Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Odd Jobs

I've done some odd jobs in my day. I was a traffic cop at a County Fair. I unloaded watermelons out of a produce truck. I trapped gophers out of local farms and sold their feet to the township. I posed as a wax figure in a Hollywood museum. All this was just to get extra money. What I really wanted to do was work in Animation. Well, young critter, once I became a professional in that industry, I found a lot of odd jobs! As a pilgrim moving up the food chain, I gained experience at a number of jobs. I could draw, I could animate, I could tell a story, I could take orders and, when the opportunity arose, I could give orders as well. I'll give you two examples...

I was approached by a feller that wanted me to produce a music video for him of a group of kids singing "Happy Birthday". You know the song but did you know that the song is copyrighted? Yep. This feller licensed the rights. He figured that videos were the next hot item. If he could personalize them by adding a spot of animation to the head of a purchased video, they'd make great birthday gifts. I asked an intelligent question about what name we would record when you came to the part of the song "...Happy Birthday, Dear ???...". He had no answer. True personalization would require a custom recording of the name and animation of a character saying that name in animation. It was a quandary. Such a question almost killed the job. PILGRIM TIP #1: "Never ask a question you don't have an answer for!" I suggested that we include a dog in the animation that would cheerfully bark at the moment a name was called for. Good answer! The picture moved forward. The film was a simple affair. It was just a puppy with a row of kids in their party clothing holding balloons in front of a simple but colorful card. They sang, the camera cut close on the dog who barked and cut back wide for the finale. It was a husband and wife venture. The wife art directed, the husband financed and I jobbed out the work to an animator, layout artist and a background painter. I directed, painted the cells and moved the finished work through to delivery. What happened after that? I'll probably never know. The little film just disappeared.

I also worked free-lance by mail for a small commercial house in New Mexico. They'd send me a script, a pre-recorded sound track, sometimes an existing model of a character and a tiny budget. I'd do everything else. I drew the storyboard, designed the characters and did the animation. This was all sent back to New Mexico where they finished the commercial, sent me a copy of the finished film and a check for the work. It was a lotta work for the money but fun when you're young and need material for a portfolio reel. Well, I did a commercial for a local (New Mexican) dairy that had a pre-existing character of a boy as its logo for their milk. I didn't care for the design but did the commercial. They loved it and sent me another. While I was working on a feature film, I got a call requesting I do another milk commercial. I refused. The money was bad and I had a full-time gig. They begged. The client insisted that the same guy do the commercial. I offered to find them a good replacement and I'd check in if they had any problems. Grumbling, they agreed. I knew of two good artists temporarily out of work and they jumped at the chance! I offered to give them the contact number and they could run the job directly through the New Mexican agency. "No, no!" they said! They didn't want any contact with the business guys. They insisted that I talk to the client and broker the job to them. "Are you guys nuts?," I asked! "Do all the work yourself and keep all the money". "Nope, nope!" They didn't want to hassle with the "suits". So, I took the job, gave it to the two artists and pocketed an agreed upon fee for the service.

That was the day I decided to become a producer.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Doing it the Hard Way

When I was a boy, steam locomotives still hauled freight but were becoming obsolete. The local meat packer in my town donated such a locomotive to our county history museum. The freight yard, where the locomotive was, and the fair grounds, where the museum was located, were on opposite ends of town. A connecting railroad track would have made delivery easy but it didn't exist. So they delivered the locomotive the hard way; they built the track as they went! They laid wooden ties down the center of a paved street just ahead of the locomotive. They put steel rail atop the ties and gently bolted them down. The locomotive drove along the rails the 40 yards to the end of the track, stopped, and waited until the workers ripped up the track behind it and relaid the tracks in front again. It was agonizingly slow progress but fun to watch! Eventually, the locomotive was delivered and no indication of the temporary trackage remained behind.

I've worked on productions like that, except they were no fun to watch. Enthusiasm and money rush in and form a company but before they even survey the track, they've bought a locomotive. Next they acquire a building to house all the employees and fancy furniture. Finally. they pick a destination but argue over which route to take to get there. By this time, the investors wonder when they're going to take their first ride. Suddenly, there's a rush to finish the railroad but there's no money or time left. So, they lay the tracks just ahead of the train, drive a short ways, stop, and wait for money to build farther along while the creditors tear up the tracks behind them. In the end, they've delivered a disappointing project but no trace remains of the company they built.

It doesn't have to be done the hard way. Survey the market, do a business plan, acquire the financing, build a realistic budget and schedule (in other words survey the route and lay the track) and then buy the locomotive! Nothing works like success. With the railroad in place and product moving along the line, the orders will come rolling in. A quality product made on time and on budget always brings repeat business...and a great sense of satisfaction. Animation film making is a business. It follows the same rules as any other business. Hire someone successful at the business of creating and operating an animation production before you start laying track or buying motive power. I've worked on productions that ran like a tuned watch. It takes a mixture of seasoned professionals, eager young apprentices, practical businessmen and courageous investors but this is the easy way to run a railroad or to make a movie about it. Hard work makes a well run operation look well as a lot of fun to watch.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Atristic Intregity versus a Paycheck

So, Young Artist, what's your price? What will you "sell out" for? Remember, as a member of the animation industry you fall into the category of "Commercial Artist". That means you do "art for hire". If you want to draw strictly for your "heart and soul" you must choose "fine art". A "fine artist" draws what inspires him, what gives him pleasure. It doesn't matter what style the art is in, all that matters is whether the artist works according to his own vision NOT someone else's. Jackson Pollock, Andrew Wyeth, Pablo Picasso all fall into the category of "Fine Artists". They drew first and sold, if they could, their work later. Some well known painters crossed over the line separating these two categories and did "work for hire". Toulouse-Lautrec, Peter Paul Rubens, Michelangelo, Maynard Dixon were all known to have done family portraits, ceiling murals, book illustrations and poster designs for a fee. Other famous illustrators such as N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell were perfectly content to make a living in commercial art and never labeled themselves as fine artists.

You, Dear Animation Artist, fall into that last category. You are a Commercial Artist and your work is bought and paid for as you do it. And you do it according to your employer's direction, even if he has no artistic taste what-so-ever. When I got into the business, my employers and supervisors were all professional artists. They taught as they directed. I got better, they got richer. It was an honest trade-off for the education. Today, animation is often controlled by investment bankers and business school graduates. Art is a product and they are the sellers of that product. It angers them when your work does not illustrate their vision, which they are unable to describe graphically to you. Yet, you, as a professional, must find a way to work with these employers.

I worked with a great designer who knew his employer very well. When designing a character for a new show, he would draw about a dozen variations. Then, he would stack them in the order he wanted his boss to see them in. The top four drawings were the best versions. The BEST drawing, his choice, was the third one down in the stack. The balance were just additional drawings that illustrated how bad this character could be drawn. He said his boss would always reject the first drawings he saw and only make up his mind after seeing multiple choices. This professional designer said the third drawing was the most often picked but he could feel good about any of the first four. You also must learn a technique necessary to help blind men see.

This does not mean you have to prostitute yourself or your art for money alone. If it's only about the money, then there are other ways to make it faster and more agreeable. I choose a project for three reasons; I like the project, I like the money and I like the people/person I'm working with. When working in children's television, I found that the product was almost identical from studio to studio. Liking the project seldom factored into my decision. I would change studios only when considerable more money or advancement was offered. After I established myself, I would sometimes take a lower position in order to work on a more prestigious project, like a feature film or to work with a known director, like Chuck Jones. The truth is, most artists work for love. If they only worked for money there would be a lot more rich artists out there. Money does not make you smart or talented or ethical, it only gives you power. I'm more than happy to exchange power for the ability to make smart, artistic decisions that help others to do their jobs better. So, if your dumb, untalented and corrupt employer insists upon doing your job badly, be prepared to walk away. If the job hurts, stop doing it!

During an interview, Hollywood Joe, the smartest and most successful artist/producer in the business, was asked what advice he could give new artist film makers based on his years of experience. He answered, "Be prepared for disappointment." 'Nuff said.