Saturday, September 26, 2009

Two Things

Finished David Levy's new book, Animation Development from Pitch to Production earlier this week.

Seems so long ago, earlier this week, when there was time to read whilst now there is hardly time to sleep...

Back to the topic at hand.

The book is enjoyable.

Dave pulls off a casual, conversation tone in his writing. This is a rare skill, and he applies it well. I don't think his tone always works on a public platform, but in this book its pitch perfect.

The tone reinforces his overarching point -pitching an animated property is about building relationships on a personal level and developing your own distinct voice. He reinforces this argument (and most of his other points) from three positions; examples from well-known creators, opinions of network executives, and his own personal experience. Its a good formula.

Of course the book never addresses "why does everybody want to have their own TV show?" But it shouldn't. That's different book. But its a great question.

We would like a longer format series for business reasons. A series represents a long term contract. We've been fortunate to have had several medium-term contracts; 4 months, 8 months, 1 year. Those are enough to keep going and expand in fits and starts. A series, that represents a growth explosion.

Creatively, there are a few things we'd like try that require long term narrative lines or the development of complex characters.

I can't say Animation Development from Pitch to Production is particular helpful to me (beyond a codification of our own experiences and shared ideas on the process) -but for someone who's developing their first idea, or is interested in a "behind the scenes" look, or a student intent on being one day behind the scenes themselves it's a goldmine.

Importantly, it is interesting reading.


On another note, Igor Mitrovic called the other day to tell us about his new site:

He's described it as "an animation-only YouTube".

We've seen several of these sites, and I've never really cottoned to them. But Igor is a terrific animator, an extraordinarily talented guy. He was the only person (in my experience, anyhow) that Tissa David would let inbetween her animation. That's not entirely accurate. He's the only artist she wanted to work with.

We're going to start uploading some of our films there.


William Gadea said...

Richard, you write:

We would like a longer format series for business reasons. A series represents a long term contract. We've been fortunate to have had several medium-term contracts; 4 months, 8 months, 1 year. Those are enough to keep going and expand in fits and starts. A series, that represents a growth explosion.

Growth for its own sake? And what happens to that growth after the series folds? The money is in the IP. Being in TV animation on the production side only is frustrating because (1) the margins are lousy, and (2) your client is pretty much indifferent to quality.

Of course, if you'd like to produce a series because you think it would be fun and fulfilling, that's more than good enough reason to do it. But business reasons? Come on. What American independent studio has been able to pull that off on a consistent basis, if they didn't own a piece of the IP or had a healthy commercials business on the side?

David B. Levy said...


Thanks for the thoughtful review. I'm very pleased you enjoyed the book. You are one of my favorite commentators on the animation scene, so it means a lot!

William, the small studio that survives is one that is constantly expanding and contracting as needed. I don't think Richard is talking about a reckless type of growth here. So, if there's a series order, the small studio can take on the needed resources for that order without having to keep those seats filled just after delivery.

And I think its wrong to assume that a client is pretty much indifferent to quality. They are paying for the product and they will likely have an opinion on its content and quality. If it were as you suggest, they would just say, "show it to us when its done and whatever it is we'll air it just the same." While there could be examples of this, I don't think its the normal scenario as you suggest.

Don't be automatically anti-client. That's an outdated notion. I'm sure Richard could list clients he's had a great experience with, as can most studios or freelancers.

roconnor said...

I'd have an easier time listing bad clients.

At Asterisk: 1
At The Ink Tank: 1

Unless you count people who are cheap or don't want to pay. But that's different problem.

I think we're fortunate that people won't come to us looking for careless work.

Will, I think David addresses your point neatly.

In our situation we've gone from one employee one month to 12 the next back down to one.

That makes payroll for the times of many employees a scramble to make because of the payment structures on contracts.

What a series means from a business point of view is a reliable source of income for two years-meaning no worries about paying staff PLUS the ability make capital upgrades which are impossible on short form budgets without going into financing (which can strangle a small company).

The issue you're getting at, I think, is "What happens business-wise when the series goes away?" That's a great point.

If you own your capital and your overhead is low, you can still create good work on non-series projects. Even better, perhaps, because of the upgraded infrastructure provided by the series.

One thing, for me anyway, is that a series is not an ultimate goal. Many studios see it as that. The core stability offered for a long term fosters the ability to continuing working on interesting underfunded that we otherwise couldn't. (These projects pay for themselves, but not the overhead. That's for a different post.)

One final thing, we've got several terrific artists in the studio on our medium-term contracts now. I've learned a lot from them (and hopefully them from each other), creatively -a two year contract for two dozen people would (I hope) engender an even greater collaborative lesson.

To add, you're right in predicting the results of expansion in many ways. Those results have fallen on companies who care about money of product. I'm too bad a businessman to do that.

I appreciate your disagreement, I'm sure you know that being disagreeable is one of my favorite things.

Michael Sporn said...

I'll have to order a copy. Your review is compelling enough and Davids first book is a gem. One would assume the second would be fine as well.

William Gadea said...

David, I'm very pro-client, but a TV network is likely to have different interests than you or me. They tend to not care too much about the quality of the animation. I hear that over and over, most recently from the SuperJail panel you yourself hosted, but you hear the same story from Larry Schwartz and others.

Richard, I cherish and enjoy disagreement too! So let me spell it out a bit more.

Take a studio like Augenblick, which I think has incredible chops. There's three possible paths for them: they develop a reliable commercials business and become like Klasky Csupo or Curious. They develop their own series, and become like Scholastic (although probably for the wacked out set.) Or they keep ambling from for-hire job to for-hire job until they meet their studio-killer production. Again I ask: who has managed to do that for more than a few years at a time? That should be a clue that it's not a very attractive business.

Yes, there's no doubt that series make you a better studio. I saw that at Animation Collective. But that skill helps you get more series work... it's not really going to get you high-end commercial work. Is there a major American corporation (used to paying six figures for 30 seconds of animation) which will look at a series (where six figures is used to make 22 minutes of animation) and say: "that's what I want my high-end spot to look like!" I don't think so.

Having said that, let me say that working on series is great. If you do something like make a gag work, even if the show only has a cable audience, you're making a small city of children laugh. That might not be curing cancer or bringing peace in our time, but it counts for a lot... at least for me. I also love looking at the fan sites of the shows I work on. It makes me realize that I've contributed just a little bit to the cultural memories of a whole lot of folks. In the final analysis, it makes me feel better than peddling products does.

So it's worth doing... just not for the sake of business!

roconnor said...

I won't comment on how other people run their businesses, but I will say that the six figure commercial is a thing of the past.

Building your studio with that as the backbone is a sure recipe for bankruptcy (financial when they don't come, creative if they do).

I also feel that focuses solely on series work is a bad move. Especially in New York where the big client (Viacom) routinely will pull productions in house and the esoteric talent pool leads to a lot of impractical training in production methods.

OK, I will cite another company as an example. Richard Winkler once told me that Curious came dangerously close to shutting down several years ago. Commercials disappeared. What saved them, improbably enough, was their toy line.

Since then, they've made a concerted effort to diversify -with series work forming an important component of their revenue.

The average lifespan of an animation studio is five years (at least that's what I read a long time ago).

This is because many on hooked on trends (remember all the fly by night design "collectives" that pop up and sprang off with the crude art motion graphics craze) or stuck with one market, style, or worse yet client.

Longform series work, for us, and the capital improvements it would bring is an important part of the business agenda.

Not so important that I'd produce something I didn't like. I could make more money working for somebody else if I was willing to work on films I don't like.