Tuesday, July 30, 2013

TAAFI Roundup Day 1

Anyone who has attended an animation festival knows that the cascade of talks and films tend to blur together.  In addition, TAAFI had three sessions running simultaneously each day.  It's possible for someone to have attended and experienced a completely different festival, so don't take this as a definitive review of TAAFI, merely my own personal impressions.

David Silverman

David Silverman, a director on The Simpsons, gave the keynote address on the series.  Someone asked about table reads and punching up the script and Silverman revealed that the script was punched up at least four times, the final time after footage was already in colour.  He mentioned that people suggested more efficient ways of working, but his attitude was that the show was the most successful animated series in history, so why mess with a good thing?

This was followed by a state of the industry panel.  Ben McEvoy, one of TAAFI's founders moderated and asked if the broadcasting was dying, with so many people cutting their cable subscriptions.  Predictably, the broadcasters on the panel said no.  Whether they believe this or were trying to project confidence, I don't know.

Later, there was a panel "From Napkin Sketch to Green Light," about pitching shows and getting them to air.  Someone on the panel said it could take five years to go from pitch to a show, and I thought to myself that if broadcasting wasn't dying now (and I think it is), who knows where it would be in five years?  Pitching shows to conventional broadcasters and cable channels now is a questionable proposition, as their financial model is deteriorating rapidly.

I have an axe to grind here, but it was clear from this panel that ideas should not be fully developed, as broadcasters like to shape shows to their needs, and a broadcast executive emphasized that even if he liked a pitch, he still had to sell it to those higher up in his company.  The combination of these two things is the reason that I personally discourage people from pitching shows.  Any creator worth his or her salt is going to want to explore their idea and nail things down.  This is precisely what broadcasters don't want.  There are legitimate reasons, such as needing a show to be suitable to a particular demographic, but there is also the vanity of business people who think that their ideas are as good as anybody's.  If this was true, they wouldn't need to take pitches and would create their shows in-house.  Furthermore, after contorting an idea to please a development executive, the executive doesn't have the authority to put the show into production but has to convince the bosses, who are likely to contort the show even more.  While this ugly process proceeds, the creator is being paid peanuts in development money while the broadcast people are on salary.

The game is stacked heavily against creators, which is why I encourage people to get their work to an audience in a more direct fashion: as prose or as comics distributed on the internet.  Besides establishing ownership of the property (something you would have to give up to a production company or broadcaster), it allows a creator to thoroughly explore the idea and develop it without interference.  Finally, should the property attract an audience, that gives the creator increased leverage in dealing with broadcaster interest.

The business we're in is very simple, really.  It's all about attracting an audience, the larger the better.  That audience gets monetized though advertising, subscriptions, pay-per-view, merchandise, etc. and that's what finances the whole shebang.  If you've built an audience, that makes you and your property valuable.  People who want access to your audience will come to you.  Pitching will be unnecessary and instead they'll be making you offers.

There was a panel on funding yourself which I had to miss as it ran concurrently with a panel I moderated on portfolios and self-promotion.  I really wanted to see it.

My panel had Lance Lefort of Arc, Darin Bristow of Nelvana, Patti Mikula of XMG Studio and Peter Nalli of Rune Entertainment talking about the best way to organize your material when applying for work.  These days studios prefer links to any physical media.  Reels should be short with the best material up front.  Applicants should know about the companies before applying so that they know they're showing suitable material.  Resumes should be no longer than 2 pages and cover letters a single page.  All stressed that attitude was as important as skills, as they were looking for people who would fit into existing teams and be pleasant to work with.

The day ended with three talks.  Mark Jones and Sean Craig of Seneca College talked about how the school had worked on professional productions, particularly those made by Chris Landreth.

Jason Della Rocca gave a fabulous talk relating Darwinian evolution to the changing nature of the media.  As I have an interest in evolutionary psychology and business, it was right up my alley.   He talked about how people assume that the present environment extends infinitely into the future without disruption and how inevitable disruption catches people off guard.  He talked about the importance of variation in an uncertain environment as the only way to discover what would work in new conditions.  Failure was a necessity in order to gain knowledge but the failure had to be small enough as to not destroy an enterprise.  Della Rocca mentioned that Angry Birds was the fiftieth project of the creators and that nobody remembered the previous forty nine.  He talked about how the highest quality inevitably came from those who put out the greatest quantity, precisely because that quantity (including failures) gave them more information about what worked in a given environment.  The talk could be boiled down to "fail fast and cheap."  Right now, Hollywood is betting everything on tentpoles that cost $100 million plus (meaning "slow and expensive") and even Lucas and Spielberg are warning that movies are vulnerable to a financial collapse as a result.

Greg Duffel explaining spacing charts

The last speaker of the day was veteran animator Greg Duffell, who talked about timing.  In the past, directors would time entire films down to the frame as a way of guaranteeing synchronization with music that was being written while the animation was being done.  Duffell talked about how this had fallen by the wayside and that what animation directors do today bears very little resemblance to what they previously did.  Duffell gave a longer version of this talk to the Toronto Animated Image Society several years ago and I wish that TAAFI had allowed more time for this important talk.

Coming up will be reflections on days two and three of the festival.

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