“Industry veteran Jon Fitzgerald has developed a new manual for making socially relevant films on a low budget, from concept development through production, from marketing through distribution. In straightforward sections, with descriptive breakdowns for each category, the book presents a new paradigm for filmmaking in the modern age, including case studies on numerous films and advice from industry professionals on each topic.” (publisher’s blurb)
Fitzgerald is co-founder of the Slamdance Film Festival which started in 1995. Filmmaking for Change is designed for the independent live-action filmmaker, but there is much in this manual for the independent animator as well. From big-studio animated features that are “sort of socially relevant” like Amblin Entertainment’s 1995 Balto or Don Bluth’s/20th Century Fox’s 1997 Anastasia, “based on real history” (with cute talking animals and lots of singing) to independent animator’s features like Iranian-French Marjane Satrapi’s gritty 2007 Persepolis or American Nina Paley’s monumental 2008 one-woman project, Sita Sings the Blues, the record of almost one hundred years of animated features is studded with what started out as an individual filmmaker’s personal project. Maybe he or she was lucky enough to pitch it to a major producer or studio who took it over (which can be a mixed blessing). Or maybe he or she could not find a major backer and had to arrange the concept support, the funding, the production details, the distribution and everything else him- or her-self; or he or she did not want to surrender his/her socially relevant concept to a studio’s or a financial group’s control. Filmmaking for Change shows how you can develop your concept – presumably “socially relevant”, although in the field of animation today, imaginative fantasy adventures without singing and dancing are becoming more commonplace.
Remember, Fitzgerald is talking about live-action movies. “There was a similar revolution in the 1990s. Several indie filmmakers made highly profitable movies, produced at a very low cost. […] It started with El Mariachi (1992), a little film shot for less than $7,000. The movie played to much success on the film festival circuit, was acquired by Columbia, and went on to gross more than two million dollars at the box office.” (p. 7) Socially relevant animation can start out as humbly as a student animator’s class project or as outrageously as a shock-value feature. “Outrageous” was what made animator Ralph Bakshi famous, but several of his best known films such as Heavy Traffic (1973) and Coonskin (1975) were made to call attention to racial and ethnic issues as much as to make a buck. Coonskin is a very good (if notorious) example of how animation can exaggerate a socially relevant theme to make a point, or carry it to a futuristic extreme – see Tom Hanks’ current anti-overuse of natural resources s-f drama, Electric City, a web series for Yahoo! Screen.
Filmmaking for Change is divided into three broad parts: Development, Production, and Distribution. Each part is further subdivided into three parts. Development has “The Power of Film”, “Documentary Story Structure”, and “Narrative Story Structure”. “The Power of Film” is frankly pretty redundant; we all know that film, both live-action and animation, is much more than just entertainment. Disney’s 1943 Education for Death and other World War II propaganda animation still pack an emotional wallop.
“Documentary Story Structure” and “Narrative Story Structure” are similar in that the independent filmmaker must first decide what story he (or she) wants to tell, and how to go about it. Fitzgerald points out that ‘[Martin] Scorsese had an interesting way of describing the integration of some of his more creative and psychological ideas into his movies, without the studio brass knowing about it.” (p. 40) George Miller’s 2006 Happy Feet seems to be a film of pure fantasy entertainment, until the climax which becomes a message against commercial overfishing and the effect that this has on wildlife’s food supply. But “Making an independent film, by definition, means the film will need to have a unique voice, an engaging storyline, to generate attention and find an audience. Comedies can be tricky business in this space, and even tougher to create one that will inspire audiences to take action on a social issue.” (p. 38) Pixar won critical praise for tackling such themes as overpopulation and obesity in WALL-E (2008) and old age in Up (2009), but these were factory projects and what audiences went away remembering was that these were fantasy-comedies. Think rather of the 2011 Spanish animated film Arrugas (Wrinkles), about the bittersweet life of the elderly in a managed care facility – not at all a comedy, but it won attention and awards on the international film festival circuit.
Production includes “Pre-Production”, “Production”, and “Post-Production”. You’ve decided what film to make; now how do you make it? Independent animation production today is easier than it’s ever been, and it’s getting easier all the time. At a convention this June, veteran animator Lenord Robinson described 2012 as a great time to become an animator, if not to find a job in the animation industry; what with all of the recent technological advances, it is almost possible for a lone animator to make an entire feature at home. He could have been speaking to the independent animator. Advice on getting funding is presented throughout the book, but it may have been written before the advent of Kickstarter, created in 2009 but not really prominent until 2011-12.
“Distribution” has “Marketing”, “Playing the Film Festival Circuit”, and “Distribution”. This is where the independent animator has it relatively easy today. There are animation websites that will publicize an independent production; lists of film festivals that a production can be submitted to; YouTube and Vimeo that a trailer for your movie can be posted on. Internet giants like Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Hulu, and YouTube may be interested in pre-funding or distributing your movie.
Fitzgerald presents case studies of five socially relevant independent films. Since these are all live-action, the independent animator will do better to pick five animation features close to what he or she wants to produce, then consider Fitzgerald’s advice according to how it applies to them.
Independent film production, whether live-action or animation, is not going to be easy. Fitzgerald has produced such films, or shown them at his film festivals, for almost twenty years. He has much valuable advice to offer.
Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945). He co-founded the first American fan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom. He began writing about anime for Animation World Magazine since its #5, August 1996. A major stroke in 2005 sidelined him for several years, but now he is back. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .