DIY Animation: State Of The Industry II: This Time It’s Personal

With U.S. animation jobs on the endangered list, the message is clear: if you want to be a player, you have to start your own pick-up game. The implications of this message were the topic of discussion last night in Burbank, Calif. at a special panel discussion presented by ASIFA-Hollywood, The Animation Guild Local 839 and Women In Animation.

Piet Kroon, an award winning independent animator (DaDA, T.R.A.N.S.I.T.) and co-director of Osmosis Jones, moderated the discussion with panelists Bruce Smith, Proud Family Creator/Director and Co-owner of Jambalaya Studios; Charles Zembillas, independent animator, character designer and founder of Animation Nation and the Animation Academy; Dave Spafford, owner of Spaff Animation; Effects Animator Sari Gennis (James and the Giant Peach, Fantasia 2000); and veteran animator turned indie producer, Mike Nguyen, whose credits include The Iron Giant.

Spafford, a former Disney animator, struck out on his own after getting "pissed off" at the studio over the micromanaging of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? He cautions that starting a studio is "a bitch" and the best way to get into the game is to come up with your own idea and try to sell it rather than producing it yourself. He advises would-be independents to create a 15-second trailer for the project and using that as the sales pitch. "If you do a commercial and it looks like the thing’s done, then the thing’s done," he says. He points to affordable software like Digicel as a tool for creating that promotional piece.

Nguyen, who also left the studio system to start July Films and realize his dream of being completely, artistically independent, quips, "I would wash dishes to make films… and I have the chance to do that now." But Nguyen won’t be scrubbing silverware anytime soon. He’s one of the few indie producers lucky enough to have a financial backer, someone who believes in his feature project, My Little World, which he started two years ago with a handful of friends.

Gennis hasn’t been so lucky in her efforts to complete a three-minute short that blends live action with animation. "I’ve just been working on it. I sit in my house and draw and work on my computer — doing it the hard way." And while her toiling is relegated to spare time and is somewhat slow going, she is making it happen. "I really love doing it. I like feeling like I’m making art," she says.

With money being pumped into overseas animation facilities, Zimbillas laments, "The time is going to come when the major studios become financing and distribution companies." He insists that the independent route will be the only one available to artists and that producers like himself and the other panelists are "setting an example for how things will be done in our community."

Smith makes the interesting observation that at some point in the mid eighties, "unemployed theater people came in and took over our industry." He hopes that one day soon a similar movement will see disenfranchised animators finding their way into influential studio positions.

One thing that keeps many artists and visionaries from entering the arena is the fear of having their ideas stolen. To that, the panelists advise always having representation, or at least the representation of representation. "Walk into a room and grab the first guy you see wearing a suit and drag him into your meeting," says Smith.

An audience member also suggested contacting California Lawyers For The Arts (CLA), a non-profit agency dedicated to providing legal advocacy for artists in the entertainment industry.

Jan Nagel, president of Women In Animation, pointed out that both ASIFA and WIA have lawyers as members and stressed the networking benefits of being part of these organizations. "This room and all the people in this industry need to get to know each other," she states. "ASIFA, WIA and the guild are trying to give you as many opportunities as possible to meet your brethren, find partners you need to work with. The only way this is going to happen is if we talk to each other."