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.