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How To Succeed in Animation

Foreward - An Overview: What This Book Is All About


Whizzing, exploding, hopping, and boinging across our screens, animated cartoons have grabbed us from childhood and beyond. Feature-length movie versions have lifted the technology to amazing heights. This is potentially the greatest of art forms, combining nearly all the others into one. Graphic arts, literature, storytelling, humor, satire, drama, acting, music, song, ballet, poetry, can all be combined in this virtually limitless method of expression.

So how come on television it has been mainly cranked out as appallingly crude, repetitious, and mindless junk?

Budget and time limitations are the usual suspects, but there is more/less to it than that. There is the persistent perception by most producers that the audience is composed of mindless morons who will accept anything that moves and yabba-dabba-doos, however crudely. Unfortunately that is just true enough for them to get away with it. People, on the whole, will accept junk food, though many long for something chewier.

We cannot actually draw edible food, so most of us animators have to eat what the industry will feed us. Some of us who animate professionally do try to elevate the content of our work, and occasionally we get a chance. But for every gourmet production we accomplish, we inevitably leave a trail of garbage.

In this book I will attempt to guide you to creative success; to make the most of every chance you get, and to give you some grisly tours of the desiccated remains of some of my own shot-down productions.

First off, here is a joke that tells you exactly what you are up against:

A film writer, director, and producer were having lunch at a posh Hollywood restaurant. The writer ordered soup as a starter, and after the first couple of spoonfuls he exclaimed, "My God, this is the greatest soup I’ve ever tasted! He offered a spoonful to the director. "Taste this. It’s incredible!"

The director took one sip and his eyes rolled heavenward. "You’re right. This soup is ambrosia!" He took a few more spoonfuls and pushed the bowl to the producer. "You’ve gotta taste this. It is the soup of the century!"

The producer lifted a spoonful, took in the aroma, then rapturously downed two or three spoonfuls... "You boys are right. This is a magnificent soup. But I have an idea. Let us all pee in it, and make it even better!"

That sums it up. There will be plenty of peeing in your soup during your filmmaking career.

Readers of this book may ask, after wading through my tales of failures, lost projects and lost payments, (PART II), how did I ever manage to survive in this business?, or what is my right to put out a book with the title, "How to Succeed in Animation?"

Well, I learned from the failures, and I did succeed. I managed to get into the black, and you can also.

Here are some ground rules:

1. Make yourself valuable and wanted. That’s the overall first step. Know what you are doing, and prove it long enough so that you yourself are a valuable commodity - that producers want you. There is no substitute for becoming a "name." How do you do that? Well, first of all, you can read. This is a book in your hands. So read stuff. Keep up with what's going on in popular culture, and in the animation field itself. Improve your skills. Learn to sniff out trends, and try to think of what might be the next step. Try not to be just a follower, but think about how you can make a mark with something fresh and new. But also think about what your client or prospective client wants and needs. Don't risk crazy ideas unless you really have the facts and solid theory of why you think your idea will fly, and that you can make it fly. Not easy, but you will be surprised what benefits thinking and thorough preparation can bring!

2. Net profits do not exist: A producer lured me to Prague with, among other things, a contract offering me 25% of the net profits. Even worldwide hits rarely make a profit, as such.  "Forrest Gump" for example, made no net profits. Probably no movies make any “net profits,“ given the opaque accounting methods used by studio number-dimmers. Go for the gross!    Better less up front and a bigger share of returns.  if distribution appears to be a reality, you’ll find soon enough that 5% of gross income is worth far more than 50% of “net profits!”.

3. Distribution: Making an animated film without having first secured distribution is only for those who live on love. If you are independently wealthy, or driven by creative fires, and can work on your film over a period of years while you wash dishes for a living, sure, why not? But a producer, who also has distribution secured, is your best bet for a film you hope to be paid for. The secret of success is to find a market for the kind of films you want to produce, and then undertake to serve that market. Do your best to secure potential distribution before you put your heart, sweat, and years into a film that may end up playing only on your own living room video.

4. Double-for-nothing: Three of my film projects that did not materialize, THE PIED PIPER, NICHOLAS JINGLE , and CHARLOTTE'S WEB, were financial successes for me ! My disappointment at not being able to realize my vision for these three projects was at least compensated for financially, because of the double-payment clause for non-production I managed to get written into my contracts. From being so badly burned by The Hobbit calamity, I tried to insure myself against pie-in-the-sky producers. Most producers run on optimism. Producing movies is one of the highest of high-risk undertakings. I would never want to be a producer. I am satisfied to take a smaller piece of the pie along with a smaller share of the angst. I am not interested in being in the thrall of the producer's optimism in cases where I know very well that actual production is far from certain. Every producer seems to approach me with the proclamation that "production is 99% certain. I keep a wary eye on that li'l ol' missing 1%!

In many cases, the producer is so certain that the production will proceed, and wanting to keep me working on a screenplay and storyboard, that he will gladly sign a contract guaranteeing me a double payment, should by the most "remote chance" the film will not be produced. On all three of the above non-productions, I received a hefty double-payment.

5. Working on spec: - free, that is - may seem necessary under some circumstances, but respect for your work goes down as your willingness to work for nothing goes up. There should always be compensation in there somewhere, minimally retention of the rights to your adaptation.

6. Stay out of debt: Keep your life-style within bounds; your overhead low. After the first years of suspicion about my working in a communist country, many old colleagues began asking me, "How can I get to do what you're doing?" In my book, "For The Love of Prague," I wrote that I ended up in Prague only by the merest chance. After being here awhile, I realized that somehow I had stumbled onto a good thing. So my answer to the above question came to be, "Get yourself into a place or position where you don't have to make a lot of money. How financially rich you are is measured not by how much money you earn or have, but by how much you owe…. and of course, true work satisfaction."

I found myself in an extraordinary position. I was living in the international outlands, the low-rent-plain-pipe-rack-district, as it were. I was paying $30 per month rent for this great apartment in the historical heart of Prague. My wife was a producer at the Czech animation studio, making peanuts by American standards, but enough to pay the rent, groceries, and other basics. I was directing Weston Woods films for modest up-front money, compared to what I would surely be getting in the States, but I was happy, making one polished jewel children's film after another - something I'd always dreamed of in America, but could never afford to do. And I was able to save money and stay totally out of debt! OK, this was a one-in-a-million situation. You're not likely to match my luck in this regard. But think about the principle, and about the future.

Many will also think that my long isolation took me out of the cutting edge. I did miss working with the latest technology; I am intensely interested in it. But in this world you can't have everything, and the material I was working on took precedence for me. Technoperfect, chrome-plated crap wasn't on a par with perhaps less glossy productions of real content.

I know that for many, the real fun is to go for the big bucks, live it up to the hilt, and engage in the dance of death with the IRS and the banks. A quote from special effect genius Douglas Trumbull in the summary section of this book, underlines what I am saying. No one can have everything, and many will go for the fun and frolic of the short term. Personally, I agree with Trumbull; it ain't worth it.

7. Pilots: Many producers will want you to make the pilot for a series cheaper, with the promise that the actual production episodes will pay you more. The problem with this idea is that pilots are the most difficult episodes, with all of the basic story problems and characters to be worked out. Pilots should rate a higher budget, not only for those reasons, but also because a pilot film, sadly, is all too often the only film to be produced!

Those are only 7 special guidelines and goals. Some of my other outlandish notions are spread throughout the book. I will be glad to hear of any pitfall preventives any of you have worked out, or any comments on mine. Hey, we are all trying to make our mark, do high-quality creative work, and improve our art and craft; brothers and sisters in animation, trying to beat the odds.

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