From the Blog

Posted by frankrause at 4:21 pm
Market House, Rhode Island School of Design

Market House, Rhode Island School of Design

Last wednesday I was out in Rhode Island to give a lecture at the Rhode Island School of Design. My alma mater. In the spring of 1999 I was on the 3rd floor of Market House about 20 hours a day painting cels for Mister Smile. I still have really fond memories of that place.

I was invited by Bryan Papciak to speak to the senior animation production class about working in the industry and pitching animated projects, and here’s my thoughts;

On Animation Production

The biggest difference between commercial animation and independent animation is that independent is more about the process, while commercial is about the result. The independent animator in me thinks Yuri Norstein is the best animator in the world, while the commercial animator in me is sickened by his 30-year production schedules. When Will and I made our first commercial film, Utica Cartoon, we had the bright idea to make it on hand-painted cels. We thought, rightly, that it was our last chance to make a cel film on 35mm. Aesthetically, we liked the feel of cels over Flash. We were thinking like independent animators. We could have made a better-looking film, without 15 re-shoots, if we had used Flash. If we had paid attention in production and compositing, our audience would not have known the difference. In the end, it was a decision that made the film more difficult to make without making it look better as a result. You were right, Mike Overbeck. You were right.

On Getting a Job and Working In The Industry

Make cartoons. Make a whole lot of cartoons. You might have to make them for free. This serves many purposes. It keeps your skills sharp while it teaches you new skills. It establishes your style. It feeds your reel. It gives you something to send to the festivals. It also makes you an Animator. Seriously, that’s all it takes. If you make animation, you are an animator. Of course, the standards are significantly higher to be a good animator, but in crappy economic times, a sense of purpose is important.

Don’t use the “hard sell.” Don’t be “in-your-face.” Don’t be in anyone’s face. Nobody likes that. If you’re speaking to someone who has the ability to hire you, and they know you’re freelancing or looking for work, and they’ve seen your work, and they’re not hiring you, it’s because they promised the job to someone else / don’t think you’re a good fit for the project / haven’t started hiring yet. If you ask for the job, you’re just putting them in an uncomfortable position. The best thing to do is give them your reel (see above!) and let them know you’re looking for new projects. Let them know you’d like to work with them in the future.

When looking for work, keep in mind that time passes at a different rate for you than it does for anyone with a job and a regular schedule. You might think it’s been six weeks since you sent a reel, but it’s really been six hours. Don’t call five times to see if they’ve had a chance to see your reel. Just make it the best reel you can, and put your phone number and email clearly on the DVD and case.

Make the kind of call they look forward to. No one likes getting a call or an email from someone who only has one thing to say: can I have a job? However, everybody likes watching cartoons. Instead of mass-emailing and cold-calling a bunch of studios, email a link to one of your new cartoons. Send a link you your blog.

Animation is, mostly, a friendly industry. Be nice. It would be hard to find a job even if you were the most talented jerk in the world. Showing your cartoons, writing your blogs, and going to animation events will allow you to meet and become friends with others in the industry.

Connections take a while to pay off. Some of the jobs I’ve found are because of nice folks I’ve met several years ago. In the meantime, make a cartoon or go to a festival, and bring your friends along.

When you find work, show up on time. Don’t show up an hour early and make the producer, who wasn’t expecting you for an hour, find something for you to do. Don’t show up ten minutes late and look like a slacker. Get there about five or ten minutes early.

Don’t use the internet for the first few weeks at a new job. Not at all. You will seem focused and super-productive compared to everyone who is stuck on Facebook.

When the director gives you notes or revisions on your work, whip out a notebook and write it all down. Directors love that. It gives you a checklist so you can be sure you’ve covered everything, and it also lets them know that you’re paying attention.

If you’re asked to change something, don’t take it personally. It’s your animation, but it’s not your project. That’s what your independent stuff is for.

If it’s all right with the producer and director, get a copy of the finished project to put on your reel. As an animator, you’ll want to save everything you do. Just make sure you ask permission and give credit where credit is due.

On Pitching Animated Projects.

Know the person who’s getting the pitch. Do some research on the network. Don’t pitch a fuzzy bunny show to Spike, unless the bunnies are exploding. Don’t make it sound like you’re pitching your idea to every network in the world in an attempt to make them jealous or make yourself seem worldly. Pitch them something that’s tailored to their needs.

Remember: You want to make a cartoon. They want to make money. I don’t mean to make it sound like a horrible, mercenary business, but the best cartoon in the world won’t get made if it’s not something people want to watch. Also, there is plenty of overlap. You want to make money. They want a cartoon in order to make money. Just keep this in mind as you get feedback. As an independent animator, you’re probably used to working very instinctually. When pitching, you need to think with someone else’s instincts. “What would a twelve-year-old boy think of this?”, you will find yourself asking.

Keep in mind that you are communicating something inside your head to a bunch of people who are not inside your head. You will need to communicate your ideas in clear, creative, interesting ways. You can’t just say, “It’ll be great – trust me.” This is particularly true if your idea is weird. Think about animating a short sample. Include lots of beautiful and interesting images. People will often misinterpret “Leave them wanting more” with “Don’t show them too much stuff.”

Work in a studio. A series is a huge undertaking, and having familiarity with the inner-workings of a production studio can help in your understanding and level of comfort in pitching a project. It will help you build the connections you need to be trusted with the responsibility.

You might need help. Maybe you need to work with a writer. Maybe a studio can back you up as a possible site of production. A series will often cost millions of dollars, and you need to demonstrate that you are ready for the task or that you have a team of people that can help put the show together.

Now I’m going to go work on a cartoon.

Posted by frankrause at 8:00 am

This thing is fun. It’s annoying that I can’t precisely control things, but I like being surprised by the accidents.

Posted by frankrause at 2:38 pm

Whoa. I knew this day was coming, I just didn’t know when. There’s a new website that allows you to make cartoons by simply typing in dialog and adding gestures and camera movements.


Well, no sense in not fiddling around with it! Here’s the first episode from my new series, “ER…”

The reassuring thing, for someone who’s spent a while in film school, is that it’s totally possible to make a horrible film with these tools. There’s not a lot of control. It can take a few minutes to render a preview. You’re stuck with deadpan dialog. There’s only a few facial expressions. No overlapping dialog. That being said, it’s really fun to play with.

My parents could make a cartoon with this. Mom! Dad! Make a cartoon!

Posted by frankrause at 2:16 pm

Will and I have been hammering away at a music video for Miles Kurosky‘s upcoming solo album for the past few months. Miles, along with Nik Freitas, are the team that did the fantastic soundtrack for Upstate Four. Click on their names to listen to some of their songs on MySpace, they’re awesome. We asked for the shortest song on Miles’ album, which is about a dog in a burning building.

Anyways, I thought I’d post some stills from the video. Will and I have it broken up into fifteen-second chunks, and we’re each handling our separate parts. I’m working in Brooklyn and Will’s working in Providence.

Still from Miles Kurosky video

The first chunk I worked on was animated with pen and ink in a flipbook style. The drawings are only about an inch by half an inch, but when I scanned them in at 1200dpi I found that they would work fine in 1280×720 resolution. Also, working small kept me from getting finicky about the animation. I made the border with construction paper, tearing little holes in it, scanning it in, and keying out the holes. It’s put together in After Effects with 3D layers. I’ve been meaning to try out the technique Javan Ivey created with “My Paper Mind“, but with a digital workflow. I’m not as into razor blades as Javan is.

Second still from Miles Kurosky video

Then I just had to go and make things complicated. Dammit. During the chorus, Miles’ voice is overdubbed many times, and it reminded me of the theme song from the Muppet Show, where the audience resopnds with “Why don’t you get things started?”, and it sounds like a crowd, but since it’s mostly Frank Oz and Jim Henson, it also sounds like two people.

So I decided to make a roomful of muppets singing the chorus. Again, dammit. First off, I had to make a muppet. I don’t own any muppets. I was lucky enough to find an old pattern from the 1960’s of a muppet. I also had some foam left over from when I made a scooter seat. It was too thick, so I cut it in half with a very sharp blade. A word of warning: don’t use thick foam to make a muppet. Thin foam, like the kind you can get out of a couch cushion, works best. Thick foam, like the kind in a scooter seat, won’t stay together with contact cement. Then you’ll have to glue AND sew the whole thing together. Also, thick foam insulates very well and after thirty re-takes under hot lights your hand can get pretty sweaty.

The plan was to use one puppet, but mix up the features and color shift it in After Effects to look like many different puppets. I made the eyes out of ping-pong ball halves and hot-glued thumbtacks inside so I could move the eyes around. Also, there are yarn wigs and felt features. The only color fur I could find at the fabric store was blue, so I made everything on the puppet cool-colored and shot it against a red screen. I only had my cheapo digital camera that shot at 20fps, so I slowed the music down by 120%, then when I sped up the shot footage, voila! 24fps.

first puppet footage looked like this.

Then, as I was going to sleep, I thought “Dammit! The song is about a dog! If I had put dog ears on the puppets, it could have been a theater full of DOG puppets!” The next weekend, Will was in town, so I shot about 20 videos of dog-eared puppets singing along. Much better.

Second puppet footage looked like this. With Will's wild pupeteering, the eyes sometimes popped out.

With the new and improved footage, I started putting it all together in After Effects. In retrospect, Maya would have been a better choice because of After Effects’ problem with lights and camera moves, but that’s all hindsight. The dogs were put together in groups of five with their chairs. Seven groups of five were arranged to make the whole crowd. Initially I wound up with 597 layers, which makes this my biggest AE project ever. There’s about 2300 puppets in the audience. Of course, very small proxies were rendered so that RAM previews weren’t all that bad. The whole thing was lit with red and yellow lights, which really helped tie the colors together.

A couple tips working with 3D After Effects:

Motion Tile is a handy effect. The carpet of the theater is a motion tile. This allows you to repeat textures over and over for backdrops.

Camera moves are very tricky in After Effects because of rendering time and because of the way all three coordinates are tied to the same ease-ins and ease-outs. First off, shut off all unecessary elements. I roughed out the camera moves using just the theater set. Secondly, parent the camera to three nulls and use each null for a different direction. That way, you can have a steady Z pan as the camera eases to the left and right.

I think my next segment will involve pyrotechnics.