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.

 

Netflix wants it all

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I’ve been thinking about how content creation is changing and what the future of animation will look like. I read this article recently by Matthew Ball about Netflix’s strategy, “The company doesn’t want to be a leader in video, or even the leader in video – it wants to monopolize the consumption of video; to become TV.” And as Eric Calderon puts it, “Netflix wants everyone’s favourite show on Netflix.” They mean everyone around the world despite the genre or demographics their favourite show will be on Netflix. This is potentially great for creators because you have a better chance of reaching your audience on a platform like Netflix.

But sadly it’s not easy. As Eric explains in his video about what Netflix wants for animation pitches, “Every project mentioned had some incredibly large, and or reliable aspect, to it that made it a compelling choice for them to buy. In industry terms this is often called the package” – the necessary profile, team, or tie-in that helps Netflix figure out if it’ll be a success. Essentially, Netflix is a great place to go if you’re an established creator with a great pitch. Remember, Netflix first broke into original programming by buying House of Cards produced by David Fincher with Kevin Spacey as the lead.

I don’t doubt that Netflix will try to monopolize streaming video content. There are other big players that coming directly for Netflix. Amazon and Google (Youtube) already are leveraging content strategies. While Disney and Apple are in the wings developing their own streaming services.

This doesn’t include the possibilities of indies. The barrier to entry is coming down. Right now with Vimeo it is possible to set up your own Over The Top streaming channel, with an app and everything. If you build the audience, and with a bit of smart marketing I think this is a valid option.

I can’t help myself but feel optimistic. Big companies are pouring money into content. Trying to make the most enticing offers and the most creative freedom, to court the best talent. On the other end, if you want to go it alone, the tools are out there. As creators we have a good position. Whether it’s working on these shows or creating content, there are so many options. The big thing about the future of animation is that it’s not set in stone. There is still room to figure this out, and to cut your own path.


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2 kinds of short stories to simplify your big ideas

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Many of us want to make big, important things. You might be trying to figure how to get started on your next project. You might want to outline your epic, start world building your next saga but the fastest way to get to making big and important things is to make small things. I’ve written before about how to take your big idea and make a small version of it. Part of that process is choosing what kind of short to make. I’m not an expert but this idea has helped me. It’s help me wrap my head around story, and especially break down my big ideas into smaller more manageable ones.

Broad

There are two ways your can look at short stories. Broad and Narrow. The Broad story is a story that takes a very general view of the entire story you want to tell. I think a great example of this in animation is The Reward:

“Driven by greed, two young boys venture out on an epic treasure hunt across the world, but to reach their goal they will need to conquer greater dangers than flesh-eating totem-poles and transvestite angels.” IMBD This short is essentially a montage of the journey the characters take. It gets across this big picture epic feeling. It’s funny, and action packed but you don’t that deep with any themes or characters, and that’s okay. I think the point of it is to be fun and exciting.

Narrow

Now if you wanted to go more narrow maybe the short Borrowed Time:

The description from IMDB, “A weathered sheriff returns to the remains of an accident he has spent a lifetime trying to forget. With each step forward, the memories come flooding back. Faced with his mistake once again, he must find the strength to carry on.”IMDB It’s deep, it’s harrowing, and it’s emotional. It’s also contained, it focuses on the main character, his memories. We don’t know how the characters met, we don’t know how the chase started but again that’s not the point. The point is to get across a specific emotion, and it does that beautifully.

In the system called Dramatica, this concept is called slicing and dicing. The way that it works is that every story has 4 parts. An Overall Story, Main Character Arc, Impact Character Arc* and a Relationship Story**.  To slice is to take a little thin piece from every part of the story, getting every layer of a cake in one slice. This kind of story will feel big, but sort of general. Dicing takes a one piece, focusing on one section, just scraping off the all icing and only eating the sponge. This kind of story will be deep and specific, but most of the broader context will be omitted from this narrative.

What’s useful about this approach is that you can take parts of your narrative and split them into short stories. You don’t have to be bogged down by your big ambitious story, you can start small. You can tell as big or as contained of a story as you want and begin the learning process.


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*Impact Character is a secondary character that the main character comes into contact with. Think of all your favourite films/stories there’s usually an important secondary character.

**Relationship Story is a story about the relationship between the Main Character and Impact Character. It’s the ‘heart’ of the film. Story of how they grow to closer or fall apart.

Rethinking development, so you don’t waste time

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Our tendency is to work on something until it’s perfect. Clean up the drawings, rewrite the drafts. Then release it when it’s “ready”. Making great work takes time and effort, and development has its place.

“The Internet and technology have changed everything about engaging with an audience – content development, content marketing, content distribution, and content monetization.  Hey, traditionalists! This means you need to re-think essentially everything about your media business.” – Peter Csathy, New Media Advisor and Chairman of CreaTV Media.

The media world is changing, and our approach has to change with it. This is one of the big reasons I started Indie Animated, technology has changed everything about development, yet most development in animation hasn’t changed. For a lot of shows the process is still years of development behind closed doors. If you’re lucky, you get greenlit and your show broadcasts to the audience. You hope you get a good time slot, and the marketing catches viewers’ attention. Hopefully the show finds it’s audience. This obviously works for a lot of people and I’m being a little unfair because I know the people who do this work, work very hard. This process works for people who can afford to take this long. This process doesn’t work well if you want to work on something that works early on.

In business there is a big trend in validating your ideas before committing to building the product or service. This is because it is painful to fail, no one wants to make a product nobody wants. Validating a business means doing tests to figure out who your customers are and selling them some version of the product early, maybe even before it’s made. This is the one of the real economic principles that makes Kickstarter work. If you can get a few thousand people to pitch in money to the production, you’ve de-risked going to market. The idea behind validating business idea is to not waste time creating things that don’t work.

Validating media will be different than a consumer product or a service business. We can still learn from the approach. We can still try to build an audience while developing the product. Or at least test our assumptions to make sure we’re on the right path.

Isaiah and I have been trying to figure out how to create projects that are short enough to test our ideas. It hasn’t been easy and we haven’t found quite the right thing. We still spend months developing stories and don’t know if they’re going to work. Often getting stuck in the planning waiting for the project to be ready to show. As Ryan Holiday, writer of The Perennial Seller, has said, “There’s no question planning is important, but it’s seductive to get lost in that planning.” Still, spending a few months on the side making a project is shorter than a year. Testing is a habit. We’re coming close to our second project of the year and it will be a chance to learn. Whether to persevere and continue with the idea we have, or pivot to a new plan, approach or idea. If we want to see development change, to see more diversity and new kinds of animated content we’re going to have to take the first steps. Create new ways of making animation and building audiences.


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Organization is underrated

My girlfriend and I go to Starbucks a lot, they make the best decaf coffee either of us have ever had. The joke about Starbucks is that they’re all the same, consistent, but there are still good ones and bad ones. Ones you have brewed decaf and the ones that don’t. Sometimes you get out of a Starbucks and you’re like, “That was a BAD Starbucks.” I made the connection that the difference between a good Starbucks and a bad one often comes down to management and organization. At a good one you might have one person take your order and getting brewed coffee, another person will ring you up, and a barista making the espresso drinks. Everyone has their place. In the Starbucks we were just in, we had one person listen to my girlfriend’s order then run off to get food out of the oven, another person then took her order again, finally, the first person comes back to take my order and moments later they’re the one making our drinks. They were so exhausted they couldn’t get out the five-word name of my girlfriend’s drink (which is fair) but ended our interaction with an irritated “whatever it’s called”.

Just about everyone would like to be more organized. Artists have a tricky relationship with organization. You want to be creative and free. When things feel to constrictive it isn’t fun anymore. When you don’t organize you don’t get things done. Projects stretch into the distance, you get bored, or keep on changing the scope. We want to produce the best work we can, and make it all the way to the finish line. Judd Apatow, in an interview with Brian Koppelman, talks how he gets the most out of his staff.

“…you have to be very clear with your staff what the process is going to be…And then if everyone knows that then you lose the emotional aspect, which is, “I’m so mad at Judd for screwing with my script.” There is a respect to the writer, ‘you’re going to get a lot of runs at this. We’re going to start it really early, we’re not going to assign you a script we going to shoot three weeks later. I’m going to do it months in advance.”

What Judd underscores here is that being clear about the process helps everyone be on the same page. You might think that everyone knows the process but you’d be surprised. You might think you know the process for whatever you are doing, putting it in writing will make it much more clear to you. You’ll start to see the gaps, the bottlenecks, where you deal with unknowns. Management starts with understanding the important thing to be doing. In creative work understanding the process means understanding how many iterations you’ll need before a story is good enough, or a design is refined.

That brings me back to the Starbucks analogy. You want to be the Starbucks that’s orderly, where each person has their job. Those are my favourite ones to go to, not just for the organization but the friendliness of the people that work there because the flow keeps them from getting overwhelmed. There’s a process and the process actually helps us make the best work. There are times that when everything is down to the wire you get the best ideas. There’s a creative energy that can be very enticing. Animation takes so long that consistency is more useful. Putting a little time early on, set up the process, and it will give you the freedom to be  more creative. You will also get more done and finish more projects. Being productive is a benefit in itself.