Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Gone Native

The best guides across the western wilderness have "gone native". This is a term, often of derision, used to describe a man who has lived too long among the native tribes he works with. The tell-tale signs are there. He has a native wife. His hair and clothing reflects the style of those who trade with him. He'll sit on the ground before he will a chair. He points with his chin. He punctuates his dialogue with sign language gestures. He speaks in phrases known only to the initiated. These "native" guides were often distrusted by the Eastern men who hired them because they feared their loyalty was suspect. Yet, the most prosperous voyages used these men.

New investors seeking to penetrate the American animation market will do well to put their faith in a guide the natives trust. You'll need a crew to make your fortune and a good guide, trusted in the business, knows the best people for the job. Artists are funny people. They see things differently than other folks. They aren't very good at schedules, budgets, international currency exchanges or even test marketing. And they are very distrustful of people who do know those things,...unless they can draw. They can seem obstinate, lazy or untrustworthy to someone who only thinks with their left brain. A guide who knows his crew, their strengths and weaknesses, can position them where he knows only their best will shine. I have learned my craft from the best in the business. Legendary men who were flawed but gifted. I have come to know that often the most visionary of men are not always the most reliable. But when surrounded by a talented support crew the product produced exceeds expectations every time.

Fur traders leaving Montreal in the East to make their fortunes in the West, beyond the far coast of Lake Superior, manned an eight to twelve man canoe. In the front went the visionary, the Avant, to warn of dangers ahead and to plot the best route. In the rear was the Gouvenail, the practical man, whose skill at steerage guided the boat to safety. Ranging along each side of the canoe were the Milieux, or middle men. They were the common rowers and packers who did the hardest work but bore the least responsibility. Sprinkled about the milieaux were "singers" who knew many songs and sang out to aid the rowers to pull in cadence along the journey. These "singers" were paid extra because their songs made the work easier and the trip faster. In the center of the canoe sat the Bourgeois. He is the leader of the crew. If any man of the canoe suffers an injury that makes it impossible to do his job, the bourgeois takes that job over. He has done all the jobs in the canoe including cataloguing the goods and keeping the ledger.

Dear Investor, when you leave behind what you know to travel into unknown but rich territory, choose the right man to sit next to in the canoe. Choose a bourgeois that knows the route, knows his crew, knows how to keep the books and, just as important, knows how to sing! Then, when the wind is blowing, the rain is falling and practical efforts fail, the songs will pull the canoe through the waves to the prosperous shores ahead.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Studio Ownership...Part One.

I played with feature animation for awhile. After Nandu's exit, a constant drain of talent left Vinnie's studio. I stayed on until the last moment requiring a formal "layoff notice" for termination. This allowed certain unemployment benefits to kick in. Afterwards, with feature "credits", I followed another animator over to the next feature in town. This one was funded by Asian money with a young Asian designer as studio head. The money was good but there seemed to be less structure at this studio than the last. There was amazing talent hired but no clear direction as to what the story was that we planned to tell. And so we drifted into development purgatory for months, maybe years. I saw my opportunities for advancement and creative expression wane away. A veteran animator saw it differently: "I have no problem being a rich man's play thing!" I was too young for such philosophy and I slid into a creative depression.

So, I quit that comfortable job and opened my own studio with no prospects and no clients. This was something I often talked about with my animator friend Nandu, so I suggested we team up. Nandu was reluctant to get involved. Starting your own studio was a big risk and he was already running a nice side business doing publication illustrations for a big studio. So Nandu deferred. I made a few phone calls and let it be known that I was available and a few small jobs came in. Then the television animation season kicked in and I became one of the "farm houses" the major studios jobbed overflow production to. A couple of nice little product commercials ended up in my hands and the studio made the rent. In fact, my wife, who was against the whole enterprise from the start, had to admit that by the end of the year my income had exceeded the salary I made at the feature studio!

Now, Pilgrim Artist, I know what your thinking. You think that starting your own place is the fastest way to success. I beg to differ. For me it was the course of last resort. I'm a brick by brick kind of builder. Over the years as I acquired more respect and opportunity I moved up the pay rate. Client meetings, self-promotion, budgets, schedules, taxes and expenses, long hours for no extra pay, artists who fail to deliver and someone else's vision to perfect, was NOT my idea of the perfect employment situation. Yet, I was doing okay and my self-image picked up. This was noticed by friends and acquaintances and everyone wanted to attach themselves to a "winner". Best of all, I thought, Nandu came back.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Telling Tales

When you're leading a pack train through the wilderness, every man in the group has a job to do. Some know what plants are useful for food or medicine. Others are experts at horse-wrangling. There are blacksmiths, saddle-makers and gunsmiths in our outfit. Everyone has an essential skill. When asked what I did to benefit the group, I answered, "I tell the stories." I believe storytelling is essential to survival. Storytelling preserves the history and accomplishments of a culture and, if well done, entertains as well, thereby assuring their repetition. Telling tales is what I have done all my life. Coupling this talent with an ability to draw led to a career in animation.

I still tell stories as a living. As a layout artist, the way I pose a character tells a story about the character through their body language or dress. The way I compose the character against the background I design sets the mood for the story to be told. As a storyboard artist, I interpret the script in a graphic manner that creates a film around the story told. As a writer, I determine what story will be told on the screen. An animated tale lives or dies by the story that is told through a multitude of hands and minds.

When you're telling multiple stories for a television series you don't just tell one story at a time. You design a series as you would design a painting. You choose a point of focus and you lead the eye around the painting through a series of planned elements, shapes or color, to give the desired effect. You didn't know that's what an accomplished painter does? That's good! The exceptional painter never wants you to know that you're being manipulated.

So it goes with an accomplished storyteller. You design the first episode to introduce the key character and all the people he will being working closely with throughout the series. You create an exciting story that will set the tone for all the stories to come. And, more importantly, besides the beginning, you design a through story that gives you a middle and an end of the series, or at least, the first 13 episodes. This allows the creator or story editor to instruct his writers in the type of stories that need to be told to advance the goals the series is heading towards. Have you noticed that the most successful series on television, with the best written stories, all have this forethought put into the direction of the show? You haven't noticed that connection? Then, the next time you're planning on producing an animated television series, give the Mad Animation Prophet a call!