Thoughts on Female Representation in Animation

Korra won out as the character to feature because she’s a great contemporary example of a female protagonist.

I like female characters, that’s no secret at this point, they’re awesome and unfortunately continue to be under-represented in contemporary animation programming. That’s not to say they don’t exist at all, but they do tend to occupy either the sideline characters more so than the lead protagonists.

Jason Tammemägi recently wrote about this in a brilliant post where he also tackles the concept of genderisation in kids programming. Much more than that, as a creator, Jason notes that:

I find myself very consciously making sure I have female characters in my shows….But a few years back, I did a little drawing-a-day project with zombies. Somewhat gruesome and not for the kids, it was just for fun. I realised when I approached the end of it that an overwhelming amount of the zombies were male. Why? Well, I wasn’t really thinking about it. They just were. It’s like even being so aware of female under-representation that, when I stopped thinking about it, I would fall back into the whole ‘default human being male’ thing.

Is that a fair assumption? Do we (as adults) have preconceived notions of the place that gender plays in roles? Absolutely, but as Jason rightly points out, it shouldn’t be that way:

It tells me the only way to change this situation, to improve this, is to be active about it. Is to actively make it part of our thinking as we develop shows, games, anything. Should we force female characters in to a show if natural development has led to mostly males? In my opinion, yes. Yes we should. Because that ‘natural’ situation usually comes about because we are just perpetuating old media habits and conditioning and those are really hard to break without actively pushing against them. Getting female characters, varied, interesting and active should be a clear goal when developing media. Because there is a very good chance it won’t happen on its own.

In conjunction with the above post is one from the soooper talented Brianne Drouhard (a.k.a. Potato Farm Girl) wherein she details a concept she developed herself, Harpy Gee. Check out the awesome art she posted the other day:

The post where the picture came from is a fairly simple one that details the characters:

Harpy: An elf that cannot use magic, considered a grave handicap in her home country, she’s been sheltered all her life.  She lives and works at the Item Shop, but also will take any odd job around town, regardless if it’s teaching, ballet school, or scrubbing the castle floors.  Nothing is too mundane or adventurous.  She’s doing her best to make up for lost time and stay optimistic.

Pumpkin:  Harpy’s goblin cat.  He is indestructible, and will eat anything.  Luckily he is lazy and sleeps most of the time.  He’s also her living suitcase, she keeps her important items, clothing and weapons in his inter-dimensional stomach.

Opal: A witch doctor from a large family of pig ranchers.  She doesn’t like dirt, but since she has to dig up most of her potion ingredients, she wears gloves and a bandana.  She uses her shovel to fly, since she also needs it to dig.  She likes anything that’s cute, and her helpful ingredient smelling pet pig, Truffle.

Ash:  A knight in training.  He thinks highly of himself, and regards the others as children.  He secretly collects playing cards of famous knights.  He tries his best to act like what he knows what he’s doing, but half the time ends up embarrassed.

Humphrey:  The prince of the kingdom, he was sent to live at his uncle’s castle in town.  He doesn’t like being outside or sunlight, and would rather write sad poetry or read about battles that end in failure.  His uncle regularly sends him out to take Peepers, the royal dog out for walks.

They’re all fairly straightforward, right? I mean, there’s nothing in there that could potentially scare away any potential networks or studios, and I sincerely doubt that Brianne would even consider something that would to begin with.

Nope, where the really interesting fact lies is in one of Brianne’s posts from March 2012 that goes into much more detail about the struggles of getting Harpy picked up:

In the end, the shorts program [the aborted Cartoonstitute] went in a different direction, and Harpy was shown around to a few other studios.  I don’t think it’ll ever happen, after being told, “Make Harpy a boy”, “put her in high school on Earth”, “it’s too scary”, “it’s too cute”, “boys won’t watch it”, “make her an animal”…

Aside from the more generic comments, a few of the asinine ones sure stand out. What advantage would it be to make Harpy a boy? What’s wrong with the character being a girl? More to the point, why wouldn’t boys watch it? the concept has male characters, so it isn’t as saccharine as, say, My Little Pony, and it’s not exactly about ‘girly’ things like makeup either. Unfortunately Jason hits the nail on the head:

At the weekend, my eldest Daisy was at a party in a kid’s art place. She made a rather awesome clay model of a princess in a tower. Asking her about it, she explained that the girls all had to make princesses to be rescued while the boys all had to make knights with swords to rescue the princesses. I was not exactly happy with this narrow gender-based project. Seeing this, Daisy went further and told me that they could choose to do either but all the girls chose princesses and all the boys chose knights.

I am not sure what form this choice was presented in or if indeed it was much of a choice at all. But if it was an open choice, I could well believe that most girls would choose princesses and most boys would choose knights. Because those are the gender roles assigned to them in an overwhelming amount of media and, in particular, marketing.

In reality, kids only know what they’re told, and with the average American child (and adult) being bombarded with literally hundreds of commercials every day that purport the gender roles that Jason discusses, it isn’t hard to see how boys could be said to favour male-centric programs over female ones.

It’s truly unfortunate because until there is better parity, awesome shows like The Legend of Korra, where the main protagonist is a female (and a kick-ass one at that) will continue to be the exception rather than the rule. And despite the fact that Korra has almost as many boys watching as girls, it’s tough for just one show to change significant numbers of minds. Kim Possible was a great model and the effect it’s had has yet to be felt. Even Lauren Faust says as much, and she knows the truth:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/Fyre_flye/status/273563869383884800″]

A more collaborative effort is needed that sees a better balance between male and female characters in shows but also a sobering realisation that if boys profess a dislike for lead female protagonists it is perhaps because it has been drilled into them that such a character isn’t acceptable to them.

Is a quota of some kind needed? I would hope not, although if I were the head of a studio, I would much rather see my content watched by the largest audience possible rather than trying to narrow it down in the hopes of selling more merchandise and would make damned sure someone else didn’t attempt to push me down that road.

To end on a positive note, both posts discussed here are optimistic about the future:

Brianne:

I’m also curious how the next few years are going to be for female characters in animated tv shows.
“Legend of Korra” just started on Nickelodeon, and is amazing!  Lauren Faust did an excellent job with the current “My Little Pony” and “Super Best Friends Forever” shorts.
I’ve been really happy getting a chance to work on Amethyst too. Sword fighting magical girls is right up my alley!

Jason:

If we do this and do it well (and by the way, I think many of us in preschool are actively tackling this right now), it would take just one generation to make real change. One generation later and maybe the writers won’t have to think about getting strong female characters into their stories. It will just happen as it becomes normal.

What are your thoughts? What do think it will take to see a more balanced approach to televised animation?

Who Is Kickstarter Ideally Suited for?

Kickstarter is a great service and one that I’ve covered before in some detail, but recently I got around to thinking, just who is Kickstarter ideally suited for (from the animation world)? What got me started on this train of thought was a project that I’ll discuss in detail further down (that was brought to my attention by Amid Amidi), and after looking at it, I did spend some time perusing the other animation projects on the site but came away scratching my head.

The reason is simple, there’s a complete smorgasbord of projects on there and it’s hard to make a distinction between all of them (unless of course a major name is attached). However, what did become apparent is that there are a few main types of projects:

  • Pitches
  • Episodes/series
  • Short films
  • Production “sprints”
  • Feature films
Pitches

Starting with the pitches, they are basically exactly that; a Kickstarter to make something that will be used to convince someone else that the project is a good idea. I discussed one extensively in this post and was a bit harsh on the guy, but it was justifiable (and to be fair, we emailed afterward so everything’s cool). This kind most recently came to light with The Goon; essentially a very expensive pitch reel to be used on major studios. That’s great and all, but the budget for that film was astronomical, and a huge name was attached too. The vast majority of this kind of Kickstarter are of this variety; small, independent guys trying to find their way in the world. Kickstarter isn’t ideally suited to them for the precise reason that they’re using it in the first place; nobody knows them!

Episodes and Series

Moving up the scale, episodes and series are quite popular with many projects aiming to create either a single episode or a series of episodes/shorts. The budgets for these are generally higher but the production values tend to be larger too. These projects can be solicited by either individuals or small studios. One that I am familiar with is the one I helped back, the Vegtoons series. The Kickstarter was for one episode but the ultimate goal is an entire series with production being done by Cartoon Saloon.

These projects tend to have a lot more of the unknown about them insofar that what happens after the episode or series is created is sometimes undefined. At least in the Vegtoons instance, a series is promised. It should be noted that there is a lot of crossover between this category and the one above. Plenty of projects are for one episode in a potential series that can be used to gauge interest or as a proof of concept for an investor.

These projects are ideally suited to a small studio rather than an individual. The reason is simple; a studio would be in a more immediate position to get going should production commence. An individual would still need to find a studio and organise the production.

Short Films

The short films projects are very common with plenty of individual animators and collectives looking to get the funds necessary to complete their masterpieces. The scope of these projects varies but almost all are for funds to complete either the entire of the remainder of production. The latter coming almost always after the creator runs out of their own time/money to complete things in a successful manner.

These projects have even more unknowns than the series’. The reason, quite simply, is what happens to the short film after it is created? I saw one campaign that was simply looking for funds to enter a film in festivals! In any case, the reward of a short film is inevitably the film itself (either in a download or DVD). the economics of these campaigns are more than a bit blurry but at the end of the day they represent the closest approximation of creators interacting with their fans. Naturally there will be disappointments from time to time (I’ve heard noises about John K’s project potentially being one of them) but short film campaigns represent both the largest variety within the Kickstarter community and the closest point where creators and fans interact and meet each others needs.

“Sprints”

These projects are the odd man out of the other Kickstarter projects in that they are not complete projects. Rather, they are campaigns to complete stages of a project. The notion being that initial stages require less money and therefore fewer backers whereas the middle or final stages of production will require significantly more money and therefore more backers. The idea behind this structure is that word of mouth can build during production so that the largest potential pool of backers is acquired at just the right time.

Such a method can greatly enhance the success of a project, especially if the audience has yet to be reached. Michael Sporn’s POE film fell just short of funding but could well have been successful (on Kickstarter at least; he eventually received significant funds through Indiegogo) had he broken the production into more segments and run a campaign for each of them.

This method requires multiple visits to the ‘trough’ that may eventually run dry. That said, if a production is well run and keeps its fans informed and updated, there is little reason to suspect that they will stop supporting it. the TUBE Open Movie project is one such example; wherein it is being funded in stages but keeps its backers up to date on progress and even invites them to help!

Feature Films

This is, literally, the holy grail of campaigning. Getting a feature film funded is one of the most difficult tasks in the entertainment business. There are countless stories of independent filmmakers taking on multiple credit cards of debt just to get their films made. Professional investment is tricky and time-consuming and the results aren’t guaranteed (deals falling through, investor jitters, etc.) Kickstarter takes a lot of that out of the equation but it doesn’t help in the budgeting department. Animated feature films are still phenomenally expansive and successful Kickstarter campaigns have all been well below what a theatrical-standard feature film would cost.

Some have gone for the “sprint” route discussed above (the TUBE Open Movie is just one example) whereas others have managed to go the whole hog (Dick Figures) although in fairness, they were not going to maximum quality (or length). It’s hard to see how feature films can find a true home on Kickstarter as the costs are so huge and since only studios are likely to undertake one, they will already have sufficient abilities to raise money or at least talk directly to the people that do.

Is Kickstarter a replacement for traditional investment? No, but that isn’t stopping some people from trying, like this project. Granted, the $250,000 isn’t to finish the entire film, but it does represent a significant chunk of the cost of a film. Michael Barrier has a good opinion of Kickstarter on his website and Mark Sonntag chimes in in the comments with some thoughts that echo my feeling of Kickstarter when it comes to major films. That is, it’s hard to solicit funds from people for such a major project with little more than gifts being the reward. Equity makes people sit up and take notice, and the lure of a return is even better. One way that feature films could succeed on Kickstarter is to basically give everyone a piece of the pie. It’s something that may come along eventually, but for now, it seems that Kickstarter is off-limits to large budget feature films.

Conclusion

To conclude, it’s clear that Kickstarter really does help a large swathe of the animation community get their projects up and running. Unfortunately plenty of projects (both worthy and unworthy) go unfunded and perceived quality isn’t really a yardstick for success. Where Kickstarter seems to shine best is in getting physical objects into the hands of backers. Sending DVDs of a short is one thing, but funding DVDs of something that is already successful is another thing.

Take for example the webcomic Narbonic. Cartoonist Shaenon Garrity successfully funded two print volumes (proudly displayed on my bookshelf) through Kickstarter. She was able to take advantage of the fact that she was funding physical objects and the fact that Narbonic was a great webcomic with a devoted fanbase. Animators looking to use Kickstarter should take note; it’s much easier to raise funds when you already have an audience but when you do, Kickstarter can be a great tool to fulfilling your dreams.

A Response To Amid’s Post Concerning an Animator’s Brand

Amid over at Cartoon Brew has an insightful post that looks at Spike Lee and how he has managed to create a personal brand around himself and his company. Its a good post and Amid raises a number of questions. Rather than detailing it in an über long comment, I thought it best to write a full post instead.

How do Spike Lee’s thoughts fit into today’s animation world, where selling one’s creation to a TV network is often considered the pinnacle of success?

This a good point, although it really does raise the question of why selling to networks is considered the pinnacle of success. Surely the pinnacle would be to get a theatrical feature released, no? Perhaps it is, but that really is an uphill battle all the way if ever there was one and only a very select few ever actually achieve it.

Things are changing though. TV series are (slowly) disappearing, or at least becoming less prominent. In the near future, we’ll see a lot more branded online networks. Some will be personal brands and others will be more reminiscent of traditional networks that take pitches and so forth.

So as far as I see it, animators will more than likely have to get a personal brand together in order to be successful on their own terms. Plenty of them have already done so, like PES and Xeth Fineburg, so the concept is hardly new.

Is giving up control of one’s creation a prerequisite for success in our industry, or can artists who own their brands carve out successful careers?

That ties in nicely with the point above insofar that while that may be true today, where networks normally demand control in exchange for funding, the future is likely to be radically different. If you create, distribute and manage your own content via your own website, then you CAN control your own work.

Artists have also proved fairly apt at this already. Think of Bill Plympton’s Plymptoons or again, PES. Success can be measured in many ways and owning your own brand and success (in the generally accepted sense) are not mutually exclusive.

Can an artist sell a creation to a corporation, but still maintain the integrity of their personal brand?

This is a tricky one, mainly because it’s necessary to define a “personal brand” and what exactly would undermine its integrity.

Taking a simple example, if you were an animator who sold an idea to a network but they requested you change a few things like the language, or the tone, or the jokes, if you did, would that undermine your brand? What if they requested changing, say a minority character into a white character and you did. If you’re a member of that minority, is that selling-out?

The reason I bring these examples up is that they illustrate how difficult it can be to determine whether a brand is being undermined or simply making the right decisions. Determining the integrity of your brand will depend on how exactly your brand is defined.

At the end of the day, many people conclude that when you accept a project for money and money only, then you have undermined your brand, because that is supposed to stand for something, to give people an instant impression of your content and creation. By “selling-out” you undermine that immediately.

All of this rests on the creator whose brand it is. It is up to them to decide whether it is good practice to sell an idea and lose control. Artists like Bill Plympton decided not to, and they’ve managed to build an incredibly strong brand because of it. Bill decided not to participate in Disney’s Aladdin because he felt it would ruin his brand and in so doing, created the gold standard for decision-making against which all others will be judged.

What About Apprenticeships in Animation Instead?

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 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.

On The Topic of the Aul Sins of Piracy

 

What real ‘animation pirates’ look like

Via: All Movie Photo

Brown Bag Films CEO Cathal Gaffney recently published a piece in the Irish Independent with the terribly misleading title of “Giving Up Yer Aul Sins of Piracy May Protect Irish Jobs“. Far from being focused on “piracy” (although we’ll get to that in a minute), it’s a superb overview of the Irish animation landscape and how much it currently means to the Irish economy. Go read it now, I’ll wait.

For a long time there was a stigma of sorts around Irish animation being accepted in a serious way by Irish people themselves, and Cathal’s piece attempts to put paid to the idea that animation is a kiddie thing; a fun job with suitably “fun” revenues and rewards. Far from it, the Irish animation industry has grown from nothing to industry powerhouse through the smart use of international partners, tax incentives and their own creative talents.

While the article may not have a whole lot of meaning for readers abroad, if you want to know how Irish animation has gotten to where it is, there is no better comprehensive explanation.

Now, back to the “piracy” thing.

At the end of Cathal’s piece is this paragraph:

Piracy remains a real problem in Ireland and a threat to the growth of these companies. Piracy (of content and software) is not considered a real crime in Ireland but I wonder if the people who feel a sense of entitlement towards pirated content would feel the same if they knew it could cost Irish jobs. I believe the futile attempts at collecting the TV licences should evolve to see a tax on the ISPs addressing the wholesale theft of content.

It’s the only one in the entire article that deals with the subject and even them it seems tacked on (if you read the article you’ll see why the title is misleading).

The first question is whether “piracy” is a real problem in Ireland and whether it does threaten these companies. The country is only 4 million people and has a broadband penetration rate that trails the EU average quite significantly. Surely the UK market with 60 million people, a far higher percentage of people with broadband access, a common language and only a short plane ride away would be the bigger worry, no? Naturally the article isn’t aimed at British readers, but it seems unfair to pin the blame on groups who are likely to account for only a very small proportion of the viewing audience of Irish animation products.

We’ll come back to the sense of entitlement later, but the matter of how people would feel about “piracy” costing jobs is a delicate yet complex aspect to the whole problem. Unfortunately there exists a disconnect between what people view in their living rooms and how that content is actually produced. Yes, people who know people in the industry will be aware, but for everyone else, they are unlikely to know or even care where the content is produced. This is especially true in Ireland, where a significant chunk of televised entertainment is imported from abroad.

To further complex matters is the inevitable discrimination that exists when consumers are faced with a choice. In the case of televised content, is choosing to watch a British-made TV show considered wrong because it is at the expense of an Irish show produced with Irish labour? To extend the concept further, what if I get my coffee at Starbucks instead of the Irish-owned Insomnia Coffee or better yet, the local independent cafe? Am I a bad person for choosing the international chain over the national one? If I choose the national chain, I’m actively denying the independent cafe revenue.

And how do American animators feel about a show being broadcast in their country but is made in another? Since it’s taking a spot that could be occupied by an American show, that has a direct impact on the American animation industry and employment therein. Who’s to say which country’s industry takes priority? It’s an economic concept that is extremely difficult for many people to grasp, let alone for companies and governments to manage.

Coming back to the entitlement issue; it’s very, very important to distinguish between “entitlement” and “demand”. Entitlement is something that is something that people feel they are owed, such as clean air. No-one should feel entitled to free content. We have become accustomed to it, sure, but that vast majority of consumers have been proven time and again to be willing to pay for content.

Now whether their “demand” for content is being met is an entirely different matter. I freely admit that I downloaded the superb Nickelodeon show, The Legend of Korra from the good ol’ Pirate Bay but hear me out before you judge me.

Did I try to watch it online legally? Yes. I watched the first episode on Nick.com, fell in love with the concept and subsequently went back and watched the original Avatar:The Last Airbender series on Netflix. By the time I was finished with that, Nick had pulled the first couple of episodes of Korra from their website. So now I’m in a pickle. I can’t jump into the series halfway through, I’m not getting cable for just one show, and it will be quite literally years before the show is available on DVD or Netflix.

So what are my options here? How is Nickelodeon catering to my demands as a consumer? How are they extracting revenue from this loyal viewer? Are they favouring consumers over cable companies? The simple answer is that they are not on all three counts. I will in all likelihood purchase the DVDs when they are eventually released, but would I even consider doing so until I have seen the series? Probably not; it’s the same reason I declined to purchase the Avatar DVDs for a long time. I didn’t think I liked the show until I actually watched it.

So I downloaded Korra, I watched the episodes in glorious 1080p HD resolution as opposed to a compression-plagued Flash stream and I’m as big of a fan of the show as ever. Am I “entitled” to view the show? No. Is Nickelodeon “entitled” to my money for doing so? Yes! But only if they make it clear and obvious to me that they want it!

Lastly, Cathal raises the idea of a flat tax on ISPs to account for illegal downloading. (We’ll skip over the concept of the TV license; Americans would storm the Capitol if congress attempted to impose a tax on simply owning a TV). Besides the fact that collection agencies have been shown to act against artist’s interests again and again and again (that last one is just plain mean), it simply goes against basic capitalistic tendencies to forcefully divert money from the public to special interests.

The vast majority of internet users don’t engage in copyright infringement, nor do they engage with criminal elements who are actively profiting off stolen content. (That’s another important distinction; consumers who simply want to see and/or share the entertainment they love versus people who actively want to profit from it). It’s comparable to taxing car owners to offset the business that UPS and FedEx siphon away from the Post Office. Ireland isn’t France, if the Post Office has a problem, they need to compete. Be open later, deliver letters on time, offer services that UPS and Fed Ex don’t. In other words cater to consumer demand!

All the sectors of the creative economy are currently going though the wringer when it comes to selling their wares, but consumers are still the same. They want to see things, they want to read things, and they want (and will) pay for it. Will the fragmentation of the market affect the revenues to be earned? Absolutely, but there is little to be gained by simply pointing the finger at “pirates” and making everyone pay for something they might not buy in the first place.

What are your thoughts? Please share them in the comments below.

 

A Kickstarter Campaign Too Far?

Randall Monroe just could not have gotten the timing of yesterday’s XKCD comic any better:

Yes, this comic is relevant to today’s post as I recently discovered over on the animation subbreddit, a campaign to do almost exactly what the XKCD comic above purports to do; that is, use Kickstarter to raise money for a pitch of the real product.

The campaign in question is being initiated by Daran Carlin-Weber whose currently (?) an animation student in Pennsylvania.

Being the smart lad that he his, there’s a trailer/promo pitch for the campaign:

So it’s actually pretty good, in fact it should be something that is right up a network’s alley given the right circumstances. Described thusly:

“Summer Rec” follows the lives of the college-aged staff at a dreary, under-funded, suburban Meadowlark Recreation Center. It specializes in its “Summer Rec” program, something supposedly fun for ages 4 to 14, weekdays from 9 to 4. The target demographic would be the Adult Swim viewing crowd. It’s loosely-based* on experiences I had as a counselor at a recreation program in High School.

Daran’s got his ducks in line with the description in that he knows who he’s aiming the show at. Again, that’s a good start and with a pitch video, Daran’s got a heck of a lot further than a lot of people get with pitches (in that they don’t even get off the drawing board). In addition, we’ve also got a rundown of the cast as well as what the pilot episode will be about.

So with a well thought out concept, cast, pitch video pilot script and animatic, why on earth is their even a Kickstarter project at all? Weeeeeeeell, that’s where we get to the sticky part:

“Summer Rec” is a passion project I’ve been working on for over 2 years now and I’m hoping with your funding to be able to give back to the people who made this project possible for me to produce. Those fantastic folks would be my voice actors, my musician, and my co-writers, who have given me their invaluable time and talents for free thus far. I dunno, I think they’re pretty worth it heh.

Well, now that part is fair enough and throwing a bone to your friends when they’ve given you a hand is a grand thing to do. Except it’s not generally something you would ask strangers money for. Moving on:

Also, I am in a bit of a pickle. My trusty computer that has stuck it with me through years of animating finally crapped out on me and I am in desperate need of a new computer. I have been animating the pilot on my girlfriend’s computer for the last couple months and you can just guess how thrilled she is about that. Heh… hmm

Soooooooo, he needs a computer, and the Kickstarter funds will provide it, right? Ehhhhh, no. Not that there is anything against him getting a new computer, we’ve all been there at some point. It isn’t a fun experience and it really can throw a spanner (or wrench for the Yanks) in the works. However, again, it’s not something that you would solicit funds for. Props for the honesty though.

All the additional money will go towards things such as submission fees to film festivals, ASIFA memberships, producing presentation DVDs and also, funding us personally taking the pilot to the 2012 Ottawa International Animation Festival and Television Animation Conference. All additional money will go towards making sure this is the best damn pilot it can possibly be!

So the money will basically fund the cost of pitching the thing. Again, this is a fair enough assumption. Being in the hills of PA that are shockingly close to where the future wife is from, pitching a TV show in person is going to require some travel/effort/money on his part.

However……

I’m having a seriously difficult time justifying my support for a number of reasons:

  1. Why ask for money after the fact? There’s some perfect pitch material already made! And a little bit more effort (and a few dollars) could get a really nice pitch packet/bible made.
  2. The wonders of the internet means that you don’t necessarily need to travel in order to make pitches. OK sure, it helps, but getting eyeballs on your content should be your number one goal. The more people that are aware of your idea, the easier it is to improve it and hone it for a real pitch.
  3. Speaking of which actual animation is waaaaay more advanced than most networks look for in a pitch. Again, it helps, but most studios/networks like to see either a pitch bible, or in Frederator’s case, storyboards. The extra effort looks good, but isn’t a guarantee of a pickup. having said that, it can hone your animating skills.
  4. Running a show takes a lot of effort, ability and trust. Networks unfortunately don’t tend to give unknown entities a budget and a crew and a promise of delivering a show. John K. was a seasoned animator and Nickelodeon still couldn’t get him to deliver episodes on time.

So I can’t back this project. It’s a Kickstarter project too far. It’s a superb idea and a great concept and is proof positive that Daran has real talent but $7,500 to fund a new PC and travel to Ottowa? [deep breath] No, sorry.

Daran wants to work for Titmouse though, and he seems like a perfect fit for the studio. Do any Titmousers (Titmice) out there know of any openings or where he could even submit his reel? If so, perhaps they could get in touch with him and give him a leg up.His resume is here for the curious.

In the meantime, check out Daran’s final school film, Cheromanchequois and Daran, if you read this man, check out my buddy Dave’s book Animation Development: From Pitch to Production. It tells you all you need to know about getting a show off the ground. You can even find it at the library!

 

 

 

Let’s Talk Tax Credits

OK, taxes, boring I know, but it’s a pressing matter for animators in the UK. It’s also a topic that’s come up from time to time over here in the States, as places like next door neighbour Canada create incentives to get studios to move up north.

So the reason for this latest round of noise-making is that the British government is considering a tax break for “drama productions” that cost a certain minimum per hour of screen time. The thinking goes that with such a break, more productions will begin shooting in the UK thus contributing to the economy.

Animators contend that their industry would be more effective at keeping jobs in the country and, according to the Guardian article, would keep content on a more local level.

There’s nothing wrong with this, except that the reasoning is a bit flawed.

Basically, Ireland, the UK’s neighbour, offers tax incentives for animation production. The reasoning is is simple for this one: Ireland didn’t have an animation industry, so in order to get one jump-started, the government offered companies a tax break in return for taking the risk of setting up in a relatively unknown country (animation-wise).

The UK already has an established animation industry. It doesn’t need to effectively subsidies companies’ risk in setting up production there.

So what’s the real issue here?

Well, why set up shop in the UK, when you can go next door to Ireland, write off some taxes and get you series done for less. Right?

Will tax incentives in the UK change this scenario?

The answer is maybe.

Tax incentives will bring the cost of production in the UK down, but that is not a guarantee that productions will move there. It also creates another problem in that it hides the real issue: costs.

Naturally with their tax incentive, Ireland can operate on a lower cost basis, but, can you continue to operate on an incentive-based structure forever?

NO!

Incentives are meant to be temporary, or rather, short term. Long term reliance on tax-breaks and incentives can defeat the purpose. For example, let’s say you introduce a tax break for animation. After a while, another country introduces a tax break that brings their costs below yours. Now what do you do? Another tax break? Suffer the consequences? Give up?

Tax incentives mask the real cost of doing business. Yes, taxes may be higher here or there, but at the end of the day, they should be factored into the cost of doing business in the first place. Exchange rates will also factor into the equation, and depending on where you go, they may have a bigger bearing on costs than taxes.

If costs are your problem, then perhaps it is wiser to try and bring them down first, no? By doing so you will increase your competitiveness and not have to worry about it running out.

Besides, if you operate as a low-cost producer, you will always have to be the low-cost producer. Ireland has shown that they can move beyond low-cost with through their superb, home-grown content. Britain has a great track record in creating content. Perhaps they need to rediscover that talent.

What do you think? IS the UK really in need of a tax credit, or should it try other things first?

 

Yes, Animation Still Has A Stigma Once You Reach A Certain Age

Fred Seibert re-blogged a post by Megan, a.k.a. animationbits over on tumblr in which she goes into detail about how much she loves animation and how she’s hard at work on becoming a fully-fledged animator.

As inspirational as that post is (and you should definitely read it), what struck me was that while she drew and doodled from a very young age, something happened:

Then, like some of you, I hit an age where suddenly it wasn’t appropriate anymore. At this point I was living with my father and stepmother and suddenly im in a world where it was weird for me to create fantasy worlds and draw cartoons.

She was 18 at that point, and as she mentions, at one point, her father had something taped to the table which read the following:

THIS , this is whats keeping you from growing up – all these cartoons

Thankfully, Megan overcame all of this, but the fact remains that moreso than being a professional stigma for a lot of people; the old “all artists are starving” and “you’re not famous till you’re dead” notions continue to proliferate among society unfortunately. As Megan herself says:

Most of the time this talk comes from people who don’t KNOW of the art industry but base things on very surface conversations or stigmas like ‘starving artist’ .

The fact that this seemed to happen when she reached a certain age is exemplary of the continued stigma that grown-up animation fans continue to encounter here and there. Oh sure, it is much more acceptable now than in the past, but you could say that outside of conventions and industry circles, my Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends T-shirt is not nearly as appreciated.

The thing is though, the whole reason my passion for animation was re-ignited was because I realised that it is grown-ups who are making it and that they are people with real jobs, a real education and life-goals. Until that point I’d always thought of animated studios like Bart thought of the offices of MAD Magazine; a fun-house kind of scenario. Of course that was partly me being, like my father says, a stupid kid. A dose of the real world changed that mindset substantially.

Far from peer-pressure being the enemy of teenage animation fans, it is people who think it’s a profession for perpetual children. Nothing could be farther from the truth and here’s hoping that the stigma will someday be a footnote in history.

 

Comparing Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton’s Risk Tolerance

Mark Mayerson recently posted (with apologies for the delay, I’ve been without my RSS reader for the past fortnight) about the contrast between he efforts of two first-time live-action Pixarian directors. While the post does not go into much detail, the comments which follow raise a number of points in regards to risk and the nature of it.

As Mark points out, Brad Bird went with a familiar face and an existing franchise in stark contrast to Stanton who went for an unfilmed, 100 year-old book. Were either one of them right, or wrong?

No. Both took on a level of risk that they were comfortable with. Bird clearly wanted to have more certainty whereas Stanton was clearly comfortable loading all his reputation eggs in one basket.

That risk was of course shared by the studios. FOX (or whoever it was) that did Mission Impossible were clearly risk-averse. I mean, why else would they greenlight the fourth film in a series that has had the same star for dangerously close to 20 years. Disney on the other hand thought they had the man with the golden touch in Stanton, previous director of cash cows Wall-E and Finding Nemo. Both studios’ decisions are evidence of their relative tolerance of risk.

Animated films are just as susceptible to such risk, perhaps even more so, given their long lead times and inability to simply “do another take”.  Both Bird and Stanton have proven themselves with multiple successful animated films. A switch to live-action was obviously going to contain a certain amount of risk for both of them. It’s probably safe to say that one had a better idea than the other about what they were getting into; I don’t have to tell you who that is.

The only problem with all of this is that the public and critics constantly complain about repetition in Hollywood movies but at the same time clamour to strike down an effort to do something else. Is John Carter a terrible movie? I don’t know as I haven’t seen it. But for his efforts I would give Stanton the benefit of the doubt, for now.

Brand Bird on the other hand, received a gimme in Mission Impossible. Now that he has proven himself to Hollywood and the public/critics, he will hopefully advance to more innovative live-action features, or return to animation. Either way, he is the one to keep and eye on.

The Herald Scotland “Praises” Animation in The Weirdest Possible Way

To be honest, I’m still trying to figure out if this article by Robert McNeill for the Herald Scotland website is genuine or a piece of deep, deep satire.

It starts off:

IN PRAISING animation, I’m not asking you to get out of your seat and start dancing like the Tin Man.

I’m using the posh word for “cartoons”. As Pixar – the maker of Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Cars – celebrates its 25th anniversary, we’re reminded that cartoons are better than reality. What isn’t?

OK, so he likes animation and wants to say so. No real surprises there. He’s written this to celebrate Pixar’s 25th anniversary. Again, fair enough. They’re a great studio and have a had a lot of success since 1986, even if the first 9 years weren’t exactly stellar.

Then we move onto this paragraph:

CGI – Computer Geekery Imitation – has led to cartoons becoming better than realistic because everything is bright and clean. Cartoonland is devoid of blood and muck. It’s an ideal world to which we all aspire and I’m increasingly of the view that mankind and cartoonery are coinciding.

I love that phrase “better than realistic”. He goes on to claim that animation is “devoid of blood and muck”. Now is this to say that we don’t see enough gritty realism in Hollywood animation, or that CGI animation focuses too much on making things look “cartoony”?

If he’s looking for gritty realism, there are plenty of anime series out there, and there’s a lot of mature animation to be found from the Western world as well, if one knows where to look.

Then we move onto this:

Some pop stars you see nowadays look like cartoons, with their blemish-free coupons, meticulously drawn hair and unearthly shininess.

Whatever about pictures in magazines being more Photoshop than human; cartoons, and in particular CGI, are supposed to be perfect. There’s a reason for it now just as in the past, it’s called cost. It’s quicker and cheaper to make something smooth and blemish-free, whereas grit, dust, cracks, etc. take a lot of effort to create, and even more to move on screen.

There’s a nod to 3-D too:

At the same time, other cartoon characters are leaping out of the screen at us, living and moving in 3D. Soon, the screen between us will dissolve and we’ll all be living in a cartoon.

And at this point, what was a mildly misguided article becomes either remotely funny in the darkest sense or takes a dive off the deep end:

Our enemies will be the weirdies who play computer games. No-one can have been surprised to hear that crazed Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik spent 12 hours a day on these orgies of simulated violence before he turned real life into the nightmare of his fantasies.

We end this piece with the following:

The next great war will feature Steamboat Willie, Kung Fu Panda and Arsenal against Thorpuke, Skullcuddler and the Dark Laird. You have been warned.

By this point, I’m completely lost, and I’m sure you are too. How did we get from praising animation to discussing the end of civilisation as we know it? What does animation have to do with it either?

I presume that this was written by a respected journalist (unless those really are extinct these days, having been killed off in the great digital purge), so it makes no sense why a) he would even write it, and b) why someone would even publish it?

This, I’m afraid, is what animators and the animation industry in general are up against. It’s not the notion that animation is “for kids”; that has been discredited for quite a while, it’s the problem that people think they “know” animation; where it came from, why it exists and what effects it has on society as a whole.

Joe Public is mostly dependent on the mainstream media for his information on animation, and while we can forgive small mistakes, proving wholly false information is the root of much of the public’s misconceptions about the technique.

 

 

Are Studios Missing An Opportunity With Their Cartoons?

The impetus for this post is this chart, which I found over on 9Gag the other day (just for a few minutes as I needed a quick wind-down from work!).

What’s the most interesting thing about this graph? Why it’s the slump in the teenage years of course!

What’s really interesting though, is that as far as the studios are concerned, once someone goes over that cliff at the age of 12-13, they never come back. The truth is a bit different though, and it’s perhaps something that studios could do better to market.

We’ve seen the likes of some Nicktoons getting onto DVD/Netflix, but Disney and Cartoon Network are hopelessly behind. We’ve got the PowerPuff Girls and a few single discers from the latter and nothing at all from the former (where’s Kim Possible?).

Some marketer somewhere should be able to come up with the ideal formula for when to re-release older cartoons and cash in on the nostalgia kick.