Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sheridan Industry Day 2010

Another school year gone. Another group of graduates stepping out into the world. Another industry day. What's below just scratches the surface of what went on.

Second and Third year student volunteers prepare for the crowds.

The graduates of the four year program get set up to meet the industry.

Veteran story artists Jim Caswell and Warren Leonhardt.

Left to right: Paul Teolis of Nelvana; Michael Carter, President of CASO (Computer Animation Studios of Ontario) and Jim Caswell.

Frank Falcone of Guru Studios.

A view of the post-graduate computer animation program workspace.

Steve Schnier of Vujade and John Lei of Noodleboy Studios.

Kevin Parry with his characters from the stop motion film The Arctic Circle.

Carla Veldman with her characters from her stop motion film The Scarf.

Allesandro Piedemonte (A Cut Above) and King Mugabe (Red Snow).

Andrew Murray (Blind Date) is interviewed by a reporter from CHCH TV.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Advice to Graduates

This was a comment I contributed to a December, 2008 post called The Final Customer. As graduation time once again approaches, I'm giving it its own entry.
Here's some basic advice I'd give to graduates from any year. Network aggressively. If you know people in the business, start talking to them now and keep talking to them. It's good to touch base with people when you're not looking for work, just so they don't think that the only time you get in touch is when you want something. If you're lucky, you'll learn what studios are busy and you can target them.

Apply to any animation-related job you can find. Knock on studio doors and if you are lucky enough to talk to people, get their business cards and send them a thank you email. Stay in touch with them once a month.

If there are any industry associations, join them. [I would add that you should join business networking sites like LinkedIn .] If there any industry events, attend them. Bring business cards and introduce yourself to strangers. Sometimes artists are shy and don't want to push themselves, but nobody has a reason to seek you out this early in your career. You've got to do the work.

Be prepared to relocate. At this point in your career, you need resume credits and experience. The sooner you get them, the sooner you can position yourself for the jobs you want. Sometimes, the only jobs are at small studios in out of the way locations, because nobody with experience wants to work/live there.

If you're not working, keep producing new art. That way, you can revisit studios once a month and have new things to show. That will convince the studio of your commitment. There's no reason for a studio to see you more than once if your portfolio/reel are exactly the same as last time.

Stay upbeat when talking to people, no matter how discouraged you are. No studio wants to listen to an applicant complain, especially if the studio is struggling to stay in business. Stay enthusiastic and be willing to do whatever they ask, even if it's not what you really want. There will be lots of time to reposition yourself in the future.

Job hunting is a skill. The sooner you start applying for jobs, the sooner you'll learn the ropes. Do not sit at home and wait for the phone to ring. Keep putting out feelers and keep producing new work. Sooner or later, you'll catch a break.

When you do, live below your means. Don't assume the job will last as long as promised. Don't assume that the studio will have another project when the current one is done. Save your money because you will spend time unemployed.

If you're working, keep networking. Let the other studios know that you've been hired. They will take you more seriously if other studios want you. Keep talking to friends in the business, monitoring the situation wherever they are working. That way, when you're out of work, you can hit the ground running in order to find your next job.

While you're working, keep your portfolio and reel up to date. When a project is finished, ask for samples of your work from it, even if you can't show the samples until the project is released. You don't want a studio to shut down and leave you with no access to the work you've done. It's happened.

Graduating in tough times could turn out to be a blessing. Those people who manage to make it through the recession are going to be smarter and tougher than those who don't (though luck does play a part in it). When the business goes through other slow periods, you'll be more ready to deal with them while others disappear.
Something I would add is the concept of a "best-before" date. When you go to the grocery store, perishable items have a best-before date stamped on them. After that date, an item is no longer fresh. Graduates, too, have best-before dates. Their freshness expires one year after graduation. At that point, if people have not yet worked in the industry, they are competing against a new crop of graduates whose skills and enthusiasm are fresher. Someone who has gone a year without being able to break into the business raises questions in the mind of a prospective employer.

For this reason, I always tell grads to take any job offered, even if it's not a preferred studio or task. Getting that first job immediately separates a grad from all the people who have yet to find work. It also provides a grad with a new network of co-workers who may be able to provide future employment or a reference.

Grads have a tendency to look at their first job as the culmination of their educations, but it isn't. It's merely the first step in a career. Just as you go from knowing everything about your high school to knowing nothing at all about your college or university, you're now going from knowing everything about the school you are leaving to knowing nothing (or very little) about the animation industry. It's no fun to start again at the bottom, but that's where you are and over the course of your career, you may find yourself starting over several more times. Recognize your position for what it is and accept it. With luck, it's only temporary.

Luck and timing play a major role in a career. If John Lasseter had been born 10 years later, he would not be where he is today. Someone once asked actress Lillian Gish what it took to succeed. She responded that it took talent, persistence and luck, though she thought a person could get by with two out of three. Since you can't control luck, focus on the other two and hope for the best.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Drifting Off Course

I know that business has dominated art on this blog lately. For reasons that I don't understand, this school year has been a lot busier for me than previous years and the business stuff is faster and easier to write about than the art.

Things should slow down for me in the next few weeks and I hope to restore some balance over the summer. I'll be doing more mosaics and hope to take a close look at the work of specific animators like Bob Cannon.

Two Approaches to Creating

Paul Graham is a software engineer and a venture capitalist. His latest essay talks about two approaches to creating software.
"There are two types of startup ideas: those that grow organically out of your own life, and those that you decide, from afar, are going to be necessary to some class of users other than you. Apple was the first type. Apple happened because Steve Wozniak wanted a computer. Unlike most people who wanted computers, he could design one, so he did. And since lots of other people wanted the same thing, Apple was able to sell enough of them to get the company rolling. They still rely on this principle today, incidentally. The iPhone is the phone Steve Jobs wants.

"Our own startup, Viaweb, was of the second type. We made software for building online stores. We didn't need this software ourselves. We weren't direct marketers. We didn't even know when we started that our users were called "direct marketers." But we were comparatively old when we started the company (I was 30 and Robert Morris was 29), so we'd seen enough to know users would need this type of software.

"There is no sharp line between the two types of ideas, but the most successful startups seem to be closer to the Apple type than the Viaweb type. When he was writing that first Basic interpreter for the Altair, Bill Gates was writing something he would use, as were Larry and Sergey when they wrote the first versions of Google."
Graham might not be aware of this, but he's described the difference between art created to satisfy the artist and commercial art. Note that he says that the most successful start-ups seem to come from the first approach, not the second.

There was a time in the recent past when that first approach seemed to dominate. It was the case at Disney in the early '90s, at Pixar and in TV in shows created by John K, Matt Groening, Craig McCracken, Genddy Tartakovsky, Joe Murray, etc.

These days, the trend seems to be going the opposite direction. One of the companies that's bucking the trend, surprisingly, is DreamWorks. With Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon, the studio seems to be moving more towards films that have a strong connection to the creators. Ironically, Pixar seems to be moving in the opposite direction with its slate of sequels and Disney's rehashes-to-come like Pooh and the Tinkerbelle DVDs. It would be ironic if these two studios traded places or even if they met in the middle.

As audience members, we instinctively know when a work is personal and when it is not. While the latest Alvin and the Chipmunks revival has made money, everyone knows those films are being pushed by business people and not artists.

This is not to say that films made to satisfy an artistic need are inherently superior. There are a lot of artists who fail to master their craft or engage audiences, but it's interesting that in an unrelated field, Graham has come to a conclusion that we would all probably endorse: a personal need as opposed to a perceived market need is more likely to produce a better result. Unfortunately, the media conglomerates generally don't see it that way.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Death of C.O.R.E. Still a Mystery...

...according to this article in The Globe and Mail.

UPDATE: This comment at Canadian Animation Resources lists dollar figures from the Ontario Superior Court as to C.O.R.E.'s assets and debts.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Industry Lessons

As the school year is drawing to a close and students will be heading out to summer placements or graduating and looking for jobs, it's a good time to read and remember these tips from Steve Hulett, business agent of The Animation Guild.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Complexity and Collapse

Clay Shirky is one of the most perceptive people I'm aware of when it comes to analyzing the changing media landscape. He doesn't blog often, but when he does, it's something that is widely linked to and discussed.

His latest entry is about how complex systems are unable to react to changing environments in any way except to collapse. Basing his piece on The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter, Shirky says:

"Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.

"The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.

"In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden decoherence of these societies as either a tragedy or a mistake—”[U]nder a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response”, to use his pitiless phrase. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.

"When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification."

Tying this into media and journalism, Shirky says:
"...last year Barry Diller of IAC said, of content available on the web, “It is not free, and is not going to be,” Steve Brill of Journalism Online said that users “just need to get back into the habit of doing so [paying for content] online”, and Rupert Murdoch of News Corp said “Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use.”

"Diller, Brill, and Murdoch seem be stating a simple fact—we will have to pay them—but this fact is not in fact a fact. Instead, it is a choice, one its proponents often decline to spell out in full, because, spelled out in full, it would read something like this:

"“Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to making it. And we don’t know how to do that.”"

They don't know how to do that because there are too many vested interests in their management and financial structures as they currently exist. This corroborates the point of the book The Hollywood Economist that I recently reviewed. Hollywood's economic structure is built on multiple revenue streams as well as finding investors, merchandising partners and tax incentives. Where once 90% of a film's revenue came from the theatrical box office, now it's only 20%. Hollywood is now more about the deal more than it is about the film.

Shirky's point also ties into Malcolm Gladwell's idea about a tipping point. In Gladwell's view, small changes in a system build up without apparent effect, but then one more small change causes the system to tip. In other words, the system's lack of flexibility doesn't appear to be a problem until it is a big problem and everything is forced to change.

Shirky concludes with this:
"When ecosystems change and inflexible institutions collapse, their members disperse, abandoning old beliefs, trying new things, making their living in different ways than they used to. It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future."
Simple in this case means cheaply. Shirky refers to Charley Bit My Finger, a YouTube video that has been watched 175 million times and was made for nothing. That video's success was an accident, but it's only a matter of time before a team of animation people, using cheap tools and web platforms, is able to create an ongoing success with drastically lower costs than established media.

Should complex systems collapse, there will inevitably be new complexity in the future, but it's in the spot between complexities where opportunity lies, because that's where established media can't compete as they can't cut their costs fast enough.

This 2008 article talks about live action web series that are earning their creators a living. Who in animation will be the first to succeed at this?

Friday, April 02, 2010

The Hollywood Economist

(Updated at the bottom.)

If you are someone who wonders why movies are the way they are today, this book is essential reading. Edward Jay Epstein (site and blog), who has written about the economics of Hollywood for several years in various publications, explains in great detail where the money comes from and where it goes.

It is common now for media to report the box office grosses after every weekend, and except for establishing the relative popularity of films currently in release, the information is completely lacking in context.

For example, Gone in 60 Seconds cost $103.3 million to make and grossed $242 million. On the face of it, that looks like a success. However, the distributor (Buena Vista) only realized 40% of the world wide box office, amounting to $102.2 million. The rest of the money stayed with the movie theatres. From Buena Vista's gross, they deducted $67.4 million for advertising, $13 million for prints, and $10.2 million for insurance and other expenses. After these deductions, what was left was $11.6 million.

But of course, there are aftermarkets such as DVD. In this case, the film garnered $198 million in sales, but there's an industry standard that the film distributor only gets a 20% royalty. So Buena Vista Home Entertainment took $158.4 million of it and then Buena Vista the film distributor took $19.7 million for expenses and fees. Nicolas Cage had 5% of the gross and received $3.9 million, leaving just $16 million credited to the film itself. At this point, the film had grossed $440 million and was in the red for almost $80 million.

There were other markets, such as pay TV and free TV. However, at the end of 2008, eight years after the film was released, it was in the red $155 million.

This is typical of Hollywood accounting. On paper, the film ran a loss, but the film's theatrical distributor and home video distributor both made a lot of money off this film. In this case, since Disney ultimately owned the film, the theatrical distribution company and the home video company, the money all flows back to one place. However, it's a kind of shell game. Hollywood gets investors to put up money for the film itself, giving the investors part ownership of the film, but Hollywood takes all the money at the distribution stage, leaving the film itself with little or no profit to split with the investors.

This is what happens to independent productions. The producers are stuck raising all the money to make the film. They may get an advance from the distributor, but that money plus prints and advertising costs have to be paid back from the distribution gross before the distributor takes a fee. The distributors vacuum up all the cash, including their profits, leaving the producers to take a loss. These are worse odds than Las Vegas.

Epstein goes into great detail how Hollywood works every tax incentive it can to cut its own costs; how it raises money from investors and then skims the investment before putting the money into a picture; how it aims films at teenage males because they are the easiest group to attract to theatres and because they consume the most food from the concession stand; why sex and nudity are avoided; why stars are no longer necessary; how Hollywood appeases Wal-mart, which sells one third of the DVDs in the U.S; how Hollywood gets free advertising from merchandising partners; and why the Oscars are a complete deception.

It is possible for an individual to rise within this system to become a writer or director, but it's plain that unless that person is happy to be creating exactly what Hollywood is already churning out, there's little chance of getting anywhere. The book is fascinating but also somewhat sickening.

While the audience is distracted with the box office horse race or Sandra Bullock's marital problems, this is what movies are really about and anyone in the business or aspiring to enter it needs to know it.

(Update: You can hear a podcast with Edward Jay Epstein discussing the book here. Link courtesy of James Caswell.)