Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Production Workshop Live Event!

While I am working on a permanent Production Workshop webcasting solution, I've set up a temporary home at the following url:


Join me Thursdays, 1 - 3PM PDT to discuss collaborative production, employment opportunities, the current state of the entertainment market, and other topics related to our mission of bringing a new creative empowerment to visual storytellers!

The idea is to create a supportive network of artists. This is just the first step in changing the entertainment world, but it begins with you. Let me help!

See you Thursdays.Link

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Story Analysis: Example (Part 2)

I'd like to thank the brave student who volunteered their initial thesis animation story treatment for critical review.

If you watched "Owl" you'll understand that even short film writing (20 minutes) gives you enough time to craft a three act story. In "Owl" the three acts are presented unconventionally:

First Act

Our eventual protagonist is led to the gallows, and will be hanged for acts hinted at in the opening close-up on the proclamation (nailed to the tree).

Second Act

When the rope breaks, the viewer's position shifts from one of passive voyeurism to one of active participation. The protagonist's escape and mission to elude his captors is basically a chase scene, revealing his will to survive and return to his family, to his life before the war.

Third Act

Comes abruptly at the very end of the film, when he is hanged, and the entire lens of the film returns to the first act, revealing the red herring, the flashback, and instantly confronts the viewer with the shocking divorce from our hope that this man would escape the unfair justice thrust upon him at the beginning of the story.

This three-act presentation is unconventional in the length of each act. In a typical 90 minute feature, you might divide the acts somewhat equally throughout the film. Here, the second act basically comprises the entire film, with first and third acts serving as book ends.

Shorter Form Writing

How can you accomplish a powerful story like "Owl" in two to three minutes?

"Breathe" presents nearly the same story outcome, but where "Owl" is not predictable, "Breathe" telegraphs its arc from the outset. The viewer is never placed in a position of emotional choice, that is, from the onset of "Breathe" the viewer knows that the condemned man is dreaming. When he escapes his jailors, he leaves his cell and steps into a grassy field. The author keeps us in a dreamscape with a series of distinct, surreal scenes. We know that he is dreaming. When he is executed at the end of the arc, it comes as no real surprise because we suspected this outcome all along.

Super short form story development, whether dramatic or comedic, requires a tightly crafted load up and payoff in order to keep the audience, and ultimately leave them with a memorable project arc!


While "Breathe" could be re-written to follow the "Owl" device more closely, I would caution those of you who would write dark dramas (stories involving death) as a 2D/3D thesis vehicle. Frankly, you must consider the market that you wish to work in out of school. While this might be considered selling out to a commercial standard, I think that the two to three years you are in a training program is barely enough to learn ALL of the complex collaborative concepts that are expected of you when you apply for your first job.

This is the reality of trade education. You are suspending your life to find a new career. You do not have the time to create impressive exercise work AND a thematic project of a quality that will impress your future employer. You need to make some choices.

Crafting a portfolio marketing piece, an entire project designed start to finish, presented as an MFA thesis project supported by exercise work is the best way to derive value from your hard-earned investment dollar.


Right now, the hottest employment markets for animation are the big films coming out of Disney/Pixar, DreamWorks, Blue Sky, and Sony Animation. These films tend to be aimed at younger audiences and their parents. I can't think of a single 3D animated 90 minute dark drama developed for the US market in recent history. Japanese Anime films (Akira, Princess Mononoke, etc.) have been distributed in the US with cult success, but these are not the films that you will be working on out of school.

In order for your time to be used most efficiently in school, it's imperative that you learn the comic trade, comedic performance, comedic timing and other skills that support this market. Selecting dark dramatic themes force the portfolio reviewer to change gears and regard your material in a category that they are not hiring for. Though your material may be thought-provoking, ultimately the reviewer is looking for a company fit. Will you be able to work on Shrek 10? Though you may not want to, you may have little choice.

Animation as Art

I love experimental art. I love to see young artists pushing the commercial envelope and presenting story forms that defy pop cultural norms. However, an MFA program, especially a trade MFA program is not the place to do this. You are most likely accruing a mountain of debt (in both lost revenue from non-full-time employment and student loans.)

As difficult as this is for me to say, I think that you need to focus on getting the skills you need while in your program in order to find a job after graduation. You'll need to make your iconoclastic animation masterpiece later, when you have more financial options. Sooner than later, short form production will be commonplace, where distribution channels offer per play or per download monetized reward for your efforts. It's coming but it's not here yet.

Meanwhile, as an animation writer, you'll have to tow the popular story line, developing material that will appeal to the widest possible employer pool.

Story Aside

Even if "Breathe" was a well-constructed relevant 3D animation short project, the treatment indicates a project that is way off-scale in terms of academic production complexity. Considering the montage sequence and the number of shots, number of unique characters, and the complexity involved in animating realistic performances, this project will run over the two semesters you'll have after midpoint. Unless you can generate a team consisting of a dedicated modeler, rigger, environment modeler, painter and several lighters, this project will hobble any solo animator. It's just too big. (This sort of project calls for some motion capture assist, which is a bit beside the point for a feature animator.)

Keep it Simple

The best short form animation projects are those that pit one character against another, or pit a character against an obstacle. They usually can occur in a single setting. As long as you are able to derive a believable performance from your simple story, you have succeeded as a student animator, and are ready to prove yourself in the professional arena. Take another look at the Student Academy Award winning animation project "Bert" (2004) .

Simple concept == Solo-able project.

Student of Writing

Try to take a writing course that showcases not only the three act ninety minute feature form, but also covers four act (hour long television show) writing. Learn how to write comedy gags. Critically study the Warner Brothers short animation films of the 60s and understand the strengths and weaknesses of the Hanna Barbera model of the 70s. Watch Ren and Stimpy, the John K. wellspring of the current thirty minute story model copied by every short animation anthologist since the 90s. Watch SpongeBob. Watch everything, taking note of timing, scope and physical comedic (gag) action.

You're a student of the form! Know your market and scope. Know the history of the form. Do these things and you will succeed in getting your first job in the field, paving the way for your avant garde masterpiece down the road.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Story Analysis: Example

Here's an example of a character animation story treatment that is fairly typical of MFA candidates. (Represented here by permission.)


Late-20’s, 6’2” athletic build, Short dark hair, dark eyes, light skinned, Latino

Mid-20’s, 5’10” curvaceous body, Long dark hair, light eyes, caramel skinned, Latina

The story begins with a dream sequence of a man’s relationship with his wife from first meeting to happily married, and then the man starts from his sleep only to find himself in a jail cell. When the man looks to see what woke him he sees two guards coming into his cell with handcuffs and leg irons.

Powered by panic and confusion the man throws his head back breaking the guard’s nose as he tries to put on the handcuffs. Rushing the second guard the man breaks free of his cell and runs down the halls of the prison looking for the door that he constantly sees flashing in his mind.

When he finally reaches the door he bursts through it and finds himself running through the grass with nothing between him and freedom. Before the man can get too far he stops short to find himself looking over a sheer cliff face. The breeze coming from the sea far below triggers a flash back and the man finds himself standing in his bedroom looking at another man in bed with his wife, a policeman’s uniform in a pile next to the bed.

In a blind rage the man jumps on top of his wife’s lover raining down blows until his arms are heavy and his face is covered with blood. The man turns to face his wife, wearing nothing but a bed sheet, as she screams in fear. Crying, he walks towards her pleading for a reason why she would do this. Backing away from him the bed sheet covering the woman’s body gets tangled in her legs and she tumbles and falls over the balcony to her death on the sidewalk ten floors below.

After seeing his wife die floors below him the man hears the door being kicked open behind him and as people start to point at him accusingly the man turns and is transitioned back into the present looking at several guards hesitantly approaching him with another set of cuffs and leg irons.

With tears falling down his face the man looks at the guards as he leans back over the edge. Falling over the edge as lab coats and ceiling tiles flicker into his vision. As the man falls he sees his wife’s face appear in the sky and her arms reach out to embrace him and as he reaches his hand towards her to be reunited forever, he mouths the words “forgive me”.

The background fades as the camera pulls back to show the man in a sterile room, eyes on the ceiling, and hand reaching towards the sky as the contents of the needle empty into his arm and people can be seen watching from the other side of a glass window. As the man releases his final breath into the air his arm falls limp to his side.

In order to analyze the value of this project as it relates to short-form thesis production, we'll have to take it apart in layers.


First, as filmmakers, we need to establish a historical story precedent, if we can. There are few truly unique stories, and it behooves the writer to understand those projects that are related to his or her work in order to identify the strengths and weaknesses in the precedent vehicle. If you can identify these story areas in a work that has been completed, you can guide your own project accordingly.

The work that most resembles this piece is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," a French adaptation of the Ambrose Bierce short story. A powerful work, the black-and-white short subject film is as moving as any feature-length film. The writer of this treatment should watch this film to understand what I mean.
Here is a passable streaming version: http://www.viddler.com/explore/davidlynchemne/videos/5/. It's about 25 minutes in length.


While the emotional tone of the two stories is vastly different, they climb aboard the same plot vehicle: the flashback. Both stories utilize the flashback in support of a red herring (twist) ending, but Owl succeeds where Breathe does not in that our expectations (and therefore our connection to the protagonist) radically change in the opening scene.

Dramatic plot lines necessitate the loading and unloading of audience emotion. In Owl, we open on a contrasting scenario of a bucolic autumn landscape serving as the backdrop of a hanging. Our expectation is that this faceless man will be hanged; yet another faceless malefactor dealt a deserved justice: we are not emotionally connected to the man we do not know.

When the rope breaks, despite our passive acceptance that his hanging was a just reward, we are ultimately relieved to be spared the extremity of his death. After all, we are human, sympathetic, empathic, and at our collective core, we ultimately cherish life.

This is Owl's powerful set-up. We are moved between two emotional extremes: from our flat-line initial resignation to the certainty of the prisoner's death to the spike of his sudden and miraculous salvation.

The second act plot line allows us to put flesh on the character brought to the hangman's noose. A faceless, condemned, throw-away character takes life in the following twenty minutes, as we learn to understand the humanity, the frailty, and the passion within the character we had initially written off.

This device is known an emotional loading. You are bonding the character to the audience in a way that defies contrivance. He is proving in deed and action that he is like any other man, with sensitivity and motivation and love. We grow inside him as grows inside us as we move through the story.

When we are certain that we like this man, understand his desires, have bonded to his mission, he is suddenly and irrevocably dead. The entire story has taken place between the beginning and end of the man's fall on the hangman's rope.

The proverbial "life flashing before a man's eyes" takes on a new meaning as a story-telling device in this classic film.

As we are presented with his death, the red herring twist of flashback realization hits us, and we can view with clarity the circular nature of the story through a new lens: these realizations arriving in a simultaneous flood of awareness: the "aha!" moment of successful storytelling.

The finale's perfect storm of emotion has earned this Bierce story a powerful and enduring legacy. When I first saw this film in high school, I was left speechless.

So, how does Breathe fail where Owl succeeds?

We'll explore more in the next installment.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Vintage Production Workshop Poster

Feel free to download and post this signed copy of the infamous "I Want You" Production Workshop publicity poster, first appearing on walls and doors of the largest cubicle-farm-turned-cubicle-farm-animation-school in the world, Academy of Art University, in the Spring of 2010.

This crafty rip-off of the classic James Montgomery recruiting poster (c. 1917) attracted the largest producer turn-out on record for a production workshop: 12 candidates, including two CAPs guys that were in the wrong room and a ditsy fashion student that simply found herself trapped by several large boxes near the elevator.

We will be having afternoon coffee in the old coffee place across the street next week. Try to be there. We'll have fun.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Mining Story Ideas

Story development is difficult at best (even for the professionals) and nearly impossible for most student candidates, especially during the pressurized semester involving the pre-midpoint scramble to develop thesis project concepts.

In order to get back on creative track, I've suggested to students that they consult some tried-and-true comic material for idea mining. The best iconic, single gag material can be found in one-panel illustrative comedy.

My favorite source material is the one-panel work of Bernard H. Kliban (B. Kliban) who rose to some critical fame in the 70s, his protege, Gary Larson (Far Side) who carried his torch in the 80s, and the cinematic multipanel work of Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) who was all the rage in the late 80s, early 90s. This single-panel material is concise, the gags clearly identifiable, and the humor bizarre enough to generate some intellectual activity in the viewer, and hopefully, in the blocked thesis story developer (you).

This is not about ripping off ideas that have already been made. The point of the exercise is to assimilate combinations of gags in order to hone your own unique comic voice. Sometimes you just need a little nudge. Without sensitizing yourself to single-panel gag material, you'll not gain the ability to critically assess why bizarre juxtaposition works comically. Single panel work is typically shock-layout material.

I like to keep this type of reference handy for ready inspiration. I've probably read each one of these a dozen times and have pored through dozens more like them.

I believe that you must be a consumer of this material in order to write it. You can't just wear a funny hat during a single course in a masters program and call yourself a writer or an animator. You need to breathe, eat, sleep the medium. If you can't do that, quit now and save yourself some cash.

So, if you get stuck developing comic story in the coming semester, try looking through this type of single-panel comic. Immerse yourself in wacky single-concept humor and let me know how it goes. If you're an animator and you're not looking to develop a comic story, you're probably going in the wrong direction and you should consider transferring to a documentary film program instead.

Watterson's panels are gorgeous and are really conducive to animation layout. His illustration background really shows in his work.

In fact, most graphic novels feature unique layout ideas ... every animator should be familiar with the most successful of the graphic novel illustrators!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Story Aim

If you are in a MFA program, and you've been invited to present a thesis proposal to a committee, this post is aimed at you, your story, and in truth, your nascent career.

Market drives everything in the world, and no more so than in entertainment. Focus groups and market research drive story development, and for a fee, the-numbers.com will provide you with the likelihood that your project will succeed, based on previous box office results. Believe it or not.

Because market is derived from the vagaries and whimsy of stratified age groups, your project needs to appeal to some section of the market. You can divide it roughly this way:

Age Genre
Range Examples

0-3 Baby Einsteins

4-8 Wiggles, Thomas the Tank Engine
8-12 iCarly, SpongeBob SquarePants, Texting
13-20 Millenials (Born >2000) Vampires, Alternative Rock Bands, Facebooking
21-31 Echoes (Born ~1990s) - Romantic Comedies, Horror Bs, Comedy Central
32-44 Gen-Xers (Born ~1970s) - Action Films, HGTV
45+ Boomers (Born <1960s) - Mysteries, CNN

Market focus is especially important when it comes to choosing your thesis project storyline. Clearly, if all goes well, this project will be your sole calling card to the industry, separating you from the countless children spilling forth from the art mills dumping BFAs into the world. I'm reminded of the Matrix, with it's endless colonies of human batteries. As an MFA candidate, you are special, and the thing that makes you special is your pride and joy, your creative brainchild, your thesis project. You'll invest three years and nearly 100,000.00 in your child, all in the hopes that upon maturity, it will help you guile your way through the heavily guarded Pearly Gates of Industry. Choose poorly, and well, we know what end the hot arch-villain came to in the finale of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

You MUST choose wisely. In the half-decade that I guided young candidates at the AAU, I always counsel these three major points:

1. Choose a story that will mesh with the part of the industry you will choose to work in. For example, if you really want to work at a major, figure out what work they are doing, and build a project that is close to that work. Don't copy it, but understand that when they see your project, they might see you working on THEIR project.

2. Choose a story that suits the medium. Poignant, funny, gag-based material for 3D Character Animation projects. Poignant, funny, action-based material for VFX projects. If you are not sure where you'd like to land, craft your story to serve one of the aforementioned markets. Ask yourself what one of the people in those demographics are watching, what music they are listening to, what comedians they enjoy? Are they watching Nick, Jr. or Adult Swim? Know your market.

3. Choose a project that won't make the viewer throw up or pass out. Pissing off a viewer, upsetting their sensibilities, offering the bird for all humanity to see won't get you closer to working for a button-down major. Everything is corporate and so shall you be when you are chosen. Keep this in mind. If you want to make art films after work, go for it. We need more art films. Don't mix business with iconoclastic nihilism. If you're a trust fund kid you can fall back on that when your Death to the Imperialistic Bastards art film tours the indy circuit.

4. Make sure that the scope of your story does not overreach your time and resources. Too bad they don't teach you about bidding or production or anything necessary to determine which end is up. Know how to determine your story scope. The little GANTT chart you made in pre-production is most likely as flawed as the project understanding it was derived from. Don't bet on it. Get a pro to help you. 100,000.00 is a lot of money to waste on a poor decision made during a single week in a pre-production class.

Story aim is everything. Aim poorly and you'll be back working for the wedding photographer in three years. Aim true, and you'll follow the folks that designed, implemented and succeeded in winning the Student Academy Award for Dragonboy.

A Proper Resume

Last week, I presented my take on the cover letter as an important part of the contemporary outreach package. The cover letter serves to identify you as a passionate artist, culturally adept and someone who is likeable, interesting and, most importantly, a potential co-worker. Without the cover letter, you're just another tool user in the great wash of partially educated tool users pouring out of trade schools, desperately hoping to find work.

The Outreach Package: A Primer.

Your outreach materials should include the following items:

1. Portfolio (web-based streamable .mov mpeq-4 compressed)
2. Portfolio (web-based downloadable .mov mpeg-4 compressed)
3. Resume (.pdf)
4. Vita (.pdf)
5. Cover letter (.pdf)
6. Business card

Since I'm covering these items in a seeming random fashion, let's talk about resume next.

Here's a template. This template is designed to serve the most common resumes, though you may not have industry experience and therefore may have to omit sections.

The idea behind the simplicity of the resume is the rationale of the resume itself: present the facts of your work and educational experience in a manner that is easy to follow, easy to scan, and complements your cover letter and vita (body of work).

Some basic rules:

1. Name/Address

Don't use your street address. Just put your email address, website and cell number in the address tag. Since your resume will be posted all over the internet, you want to retain privacy.
Nobody really cares about your snail mail address anyway, and when they do, they will be your employer.

2. Objective

One or two words will suffice: terms like "Animator" or "Technical Director." HR sorters use this objective to ensure that they've got you placed in the right "stack".

3. Industry Experience

Use this heading if you have industry experience. If you don't, use the following heading instead.

4. Experience

Even if you feel that your prior career is not related, it's important to establish that you held positions that might help you synthesize the collaborative, people-oriented business of entertainment. While meat-packing might not qualify, serving as a marketing liaison in a small internet startup might. If it helps paint a more complete picture of the collaborative or creative you, include it.

5. Education

Do not list high schools. Make sure you use the standard format of listing degrees (See the template for examples). If you haven't yet graduated from a program, place the word "Candidate" after the terminal degree.

6. References

Not necessary in your resume. If you need references, they will ask you for them after you complete a few more rounds of interviews.

7. Skills

Software skills only. Do not list creative skills here. Use your cover to mention your three most salient creative skill sets.

8. Hobbies/Interests

Don't do it. If you feel that you're intense exploration of Peruvian Salt Worms is essential to understanding your inner creative being, place that in your cover letter. I don't care if you like to hang glide or collect stamps featuring WWII-era sidearms.

9. Vita

This is a dynamic section, (often on the first page for young artists), which grows as your career grows. Use the following format.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Power of Story

Before I joined the faculty at the AAU, I had very little formal experience with story development. Certainly, the years of watching feature film and animation shorts provided me with a critical understanding of each medium and the thematic commonalities and structural differences between them. While in film school, I took a story writing course from Paul Lucey, a television writer and an able critic of short-form storytelling. I recommend his book, Story Sense, a complete guide for the novice storyteller, replete with script breakdowns and his own detailed scene-arc formulas.

Prior to film school, I had taken several creative writing courses, an initial touch with science-fiction writer Paul Garson, (The Great Quill), and then three more with T. C. Boyle, who had yet to reach the his critical successes in both short story anthology and feature screenplays.

While soul-searching through my baccalaureate program, I took a few journalism courses as I considered a degree in Journalism and Advertising Copywriting. Dropping further backward in time, I recall that I had briefly served as the Feature Editor for my weekly high school paper, The Tiger, during the first semester of my senior year.

All along, I have been an avid science fiction and fantasy genre reader, involved with the early genesis of Gary Gygax's Dungeons and Dragons and M. A. R. Barker's , Empire of the Petal Throne. These board games required live role-playing, scenario building, and the ability to manage creative gaming teams. I never really thought about the skills that those early days provided to those of us who called themselves dungeon masters. It was a form of creative performance, story development and thematic flow.

However, I had never considered myself a story developer or writer before coming to the AAU. It was only after attending the first round of MFA midpoint reviews in 2005 that I began to help candidates develop story, craft small character arcs, and begin to deal with the exigencies of short form academic project work.

Identifying Emotive Structure

I learned more about short form structure from my colleagues, Chris Armstrong and Tom Bertino as we sat around the table during and after mid-point presentations in the years I worked at AAU. Both had early experience at Hanna Barbera, working in traditional character animation roles, and went on to forge careers in feature character animation with Industrial Light and Magic. Tom is a veritable living encyclopedia of the animation arts, and still teaches the History of Animation course at the school. (If you haven't taken his course, consider it one of the best critical foundation courses available.)

After seven years, I became adept at cutting through complex story baggage, bloated beat timing, excessive physical humor, hackneyed referencing, vast and barren prologues, and a host of typical storytelling traps that new storytellers fall victim to.

Over time, the key to successful short form writing became clear: build a story structure that allows a character to present well-defined motivation. Put another way, a short form writer should create an environment wherein a character can be released and allowed the freedom of predictable reaction, while not telegraphing the twist until the final gag.

Some Simple Rules

In order to craft successful short form animation projects, you have to follow a few simple rules:

(1) limit the number of actors
(2) get into and out of physical gags quickly
(3) understand the power of the camera (cinematic language)
(4) let the performance sell character motivation
(5) build story momentum with iconic character decision-making

Limiting the Actors

In academic production, you're often working solo on a three minute short. You must balance delivery (time budget) with story scope. For example, instead of launching a project with fifteen mimes in a clown car, you'd be best served to present a single mime, late in picking up his fourteen buddies, changing the flat on his clown car. Okay, now make the clown car invisible, like all things mime. Put the invisible clown car on a steep hill. Make it a tremendously hot day. Rinse, repeat.

If you can isolate your character's performance by utilizing a well-defined obstacle, you don't need more than a single character and a single monolithic challenge. The iconic impossibility of the challenge and the off-beat way your character solves his or her puzzle will deliver project success, whether that is a laugh or a poignant pause.

And while we're on the subject of actors, skip dialogue. If pantomime-based stories have proven nearly impossible to pull off in a short arc production program, then consider the difficulty of scripting a dialogue piece and then, once the script is complete, taking the piece into full production, starting with character modeling, rigging, blend shapes and automated dialogue replacement (ADR). Going mo-cap is expensive and has yet to be perfected at the professional level: (see A Christmas Carol or Beowulf).

We'll touch on this later, but dialogue and lip-sync skill sets are best proven in smaller dialogue tests gleaned from specific coursework. You should have several of these on your reel and they'll be sufficient to prove that you can work with both rigged and shaped-driven phoneme animation.

Start On Action

One common error that novice writers commit is a long expository or prologue opener. They spend countless panels in backstory, slowing the pace to a crawl and losing the viewer. If you need a set up for you first gag, tell it visually, through cues. A slow pan along a wall hung with pink picture frames filled with photos of baby can easily introduce the nursery and your main performer. Add a few layered tracks: a music box and some random baby sounds and lift the mix as you move into your opening shot. Whatever you do, get there quickly.

Camera Language

Whether it's an action whip pan after establishing an exterior, a hand held focus/refocus as you track with your main character, or a slow push through a wall, you'll need to spend some time understand effect camera work. This is the absolutely essential silent partner of your short film, and without its help, no matter how crafty your story is, your viewer will walk away unsatisfied. Take a course or buy a book. Understand the basics of stage lines. Understand the basics of cinematography. You don't need to be a DP, but you must learn to use your camera to provide intimacy and grandeur as called for by your character's performance and scene staging.

35mm lensing is great for family photos, but sometimes you need to go wider (< 20mm) for effect. You can enhance a plot point with a super slow motion effect, and on the other hand, simulated time-lapse photography can provide the right story solution: playing with temporal reality is often overlooked.

Emotion as Performance

If you look under the hood of your characters, you should be able to easily identify three major motivators that allow your character to breathe within your structure. Think of your story as if it is a home, and your character, and all of its actions are derived from the detail that you've provided this environment and initial character cues. For example, a massive Viking raider decides to give up pillaging and applies for work with a temp agency. There he is in the waiting room. How do you set up the gags? Do you show him being put through a series of clerical tests? Can you introduce backstory through a thought bubble device? Temp Agency Viking might be funny. You know he won't succeed in any sort of non-pillaging job for long. The audience will be expecting some massive gags as he stumbles his way through a series of jobs that he simply wasn't designed for. You let the character and the structure open new gag routes for you. Let the character take on his own life. Crafting story in this way will never fail you.

Build Momentum

I've heard the three gag rule. You have your protagonist attempt a thing a least three times, with a success on the fourth and final attempt. That seems to work for short form comedy films. Add to this the fact that you need to build the intensity of each attempt until the finale. The weight of the gags adds to the character's perceived frustration with his or her inability to overcome the insurmountable odds you've set before them. Keep the obstacles clear and iconic. You need big action to convey subtlety. The bigger the pose the better the performance sell. Just watch the Warner Brothers Seven Minute shorts. Take a look at the extreme poses and the massive overlap. While you can't do squash and stretch as easily in 3D, you can still craft strong poses to sell your performances.

Make sure your edit quickens as you start overlapping gags. Don't create a series of three or four second shots, paced evenly until the finale. Learn to edit your material so that you are building pace, leading your viewer to the finale, hustling them along your red-herring route to a surprise ending, giving them exactly what they never expected, and having them laugh all the more at the deception. Pacing comes from the better understanding of film editing. Not a bad idea to take a course in film editing, too.

Water Under the Bridge

I have had so many story ideas pitched to me that I've lost count. A very small fraction of those stories are good. Good story development takes time and collaboration. It would be great if you guys could get together and have story workshops, where you pitch your ideas against the mob and see what you get back. There's nothing like a dozen or so writers all banging ideas off one another.

Avoid Psychotic Plots

Keep in mind that your dark, goth, animal sacrifice thesis project will weigh heavily in your portfolio assessment once you've graduated. Sure you'll have a bunch of exercise animation tests to prove your understanding of weight and stage awareness and overlap and all the basics of animation. Your thesis project, however, might just be the evidence of your ability that you'll need to secure your entry position in the field. If your reviewer is so turned off by your subject matter that your .mov ends up in the Recycle Bin, you've lost.

That's not to say that contemplative and poignant pieces cannot be successful: on the contrary. You simply need to show that you can handle the crafting of a start to finish project, convey emotion, do it with quality and attention to detail, and move your audience, whether it be to laughter or tears. Just don't offend them. Do that after you've worked awhile, at least.

I'll analyze specific examples in an upcoming post.

Friday, September 30, 2011

A Simple Bid

Recent program graduates are at a disadvantage when it comes to surviving in the independent contracting market. Most veteran artists are not only confident in their tool skill sets, their troubleshooting ability, their extensive network and their eye, but they have a dozen years of project work experience to rely on when it comes to project bidding.

In my previous post, I outline a general set of considerations that any artist should establish in a new relationship with a client. These apply both to animation and post-production project work.

However, in order to fully comprehend your own investment, in both time and material, you'll need to match the proposed contract with your own internal bid, that is, your understanding of what it will take you to get the job done.

If you don't have an internal bid configured, complete with your own internal production milestones, your project will quickly go off the rails and you will either fail your delivery or provide sub-standard material, both outcomes a considerably less than desirable when you are trying to build a reel in hopes of landing your first pro gig.


Those of you who studied in school are by now familiar with the amount of time it takes you to complete basic animation tasks: blocking, secondary, lip-sync, and finished animation are all areas that you have no doubt explored. If the quality of the underlying rig is good, if you have access to all the blend-shapes you require, and if the cameras don't change, you can probably bid out a minute of animation for a single character performance.

Let's look at the simplest animation solution: A character walking toward camera while delivering lines over a series of shots in twenty seconds, the typical animation length of a commercial spot. Each shot lasts an average of four seconds, giving you five shots.

You might bid out an hour of animation blocking per second, then another hour per second for the lip-sync. You'll most likely need three takes before you get to secondary animation at an hour per revision, and maybe two more takes before final/finishing animation, say another hour per take on average.

Here's how your internal bid might look:

Initial Blocking = 20 hours
Lip-Sync = 20 hours
Feedback revisions (avg. 3/shot) = 60 hours
Final revisions = 40 hours

Total = 140 hours

At eight hours per day, that's eighteen days, and inserting weekends, about one month. Now this is a rather generic guesstimate, and perhaps these numbers are better suited to a junior artist than an entry-level graduate.

Most bids are doubled in order to get a cushion in case the client goes haywire, shots are changed, rigs are broken and other unforeseen circumstances befall the project. You can see why it is so difficult to profit in this business as an indy contractor. There really is no overhead in bids like this. You will always lose money. With low pay and no pay project work, the question is really simple: "How much will I lose?"

Given the example above, staying with 140 hours (without a buffer), if you were paid at a basic starting animator rate, say $40.00/hour, you might expect to make about $5,600 before taxes. You'll most likely be paid on a 1099-MISC tax class status, which means that you'll need to report and forward your tax basis in the current quarter. Make sure you understand how 1099-MISC tax reporting works.

So that's about $6,000.00 per month, before taxes. If you were working at a large company, you might make more or less depending on your skills, your benefits package and the company you're working for. That's about 72K/year for an entry position. That's close to what I've seen salaries offered for.

So if you were to take this crazy job with the twenty seconds of animation and the lip-sync and the rest, and were to do it for free, you'd be putting in about 6K of your own sweat equity. Something to keep in mind if you somehow lock yourself into delivery without an exit clause.

While I've provided a fairly simple example, your projects will be more complex. Make sure you understand what you're expected to deliver, and go through a process like this one, outlining each iteration step, assigning time for every review point. Keep in mind that tight deliveries mean less iterations and a higher expectation of a single or dual take final!

Let me know if you think my numbers are either too high or too low. I'd like to hear from those of you who have stories to tell, both heartening and horrifying.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Weighing An Offer

Many of you are wrestling with the realities of a down market: trying to find small independent jobs to keep you afloat while you look for your first big contract. While the entertainment industry can weather recession better than the manufacturing or retail sales sectors, it is still sensitive to fluctuations in the financial markets.

With a massive surplus of animation and post-production grads flooding out of programs around the nation, the competition for entry level positions is fierce. While larger companies like ILM and Disney/Pixar are scaling back, smaller companies are losing business to overseas markets like Canada, England and China. Veterans are leaving full-time positions and are taking up independent contracting as they move from post to post, putting further pressure on entry-level hiring.

Until the animation and post-production studios begin large-scale hiring again, and small shops find a way to compete with offshore studios, you may be forced to look at low-pay or no-pay projects to keep your portfolio growing and your skills sharp. How do you determine whether or not a low-pay/no-pay project will be beneficial to your future job search?

Do the Research

To ensure that the project that you are about to undertake will be conducted in a professional manner you'll need to find out as much as you can about the company or entity that wishes to employ your services.

Have they produced a project before? Do they have an industry reputation, good or bad? Have any of your friends or mentors heard of them? Get a few opinions before you commit.

Some Considerations

You should have a solid understanding of the following aspects of your new production. Use the following list to prepare for your interview with a potential independent low-pay/no-pay project opportunity:

1. Pre-Production Orientation

Get a sense of the project quality and project assets structure before you undertake the project. Depending on your role, you want to make sure that all the parts are in place for your contribution once you accept the contract. Look at the work reel. Have them send you a sample of a finished shot or a teaser cut.

2. Pipeline Overlay

What software will you be using? What additional steps will you be asked to take in order to collaborate with the rest of the team. This is especially important if you will be working remotely. Make sure that you understand the pipeline and how assets will flow between you and the other teams.

3. Review Methodology

How will the company conduct reviews? How often will you receive feedback? If you're an animator, you know how important consistent performance feedback is to your process. You need to make sure that you have access to the artistic directors involved in making the decisions.

4. Workflow

How will you implement client feedback? If you're an animator, and the performance note that you received related to a rigging issue, how will you communicate this to your supervisor? How will the rigging mod be implemented? What is the chain of command that will support your production needs?

5. Milestone Payments

You should find out how you will be paid and how often. Typically, independent contractor are paid on weekly milestones. Sometimes the job is small enough that you are paid on delivery. You need to hammer out the details of your payment structure before you begin. Keep in mind that professional entertainment companies understand the tricky nature of the client review process. If a balky client refuses to accept series of shots, they might refuse to pay your contractor, and if your company has not set up a change order system for overage billing, you might be the one holding the bag when the dust clears. The less professional the company, the more the client can hold them over the fire when it comes to delivery squabbles.

6. Quality of Work

For all low pay/no pay work, you should carefully consider the value of the project with regard to its potential contribution to your port reel. You never know when another job prospect might arise. If you contract on a project, you may be responsible (legally) for finishing it. Make sure that the low-pay project you pick up will benefit you in the long run.

7. Light Scope

In low-pay/no-pay projects like these, keep your overall involvement minimal. You want to remain flexible in case you are picked up on a paying gig elsewhere. Make sure that you build an exit clause into binding contracts. Small non-pay/low-pay project managers should understand your need for a quick exit. Non-professionals will not, and you will need to cover this issue with them before you enter into any binding agreement.


If you can answer all of the questions about your new opportunity with some certitude, and you are reasonably confident that your potential employer is acting in good faith, then use this opportunity to enhance your reel and broaden your network. Sometimes small projects like these lead to large projects. Sometimes a connection made in a small backwater project will lead to a job at a major. The industry is quite small, after all, so if you do commit to this project, give it your best.

Best of luck!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Outreach Materials

This is the first in a series of articles devoted to helping you craft your outreach materials, including resume, vita, cover letter, website and optionally, a business card. This week we'll start with the cover letter, as many of you are preparing for graduation this fall.

Your Cover Letter: Make It Interesting

Keep in mind that HR personnel sift through tons of material every hiring cycle. You'll want to make sure that each component of your outreach package serves its specific purpose without being redundant. There's nothing as tedious as reading the same material over and over again.

As I taught in my favorite BFA Portfolio Course, and later in the Professional Practices class, the entertainment industry cover is unique to our field. Applicants need to be succinct and interesting in order to lead the reader from first paragraph to last. Your hope is that by the time they read your fourth paragraph, they are pulling out your resume and navigating to your website. They want you to be a solid communicator, fun to work with, and most importantly, interesting. You're applying for a job, certainly, but the fact is, you're asking to be part of a community of artists. You must stand out in a way that appeals to this sense of family.


Keep in mind that the cover is simply a support component of your outreach package meant to augment your reel. Clearly, even if you are terrible at writing but have a brilliant reel, there is hope for you. Communication skills are valued, but ultimately it's your reel that will win you the position. I think that many of you are straddling the fence, especially as young interns, apprentices or junior artists trying to break in. A weak cover can't destroy your chances, but a strong cover can tip the scales in your favor.


As your cover is meant to support your resume and vita, avoid overlapping data on theses document. Your resume and vita should present the FACTS of your career, both professional and academic. Your cover should help explain your passion behind the career decisions you've made. We'll go into your resume and vita next week.

This is the basic cover formula that I've developed over the past twenty years, first with my own cover, and later, while I reviewed submissions for the various companies I worked for, I began to note those letters that resonated with me...

Salutation: To Ms. or Not To Ms.

The best way to approach a company position is through an inside connection. If you have a good friend already in a company, have them provide a name, and if possible, have them hand your materials directly to them. Some companies offer bounties for inside recruitment of quality artists.

If you don't have a connection, see if you can find out who the head recruiter is from LinkedIN. Address the chief recruiter if you can identify who they are from your research, otherwise it's best to use the generic Recruiting Department title. Use Ms. instead of Mrs where applicable.

Paragraph Uno (Declaration)

Your declaration paragraph should simply help the reader sort your job aim. Address your goals with the company and where you found your job listing. A simple sentence like: "I would like to apply for the position of character animator posted on Craig's List." A short qualification sentence may follow this one, speaking to why you feel it would be a good fit for your skill sets. Keep it short. You have three more paragraphs with which to wow them.

Paragraph Two (Company)

This paragraph should provide a deeper insight into your understanding of the company, their products, their history, their community and the way they do business. DO THE RESEARCH. Find articles about the company, their principles and the work, and make sure that you are able to provide some small bit of interesting information about the company as it relates to your, your work, and your own history.

Simple pleasantries and blatant fawning is so transparent. You don't want to lavish them with praise. That's what a fanboy/girl does. Your a professional now. You need to treat with your future employer as a professional designer might. Three to four sentences are more than enough.

If you craft paragraph two properly, you'll draw the reader into paragraph three, the most important paragraph of your cover.

Paragraph Three (You)

This paragraph should help the reader understand the path that you've taken (recently) in preparation for this position. Make sure that you focus on the support aspects of your training, not just the technical material. You'll have a technical listing on your resume. Show the reader that you've benefited from your advanced education in design, theory, and practicum. Make sure that you mention (drop names) of a few of the more important mentors in your academic path (put company references in parenthesis after the names). Using names of your important teachers as your inspiration helps leverage your cover with the careers of your mentors, and most likely the reader will have some knowledge (or can find information) about your teachers philosophy, background and qualifications. This is important. Keep this paragraph to no more than six or seven sentences.

Paragraph Four (Special Qualifications)

This is your final paragraph. If you have served in some interesting jobs prior to school, were in the military, worked at another company, had another career, this is where you can mention how this experience will help in with respect to your new position. Be brief. Tantalize them. Use this paragraph to explain odd gaps in your resume or other 90 degree career path swings.

Here's are two versions of the same cover letter. Which do you feel is more compelling?



Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Project Dahlia/Project Samwise

A Word About Codenames

When a large post-production company undertakes a project, they typically assign a code name in order to disguise the true identity of the film, adding an additional layer of protection for the IP flowing through their pipeline. If a laptop containing a bid script were to be stolen, for example, the thieves might not know what they have. "Cloaked" assets provided to the post house, like plates or character models, are slightly less tempting to those that might decide to post at AintItCool and other sites. Theft still occurs regardless, and while this codename stuff may not dissuade the determined thief, it's always been part of post-production culture (and makes the exec production staff feel a bit like secret agents, which is pretty exciting, given the generally unexciting nature of production.)

Try re-naming your own production with a secret codename, and I think you'll begin to understand the appeal.

Project Dahlia

This is a film project, shoot schedule TBA. I will need some production interns, matchmoving supervisor and compositing supervisor for the show.

Project Samwise

This is an animated short test to begin production immediately. I will need a producer, character development concept artists, a modeling supervisor and an animation supervisor. I need story development interns. I will require about 15 hours/week of your time.

Please spread the word and have interested parties contact me.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A New Frontier

For the past three months, The Production Workshop has been on hiatus, busy crafting industry and educational alliances that will continue to benefit small productions in the new entertainment marketplace.

Production Assistance

Those of you who need expert production assistance for small footprint productions (both within a degree-seeking program and without), should contact me at vincedq@sbcglobal.net. We will set up a independent contracting arrangement for my continued production support. Students that are in degree-seeking programs will receive a student discount. Production support will consist of an executive producer and line production interns taken from degree/non-degree programs from around the world. We will be taking applications for any of you interested in participating in our internship programs!

Career Placement

If you are interested in placement services, career guidance or portfolio review, please contact me via email regarding a fee-based agency arrangement. For a small initial investment, I will represent you to the industry, helping you manage your portfolio, online presence, interview strategy and local placement needs. This was my largest responsibility while Directing the ANM/VFX online program, and I have successfully advised hundreds of graduates, both undergraduate and graduate. You owe it to yourself to be represented by someone who knows the industry, and more importantly, knows how to open doors.

OMG! Art

In addition to the several services I'll be offering as executive producer and talent agent, I have been working closely with a small team to craft a non-profit learning company.

What is OMG! Art? A small group of educators and artists are collaborating on the world's first free entertainment-based art education consortium. OMG! Art will provide free guidance to those artists who desire to join the wide-spectrum entertainment marketplace, especially those emerging professionals who are looking to join degree-seeking programs, change careers, veterans, pre-college high school students, and members of the American tribal nations.

Why free?

For-profit art schools are not the answer, especially not early in an artist's exploration of the entertainment markets. Typically there is no pre-college education in the sophisticated entertainment industry, and so most students enter poorly-funded humanities-based community colleges or expensive liberal-arts hybrid schools that are either prohibitively portfolio'd (nobody can get in) or ridiculously open (everyone gets in).

In the latter example, the cattle car experience hurts the entrants chances to get valuable, unique career direction, and so most programs are de-focused, spending vast amounts of education expense on needless prep, watered down for the lowest common denominator student. This wastes time, money, and ultimately hurts the student's ability to connect with their unique industry voice. With loss of passion comes loss of direction, and I find that the vast majority of these students will drop out of an art program within the first three semesters.

If you make this pre-selection indoctrination free, and provide a series of focused courses designed to outline the wide variety of tracks available, along with the schools, programs, free and for-fee online programs offered on ground and online, you increase the possibility of student entertainment success.

At the core of these decisions is the ability to design. Before you can design, you must understand what design is. Design is not pretty little color wheels. Design is not manga characters holding glowing swords. Design is the ability to communicate both verbally, literally and visually. Most students have no idea how to communicate upon leaving high school. This is mostly due to the general collapse of the secondary school in America.

OMG! Art will address these issues, serving as a clearing house that will build curriculum for each student -- a unique personal approach that larger diploma mills have abandoned for want of profits. OMG! Art does a personal profile assessment of the candidate, maps out a path, and prescribes a series of free/low-fee training for the applicant before they must make a decision to join a degree-seeking program, for-profit or not.

OMG! Art will use the latest open-source online training delivery systems, and will seek to create strategic alliances with local communities, universities, federal programs, social networking platforms and the larger consortium of educators seeking to join together throughout the world.

If it seems like a revolutionary idea, it is. Prime trade-based education will no longer be held hostage by a minority of for-profit institutions that care little for the graduating student candidate. They have become obsolete, with their bloated administrative and marketing overheads, completely outdated understanding of the markets, and insistence that profit is more important than simple individual triage. Today's entertainment market is liquid, with changes coming almost daily as social networking changes the world.

OMG! Art is a non-profit company for this new Age of Art. Join us.

For more information, and if you would like to be involved with company start-up, or would like to provide or know of funding sources, please contact Vince De Quattro, vincedq@sbcglobal.net.

With your help, we can help the world regain its voice through art.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Communication: The Foundation of Production

For those of you just discovering the joys of production milestones, the nuances of production communication might baffle and confound you during your indoctrination to the process, especially in an academic environment. In academia, we are all learning the workflow, and our responses to the various behavioral mechanisms in the client/artist relationship are not yet at the professional level.

Trust Your Training

In order to reduce erroneous and repetitive and aged miscommunication, the key is to keep your communication flow through established channels. I drilled you guys on this over the past three years. Here are the basic production roles and the communications throughput associated with each. This is a mirror of the professional production workplace, so make a note of it.


The producer handles ALL communication with the client. This means everything that goes before the client, from dailies notes, to meeting setups, to deadline discussions, all communication between post-production and client MUST go through one channel: the show producer.

This is essential for several reasons.

1. Establish a Single Voice

If the client is confused about who to contact because they are getting input/feedback from various post-production sources, they will lose confidence in the production team. This is the cardinal rule: the show producer must present an overwhelming grasp of post-production shot status. This overwhelming grasp will establish a one-stop buck-stops-here presence that will help calm the client when things get hot, especially around 911 delivery time.

2. Consistency

Direct contact by artists, leads or supervisors with the client will de-stabilize the show dynamic, and will undermine the client relationship with the show producer. The show producer must know everything that is happening in the show, therefore, direct communication with the client by the post-staff not only erodes the one-voice rule, but it also surprises the show producer, especially when post staff begin setting unreal expectations up between client and artist directly.

No show can succeed if individual artists are brokering deals directly with the client. The producer's job is to balance client expectation with production assets and budgeting. Since the producer's job is to plan and manage the production corps, they will always know how to manage client expectation in balance with overall production milestones.

3. Trust Basis

Sending three emails from production to client will most likely confuse the client and derail any confidence that has been established between the two entities from show production start. Communications must be managed. I cannot stress the importance of this, especially as you are learning your workflows. You cannot bail yourself out of a tight jam in a 911 situation by calling on more artists from your overhead pool. You are it. If you have a show artist that promises something directly to the client, the show producer will be hard pressed to undo that expectation, and only at a trust loss.

Trust is supreme here. Overlapping communication and miscommunication at cross-purposes will destroy trust.

4. Established Role

The expectation of the client is that the show producer IS in communication with the entire show staff. When emails go out from these disparate entities, that expectation is lost and the show trust is lost. This is not production. This is chaos. The expectation is that the post-production producer is gathering information and preparing it in hallway meetings (exec-staff meeting prior to show dailies) and presenting it to the client.

The client only wants to see progress. The client could care less about in-house show workflow or production issues. They WANT to be protected to the day-to-day of post-production efforts. This is why you have a producer!

VFX Supervisor

The VFX Supervisor MUST work with the show producer to manage client expectation. If a shot requires additional second unit footage, if an edit point needs clarification, if a process or a result needs presentation, testing and the requisite client feedback, the VFX Supervisor MUST allow the producer to handle the traffic.

Directions like, please find out if our latest green-screen replacement tests are working for the client, or please see if the client has additional takes of shot 3, are all acceptable. Directly contacting the client, even if done in a cc fashion, completely takes the voice of your producer out of the equation. Whether or not it makes visual sense, aesthetic sense or any other sense, it most likely WILL NOT make production sense, especially when balanced with the complex equation of established budget and delivery. Just check with your producer first.


(See VFX Supervisor above.) If you have an idea, if you see something that everyone has missed in dailies, please inform the VFX Supervisor, DPS (Digital Production Supervisor) or your show producer. Contacting the client in any way is PROHIBITED, no matter how informal or how great your relationship is with the client.

Many young artists arriving in the post-production arena are so eager to prove their merit that they try to blast their awesomeness to all within earshot, especially in dailies. DO NOT DO THIS. Not only does this derail the presentation tempo, but it again circumvents the established communication flow/approval process.

Make a Note of It

So, again, here is the entertainment project production chain of command:


Artist -> Lead -> VFX Supe -> Producer -> Client


Client -> Producer -> Team

In Summation

Please keep the aforementioned chart handy. Draw it on your forearm. Tack it to your 1950s fridge stocked with old Diet Pepsi's and Boost protein shakes. Nail it to your corral out back near the shed. Follow the rules and the production will flourish and live to take on more projects.

Break the rules and prepare to abandon ship.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Use of Assets For Your Reel

The issue of asset use is a frequent topic in the academic environment. In order to build a competitive portfolio, especially if you are an online-only candidate, you'll need nearly 90 seconds of unique collaborative shot material to get your first line production job.

You can't do that with canned exercise material, the same material (especially online) that hundreds of other candidates have already used in their reels.

When can you use your collaborative footage? Here are some guidelines:

1. Sign an NDA

If you are working on a project that has involved another department, namely Motion Pictures and Television, or on an outside project (independent filmmaker) you'll need to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) that explicitly prohibits a release of their materials in any form before express permission.

Why is this important in Academia?

If the Director wants to enter his or her film in an exclusive festival, that festival typically prohibits the public viewing of the material in any way BEFORE the festival screening.

Why is this important to an Independent Filmmaker?

In order to control publicity in advance of a film's release, the Producers of an indy film NEVER want their material released in a manner that is not consistent with their marketing plan.

Why is it important that you follow these rules?

If you don't, there is a likelihood that future filmmakers will avoid working with you, your program, and/or your school. Trust is the MOST important aspect of our professional creative relationships. Without the independent filmmaker and/or film student, the visual effects candidate will have little unique material with which to use in his or her portfolio.

2. After DVD release

If you've worked on a project at a professional house, you won't have access to that material until the film it appears in is released on DVD. No exceptions.

3. By Permission

If you can obtain permission from the show's Executive Producer and/or Director, you might be able to include it in your demo reel. Consider that demo reels appear on the web today, as DVD demo reels are a thing of the past. Once you obtain permission for use, that material has a high likelihood of showing up on the web.

Please be responsible. Your desire to get good material in your reel is completely understood. We've all been in your position. Keep the trust. Don't use materials unless you've been granted specific access. If you are in doubt, ask.

If you play by the rules, everyone wins.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Dragonboy Wins Gold at Student Academy Awards!

Congratulations to AAU's first Gold Medal Student Academy Award winning collaborative production, Dragonboy, co-written and co-directed by Bernardo Warman, Shaofu Zhang and Lisa Allen, and produced by Caitlin Satchell.

If you haven't seen the short yet, watch it here: http://vimeo.com/13273095

The department rallied behind this project as its first major collaborative, setting up a special workflow curriculum designed to help light, render and get the film out the door.

The Academy's only other Student Academy Award came in 2003 for Bert, written and directed by animator Moonsung Lee. Watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0I0g3zCUSk. By simply examining both films, you can plainly see how far the program has come in eight years.

See the June 11th presentation and acceptance speech here:


Thursday, June 23, 2011

Legacy: The Production Track

Those of you who participated in the genesis of the production track at any point while I was at the AAU recognized the impact it had upon all aspects of the department. Every candidate, whether BFA or MFA, who joined this specialized (and unrecognized) sub-plan benefited with a series of high-profile internships and career placement at graduation. (For a full list of graduates, and current AAU producers, see this blog: http://aauanimationvfxonline.blogspot.com/.)


The complete history of the production program is detailed in a previous blog entry, but in a nutshell, this is how it came to be: Arriving in the classroom, having ten years of production experience, I quickly recognized that post-production project coordination, even at an academic level, needed production management. In my advanced visual effects course, a course based on multiple-project delivery over a short period of time (in an attempt to mirror the industry), I selected students to be production assistants (based on their resumes). The production assistants would help me run dailies, take notes, and for their efforts, received a small grade bump.

I selected students who either had production backgrounds, or those students who seemed outgoing, fearless under pressure, and well-organized.

After noting the successes in the class (75% Spring Show placement rate) and the beneficial effect it had upon the academic careers of the production assistants, we expanded the program to include Catherine Tate's Composting For Production collaborative courses. Catherine adopted the PA approach so well that the roles were expanded to other courses in the program later on, like Derek Flood's lighting/texture courses.

It just makes sense. All trade-based core courses should be structured in a way that mirrors the industry. Producers are part of the workflow. Why not at a trade school?


I loved my producers. In return, they loved the industry perspective their positions afforded them. Once they understood the system of bidding, client management, artist development, workflow design and pipeline assessment, they blossomed. Many of them had struggled as animation, modeling or post-production artists. When the word-of-mouth spread that they was a safe harbor in the program for those artists who loved the process and the industry, but didn't love the technical aspects so much, they came knocking, hesitantly, at my office door.


Because most of the producers that I developed were artists and designers first, they fully understood the workflow and technical processes involved with the respective programs in feature animation and visual effects. They understood both sides: from the management point of view and the artist's point of view. Few current producers in the industry have such clarity of perspectives.

These producers immediately found jobs outside. Having had some experiences with Shotgun and Basecamp helped, certainly, as well as having nearly a dozen small productions on their early resumes.


I am hoping that Catherine can manage the producers in the meantime. Executive MFA Producer, Lutz Wong should be able to run the weekly meetings, including the live broadcasts, through the Adobe Connect production office. The department may seek a Production Lead, inviting a retired pro to helm the program. That would be the best of all worlds, certainly.

You can't go back to how it was done before. You shouldn't erase all the progress we've made in the last six years. It was a struggle to find good producers while I was there. Without clear leadership, your recruiting classes will dwindle and the program will die.

Get out there and talk to your colleagues about the program. Keep it alive!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

VFX Guild?

I wanted to get back to what Alex F., Steve Wright, Steve Kaplan (TAG), Scott Ross and others are saying about the state of the post-production visual effects industry.

Let's be clear: post-production visual effects is not Feature Animation. Post-production is not an IP (intellectual property) derived trade. It's workflows and pipelines may be protected by trademark, copyright and NDA (non-disclosure) agreements, but those systems are simply designed to make the IP-owner more competitive within the post-production marketplace.

(Digital) feature animation and those companies that service (digital) feature animation production are not part of this discussion. As long as America's ability to design story, music and games remain our top intellectual property export, this area will remain largely domestic due to its ability to bear the cost difference between domestic development and overseas development. The specific production workflows involved in a story-based project require significant daily modification, from beats to layout, to such a point that the necessary choreography between story teams in multiple timezones would harm the process.

So we're talking about a bid-based service center that provides a contractual delivery of a set of shots. Much like a general contractor, a VFX company will provide a bid, project management, milestone delivery and often, change orders along the way. Toss in up to two years of free bid-related proof-of-concept tests, wink-and-nod overage forgiveness, horse trading, and studio pressure linked to potential future business, and the general contractor paradigm is obliterated. No GC in the world would still be in business today if they ran their construction business like a visual effects house.

And yet this is the model. No wonder why we're seeing drastic cost saving strategies in the New VFX Era. I'm curious to see how the IPO (initial public offering) goes for a major visual effects house in 2012. Sure, Pixar made it work. They own their product. I just can't see a publicly-held visual effects house trading in Pixar numbers given the market today.

The Tail Wagging the Dog

So in order to be competitive in the marketplace, in order to be low-bidder, you need to find a way to cut costs. In the Renaissance of VFX, back in the late 90s, ILM could call the shots, adding a sizable percentage to the bid to offset potential workflow overruns. Sony Pictures Imageworks, underwritten by parent, Sony USA, had underbid their competition to take the loss, knowing they had the deep pockets of their parent to keep them in payroll.

In the New Era, to survive, companies must find a way to keep the bid and deliver the product without 911 bail out. 911 work is sometimes shared by the client and the initial contracting studio, sometimes not. In all cases, 911 work is expensive.

Here's the thing about contract work: it's like getting to the check out counter with only fifty bucks in your wallet and sixty dollars worth of groceries on the conveyor belt. You simply toss items back to the store until you're under budget. Same deal with VFX. Can't do a 3D fluid sim? Make it a 2D solve with some canned smoke elements. No one will notice. Done.

I mean, we notice, right? We can tell if show effects are crap. Sure. But to the studio, it all about the bottom line. What if first and second unit production costs were greater than expected? What budget gets cut? Do you want simulated digital creatures or 50/50 animatronic puppeteering? Maybe we rewrite to get rid of the creatures entirely.

The tail doesn't wag the dog. That's just an illusion.

VFX Guild

The only (and this is a long shot) way this industry can command the attention of Hollywood is to form a guild, much like the Screenwriters Guild or the DGA (Directors Guild of America). The only way.

Why is that so difficult? Nobody wants to be the only guy in the guild. I have seen talk about IATSE 16 at ILM. Yeah, so George was the only kid in that sandbox. I'll talk about that in a future post. Basically same issue there, though. ILM was operating with a CBA through the Local and felt that it was unfair in that the CBA added financial obligations to their compensation packages that other companies did not have to adhere to, like paid overtime, guaranteed yearly raises and other benefits.

If one company does not join the VFX Guild, and therefore, is not bound to the statutory obligations set forth in that guild, the whole deal blows up due to market forces. I can't think of a company that would risk that, and certainly not in the name of the poor VFX artist who typically makes more than 100K annually.

For a guild to work, everyone needs to be in.

This general topic is currently being discussed among the active membership of the VES (Visual Effects Society). How do you fix the VFX industry? Where are we headed?

I'll keep you updated. Stay tuned.

The Trade Education Model

The term liberal arts denotes a curriculum that imparts general knowledge and develops the student’s rational thought and intellectual capabilities, unlike the professional, vocational, and technical curricula emphasizing specialization. The contemporary liberal arts comprise studying literature, languages, philosophy, history, mathematics, and science.[1]

-- Wikipedia

I believe that the best candidates for the new entertainment marketplace are those candidates that can easily communicate their design capabilities through written, verbal and technical communication.

As I mentioned last night, working in teams that are not necessarily within your local office space, building, city or country will become the norm, and therefore communication skills which identify you as a design leader will play a role in your ability to find a senior position down the road.

Frankly, it's too early to tell for many of you how far you will go in the business. Many of you will work for five years and find linked careers in human resource management, production management, scientific connective industry, telecommunications, and education. Production, unless to traverse the ladder quickly, tends to burn you out on long 80 hour weeks after about five years.

The key is traversing the supervisory ladder quickly, and those skills that will best serve you are rooted in the liberal arts.


Most trade-focused baccalaureate programs allow for at least 45 units of liberal arts study. Masters program do not, providing just a handful of units designed to provide you with critical or analytical thinking related to your specific field.

Missing most notably in the liberal training core is mathematics, physics and programming languages. I truly believe that in order to float on the technical sea of the New VFX Age, you must be fluent in at least two non-English languages (Mandarin!) and two computer languages (C++, Python). I have seen many modeling and rigging candidates turned away because they failed
Python and Linux tests at the door.


I think it behooves you to get that training any way you can. You can learn Mardarin, C++ and Python through fairly inexpensive commercial means. The downside is that you won't have a mentor. Sometimes having a mentor in the initial stages of your learning process is essential to get you past the unknown and into the known. Once you're comfortable with your goals, you'll move along your path with pace.


After working for nearly seven years in an accredited program, I found that onsite candidates far outpaced their online counterparts. For years I searched for an answer, assessing the delivery model (the learning management system or more commonly, the LMS), demo video quality, and lecture content of the online courses.

Having taught a very successful advanced VFX course on campus, I had a pretty good idea of what was missing from the online experience. Every year we had nearly a thousand entries from campus students in our departmental show. Every year we'd get a handful of successful online entries, and ALL from the illustrative side, in visual development.

Why? As Director of the program, I'd tear my hair out trying to figure out what the essential differences were.

The idea of working from your home for four years in a degree-seeking trade track has always been mind-boggling to me. I would routinely encourage my online-only candidates to start online, but leave and come to San Francisco to study. There is no substitution for studio collaborative training. There is a dynamic between artists and supervision, the kind of culture that you see in the market, training that you cannot get alone, by yourself, in your bedroom.

The idea that the part-time artist, working full-time, raising a family, keeping their own schedule seemed at cross-purposes to the amount of training necessary to dedicate in order to enter the MOST competitive marketplace in the world. I would observe that the average festival winner would spend nearly 1,000 hours on a project, in the lab and at home at night after lab closure.

The ability to dedicate clear time to a project was one of the keys in the disparity. If you can't find a clear creative space, both physically and emotionally, you can't truly find a path to design solution, not to mention technical troubleshooting.

There was one clear reason. Here is another.

Artists observe. We push one another to achieve greater understand of our craft. This synergy allows for rapid growth in artistic collaborative areas, like animation and post-production. Without the synergy, you simply have a series of unlinked exercises.

So what was the biggest difference between online and onsite?
Synergy. Plain and simple.

Surely, if you are a painter or a photographer or a trainee in one of the classic
beaux-arts, you can get by in an online training universe. A classic sculptor might need to see his colleague's material in order to assimilate competitive skills acquisition, for example, but unless his or her work is installation-based, requiring a team, a sculptor might grow in an online training environment.

Not so with a collaborative studio environment. A modeler must work with a surfacing artist and a rigger in order to solve for a particular shot or character design in an entertainment/story-driven project. A compositor must understand how the matchmove will serve the set-extensions in the digital matte painting to be inserted in a sequence of shots. A set of "live", dailies-based, collaborative communication skills must go hand-in-hand with the technical training in order to be ready to join the market at the finish of any degree plan.

Synergy. That's what's truly missing. Sure, dedicated time is essential. You must have calendar space in order to provide the 15 or so hours per week per core course. Beyond that, you need the studio culture benefit of synergistic observational experience. Just seeing the best of the best work around you is key to inspiration and success. The ability to incorporate valuable approaches, approaches that you had not thought of, approaches that your instructor did not reveal, is absolutely part of the studio culture.

Dodging the larger question of how you find the enormous amount of clear time to dedicate to your project training, how do you go about adding synergy to any training path, whether online, hybrid or onsite?

This question answered in my next installment.

Be well.