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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