Sunday, May 25, 2008

Animation Purgatory AKA Development

Purgatory is a transitory state. You're no longer where you've left from and you haven't arrived at where you're going. It's a Way Station where the horses are changed. It the first Stage Stop after Euphoria. In animation production it's known as Development Hell.

You've arrived in L.A., Naive Investor, with a bag of money and what you believe to be a great idea for an animated film. The natural indication is to jump right into making your movie. If you've chosen your guide correctly, he won't let you do that. You have to answer a few questions first, like, where are you going? That question translates into "What's your market?" Who, besides yourself and your family, is the audience for the film you are making? If it's for children, what is their ages? Pre-school, 4-8 yrs.? School age, 8-11 yrs.? Or maybe Tweens, 10-14? Please don't say General Audiences! That designation means toddler (3 yrs) to toddler (85 yrs.). It is the hardest audience because it requires you offend no one which means you please no one. Narrow down your audience. For example, let's say you want to make a picture for your 8 year old. Fine. That child will be nine by the time your film is made, if your making a television series, or ten or eleven if you have a feature film in mind. Therefore, your audience is School Age (8-11 yrs.) and your series is made for entertainment but you want solid values in it as well.

Of course, you'll be wanting to do everything at once but the initial thing you need first, even before an artist or a director, is a script. You have a great idea but no cohesive story, at least not in a script form. Write your story or hire a writer to write it with you. Be prepared to pay for several versions of this story unless you have a real good idea in your head how everything goes and are really good at communicating that to someone else. You may need a writing team to supply additional ideas or gags. In short, be prepared to spend a lot of time (and money) getting your story in script form the way you want it told. The script is the blueprint of the film you are building. If you are investing in a television series, this first script is your pilot script. It is your sales tool to acquire others investors, a broadcaster or a distributor.

What's in that pilot script? A pilot script (like any script) must must be a good story well told. Did you ever hear a good joke told badly? You laughed when you heard a real comedian tell it but when repeated by someone who thinks a good joke is funny by itself, the joke dies. Those people should write jokes books but never perform. Film making is Performance Art. It's visual storytelling. So attach yourself to someone who knows how to tell a story well within the medium. Good novelists don't necessarily make good film makers. Now, a good story is essential but a pilot script for a television series must have more than that to succeed. A good story must introduce us to characters that are interesting. Heroes that we love and villains that we hate. A feature length film can be all about the STORY but a series has to be about the CHARACTERS. I'll introduce to some reel characters the next time we talk.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Losing the Green.

I know you're green behind your ears, Pilgrim. We all are when we start. You're still learning about the lay of the land, perfecting your craft and building up relationships. So, don't fret over the green, young one, it'll wear off. Most likely painfully but, most often, not fatally. Here's a couple of examples of how I lost mine.

I worked all summer, and then some, for the Farmhouse. I was having a great time drawing bubbles and drops from water animation and cleaning up the backside of a beautiful woman running away from camera. At break I'd "pitch pennies" with the crew and eat lunch out of a paper bag because I couldn't afford to go to a restaurant. But, hey, life was good! I had a steady job in the "industry" and got union pay and benefits...I thought. The way this benefit thing works is, you have a certain percentage taken out of your paycheck each week and this is co-mingled with monies the Studio pays in your behalf to the Union. This money is kept in a separate fund by the Studio and it will be turned over to the Union at certain times of the work year. This money pays for your health insurance and pension. Unless, of course, your boss lies about the amount of hours you worked. Under contract, you have to work 300 hours during a work period to "qualify" for health benefits. When I was finally laid off, the Union informed me that I hadn't worked enough hours to receive insurance. I checked the time I worked and found that my calendar and pay stubs (Don't EVER throw those away, Pilgrim!) showed I labored over 300 hours! The Union sent over their business manager to look at the Studio books and found my hours were under reported by a week! Their bookkeeper was gone during that time. They were SO sorry. That incident delayed my health benefits by 6 months. I had need of it then.

The next year, I followed Tumbleweed Tex over to another contract studio where I got to draw basketball players dribbling all summer long. I worked at a desk by the door in a small apartment-like studio. Directly behind my back was another animation desk, unmanned. The high shelves of the empty desk was used to hold the 20 cup coffee pot for the caffeine drinkers. The drinkers were supposed to go behind the vacant desk and draw their coffee from the spout. Of course, this meant several extra steps. One of the partners decided he could save time by turning the pot towards me, lean over and draw his coffee. Over time, this pulled the pot closer to the edge of the desk. One day, I rolled my chair back to get a good look at my drawing and nudged the desk behind me. The pot tipped over the edge of the shelf above and 20 cups of boiling hot coffee poured down my back! My screams brought assistance and I was rushed off to the hospital. I suffered first degree burns all down my back to my waist. At my belt line, where the coffee pooled up, I had second degree damage. For two months afterwards I had my dressing changed every evening by my wife and had a check up at a doctor's office each week. My employers complained about my absence when I had to go to the doctor. Although a torts attorney would have had a great time with this case, I did NOT sue. I considered my reputation as a loyal employee, new to the business, more valuable than the pain I suffered. That coffee burned the green off me, though. The red along my back faded away but there is a permanent ring around my waist as a reminder that loss of innocence comes with a cost.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Picking the Crop

Naive Investor, when struggling to set up an animation operation to produce your picture and make your fortune, be prepared to work hard at it. Choose as your confidant an animation professional that is accustomed to working hard as well. It's not a part time job. It quickly becomes your life. In my case, I learned early on that there are worse things than working 65 hours a week with no overtime pay. Worse things than seeing the sun rise over the top of your drawing board after working all night. Worse things than seeing the credit for the work you did go to someone else. The worst thing is to have no work at all. The Old Trappers worked the mountain streams from mid Autumn until the deep snows drove them into hibernation. They often starved over those winter months, sometimes eating their horses or even the soles of their moccasins to survive. After the Spring thaw, they went back to work until mid-summer when the pelts were no longer of value. Six months on and six months off.

The Animation Industry had a similar schedule. The companies would hire artists at the end of spring and work them through the summer and into the autumn. With the shows all produced, the artists would be laid off before the holidays in November. Why pay for Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Years? Six months on and six months off. See the similarity? It didn't matter if you were a Company man or a free trapper, once the work was collected, you were unemployed again. Animation braceros. You pick the crop, hurry it to market, then hunker down and endure the winter until work begins again in the Spring.

No one liked this arrangement but the Network production schedule demanded this kind of procedure. The company men worked for their meager pay, collected unemployment benefits and consoled themselves with their health insurance that carried them over until the next work season. The freelancers worked like dogs during the season, squirreled away their superior earnings , bought expensive toys and prayed they wouldn't get sick. The best of the company men were carried over the winter on salary, working on "special projects". The smartest of the free-lancers scrambled for the high-paying scraps paid for product commercials. A few of the company men did both. I did.

Being a Company Man took care of health insurance, vacation and provided extended employment. Working evenings and weekends as a Free-Trapper introduced me to contracts, clients and connections that would serve me through the years to come. It also allowed me a degree of freedom and creativity that my company job did not. I remember one such contract agreement for a company that produced educational films for schools. Like all school funded projects they had to be informative, entertaining and CHEAP. Because the money was meager, they allowed a great deal of creative freedom because they couldn't expect to make strong demands for the money available. For a young buck out to make a name for himself, this project was heaven-sent! I designed a project that had way above the usual amount of quality and quantity in it and consequently required an enormous amount of work from me, but who cared. I had fun!

That's the point of being in entertainment, isn't it? To have fun? Isn't that why you've chosen animation to invest your money in rather than pesticide manufacturing? It's like the old joke: Patient:"Doctor, what should I do? When I hold my arm up like this, it hurts!" Doctor: "Don't hold your arm up like that." If in the midst of your production you find that you're not having fun, stop doing what hurts. Pain often comes from carrying too much weight. It's all a matter of control. If you want to be in control of every aspect of production (And most new investors do), then expect to carry a lot of weight every hour of the day. Expect to spend the most time on the really unfun parts of the job. If you want to have fun, then let go of the jobs you don't like to do. How do you know before hand what jobs are fun? I suggest you choose a veteran guide that will walk you through the choices in advance BEFORE the drudgery of animation production stops being fun before it starts. The experienced guide has encountered every problem before and has a solution. Several examples follow. Script development can be fun, unless you're expected to have quick answers to complicated questions. Solution: Hire a Story Editor to answer those questions. Voice direction can be fun, unless you want to hear every "take" played back and compared to every other take! Solution: Hire a Voice Director to edit the "takes" you review. Reviewing all art work can be fun, unless you could care less what color the tablecloth is in the eating scene. Solution: Hire an Art Director to limit choices to what you're interested in.

The truth of film production is, it is not magic. It's just hard work. Great animated films aren't created in their entirety by an explosion of pixie dust. They are built one heavy stone at a time. It's called the Production Pyramid. Building that pyramid is a topic for another time.