The problem with 4 quadrant films

This last week I watched Coco. (I know well overdue, and don’t worry no spoilers) The film is Pixar at its best, making something so enjoyable but hits you hard. Pixar does everything at such a high level that it’s almost taken for granted. Watching the film made me think about animated features in general.

Big budget animated features fall into a category sometimes called four quadrant films. Four quadrant as I’ve heard it refers to: Old/Young , Boys/Girls.

53_Quadrant
four quadrant film demographics

The idea being that these big budget films should appeal to the widest possible audience. When Pixar started making films they ended up creating a template for these wildly successful films. These films appealed to old/ young, boys/girls. They are funny, exciting, and at the core heartfelt. This became the new template for animated features.

When we try to tell rich stories what we do is add more stuff. If we need something exciting we add a storyline that’s exciting. If we want something funny we add funny characters. If we want something emotional we add a relationship. The piling on of storylines is happening across modern filmmaking. Disney is becoming an empire of four quadrant films. Marvel and Star Wars universes also fit into this wide market model. There’s a high demand for all these films to be a little bit of everything. Exciting, funny and emotional, and the easiest way to do this is to add more stuff. To add more storylines, characters, locations and events. It’s no wonder that films keep getting longer.

That brings me to Coco. What stands out about this film is how contained it is. The film is able to stay very small, and personal. At its core it’s a film about a young boy and his family. Sure there’s a big outside world, but it surprisingly focused. He doesn’t have friends, he doesn’t have a school bully. They makes small stories feel big. Pixar acts like a different kind of movie studio. Still they make critically acclaimed, financially successful, four quadrant films.

Why this is important for us indies, is that our stories/series/films are small by nature. There’s all the pressure in the world to make four quadrant films. That’s not the point of indie. The point of indie is to make something specific, and special. So the hard part is about finding what’s specific and focusing like crazy on it. It’s about finding the people looking for something special. This might mean simplifying your idea. That doesn’t mean your work has to have less meaning or importance. This is the hard part, the thing to work for.

Big impact in a small way.


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Your job and your art work

I talk to a lot of animators and what they talk about is not being “fulfilled”. We might need to think differently about what purpose our work serves. This video from Liz Gilbert explains this very well.

What Liz talks about is the difference between having a Hobby, a Job, a Career and a Vocation. How those are not always the same thing. What it really gets to is that your work and your art work don’t have to be the same thing. They likely will not be. You will probably always find yourself working a job to make a living. Then making art because you’re compelled to say something.

Derek Sivers also wrote about this. When people ask him, “How do I make a living from my art?”

“…I prescribe the lifestyle of the happiest people I know:

  1. Have a well-paying job
  2. Seriously pursue your art for love, not money”

The hard part about this is that we might have chosen the wrong work. By working in a creative and demanding field we have little left when we get home. We’re not only not fulfilled but empty. Very few people get to make their living from their artwork. The more important things is that it might be better to not make a living from arout art. Derek Sivers goes on to talk about the benefits of separating your job from your art.

“You don’t need to worry if it doesn’t sell. You don’t need to please the marketplace. No need to compromise your art, or value it based on others’ opinions.”

Animation is not a bad job. I want to make animation. I want to work in animation forever. You work with amazing people to make amazing things. And good cartoons are worth making.

The point I’m trying to make, is that working in animation is a choice. Being frustrated with the work is a choice. Maybe if we expect less of the job and see it more for what it is, it might get a little easier. Maybe the fulfilment of work is just doing good work. There’s no magic either. It doesn’t get better the more well known or successful you get. You’re still going to need a job. You’re art will be there for you when you need it.

The choice between indie and established

I missed a few weeks of writing, and I feel a little bad about that. In the scheme of things it’s not a big deal. It’s still important, because for the last year I’ve tried to build trust. I’ve tried to say, “Every Friday. I’ll be here.” Thinking if I show up consistently with something to say, others might show up too.

In a small way that’s happened, and it keeps me going. I work very hard not to fall into traps, not worrying about metrics that will distract from what I’m trying to do. I was just listening to an interview with Srinivas Rao, he talked about how being an artist on social media comparing followers, views and likes, creates a status anxiety that in the end gets in the way of making creative work rather than entice it. So I try to focus on writing for a very small audience. If one person is waiting to read the blog or newsletter, that’s enough.

Making something creative is hard. Building an audience is hard. How hard it is has shaken the confidence in the premise of this blog. You too can make a series on your own. You know what, it’s still a good option. The real point is that it’s an option that didn’t use to be on the table. Not long ago it would have been nearly impossible to make animation without a studio, a distributor, and a lot of money. While all those things are still useful, you don’t need them as much.

The point I missed was that it would be somehow easier than the traditional method. Or intrinsically better. I think the truth is it’s just hard in a different way. Reaching an audience who cares about what you make will always be hard. Having distribution might help but it doesn’t solve the problem.

The point I want to keep making, is that you have a choice. If you want to make something, and you are willing to go through the hard parts (for a long time). You can just start making the thing. You can show up in front of an audience and show off what you’re making. We have the tools to make the work, tools to distribute it, and tools to make it a business. On the other hand, if you go the traditional route know that there’s an option, an alternative. That way you’re not blinded by being asked to make something. Do not make average work to please people.

With more options, with opportunity, it asks what you really want out of your work. If we know it’s going to be hard, and it might not work. Will we keep going?


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Film Crit Hulk and why shorts are meant for learning

I liked this Twitter thread from Film Crit Hulk about short films. Despite his name, Film Crit Hulk is one of the very best places to read film criticism and learn about storytelling and filmmaking. That’s why this thread is so good.

The thread made me think of is the place shorts have in our culture. Short fiction in any medium. Short stories, short comics, short films. The truth is people don’t seek out this work. The industry is too busy to seek them out. They might go a film festival. I don’t think audiences seek them out either. Yet, at the same time beginners are encouraged to make shorts. This gets to Hulk’s final point.

The purpose of most short films is to learn. Short projects are where you cut your teeth and learn. I encountered this situation earlier this week. Isaiah and I are in the middle of production our next short comic. It’s going slowly, we’re undermotivated so we had a call. We wanted to take a cold hard look at the project. What we came to is that we’re either making things to build an audience or we’re trying to make something good. It would easy to say that we’re trying to do both. When you’re trying to figure out your goals, stick to one. Having too many goals will split you in different directions. It became clear is that if we were interested in growing our audience we’d be working differently. One might make more content share more often. What we were focused on was making something good. More specifically it was about learning how to make something good. Getting better at storytelling, and finding a story we’re excited about. After we finish this project, learn from it and move to the next one.

Start with short fiction because it’s a great training ground. It’s a great training ground because you will falter and fail. The iteration, the feedback will make you better at what you do. It might seem ideal to start a big project now. Working on short projects gives you a taste of how much energy any project takes. When you have the experience of making many things, you can stare down a big project with a bit more confidence. Knowing you can see it through the other side.

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Building Community and Starting a Cohort

Just last weekend my friend Aisha and her organization Car Tune hosted an a cartoon barbecue. Car Tune is working to connect and organize animators, animation artists, and everyone who works in animation to talk about the industry, the work, and future of animation in Toronto. A normal barbeque is fun but this one was special. What’s exciting about events like this barbeque is that we’re starting to build a community. Community is a really powerful thing.

There’s an idea I quite like from musician, Brian Eno. It’s called scenius. It’s the idea that lone geniuses isn’t helpful and isn’t true. Scenius is the idea that genius needs a community and a culture. “let’s forget the idea of “genius” for a little while, let’s think about the whole ecology of ideas that give rise to good new thoughts and good new work.” To create interesting work you need a whole scene of artists, critics, fans, and patrons. The feedback loop is what creates great work. “Scenius is the intelligence of a whole… operation or group of people.”

This creative culture in Hollywood is what makes the place so potent. They have many artists and support people that are feeding the culture. You can also see this in how the network studios are set up. For instance at Cartoon Network, Disney, and Nickelodeon there is a cohort of creators working in the same building, competing and feeding off each other. Each show develops and fosters new talent that will go on to make the next shows. Out of The Marvellous Misadventures of Flapjack came Regular Show, Adventure Time, Gravity Falls, Over the Garden Wall, out of those shoes came Steven Universe, OK KO, Owl House, Ducktails, etc.

By building our community we are creating the environment to create the first cohort. The first group of creators that will bring up the next set of creators. Culture is built from the ground up. It is not one thing or one place, it’s the ecosystem, a scenius. It’s the effort of a lot of people willing to make a change. If we can take hungry animators and artists and combine them with resourceful producers we can make something interesting. Collaborating with amazing people is one of the great benefits of working in animation. Building the community is up to everyone who wants to be part of it. If you want your own projects to succeed, figure out the small ways you can contribute to the scenius.

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Cartoons that don’t speak down

I love cartoons. That’s not surprising, I got into this business because I love of the medium. Most of the time I prefer to watch good animation. Maybe it’s because there’s something uncomplicated or unpretentious about the storytelling. The problem is that I want animation to be even better. I want better shows to watch, lots of them. I watch a lot of animation waiting for them to go deeper, to be more impactful.

When we talk about the depth in storytelling I don’t really mean seriousness or adult themes. Those don’t really interest me. I mean depth as having meaning, a show that tries to say something. I know the creators and artists want to do this. They try so hard to make every show as good as can be. Animators have always taken their craft seriously in a system that doesn’t. They try to simplify the concept to appeal to the widest possible audience. The system might avoid continuity so the show plays better in syndication. This was the mass media system, and the system is starting to shift.

One way I like to think about it is that children’s television could come to resemble children’s literature. It will be diverse in its subject matter. It will also be able to delve deeper into meaningful stories. Longer series, telling unfolding stories. What’s changed is viewing habits. People are watching full series often many times over. Missing an episode and being out of the loop is hardly a problem any more. The kind of content has to be interesting enough that the viewer sees new things with each viewing. Where the complexity and the richness is part of the enjoyment. You don’t have to simplify or tone down your idea. If you want to tell a story that long, a story that’s meaningful, a story that reaches out and speaks to a group of people. Go do it. Choose the audience you want to reach and go make something important. 

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The making many things method

It’s almost 11pm and I haven’t finished this week’s blog post. This morning I was scrambling to find an idea. I ended up looking at some old posts I’d written. Posts I had written, thought they weren’t good enough and scrapped. This is one of those posts. It’s fitting too. It’s about making a lot of something. It’s about making things that aren’t good enough.

There’s an anecdote about making 10 000 bad drawings before you can make a good one. This is somewhat true, it takes time and practice to get good. Creating and storytelling are skills that have to be developed. That means we need the practice of creating and finishing projects. Your first pitch probably won’t get picked up. A first novel probably won’t be published. Part of the process is making lots of things that don’t connect, that don’t quite work on the path to making something that does.

“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work-and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.” Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

Advice that I used to ignore was to create short content. I ignored it because I thought I was above shorts. I wanted to tell big important stories that had big deep meaning, stakes and action. I couldn’t do that in short format. The reason you make shorts isn’t because you can’t handle a big story, it’s because making something small let’s you fail faster.

You will fail, that’s the point. You will make stuff that doesn’t fit your intention or vision. You will make stuff that is cliched, simplistic, confusing, dishonest, and boring. These will all be lessons you need to learn. Making short content let’s you see these mistakes and missteps in clear focus. This will prepare you for the bigger work, and make that bigger work more successful.

The key is not to wait. Every week I write a lot of things that don’t make it to the blog. That’s part of the process. By making many we can learn with each one. We can revisit our ideas. Tackle a different aspect of what we are trying to say. The only way to develop your voice is by speaking.