Sunday, December 21, 2008

Back to Basics

Cartoon Brew pointed to this cartoon by Hans Fischerkoesen, made in Germany in 1943. I think that I became familiar with his three wartime shorts almost 20 years ago, and this is my favourite by far.

There is much about this film that is clunky. The character designs and animation are behind the times; they resemble American cartoons from the mid-1930s. There are other throwbacks, such as imitating Max Fleischer's 3D process, where cels were photographed in front of a model on a turntable.

While it's possible to criticize the drawings and animation in this cartoon (and the version above is slightly truncated at the start and end; if I remember correctly, the film ends with the rabbit wistfully eating the carrot), there are things about this cartoon that exceed what's being done today. There is a high level of invention; the section after the snowman falls through the ice and attempts to hold himself together while melting is wonderful imagery.

What really makes this film for me is the section that takes place in the spring. The cartoon reaches a lyrical height that few animated films aspire to. The shots of the snowman lying among the flowers in the meadow and the finale, where he sings and dances with joy as he dies are heartbreaking and beautiful. The end of this cartoon puts me in mind of the lines from Dylan Thomas's poem Fern Hill: "Time held me green and dying though I sang in my chains like the sea."

There are many films more polished than this, but few of them are as touching. As Keith Lango points out, we shouldn't confuse the core of what we do with the way that we do it. As we enter a year that will probably force us to make do with less, it's a good thing to keep in mind.

Season's greetings everyone and best wishes for 2009.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Laika Lays Off 65; Cancels Film

I'm only posting this as earlier today I said that Laika was perhaps the best positioned of what Fast Company referred to as the "Baby Pixars." An article at states that the studio has laid off 65 people and canceled Jack and Ben's Animated Adventure, a cgi film that was slated to be Laika's second feature after Coraline. Other pictures are in pre-production and the company will announce its plans in the new year.

Starting at the Bottom (And ending where?)

Last week, the NY Times ran an article by Brian Stelter on people who are now earning a living from their postings on YouTube.
For some, like Michael Buckley, the self-taught host of a celebrity chatter show, filming funny videos is now a full-time job.

Mr. Buckley quit his day job in September after his online profits had greatly surpassed his salary as an administrative assistant for a music promotion company. His thrice-a-week online show “is silly,” he said, but it has helped him escape his credit-card debt.

Mr. Buckley, 33, was the part-time host of a weekly show on a Connecticut public access channel in the summer of 2006 when his cousin started posting snippets of the show on YouTube. The comical rants about celebrities attracted online viewers, and before long Mr. Buckley was tailoring his segments, called “What the Buck?” for the Web. Mr. Buckley knew that the show was “only going to go so far on public access....”

Granted, building an audience online takes time. “I was spending 40 hours a week on YouTube for over a year before I made a dime,” Mr. Buckley said — but, at least in some cases, it is paying off.

Cory Williams, 27, a YouTube producer in California, agrees. Mr. Williams, known as smpfilms on YouTube, has been dreaming up online videos since 2005, and he said his big break came in September 2007 with a music video parody called “The Mean Kitty Song.” The video, which introduces Mr. Williams’ evil feline companion, has been viewed more than 15 million times. On a recent day, the video included an advertisement from Coca-Cola.

Mr. Williams, who counts about 180,000 subscribers to his videos, said he was earning $17,000 to $20,000 a month via YouTube. Half of the profits come from YouTube’s advertisements, and the other half come from sponsorships and product placements within his videos, a model that he has borrowed from traditional media.

On YouTube, it is evident that established media entities and the up-and-coming users are learning from each other. The amateur users are creating narrative arcs and once-a-week videos, enticing viewers to visit regularly. Some, like Mr. Williams, are also adding product-placement spots to their videos. Meanwhile, brand-name companies are embedding their videos on other sites, taking cues from users about online promotion. Mr. Walk calls it a subtle “cross-pollination” of ideas.
There are obvious lessons to be learned here, some of them from earlier media. Regular episodes are necessary. It's better to have a brand or niche so that viewers and advertisers can count on predictable content. Audiences respond to continuing characters, or in the case of Michael Buckley, a continuing host. All of the above are the norm in radio and television and have migrated to the web.

The article doesn't say if there are any animation creators making significant money from YouTube. As usual, the slow pace of animation production works against it in the mass media. However, there are ways around that. A collaboration or consortium approach would work. Either a group joins together to create shorts weekly or several get together and each take a month to create a short to be aired in successive weeks. Either approach allows people to have day jobs while getting their projects made.

There's momentum building for individuals and companies to earn significant money online. Scott Kirsner of Cinematech is writing a book about the people who have successfully built their businesses there. Animation will be included, as JibJab will be one of the companies covered.

Jack Shafer has an article in Slate about how digital media are undermining older media.

Perhaps the most prescient of all digital prophets was scholar W. Russell Neuman, whose 1991 book, The Future of the Mass Audience, saw how the Web would overturn the existing order before the public World Wide Web even existed. The media—newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, cable, motion pictures, games, music, books, newsletters—all resided in separate "unique, noncompetitive" analog silos. Translating and transmitting from one format to another was "an expensive, labor-intensive endeavor," Neuman writes.

By introducing these varied—and often monopolistic—media to a "single, universal, multipurpose network," the digital Web destroyed the old barriers and created new competitive pressures. For end users, viewing last night's Dave Letterman monologue or cruising Craigslist or scanning today's headlines or reading one's inbox or listening to the Timbaland/Cornell collaboration now happens inside the same space. In other words, CBS, the Times, Universal Music, Verizon, Blockbuster video, and anybody else who wants your media attention is fighting for your attention (mindshare and dollars) in the same kiosk.
This is why I think that pitching ideas to TV should be a thing of the past. I know from personal experience that the structure of broadcasting works against creators having control of their shows. Now, the economics of TV are getting increasingly bad. If the web is the "single, universal, multipurpose network," why not go there yourself instead of depending on someone else to take you there? That way, you're the one selling to the final customer instead of trying to satisfy gatekeepers who are likely to turn you down or twist your idea out of shape.

As the above articles show, there's no instant payday. It's going to take an investment of time and a certain amount of luck to produce something regularly that attracts an audience. However, those who succeed will own their creations and their audience.

Not only is the web a friendlier place for creators, it's making it harder for independents to sell to older markets without an already successful property. Michael Buckley now has a deal with HBO. What are the chances that would have happened if he had pitched them before his YouTube success? With the economics of older media on shakier ground (even before the current downturn), it's less likely they will take chances on unproven material. If the older media are getting harder to sell to and the economics of the web are getting better, I think creators should be taking the path of least resistance.

Starting at the Top (Ending at the Bottom)

After reading the entry on Delgo's failure, Paul Teolis pointed me to this 2005 article from Fast Company on the "Baby Pixars." The companies profiled are Threshold (Food Fight), Vanguard (Happily N'Ever After, Space Chimps), IDT (Yankee Irving - renamed Everyone's Hero), and Laika (Coraline).

The success of the Pixar and DreamWorks cgi feature started something of a gold rush into feature animation, but as the above list shows, the success rate was disappointing. Food Fight has yet to be released. Happily N'Ever After and Space Chimps opened but neither set the box office on fire. Happily earned approximately $16 million and Space Chimps earned approximately $30 million in North America. Everyone's Hero earned approximately $14 million and IDT sold off their animation business to Liberty Media. Coraline has yet to be released.

While everyone tries to be the new Pixar, not enough people remember that Pixar started off making shorts and TV commercials before their first feature. For reasons that can only be described as pure ego, producers think that they can enter the market at the top. This is the equivalent of a newbie golfer assuming that he can challenge Tiger Woods the first time he tees up or an expansion team in a league sport assuming that it will make the playoffs in its first year. Nobody in professional sports would take either of those situations seriously, yet somehow, people with more money than brains think they can make huge profits the first time they make an animated movie.

The producers of Delgo, Everyone's Hero and Food Fight fall into that category. While John Williams has more experience than they do, he moves to a new studio for each successive feature, never allowing expertise to accumulate. In sports terms, that's the equivalent of firing the entire team at the end of the season and starting from scratch the next year. How many times has that produced a winner?

Of the four companies mentioned in the article, Laika has the best chance of success. Laika is the former Will Vinton Productions. That company made features, TV specials, series and commercials, so the crew has experience working together on large projects. They're also starting with a story by best-selling author Neil Gaiman and it's directed by Henry Selick, who has directed three features.

Within the sports analogy, they're doing it right. You can hire great players, but it's still going to take time to meld them into a team. Along the way, there will be losses and missteps. The problem with hiring a fresh crew to make an animated feature is that those losses and missteps become part of the movie. Happily N'Ever After ended up using multiple studios to finish the film, and there we have a case where the players were never on the field at the same time. That makes it tough to execute plays.

The economics of maintaining an animation crew have always been daunting and they've gotten worse. But we now have evidence that when it comes to animation, you can't start at the top. Few, if any, of the "Baby Pixars" will grow to adulthood. If we see a new large studio emerge (and we may not), most likely it will be a studio that started on small projects, built an organization, and made its mistakes on low risk projects before attempting to compete in features. In other words, an expansion team that loses a lot of games while figuring out how to win.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Delgo Flops

According to Deadline Hollywood Daily, Delgo, an independent cgi-animated feature, opened in 2160 theatres this weekend and grossed $465,000. That means that, on average, each theatre took in less than $216 from Friday through Sunday. Assuming an average admission of $6, since some attendees were children, approximately 36 people saw the movie in each theatre over a three day period. That's 12 people a day.

Two Old Pros

Here's a lovely shot of Al Eugster taken by Harvey Deneroff in 1980 at Kim and Gifford Productions in New York. Al was 71, though he could pass for his fifties as his hair was still brown and he was trim. I knew Al at this time, working with him on a forgotten Saturday morning series called Drawing Power in the summer of 1980. Harvey was interviewing Al, who was a favourite interview subject for many young historians curious to know about the golden age at Fleischer, Iwerks and Disney.
Here is Buster Keaton in 1965 on the set of Film, a movie written by playwright Samuel Beckett and directed by Alan Schneider. Keaton would have been 70 at the time. Alex Robinson's friend's grandfather shot this and other stills (visible here) at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. The other shots are nice, but this is the keeper.

Neither of these men were doing their best work at the time of these photos, but they were still bringing their talents to whatever projects they could find. Keaton spent time as comedy relief in beach party movies and acting in industrial films; Al was stuck drawing limited animation for TV, doing his own clean-ups and inbetweens. Both preferred to keep busy and stay in the game. Both were professionals through and through, trying to make the best entertainment out of whatever they were handed.

(Keaton link via Mark Evanier.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

3D and DreamWorks

Jeffrey Katzenberg was in Toronto last Monday, talking about DreamWorks' commitment to stereoscopic 3D and showing clips from the forthcoming film Monsters vs. Aliens.

Katzenberg believes that in 5-8 years, all movies will be projected in 3D. He stated that there were 10 or 11 films (both live and animated) slated for release in 2009 and two dozen for 2010. All future DreamWorks releases are slated to be 3D, starting with Monsters vs. Aliens. Dreamworks' features currently cost $150 million, and 3D will add an additional $15 million to their price tag.

Bloomberg news reports specifics about what 3D films are coming:
Next year's 3-D releases include a version of the original "Toy Story" from Disney and James Cameron's "Avatar" from News Corp., the director's first feature film since "Titanic" in 1997. Disney plans five 3-D films, the most of any studio. In February, NBC Universal will release "Coraline," based on the book by Neil Gaiman. "Monsters vs. Aliens" is set for March, DreamWorks Animation's only movie of the year.
Katzenberg foresees theatres adding a $5 surcharge over regular admission rates for the 3D experience. There are currently 1000 screens in North America able to project 3D. In 4 months, there will be 2500 and by 2010 there are expected to be 7500. The Bloomberg article implies that the current economic downturn is going to slow the spread of 3D venues.
Cinedigm Digital Cinema Corp., a supplier of software to run digital theaters, had planned to convert as many as 1,500 screens by March 2009. Now, with funds on hold, the company expects 100 to 200, chief executive Bud Mayo said.
While box office grosses have gone up, movie attendance has gone down. The increase in ticket prices is responsible for the increased grosses. The same economic downturn that's slowing down installation of 3D projection may also cut into 3D box office if the theatres charge more for the dimensional versions.

Because not all screens are currently equipped for 3D, DreamWorks will continue to release its films in flat versions to theatres and for home formats such as DVD. Katzenberg acknowledges that films are going to have to be satisfying experiences without 3D and that 3D will be the icing on the cake. He does foresee 3D becoming available at home in the future and expects that its first successful home application will be in gaming.

Katzenberg admitted that it was going to be up to the audience to determine if 3D would become the dominant projection method, but that he was excited about the possibilities since seeing The Polar Express in 3D.

I found the first clip from Monsters vs. Aliens to have some problems, though I'm not sure if it was the clip itself or my need to adjust. 3D imagery contains more information than a standard movie in that the viewer is taking in depth information in addition to everything else. I found the cutting in the first sequence, where the President confronts the alien, to be too fast. I couldn't decipher some shots before they were replaced by others.

However, I found the later two excerpts, the first introducing the monsters and the second a battle on the Golden Gate bridge, worked better for me. I don't know if it was the nature of the direction and cutting in those sequences or if by that time I had seen enough that my brain was more in tune with reading the images.

Certainly, as a society, we take in visual information faster now than in the past. I remember reading an interview with Ward Kimball who talked about having to trim older Disney shorts when they played on television as they were paced too slowly for the TV audience. I don't doubt that with greater exposure to 3D imagery, the audience as a whole will be better at deciphering what's in front of them, but I do think there's a danger of cutting too quickly for the time being.

3D has been tried many times before. Katzenberg said that he felt the move to digital was going to make the difference in terms of audience acceptance. Maybe 3D will be a way for studios to attract more people to theatres in the current economy or maybe bad economic news will prevent that. For now, Hollywood is betting heavily on 3D. Only time will tell if it becomes the new standard or remains an occasional novelty.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Stumbling Around in the Dark

Even before the current economic situation, certain media industries were in trouble. In particular, TV and newspapers had both been losing their audience. The current downturn is probably going to accelerate that.

There is the sense that anything that can be reduced to digital bits has changed in some fundamental ways. Here's Virgina Hefernon of the N.Y. Times on how writing for print is not just writing.
Does anyone still believe that the forms of movies, television, magazines and newspapers might exist independently of their rapidly changing modes of distribution? The thought has become unsustainable. Take magazine writing. In school or on the job, magazine writers never learn anything so broad as to “tell great stories” or “make arresting images.” You don’t study the ancient art of storytelling. You learn to produce certain numbers and styles and forms of words and images. You learn to be succinct when a publication loses ad pages. You learn to dilate when an “article” is understood mostly as a delivery vehicle for pictures of a sexy celebrity. The words stack up under certain kinds of headlines that also adhere to strict conventions as to size and tone, and eventually they appear alongside certain kinds of photos and illustrations with certain kinds of captions on pages of certain dimensions that are often shared with advertisements. Just as shooting film for a Hollywood movie is never just filming and acting in a TV ad is never just acting, writing for a magazine is never just writing.
Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail, is currently writing a book about the free economy. That's where people and companies give things away but still manage to make money by selling something that relates to the give-away. You can find an entire series of articles by Anderson here.

Kevin Kelly has an essay called "Better Than Free." You can read it here or download an updated pdf of it here. His premise is:
When copies are super abundant, they become worthless.
When copies are super abundant, stuff that can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable.
When copies are free, you need to sell things that can not be copied.
Well, what can’t be copied?
He lists eight "generatives" that can't be copied: immediacy, personalization, interpretation, authenticity, accessibility, embodiment, patronage, and findability. I don't want to explain them all here, but some of them possibly relate to animation on the web.

Immediacy means that if you have a release that's in demand, you can charge people for the right to see it early before releasing the free version at a later time. It might simply come down to putting it on a password protected site and emailing your paying customers the password before releasing it to the world at large at a later date.

Personalization is what JibJab is doing with their E-cards. By allowing users to put their own photos into the JibJab animation, they are offering something that becomes to unique to each buyer.

Embodiment is selling a higher quality copy of what is available for free. It's the equivalent of putting a low rez version of your animation online and then selling higher quality copies. This would also include merchandise that isn't digital, like T-shirts and coffee mugs.

Patronage is asking people to contribute financially to the creation of your work. It's the digital equivalent of a tip jar, and many websites have buttons inviting users to feed the kitty. Advertising would also fit here, whether the advertiser desires the demographic that you attract or they just want their customers to know that they support something the customers value.

Kevin Kelly is also the author of the article "1000 True Fans" about how a creator might be able to survive economically with just 1000 people willing to financially support his or her work. Not everyone buys into this idea. You can read John Scalzi's rebuttal here. Kelly gives the matter further thought here.

Paul Graham has written an essay saying that technology start-ups are getting so inexpensive that they're no longer courting venture capital companies. They can start with overhead so low that they can move into profit quickly and once they're generating profit, there's no need to sell some of their companies to investors. This is in line with Ralph Bakshi talking about animators having an entire studio in a single computer and that it's far easier now to make an inexpensive film than it was. Lower overhead makes it less risky to try out new ideas, such as attempting to figure out how to work in the free economy.

Bob Jaques, an old friend of mine, visited Sheridan College recently and over dinner we were talking about how everyone expects material online to be free. He talked about how he thought animation was going to shorten to 30 seconds in order to work online. He may have a point. As Hefernon points out above, the medium makes a difference and the web seems to favour short material. The problem, which few have solved so far, is monetizing what you put online.

I don't have the answer. If I did, I'd be doing it. But as more people are investigating the idea of giving things away as the basis for their business, I'm watching closely. Other people are reminding everybody that start-up costs are lower than they used to be. Lots of people think that there's something out there and are trying to describe it, but so far nobody has really pinned it down. I expect the current economic situation to make the problems that some media are experiencing worse, but I also think that it's going to give birth to new business models and I hope at least one of them will work for animation.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Final Customer

This isn't a doomsday scenario about there being only one customer left. It's about the fact that while people work for companies and companies work for companies, relatively few of them are the final customer, and that puts everyone at risk.

When you get your hair cut, you are the final customer. You're not getting your hair cut so that you can somehow resell it to someone else. But many of us work for companies whose customers are not the final customer. If you work in animation, your company's customer may be another studio, TV broadcaster, film distributor, or retailer. They are the people who ultimately sell your work to the audience. If any of your customers misread the market, your company will suffer and you may be laid off as a result. The people working in animation production are helpless to control their fates.

The Animation Guild Blog has some quotes from industry veterans. The whole thing is worth reading, but here is the heart of the matter:
What artists in animation don't understand like they should is that companies don't care about them. Artists want to believe that companies do, but it's not the way things are....

It's nothing personal. They're not trying to be mean or cruel. They just have their budget to get down and you're a hindrance to that. So they get rid of you. Nothing personal about it at all.
This is absolutely true, as are the comments about why older artists often become the targets of companies looking to save money.

We know, just from reading the papers, that the people who run companies can be guilty of bad decisions. Large financial institutions like Lehman Bros. have disappeared and we may be watching the death of General Motors. We are trusting our livelihoods and our futures to people who are really no smarter than we are. This being the case, we should trust ourselves more.

There is no sale without a final customer. The longer the supply chain between what you do and the final customer, the more likely that somebody in the middle is going to make a bad decision that is going to affect you. The best position to be in is selling directly to the final customer. That way, you are not at the mercy of the companies in the supply chain.

Ironically, you are at the mercy of your customers, who will probably outnumber the people you are currently selling to. However, because of their number, each final customer has much less power to damage you. Losing one customer or ten when you are selling to final customers will hurt your business, but not as much as losing one company or ten as your clients. The good news is that companies you sell to have enough money to pay you well and to allow you to build your organization. The bad news is if that money is withdrawn, your are unemployed and your company is bankrupt.

Animation artists are too far down the supply chain. We are dependent on too many people between us and the audience. In the next year or two, we are going to see many companies shrinking their workforces and others disappearing all together. Many unemployed artists will struggle to survive until companies start expanding again, at which point they will be happy to return to work. The smart ones will try and figure out a way to sell something to the final customer, because that's the most secure place to be in the long run.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Chuck Jones Next March

I will, of course, remind everyone about this later, but Turner Classic Movies has an entire evening devoted to Chuck Jones next March 24. Included is the new documentary Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood. You can read more about that documentary over at Cartoon Brew. In addition, they will show The Phantom Tollbooth, the feature that Jones directed based on the book by Norton Juster. Here's the schedule for Eastern time. Note that the last film of the night is 1001 Arabian Nights, the UPA feature starring Mr. Magoo and directed by Jack Kinney.
8:00 PM Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood (2009)
8:30 PM Night Watchman, The (1938)
8:40 PM Prest-O, Change-O (1939)
8:50 PM Sniffles and the Bookworm (1939)
9:00 PM Elmer's Candid Camera (1940)
9:10 PM Scent-imental Over You (1947)
9:20 PM Haredevil Hare (1948)
9:30 PM Duck Amuck (1953)
9:40 PM One Froggy Evening (1966)
9:50 PM What's Opera Doc (1954)
10:00 PM Dot and the Line, The (1965)
10:15 PM Bear that Wasn't, The (1967)
10:30 PM Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood (2009)
11:00 PM Phantom Tollbooth, The (1969)
12:30 AM Night Watchman, The (1938)
12:40 AM Prest-O, Change-O (1939)
12:50 AM Sniffles and the Bookworm (1939)
1:00 AM Elmer's Candid Camera (1940)
1:10 AM Scent-imental Over You (1947)
1:20 AM Haredevil Hare (1948)
1:30 AM Duck Amuck (1953)
1:40 AM One Froggy Evening (1966)
1:50 AM What's Opera Doc (1954)
2:00 AM Dot and the Line, The (1965)
2:15 AM Bear that Wasn't, The (1967)
2:30 AM Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood (2009)
3:00 AM Phantom Tollbooth, The (1969)
4:30 AM 1001 Arabian Nights (1959)