Sunday, October 28, 2007
Many creators owe their start in the biz to Mr. Fred Seibert who has spawned oodles of opportunities for pitchers through his initiatives at Cartoon Network/Hanna Barbera (What-A-Cartoon!) and Frederator (Oh-Yeah! Cartoons and Random Cartoons). Dan Meth arrived on the scene in 1999 and gradually made a name for himself through his internet cartoons. Fred hired Dan Meth in March of 2006, and they both began to search for ways to work with one another on original content. Eventually they came up a groundbreaking idea; the creation of 39 shorts called The Meth Minute, conceived and directed by Meth, to be posted consecutively over 39 weeks.
They unveiled their series with a certified phenomenon called, Internet People. It was a very shrewd beginning for the series because it basically summed up the history of pop culture as spread on the internet while at the same time placing the Meth Minute within that context. The short got millions of hits and lots of attention on various media. As a film, Internet People owes a lot of its success to Meth’s catchy little song and lyrics. Animating to a song lends an advantage to a filmmaker because it provides a tight little structure on which to base a film around. I wondered if all of Meth’s shorts would be musical and I looked forward to finding out.
The next Meth Minute film, Sex Machine, was a James Brown spoof and, in part, also utilized a song as a key component. With this second film I understood was Meth was trying to do. The Meth Minute strives to be the internet equivalent of SNL’s cartoons by Robert Smigel. The strength and weaknesses of Meth’s films will be determined, not by his skill (he’s consistently a technically capable and confident filmmaker), but by how well he chooses his pop culture targets and how often his writing is able to carry it beyond an inspired title.
For example, the latest Meth Minute is called, Mike Tyson’s Brunch Out. Anyone of my generation (I’m a couple of years older than Meth) will immediately recognize the pun on the popular 1980s video game, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out! I think Meth tried to create a deliberately disjointed short that gives one the feeling of picking up a little bit of conversation from each table at a busy restaurant. So, on one hand, the film makes a point about brunchers who are lost in their own worlds, while on the other hand, it’s simply illustrating the joke: here’s Mike Tyson placed out of context, eating brunch and spouting out Tysonisms on demand. For my taste, the dueling concepts compete with each other, and sap strength out of the whole. It’s interesting to see how many ideas a short film can or can't hold and that’s part of the adventure of this whole enterprise. Over 39 films, they’ll win some and lose some.. and that seems about right.
The Meth Minute is a bold experiment and it’s well worth all of our support and encouragement. Besides, this is a NY production. Show some love! Check out the Meth Minute at www.frederator.com and www.channelfrederator.com.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
I have to confess that I’ve been smitten with the work of Mo Willems since I first met him in 1995. He was in his Suzie Kabloozie faze of his career back then, making short films for Sesame Street at New York’s Curious Pictures. One look at Mo’s NYU student films made me immediately rethink my choice in SVA. Unlike my classmates and myself, Mo had emerged as a wonderful filmmaker while still in school! His films such as The Man Who Yelled, Iddy Biddy Beat, and Another Bad Day For Phillip Jenkins became instant favorites with me. In Mo’s own estimation, he wasn’t much of a draftsman. In my eyes, Mo didn’t have to be. If he didn’t draw the best drawings, he drew the right drawings. And, unlike other animation filmmakers looking to patch over their flaws with fluid animation, Mo seemed to draw as few drawings as possible.
It’s interesting to note that in the formative years of his career in the early 1990s, Mo was drinking from the same water that must have been inspiring Gendy Tartakovsky and Craig McCracken (Dexter’s Laboratory and Power Puff Girls, respectively) on the other coast. A good window into the difference between the New York and Hollywood mind set might be how Mo injected his UPA/50s graphic influence towards projects that were far more personal and sensitive in nature.
While Mo’s films were child like, they weren’t always for children. And, when they were for children, he certainly wasn’t talking down to his audience. Mo’s gifts weren’t lost on Sesame Street where he made dozens and dozens of films over a period of years, culminating with the recurring award winning Suzie Kabloozie films. If Suzie had been allowed to grow up, she may have entered the world of Mo’s next network creation, The Off-Beats, which ran as a segment of Nickelodeon’s Kablam. The Off-Beats seemed like a more cerebral and abstract Peanuts. I loved these films, which, for my money, were the reason to tune in to Kablam.
Mo’s career fascinates me because it seems to follow a relatively straight line towards an obvious conclusion, an animated series of his very own; Sheep In the Big City. The unusual show ran two seasons and still enjoys a cult audience to this day. It was an odd mixture; one part blank-eyed titular character pushed around by a noisy narrator and an even noisier general, while the other part being more of an animated Saturday Night Live. Sort of two shows smushed together to make one. Lots of the SNL-style sketches are cute and inspired, but something about the process of animation itself (and all its planned-out months-ahead-ness) sort of sucks the life out of a comedy sketch. In the medium of animation it’s difficult to get a feeling of spontaneity into an SNL sketch-style film. Since the days of Mo’s series, shows like Robot Chicken have successfully pulled it off but only after becoming a barrage of pop culture parodies. Mo had something more dignified in mind with his sketch writing. In the little lamb, Mo crafted a stone-faced character in the tradition of Buster Keaton. This non-verbal character broke ground on cartoon network but, often posed more challenges than it offered benefits.
In Sheep’s last season, a new director named Tom Warburton came aboard and a year later, Mo became Tom’s head writer on a new Cartoon Network show, Code Name: Kids Next Door (KND). Legend has it that Tom helped speed up Mo’s show and Mo helped slow Tom’s show down. On KND, Mo grinded out script after winning script. The show was big hit with it’s audience, becoming the only giant new hit cartoon since SpongeBob SquarePants and The Fairly Odd Parents.
Having reached a career pinnacle with his own show and having more than met the challenge as the head writer of KND, perhaps Mo was looking for something else. With all of Mo’s previous achievements, who would have believed that he’d find his greatest success in the next phase of his career as the author of many best selling award winning children’s books? Adults enjoy Mo’s children’s books, such as Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, as much as their intended young readers. Just like his Sesame Street films fifteen years before, Mo still isn’t talking down to his audience. Perhaps his career path is not a straight line after all. Maybe it’s more of a circle. But, enough of my arm-chair analysis…you’ll get a chance to meet Mr. Mo Willems, yourself, when he’s ASIFA-East’s special guest on Thursday November 29. Save the date. Details to be announced soon at www.asifaeast.com.
Sunday, October 14, 2007
There's been so much written about the process of developing and pitching an animated series. Articles on the subject pop up frequently in trade magazines and on many popular on line destinations. In two hundred words or less, these articles attempt to stuff this whole labyrinthine subject into a shoe-size box. Perhaps more surprisingly, I've seen the same problem spring up at industry panel discussions. The danger of boiling this subject into bite sized nuggets is that just about every statement needs to be followed by opposing view points, caveats, or a plain ol' deeper explanation. For instance, I attended a pitching and development panel at the first Platform International Animation Festival where I heard Nickelodeon development executive Peter Gal remark, "If it's your first deal there's not much point to negotiating. It is what it is." I heard this point and immediately thought of my network deal, on which, the ink was still fresh. My wonderful lawyer and I had negotiated and (through that effort) significantly improved the deal financially and otherwise. After the panel I pointed this out to Peter and he wisely responded, "Well, no, that wouldn't apply to you because you're established." Even though this is my first network development deal, I do have a twelve-year (and counting) career as a storyboard artist, animator, designer, illustrator, author, and director. We are each the sum of our experiences and that's got to count for something.
On the same panel, Cartoon Network development executive Heather Kenyon playfully warned the audience to never sing during a pitch. In my experience, I've heard at least two others echo that advice. In fact, I’ve heard of one creator who regularly creeps out development executives by reciting poems and singing. However, Peter Gal, disagreed and explained that he recently bought an idea from a singing pitcher. Further adding to the argument, newcomer Pen Ward successfully pitched two cartoon shorts to Frederator while strumming his guitar and singing.
Another oft told "no-no" concerns bringing food to a pitch meeting. What if you bring dairy items to someone who's lactose intolerant or snacks that may contain peanuts to someone with a peanut allergy? Several development executives have advised against taking the chance. I'm immediately reminded of Mo Willems wowing his pitch audience for Sheep in the City with delicious French Fries. In another food related encounter, Blue's Clues co-creator, Traci Paige Johnson, wrote a thank you note on the top of a pizza box that helped secure her a place on a creative team with Todd Kessler and Angela Santomero, where the three of them would collaborate to create the mega smash hit, Blue's Clues. This is all enough to give us food for thought. Yet, I think both sides of this debate would agree that if your pitch meeting involves food, it should never be the main course.
Another example of this phenomenon occurred at an ASIFA-East event celebrating Frederator's launch of 39 new cartoons. Serving as the moderator of a panel, which included Frederator executive producer and president, Fred Seibert, and several of his short's creators, I introduced the topic of pitching in storyboards versus the traditional mini bible. The method of choice for Frederator is that would-be creators pitch their ideas in a storyboard form that is essentially the film before a film is made. The characters are shown in action, activated by a plot, which hopefully, springs out of the character itself. This method is very direct and I can see why it appeals to Frederator, who (with their order of 39 cartoons) was in the business of making shorts, not series. The problem is that Fred and, in particular, shorts creator, Alan Goodman, trashed mini bibles out right, not just in light of their particular business needs at that time. An impressionable new comer to the world of pitching sitting in the audience might have walked away believing Frederator's point of view as a universal truth. A mini bible is, in fact, the pitch document of choice at just about everywhere besides Frederator. A good series bible contains lots of splashy show art (eye-candy), and succinct fun-to-read descriptions of the characters, the world, the rules of the world, and some episode synopsizes. The storyboard pitches I toiled to create during a year for Frederator were useless pitch documents elsewhere. It was not until I scrapped them and started over with traditional mini bibles did I score my first network deal.
I don't suggest that it's a waste of your time or energy to read pitch articles or to attend industry panels. Just process everything you hear with a grain of salt. Maybe two grains of salt and be sure to throw them over your shoulder for good luck. It's my hope to help spread a better understanding of this business that goes far beyond a sound bite or snappy flippant answer.