Search form

Animators Weathering The Blackout

It took a while for AWN to hear from animation and vfx people in New York City and areas in the U.S. affected by the massive power blackout on Aug. 14, 2003. Between downed power grids, tied up telephone lines and the subsequent attack of the BIG computer virus, communication is just now returning to normal. However, a few brave souls managed to share how their shops were disrupted in our increasingly power-hungry industry and lessons they learned for the next outage.

Quiet Man

When the Blackout of 2003 hit Manhattan, they had Gray Davis to thank over at Quiet Man. Back during all those rolling blackouts in California, we decided to invest in a $50,000 battery backup system for the studio, explains Johnnie Semerad, president/cd of the visual effects, animation and graphics house. Seeing what was happening out west prompted Semerad and QM exec producer Amy Taylor to take steps to safeguard the facility and its work from similar uncertainties in the New York power system. It turned out to be a prescient move.

When the lights went out, the batteries kicked in and we didnt lose anything that we were working on, Semerad says. It gave us time to save everything and properly power down all our equipment.

And thats when the partying began. Were a fairly young company, and once everyone was evacuated, a little impromptu party started up on the street in front of our building, Semerad reports. Once it became apparent that the power wasnt coming back anytime soon, Semerad and Quiet Mans Pete Amante, along with Petes pregnant wife, climbed the 21 flights to the studio to stay overnight and keep an eye on the place.

Given that the next day was Friday, and many of the studios Manhattan clients would have been on summer hours anyway, there were no critical deliveries of work scheduled that day for agencies, Semerad says. It was uneventful for us, and in that respect we were pretty lucky. For most everyone here, it turned into a good old time.

BuzzcoActually, since we're in-between jobs right now said Buzzco partner Candy Kugel, it had little effect on something in the schedule, although it made looking for new paying projects that much tougher! We're in the part of New York City that got electricity last, so Friday was lost. But we're working on our latest independent short subject (not to be spoken of yet, since we're just storyboarding and designing-- look for it in '04!) when we saw the lights flicker. Our first reaction was to shut down the computers, but the power stopped shortly after that and mostly everything went black. Because it's summer and light, we were able to make provisions in daylight - finding an old kerosene lamp, some lamp oil. And being on the fifth floor made stair climbing possible. But we had no candles, matches (reason to continue smoking?) or batteries (so no radio) or phone service (damn those new phones!).

Our employee, Rick Broaz, lives in New Jersey, and with no bridges downtown, the only way to get there was by ferry from Battery Park (a little over a mile away). Vince lives in Brooklyn, so he could cross the Brooklyn Bridge by foot. Marilyn lives in Pennsylvania and had her six-year-old, Jonathan, with her and opted to stay in New York. So we all trouped outside and heard the news of the Northeast blackout with a crowd at the corner gathered around a working radio. No terrorism was the relieved sigh all around. It took over an hour to get downtown (massive crowds) but we were all relieved to get over by the river where we could catch a cool breeze. Vince and Rick added another couple of hours to their respective returns home, and Marilyn, Jonathan ("How soon till the lights go on?") and I went on a search for batteries (4 for $10 will remember to stock up soon!) and picked up a few strays to stay the evening.

We sat on the fire escape, played cards by kerosene lamp, read books with flashlights and listened to the now working radio. In the morning, we heard there were parts of the city with electricity, so Marilyn drove to the non-affected area for some coffee (yeah!) and dropped off our overnight guests so they could make it to their homes more easily from midtown. Because we could absolutely do no work (no Internet, no computers, no lights) we spent the morning cleaning up, and started the weekend early when the electricity didn't appear by noon.

By Monday everything was back to normal and we're buzzing again! As far as policies we'll make sure we have batteries, candles, flashlights and lamp oil. Make sure to back up the computers more regularly. Have an old phone we can plug into the jack (unfortunately, only the fax number is plug into-able). Have toys for Jonathan that don't require batteries or electricity. And keep less things in the refrigerator (phew!) And maybe by the kindnesses we showed to others during the blackout, some of that good karma will bring us tons of work soon!

Loop FilmworksPersonally, I was in the middle of a client meeting, said Loop Filmworks director David Chartier. Perfect. We were about to present the client four hard weeks of work (on one of our systems). Brownout? Blackout? Contractors fiddling with wires again? Con Ed asleep at the switch? An hour later we realized it may be something a little bigger than our building, maybe it was the whole block. Sure is getting hot in here. Anybody thirsty? Off to the bar (of course). That's when we found out the real deal. We're in the downtown Brooklyn Waterfront area looking at the Brooklyn Bridge. What a mass exodus. I took the Water Taxi home, fun! Everybody should try that at least once.

I suppose it could have been a lot worse. Fortunately our systems handled it fine, but we are now pricing UPS (backup) systems to compensate for future situations (blackout, brownouts which are not uncommon in the summer months, et al.). This is working under the assumption that our systems probably won't respond so gracefully if this happens again.

Fortunately the weather was fair, but it did make us wonder if everybody would be just as accommodating if it was mid-January and the heat was out as well and people had to walk home in sub-zero temperatures. Just a thought.

I think it is fair to say that this event (hopefully) will spark some legislature to upgrade the nations grid system.


Bill Plympton was in in Portland, Oregon and due back soon to his studio, but office manager John Holderried was unable to get a hold of him. I slept over at my other office last night [Aug. 14], said Holderried. I checked in at Bill's studio at 10:00 am this morning, no one else was there and there was no power. Without AC the studio was too hot to stay in, so I began walking down to the Brooklyn Bridge and across to home in Brooklyn.

So, Bill's studio was closed today [Aug. 15], as most businesses in New York were. That seems to be the only bad news, other than probably some spoiled food in the office fridge.