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What Price, Independence?

An interview with Paul Fierlinger by David Kilmer

Paul Fierlinger was born March 15, 1936 in Japan to Czechoslovakian parents. His father was a Czech government official, and in 1939, after the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, the family moved to the United States. In America, Paul was cared for by several families and was away from his own family most of the time. When the war ended, his parents returned to Czechoslovakia where his father took his position as an important member of the Communist government. While his parents were returning home, Paul was entering a foreign land. In 1967, Paul escaped Czechoslovakia, and after working briefly as an animator in Holland, Paris, and Munich, settled in Philadelphia in the United States where he founded his company, AR&T Associates, an independent production company.

In 1979, a film he made for Learning Corporation of America, It's So Nice to Have a Wolf Around the House , was nominated for an Academy Award. Many know his work from Teeny Little Superguy on Sesame Street. In 1988 he made The Quitter, a short film made to help smokers quit smoking, and in 1989 he made And Then I'll Stop...Does Any of This Sound Familiar?, a film about alcoholism. In 1995, Drawn from Memory, a fifty-six minute film about his own life, was shown on PBS' American Playhouse. Most recently, in 1998 he completed two short films, Marsh People and A Rabbit Story. He is currently working on another long film for PBS about his dog, Roosevelt, named after Franklin D. Roosevelt. His and his wife, Sandra's, film, Playtime, Collection One, placed second in the Sponsored Films category of this year's ASIFA-East Awards.

Paul with his parents during WWII; from Drawn from Memory. © Acme Filmworks.

"I did a flip book when I was twelve. I did it because it would free me from the rest of the world, and mostly from the dominance of my father. It was a political statement on my part. My father was out to hate everything American, and I was out to love everything American. Animation in the Forties, early Fifties, when Communism started in Czechoslovakia, was forbidden, was considered a bourgeois pastime for spoiled rich kids that had nothing to do with Socialist Realism of the working class. The animation companies were closed for a short time.

"In the meantime, Jiri Trnka had a few of his films making the film festival circuit out in the world and the results started trickling back. He was becoming famous and was creating a good name for Czechoslovakia. He made the country look good, as if, you know, 'It can't be such a bad place if such wonderful work comes out of there.' So they got second thoughts about animation and started producing again. It was a form of propaganda and we were all part of it. Anybody who was in that creative process knew that they were helping the country lie. At that point when it was forbidden, just to piss my father off, I decided to want to become an animator, because I could draw and when I was drawing it was the only time that grownups would leave me alone and wouldn't say, 'Why don't you rake the leaves?' or 'Read a book,' or 'Do something better than that.' I quickly learned to love it and that was it.

Freelancing in Communist Czechoslovakia
"In Czechoslovakia the state had a monopoly on everything. Believe it or not, in the Fifties you could not own a typewriter without a license because they were so afraid of disseminating propaganda. Every typewriter had to be registered with the police, with all the keystrokes and everything put on record, so that if you typed a leaflet and pasted it to a wall, they would be able to trace it to you. You couldn't make films, you couldn't write, you couldn't do anything without the permission of the state. And there was a monopoly for filmmaking. Nobody was allowed to make films except the state run company. But they were talking about 35mm. 16mm was considered amateur, and exempt from the state monopoly. Then television came along, and nobody changed the rules.

"I was allowed to have a 16mm camera. I was a professional artist, which means I had been admitted through this long process of passing tests. I had to be approved by all sorts of commissions that I am a true artist, and I was allowed to be a freelancer. I was allowed to work at home, and I produced on 16mm film, so I wasn't breaking the state monopoly law. I made films for television, and I was the first one to do that. I had been doing animation since I was twelve, and I could do it for money now that television showed up. Others followed me.

"It was very much like it is here today. They would call me up and say, 'Here's the script. We need it by such and such a date, give us the storyboard and we'll pay you...' Once I had competition, then the typical pro... -- they were called editors, they weren't called producers, which I think is more truthful -- the editor would say, 'How much can you do this for?,' and I would say, 'Ten thousand.' 'Ten thousand crowns. Well, that's pretty good, what if you got twelve thousand?' I'd say, 'Well, all I really need is ten thousand.' 'Okay, I'll give you twelve thousand and you think about it.' Which meant that I gave him the extra two thousand.

"I didn't feel too happy about myself. I knew that I was getting work by kickbacks. Everybody else was doing it. What made me give myself a break was I didn't ask for it. It wasn't as if I went to somebody and said, 'I'll give you money if you'll give me a job.' It was a lame excuse, but that's how I dealt with my conscience, and that's what it was like. So if an editor got that from me, the first time he did it he was taking chances. After that one chance, we were both on the same boat and it was very unlikely that I would spill the beans because I would get in trouble and vice versa. So he would stick to me. I would get jobs and automatically fork over part of it to him. Everybody was doing it, so everybody was married to his or her own editor. We all talked about it, made fun of it, compared how much we were paying our editors.

Drawn from Memory
"I used to be a very heavy drinker. I would spend hours and hours bullshitting in bars. People would recognize an accent and the first question was, 'Where are you from?,' and I would start telling this story and always I got the same remark, and that was, 'You should write a book about it.' And because I don't write books, I thought it could be a good animated film. It's just a good story. It always gets people interested. Everybody is in search of a good story, and here it was. I owned a story and didn't have to look any further. That was the only purpose. I had no real desire to experience a catharsis, or anything like that. It was plain and simple, here I owned a story and wanted to take advantage of it.

"I tried all sorts of things to get money to make Drawn from Memory. For instance, somebody introduced me to Dick Cavett's manager, who worked closely with PBS and all that. I met him in a bar in New York. He said he would try PBS, and then he came back and he said, 'Nobody's interested.' I tried it with Disney. I tried it with William Buckley because I'm a sailing person and I was working on a film based on his sailing book. He wanted everybody on the crew to be a sailor, so I went on a cruise with him and met him. I offered it to him. My suggestion was that if it was produced by the National Review, because it is an anti-communist film and all that, then he would own the film and he could make money on it like, at that time, the National Lampoon was making money on Animal House. I said he could have his own version of Animal House. He thought about it and then wrote back that he was not interested. The only thing that I never ever did was to apply for a grant. Somehow coming from a Communist country into a free world it was against my grain to apply for a grant. My thinking was if you cannot support yourself through work and people aren't interested in paying you for what you do, then you shouldn't be doing it. I saw grants as just a little bit more grandiose form of welfare, welfare for artists. I've changed my mind a little bit, not much, but somewhat, about that today. But I still have never applied for a grant.

Where Can the Independent Animator Find Money?
"A film that I'm just beginning to do for PBS, is through ITVS. Independent Television Services. I didn't know about that branch of the government. It's a quasi-government organization. It's like this. There is money put aside at the Federal level to support public broadcasting. They put so much money aside to create documentary films for television. The mandate is that they have to be films that are created for the underserved. It actually says in the mandate, 'or types of programs that wouldn't be supported by commercial television.' Who's gonna decide? Are the senators gonna decide? Someone has to decide who gets the money. So they created an office called ITVS, and there are about twenty people there who process applications and decide who's gonna be funded. It's a difficult process because there are many, many applicants, in the hundreds, maybe even in the thousands, and they can give out money to about three or four a year. Your chances are very small, but I tried it. It's a shot in the dark. I know how these things work. It's a lot about who knows who. I wrote this idea about dogs. In the proposal there's a question, among tons of questions, and they say, 'This is the most important question, give yourself time before you answer it: Who will benefit from your program?' I didn't give myself any time at all. I just wrote down, 'A few dogs and one animator,' and they liked it because they are tired of the bullshit that anybody can come up with and say, 'All the members of the Chappaquiddick tribe will benefit from it,' and, 'All the blue collar workers in the mine field;' whatever, you know, you can bullshit about anything. They actually appreciated the honesty about it. What happens is they will give you money (again, this is taxpayers' money) for the film, but it's not a grant. You enter into a contract with them, and the film is yours. There's no guarantee that it's going to be on the air. Then it's offered to all public television stations for free, and if they don't like it, they don't have to take it.

During most of the war, Paul's parents lived in New York City, while he lived in small towns with American families; from Drawn from Memory. © Acme Filmworks.

"Another way of getting funding is through illustrating a book and publishing it. Get it published, and then it's easier to get a film made from it. However, you're dealing with a world of insecurites. I am quite disappointed with the corporate world of America. It's not what it used to be. What I always admired about Americans, especially the business world, is they had guts, and they were not afraid to try something new. I find that attitude has disappeared. Today, everybody is afraid. Everybody's favorite line is, 'My ass is on the line. Don't screw this up or you'll never get work again.' People are awfully afraid to make an original commitment. It's always whenever I come up with an idea, say for a book, they say, 'What age group is it for?' They want to put it in a drawer that is predesigned. And if it doesn't fit in one of their favorite drawers, they don't have the guts to put it out. They'll say, 'Well, we've never made a book like that,' and that's it. So to get funding for a film by making a book first, you have to make a very standard, run of the mill book, and hope that along the line you'll be able to change something. It's not easy.

"Another way to get funding is to create a lot of it first yourself. I'm finding out that it's not enough to just describe it. Show what it's gonna be like. Make a sample of it. The other three people who got the ITVS money with me already had half of their films done. ITVS was just funding the rest of the budget. I was the only one fully funded by them. That happens a lot. Start the film with your own money. Show what it's going to look like. What helped Ron Diamond get Drawn from Memory for me, was my treatment was heavily illustrated. It looked almost like a book, and had lots of little color plates with it. The American Playhouse people said that through the drawings they could imagine what the film was going to look like, that it was not going to be a cartoon, that the drawings were in a different category than children's cartoons. If you don't draw yourself, try to find somebody who will go out on a limb with you and illustrate your story and make a really attractive proposal. Today with computers and desktop publishing, and now even desktop video, it's not such a deal to make something attractive. That's what Sandra, my wife, and I did for our children's book. Instead of just delivering a manuscript and a bunch of illustrations on paper, today you can print a book on your home computer with a $150 scanner and some basic software. And that's what we did. It's about a 150 page book, with illustrations, and the guy at the publisher's said they don't accept unsolicited material, but that this was so attractive that it made a difference and they made an exception. Make your proposal visually attractive. It has to be packaged. So if you have substance, just add packaging to it, and you're closer to getting something.

"That word, `independent'...a lot of interesting discussions can be had around it, but I don't think it will ever be solved. I think the only true independent I know is Bill Plympton who makes a film first, then sells it. That's true independence, but he ran out of steam, too. You can't sustain yourself on being an independent. What helped him was that for years he didn't have children and he had a working wife, and then once in a while he would make a film and it would get some money. People like that can do it if they have a partner in life and don't have children. That's independence, but it didn't last forever. Now he has commercials. You can see in the commercials that they're twisting his arm and his mind. They're making him think along their line. There's nothing wrong with it. They're paying for it and they have certain goals, so they're making him adapt to them instead of accepting whatever comes out of him.

"It's not easy and I don't think it's even necessary to be that independent. It's team work: it's somebody needs a film, and they need somebody like you to help them with it which means it's your ideas and their ideas. It's their money, your income. What's wrong with adhering to their wishes to a certain degree? I don't find anything wrong with being dependent. We're all dependent on income. I don't think there is any real independence in this business.

"I had a slump in the past year. I just couldn't find work. A lot of it had to do with bad luck, just as much as when you do have work a lot of it is due to luck, being at the right place at the right time. I had this idea I could impress people with speed. I can make films in a very short time if I am totally independent. If I'm not told what to do, if I can make all the changes I want to make at the spur of the moment (that's true independence), then I can make a little cartoon in a week with the help of a computer. It's not computer animation -- it's computer finished. I set myself out to make three of these films and sent them around. I sent them to Cartoon Network, MTV, Sesame Street, Comedy Central...and I said, 'I can make one of these a week for you if you want to use them as promos.' My idea is that people would send in their ideas, and the best would be turned into a film within a week. That would make kids want to watch to see if their film would be on. Everybody had the same answer. They said, 'This is fine and dandy that you can do it in a week, except we can't process it in a week.' When I said, 'It can be done ahead, and start airing them after ten are made,' that didn't impress anybody. They were scared by the thought that their control over the material would be limited. So here I was. I had three films; one was for very small kids, but I had A Rabbit Story and Marsh People. Those are the only true independent films that I've made in my life, where I first made the film and then offered it. I got a lot of interest, just like Bill Plympton, but for very little money. I ended up practically giving them away because I made them not to make a living, but to prove what I can do. I thought, since that didn't work, at least somebody will see it. So one film went to Manga, and one to Spike and Mike. I can understand why they can't pay more. I got $4000 for each. But I really did make each one of those in a week, so $4000 in a week isn't bad. But you need to have a steady flow. In the meantime I got work, so I stopped pursuing this. I was onto something with this idea. Not so much for television, they were scared of it, but for people like Manga. Terry Thoren was interested in it at Klasky Csupo, just to put it on their web site; every week have a film on their web site. Our talks faded away though because I got bigger work and they wished me well.

How to Become an Animator
"You need to have a combination of salesmanship and competence to make something fast and professional looking. You can do it, but it takes years to do it. My only advice would be, just brace yourself. I can't even say, 'Well find a job and do this on the side first.' I used to give that advice, and it's stupid. It's the most asinine thing, and I'm ashamed that I've told people to do this because you can't do it. It's impossible to wait on tables all day long, or whatever, and then have the energy and the strength left to do this kind of work. You just can't do it. It's a full time occupation. So how are you supposed to do it? Only if you get married to somebody, or if your parents are willing to fund you and tell you to prove yourself. When parents come to me and want me to look at their kid's work and their kid wants to become an animator and they're not sure of it and want to know if I think their kid's talented enough, the advice I give all of them now, but no one has ever taken, is, 'Don't waste your money on schools.' Animation is something that you have to learn on your own. Instead of school, give your kid a computer, about $10,000 on hardware and software, so he can start making his own films. Make him work 8-10 hours a day just as he would be when employed, and give him living expenses for four years. It's going to cost much less than a school. By four years he or she will be able to tell if they can do it or not. If he or she is really pushed to have to work a full day, to have the discipline to do it, without anyone seeing the work, without being admired, it's a lonely long marathon, and if they can take that for four years, then they're worth every penny you put into them. But nobody has done it. They do the next best thing. They have the kid study something else, like computer science, and do animation on the side so they have a career to fall back on, which is far from the best thing because they are in the situation of the guy who has to be a waiter all day long and then expect himself to create good work. If they're a serious student, where are they to find the energy and mindset to be creative? I guess what happens is they become computer programmers.

"I think the only way to become an animator, a filmmaker, a writer, whatever, is to live one day at a time. Just to stick to it, and you have to have such a desire to do it that reason falls aside. If you were to become reasonable about it, then reason would tell you it's not going to work. You know, get a job at Disney first, then once you've learned the craft there, you can become independent. That has never happened, yet. What happens is, there's a huge difference between a studio craftsman and an independent one, for lack of a better word. (It's not true independence, as I've said.) If you start at a big studio you get very quickly used to a good steady salary with benefits. Then the moment comes when you've been at it for a few years and you're fed up because it's idiotic, it's the same old thing, you have no idea what the preceding scene was or the following one is, you're like a scribe working in a scribe shop two hundred years ago. So you say, 'I know enough about animation. Now's the time to become independent,' and suddenly you're scared. 'How am I going to start? Who's going to give me my first job?' You don't have the guts anymore. You've been molded into this corporation and you're going to be a corporate animator for the rest of your life. To become a freelancer you have to put reason aside, and you just have to use intuition.

Paul and his dog, Roosevelt; from Drawn from Memory. © Acme Filmworks.

"It's not easy. When I say I didn't have work a year ago, for two years I had no work. This was after working for forty years. I had some money saved, but not an awful lot. Thank goodness for that. Altogether I got five low paying jobs within those two years. Then I got a fellowship award. I got through. Based on my thirty plus years of experience, I managed to get through. I was ready to throw in the towel. I had two options. Go to Hollywood and work for Klasky Csupo in a corporate fashion. They were the only ones who would even talk to me. No one else wants an independent animator who is established in his own ways. I don't blame them, I wouldn't fit into a corporation, my mind is too independent by now. It's not as easy as I thought it would be. I said, 'People know me. I can get work for a big studio anytime I want to.' Well, it turned out it wasn't true. They all admire me, but nobody wants me to work for them. Only Terry Thoren at Klasky Csupo was willing to give me a chance. Then the other choice was, because I'm 62 years old, I could retire. The only piece of property that I own is a sail boat, and I could live on the boat. Neither of these was too appealing. Working for the corporate world in brown, dusty LA, or living in nature where I love to be, but living as a bum. It's not as romantic as it sounds to live on your sail boat. I could live off my meager Social Security on my sail boat, that's possible, but it's a very claustrophobic world. Neither of these choices are too good.

"What happened at the last moment was, this guy from the Children's Book Club met a friend of his on the street and went with her to a meeting at Nickelodeon. Nickelodeon showed them their sample reel. It was absolutely horrible. Loud purple green figures, screaming and jumping all over the screen. Then something very quiet and different came on. That was my film. The guy from the Children's Book Club got interested in it and asked who did it. He called me up, and asked me if I would like to work for him, and gave me 100% creative freedom to make a twenty minute film for the Children's Book Club. It's called Playtime. It's a string of classical nursery rhymes with music by people like Johnny Cash. He said, 'Do whatever you want with it.' Within reason, of course. You have to have a reputation for self discipline. When somebody says, 'Do whatever you want,' they don't really mean that. What they mean is, 'Do whatever is acceptable within our standards.'

"Now I'm going onto my PBS film about my dog. I have a year to do it and already now I'm getting the jitters about what I'm going to do after it. Like I said before, it isn't easy."

Paul Fierlinger's Drawn From Memory is now available in the Animation World Store.

David Kilmer is Associate Editor of Animation World Magazine, a filmmaker, and author of The Animated Film Collector's Guide: Worldwide Sources for Cartoons on Videotape and Laserdisc(1997, John Libbey & Co.). He is currently working on The Do-It-Yourself Cartoon I.D. Kit, a companion volume to his earlier book.

Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to editor@awn.com.