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Model Sheets vs. Business Models: How Independent Animators Work Within the System

Joe Strike sets out to find out how independent animators find work within the system while keeping their independence.

Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster learned the hard way about protecting your rights to your creations. © Cartoon Network.

The gigantic, rapacious corporation taking advantage of the struggling artist eager to see his creations come to life is a long-lived, durable cliché but one with roots planted firmly in reality. The sad story of Supermans cast aside creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster has given pause to contract signers (and work to intellectual property lawyers) ever since.

Jerry and Joe would no doubt be envious of their 21st century independent animator descendants, who live and work in more enlightened times. Nowadays, profit participation and ancillary revenue shares are decided before production even begins, making it highly unlikely a shows creator will be shown the door over monetary issues. At the same time, the people paying the bills have come to realize that truly creative shows, the ones that attract audiences, come from producers who are respected and given the creative freedom to do their best work.

One thing hasnt changed, though: by and large, the people or corporation paying the bills winds up owning the property.

Im trying to think of a good analogy... its my baseball but its their ball field. Theyre letting me play on it, so Im doing my best to give them a good game. Butch Hartman, creator of Nickelodeons Fairly OddParents and Danny Phantom feels the trade-off of ownership for creative freedom is worth it. When I pitched Phantom to them, I didnt have the money to make the show. They did, and they gave it to me and they had a venue for me to show it on. I think its only fair that they get their piece of it and I have a small piece of it as well; they definitely have been very generous with the piece I get.

Butch Hartman gave up ownership on Fairly OddParents for creative freedom. © Nickelodeon.

One might think a writer/director toiling in the bowels of a gigantic corporation like Viacom would feel like David swallowed up by Goliath, but Hartman has nothing but praise for Nickelodeon. Ive worked everywhere in this industry and I get more of a sense of family from this place than anywhere else. Because the shows doing really well they trust me; there are parameters Ive got to stick to, but they pretty much let me do whatever I want.

According to Hartman, head-butting between himself and Nickelodeon over the shows creative direction is all but non-existent. Im a very accommodating guy Im not always right. If I have an idea I think is fantastic, and the network goes, I like the idea but what if you did this ?, Im like thats not a bad idea. Occasionally well push the envelope a little bit they asked us to keep it down to four Uranus jokes in an OddParents episode but Im really not an edgy person to begin with.

Sometimes a little distance helps in a relationship too. Tom Warburton, creator of Codename: Kids Next Door, Cartoon Networks number-one show last year, said thanks, but no thanks when the network asked him to base the series at their Burbank studios where he had produced the pilot. He opted instead to continue working out of Curious Pictures in New York, where he spent the intervening year directing Mo Willems Sheep in the Big City.

I started in animation in New York City and I knew all the artists here. I told the network I could get the best people in New York to work on the show, because Id worked with them already on Sheep I wouldnt have to wonder if theyd be right for me. To pick me up and throw me down into a soupful of people I dont really know and production processes I havent worked in before wouldnt be the best creative situation to keep me going. Id spend more time chasing my show down the street, trying to get storyboard artists into shape and designers doing what I want to do. Maybe if the show wasnt doing well, theyd say were bringing you to California.

Were really our own little island here. There are so many great shows coming out of the Cartoon Network studio; sometimes I wish I were in a place with a lot of different shows going on so I could meet more artists and see what other people are doing. It would be fantastic being able to sit and talk with Craig McKracken or Genndy Tartakovsky, but at the same time its also bureaucratic you have to play by the rules of a big studio where a lot of stuff is going on. Theres a lot of politics and when youve got multiple projects going on theres a lot of jockeying for position: you need an edit room or you need this or that, and certain shows take precedence over others.

Tom Warburton is happy with Cartoon Network’s support for his Codename: Kids Next Door. © Cartoon Network.

Like Hartman at Nickelodeon, Warburton is also upbeat when discussing his employer. I wouldnt say free reign, but Im allowed to make the show my own way. If I get notes from the network its only to make the show better. Ive never felt pressured by Cartoon Network I feel like an independent. I get to do creative things and not just tell stories. Once a year we do an art show in a totally different style from normal. One time we did an episode all in mime; another year it was in five different styles with different parts of it in CGI, comic book, crayon or whatever. Cartoon Network is always up for letting us try new things.

My philosophy is that someone is always paying for your film no one is truly independent. I dont have $5 million to produce a seasons worth of shows, or any way to promote it on my own I need the studio. Do I want a company of my own? If I worked that way, Id also have to pay for my failures.

Ultimately, youre working for your audience; if youre only making it for yourself, why bother?

Danny Antonucci has successfully worked from Canada with Cartoon Network on Ed, Edd n Eddy. © Cartoon Network.

In terms of physical distance from Cartoon Network, Danny Antonucci goes Warburton one better: he produces Ed, Edd n Eddy in another country altogether. I dont sit in the land of politics Im out here in this small little Mayberry town. Antonucci is speaking from Vancouver Canada where he and his CARTOON Inc. studio are based. I guess its due to the weather theres nothing to do but sit inside and draw cartoons all day.

Antonucci goes on to enthusiastically second Warburtons feelings regarding their network patron. Im working on something thats fulfilling and something I came up with; Im actually making cartoons the way I want to. Im being allowed that by this behemoth as you put it, although I never looked at Cartoon Network as a behemoth. Theyve been pretty supportive in my vision of the show and in getting it on-air. Theyre one of the few networks that really respects the cartoonist and let him try new things.

When asked if there have been any occasions when he and Cartoon Network have gone head-to-head, Antonucci scratches his. There might be times when they might not see something Im doing. Ill say believe me, trust me, Ill let you see that its working. They let me go ahead and give it a shot, which is really brave on their part. Theres never been a conflict. Ive been doing this for 25 years they know Im not going to jerk them around.

Antonucci reveals some of the spirit that animates his work in the course of acknowledging the executives who have trusted him over the years. Usually Im pretty picky with the folks I work with. I go after the brave ones, like Abby Terkhule at MTV or Linda Simensky at Cartoon Network [she has since moved on to PBS Kids] people who are looking to push borders and open new doors to animation, not just fill spots. If that kind of head-butting scenario came around I would basically say f.u. and talk to you later. If you hired me to do something for you, you need to have some sort of trust and respect.

In that spirit, Antonucci walked away from doing a campaign with ESPN in what he recalled as a horrible experience with a nervous client. I didnt accept the job based on revisions they put forth theres 10,000 studios out there that can do that middle of the road stuff. Even though it might put him in a temporary hole (being an independent studio doesnt mean being independently wealthy), he prefers to stick to his guns. People know what theyre getting into when they knock on my door. My thing is always about integrity first, cash later.

Bill Schultz, producer/partner at Mike Young Prods.

As to Cartoon Networks ownership of his creation, Antonucci says, I get asked that a lot. I dont have a problem with it because I still get to do the show. In my heart its always going to be my property even though legally its not. Im not a stickler for holding onto things I come up. Once its over and done with I can easily wipe my slate clean and move onto the next project without any hesitation. I did it with the Grunts [MTVs The Brothers Grunt] and when the time comes Ill do it with the Eds.

From his north of the border perch, Antonucci sees numerous co-production projects taking advantage of Canadas film and TV production subsidies, but rejects that as a route for his own work. Folks come up here with shows that they maintain rights to and end up doing co-pro deals where they have five people investing money from all over the world. Everything they do has to go through the boards of those companies. A guy who was selling tires is now an artist because he put his money into the show. Im just not into that.

Doing a series for Cartoon Network is a perfect set-up for Danny, said Bill Schultz, producer/partner, Mike Young Prods. All he really loves to do is make his show. Hes been working on it for a long time and any other network would be saying we need these episodes quicker. Danny doesnt work that way he takes it one at a time. Hes not an ambitious businessman who wants to build a studio or a library.

Mike Young Prods. licenses Pet Alien instead of selling the rights away. © Mike Young Prods.

But Schultz is. The former head of Film Roman is now partnered with Mike Young and Mikes wife Liz in the Woodland Hills, California-based Mike Young Prods. The studio is producing the new He-Man series for Cartoon Network a show the network runs as an acquisition and not an owned property. In spite of the changing economics of animation production, Schultz sees opportunities for a studio to create and own its own properties.

Cartoon Network runs 24/7 they need programming. They cant finance everything on the channel there isnt enough capital out there and they only have so much library. They definitely acquire stuff, they have a need for it, but they dont pay a lot. It might cost them $20,000 per episode for U.S. rights to a show they can run the hell out of over three or four years, versus $400,000 to produce it themselves and own it outright. Only so many shows can make their cost back in terms of merchandising and foreign sales, so they hedge their bets and mix it up a little bit.

We have a show called Pet Alien. We created and developed it, we raised the financing and sold it to Cartoon Network as an acquisition we keep all the rights. Schultz outlines the steps that go into creating a Pet Alien: Well present an idea to the networks. They might say we like it and want to own it, and you make that deal. In other situations you take your idea to co-production partners, co-financiers, etc. You develop a plan where you can finance it independently, including some of your own money or your own sweat equity; you defer your fees, do whatever you have to do to get it financed.

Schultz looks back at the birth of the Fox Kids Network as the beginning of the modern system of producing animation. In the old days independent really meant independent; the ownership was independent. FOX was the first network to own the shows that were being produced for them. You still had independent studios, but they were really just doing work for hire for the networks.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the holy grail of independent productions. © 4Kids Ent.

Back then it was possible to get a pre-sale based on your presentation, but thats happening less and less now. Theres no low-hanging fruit anymore. You basically have to have the show in production, have your financing in place and show the network at least finished footage if not actual episodes before theyll buy it. Its a challenging business model, but for the right people with the right skill sets and the right approach there is opportunity to make a good show that can last and last. The holy grail for the independent producer is to come up with a Power Rangers or a Ninja Turtles.

Even though his studio is Tom Warburtons Kids Next Door home base, Curious Pictures exec producer Richard Winkler also endorses the co-production route. We like a mix of different business models. The secret ingredient to whatever success weve had is diversity. We like to keep our eggs in multiple baskets.

In a co-production deal, usually half the production budget comes from the sale of U.S. TV and home video rights, and the rest of the world makes up the other half. Winkler works with a Canadian production partner to take advantage of that countrys production subsidies: Their system is complicated and fairly restrictive, but set up right it can generate significant production financing for a country of thirty million people. You have to deal with an elaborate point system based on what countrys passport is in your director or writer or editors pocket, and youre also required to spend 75% of your budget in the country.

Unlike Antonucci, Winkler doesnt look at working with production partners as inevitably leading to creative conflicts. I was warned about that going into the process, but picking the right partners is like casting a film casting is everything. If you pick the wrong partners who have suggestions in conflict with your vision, then you have a problem. If you and your partners are creatively in sync, then it works.

Curious has worked with a single partner, Canadas Blueprint Ent. on two projects to date: the 2D Hey Joel! (currently on VH-1s shelf) and the stop frame sketch comedy The Wrong Coast for The Movie Network. We have a strong history of mixed media doing things in more than one format. Most of the cable networks with studios in L.A. are primarily 2D; we can do mixed media as well as 2D. Thats part of our collaborative approach: were not taking money out of their studio, were doing something they might not necessarily be the best at.

Blueprint Ent. independently skewers the system within the system on The Wrong Coast. © Blueprint. Ent.

On a certain level were competing with the networks in-house studios. They have a built-in incentive to feed their existing capacity and keep their development departments busy, but I prefer to look at it as an opportunity to collaborate, to take projects to them that we like or vice-versa, and develop them together from a very early stage.

One long-time industry observer/player who prefers to go nameless for the moment takes a more acerbic view of the current power relationship between the networks and producers, particularly as to how it impacts on a shows aftermarket: Way back in the day Normal Lear said Theres no such thing as independent producers only dependent producers, this observer notes. Its very frustrating to be in the business today because the networks control absolutely the amount the pay you and the handling of all rights post network.

I have a very fair deal with the people Im in business with, but if they did not absolutely control the product, I might be able to do it differently and perhaps more effectively from my perspective. Its very frustrating if you have some original marketing ideas that dont fit into their strategy of the week. As wonderful as the often the people in the networks are, theyre wonderful from the standpoint of serfdom.

With three corporations Viacom [CBS and Nickelodeon], Time Warner [Cartoon Network and Kids WB] and Disney [Disney Channel and ABC] the major exhibitors of animation on TV, youre right back in the same situation as the 1960s when it was ABC, CBS and NBC. And there are no independent producers at Disney everything there is done in-house.

Mr./Ms. X goes on to predict that the creative, collaborative atmosphere enjoyed by Antonucci and Warburton to date may be changing. Cartoon Network was more hands-off than anyone during those years they were making those shows; thats changing. Theyre going to become much more interfering.

In 2002, Queer Duck made a bit of a splash (as befits a duck) on Showtimes Website. The brief, Flash-animated Webtoons followed the adventures a fey fowl and his friends Oscar Wildcat, Openly Gator and Bi-Polar bear; creating them was an adventure in itself for their director and designer Xeth Feinberg.

Through his work independently on Bulbo, Xeth Feinberg found his way into the system. © Mishmash Media.

It all began back in the 1990s dotcom boom. saw Feinbergs Fleischeresque Bulbo Web cartoons and invited him to animate for them. I had a choice of early scripts and picked Hard Drinkin Lincoln by Mike Reiss [The Simpsons, The Critic]. It was the first series on Icebox I did 13 of them before they could get their other stuff going.

Mike came up with Queer Duck next, and we did five of them for Icebox before the dotcom crash. Showtime wanted to run the cartoons as a companion piece to their Queer as Folk series, but the property was tied up in Iceboxs bankruptcy. It took eight months of lawyers battling it out to clear things up.

Feinberg went into high gear. While Reiss wrote the scripts and recorded the voices in L.A. Feinberg produced and directed each four-to-five minute episode in less than three weeks out of his one-man (and one assistant) New York City studio, MishMash Media. There wasnt a budget for a big staff, but the real reason I animated every frame myself was that the deadlines were so tight. They wanted the episodes to accompany their new season of Queer as Folk and it was easier for me to work like a maniac for a couple of months than invent a staff. I was sort of a miniature production company I was hoping they wouldnt realize how miniature I actually was.

Feinberg was pleased by the response to the show, which included a New York Times article and an appearance on Time Out magazines Gay Pride week cover. Amidst buzz about a possible Queer Duck movie, Showtime asked Feinberg to produce another 10 episodes. Contract negotiations went on into the fall of 2002 while he storyboarded episodes. With a contract for the new episodes in hand, Feinberg was looking forward to getting back into production until January 2003, when Showtime pulled the plug on the series. No one ever told me directly, but I heard it was due to random budget cuts. A month later I was reading in the trades that Viacom was reporting record earnings.

Although it took several months of effort to get Showtime to compensate him for his pre-contract work on the unproduced episodes, Feinberg says it was all worth it. Just the exposure I got from Queer Duck led to other work, so I dont feel I wasted my time or in the it was a bad thing.

There was going to be more development time for those last ten episodes and I thought okay, maybe Ill have two assistants and take weekends off this time around. I guess thats animation feast or famine. I was happy to be feasting then, even though it was an insane lifestyle for four months or so. Id be willing to do it again, too. The ideal for me is to be an independent doing creative stuff and being able to make a living at it. Youre always making deals with various devils to do that.

Bill Plympton at his drawing board.

Bill Plympton may be the best-known practitioner of do-it-yourself animation, with an array of features and shorts made completely outside the usual funding and distribution routes. His unique, homemade visual style is instantly recognizable and brings him regular commercial assignments. (The GEICO TV spots of hapless boobs springing booby traps upon themselves were dreamed up by the insurance companys ad agency specifically for him to animate.)

As someone not particularly dependent on major-league financing, Plympton is hard-pressed to think of an occasion where a studio or distributor has taken issue with his work. For some reason no one wants to get involved in the early stages of my films. Maybe Im too independent, or too profane. My films are generally picked up for distribution after theyve been seen at festivals. The only pre-sales Ive made were with E.D. Distribution in France and theyre very supportive; theyve never commented editorially and only ask for things like M&E tracks for dubbing.

Ive been very lucky dealing with ad agencies in that they know what they want. Their storyboards are fairly precise and I just follow them as closely as I can. Its never been a problem.

Nathan Graf knows that you guy footing the bill is the guy you need to please. Courtesy of Noodlesoup Prods.

Except with Blockbuster. The video rental colossus had issues with four shots in Plymptons 1997 feature I Married a Strange Person, an over-the-top sex and violence spoof. Blockbuster used its muscle to have the films home video distributor excise the offending scenes not just from copies purchased by the chain, but from the duplication master itself. They took out all the sex shots not the violent stuff, and its a very violent film. But when the film came out on DVD they put the shots back in. I dont know if I understand the logic of that.

One could be forgiven for assuming that Plympton is a rebel who most enjoys thumbing his nose at the rules and regulations of the mainstream animation world. No, I would gladly work within the Hollywood structure if I can get the right money. In fact, Im surprised no one from Disney, Pixar or DreamWorks has called me to direct anything. I guess theyre afraid Im too outrageous, or too much of I dont know, a maverick. But Im not, I would love to work within the system. Maybe after they read this someone will call me.

If Danny Antonucci offers potential advertising clients a my way or the highway deal, Noodlesoup Prods. takes the opposite approach. We cant afford to lose any clients, says Nathan Graf, the companys coo/managing director. We grumble and groan but we have to get it done and do it their way thats the nature of the beast. The three-year-old company, founded by Disney veteran Jeffrey Nodelman performs service work for major studios and networks, creates and develops its own original properties and produces animated TV commercials.

An original Noodlesoup project, Fresh Spins, an animated musical video series for 2-6 year olds is being produced with The Johnson Group.

Graf boasts of the variety of work the shop has taken on (including an anime segment for the Alias DVD release and animated segments for the Broadway musical Avenue Q), all backed up by a staff willing to work 24/7. We have a lot of experience in producing on ridiculous time lines. We had to create two minutes of opening animation for two feature films, Duplex and My Babys Daddy; we had to do it from scratch in five weeks and deliver a traditionally animated, full-quality product at the same time. Our producer and director happened to be on cruise ships on opposite sides of the world at one point we were setting up cell phone conference calls at 3:00 am. On another occasion we turned around a 25-second piece of animation for an Earthlink ad that will run theatrically with the trailer for The Bourne Supremacy in 10 days.

Nathan freely acknowledges that advertising projects are an advertising projects are very client-service oriented, but the budgets make them a lot more fun. One way we try to nip conflicts in the bud in our service work is to come up with accurate, realistic budgets before production starts. We work with several overseas partners to keep costs down. People come to us and say I need 13 episodes in full animation for $100,000 each. Theres a lot of cursing and swearing but we do our best to oblige them.

In regards to working with the studios, John Dilworth says its like “The Earth circling the sun: one cannot get too close for fear of burning up, yet the sun gives us life.”

You get tossed around a little bit being an independent animation producer, but our clients appreciate the premium value our shop adds our creative input, our ability to turn projects around quickly while keeping quality high, and our overall level of service. Once you establish your reputation you start to get projects that are financially and creatively rewarding; that gets you up to a nice comfort level.

And finally, Courage the Cowardly Dog director John Dilworth compares his experience as an independent animator working with the majors to that of, The Earth circling the sun: one cannot get too close for fear of burning up, yet the sun gives us life. Rather than be interviewed directly, Dilworth preferred to offer his reflections via E-mail: Patronage has been the artists the artists second great burden. The first are the ideas... I have only been repulsed to Dantes depth a few times by the corporate dogma of studios and mostly from the legal department... The executives on whole have been surprisingly good at their jobs. I have encountered the dim-sighted to the dazzling. And it is those Medicis of animation executives that make the odd process of co-habitating cogwheels worth the turning.

Fortunately I have not compromised much on my ideas working with studios. I mostly understand corporate morality and the invented values a studio must project to protect the profit stream from going dry. I have always found a way to express an idea within the confines of agreement.


Mike Young Productions

Curious Pictures


Cartoon Network

MishMash Media (Xeth Feinberg):

Bill Plympton Studio

Noodlesoup Productions

Queer Duck (on Showtime Website):

Joe Strike is a NYC-based writer/producer with a background in TV promotion and a lifelong interest in animation. He is writing a childrens novel.

Joe Strike's picture

Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.