Monday, May 31, 2010

Animation Budgeting - Part 3, Pre-Production

First order of business, congratulations go out to Steve Brodner and everyone at agency PJA for the National Cartoonist's Society Reuben Award for best advertising illustration. The award is for his work on Infor's "Down with BigERP" campaign.

We've been animating the campaign for the past year. It's rewarding to know that sometimes people agree with you about quality -in this case, it's hard to see anything other than excellence.


Most of us don't have ERP software to help us with budgeting and project management.  We're left to spreadsheets.

After years of using Microsoft Excel, I've switched to OpenOffice. It does everything the Microsoft Office suite claims but is an open source shareware.  It even opens those docx files which were a pain for Macintosh users.

Here's a blank page from a spreadsheet budget that we use.  This is for Category A - Pre-Production.

I'll go through line by line.

First, note there are blank spaces and room to add more lines.  Some budgets are thin -animator, director, material costs and that's it.  Other times you'll have line items that would never occur to you until faced with budgeting.  Maybe this film will require holes poked into 10 yards of vellum, or a storage of 100 pounds of ground beef for two weeks.  You never know.  

While generic budget lines are vague enough to account to these things under "props" or "rentals" the purpose of a budget is to know where the money is being spent, how to allot for costs.  Whenever possible add a line and be specific.  Remember, there is no formula for figuring out what something costs.  No one can say a budget is "wrong" if the costs are accurately accounted for.  

The only way a budget is "wrong" is if it knowingly underestimates costs for a project to the point that producing it on those terms will be impossible.

One final note before going into the line breakdown.  If you hire a lawyer, you generally give them a big piece of money up front that they bill their hours against.  When this money runs out, you give them more money.  When your bathtub springs a leak, the plumber gives you a bill for his labor plus materials.

In our business, we are expected to know what things will cost beforehand and we are expected to stick to those costs. 

Here's what have in the columns.

A: line number. There's no inherent value to the line number, it just makes referencing the budget easy.

Pre-Pro: accounts. "Accounts" as in "account" in your accounting software. These are accounts payable. In the left hand section these are PEOPLE. In the right hand section these are THINGS.

Units: how many of a thing (this works with RATE)

Rate: the cost per unit

Type: what is the factor of the Unit. Hour/Day/Week/Flat

bid: calculates Unit TIMES Rate. For example: Line Producer : 5 [units] weeks [type] at 1000 [rate] = 5000 [bid].

Let's go line by line.

101. Line Producer This should be self explanatory. Typically a line producer is on an animation project from start to finish, although his/her attention may be less important at certain phases of production (During art production the "production coordinator" often becomes the key manager. In many cases the line producer doubles as production coordinator.) They can bill weekly, ranging from $800 week to $3500 and up. A producer hired for a project will generally bill more than an in-house studio producer.

102. Design Director Here's where the world of animation gets tricky compared to live action. In commercial productions, the live action director is "above the line" and outside the production budget cost (usually 10% before mark ups). Animation has different needs, the director is on the job for months in a way a live action is not. To accommodate that, you can sometimes bill him or her under a line item. Sometimes it happens here. Sometimes it happens in the "animation" section.

More often, this is a line for the "illustrator". Some illustrators command high fees up to 20% of the budget. We did a commercial many years ago where the illustrator's fee was equivalent to the average yearly salary in the US. Even funnier, his work wasn't really usable and a studio artist wound up doing most of the design.

It's safe to estimate 10% of the budget for a lead illustrator.

103. Story/Treatment and 104. Screenplay The Writer's Guild (WGA) sets standards for writers. It's unlikely that an animation project will have a WGA deal but they're standards are a good guide. You can find the rates from their latest collective bargaining agreement on their website.

107. Storyboard Supervisor On long form projects it's likely there will be multiple storyboard artists. The storyboard supervisor keeps everything consistent. They are usually experienced storyboard artists. They are typically on a weekly rate. Of course, short form projects rarely need a storyboard supervisor.

108. Storyboard Artist We hold blanks under this line since it's a common place for multiple artists. These people can be paid on salary (weekly/hourly) or at a flat rate per board.

Artists paid at flat rates are generally independent contractors. The law regarding what constitutes an independent contractor is very clear. If you show up at 9 am every day, get your assignment from a supervisor and work on it until quitting time you are NOT an independent contractor.

Storyboard artists are likely to work at home and have no direct supervision of their daily work. They are given a flat assignment -"board these 10 pages" -and are left to their own devices. That makes them likely candidates to be independent contractors.

111. Storyboard Revisionist Often it's easiest for one artist to make corrections to all the boards. This can be faster and allow the "senior" artists to continue creative planning of new scenes instead of re-working already complete work.

Also, this an employee position.

114. Development Artist This is a worker who creates material that leads up to production. Sometimes this could be three or four people who create alternate looks, sometimes it's an artist who works up a "vision" of the project which may not be "animate-able" but provides a foundation for production art. Usually an independent contractor.

116. Associate Producer 117. Assistant Producer 118. Assistant to Producer 119. Assistant to Director These are analogous to their live action counterparts.

120. Production Intern From 1860 to 1865 The United States fought a cruel war. One of the results of that war was the XIII Amendment which reads:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United State, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

TRANSLATION: "Interns" must be paid. Usually at an hourly rate, usually pretty low.

122. Legal Fees It's rare this needs to be included. Sometimes they can be hefty, especially with rights clearances -those are a separate line in a different section.

Usually production contracts are boilerplate. They spell out "We are going to make XXX product for XXX buyer for the cost of XXX in XXX days. We won't mess up if you won't mess up." Once a lawyer gets involved on a work-for-hire project you're already losing. This is not the case for development deals or others specific situations, lawyers can be helpful on big projects. Most projects aren't big and a simple contract suffices.

123. Office Manager 124. Office Intern 125. Production Accounting 126. Reception 127. Shipping Manager These are what they sound like. Salaried positions usually hourly or weekly. Most budgets we create don't use these categories, they're costs that roll into other lines like "Producer". We include them here to give the idea costs should be isolate to the most precise detail possible.

The right hand column is mostly self explanatory.

These are physical costs associated with Pre-production.

We have also taken to including "overhead" costs here. This was done after specific clients insisted we lower our mark-up. That allowed us to unbundle overhead costs and apply specific budget lines. I like it better this way.

IMPORTANT The calculations at the bottom.

Subtotal A.1 This is the total of all the "people" costs in category A.

Payroll, P&W [Pension and Welfare] Guess what? You're making money like your all growed up! You've got to pay taxes like you're all growed up!

These are called "Fringes". I don't remember where I got the number, but for production related guilds it's 17.1%. If you're hiring a guild writer, director, actor these (along with their fees) need to be paid through a "paymaster" -a union signatory. For all employees you'll need to pay these taxes.

Medical/Dental Here's how you can be sure to get health insurance -make sure you charge your clients. Not every line item will have an insurance cost. It's usually only staffers. Every small business sets the terms under which employees can be covered. At our place, you're eligible after six months. Other employees can also opt in at full cost. I'm not sure how the recent legislation will affect this.

Subtotal A.2 The total from the right side of the page.

Subtotal A The total for the entire category.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Splash! Animation Notes 11/30/89

Now that summer has arrived, everyone will be animating splashes.

Here are notes from Tissa David's lecture of November 30, 1989.

Water will tend to stay in clusters as they break up.

Diving board will have character of its own -stiff, strong, force of its own.

Because of the weight of the bag, counterbalance. The man can be off balance.

Pushing a balloon [illustration] same mass arc

Pushing bowling ball [illustration] shoulder will move up.

Silk, extremely light. Settles slow (air is leaving).

Heavy winter coat -round corner indicates stiff not soft.

illustration of running water and oil.

Every action: body is important

Dance beat. Body is down (motion of body) then do legs, then do arms

Plan out pattern of dance with the body only.

Tap dance illustration. Dancing horse illustration.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Foxy Drawings

First in line is storyboard designed and drawn by Phil Marden. We were exploring big concepts with the client and worked a few designs which all follow.

Around 1998 or so we got a call at The Ink Tank from producer Sonia Rosario who was working to WGBH to develop a literacy show with some of the creative forces behind Sesame Street.

The show, "Between the Lions", was being created by a new company, Sirius Thinking.  The principals behind the show were Christopher Cerf, Sesame Street's great post-Joe Raposo composer, Michael Frith, coming from the Creative Director position at Henson where he created "Fraggle Rock", and Norman Stiles, head writer of Sesame Street for many seasons.

They were producing two episodes as pilots.

We were asked to create all the animation for these two shows and well as three live action segments.

We budgeted the work load of the series based on the promise of producing all the show's animation.

When the series went into full production, various studios were contracted at the rates we labored to figure for the pilots.  It took Brian and I about two solid weeks to figure out such a complex budget.

I admit, that bothered me at the time.  The world keeps spinning and we've gone on to do good work for the show as well as other projects with the WGBH, Sirius Thinking and other folks involved in the show.

That's the problem with "caring" about the work.  You can also be let down.

I don't even remember creating the above board.   I don't recognize the illustration either.

Since the show was in the development phase, we worked with the client to explore different ways of telling the story and teaching the words.

The series has a dual pedagogy.  The overall "theme" story uses the "whole language" technique.  It's sort of like immersion.  Words are introduced in context and highlighted.

These are boards for the "whole story".

Ron Barrett did this version.

A variation on his highlighting technique made into some segments in the broadcast series.

Ultimately, Between the Lions chose my favorite designs.  In a rare move they picked the least "cartoony".

Michael Frith suggested something in the style of Walter Crane.

Ron Barrett, not content to just be good, showed off his quiet brilliance with these illustrations.

These are screen grabs from the "textless" version of the film.  The funny framing is to make space for copy.

One guess who animated it.  A quick glance at the crows on top or the fox on left should be plenty of material.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Dogs on Film

About 10 years ago Brian and I worked on a commercial for Purina ONE dog food.

The spot (which ran for a long time) featured a newspaper cartoonist (actor) who did a daily strip inspired by his dog (dog).  It was mostly a shot of him talking in his studio and cut aways to the dog doing cute things.  Overall it was a very well produced ad.

We did a few little bits of animation for it.  One shot had a close up of a newspaper "come to life".  The final shot had the animated dog run in to cue the logo.

What we had the most fun doing was making some of the dressing for the set.  These included a series of dummy comic strips and a comics page to put the animation into.

Of course, these strips aren't visible but the model drawings we created are.

This was all done by the great Ron Barrett.  Readers may be familiar with him as the artist behind the book "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs".  Older folks might recall his "Politenessman" strip for the National Lampoon.

Regrettably, I can't find the comics page he made.  It contained maybe 20 or so original comics, some his own take on classics like "Beetle Bailey" or "Blondie".

You can catch a brief of the top of "Nothing But Action" as the camera lands on the strip.

Ed Smith, one of the great dog animators of the past hundred years, did the animation.

The live action was shot on film and the agency had concern about matching film stock (that's what they get paid to bring up). We also shot on film using their same film stock. The dog at the end was shot in three passes: a matte pass (black on white), a fill pass (black line on white dog) and a texture pass (the paper texture). This was all composited in a very expensive edit room.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Martin Gardner

The first book I remember is "Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs".  That was my first favorite book.

It was supplanted at a young age by Martin Gardner's "Aha! Gotcha: Paradoxes to Puzzle and Delight."

The New York Times posted Mr. Gardner's obituary yesterday, he lived a full life -to an animator's age of 95.

This title combined simple logic problems -many I still drag out 30 years later like The Barber Paradox (credited to Bertrand Russell) -with simple illustrations.

I was a little disappointed to learn that Mr. Gardner didn't draw them himself.  A small credit on the title page goes to Ray Salmon for the artwork.

Years later I sought out his work, subscribing the Skeptical Inquirer after seeing his byline in the high school library, picking up dusty titles at the used bookstore on 5th and South Streets.  His writing on the paranormal was an antidote to the steady diet of ghost stories and space alien books every healthy American teen devours.

Decades later I've shared great moments reading through these goofy paradoxes.  Moments, like the passed heroes, that continue to live in memory.

The Times obituary echoes what how I described to friends: a 19th Century style thinker -like Samuel F. B. Morse or Thomas Edison.  His work -combining humor with science, simplicity with complex ideas, and let's not forget funny drawings -sets a template for the kind of work we most enjoy.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


A few years back we worked with Merchant/Ivory on their film "White Countess".

About an hour or so into the film, a little girl looks into a picturebox and her imagination brings the slide to life.

James Ivory brought in Quan Handong to illustrate the sequence.

These are paintings from his "Ox Series" taken from a monograph published by Queens Council on the Arts based on an exhibit of the work.

His designs for "White Countess" are more concrete but they retain the looseness and energy.

We got a crash course in Chinese painting history while working on the project.  The broad strokes -much of the Classical art can be broken into two schools: the Northern which is based on strong black strokes, and the Southern which is more calligraphic.

I hope I remember that correctly.

In these Ox Paintings, the paint brush is charged with a controlled frenzy.   It's like the ultimate Steinberg -all in the line.

In his notes on the exhibit Quan Handong remarks: "the ox represents both a strong being and a symbolic abstraction."

The scanner was unkind to this image and I tried to adjust the contrast.  There's a lot of detail in the black that's gotten crush although the blue is close.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Speaking of

Steve Brodner, as our post the other day mention our work together on the Infor "Down With BigERP" campaign.

He was by for a shoot on a completely unrelated film.

This one is a little art, a little history.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Other People's Junk - 2

An entirely new universe can be constructed from discarded Disneyiana.

Earlier ages displayed some merit to merchandise -like this toy chest with Donald Duck and his loathsome nephews.

At some point the forever-grinning cartoons made their way onto even the most innocuous items.

Some kid walked off with this phone minutes after the photo was taken.  I wonder if he even had a land line.

Mickey and Donald aren't the only cartoons to pop from the screen to the real world.

Sorry,  Charlie, discerning shoppers want lamps that don't cost $80.

This plaster piece was dated 1970.  $80 in 1970 would be less than one barrel of Gulf albacore today.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Infor Everywhere, Media That Matters and Monsters!

Friday morning we delivered a package of ads for Infor's China and Japan markets.  Not an hour later the mail came in.

Sure, it's not as good as any of the checks we're expecting but it's nice to Steve Brodner's illustrations for the campaign getting such excellent media placement.

Even more, the agency -PJA in Boston, has put the campaign up for some awards.  One illustration piece shows the Big Erp with his mouth wide open as luggage at an airport carousel roll in.

See it HERE.  It's pretty neat.


On another topic, our friends at Arts Engine have let us know tickets have gone on sale for the tenth annual Media That Matters festival.

The evening of short socially conscious films will be held on June 2 at the SVA theater on 23rd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues.


Elliot Cowan posted this video of little drawings he knocked out in three days.

They were made as client giveaways.

133 Watercolours In 3 Days from Elliot Cowan on Vimeo.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Hoc Est Meum Corpus

Animation has a kinship with magic.

Maybe that's why it's not uncommon for animators to also dabble in the black arts. John Schnall was one. Igor Mitrovic (who's setting up an interesting online animation network: ) is another.

Both animation and magic have a connection to vaudeville. The early animators, like Winsor McCay, who performed with their films must have been seen as magicians par excellence.

Animation is trade passed on through word-of-mouth. Secrets, tricks, and tips that some guard closely while others willingly share with the initiated.

The connection is more than that.

Each art requires the fabrication of new, imagined worlds from shards of reality. Each demands a willingness from the audience to accept as possible things we know can never be.

And even when the world's cruel realities catch up -like a punch in the gut -there's the hope that the animation, like magic, will live on even if the magician does not.

Harry Houdini

Friday, May 21, 2010

Budgeting Part 2 - Scheduling

Take a step back.  In "big budget" films, there are two main types of costs: ABOVE THE LINE and BELOW THE LINE.

Animation is below.

What's the line?  Above the line costs are Story and Script, Producers, Director, Casting and Actors.  They are costs which are spent before filming begins.

In our animation budget, we don't separate the costs this way.  Apart from the script, pretty much all the money in animation is spent during production.  Sure you can't pull out development costs, maybe storyboards but that doesn't really help anyone understand the numbers.


Before getting into the line details, let's go into how to prepare to build a budget.

1) What's the schedule?  This is either determined by (a) client's deadline or (b) the amount of work which needs to be done.

Let's look at scenario (a).  An agency needs a promotional film completed in 6 weeks.  The film should be 4 minutes.

Immediately black in one week at the beginning for screwing around, waiting on clients, and general goofing off.  There's real work that needs to get done too -storyboarding and character design.  These need to be done before animation begins.

One week at the end of the schedule immediately gets crossed off for "post production".  This is editing, mixing audio, rendering finals, compressing deliveries.

That leaves four weeks in the middle.

We know we'll need to record voices.  Hopefully that can get done in the first week, but if you've got casting and approval that's not going to happen.  That should be put down for Week 2, Day 2 at the latest.  That voice will need to be edited to time with the storyboard, another day.  Animation won't begin in proper until the middle of Week 2 at the earliest.

Consider at least another couple days of client goofing around that gives us three weeks of animation and art production.

Note how we're assuming bad things will happen and things beyond our control will go slower than they should.

For our purposes the technique doesn't matter -stop motion, drawn, cut outs, CG -as long as you can honestly estimate how long it takes to create :15 of animation in the chosen style.  We'll say we're drawing the film by hand, and we'll estimate it will take one person one week to do :15.

So one animator will take 16 weeks to do the whole thing by herself.  But we only have three.  16 divided by 3 = 5.3.  That's how many animators you'll need.  Since they only come as wholes, you'll need 6 animators for 3 weeks.

That's the starting point, anyway.  You rarely use 6 animators on a short project like this.  But it gives you a quick sense of the time/costs involved.  I would take "6 animators" and turn it into "3 animators" and "3 assistants".  Already the schedule is giving an idea of work flow.

Art production and compositing follow the same guidelines.

The important thing here: we've only given ourselves 3 weeks but during this 3 week time we are in control of the variables.  We're not waiting on clients or color models or voice talent or approvals.  If something goes off here, and it might, this is the time when the animation producer can compensate.  Add another artist.  Pay overtime.  Change layouts to simplify production.

In scenario (b) the schedule is determined by the length of the film.  You've got to produce four minutes?  Two weeks at the head for goofing off/boarding/et c., one week at the end for editing/delivery.  Let's say you're one person animating, that's 16 weeks plus art production.  Bring in a second, that's down to 8.

These timeframes here are not absolute by any means.  Some things take more time, others less.  The key is to be able to estimate how long things will take.  Realistically estimate.

During our recent animation for "The Buddha", David Grubin, the documentary's director and producer, was initially concerned about schedule.  During our weekly meetings he'd say "We're behind here, here and here."  According to the schedule we were.  In this case, we devised the schedule so that the early stage milestones happened early- the beginning was compressed. 

This did several things. 

1) It built stress into the beginning instead of the end.  This gives a feeling of urgency to production so you don't have those weeks of goofing off at the beginning. 

2) It forces you to work out the pre-production efficiently, this carries over into production.

3) Most payments are triggered at delivery points, you want these to happen as early as possible.

4) It's a trick.  The way this particular schedule played out there was "breathing room" built in to every component.  While we never fell behind the written schedule by more than a week, we had calculated a week of "safety" just in case.

As a result of our scheduling, our production on the animation for "The Buddha" finished, very leisurely, a week ahead of the deadline which was moved up a week from the original schedule.

Before scribbling one cent into your budget, figure out your time parameters.  Time will dictate cost.

In a few days we'll go into our Asterisk budget Category A.  Here we'll begin to detail specifics on assigning values to work.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Back in Time - Animator, Vol 2 No. 63

We've been trying to post these old union newsletters Ed Smith gave us in chronological order. As previously mentioned, they're so fragile that we'd rather not shuffle them into order before scanning -they literally turn to dust on touch.

So here's a batch that are a few months older than where we left off.

Vol 2. # 63 from the week of September 10 (1943?).

Page one runs down issues at all the signatory studios:

MGM: 3 "vacation cases"
Screen Gems: one artist being fought over by three studios
Schlesinger (later WB): Two artists are thought to be working above their grade. A checker working as an assistant supervisor (and being paid as a checker).
Pal: Vacation!
Disney: Discussion of a new classification since checking for a multiplane is significantly harder than standard downshoot checking.

Raphael G Wolff Studio gets organized with 9 employees in the guild.

The second page is devoted to a treatise on unionism.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Who is Hamid Karzai? | Need to Know | PBS

We produced this clip for PBS' "Need to Know".

Who is Hamid Karzai? | Need to Know | PBS

There's no embed code on the page, so you'll have to click through.

Gail Levin sent us some feedback from the show's page, it's been generally (overwhelmingly, actually) positive towards our piece.

As regularly readers know, we've been developing this line of journalism with Gail and Brodner for over two years now.  This marks a breakthrough to network broadcast from our previous web/cable TV segments during the 2008 election campaign.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Globe For Ya

Here's a globe for you.  Full rotation.

We either made it or got it from somewhere a couple years back.  It's very useful.

CLICK for a quicktime movie.  You can download with Quicktime Pro.