 2001)

by Xeth Feinberg

Over the past year I found myself swept up in the middle of "The Great
Webtoon Explosion of 2000." I was in the right place and time when the
mysterious powers that be, flush with hubristic venture capital, decided
that short, easily down-loadable cartoons were going to spearhead a new
wave in web-based mass entertainment.

As an independent animator and cartoonist with a background in CD-ROM
animation, at the dawn of the new millennium I had been mastering the
potential of Macromedia Flash (the miraculous little computer
application that makes webtoons possible) for a bit over a year -- which
practically made me a wizened old expert in the field.

In 1999 I was already making my pseudo silent era black and white
"Bulbo" animations, cut my teeth on a series of childrens' interactive
storybook webtoons, and created the first more or less fully animated
webtoon series for, "The Existential Adventures of
Astro-Chimp." I also did enough other freelance Flash production work to
have learned a lot about how NOT to efficiently produce webtoons. I
worked solo and was able to turn out a finished webisode in a week or
less. All this work was getting seen, and though I was making a living
at it, web animation still seemed more like a fluke than a career.

Xeth Feinberg's silent era-flavored creation, Bulbo.

At the start of 2000 things started heating up. New web portals and
"destination sites" were being touted (and funded) as the "next
television." Because Flash animation files (unlike video) were small
enough to be easily viewed by the average websurfer, demand for them exploded.

In January, I was contacted by a startup called Located in
Los Angeles, Icebox was founded by TV animation writers from shows like
"The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill," and well-funded by e-investors.
The idea was to get a bunch of TV-legitimized professional writers to
create the number one online original animation site... but they still
needed "un-famous" animators and directors like me to actually produce
the shows.

Icebox sent over a couple scripts and the best belonged to writer Mike
Reiss, a long time executive producer for "The Simpsons" and co-creator
of "The Critic." Mike had an idea for a surreal little series called
"Hard Drinkin' Lincoln," featuring Honest Abe as a drunken lout who routinely ends up being shot by a comparatively sympathetic John Wilkes Booth.

You'd drink too if you had the responsibility of holding the Union together.

Though he hardly knew how to get online at the time, Mike's scripts were
intuitively well-suited to the web. They were short (under 3 minutes
total), mixed verbal humor with at least one good visual bit each
episode (avoiding the deadly "talking head" webtoon syndrome) and --
just as importantly given the tight deadlines -- could be produced in
about a week. Starting in March, "Lincoln" appeared weekly as one of's first and ultimately most popular offerings, eventually
totaling 14 episodes. Icebox soon offered "Hard Drinkin" T-shirts,
stickers and drink-coasters to fan the buzz.

Icebox gave total creative control to it's writers and, fortunately for
me, Mike Reiss immediately took to my character designs, storyboards and
animation style. Communicating mostly through email, Mike and I
developed an easy collaboration: He basically left the art and direction
to me, typically making relatively minor notes on the finished episodes
a few days before they posted. Mike supervised the vocal recording in
Los Angeles and edited the files. I handled the music and overall sound
design with the help of my audio producer Sam Elwitt. Ultimately I
assembled the final Flash file in my New York studio with the help of
only one or two part-time helpers at any given time.

In September, Mike and I teamed up again to produce a second series for
Icebox. "Queer Duck" chronicles the adventures of a bunch of outrageously gay animals drawn in an almost cuddly cute style. The
launch date was set for National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11... leaving
basically only 10 weeks to completely design, direct and animate the
first five episodes from the time I first saw the scripts. Featuring
vocals by Jim J. Bullock, RuPaul, Billy West, Seinfeld's Estelle Harris
(as Queer Duck's mother Mrs. Duckstein), "Queer Duck" became the most
popular series on Icebox with some 50,000 viewers logging on the first
day it posted. Once again stickers and posters were printed, mentions
appeared in national magazines and newspapers, and a Queer Duck-suited
lackey even marched in Gay Pride parades to great acclaim.

Queer Duck sharing a bed with Openly Gator.

Everything happened so fast I didn't have time to put together a larger
capacity production team even if I really wanted to. Just keeping up
with Icebox took most of my time. Nevertheless, in early-summer 2000 I
found myself in the middle of a bizarre bidding war for my old character
"Bulbo," who had meanwhile won a couple awards including the New York
Flashforward 2000 web award for "Best Cartoon" and ASIFA-EAST's
"Excellence in Writing" award.

Infamous never-was POP.COM (their lawyer's first question was "can we
buy your company?") wanted to get Bulbo cartoons on their site. Luckily,
currently-existing San Francisco-based presented a more
intriguing webtoon syndication plan that also preserved all my rights
while providing production funds upfront. (I was frankly lucky in
signing the Bulbo deal in the summer, when the world of webtoons was
still near it's peak.) Though things have certainly cooled off, since
November thirteen Bulbo cartoons have been floating around the web with
the rest of Mondo's well-received "Mini-Shows."

So here we are in early 2001. The well-documented dotcom meltdown has
clobbered web animation along with many of the entertainment sites that
sponsored it. Icebox at one point had over 100 employees but is now
seeking a new round of funding. Plans for up to 15 new "Queer Ducks" and
five more "Lincolns" are on hold, along with other projects. Mondomedia,
a more flexible company, has scaled back its short-term expectations for
Bulbo's impending world-wide hegemony. Mishmash Media's nifty loft-like
office on West 28th Street, rented in June and designed to handle the
40-plus high-budget webtoons I expected this year, may have to be
abandoned for a more humble space.

In some ways, the web animation scene has come full circle. Just like in
1999 there's still work and opportunity out there but the crazy boomtown
mentality is gone, at least for now. If you got into web animation like
I did -- as a way to make your own stuff cheaply, creatively, with
minimal outside interference, taking advantage of the web's miraculous
world-wide distribution system -- then there's still a lot to be excited about.

Adventures in Webtoondom, One Year Later
Or, The Odd Case Of "Queer Duck"
(written Feb 1, 2002)

by Xeth Feinberg

Last February, when I wrote an article for this newsletter detailing my
exploits as an independent Flash animator, the internet bubble had
already burst like an infected boil and the virtual dust was settling
upon the remains of countless web-based entertainment schemes and mostly
forgettable webtoons.

With as much zen-like calm as I could muster, I watched hard-won
production deals morph into so many "recipient unknown" emails as
companies I'd been cranking out cartoons like "Hard-Drinkin Lincoln,"
"Queer Duck" and "Bulbo" for went belly up or down-scaled into near
invisibility. Nobody wanted to fund original internet animation once
somebody somewhere finally pointed out that there was no working
business model. It was just like the documentary "" only with
cartoons. Fortunately, I did have a working business model.
Unfortunately, it was producing and selling animation to the other guys.

With a heavy heart and a pretty good party, I bailed out of the nifty
Mishmash Media loft space on 28th Street I'd confidently rented just
nine months before. (Note to people inexperienced with Manhattan
commercial landlords: Don't try this at home.) I consoled myself with
the knowledge that many smarter, more sophisticated people had
over-extended themselves far worse.

I spent the summer getting back to basics: Thinking about some cartoon
ideas, driving across the country, and goofing off. After two years of
meeting crazy deadlines, it was a welcome, if unsettling, break.

Xeth, a prolific writer and cartoonist cranks out numerous wonderful gag cartoons, such as this one, each year.

Visiting Los Angeles, I parlayed my vast fame into lunch with the
founders of (the formerly leading animation website that
fueled my own rise and fall), snuck into a party where Matt Groening
said he was a big fan of my Bulbo series, and got a free T-shirt at the
Cartoon Network.

During all this time, there was one blip of potential on the horizon:
What would happen with "Queer Duck?"

In the fall of 2000 I designed, directed and animated five episodes of
"Queer Duck" for Written and created by Mike Reiss, who won
Emmy's for his work on "The Simpsons" and "The Critic," "Queer Duck"
follows the off-kilter adventures of a gay waterfowl and became Icebox's
most popular show. It was also the only one that anybody else wanted to
invest in. When Icebox went bankrupt in February, 2001 (something I
learned by reading a blurb in the New York Times) there were still
rumors of funding more Queer Ducks. Good news, especially since I was
still owed money for three of the original episodes.

The next eight months involved endless phone calls trying to keep tabs
on all the bankruptcy mess. By mid-September, when acrid skyscraper
smoke billowed through my Brooklyn apartment window, Queer Duck seemed
doomed, not to mention incredibly trivial. Imagine my surprise when I
suddenly started getting calls from a lawyer at Showtime Networks.
Showtime had been struggling to wrestle free the rights to Queer Duck,
feeling it would be a perfect compliment to their hit cable show "Queer
As Folk," and had finally succeeded.

In only three and a half more months of expensive agony, the lawyers
worked out a simple 30-plus page agreement that let me get back involved
in the project. Soon I was happily storyboarding 15 inspired new Mike
Reiss scripts, this time for a company that had been in business for
more than eight months.

Working out of Brooklyn, and taking full advantage of Flash's
flexibility and the ability to work in a 'virtual office' by email and
computer, I'm now churning out the new Queer Ducks on another manic
schedule. Veteran flash animator Chris Siemasko and musical producer Sam
Elwitt round out the Mishmash Media team, while vocals (featuring Jim J.
Bullock, Billy "Ren and Stimpy" West, Tress MacNeil, Estelle "George
Costanza's Mother" Harris and others) are recorded in Los Angeles,
overseen by Mike Reiss and coordinated by Joel Kuwahara.

Animation production started in early December and on January 23 SHO.COM
unveiled an impressive new website with the original Icebox era
episodes. Each week one of the new three minute cartoons is posted, and
every Tuesday night "Queer Duck" is also shown on TV right after the new
season of "Queer As Folk." (Demonstrating again the flexibility of that
swell little Macromedia Flash application.)

No one will confuse the animation in "Queer Duck" with "Fantasia" (as if
that's what we were after), but it does a good job of bringing the
flamboyant characters and fabulous story to life with zest and personal
style, in record time -- if I do say so myself. (Nudge nudge to anybody
reading this at a network that's using more of this new technology.)
Even while animation in general is in a sad slump, like a truly flaming
phoenix, Queer Duck has miraculously risen from the internet junk heap
to find a new and bigger audience.

The cheerful and resilient Queer Duck spawned a wonderful direct to DVD feature, directed by Xeth, in 2006, and the fowl character resurfaced again, this year, in new animation Xeth created as a trailer for the upcoming San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. It seems, you can't keep a good duck down.

Check out Xeth's work at:

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Animondays Interview: Doug TenNapel

Continuing with another interview post from my archives, this time I'm happy to share the unpublished portions of an interview I conducted with creator Doug TenNapel (pictured above) in 2008. The subject is on pitching and development for the animated series, something Doug knows a lot about. He's best known for creating Earthworm Jim, a character that spawned a famous video game, cartoon series, and toy line. He followed up that success with a short-lived series on Nickelodeon called Catscratch, and is currently working on a Cartoon Network original series called Phibian Mike.

Doug seems to have that particular blend of talent, tenacity, and salesmanship that you need to break through to success in such a rarified capacity within this fickle industry. Just what was Doug's creative approach to churning out pitch after successful pitch? I was interested to find out...

1-Describe how much you typically prepare for a first pitch meeting
(including what amount of art and written material)?

All of the time goes into creating the thing, so coming up with the pitch materials is the shortest part of process for me. Many of the characters I pitch have been on my work desk for years so when I finally decide to pitch them I just bang out a page or two of written material and maybe do three to five pages of art.

Usually I'll type up the pitch in a few days and do little sketches and doodles directly on the printed page. It's not very professional but it forces the executives to consider the visual as they read the material. Shows end up on a screen and there are no words to read in the final form so it seems odd to have the pitch written in some dry format that is usually only written because the language of Hollywood is the word on the page.

(A still from TenNapel's creation, Nickelodeon's Catscratch)

2-Have you ever created or pitched a project with one or more partners? If so, what were the pros and cons?

I've only partnered up with one guy in my life. I did Project GeeKer with Doug Langdale and it was a great experience. It just wasn't for me. I still run into Doug from time to time and I think we worked out so well on GeeKer because it was relatively early in our careers and it was the right project at the right time. I've made offers to certain partners where I was interested in writing with them or doing a show but those shows never took off.

3-At what point does a creator require legal representation (a lawyer)? And what's the best way to find a good lawyer specializing in animated entertainment?

The best time to get a lawyer is when a studio shows interest in something you've made. The legal side of television is pretty boiler plate on most shows so there aren't any big surprises. If you go to a lawyer that specializes in animation you've already limited the pool to about 12 people...all of whom will have done more deals than you've had warm meals.

4- How much effort have put into copyrighting your creations prior to pitching? If so, what steps did you take?

I do little or none. I have so many hundreds of characters that I couldn't copyright them all. Once the pitch starts getting heat at the studio, I might secure the domain name (if available) but it's never a big deal. Just before the contracts are about to be signed I'll usually properly copyright everything since most contracts want to make sure you indeed own the property you're pitching.

5-How would you describe your pitching style? Can you describe how you pitch in a meeting, step by step? (NOTE: part of this answer already appears in my book Animation Development.)

My style is short and to the point. Once we start talking about the show, I'm not going to use a lot of flashy images and memorized junk to make my show about a two-headed monkey seem like less of a show about a two-headed monkey.

All pitch meetings start with the studio offering me water. I think it's because they assume we show creators are probably homeless and we can't afford a 1 dollar bottle of water. They offer water, but I ask for coffee. I'm usually seated at a conference room table or sit in the office of the executive featuring witty furniture and a few hard bound art books they
didn't read but make them look like they really like some obscure graffiti artist from Iceland. We chat about the weather, about my four kids, about my height (I'm 6'8"), about my graphic novels, and sooner or later we move to the material I set on the coffee table.

I keep the pitch SHORT because length doesn't accomplish anything (trust me on this, I'm 6' 8"). I'll give the title "KID BLAST!", a description of type of show,"It's a puppet animated action comedy for boys six to eleven." then I'll give a brief description of the show's content, "It's about a kid and his gingerbread dog who just want to 'have a blast' everywhere they go. You see, the kid and dog like to have fun but the dog is made of cookie so they can't get him wet and bad guys want to eat him. By the end of each show the dog is eaten or melted and Kid Blast just bakes up another batch of his favorite mutt."

I show them one image of the kid and his dog, present them with a paragraph description of the show, a paragraph description of the main characters and three to five sample episode ideas and our meeting can be done. I'm already checking my watch and offering the executive an out in case the material just isn't for them. They usually have a few questions to feel out the material. It really isn't that hard of a decision at this point, either they get it and see dollar signs or see it as something that will kill their
career if they make it. Sometimes we go back to talking about movies or friends and families, or how interesting my artwork is in the pitch material, but essentially, a show has been pitched.

A low res work-in-progress still from one of TenNapel's Solomon Fix, a short he made for Frederator's Random Cartoon program, which gave the creator a chance to play in 3D animation.

6-How useful have pitching extras (such as a bit of finished animation, voice or song track) been to you in a typical pitch meeting?

If I could afford to animate them properly I wouldn't need a studio to pay me to do it in the first place!

I think executives like to participate a little more in the execution of the show. If you cast one bad voice or have one bad joke at the wrong time, you've just put a really bad thought in one of the world's less creative minds. You're not going to be able to get them to imagine the show any other way than what you've shown, and that's usually a bad thing. If I was doing a Pee Wee's Playhouse, I don't see how an executive could get the pitch without seeing something visual first...but with most pitches, the executive will imagine something better than you could produce. Let the execution be vague.

7-Do you have any recommendations for how to best write world/set-up, character, and plot descriptions for a series pitch bible?

Every show really only revolves around a few characters. Get the heavies right and don't worry about the rest. If the supplemental characters are great and the chemistry between your lead characters stink, then it won't save the show. But if your lead characters are right on and the world, episode samples, spelling is wrong nobody cares. They can make GOLD out of the core group.

I spend most of the time thinking out why these characters need to be together, what they represent, what a young audience will find exciting and accessible about them that I don't think a whole lot else is needed.

8- Any advice for creating show art for use in a series pitch bible? For, example, how much, and what is essential?

The lead characters, a bad guy and maybe a background is all that's needed. Frankly, I would pick up or drop a show based on the main characters. If the core characters are good you've got a show. I don't care how appealing the main character's uncle's dog is.

9- How did you find your creative team to produce your pilots?

I call in people I know. Usually the core team are going to be my go-to guys who solve all of my problems for me over the last twelve years. I pick up a few superstars along the way so I know who I want for most of the positions on a show. I like to have friends on board, but I like to work with talented jerks too. And we're all kept alive by young, fresh killer talent just coming out of college. There are always these mavericks who show up drawing like an old-school Disney guy though they've just turned twenty one.

10-Any advice for new comers to pitching on how to best manage & cope with the emotional rollercoaster inherent in the pitching process?

You have to learn to enjoy pitching. You will pitch lots of shows before one is picked up for a pilot. You might even make a few pilots before one goes to series. I always feel better about a pitch if I know I've done my best. An executive might not like me show but I'd feel really bad if I wasted their time by not bringing them my best material for what I think should work on their network. After a year or so of pitching, the nerves started going away. Now I can pitch to anyone and I don't feel stress. I've pitched to everyone from Spielberg to Sam Raimi's company to Disney Channel. It's just fun now to see if I can get an executive hooked on my characters! You know what's cool? Most executives WANT to be hooked on some exciting story!