In particular, this comment by Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School stands out:
“AdriÃ ’s idea is that if you listen to customers, what they tell you they want will be based on something they already know. If I like a good steak, you can serve that to me, and I’ll enjoy it. But it will never be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. To create those experiences, you almost can’t listen to the customer.”
One of the key points in Norton’s study is making a distinction between understanding and listening to customers; the former is what AdriÃ does. Apply this to the idea of focus grouping in animation, and you might see where I’m headed. Norton is saying that if AdriÃ focus-grouped his food to satisfy the preconceived notions of his customers, his restaurant would be no different from all the others. The reason his restaurant is sold out year-round is because he surprises the tastes and sensibilities of his customers with an unpredictable personal vision.
In an increasingly homogenized culture, audiences (whether in a restaurant or in front of TV) crave experiences that are different and new. The entire purpose of focus groups in animation, however, is to ensure that audiences are given more of the same previously-successful ideas. But, look at many of the most successful animated series of recent years–The Simpsons, Ren and Stimpy, Beavis & Butt-head, South Park, Family Guy–and what they have in common is that they broke the mold of everything that preceded them. Focus groups (which I should point out are different from test screenings that can actually aid filmmakers) are a hindrance to the development of successful animation; an unspoken reason for their existence is largely to relieve execs of accountability for their decisions: “Well, I don’t know why the show failed,” they can say. “The focus groups loved it.”
“The trick is, from the business side, to try to be fiscally responsible so you can be creatively reckless.”
– Tom Rothman, president of Fox Filmed Entertainment, on why the $40 million budget of Fantastic Mr. Fox allowed them to be more creative.
Rothman’s comment couldn’t be more common sense, yet I’ve never heard an exec say this about an animated feature. The mega-budget Pixar/DreamWorks features are not a sustainable business model for other studios. When smaller studios without an established creative infrastructure attempt to emulate the model, like Planet 51 ($60 million budget) and Astro Boy ($65 million), they typically end up with a half-assed product that falls flat on its face at the box office. Audiences are increasingly demanding variety in their animated features, and the studios that figure out how to offer original and unconventional animated films that are modestly budgeted will find themselves amply rewarded. One of the major keys to keeping costs down and maintaining originality will be to implement a top-down creative strategy by hiring directors with a strong personal vision, like Anderson, instead of the usual approach that consists of building bloated creative teams. Mark my words, the $15-40 million animated feature will be the big thing of the next decade.
Filmmaker Nina Paley explains in the Wall Street Journal how she’s earned $55,000 from her animated feature Sita Sings the Blues by giving it away for free. The idea of offering content for free is still counterintuitive to a lot of artists, but I’m a firm believer that this concept will eventually become an important part in the arsenal of indie filmmakers. Nina is among the first within the animation community to prove that it works. A good starting point for understanding the concept is Chris Anderson’s recent book Free: The Future of a Radical Price.
Understanding the extent to which artists have lost control of the animation process in the past is vital to ensuring a robust and healthy future for the art form. With that in mind, here’s a page of Broadcast Standards notes from a 1978 episode of the Filmation series Fabulous Funnies. The notes are comical and absurd, but it’s utterly horrifying to think that any artist could endure working under such conditions. Would TV artists today be willing to put up with such maddening bull crap or is the community more enlightened?
(The names in the cc are telling: Margaret Loesch and Jean MacCurdy, who would soon thereafter gain great power as kidvid execs, and NBC up-and-comer Brandon Tartikoff.)
This is an impressively elaborate papercraft animation created by London-based Andersen M Studio for the New Zealand Book Council. I wonder if CG was used in the planning of this film. According to the filmmakers, no computers were used in the actual production: “The animation took 8 months to complete and is 100% handmade with a good old 10A scalpel blade.”
It’s the time again when critics start compiling their “best of” lists for the decade. We’ll probably do a few ourselves, though the roundup of American TV animation is looking fairly barren from this vantage point. How many shows debuted in the past decade that were entertaining, made a lasting impact on their audience, and have a shot at being remembered by future generations? A handful of American shows come to mind as standouts, most of which were cult favorites rather than mainstream successes–Invader Zim, Superjail, Venture Bros., Samurai Jack, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Yo Gabba Gabba. (A comprehensive list of TV shows can be found on Wikipedia.)
Compare this to the 1990s when we saw the debuts of TV shows that were cultural phenomenons like The Simpsons, The Ren and Stimpy Show, South Park, Beavis and Butt-Head, Batman: The Animated Series, Dexter’s Lab, Rugrats, The Powerpuff Girls, Spongebob Squarepants and yes, even Family Guy. It seemed like we were on the cusp of a new era of “creator-driven” shows that were free from the meddling impulses of network execs. It’s little surprise that these shows are the ones that audiences still discuss nowadays.
If the 2000s served any purpose, it was to highlight how unique the previous decade was; the Nineties were a genuine silver age of TV animation in which artists were allowed the freedom to experiment and the elbow room to fulfill their creative visions. The unfortunate byproduct of Nineties animation success was the introduction of a new breed of development and creative execs whose ignorance about animation art and process is matched only by their fearfulness of creativity and originality. These boobs spent the entire decade trying to come up with the next Spongebob, the next Simpsons, and the next Family Guy without the slightest inkling of how to foster the kind of environment that allowed those shows to exist in the first place. The dubious 2000s is their legacy, and it signals a depressing downward shift for TV animation in America.
I’m curious to hear your opinions. What’s your take on the last decade and what are your picks for the best new animated series of the past ten years?
Last night I attended the opening of the Tim Burton exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and quite simply, it’s terrific! I’ll be writing more about it soon, but if you are in the NY area anytime between now and next April, make a point of checking out this show.
We got in a bit earlier than most folks last night, and while we were looking at the exhibit, Tim Burton walked into the room. If you can forgive the shaky phone video, here’s a sweet little moment I caught between Burton and actor Geoffrey Holder:
We’ve already linked to this, but this interview with Ralph Bakshi has some really shrewd insights peppered throughout. One of his comments that stood out most is his opinion of Pixar:
I don’t see too many new films today as it is – just sitting in the theater and watching all of that money on the screen, wishing that I had even a tenth of it to do some of the things that I wanted. It’s just a hard pill for me to swallow. On the other hand, thinking about a place like Pixar having to spend $150 million on a film is another hard pill for me to swallow. I don’t think animation is worth that kind of money. I think it’s part of the problem. With everything that’s happened to this country, where do we come off spending that kind of money?…The kind of money they spend, the expertise, and the various departments they have is startling. Those films better be good, because basically the guys have no choice. It better be good, or they’re wasting a lot of money.
Bakshi has a point. Has all that money really made animation any better? How much better would CG animated features be if budgets were voluntarily cut by the studios and directors were forced again to make creative decisions instead of spending all their time gilding lilies. Too many computer animated films today have the gaudy feel of things created by dictators who spend tons and tons of money and still end up with aesthetic and conceptual eyesores. Hollywood is never going to return to Bakshi’s days of shoestring animated features made quickly and with passion, but reining in the ever-ballooning budgets of computer animation might result in less inflated, self-important films that actually leave a lasting impact.
The Bergdorf Goodman Men’s Store in Manhattan has fantastic window displays this season…Fantastic Mr. Fox displays that is. The twelve windows feature character puppets, props and background elements that were used in the production of the film. The store is located at Fifth Avenue and 58th Street. My pal C. Edwards who snapped the iPhone pics above pointed out that Wes Anderson’s twee aesthetic was also applied to the Louis Vuitton display windows with The Darjeeling Limited. Better photos of the displays can be found on this website.
It makes me real happy knowing so many folks in animation enjoy my book Cartoon Modern, but it’s no less a delight when I discover people outside of animation have also taken a liking to it. Above is a photo of Sandi Vincent’s perfectly curated mid-century modern home. If you look closely, you’ll see a certain book laying on her Danish wall unit. On the photo’s Flickr page, she generously labels Cartoon Modern as the “best picture book on the shelf.” Thanks, Sandi. Be sure to check out the rest of her Flickr photostream for more mid-century mod goodies.
Dock Ellis & The LSD No-No by James Blagden isn’t going to win any awards for its animation, but it packs a real punch as a short film. Actually, it’d be hard to screw up the story, which is a colorful recording by former baseball pitcher Dock Ellis describing how he pitched a no-hitter in 1970 while under the influence of LSD. Much of the short’s success comes from Ellis’s storytelling–his line “Ooh, I just made a touchdown” is hilarious even without drawings–while Blagden’s semi-realistic illustration style and oddball eye movements on the characters provide enough visual accompaniment to make it work. Even the amateurish filmmaking elements, like unnecessarily dividing the film up into parts, didn’t ruin the overall effect for me. Ellis, for his part, became an anti-drug crusader before he passed away last year.