Search form

Survey: How to Finance Independent Animation

Chris Robinson surveys some of the leading independent animators in the world to discover how they find the funds to produces their films.

Three things motivated this survey.

1. During the last 12 years or so Ive seen too many student animation films become an epitaph rather than a prelude.

2. There SEEMS to be less state support for non-commercial culture, yet there are more independently produced animation works being made now than at any other time in the history of animation.

3. A N.Y. subway jaunt with Steven Dovas.

Clearly folks are finding a way to make film, but how? I decided to ask a bunch of em and find out.

Debra Solomon.

Debra Solomon.

Ive always plowed money from commercial work back into independent work.

Credit cards and savings are my magical answer to funding, also I worked as an illustrator to fund my films: telephone books in the deep south funded Mrs Matisse and a book called I love you because funded Everybodys Pregnant.

I have a problem applying for grants as they are in artspeak, a language I never learned. And for me to delineate the parameters of a film beforehand messes with my creative process and actually steers me off the track. I say if you want to make it fund it yourself.

Debra Solomon, U.S.A.

Ring of Fire © Gambit.

Ring of Fire © Gambit.

Financing of Ring of Fire:Complete Budget: 300 000 Prize Money: 20% (We put all the prize money weve got for We Lived In Grass into the project)TV-Presales: 10 % (because we wanted to be independent, we didnt do a TV co-production, but just presales. Its less money, but more freedom) filmfund: 60% (The filmfund MfG put most of the money into the project, because they wanted young filmmakers to stay in Baden-Württemberg. You have to spend 100% of the money the filmfund gives you in Baden-Württemberg)Own money: 10% (which doesnt mean wed put the money in the project literally. We just paid ourselves less)

Andreas Hykade,

Pandorama © 2001 by Nina Paley.

Pandorama © 2001 by Nina Paley.

Lack of funding has motivated me and other animators to find new cheap ways to make films. Flash, for example, is helping us po folk make (and fake) some pretty intricate-looking films. If Id had cash, I would never have figured out how to use web software this way. Of course when I say films, I mean videos and DVDs, since film itself is often beyond our means.

I made my IMAX film Pandorama by power-schmoozing. It still took $5,000 of my own money, but I managed to get about $20,000 in-kind donations to cover the rest. Large-format film is profoundly expensive. OK, it was pretty much luck that got that film made.

There are grants, but theyre few and far between and theres tons of competition. Other than the NEA (under-funded and for which competition is famous), most grants are private, not government. Many grants are small, and a grant-seeker must win several to make one film. Grant writing is laborious, every grantor wants their own custom essay and has their own agenda, and you can easily spend more time writing grants than actually making art. That time is better spent working and earning wages, in my opinion. At least youre guaranteed income for your work, whereas, with grant writing, you work only for the privilege of asking for money, and seldom actually receive it. It can be downright humiliating. Many grants go to professional grant writers, or artists whove perfected the art of grant proposals themselves.

That said, I did receive a grant from the Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco in 1998, to make my film Fetch! I used it to cover the time I worked on the animation. Then I spent about $4,000 of my own to record the piece on 35mm film. I raised about $1,000 of that, asking for donations at Sprocket Ensemble performances. Nik Phelps and the Sprocket Ensemble performed live to animation, and Nik composed a great score for Fetch! Nik got his own grant to compose the score, but I spent about $1,000 to pay musicians and an engineer to make a good studio recording and everyone worked at cut-rates or donated their time. My sound guy, Stikman, donated countless hours mixing the score and sound effects.

Mostly, filmmaking is an expensive hobby.

Nina Paley, U.S.A.

Virgil Widrich.

Virgil Widrich.

Several institutions financed Fast Film: There are two smaller funds in Salzburg, where I was born. After the Oscar nomination for Copy Shop I am enough of a local hero to be able to raise a few thousand euros from the city and the county of Salzburg. Then I submitted Fast Film to ORF-Austrian Television and, at the same time, to the Film Fund of the City of Vienna. This fund cannot finance short films but it can finance TV-movies even when they are short. To make a short a TV-movie it must be financed by ORF, but ORF can only finance it when the financing is closed. So the hen-egg problem is solved by telling the hen there is an egg and telling the egg there is a hen.

When we ran out of money, my colleges from Minotaurusfilm Luxembourg submitted Fast Film to the Film Fund Luxembourg (a tax shelter program which I never really understood) and they came up with 30% of the (then new) budget.

When Fast Film was invited into the competition in Cannes 2003 all of the funds came up with some support for the marketing, too. It really paid of for all of them; Fast Film got invited to 177 film festivals and won 25 international awards so far.

Virgil Widrich, Austria

John Schnall.

John Schnall.

Heres how this American independent finances his films: I work for a living, and make films cause it keeps me sane(ish).

I used to go the grant route; these days you really have to hunt for grants, and they often are from private sources rather than federal sources so the requirements arent so well defined.

But its also potentially much cheaper to make a film these days, since you can make them pretty much from start to finish at home on existing equipment compared to the old days (when once you got the drawings done you had a whole slew of potentially pricey processes you needed to go out into the real world for: camera, flatbed editing, mixing, film printing). Not that you shouldnt go out and get professional mixes, get your digital file transferred to film, etc; just that you dont absolutely have to. So lack of funding is suddenly less of an excuse than it used to be.

Which leaves lack of time as an excuse. There you really get to commitment. If you need to make films youll find the time, working around whatever else youve got to do. For me, I co-direct a series for the Disney Channel. Its a big job, and keeps me very busy, but theres always a stack of drawings on my table, ready for me to work on during lunch or whenever else I have a moment.

John Schnall, U.S.A.

Miriams Gnome by Mait Laas © Nukufilm.

Miriams Gnome by Mait Laas © Nukufilm.

Because Estonias population is less than 1.5 million people every person and every good idea is very important in the Estonian cultural scene. And sooner or later everybody knows everybody in this sweet society (as well as anyone can really know themselves)

5 Steps of a foundation for your idea for the independent animation film:

Step 1: So, everything seems to start from your idea and from yourself (personality).

Step 2: The first support will come for your good idea from the studio [in Estonia we have two major studios Nukufilm (stop-motion animation) and Joonisfilm (drawn or traditional animation): they will help you to prepare your idea.

Step 3: Studio will present the project to the two major Estonian foundations: Estonian Film Foundation and Estonian Cultural Endowment (They are funded from taxes on cigarettes and alcohol). Because of Estonian animations experience and international success, there is stable financial support from the foundations (around 70% of the budget).

Step 4: Studio will support the project from his own resources (with the 30% of the budget)

Step 5: The most important resource for the finalizing the project You have to give all your own energy for the realisation of the idea and for the people with and for whom you work.

Mait Laas, Estonia

Xeth Feinbergs Queer Duck.

Xeth Feinbergs Queer Duck.

Well gee, this is George Ws country and as you may have noticed, art for arts sake isnt a very high priority. As far as I know there isnt much in the way of grants for animation... at least not for animation that might possibly be considered potentially commercial.

So, from what I can see, either youre an academic (connected to some program perhaps), independently wealthy, manage to make money some other way to feed your habit or you are basically in some degree forced to compete as part of the same entertainment industry next to Steven Spielberg, Pixar, Survivor, etc. What else is there? Ive managed to be an independent animator, getting my own work out in front of literally tens of thousands of people thanks to my Website and the Internet... but we all know thats not directly paying any bills anymore.

In my case, funding has always been a matter of simply getting paying work, managing to not spend the entire budget (something a lot of people fail to do), and trying to use the savings to finance my own projects. The hope is that each paying project, combined with the independent stuff will raise visibility somehow and lead to other projects, closer to my own heart (i.e., more independent.) I suppose the ideal is maybe to get paid to do your own projects, to sell that perfect, creative, fun project to some network or movie studio or something and have the best of both worlds. Does that sound crass and money grubbing? Well, welcome to the good old USA, pardner. (I havent found an animation commune to join yet, but let me know if somebody else has.)

Parallel with all this is the notion that to make enough money to do independent work is to walk a thin line between being an animation industry sell out (assuming you are lucky enough even to get a chance to sell out) and someone who, after years of ups and downs and too much work and not enough work, retains enough vision or ambition or stubborn stupidity to still try to do something of your own.

I guess sell out is the wrong term but I mean just having to work for another studio to pay the bills, working on other projects to keep being an animator. These works can be very prestigious, high paying and highly creative. But it seems to me you can spend years working like that (again, if youre lucky!) and in the end your chances to be an independent animator might be as squashed as if youd worked selling shoes at the mall.

To me, since the actual materials I use are almost inconsequential (once you buy the computer, the software, etc.) TIME is the luxurious quality that money buys. And if I ever try to do something more ambitious that needs more than just time... well, thats another problem.

Xeth Feinberg, U.S.A.

The Old Fools © Ruth Lingford.

The Old Fools © Ruth Lingford.

Channel 4, once the great supporter of British animation, no longer funds animated films directly, unless they come under some other heading, such as comedy, etc. But it does put funding into three annual schemes for independent animators:

1. The animate! scheme, co-funded by the Arts Council of England, seeks to fund cutting-edge innovative animated films. Maximum funding is around £30,000, and films must be finished within one year. This scheme used to attract new filmmakers and risky prospects, but such is the change in climate that it is about the best money available, and attract established film-makers like the Quays. Animate does strive, I think, to push the envelope, but it is clear that many of the films it funds are fairly straightforward and accessible and would, five years ago, have been fundable by Channel 4 directly. (My own The Old Fools is probably an example of this nothing so very experimental there). See

2. AIR (Animator in Residence) selects four recent graduates who spend three months in a glass-fronted studio, developing their film idea as a museum exhibit in the Bradford Museum of Photography and Film. After that, the proposal is presented to Channel 4 who usually commissions the film.

3. Mesh, for digital innovation. This is the newest of the schemes, and I have not yet got the measure of it. It seems to produce some quite ropey work.

The BBC usually commissions family friendly half-hour specials, but recently commissioned Monkey Dust, a really very dark and interesting series of half-hour comedy programs.

MTV is re-activating its connection with art animation, and is commissioning some short, low budget pieces.

People teaching in relatively well-funded institutions can get small amounts of money for research, which can include practical filmmaking.

Ruth Lingford, U.K.

Signe Baumane.

Signe Baumane.

What makes independents independent is their own money.

If you have little or no money you have to discover the cheapest ways to make a film that calls for inventions.

In my 3:30 Love Story I used only 200 drawings shot on film (begging for discounts wherever I went) it cost me about $1500 (not counting my salary of course, just the expenses) and immediately I sold one-year rights to some Internet thing (those where golden times of Internet companies) for $1,500 and that was that no more money for that film.

My more expensive artistic vision has to be sponsored by grants and I got a grant from Latvian Cinema Foundation for Woman the film I would NEVER EVER make on my own

So the lack or presence of money dictates my vision and a story I make.

I dont ever go wildly imagining the perfect film I want to make and then look into my pocket and cry in despair. I first look into my pocket and then come up with something that fits the budget.

I am coming to realize that it may be was a mistake to leave Latvia where supporting arts is a tradition. I may have made more films had I stayed there.

On the other hand, I learned so much here (New York), out in the wild starving begging, shamelessly self-promoting. The things that I made here are so totally different from whatever I made in Latvia. I wouldnt say that those things were better or more honest, but I did learn more about honest self-expression than I would have if I kept making films on grants.

Can you give me some background on the situation in Latvia?

There is no such thing as indie animation in Latvia. They dont have the concept. The girl who interviewed me this spring gathered some info. online and she thought the word indie means Indian so she asked me what how does it feel to be a curator of Indian animation.

I have a very rough picture of how this works in Latvia. The Latvian government decides to support arts. They do that every year. They look into their budget and see that there is only 3,000 Ls (Lats is Latvian current currency) for arts (always very little money, I guess when lats go to arts it should be called littles). They have to divide those Lats between several art foundations. One of the foundations is Latvian Culture Foundation and also Latvian Cinema Centre. Those two foundations give money to films as soon as the Foundations get the money. They give the call out for project entries. As soon as they get the entries they gather a commission of five people (usually film critics and/or bureaucrats) who look through the projects and decide which one deserves the money.

Now, you CANNOT apply for the grant as an individual. You MUST go under a cover of some studio or under the wing of some legal institution. So what happens is, as a filmmaker, you go to a producer and show him your project and the producer says no no no - too much violence! Go and rework your project in less violent pictures. The commission, naturally, doesnt like violence. Things have to be arty enough for them to give you money and you have to be known. They arent very willing to give the money to some first-time filmmaker. So what happens? The ones that they know get the financing every year and the ones that they have doubts about dont get that much, if at all.

Signe Baumane, Latvia/U.S.A.

Patrick Smith.

Patrick Smith.

1. The largest being freelance commercial work. Most animators I know have a rep that gets them directing jobs. Commercials are great because they typically pay a lot, and are always on a tight schedule, so its over fast, allowing the animator to spend a vast majority of their time working on independent films. Furthermore, it puts you in touch with other creative people, who are often doing commercials for the same reasons as you. Another bonus is that nailing down production techniques for spots really helps when youre producing your own work.

2. Film sales. If its a popular indie film, and gets a lot of play, it will most likely pick up anywhere from five to 10 small distribution contracts (either for the Internet, theatrical, or video/DVD). The advances on these deals are rarely more than $500, but they really add up. A film like Drink, managed to get six contracts, (mostly in Europe), and a couple other good slots (ie, Spike and Mike Classic), which pays pretty well, and also gets your 35mm print paid for.

3. Grants. There are plenty of grants to apply for if you have the time and patience. My experience with grants is that if you dont match the profile EXACTLY, then dont even bother. But here animation has a distinct advantage of standing out among other work. I was given a NYFA grant (New York Foundation of the Arts) and I later learned that I was the only applicant that sent in an animated film. Find the grants that you fit, but also the grants that you will stand out in. Furthermore, getting a grant is more than just getting cash. They hook you up with a community that supports art! Grants get grants.

4. Public speaking and judging. Its no big deal when you get $100 from a college to talk, but when you start to do that three times a month, it begins to add up over time. Judging art shows generally pays a bit higher. This type of financing has a lot to do with your track record.

5. Last but not least, maybe even the most important, is self-distribution. Avoid Eye Contact Vol. 1 broke even within the first three months, and thats with all the rookie mistakes. People really love animation, but nobody knows how to get it, they dont even know it exists half the time. Its not too difficult to put a group together and manufacture a DVD. Most filmmakers already have the business groundwork laid out for their personal films. (Address database, shipping, web skills) we havent make a killing yet, but self DVD distribution may prove to be a dependable source of income in the future.

Patrick Smith, U.S.A.

Bill Plympton.

Bill Plympton.

In the Netherlands we have a Filmfonds (film fund) where producers can apply for a financial contribution. This contribution can be for: a) development, b) realisation and c) for finalizing. The total budget available is approximately 650,000 euros for which approximately five short films can each receive a contribution of maximum 113.500 euros. The producer is also expected to participate in the production. The financial contribution has to be repaid after completion. A maximum of 13,500 euros are available for a storyboard. As of January 1, 2005, these sums will be increased to 125,000 euros and 15,000 euros, respectively, and the total sum available will also be increased. If it is possible to involve a television company in the production as co-producer then other funds are also available. Generally speaking, the sum from the Filmfonds will then decrease.

Some provinces and a few large cities have modest funds from which financial contributions can be obtained. These are not substantial and, in most instances, the applicant has to reside in the province and city in question.

The Netherlands Institute for Animation film makes funds available to filmmakers who are selected to participate in one of the animation ateliers. Generally speaking, extra funds have to be acquired in order to complete these productions.

The establishment of a Filmfonds has made it possible to make most Dutch animation films. Before its establishment, practically no short animation films were produced. In addition to this production contribution, an infrastructure is necessary to distribute these films to the cinemas, for festival distribution, for sales abroad and to keep an archive and document this cultural heritage.

Ton Crone, The Netherlands

I finance my films from the sale if the films to many markets:

Theatrical, Spike & Mike Animation Show

DVD + video

Foreign TV markets

Internet and VOD

Non-theatrical: schools, libraries, corporation, etc.

Merchandise: books, DVDs, CDs, original art.

And also, occasionally Ill do commissioned work: commercials, titles, TV animation

Bill Plympton, U.S.A.

How we funded Reaper.

To put it into perspective heres some stats:Length of film: 17 minutesProduction time: 8 years (part-time)Budget: $225,000.00 (in February 2004)Commercial studio backing money: noneCommercial studio backing equipment/resources: noneCommercial studio backing personnel: noneNon-profit production center money: noneNon-profit production center equipment/resources: a whole lot!!!!Non-profit production center personnel: tons of volunteer hours!!!Debt: none (so far)

Fifity-five percent of the film has been self funded, meaning that any money that we make from employment that does not go to rent or food (or the odd DVD or wine purchase, were not monks you know) goes into the film. Last year we moved into my parents basement and so far they havent made us pay rent (thanks Dad and Mom!), and we got rid of the car so we have none of those expenses. Kevins parents have given us some money when we were really broke (thanks Mom and Dad!). We cashed out all of our RRSPs this year.

Until recently I have been consistently employed part-time, including every job at QAS except production coordinator, telemarketing surveyor and wardrobe grunt for a Hollywood feature film. I was recently laid off from QAS and, because I am not eligible for EI, I have been working fulltime on Reaper for the first time ever. Kevin is the adult animation instructor at QAS and the Alberta College of Art and Design, he has taught at various elementary schools around Calgary, has done many workshops at QAS and other media arts centers, and has done some commercial illustration and animation projects. He has never worked fulltime on Reaper.

Weve also gotten artist fees for screenings of our other films and a recent gallery show. Kevin got some professional development money from ACAD. Weve also done huge amounts of volunteering at QAS to build up the equipment and resources so we could work on Reaper there, which subsequently helps out all the producing members at QAS.

Where did the other 45% come from?27% - The Canada Council for the Arts10% - The Alberta Foundation for the Arts4% - Alberta Heritage Scholarship Motion Picture Training Fund2% - NFB FAP1% - The Calgary Region Arts Foundation1% - T-shirts sales (we have 30 left of a 100 limited edition, each shirt includes an edition card with original sketch)

We submitted three applications to the Canada Council - one was successful, six to the AFA with four successful and one pending, two to the Motion Picture Training fund - both successful, one to the NFB because thats all you get, and one to CRAF that was successful. We sent off a total of 13 grant applications, each application averages about 40 pages, not including support material which could be another five to 15 items, including video tapes, CDRs, storyboards (which in our case was 143 pages long), cels, character sheets, broadsheets, press clippings, photographs and what ever else each funder requires. This takes a lot of time to prepare, and that impacts on the animation work but is necessary for the production.

We currently have one assistant paid by contract and have only ever had three people paid to help with the animation. We have a sound designer and a composer/musician that are contracted, and weve paid four classical string players and five singers (four opera and one blues). We do not get paid for our work and we work our asses off.

Weve gotten some support through cut rates for services, deferrals and equipment access from a few media businesses in Calgary.

We have never gotten a bank loan and have never maxed out a credit card.

Carol Beecher/Kevin Kurytnik, Canada

Chris Robinson is the artistic director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival. He is also the editor of the semi-annual ASIFA Magazine. His book Between Genius and Utter Illiteracy: A Story of Estonian Animation was published in May 2003. His writings have appeared in numerous magazines and journals around the world. During the same year, he finished a manuscript called Stole This From a Hockey Card: A Philosophy of Doug Harvey, Hockey, Childhood and Booze. He is writing a short history of the Ottawa Senators hockey team for Canadas Altitude Publishing.