Theatrical Animation Needs A Rating Below ‘R’

IFCO - 16_cinema

Neil Emmett over on Cartoon Brew has a post where he discusses how to make animation more adult. The issue is incredibly complicated and Emmett chooses to base his analysis on the televisual side of things. Back in 2011, I published a post looking at the theatrical side of things; namely the ‘R’ rating used in the US and how it actively hurts the chances of animation that isn’t overly ‘adult’ but is certainly incapable of being seen by kids.

The Current Setup

As I discussed in my post, the R rating is a bit of an anomaly in the world of ratings. It prohibits anyone under 17 from seeing a film unless they’re accompanied by an adult. Other countries systems provide for unaccompanied teens through intermediate ratings like the 16 one from Ireland, above.

By permitting teens to see films by themselves, you are facilitating the time-honoured teen pastime/social event that is going to the cinema. The R rating eschews that entirely by mandating an adult presence. Furthermore, the only other rating is the NC-17 one which practically all the major chains refuse to screen.

Lastly, the R rating represents a dramatically smaller potential audience for films than the next lowest one, PG-13. So much so, that studios perform a bit of a dance around it. A film is either going to be a very close PG-13 or a very close R. The middle ground is quite thin when it comes to film. The logic here is that if your film is going to be R, you might as well go whole hog.

A Proposed Rating System

The issue currently at hand is that the entire business model surrounding films and TV is changing, Ratings exist on TV merely as a guide to viewers and parents. Theatrical ratings are similarly voluntary but are a hangover from the days when the government threatened regulation.

The internet has no such ratings (although Netflix provides them anyway). While things are almost certainly heading that way, there remains a lot of money in the theatrical market and likely will be for some time.

Animated films can still flourish for older audiences. All they needs is a fuller ratings system that permits teens to see films by themselves. A 16 rating is a good step in that direction.

The reason is obvious, teens have shown no bones about simply finding alternatives to theatrical entertainment. Live-action films don’t suffer because they don’t encounter the same stigma that animation does when its audience ages.

By facilitating the screening of films that are not suitable for kids but not mature enough for an R rating, studios and cinemas could greatly improve the market for animated features.

What do you think? Is this a good idea or is it a case of too little, too late?

Like it or Not, Disney Means TV Not Movies

Disney Channel logo

No-one can deny that Disney has long meant more than just animated films. Heck, even Walt was about much more than what he is most famous for. Starting in the 1980s though, was a sizeable and dramatic shift towards markets and products that would lead the company far from its theatrical, and animation, roots. Today, Disney is a true multi-national conglomerate with a presence in just about every corner of the media landscape.

Exactly How Is Disney a TV Company?

It’s easy to forget just how small the actual ‘studio’ part of the enterprise is, but Derek Thompson at The Atlantic has this nice pie chart to illustrate things for us:

Via: The Atlantic
Via: The Atlantic

At just over 7% of the total, the studio division is, well, insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Of course that’s the entire studio sector: Disney itself plus Pixar plus Marvel plus Lucasfilm. All told, Disney could hack off its studios entirely and still do all right for itself.* As Thompson puts it:

…at its core, the Disney company draws its largest and most dependable source of income from subscriptions fees that power its cable networks … even though casual newspaper readers could be forgiven for thinking the company lives and dies by the opening weekend of its summer blockbusters.

And that’s the brilliant thing about Disney. The movie business is a rotten thing. American audiences don’t go the movies every week, so they have to be lured with egregiously expensive marketing campaigns for a handful of tentpole movies that, if they blow up, can destroy quarterly earnings for the film division and take down careers. The TV business is somewhat the opposite. The subscription fee model (wherein a sliver of your cable bill goes straight to the networks’ pockets) guarantees that cable networks get paid with or without a “hit.”

Long story short, where Disney makes its money, despite pleas to the contrary, is nowhere near its feature films. Do they [have to] make money? Sure they do, but to use some business-speak, the corporation’s ‘core competency‘ has next to nothing to do with features, let alone animated ones.

The Bottom Line

Sometimes tough love is what’s best, and in this case, I have to say that anyone who either a.) believes that Disney still has a true passion for feature animation or b.) has any serious reason for bringing back traditional, hand-drawn animation is deluding themselves. The company lives (and dies) by ESPN these days, and you can bet they will continue to sideline animation as long as that is the case.

*Of course features still count; they are after all the engine of many different parts of the empire (particularly merchandise) but the TV division is even more so. If Disney features disappeared tomorrow, there effect would be only temporary. Any argument that they are quote/unquote ‘essential’ is inaccurate at best.

What About Apprenticeships in Animation Instead?

This is a repost from August 2012, but I feel it is raises a good point in regards to animation and education. With the debate regarding both heating up, there is an alternative in apprenticeships that harkens back to the olden days of yore, when a formal education was out of reach for most people but accreditation of skills was still necessary.

So there was a bit of a furrow last week as a post by Brodoof on Tumblr concerning the various “Art Institute” colleges run by the Education Management Corporation made the rounds (itself brought on by another story of an Art Institute teacher facing termination because he refused to comply with a policy to require students to purchase books). Anyway, it got me thinking about animation and education and whether or not it is being taught in the right manner. That is to say, is a degree or other kind of formally taught certification the best or even right approach to take and would apprenticeships work instead? Let’s look at the facts.

Animation Isn’t A Formal Skill

Now when I say ‘formal’, I mean in the very strictest sense. You can go to school and study animation. You can be called an animator by the studio or Guild and have a cert to prove it. But in the legal sense, there is no such thing as an ‘animator’. I draw this conclusion because as a civil engineer, that is considered a formal skill; one that is legally recognised when you become Chartered, or a Professional Engineer (PE) in the States.

Why even mention it? Well as the recently departed Tissa David once famously said, “Animation is….animation.” Absolutely anyone can be an animator, or a concept artist, or a background artist or a prop designer. Yes, you need the artistic abilites and some experience before you can make a career out of it, but the point is; you do not need a formal, legally recognised qualification to become an animator.

Now this isn’t to look down the nose at our favourite technique, but it does lead to the next point.

Certifications Are Worth Much Less Than What They Are Sold At

If you receive a formal education in animation, you normally receive a sheet of paper saying as much. This piece of paper is accredited by someone so it guarantees a minimum set of skills to potential employers. So why are they almost worthless?

Well, this is America, where a degree from CalArts is ostensibly the same as a degree from another art school but in reality, the two aren’t even close. Pile on top of that the fact that portfolios are also a must for any graduate, and you have system that more or less cranks out graduates but leaves them little notion of what to do next. (I’m keeping in mind Elliot Cowan’s advice to graduates that quite frankly, should be known to them before they even receive their mortarboard.)

The real issue here is that employers like to see degrees and certs because it gives them a quick and dirty way of classifying job candidates. “You want this job? Sorry, you need a bachelors. Why? Because we’re too lazy/understaffed/pressed for time to properly grade you based on your employment history/portfolio.” This leads nicely into the next point.

Climbing the Ladder With Experience

Experience counts for a heck of a lot in the job market. Naturally graduates have next to none, so their options are extremely limited. However, plenty of people (in fact, most of the really successful people) start at the bottom and work their way up the old-fashioned way. It’s tougher than slogging through 4 years of school, but the results are just as good for those who truly work at it. Once you get even a short way up the ladder, experience takes precedence over education in any job application.

Moving Away From The Current Approach

The current method of hiring a team for a project and letting them go once it is over is tremendously inefficient. Think of all the hiring and firing that must go on for such a system to function. How many man-hours and HR resources are spent acquiring workers, potentially training them and then letting them go just to repeat the cycle again.

Now think of the old days, when someone might enter the door of a studio and stay there for 20, 30 years or more! That’s unheard of today, but that person not only acquired a ton of experience over the years, they were normally pretty eager to share it to! The same practices continue today, but it is hard to build a rapport with someone if they are switching jobs every few years.

So what’s the solution?

The Apprenticeship Proposal

The solution is a return to apprenticeships. The notion that younger animators and artists are trained by the older ones is a tradition that has dated back centuries. It might be tricky to implement, but there are numerous benefits for all involved.

Why People (and Studios) Benefit

Firstly, the people. That should be obvious. Learning in a practical setting from someone who’s worked in the industry for years can’t be overlooked.

Secondly, studios benefit because they have a set of young artists who are trained and familiar with the studio setups, systems and methods. This is a priceless asset to have. Think of all the know-how that remains within the studio!

However, some sort of formal system for all of this to work. There needs to be set, recognised steps in the process so everyone knows where they are, how far they have to go and what is expected of apprentices. Furthermore, there needs to be mutual recognition among all studios for the system and its skills. Why do this instead of keeping everything in-house? Well the days of the career job are long gone. People will move around between studios as a result of the nature of the business. Wouldn’t it make sense if they all agreed on common skills to have? They stand to benefit too as they will be able to quickly tell what skills animators have.

Ah, but I hear you say, isn’t that what a degree does already? Well yes, but the difference is you must go to school for a couple of years and then start working. Sure, the likes of Disney run summer apprenticeships, but they are too short. Think about the old Disney days, when students might have worked during the day, gaining practical experience and then attended night classes to learn the finer techniques and concepts.

Conclusion

Art in any form is an astonishing skill to have. It’s an innate skill as much as it is a learned one, but with the recent controversies about art education, it makes more practical sense to acquire or hone skills based on an apprenticeship approach. At the end, not only will apprentices have the skills, they’ll also have the personal relationships, the work experience and a qualification to prove it all.

Nickelodeon, Kids, Junk Food and Animation

Via: Cereal Facts
Via: Cereal Facts – It is this blogger’s opinion that this cereal ought to be banned for attempting to even resemble the taste of cookies.

Junk food + kids is a controversial topic that has gained steam over the last 15-20 years as experts and governmental officials have noticed the nearly unchecked rise in childhood obesity. While lifestyle obviously plays an overwhelming role in a person’s health, it is shaped and altered by a myriad of forces coming from outside the home environment. Entertainment (as in most developed countries but especially in the US) plays a very large role in children’s lives and has been long noted for its influence on their development. Junk food and advertisement for it have long been a bone of contention between various parties as it lies within a gray area between the home and commercialism.

The Current Concern With Junk Food & Kids

Coming via Erin McNeill is an article from Ad Age that discusses the concern among US senators when it comes to junk food advertising and one network in particular, Nickelodeon.

Noting that Disney introduced restrictions last year, the senators would like to see Nickelodeon introduce similar measures:

“We’re calling on Nickelodeon– the biggest source of food ads viewed by kids– to stop the pitches for unhealthy foods like sugary cereals and sweet snacks that are powerfully promoting childhood obesity,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in a statement today.

This is a fine wish in theory, but in practise, Nickelodeon has other ideas:

Nickelodeon responded in a statement saying it is “primary responsibility is to make the highest-quality content in the world for kids, and we leave the science of nutrition to the experts.”

While they go on to state that they adhere to published guidelines published by the Better Business Bureau regarding advertising aimed at kids, such guidelines are voluntary for advertisers and include much room for leeway on their behalf when it comes to what constitutes ‘healthy’.

The Ethical Dilemma

This topic does, of course, throw up the ethical dilemma. While junk food forms part of an unhealthy lifestyle and indeed exaggerates it, it is only half of the story. Junk food in and of itself does not make a person inherently unhealthy (it may be bad for you, but a decent exercise regime will substantially minimise the effects).

A sedentary lifestyle forms the other half, and that’s where Nickelodeon (and by extension, animation) comes in. Without the content, there is little incentive to sit and watch television. It is the constant, unending supply of content on TV that has been a significant cause of childhood obesity in recent years.

Unlike times gone past, when kids’ programming was limited to a few hours in the afternoon before the news and on Saturday mornings, kids had no choice but to either switch off or get a dose of current affairs. It isn’t hard to guess which one most chose.

Compare that to today, when kids not only have a constant supply interrupted only by commercial breaks, they don’t even have to give up the television to someone else; 70% of American kids have TV in their bedroom.

Constant programming isn’t so much required as it is mandated in order for the networks to be commercially successful, and naturally, there is always the threat that if you don’t provide something, your competitors will. Such survival is ensured by advertisers, many of whom produce foods that are unhealthy for kids.

As creators of such content, where does the responsibility end when it comes to viewer’s habits and what can be done about it? Animators and artists do not set out to create a show that will contribute to childhood obesity, but can we blame them for accepting a job for a network that does? Hardly, we all have to survive, and the actions of the masses cannot be the responsibility of any one individual or show.

The Internet as a Solution?

A reduction in unhealthy advertising is an obvious first step, but when parents remain the party responsible for what makes it into the shopping trolley, will it do much good?

Perhaps ironically, the internet may offer a solution.

Long derided for its addictive qualities, the internet may prove pivotal in the quest to make consumers healthier. That is, despite the limitless quantity of content on the internet, there is an understanding that you simply cannot watch it all, not matter how hard you try.

Discussion around the segmentation of internet content to the point that it is practically tailor-made has gained steam recently. While this obviously has concerns as far as psychology, it should also mean that consumers spend less time watching content. Once they get caught up on new programming, there is less of an incentive to continue viewing.

Kids, being the most vulnerable, could be educated to control their viewing habits and to restrict it to measured doses. While YouTube pushes continued viewing on its platform, once a framework is established for younger viewers, it should be relatively easy to restrict viewing with technology.

Such is an example where companies and government could lead the way. On demand video eliminates the need to hit as many consumers at the same time. Instead, limiting viewing time should help networks as they will retain audience but will be able to earn more efficiency from their advertising.

Concluding Remarks

The intersection of children and advertising will always be a contentious issue. Corporations and networks need to understand that sales to kids are only temporary anyway (because they grow up). Is targeting them ferociously really leading them to be customers all the way into adulthood? By all accounts, they will become customers regardless.

A more rational approach is needed to both advertising and the length of time that kids consume content; in the long run, it will benefit everyone.

For the curious, please also check out this video detailing the economic cost of obesity and why it hurts us all by Academic Earth.

Public Broadcasters and the Looming Crunch

Via: Howzey on Flickr
Via: Howzey on Flickr

The topic of today’s post will seem a bit foreign to a lot of this blog’s readers for the simple reason that the United States doesn’t have a state broadcaster in the traditional sense. Yes, PBS (and NPR) are public broadcasters, but their funding model is a complicated one. Funds come from a variety of sources including corporate and private donations, sponsorships and indirect government funding. In stark contrast, many public broadcasters around the world are subsidised by direct taxation; often in the form of a TV license.

The Crunch

What has been noted in recent times is the fact that TV licenses generally only cover televisions (with some exceptions). You and I know, however, that a lot of content is also watched on computers and mobile devices; notably exempt from TV licensing requirements. That places broadcasters in a crunch; people are not buying TVs like they used to and license revenues (and by extension, their funding) are falling as a result.

The reason this blog is discussing the entire saga is that state broadcasters, particularly in Europe, not only create, but also purchase and commission large amounts of animated content.

The Pessimistic View

Consider if TV license (or similar) revenues continued to fall. State broadcasters would trim back their spending on new content, given that they have less money with which to play with. Such a reduction would not only hurt those studios that make content explicitly for such entities, but also those studios that create content independently and sell it to public broadcasters through the open market.

Even the US would not be immune to the effect. While there is naturally a greater choice of content on this side of the pond, there remains a large contingent of content that is purchased from overseas. Kinks in this supply chain could have negative (and positive) impacts on animation broadcasting there. Likewise, many European broadcasters purchase US-made content for local broadcast and fewer resources would endanger those actions.

Undoubtedly, the notion that animation production in Europe an elsewhere could be in trouble runs contrary to how it should be. The problem is that countries such as the UK are attempting to make animation more appealing to outside sources at the very time they should be refocusing on internal sources. The UK could make itself a very cheap place to make animation, but if the majority of the sources of the production budgets run into difficulty, being cheap won’t matter; no-one will do it for free.

The Optimistic View

Some states (such as Ireland, regrettably) have considered placing a non-descriptive ‘broadcast tax’ on either every residence in the state or on device sales within their borders. The outcome of this is intended to shore up public broadcasters’ revenue sources. The problem is that this is out of place with the shift to digital platforms. Revenue levels may be maintained, but they do so at the expense of the free market.

A TV license is one thing because it burdens those who are most likely to reap the benefits of state-sponsored content. A flat tax on the general populace however, acts as an incentive to no-one and does not promote production of better content.

The role model to follow in all of this is the BBC, an institution that has undergone a remarkable transformation over the last 10 years. While still funded by a TV license, the corporation has done remarkably well to market and sell its content in markets around the world, bringing in much additional revenue.

State and public broadcaster therefore need to redouble their efforts to make content that can be sold across borders. Some do so already and the vast majority of independents cannot comprehend doing anything else; their margins are too thin. With marketable content, state broadcasters can be sure that their content and the content they commission is self-supporting and possibly even revenue-generating. By doing so, they mitigate the crunch that comes from falling TV license issues and maintain production at the current levels.

The Long-Term View

If one is to look at the situation from a long-term perspective, public broadcasters are rapidly approaching the point where they will be forced to play on a level playing field with private producers. The internet doesn’t discriminate between content sources and just because public money funded one show, doesn’t mean that anyone will actually watch it. Yes, state broadcasters are tasked with producing content that would not otherwise be profitable, but the internet will take up some of the slack as independent producers proliferate. State broadcasters may create niche or acute-interest programming, but if they get too far from the mainstream, they run the risk of being accused of wasting public money.

Thankfully, animation rarely if ever is seen as a waste of public money, and it would be real shame if that ever came to pass. That said, state broadcasters must consider the changes we are currently seeing. Animation studios and those who run them would be wise to consider them as well, and plan accordingly.

The Enemy of Animation: Ignorance

To be fair, you could say that ignorance is the enemy of just about anything, but consider for a second how it affects animation as a whole.

The Issues

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised that there’s simply too much information in the world for one person to know it all (that didn’t stop me from trying when I was younger though). It’s impossible to know too much, but it’s completely possible to know too little.

You may not need to know how to correctly design a curve in the road to enjoy life, but would your enjoyment of a film be enhanced if you knew more about how it was made? The answer points to yes thanks to the mandatory making-of videos that are available for just about every piece of entertainment out there.

That said, how many people amongst the general public know how an animated film is made? Not many; heck there are people in the industry who don’t even know how it’s made. One smiles at the story of the newly arrived executive at Disney who asked to see the “retakes” of a particular scene.

Thankfully Jeffrey Katzenberg did his homework and the industry is all the better for it, but how many other people don’t know even the basic facts behind creating animation?

I would go so far as to say that the problem is endemic and seriously undermines artists’ ability to function as well as supressing the quality of the industry’s output.

The Results

What ignorance results in has been on view ever since animation became a commercial enterprise. Plowing through the creative and technological obstacles without disregard has resulted in more than enough poor quality content being produced over the last 80 years. Plenty of Disney’s early competitors made that mistake and you’re well aware of how popular they are nowadays.

Today, ignorance manifests itself in many forms. Much more than the poor quality of content that’s out there is the disregard for the efforts that goes into it. I’m sure you’ve all seen something like this:

Via: Alikigreeky
Via: Alikigreeky

We can blame CGI for the expansion of such notions in recent years, but they are proliferating at a speedy rate. Pressures at the lower end of the budget scale are putting artists into increasingly tight positions in regards to their work and their ability to carve out a successful and fulfilling career.

Do costs have something to do with it? Sure they do, but on a deeper level is an ignorance of how animation production relates to unit costs and output levels. A client who expects a 1 minute animated commercial to be made in a week is clearly ignorant. What sucks is that they will attempt to find someone to meet his deadline rather than educating themselves on how much time it actually takes to make it and adjusting their schedule accordingly.

TV shows and features are no different save for being overseen by people acutely familiar with animation.

The Solution

Solving the ignorance problem is easier said than done. Animation is far from a solely entertaining technique but the vast majority of animation is designed for entertainment purposes. Education is clearly the key to solving the problem but raises issues of its own.

Whom do you educate? Besides those within the industry and devoted fans familiar with how it works, it’s a complicated task to nail down who needs to know more about animation.

Let’s start with those within the wider entertainment industry itself. God knows I felt for both Michael Sporn and Amid Amidi when they appeared on a Fox News segment and were asked questions that any 5 years old with access to Google could tell you. That episode simply illustrated in a perfectly clear manner how little most people know about animation. The questions posed served to ‘educate’ viewers on animation but ideally should be common knowledge already.

Educating those within the wider entertainment industry should be a priority followed by those within the industries reliant on animation in some way shape or form. Advertising ought to be the big one; too many executives know next to nothing about a creative technique that makes their bread and butter. They should be followed by the general public. Documentaries on animation are not lacking, but focus much more on the creativity rather than the large mass of skill behind it.

In a way, I’m reminded of the Reluctant Dragon; entertaining sure, but it also served to educate the wider public about the many stages that are involved with making an animated film.

The Payoff

Lastly, what is there to be gained from all this time and effort?

For one, we’d see a larger uptake of careers as parents, no longer able to claim ignorance, see careers in animation in a much more favourable light. Producers would better understand what goes into making animation and executives (TV, film, ad or otherwise) would be better able to plan out their schedules and budgets with artists getting a fairer deal into the bargain. Lastly, the public at large would better appreciate animation on a level comparable to the way it discusses and analyses a live-action performance; c’mon, everyone has an opinion on the acting in the latest blockbuster, but they could barely discuss the movements in the latest Pixar hit.

How would you tackle the widespread ignorance of animation? Would you take a more convention approach or prefer something innovative?

A Theory on Government Subsidies For Animation

It’s currently a hot topic among animation circles, and especially their cousins in the VFX industry. Yes, government subsidies are contentious no matter what side of the debate you’re on. Those for, argue that they retain jobs and industries in countries (or regions) that would otherwise lose them to cheaper competition. Those against, argue that they entice companies to slide from country to country and region to region as subsidies are created and retracted. Subsidies are a form of support from government, but today, I’m proposing support of a particular kind.

Little Witch Academia

Via: Random Curiosity
Via: Random Curiosity

This past weekend, I watched the short film Little Witch Academia, which I enjoyed immensely. (It’s stunning to think that it packs more action and character into the same amount of time as an episode of any TV show.) What piqued my interest in the short in addition to the animation was how it was funded.

Yes, Little Witch Academia was created by a studio called Trigger and although a group of ex-Gainax animators were involved, the short itself was the product of many young animators who were the recipients of a grant from the Japanese government.

The grant itself is entitled ‘Young Animator Training Project‘ [link]. Essentially, the Japanese government endows a certain amount; in this case 214.5 million yen (about US$2.27 million), which is distributed among four studios. These studios in turn create projects such as Little Witch Academia with a staff of young animators who essentially learn on the job. The goal of the project is that training as Japan has seen an increase in animation being sent overseas.

Why Not Direct Government Subsidies?

Many people see direct government subsidies in the form of tax relief as a great tool for creating demand. While that is certainly true (one need only look at Ireland to see an industry grown from scratch thanks to a healthy subsidy), subsidies themselves can only go so far. They can lower production costs, but they do not address the causes for them to be so high in the first place (that’s usually a macroeconomic concern.)

Moreover, direct subsidies are inherently risky because they are susceptible to undermining. Don’t believe it? Look at British Columbia, a state that had generous government subsidies for VFX and animation but is now seeing such work leave thanks to a larger subsidy being offered in Ontario and other jurisdictions.

Direct subsidies also do not, on their own, either increase work or skills. The rise in work they bring in certainly do, but tax relief itself does not spur creativity or the desire to create new content.

Why Indirect Government Subsidies Are Better

Indirect subsidies are essentially efforts like the Young Animator Training Project. They are governments putting money into animation, but rather than attempting to ‘pull’ demand, they ‘push’ it. Consider the following points:

They Can Focus On the Problem

Indirect subsidies can be meted out in a specific manner. They can be targeted at specific areas or problems that direct subsidies are only so good at accomplishing. They can focus on specific skills, ages, genders and regions. Once a problem is identified, an indirect subsidy can be created and applied quickly. In Japan’s case, work was going abroad and young animators were getting neither the training or employment they needed.

For many in animation, cost is a considerably concern. However, costs are only relative insofar that they are related to supply. It’s a complicated issue, but generally, clients will pay for skills they can’t find anywhere else. Indirect subsides can improve skills and mitigate this concern.

They Can Fund Things That Otherwise Would Never Be Made

Unfortunately, commercial studios are notoriously risk averse; hence the reason we had so many Shrek movies long past the series’ use-by date. With studios unwilling (or unable) to take risks with creating content, governments can step in to fill the void. Practically every country in the world has some sort of commission or council that funds film projects. While many of their projects live up to the stereotype of permitting artsy fartsy content to come to fruition, they can also give more mainstream content the extra helping hand it needs.

The Secret of Kells was one such project that, while not overtly art house in nature, it did receive assistance from both Bord Scannán na hÉireann (the Irish Film Board) and the state broadcaster, RTÉ. Both entities receive their funding through public sources but they utilise it in order to create the best content possible. No-one, of course, would argue that the world (and animation in general) is worse-off because the Secret of Kells was released.

They Don’t Bet On Horses

In line with the point above is that indirect subsidies do not bet on horses so to speak. Direct subsidies anticipate a certain level of investment but they also cannot control who undertakes such activities. In that respect, they tend to be bets placed with public money. Just look at what happened in Florida with Digital Domain. It was a successful company that whittled funds from the State of Florida to build a studio with the promise of jobs. Said facility was built and jobs were created, but when everything went south, the results were catastrophic.

Indirect subsidies mitigate such risks by simply ignoring them. Instead of backing ventures that potentially turn a profit, indirect subsidies instead anticipate no profit being made; in other words, they eliminate the risks associated with the production costs. The difference is significant because production costs are the risk that studios undertake when producing animation. The reason is simple, they must carry their burden before earning them back through box office sales and so on. If grants can reduce or eliminate production costs, then studios have no reason not to produce!

This reduction in risk permits studios who receive them to be a bit more daring in their offerings; another reason why films from the National Film Board of Canada are so widely regarded.

Their Films Act As A Calling Card

To come back to Kells for a second, that film was utterly and unashamedly Irish in all aspects. It was rightfully recognised as being the ideal siren film for Irish animation which was only amplified by its Academy Award nomination. Films sponsored through indirect subsidies can accomplish this on a successful scale. As you might expect, such films generally tend to champion the source of their funding; Kells with Ireland, Little Witch Academia with Japanese animation.

They Can Incite Creativity

Direct government subsidies for animation bring in a lot of work, but do they necessarily incite creativity among the artists who work on them? Sure, American shows are popular abroad as well as at home, but The Simpsons has been animated in South Korea for over 20 years, and I have yet to see anything emanate from that country resembling Springfield’s first family.

Yes, cultural differences can be a sticking point for direct subsidies. What good does it do to local talent if the work all day on something they may not necessarily relate to? Would it not perhaps be better to have them work on something they identify with culturally and socially? Perhaps even something that could improve their cultural identity?

Working on something you identify with is much more likely to spur you to create something yourself. If you work on a film that permits you to put a bit of yourself into it and learn from it, you’re more likely to perhaps take on an independent film, right?

Conclusion

All the above isn’t to say the direct subsidies do not have their benefits, they certainly do. In Ireland’s case, an industry has been built up from near nothing! However, indirect subsidies can accomplish much more, in both the financial and creative sense. They are better for the industry on a range of levels and should be utilised more.

Let’s hear your thoughts on government support for animation! Do you favour one form over another? Should they be abolished entirely? Leave a comment below!

Thoughts On The Angry Birds Cartoon

Via: Techradar
Via: Techradar

Launching over tomorrow and Sunday is the Angry Birds cartoon series. Although on the surface a rather uneventful, uh, event, this series is unique in a few ways that we haven’t seen before. Let’s take a look at what they are and what they could mean for the series.

It’s Based on a Game

OK, this isn’t a new thing, but it is new that it’s based on a mobile game. Plenty of console characters have had their animated likeness plastered all over screens (Mario and Sonic being the obvious ones), but Angry Birds is the first game to make the leap from the mobile one.

Naturally, this was almost a given seeing how successful the series of games has been and over 1 billion downloads is nothing to sniff about for any form of media. This existing brand recognition among members of the public will do ithe Angry Birds cartoon no harm at all.

The Show Has a Supporting Empire

Yes, the studio behind the franchise, Rovio, has been harbouring ambitions beyond the video game and unless your vision isn’t the best, you’re bound to have noticed the proliferation of Angry Birds merchandise that was just about everywhere this past Christmas season.

Toys, stuffed animals, branded gimmicks; Angry Birds is on all of them and barring an over-saturation, the brand has the marketing pump well-primed to deliver a series into.

Contrast that with how a normal series builds up attention via broadcasts and tries to sell the merchandise thereafter. The risk to Rovio for the Angry Birds cartoon series is significantly less; a fact that is sure not to be lost on other studios. After all, why sink a huge amount of money into a series when you can cobble together an app or game for much less and build from there. Don’t laugh, Disney has already begun laying the groundwork.

Using the App for the Angry Birds Cartoon’s Distribution

This final point is where the Angry Birds cartoon really differs from the pack. Rovio is offering the series through the company’s Angry Birds mobile app (among other media)

The reasoning behind this is fairly obvious. Rovio’s software is installed on over 1 billion devices and seeing as they have the ability (through software updates) to add the necessary functionality to play videos, why not give their cartoon a prominent placement where it is likely to be seen by the very people most likely to watch!

The studio will release one short a week for an entire year. Each episode will be available through the app and you can be sure that every user will get a notification to say it’s available for viewing, a surefire way to drive up the viewing numbers.

This strategy is curious; sure Rovio will have a massive potential audience, but what of those of us who haven’t downloaded the game (or have Comcast for that matter?) It’s unlikely that people will download the app just to watch the series so is Rovio actually, purposefully, limiting their potential audience?

The signs seem to indicate yes, albeit on scale so massive it may not matter much today. Rovio will have to alter it or find an alternative in the future though. If their ambitions are to be believed, they will have to venture into the world beyond mobile phones to find greater success.

That said, all the best to them. I’ll be watching to see how well they do.

Animation Ruins Movies!

CGI vs storytelling

In a recent piece published on the New York Times website, Armond White (chief film critic of City Arts) makes the plea that the level of computer animation in mainstream films be reduced, lest moviegoers lose all sense of realism. The article is a short one, but it manages to mangle many of the myths surrounding animation into points with which to bash the technique.

It Kills A Movie’s Credibility

In this post-“Avatar” culture, Hollywood relies on digital effects to emphasize lavish other-worldly environments to give audiences what they want: escapism. But there’s also an escape from credibility happening here. Special effects used to bring us closer to realism; now they douse us in artifice. “Speed Racer,” anyone?

Don’t all audiences want escapism though? Surely that’s the reason they even watch films in the first place; as an alternative way to spend time than doing something in the real world. Does White purpose that animated special effects make films seems unbelievable? Because in the case of the two films he calls out, that’s precisely the point.

It’s hard to articulate his line about being driven away from realism though. Animated effects can do both in exactly the same way that makeup can. Makeup has been used since the dawn of cinema to facilitate an audience’s faith in constructed realism. Animated effects are no different; they manufacture realism when it is necessary and compliment reality when it is not.

It Pushes Technology Over Narrative

Technological excess has overwhelmed narrative meaning. This digital grandstanding suffocates what I — and D.W. Griffith and Andre Bazin and past generations of theorists, critics and cinematic practitioners — once considered the essence of cinema: nature and the human face.

This would be an appropriate statement if, and only if, computer animation was applied to every single film released in the manner that White describes. A scenario that patently doesn’t exist. The Hunger Games is a film that utilised CGI when it needed to (in Panem) but quite happily took in all the nature it could once the setting changed to the arena.

“Oz the Great and Powerful” has been digitized to look like a hyperactive coloring book

While Oz may or may not be an artistically significant film (this blogger leans towards the latter), the decision to rely on large amounts of computer animation for the look rests entirely with the studio that produced it. Said studio (Disney) has been noted as relying on so-called tentpole films that contain a lot of CGI for the precise reason that it draws in audiences. Artistic credibility is sufficiently absent from the list of goals for such films that emphasis star performers, grandiose plots and visual spectacle. To bemoan the lack of cinematic credibility in such films is comparable to decrying the dearth of opera on ESPN; it’s looking for something that will never be.

It’s Turning Us All Into Kids

Yes, unfortunately this tired argument gets rolled out yet again:

The further Hollywood gets from that essence, the more computer-generated imagery we will get. “Animation Domination,” as it’s advertised on the Fox network. It almost seems as if Hollywood’s emphasis on digital effects aims to turn moviegoers into children rather than aesthetically responsive viewers.

Yup. Animation is turning us all into kids because that’s what animation is meant for, right? NO! Just because the technique is prevalent in content that is suitable for young viewers in no way means that it is responsible for turning viewers into delinquent juveniles. If you want to make that argument, blame the content itself; how it is formed and presented has next to nothing to do with it.

Animation is capable of the full range of dramatic cinema that live-action film is and this fact is something that Mr. White should be aware of, but he has regretfully glossed over this in favour of using animation as an excuse for Hollywood’s risk-averse business decisions.

You Can See His Point Though

I do empathise with White when it comes to mainstream cinema though; a market where most big releases are increasingly following a formula (they always have of course, but it is obvious now more so than ever) and that formula just happens to call for lots of CGI and banal plots.

I cannot agree with his statement that we are “are suffering from digital effects overload, plain and simple”. The rise of the internet as a distribution platform and the plummeting costs of filmmaking equipment and technology means that there is a burgeoning independent scene that is all too happy to rely on the good old fashioned style of cinema that caters to artistic minds

Animation is not the source of cinema’s current slate. If anything, it is holding it up.

How The Academy Awards Screws Animation

So by now the winners have been announced and everyone’s done patting themselves on the back for another year. However, our coverage today has nothing to do with last night’s Academy Awards ceremony or even the winners and losers, rather it takes a look at how animation gets screwed by the Academy and those it has deals with. It isn’t pretty, but it’s the truth that will have to change before the technique is accepted with the respect that it deserves.

The Distributor

The first area where animation gets shafted is in the best shorts category. These impressive films usually receive (as part of their nomination) inclusion in a program that is offered to cinemas across the country around the time of the award’s ceremony. The traditional reason for this is natural enough; most cinemas won’t run the shorts individually so they are compiled and offered as a complete program that can be easily marketed and sold. That’s a fair enough deal and it offers the short’s creators the opportunity to get their films in front of the populace instead of just Academy voters and critics.

Such a fine proposition has existed for a number of years but this time around, something different occurred; all the shorts were made available online, and for free! The upshot was that many people took the opportunity to view the shorts. Paperman alone was viewed at least tens of thousands of times if not many more. The other shorts had similarly impressive numbers. Discussion was rampant online and off, as many fans and critics alike grasped the chance to see the films in a convenient manner.

All that changed on February 14th as a letter from Carter Pilcher of Shorts International was sent to the five respective nominees requesting that they remove the shorts from their official hosts. The letter itself is confusing as it initially states the obvious but falls back on that to ponder why the films were put online at all, since “Academy voters have other and better means of viewing the films.”

To cut through all the bullshit, what the entire fiasco amounts to is the Academy’s anointed distributor reacting to claims by its customers that their attendance is down because the shorts are available online. Business is business, but the people ultimately being sold for thirty pieces of silver are the animators themselves:

“Unlike Webbies or Ani’s, the Academy Award is designed to award excellence in the making of motion pictures that receive a cinematic release, not an online release,” Pilcher wrote. “This release of the films on the Internet threatens to destroy 8 years of audience growth and the notion that these film gems are indeed movies — no feature length film would consider a free online release as a marketing tool!”

No offence sir, but fuck you. Insinuating that animated shorts are even potentially below that of features is a smack in the face to those who create them. Shorts tell stories just as profound as features and attempting to justify their presence online as demeaning to them comes off as a rather desperate ploy.

Now all this isn’t to say that the cinema’s don’t have a legitimate claim, they very well might, but that is their problem for them to deal with. Trying to squeeze the distributor to get to the animators is a selfish act that is the cowards way of fixing things. People don’t go to cinemas just because they’re showing something, they go because it’s a social event and happens to have a 30-foot screen and other unique things that people don’t have in their own home. If you can’t offer something to compete with the shorts being on the internet, perhaps you need to look at what you’re doing wrong instead of trying to pin the blame on someone else.

The ultimate result of the shorts disappearing from the internet is that plenty of people who would have seen the shorts now cannot (we’re talking those living in the middle of nowhere and foreign countries, etc.) This castration of audience size stuffs animated shorts back into the realm of obscurity, and for what? So cinemas, the distributor and the Academy can put a few more pennies in their pockets while animators and their films get walked over at the one time of the year when they can benefit from all the publicity.

The Voting (and Voters)

As if animated films weren’t already getting screwed in some way by this years awards, along comes The Hollywood Reporter with an article that looks at how one voter casts his ballot as well as his thoughts as he does so. Under the title of An Oscar Voter’s Brutally Honest Ballot, we get an inside look at what happens when votes are cast. Most of the article is interesting enough, but as you would expect, the animated categories are where things start to heat up.

Take for starters the animated short category:

BEST SHORT (ANIMATED)

[Had not seen any of the films, but had heard good things about Paperman so he voted for it.]

Vote: Paperman

And that, is pretty much how a lot of other voters picked their choices as well. The audacity of it all is that this guy had not seen any of the short documentaries either but abstained from that category entirely as he had heard nothing about any of the nominees. Eh? Just because you heard good things about one of the nominated films, you decide to vote for that one? Not exactly fair now is it. This act immediately excludes all other contenders because Disney, as ever, is making a lot of noise about its films and ultimately has a good bit of clout to boot. Once again, animated shorts are screwed.

Now how about those animated features:

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

“It’s a tough category because everything is mediocre. I’m definitely not voting for The Pirates. I’m not voting for Frankenweenie. Brave was unimpressive. So I guess it’s between ParaNorman and Wreck-It Ralph. So… ” [At this time, he assigned the screen-side of his iPhone to the former and the back-side of it to the latter, and spun it on his desk.]

Vote: Wreck-It Ralph

Now fair enough, the animated feature field is a bit average this year, but that does not excuse such behaviour. Perhaps we can telepathically read his thoughts on each of the nominees:

  • The Pirates – “not a hometown production, didn’t gain from its nomination or will gain from a win. No vote”
  • Frankenweenie – “Tim Burton? Yuck! Ugly dog + the undead = shite. No vote”
  • Brave – “Just another princess movie the same as the others that I’ll never vote for, even if it is by Pixar. No vote”
  • ParaNorman and Wreck-It-Ralph – “Fuck it, I’m bored just talking about these films. Let’s just pick one and get on with it”

It’s tempting to think that the guy simply has no interest in animation, which may very well be the case, but the problem is that if he’s not taking the animated categories seriously, then who really is? Judging by the winners year after year, it pretty clear that most voters simply pick the one that is the best/most well known.

A few years ago, The Secret of Kells managed to sneak in and during the nominee announcements, we had George Clooney proclaim for all and sundry that nobody had even heard of it. While such a gesture was surely symptomatic of how Kells won the nomination in the first place, it nonetheless revealed the truth that even serious actors didn’t see the animated feature category as something that rewards the best rather than the most obvious.

This voter’s decision making isn’t the worst part though, for the article reveals that the best picture nomination is by preference. In other words, you pick a favourite, second favourite, etc. Anyone familiar with such preferential voting systems knows that they tend to benefit the smaller players, as they can gain from picking up second preferences once the lowest nominees get eliminated.

How does that screw animation? Well the best animated feature category is a straight vote. No preferences. The result is that films win based on totals rather than averages, so even though Brave may have been everyone’s first choice, ParaNorman may have ranked higher among voters overall.

This placement of animated features on a secondary voting system provides even more proof that the Academy views animated features as a category to appease certain players in the industry [coughDisneycough] rather than a serious attempt to convey any sort of cultural approval as they so often claim the awards are.

Conclusion

Both of these practices should prove beyond any doubt that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does not, and probably will not see animated as an equal. Their eponymous awards are sold as something that conveys honours on the best of the best, but they are really nothing of the sort. Why, as an animator (independent or otherwise) would you throw money and time at them in the hope of a payoff is beyond me. Until things improve, save your money and accommodate your fans; they’re the ones who feed you after all.

What Opportunities Mean

wpid-IMG_20130217_164748.jpg

Opportunity. It’s something that we all hope comes along at certain times in our lives, but it’s true when we say that it knocks. It doesn’t necessarily announce itself and it can sometimes be downright sneaky, only presenting its true form potentially months after the initial event. I’m writing about this today because I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Opportunity himself, Rob Paulsen.

This isn’t to say that I view the chance to meet him as some sort of foreshadowing or fortuitous event that will pay dividends later. No, it’s nothing like that at all. What it boils down to is the various sets of circumstances about how we came to be in the same place at the same time and how opportunity plays a large part in that.

The (extremely enjoyable) hour-long Q&A that Rob held brought forth his entire career and how he came to become a voice actor. It became apparent that he took a few chances, but also enjoyed plenty of opportunities that came his way. The original Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles (sorry, the politically correct European title was burned into my noggin) was an opportunity that he still talks about 20+ years later.

Rob’s job is one thing, but during the talk, the topic of discussion came around to what he does outside of voice-acting. For him, it’s teaching and his (just as entertaining) podcast, Talkin’ Toons. In both, Rob saw opportunities and decided to take them. They’ve worked very well for him too, but if he hadn’t seen the potential, they would have passed him by.

What got me onto this line of thinking was the realisation that you really do have to be open and receptive to opportunities in order to benefit from them. For me there have been numerous opportunities that came my way. Some have worked out, others have not. The opportunity to work in China was one that didn’t work out, although it did re-affirm my view that the I was better suited to the USA anyway.

I had to listen for the opportunity to work in China, and I had to listen really hard for the opportunity to work in the US. The latter took well over a year to finally pay off too; proof that patience can be a virtue. The point is that opportunities don’t come along and say “Hey! Look at me! I’m an opportunity you should take!”. If only they did that, and maybe slap you around the face for good measure.

Rather, opportunities are more along the lines of, “hey, I’m kind of interesting. Maybe you should look into me more.” Let me assure you, it won’t be shouted at you either. It’ll be whispered softly and it can be all too easy to miss. That’s why it’s important to always keep an ear out for these kinds of things; they’re extremely easy to miss.

I don’t say all this as some sort of pharisee; I’ve missed plenty of opportunities because I wasn’t paying attention, even when they were in plain sight in front of me screaming and yelling for my attention. Sometimes I’ve been really lucky that an opportunity has come along at just the right time; such as a job offer. Either way, I’ve learned that you have to be constantly listening and be willing to follow up on things that seemingly have no connection to your goals.

I had the opportunity to meet Rob Paulsen here in Baltimore this weekend and while it is tempting to think that it was simply fortuitous, in the grand scheme of things, the meeting was the result of both of us sensing opportunities and taking them. I’m certainly grateful that he took the opportunities he had that have led him to a long and successful career and I can only hope that I end up doing the same.