The ‘R’ Rating Hurts Animation: Here’s How We Fix That

IFCO 16 Rating via

Film classification is a bit of an interesting topic because it highlights the cultural differences that exist from country to country, even those that lie next to each other! The whole purpose is to classify films into categories to give (ostensibly) parents a quick heads up as to what the film is likely to contain.

The US is a bit of an anomaly when it comes to film classification because, unlike many other countries, classification is not government-mandated. As a result, it is undertaken by the MPAA for its member studios. If you haven’t already, I highly suggest sussing out “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” by Kirby Dick which looks at the process and the secretive way in which it is conducted.

Via: Gawker

Above is the MPAA rating system which anyone reading this in the US should be familiar with. As you can see, there is no intermediate rating between PG-13 and R. What this means is that once a film goes over the PG-13 rating, viewing requires the accompaniment of an adult. It also leads to the somewhat bizarre scenario where a child of any age can see anything they want as long as someone over 18 is with them.

In many other countries though, there is an intermediate rating for ages around 15/16. Taking Ireland as an example, a 16 rating means that anyone that age or older can see the film at the cinema, unaccompanied. While 2 years does not sound like much, it is forever when you are a teenager, especially if you want to see a film without a parent looking over your shoulder.

The end result is that some films are classified as R when they probably could get away with being 16. Never mind the fact that some films that are rated 15 in Ireland are PG-13 over here, but that’s a discussion for another day. At the same time, such situations exist precisely because an R rating greatly reduces the potential audience size for a film and is avoided if at all possible.

How does this hurt animation?

It means there is a bit of a glut when it comes to animated films that are a bit more mature in stature than what we’re use to seeing. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of animated material out there that is perhaps a little too mature [wink, wink] for the average person. However, you will never see an R rated animated film on general theatrical release.

My hypothesis is that if an extra rating were added (say 16), we would be more likely to see animated films that bridge the gap between being for everyone and being for adults only, in other words, suitable for unaccompanied teenagers. Arguably Princess Mononoke would come fairly close to such a rating as it is a bit scary for younger kids but more than suitable for teenagers.

If such a move were enacted, it would also have the handy side-effect of encouraging more animated films to be made that target the so-called [Adult Swim] crowd. In other words, teenagers and young adults. Such a result could only be beneficial to the animated industry.

Have you any thoughts? Please share them below, I’m curious to see what others think of the idea.

The Best Way To Tell If A Show Is Well Put Together

Does it seem like the creators had fun doing it? If so, then they probably did. If a show looks like it was a torture to put together then it probably was.

It’s funny how you can pick up on that kind of thing just by watching a show. There are tons of great examples (Freakazoid!, Ren & Stimpy, early Fairly OddParents) but perhaps none greater than the Simpsons. Episodes from the Golden Age flow along as if the writers were bouncing off the walls. Current episodes make it seem like their almost chained to their desks trying to think of funny stuff.

It’s something to keep in mind in the course of your work. Even though you may not purposely or conscientiously insert it into your creation, it still shines through and can greatly improve its reception with the audience.

Women in Animation: Focusing on the Right Things

Apologies for the belated post today and the complete lack of one yesterday (*&%^ work schedule). Today’s topic has been doing the rounds recently as a result of two news items (both, incidentally, in the Los Angeles Times).

The first concerns Pixar’s upcoming film, Brave, which was already in the news for having its director, Brenda Chapman removed halfway through production. The second is that the premiere of DreamWork’s Kung Fu Panda 2 is also the first time a women, namely Jennifer Yuh Nelson, has directed a theatrical animated feature.

Brenda Chapman, in the LAT article, bemoans the fact that:

We’re in the 21st century and there are so few stories geared towards girls, told from a female point of view.

Two things:

  1. Well, duh
  2. Is being female even necessary?

I will be the first to admit that males and females ain’t quite into the same things (she’ll like cartoons someday, dammit) but Chapman is calling for the wrong thing.

Does it matter that females create content for females?

I don’t care who makes my entertainment, as long as it entertains me. As a kid, I definitely didn’t care who was writing, directing or animating my cartoons.

It’s not that I completely disagree with Chapman. Balance is a great thing and over-dominance of one gender over another is wrong, especially in the creative arts where both sides are equally capable of producing excellence.

Women absolutely should have a greater role in creating content for girls but one should not construe such a need as being all-conquering. Men can and do have a role in creating content for girls the same way women can and do have a hand in creating content for boys.

The real crux of the issue is that there is a gender imbalance in the industry and people in general (both men and women) still have their attachments to content aimed at their respective gender. Both of these need to be fixed before we see any changes.

This post is as good as any to highlight the exceptional work done by Women in Animation whose goal is to:

foster the dignity, concerns and advancement of women who are involved in any and all aspects of the art and industry of animation.

They’ve got a great website that should be an essential part of your bookmarks and they hold plenty of events too that aim to further the organisation’s mission.


Animation Is A Genre

At least it is according to the New York Times:

At the box office, animated films, which have recently been Hollywood’s most reliable genre, have fallen into a deep trough…

Animation encompasses many genres which is why it should not be considered one. It is part ignorance, part misinformation, but there are very few, if any excuses for such a sweeping generalisation an artform.

Besides, the films have been “reliable” because they’ve been good and have more often than not out-performed their live-action counterparts, not just because they are animated.

What Makes A Strong Female Character?

It’s no secret (or maybe it is) that I find much to celebrate in female characters, especially lead female protagonists who are also strong female characters. There is much to commend a show with a female lead, especially one that does not pander to traditional ‘girly’ notions.

Which is important to note because there is a certain belief that boys are not attracted to content with a female slant. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are no reasons why a boy can’t also watch the same shows as girls, there is just a very strong societal pressure when it comes to these kinds of things. Boys do ‘boys’ things and girls do ‘girls’ things. There is no or very little middle ground around the crucial ages.

What are the crucial ages you ask? They are the ages of 6-10, where children are most ripe for commercialisation. They are of course, subject to and receptive of more advertising than any other age group, and advertisers are in no mood to alter the status quo. That’s why you get girls toys and boys toys with unisex toys limited to board games and the like.

There are a few female protagonists out there that can serve as role models, the one above is one, below is another one.

What makes these characters strong? How about some of these traits:

  • Decisiveness
  • Independence
  • Resourcefulness
  • Leadership
  • Companionship (with boys too!)
  • Intelligence
  • Understanding
  • Vulnerability
  • Thoughtfulness

Do Jenny and Kim share a few of these? You bet! You’ll notice that I did not mention looks nor did I mention interests. As much an emphasis as our society places on looks, they are not the be all and the end all when it comes to characters. Look at Bessie Higgenbottom from the Mighty B (below). Being attractive ain’t her strong point but her character as a whole is.

What interests the character isn’t important either. Female characters can be quite capable of enjoying or not enjoying girly things. There is also the other extreme to consider where the character is a tomboy. Nothing wrong with that (it worked for Helga in Hey Arnold) although pulling off takes care. Sam from Danny Phantom is a good example, she hangs out with the boys but also enjoys her own, more girly  things in private.

The point of this post, I suppose, is to challenge the notion that female characters and protagonists must conform to certain boundaries when portrayed on TV or in films. That is not to say we need to ban all girly shows, far from it, they have their place too. Just that we should be able to see more of a balance when it comes to content. Boys and girls do enjoy different things, but they also enjoy a lot of the same things too. Something for you, and the networks, to think about.



How Environmentally Friendly is Animation?

Via: The New York Times (which I was somehow able to access)

Yesterday it was announced that Captain Planet is being released on DVD. Would it not have been more environmentally friendly to just stream the shows instead?

With that in mind, just how environmentally friendly is animation anyway?

Let’s see:

Traditional animation:

  1. Reams upon reams of paper (most likely not recycled)
  2. Hundreds of pencils
  3. Thousands of cels (cellulose acetate)
  4. Hundreds of litres of ink and paint
  5. Various chemicals for developing the film (as well as the film itself)

CGI Animation (assuming an all-digital production)

  1. Hundreds  of Desktop computers
  2. Render farms with thousands of servers

Now these are extremely overly simplified lists, but each element of both can be extrapolated out in terms of their environmental impact. For example, the environmental cost of pencils is not just about the wood in them. It also include the emissions from the machinery to cut down the tree, the chemicals used to treat the wood and the emissions from the various vehicles used to transport it to the shop you bought it from as well as the emissions from your car that you used to drive down there.

Other things like air-conditioning for the building, the materials used in the studio and of course the transportation costs of distributing the actual films to theaters can all contribute to the environmental cost of an animated film.

All of this can go unnoticed and usually does, but they are important to remember because it is easy to become short-sighted and think that just because animation doesn’t really produce any tangible goods (in the strict sense) that it is environmentally friendly.

This post isn’t a lecture, just more of a subtle reminder to have a broad mind when it comes to this kind of thing.

Why Animators (and You) Need To Create A Network

Last night I attended a networking event put on by Loyola University here in Baltimore, where I currently undertake an MBA course of study. Now I’m not one to readily go out and ‘network’, I can be tremendously shy and nervous at events like these, however, I did find last night a great help insofar as persuading me that I need to attend more events like this (if that makes sense).

The most important lesson I took away from the evening was that relationships can matter a whole lot when it comes to business. Although this is kinda sad in a way, it is the truth, and thankfully, there is plenty you can do about it to help yourself get where you want or need to go.

For animators, creating a professional and personal network should be one of their highest priorities. You’ll likely already have one from school, but it is important to create one outside of that, either from the neighbourhood you live in, organisations like ASIFA or the Animation Guild, a drawing class, or even just the folks you work with.

One of the points that was hammered home last night was to build and maintain relationships. One of the panelists put it like this:

It’s not who you know, it’s who knows you.

That’s a great quote and pretty much sums up how you can determine your place in the labour supply pool. If no-one knows you, then there’s a good chance that you can become isolated professionally and that can have detrimental consequences when it comes time to look for a job or even climb the career ladder.

ASIFA-East President and one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, David Levy, often mentions networking over on his blog, Animondays. His reason is more practical than most. As a New Yorker, the tight-knit animation community flourishes because of personal relationships. There are no really large ‘faceless’ corporations operating in the city so a fair amount of the time, he is working directly with an individual or small studio. In such a situation, personal relationships can (and do) count for an awful lot. Animondays has plenty of advice so check it out (if you don not do so already).

Relationships are also something that can slip away easily. I know myself that I am a horrible communicator. If you ever get an e-mail from me, I can come off as whiny, needy, hyperactive or just plain ignorant. If you don’t receive a reply from me, I more than likely neglected to take the 5 seconds to reply.

I know these are things I need to work on, and it can be hard when you’re working or going to school full-time to justify spending an evening or afternoon schmoozing with other people in the field. However, once you create a relationship, it is imperative that you take the small amount of time to maintain it. E-mails now and then, or even the occasional lunch can work wonders.

However, it would seem that the benefits are well worth the time put in, and like a couple of the panelists were saying, the more people who know you’re out of work, the greater the chance they know someone with an open position that needs to be filled.

So quit making excuses for yourself. That TV show or computer game can wait this evening. Head on out there and meet someone in the same boat as yourself! You’ll be surprised at they great kinds of people you’ll come across.

The End of Animation in Britain?

Yesterday, I read with dismay on Cartoon Brew that the British government, with its current Tory-led cabinet, has decided not to renew the grants and other funding it had made available to Animate Projects, a group who sponsored various animation projects at all levels of the spectrum.

A study put out by the Royal Television Society last year highlighted that Britain has become increasingly incapable of competing with other countries on just cost alone! The main issue they cite is that said other countries (namely Ireland) have benefitted greatly from government tax breaks that have caused productions that would have been made in Britain move elsewhere. As an Irishman, you can easily guess on which side of that argument I fall on.

Should governments subsidise an industry? That’s a political hot potato which you won’t find me discussing here, but I will say that for a market as large as Britain (both culturally and commercially) there is little or no excuse for the government not at least encouraging animation as a viable artform. Other European countries do it, we just don’t see the results very often due to cultural differences.

Is there a bright side to all of this? Can there be a bright side at all? Perhaps it is not clear now and the shock of the announcement is still being felt but I think animation in Britain is in need of a rebuilding of sorts. I find it hard to believe that here in the US we get such excellent animated shows as The Simpsons, et al while in Britain there is almost nothing in comparison (correct me if I’m wrong). That country has been putting out top-notch live-action programmes like The Office so there are no excuses when it comes to animated shows of the same quality.

I think we need to see more action on the part of broadcasters (I’m looking at you, Channel 4) to help encourage a change in attitudes to animation that we are starting to see over here in the States, i.e. that it is not just for children. The success of the likes of The Secret of Kells in the US is proof that the cultural and geographical divide is not so great that it cannot be bridged.

Ultimately, the closing of a program that helps people discover and nurture their creative talent will only serve to homogenise the workforce to the detriment of society at large although it almost certainly does not bring the curtain down on the rich and quirky history of British animation. Now is not the time for moaning, it is time to pick ourselves up and carry on.

My comment on Stephen M. Levinsons Blog Concerning Artists and The Productions They Work On

This is actually a comment I left over on Stephen’s Blog but it seems like a pretty good opinion piece that’s suitable to post here too.

Wow, that’s a lot of questions there Stephen!

Firstly, if you want to know about some of the basic principles of capitalism, I highly suggest a book on basic economics. The class I took went a long way in helping me understand some of the foundations upon which modern enterprise is built.

One of the principles that I learnt was that of opportunity cost and marginal benefit. Basically what that means is that you are willing to work at the price you work at because the opportunity costs of doing otherwise are too great. That’s not to say that you should keep working at a crappy job, but that if you believe you are under-valued, you will, not may, will look and move elsewhere.

I don’t agree with the pay of the Viacom executives, that’s just my opinion. As an engineer, I absolutely detest inefficiency and waste, so you can imagine how I might feel when I see that Vicom pays it’s execs far more than Disney while having a far lower market capitalisation. Granted, they’re different companies with different make-ups and priorities and the Cartoon Brew post did focus specifically on the numbers in light of animation, which I think skewed things a bit.

Should artists be given fair compensation for their work? Absolutely! However, capitalism is not necessarily based on merit, it’s based on risk. As a businessman, that is something you are already familiar with. Capitalism is founded on the idea that whoever takes the risk gets to enjoy the rewards. In a company or studio’s case, they are the ones putting up the capital for an animation project, and as a result, get to keep the proceeds. In most cases, they do, although it would be foolish to believe that some will not resort to shady tactics in order to keep as much of the earnings as possible.

I think the crux of your argument centres around the idea that animators do not receive adequate compensation for their work. I think they do, in light of the current level of demand and the size of labour supplies. When you look into it though, series creators normally do have rights in regards to their creations. In this regard, I think the internet will be a boon on a larger scale than what is offered by the incumbent networks.

Right now, we are right smack in the middle of a Gutenburg-esque transition in the world. The internet is only another broadcast medium albeit one that allows two-way interaction and right now, it is companies like Next New Networks who are showing the way to a successful business model in the new era. The transition will affect animation too, but the artform’s ability to transcend national boundaries with relative ease will stand to its benefit in the long term.

I firmly believe that artists and animators should have a say in how productions are run but as you posted yourself a while back, Joe Murray gets it dead on in his opinion that too nay artists don’t get the right balance between art and business, and if you’re the manager of a studio, would you want someone with know business knowledge making decisions that could affect your bottom line? I don’t think so.

My advice to you is to read (if you have not already done so) “Your Career in Animation: How to Survive and Thrive” by David B. Levy. It give a superb overview of the animation industry and offers plenty of insight into the rewards and pitfalls of a career in the industry.

By the sounds of things though, you should do just fine 🙂

All the best,


A Note on Executive’s Notes


I’m in the middle of reading “To Infinity and Beyond!: The Story of Pixar Animation Studios” a rather substantial tome that is well worth the amount of time it takes to read it. I’ll likely post a proper review in due course, but in the meantime, it’s got me thinking about the bane of every employee’s life: notes from the management.

Animators are all to familiar with notes. They can come from directors, producers, executive producers and network/studio management. Some are rightly judicious, some are just downright nonsensical, most are somewhere in between. Of those, they can be broken up into general story/plot notes and technical notes, which, for the purposes of this discussion, let’s assume that encompasses all the animation/directing/sound/effects/etc.

There seems to be a propensity among a small percentage of executives out there that they must issue notes on a project that must be adhered to or else. Such a style of management is a very poor one. The production of an animated programme or film, like any team exercise, is a collaborative effort that can only truly flourish if everyone works towards the ultimate goal.

I bring this up because in the course of reading the aforementioned book, it is mentioned that Toy Story went through an initial plot that was rather poor. The reasoning behind it was that the Pixar team, who had never created animation for anyone else before, had blindly followed any notes sent up from Disney in Burbank. They assumed that the executives were always right in their judgement. Of course, that is not the case, and the resulting film was very nearly scrapped before Pixar was able to cobble together a tweaked plot and some animation to back it up.

If you’re an executive and you feel that you must issue notes then you are doing it wrong, very wrong. Seeing as I’m a dreamer (I was diagnosed at an early age but was only informed of such when I was in my early 20s), I’ve concluded that the purpose of the production team (animators, writers, etc.) is to create the project. The executive’s job is to make sure said project comes in on time and on budget and that all that is undertaken in as smooth a manner as possible. Meddling in the creative areas of the project should be kept to a minimum, and even then, the criticism should be constructive.

I say all of this from an outsider’s perspective. I’ve never had any personal experience is such situations, and there’s a good chance that I only ever hear all the bad stuff that goes on. No-one (not even me) will say that a project is running as normal. People only ever talk about stuff that is going really (and I mean exceptionally) good or it’s going from bad to worse. That’s human nature and we’re all guilty of it at some point or another.

The old saying “less is more” holds true in any case. The less an executive has to manage a project, the more time they have to focus on more important things, like whether the project is on budget, can things be run more efficiently, etc, etc. I know myself, I like to be given a task and then left alone in peace to do it. One time I was doing a job and I was micro-managed all the way. Not overwhelmingly mind you, but it made the whole experience much less enjoyable and it dissuaded me from putting in my normal amount of effort.

So executive types out there, keep the hands on the wheel, not on the kid in the back seat! Creative types need management but not necessarily the kind you think they need. Focus on your own job and try to think on a larger scale. Remember, some of the bets shows out there had the least interference of all.

The 2011 Academy Awards Shortlist and Why There Should be Five Nominees

By now you should have seen the shortlist for the contenders for the 3 nomination slots for this year’s Best Animated Film category of the Academy Awards. Just in case you haven’t, here it is:

  • Toy Story 3
  • How to Train Your Dragon
  • Shrek Forever After
  • Despicable Me
  • Alpha and Omega
  • Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore
  • The Dreams of Jinsha
  • Idiots and Angels
  • The Illusionist
  • Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole
  • Megamind
  • My Dog Tulip
  • Summer Wars
  • Tangled
  • Tinker Bell
  • Great Fairy Rescue

Academy Rules state that if there are more than 15 entries on the shortlist, then the number of nominations go up to 5. The logic behind this is that the rather artbitrary number of 15 is used as a yardstick to measure how popular animated films are in this country. In a year like this one, enough were not released to warrant the wider number of nominations.

Perhaps there is some underlying explanation that we are not privy to, but come on man, I could easily pick 5 films, nay, 5 universally acclaimed films from that list and still be left with plenty to spare. Maybe in years gone past the quality of films has meant that only three good films could be chosen. I don’t exactly know, although I would doubt it, seeing as the category has only existed since 2001.

Think of the debate that would be generated! Look at last year! There were 5 nominees and the quality of the nominees was very fine indeed. Included were Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog, Up and The Secret of Kells, a film that hadn’t even been on general release when that ceremony was held!

With just three films in the race this year, it will most likely come down to Toy Story 3, How to Train Your Dragon and either Despicable Me or a take-your-pick from the indies; the general attitude to which can be summarised in the quote below from the Washington Post’s, Celebritology blog:

All the usual animated suspects made the first round of cuts…..”The Illusionist,” the requisite annual animated entry that’s critically lauded but that no one’s kids will ever see? Total check.

In such a circumstance, I’m relying on HTTYD to upset the Pixar apple cart. It’s just a shame that genuine contenders for the award are dismissed before they even get the chance to line up for the race.

Now imagine if there were 5 nominees. You can add in an extra two films to the mix and with a strong indie presence, you can be assured that they stand a better chance. Both The Illusionist and Idiots and Angels would garner a lot of extra exposure from even a simple nomination and that would only increase interest in the artform (surely something we can all agree on).

Like I said above, more contenders might not lower the odds for Toy Story 3 (at least not at your bookie) but it would reinforce the idea in the general public’s mind that animation is a wonderfully varied medium that exists outside the major Hollywood players. Having said that, I do realise that the Academy Awards are a back-slapping ceremony for Hollywood, so if you’re not in the club, your chances of winning are slim. But seriously, how much extra does it actually cost the Academy to add two more films to the list? Not much, but they could stand to gain a lot more if they did.