Charlie Schroder (left), vice president of Creek & River America, and CEO Christopher Bristow have seen the job market grow for animators in gaming. Photo credit: Igor Perchuk.
Animation World readers probably don't need to be told the animation industry is enduring a period of transition and metamorphosis. High-profile features like Treasure Planet haven't performed nearly as well as hoped, and even when the Disney people get behind the distribution of a seeming "sure thing" like Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away, the results are not guaranteed success. Even that lovingly crafted masterwork has gone largely ignored (at least in America) despite the grass-roots efforts of fans like film critic Jack Matthews to put the movie before a more receptive public.
It's hard to know just where the industry stands, when formerly impervious venues like the Cartoon Network have come under fire for some conspicuous failures like the heavily hyped Sheep in the Big City. For audiences, the schizophrenic climate has created confusion, but few breakout hits. For professionals in the field, the current state of affairs seems bleak. Is traditional animation dead? Where have all the jobs gone? And how does one connect with work in the current depressed environment? For some animators, negotiating the uncertain terrain of the field can be frustrating and debilitating.
The poor showings of big budgeted Treasure Planet and critically acclaimed Spirited Away beg the question, "Where is this market going?" Treasure Planet © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved; Spirited Away © 2002 Nibariki. TGNDDTM. All rights reserved.
Shifts in the Market
Recently, I spoke with Charlie Schroder, vice president of Creek & River America, a Tokyo-based talent management firm, to get her feelings on the current artist market. Ms. Schroder and CEO Christopher Bristow are in a unique position within the entertainment industry. Creek & River, Co., Ltd. currently represents over twenty thousand creative professionals including directors, screenwriters, animators and illustrators. The agency has been instrumental in connecting these artists and writers with the kind of projects they might not discover independently. Ms. Schroder has the advantage of some first-hand experience in animation: during her tenure at Protozoa/Dot Comix, the company became the first to license an animated Internet character for television broadcast Sister Randy (a spoof of BBC's Sister Wendy). Though Creek & River is primarily dedicated to forging relationships between artists and producers in all aspects of entertainment media, Ms. Schroder and Mr. Bristow have seen the need for animators rise in recent months in unexpected arenas. Though the television and feature fields are staying static at best, the demand for sophisticated graphics in animated games has risen exponentially.
"Though a large percentage of our clients are in television and Websites, our talent has been an integral part of the production of over 100 game titles, including Tekken 4, Jet Set Radio Future and Final Fantasy X," Schroder says. Creek & River's function is not to produce the animation themselves, but as managing agents, to assemble the right teams for the right jobs. "We can streamline the production process by connecting multiple resources outside of [a company's] personal network."
These days, with the idea of a "Global Network" more than just a fantasy, it's more possible than ever to unite talents from different locales and cultures to create entertainment graphics unlike those seen before. We've all been aware of the fact that most television animation screened in America is drawn in Korea, but the new market, Schroder believes, will expand on this (essentially cost-saving) strategy and replace it with a symbiosis more driven by creativity than economy. Schroder and Bristow believe that with the accessibility of nearly limitless talent, "producers can afford to be choosy, now. They have their pick of very highly-skilled technicians who are extensively trained, who have high-end education."
A few years back, there was the feeling that anyone with the proper software and marginal talent could design a serviceable Website. Today, there's so much product and such an avalanche of content available that in order to stand out a site must dazzle technically and do so immediately, or browsers will move on.
"Our wide talent base means we have very few limitations," Schroder says. "These days a commercial spot might have a combination 2 and 3D approach. We can provide the resources to do both. A film may in tone and theme lean toward an American character, but graphically, have a Japanese visual sensibility."
That "Japanese sensibility" is in evidence nearly everywhere one looks in recent animated product. The Cartoon Network's Samurai Jack, for instance, is highly distinctive not only for its Asian look, but its pacing and storytelling, which sets it quite apart from the cheerful energy of The Powerpuff Girls, for instance. (However, even the Powerpuff backgrounds have a little anime feel when the girls fly into action.) At the Cartoon Network, for the first time, focus groups are responding more to the Japanese animated product than to classic American shorts like Bugs Bunny long a staple for cartoon audiences. It's more than a trend: teachers in New York's School of Visual Arts, like Howard Beckerman, will testify that over 60% of their students are creating work that strongly reflects the anime influence. And the use of the heavily anime-influenced Animatrix as part of the marketing blitz for The Matrix Reloaded feature film just proves that anime is reaching the mainstream and considered hip.
Melding of Minds
But are audiences and future animators responding to the visual style of these intricate films, or the stories? No one is quite sure, just yet. For now, the astounding success of shows like Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! seems to indicate audiences (mainly children) are ready for something new and different from Bugs, Scooby and their ilk. Still, the conspicuous failure of Spirited Away would indicate in America, at least, audiences aren't quite sure what to make of the deliberate pacing, complex character motivation, and sometimes Byzantine plotting of Japanese filmmakers. The future success of these movies (and games) may depend on a meeting of the minds and cultures that has not yet occurred.
"That's where we come in," Schroder says. "We're middle men (and women). We're a knowledge network, with access to so many types of talent."
And what advice does Ms. Schroder have for that talent? "Work with people you like," she says. "Sometimes, it's not the project itself that drives the creativity. Ideas grow into what they need to be down the line. Often the time between an original idea and the finished product be it a feature or a television show can be as much as two years. Right now, the anime look is hot, but the rules haven't changed. At places like Pixar, they've succeeded because of their dedication to the story. Engaging characters, an engaging story line: you've got to have the basics in place."
With the success of Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokémon it seems like audiences are ready for something different. Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokémon © 2003 The WB Television Network. All rights reserved.
Sometimes, especially in animation, these "basics" are forgotten when audiences are dazzled by something new and exciting. Jurassic Park was a technically breathtaking film, but I wonder if a hundred years from now, people will still be watching it, the way they'll be watching King Kong. In the '70s, viewers couldn't get enough of the glitzy titling and effects work of R/Greenberg Associates, in their jewel-like 7-Up commercials and station identification trailers. But in time, the novelty wore off, and the public had become too familiar with the style to find it arresting anymore. As computer animation gets more and more lifelike, and moviegoers lose their awe of the seemingly magical images presented on a daily basis, the need for a solid story and involving characters will once again become paramount. Ice Age, for instance, made a connection with audiences because of its endearing characters and sharp humor, despite its sophisticated surface gloss. In many ways, the appeal of a film like Ice Age is rooted in the same elements of the popular Disney Classics of long ago motherless children, the strength of unlikely friendships, and the adventure inherent in a quest.
As computer animation becomes more and more prevalent and user friendly we'll be seeing more and more of it. "It's a great time to be doing what we do," Schroder says. "There are tremendous opportunities to assist and develop intriguing projects. How much fun do we get to have?" she asks, laughing. But the road ahead, for animators and the folks at Creek & River, will always be winding. Is a place like Creek & River a good fit for all those animators out there wondering where the work is? The agency's policy of non-exclusivity should be a plus to those who've always favored working on their own terms, and the prospect of co-creating with another artist across the globe might be an enviable idea to those of us who may find ourselves stuck in an artistic and cultural rut.
"Our talent is always on the lookout for more work," Schroder says. We're not feature specific, though we do sometimes work in the feature arena. While we don't necessarily build entire careers, we'd like to think we've been instrumental in nurturing the careers of some very worthwhile people."
One such artist is Takada Akemi, the Japanese designer and illustrator, whose characters now are being used in a series of ads for mobile phones. In Tokyo, where Creek & River is based, often times projects are driven by business demands, just as they are here in the United States. Other times, an idea is pitched (for a series, for instance) and the talent is involved from the beginning. Naturally, this is the preferable scenario for animators and writers eager to have their work reflect their own sensibilities. Many animators I know would rather work this way, and remain private entities. Is ownership of your product a driving factor in your creative life? Ambitions to have a series like The Simpsons or SpongeBob SquarePants are common but the kind of breakout talent and business-savvy required for such success are unfortunately harder to come by. For most animators and writers currently working, their art is a collaborative effort, and it's this spirit of collaboration that has been the primary force behind the expansion of Creek & River. Their New York office, which opened last October, is the company's first North American branch. In January, Creek & River aligned with Abandon Entertainment, whose Mythic Entertainment created the successful online game Dark Age of Camelot. There are now plans for a television series based on the game and possible features as well.
"We're always looking for new evolutionary styles, a melding of storytelling traditions and graphic sensibilities compelling enough to stand out," Charlie Schroder says. "That moment when you can say, 'This is a great story! Let's tell it this way. I love what I do.'"
Lately, with the uncertainties facing the animation industry, I wonder how many of my fellow artists can say the same. It's always an inspiration to hear someone get excited about their field, and to share that excitement with others. For those interested in Creek & River, Co., Ltd., the company has a Website, of course, at www.cr-america.com. Though Creek & River does not accept unsolicited demo reels, they do have a submissions page on their Web address, and would welcome any serious queries.
Richard Gorey graduated with a degree in animation from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. He has written film comment for the ASIFA newsletter (east coast) and is the author of the book The Great Rabbit Rip-off, as well as several screenplays. During Gorey's career at Young & Rubicam, he was a creative director and animator for such clients as Johnson & Johnson, Citibank, Hallmark and Philip Morris.