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Art Versus Commerce – Producing a Short Film

A look at some of the differences I found in producing a short film compared to an animated series.  

It seems like yesterday that I met a young woman and we discussed some thoughts about making an animated film.  She wanted to use a group of funny and charming characters that she had created to make a film she hoped could express the benefits and wonder of our diversity, and to show that it was often the engine that propelled our creativity rather than the flaw that curtailed it.  She was soft spoken and more comfortable listening than speaking and of course I was nearly the exact opposite.  She envisioned the film imparting a message to kids that felt awkward and at times left out.   She wanted the film to demonstrate that there was nothing wrong with preferring to play an instrument rather than scoring a touchdown – both were great if you enjoyed them.

We met on several occasions and we both seemed comfortable with one another and I soon signed on to help her produce the film.  I had produced and worked on any number of commercial films for television and theatrical release over the years but my experience with short films was limited.  I knew from the outset this this was going to be a new experience and although I welcomed the opportunity to work on a film that was not driven by commercial considerations, I understood it would require some adjustments in how I approached the work.

There was a good deal of information and some history of the project in an article Dan Sarto recently wrote about the film on AWN.  We had talked about how the Soulies of Milgarden film had come about and Dan had suggested that I might follow the article up with a blog to discuss the differences I found in producing a short film compared to an animated series.   I have not written much lately, but I thought it was an interesting idea so I started to think about how to go about explaining the different approaches each type of film project required, at least from my point of view.

Over the years I have had a number of friends that made short films on a regular basis for entry in animation festivals such as Annecy, Hiroshima and Toronto.  Many of my friends were working artists and animators but always managed to carve out time to create their own personal films.  They could work all day on a Jolly Green Giant spot and go home at night and animate on their monkey falling in love with a football film.  Not being an artist I was always slightly bemused by my friends’ dedication to films that very few people would actually see.  This was hard work and especially here in the U.S.  as there were no grants to support their efforts as their counterparts in Canada and Europe might receive. The work itself had to be its own reward.

When I began working with Allison on the Soulies film, I had to rethink things that I had in the past taken for granted.   I was used to working with network and advertising executives that were at times overbearing and reluctant to admit it when they didn’t have a clue.  Allison was the most generous and open person I had worked for but her deep respect for everyone’s experience and professionalism in animation, as well as for their feelings tended to slow things done as we considered everyone’s input.  To complicate matters we had several third parties that were involved in various advisory roles and they had strong opinions about the story arc, the need for specific dialogue, the film’s length and so on and so forth.  Some of these folks came from theatrical film backgrounds and digital media and had valued opinions to be considered.

Throughout the process Allison listened to everyone’s ideas and tried to balance them against her own gut feelings.  She would often ask me if something she wanted to do or not to do, was right or wrong in a filmmaking sense.  I would always reply that at the end of the day this was her film and she was the only person that could answer her own question unless it was purely a technical issue.  After a period of time I worried less about her lack of confidence as she had shown the uncanny knack of listening and seeming to think things over only than to return to her original position while making you feel as if you had had your fair day in court.  This made for a happy crew and eventually I came to realize that Allison always knew what was right for the film, even if it was subconscious, but she was just to damn nice not to ask for our opinions.

I remember writing a small polish on the script and falling head over hills in love with a few lines I thought would have made Dorothy Parker jealous.  Allison had read the polish and was very complimentary but thought that the 2 lines I was so enamored with were not quite right.  Now this was very funny stuff, I thought, so I tried hard to convince her that she was turning down gold!  She just listened to my highly experienced opinion/plea about why the lines should be left in and then smiled and figuratively patted me on the head and repeated that she thought they were good but they just weren’t quite right.  It was at that point that I stopped worrying about Allison being too passive and being run over by all of us…

This then points out the first, and perhaps main difference in making a short/personal film as opposed to a television series – The main rule a festival or personal film must be concerned with is, does the final product satisfy the artist/creator’s vision and intention?  A commercially animated series or theatrical film on the other hand requires a great many more needs be met before it can be considered a success.  Outside of schedules and budgets most of these needs involve money, revenue, earnings, rights, sequels, licensing and the big one, will MacDonald’s or Burger King flog your characters on their 48 ounce soda cups?

A personal film is personal.  A commercial film is commercial.  A personal film can be made in a garage by one person with a budget as thin as tissue paper or in a studio setting by a number of people - as long as only one conductor stands in front of the orchestra and leads. In our case Allison was our conductor and she never let the film get away from her.

When I have produced television shows it has been with the involvement of a large group of people that brought their own talents into the project.  As a producer it was my job to satisfy a number of egos while making a product that despite all the creativity and art involved in its creation, had one purpose above all others and that purpose was not to make a personal statement or to better the world.

There are of course other distinctions between series animation and personal films.  Running length is subjective in a personal film while commercial films and shows have far less freedom – Broadcasters, both domestic and international have set formats that a film must conform to – even theatrical films have preferred running lengths and DVD’s need to be a certain length in order to be sold as a movie.  Personal films can be any length and the only real considerations are running times to fit Festival submissions, if that is the desire, and how long will any audience sit and view the film if it drags on.

Another obvious difference can be in production schedules.  Series episodes have fairly ironclad delivery dates.  Completion schedules are built into the cash flows and bringing a series in or under budget is a necessity if you want to be a producer.  In the case of Soulies of Milgarden we had the luxury of pausing the production and rethinking the direction of the script even after the outset of the animation production.  This could not have happened on a broadcast series.  That we could take this step clearly allowed us to make a better film but there was a cost involved to make the improvements, in both time and money.  This required the determination and ability of one person to do what was needed and that decision could only have been made from a personal rather than a business viewpoint.

At the end of the day personal films are made to express something while commercial animation is meant to sell something.  Both can be enjoyable to work on and those that bring their talent and creativity to the project may feel a sense of pride and accomplishment but….  they both serve different masters..


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