Thursday, December 22, 2011

Animondays Interview: Linda Simensky -part I

Pitching is on my mind these days because I'm prepping (along with my partners, The Levinson bros.) an original 5 min self-produced pilot and mini bible for use in a major round of pitching in January and February. Pitching is not for everyone, nor does it line up with everyone's goals for what they want to achieve or explore in the art and industry of animation. But, those that are curious about this interesting area may find this post useful.

Linda Simensky, PBS Kids VP of Children's Programming, was the first animation development executive I ever met. Level-headed, funny, and an expert in her field, she's been a trusted friend and mentor to me for almost two decades.

Simenksy's official bio:
In her role as VP of Children’s Programming, Linda Simensky collaborates with producers, co-production partners and distributors throughout development, production, post-production and broadcast for existing and new series including Curious George, Dinosaur Train, The Cat in the Hat Knows A Lot About That, Super Why!, Martha Speaks and Sid the Science Kid for PBS Kids, as well as WordGirl, The Electric Company and Wild Kratts for PBS Kids GO! Prior to joining PBS, Linda was SVP of Original Animation for Cartoon Network, where she oversaw the development and series production of The Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, Courage the Cowardly Dog and other major projects. Linda began her career with a nine-year stint at Nickelodeon, where she helped build the animation department and launch such popular series as Rugrats, Doug and The Ren & Stimpy Show.

Without further ado, here's part 1 of my interview with Linda Simensky (pictured above and, below, in cartoon form from PBS Kids' WordGirl), conducted in 2009 for use in my book, and appearing here in it's entirety for the first time. Enjoy!

1-What do you think the most common frustrations creators have with the typical network pitching and development process?
I am lucky that in the course of my career, I've been able to work with a number of people who have done great work, and I've had shows and even pitches where the experience has been completely positive. Those moments come when the creator not only has a good idea, but understands the goals of whatever network I am working for. I, in turn, find it works best when I understand the goals and bigger vision of the creator I am working with. These moments are the ones that make a development job worth it.

On the other hand, there are certainly many times when pitches are painful -- boring, not interesting looking, or just wrong for us. But what I think the creators are feeling is just an overwhelming amount of stress. I have been taking pitches for a while now, in three different companies, and the experience is fairly consistent. The pitching process is fairly stressful for both sides! If you are on the network side, you have to walk into each pitch thinking "this might be our next show." I often sense that the creators are walking in thinking, "these people don't understand how great my project is going to be."

I always get the sense that creators and producers sense that we are holding information back -- that we know the answers or we know exactly what we are looking for and we're just not sharing it. I think they tend to have the sense that development executives are not being completely honest.

I also think that creators often feel that if they could just speak to the person in charge (if they are pitching to the rest of the department, for example,) that person would love the project and it would get picked up. Of course, a good project will generally excite anyone in the department.

Also, I think that creators sense the development executives get bored easily and are looking at their watches. This may be true some of the time. On the other hand, sometimes a minor crisis of some sort is unfolding, and then it's 2:00 and you are off to a pitch. It's impossible not to seem distracted and unfocused. Sometimes it helps to be honest about being distracted.

2-What, if anything, about this process would you change if you had the power to do so?
First, I'd find some way to make the process much less stressful. I used to joke that I was renaming the pitching process "come in and tell us about your idea," so it would sound less stressful. But the nature of the process is that it is stressful.

Also, many people who pitch are either not that great at representing their property, and many don't seem to know it well enough to make the pitch completely sound enticing. What creators can do is know their properties and be able to talk about them, rather than reading from the pitch or doing an unfocused pitch that doesn't really represent the idea. Give examples of how a show is funny, rather than saying it's going to be funny.

There are some other mistakes that creators and producers make when pitching:
- When you are pitching to a network, know what shows they produce and watch them before coming in.
- Don't think that your show needs to be exactly like the other shows on the network. They have those shows already.
- Don't insist that you know a network better than the executives sitting there. Maybe someone's trying to do something different.
- Don't tell me that other networks really like the idea and are interested. The pitching process is a lot like dating. So if you wanted to date someone, would you tell that person that many other people were interested in dating you? Or that you were interested in dating other people? Your goal is to convince the networks why your project is perfect for their network.

There are also some mistakes that executives make when taking pitches.
- Be as honest as possible. It is hard to say no, but I think most people would rather have an honest answer than to think the pitch was great and then get rejected.
- Don't act too self important. Someday, you might be on the other side of the desk, pitching to this person.
- Sometimes the pitch you are looking at isn't one you fall in love with, but perhaps this creator will be back with something better next time. You can offer feedback and/or encouragement, rather than just some terse comments.

3-What are some common problems you often see in show art in a pitch bible?
There usually isn't enough art. If you are pitching and you've only bothered to draw one drawing each of the main characters, that doesn't usually capture the feel of the show. And if the characters are posed for presentation or a character lineup, they can look pretty static. The optimum pitch, from my point of view, has rough art as well as finished art, and shows characters in a variety of situations or actions. If the show is meant to be humorous, the designs should convey that.

Many times, people will put badly drawn art in a bible. For those who do not have a background in designing characters for animation, consider hiring someone who does. The ability to illustrate is not the same as the ability to design for animation. And someone's ability to "draw just like a Disney animator" is not the same as actually being an animator. Unattractive, badly drawn or amateurish designs often ruin what otherwise might be a good idea.

4- What are some common problems you often see in plot synopsis's in a pitch bible?
Much of the time, there is too much written and it doesn't really tell much about the show. Try to be succinct, and most importantly, make sure it is an interesting read.

I always have a stack of pitches waiting, and I tend to read the shortest ones first. And if a pitch doesn't interest me right away, I don't always finish it. If a pitch isn't interesting to read, the show probably won't be much better. I should be hooked at the very beginning of the pitch.

Don't spend much of the pitch telling us how funny it will be, make it actually seem funny and that will go along way in convincing us you have the right tone.

5- What are some common problems you often see in character descriptions in a pitch bible?
Sometimes a great deal can be written about a character, and yet we still don't know much about this character. Sometimes, people have very little information about the character, othen that how funny they are going to be. Try to describe the character using terms that capture the character as if it were a real person. Make us believe this character is believable and interesting. If you want people to tune in every day to see what this character is doing, make us care about the character. When creators use very basic and bland terms to describe a character, you end up with a character who doesn't seem particularly interesting. If you need to practice, write a description of yourself, the way you'd want to be described. Most people have more than one or two character traits.

6- What are some common problems you often see in world/set-up descriptions in a pitch bible?
Creators often come up with very high concept ideas that are interesting in the pitch for a few minutes, and then just seem like they take time away from the more important parts of the shows. When someone pitches an idea where the world concept is highly stylized and everyone has names that are animals or plants or colors, I usually end up thinking that if I don't love the characters, I don't care how cleverly their world was constructed or how high their high concept was.

Sometimes a world just isn't believable and a creator's defense is often, " Well, this is my vision, in this world, dogs fly. That's how I see it." But there is often something missing or underdeveloped that makes you continue questioning the world.

7-For a first meeting with a creator, do you prefer to see a few of their ideas roughed out on two sheets before they go through the larger effort of creating a full pitch bible?
This tends to be a matter of personal preference. I prefer to see something at the very beginning, and at this point, I can tell people if the idea is interesting and a good fit for us.Then they can go back with some feedback and develop it a little more fully for us specifically. When people walk in with the foamcore-mounted characters or a finished pilot, I usually sense that they aren't open to much feedback. But on the other hand, it's very rare that someone walks in with something that works perfectly for us with no additional feedback.

8-How many pages should a pitch bible be?
I find that the initial pitch can be around five or six pages and that can include everything that I would need to see in a first draft. A typical pitch for PBS will end up fairly lengthy in the end since the show needs to be educational as well as entertaining, and the pitch also needs to be for all platforms, not just for television. But there is no need to communicate much more than the basics at first. These basics include the initial idea, the main characters, their world, the visuals, the curriculum, and five or six stories. In a final pitch, the curriculum document would be much longer, their would be an interactive/web plan and a list of advisors, as well as several other items, for example. But that just underscores the difference between a pitch for a series and a pitch that represents the idea across platforms.

9- How important is presentation in a pitch bible? For example, if the show is about furry green monsters, should the pitch bible be bound and covered in furry green fluff?
This is a matter of personal taste, I believe. I personally have no particular interest in how well the show is packaged if I don't fall in love with the basic idea. I have never picked up a show because it was packaged well for the pitch. I have wondered in some cases if the person behind the pitch might be better suited for a marketing job at times. But again, it is a matter of personal taste -- some people are driven by visuals to the point where the thought of sending something that wasn't cleverly packaged just seems wrong to them. But we tend not to pay much attention to the packaging, unless it makes the project unwieldy. (It's true, green fur doesn't file well...)

We have an ongoing joke about people who have their projects professionally bound at the printers, because the first thing we usually do is tear the binding off to have copies made.

If you want to put your time into something aesthetic, put it into making the artwork in the pitch as compelling as possible. If someone were pitching a show that had a comic book feel to it and they made the cover look like a comic book, or they did a few pages of a fake comic book that made me laugh, I'd be much more impressed.

10-Do you like to be thumbing through a pitch bible during a pitch meeting or is it a distraction?
It's a distraction to me to be thumbing through a pitch. I'd rather have someone just talk to me about the show. After all these years of taking pitches, I still have no idea if I am supposed to follow along with a pitch or not unless someone tells me specifically what I should do. It's different from pitch to pitch. The easiest for me is when someone brings art they can hold up, and then at the end, they hand out takeaway pitches for us to review.

11-What is the best way for a creator to present an animated pitch in a pitch meeting?
I prefer when someone comes in and can talk fluently about the show, can show artwork by holding up a bunch of examples, and can then capture the idea in the pitch they hand me to review. I also prefer smaller pitch meetings, as the conversation is usually better and more natural. What I hate most in a pitch meeting is when people read to me.

People usually want to know if they have to have some animation to show. They don't, but I can think of a few times when people walked in with some Flash animation that was pretty funny, and it certainly helped to get us excited about the idea. On the other hand, I can think of many more times where a weak demo killed the property for us right then.

12-How much of your development content is found or pitched to you at industry events such as MIPCOM or Kidscreen each year?
Many projects are pitched at these events, but few turn out to be right for us. I find events such as Kidscreen helpful for meeting people, but I find pitches at these events to be rushed and awkward. I find myself taking pitches from people who are not familiar with what we are looking for and are trying to pitch to as many people as possible.

In a typical pitch in my office, there would be some time to chat and learn more about the person pitching and for them to learn more about what we are looking for. The whole pitching process can be a little more relaxed, and more feedback can be shared. At Kidscreen, chances are that I am scheduled with back to back 15- and 30-minute pitches all day and after about the third or fourth pitch, my ability to concentrate is shot. At Kidscreen, I prefer taking pitches from people I'd have no chance to see during the rest of the year.

***Stay tuned for part II of my interview with Linda Simensky next week! Till then, Happy New Year!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Creativity and Writer's Block

Tonight is the last day of my SVA Animation Careers class. This is the first time I've taught the class in the fall and it's been a real pleasure. In the past the only opportunity seniors had to take my class (which is a graduation requirement) was the Spring, smack in the middle of the mad rush to complete their thesis films. But whichever season the class hits, there's been one consistent variable among the students: a fear of writer's block. I get a lot of questions about that and it's a curious thing.

After the writers block questions flared up this term I asked the students, "How many of you have gotten ideas for future films you'd like to make as you've been working on your thesis films?" Every single hand in the room went up.

When you are being creative and in-process on something, ideas just seem to flow––ideas and solutions for what you're working on and stray bits of new ideas you'd like to explore in the future.

I've brought this up before, but I think I learned something about creativity by being the son of an Ad man. My dad would use his entire 4 hours-per-day commute to fill backs of envelopes and scraps of paper with scribbles of new campaigns, concepts, logos, etc. One doodle would lead to the next. But, he would have never gotten to the best stuff without having gone through that process. Quantity of ideas lead to quality. His job was just to put them all down on paper (as fast as his hand would allow) and with the understanding that the good ideas will stand out. Creativity and editing are separate stages. I think a lack of awareness in this area is what is confused with writer's block.

For example, I develop, write, and pitch proposals to networks each year, but I don't think I would be accomplishing that if I began development with my editorial hat on. To start that way would be saying, "What's the best possible idea I could think of?" That would be a sure way to kill creativity because it sets an impossible standard for any ideas to follow. A better beginning would be to ask your self: "What do I enjoy?," "What areas of interest of mine can I start with to get things flowing?"

After all is said, writer's block does exist--just ask Stephen King, who has used it as a central topic in many of his novels. No matter how comfortable we get in our brainstorm process, there will be times when we hit a wall. But, there's always options or exercises to help with that.

When I had trouble starting the storyboards for my latest film, I engaged Willy Hartland to do the storyboard (see one of Willy's original panels above), thus allowing me to focus my attention elsewhere. And, you know what? Being able to build off of what Willy did gave me the confidence to get started, even allowing me to take some of his sequences to the next level and reboard certain sections with new ideas once I figured out what I was doing. And, none of that is to fault what Willy did. I love his storyboard. But, just a like a creative brainstorm, a first storyboard is a conversation starter. Solutions and the right path to the finish emerge as you work. They don't come as easily (or at all) by staring at a blank page.

Monday, December 12, 2011


I don’t know what I’ll be working on professionally, year-to-year, so the only way I know if my career is on track is by making sure I'll have new experiences. All of us get some degree of new experiences through the work we do for clients, but the most reliable source for new challenges is from creative works you generate your self.

Since 2007, I’ve amped up the regularity by which I’m making indie films (averaging about 1 every year-and-a-half), and these projects ensure that whatever happens in the economy or to our industry, I’ll make my own new experiences no matter what.

Films allow one to experiment with so many elements: the visual development that usually takes place at the beginning, the approach to the storytelling discovered in the storyboard, the pacing of the film established in the animatic, the style or design of the animation that emerges as you draw picture after picture, the audio styling that tells half your story and in ways that the visuals couldn’t alone, and the fabric that is all these elements stitched together in the final product. The indie short filmmaker has final say over all these ingredients–– there’s truly no other venue (as animation people) where that freedom exists.

Another thing I appreciate, is how these projects give us something positive and creative to occupy our thoughts. Sometimes while I’m walking, about to go to sleep for the night, or brushing my teeth, I’ll get an idea of how to restage my scene-in-progress, or a solution for a tricky camera move, or maybe hatch a new name for the film. In short, when you’re working on a personal film, there really is no time away from it. You’re always thinking about it, improving it in your mind, and forever going through the creative process. I find this to be a very addictive.

Once a film is done it’s like preparing to launch fireworks. Some are duds, and some explode to their full glory maybe even going beyond expectations. But, unlike fireworks, after a film burns through a two-year festival run, it still exists, building up a body of work for the filmmaker. Above and below are stills from my new short, which is only days away from completion. It’s almost time to aim it away from my face and light the fuse…

Saturday, December 3, 2011

He Played it by Ear

A still from "The Ballad of Archie Foley - he played it by ear," a 1995 film co-directed by Candy Kugel & Vincent Cafarelli.

I was very sorry to hear that Buzzco Associates, inc. co-founder Vincent Cafarelli died last week. Vinnie was one of those people that you assume will always be around. Passing away at the age of 81, his career spanned from the days of the theatrical short (Famous Studios) through the golden age of NY animated commercials in the 1950s and 60s, and concluding in the present era's botique studio of the Hubley's model.

I met Vinnie so many times over the years, going back to when I first attended an ASIFA-East board meeting at Buzzco in 1995. Vinnie didn't stick around for the meetings, but as he was heading out the door we always exchanged a few pleasant words. I was aware of his talent and reputation and I admired his warm and gentle disposition. In 1996 when I was on a layoff from Michael Sporn's studio, I officially interviewed at Buzzco where Vinnie and his studio partner, the friendly Candy Kugel, sat me down to check out my work. At the end of the interview, I asked if I could stick around to watch all their films, which they had compiled on a single video tape.

I had already seen at least two of their films at ASIFA festivals, but this was the first chance I had to see the full body of their work. I was blown away by the variety and quality of the shorts. I particularly loved the films "A Warm Reception in L.A." and "We Love It," both of which were tongue-in-cheek looks at what it's like being an artist working in a commercial field.

After the meeting, they invited me to stay for lunch and eat with their crew. For someone newish to the industry who was currently out of work, sitting down to a meal with the Buzzco family made me feel a little more hopeful, and a little less lonely before returning to my apartment to face the rest of my layoff. That was the shop that Vinnie and Candy built. A family atmosphere that happened to be professional animation folks churning out award-winning indie films and top-notch commercial assignments.

I had the pleasure of seeing Vinnie only two weeks ago at an Academy screening, where we chatted about Brooklyn. Vinnie lived in Cobble Hill near my wife's Aunt. I told Vinnie I was living in Brooklyn too and that my dad was from Brownsville and my mother from Canarsie. Vinnie said to Candy, who standing near by, "We have another Brooklyn boy here."

After I heard the news of Vinnie's passing, I kept thinking about Buzzco's 1995 film, "The Ballad of Archie Foley," which depicts the life of a gentle man who spent his days in the entertainment biz, albeit in the largely uncelebrated role of foley sound recording. How apt a metaphor for animation people who similarly toil behind the scenes in anonymity. Still, I think the majority of us wouldn't have it any other way. We speak through our drawings and our films, and through the people left behind that absorb that work and it's lessons.

Vincent Cafarelli has left behind a rich legacy and we are richer for having had him a part of NY Animation all these years. For a more detailed account of Vinnie's career be sure to visit Michael Sporn's post. My thoughts are with Vinnie's family, Buzzco's extended family, and with his partners' Candy Kugel and Marilyn Kraemer.